Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and an autonomous region of Italy, perhaps best known in a literary sense for being the birthplace and home of Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. But Sardinia was also home to a number of other intellectuals, writers, and artists, including Sebastiano Satta (1867-1914), a journalist and lawyer who is widely considered Sardinia’s greatest poet.
While working as colleagues in the now defunct but still singular international MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, we visited the island in 2014 as part of a contingent from the university and as guests of Beyond Thirty-Nine, an independent arts and culture platform. Our trip took the form of an immersion in various aspects of Sardinian culture, such as the masked ritualistic dance of the Mamuthones and the canto a tenore or polyphonic singing of pastoral songs. We were also exposed to the work of the island’s great writers and artists, among them Sebastiano Satta.
A committed socialist in the vein of Pablo Neruda, Satta spent his life advocating for the island’s working class, while his poetry (such as Versi Ribelli and Canti Barbaricini) celebrated the island’s terrain, especially the mountainous wilderness of the Barbagia region. We were introduced to Satta’s work with the caveat that his particular music and use of local dialect made translating him very difficult. Taking that as a challenge, we set about trying to render his work in English while retaining some of the lyricism of the original. The following translations were composed in Sardinia and performed at the open air gallery of acclaimed sculptor Pinuccio Sciola.
– James Scudamore and Ravi Shankar
By name, the qaṣīda is scarcely known to Anglo-American readers. It therefore bears mentioning that the qaṣīda is an Arabic poetic form, in fact the highest classical form, and that it was taken up throughout the African, Indian, Turkic, and Persianate languages of the Islamic world. Into the poetic traditions of Europe and the Americas, the qaṣīda has not made much of a crossing, with the exception of the Spanish-language casida (which borrows the name more than it does the poetic form). Its lack of presence in the West contrasts with the seeming naturalization of the ghazal, an Arabic-native mode that (after Persian poets gave new formal features to it) has been adopted by Western poets since Goethe. The fact that the Arabic ghazal derives from the qaṣīda has done nothing to raise the ancestral form’s profile in Western poetics.
Some obscurity in the matter is only natural. In modern Arabic, the word qaṣīda refers to a poem of almost any kind. Classically, however, it is a monorhymed suite of three or more thematic movements of no fixed length. The requirement that a qaṣīda be polythematic holds for the earliest sixth-century (CE) examples as it does for Arabic qaṣīdas of a thousand years later. The present qaṣīda is in four sections:
1. Amatory prelude (called in Arabic nasīb): verses 1-6
2. Wine song (khamriyya): verses 7-25
3. Travel exploits (raḥīl): verses 26-40
4. Praise of the patron (madīḥ): verses 41-58
There is a lot to say about all these sections, as well as their composer. Al-A‘shā (who died around 629 CE) was a pioneer of Arabic wine song, a mode already well developed in this poem. For their description of the blue-eyed tavern keeper and his milieu, the wine verses are of high literary as well as sociological interest. The ethnic alterity of the wine-seller remained a topos of Arabic bacchic verse (as in the poems of Abū Nuwās), and of historical drinking practice too.
One element of the travel section calls for comment because it is so typical. This is the description of the she-camel on whose back the poet’s heroic journey is made. For the raḥīl to be devoted to camel-description is common, and so is the likening of the camel to one of Arabia’s ungulates–whether a gazelle, an onager, or some other antlered beast of the wild. These subsidiary descriptions can run so long and deliver so much pathos that the camel is forgotten entirely. Once you become familiar with the trope of cross-species simile, it is an unbewildering source of charm. But no degree of familiarity voids the question: what motivates the persistent comparison of the domesticated camel to a hunted beast of the wild?
I leave the question open to workers in the growing field of Animal Studies. I also leave aside the political circumstances of the poem, beyond noting that it finds its dedicatee (a prince of pre-Islamic Yemen) at some odds with other members of the Ḥimyarite ruling class. (Line 44’s mention of Ḥimyar’s failure to guarantee a water supply may reference the early-seventh-century collapse of the dam of Ma’rib, which is mentioned in other poems by al-A‘shā, and in the Qur’ān at Sūrat Sabā 34:16). Al-A‘shā’s relationship to Salāma Dhū Fā’ish was one of propagandist to patron, and far from exclusive. In fact al-A‘shā is reckoned as the first Arabic language artist to turn praise-poetry into a professional career.
All but a very few of the editorial and interpretive decisions made in this translation are based in the commentary of Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā, the late-ninth-century grammarian of Kufa better known as Tha‘lab (“The Fox”). Tha‘lab presents variant readings for about half the poem’s verses, whose number and sequence vary from manuscript to manuscript; over these and other textual issues my translation passes in silence. In Tha‘lab’s collection of al-A‘shā’s verse, this poem is number eight.
