(My translation of Cesare Pavese’s poem “The Cats will know”)
The Cats will know (Cesare Pavese)
Again the rain will fall
on your sweet paving stones,
a gentle rain
just like a breath or like a footfall.
Again the breeze, the dawn,
will lightly bloom,
as underneath your step
when you return.
Among the flowers and the windowsills
the cats will know.
There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You shall smile on your own.
The cats will know.
You shall hear ancient words,
worn-out and fruitless words
like the discarded costumes
of the parties left from yesterday.
You too shall gesture.
You shall answer words –
face like springtime,
you too shall gesture.
The cats will know,
face like springtime;
and the light rain,
the hyacinth-coloured dawn,
which shred the heart
of him who has no longer
any hope of you,
are the sad smile
you smile alone.
There will be other days,
and other voices and awakenings.
We’ll suffer in the dawn,
face like springtime.
Translation: Phillip Hill 2018
Listen to the translation here
The cats will know
Ancora cadrà la pioggia
sui tuoi dolci selciati,
una pioggia leggera
come un alito o un passo.
Ancora la brezza e l’alba
come sotto il tuo passo,
quando tu rientrerai.
Tra fiori e davanzali
i gatti lo sapranno.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
ci saranno altre voci.
Sorriderai da sola.
I gatti lo sapranno.
Udrai parole antiche,
parole stanche e vane
come i costumi smessi
delle feste di ieri.
Farai gesti anche tu.
viso di primavera;
farai gesti anche tu.
I gatti lo sapranno,
viso di primavera;
e la pioggia leggera,
l’alba color giacinto,
che dilaniano il cuore
di chi più non ti spera,
sono il triste sorriso
che sorridi da sola.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
altre voci e risvegli.
viso di primavera.
(original read by Domenico Pelini)
I think that the main point in translating this poem is to maintain the feeling of spontaneity. It is desperate but also whimsical. The verses of the poem themselves fall like the light rain of line 3.
In Italian the lines all have a similar length whereas a translation into English makes them much more variable. One could address this by rearranging the English. However, I preferred not to do that since it seems to me that each line has its own identity. In fact I think that one good way of reading this poem would be to pause for a second or two at the end of each line. It is as if each verse is a playing card the poet is turning over ( a few of which have surprising connections) as he sits distraught over a lost love but still appreciating the beautiful little things around him and the humour always in the air (the cats will know).
The most difficult thing to translate in this poem is the expression “viso di primavera” which Pavese uses to address the woman he is in love with. Literally “spring face” or “springtime face”. But in Italian the sound is so much prettier and the words more expressive. “Primavera” (spring) elicits, I think, Botticelli’s painting and this, to my mind, evokes a pale-faced beauty with the purity of spring in her traits and complexion. The English terms are duds by comparison and, I feel, evoke nothing.
The best way I have found to represent the feelings the Italian generates is “face like springtime”.
Many years ago I spent several weeks in the Sahara desert. One part of the trip was a journey from Tamanrasset to the oasis of Djanet. About seven hundred kilometres as I recall. There was no road then, just pistes and only four or five places along the route where one could get water. One of them being an abandoned foreign legion fort where the water was salty.
I was travelling with two Italian friends. By the time we got to Tamanrasset, the vehicle we had started out with was no longer available, so we arranged to be carried by a Libyan truck which was travelling to and past Djanet.
The truck’s cargo was goats and after we had secured our passage, we spent a day watching the driver bargaining prices with a succession of goatherds. I remember various herds of goats scattered around the landscape waiting for their turn to be inspected. As the sun went down, a deal was struck and we all set off.
