#210: TRANSLATIONS/VERSIONS. In approaching a foreign-language work of literature, there are translations; and there are versions, renditions, imitations, works “after” some writer or other. In her book After Callimachus (Princeton, 2020) the poet Stephanie Burt pulls and pushes the third century BCE Greek poet across the aeons into English by every means at her disposal, with wild invention and the energy of a toddler going hell for leather on a trike. What’s at her disposal is every twist and turn of contemporary English you can imagine, from academic locutions, the vocabulary of gender identity, pop references, deliberate anachronisms, modern names and the most up-to-the-millisecond street slang. Were it another source poet, one less wily, rangy, varied and immediate, it might be a stunt; take the merest peek at your Loeb Callimachus or any of the online straight-up translations and you’ll see the freedom and distance Burt has allowed herself. But I found After Callimachus a delight, a live wire, and an extended feat in hearing two voices at once: Burt’s speaking as Callimachus, and Callimachus himself, in a vivid echo from his place among the greats in a great period of Greek verse. Burt dashes from one genre and mood to another: the satiric and stinging iambs, erotic verse, bits picked from the longer works, hymns (the hymns to Demeter and to Athena are remarkable and among the surprising successes of the book) and, most movingly of all, the epigrams and sepulchral verses. In many of these last Burt, blessedly, knows when to set down her linguistic toys and play it simple and outright, and conveys something of the stark emotion of farewells—a genre in which no one excelled the Greeks:
You were always a lamb,
soft child: you played among
lambs, and slept with the lambs
in their folds,
as if you knew or believed that you
that you could never be, too old.
Here, with some of Burt’s tricks flying, an epigram:
I lost my friend’s laptop. I thought about skipping town
so she wouldn’t skin me alive.
That was June 20. On the tenth of July
turned up in a pile of clipboards and three-ring binders.
Oh, Hermes, my
good god, my prankster and finder
possessions, I won’t ask why
you took so long. I’m just glad it’s here now.
And, to finish, my favorite, a trick, a long shot, a risk that should never have worked but does:
It’s easier to explain if we use Mr. Spock.
Had it been my decision
to develop a crush on you, you may
indeed have objected: it is most illogical.
It might, indeed, offend.
And yet, if neurobiology will require
me to experience this emotion,
and, moreover, to communicate it, well…
It’s not like we can turn back the relevant clock;
it’s not like I stood in your right-of-way
at midnight and threw pebbles at your window.
All I did was leave a note on your door.
I have been, and always shall be, your friend.
Reading After Callimachus, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the academic translator, constrained by the standards of scholarly accuracy; seeing Burt come out of her corner, fists flying, it must just not seem fair; it must seem she gets to have all the fun. And Callimachus, with his Alexandrian sophistication and invention, is just the poet Burt’s approach would work for. But just as I was finishing reading the Callimachus I came across Burton Watson’s translations of Po Chu-I and Su Tung P’o, both published, as were so many of Watson’s books, by Columbia University Press. Watson was among a handful of the translators of Chinese and Japanese literature who, to simplify greatly, were the post-Arthur Waley generation, who had so much to do with the seeping of Asian literature into the Western teaching canon after World War II. He was a busy man, translating Ssu Ma-Ch’ien, Chuang Tzu, Han Shan, Lu Yu, Tu Fu, Confucius, all from the Chinese; the Vimalakirti Sutra and Lotus Sutra; and, from the Japanese, Ryokan, Saigyo, the Buddhist teacher Nichiren Daishonin, the late haiku poets Masaoka Shiki and Taneda Santoka, and The Tale of the Heike—among many others, and, in short, being a major conduit of Asian literature into the English language and curriculum.
Po Chu-i is considered one of the great poets of the Middle Tang—a bit younger than Li Po, Wang Wei or Tu Fu, but of that caliber. He was criticized for the “sensual delicacy” of some of the poems; on the other hand, the directness of his style made him accessible and he remains one of the best-loved Chinese poets. His life was the thrown-around affair of the Chinese official: prefect of Hangzhou and Suzhou at one point, exiled to Longmen at another. He was a serious student of Zen Buddhism, the vocabulary of practice surfacing in his later verse. He seems to have been genuinely a modest man, perfectly happy to acknowledge his faults; there is something earnest and endearing in his work. He was a favorite of Arthur Waley’s, and Watson’s versions are lucid and clear-eyed. As I get on myself, I find some of his works on aging that I once thought conventional, rather piercing:
Night grows late, I put poetry aside, breathe a long sigh;
By lamplight tears of old age dampen my white beard.
A scroll of old poems from twenty years ago—
of ten who wrote poems to match them, nine are no more.
