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Poetry in Translation

Poetry in Tranlation from Raymond Humphreys

This page comprises two distinct parts. First there's a short piece that used the title Poetry in Translation when it was published in Roundyhouse magazine some years ago then, secondly, there are four poems in five languages.

Poetry in Translation

    It was Robert Frost who said that 'poetry is what gets lost in translation'. As someone who has a particular interest in the poetry of other languages, I have often found the accuracy of this pronouncement irritating.

    Fortunately, it isn't always true. It might be hard to explain why (to quote from a poem in The Trees by the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo, a book that I reviewed recently for another magazine) 'La Vida se va, se fue, llega mas tarde' works well in Spanish though falls a bit flat as 'Life goes away, disappears, comes back later on'. But you don't need much of a grasp of Spanish to realise that it does. Some of the other poems in the same book, however, do (or at least I think they do) come across well in English translation. Take the ending of A Photograph from 1948. In the translated version this reads:

        The same sun-washed countryside remains,
       untamed landscapes, fast music,
       mines, wide plains, petroleum,
       this land of ours flowing into our veins
       that's never managed to bury Gómez.

    Gómez was the dictator of his oil-rich but backward country for much of the early part of the 20th century. He was infamous for his shady deals with American companies. His dubious financial deals aren't central to what I'm saying but this does give an illustration of how it can be revealing to read first-hand accounts of life in other societies.

     We in Wales should be particularly sensitive to poetry in translation. It is the only way many of us can have any chance of appreciating poetry in Welsh. Gwyneth Lewis, in her book Keeping Mum, interestingly explored the theme of lost language (and Welsh is all but lost to many of us, no matter what the census figures say).

     The simple poem that sticks in my mind is What's in a Name. This tells us that: 'Lleian wen is not the same as 'smew' / because it's another point of view, // another bird. There's been a cull: gwylan's gone and we're left with 'gull' // and blunter senses till that day / when 'swallows', like gwennol, might stay away.'

    A more traditional look at poetry in Welsh can be found in Tony Conran's superb book, Welsh Verse, published in several editions by Seren. Tony Conran has done a remarkable job of illuminating a poetic tradition that stretches back fourteen centuries, of bringing its unique qualities to robust life for readers who have little or no Welsh. Beginning with a scholarly but very readable introduction, he brings to the reader a wide selection of Welsh poetry in translation, from Taliesin writing on the borders of Scotland in what was still at that time a new language derived from old Brythonic, through the times of the prifardd and their cywyddau mawl (poems of praise), and then comes more up to date with a look at poets like Alun Llywelyn Williams and Nesta Wyn Jones.

    For anyone who already has even a passing knowledge of the traditional forms the pre-eminent question will be 'how has Tony Conran attempted to render them in English?' The answer is the best possible one: he has given priority to the meaning and imagery, but tried to give something of a feeling for form in imaginative and original ways. With non-Welsh forms like the sonnet, for example, he has tried to follow the original in matters of rhyme scheme and line length. With the Welsh free metres, he has where at all possible used the Welsh schemes in his translations, and elsewhere tried to find a roughly equivalent English scheme. His greatest challenges came from cywydd and cynghanedd. In the case of the former, he has adapted an Irish form, the deibhidhe, which uses couplets of seven-syllable lines, to achieve a reasonable compromise between metre and cadence. In the case of the latter, he has realised the danger of producing tongue-twisters, and only used cynghanedd to anything like full extent in single lines.

    Not everyone will be interested in form and such matters as the adaptability of the englyn for writing in English. There is, however, much in the way of content. A poet like Dafydd ap Gwilym, writing in the fourteenth century, speaks more clearly to us through Conran's translations than do many writers of today. Take his mock-lament to The Ladies of Llanbadarn, which begins:

        Plague take the women here -
       I'm bent down with desire,
       Yet not a single one
       I've trysted with, or won,
       Little girl, wife or crone,
       Not one sweet wench my own!

    I'll look at the alabaster statue of Dafydd ap Gwilym in Cardiff City Hall a little differently from now on.

