ˁAbīd bin Al-Abraṣ: Lament for his People in Rawḥān (From Arabic)

The poetry attributed to the pre-Islamic poet ˁAbīd bin Al-Abraṣ, like that attributed to Al-Muhalhil, is traditionally reckoned by medieval commentators to be among the very earliest to survive. Judging by the fact that his most famous of poems  (which I am also in the process of translating) has an anomalous meter that falls outside the meters allowable in classical khalīlian prosody, as well as the fairly high frequency of anomalous syntactic constructions and unusual vocabulary of most of his work (anomalous and unusual, that is, from the point of view of the later and better-understood stages of Arabic) there is no reason to disagree with them on this point, at least with regard to the bulk of the material. 
Fortunately for the modern reader of Early Arabic (or, at least, fortunately for me) ˁAbīd's language is often as moving as it is difficult, the more so thanks to his most frequent subject: the disaster that befell his tribe, the Banū Asad. The nature of the disaster remains unspecified in the poems and therefore unknown to us, but judging by the evidence from the poems it would have involved some sort of attack by superior forces (presumably one of the sedentary Arab kingdoms) which left many of the Banū Asad dead, and forced most of the rest to flee much of their former territory.  
The historical reality underlying the poetry is murky and probably will never be cleared up, barring an extraordinary fortuitous discovery by Arabian archaeologists (we have inscriptional evidence attesting to Lakhmid action against the Banū Asad, but none that I know of dated to even remotely the right period.) The information on ˁAbīd's life accompanying the poetry in Islamic literary compendia does not help much, as it has every sign of being based more on the poems than anything else, though it may contain some refraction of general truth about conflict with Kindite royalty. 
Moreover is the case with most pre-Islamic poetry some (though by no means most) of the content which bears the poet's name seems (on linguistic grounds) to come from a much later period. Indeed, I have my own unshakable, yet unprovable, suspicions (as does Alan Jones, whose stimulating commentary I consulted) that the last verse of the poem translated here was either added or (more likely) somewhat altered in Islamic times. But it is a fine verse which adds to the poem, and I saw no reason not to include it in the translation, not least because it seemed completely unjustifiable to make excisions based on chronological doubt in translating pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, when I don't do so, and never have, in dealing with Biblical Hebrew poetry (where dating is much messier.)  
In any case, even admitting the qualifications which must attend any corpus which has gone through centuries of oral transmission, I see no substantive reason not to read the body of material attributed to ˁAbīd as basically genuine pre-Islamic poetry, as much of it can at the very least be securely dated quite early on lexical, syntactic or metrical grounds. That does not definitively prove, of course, that all such early work attributed to ˁAbīd is necessarily by him. In pre-Islamic poetry, proving a positive is often much harder than proving a negative. It may well be that only a few poems are genuinely his, and that ˁAbīd as we know him is a half-archetypal figure around whose name various early poems of disparate authorship, containing a particular species of tribal lamentation, coagulated. If true, this would account for some the toponymic discrepancies that perplexed the commentators. But there are other ways to solve those problems, and this is all idle, proofless speculation.
But I now digress unjustifiably, as questions of authenticity, attribution and dating, though of interest to historians, are rather beside the point for the lover of poetry. For the pain of displacement and deracination, and the anguish of surviving a tragedy that has gutted one's people, are universal topics that have animated poets throughout recorded history to produce some of the most enduringly memorable verse in such disparate languages as Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Sumerian, Greek, Cherokee, Nahuatl and many others.    

Lament for His People in Rawḥān
ˁAbīd ibn Al-Abraṣ
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Arabic

Were those my people's dwellings 
  that in the stoneland lie?
 They are now a dwindled vestige
   changed by the hands of Time. 

There did I halt my camel 
  to question those dead traces,
 But had to turn away, 
   tears gushing from my eyes 

In a stream as though the lids 
  had suddenly burst forth
  The downpour of a cloud  
   from winter-laden skies.

Oh mine was once the kindest 
  of ordinary peoples 
 To all who had fallen captive
   or fallen on hard times,

Gamblers who shared their winnings 
  of camel-meat when winds
 Blew winter-hard, and neighbors
   came together inside. 

And when the moment called for spear-thrusts 
  they always did
 Dye their spear-tips deep
   in blood as battle cried.

And when the moment called for sword-strikes  
  they always did 
 Beat back the foe as lions
   protective of their pride.

And when they heard the call "Dismount!" 
  they always rushed
 In coats of mail on foot
    headlong into the fight.

They are gone. I am still here

  but I am not forever.
 Change is the fate of things,
   the many shades of life. 

God knows what I know not
  about the end they met.
 What I have is remembrance
   of things lost in their time.  





The Original:



قال عبيد ابن الابرص في رثاء قومه

لِمَنِ الدِيارُ بِبُرقَةِ الرَوحانِ  دَرَسَت وَغَيَّرَها صُروفُ زَمانِ
فَوَقَفتُ فيها ناقَتي لِسُؤالِها  فَصَرَفتُ وَالعَينانِ تَبتَدِرانِ
سَجماً كَأَنَّ شُنانَةً رَجَبِيَّةً  سَبَقَت إِلَيَّ بِمائِها العَينانِ
أَيّامَ قَومي خَيرُ قَومٍ سوقَةٍ  لِمُعَصِّبٍ وَلِبائِسٍ وَلِعاني
وَلَنِعمَ أَيسارُ الجَزورِ إِذا زَهَت ريحُ الشِتاءِ وَمَألَفُ الجِيرانِ
أَمّا إِذا كانَ الطِعانُ فَإِنَّهُم  قَد يَخضِبونَ عَوالِيَ المُرّانِ
أَمّا إِذا كانَ الضِرابُ فَإِنَّهُم  أُسدٌ لَدى أَشبالِهِنَّ حَواني
أَمّا إِذا دُعِيَت نَزالِ فَإِنَّهُم  يَحبونَ لِلرُكَباتِ في الأَبدانِ
فَخَلَدتُ بَعدَهُمُ وَلَستُ بِخالِدٍ  فَالدَهرُ ذو غِيَرٍ وَذو أَلوانِ
اللَهُ يَعلَمُ ما جَهِلتُ بِعَقبِهِم  وَتَذَكُّري ما فاتَ أَيَّ أَوانِ 


Romanization:

Li-mani l-diyāru bi-burqati l-rawħāni
Darasat wa-ɣayyarahā ṣurūfu zamāni
Fa-waqaftu fīhā nāqatī li-su'ālihā
Fa-ṣaraftu wa-l-ˁaynāni tabtadirāni
Sajman ka'anna šunānatan rajabiyyatan
Sabaqat ilayya bi-mā'ihā l-ˁaynāni
Ayyāma qawmī xayru qawmin sūqatin
Li-muˁaṣṣibin wa-li-bā'isin wa-li-ˁānī
Wa-li-niˁma aysāru l-jazūri iðā zahat
Rīħu l-šitā'i wa-ma'lafu l-jīrāni
Ammā iðā kāna l-ṭiˁānu fa-'innahum
Qad yaxḍiˁūna ˁawālī l-murāni
Ammā iðā kāna l-ḍirābu fa-'innahum
Asadun ladā ašbālihinna ħawānī
Ammā iðā duˁiyat nizāli fa-'innahum
Yamšūna li-l-rakabāti fī l-'abdāni
Fa-xaladtu baˁdahum wa-lastu bi-xālidin
Fa-l-dahru ðū ɣiyarin wa-ðū alwāni
Allāhu yaˁlamu mā jahiltu bi-ˁaqbihim
Wa-taðakkurī mā fāta ayya awāni

Abū Nuwās: Wine, Boys and Song (From Arabic)

Wine, Boys and Song
By Abū Nuwās
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Sing me a song, sweet Sulayman, 
and quench me with sweet wine.
When the bottle comes around, pass it 
with your hands into mine. 
Look! Morning's in the sky, already
its flaxen loincloth shines. 
With cups of comfort wash the call 
to prayer from my mind. 
Give me some wine to drink public, 
then fuck me from behind.

