Monday, 28 January 2013

Friends and Translations

Arne Rautenberg. Snapdragon. Translated from the German by Ken Cockburn.
Lincoln: Caseroom
Gordon Jarvie. La Baudunais et autre poemes de Bretangne. Traduit de l'anglais (Ecosse)
par Jean-Yves Le Disez. Brest: Editions les Hauts-Fonds

There are advantages in parallel text translations. Firstly, you know the work hasn't been translated from the Penguin. Secondly, the reader can compare the texts. A drawback is that you only get half a book. So quite a small collection or sequence can be presented in the two languages between the covers of a full book.
Arne Rautenberg and Ken Cockburn's Snapdragon is one of the prettiest small books I have seen for a while. Cover designer Jantze Tullett has come up with a repeat and border pattern with related endpapers that truly welcome you into the book. It's the work of two poets who have an affinity of writing style. Sensitive, playful or serious, in Scotland you would say there was an Edwin Morgan influence.
the bird-clock sunrise 0.4.30 is a good example (Routenberg eschews caps) with a list of exact timings of different birdsong and whimsical comments as though by the birds, reminiscent of Richard Price's piece on birds – another poet who uses similar styles to these. More serious and to the reader more interesting is the series of double sonnets describing the author's memories connected with World War II. It is difficult not to wonder what Germans make of their nazi history. In these poems the memories have become fragmentary and general. They dare to be nastier in places:

       playing football with / skulls

       Everything fucked. Then; /A spruced-up, spring-cleaned city.

       textbooks are burning

There are wordlist poems and some one-words poems (with integral titles) which may not be very suitable for translating. twelve stitches consists of German compound words which cannot be one-worders in English even with hyphens, but they do show the German poet's stylistic interests.
There are also quite a number of exactly page length poems, of six or seven three line stanzas rather sparse in line length. If I expected to find something sickening in the war haiku and didn't, I found it here in a revolting story of a workman who set fire to rabbits. The rest of this series of poems also deal with tough characters in life. There is Deathwish Driver

     if you are in luck I drive by

and Stockman, who gets used to his awful smell.

    You manage because your own body
    simply absorbs the smell

ah! these people live in different flats, they are subtitled attic floor right, third floor right, etc. along with the garrulous idiot widow and the working girl.
My advice to this poet is, move house.
This is not a translation of a particular book by Rautenburg but a selection by the translator. Snapdragon is the translator's title.

The difference between Snapdragon and La Baudunais is that in the latter the original poems are in English, or, as the title page puts it, Scottish English. The parallel read is therefore different. The French verses are the translation.
It is interesting to see the phrase “not waving but drowning” make its way into the French. Of the eleven poems spanning twelve years of visits to the same area, the farewell poem including this quotation is easily the shortest. Of the rest, most are mid length, though one is divided into sections with dates – much like a diary (the first poem, In Brittany), and one is substantially longer (The day we saw the conger). The poems build up to a good understanding of the host countryside, and there is one poem, Lottery Winner? that is very appealing on the rejection of too many riches, linking into an old Breton prayer to connect the poem with the area. It is probably my favourite:

...I can't sleep in more than one bed
   or sit in more than one chair
   at a time...

  I remember the old Breton prayer...

...and day by day, a bowl of cider
   and a warm galette. Amen,
   amen to all of that.

The poems are a homage to the area. Even Belle, a neighbour's dog who sits alone 'like Greyfriars Bobby' desperate for a greeting from passers by, is part of the village, and the conger belongs to the waters of Brittany. The last poem, Night Flight, is wider in geographical scope as they fly north from Spain into France, but from the plane the poet is looking out for Brittany and Normandy. There's a real sense of home.
It is good that people who live there can read these poems in French, thanks to Le Disez' lively and pleasing translations, and a publisher in Brittany who has done poets and poems justice in an excellently produced book. The French translations have been given the right hand pages and strangely they are in a seriffed typeface while the Scottish poems are done in sans serif which makes them look a little plainer and the French slightly more decorative. But that doesn't matter.
Both these books are the result of a productive relationship between poet friends who are able to meet fairly easily across the linguistic borders.

1 comment:

  1. What a great review (I'm biased as I illustrated the cover) and my husband published it, and our friend Ken translated. The poems are rather good too. Thank you...