Thoughts on Translation.

Thoughts on Translation: Remnants of Another Age by Nikola Madzirov [trans. Reid, P&G, , Horvat, M & Reed, A, int. Forché, C.] (Bloodaxe, 2013).

Poetry in translation isn’t something I’m that familiar with, so when the Poetry Business Writing School task asked us to look at poems in translation, I wasn’t sure where to head. Fortunately, Remnants of Another Age by Nikola Madzirov was recommended to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on reading it, along with my own attempts at translation.

The language in Remnants of Another Age is generally simple and unadorned, and there are some really fresh similes. I think the introduction is helpful in terms of context. Indeed, the introduction gave me an insight into some of the motifs which appear in the writing – angels, souls, dust, letters. There’s a sense of rootlessness (Is that a word? Microsoft Office doesn’t think so) and journeying (metaphorical as well as literal) with the poet searching for a place to be or call home. Often, the houses in the poems are not homes, for example, in ‘The Sky Opens’, where Madzirov says: ‘I inherited an unnumbered house/ with several ruined nests/ and cracks in the walls …’.

The opening poem, ‘After Us’ read like an end of collection poem in a way, although that didn’t matter. In fact, it worked to good effect. Anaphora is used in other poems in the book, but I like the way, in this poem, it gives form to what is essentially a list of what someone will do for us when we’re gone (either died or moved on). And there’s the hint of menace in stanza three which works well given the context of conflict:


‘One day the ache will return to our backs
from the weight of hotel room keys
and the receptionist’s suspicion
as he hands over the TV remote control.’

‘What We Have Said Haunts Us’ is another list poem, this time of things we have named, or tried to name (because naming is not always possible or appropriate): ‘We’ve left words/ under stones with buried shadows’. For me, this implies that there is no longer the language of (or for) the past. If there is, it’s best not to be used; it needs to be buried along with all its connotations. What clinched this poem was the ending: ‘The winters have piled up in us/ without ever being mentioned.’ What a fantastic image for the reluctance or inability to speak of what has gone before.
Similarly, I loved, ‘Things We Want To Touch,’ a poem that seems to work through the idea of nothing existing outside ourselves, while at the same time accepting the need to name it (‘sun, light, angel’). This naming then works as a way of talking about ourselves and making sense of each other.
I think my favourite poem is probably the last one in the book, ‘Separated’. It felt fuller and denser than some of the other poems and had some fabulous lines, for example, ‘My god lives in the phosphorous of a match,’ which I think is brilliant. The poem resolved the rootlessness which pervaded earlier poems and reinstated (or at least reminded us of) language: ‘… my word is as valuable/ as an old family watch that doesn’t keep time.’ Wow!
If there were any slight weaknesses, it might just be that some poems read like a series of statements that were slightly under-developed or unconnected (rootlessness again?). Rarely was anything overwritten, or overblown in any way. Maybe one exception was in ‘Returning’: ‘my soul is a womb palimpsest/ of a distant mother’. This seems faintly ridiculous to me. Of course, I can’t make any comments on the translation, not knowing the language at all. And I do have a problem with the word ‘palimpsest’ at the best of times, owing to it having crept into our local writing group’s workshop and wreaking havoc with a number of poems!
While reading the book, I realised I had read a poem by Madzirov before. This was a couple of years ago, probably longer, at a writing workshop run by David Tait in Hebden Bridge. Not only was it an excellent workshop, the memory of it made me feel I was a little less ignorant of poetry in translation after all.

My own translations
The next step was to take the plunge and do a translation for myself. I chose the Italian poet, Tasso (a contemporary of Shakespeare) as I speak a bit of Italian which I thought might help. I took the poem ‘I’d like to be a bee’ from Introduction to Italian Poetry: A Dual Language Book, Ed. Rebay, L. (Dover Publications Inc. New York) 1991. I chose a short poem, as I haven’t spoken Italian for years. Of course, I had to resort to an online dictionary. The main difference between my translation and the published one was in line 3, as you’ll see below. I didn’t have too much of a problem with ‘murmuring’ and if I’d been face to face with the translator, I’d have probably conceded that murmuring is more of a bee-like word. However, although ‘suck’ is more bee-like too, I felt evoke was closer to the Italian, and gave the woman (beautiful and cruel) a bit more autonomy. Also, the original translator has inserted another sting, in square brackets. There’s only one sting in the original! So, here are the two versions (mine first):


I’d like to be a bee

Translation of a poem by Torquato Tasso (1544 – 1595)

I’d like to be a bee,
beautiful and cruel lady,
who whispering, could evoke honey in you.
Unable to reach your heart, I could at least
sting your white breast
and in that sweet wound
leave my life, avenged.

Original translation

I’d like to be a bee,
O beautiful and cruel lady,
Who, murmuring, would suck the honey in
you,

And, being unable [to sting] your heart,
could at least sting your white breast
And in so sweet a wound
Leave its own life , avenged.

I went on to produce this translation of Michaelangelo’s writing (below). There was something very exciting about the process, the slow unveiling (I said my Italian was rusty) of the great artist’s thoughts, which were surprisingly down to earth and honest. There was also something very touching about the last line as it came into view. The original and, I have to say, more accurate, translation, can again be found in Introduction to Italian Poetry: A Dual Language Book, Ed. Rebay, L. (Dover Publications Inc. New York) 1991. My version takes a little more poetic licence:

To Giovanni da Pistoia when the author was painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel 1509.

Translation of a poem by Michelangelo Buonarroti

I have already got a goitre because of this hardship,
(like water does to cats in Lombardy
or whatever place it might be).
It has forced my stomach to sit beneath my chin,
my beard skyward and my memory feels
as if it’s on the trestle of my back.
My chest is like a harpy
and the paintbrush is on top of my face
(nevertheless, with its dripping,
it makes a rich pavement).

My loins are in my belly
and I use my backside as a counterweight,
step in vain without my eyes moving.
I lengthen myself and bend over
backwards, stretched like a Syrian bow.

But deceptive and strange
is the suspicion that races through my mind;
that one shoots badly through a twisted blowpipe.

Defend my dead painting, Giovanni, and my honour,
I’m not in a good place, nor am I a painter.

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One thought on “Thoughts on Translation.

  1. I think I’m unnerved by the idea of this task. (Though confident enough to say, yes, ‘rootlessness’ is a real word and one that I intend to use at the first possible opportunity). What I find most daunting, though, would be not knowing the sound and texture of the original. I’ve got a coffee-table tome, ‘The great book of Gaelic’ — ‘An leabhar mor’. [Cannongate Books 2002 ] Side by side translations of gaelic poetry. Sorley Maclean and scores of other poets. But I don’t know how to read aloud the Gaelic. For instance; sithean ‘a fairy hill’ is pronounced ‘she-en’..and I think there’s more to it than that! The Sligachan Hotel, the climber’s pub, …you stress the first syllable, though an English speaker naturally stresses the second. And so on. That just about exhausts what I know! So what does one say about translating the music of the original? Does it matter? If not, why not? It feels as though it should. Hats off to you, Julie Mellor

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