From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.
Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.
Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.
In this story by Toshirō Sasaki, a young woman in pre-war Japan buys a turtle and unintentionally contributes to a man’s arrest, opening up questions about class, poverty, and criminality in a nation that is beginning to rapidly modernise.
At the black markets in Ginza a girl bought a soft-shell turtle. She put it inside her large crocodile-leather opera bag and set out on the Ginza streets. It was early evening, and the district was filled with people bustling about. She pushed her way through the crowd, heading for the Owari-chō tram stop. Customers gathered impatiently at the opening street stalls. Red, blue, and violet rays of light swayed all around. The chaotic sounds of footsteps echoed.
“Excuse me! Young miss!”
Feeling that someone must have been calling out to her, the girl came to a stop. From her shoulder to the end of the street, countless shoulders rubbed together. Grey summer overcoats and bright green silk crepes. Spring jackets the color of matcha. Brand new straw hats. A rich fragrance of sweets. And then the refreshing chill of the night air, washing away the mood of afternoon.
It was an illusion. No one had been calling to her at all. Only a pale man with a long face, a grey hunting cap pulled down over his eyes and light brown jacket wrapped around his body, his shoulder touching hers, moved towards her.
Because language is like night-time. Moist,
an indecipherable series of grunts. Pure dread, and
inchoate visceral shrieking. It is inhuman.
from “On the wings of freedom“
The Dispossessed, Szilárd Borbély’s first novel (translated by Ottilie Mulzet), was published in Hungary in 2013, just a year before he took his own life. Its reception was exalted, the scope of its success overwhelming and somewhat unexpected. Until then, Borbély had been primarily known as a poet, whose voice stood starkly apart from the literary mainstream’s travesties, veneration of subjectivity, and l’art pour l’art games with language. Instead, Borbély reached back to Baroque liturgical forms, motives of Hasidic folklore, and he crafted a depersonalised voice so as to hone in on the roots of the self: the stuttering of fear, grief, hope. In other words, he fused the interpersonal and the formalised with barely articulate and verbal intimacy. The relationship between language and the body was at the heart of this fusion: he wrote about the physicality of speech, the sequence of aging that connects birth and death, about the immediacy of sensory life and the brutality of this immediacy.
This poetic voice was not simply an aesthetic choice for him. Rather, it stemmed from a realisation that the world is fundamentally different from “the language we live by” and that much of it “cannot even be expressed as questions, or formulated as problems.” For him, the world existed in a rawness that defied legal and moral constructs, be they about human rights or divine redemption. It defied the very rules of language. Crime—raw and immediate—is only arbitrarily linked to punishment, and only when it is too late. Law alone could never prevent the killer from entering the room. Imre Kertész—the Holocaust survivor novelist who won Hungary’s only Nobel in literature—saw no reason not to expect that you can be shot anytime, anywhere. Similarly, Borbély was acutely aware of how thin the coat of law was and how in vain it existed in the face of brutality, especially after the house-break that led to his mother’s homicide.
Though best known as the pioneer of “free verse” in Arabic, Nazik al-Mala’ika was in fact a fervent defender of Arabic meter, both in her poetry and in her criticism. Indeed, her theory of free verse was not very “free” at all, but rather took the undulating metrical feet of classical Arabic verse as the basis for a new prosodic system. Where classical poetry is governed by fixed line lengths and strict monorhyme, al-Mala’ika’s prosody allowed modern poets to vary the number of feet in each line and weave their rhymes as they saw fit. “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material and transforms it into poetry,” she wrote in the critical text Issues in Contemporary Poetry. “Indeed, images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”
To honor al-Mala’ika’s belief in meter’s vitality—the way it can anchor meaning in the body, transforming ordinary speech into a form of incantation—I have rendered her metered, rhymed Arabic verse into English metrical forms that reproduce, in some form, the music of the Arabic. Where al-Mala’ika uses the mutadarik or “continuous” meter in Arabic, for example, I use anapestic hexameter, English’s answer to Arabic’s most galloping verse form. Al-Mala’ika’s poetry, with its balance between tradition and innovation, ultimately teaches us not to deal so violently with the past, but rather to tread lightly in poetry’s ancient footsteps. My hope is that my English renderings of her verse might begin to do precisely this.
— Emily Drumsta
To A Girl Sleeping In The Street
In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,
when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,
the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.