The Original:
قال ابو نواس

ياسُلَيْمانُ غَنّني ، ومِنَ الرّاحِ فاسْـقِـني 
فإذا دَارَتِ الزّجـا جَـة ُ خُـذْها ، وعاطِني 
ما تَرَى الصّبْحَ قَدْ بَدا في إزارٍ متَبَّنِ
عاطِـني كأسَ سَـلْوَة ٍ عَنْ أذانِ المؤذِّنِ 
اسْقِـني الخمْرَ جهْرَةً وألْـِطني ، وأزْنني 

Al-Muhalhil: Vengeance at Dawn (From Arabic)

Today's poet is ˁAdī bin Rabīˁa of Taghlib, commonly known as Al-Muhalhil "The Verse-Weaver." Born presumably at the very end of the 5th century, he is among the earliest poets to whom any surviving verse of substantive length is attributed. He is chiefly known for poems dealing with the Basūs War, in which a 40-year feud between the tribes of Taghlib and Bakr was ignited when his brother Kulayb was killed for slaughtering another tribe's stray camel. See my deflationary note after the poem for more. 

Following my now-standard practice in translating classical poetry from Arabic and related literatures, I have substituted assonance for monorhyme.  I render each line of the Arabic with a five-beat roughly iambic distich in English. I did not repeat the irregular quatraining I used in my translation of Labīd's lament. Julie Scott Meisami, in discussing Suzanne Stetkevych's translations, pointed out that such verse-chopping "destroys the sonority of the poetic line and obscures its internal, and external, connections." To me, at least, such internal connections and line cohesion seem far more important in this intense, impassioned and vengeful dirge than they were in Labīd's more contemplative poem.

Vengeance at Dawn
By Al-Muhalhil of Taghlib
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Arabic

Long was my night of wake at Anˁamayn 
 while sleepless at the ceaseless stars I gazed.
How can I age in life while a slain man 
 of Taghlib still calls for a man to be slain?
O chide the eye weeping rueful over ruins!
 In the breast a wound is open for Kulayb.
In the breast is a bloody need unsatisfied 
 as long as doves among the branches wail.
How can he ever weep over ruined things 
 who pledged to battle men across the ages?
How can I forget you, Kulayb, when I've yet to quell
 the sorrow whelming me, the blood-parched rage?
Today O heart, make good your bloody vow.
 When they ride forth at morn, retaliate!
They grip their bows and we flash lightning bolts 
  as stallions threatening their stallion prey.
We steel ourselves beneath their flashing steel 
 till they fall pounded by our long hard blades
And can keep up no more. We keep attacking  
 for he who keeps the field is war's true mate. 

Deflationary note:

While pre-Islamic tribal poetry has a number of facets to it and might be summarized very crudely as a literature of love, loss, pride and war, the social order it appears to suggest is dominated by feuding, ancient grudges and warfare in defense of honor, a world in which existence itself was a dangerous game, where stoicism and hardiness were the only bulwarks against callous fate and inevitable heartbreak. I might leave it at that, as many do, if I wanted to avoid angry emails. But since I have yet to set forth my most recent views on this matter, and since the social world of pre-Islamic corpus is often wrongly taken at face value by scholars who rightly take the poetry as basically genuine material, my concern for reality compels me to say a bit more.

Even apart from the fact that there are some poets who at least some of the time hint at a more sedate reality, there is another seldom examined resource which can provide a contextual background for the social order suggested by the pre-Islamic poems. There are other tribal nomad-pastoralist desert societies whose climactic, structural and economic conditions have much in common with pre-Islamic bedu, and who maintained their way of being well into the 20th century, long enough that anthropologists and ethnographers were able to give accounts of them, or interview individuals old enough to remember pre-sedentary life. Examples include the Rwala of the northern Najd, the Tuareg of the central western Sahara, and the Ogadēn nomads of the southern Somali highlands. Jonathan A.C. Brown's comparative work on the Muˁallaqāt, informed by accounts of some of these more recent societies (though he does not consider the Tuareg) offers a welcome splash of reality, one which becomes all the more instructive in light of what is known of relations between settled Arab kingdoms (largely client-states of Persia and Byzantium) and nomadic Arabs in the 6th century.

It would appear that, though such societies often perceive and portray themselves as a "people of war and honor" characterized by perpetual conflict, this is often more self-image than reality. Accounts of legendary bloodbaths in the past serve to rationalize current disputes and divisions among related lineage groups, but pragmatic reality often means that cooperation - even at the expense of honor - is far more essential and therefore the norm, and feuding is avoided when possible. Combat when it occurs can be far more ritualized, and less lethal, than that of empires that maintain a standing army. Excessive and protracted large-scale bloodshed which endangers delicate social institutions and threatens access to shared resources is rare. If anything, the worst and bloodiest episodes appear to be conflicts with encroaching sedentary peoples, and centralized polities (such as the Ghassanid and Lakhmid dynasties of old or, more recently, the Saudi State) attempting to subdue them.

In the case of pre-Islamic Arabia, the exaggerated self-perception evident in the poems drawn from oral lore, likely for the edification of the Umayyad ruling class at first, ended up being coopted (and almost certainly at least somewhat sanitized) in the Islamic period by Muslim scholars all too willing to see pre-Islamic nomadic Arabians as a society of brave and and honorable, but impetuous and ignorant, pagans, as Noble Savages (to twist a phrase) who needed the true faith to civilize and unite them, a people you'd be proud not to be, yet also proud to be descended from.



The Original:


باتَ لَيلي بالأَنْعَمَين طَويلا  أَرْقُبُ النَجْمَ ساهِراً لَنْ يَزولا
كَيف أٌمدي ولَا يزالُ قتيلٌ مِن بَني وائلٍ يُنادي قتيلا
أُزْجُرِ الْعَينَ أَنْ تُبَكِّي الطُلولا إِنَّ في الصَدْرِ مِنْ كُلَيبٍ فَليلا
إِنَّ في الصَدْرِ حاجةً لَنْ تُقَضَّى ما دَعا في الغُصونِ داعٍ هَديلا
كَيفَ يَبْكي الطُلولَ مَن هو رَهْنٌ بِطِعانِ الأنامِ جيلا فَجِيلا
كَيف أَنساكَ يا كلَيبُ  ولمّا أقضِ حُزناً ينوبُني وغَليلا
أيُّها القَلبُ أَنْجِزِ اليومَ نَحْباً مِن بني الحِصْنِ إذ غَدوا وذُحولا
انتَضَوا مَعْجِسَ القِسي وأَبْرَقْـنا كَما تُوعِد الفُحولُ الفُحولا
وصَبَرْنا تَحتَ البوارِقِ حتَّى دَكْدَكَتْ فيهِمِ السُيوفُ طَويلا
لم يُطيقوا أنْ يَنْزِلوا ونَزَلْنا وَأَخو الحَربِ مَن أَطاقَ النُزولا 


Romanization:

Bāta laylī bi-l-'Anˁamayni ṭawīlā arqubu l-najma sāhiran lan yazūlā
Kayfa umdī wa-lā yazālu qatīlun min Banī Wā'ilin yunādī qatīlā
Uzjuri l-ˁayna an tubakkī l-ṭulūlā inna fī l-ṣadri min Kulaybin falīlā
Inna fī l-ṣadri ħājatan lan tuqaḍḍā mā daˁā fī l-ɣuṣūni dāˁin hadīlā
Kayfa yabkī l-ṭulūla man huwa rahnun bi-ṭiˁāni l-'anāmi jīlan fa-jīlā
Kayfa ansāka yā Kulaybu wa-lammā aqḍi ħuznan yanūbunī wa-ɣalīlā
Ayyuhā l-qalbu anjizi l-yawma naħban min Banī l-Ħiṣni ið ɣadaw wa-ðuħūlā
Intaḍaw maˁjisa l-qisiyyi wa-'abraqnā kamā tūˁidu l-fuħūlu l-fuħūlā
Wa-ṣabarnā taħta l-bawāriqi ħattā dakdakat fīhimi l-suyūfu ṭawīlā
Lam yuṭīqū an yanzilū wa-nazalnā wa-'axū l-ħarbi man aṭāqa l-nuzūlā

Immanuel of Rome: The Virgin's Lament (From Hebrew)

The sonnet has almost as long a history in Hebrew as it does in Italian. The sardonic, satirical and socially critical Immanuel of Rome (1261-1328) was the pioneer of the form in Hebrew. 

