I spent 90 minutes this afternoon at George Szirtes’s translation workshop at the Edinburgh Book festival. Obviously, 90 minutes isn’t going to turn me into a brilliant translator, but it was well worth going to. If he had been up since 4.30am to catch his flight, it didn’t show. He was as articulate in person as he is in his blog. Three things in particular struck me from the session:
1. We were handed a sheet containing six translations of Catullus’ 5th epigram, all completely different, one only four lines of trimeter, another seventeen lines of tetrameter! That really made me think about how far it’s possible to stray from the original text and yet still be a translation of it.
2. We were given a quatrain by Osip Mandelstam – in Russian! Fortunately also with a literal translation, and with definitions of some of the words. The Russian text was full of sound effects e.g. Voronezh-/ Uronish ty menya il provoronish/ ty vyronish. Even if you, like me, know no Russian, you can hear this constantly repeated “oronish” sound. Could we recreate something of this in English? In 10 minutes? Impossible? Too right, but that didn’t stop everyone having a go. Here’s my version – Voronezh was the place to which Mandelstam was about to be exiled:
Let me go, wish me back, Voronezh
You will ditch me or brush past me
You will wish me fallen or leash me back
Voronezh – a flash, Voronezh – a crow, a slash.
Well, that’s 10 minutes for you. What I found interesting was how far I was happy to stray from the original text at the level of precise meaning. After all, it was only an exercise. The word I translated “brush past me” really means “overlook”, for example.
Yet in translating from Italian, a language I know reasonably well, I haven’t been happy doing that. I always seem to want to get to the ‘real’ meaning of the text, but if the ‘real’ meaning sounds awkward in English or lacks rhythm or comes up short in some other way, I should maybe be bolder in creating a poem that renders the idea of the original without being slave to its precision. After all, there can be no ‘real’ meaning in a translated text.
3. We looked at a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll called Towards a Cesare Pavese Title. Pavese has a poem called Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come and will have your eyes).
Now that title in itself is interesting. We discussed what “have” might mean – that death will in some way present itself with the same eyes as the addressee? that death will appropriate the addressee’s eyes for itself? that the poet is looking in a mirror and referring to his own eyes? All those possibilities and more might suggest themselves to a translator or reader.
O’Driscoll’s poem interprets the line over and over again, each time accumulating meaning. It starts:
Death will come and it will wear your eyes.
Death demands the handover of your eyes.
Death eyes you, stares you in the face
It continues like that for 14 lines, each line an interpretation of Pavese’s title.
I was interested in this because when I first read Pavese’s poem a couple of years ago, I asked these same questions. I loved the poem, but couldn’t quite grasp who was being addressed. Then earlier this year, I decided to translate it and found out that the poem was discovered in a manuscript on Pavese’s desk in his Turin flat after his suicide. He had been in deep depression since his break-up with an American actress three months before. Some people think the “eyes” of the poem belong to her, others think they belong to all Pavese’s lost loves of the past. But the ambiguity is enough to make me think that all those eyes are contained in Pavese’s eyes too.
Geoffrey Brock’s Disaffections: Complete Poems of Cesare Pavese 1930-1950 set a new standard in Pavese translation, and I guess any new Pavese rendition will be compared with Brock. But here’s my translation anyway:
Death will come and it will have your eyes –
this death that joins us
from morning to evening, sleepless,
deaf, like an old regret
or foolish vice. Your eyes
will be a futile word,
an unvoiced cry, a silence.
You will see them like this each morning
when alone you bend
towards the mirror. O beloved hope,
that day we’ll also know
that you are life and you are nothingness.
For everyone, death has a look.
Death will come and it will have your eyes.
It will be like renouncing a vice,
like seeing a dead face
re-emerge in the mirror,
like listening to sealed lips.
We will go down into the chasm without a word.
After the event, I went to find George Szirtes who was signing books in the Book Tent. Except he wasn’t, although a few of his books were sitting on a table in the corner. I wandered about the Book Tent for a while, and eventually found a couple of folk from the workshop who told me he had been in the Children’s Book Tent, and I’d missed him. Oh well…