LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 29, No.3 - Fall 1983
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
MARIE UNDER'S POETRY:
SOME PROBLEMS OF TRANSLATION*
and RIMVYDAS ŠILBAJORIS
The Ohio State University
The Full Moon
||Kuu on täis lõhkemiseni,
puud painutab looka.
Veed ihkavad vist saada viinaks,
nad on nii rahutud.
|| Bursting full is the moon,
its weight bends the trees.
The waters desire to be turned
they are so restless.
||Tänavad kui hingaksid!
Majadel on tiivad õlgadel —
kõik on nii pidulik:
|| The streets are breathing;
the houses have wings on their
everything is festive:
|uste ette on laotet
tiigrinahku . . .
Rändajal aupaiste juustes,
kaap peos täis kiiri,
have been spread out on the
Snowy flags flutter
from the roofs.
The traveller wears a halo in his hair,
the hat in his hand is full of moonrays.
He wears the checkered coat
of a harlequin.
Koer tõukab piimase koonuga
oma virilat varju,
haistab seda elukat:
| A dog pushes his crooked shadow
with his milky muzzle;
what a strange smell —
stand up and fight!
|| Vanal sohval on kuldsed
paigad. . .
Seinad värisevad —
nad vist selgest puhtast veest:
kõik aeva voogab!
|| The old sofa has golden patches,
The walls tremble
They are made of water, clear,
pure water —
everything is aflow.
King sääl kui klaasist. . .
Nüüd just ta astub!
Kuulen ta kõlisevat sammu.
| Shoes made of glass —
I hear their ringing steps
coming right at me.
suur valge kass
ju tunnen ta salakavalat
käppa oma kurgul ...
|On the windowsill, ready to pounce,
a great white cat
with mintgreen eyes:
I feel its sly paw
on my throat.
Kes see nii kaelustab unes?
Kuu ruuge habe mu rinnal.
| Who is embracing me in my sleep?
The moon's yellow beard on
|Marie Under||Translated by Ilse Lehiste|
MARIE UNDER, THE FULL MOON
The general topic of this special session is "Marie Under: Her Legacy in Estonian and Western Poetry." And there is no question that Under has had a truly overwhelming impact on Estonian poetry; she occupies a unique position, and her place in the history of Estonian literature is secure. Her position within world literature is much less prominent; one might ask whether she has left any legacy in Western poetry at all. Here we encounter the general problem that has been faced by other poets who write in non-mainstream languages: how can one assess the eminence of a lyrical poet whose work is available, even under the best of circumstances, only in translation? Not to mention the even more general question: is lyrical poetry translatable at all? Is it possible to do any kind of justice to a poet whose work is not directly accessible, but has to be approached through a double barrier — that of an alien linguistic form, and the fact that it has been refracted through the poetic sensibility of an alien person, the translator? Is it possible for poets like Marie Under to achieve full recognition outside of their own linguistic community?
To be sure, a fair amount of Marie Under's poetry has been translated into a number of languages, and translated quite well. This is not the place to attempt to present an exhaustive survey, but even a summary is quite impressive. Eight collections of Under's poetry have been published in translation as separate books; two of them are translations into Russian, and one each into German, English, French, Italian, Swedish, and Esperanto. The bibliography contained in the 1974 publication Marie Underi eluraamat gives the following numbers of translations of single poems: 53 into German, 51 into English, 46 into Finnish, 44 into Hungarian, 31 into Esperanto, 14 into Italian, 9 plus a cycle into Russian, 5 into Swedish, 4 into Lithuanian and Armenian, 7 into Latvian, 3 into Croatian and Japanese, and one each into French, Dutch, Czech, and Chinese. No doubt the number of translations of single poems has increased since 1974 — for example, the anthology of Estonian poetry published by Tatjana Ellinor Heine in 1981 contains four new translations into German.
And yet — Under's legacy in Western poetry seems to be so much less prominent than those of us who can read her in the original believe she deserves. I shall not try to speculate about the social and geopolitical factors that may be involved; but apart from that, her poetry just may present particularly difficult problems for a translator. I speak from experience, having tried to translate her poetry both into English and into German. And I thought that instead of just talking about Under's poetry in translation, I would introduce you to a sample of it, showing you where some of the difficulties lie — and asking you to evaluate whether any of the quality of the poetry survives the transposition into English.
