Category Archives: Poets and their poems

The Cats will know – Pavese – translation

(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

Italian original

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
fioriranno leggere
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.
Risponderai parole-
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.
Soffriremo nell’alba,
viso di primavera.

 

(original read by Domenico Pelini)

 

Commentary

 

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”.

Missions to the Moon – Ariosto and Calvino

moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the age when the world was as yet new
when early humans lacked experience,
without the shrewdness of the present day,
beneath a lofty mountain, with a peak
that seemed to touch the sky, a people, whose
name I do not know, lived on the valley floor
who watching oftentimes the changing moon,
now full now hollow, with or without horns,
travel her natural course across the skies,
thinking that from the summit of the mount
it would be possible for them to reach
her and discover how she waxed and waned,
began, some carrying baskets, others sacks,
to scurry up the mountain slopes racing
each other in their urge to have her first.
Then, seeing she remained forever far,
exhausted they collapsed upon the ground,
wishing in vain they had remained below.
Those on the lower hills, viewing them so high,
believing they could see them touching her,
went chasing after them with hurried strides.
This mountain is the wheel of Fortune
on top of which, the unenlightened crowd
believe that all is peace, and yet there’s none.

Translation Phillip Hill 2017

Listen here: 

This is a section of the 3rd Satire by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), which is generally known as “The Fable of the Moon”. (For the original Italian click here) Anybody who knows something about Ariosto, hearing a mention of the moon, will probably think of his wonderful and very funny epic poem, L’Orlando Furioso, where the moon is presented as the place where all lost things end up. (It would have been wonderful if the Apollo missions had come across a cache of odd socks). When the eponymous hero Orlando goes mad for love, another knight called Astolfo flies to the moon to recover Orlando’s lost wits.

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Haikus for explaneedfuls

monk-tea

Some people (I call them explaneedfuls) need an explanation for everything and often an explanation of the explanation as well. A long time ago I met one of them. I was asked to go to a TV studio in Italy to assist the host of a programme covering the Oscar awards ceremony. I thought I was going to be there to interpret, which is what I usually do, but it turned out that the core of my job was to make sure the Italian host understood the jokes people made during the ceremony.

Jokes are definitely one of the hardest things to translate but in this case the real problem was that the person was devoid  of any sense of humour and the more one took the pieces of the witticisms apart and described how they were supposed to interact the more bewilderment descended on his features. I began to wonder whether he was actually an alien from a race with no jokes who had infiltrated our society to spy on us. They had managed to copy all our bodily components perfectly but they had no idea on how to instil humour into a fake human.

I’m sure you’ve met at least one explaneedful person. I sometimes think about them when I read haikus.

For example,

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

(Issa)

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L’Infinito by Giacomo Leopardi (Infinity)

infinito manoscritto

Giacomo Leopardi is generally described as the greatest Italian lyric poet but you don’t really need to know anything about him to appreciate his poem L’Infinito. I see the title often translated as The Infinite, but I am not sure that means anything in English, so I am going to opt for Infinity. Here then is my attempt at rendering some of its sound and meaning in English.








Infinity

I always have felt fondness for this lonely hill
and for this hedge which screens off
such a large part of the furthermost horizon.
But as I sit and gaze, in my thoughts I envisage,
beyond it, boundless space and utter silence
and deepest still, so that it almost makes
my heart take fright. And as I hear
the rustling of the wind among these plants,
I start comparing that unending silence
with this noise and I am reminded of
eternity, and seasons gone and dead and
of the season now alive and of its sounds. And so
in this immensity my thoughts sink and drown
and shipwreck feels sweet in this ocean.

(Translation by Phillip Hill)

(Listen to the translation)



And here is the Italian original –

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The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed
 

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

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Aloud – John Skelton – To Mistress Margaret Hussey

Pourbus_lady_pomander (1)

Lady with pomander

Whenever I open an anthology of English poetry this is always one of the first poems I turn to. I love its rhythms. I also think that, although we know nothing about Mistress Margaret Hussey, thousands of people down the centuries after having read this poem have thought they would have liked to meet her.




