Posts filed under ‘Translator’

Rosh Hashanah

Aharon Shabtai

Listen (in Hebrew)

Listen (in English)

Even after the murder
of the child Muhammad on Rosh Hashanah,
the paper didn’t go black.
In the same water in which the snipers
wash their uniforms,
I prepare my pasta,
and over it pour
olive oil in which I’ve browned
pine nuts,
which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes,
crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil.
As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs
and public security
appears on the screen,
and when he’s done
I write this poem.
For that’s how it’s always been —
the murderers murder,
the intellectuals make it palatable,
and the poet sings.

(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)

For those of us who regularly seek solace in poems, acts of terrorism can be particularly hard to deal with, because (the deluge of poetry written in the aftermath of 9/11 notwithstanding) there just doesn’t seem to be enough good poetry about living with terrorism.

In times like these, I find myself turning to books like  J’Accuse (New Directions 2003), a collection of ‘political’ poems by Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. Shabtai’s poems seem matter of fact, even flippant, in tone, but beneath their nonchalance lies a deep groundswell of outrage – an outrage made all the more powerful for being directed impartially against all who traffic in hatred or hold human life cheap, whether Arab or Jew. Shabtai’s voice is the voice of a poet for whom terrorism is a fact of everyday life, and therefore something to be not dismayed by but struggled against. What you hear in Shabtai’s poems is the constant rediscovery of the balance of being human, of learning to endure the horrors of the news without either succumbing to hatred or surrendering to indifference. It is what makes these poems so unexpectedly comforting.

– falstaff

(recording courtesy: PBS)

November 27, 2008 at 8:28 pm 9 comments

The Iliad (Excerpts)

Robert Fagles

Listen to Fagles’ Homer lecture that is filled with excerpts from the Iliad (in mp3, in .rm for folks on dialup access)

The lecture is approximately an hour long. Fagles is an excellent storyteller who sprinkles the lecture with readings from his translation, the original Greek text and some very funny comments. Do give it a listen.

His translation at

April 8, 2008 at 5:12 pm 5 comments

Alle Tage / Every Day

Ingeborg Bachmann

Listen (to Bachmann read)

Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.

Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.

Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
jeglichen Befehls.

Translation (by Peter Filkins):

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.

What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.


P.S. Today’s recording comes to your courtesy of lyrikline, where you can also fine a whole bunch of other Bachmann recordings.

April 2, 2008 at 3:20 am 4 comments


Paul Celan

Listen (in German [1])

Listen (in English)

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

English Translation (by Michael Hamburger):

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined.

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise in the air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon Death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

One of the greatest poems of the 20th Century. The repetition, the fragmentation, the authentic sense of being trapped in a nightmare that you must live through again and again and can never escape. The human voice cannot do justice to this poem. It needs the weeping of cellos and the clockwork of bombs.


[1] Requires real audio. The German recording comes to your courtesy of Norton Poets Online, which includes a treasure trove of other Celan poems, including Count up the Almonds, a personal favorite. The voice butchering the poem in English is mine.

February 24, 2008 at 4:56 am 5 comments

Lord’s Prayer

Nicanor Parra


Our Father which art in heaven
Full of all manner of problems
With a wrinkled brow
(As if you were a common everyday man)
Think no more of us.

We understand that you suffer
Because you can’t put everything in order.

We know the Demon will not leave you alone
Tearing down everything you build.

He laughs at you
But we weep with you:
Don’t pay any attention to his devilish laughter.

Our Father who art where thou art
Surrounded by unfaithful Angels
Sincerely don’t suffer any more for us
You must take into account
That the gods are not infallible
And that we have come to forgive everything.

[translated from the Spanish by Miller Williams]

The original:

Padre neustro que estas en el cielo
Lleno de toda clase de problemas
Con el ceno fruncido
Como si fueras un hombre vulgar y corriente
No piense mas en nosotros.

Comprendemos que sufres
Porque no puedes arreglar las cosas.

Sabemos que el Demonio no te deja tranquilo
Desconstruyendo lo que tu construyes.

