Ninguno ha conocido la lengua en la que
cantan las sirenas
y pocos los que acaso, al oír algún canto
(No en el mar, tierra adentro, entre las aguas
De un lago), creyeron ver a una friolenta
y triste surgir como fantasma y entonarles
Aquella canción misma que resistiera Ulises.
Cuando la noche acaba y tiempo ya no hay
A cuanto se esperó en las horas de un día,
Vuelven los que las vieron; mas la canción quedaba,
Filtro, poción de lágrimas, embebida en su espíritu,
y sentían en sí con resonancia honda
El encanto en el canto de la sirena envejecida.
Escuchado tan bien y con pasión tanta oído,
Ya no eran los mismos y otro vivir buscaron,
Posesos por el filtro que enfebreció su sangre.
¿Una sola canción puede cambiar así una vida?
El canto había cesado, las sirenas callado, y sus ecos.
El que una vez las oye viudo y desolado queda
No one has known the language in which the sirens sing
And few are they, who perhaps at hearing some song at midnight
(Not at sea, but inland, upon the waters
Of a lake.) They believed they saw a woman, cold and forlorn
Arise like a phantasm, and intoning
that same song which Ulysses resisted.
When the night is done, and no time remains
For whatever was hoped for in the daytime hours,
They return, who first saw them. But the song is left,
A philtre, a potion of tears, embedded in the spirit,
And sensed in themselves with deep resonance,
The old enchantment of the sirens’ song.
So passionately and well-listened-to so well heard
Already and no longer the same the same, they sought another life,
Possessed by the philtre which fevered their blood.
Can a single song thus transform a life?
The song having ceased, the sirens and their echos fallen silent,
One is left widowed and desolate forever.
Creemos, amor mio, que aquellos paisajes
quedaron dormidos o muertos con nosotros
en la edad, en el día en que los habitamos;
que los árboles pierden la memoria
y las noches se van, dando al olvido
lo que las hizo hermosas y tal vez inmortales.
Pero basta el más leve palpitar de una hoja,
una estrella borrada que respira de pronto
para vernos los mismos alegres que llenamos
los lugares que juntos nos tuvieron.
Y así despiertas hoy, mi amor, a mi costado,
entre los groselleros y las fresas ocultas
al amparo del firme corazón de los bosques.
Allí está la caricia mojada de rocío,
las briznas delicadas que refrescan tu lecho,
los silfos encantados de ornar tu cabellera
y las altas ardillas misteriosas que llueven
sobre tu sueño el verde menudo de las ramas
Sé feliz, hoja, siempre: nunca tengas otoño,
hoja que me has traído
con tu temblor pequeño
el aroma de tanta ciega edad luminosa.
Y tú, mínima estrella perdida que me abres
las íntimas ventanas de mis noches más jóvenes,
nunca cierres tu lumbre
sobre tantas alcobas que al alba nos durmieron
y aquella biblioteca con la luna
y los libros aquellos dulcemente caídos
y los montes afuera desvelados cantándonos.
*Return of Love in a Living Landscape
We believe, my love, that those landscapes
have been left asleep, or dead with us
in the age, in the time that we dwelt in them;
that the trees lose their memory
and the nights depart and give over to oblivion
that which conferred on them beauty and perhaps immortality.
But it is sufficient, the slightest stirring of a leaf,
the quick breath of an erased star,
to see ourselves similarly happy, we who filled
the places that we had together.
And so, today you awake, my love, beside me,
among the currant bushes and the hidden strawberries
sheltered by the steadfast heart of the woods.
There is the caress moist with dew,
the delicate strands that refresh your bed,
the sylphs enchanted to adorn your tresses
and the mysterious squirrels high above
who rain down on your sleep
the small green sprigs.
Forever be happy, leaf, never know autumn,
leaf that has brought to me
with your delicate trembling
the fragrance of such a blinding luminous age.
And you, little lost star who have opened to me
the intimate windows of my more youthful nights
never close your light
over such chambers where we slept
and that library with the moon
and the those books sweetly tumbled
and the wakeful mountains outside singing to us.
Deja el vino en la mesa. Mira como
un nuevo invierno de honda lejanía
– leñas y nubes,sequedad y frío –
insondable y fantastico aparece.
