SUMMONING THE LITERAL INTO LIFE


This must be said: that translations from one language to another always lose something. One can only hope that a little of the essence can be conveyed through words of different shape and context.
    The translations that give me most enjoyment are those from Chinese poetry into English. My first pleasure in poetry as a boy came when I stumbled on Arthur Waley's translations from the Chinese. Some enigmatic quality about them, and the unfamiliarity of their subject matter, proved enduringly captivating. The difficulties of translating poems from an Oriental language have been frequently discussed. What it boils down to is this: that Chinese poems when Englished are for English readers and not for Chinese, who are able to enjoy them in the original.
    I have to claim the same immunity for my 'translations' of Makhtumkuli. I am no translator, merely a versifier; my 'translations' are always at one remove. They are intended for those who have no foothold in a Turkic tongue. Inevitably - and I say this with regret - they will reveal their shortcomings to Turkmens who have probably known some of these poems from birth.
    A certain amazement fills me to think I have undertaken this formidable task. But the saying has it that every journey, however long, begins with the first step, and my first step was easy. I was in Ashkhabad when Dr Youssef Azemoun handed me a literal translation of a Makhtumkuli poem. I saw at once it might be made alive. Such a phrase as "my heart boiled with enthusiasm" sounds too culinary to be English; it is easy to substitute "my heart burned with excitement". Turning that first poem into passable English was much like doing a crossword puzzle. It passed the time while I awaited a car to take me to the Minister of Culture.

Then I became emotionally involved. I could summon the literal into life!

    Other poems came my way. I began to appreciate the beauty of Makhtumkuli's thought. I have been to
several Muslim countries and have read much in the Koran, so that religious preoccupations presented me with no problems. Indeed, I discover in the poet a cast of mind very similar to that in which I was brought up as a sincere Christian - a rapt preoccupation with Sin and Judgement Day and 'the wrath to come'.
    The themes of sorrow and suffering - well, they are the common coin of all humanity. Naked into the world we come, and naked leave it.
    What perplexes is the poet's habit of naming himself in the final verse of each poem. I understand the reason for this signature, as it were, within a quasi-oral tradition; nevertheless it is at odds with English poetic tradition, and so must be, not necessarily abandoned, but adapted in various ways. One finds, as one labours on, that even this habit becomes a part of custom.
    There is never one satisfactory translation. These poems were written in a different culture, in a different century. Central Asia and Island England are far apart; their music is different. How to keep the sense, yet render the meaning and perhaps the lilt of it accessible?
    Let me display one of my poor attempts. In the poem in which Makhtumkuli laments the loss of his son, this
is the literal translation on which I have to work:

                                                If a donkey loses its young foal
                                                It will run frantic in the search.
                                                If a camel loses its young foal
                                                Can it do other than cpy and moan?
 

The translator must obey the end-stopped line and introduce a rhyme (he is given no hint as to where the rhyme falls in the original, nor does he identify the specific verse form). All he sees is that the donkey must be female - and so is a jenny - and that Western readers, who have probably met with camels only in zoos, cannot conceive of those animals crying. So I arrive at:

                                                If a jenny loses her young foal
                                                What can she do hut run and search, alone?
                                                And equally if camels lose their young
                                                What can they do but roll about and moan?
 

    This is the fate of a' translator/versifier; the more closely he looks at his work, the paler it seems; and the more he senses that he must be transgressing in ways he knows not. Fortunately, we are contradictoy creatures: he is also pleased with what little he has achieved!
    He can be consoled by small things, by, for instance, translating "A respect to countrysides" as "The lure of landscapes", introducing a music of alliteration; of such detail harmony is made. Sometimes, the literal translation I was given is too lovely and extraordinary to change. "The pen trembles with the pain of orphans" may not correspond precisely to what Makhtumkuli wrote, but it rings with the sort of surprise and concision the lift from the pedestrian  we expect from good verse.
    Makhtumkuli's apocalyptic poems are much to my taste. Unfortunately, I have no knowledge of who Faroah, Haman, Shaddad are. But if they were Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego of the Old Testament, I would know no more of them than their names, so in they go. The apocalyptic is exciting and calls forth imaginative work. I am not entirely ashamed that the verse:

                                            Then Israfil will take his horn in his hand,
                                            He will stand looking at the path of the Almighty,
                                            Then he will call on his right and his left,
                                            All creatures will be revived

appears in my version as:

                                            Great Israfil takes up his brazen horn
                                            To stand alert in the Almighty's sight:
                                            Two golden calls he blows anon to left and right -
                                            And lo! God's creatures, suddenly reborn!

    Well, perhaps it can be improved for the final brush-up. As time goes on, I feel more confident in the ruba'i form, with the rhyme scheme AABA, made most familiar to English readers in Fitzgerald's version of Omar Khayyam. Possibly my own brazen horn will be tuned enough for Makhtumkuli's poetry to be reborn into a foreign tongue. So I hope.
 

Brian Aldiss


Brian Aldiss in Ashgabat