El se rie de ti
Pero nostros lloramos contigo.

Padre nuestro que estas donde estas
Rodeado de angeles desleales
no sufras mas por nosotros
Tienes que darte cuenta
De que los dioses no son infalibles
Y que nosotros perdonamos todo.

This is Parra at his plain-spoken, subversive best. The tone of the poem is sympathetic, friendly, yet with these few simple lines Parra effectively turns the Lord’s Prayer inside out, reversing the relationship between man and God so that it is now the gods who suffer and prove fallible and man who must find in his heart the compassion to forgive them. If you’ve ever wanted to know what anti-poetry is, I can’t think of a better example than this.


February 17, 2008 at 4:21 am 1 comment

The Song of the Nightingale

Jaroslav Seifert


I am a hunter of sounds and a collector
of tape recordings.
I listen to huntsmen sounding their mort
on very short waves.
Let me show you my collection.

The nightingale’s song. It is fairly well known,
but this nightingale
is a kinsman of those to whom Neruda was listening
when he turned the heads of Prague’s young beauties.
Added to the recording is the amplified sound
of a bursting bud
as the rose petals begin to unfold.

And here are a few gloomy recordings:
A person’s death-rattle.
The recording is absolutely authentic.
The creaking of the hearse and the rhythm
of the horses’ hooves on the paving stones.
Then the solemn fanfares from the National Theatre
at Josef Hora‘s funeral.

All these I acquired by swapping.
But the tape
‘Frozen earth on my mother’s coffin’
is my own recording.

Then follow Chevalier and Mistinguette,
the charming Josephine Baker
with a cluster of ostrich feathers.
Among the younger ones the graceful Greco and Mathieu
with their new recordings.

And finally you shall hear the passionate whispering
of two unknown lovers.
Yes, the words are difficult to make out,
you only hear the sighs.
And then the sudden silence
ended by another –
the moment
when tired lips are glued
to tired lips.

It is a restful moment,
not a kiss.

Yes, you may be right:
the silence after love-making
resembles death.

[translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers]

The first time I read this poem I knew we needed to feature it on Poi-tre, if only for the thrill of having a recording of a poem about recordings. Besides, we didn’t have any Seifert on the site .

You know how we’re always talking about how this or that poem vividly conjures a scene or an image? Seifert here goes one better, switching from the visual to the aural, but managing to describe sounds that conjure up their own images, their own scenes. What you experience, as you read this poem, is thus a double effect, words evoking sounds and those sounds in turn, evoking scenes. In characteristic Seifert style the prosaic rubs shoulders with the lyrical here, so that the official fanfare of Hora’s funeral is followed by the (inaudible?) sound of earth on his mother’s coffin, which in turn gives way to Chevalier. And all of that is conveyed with conversational immediacy, Seifert’s narrator a pitch-perfect impersonation of the proud collector, so that reading this poem it really feels like you’re engaged in a conversation and listen more attentively to the sounds Seifert is describing as a consequence. I particularly love the sleight of hand of the last three lines, by which Seifert makes you the originator of this comparison of the two silences, holding himself back in reluctant and provisional agreement.


P.S.: While we’re talking about Seifert, see also his Nobel Prize Lecture on the role of lyricism and pathos in poetry.

February 3, 2008 at 4:25 am Leave a comment

The Bedroom

Yves Bonnefoy


The mirror and the river in flood, this morning,
Called to each other across the room, two lights
Appear and merge in the obscurity
Of furniture, within the unsealed room.

We were two realms of sleep, communicating
Through their courses of stone, where the untroubled
Water of a dream dispelled itself,
Forever recomposed, forever broken.

The pure hand slept beside the unquiet hand.
A body shifted slightly in its dream.
Far off, upon a table’s blacker water,
Glittering, the red dress lay asleep.

[translated from the French by Emily Grosholz]

The original:

Le miroir et le fleuve en crue, ce matin,
S’appelaient a travers la chambre, deux lumieres
Se trouvent et s’unissent dans l’obscur
Des meubles de la chambre descellee.

