Poetry translation

What can would-be poets do while waiting for inspiration to keep from getting rusty?

One tactic is translation. To translate properly entails getting to grips with the fine grain of language as well as tapping into creativity to capture the actual rather than the literal meaning of words and idioms. This exercises the poet’s imagination and ability to shape words into her or his own meaning.

Translation may seem easy, especially if you understand two or more languages well. It is harder than it looks, and some may argue that completely accurate translation is almost impossible. The problem is navigating between being clumsily literal and creatively taking over the poem. Too free a translation starts to look like a new poem that is simply inspired by the original. The result of translation can be envisaged as a sliding scale.Translation sliding scale.png

You may think that poets themselves can be trusted with translation, but this is not always so. Take the examples below, of a Cavafy poem, An Old Man, from the official Cavafy website. The first is a straightforward translation by two translators, the second is a translation by the poet himself. Note that Cavafy for some reason uses the word “print” where “paper” is more natural. Note too that the first example is more compact and seems to flow better. Also note that where the translators have translated the original Greek as “impulses bridled” Cavafy chooses the words “lusts curbed”, which I prefer as being less polite, but I cannot decide which is more correct because I can’t read the poem in its original Greek.

An Old Man (First version, by two translators)

At the noisy end of the café, head bent

over the table, an old man sits alone,

a newspaper in front of him.


And in the miserable banality of old age

he thinks how little he enjoyed the years

when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.


He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.

Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.

So brief an interval, so very brief.


And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,

how he always believed—what madness—

that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”


He remembers impulses bridled, the joy

he sacrificed. Every chance he lost

now mocks his senseless caution.


But so much thinking, so much remembering

makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,

his head resting on the café table. 

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)


An Old Man (Cavafy’s own translation)

Here in the noisy café, in the inner part of its

unrest, an old man, bending over a table, sits,

with the day’s print before him, and companionless.


And in the misery of old age, — with its deep void

around him, he reflects how little he enjoyed

the years when he had strength, and speech, and comeliness.


He is aware of his great age: the days are gray

and cheerless. Still it seems as though it were yesterday

that he was young. So fast have gone the years, so fast.


And he considers how he used to be deceived

by Prudence: how, alack! she lied and he believed

her lie: “Tomorrow. Ample time ere time be past.”


He thinks of lusts curbed, and of joys that he denied

himself. All the lost opportunities now deride

his witless wisdom …. But the old man cannot keep


his thoughts together; they disquiet and bedim

his brain; these memories ever vex and weary him:

and at the table where he sits he falls asleep. 

Translated by John Cavafy

(Poems by C. P. Cavafy. Translated, from the Greek, by J. C. Cavafy. Ikaros, 2003)

I mentioned that completely accurate translation is almost impossible. This is true even when the translation is close, as in Diep Rivier, by the Afrikaans poet Eugene Marais.

The first two lines translate so well into English, as does most of the poem, that the rhyme is preserved without much contortion of language, though the metre is not.

O diep rivier, o donker stroom

Hoe lank het ek gewag, how lank gedroom

could be translated as:

O deep river, o dark stream

How long did I wait, how long did I dream

The translation is close, but not exactly the same.

When I encounter a fine translated poem, I strive where possible to read the original, provided it is in Latin or one of the Romance languages I have some little knowledge of, to check how accurate is appears to be.

Where my knowledge of the language is limited or non-existent I rely entirely on the translator, underlining the responsibility translators have to produce work that reflects the original as closely as possible.











Two poetry readings, one country

The David Krut bookstore on Jan Smuts is an intimate setting, and the venue was full to overflowing when I attended on Saturday afternoon September 30 one of the bookstore’s Word Art at 151 events.

This was the launch of Phillipa Yaa de Villiers’ volume “ice cream headache in my bone”.

Keorapetse Kgositsile, Myesha Jenkins and other poets that had inspired Philippa had come at her invitation to read their poems. To quote her Facebook page, the event featured “the poems that made me want to write: (Red Song Keorapetse Kgositsile), the poems that hold my hand and remind me to fight (Memorial Myesha Jenkins) the poems that keep me company on dark and lonely nights (Heritage Day and Inside these Walls by Sarah Godsell and Vangi Gantsho), the poems that remind me of the wealth of life (My Grandmother’s Hymn by Mthunzikazi Mbungwana).

I had never heard either Kgositsile or Jenkins or any of the other, young, poets mentioned read before, and I was impressed, as I was too by some of the verse of the other poets, but I had come specifically to hear Philippa because I had (and still have) her book to review. I made no notes, and this is unfortunate, not least because she is eloquent on the subject of verse.

At the second event, Verse/Vers, the venue wasn’t quite as full, which is a pity. Featured was a tribute to Uys Krige, with poems read in Spanish and Portuguese by Jose Domingos, and French, Afrikaans and English, by actor Grethe Fox. Grethe also conducted, as it were the readings and guitar accompaniment, and ensured the whole thing went off smoothly. After this, three Afrikaans poets read their own work, with Grethe again performing the English translations.

