Thursday, May 26, 2005


Translating Yannis Ritsos

I first read Yannis Ritsos sometime around 1975, in the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse edited by Alan Bold -- now long out of print --, which includes one poem of his (an early long one, "Romiosyne," translated by Eleftherios K. Parianos).
These trees cannot be accommodated beneath a lesser sky,
These stones are not content beneath an alien heel,
These faces cannot be accommodated except beneath the sun,
These hearts are not content with anything short of justice....
I immediately wanted more. When I looked, I found little of his work available in English translation at the time -- in the local bookstores, I tracked down a copy of Gestures, a small selection of Ritsos' poems from the 1940's through the 1960's, translated by Nikos Stangos; and 18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, a small beautifully done bilingual edition translated by Amy Mims, with the original Greek presented in photo reproduction of Ritsos' own handwriting, and with illustrations by Ritsos.

One spring day around that time, a day still bright in my memory, I made my way down to a small rock ledge on the high bluffs above the Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota campus (where I was a student), and in a high wind, the sun glinting on the green water far below, I sat with the above-mentioned book Gestures and read Yannis Ritsos.

Ritsos is a poet whose poems encourage the seeking of such moments, his poems filled with sun and wind and water and rock.

And his poems, also, filled with trains carrying soldiers, a dark stain in the mud where a man was shot by police, voices coming from a doorway, sometimes half-whispered, a darkened house where someone has recently disappeared. During the long years of imprisonment Ritsos experienced because of his Communist politics, when he wrote poems in prison he would bury them in the ground to keep them from being found by the prison guards.

Over the next few years other larger selections of Ritsos' work became available in translation, notably The Fourth Dimension translated by Rae Dalven, and Ritsos in Parentheses translated (in a bilingual edition) by Edmund Keeley. While I welcomed the additional availability of Ritsos' poetry in English, I was dissatisfied with the translations in both of the above books, as I had been also with the translations in Gestures.

Many of the translators of Ritsos, especially of the more widely available editions, have tended -- both in their selection and inclusion of individual poems, and in the translations themselves -- to concentrate on the clandestine or obscure qualities of the poems. Much of Ritsos' poetry, particularly the shorter poems written in prison or enforced exile, or during periods of civil war and political insurgence, have a subtle abbreviated quality, reading a little like coded dispatches or brief notes written quickly and passed from hand to hand or slid under a door. It's sometimes difficult for his politics to emerge clearly in such poems -- if one isn't alert to the subtleties and signals contained in them -- and the difficulty is compounded if a translator chooses to translate away from (or is oblivious to) the political implications of a poem or a line or an image.

Eventually, sometime in the early '80's -- and although I knew no Greek -- I decided to see if I could "translate" one or two of Ritsos' poems, basically for my own use, to try to get a better sense of what the poems really said.

So one afternoon I sat in a library, with a couple of modern Greek dictionaries and a tourist handbook of the language to help with the basics of the grammar, and -- using the bilingual Edmund Keeley translation of Ritsos in Parentheses as the text (and with Keeley's translation as a general guide) -- I translated one of the poems:
We Wait

Night falls late in the quarter. Sleep does not receive us.
We wait so that day breaks. We wait
so that the sun strikes like a hammer the sheet-iron of the sheds,
so that it strikes our foreheads, our hearts,
so that it becomes a sound so that the sound is heard -- a sound different,
because the silence is full of gunshots from unknown points.

My translation differs from Keeley's in several places. Keeley says, "We wait for daybreak," "We wait for the sun to strike ... " The difference hinges on a small word in the Greek original, na, a preposition, what one dictionary called a subordinate particle, meaning "so that, in order that." The waiting the poem speaks about is not a passive act, not just a waiting for something to happen; the waiting plays an active part in making daybreak and sunlight possible. (Very often, when I'm working on one of my own poems, if a line or phrase isn't working, I find that changing one of the prepositions -- rather than a verb or a noun -- is what it needs.)

At the end of the poem, Keeley says (as do a couple of other translations I've seen) "unknown places." The Greek word at the end of the poem, simia (or semeia) is something of a mapmaker's word, with a cluster of possible meanings, such as "signs, symbols, directions, points," and related words. Ritsos wrote the poem in the late '40's, around the time of the Civil War in Greece. I believe the speaker in the poem essentially knows where the gunshots are coming from, if not the precise locations. "From unknown points" seemed to me more accurate, in the context of the poem, than "from unknown places," which somewhat retreats into mystification and again makes the speaker more passive than I think Ritsos intended.

