I have never asked English-speaking readers what or how they felt about Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy. It is a well-known poem, written by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth I. It is a tearful meditation on the brevity and fatality of life.
The Translator’s Labour’s Lost
I suspect that it is the poem’s melancholy and romantic feel that has made it so popular among contemporary Russian translators. On the web one can find some 5 or 6 variations, all different. Nothing wrong with this, except one thing: the majority of attempts are based around external (=obvious) characteristics of the poem. Translators have found that “Elegy” consists of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words. This obviously makes the poem very unique, and, because we’re reading a Renaissance poem – and Renaissance is well-known for its fascination with symbols and riddles – the monosyllabic words are (mis)taken for an authorial intent. Tichborne was contemplating the brevity of life, and so he used monosyllabic words to emphasise the point.
There are two problems with such interpretation. First, even when we translate prose, we still miss out on certain symbolic features in the destination text. However good we are as translators, losses are sometimes inevitable. In the end, a written text is a rhetorical exercise, and therefore we still want to entertain the reader with our translation. If it closely follows the original text but is cumbersome and distasteful, then the reader will be tired, annoyed, and not at all pleased. This means that we cannot aim for a complete lexical equivalence in translation, but rather we should aim to translate (i.e. negotiate) something else.
Russian is my native language, which I know in depth, and yet even I would struggle to provide monosyllabic equivalents to all the English monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s Elegy. And even if I did manage to find them all, the result would hardly possess much literary merit because I wouldn’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.
The second problem with putting too much emphasis on monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s poem is that we’re clearly trying to add to what is already contained in the poem. For some reason we are not satisfied with the fact that “Elegy” is about the fatality and shortness of one’s life, so we think we must find that which would further stress this. Let’s not think about the poem; let’s look at what I’ve just said. “We think we must find that which would further stress this“; “let’s not think about the poem“; “let’s look at what I’ve just said“. Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of words in those phrases are monosyllabic. Because I am the living and breathing author of those phrases, I certainly declare that I didn’t plan to use monosyllabic words to stress my point. The point is very simple: there are many monosyllabic words in the English language, and a lot of them happened to be used in Tichborne’s “Elegy“. Rather than assuming that Tichborne conspired (excuse the pun) to use monosyllabic words in his final poem, one should better look at this as a kind of linguistic peculiarity. It certainly adds to the poem’s feel; but, as far as I am concerned, it cannot be viewed as the poem’s most distinct feature, let alone it cannot dictate how we translate the poem.
As far as the Anglo-Saxon origin of the words goes, again I personally believe we’re walking a useless extra mile in trying to establish the uniqueness of the poem. I think so purely because I am careful of not infusing the poem with my knowledge. This is the biggest disservice I can do to myself as translator and to my readers. The question on these occasions must not be “do I know these words are Anglo-Saxon?” but “did Tichborne know these words were Anglo-Saxon?” I bet the historic origin or the etymology of the words didn’t matter to him in the hours before the execution. Someone may think differently but the question to ask is: would the origin of the words matter to you in Tichborne’s circumstances?
Tichborne’s Elegy Intent
I argued in a short essay in Russian about the complications of translating “Elegy” that it is actually a very easy poem to translate, thanks to the Russian lyrical tradition. Mysticism, melancholy, romantic troubles, forlorn love is what often distinguishes Russian poetry. Tichborne’s “Elegy” could easily be written by a Romanticist poet like Lermontov, should he have found himself in prison awaiting execution. Given Lermontov’s caliber as a poet, his poem would well exceed Tichborne’s in literary merit, but in tone and mood it could be very similar.
