Commentaries - April 2012

The Ka Mate Ka Ora translation issue

Campana to Montale
photograph by Michael Dean / cover design by James Fryer

I went to an interesting paper at the Literature and Translation conference in Melbourne last year. The presenter was attempting to contrast two English versions of Rilke’s Sonnete an Orpheus, by (respectively) Don Paterson and Stephen Cohn, in terms of Dryden’s famous triad of metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation.

All Translation, I suppose, may be reduced to these three heads:

First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Author Word by Word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. ...

The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Author is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense; and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not alter’d. …

The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the Ground-work, as he pleases. …

– John Dryden, “Preface concerning Ovid’s Epistles” (1680)

The problem was that the presenter spoke no German, and while I think we were all interested in the distinctions he was making, the moment he descended to cases his ignorance of the language betrayed him. Examples he would try to give of excessive literalism in Cohn’s version were often (at least in my view) quite loose paraphrases of the original. The creative transmutations he claimed to detect in Paterson were, by contrast, often bald restatements of Rilke’s German.

The question and answer session was, as a result, somewhat frustrating to all. I was curious to know why he’d chosen those particular versions, and not (for example) J. B. Leishman’s or C. F. MacIntyre’s. The answer was that those were the only two translations he’d read. While I’m sure we all agreed that it should be possible to do an interesting reading of a translation in isolation from its original, this seemed too literal an approach to be really useful.

Dryden’s preface, after all, goes on to specify that “No man is capable of translating Poetry, who, besides a Genius to that Art, is not a Master both of his Authors Language, and of his own.”

The recent launch of a special translation issue of the Auckland University online poetics journal Ka Mate Ka Ora has prompted me to think a bit about its importance – or rather lack of importance – in New Zealand poetry.

The issue includes translations and commentaries from Chinese (by Hilary Chung), Dutch (by Fredrika van Elburg), French (by Pam Brown and Jane Zamiro), Old French (by me), German (by Andrew Wood), Ancient Greek (by Ted Jenner), Italian (by Laurie Duggan), Latin (by Tom Bishop and Steve Willett), Polish (by Murray Edmond) Russian (by Jacob Edmond and Cilla McQueen) and Spanish (by Marty Brooks). It also includes a translation (Imitation?) into Polish of a poem by local poet Vivienne Plumb.

That’s quite a range of languages: 11 in all (by my count, at least). You’ll note that there are no translations from Maori or other Oceanic or Pacific languages represented – except in the journal’s title, which references Te Rauparaha’s famous haka (as explained by Robert Sullivan in issue 1).

I guess it would confirm to me that New Zealand poets have a lot of cultural and linguistic traditions to call on. Why, then, isn’t translation more important to us? Is it just one more of those things we expect to be done better overseas?

I can think of a number of books which have raised the issue over recent years.

Li He Cover

  • Mike Johnson. The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  • Kendrick Smithyman. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian. 2004. Ed. Jack Ross & Marco Sonzogni. Transference Series. Novi Ligure: Edizioni Joker, 2010.

I guess, on the one hand, there’s the question of linguistic proficiency. Mike Johnson speaks no Chinese, and yet he has produced what I think would have to be called a paraphrase – rather than a metaphrase or an imitation – of the Chinese poet Li He.

The same applies to Kendrick Smithyman, whose versions of the Italian modernists I edited in 2004, and was happy to see reissued, with an introduction by translation scholar Marco Sonzogni, in Italy last year.

I was particularly glad to see it reach a second edition because it implied Sonzogni’s tacit support of my belief that Kendrick’s poems from the Italian are indeed good – worthy, in fact, of being read by an Italian as well as an English-speaking audience. Knowing a language too well can, after all, be overwhelming to a poetic translator. In attempting to reproduce the particulars of a poem “the Verbal Copier is incumber’d with so many difficulties at once, that he can never disentangle himself from all” (as Dryden puts it):

 He is to consider, at the same time, the thought of his Author, and his words, and to find out the Counterpart to each in another Language ... ’Tis much like dancing on Ropes with fetter’d Legs: A man can shun a fall by using Caution, but the gracefulness of Motion is not to be expected.

Then there are the translations of New Zealand poems into other languages. This is a piecemeal process, but I’m aware of two pretty extensive examples to date, into (respectively) French and German:

wildes licht

  • Europe: Revue littéraire mensuelle 931-932 (Novembre-Décembre 2006) – Écrivains de Nouvelle-Zélande / François Augiéras.
  • Dieter Riemenschneider, ed. & trans. Wildes Licht: Poems / Gedichte aus Aotearoa Neuseeland (English-German). Kronberg: Tranzlit, 2010.

