Category Archives: Translation

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains


Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind


Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

The Quiet Girl – Peter Høeg

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The Quiet Girl is not a novel to attempt in one day–or many days.  It’s a Fellini-esque, Dali-like  mind-warp filled with circus clowns, psychic children, J.S. Bach, some weird hyper-synesthesia, a plot that threatenes to take out Copehagen and disrupt the normal order of things, kidnapped children, villains, heroes, nuns and cops who can’t be pinned down or trusted.  Peter Høeg must mainline some serious mind-altering substances before he sits down to write every day.

Kasper Krone is an internationally-celebrated clown, addicted gambler wanted for a massive amount of unsettled debt, oddly able to hear tones, notes and music in everything and to identify people, emotions, motives and places just by listening.  He cuts a deal with some unholy powerful nuns to track down a group of kidnapped kids with dangerous psychic abilities in exchange for some relief from his legal problems. And he falls under the spell of one of those kids, a young girl named KlaraMaria who carries a silence around with her like an irresistible weapon. Krone is hooked. He is also betrayed, in life and in love, and constantly on the run. And his father is dying rather spectacularly but still willing to pull strings to find critical information. To make things more surreal, at dire moments Krone likes to play the violin with some virtuosity, favoring the Bach Chaconne, even when his wrist is broken. Some clown.

Half the time I had no idea what was going on. Maybe considerably more than half. The book was mesmerizing but I had no real hope of cracking its code. Høeg takes the idea of scene reversals very seriously–as soon as something happens another event immediately contradicts it and piles complication on complication. Plus, the main characters toss around philosophical observations and cryptic aphorisms like badminton shuttlecocks. And they shift in and out of villainy with every passing paragraph. Who are the actual bad guys–everybody? Nobody?

I think this is an anti-war philosophical thriller–that would be my best guess. But what I really think is that Høeg has written a book about what it is like to give yourself over to taking care of a child and to launching her, with all her fabulous new abilities, into a future you can only dimly see. Plot as metaphor. Why not? The circus is a performance of illusion and unpredictability; a clown’s routine is a theatrical interlude  in which anything might happen next–and often does. So is this really interesting, really baffling book. 

The Quiet Girl: A Novel   Peter Høeg | Farrar, Straus and Giroux    2006

Odes to Common Things – Pablo Neruda

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I love Pablo Neruda–complete fan girl, always. I love him in Spanish and in English and it is a tribute to his lovely lucid language that he sounds irresistible in both. Odes to Common Things is a collection of poems translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and published more than  20 years after Neruda’s death. He was so prolific and wrote so often of subjects that fascinated him that there are twenty-five odes about everything from scissors to gillyflowers. Scissors have cut the shape of all life, loves, grave clothes and fingernails. Gillyflowers have evolved from discarded weeds to “fragrant light, perfect protagonists of silence”. Neruda makes you think about the commonplace as if you are encountering it for the first time–and as if you have the eyes of a poet.

La mesa fiel


sueño y vida

titánico cuadrúpedo.

Tables are trustworthy:

titanic quadrupeds,

they sustain

our hopes and our daily life.

Ode to French Fries — What sizzles / in boiling / oil / is the world’s / pleasure 

Ode to a Pair of Socks — So this is / the moral of my ode: / beauty is beauty / twice over / and good things are doubly / good / when you’re talking about a pair of wool / socks / in the dead of winter.  

Ode to the Cat — There was something wrong / with the animals: / their tails were too long, and they had / unfortunate heads. / Then they started coming together, / little by little / fitting together to make a landscape, / developing birthmarks, / grace, / pep. / But the cat, / only the cat / turned out finished, / and proud: / born in a state of total completion, / it sticks to itself and knows exactly what it wants… / Nothing hangs together / quite like a cat

Neruda touches on loneliness, war, hunger, kindness, memory in his adoration of things. He is lush, rich and sensual–an apple is an opportunity to seduce:

You, apple, / are the object / of my praise. / I want to fill / my mouth / with your name. / I want to eat you whole.

A ti, manzana, / quiero / celebrarte / llenándome / con tu nombre / la boca, / comiéndote.

How could you not love things and the poet who enshrines them?  I would write an ode to Pablo Neruda, but my Spanish is nowhere near as mellifluous as his.  

Odes to Common Things, Bilingual Edition   Pablo Neruda / Bulfinch Press  1994

La Historia de los Colores – Subcomandante Marcos

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I bought the t-shirt in Palenque. The market there had all the typicos that catch tourists’ eyes but I spied a souvenir shirt with a black and white photograph of a masked guerrilla fighter on it and the caption Subcomandante Marcos. I knew who he was—at least I knew what could be known about him. Marcos was a legendary insurgent leader who might have been a college professor or a university grad student or some other lettered and middle class Mexican. But he had gone underground, taken to the wilderness in the mountains of Chiapas and become the spokesman for the Zapatista guerrilla forces against the Mexican government in the cause of rights for the indigenous people.

