Sunday, 3 April 2011

Children Playing in a Square by a Fountain, Antonio Machado

In songs of the past
on the lips of the children,
confused is the story
but clear is the pain,
as clear as the water,
preserving the wisdom
of lovers whose names
now no longer remain.

They played in the square
where the old men were watching
whose voices once too
held the ancient refrain;
the splash of the fountain
repeated the cadence;
confused is the story
but clear is the pain.

They sang at their games
of the sorrows of lovers,
events unexpected
or looked-for in vain,
of tears without bitterness,
smiles without laughter;
confused is the story
but clear is the pain.

The shadows grew darker.
The children dispersed.
Their homes promised supper;
the sky threatened rain.
The fountain continued
repeating the cadence.
It washed out the story,
recounted the pain.

- Antonio Machado, “Yo escucho los cantos”, 1907

San Miguel, by Federico García Lorca

A Diego Buigas de Dalmau

You can see them from the railings,
on the mountain, mountain, mountain,
mules and mule-shaped shadows,
laden with sunflowers.

They walk the shaded slope,
their eyes with night-fog clouded.
In the salt air's corners
the daybreak creaks around them.

White mules cross the sky,
their quicksilver eyes shrouded,
one encore for the night's heart
in the still dawn hour.
And you dare not touch the water,
for the air's so cold around it.
The mad, uncovered water
on the mountain, mountain, mountain.


San Miguel, arrayed in lace
in the bedroom of his tower,
shows his exquisite legs
with the lamplight wrapped around them.

Domesticated angel
with an apostolic outline,
feathered like a nightingale,
sweetly feigning outrage.
Miguel sings in the glass;
a youth of nights three thousand.
The sweet smell of cologne
this far off from the flowers.


The waves dance on the beach
to the verandas' roundel.
The reeds give way to voices
among the moon's houses.
Along come women eating
the seeds of the sunflowers;
their buttocks, copper planets;
their skirts, the night sky clouded.
Along come noble knights
and ladies of sad countenance,
dark-eyed for the nightingales
of spring and how they sounded.

And the Bishop of Manila,
saffron-blind and poor, pronounces
a Mass, half male, half female,
double-edged and doubly mounted.


Miguel stirs not a limb
in the bedroom of his tower,
his skirts of little mirrors
glittering around him.

San Miguel, king of balloons,
odd numbers, lonely towers,
and a Berber caravan
full of argument and shouting.

To a Cat, by Jorge Luis Borges

No quieter is the image in the mirror,
nor does the dawn arrive more furtively
than, underneath the moon, this creeping panther
that from afar is granted us to see.
Remoter than the Ganges or the sunset,
you vanish, hidden by decree divine;
yours is the solitude, and yours the secret;
you seek us, or we look for you in vain.
Your haunches condescend to the delinquent
touch of my fingertips. You understand,
from some eternal place, unknown but ancient,
the love contained in the mistrustful hand.
Elsewhere in time you live. You reign supreme,
lord of a desert bounded like a dream.

- Jorge Luis Borges, "A un gato", 1972

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

L'Expiation, part 1, by Victor Hugo

It snowed. We were defeated in the battle.
For the first time the eagle’s head hung down.
Sombre days! The emperor came back slowly;
Behind him in the smoke, Moscow burned.
It snowed. The biting winter melted in avalanche.
After the white plain, another white plain.
We no longer knew our flag, our leaders.
Yesterday the splendid army, now
A herd in which one saw no wings or centre.
It snowed. The wounded sheltered from the wind
Behind dead horses. From doors of sorry camps
One saw the buglers frozen at their posts,
Still upright in the saddle, white with frost,
Their lips as hard as stone, stuck to their bugles.
Round-shot, grape-shot, shells, snowed with the white flakes;
The grenadiers, surprised that they were trembling,
Walked, brooding, with ice on their grey moustaches.
It snowed, it always snowed! The cold wind whistled;
In unknown towns, the people had no bread
And walked in bare feet on the frosty ground.
This was no longer living hearts, men of war:
It was a dream wandering in the fog,
A mystery; shades crossed the black sky.
Vast solitude, appalling to the eyes,
The mute avenger, appeared everywhere.
The sky dropped its thick snow noiselessly:
For an immense army, an immense shroud.
Each felt that he was dying, he was alone.
—Will we never leave this deadly empire?
Two enemies! The Tsar and, worse, the North.
We threw away our cannons to burn their mountings.
Whoever stopped to rest died in the snow.
A sad, confused group, we fled,
The wilderness devouring our procession.
Snow-hills showed where regiments had gone to sleep.
Oh, Hannibal’s downfall! Attila’s carnage!
The fleeing, the wounded, the dying; wagons, carts, stretchers;
Men trampled each other trying to cross the bridges;
Ten thousand fell asleep, and one hundred woke.
Ney, not long before followed by an army,
Now ran away, quarrelling
Over his pocketwatch with three Cossacks.
Every night, Who goes there? Alert! Attacks!
These phantoms took their guns, and saw a charge,
A dreadful, terrifying pounce, coming upon them
With vulture cries, a whirlwind of wild men;
And so, in the night, an entire army was lost.
The emperor was there, and stood, watching.
He was like a tree under the feller’s axe.
This giant’s grandeur had, until then, been spared,
But misfortune, that sinister woodsman, rose up,
And this proud oak, insulted by the axe,
Recoiled from the spectre’s bitter revenge
And saw his branches fall all around him.
Leaders, soldiers: each died in his turn.
Surrounding his tent loyally, those who stayed
To guard his moving shadow on the canvas—
Believing always in the power of the stars—
Accused destiny of treason,
And felt a sudden terror in their hearts.
Dazed by disaster, knowing only that
He had to believe, the emperor turned to God;
This glorious man trembled; Napoleon, sensing that it
Might atone for something, said—livid and restless
Before his scattered legions on the snow—
“Is this my punishment, God of war?”
Then he heard his name called,
And something in the darkness said: “No.”

