Wednesday 30 December 2020

Marie Dauguet: 'Le nain'


 Le nain


Sur l’escalier de marbre où le couchant se joue

Des groupes enlacés s’attardent en l’odeur

Des jets d’eau frémissants et des jasmins en fleur;

Les belles vont rêvant, l’éventail à la joue;


Et le nain blottissant dans l’ombre sa laideur,

Sa guitare aux genoux, lui, triste, qu’on bafoue

Pour son échine en dôme et sa flasque bajoue,

Brûlant, meurtri, hagard, apaise son ardeur


En caressant du doigt, en pressant sur sa lèvre,

Chair douce et accueillante au désir qui l’enfièvre,

Une rose en bouton: épaules, seins nacrés...


O tendresse et pitié qui s'émanent des choses,

Loin des rires cruels, des dédains acérés,

Sous les baisers du nain s’est ouverte la rose!



The dwarf


On marble staircase played on by the setting sun

Clusters of couples linger in the scented hour

Of fountains that all shimmer, jasmine in full flower;

The dreaming beauties saunter, fan to cheek each one;


The dwarf, hiding in shadows his deformities,

Guitar across his knees, sad at folks’ ridicule,

For his domed spine and sagging jaw condemned a fool,

Feverish, haggard, scarred, his ardour would appease


By fondly fingering, by pressing to his lips –

Soft flesh that soon responds to his desire that grips –

A budding rose: with shoulder, pearl-white breasts…


Oh tenderness and pity which things emanate,

Far from cruel laughter, sharp disdain that never rests,

At the dwarf’s kiss its petals open in full spate.

Marie Dauguet: 'Quelle douceur...'

Quelle douceur…


Quelle douceur d’allumer un feu de bruyère

A la nuitée et d’y accrocher sa marmite,

De souper en rêvant au seuil de sa chaumière

Quand la lune fleurit comme une clématite,


Et de tendre à une biche familière

Se faufilant silencieuse au ras des branches,

Le reste de son pain et de la voir, légère,

Danser en s’ébrouant par les clairières blanches!



What sweet delight…


What sweet delight it is to light a fire of briar

To last the night and hang one’s pot above its hiss,

And at one’s door to eat and dream one’s sole desire

When the moon is in bloom like some great clematis,


And to offer a doe which is well-known to one,

Which silently steals close, flush with the branches’ height,

The last of one’s own bread and see it lightly run,

Head-flicking, huffing, dancing off through glades of white.

Monday 28 December 2020

Marie Dauguet: 'La gerbe'

La gerbe


Je ressemble au bouleau humide sous la pluie,

Au frêne desséché que drape au bord de l'eau

Le salissant brouillard de ses voiles de suie;

Mon âme a la couleur verte d’un vieux tombeau.


Je suis le naufragé cramponné au radeau

Que la vague, linceul, de ses longs pans essuie;

Mon cœur que le labeur trop lourd de vivre ennuie,

Comme un galérien courbé sous un fardeau,


Succombe et se révolte en la fadeur des choses.

Et me voici, fantôme assis sur un tombeau,

Groupant entre mes doigts, dernier bouquet de roses,


La gerbe de mes désirs morts. - O noirs corbeaux,

Parmi le ciel flétri promenant vos ténèbres,

Autour de ma pensée, errez, troupes funèbres!



The sheaf


I resemble a birch bedraggled in the rain,

A dried-out, arid ash down by a distant shore

That’s draped in shrouds of soot by fog that forms a skein;

My soul has the green tinge as found on graves of yore.


I am the shipwrecked sailor clinging to the raft

That’s tossed both high and low by waves’ unending surge;

Life’s leaden toil has caused my heart to lose its urge,

Like some poor galley-slave, beburdened fore and aft,


Succumbs and then revolts at life’s unending grey.

And here I sit, a ghost that on a grave one spies,

Grasping in tight-clenched hand a final rose bouquet,


The sheaf of my extinct desires. – Oh crows of black,

Parading round my thoughts among these pallid skies

Your shadows dark and long, begone, you mournful pack!


ZKV 99




After translating a short prose piece by the Dutch weekly author of ZKVs, A.L. Snijders (a pseudonym), about a man who comes with wood and with whom the author engages in conversion that even includes a discussion of writers of great poetry but with highly unacceptable fascist views, I come across a poem by Lars Gustafsson with which I am unfamiliar. Its title is ‘Svenska Vitterheten’. Odd word, ‘vitterhet’. I look it up in dictionaries of the Swedish Academy – the closest is the French belles-lettres. But Gustafsson’s title is that of a book by Lorenzo Hammarskjöld dating from 1818-19, the intriguing accepted translation of which is ‘A History of Polite Letters in Sweden’.

