Sunday, 15 March 2009

Karl Ristikivi the poet

I've been translating poetry by the Estonian author Karl Ristikivi, from a collection mentioned on another thread here. Here is a group of four poems, partly to show what Ristikivi wrote about, but also to bring up that fraught question of footnotes. When you translate a novel, you can give some explanation in the introduction, and then have the choice of footnotes or endnotes, marked or unmarked in the text.

But poetry often involves short texts. The reader should not be overburdened with long explanations. And yet: when there are subtle cultural, geographical or historical allusions, the reader must not be left in the dark. So what does the translator do?

Here is a Ristikivi poem, about homeland and exile, are a couple of poems I've translated, plus the notes. Where should the notes appear?



Only in Mary’s Land the Mary Fern,
cool fan of the Virgin,
which she on Saint John’s Night
presses dew-decked against her cheek.

Past the ruins, under the ***,
under the old trees
poison root in the sweet earth
Dryopteris filix-mas.

From a gnarled trunk peers a dryad,
night has nine sons.
Nine blooms under the pillow you see,
and you remain alone.

Mary, when will you come to our land
and stroke the fern there?
When did you give it your own name?
Let a miracle occur!

[Translator’s note: Maarjamaa, or Mary’s Land, is the poetic name for Estonia. The fern Dryopeteris filix-mas is usually known as the Common Fern in English. But for the sake of this poem, it has become Mary’s Fern]



Timid eyes are watchful
day and night long.
The timid gaze is sharp
as the pin of the butterfly catcher,
sees too much and too little,
sees past what is near,
but dare not look far.

Timid eyes are wide
in fear –
lest someone takes from their hand
that which they do not have.



Ferns on the window
shut by ice crystals the window
on which night has placed its seal.
Like white frozen wings,
icy shadow over vanished cities.

Hazy light from a distant planet
strikes back from a leaden mirror
a million years later.

Time draws an arc like charred paper,
the worm bites its own tail.
The mystery of the hermetically sealed room
cannot be solved by Gideon Fell.

[Translator’s note: Gideon Fell was the fictional detective of 23 novels by John Dickson Carr, a character based, in part, on the English Catholic author of the father Brown detective stories G.K. Chesterton. Gideon Fell often solved cases where a locked room was involved. Ristikivi himself wrote one detective novel – in Swedish. This was later translated into Estonian by Jaan Kross.]


A further problem is rhymed couplets. The first three sections of this poem, as reproduced here, are unrhymed, although even they contain half-rhymes at times. You can more or less translate straight, allowing for those allusions. But part four is strictly rhymed. My translation is therefore more approximate and the note "rhyming couplets!" is to remind me, when I revise the draft, to take the rhyme scheme into account:


[rhyming couplets!]

Know this! And yet go bareheaded
even when no one else follows this road.

The fact you no longer believe in the fern flower,
may be your greatest victory.

You have run uphill for long enough,
now going will be easier, when you throw away

everything, you have experienced, so that it will become your tent.
And although the glint of a painful sword in your eyes,

that blinds – its light remains within you.
You no longer need move on, simply walk.

And yet, Sisyphus, your regret at vain labour?
Those days are over. Now enjoy the night of joy.

Now no longer the sun but the changeable moon.
But know this – even the fern was once a tree.


I started translating the whole collection of poems, entitled "The Road of [a] Man" and only 75 pages long, years ago, but broke off. My Estonian wasn't up to it. Now, more than a decade later, I was encouraged to have another go by the Estonian Ambassador to the Netherlands, Gita Kalmet. She wasn't just being diplomatic. She genuinely admires this poetry collection. She, a former actress, is on the same wavelength as artistic people, I feel.


David McDuff said...

Again, I think this translation works well. It's clear and straightforward, and reads like poetry written in English.

I don't think you need the notes. Readers can put the poem together for themselves. There is Wikipedia, after all. :-)

What's happening in line 1 of stanza 2 of The Ferns? Is there a word missing?

Also, will you keep the rhymes in the rhyming couplet sections eventually? There is always a debate about whether one should try to reproduce rhymes in translation. The problem is particularly acute in Russian poetry, as nearly all of it rhymes - even the most modern verse.

I do like the name Maarjamaa - what a pity Estonia isn't really called that!

Eric Dickens said...

A couple of points in reply:

I was thinking of having endnotes, which are "take it or leave it". You can look at the back of the book, or you just know. But those asterisks in the first stanza will go.

I couldn't see what would be missing in poem II, line one. And at the very beginning of the poem, I'm simply aping the Estonian, although there is no verb.

I will try to keep the rhyme in the last stanza if possible. But I am not a dogmat (dogs walk all over dogmats). The worst book of forced rhymes that I know of is when W. K. Matthews absolutely murdered normal, sober, Estonian poems in his 1950s anthology, by the Procrustean device of rhyme.

Matthews has produced some of the greatest doggerel-plus-archaïc usage I have ever read! Would make William McGonagall green with envy.