Darkness has its swings of mood.
It also has long arms and countless
fingers. Those nights your worries
start to make the floorboards creak;
first one, then several, then all
(and if you have no floorboards
they bring their own) then
darkness slowly tries to strangle
you all the long, steep and
staggering and ever-louder
climb till light.
But on those nights when darkness
shimmers like a honey-watered
river, after the crossing of a desert
day, it fits itself around you
snugly, better than a glove,
it gently sifts a cradle
from your breathing,
out and in and out,
sets you inside
to float downstream,
then paints a parting lullaby upon your brow.
Every time I board an Alitalia plane to fly to Rome, where I live, I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to name the in-flight magazine after Ulysses, a person who took all of ten years to make it home.
At the conferences I work at as a simultaneous interpreter, the audience can listen to a translation in one of the available languages through headphones connected to a receiver. The receiver has a volume control and a channel selection system. Sometimes, people who are not used to these things find them hard to use. They may not know how to turn them on, for example. Or they may not know that there is a dial to choose the language you want to hear.
At one conference, the chairperson was a French lady speaking English with a very strong accent. She started the meeting very quickly and was already down to item 2 on the agenda when someone in the front row shouted that they couldn’t hear the translation.
She peered over her stylish glasses and said, ” I sink you ‘ave ze rong number Chanel. The last word was pronounced as if she were talking about the famous perfume.
This in itself was delightful enough. If I had written the script, even better would have been for the member of the audience to indignantly protest, “But I have number 5!”.
One of the best things of the French Revolution, in my opinion, are the beautiful new names which were assigned to the months of the year. I especially like misty Brumaire, frosty Frimaire and fruity Fructidor. Rainy Pluviôse is quite nice too.
Compare our tired names, particularly September, October, November and December. These just mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month, respectively, although they are now the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth, because Julius Caesar and Augustus elbowed their way into the calendar by force, dedicating July and August to themselves. Augustus even pinched a day from February to ensure that his month was just as long as his uncle’s.
Julius Caesar was definitely genocidal, Augustus in comparison merely enthusiastically homicidal. So why have we kept the names of these monsters in our year? I think the time has come to deal with this. There are a few ways of doing this:
Go back to the lovely French Revolutionary names. This would involve a couple of problems, though. Namely that you would need to reverse the order of the names in Antipodean countries so as to keep track with the actual seasons. Frimaire would not be very good to use in an Australian summer. Also, in order to keep some coherence, tropical countries would have to have one year-long month called “Solaire”, with 365 days. At most they could have a month of Pluviôse for the monsoon season.
To maintain consistency, keep July and August and name all the other months after equally nasty dictators and tyrants. We could have a global poll to decide which figures of history we dislike most. Done on live TV, it would be quite exciting and would earn a lot in sponsorship.
Ditch Julius and Augustus and replace them with something nicer. My suggestion: instead of July and August have Laurel and Hardy.
The chapter is mostly about an artificial language called Dervish and the attempts of a woman called Confucia Wang to bring it under control. Dervish is invented in order to overcome the unavoidable misunderstandings and ambiguities in drafting treaties and conventions using natural languages and thus improve the quality of the output of international organisations.
It starts out as a very promising instrument but its effectiveness begins to be dulled when the introduction of new mood-tense forms make it over-complicated and the language later attains dizzy heights of baffling complexity when mood-mood combinations are invented, so as to create forms of speech such as the Valedictory Terminal, the Nugatory Inconsequential, the Absolute Abject, the Pandering Proximate, the Counterfactual Extortionary, the Vacillatory Optative, the Expletive Introspective, the Minatory Merciless, the Presumptive Hereditary, the Spectral Apparitional, the Bovine Ruminative, the Alcoholic Indeterminate and the Hemorrhoidal Inflammatory.
(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 ?