Category Archives: Translations

Zbigniew Herbert in Scotland, 1963

Herbert Collected Holy Iona

In Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956–1998 I came across a single reference to Scotland, in the poem ‘The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito’ or, to give it its Polish title, ‘Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika’. Here is the relevant section in the Polish original, followed by Alissa Valles’s translation from Collected Poems.

a także Miss Helen z mglistej wysepki Mull na Hebrydach za to że przyjęła mnie po grecku i prosiła żeby w nocy zostawić w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona zapaloną lampę aby światła ziemi pozdrawiały się

and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

The poem is taken from Herbert’s 1983 collection Raport z oblężonego Miasta / Report from a Besieged City. I was curious to know more about the time he spent in Scotland, which was in fact twenty years before this collection appeared, in autumn 1963. According to Andrzej Franaszek’s 2018 biography of Herbert, using public transport Herbert travelled north from London, stopping in Leeds, York and Durham before arriving in Scotland, where he visited Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Oban, Mull and Glasgow, before returning via Carlisle to London.

Franaszek quotes from a postcard Herbert sent from Edinburgh on 18 October:

Wdrapałem się na górę koło Edynburga i oczywiście spadłem trochę (niegroźnie). Tak trzeba. Ziemio ty moja szkocka ukochana! Jutro jadę, ale dobrze nie wiem dokąd. Dziś w nocy narada sztabu z mapą. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwy, żeście mnie wypchnęli w świat. (…) Przede mną góry i skały, kozice i georginie. Naprzód! Hej!!!

I scrambled my way onto a mountain near Edinburgh and I fell down a little (not dangerously). Maybe a good thing. My beloved Scottish earth! I am leaving tomorrow, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. Tonight there will be a conference of the High Command over the map. I’m very glad that you pushed me out into the world. (…) Ahead of me mountains and cliffs, mountain goats and dahlias. Onwards! Hey!!!

In another postcard, sent from Inverness, he described his mixed feelings about the country: he was ‘exhausted but happy, head over heels in love with Scotland; its beauty exhilarates the tourist. But life without sex… one has to go back.’

He returned via the west coast and, finding himself in Oban, decided to cross to the nearby Isle of Mull and from cross there to Iona or, as he consistently called it, using the English adjective, Holy Iona. ‘Holy Iona, czyli kartka z podróży’ (‘Holy Iona, or a page of travel’) was written in 1966 for the West German radio station WDR, and published posthumously in the collection Mistrz z Delft (2008). Of his perspective of islands, he wrote:

Wyspy nie należą do krajobrazu mego dzieciństwa. Urodziłem się w środkowej Europie, w połowie drogi między Morzem Bałtyckim a Czarnym. Pejzaż mojej młodości to podlwowskie okolice: jary i łagodne pagórki porośnięte sosną, na której najpiękniej kwitnie pierwszy sypki śnieg. Morze było tam czymś niewyobrażalnym, a wyspy miały posmak baśni.

Islands were not part of the landscape of my childhood. I was born in Central Europe, halfway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The landscape of my youth was the area near Lwów, crevices and gentles hills covered in pine on which the first dry snow bloomed beautifully. The sea was something unimaginable there, and islands had a scent of fairytales.

The crossing to Iona had something otherwordly about it. It was 29 October, his birthday, and the ferry was no longer sailing. The landlady of his B&B at Fionnphort phoned a local fisherman, who agreed to take Herbert on the short crossing. In his radio talk he described their meeting-place:

Zimny, wilgotny, siwy ranek. Stoję w pobliżu jetty, która jest po prostu betonową ścieżką wchodzącą w morze. Ocean jest wzburzony, wysokie fale rozbijają się na skałach urwistego brzegu. Nagle z mgły wyłania się mała łódka rybacka płynąca w moim kierunku. Było to jak podanie ręki marzeniu.

A cold, damp, gray morning. I am standing near a jetty, which is just a concrete path going into the sea… which was stormy, high waves crashing against a rocky coast. A small open boat appeared from out of the mist; it was like extending your hand to a dream.

