I guess this is a brief “test of poetry,” serendipitous
too in that these translations came together in my mind through reading Johanna’s blog, addressing as she did her discovery of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologizing, and thereby stimulating my continuing thoughts about the contrasts between these two translations:
You're like a drifting log with iron nails in it
I built my house from that log
I hope you float in like that log did
on a good sandy beach
The sun goes into the clouds
like you go into our great mother
That's why the world is so dark
John Koller’s workings, after John Swanton
The Mourning Song of Small-Lake-Underneath (by Hayi-a k!u)
I always compare you to a drifting log with iron nails in it.
Let my brother float in, in that way.
Let him float ashore on a good sandy beach.
I always compare you, my mother, to the sun passing behind the clouds.
That is what makes the world dark.
At first I thought these must have come from differing original versions, not having read them side by side or even on one day following another, but now I doubt that this is the case. As Rothenberg points out, James Koller reworked Swanton’s original translations. Obviously, and especially since Tlingit
and English are in no way related as languages, wide discrepancies in translation are not only possible, but probable, though in this case we are looking at one which reworks another as if in the childhood game of telephone.
In any event, we have here an original ritual and personal song “used when a feast is about to be given for a dead man” turned into a poem (or poems) found in a book, and this transformation becomes problematic if overlooked. To simply refer to this as a poem potentially disrespects the original author, Hayi-a k!u
, as well as the Tlingit people more generally, but not only that, it’s also culturally misleading, as if an equivalence exists between the Tlingit oral tradition and, both our own commercially driven publishing industry, as well as the career driven mania exhibited by so many these days who refer to themselves as poets. With the understanding that this equivalence does not exist, however, the above translations can certainly be examined as poems and accordingly discussed via whatever conventions might best be utilized in order to gauge the relative success or failure of these translations as poems.
Rothenberg, of course, addresses the cultural gap which occurs when these pieces are taken out of their original context, translated and plunked down into a book, and as such it is worth considering for a moment. Thus, the opening “poem” and attendant notes in Shaking the Pumpkin
serve as a kind of disclaimer:
what the informant said to Franz Boas in 1920
long ago her mother
had to sing this song and so
she had to grind along with it
the corn people have a song too
it is very good
I refuse to tell it
-English working by Armand Schwerner
Page 3 WHAT THE INFORMANT SAID TO FRANZ BOAS IN 1920
Source: F. Boas, , Publications of the American Ethnological Society, Volume 8, 1928.
A FURTHER CAUTION. To the reader who imagines that a book like this can really hold the spirit-of-a-people, etc. the editor testifies that in instance after instance the best remains untold or its powers reserved for those who “have ears to hear,” etc. But the rest of us have to begin somewhere.
That said, the translations are (to some extent) freed up to be considered as poems. Not having more of Swanton’s translations leaves me unable, however, to agree or disagree with Rothenberg in regard to how his work stands up to Koller’s, and though I am inclined to trust Rothenberg’s eye/ear for pinpointing poetic success, I prefer in this instance Swanton’s version of the two poems listed above.
Koller’s version is clumsy in comparison, and this is obvious in the first two lines. Where Swanton opens - “I always compare you to” – Koller replaces it with - “You’re like a.” On first glance, Koller’s version seems an improvement in it’s concision and directness, but in reality, he looses the essential and living mystery which renders Swanton’s version so compelling. While Koller’s use of second person specifically addresses the reader (who probably doesn’t feel like a log full of nails), Swanton allows the more personal first person speaker to establish an intimacy with a “you” who seems somehow removed, other than the reader, and this sense of removal resonates immediately with the title. Simultaneously, Swanton’s opening line is funny and surprising. Is this a good comparison for a deceased loved one? The answer to this question isn’t at first obvious, and one is compelled to continue seeking a resolution to this initial quandary. Koller destroys this ambiance completely with his second line, a detail Swanton wisely chooses to omit.
So too, Koller deploys three(!) similes, most often a weak construction here made weaker by sheer frequency. In Swanton’s two near-similitudes, on the other hand, what might be taken for similes function as transformative, moving as they do toward something incredibly mysterious and larger; and thereby they work more directly and dramatically as metaphors which accumulate into an overall conceit. Koller, simply put, works too hard, and it’s evident, while Swanton instead swiftly amasses something more nearly mythic, and all this happens without sacrificing the diurnal and individual tang of happenstance.
And then Koller’s line breaks end stop, end stop, end stop, end stop for seven lines with not one caesura, always terminating with either an invisible comma or period. Well, the same goes for Swanton (with the exception that he does employ caesuras, though lacking as they both do enjambment), though Swanton’s five lines are stronger, containing no caesura in the initial long line, a smooth statement which moves quickly to the end despite its length, only to be followed by two shorter lines made to seem longer by the intrinsic pauses, one in the second line marked by the comma, “in, in”, and then another more subtle pause in the third, unmarked by punctuation, but there all the same between the initial command and the following prepositional phrase, “Let him float ashore // on a good sandy beach.” The subtlety of this third line, the softness of the aspirates, “sh,” “s,” and finally, “ch,” following as they do the string of hard consonants, “t” and “t,” both of which are preceded by “l,” an onomatopoeic collection which thus further serves, along with the phrasal rhythms, to evoke in the reader the feeling of being there on the sand. There arrives then at this point the climactic line, the longest yet and containing two distinct caesuras, “I always compare you, my mother, to the sun passing behind the clouds,” a line which furthermore circles back to repeat the opening phrase (another oceanic characteristic), only to gather and pulse, briefly, in a universal gesture of homage to the mother, and therein shift toward an image stunning in its very commonality while simultaneously establishing a relationship with the title, “The Mourning Song of Small-Lake-Underneath,” a move in which the private anguish of great loss is rendered public and thereby a shared experience.
And yet, the poem continues for another line, concluding finally like a hammer blow, quick with no caesura, a basic statement which again surpasses Koller’s, benefiting not only by contrasting rhythmically with all which precedes it, but so too by its formality, considering the circumstances, Koller choosing instead to accentuate the conversational through his usage of the contraction, “That’s.”
Anyway, with all this I intend no disrespect toward James Koller, this single example taken out of context, but merely as a “test of poetry,” as I pointed out above, to discover how one poem might be considered more successful than another. And again, it’s only my opinion, but I prefer Swanton’s efforts in this instance, my thoughts in this respect sealed by a comparison of how each writer treat’s the references to the mother. When Koller goes for the goddess, I think he misses by avoiding that which is specifically real to mammalian being, coming as we all do from a mother, and so too this is why his appeal to the “you” fails, in addition to the fact that by this he seems to intend me, and I am not dead yet.
Swanton’s version, on the other hand, gives me as an outsider a glimpse into a private address, and for this reason it seems to be MORE direct, and thereby more authentic, being as I always will be an outsider to that which is ultimately Tlingit, while at the same time, I “get it,” that I might too grieve for a loved one, more specifically my mother, as we are all human and more alike than different in the end.