The Virgin's Lament
By Immanuel of Rome
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

My breasts are firm, my hair is grown, yet here
I sit alone in nakedness and shame
My poverty makes suitors hide in fear.
Head of the Feast of Mourning is my name.

How can my heart be joyful when I've not
One bit of silver, gold or bronze? What art
Could win a man for me, when all I've got
Is three older sisters and a wailing heart?

Suitors! I can't say if the fire will fill me,
Or Time the traitor treat me well enough. 
My years on locust-wings fly ever faster.

What's more, the elders' words do worse than kill me
For "she who dies a virgin is cut off,
And has no portion in the world hereafter."

The Original:




שדי נכונים
עמנואל הרומי

שָׁדַי נְכוֹנִים, שַׂעֲריִ צִמֵּחַ,
וָאֵשְׁבָה עֵירֹם וְעֶרְיָה בֹשֶׁת.
דּוֹדִים לְעָנְיִי יָראוּ מִגֶּשֶׁת, 
וָאֵשְׁבָה בָרֹאשׁ בְּבֵית מַרְזֵח.

אֵיךְ יִהְיֶ עוֹד הַלְּבָב שָׂמֵחַ?
אָפְסוּ כְסָפַי, אֵין זְהַב וּנְחֹשֶׁת.
אֵיךְ אֶמְצְאָה בַעַל אֲנִי –אֲנִי וּשְׁלֹשֶת
אַחְיוֹת גְּפוֹלוֹת לִי, וְלֵב גּוֹנֵחַ.

מָה אֹמְרָה, דּוֹדַי: עֲצָמַי חָרוּ,
אוֹ עִם זְמַן בּוֹגֵד בְּרִית אֶכְרֹתָה?
עָפוּ שְׁנוֹתַי, פָּשְׁטוּ כַיֶּלֶק.

גַּם יָשְׁבוּ שָׂרִים וּבִי נִדְבָּרוּ:
אִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר תַּמוּת בְּתוּלָה –נִכְרְתָה,
אֵין לָהּ בְּעוֹלַם הַגְּשָׁמוֹת חֵלֶק!








Anon: On Injustice (From Hebrew)

On Injustice
Fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. IQ27, Fragment 1, Col. 1.
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Do not all peoples loathe injustice?
Yet all of them commit it.
Do not the mouths of all nations exalt truth?
Yet is there a lip or tongue that holds to it?
What nation would wish to be oppressed by a mightier one?
And who would wish to be wickedly plundered?
Yet where is the nation that has not oppressed its neighbor? 
Where the people that has not plundered another? 

The Original:

הלא כל העמים שנאו עול?
וביד כלמה יתהלך.
הלא מפי כל לאמים שמע האמת?
היש שפה ולשון מחזקת בה?
מי גוי חפץ אשר יעשקנו חזק ממנו?
מי יחפץ כי יגזל ברשע הונו?
מי גוי אשר לא עשק רעהו?
איפה עם אשר לא גזל הון לאחד?

Borges: Limits (From Spanish)

Limits
By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Of all those boulevards that sink in sunset
There’s one (I know not which) that I have strolled        
Across for the last time, indifferent 
And without realizing it, controlled

By One who predesigns almighty norms,
A rigorous and secret scale to gauge
The dreams and shadows, formulas and forms
Which weave and unweave this our life and age.

If to all things there is a terminus,
A last time and oblivion, who can tell
Any of us whom in this house we have 
Unwittingly already bid farewell?

Now through the dawn-greyed window night withdraws
And there amid the stack of books that shed
A craze of shadows on the hazy table,
There shall be one I'll have to leave unread.

Out in the south stands more than one worn gate
There with its cactus and cemented urns
Whose entry is forbidden to my feet
As in a lithograph. Nothing returns:

You’ve bolted shut a certain door forever;
A mirror waits in vain, expecting you;
The crossroads seem to lie unbarred before you
But four-faced Janus watches what you do.

Among your many memories is one
Which has been lost to you forevermore;
They will not see you by that fountain nor
Beneath the yellow moon, or the white sun.

Your voice shall never come to what the Persian
Said in his tongue of roses, wine and birds,
When under dusk before the light is scattered
You wish to say some unforgettable words.

The ceaseless Rhône? My European lake?
That yesterday I hunch upon today
Will be erased as Carthage by the Romans
Whose salt and fire it could not hold at bay.

Here in the dawn I hear a multitude
Receding out of earshot, out of mind.
They have forgotten me who used to love me.
Borges and Space and Time leave me behind.
Límites
Jorge Luis Borges


De estas calles que ahondan el poniente,
una habrá (no sé cuál) que he recorrido
ya por última vez, indiferente
y sin adivinarlo, sometido

a Quién prefija omnipotentes normas
y una secreta y rígida medida
a las sombras, los sueños y las formas
que destejen y tejen esta vida.

Si para todo hay término y hay tasa
y última vez y nunca más y olvido
¿quién nos dirá de quién, en esta casa,
sin saberlo nos hemos despedido?

Tras el cristal ya gris la noche cesa
y del alto de libros que una trunca
sombra dilata por la vaga mesa,
alguno habrá que no leeremos nunca.

Hay en el Sur más de un portón gastado
con sus jarrones de mampostería
y tunas, que a mi paso está vedado
como si fuera una litografía.

Para siempre cerraste alguna puerta
y hay un espejo que te aguarda en vano;
la encrucijada te parece abierta
y la vigila, cuadrifronte, Jano.

Hay, entre todas tus memorias, una
que se ha perdido irreparablemente;
no te verán bajar a aquella fuente
ni el blanco sol ni la amarilla luna.

No volverá tu voz a lo que el persa
dijo en su lengua de aves y de rosas,
cuando el ocaso, ante la luz dispersa,
quieras decir inolvidables cosas.

¿Y el incesante Ródano y el lago,
todo ese ayer sobre el cual hoy me inclino?
Tan perdido estará como Cartago
que con fuego y con sal borró el latino.

Creo en el alba oír un atareado
rumor de multitudes que se alejan;
son los que me han querido y olvidado;
espacio y tiempo y Borges ya me dejan.

Yehuda Halevi: Revelation (From Hebrew)

This poem, which relies quite heavily on the language of the Daniel 7, is an apocalyptic envisioning of the end of Muslim rule and the restoration of Jewish independence. Throughout Muslim-ruled areas in Jewish communities in Halevi's time, there were various interpreters of Daniel's vatic burblings from the beyond who saw it as foretelling the end of Arab and Muslim dominion at the end of days. Needless to say, these prognosticators were as off base, and as off their rockers, as those Christians today who look for predictions of imminent thermonuclear war in the Book of Revelation, or Michele Bachmann insisting that Obama is going to bring about the literal end of the world. I doubt there has been a day on earth in the past 10,000 years when somebody somewhere wasn't sure that the end of days on earth was near.

The last 8 lines, with their incantatory repetition and tone, have been called by some scholars a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. This is not strictly accurate, though the skill with which Halevi interweaves the two makes it seem otherwise, as it produces an effect of fusion in which Prophet and Poet, Past and Present, Hebrew and Aramaic, collapse into one another. The Aramaic component consists mostly of phrases lifted en bloc from the book of Daniel, inserted into the structure of what could otherwise be read as normative Hebrew (normative for verse, anyway.) Though the Hebrew too contains language based on Daniel, and has usages that remind me of the later books of the Bible which, though in Hebrew, are heavily influenced by Aramaic phrase-habits. For example, the phrase qaddišey zăvul "Saints of the Most High" is a Hebraization of the Aramaic phrase qaddišey ˁelyonin which occurs several times in Daniel 7 - and even the Hebraization contains an Aramaic word qaddiš for "saint, holy one" that had been borrowed into normative Hebrew (as indeed it had been borrowed via Syriac into Arabic as qiddīs with the meaning "Christian Saint." But now I digress.)

