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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