Sunday, July 16, 2017

Papillons noirs

How to translate badly, lesson one: Make the translation rhyme.

I've begun to think that any real aesthetic appreciation of a translated poem would have to be found by reading the original, and that all I can do is to give a rough, incomplete idea of what the poem says -- necessarily incomplete, because poems depend more on the skilled use of language than on meaning as we think of it when we talk about other forms of communication. If I were to impose a rhyme scheme, I would cloud this already vague idea.

With all of this in mind, here is my rough translation of another poem by Albert Giraud, from Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels Bergamasques (Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1884).


De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire,
Et l'horizon semble un grimoire
Barbouillé d'encre tous les soirs.

Il sort d'occultes encensoirs
Un parfum troublant la mémoire:
De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire.

Des monstres aux gluants suçoirs
Recherchent du sang pour le boire,
Et du ciel, en poussière noire,
Descendent sur nos désespoirs
De sinistres papillons noirs.

- - - - - - - - - -

Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun,
And the horizon resembles a grimoire
Smeared with ink every night.

There issues from occult censers
A perfume troubling to the memory:
Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun.

Monsters with sticky proboscides
Hunt for blood to drink,
And from the sky, in black dust,
Upon our despairs descend
Sinister black butterflies.

How could this go wrong? Easily!

Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies;
Like some grimoire, the horizon lies
Daubed with ink at midnight's rise.

From censers used for auguries,
Fumes coil to pierce forgotten sighs:
Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies.

Slimey beast proboscides
Hunt for blood-atrocities,
While from the clouds like blackened sties
Descend on every dream that dies
Sinister black butterflies.

Perhaps, like a physician, a translator should first do no harm....

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Reviewer's Duty to Damn

John Ciardi, on principles for reviewers at The Saturday Review.

1. The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it give it to him anyhow.
2. No one who offers a book for sale is sacrosanct. By the act of publication and promotion, the citizen-human being forfeits his privileges as a non-competitor. Having willingly subjected himself to judgment he must accept either blame or praise as it follows. If in doubt, assume that the book is signed by Anonymous.

3. Evaluation must be by stated principle. The reviewer's opinion is only as good as his methods.

4. A review without reference to the text is worthless.

5. Quotation without analysis of the material quoted is suspect.

6. If you cannot document a charge, pro or con, do not make it.

7. Poetry is more important than any one poet. Serve poetry.

8. Limitations of space often make it difficult and sometimes impossible to apply these principles as carefully as one would wish. No space limitation, however, is reason enough for forgetting that these principles exist.

-- From
"A Reviewer's Duty to Damn."
The Saturday Review, February 16, 1957.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Smell of Yesterday's Blood

When I say that horror is not a genre, but a mood, a suspicion, a perspective, I assert this not to condemn genre, but to recognize that the qualities I love in one type of story can often be found in unexpected form elsewhere.

To give one example: here is a passage from an Isaac Babel story, "Crossing into Poland."

"The commander of the VI division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.

"Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noon-tide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery. The Volyn's peaceful stream moved away from us in sinuous curves and was lost in the pearly haze of the birch groves; crawling between flowery slopes, it wound weary arms through a wilderness of hops. The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses. The blackened Zbruch roared, twisting itself into foamy knots at the falls. The bridges were down, and we waded across the river. On the waves rested a majestic moon. The horses were in to the cruppers, and the noisy torrent gurgled among hundreds of horses' legs. Somebody sank, loudly defaming the Mother of God. The river was dotted with the square black patches of the wagons, and was full of confused sounds, of whistling and singing, that rose above the gleaming hollows, the serpentine trails of the moon."

[From The Collected Stories, edited and translated by Walter Morison. Meridian Books, 1960.]

Everything I love in horror fiction can be found here: similes that convey unease ("like a lopped-off head"), vividly-evoked settings full of troubling details ("the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses"), metaphors that suggest an uncanny threat or process ("the serpentine trails of the moon").

But do these details (and grimmer ones to come) make this a horror story?

One response would be to say, "Horrific matter, horrific moods, make a story horror." I can understand this, and I'm tempted to agree with it. But I'm also tempted to say that what we normally consider horror fiction is just one small group of stories within a larger framework that acknowledges the power and presence of a mood. Horror is an inescapable aspect of life; it is not limited to a genre.

How you feel about this, and whether you agree or disagree, will depend on your own perspective, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But from my point of view, this ambiguity, this uncertainty, implies a freedom to explore the nuances of a mood without limitations of style or content or expectation. Not only is the road wide open, but there are many roads, and they all veer off towards a storm-cloud horizon without fences and without maps.