Once on Iona, Herbert explored the recently rebuilt abbey complex. He was particularly struck by his encounter with a sculpture, Descent of the Spirit’, by the Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor Jacques (Jacob) Lipschitz (1891–1973), who fled France for the USA in 1940.

williammarnochionaabbey2008
Photo: William Marnoch, Iona Abbey, 2008

Its inscription, in French, reads:

Jacob Lipchitz juif fidéle à la fonde ses ancêtres a fait cette vierge pour la bonne entente des hommes sur la terre afin que l’esprit régne

Jacob Lipschitz a Jew faithful to the heritage of his ancestors made this virgin for the accord of men on earth so the spirit might reign

Herbert, who had witnessed the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War, appreciated the paradox of recovering signs of community in this, to him, remote place. He expressed gratitude to ‘the Jewish artist who had heard so many words of hatred and responded by reaching for the words of reconciliation’.

Herbert returned to Mull, and the Fionnphort B&B, that same day. The evening brought him the image of light which he later incorporated into the ‘Prayer’:

Po kolacji gospodyni prosiła mnie, abym postawił małą lampkę w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona. Taki jest zwyczaj. Nocą światła obu wysp rozmawiają ze sobą. (…) Nie wiadomo, co przyniesie przyszłość i jak długo trwać będzie rozdarcie świata. Ale dopóki w jedną bodaj noc roku światła tej ziemi będą się pozdrawiały, niecała chyba nadzieja jest pogrzebana.

After supper the landlady asked me to put a small lamp in the window overlooking Holy Iona. That is the custom. At night the lights of both islands talk to each other. (…) It is not known what the future will bring and how long it might be until the world is torn apart, but as long as one night of the year, the lights of this land will offer greetings, hope is not buried.’

 

My thanks to Robin Connelly, Grażyna Fremi, Michał Kuźmiński, Basia Macmillan and Robert Macmillan for their help in sourcing and translating material on Herbert’s trip. As well as the books mentioned above, online there is, in Polish, a useful article from 2007 by Piotr Toczynski about Herbert and Iona, and a recording of Herbert talking about Scotland (scroll down to the heading ‘Szkocja’).

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Heroines from Abroad

HfA front hires   HfA back

Heroines from Abroad, newly published by Carcanet, is a bilingual (German / English) edition of poems by Christine Marendon, alongside my translations.

Heroines-from-abroad

Christine will be in Scotland this summer, and we are launching the book on 13 July at 8pm at Lighthouse in Edinburgh.

I discovered Christine’s poems via a mutual friend, the poet Arne Rautenberg. Christine had been invited to a festival in Slovenia, and needed English versions of six poems – could I make the translations? I enjoyed their enigmatic imagery and shifts in tone, and made the translations, helped by a correspondence with her.

Several years elapsed, when I always had in the back of my mind that I’d like to return to her work. I came across poems online, and have been translating her slowly but steadily since 2011; translations have appeared in Shearsman, Modern Poetry in Translation, New Books in German, and online at www.no-mans-land.org.

We met for the first time in March 2014, in Hamburg where she lives; shortly afterwards we were invited to read together in London by Sasha Dugdale, then the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, and it was a pleasure to hear her measured reading voice.

From Bavaria, she grew up speaking both German and Italian, and only began writing in her poetry in her thirties, after attending a reading by the poet Hilde Domin (1909–2006). In Germany her work is published online, and in magazines and anthologies, but she still awaits a first collection. As a translator, she has made German versions of poems by James Wright.

Marendon’s work may bridge for English-language readers the perceived chasm between avant-garde and mainstream poetry. It’s not obscure, it’s not banally ‘accessible’. The voice and the language of Cockburn’s translations feel freshly rinsed.’ Carol Rumens

Gavin Douglas in London

“And, seand Virgill on ane lettrune stand,
To writ anone I hynt ane pene in hand”

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I was in London earlier this month, running a workshop for the Translators’ Association called “Translating the Translator: Gavin Douglas’s Eneados“, when five of us attempted versions of Gavin Douglas into contemporary English.

Gavin Douglas (1474–1522) was the Provost of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh when, exactly five hundred years ago, in June 1513, he completed Eneados, his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Middle Scots. He also wrote an original Prologue for each of Virgil’s twelve books – and for an additional thirteenth book, written by Mapheus Vegius in 1428. The prologues describe with immediacy Scottish landscapes and weather – a May morning, a June evening, a chill winter.

