Poet or Translator

The Sebald lecture was given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on September 22 after the 2003 TLS Translation Prizes proceedings.

This year's Sebald lecture was delivered by Tariq Ali. His theme was language and power. His focus was on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. He made a convincing case about the role of Arab rule in Spain in the medieval period and how the Greek and Roman classics survived the Dark Ages (in the rest of Europe) because they were translated into Arabic, especially in Toledo, which housed the first school of translation in the world. He noted the presence of Arab influences in Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote both in style and "those deserted villages" representing the loss of Arab population and culture in Spain.

Ali also spoke of the dominance of English as a world language arising from the power of the USA. Apart from that he discussed the importance of poetry as a means of resistance. He remembered in his youth in Pakistan the great poets gathering crowds of tens of thousands, and how poets fled when a dictator took power. In a reference to Russia, he suggested that poets were so important in the Soviet period that they were often shot dead. I'm not sure what is worst: that poets were killed by the state because of their poetry or that they were killed despite of their writing. He suggested that Russians secretly learnt English in the past as a means to achieving freedom. I wonder, now that they learn English openly, do they feel liberated?

Ali suggested that he preferred translations made by poets rather than linguists. In an attempt to understand what he means I strolled along to the Poetry Library, which is located high up in the 1950s concrete edifice of the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank. The Poetry Library is a treasure trove that celebrates its 50th birthday this year; it's the place to go if you need to know anything about poetry, so I went.

In his foreword to his 1973 translation of Sergey Esenin's My Way Geoffrey Thurley says that "the translation must avoid both the Scylla of archaism and the Charybdis of contemporary slang". Thurley observes that certain Russian poets and poems are untranslatable into English. He gives the example of Blok's Twelve, explaining this is due to its raucous slang. Would any one like to try?

He observes that it's difficult to capture Esenin's wry affectionate tone of voice and subtly judged slanginess. He explains poetry exploits the gaps in language and that often in translation it fails to take advantage of this generative tension. To test Tariq Ali's point I thought we could compare Thurley's translations to a later translation from Jessie Davies work, undertaken almost twenty years later. Who's the poet and who's the translator?

I've taken the opening from Esenin's Soviet Russia, original composed in the 1920s. Note: when this translation were published in 1973 the Soviet Union was still a superpower; and the other in 1992, the year after the fall of the Soviet Union. In this reflected in the translation?

Soviet Russia

The storm has passed. And few of us survive.
At the roll-call of friends are many absentees.
Once more I go back to the orphaned land.
I have not visited these past eight years.

Translated: Geoffrey Thurley, 1973

Soviet Rus'

The hurricane has passed with few of us surviving.
At friendship's roll-call many's the voice not heard.
Once more I'm at my orphaned home arriving.
In which I have not been for eight whole years.

Translated: Jessie Davies, 1992

Overall I prefer the Thurley, mainly because of the straightforwardness of the language. Hurricane (as a tropical storm) has a specificity of meaning that is inappropriate. 'Absentees' sounds more poignant than 'voice not heard.' The push in the third line to the rhyme seems false, and undermines the sense of the 'orphaned land or home'. The 'in which' seems unnecessary. Though the Davies' translations has a more a poetic rhythm - Thurley's version gives me a greater sense of sadness. How this relates to poets' original purpose I don't know? It would be interesting to hear other's views.

To test Ali's conjecture further, another Esenin poem caught my eye. It reminds me at least in theme and subject of the Irish rebel tradition, a touch of Brendan Behan, a tail told in a smoked filled pub, rather than a genteel salon. A sad but romantic figure trying to make himself heard above the din. I'm not sure if this is me projecting biography on the poem, but a confession has to contain an element of autobiography. And hooligan, though used generally in English to represent the badly behavioured people, usually young men, still retains a Gaelic tinge.

Confession of a Hooligan

Not every man can sing,
Not every apple chances,
To fall at a stranger's feet.

Herewith the greatest confession
Hooligan ever confessed.

I walk unscathed, resolute, my head
Like a kerosene lamp, on my shoulders.
Deep in this murk it pleases me.
To enlighten the leafless autumn of your soul.
It pleases me now the abusive stories
Bombard me like broadsides at belching thunder.
I only squeeze the more tightly,
the flailing bladder of my hair.

Then it is well I recollect.

Translated: Geoffrey Thurley, 1973

Confessions of a Hooligan

It's not given to all men to sing,
Or fall at strange feet like an apple.

Here the greatest confession I bring,
With which ever a hooligan grappled.

I on purpose unkempt go about,
Head like an oil lamp on shoulders waring,
And I like through the gloom to shine out,
On your souls that autumn's baring.
I like when they're stories of abuse,
Like belching storm's tail, at me flinging,
I just harder between my hards crush,
My looks, like a soap bubble, swinging.

And gladly I at times like this recall.

Translated: Jessie Davies, 1992


Again the distinction between these translations is striking. I wouldn't believe they were the same poem. Thurley's version is full of sadness and loss, 'a leafless autumn.' Whilst, the Davies version is more of a bawdy song, 'with which ever a hooligan grappled.' Davies creates a distance between narrator and subject; whilst Thurley's simplistic approach creates intimacy. However, 'herewith' sounds formal and legalistic to my ears. To strain the pub metaphor to the limit, Thurley is sitting in a corner telling his tale over a pint of beer; Davies is on the stage in a loud suit entertaining the crowd. Again, I don't how this reflects the original. However, I prefer the former, maybe that's just me!

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Copyright ╘ 2003 by Melvyn Dresner
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