– David Larsen
Andrea Chapela is the daughter of a physicist and a mathematician, so she naturally studied chemistry. Luckily for me, she’s also a creative writer. The exciting thing about the poems in Fundamentals of Applied Chemistry is that they are a scientist’s exploration of life and relationships through poetry—and at the same time, a poet’s exploration of life and relationships through chemistry! Not only that, but they’re funny, cutting, insightful—and a lot of fun to translate. Ars poetica as lab report? Breakup poem as description of Bond Theory? I’m in. I think I learned more scientific terminology via translating these poems than I ever did in my high school chemistry class! To her credit, Andrea is also a patient teacher and was very helpful in talking me through the structural ideas guiding many of these poems. Though I don’t think intimate knowledge of the laws and structures she references is necessary to reading these poems, her explanations and diagrams were helpful in making sure I translated in such a way as to convey the overall metaphors. Andrea is an accomplished fiction writer, and these poems indicate she has a bright career as a poet as well.
– Kelsi Vanada
These five poems are all directed against Lucius Gellius Poplicola, who, according to Valerius Maximus, was accused of incest with his mother and plotting his father’s murder (evidence that there is such a thing as the Oedipus Complex, in some people at least!). He was, at any rate, renowned for debauchery and promiscuity. It will not therefore surprise us that he earned Catullus’ extreme animosity as yet another of Lesbia’s sexual partners. He was later to become consul in 36 BC and command the left wing of Antony’s doomed fleet at the Battle of Actium in 32 BC.
We who love Catullus love him as much for his viciousness as for the tenderness Tennyson ascribes to him!
– Ranald Barnicot
Begoña Paz is, to my mind, a necessary writer for the world to know. She writes about topics that I notice most English-language writers seem to avoid (I could never imagine someone from the US writing “The Weight of My Desire”), and in such a startling, beautiful manner. To me, “The Weight of My Desire” represents some of the best characteristics of flash fiction, and the things that draw me to it: in the space of about a page, Paz is able to evoke so much of the history of this crumbling marriage in such simple ways. For example: “Despite every year’s present, a jar of Pond’s wrinkle cream.” With one image she evokes an uncaring husband, not only giving the same present every year, but a present which is a constant reminder to the protagonist that she is aging, that she no longer satisfies him, that he wishes she were younger, and that she feels emptiness over her inability to do anything about her situation. The story delves deep, probing, moving slowly until, with the last two paragraphs Paz turns a slow, pensive narrative into one with charge, moving at lightning speed. It gallops forward towards its conclusion and ends so fast that the reader is left as confused and disoriented as the narrator, who seems, when it is all over, to be wondering what happened and looking down at the page, or the husband, to check and see if it truly did occur.
One of the challenges of translating her poetry is that she has a great economy of language and beautiful imagery: “And cars like pills/ for anything and/ for nothing,/ and pounds/ of dreams/ that spread/ over sidewalks/ at twilight/ so that we step on them/ on our way to the/ jobschooljail of/ our everyday lives.” There is a sort of vague clarity to these lines from her poem, “Proof,” that sort of foggy clarity one gets if awake around that hour before the sun has fully risen and it’s still dark outside. The challenge of linguistic economy becomes greater when dealing with Galician—the amount of contractions in the language makes English seem tame. The Galician language, too, has such a distinct sound to it that it can be hard to approach the sonority of the original, best exemplified by “Motel Silviculture.” In the original, the last stanza reads “Elixe./ Elixe./ Elixe.” In Galician that “x” has a soft, “shh” sound, which softens the tone of the middle-heavy word (e-LI-xe). The word in Galician has a heavy emphasis, but is softened by the “shh” sound, giving a sense of harshness and pressure at the same time as it has a voice-in-your-head, whispering quality to it. In English, the two best translations of this word, which is an imperative verb conjugation of “elixir,” would be “choose” or “decide.” With “choose” readers get some of that softness from the Galician “x,” with “decide,” readers get that pounding iambic nature of the original—faced with a choice between two words in English which only contain half of the original’s sonority, how does one choose, how does one decide?