Below is a several-handed translation, of an extract (lines 51–77, & 85–88) from ‘The Proloug of the Threttene Buik of Eneados Ekit to Virgill be Mapheus Vegius’; on a bucolic June evening, Douglas encounters Mapheus. The translators are Felicity McNab (FM), Nicky Harman (NH), Susan Mackervoy (SM), and myself (KC); the original follows.

And soon every creature that came into the bay or field, flood, forest, earth or air or in the scrubland or wooded copse, lakes, marshes or their pools, lies settled down still, to sleep and rest in darkness. Also the small birds sat on their nests, with little midges and irksome fleas, hard-working moths and busy bees, both wild and tame beasts and every other great and small thing, except the merry nightingale Philomene who sat on the thorn tree singing from the spleen. (FMcN)

How I longed to hear those notes cascade
And wandered till I found a tree-filled glade
I take a seat beneath a glossy bay
So my thoughts too can wander as they may. (NH)

I could see bright stars – the Pole Star, the Bear –
a crescent moon (quite dim in the summer skies)
and Venus and Jupiter (what a pair!)
beaming down. So, lying there – what with the
calm night, what with the birdsong – pretty soon
I nodded off.
                        And saw an old man standing there,
under my tree. I asked him why he’d come,
and if he harboured ill intent towards me. (SM)

His figure-hugging outfit, trim and neat,
was long enough to cover up his feet
while on his brow the laurel-wreath he wore
put me in mind of ye olde bards of yore. (KC)

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And schortlie, every thing that dois repare
In firth or feyld, flude, forest, erth or ayr,
Or in the scroggis or the buskis ronk,
Lakis, marrasis, or thir pulis donk,
Astabillit liggis still to slepe and restis;
Be the small birdis syttand on thar nestis,
The litill midgeis, and the urusum fleyis,
Laboryus emmotis, and the byssy beyis ;
Als weill the wild as the taym bestiall,
And every othir thingis gret and small,
Owtak the mery nychtgaill Philomene,
That on the thorn sat syngand fra the splene.

Quhais myrthfull notis langing for to heyr,
Ontill a garth vndir a greyn lawrer
I walk onon, and in a sege down sat,
Now musand apon this and now on that.

I se the Poill, and eik the Ursis brycht,
And hornyt Lucyne castand bot dym lycht,
Becaus the symmyr skyis schayn sa cleyr ;
Goldin Venus, the mastres of the yeir,
And gentill Jove, with hir participate,
Thar bewtuus bemis sched in blyth estayt :
That schortly, thar as I was lenyt doun,
For nychtis silens, and this byrdis sovn,
On sleip I slaid ; quhar sone I saw appeyr
Ane agit man, and said: quhat dois thou heyr
Undir my tre, and willist me na gude ?
(…)
Syde was his habyt, round, and closing meyt,
That strekit to the grund doun our his feyt ;
And on his hed of lawrer tre a croune,
Lyke to sum poet of the auld fassoune.

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And here are a few lines describing a storm at sea in the words of Virgil, Douglas and (based on Douglas’s second stanza) Robert Chandler.

Talia iactanti stridens Aquilone procella
velum adversa ferit, fluctusque ad sidera tollit.
Franguntur remi; tum prora avertit, et undis
dat latus; insequitur cumulo praeruptus aquae mons.
Hi summo in fluctu pendent; his unda dehiscens
terram inter fluctus aperit; furit aestus harenis.

Virgil Aeneis, I, ll.102–7

Ane blusterand bub, out fra the northt braying,
Cane our the foirschip in the bak sail dyng
And to the sternys up the fluide can cast;
The ayris, hachis, and the takillis brast,
The schippis stevyn frawart hir went can writhe
And turnit hir braid syide to the wallis swithe.

Heich as ane hill the jaw of watter brak
And in ane help come on thame with ane swak.
Sum hesit hoverand on the wallis hycht
And sum the sownschand see so law gart lycht
Thame semit the erd oppinnit amyd the flude;
The stowr wp bullerit sand as it war wuid.

