The Art of Translation

Over the past ten years, I have thought long and hard about the art of translation, because I finished translating a book by Yves Bonnefoy, Début et fin de la neige, from French into English, while a small book of mine, Leaves / Feuilles was translated from English into French by Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat. Both books included, and were inspired by, drawing by the Iranian artist Farhad Ostovani. A bit later, my book Childhood (with drawings by Lucy Vines Bonnefoy) was translated into Japanese by Atsuko Hayakawa (with drawings by Chihiro Iwasaki), and then into Italian by Sara Amadori, and into French by Pascale Drouet (both with the drawings of Lucy Vines Bonnefoy). The Japanese book included compositions for piano by Kaori Muraji and Koko Tanikawa, and the Italian translation inspired a CD of eight songs written by Mirco De Stefani. One of the poems was turned into a song by Bruce Trinkley, my colleague at the Music School at Penn State. So these experiences included translations from one language to another, and also from one artistic medium to another: my poems were brought into novel relation with drawings and songs, and were turned into songs. With every translation – every translatio, carrying across, transport, shifting – I learned something new, about the poems and about the world. And my conclusion was, again and again, that translation is neither easy, nor impossible.

I. Ambiguity

One insight I gained from corresponding with my four translators, is how much linguistic and cultural information lies submerged in my poems. Again and again, I had to pull the information out of the depths of my experience, and explain it as clearly as I could to my puzzled colleague on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, or the Pacific. Often, linguistic information includes knowing the first, second, third and nth dictionary meanings of a word, and of course a poet especially plays on this ambiguity that arises within the historical entymology of a word. Because English is a metamorphic language, created by the marriage of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Norman French, with liberal additions from Latin (which was after all the language of the Church and of literacy), there are two or three words for everything and also unlimited opportunities for puns (the funny part of ambiguity), as well as accretions and intersections of meaning.

One of the poems in Leaves / Feuilles was inspired by the olive trees of the Mediterranean, so often planted on terraces that rise up the steep hillsides, trees that often live more than a millennium.

An olive tree can live a thousand years,
Drawing its silver leaves and oval fruit
From stony terraces, fretting the wind
In registers of sun-inflected shadow.

But we, my love, who count the terraces
Rising to meet the stories of the sky,
Who cultivate the olive groves, who hear
The interruption in the trees as music

And weep responsive to those minor chords,
Can live only a century, no more.
Although I love you, you are just a man,
And the great silver sun is just a star.

When Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat sent me his first draft of a translation, it made me realize the extent of the ambiguity that I (and English) had stored in the word “fretting.”

Un olivier peut vivre mille ans,
Tirant ses fruits ovales et ses feuilles argentées
De terrasses de pierre, faisant geindre le vent
Selon les registres du soleil et de l’ombre.

Mais nous, mon amour, nous qui comptons les terrasses
S’étageant vers les portées du ciel,
Nous qui soignons les oliviers et entendons
Une musique dans les soupirs des arbres,

Et qui pleurons, sensibles à ces accords mineurs,
À peine pouvons-nous vivre cent ans, pas plus.
Bien que je t’aime, tu n’es qu’un homme
Et le grand soleil d’argent n’est qu’une étoile.

I did my best to explain: “This poem is built around the ‘conceit’ (that’s a technical term in English poetic theory, maybe in French and Italian too) that the olive trees are like musical instruments played by the wind. The wind is like the hand that passes over a harp, or like the hand that touches the strings of a violin and the bow that passes over the strings. Indeed, there is an elaborate pun (jeu de mots) on the word ‘fret’ which I am sure cannot be reproduced in French – but the point is to try to make all the double-entendres support a musical metaphor, as well as an architectural metaphor, as they do in English.” Here are all the meanings!

Fret: “Any of the ridges of wood or metal set across the finger board of a lute or similar instrument which help the fingers to stop the strings at the correct points.” The origins of this word, c. 1500, may be from Old French, frete, meaning ring or ferule. There is a Middle English verb, freten, which means to bind or fasten.

