Also poems by Brecht on exile.
Between the Languages focuses on poets who, by choice or by force of circumstances, move among the languages. Must a poet write in the mother tongue? Will a second language serve just as well? We look at poets who translate themselves. Others who might but won’t. Others who defend their mother tongues by refusing all translation. Highlights include the poetry of Dimitris Tsaloumas, who moves between Melbourne and Leros, and Itzig Manger (1901-69) who wrote in Yiddish in his wanderings across the world. This volume of MPT asks questions about language and identity.
Among the featured poets are: Bertolt Brecht, Dimitris Tsaloumas, Gwyneth Lewis, Itzik Manger…
Cover by Lucy Wilkinson. Editorial by David and Helen Constantine.
- Olivier Burckhardt on Claire Malroux’s Birds and Bison, translated by Marilyn Hacker
- Sasha Dugdale on Ileana Malancioiu’s, After the Raising of Lazarus, translated by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
A foreign language is a paradoxical escape: it takes you out of yourself, but also back into yourself to places you didn’t know existed. To translate is to travel this unpredictable landscape. To live between languages, as in my case, is to be constantly moving over untrodden territory, negotiating internal and external boundaries of identity and meaning. I was born an escapist and a traveller, which is why I was gripped from the moment my Russian teacher wrote on the blackboard a funny-looking sentence in Cyrillic, then turned her bespectacled face to the class and said: ‘Today, we are going to learn Russian.’
I was eight. The year was 1981, the place Sofia. Leonid Brezhnev, the last serious Soviet dictator, died soon after. My Russian teacher wept into her black shawl while we stood freezing in the school courtyard, listening to records of Soviet army songs. By then, I understood the songs. I also understood, with a child’s instinct, that something was wrong with us, with these songs blaring out of megaphones, with the way we had to understand them. So, as an unconscious act of protest, I tried to be bad at Russian. I gave idiotic answers in class, infuriating the poor teacher. Being an idiot was unrewarding, but I persevered. But it wasn’t to be.
One day I found myself entertaining my little sister with a slide-show of Russian stories. I had to translate as well as I could for her benefit. My mother came in at one point, and praised me for my translation. I was secretly chuffed. I kept up my slide-shows, ostensibly for my sister. I started looking up Russian words in the dictionary, and that is how I stopped wanting to be bad at Russian – being good at it was much more fun. Around that time, I started writing poetry in Bulgarian – about railway stations and going away. I also read Evgeni Onegin in a bilingual edition, and was transfixed by the miracle of sustained rhyming translation. Gradually, books became the centre of my world. I stopped showing my sister slide-shows because I was too busy reading. It was a way of forgetting what was wrong with us, and travelling to other worlds in the only possible way.
Afterthoughts on the Mug's Game
My first translations may have been my way of bridging the displacement from that country, separation from the relatives and friends left behind, from the open spaces around Kladow to which I owed my first moments of freedom and exhilaration, the diverse animals I had collected and looked after there, and what had been my family’s culture – though it was music, not language, that was my earliest love in the arts, and one practised by my father and mother. Had I been a few years older when the displacement occurred, I might well have had to return to my first language as a writer of poems.
My friend Franz Wurm, born in Prague into a German-speaking family also fluent in Czech, was shipped to England in a children’s transport at the age of thirteen and educated at an English boarding-school, then Oxford. Because, unlike me, he had lost his immediate family, when told by an English friend that he would never make a good English poet, he reverted not to German but to French for his early verse – his German lost to him by association with the more grievous loss. ‘It was only then that I turned to German, which for quite a while came from my reading rather than from the language spoken at home,’ he writes in a letter.
He was then moved to re-emigrate to a German-speaking part of Switzerland, a neutral country by association, and became a German-language poet as linguistically inventive and idiosyncratic as his friend Paul Celan – who was even more multilingual by circumstance, but clung to German for poetry when he talked and corresponded with his wife and son in French, out of his very obsession with his mother tongue and the wound inflicted on his family and friends under German occupation. Erich Fried, one of the most widely read German-language poets of his time, came to England at the age of sixteen, remained resident there, but never became wholly bilingual other than as a translator of texts ranging from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Many other cases could be cited, each distinct for reasons too intricate to be unravelled here.
When towards the age of thirty, I was induced to write unambitious critical pieces in German, they proved acceptable, though my syntax, like my attitudes, tended to be more English than German and my grammar could be shaky; but the attempt to function bilingually, at least in prose, precipitated an identity crisis for a year or two, leaving me stranded in a no-man’s land.
Extracts from Midnight
Translated by Radwa Ashour
My grandfather, still harbouring the illusion
that all is well with the world,
fills his countryside pipe
for the last time
before the advent of the helmets and bulldozers.
On the bulldozer’s teeth
my grandfather’s cloak gets hooked.
The bulldozer retreats a few yards,
empties its load,
comes back to fill its huge fork
and has never had enough.
Twenty times, the bulldozer
comes and goes,
my grandfather’s cloak still hooked on it.
After the dust and smoke
had cleared from the house that had been standing there
and as I was staring at the new emptiness
I saw my grandfather
wearing his cloak,
wearing the very same cloak,
not one that was similar
but the very same.
He hugged me and maintained a silent gaze
as if his look
ordained the rubble to become a house,
restored the curtains to the windows,
brought my grandmother back to her armchair,
and retrieved her coloured pills,
put back the sheets on the bed,
the lights on the ceiling,
the pictures on the walls,
as if his look brought the handles back to the doors
and the balconies to the stars,
as if it made us resume our dinner,
as if the world had not collapsed,
as if heaven had ears and eyes.
He went on staring at the emptiness.
What shall we do after the soldiers leave?
What will he do after the soldiers leave?
He slowly clenched his fist
recapturing a boxer’s resolve in his right hand,
his coarse bronze hand,
the hand which had tamed the thorny slope,
the hand which holds his hoe lightly
and with ease like prayer,
his hand which can split a tree stump with a single blow,
his hand open for forgiveness,
his hand closed on sweets to surprise his grandchildren,
his hand amputated
Translated by Hubert Moore and Nasrin Parvez
The poem, originally in Farsi, is for Fahimeh Taghadosi, executed in Iran, 1982. The writer is unknown. Farkhondeh Ashena, who recently escaped from Iran, heard it when she was in solitary confinement, and memorised it.
that hot day in July,
when the Evin loudspeakers
called out your beautiful name and your lips
smiled, your eyes said to your friends,
'So today is the day.'
You went and your walk
was a perfume filling the corridor.
Everyone gasped, everyone asked with their eyes,
'Is today then the day?' The Pasdar
flung back an answer : 'Where is her bag?
Where are her veil, her socks, her money?'
A rumour went round that you'd given a sign
that yes, today was the day :
'I don't need my food,' you had said.
So tonight is the night.
A silence hangs in the heart of it.
Friends look at friends and tell themselves
that perhaps you'll come back.
Fahimeh dear, tell us, spare
a word for your friends. Is
the sky sad where you are, does it weep?
And the wind, does it ruffle your veil?
Back here, the ward sweats for your news.
And a message gets through :
wind-blown breathless dandelion
comes from the mountains to say that clouds
are massing up there and they're big with child.
Head held high, you are standing and waiting for this,
for the clouds to open, for you
to be mother of change.
The moorland holds its breath
at a star shooting across it.
It would be good to sing and go with friends
to face the firing squad, to dance,
to float in the rain.
In the long sea-silence,
a wave lifts, oars clip at the water.
A young fisherman bringing his boat to land,
rice-growers trudging home,
they shape their lips to your name.
Your name is beautiful for young girls born in July.