In translation

Translations of “Whiteout” and “Slippage” for Pinngg…k! – “In TRANSlation” open mic poetry night, Leicester Dec ’13.

Pinggg…K! hosted its last (and in my opinion the best) poetry / music night of 2013, featuring a fantastic array of talent – from musicians Rishii Chowdhury (tabla), Akash Parekh (sitar), the wonderful bluesy voice of Mellow Baku and Marcus Joseph (tenor sax).

I participated in a poetry circle and open mic night around the theme of In TRANSlation, hosted by Bobba Cass, and featuring Carol Leeming. At the end, we were asked to contribute rhymes in different languages, perhaps from childhood – After rooting around in my memory, I came up with the Scottish lullabye “Ali Bali, Ali Bali Bee / Sittin’ an’ yer mammy’s knee / Greetin’ for a wee bawbee / Tae buy some coulter’s candy”. The result was a marvellous blend of different cultures and ideas.

Translating poetry is difficult. This is my first foray into this treacherous terrain. I found it needs close attention to the sound of the words in different languages, their meaning and connotations, and that is without even starting to consider rhyme, metre or rhythm. Therefore I chose two poems which were written in free verse, to make things easier for myself, but even then the process is complicated!

The first poem is about the difficulty in communicating – appropriately enough for an evening of poetry themed around translation.

Glissement

La langue n’est pas peut tenir à l’intérieur de nos cœurs.
Sentiment de s’infiltrer, non sollicitées.
Ce qui reste éclate non-dits dans une inondation
Engloutit les limites étroites de mon texte.
Insuffisante, je sais, mais tous nous avons.
Tâtonnant aveuglément dans l’obscurité de la vie,
D’achoppement pour simplement dire, «tu me manques».
Je suis reparti avec des souvenirs de la journée,
Abri dans une librairie poussiéreuse contre la pluie,
Les mots des autres infiltrés partir du pages imprimées.
Faillible, fragile frontières de familiarité s’effondre,
La langue n’est pas peut tenir à l’intérieur de nos cœurs.

Notes – “Glissement” translates as “sliding”, similar to “glissando” in Italian, with overtones of “gliding”.

The English poem starts with “Words”, but I preferred the French “La langue” – literally “the tongue”, meaning “language”. “Words cannot hold” in English, has overtones of Yeats’s “Things fall apart / the centre cannot hold” – this is lost in the French translation. Another problem is the Latinate derivation of French, with a completely different rhythm and pace to Anglo-Saxon words.

I like the sibilance in the French version in the second line in English “Unasked for feelings, seep between the gaps” – I removed “the gaps” as I could not find a suitable translation which would preserve this – so literally the line reads, “Feelings seep, unasked for”.

“What is left unsaid bursts out in a flood” – I like the caesura in this line, the pause between “unsaid” and “bursts”, echoing the sudden release of emotions – however, this is lost in the French, which reverses the word order, literally: “What is left bursts unsaid in a flood”.

The next line contains quite an effective alliteration in the French, which is lacking in the English “Engulfs the narrow confines of my text” becomes “Engloutit les limites etroites de mon texte”, “etroites” here corresponds to “straits”, which tends to be used in a geographical or nautical sense in English.

One other word on the translation – I attempted to preserve the alliterative “f” sounds in the second last line, but this involved straining the meaning of the words in French – “frontline” becomes “boundary”, “fall” is translated as “collapse”.

Which version do you prefer? Can you improve on my efforts?

Voile blanc

La Neige brouille les frontières, change notre perception,
Couvre les irrégularités, lisse d’un chemin.
Enterre de mauvaises nouvelles sous une avalanche
D’anecdotes ineptes de la météo.

La Neige mensonge lourde sur nos sens.
Engourdissement, réconforté dans son étreinte froid.
Doigts gelés de flocons nous enveloppent,
Nous nous enfonçons plus profondément dans la dérive.

La Neige. Nous régressons, glissons dans l’enfance.
Il est trop facile d’oublier dans le gel,
Perdre de vue vous-même,
Pour ignorer le coût enterré de l’hiver.

La Neige tapisse notre sens de la réalité,
Peut nous faire ignorer les coupures
Pour les maisons de retraite, et les refuges pour itinérants,
La charge des factures de chauffage en hiver.

La Neige – nous pouvons résister à son emprise glaciaire
Laissez la volonté du glissement puissant
Sans défense contre nous, si nous nous déplaçons comme un seul,
Pour aider ceux qui ne peuvent pas s’aider eux-mêmes.

La Neige. Nous avons besoin d’antigel
Pour briser cette torpeur glacée,
Le feu intérieur, la chaleur dans nos cœurs
Et le timbrage de pieds fâchés.

Notes – “Voile blanc” literally means “white sheet”, quite different from the English “Whiteout” – and the comparison with fabric continues in the French with “tapis”; “tapestry” would be the equivalent in English, where I similarly used “blankets” – to give the impression of comforting numbness. In the poem, I also tried to convey the childish, playful nature of snow and the sense of Nature being fearful and dangerous, which can put us into a state of “icy torpor”.

The poem is not simply a nature poem. It is also a call to arms, to fight back against government spending cuts, which are happening under Hollande’s so-called ‘socialist’ government in France, just as in England under Cameron. However, the militancy of the French working class scored an important victory on pensions by calling a general strike in 2010 when the then-premier Sarkozy threatened to raise the pension age from 60 to 62. Compare that to the betrayal of right-wing union leaders to carry on the fight after the magnificent one-day strike of 2011 with the result that in Britain, the pension age is rising to 68 and beyond.

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You can read some more of my poetry in ‘Little Red Poetry’. All proceeds go to build a new party for ordinary people, against cuts and privatisation. Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Copies are also available from Left Books

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