Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
Edited by Sasha Dugdale, David Constantine and Helen Constantine
Published by Bloodaxe Books, London, 2016
In his seminal study of translation, “Mouse or Rat?” the late Italian linguist and novelist Umberto Eco argues for the Latin proverb according to which translating a literary text is always tantamount to a betrayal. He even hints at the possibility that Eve decided to devour the forbidden fruit because of an inadequate translation of the injunction not to do so.
On a more mundane level, translation could cause confusion and even conflict in many walks of life even within the same family of languages. For example, in British English the verb “to table” means “to put forward a text or a resolution” while in American English it means “to withdraw a text.” As Eco notes, a mouse is a cuddly creature while a rat is a revulsive pest. On a different level an “orchard” isn’t a “grove” and an epistle is somehow more than a letter. A “gate” is somehow more than just a “door” and you would take a “damsel” for a “wench” at your peril.
In Nabokov’s black comic novel “Pnin”, a misunderstanding of the trains’ timetable leads the eponymous hero, a Russian exile in America, into boarding a different train and ending up where he didn’t want to go and into a story he hadn’t imagined.
If translating even the simplest text, say a manual for your made-in-China washing machine is difficult, you can imagine how much more difficult translating poetry it. You have to be either heroic or reckless to attempt it.
I did so when I was a reckless teenager, working for “Ashna” (The Acquaintance), a literary magazine in Tehran edited by the poet Ahmad Shamlu. I translated dozens of poems, mostly by modern German and French poets until I hit Edith Sitwell’s celebrated poem “Still Falls The Rain” which took me a week to complete and undermined my health, also ending my ambitions as a translator.
So you can imagine how I felt when faced with this amazing object of bravura that is an anthology of 250 modern and post-modern poems in translation from more than a dozen languages.
The poems are chosen from the many issues of the magazine “Modern Poetry in Translation” (MPT) founded by the late Ted Hughes, England’s most celebrated Poet Laureate, in 1965. The fact that the magazine has enjoyed such longevity is a tribute to England’s status as one of two or three countries where poetry is still regarded with keen interest, and even a certain deference.
The anthology shuns any particular order; a fruit of Catholic, not to say chaotic, tastes of the translators. The translators, many of them poets themselves, wanted to share with others what they liked. Inevitably, perhaps, the bulk of the poems offered here are from European languages, including some like Irish and Franconian German, which thrive in very small communities.
There is also no chronological order, perhaps because poetry, or at least good poetry, is timeless. Instead, the editors have tried to erect a thematic structure. Again, inevitably, the themes chosen are those that reflect the existential reality of the past century or so- an age of revolutions, wars, genocides, oppression, betrayals, but also of struggle, hope and, occasional triumph of good over evil.
Lovers of poetry would appreciate the fact that the anthology has not been limited to well-known poets like the Russian Osip Mandelstam, the German Bertolt Brecht, the Spanish Federico Garcia Lorca, the Italian Cesare Pavese, or the Iranian Forugh Farrokhzad.
The volume offers much opportunity for happy serendipity as the reader discovers poets he hadn’t heard of before. Examples of this include the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov and his superb poem “My Mother Reads Poetry”, the Armenian Zahrad and his short poem “Sentence”, and the Chinese poet Yu Jian with his long elegy “Event-Digging”. Other surprises include the poems “Entertainment” and “Liberation” by Hochi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s independence, both written in prison.
Several modern Arab poets are also present, including the Iraqi Fawzi Karim and his tongue-in-cheek ”The Usual Story”, the Sudanese Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi with his short ode “Nothing” and the Iraqi Fadel Assultani and his Larkinesque poem “A Tree”. The Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim is present with an excerpt from his long poem “An Inquest” as is Mahmoud Darwish with two of his longer poems.
Some poets of Arab origin who write in European languages, are also included although, notably the Moroccan Tahar ben Jalloun, a renowned novelist in French. Another Arab poet writing in French is Ridha Zili who is included with two excellent short poems.
The anthology includes some of my favourite Iranian poets who are better known abroad than at home, notably Mimi Khalvati and Ziba Karbassi. There is also the translation of a Persian poem “Dear Fahimeh” addressed to a young woman executed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Intriguingly, we are told that the author is “unknown or concealed”, presumably because he or she is in Iran and thus in danger of being executed by the mullahs.
Some of the interesting later Iranian poets like Hashem Shaabani, executed in Ahvaz under President Hassan Rouhani, or Fatemeh Ekhtesari sentenced to be caned in public, are not included presumably because their work appeared in translation in the West after the anthology was put together.
The poems chosen are of varying lengths. Ernst Jandel’s German poem “Time Flies” consists of only one word ”Lustig” (lusty) written several ties to form a visual pyramid. The Serbian poet Vasco Popa’s “Cape of Good Hope” contains only 49 words. In contrast Pascal Petit’s “At the Gate of Secrets”, after the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhasz, runs into more than a thousand words. Juhasz’ own fascinating poem “The Boy Turned Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” is offered in a shortened version.
Some of the most interesting poets of recent times, at least in this opinion, are either not included or presented with just one poem. Among them are the simply divine Polish Wislawa Szymborska with a short poem ”Innocence” and Eugenio Montale who isn’t included along with Jorge Luis Borges who has had great fun with the art of compiling anthologies.
Because the poems are translated by many people, some of them poets in their own right, the anthology reflects a rich variety of styles, tones and sensitivities, providing a real treasure for lovers of poetry everywhere. The publisher Bloodaxe is itself some kind of a miracle and a credit to England, being one of a handful of publishing companies in Europe, still surviving and to some extent even prospering solely by mass-marketing poetry.
This anthology is a veritable literary rainbow of the kind which Ernst Jandl said your heart leaps in the sky when you behold it.