It all gives a tone and apocalyptic atmosphere that is impossible to convey in English. The famous passages from the King James version of the Book of Revelation may give some idea of what quotes from Daniel 7 sounded like to Halevi's contemporaries, though of course the religion is different. I have switched to a quasi-biblical register in translating these lines.

Revelation
By Yehuda Halevi
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Requested by Yaron Zach (Thank you for Your Support)

Asleep you dozed, then shuddering you rose
Again. What is this dream that you have dreamed?
Perhaps you dreamt a vision of your foes
Laid low and humble, and of you supreme.
Tell Slave Hagar's boy: draw back the hand you raised
In pride and anger over Sarah's son1,
For I have dreamt and seen you laid to shame.
Perhaps in waking life you'll be undone,
The crushing year that ends in zero's sign
Will down your pride and end all your design.
     Thou that wast called a desert ass of a man
     Now honored for thy powerful domains,
     Thou that didst rise with bombast of thy mouth2
     To war against the heavens' earthly saints,
     Thou creature on feet of iron mixed with clay
     To be raised prideful at the end of days,
     Well may He smash thee, graven thing, with the stone
     Of havoc, and pay thee for what thou hast done.

Notes:

1- Sarah's son (the Hebrew literally has "your mistress' son") i.e. the people of Israel. Hagar's son Ishmael is traditionally reckoned to be the ancestor of the Arabs. The language quite clearly suggests that Sarah's children are of greater esteem than Hagar's.

2- Bombast of thy mouth, a phrase taken from Daniel 7 - here presumably to be equated with the high-flown rhetoric of the Qur'ān and the (implicitly false) religion associated with it.

The Original:

נַמְתָּ וְנִרְדַּמְתָּ וְחָרֵד קָמְתָּ ­–
מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָ?
אוּלַי חֲלוֹמְךָ הֶרְאֲךָ שׂוֹנַאֲךָ
כִּי דַּל וְכִי שָׁפַל – וְאַתָּה רָמְתָּ?
אִמְרוּ לְבֶן‑הָגָר: אֱסֹף יַד גַּאֲוָה
מִבֶּן‑גְּבִרְתְּךָ אֲשֶׁר זָעָמְתָּ!
שָׁפָל רְאִיתִיךָ וְשׁוֹמֵם בַּחֲלוֹם –
אוּלַי בְּהָקִיץ כֵּן כְּבָר שָׁמָמְתָּ,
וּשְׁנַת תְּתַ"ץ תֻּתַּץ לְךָ כָּל‑גַּאֲוָה,
תֵּבוֹשׁ וְתֶחְפַּר מֵאֲשֶׁר זָמָמְתָּ.
הַאַתְּ אֲשֶׁר נִקְרַא שְׁמֶךְ פֶּרֶא אֱנוֹשׁ!
מַה כָּבְדָה יָדְךָ וּמָה עָצָמְתָּ!
הַאַתְּ מְקֹרָא פֻּם מְמַלִּל רַבְרְבָן
וַאְשֶׁר בְּקַדִּישֵׁי זְבוּל נִלְחָמְתָּ,
הַאַתְּ חֲסַף טִינָא בּרַגְלֵי פַרְזְלָא
בְּאַחֲרִית בָּאתָ וְהִתְרוֹמָמְתָּ,
אוּלַי נְגָפְךָ אֵל בְּאַבְנָא דִי‑מְחָת
צַלְמָא וְשִׁלֵּם לָךְ אֲשֶׁר הִקְדָּמְתָּ!

Romanization

Namta wănirdamta wăħareð qamta
Ma haħălom hazze ǎšer ħalamta?
Ulay ħǎlomxa her'ăxa sona'ăxa
Ki dal wăxi šafal wă'atta ramta?
Imru lăben-haɣar: ĕsof yað ga'ăwa
Mibben-găbiratxa ăšer zaˁamta!
Šafal rĭ'iθixa wăšomem baħălom -
Ulay băhaqiṣ ken kăbar šamamta,
Ušnaθ tăθaṣ tuttaṣ lăxa kol-ga'ăwa,
Teboš wăθeħpar me'ăšer zamamta.
Ha'at ăšer niqra' šămex pere ĕnoš!
Ma kabăða yaðxa ŭma ˁaṣamta!
Ha'at măqora pum mămallil rabrăban
Wa'šer băqaddišey zăbul nilħamta,
Ha'at ħăsaf ṭina' băraɣlay farzăla
Ba'aħăriθ ba'θa wĭhiθromamta,
Ulay năɣafxa el bă'abna ði măħaθ
Ṣalma' wăšillem lax ăšer niqdamta.

Ceija Stojka: "I do not want to live through another war" (From German)

You were probably expecting me to translate another Yiddish poem for April 16th. I'm not. Even in remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust, it is important not to forget that Jews were not the only victims of a Nazi genocide. Today's poem is by the Austrian-Romani poet Ceija Stojka, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust - specifically of the Nazi genocide against the Roma. (I had wanted to try my hand at translating a Romani poem, but my reading knowledge of the language is still too shaky to attempt it, so I'm going with a Rom who wrote in German instead.) 

My translation of this poem is freer than modern translation aesthetics would normally allow. But the subtle wordplay and soundplay of which Stojka was a master seemed to call out for some license. 

A collection of all my translations of poetry relating to the Holocaust can be found here . 

This translation is also dedicated to the Romani writer and blogger Qristina Zavačková whose eloquent voice has taught me much that I would otherwise have been clueless about, and whose dedication to - and concern for - the voices of others less audible, deserves a salute from the entire internet. Her site can be found here.


"I do not want to live through another war"
By Ceija Stojka
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
       
I do not want to go through another war,
So there shouldn't be any more.
I have survived too many chills,
I have seen mothers weep.
To those poor people, a war can bring
But pain and suffering
That others do not know about.
They don't want to know a thing
As they aren't really suffering.
War is always nearer the enemy,
Spreads sorrow on both sides.
War is breaker of hearts
And carnivore of flesh.
War feasts on flesh that tastes so good
Topped off with a dessert of blood.
The Homeless number more and more
Then are scattered across the world and aimless
As their dead on the field
Lie nameless.
Therefore, dear God, let there be not
Another war.
For only then can we all happily
Live evermore.

The Original:

"Ich möchte keinen Krieg mehr erleben"
Ceija Stojka

Ich möchte keinen Krieg mehr erleben
darum soll es auch keinen mehr geben
ich habe zuviel Kälte erlebt
ich habe Mütter weinen gesehen.
Ein Krieg bringt denen Armen
nur Kummer und Leid
und die anderen wissen nicht Bescheid
sie wollen es nicht wissen
denn ihnen ist ja kein Leid.
Der Krieg steht dem Gegner immer sehr nah
und schafft Kummer auf beiden Seiten.
Ein Krieg ist auch ein Herzenbrecher
und zugleich ein Fleischfresser
er verzehrt es mit großem Genuß
und als Dessert bekommt er noch Blut.
Die Heimatlosen werden immer mehr
verstreut sind sie dann auf der ganzen Welt
und namenlos liegen ihre Toten
auf dem Feld.
Darum lieber Gott soll es keinen Krieg
nie wieder geben.
Denn nur so können wir alle
glücklich leben

Mani Leyb: Christmas (From Yiddish)

Until relatively recently, Eastern European Christians have had a habit of celebrating Easter and Christmas by visiting misery and terror on those whom they blamed for their savior's death, a practice which inspired the sonnet translated here.

Christmas
By Mani Leyb
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Yiddish

The falling night has roused the bronze of bells.
The city wakes with torched and incensed air.
Their God is risen from the dead with yells
Of joy. In crowds upon a pole they bear

His image, as their tread, heavy and blind,
Bears hate. On quiet and cramped floors everywhere,
Each frightened child of Israel lifts a prayer
To Thee, O God of Mercies, to be kind. 

