Translation Challenge Proposal

As poets, we all depend on dynamic interaction with our forebears and peers and this often necessitates crossing boundaries arbitrarily established by language and time.

By way of an experiment, I would like to invite my fellow poetry bloggers to submit translations of pre-existing poems into modern English. These may be translations from languages other than English or versions of older English poems transposed into a more contemporary language, form or style.

The ‘translations’ may be literal, free or experimental, or even pieces that rework or enter into dialogue with contemporary poems, artworks, films or songs. There are no real rules. Essays or comments on the art of creative translation are also most welcome. Submissions can be linked to in the comments section of this post.

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Sunday Evening

This poem, originally written in 2000, is submitted in response to this week’s Poetry Rehab prompt http://andytownend.com/2016/01/25/poetry-101-rehab-evening/

 

Sunday Evening

Vast congregations

of rooks

loop in the dusk

and settle

on electricity

cables; agitated

by approaching sleep.

 

The sky is pink and yellow.

Rays slant

through gaps in clouds,

as if angels

would tumble

readily out of them still

onto our manicured

& post-industrial land.

If we wished

or willed.

 

The church bells

have already rung

emptily for the few

who fill them

& the fewer who care.

We drive home,

for tea and TV.

 

I watch a kids’ cartoon

about the original sin,

as my poached egg

slithers out

onto toasted bread

& oozes yolk.

 

And I cannot tell

why I see in it

all the ugliness

of the strange fruit

Adam ate,

as I will.

Honey and Bile: the rhetoric of Sarah Palin

[I haven´t posted anything on politics for some time. This is the first half of an observational two-part piece on the language of the populist right in the US.]

I must admit that I have a soft spot for Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and their new-fangled style of politics. Although I despise their right-wing agenda, I wish there were something equally feisty coming from the left.

Sarah’s recent speech endorsing Trump received so much flak in the press she would regard as prissy, hostile and ‘liberal’ that I felt sorry for her. Although I lean myself towards the far left, I found her speech quite touching and stirringly poetic. I call her Sarah, since we share almost exactly the same birth date and feel a sort of sibling fondness for her in this complicated global age.

Sarah has honed vulgarity and playing the victim to a high art. I wish I could etch my pain on the airwaves as effortlessly as she does. Macho poets in the past have been feted for far less.

Sarah is the Whitney Houston of political oratory: every choice of word, every clumsy yet somehow poetic turn of phrase and sharp change of key screeches out an inner pain born of pleasure that we all know all too well.

But what tends most to edge me into Sarah’s camp is the particularly annoying and supercilious way in which ‘liberal’ critics berate her on account of her grammar, rather than bothering to pick through the mixture of honey and bile that the semantics of her rhetoric actually represents.

No politicians nowadays deliver fully grammatical sentences in the keynote speeches they read off of their autocues. The difference lies not in the grammaticality of the discourse but in the passion. Hillary Clinton reels off bullet points from a pre-prepared and much pored over semi-automatic PowerPoint presentation. Sarah shoots from the hip.

There is much talk these days among pundits of the power of authenticity. But, if this is supposed to mean genuinely reflecting real people in the real world, a truly authentic politician would be fumbling and incompetent, as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is—a strategy that may yet serve him better than pundits predict.

Trump and Palin are not authentic, but manage, through their rhetoric, to produce a far more convincing illusion of authenticity than anyone on the left. They are better rhetoricians and it is futile, infantile and desperate for critics on the left to hold them to account for bad grammar. This only reinforces the rhetorical illusion of their self-proclaimed authenticity.

They have tapped into a deeply-felt mal du siècle that merely sanctimonious politicians on the left have either failed to note or lack the rhetorical skills and emotional intelligence to express.

Rhetoric has never been about fine words, well-constructed sentences and logical arguments. It has never been grammatically or politically correct. Anyone who has struggled through the long Latin sentences of Cicero will have noted that they are as sprawling and emotive as Sarah Palin’s. Cicero throws around case endings and odd appositions the same way Palin employs interjections and anacolutha. These may well even have had a folksy feel at the time. Cicero, after all, was himself deeply conservative, opposed to big government and hand-outs to the poor and a stern defender of the entitlements of the traditional élites.

Furthermore, as anyone who has studied Greek and Roman rhetoric in any depth will know, these ancient orators were never averse to posing orphaned babies on their arm, presenting libelous ad hominem arguments and relying on torture as proof of the veracity of evidence.

Politics apart, Palin and Trump are accomplished masters of rhetoric, while Clinton and Sanders alike are clearly not. It is stupid and self-defeating for critics on the left to argue otherwise.