    There were in past tis more languages in these islands. Nearly all of us can only approach this poetry through translation: few of us are fluent in Anglo-Saxon, for example. If you get the chance, I would recommend that you read a translation of Wulf and Eadwacer. Even through the veils of another language, rather more than a millennium, a society very different from ours, and even a not wholly agreed 'storyline', we can still empathise with the Saxon woman calling for her Viking lover and feel for her as she says 'For a wolf / Shall carry to the woods our wretched whelp. / Men very easily may put asunder / That which was never joined, our song together.' There are longer works worth exploring, too. To get a hint of the sound of Old English listen to The Battle of Maldon in the original Anglo-Saxon, and then read a translation. And Seamus Heaney - who can hardly be accused of being an Anglo-Saxon - gave us a terrific free translation of Beowulf as recently as 1999.


     I'd better stop there. Otherwise I'll want to go on about Li Bai, the Chinese poet who was roughly contemporary with the anonymous writer of Beowulf. Still, I must mention that I do have part of one of his poems hanging on my wall. I had it especially drawn up for me about forty years ago!

Poems in Translation

     There are four poems in five languages featured on this part of the page. Naturally, I have included the first poem of mine that was translated. This was Letter from Chile/Carta de Chile, translated by Matías Serra Bradford. Its first publication was a bilingual one in La Carta de Oliver. What the poem says is substantially true (it was during Pinochet's unpleasant dictatorship) except that the correspondence was with actually with my sister, he, James Charles Coke wasn't my great-grandfather but a more remote ancestor and, as my sister has  since discovered, in fact he 'cast his seed' across three continents. The third of his four marriages was in Australia. Only after its Argentine publication did the poem appear in the UK. More about his life can be read in an article of mine, also called Letter from Chile.


     Next is a short one called Alchemy/Alchimie, translated by Dr. Petru Iamandi for the bilingual  collection, Nietzsche's Children (apologies for not being able to render all the Romanian accented characters. Next is Summer on the Planet Mars/Verano en el Planeta Marte. This first appeared in the UK in X-Calibre Magazine before appearing biligually in Correo Latino, the magazine formerly published by Luís Benitez. The translation was by E Campbell. Finally, there is London Welsh/Cymry Llundain. This is the only poem of mine that has been translates into what is literally the language of my fathers,Welsh. The primarily-English version of this appeared first in The Seventh Quarry. Afterwards this went on the website of The Poetry Library. The full version appeared in Roundyhouse, with the predominantly-Welsh version being by Joyce James. The most recent version has been on the website Buenos Aires Poetry.

Carta de Chile

En español para Matiás Serra Bradford

                              Entonces, Gloria Casanueva Coke,
                             Cinco años desde que escribiste a través de los mares
                                         Con noticias que tendieron un puente a generaciones.
                                         Tu carta estaba cargada de emoción,
                             Al saber que teniamos alguna sangre común
                             Del viejo bisabuelo, errante y orgulloso,
                                         Arrojando sus semillas a lo largo de dos continentes
                                         Sin consideración ni cuidado por la consecuencia.

                              Por favor escribe pronto, dijeste; por supuesto que lo hice
                             Con una carta viva, una carta sincera.

                              Y dos mas siguieron en silencio:

                              Embajada chilena dijo no hay tal persona.

Letter from Chile

                              So, Gloria Casanueva Coke,
                             Five years since from across the seas you wrote
                                         With news that bridged the generations.
                                         Your letter was heavy with emotion,
                             In learning that we had some common blood
                             From old great-grandfather, errant and proud,
                                         Casting his seed across two continents
                                         With not a thought or care for consequence


                              Please write back soon, you said; of course I did
                             With a letter bright, a letter candid


                              And two more into silence followed on:

                              Chilean embassy said no such person.


Traducerea din limba engleza de Petru Iamandi

                              Cauterea: sa preschimbi metalul de rând în aur.
                             Inchide ochii la foç, pamânt si apa:
                             limba sarpelui si samanta de zirna îl obsedeaza acum.
                             Ramas bun, bolta albastra; salut pivnita intunecata.
                             Legaturile-omenesti siabesc în sfortarea de-a afla misterul.

                              Umbrele se lungesc pe ziduri.
                             O viata, candva plina, se preface-n colb.