Fret: An intransitive verb meaning to be regretful or to worry. A transitive verb meaning to corrode or wear away. Those who fret may moan, like the wind in the trees, accords mineurs. The origin of this word is the Old English word fretan, which means to devour, feed upon, consume, often used of monsters and Vikings! It may be related to Old French froter, to rub, wipe, beat, or thrash. After 1200, it takes on a figurative use, meaning to worry, consume or vex, and acquires its intransitive use around 1550: to fret oneself, to fret.

Fret: “An interlaced, angular design”: fretwork,“ornamental work consisting of interlacing parts, especially work in which the design is formed by perforation. Also, any pattern of light and dark.” This is captured by the French verb ajourer, which means to pierce or perforate. And it’s not surprising that the French translator would choose this meaning, since it derives from the Old French frete (late 14th c.) which means “interlaced work, trellis work.”

However, by choosing the architectural meaning, one loses the musical and emotional meaning, which are key to the poem. The poet, writing the poem, is fretting: the poem is melancholy. The musical ambiguities continue in the words ‘registers,’ ‘inflected,’ ‘count,’ ‘interruption,’ ‘minor chords.’ In English, we often talk of music in terms of numbers: any one of a collection of songs or dances is a number. Numbers in the plural may refer to metrical feet or verses in a poem, and musical periods, measures, or groups of notes. I think I also visualized the terraces, and the stories of the sky, as a kind of grand staff, as on the musical page. Interruption evokes rests, in music: the silences, the rests, play an indispensable role in the creation of music; interruptions play an indispensable role in the music of life. The minor chords, of course, are the melancholy music that the wind plays in the trees, that life plays in us: “Although I love you, you are just a man, / And the great silver sun is just a star.” Even stars are mortal. So here was the final version:

Un olivier peut vivre mille ans,
Tirant ses fruits ovales et ses feuilles argentées
De terrasses de pierre, faisant geindre le vent
Selon les registres du soleil et de l’ombre.

Mais nous, mon amour, nous qui comptons les terrasses
S’étageant vers les portées du ciel,
Nous qui soignons les oliviers et entendons
Une musique dans les soupirs des arbres,

Et qui pleurons, sensibles à ces accords mineurs,
À peine pouvons-nous vivre cent ans, pas plus.
Bien que je t’aime, tu n’es qu’un homme
Et le grand soleil d’argent n’est qu’une étoile.

II. Cultural Context

Another surprise, for the translated poet, is how deeply submerged cultural information lies. This is especially true, I have discovered, for cultural patterns or elements that one encountered as a child, and doubly true if they were accompanied by music. One of the poems in Childhood is entitled “Putting on the Ritz,” a title that puzzled both Atsuko Hayakawa and Sara Amadori; it puzzled Pascale Drouet too, but not to the same extent, because there is a famous Ritz Hotel in Paris. Indeed, when I wrote the poem, I was thinking of the afternoon when I took my mother-in-law Teresa Edwards to the Ritz in Paris, soon after I was married: we were all staying in the Bonnefoys’ apartment, which they had kindly allowed us to use while they visited the Marches in Italy. Tess and I went there for tea, and listened to a fabulous string quartet play for us, and marveled at the giant vases lining the walls, each filled to the brim with lilies that we knew were extremely expensive, since we had just spent 10 euros to buy three of them for the apartment. It was a gorgeous extravagance I had never forgotten. Much later, when I was surprised and delighted to find myself pregnant at the age of 45, an unexpected extravagance offered by life, I thought of those vases while walking by the cherry trees in full bloom next to the library at Penn State University. I felt that they, and I, were “putting on the Ritz.” But none of my translators knew what I meant by that!

Putting on the Ritz

After a long, cool winter,
At last in May a suite
Of warm days wakes the sleepers.
One covered from crown to root
In thick crepe skirtlets stops
Me, back from hibernation:

Loveliest of trees,
Big as the Ritz’s balletic
Vases charged with bloom.

Not bought, not concocted,
Only improbably real.
Why am I not surprised?

My hair is snowed with silver,
Evidence how little room
Fifty springs allow.

And yet midwinter someone
Burst to life inside me,
And lately started dancing.

Just so improbably
Snow hung along the branches
Changed suddenly to flowers.