Gavin Douglas, Eneados, I.iii, ll.14–25

Hill high hung the well of water,
then dropped down on the ships with one swift blow.
Wave-winged, one boat stood hovering in the sky
while other boats were drawn down to such depths
it seemed earth’s jaws had sucked all sea away
and left just one wild swirl of sand and spray. (RC)

According to Ezra Pound, “Gavin Douglas was a great poet… I am inclined to think that he gets more poetry out of Virgil than any other translator”.

The 1874 edition of Douglas’s Eneados is available online here. This link is to volume 2 of a 4-volume edition of his ‘Poetical Works’ published in 1874, which contains Books I–V of Eneados – if you click on the ‘Author’ text – ‘Gawin Douglas , Maffeo Vegio, Virgil’ you can find volumes 3 and 4, which contain the rest of the work.

A new edition was published recently: The Aeneid (1513), Volumes I-II / Gavin Douglas ; edited by Gordon Kendal (London : Modern Humanities Research Association, 2011).

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The photographs were taken on 4 June in Kensington Gardens, except the seascape which shows the Firth of Forth from Kinghorn, last April.

Arne Rautenberg

Arne at Seafield Tower, Kirkcaldy
Arne at Seafield Tower, Kirkcaldy

The German poet and artist Arne Rautenberg visited me in Edinburgh recently. We read together at the Goethe Institut Glasgow, and at the Edinburgh Bookshop – along with Peter Manson, presenting his fine Mallarmé translations – so thanks to everyone who came on those evenings.

I made some new translations for the readings, of poems from Arne’s most recent book, Mundfauler Staub (Taciturn Dust). This is a translation of ‘abspann’.

Credits

the man: my grandfather
the woman: my grandmother
the child: my mother
war

the man: my father
the woman: my mother
the child: me
reconstruction

the man: me
the woman: my wife
the child: my daughter
happiness

Angus & Arne
Angus & Arne

Arne and I, accompanied by Angus Reid, also walked part of the Fife Coastal Path, between Kirkcaldy and Aberdour.

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Autumn leaves

Autumn seems to be the time translations appear – a smaller crop than last year’s, but there are two publications to mention. No Man’s Land, the online journal for German writing in English, has published my translations of Arne Rautenberg – several haiku, and ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’, about coming across a pressed leaf in a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Those poems, and many more, are included in Snapdragon.

The recent issue (3:18) of Modern Poetry in Translation is on the theme of Transitions. It’s the last to be edited by David and Helen Constantine, who share this issue with their successor, Sasha Dugdale. I’ll be sad to see them go – they have consistently published work of interest from a generous range of poets and translators, and have been very supportive of my work, taking versions of Thomas Brasch, Thomas Rosenlöcher and Heiner Müller. This issue features translations of three poems by Heinz Czechowski (1935–2009), a writer I’ve just discovered this year, and who skillfully interweaves his private and public selves, the historical and the contemporary, the literary and the mundane. You can read one of the poems here.

Beside them are other translations of Czechowski by Ian Hilton, a former professor of Germany at Bangor University, who has known his work for much longer than I have, and who many years ago met the poet on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.

Snapdragon

Snapdragon is a newly published collection of my translations of poems by the German writer Arne Rautenberg, made over the past decade. Arne lives in Kiel, where I’ve visited him on several occasions, and he has been to Scotland twice, in 2003 and 2007.

As all books are, it is a collaborative effort. I was introduced to Arne by Alec Finlay, who has written the cover blurb above; Stewart Conn heard Arne and me read in Edinburgh and 2003, and his poem ‘Translations’ describing that occasion is included; the book is designed and laid out by Barrie Tullett, with whom I’ve worked on many projects over the years; and the cover was designed by Jantze Tullett, Barrie’s wife.

The ladybird
On the hibiscus flower
In the ashtray

(Haiku)

The poems are fomally varied: monologues, lists and fairy tales – haiku, double haiku and football haiku – one-word poems, nudges and inversions. They are presented as parallel text, German on the left and English on the right.

Between turbulence
And the monstrous rivets
A beckoning home.