The poem I have chosen for this occasion is average Under — definitely not one of the mountain peak achievements in her oeuvre, but good high plateau. To the best of my knowledge, it has not been translated before; this, too, indicates that it is not generally considered to be among her best. The poem is entitled Täiskuu — The Full Moon. It is written in rhythmic free verse. (I am making it relatively easy for myself and avoiding the problems of a fixed metre and rhyme.) The poem appeared in the collection Lageda taeva all, which contains poems from the years 1927 to 1930.
The handout contains the Estonian text and my attempt at rendering it in English on the first page. A more literal interlinear translation is given on pages 2 and 3.
The two languages, English and Estonian, are unrelated, and they are also typologically dissimilar. Many relationships between words in a sentence are expressed by case endings in Estonian, while English uses word order and prepositions. Estonian also has no articles. One of the problems I found in attempting to recreate the rhythm of Under's lines was that I was forced to use numerous short unstressed syllables in English that create a pitter-patter effect. Just to count words — the Estonian original has 112 words in 35 lines, or approximately 3.2 words per line, while my English translation has 166 words, with approximately 4.74 words per line. And the shortness of Under's lines appears to be intentional; at least one may deduce that from the fact that she has left out the copula, the short monosyllabic word on, in seven of the twelve instances in which the copula would be expected. Under thus avoided seven short unstressed syllables; in most cases, I was unable to omit the copula in English, although I believe to have managed to achieve equivalence in one or two instances. Incidentally, the omission of the copula does not carry the somewhat nonstandard stylistic implication in Estonian as it does in English; on the contrary, it hearkens back to an ancient nominal sentence type in Finno-Ugric that is still alive in Estonian.
Let us now look at the poem and its translation.
Line 1 contains the word lõhkemiseni, which is a verbal noun in the terminative case; the literal meaning of the line is "The moon is full to the point of bursting". I changed the word order in English — Bursting full is the moon — to achieve focus on the poetically most important word of the line. Line 2 offers more problems. The subject of the sentence is the moon, and the moon is shown in the act of bending trees into arc-shape. The word looka is the illative case of a word translated in my dictionary as shaft-bow. I have no concrete associations with the word shaft-bow, but the Estonian word refers to a part of a horse's harness, and these parts of the harness are really made by bending a tree until it assumes the shape of an arc. It is hard work — it is not easy to bend a tree into arc-shape so that it stays. For an Estonian reader, the non-metaphoric, concrete meaning still lingers — Under's readers knew about shaft-bows, and knew how they are bent into shape. Under creates a powerful vision of a moon that is actively bending trees; my translation is somewhat weaker here, the moon is less active, it is the moon's weight that bends the trees, and the allusion to the shaft-bow and the concrete world of horses and harnesses had to be left out, since nothing comparable seemed to be available in English.
Line 3 evokes an image from the New Testament, but with a typical twist: the verb ihkama, 'to desire', presupposes a subject that is not only animate, but human. By choosing a verb that requires a human subject, Under attributes humannes to the waters.
In line 5, Under uses the subjunctive; in line 6, she uses the indicative. I used the indicative in both lines. Line 5 would have required eight words, if the subjunctive would have been rendered in English — "It seems as if the streets were breathing" — and Under's line has only three words. The difference between the two languages is again crucial here — Estonian uses morphological means for expressing a change in mood from indicative to subjunctive, while English uses auxiliaries and conjunctions. My four-word line The streets are breathing seemed truer to Under's line, even though the as-if mood has not been reproduced. And, of course, Under shifts to the indicative in line 6, which contains an even bolder poetic claim: "The houses have wings on their shoulders". Note here the linguistic problem of expressing "having" in Estonian: there is no verb 'to have', and "having" is expressed by using the adessive case of the possessor, with the copula — a form of the verb 'to be' —, and with the possessed object in the nominative, syntactically the subject of the sentence. Obviously I had to use the English construction with the verb 'to have', and make the houses the subject and wings the object.
Lines 8 and 9 have been transposed in the translation. This was again due to a structural difference between the two languages. Estonian has no formal passive; there is, however, an impersonal mood, without an overt subject, and tigerskins is the direct object in Estonian, which normally follows the verb. In English I had to use the passive to render the Estonian impersonal, with the result that tigerskins had to be made into the subject — and as subject of the passive sentence, it had to precede the verb.
