Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Poetry of Languages

This morning, I stumbled across this fascinating article, written by Ana Menendez, a native Spanish speaker who teaches a poetry course in English at a university in the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, the topic concerns how multilingual writers express themselves in various languages. At the end of the article, she describes an exercise she gives her (mostly multilingual) students in which they are given a poem written in a foreign language (one which none of them speaks) and asks them to translate it, based purely on the sound and rhythm of the words. She then gives them a computer-generated translation (think of all those horribly bad translations that Facebook suggests) and has them re-translate it into poetry similar to the original.

This exercise sounded fascinating to me, particularly as I am woefully monolingual, speaking only my native English fluently, able to get some basic ideas across in German, and understanding a mere handful of words and phrases in Spanish, French, and Shona.

The author mentioned that she used a short poem in Turkish by Nazim Hikmet, so after a little googling, I came up with a poem written by Hikmet which was printed in Turkish without an accompanying translation. The title is simply “Bugun Pazar.”

Bugun pazar.
Bugun beni ilk defa gunese cikardilar.
Ve ben omrumde ilk defa gokyuzunun 
                                bu kadar benden uzak
                      bu kadar mavi
                      bu kadar genis oldguna sasarak
                      kimildamadan durdum.
Sonra saygiyla topraga oturdum,
dayadim sirtimi duvara.
Bu anda ne dusmek dalgalara,
bu anda ne kavga, ne hurriyet, ne karim.
Toprak, gunes ve ben...
Bahtiyarim...


I was not certain that I had ever heard Turkish being spoken, although one of my niece’s college friends is Turkish, so I had an idea of what Turkish-accented English sounds like. However, I found a YouTube link entitled “Turkish in Three Minutes,” and I listened to it several times before attempting to read the poem aloud. I certainly didn’t learn to speak Turkish, but I did get enough of a feel for the cadence and sound formation of the language to be able to get an idea (I think) of what this poem would sound like if spoken aloud. At some point, I may ask my niece’s friend Zeynep to read it to me, so I can find out how horribly I butchered it. But for this exercise, I wanted only my own pathetic attempt as a starting point.

My first impression was that this is a sad poem. I think this is mainly based on the final two lines, both of which end with ellipses. Something about the trailing off of an idea, particularly the single word in the final line, sounds incomplete, unfinished, and sad. I felt like there was a sense of loss, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or perhaps an important opportunity missed.

The next aspect of the poem that struck me was the repetition of several phrases beginning with the word or syllable “bu”: bugun, bu kadar, bu anda; as well as the repetition of the word “ne” near the end of the poem. My immediate thought was that “ne” must be some kind of negative word, perhaps meaning “without”. This fit nicely with my “sad” theme. Whatever “bu anda” is, it is without a lot of things. Perhaps without hope, without love, without friends.

Finally, the word “dayadim” jumped out at me, reminding me of the English word “diadem”. The quote, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” came to mind, and this idea became the anchor of my translation. I decided that the poem would be the sadness of a prince whose parents had died, leaving him to step into the monarchy and lead his country while grieving, taking on heavy responsibilities and an isolated role immediately upon losing his emotional support.

The lines that the poem hinged on, in my interpretation, were these:

Bu anda ne dusmek dalgalara,
bu anda ne kavga, ne hurriyet, ne karim.

So I began my “translation” there and with the first line of the poem. Perhaps “bu” referred to the monarchy, with “bugun” meaning king, “bu kadar” meaning queen, and “bu anda” meaning prince. “Pazar,” then, could mean orphan, making the title of the poem “The Orphan King.” I translated the lines above as follows:

A prince without loving family,
a prince without friends, without time, without hope.

Back to the beginning of the poem, I began to translate the first couplet:

Bugun beni ilk defa gunese cikardilar.
Ve ben omrumde ilk defa gokyuzunun 
The king is dead these many years.
His loyal subjects mourned him long ago.

The next section seemed to rhyme the first and third lines, so I attempted to echo that pattern.

bu kadar benden uzak
                      bu kadar mavi
                      bu kadar genis oldguna sasarak
                      kimildamadan durdum.

The queen now lies under the earth
                the queen mother
                the queen who gave birth
                to the promised son.

The next section seemed more complex, with another repeated rhyme in the second and third lines, and the first rhyming with the last line of the previous section. I had already translated the last two lines, but would need to rewrite them to achieve this rhyme scheme, along changing “son” to “heirs” in the previous line.

Sonra saygiyla topraga oturdum,
dayadim sirtimi duvara.
Bu anda ne dusmek dalgalara,
bu anda ne kavga, ne hurriyet, ne karim.

A young man hides the grief he bears,
the crown will be his tomorrow.
A prince without escape from his sorrow,
a prince without friends, without hope, without relief.

And finally, the last two lines of the poem, the ones that felt so empty and unfinished to me. What is the soon-to-be king thinking?

Toprak, gunes ve ben...
Bahtiyarim...

Bravely, he accepts his fate…
Loneliness…

Putting the whole translation together, the result is this:

The Orphan King
The king is dead these many years.
His loyal subjects mourned him long ago.
The queen now lies under the earth
                the queen mother
                the queen who gave birth
                to the promised heirs.
A young man hides the grief he bears,
the crown will be his tomorrow.
A prince without escape from his sorrow,
a prince without friends, without hope, without relief.
Bravely, he accepts his fate…
Loneliness…

I have to say, I kind of like it. But is it anything at all close to what the poet actually wrote? Let’s find out! According to Google Translate, here’s what it really means:

It's Sunday.
Today they were coming out my first time to the sun.
And the sky for the first time in my life I
                                so far away from me
                      so blue
                      wondering about this so that
                      I stood still.
Then I sat on the ground with respect,
dayadim my back wall. (a separate dictionary search finally translated this word as "to put")
At this moment, what waves to shower,
What a fight this time, neither liberty, nor wife.
Soil, sun and I...
I'm fortunate...

Oops.

Not even close. The feeling is precisely opposite to what I felt. So I tried to throw off my initial translation and rewrite the basic meaning in this poor translation into something more poetic, and something that fit the rhyme scheme of the original. I started by simply rewriting, without paying attention to the rhymes.

It is Sunday.
Today the sun came out for the first time
For the first time in my life I saw the sky
                              so far away from me
                    so blue
                    I was astonished
                    I stood still.
Then I sat on the ground in reverence,
I leaned my back against the wall.
At this moment, waves of thought wash over me,
I fight against them, I have not liberty, nor wife.
Only soil, sun, and myself...
I am blessed...

Finally, I went back to try and fit this new version to the original rhyme.

It is Sunday.
Today the sun came out for the first time
For the first time in my life I saw the sky
                                  so far away from me
                        so blue
                        I was in a reverie
                        I stood in silence.
Then I sat on the ground in reverence,
I leaned my back against the wall.
At this moment, waves of thought wash away all,
I fight against them, I have not liberty, nor wife.
Only soil, sun, and myself...
I am blessed...

Time to compare my version to that of a professional translator, one who is fluent in both Turkish and English as well as a gifted writer and poet.

Today is Sunday.
For the first time they took me out into the sun today.
And for the first time in my life I was aghast
that the sky is so far away
and so blue
and so vast
I stood there without a motion.
Then I sat on the ground with respectful devotion
leaning against the white wall.
Who cares about the waves with which I yearn to roll
Or about strife or freedom or my wife right now.
The soil, the sun and me...
I feel joyful and how.


I think it’s beautiful in every version, don’t you?


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