The goats were loaded on the upper deck of the truck. We (and twenty-odd Mauritanian immigrants) were sat in two rows on a platform on top of the driver’s cabin. I and my two friends were sat in the back row near the edge. This meant that for the whole journey you received an unceasing succession of friendly butts in the back from the goats. If you wanted to hold on to something, you could grip the bars separating you from the goats, but not for too long because being butted on the fingers really hurts. The people in the front row didn’t have anything to hold onto and I remember that every half an hour or so we tugged a gentleman in front of us back up to a safe position, since being rather heavy he used to slip down inch-by-inch towards the front and the road.
It was a very spectacular way of travelling, although we soon decided our driver was mad and began to call him Amin. At one point, he had a race with another truck.
It was not a surprise really when the truck broke down. The crew dug a hole in the ground, drove the truck over it and proceeded, as far as I could see, to disassemble the engine and then re-assemble it. This did not seem to help. Despite what we had read about people always helping each other in the desert, none of the vehicles which came by, stopped to inquire whether we were in trouble. Eventually it was decided that the goatherd would set off on his own on foot with the goats, while we proceeded, very slowly, on three cylinders. So slowly, in fact, that when we got to Fort Gardel, the next watering place, he was already there. Eventually, though, we reached Djanet. The last few miles were spectacular, with sand dunes on the right and basalt and sandstone cliffs on the left.
Reaching an oasis after crossing the desert is a big event. After you have spent days without seeing plants or water, you seem to have reached a haven of luxuries: water, dates, oranges, buildings, trees. We found a hotel which was completely empty. The manager gave us one key, to an entire wing. We had fifteen showers to choose from. Djanet would have been even more spectacular if we hadn’t arrived in the vicinity of a national holiday. They told us that all the aircraft in the country had been requisitioned for the fly-by. It seemed a bit unlikely, but when we went to the market it was obvious that there hadn’t been any deliveries for a long time. I remember an array of stalls displaying nothing at all. The emptiness was interrupted by one or two cans of sardines here and there.
One evening, though, I saw something which looked as if it had been charmed up out of a legend. A little path broke off from the road. It was marked out by a row of lit-up fruit-juice cans. I walked down the path and came to a café. The counter was built from fruit-juice cans too. I almost expected to meet a djinn. I hadn’t drunk fruit juice for weeks.
I walked up to the counter. “Yes?” the man said. “I’d like a fruit juice” I said. He looked at me for a while. He looked at me as if he had been tending a bar whose counter was made of brick and someone had just asked him for squeezed brick juice.
“Mint tea?” he asked. Because that the only thing he had.
The evening slowly dons the changing clothes
a rim of ancient trees holds out for it;
and as you watch, before you two lands separate,
one travelling heavenwards and one which falls;
and leave you fully part of neither one,
not quite so darkly silent as the house,
not quite so surely summoning eternity
as that which every night becomes a soaring glow;
and leave you (to ungraspably unravel)
your life – fraught, huge and ripening- so that,
now confined now comprehending, it is
alternately a stone inside you and a star.
Translation: Phillip Hill 2018
Listen to the translation here
Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewänder,
die ihm ein Rand von alten Bäumen hält;
du schaust: und von dir scheiden sich die Länder,
ein himmelfahrendes und eins, das fällt;
und lassen dich, zu keinem ganz gehörend,
nicht ganz so dunkel wie das Haus, das schweigt,
nicht ganz so sicher Ewiges beschwörend
wie das, was Stern wird jede Nacht und steigt –
und lassen dir (unsäglich zu entwirrn)
dein Leben bang und riesenhaft und reifend,
so daß es, bald begrenzt und bald begreifend,
abwechselnd Stein in dir wird und Gestirn
This poem seems to be made of coiled springs, all in tension until the final word. Rilke uses two words for star: “Stern” and “Gestirn”. “Gestirn” would be, more accurately, “heavenly body” but that is unusable. Therefore, one option, would be to use “star” both in line 8 and in line 12. However, I don’t believe that such a meticulous poet as Rilke would use the same word twice unless he had a clear reason for doing so. In addition, the final “star”, the very last word of the poem, is very strong and feels to me like a firework suddenly going off: “… stone inside you and a star.” Therefore, in order not to dampen the firework with repetition, in line 8, instead of “… becomes a soaring star” I have used “…becomes a soaring glow”. I find this more effective and I believe it gives the sense of the original.