It took me a while to figure out their puzzlement, because every American born mid-twentieth century uses the phrase “putting on the Ritz,” and can sing the related song: that song has been playing in my mind all my life. Indeed, there is a Wikipedia article dedicated to the phrase and the song, as I discovered and then sent to them. “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” as that article tells us, means to dress up fashionably, and in that spirit is became the title of a song written by Irving Berlin, one of the really great American song-writers of the twentieth century. Though he wrote it in 1927, it was first published in  1929, and then Harry Richman used it as a chorus in the musical film Puttin’ on the Ritz in 1930. The song was recorded by many people, but is especially associated with Fred Astaire, who dances (with a cane that he emphatically and artistically thumps) as he sings it. Sara Amadori, in her lovely Italian translation, thus left the phrase in its American version.

Putting on the Ritz

Dopo un lungo, freddo inverno,
a maggio infine alcuni giorni
di tepore risvegliano i dormienti.

Uno, vestito dalla chioma alle radici
di gonnelle in crêpe pesante, mi
ferma, di ritorno dal letargo:

il più bello degli alberi,
grande come i ballanti vasi del Ritz
all’apice della fioritura.

Non richiesto, non previsto,
solo improbabilmente reale.
Perché non sono incredula?

I miei capelli sono innevati d’argento,
evidenza di quanti pochi spazi
aprano cinquanta primavere.

Eppure in pieno inverno qualcuno
è esploso alla vita dentro di me,
e da poco ha iniziato a danzare.

Così tanto improbabile
che la neve adagiata lungo i rami
di colpo si sia fatta fiori.

Sara Amadori and I discussed this poem quite a bit, in part because it was also a response to one of A. E. Housman’s most famous poems, which I have known by heart ever since I was a girl: “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now…” The poem does not really mean all that it means, unless one hears it side by side with Housman’s lyric, as of course I always do.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom,
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Housman’s poem is well enough known among lovers of English poetry in America that I supposed my references would be understood: I rounded up my 45 years to 50 years to chime with its lesson in philosophical arithmetic (20 + 50 = 70). I also changed the snow of my hair (the sign of my 45 / 50 years) to flowers (the extravagance of the baby) as a chiasmus, reversing the way Housman changed the flowers to snow, in such a wise and Japanese fashion. And I echoed his “Loveliest of trees,” as if it were a refrain.

In the poem, “Real Bullets,” I had to explain a Norse myth about the god Thor, which involves a magical cup that cannot be drained, no matter how long you drink from it, even if you are a god and can drink half the sea. Apropos “Through the Darkness Be Thou Near Me,” I had to send Atsuko and Pascale a link to the 19th c. Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” and also quote in full a hymn-lullaby from the Anglican hymnal, that my mother used to sing to me, and that I sang to my children. (I think children in France are more likely to know Perrault’s and d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales, whereas Hans Christian Andersen’s inventions, along with the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, circulated more in Germany, Britain and North America. Perhaps if I had been raised in Italy, I would have known Italo Calvino’s collection of 200 folk tales, Fiabe italiane, published in 1956?)

I also had to explain the blue wine in “Thirty-six Weeks” to everybody.

Thirty-six Weeks

Ringed like a tree or planet, I’ve begun
To feel encompassing,
And so must seem to my inhabitant
Who wakes and sleeps in me, and has his being,
Who’d like to go out walking after supper
Although he never leaves the dining room,
Timid, insouciant, dancing on the ceiling.

I’m his roof, his walls, his musty cellar
Lined with untapped bottles of blue wine.
His beach, his seashell combers
Tuned to the minor tides of my placenta,
Wound in the single chamber of my whorl.
His park, a veiny meadow
Plumped and watered for his ruminations,
A friendly climate, sun and rain combined
In one warm season underneath my heart.

Beyond my infinite dark sphere of flesh
And fluid, he can hear two voices talking:
His mother’s alto and his father’s tenor
Aligned in conversation.
Two distant voices, singing beyond the pillars
Of his archaic mediterranean,
Reminding him to dream
The emerald outness of a brave new world.

Sail, little craft, at your appointed hour,
Your head the prow, your lungs the sails
And engine, belly the sea-worthy hold,
And see me face to face:
No world, no palace, no Egyptian goddess
Starred over heaven’s poles,
Only your pale, impatient, opened mother
Reaching to touch you after the long wait.

