There is translation, and then there is translation. Translating an archaeological text from one language into another is relatively straightforward. Translating a poem from one language into another is anything but that. In poetry, at least in good poetry, everything matters desperately. Words, word order, rhythm, sound, allusions and associations and metaphors: they all combine to form an intricate web of constantly shifting colours and shapes. Remove one strand, and the fabric unravels. Replace one thread, and the fabric has lost its identity.
Translating poetry is like attempting to weave cloth which closely resembles the original, but on a different type of loom and with different techniques, materials and colours. Assuming it can be done at all (which is subject to debate) it requires expert weavers. All others should give the tapestry-loom a wide berth. A badly translated archaeological text may still be useful (although I hope none of those will ever leave my desk), but a badly translated poem is merely horrible. That is why I don’t ‘do’ poetry professionally. I fear to damage beautiful textiles beyond repair and thereby to insult the original weavers.
That being said, I must confess that I do dabble a little bit in private, to sharpen my mind and to remind myself from time to time of my limitations. Here is one of my attempts. The victim is a well-known poem by Ernest Dawson (1867-1900), an English poet of the so-called ‘decadent’ school. The subject is the brevity of life and the oblivion that follows. Surely that appeals to archaeologically minded souls. Judge for yourselves, dear readers, and forgive me.
‘Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam’*
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
*from Ode I.4 by Quintus Horatius Flaccus/Horace, 65 – 8BC (my translation).
My translation into Dutch:
‘Het korte geheel van het leven verbiedt ons op lange duur te hopen’
Lang duurt het niet, het huilen en het lachen,
Liefde, begeerte en haat:
Me dunkt, met ons hebben ze niets van doen
Als we door de poort gaan.
Lang zijn ze niet, de dagen van wijn en rozen:
Uit mist en droom
Doemt onze weg op, even, lost dan weer op
in een droom.