It is, I think, a sad tribute to our predominantly monoglot system of education that neither of these publications has been seen as much more than a curiosity in local eyes. I guess that the individual authors feel flattered to be selected for translation, but few of us are in a position to judge how well or badly the task has been performed (very well indeed, in the case of Dieter Reimenschneider, I would hasten to add).

What else? Well, it really does surprise me that more fuss has not been made by New Zealand poets over the definitive publication of the massive body of traditional Maori songs begun by Sir George Grey and completed by scholar and statesman Sir Apirana Ngata. This collection was reprinted in a revised and updated form, with new versions of previously untranslated material, by Auckland University Press, between 2004 and 2007. It’s recently been supplemented by a one-volume introduction  to the entire collection.

jane mcrae

  • Jane McRae. Ngā Mōteatea: He Kupu Arataki / An Introduction. 1990. Trans. Heni Jacob. Polynesian Society Memoir, 56. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011.
  • Apirana Ngata. Ngā Mōteatea: He Maramara Rere nō ngā Waka Maha He Mea Kohikohi / The Songs: Scattered Pieces from Many Canoe Areas: Part 1. 1959. Ed. Pei Te Hurinui Jones. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004.
  • Apirana Ngata. Ngā Mōteatea: He Maramara Rere nō ngā Waka Maha He Mea Kohikohi / The Songs: Scattered Pieces from Many Canoe Areas: Part 2. 1961. Ed. Pei Te Hurinui Jones. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2005.
  • Apirana Ngata. Ngā Mōteatea: He Maramara Rere nō ngā Waka Maha He Mea Kohikohi / The Songs: Scattered Pieces from Many Canoe Areas: Part 3. 1970. Ed. Pei Te Hurinui Jones. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006.
  • Apirana Ngata. Ngā Mōteatea: He Maramara Rere nō ngā Waka Maha He Mea Kohikohi / The Songs: Scattered Pieces from Many Canoe Areas: Part 4. 1990. Trans. Hirini Moko Reed. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.

It’s true that some of the older translations in these volumes are fairly stilted. The fact that they’ve been republished with new recordings, on CD, of the traditional chants, should in itself be fascinating to us. It’s as if a New Zealand Iliad or Kalevala were to come out from the press without any particular fanfare. Were we all too busy arguing over the latest slim volume of clipped, ironic lyrics?

This new issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora is an excellent start, I feel, but New Zealand poets (and publishers) have to work a bit harder to jolt themselves out of their “English-is-the-one-world-language” rut, I feel. Why should translation projects be such a drug on the market? What does Dryden say?

I take Imitation of an Author … to be an Endeavour of a later Poet to write like one, who has written before him, on the same Subject: that is, not to translate his Words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only to set him as a Pattern, and to write, as he supposes that Author would have done, had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country ...

Both Mike Johnson and Kendrick Smithyman seem to have discovered new aspects of themselves by looking through the eyes of foreign language poets. It’s simply not true to the reality of modern New Zealand for our writers to imply that we only speak and understand one language here.

Portland, Oregon is a book town. While it may be known nationally as the home of Powell’s and zines, and of course, Women & Women First Bookstore from the TV show Portlandia, it is also the home of two of my favorite bookstores: Passages and Division Leap. Both are run by artists and specialize in poetry, artists’ books, little magazines, rare, and signed copies. Both have a relatively small, but carefully curated inventory. While most bookstores have a handful of things that are of interest to me, at Passages and Division Leap, everything on the shelf is either already in my personal collection, or something that I would like to add, or something that I want to read on the spot. Another commonality is that their standards of quality apply to the condition of the books themselves: you won’t find anything in ‘good’ (meaning ‘bad’) condition here, and their descriptions are always thorough and accurate. One would expect that this level of expertise comes at a pretty penny, but I’ve always found their prices at or below their online competitors. The culture of online book sales has changed the way we discover, acquire, and talk about books. The days of grand country road bookstores full of surprises are largely a thing of the past. Dealers that have been able to maintain storefronts price their products relative to what to what other dealers are asking internationally, and while there are certain advantages to living in a world where everything is always available everywhere, it’s nice to know that David Abel (Passages) and Adam Davis and Kate Schaefer (Division Leap) bring the classic integrity, curiosity, knowledge, and zeal for books to their businesses. They know their customers’ interests, and have a genuine desire to help people find the books they need. Oh, and both are open by appointment only, so next time you’re planning a trip to Portland, call ahead.