The poem seems like a collection of tiny fragments, brief images. I translate:


Svenska Vitterheten


Ett randfolks dova sånger,

is under björkarna,

brunt gräs som vinden tar,

gammal grep som händer slipat


och i skuggan av det stora trädet

fjädrar av en duva höken slog.



A History of Polite Letters in Sweden


Borderlanders’ muffled songs

ice under the birch trees,

brown grass the wind catches,

an old hand-smoothed digging fork


and in the shadow of the large tree

feathers from a hawk-downed dove.


The last two lines are troublesome. They almost form a haiku. And the last line, which I translate first as ‘feathers from a dove the hawk has downed’ doesn’t feel right. Although the rhythm stays close to the Swedish. So I change it, after several attempts, to ‘feathers from a hawk-downed dove’. 

And now it sounds completely right to me. And I don’t know why. There is this Da-da-da-da-Dum-Dum-Dum at the back of my mind. I can’t place it. It keeps on insistently recurring as the day passes.

Just before I go to bed I think of Snijders and his mention of Ezra Pound in his short story. Ezra bloody Pound! His famous two-liner:


In a Station of the Metro


The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.


During the poetry translation process the mind sometimes floats free, in neutral. Da-da-da-da-Dum-Dum-Dum – indelible traces.


Sunday 27 December 2020

Lars Gustafsson: 'Svenska Vitterheten'


Svenska Vitterheten


Ett randfolks dova sånger,

is under björkarna,

brunt gräs som vinden tar,

gammal grep som händer slipat


och i skuggan av det stora trädet

fjädrar av en duva höken slog.



A History of Polite Letters in Sweden


Borderlanders’ muffled songs

ice under the birch trees,

brown grass the wind catches,

an old hand-smoothed digging fork


and in the shadow of the large tree

feathers from a hawk-downed dove.




ALS: 'Hout'



For fifty years I’ve collected wood for the stove that stands like a telephone box in the room – I’m amazed at this, in retrospect. For the first time I’ve now bought some wood. It includes some exotic pieces of firewood that are invincible – even the heaviest axe has trouble with them. The seller who came with the wood was born in Clermont-Ferrand. He had also dealt in wood there. I told him that in 1968 my car had broken down not far from Clermont. While I was being taken by taxi to the Volkswagen garage in the industrial area, I chatted with a driver who drove very fast. I was sitting next to him and looking tensely at the traffic. He drove twenty centimetres behind the car in front and had the habit of turning his face towards me when he spoke to me. Twice he had to slam on the brakes with full force, which was predictable, for the driver in front was a little old woman, and according to him they were the cause of all traffic trouble. He asked me it she should give her a quick ‘tap’, but I strongly advised him not to. I had to stay some more days in Clermont and so rode on the regular bus from time to time. On one occasion I sat next to an attractive, ordinary young woman who was phoning her lover. She didn’t keep her voice down and regularly said: ‘Je t’embrasse partout.’ (I kiss you everywhere.) Afterwards I checked the verb ‘embrasser’, just to make sure: kiss, cuddle, snuggle, carress, fondle, embrace, clasp. I thought about saying to her that the word ‘partout’ in this connection was misplaced in public transport, but my knowledge of her language and habits was too rudimentary for such an intervention.

The man with the wood asked me if I was a democrat. I answered that I had voted as such throughout my life, even when I found it an embarrassing performance. I asked him if he had ever heard of Ezra Pound. He had, after all he had attended French schools. You learn more there than at Dutch schools. So he knew that Ezra Pound was called the greatest poet of the 20th century. From 1941 to 1945, the man roared out fascist propaganda several times a week on through an Italian radio microphone into the world, black, scabby birds with strong beaks. What can one say about that? I cannot rid myself of my respectable democratic upbringing, at home and at school. I can even laugh at Ezra Pound, his insane fury, but if I have to choose, I would go for democracy.

The man with the wood agreed with me, he would come back if I needed any more.

I 'm not sure how the woman on a public bus in 1968 could phone her lover, but I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation. (JI)

Saturday 26 December 2020

Christine Brahe: 'Wi saais nu i Guds urtebed' (1602)

Wi saais nu i Guds urtebed,

I Guds kiere børns gaarde,

I Guds ager leggis wi hans Sæd.

Huile om vinteren hin haarde:

Naar vaaren kommer oc solen skin,

Opuoxe wi met herlighed fin,

De deilige fruct,

Til deilige fruct oc grøde.



In God’s rich soil our bed is made,

In God’s dear children’s garden,

In God’s field we his seed are laid

To rest when frosts all harden:

When spring comes and the sun does shine.

