Category Archives: Translations & Adaptations

Beowulf for teens as well as children

A teenager I know sent me a private email the other day that made me smile.

Howdy! I started reading Beowulf in English class but I had trouble understanding what was happening in the story, so I started reading the adaptation that you wrote. I’m sooo glad you wrote it because it is much easier to comprehend and the pictures are incredible. Thanks! I have not finished the book but I am excited for your version to help me as I try and break apart the lines, in the book we are reading in class. 

You’re most welcome! Glad to know my book serves as a cliffnote of sorts!

Children’s illustrated version of Beowulf, in anglo-saxon verse

It’s been almost ten years since I wrote a children’s version of Beowulf. I wrote it in anglo-saxon verse, and have been wanting it to be a children’s book for some time now.

At the time, my six-year-old son was really into Beowulf, because I told him the story at bedtime. That Christmas he got a really nice version of it from my sister. The book was well done, with beautiful illustrations, and was pretty true to the story. But I had a very basic problem with it: it was written in prose.

Thinking that a bit too sacrilegious, I went on Amazon and horrified by what I found — not a single children’s version of Beowulf written in poetry. Firmly believing children should experience the story as a poem as well as adults, I realized there was only one thing to do, and that was to write it myself.

The problem with publishing it at the time was that it took up a lot of real estate for a publisher/editor to accept; however, with the advent of online journals and my eventual willingness to accept them as a valid means of publication (I love holding books in my hand and smelling the paper — what can I say), it was eventually picked up by qarrtsiluni.com early in 2011 for its translation issue.

And when it was, it was edited with my permission by qarrtsiluni’s guest editor Alex Cigale who undeniably made it better and truer to its anglo-saxon form.

And so, I have secured a wonderful illustrator, Sean Yates to make an ebook out of the poem; Zouch Magazine is also backing the digital project as its publisher.

Unfortunately, it won’t be ready for Christmas, but look for it in early 2012.

The Problems and Joys of Sanskrit Prosody

Please note: this was originally published as a note on my Facebook page.

If you read my last note, you would know that I have embarked on an epic journey, and that it involves sanskrit verse (I originally thought vedic verse, but decided that was too strict in structure). One thing important to understand about sanskrit prosody is that it is syllabic in nature and not at all accentual, because sanskrit does not have stresses in the language. What it does have is system of weights.

Instead of long and short syllables, the language has heavy and light syllables. There are several rules to determine whether a syllable is heavy or light but it can be reduced to one basic generality: if the syllable has only one vowel AND it’s a short one  AND it is followed by only one consonant then it’s light. Everything else is heavy.

“But” is light; “butt” is heavy; “boot” is heavy.

This can bring quite a few challenges, because the prosody does not translate well. Writing Sanskrit verse in the English language can be enough to send someone to the halfway house.

1. Some words that we designate as short in accentual-syllabic meter are considered heavy in Sanskrit, and vice-versa. Examples of such heavy words are: and, so, he. Examples of light words are: flag, strut, grin.

2. Neutral words don’t exist in sanskrit, for example, “they” is always heavy.

To keep my sanity intact, because the Sanskrit does not translate super well in English, I have come up with a few rules for myself.

1. Certain vowel sounds are a little harder to determine. “Can” is shorter than “cane” but longer than “cat.” I have considered syllables like “can” to be light.

2.  I have considered the two articles “the” and “a(n)” to be neutral, in that they either count as light or they don’t count. Only scanning the line tells the reader which one applies.

3. The word “to” is heavy by rule but I have made it light.

4. Words with a silent e at the end, such as “there,” or words whose singular construct would normally be light, such as “pans,” I have counted as light.

5. The letter x is made up of a k and an s sound, and so I have counted it as two consonants, making the syllable heavy. I have to admit part of the reason is to allow for proper scansion for a particular word used in the poem.