(listen to the poem here)



Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower:
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
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The Sting in Heine’s Tail

Here’s a literal translation of a very short poem by Heinrich Heine followed by the German original. The first two verses are predictable enough but …

I don’t believe in Heaven,
of which the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your eyes,
they are my heavenly light.

I don’t believe in the Lord God,
of whom the little priest speaks;
I only believe in your heart,
I have no other god.

I don’t believe in the Evil One,
in Hell and the torments of Hell;
I only believe in your eyes,
and in your evil heart Read more…

My life is the gardener of my body – Yehuda Amichai

One day I walked into a bookshop, asked for the poetry section and pulled out a book because I liked the colour of it or its title, Open Closed Open. I don’t remember. On the back cover was a sentence by Octavio Paz, one of my favourite poets, which said “Once one has read (Amichai’s) poems, one can never forget them – there can be so much life and truth in sixteen lines.”

That would have convinced me in itself. But then I opened the book and I read this, the first section of a longer poem called “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What is My Life Span? Open Closed Open” :

My life is the gardener of my body. The brain – a hothouse closed tight
with its flowers and plants, alien and odd
in their sensitivity, their terror of becoming extinct.
The face –  a formal French garden of symmetrical contours
and circular paths of marble with statues and places to rest,
places to touch and smell, to look out from, to lose yourself
in a green maze, and Keep Off and Don’t Pick the Flowers.
The upper body above the navel – an English park
pretending to be free, no angles, no paving stones, naturelike,
humanlike, in our image, after our likeness,
its arms linking up with the big night all around.
And my lower body, beneath the navel – sometimes a nature preserve,
wild, frightening, amazing, an unpreserved preserve,
and sometimes a Japanese garden, concentrated, full of
forethought. And the penis and testes are smooth
polished stones with dark vegetation between them,
precise paths fraught with meaning
and calm reflection. And the teachings of my father
and the commandments of my mother
are birds of chirp and song. And the woman I love
is seasons and changing weather, and the children at play
are my children. And the life my life.

If you are interested in learning more about Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, here is an excellent article.  

(Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai, Harvest Books, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).

Smiles in my pockets

Very often I find stuff in my pockets. Usually it’s receipts or old tickets. Sometimes I extract a crumpled piece of paper I can no longer decipher but which I know is a now unidentifiable idea which I tried to jot down while tripping over a dog or avoiding a motorcycle.

There are pockets in my  mind as well. Mostly I find junk there too, but every now and then I come across something which makes me smile mysteriously while I am waiting to cross the road or just as they announce that my flight has been delayed again.

For example there are three or four haikus by Kobayashi Issa which I keep on coming across again and again:

Pissing in the snow

outside my door–

it makes a very straight hole.


The holes in the wall

play the flute

this autumn evening.



In a dream

my daughter lifts a melon

to her soft cheek

 


Visiting the graves

the old dog

leads the way

I first encountered Issa’s poems while reading an anthology of Haiku  edited by Robert Hass (The Essential Haiku), so when I noticed a clip of him reading some of his translations of Issa I thought I would share it with you. Perhaps some of them will end up in your minds’ pockets too.


(here’s a link to the video in case you can’t see the embedded version.)

If you want to read more Issa, there is a website with all of his poems http://haikuguy.com/issa/

The Heart of Chinese Poetry

Quatrain_on_Heavenly_Mountain I remember clearly the first time I managed to understand a poem in classical Chinese. It was like seeing someone perform an unexpected conjuring trick, shaking out a piece of rope and then tossing it up into the air to make it stand stiffly like a stick . Then back again.

There was certainly some kind of alternation between states which I couldn’t quite understand. How could twenty simple syllables also produce some kind of shimmering complexity. Where was this chemical reaction taking place?

Another way I think of these poems is as of  magic seeds. Hold them in your hands and you see a whole tree, press them tight and they are simple seeds again.
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