Et nous etions deux pays de sommeil
Communiquant par leurs marches de pierre
Ou se perdait l’eau non trouble d’un reve,
Toujours se reformant, toujours brise.

La main pure dormait pres de la main soucieuse.
Un corps un peu parfois dans son reve bougeait.
Et loin, sur l’eau plus noire d’une table,
La robe rouge eclairante dormait.

I know, I know, I’ve been away for ages. But I’m back, and to make it up to you here’s a gorgeous short piece by French poet Yves Bonnefoy. I love this poem because of the surreal, dreamlike quality of its imagery, and because of the incredible skill with which Bonnefoy sets off a sequence of reflection and counter-reflection, of images toujours se reformant, toujours brise, capturing between the flood and the mirror, between the pure hand and the unquiet hand, the restlessness of sleep disturbed by dreams, and yet rendering a poem of such luminous richness that the very words seem to shimmer with light.


January 27, 2008 at 3:43 am 1 comment

The God Forsakes Antony

Constantine Cavafy


When suddenly at the midnight hour
an invisible troupe is heard passing
with exquisite music, with shouts –
do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
your works that have failed, the plans of your life
that have all turned out to be illusions.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all do not be fooled, do not tell yourself
it was only a dream, that your ears deceived you;
do not stoop to such vain hopes.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
as it becomes you who are worthy of such a city;
approach the window with firm step,
and listen with emotion, but not
with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.

[translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven]

“Fortune and Antony part here; even here / do we shake hands”

– William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, IV.12

We all know, or think we know, when the Fates turned against Antony. The coast off Actium, Cleopatra’s ships retreating into the fog, taking his hopes with them. It’s an incredibly dramatic moment: a betrayal at once political, military and personal; a battle whose outcome will set the course of Roman history for decades to come, prompting no less a poet than Virgil to place it at the very center of Aeneas’ shield.

It is characteristic of Cavafy that he turns away from this grand scene, and chooses to focus instead on a quieter, more meditative moment, replacing public abandonment with private self-knowledge, the cry of arms with the piping of an “invisible troupe”. This is the true defeat of Antony, the moment when he faces the truth about the future, walking up to it the way one walks up to a window and looks out. Everything that has gone before has led to this, everything that is yet to come will follow, it is here, in the quiet of the Alexandrian night, that the break is made.

Paradoxically, that break is also the acme of Antony’s glory, the point at which, by accepting the inevitable, by not stooping to vain hopes but acting “as if courageous” (such a beautiful phrase!), that Antony truly becomes heroic, takes on all the Sisyphean dignity  that a mortal can claim. It is by breaking free of History that we become individuals. That is why Antony, with no god to support him, is more real a champion to us than a thousand Octavians.

Not that Antony is the first hero to be forsaken by the Gods. On the contrary, in recognizing that the beloved city is lost to him, and that he must play his part out to the bitter end, he becomes the poetic successor of Hector and Turnus. Cavafy understands better than anyone the stuff that myth is made of, the creed of tragedy and its heroes, and deploys that knowledge here to devastating effect.

This is an incredible poem – a testament to the simplicity of perfection that is the mark of true genius. It’s not just his talent for melancholy, his ability to bring history to life, to make us inhabit the myth, his knack for honing in on the one critical moment, or even the exquisite craftsmanship with which, for example, Antony’s doubts and weaknesses are laid out for us by a kind of verbal reflection, that make Cavafy a great poet. It’s the way his poems, this one included, move off the page in two directions at once: the first horizontal, making us think of the before and after of the story the poem is taken from; the second vertical, leading us into the land of metaphor, where Antony’s Alexandria can be lover, ambition or life itself.

Joseph Brodsky writes:

“Cavafy did a very simple thing. There are two elements which usually constitute a metaphor: the object of description and the object to which the first is imagistically, or simply grammatically allied. The implication which the second part usually contains provides the writer with the possibility of virtually endless development. This is the way the poem works. What Cavafy did, almost from the beginning of his career as a poet, was to jump straight to the second part: for the rest of that career he developed and elaborated upon its implicit notions without bother to return to the first part, assumed as self-evident.”