(As an aside, the words in sanskrit are actually clusters of parts of speech. I only have a shallow understanding of how it works, but basically phrases in English (grammatical groupings of many words) combine to make one long word in sanskrit, From what I can determine, short connection words don’t exist in sanskrit (at, to, or etc.), though it’s possible they are embedded in the words.)

Sanskrit is made up of quatrains called verses. Each quatrain is made up of two couplets, each couplet is made up of two padas, which means “foot,” but is really what we think of as lines. On each pada there are four feet of four syllables each, making 16 on a line. But it doesn’t stop there. Excess is allowed, but only 16 syllables are counted. I have allowed excess on only the fourth pada of each verse, and many have no excess. Also, each verse is end-stopped, which means every thought behind the verse has to stay within its own parameters. This makes it easy for revision, because I can come in between any two verses and and compose. The first pada and the second can be different or identical in scansion, but the general rule seems to be in each verse pada 1 and 3 are identical and pada 2 and 4 are identical.

Finally, as I mentioned each pada is made up of four feet. The most common form and the one I have adopted follows the pattern oooo | LHHo | oooo | LHLo | where o can be light or heavy. In the second foot, the last syllable is usually light; in the fourth foot, the last syllable is usually heavy. The first and third feet have some rules, but I have not abided by any of them because ultimately they have almost complete freedom of scansion as long as there are four syllables; I have only stuck with the strict second and forth feet rules.

Yes, this has been quite the challenge, but it has been so much fun to figure out. Indeed, in my first attempt I completely did the meter all wrong, and I had to redo the entire thing. I am only done with one small section of the first part, but in some ways, it seems like the hardest part is over. There is fun in learning a new meter, and trying to translate it to your own language. As of yet, I have found no other Sanskrit verse written in English, which has been a little frustrating because I have nothing to compare my work to or learn from, but in a way navigating through the uncharted waters that is part of the fun.

Revolution’s Habit

I was in one of those small intellectual bookstores about two months ago — you know, those small business ones where they shelve their books with natural history and economic reform and a customer can’t find a romance novel anywhere — when lo and behold I found a book of poetry in with other titles about regional affairs. (As an aside, I was in Nepal, and due to language barriers, when I asked for books on poetry, the clerk took me to the section on poverty. It wasn’t until I said “poems” instead of “poetry” that she understood my intentions.)

Kaifi Azmi was an Urdu poet who became so popular he wrote songs for Indian films as well. He was both a poet of love and a poet of revolution. He was a spokesman, and a member of the Communist party. He was all these things, but he was not an ideologue. His beliefs were fluid and he refused to be pigeonholed. Later on he left the Communist Party in part because of this.

His poems are all passionate. It was easy for Pavan K. Varma, who translated his poems in Penguin Poetry’s Selected Poems, to combine his love poems with his revolutionary ones because they all work; one subject is not better than the other. They are driven by passion, and so his political poems are never didactic. You can see love in his politics and politics in his love.

“Habit” is such a poem. It reads like it was a based on a dream; it is a metaphor of people’s rights and inequality, and one person’s own personal experience thereof. My father-in-law read this poem aloud in its Urdu form after I had remarked on its imagery. In its original composition, it’s a very haunting poem indeed.

The poem begins with an introductory quatrain of medium to long lines:

For aeons, I was imprisoned in a blind well
I kept beating my head, kept muttering to myself:
I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself
The sunlight of love, the moonlight of friends, the freedom of death.

Notice he wasn’t blindly imprisoned in a well, or blind and imprisoned in one, but imprisoned in a blind well. I’m not sure what that means. But in the fourth line, I find it interesting that it is the sunlight of love and the moonlight of friends, not the other way around. Moonlight of love is cliche, but cliche for a reason. So we have two images, one in the first line and one in the fourth, that seem to be opposite of what I’d expect.

“I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself”

He then goes on to expand on this in dramatic passion, leaving his emotions at bay for a bit. The entire middle of the poem is one long stanza.