Beyond the doors and shutters sings the snow.
With blinding frost the bright blue heavens gleam.
The night from crown on high to loins below
Is full of stars and peace. . . only a scream

Rips all the peace away from padlocked lives:
The cry of blood in terror of their knives.

The Original:

ניטל
מאַני לייב

די נאַכט וועקט אויף דאָס קופער פֿון די גלאָקן.
מיט פֿאַקלען, פֿראָסט און ווײַרעך וואַכט די שטאָט:
פֿון טויט שטייט אויף מיט פֿרידן זייער גאָט.
און מחנות טראָגן אויף אַ הויכן פֿלאָקן

זײַן דמות; און זייער בלינדער שווערער טראָט
טראָגט האַס; און אין די ענגע שטומע שטאָקן
ישראלס קינדער דופֿענען צעשראָקן – 
אָ, גאָט פֿון רחמים! – אויף דײַן באַראָט.

און הינטער טיר און לאָדן זינגט דער שניי. 
ונ ברייטע בלויע הימלען פֿראָסטיק בלענדן.
די נאַכט איז פֿון איר קרוין ביז אירע לענדן
מיט שטערן ונ מיט רו... נאָר אַ געשריי

רײַסט אויף די רו פֿון אַלע אירע שלעסער:
דאָס שרײַט דאָס בלוט אין אַנגסט פֿאַר זייער מעסער.

Abraham Sutzkever: Song of a Jewish Poet in 1943 (From Yiddish)

Song of a Jewish Poet in 1943
By Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Am I then the last poet singing in Europe?
Am I making song now for corpses and crows?
I'm drowning in fire, in gunk, in the swamps,
Imprisoned by yellow patched hours as they close.

I bite at my hours with the teeth of a beast
By a mother's tear strengthened. Through teardrops I see
The heart of a million rise forth from the bones
Of long-buried brothers in gallop toward me.

And I am that heart of a million, one chosen
To guard the songs they left behind as they fell,
And God, whose estates Man has put to the torch,
Goes hidden in me as the sun in a well.

Be open, my heart! Know that your hallowed hours
Shall bloom in posterity's mind. Check their fear,
And lend all your strength unto their mighty will.
Become in your sorrow their herald, their seer. 

Make song from down under, make song from the swamps
As long as a mother's tear lives, let the breeze 
Bear your voice to the ear of your bone-buried brethren
To the ghetto in flames, to your folk overseas.

Written in the Vilnius Ghetto, June 1943

The Original: 



געזאַנג פֿון אַ יידישן דיכטער אין 1943
אברהם סוצקעווער

צי בין איך דער לעצטער פּאָעט אין אייראָפע?
צי זינג איך פֿאַר מתים, צי זינג איך פֿאַר קראָען?
איך טרינק זיך אין פֿײַער, אין זומפן, אין ראָפע,
געפֿאַנגען פֿון געלע, געלאַטעטע שעהען.

כ׳צעבײַס מײַנע שעהען מיט חיישע ציינער
געשטאַרקט פֿון מײַן מאַמעס אַ טרער. דורכן טראָפן
דערזע איך ס׳מיליאָניקע האַרץ, פֿון די ביינער,
וואָס יאָגן צו מיר פֿון דער ערד אין גאַלאָפן.

איך בין דאָס מיליאָניקע האַרץ! בין דער היטער
פֿון זייערע איבערגעלאָזטע ניגונים.
און גאָט וואָס דער מענטש האָט פֿאַרברענט זײַנע גיטער,
באַהאַלט זיך אין מיר, ווי די זון אין אַ ברונעם.

זײַ אָפֿן, מײַן האַרץ! און פֿאַרנעם ווי סע שפראָצן

געהייליקטע שעהען אין צוקונפֿטס מחשבה.
פֿאַרגיכער, פֿאַראײַל זייער מאַכטיקן רצון,
און זײַ אין דײַן צער זייער אָנזאָגער, נביא.

און זינג פֿון די זומפן, און זינג פֿון דער נידער,

ביז וואַנען עס לעבט נאָך אַ טרער פֿון דער מאַמען!
דערהערן דײַן קול זאָלן ביינערנע ברידער,
די בראַנדיקע געטאָ, און ס׳פֿאָלק הינטער ימען

ווילנער געטאָ, יוני 1943


Goethe: Permanence in Change (From German)

Permanence in Change
J.W. Goethe
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original German

Can these blossoms' early blessing
Last not even one brief hour?
Warm west wind already shakes them
Down in bounteous bloomy shower.
Shall the green I lately thanked for 
Shade give pleasure to my eyes?
Soon the wuthering storms will strew it,
Withered pale by autumn skies.

Want to pluck the fruit that hangs there?
Get your share, and do not wait.
These are ripening already
Those are soon to germinate.
Just like that, your pleasant valley
Alters with each rush of rain.
Ah, and in the selfsame river
You swim once, but not again.

Even you! What seemed before you
Set in constant stone to rise,
Castle walls and towers you look at
Now with ever-changing eyes.
Worn away the lip whose every
Pain found healing in a kiss,
Legs that leapt to meet the wildgoat's
Challenge on the precipice,

Gone the hand outstretched and open,
With its generous good intent,
And its shapely, subtle structure...
All things now are different.
All that holds itself together
In that spot and bears your name
Hurries like a wave born hither
Back to elements whence it came. 

Let the end and the beginning
Into one point unify.
Swifter even than these fleeting
Objects, let yourself speed by.
Thank the Muse whose favor promised
This imperishable find:
Your heart's Content joined forever
To the Form within your mind. 

The Original:

Dauer Im Wechsel

Hielte diesen frühen Segen,
Ach, nur Eine Stunde fest!
Aber vollen Blütenregen
Schüttelt schon der laue West.
Soll ich mich des Grünen freuen,
Dem ich Schatten erst verdankt?
Bald wird Sturm auch das zerstreuen,
Wenn es falb im Herbst geschwankt.

Willst du nach den Früchten greifen,
Eilig nimm dein Teil davon!
Diese fangen an zu reifen,
Und die andern keimen schon;
Gleich mit jedem Regengusse
Ändert sich dein holdes Tal,
Ach, und in demselben Flusse
Schwimmst du nicht zum zweitenmal.

Du nun selbst! Was felsenfeste
Sich vor dir hervorgetan,
Mauern siehst du, siehst Paläste
Stets mit andern Augen an.
Weggeschwunden ist die Lippe,
Die im Kusse sonst genas,
Jener Fuß, der an der Klippe
Sich mit Gemsenfreche maß.

Jene Hand, die gern und milde
Sich bewegte, wohlzutun,
Das gegliederte Gebilde,
Alles ist ein andres nun.
Und was sich an jener Stelle
Nun mit deinem Namen nennt,
Kam herbei wie eine Welle,
Und so eilts zum Element.

Laß den Anfang mit dem Ende
Sich in Eins zusammenziehn!
Schneller als die Gegenstände
Selber dich vorüberfliehn!
Danke, daß die Gunst der Musen
Unvergängliches verheißt,
Den Gehalt in deinem Busen
Und die Form in deinem Geist.

Du Bellay: "No Rome in Rome" (From French)

Roma Roma Non Est
From "The Antiquities of Rome"
By Joachim Du Bellay
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

O newcomer in search of Rome in Rome
Who can find naught of Rome in Rome at all,
Rome is the name we give to the dead home
You see: old arch, old palace and old wall.

Behold the pride, the ruin of things past,
How She who set the world beneath her sway
All-conquering, conquered Her own self at last,
Becoming all-consuming Time's own prey.

Rome's lone memorial Rome has come to be,
And Rome has fallen before Rome alone.
Only the Tiber fleeting to the sea

Remains of Rome. Inconstant worldly clime!
That which stands fast, by Time is overthrown 
And what flees fast, stands in the face of Time.  