I would love to see Clinton or Sanders getting ‘down and dirty’ with the rhetoric of their Republican opponents. Someone needs to throw the b-word at Sarah Palin now and then. I am sure she is tough enough to take it. It would be much more effective and true to facts than calling her dumb. After all, Sarah herself is on record as proclaiming that the only ornament distinguishing her from a vicious attack dog is lipstick.

Genre Shift in Film and TV

This is my first tentative foray into film and TV criticism. Any feedback is as always welcome.

[Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet seen Season 2 of The Leftovers the second half of this post may impair your appreciation of the show.]

As many have noted, TV series these days are morphing from mindless entertainment into high art, while movies have become either serialized shallow spectacles designed to sell popcorn and toys or dewy-eyed nostalgia pieces that pander to the tastes of the ageing academicians who hand out awards. A great genre-shift is underway.

Movies have always struggled to aspire to the breadth and depth of the novels or epics that preceded them. Nor can they achieve the condensed brevity of a painting or poem. They were never substantial enough for the former and the economics of the box-office has largely dictated their length, content and form and ruled out brevity, experimentalism or pith.

A director as wily as Alfred Hitchcock or as brash as Orson Welles could always find a way round these restrictions. But they suffered terribly for their art. Auteurs who enjoyed either lavish government grants in non-English-speaking countries or the stamp of approval of the Academy in north America have produced worthy but ultimately stodgy work. I would make some exception to this rule for UK-based and –oriented directors, such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who have produced uncommercial but touching and important movies without hefty government support or approval from the powers that be. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and some of the work of Spike Lee also merit an exceptional note.

*

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when genuine artistic aspirations pivoted from cinema to TV. But a key figure in this movement must be David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks TV series in the early 1990s was one of the first to be directed by a Hollywood director and star actors who had also appeared on the big screen. Almost all high-art TV series of recent years throw a nod of respect or approving echo in the direction of David Lynch, even if they do not directly imitate his peculiar surreal style.

The development of the TV series as art in many ways shadows that of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. The novel, as an emerging art form, started out episodic or epistolary in nature, and slowly developed its narrative thrust and verve, depth, popular appeal and economic viability, through serialization in newspapers and periodicals. Techniques such as cliffhangers and mysteries were devised to keep readers glued to the page and, of course, keep up subscriptions. These were often the most widely read pages of a newspaper at a time when journalism was far less sensationalist than it is today.

Changing habits and technology, then as now, also played a big part. The printing press and the locomotive enabled newspapers to be delivered around the country at more or less the same time. Higher rates of literacy, increased social mobility, and a growing focus on the home rather than street, stage, or stadium, as the more respectable setting for entertainment, all fuelled the novel’s rise.

Likewise, the emergence of the TV series as high art in recent years has been spurred by box-sets, Internet access, binge-watching and an even greater focus on the home. It is no accident that the TV channel that purveys the most groundbreaking work in this genre is called Home Box Office.

HBO is exactly what its name says it is. It is a movie screen beamed into your home, for which you have to pay. Different from public broadcast or commercial TV, it is restricted neither by the diktats of governments nor by the fussy flightiness of the admen who drive the free market. There are no adverts on HBO, no government interference, and, because the shows are beamed directly out to householders, who can opt in or out of the service as they please, it is not subject to the same censorial restrictions as movie theaters. The only factor determining the survival of shows on HBO is the quality and appeal of the work itself. No wonder it has become a magnet for more serious-minded directors, screenwriters and actors.

Last year, HBO, in my opinion, scaled a new peak with the screening of Season 2 of The Leftovers. I had watched the first season of this series in 2014 and found it intriguing and well-executed, but a little too scrappily put together and gratuitously grim for my liking. I preferred True Detective, which was equally grim, but beautifully tight, and was looking forward more in 2015 to the second season of this series.

True Detective Season 2 turned out to be a disappointment to all but its most ardent aficionados. The idea of creating a similar feel with completely different characters, setting and plot, while initially enticing, turned out to be impossible to achieve. True Detective Season 2 had some stunning visuals and moments—not least the horrifyingly drawn-out shoot-out scene in Episode 5, which took this traditional topos of US visual media to a whole new level and led us to reflect a little more on issues regarding police and guns. Overall, however, the second season of True Detective tended only to drag and bore. Watching the over-lengthy season finale awaiting some final redemption was more chore than joy.

Season 2 of The Leftovers, however, is a work of art on a whole other scale. The tone and style diverged sharply from that of the first season, despite the fact that it is centered around mostly the same characters and the same implausible rationale. The setting, like True Detective, also changed, but, in this case to somewhere lighter and brighter, almost impossibly magical and redeeming, giving viewers who had previously invested a degree of vicarious emotional attachment in the various characters an albeit ominous sense of hope. Likeable new protagonists were seamlessly introduced.