A striking difference between the two events was that in the Yaa de Villiers Word Art event, most of the poetry was in English, whether the poets were mother-tongue speakers of an indigenous language or not. The choice of English for poetry, a language encrusted with the spoils of conquest, still squeezing out small languages, and itself threatened with deracination by its role as international medium of communication, intrigues me. Granted, writers such as Nabokov and Conrad both used English to good effect, and Nabokov’s use of language is poetic in a sense. But I know of no major poet who has not chosen the intimacy of the mother-tongue, though writers of an earlier time like Milton did write some poems in Latin, the literary and academic language for hundreds of years.

Perhaps English is like Latin, destined to undergo radical geographic change that renders the English we now speak archaic. Anyway, it our great privilege in this modern, globalised era to be exposed to literature in foreign languages, translated or understood through formal teaching. For me, closer to home, discovering Afrikaans poetry was both daunting, because I am not fluent and have to fight sometimes to understand fully, and a revelation of the energy, fluidity and creativity a young language grants its users.

Such creativity was displayed by the four poets who read, Johan Myburg, De Waal Venter, Rene´ Bohnen, and Corne´ Coetzee.

During her reading, Corne´ Coetzee was overcome by emotion and couldn’t finish reading her own poem on the murder-rape of two young children. This is the first time I have witnessed such emotion: the writing of the poem usually establishes some distance between the poet and the subject matter. Here the poet reprised the feelings about this almost unspeakable event that had led her to write the poem in the first place. And as I write, “Almost unspeakable,” it strikes me that the poet must speak it, that the burden must be borne.

While language differentiated the two events at David Krut, what was common to both is the poets’ modernity and focus on the local. In English or in Afrikaans, South Africa of the here and now gave birth to this verse. In the Afrikaans poetry, South Africa is a place both beautiful and repulsive, urban, gritty, and inescapable. There is no longing for an imagined pastoral past.

For example, here is a small taste of the Afrikaans poetry, from Rene´ Bohnen:

hierdie hoer is my bruid, my blydskap en my babel sy is
‘n roggelrooi gedig op ‘n sebra se lyntjiesrug in haar
innige hande hou sy bosse staalpapawers en haar dye
glinster goud by elke skemer snelwegbrug


this whore is my bride, my blessing and my babel she is
a rattle-red rhyme on zebras’ black and white lines in her
intimate hands she holds posies of steel poppies and her
thighs glisten golden at the freeway crossings


I have received a volume of poems from my friend in Grahamstown, Harry Owen. It’s called The Cull and I am frustrated that I cannot yet read it. I want to devote all my attention to it, and that is my excuse for not having reviewed it. I owe reviews to other poets as well, and the excuse remains the same.

I promise that I have not lost interest in the blog. The problem is, as Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

But then he probably had a trust fund.





New Poetry from Modjaji

Sharing the thrill of chancing on a new poem that immediately and directly strikes home is one of the reasons I started this blog. So it is with a new slim volume of verse by Grahamstown poet Marike Beyers. I opened up the book at random and came across this:


she admired


people who lived

outside of words


the way they were

alive in ways

she could not be


Some of us will recognise the rueful honesty.

I will review the rest of the volume in more depth, probably in the coming week.

Marike’s book is titled “how to open the door”, and is one of three volumes of poetry by Modjaji Books that have been received for review. Watch this space


A little love verse from the Middle Ages

Okay, so I promised to review South African poetry on this site. This is a tangent. I apologize. I fell in love with this verse from the Carmina Burana when I first read it many years ago. The Latin rhymes, the English version doesn’t and is something of a transliteration, though it preserves the meaning well.

Ama me fideliter,

fidem meam nota:

de corde totaliter

et ex mente tota,

sum presentialiter

absens in remota.

Quisquis amat taliter

volvitur in rota.


Love me faithfully,

Mark how I trust you:

with all my heart

and with all my mind.

I am with you

even when I am far away.

Whoever loves as I do

Is turned on the wheel.

(Translation from Liner Notes to EMI Record, William Mann, 1965)

The verse is one of three from the second poem of the three Primo Vere (In Springtime) poems of the Carmina Burana that were set to music by Carl Orff in the 1930s. The 24 poems Orff set to music were written anonymously in the Middle Ages, probably by members of the clergy. The musical treatment is beautiful, so much so that I think that the meaning of the lyrics may be overlooked.

Take this verse, which could be the standard, generic love poem of any age. Except for the last line. The first seven lines speak of ardour. The eighth reveals the obsessiveness of the poet’s love, and the anguish of true passion, which we have come to identify as Romantic love. Passionate love is not gentle, as many singers and poets have observed in the intervening centuries, it has an element of torture. The surprise of the sudden turn in sentiment at the end makes it feel marvelously modern.