The Original

Les Antiquités De Rome 3

Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n'aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois,
Et ces vieux murs, c'est ce que Rome on nomme.

Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine : et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois,
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois,
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s'enfuit,

Reste de Rome. ô mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme, est par le temps détruit,
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.

Quevedo: How All Things Warn of Death (From Spanish)

This poem seems to draw on Seneca's twelfth epistle to Lucilius:

 "Quocumque me verti, argumenta senectutis meae video. Veneram in suburbanum meum et querebar de impensis aedificii dilabentis. Ait vilicus mihi non esse neglegentiae suae vitium, omnia se facere, sed villam veterem esse. Haec villa inter manus meas crevit: quid mihi futurum est, si tam putria sunt aetatis meae saxa?"
Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested about how much money had been spent on the dilapidated building. My bailiff insisted that the flaws were not due to his own negligence, that he was "doing everything possible, but the house was old." And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?


How All Things Warn Of Death
By Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click here to hear me recite the poem in Spanish

     I looked upon the walls of my old land,
so strong once, and now moldering away,
worn out by Time's long march, day after day,
which had already sapped their will to stand.
 
     I went out to the country, saw the sun 
drink up the streams unfettered from the frost,
and cattle groan how light of day was lost
to woodland, with its shadows overrun.
 
     I went into my home, but saw the crude 
and rotted ruins of an agèd room;
my cane gone weak and crooked in the grime.
     I felt my sword surrender unto Time
and nothing of the many things I viewed
reminded me of anything but Doom.



The Original:

Enseña Cómo Todas Las Cosas Avisan de la Muerte

     Miré los muros de la patria mía,
si un tiempo fuertes, ya desmoronados,
de la carrera de la edad cansados,
por quien caduca ya su valentía.
     Salíme al campo; vi que el sol bebía
los arroyos del yelo desatados,
y del monte quejosos los ganados,
que con sombras hurtó su luz al día.
     Entré en mi casa; vi que, amancillada,
de anciana habitación era despojos;
mi báculo, más corvo y menos fuerte.
     Vencida de la edad sentí mi espada,
y no hallé cosa en que poner los ojos
que no fuese recuerdo de la muerte.

Francisco de Quevedo: Rome Entombed in its Ruins (From Spanish)

This is a poem that, fittingly, has a long history of surviving in translation and cross-linguistic imitation. Quevedo's Spanish is a paraphrase of a French poem by Du Bellay "Nouveau venu qui cherches Rome en Rome", which is in turn itself a paraphrase of Janus Vitalis Qui Romam in media quaeris novus advena Roma. Other variations on the "Rome is no more in Rome" theme proliferated over the centuries in Europe, often as translations or paraphrases of either Vitalis', Du Bellay's or Quevedo's versions, but occasionally as freer adaptations of the theme, in a number of languages including English, Russian, Polish and others. I'll be translating Du Bellay's and Vitalis' poems soon, and perhaps write a more extended discussion of the theme (and its permutations) to accompany them. Thanks are due to John Emerson who handily assembled many of these poems together in one place, including the hard-to-get-to Latin poem by Vitalis.

Rome Entombed in its Ruins
By Francisco De Quevedo
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

You look for Rome in Rome, O peregrine!
     And find in Rome that Rome Herself is gone:
     The walls She flaunted are a corpse of stone,
     A tomb for its own self, the Aventine.
Here rests, where once it reigned, the Palatine
     And those medallions scoured by Time show more 
     Old battle damage from the constant war
     Of ages, than the escutcheoned Latin sign.
Only the Tiber has remained, whose flow
     Watered the town's growth, weeping at its grave  
     A teary stream in mournful tones of woe.
O Rome in beauty and greatness of Thy past
     All that stood firm has fled, and nothing save
     What runs in transience remains to last.

The Original:

A Roma Ensepultada En Sus Ruinas

Buscas en Roma a Roma oh peregrino!
y en Roma misma a Roma no la hallas:
cadáver son las que ostentó murallas
y tumba de sí proprio el Aventino.

Yace donde reinaba el Palatino
y limadas del tiempo, las medallas
más se muestran destrozo a las batallas
de las edades que Blasón Latino.

Sólo el Tibre quedó, cuya corriente,
si ciudad la regó, ya sepultura
la llora con funesto son doliente.

Oh Roma en tu grandeza, en tu hermosura,
huyó lo que era firme y solamente
lo fugitivo permanece y dura!

Jan J. Slauerhoff: Homeless (From Dutch)

Homeless
By J.J. Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Dutch

Only in my poems can I make my home.
I have found shelter in no other form.
There is no hearth I've pined for as my own.
A tent could be uprooted in the storm.

Only in my poems can I make my home.
While I still know that I can find those doors
In wilderness, in woods, on streets or moors,
I have no care, wherever I may roam.

Long though it be, the time shall surely come
When before eve my old powers lose their spark
And beg in vain for tender words of old
That I once built with, and the earth must fold
Me to my rest as I bow to the cold
Space where my grave bursts open in the dark.


Many thanks to: Maartje Wenting, Ferida Jawad, Lucienne Schaffer and Lotta DeGroot for being helpful native speakers- and to Leon for a welcome fresh eye.


The Original:

Woningloze

Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen,
Nooit vond ik ergens anders onderdak;
Voor de eigen haard gevoelde ik nooit een zwak,
Een tent werd door den stormwind meegenomen.

Alleen in mijn gedichten kan ik wonen.
Zoolang ik weet dat ik in wildernis,
In steppen, stad en woud dat onderkomen
Kan vinden, deert mij geen bekommernis.

Het zal lang duren, maar de tijd zal komen
Dat vóór den nacht mij de oude kracht ontbreekt
En tevergeefs om zachte woorden smeekt,
Waarmee ’k weleer kon bouwen, en de aarde
Mij bergen moet en ik mij neerbuig naar de
Plek waar mijn graf in ’t donker openbreekt.

Jan Slauerhoff: The Discoverer (From Dutch)

The Discoverer
By Jan Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

He held the land he had set sail for dear, 
Dear as a woman holds a being ere birth. 
Deep in the idea, dreaming he stood there  
On the forward deck and as the prow rose forth  

He had the feeling that it stirred already 
Beneath the expanse in which it slumbered away  
While the ship, foaming through the watershed  
Sped to that breakthrough birth and berthing day.  

But it seemed betrayal in discovery.  
No invisible cord had bound the two by sea.  
He wanted to re-cover it. Too late.  
It now lay bared to everyone. He sees  
No way save onward, aimless, desolate,  
Undriven and empty over empty seas.  

The Original:

De Ontdekker

Hij had het land waarvoor hij scheep ging, lief,
Lief, als een vrouw 't verborgen komende.
Er diep aan denkende stond hij droomende
Voor op de plecht en als de boeg zich hief

Was 't hem te moede of 't zich reeds bewoog.
Onder de verten, waarin 't sluimerde
Terwijl 't schip, door de waterscheiding schuimende
Op de aanbrekende geboort' toevloog.

Maar toen het lag ontdekt, leek het verraad.
Geen stille onzichtbare streng verbond hen tweeën.
Hij wilde 't weer verheimelijken — te laat:
Het lag voor allen bloot, hem bleef geen raad
Dan voort te varen, doelloos, desolaat
En zonder drift, leeg over leege zeeën.

Jan Slauerhoff: Dame Seule (From Dutch)

Dame Seule
By Jan Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

She feels in trees' dark shade such loneliness
She starts to give her own shoulder a caress.
Her small hand, ravished by the curve that flows
In naked beauty over the summer dress,
Sinks down, and wanders...she sits up, blushing, and goes
Back to her modest task of hemming clothes.

The Original:

Dame Seule

Zij voelt zich onder 't donker van de boomen
Zoo eenzaam, dat zij zelf haar schouder liefkoost.
Haar handje, met de ronding ingenomen,
Die over 't zomerkleed is bloot gekomen,
Daalt af, dwaalt af; zij richt zich op en bloost,
Gaat dan weer voort een kleedingstuk te zoomen.