Season 2 of the Leftovers works as a symphonic whole. While it preserves some of the episodic features of the previous season, it sews them together into a truly intriguing narrative, lubricated rather than stilted by experimental editing and aided by heroically understated acting, an exquisitely carefully chosen soundtrack with a score by post-minimalist composer Max Richter, and a cinematography that veers in seconds from luscious to ironic, to painfully intimate, to expressionistic, all set in a bizarre but believable, imaginary but mundane world. Episodes 1 and 2 present exactly the same sequence of events in the same time-frame from the diverging points of view of two neighboring families.

Season 2 of The Leftovers also sensitively addresses very contemporary issues. It is about radicalization and extremism, fear and hope, grief and alienation, and the evil web these can weave around every one of us. It is one of the few dramas I have seen that takes religious belief seriously—deeply seriously—without either mocking or sentimentalizing it and yet is firmly set, albeit questioningly, against the backdrop of a typical North American sentimentality and religiosity that it neither condones nor condemns.

I loved Twin Peaks, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the first season of True Detective, but this is something different. There is a transcendence to this work that seeps even into its tiniest details. There is a scene in the last episode of the season, where a father, whose daughter is missing, is drinking out of a mug early in the morning. “There’s no coffee in the pot. What are you drinking?” his wife says. She snatches the drink from him and sniffs it audibly off-screen, while the camera remains fixed on the father’s sad face. Nothing more is made of this.

In a long scene in the same episode, the mother (who is hearing-impaired) remonstrates violently with her daughter (who refuses to speak) at a point where she appears to be about to ‘martyr’ herself as a suicide bomber. The scene is screened in total silence, as if numbed by the unbearable horror, but also realistically, since the mother is presumably without her hearing-aid.

The character of the daughter, Evie, who literally overarches this season, appearing only in the first and last two episodes, is, to my mind, the Sprecher of the piece. The ineffable, unimaginable, intolerable essence of the Jihadi bride. At one point, her father begs a policeman, to explain the reasons for his otherwise impeccably dutiful daughter’s changed behavior. He replies simply, “I don’t know.”

A particularly tear-jerking scene occurs in the last episode, in which Nora’s adopted baby is torn from her arms by a crazy woman and apparently trampled underfoot by a mob rushing towards a promised land. A scene clearly designed to touch hearts and challenge minds in this age of refugees.

It is perhaps significant that The Leftovers is broadcast—at least here in Brazil—late on Sunday evenings at a time when people are returning home from church. HBO, for all its nudity and swearing and experimentalism, is providing a pulpit for sermons that are not often heard and issues that are rarely aired.

Young Carrots

This is the first poem I ever penned in the adult phase of my life, back in 1989. It is a slight and very tentative prose-poem, heavily influenced by the French prose-poets and psycho-analytical thinkers I was obsessed with at the time. It has nevertheless served as a sort of germ or program for the many very different poems I have written since. It is about roots, in both the literal and symbolic sense of the word, but also, in itself, constitutes a tap root from which many other filaments and rhizomes have subsequently grown. I submit it in response to this week’s ever-inspiring Poetry Rehab prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/904442073 Other examples of my earlier poetry can be accessed at http://featuredpages.homestead.com/PaulWebbPortfolioonep.html.

Young Carrots

These roots, when torn out into contact with the light, appear at once miraculously amber and pitifully dirty. Miraculous because they amount to an unforeseen treasure; pitiful because they can never be put back where they came from.

 

The River Biss

This dark poem, submitted in response to this week’s Poetry Rehab prompt, Place, https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/900236150 , is about the river that runs through the small town in which I was born. It is set in the aspic of my dimming memories of a small English community blighted by industrial decay in the early 1980s, and may be somewhat lacking in geographical accuracy, but could easily still apply, sadly, to any such post-industrial town anywhere in the world today.

 

The River Biss

 

They call it Biss.

As if there were some joke in there

about never being able to step into it twice

or the L having long since fallen out.

Paradise lost.

*

Biss runs between concrete banks

along a concrete bed

around the Gateway Supermarket,

a car park, and the old cotton mill

no-one has bothered to pull down.

*

And you can

follow it along the concrete riverwalk

interspersed with newly planted trees

up or down stream.

*

Down to the run-down factory and the park

to ply the ducks with crumbs

or steer a toy boat about

with a remote control on the stagnant pond

or pay respect to the bird-crap wreathed

copper monument to the war dead,

worn greenish blue by acid rain,

*

Or upstream to the railway station

to catch your train out of town,

to the tune of pigs led to slaughter

and the smell of pork pies

wafting from the butcher’s shop nearby.