Moving on to lines 16-17, please note that Under used alliteration in line 17 — oma virilat varju. The alliteration seems to have been quite important to her, since the word virilat is not really appropriate as an attribute of the word varju, and she must have used it mainly to achieve alliteration. Viril in Estonian is used to describe a face that is distorted because of persistent crying; one can speak of a viril nägu, which would be a face pulled into a grimace from crying, or of a viril laps, which would mean a child who has a tendency to cry. Viril vari would be that kind of a shadow, with the implication that the shadow is in the habit of crying. This would be another case in which the inanimate shadow — and the shadow of a dog at that — is provided with an attribute that presupposes a human subject, since animals do not cry. A particular problem in translating this expression into English arises from the fact that English uses the words 'to whine' and 'to whimper' to refer to this kind of crying, and of course whining and whimpering are prototypically dog-sounds. Talking about a 'whining child' we are attributing this non-human activity to a human. While a "whimpering shadow" would have been a possible translation, it seemed too far-fetched to me, and I chose "crooked shadow". The alliteration, on the other hand, seemed to demand preservation, and I reproduced it in milky muzzle, in the same position where Under's line had alliteration.
Under's line 18 is a simple declarative sentence, which I rendered as a rhetorical question. The literal translation would be "the dog sniffs this creature"; then follows the request, "purleme pisut", which I translated as a challenge — "stand up and fight!" The trouble is that English, possesses no equivalent for the verb purelema. It is a frequentative form of a simpler verb purema, which means 'to bite and chew'; purelema is derived from purema by morphological means, with the derivative suffix -ele-, and purelema means to perform the action of biting and chewing repeatedly and reciprocally. This verb is used in particular to refer to dogfights that involve snarling and growling as well as biting. "Stand up and fight!" was the best I could do.
In line 22 I introduced a repetition which seemed to enhance the poetic figure: "The walls tremble — they are made of water, clear, pure water". In line 24, Under has a single glass shoe; I made the shoes into a pair, and in line 25 I changed 'its step' into 'their steps'. My line 26 contains a bit of poetic license — or perhaps an attempt to make more explicit what is implicit in Under's poem. From now on, the images lead up to the experience of a nightmare; the visions become ominous, malevolence and mischief is in the air. Under's lines 25-26 say "It is taking a step right now! I hear its ringing step." My translation provides a direction for those steps: "I hear their ringing steps coming right at me." Providing a direction for the steps seemed to intensify the feeling of foreboding, which I believe to be justified at this point.
Lines 27-29 offer the image of the great white cat on the windowsill, ready to pounce. Under's line 29 is a linguistic gem: a single word, obviously a nonce-creation, but immediately transparent for the native speaker. "With mintgreen eyes" is true to the meaning, but lacks the originality of this marvelous long adjective.
The nightmare deepens — lines 30-31 contain the first physical touch, the cat's paw on the dreamer's throat. The Estonian word salakaval means 'sly, maliciously cunning'; again this attribute requires at least an animate referent, and the cat's paw has thus been turned into something that is malevolent in its own right. The touch turns into an embrace, and the images become more intense, leading to the last line with its explicit eroticism. Without the last line, I might have chosen to translate luupainaja as nightmare; because of the last line, I chose incubus — partly also because of the cat-image in the previous stanza, which evokes the world of witchcraft.
And then there is "the moon's yellow beard on my breast." The moon is here depicted as a male being. A real problem for understanding the poem may arise from the fact that in Indo-European languages the word for moon tends to be feminine, and in much of Western poetry the moon is a goddess, while the sun is a male god. Estonian has no grammatical gender, and thus the poet is free to choose whether to personify the moon as a female or a male being. Under has chosen to show the moon as a bearded male. J chose 'yellow' to translate Under's ruuge, for two reasons. The word reddish-blond would refer to the right shade, but the rhythm would have been spoiled, and somehow the word "blond" suggests a prettiness that is out of place in this brutal scene. The image we are left with is that of rape: the real world of a moon-filled night turns into a nightmare, in which the dreamer is raped by the moon.
Under's poem builds gradually toward this startling climax. The world she describes is transformed in a succession of steps from the real to the irreal, from innocence to evil. A great deal of romantic poetry has been written about the moon; here is a poem that provides a glimpse into the subconscious, in which pleasantly romantic surface impressions camouflage dark and destructive forces. The poem, as I said at the beginning, is not commonly considered to be among Under's peak achievements; I would say, though, that it is a good sample of the high level of her mature power. And I hope very much indeed that I have been able to transmit at least some of that power to you in my English translation. Perhaps I have also demonstrated how difficult it is to achieve real equivalence.
Enjoyed your translation of Under tremendously. If this is only "average" Under, then she is a great poet indeed. As often happens when one has some good things to read, I was moved by the original text and by your excellent translation to indulge in a sort of conversation with myself about both. When you asked for comments, I thought I will just let you listen in. You then felt that our exchange of ideas about literary translations might interest more people than just the two of us, and so — here we are.