Only one of two, beside your father,
Speaking a language soon to be your own.
And strangely, brightly clouding out behind us,
At last you’ll recognize
The greater earth you used to take me for,
Ocean of air and orbit of the skies.

John Hollander – who was quite a prominent poet when I first started reviewing books of poetry for the Hudson Review in the late 1970s – published a book of poems, Blue Wine, whose title poem I found very interesting: what is “blue wine”? It is a very long poem, and plays with many aspects of the English poetic tradition, going back to Homer (“the wine-dark sea” – which is a famous phrase, but odd, since wine is red and the sea is blue) and forward to Ezra Pound (there is a great deal of Homer in Pound’s Cantos). Of the poem’s title, Hollander writes, “I visited Saul Steinberg one afternoon and found that he had pasted some mock (or rather, visionary) wine labels on bottles, which were then filled with a substance I could not identify. This poem is an attempt to make sense out of what was apparently in them.” Apparently, the old wine bottles were filled with something blue. Saul Steinberg was a cartoonist who drew many famous covers for the New Yorker magazine. So I was thinking of lots of blue bottles, side by side, perhaps in the window of an apartment, with sunlight coming through. Then by analogy, I thought that the edges of the womb might look like that to a baby, if his mother were standing in sunlight, since blood inside the body is blue not red, because the iron isn’t oxidized. However, the room might be more like a wine cellar than a tenth-story apartment. In any case, the depths of that mid-twentieth century, American (indeed, New Yorker) reference probably could only be properly dealt with by a footnote. Here is Sara Amadori’s translation.

Trentasei Settimane

Come un albero o un pianeta, circondata
ho cominciato a sentirmi avvolgente,
e così devo parere a colui che mi abita,
che in me si sveglia e dorme, in me esiste,
volentieri uscirebbe dopo cena a passeggiare
sebbene mai lasci la sala da pranzo,
incurante, timido, danzante sul soffitto.

Sono il suo tetto, e le sue mura
la sua cantina ammuffita,
solcata da bottiglie sigillate, di vino blu.
La sua spiaggia, il suo moto ondoso di conchiglie
accordato alle maree minori della mia placenta,
vorticante nella camera singola della mia spirale.
Il suo parco, un prato venoso
ingrassato e innaffiato per le sue meditazioni,
un clima amico, sole e pioggia assieme
in un’unica stagione calda sotto il mio cuore.

Al di là dell’infinita sfera oscura di carne
e liquido, può udire parlare due voci:
il contralto della madre e il tenore del padre
allineati in conversazione.
Due voci distanti, che cantano al di là delle colonne
del suo arcaico mediterraneo,
ricordandogli di sognare la smeraldina
alterità di uno splendido nuovo mondo.

Naviga, minuto veliero, verso l’ora stabilita,
prua la tua testa, vele e motore
i tuoi polmoni, stiva resistente al mare
il tuo ventre,
e vienimi incontro corpo a corpo:
nessun mondo, nessuna reggia, nessuna divinità egizia
ornata di stelle sui poli del cielo,
solo tua madre dischiusa, pallida, impaziente
che si tende per toccarti dopo la lunga attesa.

Solo lei, che accanto a tuo padre
parla una lingua presto tua.
E dietro di noi, nello strano diradarsi di luminose nuvole,
alla fine riconoscerai
quella terra più grande che credevi io fossi,
oceano d’aria e orbita dei cieli.

I also had to send all three translators a famous image of the Egyptian goddess Nut, which explains the reference in the penultimate stanza. And that brings us to the next section.

III. Visual Aids

Sometimes, as I tried to explain my words, I felt that I had to resort to pictures. Here is a poem I wrote about waking up at dawn, and nursing my youngest son while we both watched the sunrise through the “door-windows” on the ground floor of our house, and the small forest behind our house.


Awake before dawn, William and I sit drowsing,
Lapsed from a dream, louring toward consciousness,
Nursing a little, musing, counting our toes.
There are always ten, no matter where we begin.
Oh, look. He suddenly points at the closed door-windows
That cast over snow, past spindly lank silhouettes
Of maple, oak, black walnut, into the dawn.