Where I translated "sheet-iron of the sheds," Keeley says "tin" and another translator says "tin roofs" (although the Greek original doesn't say "roofs"). I'm on shakier ground here, relying entirely on one of the dictionaries (I can no longer recall which one) for the translation "sheet-iron" for the Greek word lamarines. I decided to trust my ear with this -- Ritsos says "the sun strikes like a hammer," and I just don't hear that kind of force, that kind of striking, if the translation says "tin." (If the sheds were in fact tin, in all likelihood the tin was just a plating or coating over a stronger base metal such as iron or steel.) When I translate the word as "sheet-iron," I hear the sun strike like a hammer.

It took me an afternoon to struggle through and translate the six lines of the poem. I felt a quiet elation, tempered by a muttering doubt, when I finished, but the work of translating did take me closer to the poem Ritsos actually wrote.

The poetry of Yannis Ritsos, his life, his place in the world and in history, is a massive mountain of piled stones, a shout and thunder carrying through the years. During his lifetime he published nearly a hundred books of poems, as well as collections of fiction, essays, drama, translations from several languages, and other work. Late in his life his Collected Poems, published in Greece, comprised four volumes, and his work had been translated into at least 44 languages.

Translations of Ritsos into English can be hard to keep track of; several appeared in small editions from small publishers and were soon out of print; others remain available. The most comprehensive collection is the Selected Poems: 1938-1988 edited and translated by Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades, published in 1989 by BOA Editions. A recent Ritsos translator whose work I've liked is Martin McKinsey (translating sometimes in collaboration with poet Scott King); a selection of McKinsey's Ritsos translations, Late into the Night, has been published by Oberlin College Press, though I haven't seen the book yet.

From time to time a translator, even someone normally a little dry and academic, will see fit to translate one of Ritsos' poems where his politics come through a little more clearly. The lines below are from the poem "The Prototypes," translated by Edmund Keeley, in the collection Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses, published in 1991 by Princeton University Press. The poem starts by recalling a scene in the Iliad, in the workshop of the god Hephaestos, where he halts work, lays down his tools, sponges himself off, and goes out to meet Thetis, mother of Achilles. In the Iliad, Hephaestos is accompanied by young women; Ritsos in his poem makes them young men. In ancient Greece, it was a common practice for the "owners" of slaves to deliberately break (or otherwise injure or impair) the feet or legs of "their" slaves, to try to keep them from running away.
Clean like that, orderly, he goes out in the evening, leaning
on the shoulders of golden young men, the work of his hands,
who have strength and thought and voice -- he goes out into the street,
grander than all, the lame god, the worker god.

Friday, May 13, 2005


As color passes from the petal

The first Japanese poetry I read, around 30 years ago, was in Kenneth Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese and 100 More Poems from the Japanese. I've never learned Japanese, or not more than a few words, and so have sought out translations over the years. Rexroth is one of the great poets of the 20th century and his translations (from varioius languages and literatures) read beautifully in English, though I can't comment on their accuracy as translations. (I've read, elsewhere, that the only language Rexroth really knew well other than English was French, and that many of his "translations" from various languages -- Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, etc. -- were essentially versions or adaptations, or rewritings from scratch, based on already existing translations in English and French. I don't know to what extent this might be true.)

In much Japanese poetry, classical and modern, I find an almost epic quality, even though most of the poetry (especially before the 20th century) is in very short -- tiny -- forms not usually associated with epic: tanka written in 31 syllables, haiku in 17 syllables.
As certain as color
Passes from the petal,
Irrevocable as flesh,
The gazing eye falls through the world.
(Ono no Komachi, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, in Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese.) Epic: the palpable longing and sorrow, the wonder and brilliance of a concentrated moment, confronted with the vastness and inexorable movement of the world.

In a poetry consisting largely of very short poems, much of the power and evocative quality lies in what is not said explicitly, in the large area of open space (open, but not empty) that exists around the poem. When Basho writes (again in Rexroth's translation) "Autumn evening --/ a crow on a bare branch" -- a haiku, in this case of 18 syllables in the original, bending the rules -- the poem calls forth ages of loss and desire, the chill of a world of hard life, the ragged struggle to endure.

In his translation above, Rexroth reversed the order of Basho's lines; the original reads "A crow on a bare branch --/ Autumn evening". With the original order of the lines, the poem expands, conveying a certain philosophical depth, in which the crow verges on becoming the autumn evening. In the reversed order of Rexroth's translation, the poem concentrates on a point of perception, leaving any philosophical suggestion or metaphor unexpressed, silent in the space around the poem. I've seen many English versions of this poem; Rexroth's remains my favorite.

