The Ballads of Kukutis, Marcelijus Martinaitis, translated by Laima
Vince, (155pp, Arc)
Minorities not Minority: A Window on Italian Cultures Volume 1. Poets from
edited by Michele Pinna, translated by Giuseppe Serpillo, Robert Minhinnick,
Andrea Bianchi and Silvana Sivier
(110p, £8.99, Meirion House, Glan yr afon, Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog,
Gwynedd, LL41 3SU)
These books have set me wondering
whether anyone has written an account of poets' lives under Communism and
other totalitarian twentieth century regimes. Perhaps a single book would
generalise too much, not have the local particulars of the tricks poets
played - or didn't, those who fell in with what the state bureaucracy
The prankster, trickster, clown character Kukutis, dreamed up by
Marcelijus Martinaitis, is surfacing now in English in this one book, having
been published as and when, chanted as well, given crowd voice in Lithuania
at rallies in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The book arrives here in English in 2011, the English is not handed around as
samizdat, not chorused in the streets. Voice and context matter so much.
The book is dual-language and, even at my distance from the originals,
I can 'hear voices', the author's and as taken up by others, and in print -
the voice in print - so that the vigour of the English does seem to convey at
least a clear echo.
It is of the essence of the trickster that he is playful and seems to be
talking - whispering, acting - about something else, and that this something
else has an innocence about it, a lack of central concern. No politics here!
It worked, we are told; of the few books that got through the layers of
official censorship, this one - or in its separate publications - did.
Here is the poem, 'Kukutis teaches a child how to pet a moose':
You must wait
will be a lot of snow
will roam the
may I pet one?"
Not yet. You
spread out the
set up a
and wait -
for a long time.
may I pet one?"
Not yet. You
I pet it?"
after all, is a wild animal -
thrash about covered in his own blood.
You must push
his head securely to the ground
and tie up
his legs with ropes.
Once he is
exhausted, once he sighs heavily,
then even a
child can come near
Even the three dots have meaning, and the censors must have been
cloth-brained not to sniff a trick.
In the current (June 15th,
York Review of Books, Tim Parks
has an interesting essay on the current translation of novels, and I wonder
if what he says might apply also to poems. His starting point is to suggest a
first stage, in which novels in other languages are translated into current
standard English; nothing especially new here, the most significant novels
need re-translating into the current equivalent; but then he takes this
further by saying that those original writers may have "already performed a translation within
their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own
vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying
things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier
and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it
an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about
One might link this with the observation that many writers become
international by way of having learned English, they might work with their
book translator, they give readings at festivals, they are interviewed in
English, may even have posts in (usually American?) universities.
Tim Parks writes of novelists - and we might say poets - "seeking maximum
communicability"... "that has fastened onto the world's present
lingua franca as something that can be absorbed and built into other
vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily
translated into each other."
I am not thinking to apply this in any simple way to
the books I am reviewing here, the first pre-dates the current to and fro of
poets, and I can only speculate about 'Minorities not Minority?' One has only
to flick through the book, though, to see much of it employing what might be
called an international style, a free-flowing open, what might be called a
talking means of conveyance. The Introduction does speak of a globalization
of poetry. But who's to say also what is home-grown?
The book is subtitled 'A Window on Italian Cultures, Volume 1', and it is
good to see the Cinnamon Press in Wales embarking on this impressive new
The introductory material is in a rough sort of English, and it becomes
apparent that where Robert Minhinnick has had a hand in the flow of the poems
themselves, something much more lucid and coherent has been achieved.
poets have been translated, most still living, with wide differences in age,
older mostly, two women only, and no-one of the most recent writing
Rhyme where it exists in the originals has not been attempted, probably
wisely, and while I cannot read the Sardinian (its relationship with Italian,
which I can't read either but has a familiarity: I can 'hear it') conveys (and I have to generalise
across the poets) an energy not apparent in the English. Voice, ah voice.
Some of the poems, though, come through the process more or less well into a
new life in English. This is 'Like the Fairy of Time' by Anna Cristina Serra
I do not know
thoughts around you
of roses and
In your inner
fairy of time
the black witch
rumbling of thunder
that opens my
let me go
I turn into a
if I know you
Most readers will have no more Sardinian than I have and, as often in reading
translations, I wonder about particular images. Here, for instance, where it
says 'In the rumbling of thunder', where the original has, 'In sue tzerriu
e su tronu', is the Sardinian as standard, even as cliched a phrase as it is
in the translation?
© David Hart 2011