On tiptoe, weaving, he runs up close to the windows
Charmed by the panels of gold set high among mullions
Of boles, the roses fastened in tracery-branches.
Yet how the fastening ravels: our matins are sung,
The windows beyond the windows wither away,
And then he returns to my arms asking his questions
In an ancient, unknown tongue. And all of my answers,
Equally enigmatic, are kisses in shadow.

Here is what I wrote to Sara, when I sent her the (attached) double picture. “These two pictures (I put them together as one) together, explain a great deal about the poem ‘Finitude.’ As I looked at dawn through the trees behind our house (when the baby was pointing to them and enchanted by them), I was reminded of Chartres and the Clerestory of the great nave, with the stained glass windows. So the trees seemed to me to be mullions (a mullion is a vertical element that forms a division between units of a window, door, or screen, or is used decoratively) and, as mullions are used in Gothic cathedrals, stone tracery. The colored sky behind was stained glass, ‘held fast’ between the trees, as the windows of stained glass are held fast by the mullions in the cathedral.”

However, the experience was transitory, since the colors melt away when dawn is over, and the singing of matins concludes, and the fastening ravels, like yarn or thread that has become unfastened and collapses: the trees cannot hold the colors. So the baby’s question to me was: why did it go away, it was so beautiful? He was sad. Of course, I had no answer to that question. I could only give him a kiss.” When I wrote this poem, I was thinking of the poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower,
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Like his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this poem has been with me, learned by heart, since I was a child. Here was Sara’s response to our discussion.


Svegli prima dell’alba, sonnecchianti, scivolati
via dal sogno, mio figlio ed io, sguardo nuvoloso
rivolto alla coscienza, un po’ di latte dal seno,
pensierosi, contiamo le dita dei piedi.
Sempre dieci, non importa da dove cominciamo.
Ehi guarda. Indica d’un tratto le portefinestre chiuse
che aprono alla neve, spingono oltre le sottili sagome
affusolate dell’acero, della quercia, del noce nero, fin dentro l’alba.

In punta di piedi, traballante, s’affretta alle finestre,
affascinato dalle vetrate d’oro sostenute dalle colonnine
dei tronchi, dalle rose fissate al traforo dei rami.
Ma come svanisce in fretta quella decorazione!
Si intonano i nostri mattutini,
appassiscono le finestre oltre le finestre.
Poi ritorna tra le mie braccia facendomi domande
in un’antica lingua ignota. E tutte le mie risposte,
parimente enigmatiche, sono baci nell’ombra.

Another puzzle solved by a picture accompanied the second section of my tripartite soccer (football) poem, “The Beautiful Game.” I have spent many years as a Soccer Mom. Notice that it is a sonnet, though without a strict rhyme scheme.

Along the edges of the soccer pitch
The maple trees are coming into focus.
Shoals of coral lace, or islands in the air
Whose gradients are differential flowers
Too fine to see against the upper branches.
My son commands the center of the field.
His boots are yellow and his shirt is silver.
We’re down two-one, the sun sets in the corner

And turns the same light color as the trees.
Eleven on a side. I want my child
To win, but he is one soul among many,
And I am just his mother, sunstruck, silent,
Tracking shifts of wind, or luck, or mind
Beneath the drifting russet-argent. Goal.

Here the problem was that I threw in, as I so often do, some mathematical vocabulary, because when I am not writing poetry, I am working on philosophy of mathematics (and the mathematical sciences). Sara Amadori conscientiously looked up the word “gradient,” but couldn’t put the definition given into clear relation with the poem. So I sent the second photograph (see attached), and the following explanation. “Again, I think I can explain this best with pictures: it was early April and the trees were in flower: maple trees flower in lovely shades of red. And the colors exhibited dramatic “gradients” of color (“an increase or decrease in the magnitude of a property (e.g., temperature, pressure, or concentration) observed in passing from one point or moment to another”), which then reminded me of the infinitesimal calculus. So then the gradients are “differentials” – dx – so each little flower is a “tiny” (less than any finite magnitude!) dx. And then we might say, the eye “integrates” all those dx of colors, ∫ dx, into the finite areas of color that we see, those lovely clouds of russet-argent, reddish silver.”

