Monthly Archives: March 2011

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.


Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

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.


Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

Letting Go for Lent

Van Gogh’s painting of The Sower

Sing a song of sowing, of carrying the seed

A song of hopeful planting, to meet a future need,

Sing a song of letting go, and falling to the ground,

Of burying that feels like loss, still waiting to be found

These are the opening words of a lyric I wrote for Redemption Song, a play about the story of Ruth and Naomi, but they have come back to me as I turn my thoughts to the late Lent that starts this month. It seems fitting that Lent, a season for ‘letting go’ should coincide with spring, a season for sowing seed. Perhaps we should see our Lenten observance as the ‘letting go’ of a Sower of Seed, and not just the ‘giving up’ of an Abstemious Pharisee. If there are things we choose to do without, perhaps we should let them go into God, drop them as seeds, into the good ground of His Love, so as to receive them back at his hand, in another form and another season. This is what Jesus did for his forty days in the wilderness. He let go, and said ‘no’ to the temptation to make stones into bread, to make a private feast in the desert. But God took the seed of what he had ‘let go’ and it bore fruit a hundred fold when he broke bread in that same wilderness and shared it with five thousand. God gave him back what he gave up, but in a newer and better form, made possible by that first letting go.

And that was true of the deepest letting go of all. When it comes to Holy Week and Passiontide we shall see Jesus let his whole life go into God; “into thy hands I commit my spirit” he says from the cross. But that Good Friday ‘letting go and falling to the ground’, that ‘burying that felt like loss’ was the prelude to a glorious finding, and giving back on Easter Day.

Perhaps we can so ‘let go’ our lives into God this Lent that we may find that God has let his life go into us too, has planted his Love, His Son, as a spring-sown seed, to grow in our lives from Easter and Beyond.

Oh and by the way the lyric I mentioned above is from a song, also simply called Redemption, which I hope will appear on my next cd. Meanwhile the full lyrics are here and you can hear an early ‘mix’ of the whole song  here, or by clicking on the ‘play’ button below.


Filed under christianity, imagination, Music, paintings, Songs

A sonnet for my guitar

lightly lifting my gibson, turning air to music

As I (literally) sang its praises in my last post, I thought I’d follow up, in this one with a sonnet about my guitar. I wrote this for our Girton Poetry Group when we had set one another the task of writing about ‘Hollows’ and I began to reflect on the way it is the lightness, space, and emptiness in a musical instrument that gives it its singing voice. Gibson guitars are made in Montana and I had read and enjoyed an article about luthier Ren Ferguson and the team who make guitars there, so some of that awareness entered into the poem too, together with the sense of an acoustic guitar as like a living breathing companion, feminine in its form, a feeling that a good guitar, like a good muse is always teaching you something new about your self and your craft. So here’s the poem. As always, you can here me read it either by clicking on the ‘play’ button (if it appears in your browser), or by clicking on the hi-lighted title of the poem.


I lift you lightly, you were made for me;
No box of rain made for the grateful dead,
But breath instead and beauty for the living.
A certain shaping of the mountain air
Censes its secret wood-scent in your hollows.
The high, dry, hallows of Montana
First saw you braced and fretted, resonant
And ready to be sounded into song,
The smallest tremor trembles through your form
And turns the air to music. My full heart
Is poured into your forming emptiness
And given back as passion for another,
Your hollows hold a weight that sets me free
I lift you lightly, you were made for me.


Filed under Girton, imagination, Music, Poems