*

Biss runs through the blood

& it’s no wonder a punk girl now & then

harms herself with a razor-blade

to let the poison out.

It’s no wonder the streets are littered

with bodies, heads in plastic bags,

amidst discarded tubes of glue.

*

Attachment

needs a super-strong adhesive these days,

and lies only a spot of shoplifting,

a shady DIY shop counter,

or a dealer’s cool leather jacket pocket

away…

*

A church squashed between shops

is clogged with zonked out punks.

Cripples hobble hopeless and homeless

through pedestrianized zones.

*

‘There we all go,’ we think,

‘but for God’s grace, perhaps,

or a giro from the DWP.’

 

Hymn to the Moon

This poem submitted in response to this week’s Stellar and Lunar challenge https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/4582321/898579511 forms a companion piece to the one I published yesterday in response to this week’s Poetry Rehab prompt. It is another short section from the free ‘translation’ of Catullus Poem 64 that I have been working on for over twenty years now, written in the voice of the same modernized mythological character.

 

Ariadne’s Hymn to the Moon

No rockets had yet touched you, Moon,

as feet formed in mother’s womb,

on bonfire night, and delivered their first kick,

as they watched

the JFK assassination unravel on TV.

 

There are no mermaids in space;

no seas on the moon;

no-one to sing, listen or see;

no sounds carried by winds; or tides

to bring driftwood and debris up the beach

and wash it back away to sea.

 

The dust kicked up by astronauts’ boots

was the first action the old girl has seen in a long time.

She has grown pock-marked with age,

and never sees the rocks that batter her

coming over time.

 

There is no welcome-home party…

No candles blown out on a cake,

no happy returns. She

has circled barrenly around us

for so long, stirring life.

 

No thanks can repay

the hits she has taken for us,

or the stolid fact of her always being there,

edging, egging us towards life

with her skull in the sky…

 

Ode to Thread

This is a short section from a long very free ‘translation’ of Catullus Poem 64 that I have been working on for over twenty years now. The project has many themes and threads, but circles around the idea that the mythological male founders of both Athens and Rome owed their achievements to the love and assistance of ‘foreign’ women whom they would both eventually spurn. The project contains some stand-alone sections, such as this one, written, tentatively in the voice of these forgotten women. I am aware, as Andy Townend points out in the Poetry Rehab prompt that inspired this post https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/896768804 that, as a male poet, I am, in so doing, skating on very thin ice.

 

Ariadne’s Ode to Thread

I am not the path.

I am not the guide.

I’m not patient & not

the pattern of your life.

My foot taps to a speedier beat.

*

I am the Singer who plies

her Siren song in subtler thread.

*

I am not the cotton;

I am not the cut cloth.

I am neither sorceress

nor slave.

*

I am not your mother;

I am not your lover;

I am not the wicked witch.

*

I am a grown child

coming out of a maze;

nudging you.

*

I am not the doctor.

I am not the nurse.

I am not the disease.

*

I am the stitchwork

stretching out behind,

before and beyond you,

& the moment in which you pause.

I am time itself.

*

I am the entrance and the exit:

your first step, your way out.

 

The Genuine Article

As readers of my previous linguistics posts will have noted, I am a great believer in the potential of statistical and computational linguistics. Such valuable data, however, need to be treated carefully and set in an appropriately designed and historically-sensitive theoretical and explanatory context.

Many languages do not have articles, although most of these do have some kind of emphatic particle or demonstrative pronoun that can, if need be, serve this role. Even within the Indo-European family of languages, there is much variation—Latin and Sanskrit have none, Ancient Greek one, neo-Latin and neo-Germanic languages a full range of three. Russian has none.

In the longer-term history of modern Western European languages, therefore, it would be reasonable to suppose that there has been a general trend towards greater use of articles, spurred, presumably, at least in part, by a greater interest in distinguishing between degrees of definiteness.

This, however, begs a crucial question. What do we mean by ‘definiteness?’ How do we ‘define definiteness,’ in a multilingual context in which we must admit that many languages lack the means to express it? The more we examine it, the concept of definiteness becomes ever more slippery, ambiguous and hard to define.

So-called definite and indefinite articles perform a wide range of functions in present-day English and these can certainly not be exhaustively described using a theory based on a binary distinction between definiteness and its opposite.

It is also important to note the existence of a ‘zero article’ in English, meaning that the distinction is non-binary—a choice always being available between at least three options. Zero-articles (like other zero-elements in linguistics) are harder to track statistically or computationally, although they clearly bear much semantic weight.

