Tuesday Poem: The Translator

Shutting out the torment and the fear
deep into the night’s cold morning hours
I work on my translation.

Improbable, that in another tongue
such lines as these were born,
set down, are vivid on his page

and will not come across to mine.
Two ways to go: the forced rhyme
the flaccid filling phrase

or terse, unrhymed,
trying to capture the meaning
as if that could ever be known.

But something does translate —
a voice from bleak immensities
perfect for nights like these:

the wind’s forgotten murmur,
the war that beggars language
speaking the creole of slaughter.

Credit note: First published in New Zealand Books (December 2004), included in Best New Zealand Poems 2004, and then collected in All Blacks Kitchen Gardens.

Tim says: I have had something of a translation theme going with the Tuesday Poems on my blog recently, one way or another, and furthermore Best New Zealand Poems 2010 has just been launched – congratulations to all those who’ve had work selected! – so I though I would post my poem “The Translator”, which appeared in BNZP 2004. At that time, I also supplied an exuberant set of notes on the poem.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week’s other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

8 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: The Translator

  1. oh yes the wrestle with the words. I presume that your Russian is much more accomplished than my Latin – I am sure you don;t have to reach for your dictionary and grammar for every word (like I do).a lovely poem that captures the midnight beauty and angst of translation

  2. I read All Black's Kitchen Garden some time ago – really enjoyed it – and I'm currently reading lots and lots of Russian women's poetry (in English – I could no more read Russian than I can juggle five sprigs of hot broccolli). I've been thinking about how much the poems assume markers of their translator's writing and how little of the original is left – and, can a poem even be translated/should one think of translations as the original poem…rambling…I like its journey, that fits with the theme and title.

  3. Thanks, Isabel, AJ, Jennifer and Rachel.AJ, sadly, poems about war, and even war as a form of translation, never seem to go out of date. Jennifer, I have to get past such a spam guardian to comment too, and mine is \”chital\”, which is also a deer which commonly inhabits wooded regions throughout the subcontinent – ultimately derived from a Sanskrit word. \”Uronia\” sounds like a word William Blake might have invented. I wonder if the definitive captcha-word poem has yet been written?Isabel, you might be interested to hear that the chital (above) has the splendid Latin name \”Axis axis\”. Of course, that's not real Latin… which I enjoyed studying for three years at high school.My Russian has declined over the 15 years since I finished my degree to the point where dictionary and grammar must ever be at hand.Rachel, thanks! Russian is (honestly) not that hard once you get past the strangeness of the Cyrillic alphabet to those used to the Latin alphabet. It's a far more regular and orderly language than English.I agree with you about the limitations of translation, but I have gained so much enjoyment from reading translations of Russian-language, and to a lesser extent Spanish-language poetry that I am happy to set such arguments aside when reading.Who are some of your favourite Russian women poets?

  4. Linor Goralik, Nina Iskrenko, Inna Kabysh are ones whose poems have stuck in my head – next week maybe someone else will house-sit my thoughts.What about yours?

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