His gaze deep in the
Rear wheel of a juggernaut
Thundering on by.

(from ‘Kiel After Rain’)

I mention my choice of title in the Afterword: “I settled on Snapdragon as it seemed to sum up much of Arne’s work: a flower-name, so a word that’s rooted in the real, something delicate and beautiful; yet also with outlandish and unsettling associations.”

The formal details are:
published by The Caseroom Press, 180 x 125 mm, 64 pages, ISBN 978-1-905821-21-1, cover price £5.00.

A review by Lesley Harrison has appeared in Northwords Now, no.22 (if you download the pdf, it’s on p.22). “I don’t speak German, but the English versions conjured very clearly a city-world still recovering from war, and Cockburn’s clipped, wry translations seem to be a perfect window to it, both clever and compelling.”

If you’d like to buy a copy, it’s available via The Big Cartel.

Arne Rautenberg, Glasgow, 2003
Alec Finlay & Arne Rautenberg, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2007
Ken Cockburn & Arne Rautenberg, Kiel, 2008 (photo by Birgit Rautenberg)

The Fourth Wound in Fras 16


My translation of the opening of Christopher Ecker‘s compelling novella The Fourth Wound (Die vierte Kränkung is the original German title) has just appeared in the magazine Fras, no. 16.

Set in Brittany during World War Two, it tells the unsettling tale of a non-combattant German living there in a state of increasing uncertainty – emotional, psychological, social and moral – and of the shadowy local figures he must reluctantly engage with. Its thriller elements remind me of John Buchan, and it draws eloquently on Breton myth, history and landscape.

Christopher – who I met through the poet Arne Rautenberg, who I’ve also translated – lives in Kiel. His novel Madonna won the Book of the Year (Rheinland-Pflaz) in 2007, and his new novel, Fahlmann, has just been published.

Copies of Fras 16 are available for £4 each from FRAS Publications, 10 Croft Place, Dunning PH2 0SB, Scotland, UK.

From the German

I’ve had translations of German-language poems published in several magazines this autumn.


Banipal describes itself as a ‘magazine of modern Arabic literature’. Some years ago I translated for it poems by Adel Karasholi, a Syrian Kurd long exiled in Germany, who now writes in German. The magazine has now started to feature a ‘Guest Literature’ in each issue, and Banipal 42 features Germany. The editors asked me to translate six poems by Ulf Stolterfoht. He’s not an easy writer to translate – he himself has translated J.H. Prynne and Tom Raworth into German, and his work is similar to theirs in its slipperiness. I approached task with some trepidation, but was helped by Ulf’s patient responses to my questions, and I came to enjoy their unexpected twists and turns, their extravagant playfulness. There’s a good interview with him (in English) here.


Modern Poetry in Translation has published a poem each by Thomas Brasch, Thomas Rosenlöcher and Heiner Müller. It’s taken my translations of poems by Brasch and Rosenlöcher previously (issues 3/6 and 3/11 respectively). Heiner Müller I knew of as a playwright, until I discovered a volume of his poems when visiting Berlin in 2009. ’Napoleon at Wagram’ uses the dialectical method – like musical counterpoint – two very different narratives, about Napoleon and Lenin, are juxtaposed, and the reader is invited to make the connection.


Poems by Christine Marendon are in Feathers & Lime (2007); earlier this year I began working on her poems again, and four have just been published in Shearsman 89/90, and another two in the on-line journal no man’s land. I like the enigmatic imagery of her work: tantalising hints and glimpses of characters, situations and narratives.

ctrl+alt+del

ctrl+alt+del describes itself as ‘a contemporary poetry foldable/printable ezine’. You can find it here. You print it out on a single sheet of A4 and there is a natty video that shows you hold to fold it. Issue 1 has work by Peter Hughes, whose pamphlet ‘Paul Klee’s Diary’ I enjoyed back in the mid-90s. Issue 3 has some mesostics by myself, and ‘twelve switches’, a translation I made of a poem by Arne Rautenberg (though as you may notice I can’t always count accurately). I like what CAD is doing visually – it reminds me of the late Duncan Glen’s magazine ZED 2 O, with its zany but thoughtful design.