Tag Archives: Marvell

Found in Translation

Should that read 'Found in Translation'?

We often speak of something having been ‘Lost in Translation’ (a phrase which is also the title of an interesting film) and it is true, of course that something must be lost in the re-making and rewording of a text from one language to another. One might say that was especially true of poetry, so much of whose meaning is embodied in the sound and feel of particular words, or in allusions that are embedded in one culture and language and not another. Indeed poetry has been defined as ‘that which cannot be translated’. Whilst not denying any of that, I would like, for a moment, to turn it on its head and ask, might there be valuable treasures ‘found’ in translation, to make up for those that are lost, and might that be especially true of poetry in translation? Try reading in sequence six or seven different trnslations of a poem you like and know well. you will often discover new aspects of the poem, new depths and beauties glancing across from one translation to the other as each translator finds and expreses a particular aspect of the poem that had connected with them. That experience is itself an expression, in one moment or on one page, of the experience we all have of reading a poem over time, over many years. Every new reading is itself a kind of translation, as the unchanged horizon of the poem meets the changing horizon of our own lives. When I read Marvells’  poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ as a young man, the lines about ‘time’s winged chariot’ seemed a glorious exaggeration, a mere metaphor for the urgency of  a young and pressing lover. In the second half of my life, those same lines

For at my back I always hear

times winged chariot hurrying near,

take on a different timbre, a different place in the balance of the poem. I have found a poignant and elegaic tone that was lost to me as a younger man.

Marvell’s lines were haunting some recess of my mind, when, some years ago I wrote my poem “The Cutting Edge“, though the main focus of that poem, when I wrote it was not the universal ‘deletions’ of time  or mortality, but the selective deletions, the falsifying of memory, to which our own age is prone. It was interesting to me, therefore when a French translation of that poem was published (now on the web in La Besace des Unitariens) and on reading it I discovered, not only of what was ‘lost in translation’ but also of a series of ‘finds’, almost like archeological ‘finds’; ideas or tones buried deep in layers of the text which a new translation brought to the surface.

You can read my original text, which I included in my last post, here, and I give the  French translation below. The most striking thing is the change in the title. She has taken my “Cutting Edge” which was intended largely to carry a first sense of being ‘up to date, ultra modern’ and then secondarily, the sense of ‘dangerous, destructive, deadly’ and translated it “La Faucheuse” the name of the allegorical figure of Death or The Grim Reaper, (who is interestingly, in french, a female figure, in contrast to our Grim Reaper). At first I thought this ‘translation’ was an imposition on the text and a loss, but I came to see on reading it that my allusions to Marvell in the opening lines and to Milton’s ‘blind fury with the abhorred shears’ do at least subliminally introduce a figure like “La faucheuse’ into the imagination of the reader. Marie-Claire could not of course indicate in French my quotation of other English poets, but by changing the title she has introduced the same effect, though perhaps rather more strongly than I had intended. She has also produced some marvelous soundscapes available to her in French and not to me in English. so my word play in ‘sneering and sniping and snipping’ becomes

Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant

Which has a wonderfully dry sinister clicking sound, a new and apropriate effect has been ‘found in translation’. I showed this translation to my friend and fellow poet Margot Krebbs Neale, who has kindly agreed to read it on audioboo and also to add to this post some comments of her own from the perspective a of a French writer. Meanwhile I would be delighted to hear from any of my readers what they feel has been lost or found in translation here and to hear their own examples of the perils and plesures of translation.

A s usual you can hear a reading of the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the hyperlink in the title.


La Faucheuse (translation by Marie-Claire Weber-Lefeuvre)

Derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.

Ce n’est pas l’aveugle Furie
Qui élague tout sur son passage.
Mais voici ce que je crains :
Les ciseaux d’une époque aveugle,
Coupant à la dérobée
Dans toute l’ampleur du passé
Monotones, quotidiennement supprimant,
Tout ce qui n’est pas à venir
Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant,
extirpant toute communication mystérieuse du texte,
Epluchant toutes les parties qui nous dirigent ailleurs
Que dans notre propre moi encerclé.

Je sais que les anges furent les premiers à tomber,
Chérubin et Séraphin, en spirale,
En un ballet en boucles de textes sacrés,
Brûlant, encre et papier, jusqu’au sol,
La plus petite preuve de ce qui nous concerne,
De notre longue affaire avec Dieu.
Et Dieu lui-même suivra bien assez vite ;
Un petit mot si facile à retrancher,
Un autre petit bout pour le montage du film
Le coup de balai au sommet de l’histoire.

Mais quand même de nuit, sur la pointe des pieds,
Je me dirige vers la porte, pour faire bruire
ces banderoles d’amour grave,
Et je jonche mon cœur de bribes poétiques,
D’espoirs interdits et d’éclats d’argile mystérieux.
Ils m’habitent et passent, froufroutant
En mes rêves éveillés
Et ainsi j’aurai un coeur -une tête-
J’en aurai plein les mains,
Quand les ciseaux viendront me chercher.

Car derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.

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The Cutting Edge

a cutting edge

the cutting edge comes near

I once heard someone boasting that they were ‘right on the cutting edge’ and I winced and thought ‘sounds painful!’ then I thought some more and wrote this poem. As usual you can hear it by pressing the ‘play’ button, or if that fails to appear, clicking on the title. This poem, has also been translated into French and published in a magazine there, so in my next installment I’ll post the French version and reflect a little on the process of being translated. Meanwhile here’s the original version:


The Cutting Edge

At my back, like you, I always hear

The edge, the cutting edge is coming near.

Not the blind fury

With the abhorred shears

But this is what I fear;

The stealthy scissors of a blinded time

Cutting through accretions of the past

Dully and daily deleting, whatever is not next

Sneering, and sniping and snipping,

Excising every sign-post from the text

Paring all the parts that point away

To something other than our circled self.

I know the angels were the first to fall,

Cherub and Seraph spiralled down

In circling curlicues of sacred text,

Flaring in ink and paper to the floor,

The shredded evidence of our affair

Our old, embarassing affair with God.

And God himself will follow soon enough;

A little word so easy to excise

Another snippet for the cutting room

A sweeping on the heap of history.

But still at night, I tiptoe to the door

To rustle through these severed strips of love,

And strew my heart with scraps of poetry,

Forbidden hopes and shards of mystery.

They rustle through me in my waking dreams

And so I’ll have a heart-, a head-, a handful when

The scissors come for me.

For at my back, like you, I always here

The cutting edge, the edge is coming near.

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