And here is Sara’s translation of that conundrum.

Ai lati del campo da calcio
diventano più nitidi gli aceri.
Banchi in pizzo di corallo, o isole nell’aria,
gradazioni di fiori differenziali
troppo raffinati da guardare, sui rami più alti.
Mio figlio domina l’azione a centrocampo.
Le scarpe sono gialle, argento la maglia.
Siamo sotto di un goal, il sole tramonta in un angolo

e si colora della stessa luce degli alberi.
In undici dalla stessa parte. Voglio che mio figlio
vinca, ma è solo un’anima tra tante, e io sono
solo sua madre, bruciata dal sole, in silenzio,
spero giri la fortuna, o cambi il gioco, o il vento,
sotto quell’oscillante argento ruggine. Goal.

Finally, I explained a poem about music (which inspired songs by Koko Tanikawa and Mirco De Stefani) by sending a picture of a painting by Monet!

First Piano Lesson

For years they have been pressing the white keys,
Sometimes the black, occasionally, haphazardly
Great fingerfuls together. But where
Exactly was the music, they wondered? Gone.

Today they built a bridge from C to G
As if across Giverny’s garden pond.
Perhaps it is a rainbow? G to C,
Aural, slant-visible, inevitable, clear.

They stand amazed around the grand piano
Capable at last of lifting up
From sound’s long restlessness the dripping
Glittery net of intervals and in its knotted strings

That golden fish, a song!

Here is what I wrote to Pascale Drouet: “The idea is that my two youngest children listened to the two oldest children play songs on the piano – but when they themselves hit the keys, all they heard was cacaphony. Where were the songs? Then they had their first music lesson! And they learned their first song, number one in the Suzuki Method book: it is the melody that we sing as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” So from the chaos of mere sound (like a pool of water, or a stream) they learned the interval C to G, and then the interval G to C, which is a formal structure, like a net. The ratio 1:2, as we learn from Pythagoras and his strings, is the octave; 2:3 is the fifth; 3:4 is the fourth. They are knotted together, to form a net. Also, in the Suzuki method, students are told to “rainbow up” from C to G – you don’t just slide your hand straight over from C to G, but you go up and down in the shape of a rainbow. So every time they did that, I saw the Japanese bridge at Giverny, and then thought of how Monet turned that bridge into a rainbow somehow by the way he painted it. When this poem was published in the American Suzuki Journal, they set it next to one of Monet’s paintings of that bridge! So the children are fishing over Monet’s pond, with the net of intervals, and then bringing up that golden fish, a song!”

And here is Pascale’s translation:

Première leçon de piano

Des années durant ils ont appuyé sur les touches blanches,
Sur les noires parfois, au hasard des occasions
À pleines mains. Mais où pouvait bien être
La musique, s’étaient-ils demandé ? Volatilisée.

Aujourd’hui ils ont fait un pont de Do à Sol
Comme pour traverser l’étang des jardins de Giverny.
Un arc-en-ciel peut-être ? De Sol à Do,
Sonore, visiblement oblique, incontournable, clair.

Ils restent bouche-bée autour du piano à queue,
Enfin capables d’extraire
De la longue impatience du son le réseau d’intervalles,
Ruisselant, étincelant, et dans ses cordes tendues

Ce poisson rouge, un air!

IV. Plastic and Plastic

In the first half of the summer, when I took my mother-in-law to the Ritz in Paris and also out to Giverny, my husband and I took the pilgrimage road across northern Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, and en route we stopped to see the Paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira. (We had a special letter of introduction, but even so we had to wait three days to get in. It was worth the wait!) The experience returned to me later, when I took my son Robbie to lessons in painting, where we had to walk up stairs fastened against a house on a hillside and enter a green door, just like the green door into the hillside at Altamira.

Robbie and I Discover Painting

Our studio is a cave behind a green door
Built into a hillside riveted by stairs
Like the improbable door I entered once
To see the ochre creatures of Altamira
Still breathless after twenty thousand years,
Flanks heaving from the chase, restrained, elusive.
How that low plastic ceiling pressed them down
On every speechless tourist, every random
Curvature of rock made flesh and bone
By some archaic brush, some vanished hand.

