Selected Translations: 1948-1968

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9780689101946: Selected Translations: 1948-1968
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Book by Merwin, W. S.

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About the Author:

W.S. Merwin: W.S. Merwin, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2010–11, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice, most recently for The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon, 2009), and the National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2005). Author and translator of over fifty books, Mr. Merwin lives in Hawaii and France.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Retrospective Foreword
by W.S. Merwin

[Excerpted from unedited draft: NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION]

More than once, during the sixty years and more that are represented by this present selection, I had persuaded myself that I had finished trying to translate poetry. I had not come to that as a firm decision, but as a prospect whose time seemed to have come. But I kept finding that I had returned, after all, to trying again. Sometimes I had been led to it by a suggestion from someone else, and other times by something perhaps a single line or phrase that suddenly caught me, in the original, a line or phrase with which I had long been familiar. The indecisiveness about it, I realize, is consistent with the impossible art of translating poetry at all, for there is no such thing as a final translation. Only the original is unique, and essentially it cannot exist in other words.” And one part of the impossibility of translating it is the fact that what we want every translation to be is exactly what it never can be: the original. Yet the impossibility of the whole attempt remained part of the temptation to try again.

This magnetic attraction came to seem natural” to me, as habits do. It seemed to have grown there on its own, a native. It must have evolved from my own early fascination with the sound of language, which I am convinced is innate in everyone, whether it reaches maturity or not. In societies with strong oral traditions it is taken for granted. When I became aware of it I was too young to try to describe it even to myself. I remember being intrigued by phrases with an unfamiliar sound, in poems that my mother read to my sister and me, and in hymns that were sung, above my head in church (my father was a Presbyterian minister, so we went to church regularly). The sound of Tennyson’s brook babbling, babbling as it went to join the brimming river, and the spacious firmament on high, and all the blue ethereal sky which seemed clear to me though the actual words did not. One day before I went to school, at four, my father took me down to the church with him, a block away, to sit there while he rehearsed his next Sunday’s sermon. I was to sit very quietly and listen. My father did not often ask me to come along with him when he went out, and it was something of an occasion for me. First he read from the scripture, from the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. My father, I am happy to say, always read in the King James version, and I heard:

In the year that King Uz-ziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up and his train filled the temple.

Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six sings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly

Even in my father’s readings from the pulpit I did not remember ever having heard language like that, and it rang in my ears. I wanted to hear that sound again, and to hear more of the life in the words, though I had only a remote sense of what the words meant, as I did sometimes when my mother read fairy tales to us. As we walked home I kept trying to remember phrases, mumbling them to myself under my breath .

when I had turned nineteen, a friend invited me to his family’s house in Washington D.C. during the Easter vacation, and while I was there I telephoned St. Elizabeth’s, the military hospital where Pound was incarcerated, to ask whether I could visit him. They consented, and he consented.

I was led in through a locked door to a large shabby room that seemed to have been made by knocking out partitions between a series of former rooms. It had all been painted a grayish green at some point in the past, and the paint looked as thought it came from an unrecorded age. The walls were broken into insets and alcoves and I was led into one of the larger ones, just inside the iron-clad entrance door. There were heavy metal grids inside the tall windows. I was shown to a chair, and Pound, a moment later, was led in and over to meet me. He greeted me with a friendly laugh and we sat facing each other. He must have been sixty, if my dates are right, but he looked older to me. Thin, rather gaunt, his hair and the pointed beard gray. When he laughed he threw his head back revealing rows of gold teeth. He made no reference to his circumstances, ignoring one of the inmates, in pyjamas, who walked slowly up and down the length of the room, past us, pausing to pull, apparently an imaginary chain, maybe a toilet chain. Pound said, So you’re a poet.” I told him that I hoped so. He nodded as though he were taking that under serious consideration, and he asked whether I had read any of his Cantos. I said only the first few, and he began to tell me about the plan for their final form, when the last cantos would complete the original design, holding all the others in place, like the frieze over the top of a row of columns he mimed what he meant with his hands in front of him.

He returned before long, to the subject of my own aspirations, and I explained more or less how they had led me to want to come and see him. He nodded like a teacher and proceeded to talk to me as though he took my words seriously. I realized then and later that he loved the role of the pedagogue. Gertrude Stein had said, Ezra is a village explainer, which is all right if you’re a village, but ” Some of the advice he gave me was unforgettable and has been valuable to me ever since. He said, If you’re going to be a poet you have to forget about inspiration,” and work at it every day. Try to write seventy-five lines a day. Now, at your age, you don’t have anything to write seventy-five lines about, even if you think you do. So the thing to do is to get languages and translate.” He asked me what languages I knew and I said a bit of Spanish, after a bit of high school Latin. He nodded and took it in without comment, and then he said, The Spanish is all right. Get the romancero. Those are closest to the source. But best of all is the Provencal. Try to get the Provencal. Those troubadours wrote closest to the music. They heard the music before the words sometimes, and sometimes they wrote the music too. The translation of it is not simple, but trying to do it will be the best teacher you will ever find. Translating will teach you your own language.”