A review of Prunings, by Helen Moffett

Prunings by Helen Moffett, Uhlanga Press 2016

Western Cape academic, author, publisher, editor and, yes, poet Helen Moffett has produced one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books of poetry I have come across, symbolic of the innovation of South Africa’s post-1994 wave of women poets.

Don’t be misled by the title, Prunings, as I was initially. This is not a volume about austerity and no such theme ties the poems together. “Pruning” means the editing process, and the prunings are edited-out parts of poems, normally left out but here deliberately retained in the printed volume and indicated by being struck through thus: left out. Leaving out, deleting, cutting back, tends to be viewed as essential to the poetic process. Keats urged poets to “load every rift with ore,” and that means poets have to ditch words, lines, stanzas and whole poems to ensure the final product is sufficiently refined to qualify as poetry, whose essential characteristic in modern verse is condensed meaning without prefatory throat-clearing.

Fittingly, the volume starts with these untitled lines:

[no. It’s a failure.

I keep on in the hope that one day

I’ll figure out how to write this.]

Hence, in Moffett’s “The Blind Woman Touches the Tip of the Elephant’s Trunk” the first lines have been struck through because, presumably, the editor Nick Mulgrew thought them mundane:

I. It is not possible to write about the Taj Mahal.

Instead, this prefatory list:

Mosquitoes and touts buzzing in the pre-dawn queue,

the miasma of a drain somewhere,

the dainty female soldier briskly frisking us.

flagstones still cold,

walkways and lawns and cloisters,

a gate, and then a second arch:

and through it, gathering light,

the sight that buckles the knees.

But doesn’t the poem need those two lines, or some of the information about those two lines, to establish place?

Elsewhere too, it seems to me that the striking out may be necessary, but that the line or poem needs to be refashioned to take that into account. For example, the second line of the following excerpt is left with a single word, “alone” after editing, which now bears a greater weight of meaning than it did before for being so orphaned.

Then I spot the possible predator:

alone, but no less a threat for that

as he plods along the beach.

One human male.

Also, sometimes it seemed to me that the edited poems could have been placed, on pages opposite the versions with struck-through text, so we could read without distraction.

These are minor points, and the literary conceit, in the sense of concept, works to draw the reader in to the thought processes behind the poetic creation as well as the editing process.

The leaving-in of edits has the effect of a conjuror who shows some lesser magic tricks to fool you into thinking this is really how magic is done. For if distillation is one of the elements that defines poetry – and if modern poetry has one rule it is that there are no rules except self-imposed ones – another is authenticity, the discovery by the poet by looking inward of real feelings as opposed to those we put on display for others. This is evident throughout the volume, whether the topic is travel or former lovers – about whom Moffett displays a wicked observational humour. Yet in the poem Missive, other elements of our fragile and evanescent relationships are pinpointed too, and the humour helps mitigate any sentimentality that might arise about the poignancy of remembered sensuality and love. I reproduce the poem in its entirety:


Your hair needs a cut,

though it’s thinning now;

looking down from a balcony and

spotting you unexpectedly,

I see the tender swirl

of scalp emerging at your summit;

and am plunged back onto a bed,

drowning in your hair as it pours down

on either side of my face, your

fingers pushing it away

from my mouth.


Your hair was longer than mine then.

It will never come back.

This, incidentally, is presented without any edits, and could be taken as proof that, as Keats observed, “… if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”.  Other, heavily edited, poems in this volume I found as forceful and freshly imagined.

Not all the poems concern Moffett’s focus on personal relationships, and even those that do often reflect that she inhabits a literary world, as several poems attest, including the amusingly affectionate tribute to the eccentric late Tatamkhulu Afrika, of one our finest poets.

Some of her poems, such as the Taj Mahal poem cited earlier, could be seen as a form of higher journalism, or travel writing, poetry creditable in its own right, as Douglas Livingstone showed, despite this age of public display of the personal. Verse that is more lyrically confessional is not necessarily more effective than verse that captures the poet’s feelings, or rather emotional conceptions, while it appears to focus on external realities. And while some of the poems are deeply private, and testify to grief and loss and joy, a critical consciousness is never far from the surface. Moffett doesn’t just dump feelings on a page. These are carefully crafted, with a high regard for nuance and meaning.

The prunings idea of the volume itself is a gift to young poets, a peephole into the editing process, and since writing verse is a participatory art, it would benefit us all to think hard about the implications of editing, as presented so graphically in Prunings. Interesting for me personally is that Moffett accepted extensive intervention in her poetry by an editor, even though it was not unilateral but by a progress of negotiation: I would baulk at this, preferring to wield my own pruning shears. All we would-be poets should have the humility to be edited by outsiders.

Finally, as much as it is integral, don’t let the literary conceit of Prunings stand in the way of getting to grips with the particular, rich humanity at the heart of Moffet’s poetry, edits or no edits.