Thursday, August 17, 2006

George Szirtes, Osip Mandelstam, and Cesare Pavese - all in 90 Minutes.

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…


Marion McCready said...

That's very interesting, I've always been attracted to the idea of translation but being typically british I'm not fluent in any other language. Do you think it is possible to do serious tranlation work without knowing the language? I've always been in two minds about it.

Mark McGuinness said...

Sounds a great workshop Rob, I'm a big admirer of Szirtes' translations, I reviewed his translation of the Hungarian poet Agnes Nemes Nagy, and the only question I was left with was were the originals as good as the translations?

On the subject of translating from languages you don't speak, in Japan earlier this year I found an amazing book full of literal translations of Basho - I blogged about it here

Anonymous said...


You are extremely clever. I've always admired people who can not only speak and write other languages, but also "get behind them".

Now a real challenge! Please translate a small piece I stumbled on today in my non poetic ramblings:

The Outlook and Outlook Express problem is caused by a regression error in the Mshtml.dll files that are included with the Internet Explorer 6 SP1 version of the MS03-004: February, 2003, Cumulative Patch for Internet Explorer (Q810847.exe). The Internet Explorer problem occurs if a Web site calls the removeNode method in script code on a cached function pointer on the element style object. In this case, the access violation is more likely to occur as more function pointers on the Web page are dynamically created and then removed with the removeNode method"

And I thought poetry was difficult!


Anonymous said...


And there YOU are with a special mention in George's blog in the same paragraphical breath as Sean Connery and Jeremy Paxman (is that good?) not to mention Paul Farley, Hugo Williams and Helen Simpson (definitely good).

Fame and fortune calleth!


Unknown said...

This sounds like a very fruitful workshop with a much admired poet.

What an opportunity!

I like the idea that translating from a language that you don'tknow, can seem more liberating than translating from a language that you do.

Rob said...

sorlil - I wouldn't call myself fluent in Italian, although I know enough to work with the originals. But if you know even a little of a language, you can sit with the original, a dictionary and a few other translations and do a good job. I know Harry did a fine translation of an Antonio Machado poem that way. I guess it always means you’re dependent on a source other than the original poem, but you can still make a good poem out of it.

Mark – I’d read your Basho post – really interesting!

Rob – I toyed with the idea of translating your computer-speak into Italian poetry, but decided I ought to do something worthwhile with my time!
It was very nice of George Szirtes to mention me in his blog. However, I’m unlikely to get ahead of myself. I’ve looked at the last 15 submissions I’ve made to poetry magazines, and the tally is:

Still to hear – 6: Ambit, Granta, Orbis, Markings, Shearsman, and another one I can’t mention.
Rejections – 7: Smiths Knoll, Poetry London, the Shop, Magma, Stride, Rattle, The North
Acceptances – 2: nthposition, Iota

And I sent these magazines good stuff, or as good as I can do, at any rate. All of which puts perspective on the “fame and fortune” idea. However being mentioned alongside Sean Connery means more to me than money or adulation!

Cailleach – probably I felt free with the Russian translation because I wasn’t writing with any “serious” purpose (i.e. publishing), but on the other hand, there is something to be learned from that experience. It’s the tension between bringing out the best you can manage of the original’s spirit, and creating something that works well as poetry in English that’s at the root of translation – as I see it – and I need to think more about the second half of that tension.

Anonymous said...

Actually Rob although it might seem hard, I don’t think that success rate is too bad at all compared with some of the rejection stories I’ve heard. Having said that I’m a little cynical about most types of selection.

In the case of poetry selections I am sure that most editors think that they are being evenhanded but there is just so much stuff out there of a high quality that they can’t help imho being swayed by factors that don’t necessarily have a lot to do with excellence. Obviously if your poem doesn’t fit with current theme or prevailing “fashion” it doesn’t help, but even if it does you really need an edge to become mainstream or even a major tributary. That edge seems likely to me to be either in the form of exceptional genius (very rare by definition of course) or alternatively something less talked about. Influence.

Perhaps it’s not so much who you know, as who knows you, and who they know!

Appearing in celebrity (sorry GS) blogs alongside Sean may yet be your passport to the day that Ms Sampson says to herself as she riffles through the final cut for the summer edition: “Mackenzie, humm Mackenzie, surely not THE Rob Mackenzie submitting to my humble publication!”


Rob said...

Heh. Thanks Rob. I realise how it is for magazine editors. They have a lot of poems to choose from, and most of the rejection letters I get are very nice ones.
I read about someone who got poems accepted by Poetry Review at the 23rd attempt. At that rate I still have 21 to go.

Aisha said...

I am jealous...
would have loved that --

Rob said...

You probably would have loved it, Aisha.

Hope you are having a good time with Paula and the rest of your gang. I'll just nip over to your blog and see if there's news of what you're up to.