Very romantic story but the issues were real and the lives of the people in Chiapas could have used some economic and social justice. I hiked through the jungle for hours with a Lacandon boy as guide to visit the remarkable murals in the ruins of Bonampak. I wandered over the beautiful feminine ruins at Palenque and shared some local rice and beans and brew with fellow travelers. I got shin splints, mosquito bites, astonishing views and great photographs—all research for a novel and soul food for my adventurer’s heart. And when I got home to Manhattan, I wore the t-shirt.

I wore it for a few years; it complemented my pinko hippie credentials nicely. I stopped wearing it after 9-11 when I got funny looks and realized that the masked photograph looked a little bit like Bin Laden. But by then I had unearthed La Historia de los Colores at the Strand bookstore and I read it to my very young kid in Spanish. The book, by Subcomandante Marcos, is a bilingual retelling of a Mayan legend about how colors came to be in a black and white and gray world. The Story of Colors has lush art by Domitila Dominguez on thick coated stock—it’s a pleasure to handle. Today, I re-read it in English.

Probably just as well I read the Spanish to the four-year-old as the legend is very Mayan—the gods are constantly picking fights and bitching about things when they aren’t discovering red in the color of blood and making love so they could become tired and fall asleep. Once they’ve found enough colors, they have a sort of paintball fight at the top of a ceiba tree and get colors all over everything. Boys. In the end, after an interesting evolution of the handful of colors the gods turn up, they grab a macaw and stretch its skimpy gray feathers long enough to hold all the hues and entrust the colors to the bird for safekeeping.

So that’s how the macaw turned into a crayon box and how the world came alive in reds, greens, blues and yellows. For fun, my copy has an errata sheet tucked into it that explains that the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew committed funding for the book. Was the funding failure due to the bad-boy author or the copulation of the colors to give us all those rainbow shades? Congressional pressure, no doubt. Uptight idiots—who elects these people? Not me. I just keep subversive literature around my house where even children can find it. <G> Good book.

The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas (English and Spanish Edition)    Subcomandante Marcos | Cinco Puntos Press   1996

The Ruins of the Heart – trans. Edmund Helminski

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Mevlána Jeláluddin Rúmi, the great Islamic mystic, was born in 1207 in Persia, present-day Afghanistan. His peregrinations eventually landed him in Konya, Turkey, where he stayed and developed the ecstatic contemplation of the Beloved that found expression in countless luminous poems and utterances. His poetry has been translated into Victorian verse and contemporary quatrains but, no matter the language, Rúmi’s message, delivered from the heart, touches the heart.

Edmund Helminski translates a few of Rúmi’s verses into contemporary idiom in the slim volume The Ruins of the Heart.

          In this house of mud and water

          my heart has fallen into ruins.

          Enter this house, my Love, or let me leave.

Rúmi was a highly educated philosopher dedicated to the sublime experience of pure love. His work was informed by Plato, the Koran, Aesop’s fables, the works of Jesus, Buddha and the whole rich tapestry of world spiritual utterances embodied in the Persian culture of his time. Perhaps that is the secret to his widespread appeal. His ideas have influenced Chaucer, Goethe and Emerson, according to Helminsky, and I have half a shelf of various translations of Rúmi by different contemporary scholars and poets.

But the other undeniable attraction is his utter abandonment to ecstasy. Rúmi intended to become love, to lose himself and his identity in bliss. For a time, the object of his rapture was the nomad Shams of  Tabriz. Shams became for him the incarnation of perfect love and, even after Shams was murdered, or disappeared, Rúmi’s poetry concretized his stunning experience of dissolution into bliss. Those words were never meant to track a love affair, they are a universal expression of love, longing and transcendence.

          This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,

          to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

          First, to let go of life.

          Finally, to take a step without feet.

          To regard this world as invisible,

          and to disregard what appears to the self.

          Heart, I said, what a gift it has been

          to enter this circle of lovers,

          to see beyond seeing itself…

The Inquisition had Europe in its blazing grip as Rúmi spun poetry and danced with deliberate abandon in Konya. Genghis Khan was pillaging and annexing all of the East. The codification of heresies, the auto-da-fé and torture were spelled out in the halls of the Vatican. Cathar towns and populations were exterminated. Mystics and metaphysicians were at work in Bhagdad, in Egypt, in Delhi. There was a great foment of ideas, benign and malign. And in its midst, a bard of uncommon and enduring talent.

We might actually study Rúmi now to learn what can exist in a realm without drones and Kalishnikovs and thinking so dull and muddy it breeds only misery and destruction. Rúmi’s world was real and fractured but his vision was lucid and enlightened.

          What shall I do, O Muslims?

          I do not recognize myself…

          I am neither Christian nor Jew,

          nor Magian, nor Muslim.

          I am not of the East, nor the West,

          not of the land, nor the sea.

          I am not from nature’s mine,

          nor from the circling stars…

          Oh Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world

          that except for revelry and intoxication

         I have no tale to tell.

The Ruins of the Heart   Jelaluddin Rumi (translator: Edmund Helminski) | Threshold Books   1981

Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980