If, as various recent studies have suggested, the use of the definite article ‘the’ in English has been on the decline in the more recent history of the language, we must entertain the possibility that this loss may have flowed equally in the direction of the ‘indefinite’ and the ‘zero’ article or elsewhere.

It is therefore worthwhile not only counting words, but also examining how they are used in particular historical contexts and what the use of an alternative phraseology might entail in semantic and hence ideological terms.

I take as my starting point two texts that were recently juxtaposed in the Guardian newspaper as exemplifying this supposed trend towards decreasing use of the definite article. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/15/definite-article-radical-decline-last-century-research The first comes from the opening to George Washington’s State of the Union address in 1790, the second from that of Barack Obama in 2014.

Here first is the George Washington text. To provide a more comprehensive count, I have flagged zero articles as [0] and highlighted articles and other relevant words.

“I embrace with [0] great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs. The recent accession of the important state of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States … the rising credit and [0] respectability of our country, the general and [0] increasing good will toward the government of the Union, and the concord, [0] peace, and [0] plenty with which we are blessed are [0] circumstances auspicious in an eminent degree to our national prosperity.” George Washington 1790

The count here, including the zero article is:

Zero = 6

Definite = 11

Indefinite = 1

The Obama text runs as follows:

“Today in America, a teacher spent [0] extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off [0] foreign oil.” Barack Obama 2014.

The count is:

Zero = 2

Definite = 5

Indefinite = 4

However, this fails to take into account the use of genitives in apostrophe s and possessive pronouns, which serve as proxy definite articles in English, making the use of the definite article marker redundant.

Washington’s text includes three possessive pronouns, all of them, interestingly, second person plural, and no apostrophe s’s, bringing the definite article count up to 14. Obama’s text contains six possessive pronouns and one apostrophe s, bringing his definite article count up to 12. We could add to this the fact that Obama prefers to use the less formal and technically inaccurate ‘America’ rather than ‘the United States.’ Since non-descriptive proper names count as proxies for definiteness in modern English, these too should arguably be included in the tally of definite articles or their proxies. This lifts Obama’s definite article or proxies count to 14, equaling that of George Washington.

The shift therefore is not so much from one kind of article to another, but one involving the increasing use of genitives, possessive pronouns and proper names. Neither does this indicate a decline in either definiteness or formality (the contours of which shift randomly over time and tend to even out), but rather a growing concern with individuality and specificity.

The more interesting and perhaps statistically significant change, may, if we count the articles the way I propose, lie in the use of the indefinite article. Washington uses it once and in a peculiarly old-fashioned sounding manner that has a distinctly definite flavor to it. Obama uses it four times, on each occasion both to generalize and to suggest the picking out of a specific individual (i.e. to combine definite and indefinite). All instances are picked up by subsequent personal pronouns.

This should, of course, also be viewed in the context of the pragmatic performative setting within which a state of the union address occurs. An important part of the ritual, in the modern era, has been to invite members of the general public, who are deemed especially worthy and exemplify key points the president wishes to make, to act as rhetorical props. The president refers to them first as ‘a nurse’ or ‘a firefighter’ or ‘a veteran’ and then by their proper name, as the TV camera pans onto them and they stand up to take a bow.

There is a lot going on here ideologically and it crosses party lines. Individuals are seen first, as if from an aerial distance, as an instance of a particular group, until focused on by the media spotlight, whereupon they are addressed by their proper name and blandished with a series of possessive pronouns. Tellingly, however, individuals who are deemed truly important retain their definite article, ‘the president’, ‘the junior senator from Texas’ etc. Describing Ted Cruz as ‘a senator’ and making him stand up in a crowd would be peculiarly demeaning.

More old-fashioned political discourse tended to focus on groups rather than individuals and on an individual’s status, role and duties as a representative of a group. In times gone by, politicians would be more likely to point rhetorically to ‘the farmer’ as a generic category than pick out an individual farmer as representative of the whole.

Whether this change is a sign of progress or decline is more difficult to tell. In a way, it is just a way of perpetuating injustices by dolling them up in more appealing garb. Calling someone ‘a something’ is like giving them a uniform. It might give them a temporary buzz of self-importance and boost their short-term self-esteem; but after long periods of drilling and bullying and being treated as dispensable, they might come to yearn to be regarded not as ‘a’ something but as ‘the’ individual they truly are. The apparently endearing pat-on-the-back of an “a” tends to tilt towards “just a” and there is nothing just about that. The apparently stuffier and more supercilious language of the founding fathers understood that.

For more on this subject, see:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16938

https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/our-words-of-the-year/