Friday, December 7, 2012

The difference a few words make

Daniela Selak, an 8th grade student at Pujanke School in Split, Croatia, recites the poem "Poets" of Antun Branko Šimić, translated by Boris Vidovic, the school principal.


Poets are a wonder in the world.
They walk over the land and their eyes
grow large and mute beside things

Leaning their ear upon the silence
which surrounds and torments them
poets are an eternal twinkle in the world

                I've also seen this poem translated as:

Poets are the astonishment of the world.
They go to the ground and their eyes
grow big and dumb beside things

Leaning against the ear
the silence that surrounds them and the passion.
poets are forever blinking in the world

 Each translation of that last line gave me an entirely different understanding of the poem:

(Version 1) Poets are one of the world's "wonders" - they're amazing, they walk the earth, observing life, listening for sounds that are not there (which anguishes them), yet themselves become somehow immortal. (They go on twinkling forever (like the stars).

(Version 2) Poets are "astonishing" - these incredible creatures, mesmerized or struck dumb by "things", silenced by their own tortured passions, nevertheless go on blinking about it, forever.

There is yet a third sense of this poem, a felt understanding (to this reader, at least) of a shared sense of meaning behind the words offered up in the different renditions.  I decided to try to find the poem as originally written (in Croatian) and attempt a literal translation concentrating on certain words that'd been translated differently (below italicized):


 Pjesnici su čuđenje u svijetu.
 Oni idu zemljom i njihove oči
 velike i nijeme rastu pored stvari

 Naslonivši uho
 na ćutanje što ih okružuje i muči
 pjesnici su vječno treptanje u svijetu

Possible interpretations:

 čuđenje =  wonder, amazement, surprise.
 zemljom earth, land, ground
 treptanje =  a kind of flickering, or palpitation; a flashing or blinking, "twinkling" 

One reader, who'd translated zemljom as "ground", suggested that "Oni idu zemljom" ("They go to ground")  refers to "underground", where there's no light; only a tomb-like,  torturing silence where one squints to see in the dark/ blinks rapidly when struck by light.  But is that what the poet actually meant here?

Stars flicker and glimmer ("Twinkle, twinkle, little star"); eyes that twinkle, have a sparkle or gleam in them.  Poets rendered awestruck and speechless by phenomena ("things"), tormented by the silence pressed against their ears, go on blinking, twinkling and flickering (writing poems), ad infinitum.  "Poets are [an eternal twinkle, forever blinking] in the world."  The point is not so much how they do so, but that they do so.

What a wonderful, crazy bunch, Poets.  My deep apologies to the poet, Šimić.  How horrid  to have some reader come along, decades or centuries later, intrigued by a few slight differences in translation, eager to know what you  really meant, who then goes and deconstructs it, word by unfamiliar word.

"Hey!" [I can imagine the poet grumbling], "Yours is not to decipher, reader - or pick it apart like you're dissecting a bug .  What I want to know is, did you like it?  Did it resonate?"   Yes, yes and yes - in both translations, despite the different impressions they left me with.  Specifically:

The first translation, it seems to me, is highly flattering: Poets are a true wonder, I heard the words hint to me.  Now, they don't entirely function like other earthbound beings (with respect to life).  And they tend to suffer (artistically speaking) more than other segments of the population, perhaps due to the silence often accorded their output.  However, there's something about what they do (make poetry) that aligns them (albeit metaphorically) with the stars.  And as a group,  however different or divided, they've somehow achieved a kind of immortality, or at least some of their writings have.  Overall impression:  Poets -- wow!!  Right up there with the gods!

The second translation, on first reading, to me sounded a bit as if it might be subtly poking fun at poets:.   Man, poets are astonishing!!  They're not holed up in their ivory tower at all--they're down-to-earth, grounded beings just like you and me (although unable sometimes to call a spade a spade - some seem to resort to metaphor by default).  And they sometimes hear nothing of the voices that surround them (except their own thoughts), which nonetheless bothers them.  And yet they never stop.  Ever.  They just go on and on and on... and on ... Forever ...  twinkling,  blinking, palpitating and flickering away, until Never.  Overall impression:  Poets -- wow.  They're still around.  Amazing!

Actually, it's not poets so much as Poetry I find amazing - it stretches 'cross earth, announcing itself o'er the swift/slow flow of days, if you just look.  Inflamer of passions, giver of insight, provider of comfort, it tempts, beckons, thrills, outrages, soothes, devastates -- like Life.   Now, it may be the case, that one day Poetry dies out, that nothing survives, that some future world will neither know nor remember it.  ('Forever's just a word to express what we can't personally verify.').  So sing, poet, sing/  Write, writer, write./ Open the cave door/  let in the light - for as long as it's there.

Antun Branko Šimić, one of the greatest Croatian poets, died in 1925 at the age of 27, from tuberculosis.  He sometimes wrote of death:

Death is beyond me. It is in me
the foremost beginning: it grows with me
at any time
One day
I stop
and it continues to grow


Smrt nije izvan mene. Ona je u meni
od najprvog početka: sa mnom raste
u svakom času
Jednog dana
ja zastanem
a ona raste dalje

In this poem,  Šimić advises us

OPOMENA                                                                 WARNING

Čovječe pazi da ne ideš malen                                    Man, take care, not to go small
ispod zvijezda.                                                              under the stars.
Pusti da cijelog tebe prođe                                         Let the star light
blaga svjetlost zvijezda!                                              pour right through you!
Da ni za čim ne žališ                                                   Regret nothing when you cast
kada se budeš zadnjim pogledima                              your last look
rastajao od zvijezda!                                                   at the stars!
Na svom koncu mjesto u prah                                   At the end, instead of dust,
prijeđi sav u zvijezde!                                                 turn into stars!

To hear the poem read in Croatian, click here.

                    [Sources for the Croatian  original, and English translation].

Artwork by my son, Alexi, for a school project, years ago

I love those lines "Let the star light/ pour right   through you!"  And that at the end of life, while your body turns to dust, the "You" of you - flies off to become One with the stars.

Thank you to that high school principal at Bujanke Elementary School in Split, Croatia for the little video above, introducing me to the poet Antun Branko Šimić.