Jan Slauerhoff: Portuguese Fort (From Dutch)

Slauerhoff wrote the first draft of this poem (originally titled Portugeesch Welkom "A Portuguese Welcome") in 1922, at the age of 24 during his first visit to Portugal. The poem was inspired by a visit to an abandoned fort by the harbor of Leixões. The speaker conjures forth an imagined a past which cannot be revived. The welcome cannonade does not resound, and an awareness of cruel colonial reality - of the misery in which forts and harbors of this sort are instrumental - knifes the imagination.

Portuguese Fort
By Jan Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Behind the elegant tipped palisade, 
The plaza's hot enamel plate slopes low. 
For admiration the seraglio 
Bends over the alabaster balustrade 

Convinced that many a tender detail lies
Unveiled in tulle dusk where the heavens fade.   
Over the handheld fan, a flicker of eyes 
As red lips slurp away at lemonade.  

The general commands a cannonade 
Of welcome. No shots fire. Still as death's shade. 
A hero is not proven in bravado 
Of restless din, but in the bastinado1
Of negro slaves, the whip on the black body 
Under the cheer of 'Viva Liberdade'2

Notes:

1 - Bastinado: footwhipping, a type of corporal punishment. For more on that see this wikipedia article.

2 - Portuguese for "Long live liberty." The original reads "Vivo Liberdade" which is probably a careless mistake. Either that or a sign that Slauerhoff's Portuguese wasn't yet up to snuff.

The Original:

Portugeesch Fort

Achter elegante palissaden
Helt het plein, een plaat van heet émail.
Voor bewondering veil buigt het sérail
Over de albasten balustrade;

Overtuigd dat menig teer détail
In den tullen schemer zich laat raden.
De oogen flikkren over de' éventail,
Roode lippen slurpen limonade.

De generaal gelast een kanonnade
Tot welkom. 't Blijft doodstil, geen schot brandt los
‘Heldenmoed bewijst zich niet door daden
Vol druk rumoer, dan maar een bastonnade
Van negerslaven, ranselt er op los
Onder 't gejuich van: Vivo Liberdade!’


Jan Slauerhoff: African Elegy (From Dutch)

It was recently brought to my attention that I might do well to focus more on work that hasn't been translated at all into English.

Very little of Jan Slauerhoff's work is available in English currently, and as Anglophones seldom study Dutch, one of Europe's greatest poets remains virtually unknown to them. To my knowledge, this blog post contains the first English translation (and the first discussion in English of any length) of one of Slauerhoff's major, and all-too-neglected poems.

The Congo was the last region in Africa to be colonized. Hostile natives, forbidding terrain and, above all, disease, were major obstacles to safe travel, let alone settlement, prior to the Belgian colonization in the late 19th century. Twenty years before the publication of this poem, the État Indépendant du Congo had been under the direct personal control of King Leopold II of Belgium. Ostensibly a philanthropic endeavor, the Free State of the Congo was in fact an exploitative affair in which the region was subject to the very worst sacking and brutalization Europe's colonialist barbarians had to offer. Even in its own time, the many atrocities committed by King Leopold's proxies against natives gained international infamy, inspiring numerous works of fiction including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, notable for its dehumanizing caricatures of the Africans it attempts to portray positively.

Dutch critics have at times read Slauerhoff's Afrikaaansche Elegie in these terms. The poem does seem to be less inspired by Slauerhoff's real life experiences than by damning fictional portrayals of the atrocities committed under the Belgian aegis in earlier decades, and the original even uses a number of English loanwords (Toddy, Body, Twostep, Platform, Revolver) in a way that evokes (to me at least) the Anglophone ambiance of Conrad's novel.

But my contention is that it would be a mistake to read the poem as merely another such work of self-congratulatory "racist colonial guilt." Guilty it certainly is, but not self-righteous. Though we may be at first tempted to read the European's words as yet another caricature of cannibal tribes and whatnot, we should note the placement of such statements in the mouth of a cruel and inhumane white who obsesses over how miserable he is far from home in Darkest Africa with ne'er a thought, outside his conscience-plagued fever-dreams, for the misery he is inflicting on others. I don't know whether Slauerhoff did as of 1927 sincerely believe that Africans are cannibals who consume flesh, but in any case, in this poem shows he knows it is Europeans who are buying and selling that flesh. Indeed, in a connotative reversal of stereotype, the sense of Europeans feeding on Africans in primal fashion is quite present in the words mijn eet- en minnelust "my appetite of food and of lust." We're all human beings, because we're all savage animals.

It is furthermore likely that the European cannot know first hand all of the things he claims to. How, for example, could he know what she promised her brother, unless he heard it from her after the fact? He may be fabulating things. Or she may have told him her brother would cannibalize him purely in order to make him wary. He also doesn't know her native language, but remembers how she screamed in it. We really learn nothing for certain about the actual natives that does not have to do with their mistreatment and impulse to resistance.

Having done the things he has done, consigned to the hellish Congo, there is nothing left for the white man now but death. His death would be a heil, not merely a bounty for a European trapped in colonial tedium, but salvation for the natives. This true salvation and goodness of his death contrasts sharply with the vivacious pomp of bullshit religiosity that figures in his reminiscence.

Though Slauerhoff was not by any stretch free of racial prejudice (few Europeans were) it was his belief that the white man's time in Africa would come to an end, that the colonial mission was doomed to violent failure. In his own French version of the poem, published a year later in the volume Fleurs de Marécage, the final lines are far more explicit, with the words "ce sera pour une autre fois" placed in quotation marks, making clear that the would-be assassin will indeed get his mark, sooner or later.

The Dutch text of the poem given here is slightly emended from the original 1928 edition of El Dorado, the collection in which it first appeared. Spelling has not been modernized.


African Elegy
By Jan J. Slauerhoff
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

He sits on the platform of his factory,1
The yellow Congo slowly slushing by 
With gurgling and interminable ado. 
He sees through cracks in the old floor's bamboo 
Black trunks and crocodiles floating in the night. 
He muses bitterly: "Idyllic sight! 
It's Sunday in Europe everywhere today, 
In Brest, Bordeaux, on every harbor quay. 
Bathed in soft sunlight, every city street 
Is clear of carriages, in peace so sweet. 
Each church's choir sings with sacred calm 
And even folk outside can hear a psalm. 
At evening drunken sailors dance about 
With barmaids, till they bumble and pass out... 
While I sit here with a bad glass of Toddy2,
Six tropic years' exhaustion in my body. 
I haven't had the stomach in seven days 
For pleasure in my nigger girl's3 embrace. 
She's there to appease my every appetite 
And sure enough she'll strangle me one night, 
And the Chief - her brother - feast on the white slaughter 
Just as she promised him the day I bought her. 
I now forget the word that filled her screams, 
Though it obsesses me in fever-dreams." 

He fires three pistol shots. Down drops an ape's 
Corpse from a tree into a grave that gapes 
Suddenly from the brown and muddied deep 
Where a crocodile slept, soon to fall back asleep. 
He puts on an old, grating gramophone 
A twostep plays: despairing monotone. 
From trees across the river whooshes an arrow. 
He hopes for Death's Salvation in that narrow  
Moment, as a child seeing a shooting star 
Stammers a heart-swelled wish. But it is far 
Off. The plumed kill-dart vibrates in hard wood.  
Confounded steps retreat through the dark wood.... 


1 - The word "factory" here refers to a colonial storage and trading facility. See this Wikipedia article for more.

2 - Toddy: here a kind of low-quality palm wine produced locally.

3 - The Dutch word negerin was not derogatory (and still is not) anymore than contemporaneous English terms "negro" or "negress" were at the time. Because I have a hard time imagining Slauerhoff's speaker using terms like that in this context were he speaking English, and because it seemed contextually appropriate, I yielded to the temptation to use the phrase "nigger girl" here to make the speaker's attitude all the more brutally explicit. I hope that readers looking for maximal fidelity will not get their knickers in a twist over such license. Understand, too, that I do not deploy this horrid and despicable word lightly.

