“Erthe toc of erthe erthe wyth woh”

April 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Erthe toc of erthe erthe wyth woh.
Erthe other erthe to the erthe droh.
Erthe leyde erthe in erthene throh.
Tho heuede erthe of erthe erthe ynoh.

– Anonymous

Various translations of this Middle English poem can be found online. My favorite:

Earth took of earth earth with ill;
Earth other earth gave earth with a will.
Earth laid earth in the earth stock-still:
Then earth in earth had of earth its fill.

There are also several versions of the original which, judging from its widespread inclusion in incunabula across the centuries, seems to have been a popular poem. “Erthe upon Erthe” collects these variations and gives historical background.

It is a remarkable little thing. The repetition of “earth” makes it easy to remember; and as that word repeats, the meaning changes slightly: planet, ground, soil, tomb. The earth becomes not just the land on which we live, but also the opening in that land where we go to die. Ominous!


Hymn to a Jeddart-Justicer

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

The convicks sail the Reid Sea, pechin,
oarin the galley through,
rairin abune the shackle-nicherin
a sang of their hame — Peru.

Peru-fold, yowlin o Peru — their Paradise
the burdies, the jiggin, the tarts,
the croons o orange-flooers ticed
wi the baobab heavenwarts.

Bananas, ananas! Sic a tass o pleesures!
Wine in the bosie o the jaur…
Till the judged tuk Peru, like Caesars,
— guid kens for why, or frae whaur!

And the burdies and the jiggin and the she-Peruvians
were aa umbeset wi decreets.
The een o the judge are twin tin-cannikins
skancin in a midden. He treats

a blue-and-orange peacock to a luik,
a fish-cauld, lenten glaff —
the grand renbow on the tail o the peacock
like winkie groosit aff!

And nixt to Peru, fleein owre the prairie
are thae wee hummin-burdies:
the judge claucht wan puir colibri
and shaved it to the hurdies.

And nae strath noo has burnin bens
wi fierce volcanic lowe.
The judge tuk up his strathfu pen:
“Nae smokin in the Howe.”

My verse anaa in puir Peru
‘s unlawfu: penalty, torture.
The judge said: “Ye’ll no sell sic a brew
o liquor in this quarter.”

The equator grues as the shackles ring.
Peru’s loast wings and folk…
aa bar the judge, harsk, thrawn, mingein
cooerin in the law’s cope.

D’ye see the peety o the man o Peru?
Aff-loof they gied him to the galleys.
And the burdies and the jiggin, Peru, me, you —
The judge shak aa wi their malice.

– Vladimir Mayakovsky
translated by Edwin Morgan

Undoubtably more Morgan than Mayakovsky, this translation turns the futurist’s slang-lang into Scots. Another Vladimir (Nabokov) would have detested Morgan’s freedom with the translation (see Eugene Onegin or “The Art of Translation”), if one could call this a translation at all. “Patische” might be the better word; Mayakovsky’s poem (which I cannot find dressed in its original Russian garb) might be untranslatable. However, M & M were both defenders of the avant-guade, both wildly innovative and formidably formal, both interested in the sonic texture of language, both swimmers in the underground’s undercurrent — Mayakovsky’s experimental verse and ties to futurism, Morgan’s native Scots dialect fused with concrete poetry — that carried them away from the mainstream’s stream, so that Morgan’s stylistic flourishes contain Mayakovsky’s spirit even if only tangentially related to the original.

“If you are squeamish”

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

– Sappho
translated by Mary Barnard

I went to the beach today and utilized this advice to the utmost degree.

Straight Tip to All Cross Coves

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
  Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
  Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
  Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
  How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
  Or moskeneer or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
  Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
  Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot
  You cannot bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Suppose you try a different tack,
  And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
  Or with the mummers mug and gag?
  For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag
At any graft, no matter what!
  Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
  With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
  Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

– Fran├žois Villon
translated by William Ernest Henley

A translator’s dilemma: Villon writes a boisterous ballade stuffed with 15th century French slang that is now, due to the intervening five centuries, obsolete and esoteric. Does the translator choose to honor the definitions of the dusty jargon, rarely straying from his crib, or does he turn the thing into a playpen and go for the atmosphere and flavor of the original even if it means ignoring word-for-word translations?

There are various linguistic quandaries that arise from this situation. Language is filled with piths and pits and parts of words that only native tongues feel; a crib of De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie is possible, but it really isn’t a translation of the poem, since the poem depends upon the tone and attitude of the slang. But stray too far from the original and the poem is more “in the spirit” than it is a true translation.

Smartly, Henley translated Villon a step away from the French. Having worked on the seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, he had the vocabulary to produce something with the original’s spunk, even if purists would question his word choice.

Here’s the first stanza of the same poem but translated more literally by Henry de Vere Stacpoole:

Ye who be smugglers of papal bulls,
  Or cheaters at dice, whatever be ye —
Coiners who risk life and limb like fools,
  Then boil in hot oil for their felony,
  Traitors disloyal — ye know who ye be —
Stealers of jewels, of perfume and pearls:
  So where goes it all, that ye get in fee?
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Not nearly as good, is it, even if it’s technically a more “accurate” translation? Henley’s still sounds modern even if the slang isn’t.

maison aragon

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

arp & the barbered arbor
reignite the open night
in the special pocket edition made for australian kangaroos

arp & the arc-shaped bark
are framed by semiramis
arp the arc & the arbored barbered bark

o crisp chronometer

– Tristan Tzara
translated by Jerome Rothenberg

Probably a tribute to avant-garde sculptor (and Dada co-founder) Jean Arp. The poem is surprisingly easy to memorize, as if there’s a nursery rhyme lurking behind its Dadaist composition. And after the pop-pop-pop of the plosives, how refreshing is that “o crisp chronometer”?

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