The difficulty of translating poetry is twofold: the words and meaning on the one hand, the flow and rhythm (or rhyme) on the other. Most translations of poetry are bad. This is mainly because the translator knows the foreign language too well and his or her language too poorly. In Albanian poetry, a good example of a classically-bad translator is Dr Robert Elsie, a Canadian albanologist of high distinction and erudition, but someone whose grasp of English is limited to the writing of academic papers and dissertations. His translations read as if they were written by a student - or an Albanian - and, in their awkward, unconvincing, almost robotic English, do a disservice to the originals.
In fact, after reading his (non-bilingual) anthology AN ELUSIVE EAGLE SOARS some years ago, I concluded that, unlike Macedonia, Albania had surprisingly poor poets - and started to write Albanian poems myself! It was then I realised that however good an original might be, it can be completely swamped or undermined by poor translation.
Dr Elsie is not a poet - but that is irrelevant: some famous poets are extremely bad translators, the most obvious case being Robert "Iron John" Bly whose translations of Rilke are embarrassing. "Famous Séamus" Heaney and his fellow-Ulsterman Paul Muldoon are not much better. On the other hand, another Ulsterman, Ciaran Carson, is a superb translator - one of the very best, as can be seen in his rollicking and faithful translation from the Irish of the 18th century satire 'The Midnight Court'.
Good translators do not even need to speak either language natively: an excellent example is Ewald Osers, a Czech who has made good translations of (Slavonic) Contemporary Macedonian Poetry (Forest Books), and of his fellow-countryman Miroslav Holub, into English. Admittedly, though, Holub (like Popa) translates gratefully.
Another outstanding modern translator is Herbert Lomas (Bloodaxe Books) who has translated Contemporary Finnish Poetry. Neither of these books is in a bilingual edition - so it is impossible for me to say if the original is much better. But one which is - THE ERROR OF BEING by the outstanding Romanian poet Ion Caraion - can be seen to be poorly translated by Marguerite Dorian & Elliott B. Urdang without any knowledge of Romanian other than through other Romance languages and Latin. (See my own translation from this collection.)
A GOOD TRANSLATION IS ONE THAT HAS AN EXISTENCE INDEPENDENT OF THE ORIGINAL.
The most famously good translator is Edward FitzGerald, whose universally-known rendering of The Ruba'iyát of Omar Khayyám reads as if it were originally composed in English. In fact he re-wrote and re-ordered a selection of Khayyám's verses, and sacrificed the original (rather obscure) meaning to fluency, thus creating not just a new poem in its own right, but an uniquely visionary poem of genius.
Even more extreme a translation is Yeats' early poem When you are old and grey and full of sleep... "translated" (or rather very freely paraphrased) from the incomparable Pierre de Ronsard's sonnet Quand vous serez vien vieille... of which only one line is actually translated from Ronsard's original. (Click to see Ronsard's original, my own translation, and Yeats' paraphrase all together.)
The contemporary and egregious Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku has a whole posse of translators and her American editor Henry Israeli. But there are many examples of awkwardnesses and poor English in their translations; I think I have made a slightly better job of translating her splendid poem Provim.
Many Albanian poems sent to me by my co-translator Zana Banci simply will not go into English. What sounds fresh in Albanian sounds banal in English, and there is no way to be faithful to the spirit of the original without traducing it at the same time: traduttore, traditore, as the famous Italian dictum has it.
Albanian, like Serbian, is not a laconic language. English now is. When one is encounters zappy, laconic poetry in Albanian or Serbian, it is very difficult to render it in English - especially if there is word-play. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to translate more wordy Albanian poems without reducing them considerably.
An example is a marvellous poem by Mitrush Kuteli, whose real name was Dhimitër Pasko, born in Pogradec, south-eastern Albania, in 1907, translated Gogol's Dead Souls into Albanian - and so was himself no stranger to the problems of translation. He was (like everyone of talent) sent to a labour-camp by Enver Hoxha, but escaped execution, because good translators were needed by the régime.