Bebamos más. Que nuestras almas sean
de cenizas y tul las que separen
la infinita maraña de la muerte.
Que entren en el invierno de la espina,
que las telas de araña se desgarren,
que el humo blanco y quieto se divida.
Nuestra carne desierta sea olvidada
y se pudra insensible porque estemos
en los grises castigos para siempre.
Bebe, que el aire el aire es ciego. Bebe y mira
en hondo y crudo invierno dilatarse
a sus nubladas luces sometido.
Condenado me entierro.Mi futuro
un invierno insondable, seco y frío.
Leave the wine on the table. See how
a new winter is distant and profound,
firewood and clouds, aridity and cold
appearing unfathomable and fantastic.
Let’s drink some more. That our souls
made of ashes and tulle, might be able
to untangle the infinite tangled scam of death:
That they might enter this winter of the thorn,
that the threads of the spider web might be rent,
through the quiet white smoke that divides.
Our parted flesh will be forgotten
and rot insensibly, because we are
in an eternal penance of greyness.
Drink, for the air, the air is blind, drink and watch
the deep raw winter prolong itself
compelled by its cloudy light.
I am condemned and interred. My future
an inconsolable winter, dry and cold.
*Translations Dia Tsung.
Prose writers and poets go about their work differently when it comes to their chosen forms of expression. Prose writers have to make good prose sense, but in addition to this, poets have to fulfill several olther requirements.
Though it has been the fashion for nearly a century for poets to write poetry in fragmented images, and sentence fragments, such usages do not become a person who professes to possess a poetic vocation. A true poem will at the very minimum make prose sense, and cohere well at that elementary level. The poet will take the images and impressions vouchsafed to him or her in the poetic trance, and honour them, which is to say, place his or her intellect as well as a firm grasp of language at the service of delivering the whole in such way as to represent all the many layers of meaning and sense which came with the original vision.
Poems that are not received in this magical way and are written without the clarity of deep vision inevitably fall short of being convincing and authentic. They will not have insight. In such cases the original inspiration or ‘vision’ may be a muddle of sentiments or images which carried the poet away into a sort of day-dream, and left him reaching for a pencil in order to capture the whisps of thought before they disappeared into thin air. These are the shadows left behind by a day-dream – or a night-dream. When good honest sense is not permitted to attend, the unfortunate consequence is that nonsense intrudes.
In these three poems alone we have excesses and exaggerations such as land-locked sirens, philtres of tears embedded in the spirit, (which must have been exceedingly vexing and uncomfortable) blind air, enchanted hair-dressing sylphs and singing mountains. We have the rather droll pairing of ashes with tulle, reminiscent of Cinderella, and we are left scratching our heads about the reason one would exhort a leaf to “never see autumn,” since the fulfillment of such a wish would surely mean a premature death for the hapless leaf.
Carelessness and lack of rigor are difficult to tolerate, let alone accept, and yet one comes across anthology after anthology filled to overflowing with similar works. I can find no reason for this lamentable state of affairs, other than to hazard that we have come to accept, and become habituated to absence of sense in much of what we read and hear and watch. As a consequence of the numbing and suspension of our critical senses, the debasement of poetry has gone unnoticed. In these English translations I have done something I would never do with a sound poem, which is to supply some of their deficiencies with a little subtle patch-work here and there.
Many people take this dreamy and sometimes feverish quality to be the hallmark of a poem. All sorts of detriments appear when these sorts of experiences come dressed up as poems. Poems about loss often possess a sort of melancholy beauty: such poems have the power to engage the imagination, and many writers of poems are content to leave it at that. But the sense and beauty of a poem must go more than skin-deep – or even flesh- deep: it must extend right down to the bones and sinews. Clarity must be present even at the greatest depth, and there must be no deception.
True poems all have this in common, that with the stripping away of each layer of meaning, there is another to be found, and there is clarity at all levels. By no means does this mean that a poem should yield its meaning easily. True poems, which is to say Muse poems, are intensely personal in nature. They are addressed to a single person, and are the attempt to resolve a single authentic crisis of love. The reader might have to figure out for himself or herself the circumstances that might have fit the poems origin, but in the end, wholeness and sense must come clear.
