For a poet, there are easier things than translations. The translating poet inevitably has to face the gnawing burden of writing for two people. “It’s a desperate system of double-entry bookkeeping,” Howard Nemerov lamented. The spectral presence of the author is always hovering somewhere, ready to strike whenever the nuance of a word or phrase falters. Even then, the process of translation is seductive. It provides a poet with the rare opportunity to examine the art of another writer, often with intriguing results. The cryptologist’s glee at unveiling messages and new lines of thought converge into the creation of a new kind of work that is as dependent on the translator’s moment in time as much as it is to the author’s.
Many readers may be familiar with Ciarán Carson’s work as translator. His versions of seminal Irish texts Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) have a robust freshness and vitality that readily appeals to contemporary audiences. Reading Carson’s Táin, one can sense the sounds, smells, and voices of that particular world of pre-Christian Ireland (now so heavily appropriated into the pop-culture fabric of Game of Thrones).
His newest work, From Elsewhere (Gallery Books, 2014), is a collection of 81 short poems by the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), each accompanied by a short poem of Carson’s, an original work inspired by the Follain poem, or, as Carson describes it: “a translation of the translation.” From Elsewhere is certainly not Carson’s first foray into French translation. In 1998 he translated an array of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé in The Alexandrine Plan and in 2012 he published his translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, In the Light Of (both published by Wake Forest University Press). READ MORE…
I first came across Theo Dorgan’s work in a charming anthology of art writing from the National Gallery of Ireland, Lines of Vision (Thames & Hudson, 2014). A group of acclaimed Irish novelists and poets wrote about which paintings had most affected them as artists. Dorgan chose an evocative little history painting by Ernest Messionier, Group of Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden (1875), depicting two of Napoleon’s generals contemplating their chances on the eve of the wintry battle of Hohenlinden in December of 1800. It’s an intimate scene, and its effect, as described in rapturous detail by Dorgan, especially its effect on the imagination of a young boy, is enchanting:
There’s a self riding down out of the picture, no two selves. One of them
stolid and wary, wondering what these damn officers are about to get
us into…my mind is full of the coming battle, my sympathies with men
breathing this cold air tonight who will not be breathing it tomorrow…
All this and so much more, so very much more, out of one small
painting—and I close my eyes for one brief instant, leaving the gallery,
not sure when I open them where I shall find myself, on a Dublin street,
so long familiar, or on a wooded slope with a sky fill of lead-heavy snow
above my head, hearing the creak of leather beneath me, feeling the
solid heat of the animal bearing me down off that crest towards some
tomorrow at once unknown, unknowable and absurdly unfamiliar.
Dancing with the child I was, cheating the monoworld. READ MORE…
A few months ago, a friend of mine who was curious about the nuances of Indian culture asked me to explain the artistic differences between North and South India. I realized it was a loaded question, and I could only give him a general overview of similarities and differences between north and south, Aryan and Dravidian, and Central Asian, Persian-Turkish influences versus Burmese and Sri Lankan. I felt I had a vague generalist understanding of my country of origin, though my answers seemed to satisfy him.
It is exceedingly difficult to encapsulate the cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent, spanning across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, with a cultural nebula across Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. To travelers like the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (the 14th century Central Asian [Uzbek] warrior), the marauder Timur (the subject of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) and even Mohandas Gandhi, returning from years of living among the racist Boers of South Africa, India remained a baffling and exotic mystery to the intellect and senses.
Fortunately for us, a book like Paul Smith’s massive anthology, Poetry of India: Anthology of the Greatest Poets of India, gives curious readers of Indian culture and literature an adequate place to start. Paul Smith is an Australian poet and scholar of Indian and South Asian literature. He has translated the works of Rumi, Hafiz, and Nizami, as well as the works of various other Sufi and Persian poets. In this anthology, he delves straight into the complexities of Indian literature, Sanskrit poetry from South India and the Deccan states, medieval Tamil poetry, and poems by well-known nineteenth and twentieth-century poets like Makhfi, Ghālib, Tagore, and Iqbal.