Of the Chinese masters, some have been translated several times, but Watson seems to have cornered the market on the Sung Dynasty poet Su Tung-p’o; his Selected Poems, recently reissued by Copper Canyon Press, is the only full-length collection of Su I’ve been able to find. As with Watson’s other translations, he takes poems from across the poet’s career and arranges them chronologically, which gives us enough of a biographical framework so that the poems aren’t just strays. Like Po Chu-i, Su was constantly being exiled to some damned place, always at an impossible distance from his friends and family; this is the running background of much Chinese verse. Su’s vagaries were often due to a political faction associated with another poet of the time, Wang An-Shih, with whom Su was friendly; the politics that caused all the contention have long evaporated, and the two men’s works appear side-by-side in anthologies. Though we are likely to see only Su’s poetry in English he did, like so many others, write on a vast variety of topics, from gastronomy to travel literature to, in Su’s case, a work on hydraulic engineering. His poems moved away from the extravagances of the Tang; his hero and frequent model was the much earlier poet T’ao Yuan-Ming, and he wrote a somewhat snippy poem about the more elaborate style of Meng Chiao (“My first impression is of eating little fishes— / what you get’s not worth the trouble.”) Like Po, he came to Buddhism midway through his life, which enters the poems; he was considered one of the greatest of calligraphers. Because of the restraint and quietude of the poems, he is the poet who is least well represented in quotation; there are few fireworks in his poems, just a wisdom that, as with Po Chu-i, I once thought conventional and that, on this reading, has caused me to feel great affection and respect. Likewise with Watson’s translations, which when I was younger I thought a little lacking in fire and now seem to me quite marvelous. Some things you have to grow into, or up to.
Creek crisscrosses the meadow; banks scarred where water rose;
in sparse woods, frost-burned roots stick out at a slant.
Little boat with a single oar—where’s it going?
Home south of the river to a village of yellow leaves.
Reading Archana Venkatesan’s vivid and lively translation of the Tamil poetic sequence Tiruvaymoli (published as Endless Song: Tiruvaynoli by Penguin India in 2020), I was put in mind of the opening scene in Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, in which Charon, the ferryman of the dead, is to pick up a scholar and a poet, and is baffled to find it is one person: A.E. Housman. (True enough. Housman was a ferociously argumentative classical scholar; anyone who debated him went home to three days in bed with shattered nerves.) Tiruvaymoli is a ninth century work, ten books of a hundred stanzas each, each decad concluding with an “eleventh benedictory meta-verse,” in which the poet’s name is embedded. The poet is Maran Sathakopan, best known in India as Nammalvar, an affectionate: “our poet-saint.” These poets, the alvars, wrote in Tamil, a Dravidian language of immense antiquity, most commonly spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka. Nammalvar was a poet of the Vaishnavic cult, devoted to Vishnu in his many forms, this last phrase a clue to the tidal, tumbling pull of the verses. Vishnu has innumerable identities, forms, incarnations, faces, voices, presences, as well as a variorum of accomplishments, miracles and tales attached to him, and this is the ammunition for the poem’s wild multiplicity: no other poem I’ve ever read more deserves to be described as kaleidoscopic. Here is where we first see Venkatesen’s abilities as a scholar and annotator: the notes are compact and helpful, they give you what you need to know, and they’re expertly arranged and cross-referenced: they both enrich and ease your passage through this large text—300 pages of verse, 200 more of annotation. Now: forget all this, as it makes Endless Song sound formidable, impenetrably foreign and quite forbidding. Go to the verses. If you’ve ever surrendered to the sensuality and complexity of Indian music, you’ll have had a taste of what’s here.
Sexuality and religion, even sexuality and religious poetry, have often been wary and uncomfortable…well, bedmates. In an early Theravadan text the Buddha said that if there had been still another distraction as potent as sex, he would never have achieved enlightenment. In the west, in the poetry of Donne, you have his early erotic poetry, his later religious verse, and the impassible line between them, giving his work a strange bifurcation. Herbert and Hopkins both destroyed their early romantic work upon taking orders. The Vaishanvic poets instead charge their songs with the storied trappings of abandoned and yearning lovers—village dramas of gossip, worried mothers, young girls sneaking out at night; but they go to meet lovers who are the multifarious Vishnu, whose forms and trappings are illimitable; whose identity, in the beautiful last decads, is strangely permeable with our own. We go from this (Kanna is a childhood name for Krishna/Vishnu):
Kanna, you show no mercy.
When you cupped my full breasts, at your touch
joy flooded crashing beyond the sky, drowning
thought, washing over me. It ended in a dream.
Desire entered, entered every part of me
I cannot bear it. Don’t leave.
Parting kills me.
He filled me with himself, filled everything
every world every life. He became me,
called himself me to sing of himself.
The king of Tirumaliruncolai, sweet
as honey milk sugar nectar
has devoured me entirely.
In this latter particularly you’ll get some sense of how Venkatesen’s renders the Tamil in an English that is terse and quick, with some of John Clare’s wariness of what he called “the awkward squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons etc.” What punctuation is there clarifies; what isn’t there speeds the verse. From the opening stanzas:
Each knows what they know,
each finds a different path
Each has their god
each reaches his feet
Each of these gods lacks nothing,
everyone is fated
to find their way to the great lord
who’s always there.
Always there, perhaps, but the Tiruvaymoli is saturated from first verse to last with the glorious and torturous erotic suspense of the search for love and union. It is where we all live, and it is where poetry is so generously open to any who read it, beyond the some-time narrowness and sectarianism of religious pursuits proper. It has this in common with Jayadeva, Surdas, Mirabai, all the Vaishnavic poets of northern India; Nammalvar is one of a group of twelve alvars in Tamil Nadu, many of whose works are still finding their way into the English language. This is a process I’ve been witnessing and enjoying since I left school fifty years ago; it has been an unending joy, and Venkatesen’s work is the equal of the great translators who’ve worked in this vast field: Barbara Stoler Miller, John Singleton Hawley, Ramanujan, many others. There is only one easy and possible answer to their work: more, please, more!