All these requirements, which take effort and dedication to sataisfy, don’t often meet the eye. A true poem requires and deserves the engagement of several faculties: the eye, the ear, the mind, and also the hand, for the act of writing a poem by hand is often one of the best ways of probing its strengths and weaknesses.
Translating poetry has its own set of problems, but the same rules which apply to English poetry apply to poems in other languages as well, which is to say they must not be garbled.
When I run into translation problems I have to make sure I am not misreading and mistaking idiomatic usages with which I am not familiar for nonsense. I might have to make allowances for words with double-meanings by using more than one word in my translation, and rearrange phrases in my English version because their original sequence and meanings in an inflected language do not carry over sufficiently well. Sometimes I find that a poem which read quite well, and seemed to make good sense in the original, suddenly becomes muddled and loses its thread in the process of translation, and this is where I sometimes find its hidden flaws.
These three poems are a case in point. They are written by three eminent poets who (with others including Federico Garcia Lorca), belonged to an avant-guard movement in who spearheaded a new style of Spanish poetry in the ‘twenties. They were collectively referred to as ‘Generation 27.’ These poems by Cernuda, Alberti and Altolaguirre all exuded a kind of desperate sadness and poignancy which fairly swamped the sense their creators attempted to convey. Filled with a kind of langour and lassitude, they came tricked-out in the evocative imagery of the natural world and or mythical images. The dejected air of dampness of fog and dew, together with wine and philtres of tears, nostalgia, and lost youth and death clung to them. But when I began to translate, I felt the dampness infected with a touch of mildew. There was a certain lack of purpose, a limp-wristedness in place of precision, a blur in the place of sharpness, and a self-indulgence in the place of sentiment. This is not to say all poems are required to be vivid or precise, but when a poem lacks strong intent and purposiveness, it becomes a very shapeless affair.
These poems are not uninspired – but they are strange in that they lack inspiration. One can actually feel this – or at least, that was my own personal experience. Despite the fact that this blog contains a great deal of critical writing, it was not my intent this time, to make a post of failed poems, but after spending several days translating them, I decided to make the best use possible of my own mistakes in choosing badly. Perhaps I might, just for the exercise, chose some bad English poems and do the same thing with them!
Since I find it difficult to end on an unrelievedly negative note, I am including a lively, unpretentious, real love-poem, written with overflowing humour and affection. It is by a 15th century poet Baltasar de Alcanzár, and one worthy of the title. He alone makes sound sense, and avoids the pitfalls the three other avant-guard poets could not.
Again, this is my own translation of Alcanzár, so any flaws in the English version are mine alone.
Three things hold me captive
of love, and of the heart –
the lovely Inés, ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.
It is this Inés, O lovers,
who has me taken in such a powerful way
that has left me abhorring
all that isn’t her.
She kept me a year out of my senses,
until on a certain occasion,
for luncheon she gave me ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.
To Inés went the first accolade,
but then it was arduous to judge
between the three of them, how much
of my soul each one could claim.
In taste, in means and weight,
I couldn’t make a distinction,
I already wanted Inés, but now
I want the eggplant with cheese as well.
Inés alleges her beauty
but the ham is from Aracena,
and the cheese and the eggplant possess
a Spanish pedigree most ancient.
In faith they are so close in merit
one cannot judge them dispassionately.
To me they seem almost one and the same,
Inés, ham and the eggplant – all three.
At least to negotiate thus
between my new-found loves,
will compel Inés to confer her favours on me,
and part with them a little less dearly.
Since she will have as a counterbalance,
(if she will not listen to reason,)
to compete with a loin of ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.
Tres cosas me tienen preso
Esta Inés, amantes, es
quien tuvo en mí tal poder,
que me hizo aborrecer
todo lo que no era Inés.
Trájome un año sin seso,
hasta que en una ocasión
me dio a merendar jamón
y berenjenas con queso.
Fue de Inés la primer palma;
pero ya juzgarse ha mal
entre todos ellos cuál
tiene más parte en mi alma.
En gusto, medida y peso
no le hallo distinción:
ya quiero Inés, ya jamón,
ya berenjenas con queso.
A lo menos este trato
destos mis nuevos amores
hará que Inés sus favores
nos los venda más barato.
Pues tendrá por contrapeso
si no hiciere razón,
una lonja de jamón
y berenjenas con queso.