That was invaluable, and over the years that I have spent trying to make translations, his words accompanied conclusions that I came to as I worked. For example, I came to want a translation of my own, at least to be stretching English, trying to make it accommodate a use it had not been put to before, rather than following familiar convention. It should be making, however unnoticeably, something new.

Pound said to me, Try to get as close as possible to the original.” That sounded simple. I thought I knew what he meant until I tried to put it into practice
Anonymous Egyptian
20th century B.C.

Death is before me today
like health to the sick
like leaving the bedroom after sickness.

Death is before me today
like the odor of myrrh
like sitting under a cloth on a day of wind.

Death is before me today
like the order of lotus
like sitting down on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today
like the end of the rain
like a man’s home-coming after the wars abroad.

Death is before me today
like the sky when it clears
like a man’s wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.

Berber Song
Anonymous folk song

She has fallen in the dance,
None of you knows her name.
A silver amulet
Moves between her breasts.

She has hurled herself into the dance.
Rings chime on her ankles.
Silver bracelets.

For her I sold
An apple orchard.

She has fallen in the dance.
Her hair has come loose.

For her I sold
My field of olive trees,

She has hurled herself into the dance.
Her collar of pears glittered.

For her I sold
My orchard of fig trees,

She has hurled herself into the dance.
A smile flowered on her.

For her I sold
All my orange trees.

Room in Space
René Char French
1907 1988

Such is the wood-pigeon’s song when the shower approaches the air is powdered with
rain, with ghostly sunlight
I awake washed, I melt as I rise, I gather the tender sky.

Lying beside you, I move your liberty.
I am a block of earth reclaiming its flower.

Is there a carved throat more radiant than yours? To ask is to die!

The wing of your sigh spreads a film of down on the leaves. The arrow of my love closes
your fruit, drinks it.

I am the grace of your countenance which my darkness covers with joy.

How beautiful your cry that gives me your silence!
In Praise of Darkness
Jorge Luis Borges

Old age (as others refer to it)
can be the season of our good fortune.
The animal has died, all but the dying.
What remains is the man and his spirit.
I live among vague luminous shapes
that have not yet become darkness.
Buenos Aires
that used to be raveling out around the edges
onto the luminous shapes
that have not yet become darkness.
Buenos Aires
that used to be raveling out around the edges
onto the unlimited plain
has returned to being the Ricoleta, the Retiro,
the dirty streets of the Once,
and the old collapsing houses
that we still call The South.
All my life there have been too many things.
Democritus of Abdera tore out his eyes to be able to think.
Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and painless,
flowing down a gentle slope
as though it were eternity.
My friends have no faces,
the women are as they were so many years ago,
the corners might be other corners,
there are no letters on the page of the books.
I might find all of this terrifying
but it is a sweetness, a returning.
Of all the generations of texts there on earth
I will have read only a few
which I go on reading from memory,
reading and transforming them.
From the South, from the East, from the West, from the North
the roads all come together that have led me
to my secret center.
Those roads were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, dying moments, resurrections,
days and nights,
waking dreams and dreams,
each smallest moment of yesterday
and of the yesterdays of the world,
the unflinching sword of the Dane and the Persian’s moon,
the deeds of the dead,
the sharing of love, and words,
Emerson and the snow and so many things
now I can forget them, I approach my center,
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.
Basho’s tomb at Konpuku-ji Temple
Yosa Buson

I will die too
let me be a dry grass flower
here by the monument

In the wild winter wind
the voice of the water is torn
falling across the rocks

I bury the charcoal embers
in the ashes
my hut is covered with snow

I wear this hood
rather than look as though
I belonged to the drifting world

of an oak grove
the moon high in the trees

A mouse peeps out
eyeing the freezing oil
of my lamp

Whenever I go to bed
with my socks on
I have bad dreams
1207 1273

Wise teacher tell me
who or what do I look like
one minute I’m a phantom
the next I call to the spirits

I stand unscorched and unshrivelled
in the flames of longing
and I am the candle that gives light to everything

I am the smoke and the light I am one
and I am scattered

The one thing I ever twist in anger
is the peg of the heart’s lyre...

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9781556594373: Selected Translations

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ISBN 10:  1556594372 ISBN 13:  9781556594373
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2015

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