Stein's 'A Long Gay Book' rewritten by Mac Low's diastic Stein series: Notes on 'Very Pleasant Soiling (Stein 7)'

Jackson Mac Low made available several sections of his Stein series on his EPC page. I sometimes introduce my students to this series by reading and discussing with them number 7, titled “Very Pleasant Soiling.” Mac Low’s notes, as usual, describe the process by which this (and other) pieces in the series were composed:

Derived from a page (and preceding line) of Gertrude Stein’s “A Long Gay Book” (A Stein Reader, edited by Ulla E. Dydo, last line of 240 thru 241 — determined by a logarithm table) via Charles O. Hartman’s program DIASTEX5, his latest automation of one of my diastic procedures developed in 1963, using the 7th paragraph of the source as seed, and subsequent editing: exisions of words; changes of word order, tense, and suffixes within lines; and additions of capitals, periods, spaces, and a few structure words.

Click here for pages from "A Long Gay Book" directly relevant to Mac Low's diastic rewriting in "Very Pleasant Soiling." You will see two pages of Ulla Dydo's introduction to the work, following by the two pages Mac Low fed into DIASTEX5 - from Dydo’s brilliantly edited and presented A Stein Reader (pp. 240-241). And here again is a link to the text of the poem at EPC.

For more on Mac Low's sense of Stein: 1) Mac Low reads and comments on "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass," the opening section of Tender Buttons, (2) Mac Low's reading from and commentary on other parts of Tender Buttons.

Alan Golding reads from the work of Ed Dorn at the 40th University of Louisville conference on literature and culture after 1900 — on February 25, 2012: MP3. Recording made by Aldon Nielsen.

Couper catalyst
Matthew Couper: Catalyst 9 cover (2011)

Earlier this year I was sent my contributor’s copy of Catalyst 9 (subtitled “Export Quality”). It includes a CD of poetry recordings by local poets set to music by what producer Jody Lloyd calls “a collection of New Zealand musicians”:

For this production I asked dozens of musicians for sound donations in the form of musical samples – a chord, a series of chords, a solo, a bass line, a drum beat and where those were not available, an entire track: whatever they had and wanted to give. [11]

 To tell you the truth, I’d almost forgotten about the recording session for this particular project. I remember being summoned to some far-off part of town what seems like ages ago to read out a few poems, and it came as a bit of a surprise to see which one they’d chosen (a rather odd collage poem called “Vampires”). The delay can hardly be blamed on the editors of this Christchurch-based indie magazine, though. As Doc Drumheller explains in his editorial:

The production of this volume has been seriously delayed due to the many earthquakes in Christchurch and the Canterbury region. Damage to the CBD has affected the business of our design team and printers and we felt it was more important to focus on the well-being of our families and friends than to rush for the sake of going into print. [9]

Right on, Doc! All power to you and your team for making it happen at all, is what I would like to add. Fellow-editor Ciarán Fox goes into more detail in his own piece about the project:

For many, 2010/11 will be remembered as a time of disaster and loss. Certainly for those in Canterbury life took a turn for the dramatic, reminding us of our potential fragility in the face of vast natural forces. It has also shown us that we can have the kind of community that we dreamed of but thought lost. One where we know our neighbours, support each other, and rebuild together. Catalyst itself has not been immune to the earth shifting beneath our feet. [10]

It was with a certain feeling of apprehension that I actually put on the CD for a listen after all that build-up. And yet the result is, I think, very cool indeed. Jody Lloyd’s samplings and “musical beds” have resulted in some really beautiful tracks – even mine sounds good (small thanks to a pretty weird poem). As Doc puts it in his summing-up: “Now we plan to rival the beef and dairy industry with our Export Quality recording that showcases some of the most interesting voices New Zealand has to offer.”

catalyst cd

These “eerie and moving songlike compositions,” as he calls them, are, of course, nothing new. Poetry recordings are as old as the recording industry itself (that’s if the vague booming noise one can vaguely hear on CD1 of Elise Paschen & Rebekah Presson Mosby’s Poetry Speaks [“Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath.” 3 CDs. Napierville, Illinois: SourceBooks MediaFusion, 2001] really is Walt Whitman reciting “America”). Even the idea of putting soundscapes behind spoken verse dates back at least as far as W. B. Yeats’s fin-de-siècle experiments with harp and lute-playing accompanists.