We’ll grow magnificent and fine,

The wondrous fruit,

To wondrous fruit and harvest.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

J. Bernlef: 'Alfabet op de rug gezien' - introduction

J. Bernlef: Alphabet backwards




The American poet Robert Frost, when asked about the essential nature of poetry, is said to have answered; ’What gets lost in translation’. If Frost is right, then my translation ’Alfabet op de rug gezien’ by Kurt Schwitters (from the German [Alphabet rückwärts]) must be the only one that has not violated the original.


alphabet backwards


z         y         x

w       v         u

ts       r         q

po     n        m

lk       i          h

g        f          e

dc      b        a


What impels somebody to translate poetry? For me the first thing was admiration for the original and curiosity as to how it might possibly look in Dutch, what it would sound like if it was transferred into a specific complex of sounds, rhythms and meanings into another complex of the same ingredients.

According to Frost, during this metamorphosis the specific nature of the original would evaporate. What we are left with would be no more than the dregs of the decanted wine.

My experience is that poetry, which is strongly dependent on sound and rhythm (the poetry most often referred to as ‘lyrical’) is more difficult to translate than poetry in which imagery plays an important part. That is what led me to abandon my attempts to translate the poetry of the Swedish poet Werner Aspenström, because what I was left with in the Dutch was little more than senseless meanings. The specific ‘language-music’ of the original appeared to be incommunicable. The opposite can also be true. An English translation of Paul van Ostaijen’s most famous poem once elicited this comment from an American poet: ‘But just explain to me what is great about that poetry’.

There is, then, poetry that is so firmly anchored in the musical aspects of the language in which it is written that the best thing to do is to steer well clear. Most in most cases solutions can be found that do sufficient justice to the original.


What attitude should the translation adopt to the original? Reams have been written about this. There are translators who swear by the greatest possible degree of literalness. But there are also those who allow themselves considerable freedom and sometimes deviate considerably from the original. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth in this respect since no objective truth exists in such issues. Each poem lays down its own laws.

In his essay on the Greek poet Kavafis, Rudy Kousbroek suggested A pure spectre in a polluted creation: ‘Reading poetry in translation is like caressing with gloves on. It can be quite arousing, what you feel is always the inside of a glove.

The accepted controversies about translating, and more specifically about translating poetry, can be described as being the question of what is to be preferred: to be wearing gloves that imitate the loved skin as perfectly as possible – are then a product of artificial fabrication, but by virtue of this represent an irrevocable barrier to the real skin beneath – or, conversely, gloves of which one only demands that they be as thin as possible, even though that unavoidably produces a dry and clinical feeling.’

It is a successful comparison since it places the emphasis on the sensual qualities of the poetry. There is something to be said for both types of glove. Personally, I tend to go for the kid gloves, perhaps because I do not want to get too much in the way between the reader and the original poet. Rather the shadow of the original caterpillar than the pupated product of the free translation.

When translating strictly rhyming poetry the latter is practically unavoidable. The rhyming possibilities of different languages are so dissimilar that one comes to a point where the translation itself becomes an adaptation. 

Half of the poets translated in this book are American. When I started writing poetry myself, around 1954, the literary climate was quite naturally international. What particularly pleased me about the American poets was the insouciance with which they gave the most dissimilar elements a place within their poetry, their interest in the everyday. There was no clear dividing line in their poetry between art and what one calls reality. That hesitation to prefer art (and thus tradition), the reluctance to arrive at a fixed form underlies all of 20th century American art and can be traced back to a battle against handed-down European culture and for an art of one’s own, rooted in the local contingencies and where the dividing line between art and reality, order and chaos is kept as fluid as possible. ‘Notes jotted down in the midst of action,’ as William Carlos Williams once described it in his poetry.

The translations collected here represent about sixty per cent of all the poems that I have translated. Some of the translations have been omitted , because they no longer pleased me on re-reading them; in other cases, the fascination I had once felt for the original had disappeared. Practically all the translations have undergone alterations.

In organising them, I have based myself on the chronology in which I have ‘discovered’ the poets. For each poet, I have adhered to the order in which the original poems were published.

I would like to thank Jan Kuiper, who gave me the idea of making this anthology for his many useful suggestions when editing the manuscript.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Lars Gustafsson: 'Inskription på en sten'


Inskription på en sten


»Jag förvandlas till sten och min smärta förblir.«

Att översätta. Men till vilket språk? Och hur?


Man ber mig översätta. Det ber om at bli översatt,

som om det inte redan vore skrivet. Finns det andra ord?


Så är ju allting redan skrivet. Och med samma skrift.



Inscription on a stone


‘I turn into stone and my pain remains.’

To translate. But into which language? And how?


I am asked to translate. It is asking to be translated,

as if it were not already written. Do other words exist?


Everything then is already written. And in the same writing.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Rilke: 'Herbsttag'






Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.


Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;

gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,

dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.


Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.

Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben

und wird in den Alleen hin und her

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.




Autumn Day


Lord: it is time. The summer’s run its course.

Upon the sundials now let fall your shadow,

and let the meadows feel the winds’ full force.


Make the last fruits mature upon the vine;

give them the warmth of two more southern days,

force them to consummation and then chase

the final sweetness into heavy wine.


The one now homeless will not build a home.

The one now lonely long will stay that way,

remain awake, read, letter-write all day

and restlessly in avenues will roam

this way and that when caught leaves stir and stray. 



Friday 18 December 2020

Marie Dauguet: 'Je vais vers l'univers que j'aime'



Je vais vers l’univers que j’aime,

Perdant la trace de moi-même,

Hors de mon humaine prison,

Pendant qu’au lointain horizon,

Au bord de la mer alanguie,

Des voiles rougeoyantes fuient.



To my loved universe I’m bound,

Till not a trace of me is found,

By human gaol no more confined,

While on the far horizon’s rind,

Beside the now so languid sea

Are crimson-glowing veils that flee…

Thursday 17 December 2020

Marie Dauguet: 'I remember'

I remember


Au vieux parc attiédi, tout ouaté d’ombre molle,

Nos bonheurs d’autrefois sont revenus pensifs,

Et, pèlerins d’amour, entre les branches d’ifs,

Vont errants dans la brume où leur rêve s’isole.

Vois, le perron disjoint s'effrite en l’herbe folle,

Dont la vague a grimpé vers l’inerte récif,

Et l’on entend tinter aux fentes du massif,

Grelot plaintif, la voix des crapauds qui trémole.

Tout se meurt en musique où nul son n’est précis,

En reflets estompés par le temps obscurcis.

Mais, pèlerins vêtus de brume floconneuse,

Se baisant quand oscille autour d’eux le passé,

Qui plonge dans la nuit d’une aile membraneuse,

Nos bonheurs, seuls vivants, se dressent enlacés.

I remember


To the old park, half-warm, by muted shadows blurred,

Our past shared joys have now returned with pensive air,

And roam, love’s pilgrims, midst the yews’ dark branches there

In the thick mist in which their dream is self-interred.

Look, the disjointed steps crumble to grass run riot,

The wave of which has climbed towards the lifeless reef,

And tolling can be heard in cracks in the massif,

A plaintive bell, the toads whose warbling will not quiet.

All merges into music where no sound’s precise,

And vague reflections time has rendered unconcise.

But, pilgrims clad in mist as if in padded white –

Embracing when the past swirls round them in great haste

And dives on wing of gossamer into the night – 

Our shared joys, sole survivors, rise up interlaced.


Tuesday 15 December 2020

Marie Dauguet: 'Quand je mourrai!'

 Quand je mourrai!

 Je voudrais pour linceul, non la toile aux plis raides,

Non point le lin blanchi parmi l’herbe des prés,

Mais un tissu plus doux aux doigts que du sang tiède,

Un lambeau d'un couchant pourpré.


Je voudrais me mêler à l’océan des seigles

Qui réfléchit le ciel en son déferlement;

Aux palpitations des sainfoins qu’un vent frêle,

En juin, berce languissamment;


Devenir l'or des blés fauchés qu’on enjavèle,

Le chaume ensoleillé où des moissonneurs las

Dressent les lourds gerbiers dont la cime étincelle

Et qu’entoure une ombre lilas.


Je voudrais, quand la lune en manteau d’améthyste

Vers le gouffre des puits se penche, m’écouler

Et sangloter unie aux plaintes de l’eau triste,

S’égouttant des joints descellés.


Je voudrais que mon âme errante s’évapore

Comme un parfum flottant de lavande et de buis,

Confondue au sourire éclatant de l’aurore,

Aux larmes que verse la nuit.



When I die!


I wish to have as shroud not cloth stiff in each fold,

And certainly not linen bleached on meadow’s baize,

But tissue softer than warm blood my fingers hold,

A scrap of crimson sunset rays.


I wish to fuse and meld with ryefields’ mighty seas

Which mirror all the sky in surging disarray;

With sainfoin’s palpitations which a faint June breeze

So languidly can cause to sway;


Become the gold of cornfields harvested in sheaves,

The stubble bathed in sunlight where now weary hands

Raise heavy ricks with tops that glint around the eaves

And fringed with shade in lilac bands.


I wish, when late at night the amethyst-cloaked moon

Leans down towards the pit of wells, to stream away

And sob, with water’s sad complaints in perfect tune,

My loosened joints dissolved in spray.


I wish my roaming soul would then evaporate

Like floating lavender and boxwood perfume spread,

Commingled with the brilliant smile of dawn in spate

And with the tears that night has shed.