Its Very Own Breath

In the literary or “free” translation (I am more comfortable with calling it adaptation) of poetry, occasionally the Fates or, when one is very lucky, Erato smiles on the whole endeavor and sense and sound magically align in the into-language as they have in the original. The great recently deceased poet Richard Wilbur, for example, seemed to have had ses couverts mis en permanence (always been a welcome guest) chez Ms. Erato, since his ability to consistently preserve meter and even rhyme scheme while remaining true to the original was astounding.

More rarely a poem in one language goes through the wringer of translation and comes out, not a clean, if wet, pair of trousers, but, say, a Hugo Boss suit. The magician’s stage business, however, is absent in the poet-translator since the trick is transparent, entirely in the open, for anyone who reads the two languages. The great song-writer poet Leonard Cohen, for example, was always forthright about his debt to and admiration of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; indeed, it was Cohen’s stumbling on an English translation of Lorca when this English-speaking native of Montreal was fifteen that convinced him, as he recounted it a number of times, to spend his life chatting up the muse and maybe coaxing from her a few lyrics as well. Years later Cohen repaid Lorca with compound interest by translating his “Pequeño vals Vienés,” turning it into a very beautiful English song and stand-alone poem in the process called “Take This Waltz.” To my ear, Cohen’s adaptation is better than Lorca’s poem for a formal reason, namely he adds rhyme. Since Cohen’s translation was set to music, he had to maintain a certain meter of course (yes, the song is indeed in triple time for the waltz that it is), but it is the recurring rhymes and half-rhymes that ground what could have been surreal (something that is in the Spanish original) and possibly cloying imagery in a kind of aural real world, one of fixed rhymes. Here’s the start of the poem followed by Cohen’s translation/adaptation:

En Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals con la boca cerrada.

Este vals, este vals, este vals,
de sí, de muerte y de coñac
que moja su cola en el mar.

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women,
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry,
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows,
There’s a tree where the doves go to die,
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning,
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost,
Aye, aye aye aye,
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws.

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz,
With its very own breath of brandy and death
Dragging its tail in the sea.

Yes, there are echoes at the ends of Lorca’s lines, with muchachas, disecadas, ventanas, or mañana and cerrada, but these are not true rhymes since the accented syllable falls before the “as” or “a” and the consonants terminating the accented syllables aren’t the same. Cohen’s die/cry is a true rhyme and so it goes throughout his adaptation, nearly systematically (here, for example, “frost,” “waltz”—very close, and with the final st of one dancing around to become a ts in the other!—and “jaws” all share the same vowel). He even works in fantastic internal (so-called leonine) rhymes in “torn from the morning” (which likewise brings to mind—brings to ear—mourning, given the talk of death and dying) and “With its very own breath of brandy and death,” which is superior to de sí, de muerte y de coñac thanks to those rhymes as well as the alliterations of “breath of brandy and death”…

When there is padding in Cohen’s adaptation, it is the precious stuff of real inspiration, all goose down and Egyptian cotton. One of my favorite lines of Cohen’s is a nearly literal translation of Lorca:

Hay frescas guirnaldas de llanto
(literally “there are fresh garlands of tears”)

becomes the stunning

with a garland of freshly cut tears.

¡Ay! ¡mi corazón! That’s good. To maintain the triple time here, one could translate the line more closely as “there are freshly cut garlands of tears” but because of the preceding verse in Cohen’s adaptation, he has to drop “there’s” or “there’re.” The padding is in the “freshly cut” where the Spanish has only “fresh.” But while shifting from a plural “garlands” to a singular, which intensifies the image in its simple way (and allows him to add the unaccented indefinite article to piece out the meter: one two three, with a gar…), Cohen makes the tears themselves “freshly cut” (heightening the image even more by introducing an additional note of absurdity), thus achieving the requisite number of syllables and fashioning an unforgettable line of English verse.

I should point out for anyone unfamiliar with the history of translating verse that adding rhyme to the into-language version of non-rhyming poetry isn’t anything new, although nowadays translators either follow suit, rhyming or not rhyming according to the original’s form, or opt for meter without rhyme regardless of the original, or, finally, offer a prose version that is heightened with an array of rhetorical effects. Recurring rhyme at the end of verse lines became the second aural indicator of poetry in the Middle Ages (meter—a regular scheme of stressed and unstressed syllables or a regular number of syllables—is of course the first, and the very definition of verse), and poets, even when translating poems from antiquity (Latin and ancient Greek poetry never impose an end-rhyme scheme), would naturally use meter and rhyme in their versions. Chaucer borrows material from Vergil and his Aeneid for The House of Fame, and when he briefly translates in his own poem just the first hemistich of the Latin epic:

