Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?