Last but not least, the misfortunes of translators who tried to translate “Elegy” have entirely to do with the problem of identifying the context and the intent of the poem. I have already pointed out to the problem of context: we’re placing the poem in the context of the language, whereas we must place it in the context of its own time. The themes of Tichborne’s poem are the brevity of life, fatality, death, and the inevitability of punishment, however unjust and cruel. These very themes were widely discussed not only in contemporary literature, but were explored by painters. In my Russian text I compared the colours of “Elegy” to the palette of Tintoretto’s “Marriage at Cana”: the colours are rich but dim, as if covered by the ‘frost of cares‘. There is a similar kind of melancholy and sadness in Michelangelo’s sonnets, and the whole topic of brevity of life was labeled vanitas in both painting and literature. Seen in this context, “Elegy” is a bridge between Renaissance exuberance and lust for life and Baroque melancholy, presented in a rather beautiful and peculiar lyrical form.
Tichborne’s intent is quite easy to comprehend. It is known that he was practising poetry, so, in addition to writing a letter to his darling wife, what could be a better way to bid farewell to this earthy life? And the poem’s intent has to do with the context in which we should read it. Again, this is not the context of the language, but of the time. Tichborne wasn’t teaching us a lesson in the English language; he wasn’t trying to tell us how many monosyllabic words there were in the English language, let alone how many of them were Anglo-Saxon. Instead, he suddenly found himself in a prison cell, and, given that he travelled to the Continent and obviously had the chance to view the works of Italian painters, all the images of vanitas, hour-clocks, and hovering deathly shadows rushed into his mind. If, like Dostoevsky in the 19th c, Tichborne had been suddenly pardoned in 1586, “Elegy” could become a stepping stone for a poetic talent. Instead, it became the last and only manifestation of any literary promise. If Tichborne was indeed practising poetry during his life, then this poem also contains his understanding that he could no longer develop his gift, and this should have been distressing also. Therefore, when we translate “Elegy“, we must strive to convey this emotional component of the original text. And, in case you wonder, this is exactly what I did in my translation.
An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing Stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and written page.
Il Penseroso’s Platonist toiled on
In some like chamber, shadowing forth
How the daemonic rage
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.
Two men have founded here. A man-at-arms
Gathered a score of horse and spent his days
In this tumultuous spot,
Where through long wars and sudden night alarms
His dwinding score and he seemed castaways
Forgetting and forgot;
And I, that after me
My bodily heirs may find,
To exalt a lonely mind,
Befitting emblems of adversity.
I much prefer the films like The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese) and The Passions of Christ (dir. Mel Gibson) for the simple fact: they divert our attention to the life of a man, rather than a semi-God. In the first film we see a man struggling with and yet still pursuing his mission of a Messiah (note the connection between the two words), and in the second film we are made to watch this man suffer with our eyes wide open – pretty much like Alex from The Clockwork Orange had his eyelids fixed open and was made to watch different atrocities in order to rethink his attitude to aggression and terror. I do think that in the official ecclesiastical “discource” far too big an emphasis is made on the performance of Jesus as a son of God, and much lesser attention is given to his life as man.
Even less attention we give to God himself. Some deny Him altogether, others await miracles. A true deus ex machina, He is expected to turn to a man’s every whim, to stop wars, to heal wounds, to grant success, to bring love, etc, etc. But what if He was not quite as we thought him to be? Can He not be tired of our whims and prayers?
This is what Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean Nobel-winning poet and feminist, contemplated in a beautiful poem El Dios Triste. The poem is set in autumn when Nature sheds colours and leaves, barring trees and earth, and washing every surface with the last rain before succumbing to the winterly sleep under the snow. But just as Huizinga imagined the European 15th century as the autumn of the Middle Ages, so does Mistral see Nature’s figurative sunset as God’s autumn. The final stanza, in which the lyrical hero abandons all demands in her sympathy for the sad God, is one of the most profound expressions of misericordia – mercy and compassion.
Gabriela Mistral – EL DIOS TRISTE
Mirando la alameda de otoño lacerada,
la alameda profunda de vejez amarilla,
como cuando camino por la hierba segada
busco el rostro de Dios y palpo su mejilla.