Another word which is difficult is “unsäglich”: “undescribably”, “ineffably” sound very weak to me and I have decided on “ungraspably”, which gives the sense of mystery and also fits in well with what Rilke suggests is the impossible task of unraveling or separating the diverse portions of our living natures.
This is the third time this has happened to me. I open the Rome bus app (Roma Bus), click on the tab to check the route of a bus (it was the 32 this time) and a screen appears with a map of a large part of North-West Africa. Are there secret bus routes running down, for example, the border of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria to a terminus near Lagos?
If there is bus of this kind what is its number: √13 ?
The world is big
but I would like it bigger still,
more different not less.
Maps show that there’s
still room for one large island
or small continent.
Within, let us suppose,
a people with another calendar,
new names for stars, and constellations
patterned on the shapes
of animals and plants
we’ve not encountered yet.
(The contralope, let’s say,
or else the peeping duck,
the two-toed toad
and then the dipsodillo bush
which moves ten yards
over a century.)
Complexions which we’re unaccustomed
to chime out upon the faces
of the men and women
when you make your mutual discovery,
as they assemble round you on the beach
displaying every shade of blue.
You will find out
they greet each other touching feet.
They have no clocks,
but they have trained
their dogs to softly howl the hours.
They have a way of telling fortunes
based on the bends the river waters
make when one steps in.
They have a form of speaking
called the disconjunctive
which we will never truly understand.
They carve out poems on the
bark of trees
and hang them in the branches.
“A ten-bark tree” is what they call
someone or something
that is much loved.
When sunset comes
some feel an urge
to dance wherever they may be –
lawns, streets or beaches,
porches, benches, tables,
bath-tubs, ladders, window ledges,
unicycles, boats – and while the sky
is flushing, their numbers
grow and grow.
“You’re only dancing well,” they say,
“when you make everyone around you
feel they must join in.”
They make great dives,
from off their cliffs.
“Blue into blue is ecstasy”, they say.
They have designed
with the most complex shapes.
The biggest, having the
span of eight of our pianos,
and thrice as tall,
is laid out when a storm arrives.
The rain and winds
drive surprising music
from its multifold appendages –
flute-chutes, adjusting bells, song-gongs,
murmur pools, gurgoyles and vibro-sieves,
just to name a few.
“Nothing can outperform
the sky,” they say.
So many other things are
there to chance upon
if you’re inclined to stop and look.
They also say, “the world
is big, our minds
should be so too”.
next to our feet,
just about to turn
into the past.
The plastic bottles,
and the beer cans
from last night.
The cigarette butts
impacted in between
the cobble stones
And next to them
the newly sprouted seedlings
like minute berserkers
our enormous flattening
trying to turn
to forest once again.
which we tread,
bus tickets not yet
a pen which wrote so
that there was a person
who still rued its loss
the day they died.
And here and there
lost coins which might have
saved who knows how many lives.
the years crushed
Beams, tiles, mortar,
and porcelain and building
stones and bric-
and midden, midden, midden
through metres down to
the ancient centuries
with the remains of empire:
temples, mosaics and
everywhere that’s else
the ruins of a million
not once remembered lives.
around my shoes,
the future imminent,
my oh so carefully
Flann O’Brien was a pen name of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish author who is most famous for three novels, At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive.
He also wrote a column for the Irish Times from 1940 to 1966 full of wild imaginings.
I once read an anthology of his Irish Times pieces and one thing I have never forgotten is his proposal for a service which he called “Book Handling”. Even in this electronic age it could still be useful. Here are some extracts to show his thinking:
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact. ’When I get settled down properly,’ said the fool, ‘I’ll have to catch up on my reading.’ This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.