Cid Corman translated much Japanese poetry. His haiku translations were published in the 1980's several small beautifully done collections from Gnomon Press in Frankfort, Kentucky: One Man's Moon; Born of a Dream; Little Enough. I like the offhand colloquial approach Corman takes, giving the poems the gritty quality of the real world. From One Man's Moon, a poem by Basho:
stuck in a bucket
ripping dried cod

For the past couple of months I've been reading Backroads to Far Towns (White Pine Press), Cid Corman's translation of Basho's famous account -- in prose, with haiku scattered throughout to punctuate and mark the narrative -- of traveling through Japan with a friend and companion, Sora, in 1689 (five years before Basho's death). Several translations of this work exist, with various virtues or lack. The most comprehensive is Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings translated by Sam Hamill, published by Shambala. I generally like Hamill as a translator, I find him readable, and his version includes several other of Basho's prose-and-haiku travel journals, as well as a large selection of Basho's poems.

At times Hamill's translation takes on a slackness, a liesurely quality that allows some of the power of the original to escape, almost a false modesty, hesitating to impose itself on the attention of the reader. I like the immediacy of Corman's translation, the rough texture, the quality of an actual human being writing something on the open road, wind and rain and soil and leaves never far away. Basho's work gives an invaluable glimpse of daily life in a time and place far from the 20th century empire of United States.

There are other translations of Japanese poetry I like much also. Among them are Japanese Poetry: The 'Uta' done by Arthur Waley (originally published 1919, reissued sometime in the 1970's by University Press of Hawaii); The Ink Dark Moon, translations by Jane Hirshfield of Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, published sometime in the late '80's; and The Burning Heart edited and translated by Rexroth, reissued in recent years by New Directions as Women Poets of Japan. A particularly interesting collection is The Dance of the Dust on the Rafters translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins (published around 1990 by Broken Moon Press in Seattle), a selection of popular folk poems and songs, dating from at least a couple of centuries prior to the great flowering of literature in Japan in the 800's.

"Once, far over the breakers," writes Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) in Rexroth's translation, "I caught a glimpse/ of a white bird,/ and fell in love/ with this dream which obsesses me." Here again, the understated expression, the intensity and passion, breath held, an almost tangible trembling. Yosano Akiko, one of the great poets of the modern world, lived a life that was itself an epic. In another article I'll say more about her poetry. An epic is a poem in which individual human lives are swept up and lived in the midst of vast and crucial history. It is this quality that infuses the the greatest of Japanese poetry -- the work of Hitomaro, Akahito, Ono no Komachi, Murasaki Shikibu, Otomo no Yakamochi, Yosano Akiko, Takamura Kotaro -- reminding us what it means to be a human being, trying to live a life of meaning, in a world that makes life and meaning ever more difficult.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Some reasons to read Sappho

Thirty-two degrees this morning when I got to work. Unusual here for this time of year, though not, apparently, a cold temperature record for May 3. I sit all day in an office full of gray cubicles, on the twelfth floor of a thirty-story steel-and-glass building, with gray windows. Reason enough to read Sappho, if a reason were needed...

The first Sappho I read was in Rexroth's Poems from the Greek Anthology, a selection of translations he did in the early 1960's of short poems and fragments from classical Greece, with a few translations of Latin poems thrown in. Archilochos, Anyte, Asklepiades, Kallimachos, Leonidas, Martial, Meleagros, Palladas, Petronius, Philodemos, Simonides . . . and, among them, Sappho.

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays

of apple, and from the quivering leaves

slumber pours down . . .

This, Rexroth's version of a portion of the poem of Sappho's usuallly numbered 2 in the standard modern editions. Somewhere Rexroth has written about the elation, the almost transcendant sensation, he felt when he first translated the lines, sitting up all night, a woman he knew (whose name eludes me) helping him through the Greek. I don't have enough knowledge of Greek to comment with authority on the accuracy of one translation compared with another. Just taken as short pieces of poetry in English, Rexroth's versions, few and beautiful, are the best Sappho I've read.

The first full selection of Sappho I read was the widely popular translation by Mary Barnard, published sometime back in the '60's or '70's, I'm not sure of the exact date offhand. I enjoyed the bits of music, the flashes of color, the moments of something approaching a real voice of a real poet behind the poems -- something lacking in many translations (most of Willis Barnstone, for instance, or, mostly, Guy Davenport). I once asked the poet Olga Broumas if she preferred any Sappho translations. Broumas, a native of Greece who has lived her adult life in the United States and writes in English, commented about the "spare" quality of the language in Mary Barnard's translations which, Broumas felt, match a similar quality in the originals.

Over time, I became dissatisfied with Barnard's translations -- they seem to me too restrained, too orderly, sometimes more a recitation than poetry, a translation of a translation. Not long after I'd read Barnard's Sappho, I found the translation by Susy Q. Groden (published by Bobbs-Merrill in a paperback with a plain yellow cover), which became the Sappho I read for years after that. Groden abandons any attempt to recreate Sappho's stanza, even superficially on the page, translating instead into free verse stanzas.