Day and night I heard only my voice
And gradually I came to believe
In this lonesome world
In the disloyalty of friends
In the lap of the gallows
There is no sunlight
There is no moonlight
There is no life,
Life is one long night
The world an illusion
Man transient
People dwarfed
Towns, citadels of envy
Villages even worse.

These are not happy times. The narrator is sitting in a pool of bitterness; his world is depressing. Something has to change. Some force must catapult him into action. And something does — with it comes longer lines; emotion has returned, and drama remains.

When this darkness had completely crushed me
The well, suddenly, ejected me
From its depths it expelled me.
I saw before me a million Egyptians
There were a million bazaars
Not one aged Zulekha there was
God knows how many buyers there were
Yusuf’s price constantly rose
And people were willing to be sold.

Yusuf and Zulekha refers to an Islamic story I am not familiar with; however, its Biblical counterpart is that of Joseph (Yusuf) and his master’s wife (whose name is never mentioned). The master’s wife wants Joseph to lie with her, he refuses several times, and when he flees from the house, his garment drops into her hands. She claims foul play, and Joseph is imprisoned. The lines make reference to biblical slavery and injustice.

Suddenly, everyone’s luminous faces were unveiled
Their silken sheets were cast away
No eyes blinked, no glance was lowered
Fingers, marble-white, were cut aside
If a hand came close to a garment
The body was dismembered, scattered wide.

And then the stanza break, and the quatrain that finishes the poem. The narrator does not act, after all; the fight for justice does not happen, the revolution is silenced. Fear takes over.

Afraid, I jumped back into the well
Began to beat my head with the same agony
I began to grovel again with the same pleading:
I want the sunlight, I want the moonlight, I want life itself.

Varma in his translator’s note  believes the book would be a successful project if it inspired more readership of Azmi. Hopefully, this blog post will also help with that cause.

—————
“Marvi well” photograph courtesy of Kash_if with some rights reserved.

Youthful Yevtushenko

Recently I perused the poetry shelf of a bookstore, disappointed in the selection it offered.It was a large bookstore (Oxford Books), so it surprised me, but it was in India, so it didn’t, in that the usual names I expected to see weren’t there, and that at least in this bookstore, the theory seemed to be stock more copies of fewer books.

One book it did have, and I picked up, was Penguin’s Selected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Robert Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi. Not only had I never read his work, I never heard of him. With this thin collection of his early works, I was in for a sweet surprise.

Yevtushenko (I know next to nothing about the Russian language, but from what I can tell, it seems the Y is either silent or barely vocalized — let me know if you know better) was born in 1933 in Zima (accent on the second syllable), Siberia; he was a boy during WWII. Youth and war play a huge part in so much of his poetry.

“Zima Junction” is one of his most popular works, and for good reason. It is a long poem, and although it comes first in the collection, I saved it for last. Levi wrote

“The first quality of the poet as narrator is youth, and in ‘Zima Junction’ comes near to being the subject of the poem. The narrator looks at the external world with directness, at nature with fascination, and at social and industrial circumstances with curiosity, but at the same time his eyes are the introspective and analytical eyes of the young.”

This theme of youth is evident close to the beginning of the poem:

So there stood youth and childhood together,
trying to look into each others eyes
and each offending, but not equally.
Each wanted the other to start talking.
Childhood spoke first, ‘Hullo then.
It’s your fault I hardly recognized you.
Once when I often used to dream about you
I thought you’d be quite different from this.
I’ll tell you honestly, you worry me.
You’re still in very heavy debt to me.’
So youth asked if childhood would help,
and childhood smiled and promised it would help.

This passage borders on the didactic; however, put in the context of a long poem, it doesn’t seem out of place at all. Then, six pages later, our narrator encounters an old man, who has a thing or two to say about “today’s youth”.

The worse thing is — and you can contradict
if you want — you don’t think like young people
and people are the same age as their thoughts.
There are young people, laddie, but no youth.