These are just stray notes, not very well organized, addressed mostly to your extensive commentaries about the translation.
The first line. Interesting problems. If "look" is like the Lithuanian "lankas," then we also carry the memory of both meanings: "bow" (or "shaft bow") and the harness-arch (this particularly in Eastern Lithuania). I do not think that today a Lithuanian would particularly feel the "hard work" involved in the effort of bending something when the word is used so abstractly. Instead, I would be more inclined to think of the moon as a kind of overripe fruit, so heavy that it bends the trees into an arch. Such an image can easily come to suggest the weight of passion, and thus complete the "arch" to the image of the cat at the end of the poem for which "Incubus" is an excellent, though disquieting, translation. I might have translated these first lines as follows:
Ripe in its fullness,
the moon weighs the trees to the ground
One of the meanings of "to weigh" is "to bear down heavily, press hard; with, on or upon — the latter is what would suggest the connection-return to the "luupainaja" image.
In such a context, "ihkama," the human attribute of desire transferred to water, receives its concrete equivalent in the word-image "wine". The associations with ripeness, fermentation, headiness and (perhaps ironically) wedding, and a miracle, would all fit very well here.
As a matter of fact, I can see certain transformation sequences here which seem to "encode" the semantic structure of the poem, somewhat like the manner in which one sets up the warp and woof to weave the pattern of a rug. The first sequence would be from the visual to the kinetic: "puud painutab looka". It is a question of perspective — the moon seems to be hanging heavily from the tree branches. The progression from this visual image seems to lead to the "tigerskins," with their black-and-yellow striped patterns, thus adding a strand of something fierce and wild to the passionate ripeness of the moon as first mentioned. Further, it may continue to the "white cat with mintgreen eyes," who, although not striped or yellow, does seem to be a variant image of the "moon's yellow beard".
The second transformation sequence pertains to the "veed ihkavad vist saada viinaks" — a transsubstantiation, with the suggestion of the wedding at Cana, a time of the ripeness and fulfillment of love, of its fruition, as it were, in which the passionate heaviness of the harvest moon and the fierce curving stripes of the hunting tiger would blend as they lead to the poem's ironic ending.
As an attendant image, the "restlessness" of the water begins to resemble the stirrings of passion, as if the water at Cana were itself striving to become wine, and thus be the miracle of love accomplished. What matters here is that the image of water, when thus understood, carries its semantic implications to the "liquifying" of the walls later in the poem, establishing one more structural isotope, and just at the point where the "tiger" sign: the gold patches on the sofa, introduces the stanza!
Finally, the use of "vist" in both instances makes this movement of passion seem ironically tentative, possibly already suggesting that the emotional charge of the poem is a "non-event" on reality plane: just a strip of moonlight on the bed! Here, in connection with your comments on the omission of copula, I feel that it may be not only a matter of achieving a shorter line, but also one of semantically "marked" complexity. There is a certain pungency, force in the omission: "kaap peos on täis kiiri" seems diluted by comparison, if line 13 were to read this way.
What if we translate line 5 like this:
The streets seem to breathe,
the houses sprout wings —
so festive is all:
The mention of "shoulders" can, I think, be dispensed with; the imagination "sees" something equivalent to "shoulders" anyway when it thinks of wings on whatever creature or thing, including, I suppose, a house. The delightful naivete of "nii pidulik" — as if a kid were saying this — might be better preserved by translating the "nii" ("so") which, in English, would then do double duty: a) "everything is so festive that the streets . . .", etc., and b) "everything is so festive," followed by the further description of the festivities. Incidentally, I also like very much the description of a festive mood in terms of movement and of taking a liberating breath where only the static: frozen snow, fixed houses, belong in the nature of things.
The idea that the white cat is a variation of the tiger image seems confirmed by the juxtaposition of "tigerskins" and "snowy flags" in the same stanza. The "reality equivalent" of the snowy flags on the roofs would, of course, be the snow that covers them in the Winter; but then the implied time of the harvest, with its heat of passion, and that of the Winter, would seem to constitute a binary relationship for which an element on the interpretative plane seems required in order to make up the "semiotic square". If harvest is love, would not Winter be death? Would not the two form a continuum?
I enjoy the strange "mismatch" of images in the stanza composed of lines 12 through 15. The idea of the wanderer with a halo, itinerant saint, with a hatful of fruit-bearing (because of previous imagery) moonlight, being at the same time a sort of God's fool, a Harlequin of love, a gently mocking reminiscence of the image of the striped tiger — is thoroughly charming. If he were the "Prince Charming", then he would find his Cinderella walking across lines 24-26, in her glass slippers.