I still have Groden's Sappho, though not on the shelf now, it's packed in the boxes of books I don't have room for on the shelves (by default, the books I don't go to frequently). Sometime in the early 1990's I found Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, translated by Diane Rayor (published 1991 by U. of California Press). Of the translations I've read -- other than Rexroth's -- Diane Rayor's Sappho translations have touched me the most intimately.
cold water ripples through apple
branches, the whole place shadowed
in roses, from the murmuring leaves
deep sleep descends
Sappho's verbs cause difficult for translators. I attempted once to "translate" the above lines from a Greek original, knowing little Greek, let alone the dialect Sappho wrote in (or, anyway, that her work survives in). One Greek dictionary says "warble" for what the water does (where Rayor says it "ripples"). One dictionary I checked had the leaves "shining," where Rexroth says "quivering," Rayor says "murmuring," and Groden says "shimmering." By triangulating several translations one may, sometimes -- lacking a knowledge of the original -- get a rough sense, a shape, of the original poem.

Most recently I've read some of Anne Carson's Sappho, in the finely done bilingual edition published within the past three or four years. I like Carson's care with the language, her lingering over a word to coax out its hidden history and dream. Ultimately, though, Carson's scholarship sometimes seems to me to weigh down the work; Carson seems more interested in presenting Sappho, and the translations, as a text (or set of texts) for its own sake. Sappho had, of course, a mind, and a brilliant one, but she was not primarily a poet of the intellect. Diane Rayor's Sappho translations remain my favorites right now.

One of the reasons I came to like the poetry of Olga Broumas -- especially her first book in English, Beginning with O -- is the similarity or affinity I found, that I could hear in the language, between Broumas's poems and what I had read of Sappho. Some of this is the fact that Broumas has a better instinctive feel for the Greco-Roman portion of the vocabulary of English than the majority of poets do who write in English.

you'd turn
in the paused wake of your dive, enter
the suck of the parted waters, you'd emerge

clean caesarean, flinging
live rivulets from your hair, your own
breath arrested. Something immaculate, a chance

crucial junction: time, light, water
had occurred, you could feel your bones
translucent as spinal fins.

(Olga Broumas, from "Sometimes, as a child" in Beginning with O.) Caesarean. Immaculate. Translucent. Much of Broumas's effective use of such vocabulary, which would grow thick and muddy in a great many poems in English, -- vocabulary normally reserved for science and technology --, is her careful placement of the words in the movement of the sentences, drawing out the onomatopoeic sound, the sharp edges of "immaculate," the wetness of "translucent" (accentuated by the word "glisten" which immediately preceeds it). The first time I read Broumas, on a warm night in July many years ago, I sat up late into the night reading out loud the poems in Beginning with O.

To regain an organic appreciation of music; to return to an affinity for shadows and light and leaves cool with water; to understand again the immaculate mathematics of roses; to articulate the dizzying heat of love that we feel when our beloved walks into the room; to gain a glimpse of a world and a knowledge not driven by the incessant hammer blows of a culture of numbers and machine parts that attempts to make every piece of existence into a commodity to be bought and sold, subject only to the psychotic whims of the 'free market" which is free for whoever owns the market; to hear, again, a whisper of what it is to speak with a true voice, and to listen: these are some reasons (by no means the only ones) to read Sappho.

Only fragments of Sappho's work survive. One complete poem, a half-dozen partially complete ones, a few more in partially legible pieces, on torn papyrus, a broken piece of pottery; some fragments, short phrases, single words, quoted in written works by ancient scholars, using examples from Sappho among other poets to illustrate details of the grammar or usage of a particular Greek dialect. For some centuries, her work was almost forgotten, fading into half-legend. In our time some little bit of her remains with us. And even now, after 2500 years, with most of her work lost, we still regard her as one of the greatest poets who ever lived.

For a time in my life I commented to friends from time to time that what I wanted, my ambition, was to be as great as Sappho -- to survive, in my poems, through the untold ages, now present, now on the brink of vanishing -- to be so great that even a thousand or two thousand years from now, even if only bits and pieces are left of my work, people who read poems will still consider me among the greatest poets who has lived on the earth. -- An easy enough thing to say, inasmuch as I likely won't have to answer for it when the time comes.

This has, at moments, been my ambition. But perhaps not so much any more. Reading her shining, shimmering, murmuring, quivering words coming to me through strata of time and layers of translation, I feel differently. If I can be great enough, in my life, to read Sappho, that may be enough.

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