Questions? Honest disagreements?
Oh, youth isn’t what it used to be.

One of the better poems in the collection is “The Companion”, a wonderful little poem about childhood innocence in wartime. The narrator begins the poem with him seeing a girl in shock after a tragic accident where they lost their respective grandmothers after an air raid.

She was sitting on the rough embankment,
her cape too big for her tied on slapdash
over an odd little hat with a bobble on it,
her eyes brimming with tears of hopelessness.

A few lines later he decides to do the responsible thing, and we quickly learn his view of girls.

I’d no idea what I could do about her,
but doubt quickly dissolved to certainty:
I’d have to take this thing under my wing;
– girls were in some sense of the word human,
a human being couldn’t just be left.

She accepts his offer of companionship, and they leave the train wreck and the sounds of war die down. As they start their difficult jouney, he continues his rant of the female sex. Of course, by this time we know the narrator is only a child himself. But then the table turns, and it is her turn: she puts him in his place.

She had galoshes on and felt boots,
I had a pair of second-hand boots.
We forded streams and tramped across the forest;
each of my feet at every step it took
taking a smaller step inside the boot.
The child was feeble, I was certain of it.
‘Boo-hoo, ’ she’d say. ‘I’m tired, ’ she’d say.
She’d tire in no time I was certain of it,
but as things turned out it was me who tired.
I growled I wasn’t going any further
and sat down suddenly beside the fence.
‘What’s the matter with you? ’ she said.
‘Don’t be so stupid! Put grass in your boots.
Do you want to eat something? Why won’t you talk?
Hold this tin, this is crab.
We’ll have refreshments. You small boys,
you’re always pretending to be brave.’

And so they travelled, in a silent understanding of themselves and their world.

So on and on
we walked without thinking of rest
passing craters, passing fire,
under the rocky sun of ’41
tottering crazy on its smoking columns.

Translations are funny things. This having been the only translation of Yevtushenko’s works, it’s hard to know which decisions were the translators and which were the poet’s. The only thing I wish the collection had is the original work to go along with the translation. I enjoy looking at the original, even if I don’t understand it. Originals provide clues. One thing I have noticed is he tends to write, at least through the eyes of the translator, really without stanza breaks. In a really short poem, there will be none. In a poem that’s more than a page but less than three, you might see one or two “stanza” breaks. I find this interesting in two ways.

  1. In my studies of writing poetry I have learned that the biggest reason to not use stanzas is if the poem is so fragile (in theme and/or topic), that to provide a stanza breaks will make the poem fall. While I can see this theory taking place here (youth in war is a fragile thing), upon reading it I do see where a stanza break could be inserted. And where there are stanza breaks, it seems a bit random, yet purposeful.
  2. I was skimming over another translation of another of his poems, and the lines were not left-justified like in all the other poems of this collection, but bounced all over the page. There are the occasional lines that start where the previous line left off. This is found in metered verse where a line is truncated and the next line finishes the metrical feet requirement. Just read Shakespeare for this. However, From the translation perspective, Yevtushenko’s poems are not metered. Nothing is mentioned about this in the introduction, but it seems that perhaps Levi was trying to convey Yevtushenko’s patterns without making it difficult to read. I don’t know and I can’t say.

One thing Milner-Gulland does say about the translation:

“[Levi’s] approach to translation was instinctive rather than theory-based…[Levi’s instincts] can be summed up in the words that the critic Hugh Kenner used for Ezra Pound: ‘Translation does not, for him, differ in essence from any other poetic job; as the poet begins by seeing, , so the translator by reading; but his reading must be a special kind of seeing.’ Out of the window went the idea of imitating thumping rhythms, brilliant half-rhymes or other formal features of the original, save where they could correspond with what Peter felt to be a poetic idiom true to his own talents and feelings…Other translators have subsequently taken different approaches, but I stand by what we did: at least we were not disposed to produce what Robert Lowell succinctly called ‘Stuffed Birds’, examples of taxidermy rather than poetry.”