Arma virumque cano

Of arms and the man I sing…

he puts it into a couplet of iambic tetrameter:

I wol now synge, yf I kan
The armes and also the man…

Complete translations of the epic followed, starting in the early sixteenth century, always in heroic couplets (i.e. pentameter), the verse form for noble or epic subjects. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Dryden rendered the opening of the Aeneid thus:

Arms and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore…

Even the classicist and great English poet A.E. Housman, no slouch when it came to understanding and more importantly appreciating Latin poetry, even he, when he chose to English his most beloved lyric, Horace’s ode that begins Diffugere nives (Odes iv 7), put it into a strict abab rhyme scheme:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth…

Nowadays, when strict rhyme schemes have fallen out of favor with several generations of poets, the poet-translator wouldn’t dream of adding end rhyme where none exists in the original poem. Cohen wasn’t therefore breaking new ground but he was doing something fairly surprising for the time from the point of view of translating verse. The popular-song tradition led him to denature the original but surpass his Spanish master in this instance.

By way of a coda in the sea, I had all this in mind a few days ago when I came across a quatrain from a fine lyric by the nineteenth-century post-romantic Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, “Rima XXIV” (“Dos rojas lenguas de fuego…”). The generative principle of the poem is simple enough. In five quatrains the poet evokes a series of two things in nature that represent in the concluding line of the poem “our two souls” (“eso son nuestras dos almas”). My two balls (de mes deux plutôt…), might conclude a Lolita if Humbert had tried to read Spanish poetry to his Carmencita… But Bécquer’s poem does have a certain wistful sensuality wafting throughout. It, too, has its very own breath but of parchment and the fleeting perfume of a lost love.

I was struck by the following quatrain and as I began to render it in English as a challenge, I realized I could work not one but two rhymes (abab) in:

dos olas que vienen juntas
a morir sobre una playa
y que al romper se coronan
con un penacho de plata

Two waves that come together,
Together to die upon the shore
And as they break, they feather,
Crowned by a silver plume before…

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How Absolute a Knave

I stumbled on a poem recently by the Italian poet Sergio Solmi (1899-1981), “Entro la densa lente dell’estate,” whose first line, which also serves as the poem’s title, is a beauty—and a heartbreaker for the English translator, as any wonderful line of verse must be to the translator, aware that beauty and fidelity rarely go hand in hand. Indeed, beauty, being aloof, and fidelity—how absolute a knave—being exact, fastidious, always pursing the lips and pointing out faults, are rarely even on speaking terms. You have to marvel at the varied yet concentrated phonetic play in the above line, the en sound that occurs in three of the first four words, the els that linger in the ear from la to lente to dell’estate (double consonants in Italian should be heard as such and so there is a special drawn-out emphasis on the el sound in dell’estate, as if an English tongue were taking particular care to pronounce “hall light” without running the two words together), the esses, dees and ahs that echo exactly once each, the tees that have the tongue lightly tapping the teeth from beginning to end. Finally, the first three words that repeat the en sound follow this in each instance with a terminal vowel that is slightly higher in pitch than the one before, thus: en-oh… en-ah… en-ey (more or less; a thousand pardons to those who have mastered the International Phonetic Alphabet). And if we were looking to hang some sort of meaning on the phonetic series of those terminal vowels, we could say they suggest the growing light of the early morning, the rising pitch imitating a rising sun. Just a handful of phonemes, nine or ten depending on how you wish to count the values of the ees in lente and estate. It would indeed be nothing short of a miracle if a similarly small number of euphonious sounds lined up in the English words that best reflect the meaning of the Italian ones. O bel compatto mondo (O beautiful compact world) exclaims the poet further on and he might well be praising this dense first verse of his. “Within the thick lens of summer,” a translator might be tempted to get up some internal rhyme by choosing “dense lens” over “thick,” but… we are prevented from doing so. English lenses are thick, not dense. Simple usage trumps any attempt at a phonetic effect.

Like the poem in its entirety, the above verse is written in the classic line of eleven syllables (hendecasyllabic is the technical term), which is the foundation of Italian poetry. In Solmi’s poem, however, there is no end rhyme. Here is the entire poem; my pedestrian translation follows:

Entro la densa lente dell’estate,
nel mattino disteso che già squarciano
lunghi, assonnati e sviscerati i gridi
degli ambulanti, — oh, i bei colori! Giallo
di peperoni, oscure melanzane,
insalate svarianti dal più tenero
verde all’azzurro, rosee carote,
e vesti accese delle donne, e muri
scabri e preziosi, gonfi ippocastani,
acque d’argento e di mercurio, e in alto
il cielo caldo e puro e torreggiante
di tondi cirri, o bel compatto mondo.
Lieto ne testimonia, sul pianeta
erra, nella città Milano, mentre
vaga, di sé dimentico e di tutto,
lungo le calme vie che si ridestano,
— oggi, addì ventisette Luglio mille
novecento cinquanta — un milanese.