I can’t help feeling that some particularly interesting things are happening with sound right now, though – that the existence of YouTube and other websites which make it easy even for idiots like me to get audio and video tracks online has added greatly to the mana of the individual poetry performance.

There must, after all, have been a Hegelian moment of shifting energies when people no longer purchased the sheet music of their favourite hit songs to play to their family and friends at home, but instead bought the 45 (or, later, the LP). Musical historians date this moment to sometime in the 1920s, I believe – though of course it must have been different in different places. Are we approaching such a moment for poetry? The moment when all those random poetry animations and CDs and sound and video recordings suddenly coalesce to make a particular reading of a poem overshadow the page it was originally written down on  …

I’m not sure that I entirely welcome the prospect, but for the moment, at any rate, I certainly see a lot to celebrate in some of the poetry recordings that have come my way recently. One of the most interesting is John Newton’s Country & Western album – with his foot-stompin’ band The Tenderizers – Love Me Tender (Auckland: Lefthand Gun Productions, 2011).

Cover: Judy Darragh & Olivia Galletly

Shades of Leonard Cohen, you may say. The difference is that Newton is by no means as confident a singer – he is as ingenious and accomplished a poet, however. While one often feels a more established artist could transform some of these beautiful and polished lyrics into bona fide hits, I think the fascinating thing about his project is the way in which he’s used it to indulge his obviously intense nostalgia for romantic excess – for the world of Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn – while still gently satirizing it with the self-conscious Grand Old Opry excess of the CD cover (art by Judy Darragh / design  by Olivia Galletly).

art by Judy Darragh

It’s a not dissimilar project to his recent exercise in poetic nostalgia Lives of the Poets (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010), in fact. In both book and album, Newton tries to set up a context where he can wallow in self-indulgent passion while at the same time framing and fixing his emotions critically with a cold, calculated eye. Whatever the explanation, his CD has been going around and around on my stereo since I bought it the other day.

Camille Martin: Hieroglyphic Night (2008)

Another purchase at the same time was American poet Lisa Samuels’ double-CD Tomorrowland (Auckland: Deep Surface Productions, 2012 - the cover art, Hieroglyhic Night (2008),  is by Camille Martin). This is a reading of her 2009 Shearsman volume of the same name, with musical soundscapes by the author recorded and mixed by Tim Page. It’s nice to listen to, too.

What was really striking about it, though, was at the launch (which took place at that recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium you’ve already heard so much about from me and others), when Lisa started to read and improvise over the top of her recorded sound-text. Now that sounded really interesting: bizarre and heteroglossic glissades of words and phrases, producing a kind of multiplex of infinite possibilities. I immediately made a mental note of that idea for future performances: Beckett did it already, of course, in Krapp’s Last Tape, but why not overlay one’s own voice over a recording of one’s own voice if you too want that “eerie” (Doc Drumheller’s word) effect?

samuels tomorrowland

Going back a bit in time, I have to say that I hugely enjoyed Charlotte Yates’ two NZ-poetry CDs Baxter (NZ: Universal Music Ltd., 2000) and Tuwhare (NZ: Universal Music Ltd., 2004), where the poems of (respectively) James K. Baxter and Hone Tuwhare were set to music by well-known New Zealand recording artists. I also like some of the more radical free-noise experiments included on the CD attached to brief #36 (2008) – The NZ Music Issue, edited by Brett Cross and local indie music legend Bill Direen. The New Zealand sound poetry back-catalogue is beginning to look pretty impressive.

image by Sara Hughes

Five years ago, in 2006, when Jan Kemp and I began to publish our series of AUP anthologies NZ Poets in Performance (based on two massive recording efforts carried out in 1974 and 2002-4), we ran into a lot of fuss over the precise definition of the word “performance.” Some reviewers thought that only a recording of a live reading, complete with audience shuffle and laughter, qualified as a genuine performance: “The collection (and the subsequent volumes) might more accurately be called ‘New Zealand poets in the studio’, rather than ‘in performance’,” as Jacob Edmond put it in a piece entitled “Not So Hopped-Up” in the Journal of New Zealand Literature 25 (2007): 164-73.

I have to say that that seems to me an increasingly daft restriction on the meaning of “performance.” Of course it’s a different experience to listen to a studio album or a live recording of essentially the same body of work. They offer quite different possibilities – the rawness and spontaneity of the latter as against the studied layering of the former. I do agree with Jacob, though, that the future of poetry recordings lies in an immense expansion of the number of approaches and experiences available. It’s nice to see so many New Zealand poets and sound artists experimenting with those ideas right now.