Here is our translation of his fine, zappy poem:
Dhimitër Pasko (Mitrush Kuteli)
I love you, Albanian dirt.
I love you
relating to you
as wolf to forest,
wave to wave
and dirt to dirt.
Up to my knees
I'm into you,
born out of you
as was my father
I love you, Albanian dirt,
up to my waist
and higher yet.
The word which I have translated as 'dirt' is BALTË in Albanian.
I use the word in the American double-sense of soil/earth and filth.
In British English dirt does not carry the meaning of soil - what plants grow out of.
BALTË has, however, many meanings in Albanian:
1. Mud, soil, earth, dirt.
2. Clay, silt, sediment, sludge.
3. Muck, muddy place, mire.
4. Ground, earth.
5. A substance from which something is made.
6. Dregs, sediment, lees, grounds, refuse, alluvium, filth, dross.
7. A cheap, dirty, worthless or disgraceful thing.
8. Mess, trouble, stew, muddle, bad situation, imbroglio, cock-up.
9. Native land.
So here is a poem whose pivotal word cannot properly be translated into English. It can mean 'mud' or 'muddle' or 'mire' or 'motherland'. Yet it is such a light, witty and deep poem that it would be a shame not to unearth it for English readers.
This is not the only problem with this poem. In the very first line is another ambiguous word, DUA which means not just 'love' and 'like', but also 'need' and 'want'.
So to accommodate this, I have had to insert quite gratuitously the very modern English phrase 'relating to' (which also has a double meaning), so that the succeeding lines flow with the clean speed of the Albanian.
Here is the Albanian text.
Anyone can see that it is a very neat, rhyming poem - and that our translation is neither so neat nor so resonant - hence this apology.
Të dua, baltë shqiptare!
si ujku pyllin,
si vala valën,
si balta baltën!
Se gjer mbi gju
jam brenda teje;
se lerë kam këtu
Të dua, baltë shqiptare
se gjer mbi bel
dhe përmbi bel.
About his difficulty as a writer - the difficulty of any writer under a totalitarian régime (and any dissident writer beyond the Pale in a 'liberal democracy') - Pasko wrote:
O such a surprise
to want not to be human,
to envy the stones
that suffer not
when the storm descends on Tirana!
O, sa cudi,
Të duash të mos jesh njeri
Dhe gurëve t'u kesh zili
Se gurët s'vuajn' kur bie shi
The 'storm' is the disfavour of Hoxha and the Party - what Dalan Luzaj called 'the hurricane'.
A poem he wrote to his wife from the horror of the prison camp:
Kaq afër jemi, por kaq larg,
Të lutem mos më prit
Na ndajnë terre rreth e qark
Dhe yll për mua s'ndrit.
Përse ta lidhësh fatin tënd
Me një pafat si unë,
Kur di se emri im u shëmb
Me dhunë e përdhune?
Pra hidhe hapin guximtar
Ndaj jetës së gëzuar
Dhe më harro këtu, në varr,
Të vdekur pa mbuluar.
utterly defeats decent translation into English...
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Some translations, however, come relatively easily - like this one,
which starts me weeping after the second line - perhaps my favourite poem in all literature:
Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)
from Sonnets for Hélène
"When you are very old..."
When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
"Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair."
Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name's cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name - immortalised by my desire.
I'll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you'll be an old woman, nodding towards life's close,
regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won't come again.
Come, pluck now - today - life's so quickly-fading rose.
(originally published in Tide and Undertow by Anthony Weir, Belfast 1975)
"Quand vous serez bien vieille..."
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j'estois belle.
Lors, vous n'aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s'aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.
Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m'en croyez, n'attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd'huy les roses de la vie.
This poem was freely paraphrased by W.B. Yeats in his 1893 collection The Rose.
The only line of the original that Yeats retains ('and bending down beside the glowing bars...') is the only one not retained in my translation!
When You are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And, nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountain overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
- 6 Poem Translations of Poem by RM Rilke
- translation of Pushkin's famous 'Bronze Horseman'
- Jewels and Shit: poems by Arthur Rimbaud