Y en esta tarde lenta como una hebra de llanto
por la alameda de oro y de rojez yo siento
un Dios de otoño, un Dios sin ardor y sin canto
¡y lo conozco triste, lleno de desaliento!
Y pienso que tal vez Aquel tremendo y fuerte
Señor, al que cantara de locura embriagada,
no existe, y que mi Padre que las mañanas vierte
tiene la mano laxa, la mejilla cansada.
Se oye en su corazón un rumor de alameda
de otoño: el desgajarse de la suma tristeza.
Su mirada hacia mí como lágrima rueda
y esa mirada mustia me inclina la cabeza.
Y ensayo otra plegaria para este Dios doliente,
plegaria que del polvo del mundo no ha subido:
“Padre, nada te pido, pues te miro a la frente
y eres inmenso, ¡inmenso!, pero te hallas herido”.
A beautiful Russian translation:
Габриэла Мистраль – Грустный Бог
Под ветхий шорох осени-калеки, где дряхлость рощ прикрыта желтизною, я подымаю горестные веки, и мой Господь встает перед мною.
Глухих часов медлительные слезы, кармин листвы и золото заката. Осенний Бог забыл псалмы и грозы, в его глазах смятенье и утрата.
И мнится мне, что Тот, в огне и громе, воспетый слепо, с опьяненьем страсти, едва ли есть; да есть ли кто-то, кроме того, кто сам нуждается в участьи!
Поблекли щеки, руки ослабели, а в сердце — рощей стонет непогода, туманный взгляд не достигает цели, и нас Ему не видно с небосвода.
И я из человеческого ада иду к Нему с молитвой небывалой: — Верь, Отче наш, нам ничего не надо, наш всемогущий, хрупкий и усталый!
Иногда чувствую себя Петраркой: однажды ему так надоело разбирать свой архив, что он все бросил в огонь. Это напоминает, как мы иногда поступаем с накопившейся почтой: удаляем, и все! Но вот камина у меня нет, зато находятся то и дело всякие записки университетской поры. Вот, например, из переписки на лекции:
Утоли своя печали,
Посмотри на небо сине:
Видишь, солнце закачалось
В зеленеющей осине.
Твоей грусти нет причины,
Все пришло, и все проходит.
Утоли своя печали
И найди покой в природе.
А потом нашлось стихотворение от декабря 1998, здесь чувствуется впечатление от чтения ренессансной поэзии
Я ключ к судьбе найти пытаюсь,
Вопросы задаю. Она ж
Ответа будто бы не знает:
“Ma joie, mon âme – ah! quel dommage!”
Я все гаданья, гороскопы –
Всё изучил, вошел я в раж!
И день, и ночь я жизнь толкую,
Свихнуться, право, я рискую,
Но ключ к судьбе-таки найду я.
Ma joie, mon âme – oh! quel dommage!
Часы летели, лета, весны,
Обрел седины тайны страж
И умер, не решив вопроса.
Sa joie, son âme – ah! quel dommage!
На небесах же, где в лазури
Качался бога антураж,
Жизнь умиленная лежала,
И в своих кудрях мысль искала,
И зачарованно шептала:
– Ma joie! mon âme! non, pas dommage!
It was absolutely normal for me to read “beyond my age”, so to say. When I was seven, I read Oscar Wilde’s tales, Voynich’s Gadfly, and the ancient myths. The book in Russian that you see in the photo was printed in 1990, so it was around the age of 10 that I first read the poems by German Expressionists. Being rather savvy for my age, I knew at least one of them by name: it was Bertolt Brecht, although as we know he did not remain an Expressionist for too long, just as Boris Pasternak moved on from Futurism fairly quickly. Back then I was, erm, thrilled to be able to read certain words that would be considered foul language (I understand now it prepared me for reading Henry Miller on the Moscow Underground a decade later). I remember being particularly impressed by the poetry of Gottfried Benn. However, he wrote truly lyrical poems, as well:
I was writing something completely different (about German Expressionist poets) when I found a website of the poet and translator Leo Yankevich. And there was this beautiful poem by the Polish Leopold Staff, translated into English by Yankevich. The poet contemplates the fleeting nature of a moment that is as difficult to grasp as the impression of a cloudy masterpiece in the sky – and just as precious.