Personally, I couldn’t agree more.

Pound Po City of Choan

I am not a fan of Ezra Pound, at least not yet. His elusiveness is something I haven’t “gotten”. However, his translations are something else entirely. “City of Choan” is such a poem. But to understand his genius here, you have to compare him to other translators of the same original poem. I have read three versions, all of which can be found in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: “On Climbing in Nan-King to the Terrace of Pheonixes” by W.H. Bynner and “Climbing Pheonix Terrace at Chin-Ling” are perfectly good further translations of the original poem by Li Po.

Briefly, Li Po (Li Bai/Li Pai) was a poet of the highest degree in ancient China. He served under the emperor before resigning his post and becoming a wanderer. This poem was written after a kind of homecoming of sorts. One night while drunk, he saw the moon’s reflection in a pond, bent down to embrace it, and drowned.

I do not know a lot about Ezra Pound, but I can say he understood poetry is a language of showing. He starts the poem out with a dramatic display of opposites, from the first line to the second.

“The phoenix are at play on their terrace./The phoenix are gone,…”

Pheonix are at first plentiful and playful, and the next thing we know, what happened?
Compare these lines with Bynner’s:

“Pheonixes that played here once, so that the place was named for them,/have abandoned it now…”

It reads like prose, and it’s because of the title that we know where “here” is. (This is a perfectly fine and legal poetric technique, but again, I am reading prose, aren’t I?)

Again, compare the second half of the second line:

“…the river flows on alone” versus “to this desolate river”.

A desolate river is likeable and very poetic, but I can “see” a river flowing on alone. And why is it “alone”? Because the pheonix are gone. Why is the river desolate? Good question.

Pounds third, fourth, and fifth lines are very interesting to read and take in:

“Flowers and grass/Cover over the dark path/where lay the dynastic house of the Go.” (The fifth line is indented.)

“Flowers and grass” is on one short line by itself so that we can see them and not get distracted by whatever comes next. The longer fifth line provides the feeling of climbing along a path. Lee writes, all on one line, “Flourishing flowers of Wu Palace are buried beneath dark trails.” There are several things I can say about this line, but critiquing the comparison poems is beyond the scope of my efforts here; I will mention that I like the flourishing flowers imagery, but I don’t believe it fits within this poem.

However, the next two lines close the stanza and echo the the last three:

The brights cloths and bright caps of Shin Are now the base of old hills.

In the first line of the next stanza we see the cloths and caps by themselves without any distractions, and in the second he puts them into context for us — they blanket the bottom of the hills, almost like litter or trash — remains of a populated place.

And the second stanza starts off with mountains, but what about the mountains?

“Like this green horizon halving Three Peaks” (Bynner)
“The three-peaked mountain half visible under the blue sky,” (Lee)

Both these lines provide a snapshot, that is out of focus at best. How does a horizon halve three peaks? What part of the mountains are visible (I mean after all, the sky is blue)? You still don’t know what to make of it after reading the lines. Oh wait, maybe Pound can give us some answers.

“The three mountains fall through the far heaven”

Ah, yes. Action (mountains falling) and we now have video in perfect focus.
And what about the island?

“The Isle of White Herron/splits the two streams apart.” (Pound)
This is a lot cleaner and easier to see than:
“The two-forked stream separated by White-egret Isle” (Lee).
“A cloud has arisen between the Light Heaven and me” (Bynner) — too fancy
“It’s always the clouds that block the sun” (Lee) — okay, but a little boring
“Now the high clouds cover the sun” (Pound) — the clouds are “high” and they “cover” the sun, plain like Lee, but with more imagery so we can see it.

let’s read how the other poets end their works. Why would I want a cloud “to hide his city from my melancholy heart” (Bynner) or know that “I do not see Ch’ang -an and I grieve”? I know intellectually about these things (grieving, melancholy), but I want it to be immediate, and tangible.