Now Robbie stands against his easel, speechless
Before the depths of red, black’s utter midnight.
He dips and stabs: the paper’s whiteness fizzles.
His mark’s the birth of a new star, a nova
Blindingly there on nothing’s facelessness
That also blinds. His mark is not a face,
More the proposal of his lust for pigment.
I think he wants to eat those ancient colors
Warping the paper, glutting the stubby brush
Suspended in his visible bright hand.

Both Sara Amadori and Pascale Drouet at first translated “plastic” as “plastique,” the artificial chemical substance that has been flooding all our lives for a century. However, I meant the old-fashioned sense of “plastic”: plastic arts are art forms that involve the physical manipulation of a plastic medium like clay or soft stone by molding or modeling, in works of sculpture or ceramics.

What explains this confusion? It turns out that, because the Altamira Cave has been closed to the public, there is now a plastic replica of it in the National Archeological Museum of Spain, in Madrid, which Pascale has in fact recently visited! So she assumed I had too, and that’s what I was referring to. As I explained earlier to Sara, and then later to Pascale, I had been lucky enough to visit the cave itself, thirty years ago. What I discovered then was that the cave murals (which are about twenty thousand years old) are not just beautiful paintings; they are also sculptural or ‘sculpted’. So for example, a deer might be painted just where the stone bulges (or, perhaps, has been chipped so that it bulges), so the bulge corresponds to the swell of its flanks and sides. Thus, in some places the painting look like bas-relief. “Every random / Curvature of rock made flesh and bone / By some archaic brush, some vanished hand.” Those beautiful paintings turn the curves of the rock into the curves of the animals. So here is Pascale Drouet’s rendering of the poem.

Découverte de la peinture

Notre atelier est une grotte qu’ouvre une porte verte
Construite à flanc de coteau, consolidée de marches,
Semblable à l’improbable porte que jadis je franchis
Pour voir les créatures ocre d’Altamira
Toujours hors d’haleine passé vingt mille ans,
Flancs palpitant après la chasse, sobres, insaisissables.
Que ce plafond bas tout en relief les rendait palpables
À chaque touriste sans voix, chaque courbure
Formée au hasard de la roche prenant vie par la grâce
De quelque archaïque pinceau, de quelque main évanouie.

Mon fils est maintenant face à son chevalet, sans voix
Devant les profondeurs du rouge, l’absolu minuit du noir.
Il trempe et presque perfore : la blancheur du papier pétille.
Sa marque est la naissance d’une nouvelle étoile, une nova
Éblouissante, là sur l’anonyme néant
Qui aussi éblouit. Sa marque n’est pas un visage,
Une ébauche plutôt de sa soif de pigments.
Il veut manger, je crois, ces couleurs anciennes
Qui gauchissent le papier, gorgent cette brosse grossière
Suspendue à sa main visible, éclatante.

V. The Politics of Translation

One unexpected dimension of translation that I discovered, due to Atsuko Hayakawa, is its interplay with politics. When I was in Tokyo, for the launch of the Japanese translation, I learned that Tadatoshi Akiba, who had first put me in touch with Atsuko, hoped that my book would help to encourage more people in Japan to adopt children, including children from other countries. But I had already understood that there was another motive. Tadatoshi Akiba was the mayor of Hiroshima for twelve years, and helped to found the international organization Mayors for Peace; now he is a well-known anti-nuclear activist. Chihiro Iwasaki dedicated her life and art to the abolition of all war and the suffering of children. The museum dedicated to her work in Tokyo includes an important collection of children’s book, assembled from around the world. Atsuko Hayakawa also joins in this political engagement, by helping to publish books of poetry about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and also Fukushima, where the nuclear reactor, in an earthquake, recently caused a disaster. While she was working on my book, she was working on the English translation of The Second Movement: Fukushima (published by Studio Ghibli) and I volunteered to help her. We co-translated most of the book, with Arthur Binard, an American poet who lives in Japan, and almost a dozen students from Tsuda College, the distinguished women’s college in Tokyo where she teaches. That collection of poems, with an introduction by the celebrated actress and anti-nuclear activist Sayuri Yoshinaga, includes poems by two poets from Fukushima, Ryoichi Wago and Shigeko Sato, as well as by high school students taught by Mr. Wago, and by the anti-nuclear poet Jotaro Wakamatsu. The book is illustrated by Kazuo Oga, and accompanied by a CD with music composed by Dozan Fujiwara.