This is the real magic of Cavafy, the reason his poems can seem so rich in wisdom. “Heard melodies”, Keats reminds us, “are sweet, but those unheard /are sweeter” . By leaving his metaphors unheard, Cavafy allows us to populate them with our own imagination, our own emotion, our own memories. By simplifying the historical to its most basic components, by stripping it down to the universal, to the poetic (for what is poetry, in the end, but our shared imagination), Cavafy makes it possible for us to see the myth in our own terms, apply it to our own lives. And that, after all, is what myth is for.


November 24, 2007 at 5:38 pm 1 comment

To arrange words



To arrange words
In some order
Is not the same thing
As the inner poise
That’s poetry

The truth of poetry
Is the truth
Of being.
It’s an experience
Of truth.

No ornaments
A crucible.
Fire reveals
Only molten

Says Tuka
We are here
To reveal.
We do not waste

[Translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre]

He really doesn’t waste words, does he? Here it is, the creed of the poet distilled down to its very basics; the poem allowed no more than a single image, one that melts effortlessly back into its principle; the confounding of purity with simplicity to arrive at the gleaming metal of the truth.


P.S. More about Tukaram – a seventeenth century Marathi saint-poet, part of the Bhakti movement, here and here. Today’s poem comes from Says Tuka (Penguin India, 1991)

November 23, 2007 at 4:42 am 3 comments

I called death down

Anna Akhmatova


I called death down on the heads of those I cherished.
One after the other, their deaths occured.
I cannot bear to think how many perished.
These graves were all predicted by my word.
As ravens circle above the place
Where they smell fresh-blooded limbs,
So my love, with triumphant face,
Inflicted its wild hymns.

Being with you is sweet beyond mention,
You’re as close as the heart I call my own.
Give me both hands, pay careful attention,
I beseech you: go away, and leave me alone.
Don’t let me know where you make your homes.
Oh, Muse, don’t call to him from above,
May he live, unmentioned in my poems,
Ignorant of all my love.

[translated from the Russian by Lyn Coffin]

In his introduction to the collection that this poem is taken from (Anna Akhmatova: Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 1983), Brodsky writes:

“Naturally enough, poems of this sort couldn’t be published, nor could they even be written down or retyped. They could only be memorized by the author and by some seven other people since she didn’t trust her own memory. From time to time, she’d meet a person privately and ask him or her to recite quietly this or that selection as a means of inventory. This precaution was far from being excessive: people would disappear forever for smaller things than a piece of paper with a few lines on it.”

It’s ironic, isn’t it? For centuries poets have been promising their beloveds immortality in verse. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, Shakespeare writes, and the sentiment recurs again and again throughout the ages that follow. And yet here we are, in the Russian police state, and suddenly the act of naming has turned fatal, the poem guaranteeing not eternal fame but instant execution.

Akhmatova wrote this poem in 1921, the year her first husband, poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviets. In the years to come, she would suffer much at the hands of the state – the arrest and death of her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, the arrest and death of her third husband, Nikolai Punin and the arrest of her and Nikolay’s son, Lev, whose incarceration would become the subject of her incredible ‘Requiem’.

Knowing the trials that lie ahead, this poem seems prophetic, but even without that context it is a heartbreaking poem. The exquisite violence of that image of love as a scavenger, conveying so perfectly the horror of something as tender as a love poem turned into an instrument of betrayal; the grief and guilt of the first stanza perfectly balancing the self-denial of the second. If there was ever any doubt about Akhmatova being one of the finest lyric poets of all time, today’s poem should put it to rest.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with another quote from Brodsky, who says it so much better than I ever could:

“her verses are to survive whether published or not: because of the prosody, because they are charged with time in both [mundane and metaphysical] senses. They will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.”


November 18, 2007 at 6:23 am 1 comment

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