Within the thick lens of summer
In the relaxed morning, which the long,
Sleepy and intense cries of the peddlers
Are already rending—oh, the beautiful colors!
Bell pepper yellow, dark eggplants,
Heads of lettuce ranging from softest
Green to sky blue, rosy carrots,
And the women’s bright clothes, and walls
Rough and precious, swollen horse chestnuts,
Water the color of silver and mercury, and on high
The sky, warm and pure and towering
With round cirrus clouds, o beautiful compact world.
Happy, he witnesses the above, wanders the planet,
In the city of Milan, while
Lost to himself, to everything,
A Milanese roams the calm streets that are waking again
—Today, the twenty-seventh of July,
Nineteen hundred and fifty.

One final remark. Of the many effects that the English translation cannot reproduce from the original, there is one at the end of the poem based solely on syntax and word order, on the way the poet can put together a correct utterance in Italian. The last six verses form a syntactic whole, three complete sentences with subjects and verbs (plus a lot of other subordinate stuff, too, but no matter), from “Happy, witnessing the above…” to the end, or in Italian, from “Lieto ne testimonia…” to the end. Because adjectives in Italian agree in number and gender with what they modify, we know from lieto that whatever it is modifying is indeed singular and masculine. However, Italian allows Solmi to place at the very end of the poem after a long build up over four verses the finally specified subject of the main clause, un milanese, “a Milanese” (“…mentre vaga… un milanese”). It forms a kind of humorous anticlimax, a carefully calibrated whimsical touch that is underscored by the echo of mille plus its end vowel and in the next, and last, line milanese and its end vowel. We might call it a key detail deferred, which English word order here just does not comfortably allow.

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Imperfect Constancy

A scholar and friend of mine, a native French speaker whose love of English has left him with a sure mastery of the language and a long familiarity with its literature, had a translation problem that had been nagging him for some time. It was in fact not his translation but his doubts about another’s rendering of an English text into French that was the pebble in his mental shoe, and he tapped me recently to sound out his suspicions.

The text in question was by the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison, writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost and specifically, in the passage under study, about the great poet’s language and its shortcomings in this case. The French translation was by Jacques Delille (known as l’abbé Delille), whose translation of Milton’s epic was published in 1804. It is in his introduction to his translation that Delille quotes Addison. Here is the passage, first in the original and then the one sentence in the good abbé’s French that doesn’t quite cut the mustard:

“…Milton’s Sentiments and Ideas were so wonderfully Sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full Strength and Beauty, without having recourse to these Foreign Assistances [foreign idioms]. Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions.” (Addison, The Spectator 297)

Notre langue était insuffisante pour lui,” the French cleric translates, which, if I render word for word back into English, yields “Our language was insufficient/inadequate for him.” My friend justifiably wanted to know where the devil “sunk” had got to. Or was he being too exacting, he asked.

Indeed, he was not. What had become of Addison’s rather striking choice of a verb here? This is not a case of a mistranslation but something more interesting, a failure of will it would seem. The French wording, in a sense, does grasp the spirit of Addison’s critique; the essayist indeed affirms that the English tongue proved wanting with respect to what Milton had to say. This is not a problem of misunderstanding the English verb. And because we are dealing with prose here, one cannot argue that the strict confines of a classical French twelve-syllable verse line forced the translator to boggle and then blunder into the weak phrasing of “was inadequate.” Meter here doesn’t overrule matter. Finally, the French language has a number of verbs that cover some of the same linguistic territory that the intransitive sense of to sink occupies in English. My friend suggested ployer, plier or céder sous, and s’affaisser, without breaking a sweat. This is certainly not a case of a peculiarity in one tongue purportedly not carrying over into another. No, there is not even a hint of that most dimwitted of snowclones: such and such a language doesn’t have a word for this or that.

What we have in this case is a translator showing a loss of nerve. Father Delille seems to be lacking in faith either in his grasp of the out-of language or in the expressive power of his own. Or perhaps, given the eighteenth century’s ideas about decorum, our translator convinced himself that he couldn’t possibly maintain this figurative language in French. Nabokov, in his scholarly notes to his English translation of Eugene Onegin, gleefully excoriates eighteenth-century writers, for example, precisely for their annoying tendency to kowtow to convention, to prize the generic over the specific, to aim to please polite society at the expense of originality or interest pure and simple. When a translator labors under that kind of outlook—it can happen in any century of course—there is a leveling of what is colorful or vigorous or evocative in the original. Thus, Addison’s striking image, which summons a number of other ideas and images (gravitas, the weightiness of Milton’s subject, ideas, soul, the supposed weakness of vernacular English with respect to the poet’s “Foreign Assistances,” and so on), is devitalized into “our language was inadequate for him.”

