Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Homophonic Translation Contest

I have been reading old issues of Circumference over the past week. Every issue contains a homophonic translation section in which multiple authors try to reproduce the sounds of a poem in another language, completely ignoring the meaning of the original. 

So Zukofskys’s translates Catullus's

   Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
   quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
   dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
   in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.


   Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
   whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
   Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
   in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Other examples abound online. There are some excellent homophonic translations of English nursery rhymes into French - see "Un petit d'un petit / S'étonne aux Halles."

So, I thought I would host a contest for homophonic translation. Translate the text below, sound for sound. It can be sense or non-sense or something in between. Send it to matthewdlandrum at gmail dot com by October 15. Winner gets a copy of "The Poetics of Translation" by Willis Barnstone.

The text: 

    Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
    displicent nexae philyra coronae;
    mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
        sera moretur.
    Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
    sedulus curo; neque te ministrum
    dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
        vite bibentem.

Fair translating,


Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bitter Sea - Lessons in Untranslatability

As with Lorca's other poetry, the Spanish of "Sleepwalker's Ballad" is deceptively simple. With my poor Spanish, I can more or less read the original without trouble. However, this ease of vocabulary masks the complexity of his poetry and his untranslatable word plays. 

Take the lines "Ella sigue en su baranda, / verde came, pelo verde, / soñando en la mar amarga." This translates as "She is still on her balcony, / green flesh, green hair, / dreaming of the bitter sea." The line is good. The poetry is good in English. But an untranslatable play of great beauty has failed to make the trip into English. In the translation, the sea has the quality of bitterness. But in "mar amarga," the word bitter contains the entire ocean - amarga. The possibility of this line does not exists in English. 

In The Poetics of Translation, Willis Barnstone asserts that translating poetry is fundamentally impossible and that, for this reason, it must be attempted. The green girl is still on her balcony. The sleepwalker still aspires toward her, bleeding. We see them more clearly with every flawed and lovely failed translation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Post-Faroe Words

After studying Faroese for a month, I'm back in Ann Arbor. It's been a weather shock and culture shock coming back. I miss Havn, the sea, and my friends very much. I miss Faroese. I was amazed at how much language one can learn in a short time. A few phrases of have stuck in my head so much that I've had a hard time not responding to people in Faroese. I keep wanting to say ger so væl, nei, and ja (inhaled). Besides Faroese, I've picked up adding "of course" into everything. Also hard to get Faroese balladry out of my head. I keep humming Flóvin Bænadiktsson and Regin Smiður. I suppose you carry people and places, language and words with you as a part of you. It's like the graffiti on the Sirkus bathroom wall: "Once bread becomes toast, it can never be bread again."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This Year's Reading - The Invention of Love (Tom Stoppard)

I have been tentatively treading into drama, even modern drama, this year. It's a field I'm unfamiliar with and don't fully understand. I tend toward the descriptive and lyric and often (in real and literary life) find myself perplexed by human relationships and dialogue. But the work and afición of two friends - Powell Burke and Heather Hammond - have piqued my interest.

During college, my roommate and I read and worked to memorize A.E. Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad.' It remains a book close to my heart and has exerted a profound influence on my writing. Housman, a reclusive Latinist, who sublimated a hopeless love for Moses Jackson into two beautiful books of poetry, is the subject of Tom Stoppard's biopic play The Invention of Love. The play is set in Hades where a recently-deceased Housman stands on the banks of Styx and stops to remember his life before sailing on across the river, beyond memory.

I read it a few months ago but two parts have been coming back to me lately. The first is a conversation in Hades between Housman and Oscar Wilde. Wilde tells Housman that "Before Plato could describe love, the loved one had to be invented. We would never love anybody if we could see past our invention." The second is Housman misquoting Sophocles' only surviving line from the lost play The Love of Achilles: "Love, said Sophocles, is like the ice held in the hand by children. A piece of ice held fast in the fist." The real quote is more specific: "When ice appears out of doors, and boys seize it up while it is solid, at first they experience new pleasures. But in the end their pride will not agree to let it go, but their acquisition is not good for them if it stays in their hands. In the same way an identical desire drives lovers to act and not to act."

I leave the work of interpretation up to you, dear reader, and also the work of judging the truth and weight of these lines. As for drama, I have been considering translating a play or parts of a play. I have felt for some time that for the sake of my art and my life, my next poetic must be relational. Send suggestions.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Sleepwalk Ballad

Green I want you green.
Green wind.  Green branches.
The ship on the sea
and the horse upon the hill.
With her waist wrapped in shadow
she dreams on her veranda,
green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
Green I want you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
things keep watching her,
and she cannot see them.
Green I want you green.
Huge stars of frost
appear with the fish of shadow
that opens the way for dawn.
The fig tree rubs the wind
with the sandpaper of its branches,
and the thicket, a theiving cat,
bristles its sour spears.
But who could be coming?  And from where?
She lingers by the railing,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming of the bitter sea.
—Brother, I want to trade
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your quilt.
Brother, I come bleeding
from the Cabra passes.
—If I could do it, young man,
that deal would be closed.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house my house.
—Compadre, I want to die
a decent death in my own bed.
Of steel if it can be,
with sheets of Dutch linen.
Don’t you see the wound
that runs from my chest to my throat?
—Three-hundred dark roses
adorn your white shirt-front.
Your blood reeks and oozes
about your sash.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house my house.
—Let me at least go up
to the high railings.
Let me go! Let me go up
to the green railings.
Balustrades of the moon,
where the water thunders.
The two men go up now
toward the high balustrades.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of tears.
On the rooftops
tin lanterns were trembling.
A thousand crystal tambourines
wounded the dawn.
Green I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The two men went up.
The long wind left in the mouth
a strange taste
of mint, of gall and of sweet basil.
Brother!  Where is she?  Tell me,
where is your bitter girl?
How many times she waited for you!
How many time she would wait,
fresh cheeks, black hair,
on this green veranda!
Over the face of the cistern
the gypsy girl was swaying.
Green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
An icicle of moonlight
suspends her above the water.
The night grew intimate
like a small square.
Drunken civil guardsmen
were pounding at the door.
Green I want you green.
Green Wind.  Green branches.
The ship on the sea,
and the horse upon the hill.

Sigh No More