Moments exist if only to pass by,Hardly mine, no longer anyone else’s,Like cloudy masterpieces in the sky. And moments are replaced by moments waiting, Always in lakes among the masterpieces Either stars or pretty girls are bathing. Though everything perpetually changes,
The first time I read this poem, I was at school, and I remember well we were preparing to either a quiz or a matinee, so we had to learn an English poem by heart. I believe this was about 13-14 years ago. I also remember that at first I took it simply as a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and only much later – when I was already a student at the University – did I begin to realise that this poem means much more to me. Effectively, with another couple of poems and a few quotations, these lines summarise my approach to things in life.
I shall also give a link to the Russian translation of this poem, by Mikhail Lozinsky. As far as I am concerned, Lozinsky was one of the best ever Russian translators. At the turn of 1930-40s, battling a deadly illness, he had been working on the Russian translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Among his other translations, one of my favourite is definitely Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And, of course, Kipling’s If.
So, enjoy the poem, and if you have got any thoughts or memories about it, do post a comment about these. 🙂
(For Russian translation (“Заповедь”), please follow the link. The text comes after a poem by Coleridge).
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
To celebrate another of William Shakespeare’s “round dates” in 2014, NY Shakespeare Exchange has called on directors and actors to participate in a ground-breaking project. The Sonnet Project fuses urban settings of New York’s five boroughs with new technology and approach to film making and Shakespeare’s verse.
More from organisers:
“Each sonnet video will be filmed in a unique location throughout the five boroughs of New York City, the birthplace of American cinema. From the iconic to the forgotten, we’ve chosen locations with deep cultural significance. In this way, we juxtapose the poetry of the city with the poetry of the Bard, and find a deep contemporary relevance for Shakespeare’s sometimes elusive language.
The project will span one full year, launching on Shakespeare’s 449th birthday and culminating on his 450th. Throughout the year we will release a new sonnet video every 2-3 days. The videos and all supporting materials will be available free of charge to anyone in any sector of the population and foster an unprecedented level of access to Shakespearean performance.“
So, if you live in the U.S. or may be able to travel to America, grab yourself a sonnet (those untaken are currently in black) and move on to submitting a form.
CREATIVE PARAMETERS FOR THE SONNET PROJECT:
The “starring roles” in each video are Shakespeare’s language, the specific NYC location, and the director’s interpretation.
Director is responsible for equipment needs.
New York Shakespeare Exchange will assign the sonnet location.
Each film should contain only one actor. A highly skilled classical actor from the files of NYSX will be cast based on each particular sonnet. Director requests for basic actor type (e.g., gender, age-range, etc.) will be taken into consideration when possible. Requests to work with a specific actor will be taken on a case-by-case basis.
An NYSX text coach will work with each actor on interpreting the language, and will be present “on set” to assist with rhetorical technique and clarity of Shakespearean thought. The text coach will also be available to the director for any textual analysis questions.
Video length must be 120 seconds or less.
Submitted footage must be fully edited and in an “audience ready” form. NY Shakespeare Exchange will provide logos and specifications for titles and credits.
The delivery format is 1080 HD 23.98P with sync sound.
Video must be delivered no later than April 30, 2013.*
A director may take on a secondary video, having submitted the first one. The deadline for the secondary video is July 31, 2013.
A submission form asks you to list the filming and editing software you intend to use, and whatever qualifications, links, and the names of collaborators you would like to share. If your application is successful, a formal Work for Hire Agreement will be signed between you as a director and the NY Shakespeare Exchange.
If you decide to participate, having read the information on Shakespeare in Translation, please kindly consider mentioning us as a source of information. Thanks!
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