Monday, 19 April 2010

My Former Life, by Charles Baudelaire

I'm in full hermit mode composing my dissertation now, so I won't be doing any new translations until after May the tenth. I do, however, have some old ones sitting around that I haven't posted to the blog yet, so in the spirit of daily April poems, I'll put them up. Today: La vie antérieure, by Charles Baudelaire, from Les Fleurs du Mal. The French, along with numerous other English translations, can be found HERE; the most entertaining (and oddly thought-provoking) English "translation", from the book of Baudelaire mistranslations "Flowers of Bad/Flurries of Mail" by David Cameron (not that David Cameron), can be found HERE, under the title "This Anti-Terror Life".

My Former Life

I lived for a long time under vast porticos
Which the ocean sun lit with a thousand colours,
Where the enormous, straight and majestic pillars
Made them, in the evening, like basaltic grottos.

The billows, rolling round the image of the skies,
Mingled in a fashion solemn and mystical,
The almighty harmony of their rich music all
In sunset colours reflected in my eyes.

It was there that I lived in a voluptuous calm
In splendour in between the blue skies and the waves,
And I was attended by naked, perfumed slaves,

And they refreshed and cooled my brow with fronds of palm,
And all their earthly care was solely to divine
What was the dolorous secret which made me pine.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Why I Talk about Poetry

I talk about poetry
not because I think
it’s important, not really;
or if it does rank
among the things that matter,
surely it’s only
as a communication
from writer to book
and thence to reader,
needing no further conversation
to make it work.

I talk about poetry
because it’s something
to talk about. I don’t care
what we’re talking
about, just as long as we
talk. If all my speech
was of true things, vital things,
just the important
things, just what I really meant;
why, then all my speech
would communicate nothing
to my companions
except love, love and longing:
a longing to be
close, closer than their own skins
to them, to be them,
to occupy the same air.

For each human soul
is alone: mind never speaks
to mind except through
two unfaithful messengers,
a mouth and an ear.

And so my study through all
my life has been of the fittest words
to transmit thoughts between minds,
and that, I suppose, is why
I talk about poetry.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

NPWM: from Persée

Well, I've missed a few days, so to make up for it, today's translation is a long one: two whole scenes from Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Persée.

I've only just got into opera, and I've found (as many do, I'm sure) that it's pretty tough going as a new initiate. Which is why I'm grateful to Lully, because his operas are totally accessible to beginners. Persée has pretty tunes, gorgeous three-part harmonies wherever possible, a real machina from which a Deus is lowered on more than one occasion, and TWO sword fights. And on top of all that, it has an excellent libretto by Philippe Quinault, the author of the words on which today's translation is based.

This translates Act II, Scenes 4 & 5 of Persée; the full libretto can be found here, and an excellent version in parts on Youtube begins here.

[II.4] Merope.
Alas! He will be killed! Do I tremble? Wherefore
Should I feel for Andromeda’s lover such fear?
Have I lost all my former spite?
What interest have I in his life?
He lives for another, he is lost to me...
No matter! When I see him in his deadly peril,
When I see him seeking a horrible slaughter,
I do not think, “He loves me not;”
I only think, “I love him.”

[II.5] Enter Andromeda.

Andromeda, apart.
Ill-starred ones, who have been transformed
Into stone by the glance of a dreadful monster,
You feel no more your unmerciful destinies,
And your hardened hearts now are forever peaceful.
Ah! Those hearts which still can feel
Are a thousand times unhappier.

Merope, apart.
Andromeda seems distracted;
She comes in a dream to this place.
Yes. In her face I recognise
The same bitter thoughts which trouble me.

Andromeda, apart.
He loves me but too much, and all he asks of me
Is to love him in my turn;
From the highest of the gods he receives this day.
Can it be love that gives him, in this mortal peril,
The means to hold up against such merit,
And against so much love?

Merope, to Andromeda.
Ah! you love Perseus, and that excites your fears.
Do not disavow your tears.
Your tender sentiments are all too well expressed:
You love him.

You love him.
The hope of his hand had bewitched your very soul,
And I know the project that you formed. I can see
Your spite has not extinguished the flame you keep for him;
Perseus is in danger, and so you are afraid.
You love him.

You love him.

How pitiful the tender heart
That is reduced to hiding!
What pain is there one does not feel
From love that one cannot reveal,
Deep in the dark abiding?
How pitiful the tender heart
That is reduced to hiding!

My spite tries in vain to overthrow my pity.
It’s true. I can’t keep up this anger against you.
Perseus is an ingrate who cannot love me;
It doesn’t mean I can forget him.
But he loves you too much, alas!
Yes, yes, why wouldn’t you love him.

The love he has for me has made
Him bravely seek his end with foolish eagerness.
Do not reproach me for this dolorous advantage;
I will pay dearly for it.

United our regrets; the same love binds us both.
What does it matter which of us Perseus wants?
We both of us shall lose him:
Our common loss shall reconcile us.

This hero goes; oh let him not
From us be plucked away;
Oh let him live for you, so long
As he live through this day.

My love I must hide and betray not... O Venus!
He comes to seek me in this place before he goes.

I go: I'll not be a witness
To the torment of your fond goodbyes.