– Jacob Rogers
These translations are a meditation on the notion of translatability. Written by a young poet and assistant editor, they offer a humorous leftist political critique of bigotry, conservatism, and small-mindedness through a lens of orthography and syntax. In “Ooh, Oooh!” the poet explains the difference between the long and short vowel “u” in Hindi, as a critique of ignorance and conservatism slowly shimmers into view. For “Ooh, Oooh!” I have offered three possible translations and an illustration of an owl (my own), an ullū, a word which contains both the short and long “u” in Hindi. In Hindi and Urdu, owls are symbols of foolishness, rather than wisdom, and this owl is pointing to the foolishness of the task the translator has set out to accomplish. For the other three poems, I have gone with the “freestyle” approach suggested by the third translation of “Ooh, Oooh!”. In “Sub-Editrix,” the poet expresses his annoyance at an editor who does not know how to spell. In “News Editor,” another editor’s confusion over the difference between the spellings of Iran and Iraq (in Hindi, “Iran” starts with a long “ī”, and “Iraq” with a short “i”) unfurls into a thought on the constant state of war in the Middle East, and in “Communalist Statement,” the poet plays with syntax to critique bigoted statements (in India, the term “communalism” refers to bigotry toward members of other religious communities).
– Daisy Rockwell
We are well acquainted with Sappho’s legend. Few details of her life are confirmed, but thanks to her cult of personality (and people’s delight in salacious gossip), we can make out hazy images of her: holding a lyre, within a circle of young women, singing hymns to Aphrodite, falling—and failing—over and over again in love and in lust. Her reputation as lyric virtuosa has inspired hundreds of renditions of her poems, and thousands of words written about her in the course of literary history. So why visit her again and again?
A characteristic theme of Sappho’s poetry is the phenomenology of lust and heartbreak. In the many already extant translations of these poems, Sappho sometimes appears all too remote; she seems oracular, a high priestess reaching out to goddesses and girls of a bygone, mythic era. This is beautiful in its own right, but it contradicts her intense descriptions of physical sensation. The vision of a lover causing fire to run under one’s skin is an invention born of Sappho’s particular experience, and yet it is strikingly relatable. We should have Sappho brought to us as close as possible, thereby rendering her earthly and tangible. We should let her make us her confidant, an intimate rather than an audience member. Hence my aim with these translations—to render the drama of our pagan poet as immediate, sympathetic, incarnate.
Following Pound’s advice, I did not attempt to copy Sappho’s quantitative meter, but rather to approximate it in free verse, letting the form follow from content but always with a sensuous music underlying it all. Sappho’s world was a pagan one. She and her contemporaries sought out the divine in nature, and saw it oftentimes in the face of a lover. This seems justification enough for an engagement with her ancient art, to remind us of the vital importance of the ineffable in nature and in each other.
– Christina Farella
Chronic Heart (Cœur chronique, Le Castor Astral, 2013) by Eric Sarner, winner of the Prix Max Jacob 2014, is a poetry collection composed of three parts, three melodies. Sarner tells us that Chronic Heart “recounts events, names of places, people, works, and words that, at any given moment” resonated emotionally with him. He adds that, “from beginning to end, what grabs us are our emotions and what often accompanies them, our questions. The work of the poet is to give voice to all that.”
I chose three poems from the collection’s third part, Almost a Wandering Song. This is the heart, the chronic heart rhythmically beating, punctuating us, marking time. The titles of the poems in Almost a Wandering Song are eighty Ladino words brought back from trips by the poet. While the poems are written in French, some lines are also in Ladino. The poems are stories, testimonies, time revisited through language.
– Hélène Cardona
My translation process for this work was informed by the theoretical works of Haroldo de Campos, the late Brazilian poet, translator, and critic who emphasized that the structural elements of a poem are as important as–and sometimes more important than–its semantic aspects. Here, I have tried to maintain the metric structures, compressing them when possible, but still maintaining rhythm and other aspects.
– Alessandro Palermo Funari
The following versions of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems are covers in the popular music tradition. Singing them I hope to discover an elasticity in the German that can almost, if not quite, cover my English.
The arc of the life so briefly described in the biography provided here reminds me of the arcs of the lives of so many blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the American 20th century—great musicians who made huge contributions to the sounds of the century through their own writing and playing and through their influences upon other artists, but who, for various reasons, including passionate temperaments, fell off the success tracks and were immediately or slowly left behind by their friends and colleagues, perhaps to spend decades in quiet towers writing and singing mainly to themselves, much as Hölderlin did.
The three poems presented here are from the initial phase of a project to compose a (book or) album of cover versions of short Hölderlin poems. The project has two principal goals: to please myself (I have fun composing these versions—it’s like singing Aretha or Zeppelin or Queen in the shower); and to do something to bring Hölderlin’s life and work to the attention of readers who have not yet heard of him. I love the Janus-like gaze of cover versions of music, songs that deliberately read past works and yet might, if they give pleasure, take an active part in conversations to come.
– Daniel Bosch
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).