Another poem that Atsuko especially liked was “Roses”; she told me later that it was the poem that first persuaded her to translate my book. I wrote it while my family was spending our sabbatical year in Paris a dozen years ago. I had recently taught a course on “Children and Social Justice,” and learned that it was only after 1900 that countries around the world started putting a universal right to education for all children into their constitutions, along with (little by little) the right to universal suffrage for all adults. Those facts came to mind as I wrote the poem, and remembered my first visit to Paris in 1970, only a quarter century after the end of World War II, when there were still many visible traces of that war, here and there. I will let this poem stand by itself.


A glowing line, a rosy tautly-drawn
And now unraveling, feathering streamline crossed
The lucent early morning blue of sky
Beyond high windows, here in the chateau.

It was a sign, and wasn’t. Another line
Bisected it, another slowly traced
A parallel of lanes: flight patterns over Paris.
Everyone wants to come to earth at dawn.

Great events involve men on the move
With guns and tanks, explosions in the air
Falling to ground as stars, then cloudy ash,
Then chemicals that kill thirty years later.

When I first came to Paris, walls were often
Scored with bullet holes, as a reminder.
Now the walls are plastered or filled in
Or I forget to see what I remember.

Now that I’m getting old, I fail to see
Catastrophe as greatness. The bright lines
Lead to my rosebush on the windowsill,
Indoors not out, and lowly aerial.

The rosebush of the twentieth century,
Despite its charnel greatness, bore two flowers:
One vote, one soul and school for every child,
Honored often in absence, but still honored.

Praise the roses, tend the soil and water,
Vote twice yearly, raise your children well
So they can read the writing on the walls
And in the sky, before it fades and falls.

VI. Simplicity

Despite all these complexities, sometime the translation of a poem is unproblematic, because some aspects of human experience are truly simple, universal, and easy to share. I think of the poem “The Discovery of Rain,” which none of the translators had trouble with; nobody asked me any questions. Atsuko Hayakawa liked it so much, she re-organized the sequence of poems in the book, and put it first, next to a drawing by Chihiro Iwasaki of two children in the rain. It was also “translated” into music by Koko Tanikawa, and then by Mirco De Stefani, in compositions that, in very different ways, capture (and for me, recreated) the experience of being “watered by warm rain,” and sharing my child’s irrepressible delight.

Barefoot, bare headed
Except for those luxuriant black curls,
The baby stands at play in April grass.

Rain starts suddenly, lightly,
So at first he notices
Not at all. Then touches

His curls, to find them damp and dampening.
Touches the earth, discovers
Something new that changes everything.

Looks up to know the source
And sees just leaves and air,
But goes on looking up because

—Reality or dream—
It pleases him to be
Watered by warm rain.

Here it is, in Italian.

La scoperta della pioggia

Piedi nudi, nuda la testa,
vestita solo di rigogliosi riccioli neri,
è intento a giocare il bimbo, nell’erba di aprile.
D’improvviso comincia la pioggia, leggera,
all’inizio nemmeno
se ne accorge. Poi i suoi riccioli

tocca, li scopre bagnati, che bagnano,
tocca la terra, scopre qualcosa
di nuovo che cambia tutto.

Alza lo sguardo per cercarne l’origine,
e vede solo foglie e aria,
ma continua a guardare in alto perché

– sogno o realtà –
lo rende felice quella doccia
di tiepida pioggia.

So many times, my children gave me a poem just by discovering the world and being delighted or scared or puzzled by what they encountered. I was moved by their enthusiasm, their fortitude, their sensitivity, their wonder. So I think it is odd that so few poems in the English canon (and other archives of world literature) respond directly to the experience of our children, and to our experience of them. Inspired by the examples of Maxine Kumin and Galway Kinnell, I went right ahead and wrote about my children as soon as they appeared (actually, even before they dawned on us), and I look forward to reading the work of a generation of young people who will do the same.