                              The quest: to transform base metal into gold.
                             He closes his eyes to fire, earth and water:
                             snake's tongue and seed of nightshade concern him now..
                             Farewell blue canopy; hail black cellar.
                             Human bonds unloose in straining after mystery.

                              Shadows lengthen on the wall.
                             A life, once quick, becomes dust.

Verano en el Planeta Marte

En español para E Campbell

                              Verano en el Planeta Marte
                             No hay flores abriéndose en medeo del páramo
                             La mano del tiempo sus citracices ha dejado
                             Verano en el Planeta Marte
                             La mano del hombre embaduma su casa
                             Trae clima marciano al Planeta Tierra
                             Verano en el Planeta Marte

                              No hay flores abriéndose en medeodel páramo

Summer on the Planet Mars

                              Summer on the Planet Mars
                             No flowers bloom along the heath
                             The hand of time has left its scars
                             Summer on the Planet Mars
                             The hand of man his home besmears
                             Brings Martian clime to Planet Earth
                             Summer on the Planet Mars

                              No flowers bloom upon the heath

Cymru Llundain

Yn Gymraeg gan Joyce James

                              1: Llundain

                              'Shut the door!
                             'It's raining.'
                             'Bread, cheese and beer.'
                             Dywediadau'r Saeson o'n i'n meddwl:
                             ddim yn deall pam o'n nhw'n chwerthin yn yr ysgol,
                             na phan dywedais i "thruppence".

                              Dihunodd y lle a galwodd gan Mam 'lawr gartref'
                             dim ond lluniau bocs paent
                             o strydoedd serth a bryniau ar ben cwmwl:
                             llechi llwyd, niwl glas, wastad yn wlyb


                              Ble ddysgodd fy nhad yr iaith estron hon
                             a siaradodd, weithiau, yn gyflym â'i frodyr?
                             Ddim yn aml: tipiodd hyd yn oed y ci ei ben
                             pan lithrodd ei dafod mor rhwydd
                             o amgylch y cytseiniaid dieithr.

                              Wedyn, doedd dim ots 'da fi.
                             O'n i'n wahanol. Cymro o'n i.

                              2: Cymru

                              A nawr dw i'n byw yng Nghymru.

                              Wedi bod yma dros drideg o flynyddoedd.

                              Dwi wedi ymweld â'r ucheldiroedd llwm
                             lle grafodd fy mhobl fywoliaeth.
                             Dwi wedi gweld yr hen gerrig beddau:
                             'Farewell children and farewell wife,
                             Farewell everything in the world.'
                             Dwi'n adnabod yr enwau Llywelyn,
                             Glyndwr a hyd yn oed Mari Jones.

                              'Ond nid Cymro, go iawn dych chi?'
                             meddai rhyw Smith neu Brown o Dreorchi,
                             disgynydd un o'r gweithwyr a ddilynodd y glo ym mil naw deg.

                              Ond does dim ots 'da fi.
                             Dwi'n wahanol. Cockney ydw i.

London Welsh

                              1: London

                              'Caewch y drws!'
                             'Mae hi'n bwrw glaw.'
                             'Bara caws a cwrw.'
                             I thought that these were things that English people said:
                             didn't understand why they laughed in school,
                             nor when I said "thruppence".

                              The place that my mother called 'down home'
                             only awoke paint-box images
                             of steep streets and hills at the end of a cloud:
                             slate-grey, misty green, and always wet.

                              Where did my father learn this foreign speech
                             that he sometimes spoke swiftly with his brothers?
                             Not often: even the dog tipped its head
                             when he slipped his tongue so easily
                             around the strange consonants.

                              Later, I didn't mind.

                              I was different, I was Welsh.

                              2: Wales

                              And now I live in Wales.
                             I've been here for thirty years.

                              I've visited the bleak uplands
                             where my people scratched their living.
                             I've seen worn headstones:
                             'Ffarwel blant a ffarwel briod,
                             Ffarwel bopeth yn y byd.'
                             I know the names of Llywelyn,
                             Glyndwr, and even Mary Jones.

                              'Ah, but you're not really Welsh, are you?'
                             says some Smith or Brown from Treorchy,
                             whose grandfather followed the coal in nineteen-ten.

                              But I don't really mind.
                             I'm different: I'm a Cockney.

Poetry in Translaton - Tom East
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