The Original:

Afrikaansche Elegie

Hij zit op 't platform van zijn factorij.
De geele Congo kabbelt traag voorbij
Met onophoudelijk borrelend rumoer.
Onder de spleten van den bamboevloer
Drijven boomstammen door en krokodillen.
Hij mijmert bitter: "Dit is mijn idylle.
't Is in Europa Zondag, overal,
In Brest, Bordeaux, aan iedren havenwal.
En in die steden zijn zachtzonnige straten
Nu onbereden en vredigverlaten.
In alle kerken zingen kalme koren,
Ook buitenstaanders kunnen psalmen hooren.
Vanavond danst de dronken varensgast
Met zijn barmeid, tot hij is volgebrast,
Terwijl ik hier zit voor een slecht glas toddy,
Moeheid van zes jaar tropen in mijn body.
Ik heb al sinds verleden week geen zin
In de omhelzing van mijn negerin,
Die voor mijn eet- en minnelust moet zorgen,
Mij weldra op een goeden nacht zal worgen
En braden voor haar broer, het opperhoofd;
Zij heeft het hem, toen ik haar kocht, beloofd.
't Woord dat zij krijschte, dat ik heb vergeten,
Maakt me in doorkoortste droomen wild bezeten."

Hij schiet driemalen zijn revolver af:
Een aap valt uit zijn klapperboom in 't graf
Dat plotseling uit de bruine modder gaapt,
Waar 'n kaaiman sliep - die weldra verder slaapt.
Dan draait een schor geschreeuwde gramofoon;
Een twostep schalt - wanhopig monotoon -
Uit het geboomte aan de' oever snort een pijl:
Een oogenblik hoopt hij zijn dood, zijn heil,
Zooals een kind bij 't vallen van een ster
Een hartewensch snel stamelt; maar 't is ver
Mis, het gevederd moordtuig trilt in 't hout,
Verward gekraak verwijdert zich in 't woud...


Boris Pasternak: Hamlet (From Russian)

Hamlet
By Boris Pasternak
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

The tumults die. Out of the wings, I enter.
Leaning inside the doorway to the stage,
I seek to catch within a distant echo
A sense of what shall happen in my age. 

On me a thousand theater glasses focus.
My figure in the dark of night they spy.
If it be in Thy power, Abba Father,
Pray let this cup of torment pass me by.

I love Thy high unwavering conception,
And have agreed to play this part as tasked.
But now another drama is unfolding.
So, just this once, release me from the cast.

But every act has been already written
And journey's end irrevocably marked.
I am alone. All things fall Pharisaic. 
A mortal life is no walk in the park. 


The Original:

Гамлет
Борис Пастернак

Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
Я ловлю в далеком отголоске,
Что случится на моем веку.

На меня наставлен сумрак ночи
Тысячью биноклей на оси.
Если только можно, Aвва Oтче,
Чашу эту мимо пронеси.

Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
И играть согласен эту роль.
Но сейчас идет другая драма,
И на этот раз меня уволь.

Но продуман распорядок действий,
И неотвратим конец пути.
Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
Жизнь прожить - не поле перейти.

Pushkin: Daemon (From Russian)

In this poem of Pushkin's, the Christian notion of the demon as an evil tempter that leads souls away from God is fused with a daimōn of the classical Socratic sort, a skeptical familiar spirit who impels the erstwhile idealist poet toward cynical doubt in the existence of a higher order. The key theme is doubt, and the terror of it.
Contrary to the hallucinations of the Russian diaspora and post-Soviet Russian nationalists (and the fabrications of contemporaries who either wanted to deflect charges against his character or dragoon him into serving their own ends), Pushkin for the most part never really took Russian Orthodoxy, or its God, very seriously. This was not unusual for someone of his social class with liberal leanings. It would have been strange had he done otherwise, given how completely fused the institution of Russian Orthodoxy was with that of imperial autocracy. Pushkin, a man who prized individualism at times to the point of infantility, had every reason to be skeptical of an institution which legitimized the Tsar - eventually his own personal censor - as quite literally God’s anointed regent on earth, charged to use his autocratic powers to defend Orthodoxy and preserve the morals of the Russian people.
Whether Pushkin ever went through periods of his life during which he doubted the existence of God altogether, we will never know, as atheism in the strict sense was taboo in Pushkin's social circles. However, Pushkin did very strongly believe that things happen for a reason. In recovering alcoholic terms, he believed in a Higher Power which guided a person, had particular designs for individuals, and which it was dangerous and self-destructive to resist or defy. "Luck" and "Chance" were merely the labels attached to the instruments of Fate and Providence. Neither something so mundane as winning a hand at cards, nor something so exalted as inspiration to poetry, nor yet the fate of a nation, were accidental to Pushkin. 
The daemon-induced doubt depicted in this poem is a temporary loss of faith, not in God per se, but in Providence, beauty and ideals, doubt of any higher order that gives meaning to life or to nature and so stifles the creative instinct itself. In the chill of an icy rationalism all things are seen to lose their purpose; beauty is mere fancy in the eye of the beholder, the notion of inspiration becomes an absurd joke. The individualism and freedom to pursue his own destiny have become meaningless in the absence of a coherent destiny at all.

Daemon
By A.S. Pushkin
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

In days gone by, when all of life's
Impressions offered me new thrills:
A murmurous grove, a maiden's eyes,
The nightingale in twilit hills....
When my sublimest aspirations
For freedom, glory, love and art
Instilled of holy inspiration,
So stirred the blood and spurred the heart,
Then were the days of bliss and promise
With wakeful anguish overcast,
As secretly a wicked Genius
Began to visit me unasked.
Grim were the meetings that we had:
His witching glance, the grins he stole,
The sting of every word he spat
Infused cold poison through my soul.
With indefatigable slander
He tempted Providence, and smiled. 
Beauty he called a simple fancy,
And inspiration he reviled. 
He doubted freedom, love, salvation
And turned on life a sneering gaze,
As there was naught in all Creation
He cared to bless with any praise.


The Original:

Демон
А.С. Пушкин

В те дни, когда мне были новы
Все впечатленья бытия —
И взоры дев, и шум дубровы,
И ночью пенье соловья —
Когда возвышенные чувства,
Свобода, слава и любовь
И вдохновенные искусства
Так сильно волновали кровь, —
Часы надежд и наслаждений
Тоской внезапной осеня,
Тогда какой-то злобный гений
Стал тайно навещать меня.
Печальны были наши встречи:
Его улыбка, чудный взгляд,
Его язвительные речи
Вливали в душу хладный яд.
Неистощимой клеветою
Он провиденье искушал;
Он звал прекрасное мечтою;
Он вдохновенье презирал;
Не верил он любви, свободе;
На жизнь насмешливо глядел —
И ничего во всей природе
Благословить он не хотел.

Lermontov: The Angel (From Russian)

The Angel
By Mikhail Lermontov
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

Across the dark sky came the angel in flight
Who sang a soft song through the night.
And stars and the moon and the clouds in their throng
Gave ear to that glorious song.
He sang of immaculate spirits that rove
In bliss in the Heavenly Grove,
He sang of the Lord of All Things, every phrase

Unfeigned in that purest of praise.
He bore in his arms a young soul toward its birth,
To sorrow and tears on this earth.
And in that young soul the great sound of his song
Remained without words now, but strong.
And long did it languish on earth in its time
Replete with a yearning sublime,

A soul that knew sounds of the heavenly race
No dull song of earth could replace.

The Original:

Ангел
Михаил Лермонтов

По небу полуночи Ангел летел,
И тихую песню он пел.
И месяц, и звезды, и тучи толпой
Внимали той песне святой.
Он пел о блаженстве безгрешных духов
Под кущами райских садов,
О боге великом он пел, и хвала
Его непритворна была...
Он душу младую в объятиях нес
Для мира печали и слез,
И звук его песни в душе молодой
Остался, без слов, но живой...
И долго на свете томилась она,
Желанием чудным полна.
И звуков небес заменить не могли
Ей скучные песни земли...

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