“And I can not see Choan afar/and I am sad.”

Pound Po City of Choan

I am not a fan of Ezra Pound, at least not yet. His elusiveness is something I haven’t “gotten”. However, his translations are something else entirely. “City of Choan” is such a poem. But to understand his genius here, you have to compare him to other translators of the same original poem. I have read three versions, all of which can be found in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: “On Climbing in Nan-King to the Terrace of Pheonixes” by W.H. Bynner and “Climbing Pheonix Terrace at Chin-Ling” are perfectly good further translations of the original poem by Li Po.

Briefly, Li Po (Li Bai/Li Pai) was a poet of the highest degree in ancient China. He served under the emperor before resigning his post and becoming a wanderer. This poem was written after a kind of homecoming of sorts. One night while drunk, he saw the moon’s reflection in a pond, bent down to embrace it, and drowned.

I do not know a lot about Ezra Pound, but I can say he understood poetry is a language of showing. He starts the poem out with a dramatic display of opposites, from the first line to the second.

“The phoenix are at play on their terrace./The phoenix are gone,…”

Pheonix are at first plentiful and playful, and the next thing we know, what happened?
Compare these lines with Bynner’s:

“Pheonixes that played here once, so that the place was named for them,/have abandoned it now…”

It reads like prose, and it’s because of the title that we know where “here” is. (This is a perfectly fine and legal poetric technique, but again, I am reading prose, aren’t I?)

Again, compare the second half of the second line:

“…the river flows on alone” versus “to this desolate river”.

A desolate river is likeable and very poetic, but I can “see” a river flowing on alone. And why is it “alone”? Because the pheonix are gone. Why is the river desolate? Good question.

Pounds third, fourth, and fifth lines are very interesting to read and take in:

“Flowers and grass/Cover over the dark path/where lay the dynastic house of the Go.” (The fifth line is indented.)

“Flowers and grass” is on one short line by itself so that we can see them and not get distracted by whatever comes next. The longer fifth line provides the feeling of climbing along a path. Lee writes, all on one line, “Flourishing flowers of Wu Palace are buried beneath dark trails.” There are several things I can say about this line, but critiquing the comparison poems is beyond the scope of my efforts here; I will mention that I like the flourishing flowers imagery, but I don’t believe it fits within this poem.

However, the next two lines close the stanza and echo the the last three:

The brights cloths and bright caps of Shin Are now the base of old hills.

In the first line of the next stanza we see the cloths and caps by themselves without any distractions, and in the second he puts them into context for us — they blanket the bottom of the hills, almost like litter or trash — remains of a populated place.

And the second stanza starts off with mountains, but what about the mountains?

“Like this green horizon halving Three Peaks” (Bynner)
“The three-peaked mountain half visible under the blue sky,” (Lee)

Both these lines provide a snapshot, that is out of focus at best. How does a horizon halve three peaks? What part of the mountains are visible (I mean after all, the sky is blue)? You still don’t know what to make of it after reading the lines. Oh wait, maybe Pound can give us some answers.

“The three mountains fall through the far heaven”

Ah, yes. Action (mountains falling) and we now have video in perfect focus.
And what about the island?

“The Isle of White Herron/splits the two streams apart.” (Pound)
This is a lot cleaner and easier to see than:
“The two-forked stream separated by White-egret Isle” (Lee).
“A cloud has arisen between the Light Heaven and me” (Bynner) — too fancy
“It’s always the clouds that block the sun” (Lee) — okay, but a little boring
“Now the high clouds cover the sun” (Pound) — the clouds are “high” and they “cover” the sun, plain like Lee, but with more imagery so we can see it.

let’s read how the other poets end their works. Why would I want a cloud “to hide his city from my melancholy heart” (Bynner) or know that “I do not see Ch’ang -an and I grieve”? I know intellectually about these things (grieving, melancholy), but I want it to be immediate, and tangible.

“And I can not see Choan afar/and I am sad.”