The opposite can occur as well, naturally. The original may have a glaring mistake, a mixed and mangled metaphor, for instance, or an unfortunate repetition. Does the translator look to reproduce the same? Nabokov again: In his English translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, he renders the final sentence of the “Princess Mary” chapter in this way, “Will there not appear there, glimpsed on the pale line separating the blue main from the grey cloudlets, the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a sea gull, but gradually separating itself from the foam of the breakers and, at a smooth clip, nearing the desolate quay?”* In a note Nabokov then points out, “Otdelyayushchei, otdelyayushcheisya. It is just like Lermontov and his casual style to let this long and limp word appear twice in the same, final, sentence.” Nabokov shows courage here by refusing to restyle his author as he fits him out in his new English garb.

In my day-to-day work, however, this is not the usual practice. First I should point out that I make a loose distinction between literary or historical texts, i.e., writing whose age or relative importance to the culture places it off limits, so to speak; and journalism, in which I include the critical essays appearing in art catalogs that are the bulk and bane of my professional existence. With the latter I allow myself some leeway. That is, I will probably devise a workaround solution, tipping off the author or no depending on the deadline and several other factors. A recent project is an apt illustration of the above. A short history, handsomely done, of Les Délices, the manor that had once been Voltaire’s residence in Geneva, included both prose and poetry by the eighteenth-century man of letters as well as the prose of the booklet’s two authors. Thus, had Voltaire or one of his correspondents quoted in the text committed some awkward wording or image to paper, I would have dutifully followed the French as closely as possible. As it turned out, there were no such troublesome passages, only one rather obscure turn of phrase (“nous nous mîmes à jouer Zaïre pour interrompre le cercle”: is “interrompre le cercle” Voltaire’s invention or an idiom from the period? And what exactly does he mean?). The expression cried out for much greater research than the deadline allowed. “We set about performing Zaire to break the circle” had to do—and, well, sort of makes sense. Before the high court of sticklers I would plead in my defense that it certainly places an English reader in the same position as a modern French reader before the odd phrase.

On the other hand, the authors of this short history of Les Délices come up with something of a mixed metaphor in this sentence, “Genève vit au rythme de l’effervescence que suscite la foundation de la Croix-Rouge…” A very close rendering would be, “Geneva was living [the verb in French is in the historical present, but that narrative convention, though used in English too, is less widespread, and certainly wouldn’t seem natural here] in time with the effervescence [ferment, excitement] that the founding of the Red Cross had stirred/aroused.” But can one live in time with (literally it would be “at the rate of”) an effervescence, a vivacity, an enthusiasm? The idea of course is that the city was experiencing daily the enthusiasm generated by a new humanitarian enterprise. My first try had been this, “Geneva pulsed with ferment for the Red Cross…” My scholar friend, who happened to be overseeing the project, called me out on this weak translation with a kind of raised eyebrow in the margins of my text, “Mixed metaphor. Is this correct?” I retorted that the French, too, was also mixing metaphors, to be honest, but… alas, he was right, something better surely could be found. I finally proposed this, “…day to day life in Geneva… was alive with ferment for the newly founded Red Cross…”

…Forgive me! Truth is my real goal.
Who that laid hands on that perfect form
Could do other than stay with that in perfect constancy?

So writes Clive Wilmer in “The Translator’s Apology” (with tip of the hat to the blog Laudator Temporis Acti for bringing the poem to my attention). What struck me in this bit of verse is the amusing ambiguity in the poem’s final line, which may not be intentional by the way (the nine lines leading up to these final three show no such wordplay and argue either way. “In perfect constancy,” indeed, or is it also an “imperfect constancy”? And what of the imperfect form? It, too, at times warrants the courage of perfect constancy.


*By comparison, here is the passage in J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray’s translation, available at This translation was published shortly before the Great War, in 1912, and despite the presence of the very Nabokovian names of Wisdom and Marr, it appears that the oddity of their version is not an invention, or rather is entirely their invention: “… lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?” Unlike Nabokov’s translation from his mid-fifties on (around the time of his Eugene Onegin), where the oddities and infelicities spring from a willful, even perverse, adherence to the original, the strangeness here seems more rooted in an unsure grasp of the Russian causing Wisdom and Murray’s command of English to wobble as well (the awkward use of “glancing” and “severing itself,” for instance, or “the desert harbour,” which at the very least reads like a mistake for “the deserted harbour”).

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