Going on to line 17, "oma virilat varju," the "whimpering shadow" — it does not seem too far-fetched to me, because this image is consistent with the chains of transfigurations and transsubstantiations I mentioned before. Precisely, as you say, a shadow, and a shadow of a dog at that, should, within the consistency of the poem's imagery, be provided with an attribute that presupposes a human subject. This is what happened to the water before. "Whimpering" in such a context does therefore enter into the emotional "undertow" of the poem, in which ripeness of passion luminous joy of it, predatory "bite" and just plain happy insanity are combined with an uneasy, though perhaps not unhappy, hidden suggestion of fear, ever terror. The notion that some overwhelming feeling, particularly of happiness, might momentarily resemble terror is known to other writers as well, particularly Tolstoy.
Why did you make "sniffs this creature" into "what a strange smell"? A whimpering and smelly thing, to be sure, would be wonderful, but by then, perhaps indeed too far fetched. I myself would prefer, I think:
sniffs at the creature —
stand up and fight!
Also, it is rather fun to see that the variations on the theme: tiger, cat have been supplemented by the theme: dog. Dogs are supposed to howl at the moon, instead of whimpering at their own shadows when the moon, somehow, is in some dimension of the poem's imagery, also a tiger.
I love the image on line 22: to see the walls as quivering on the verge of "melting" into ripples of clear water — again, a transfiguration not unlike the yielding to passion — this is how one might see them in a special kind of moonlight. I might have translated:
the quivering walls
are like lucid and tremulous water
All in all, I like everything about the poem and your translation of it, although I would not quite read its foreboding as truly sinister (it is that, but also permeated with humor and even with a kind of joy at the transformations of passion, or better, the word games that seem to amuse themselves in imitating them. The progression is: moon as an overripe fruit; moon as tiger rug (here the "ruuge habe" repeats an image; a conterpoint), the moon as transfiguration (of all reality: streets, houses, walls); the moon as a huge cat on a window sill (with its deliciously "sly" paw), and like the nightmare; and all this remaining just a splotch of light "on my breast". An impish, passionate, ominous, elegantly playful poem — truly Estonian at its most delightfully complex! Like in Viiralt, a dream is a nightmare, but it remains a dream as well, and also a jest!
My comments have been made in the same spirit. Thank you for letting me share the experience of this poem with you!
I wish I knew Lithuanian half as well as you know Estonian. Your comments testify to your subtle feel for the language; they are well taken, witty, and creative — and yet I get a feeling reading them that we are talking about different poems. Your Under is more baroque, and more playful, than the Under I've been reading and translating. It may well be that you are approaching the poem unencumbered by expectations, reading it afresh and getting a more immediate experience of it. When I read the poem, I bring to it my previous readings of Under's other poetry — not only the other poems in the collection in which this one appeared, but her whole oeuvre. For me, most of Under's poetry has a tragic undertone. Perhaps I am projecting back into a poem published in 1930 my memories of her profound — and desperate — wartime poetry, published in 1942 in the collection Mureliku suuga ("With sorrowful lips").
I remember reviewing once a translation of some of Shakespeare's plays into Estonian. My first impression was that Shakespeare translated into contemporary Estonian was an abomination — that all poetry was lacking, that the translation did not even approach the artistic intensity we have learned to admire in Shakespeare. My final judgment was that in reading the plays in contemporary Estonian I was probably getting an experience similar to that of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the audience for whom he in fact wrote his plays. This may be a general problem for translators — perhaps one should try to project oneself back into the setting in which the work was created, into a time in which the writer's later work had not yet appeared, in order to do real justice to the translation.
It may also be that both of us are projecting something of our own personalities into the poem, and that the difference between our interpretations has something to do with that. But here we are treading on dangerously unscientific ground, and it is perhaps safer not to venture too far in this direction.
Coming back to Under: it is great poetry that makes so many different interpretations possible — perhaps all of them present in the poet's subconscious. I am happy that you have taken the trouble to learn Estonian to the point of being able to appreciate Under's poetry. I hope it has been worth it.
* This paper was presented by Ilse Lehiste at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles on Dec. 28, 1982, at a special session devoted to the Estonian poet Marie Under. Before presenting the paper, Ilse Lehiste asked her colleague Rimvydas Šilbajoris for some comments; this lead to the interchange which is published here after the text of the paper. A handout was provided for the audience, containing Under's original, Lehiste's translation, and the interlinear version of the translation; the material is published here before the text of the paper.