Sunday, 11 December 2011

Translating a Stone for poetry night

Originally posted to Multiply March 12 2011

I LOVE our local library and the people who help to run it.
Last night we took a break from the turbulence of the world with its natural disasters and civil unrest, to enjoy the third annual Poetry Night.

People bring a favorite poem, yack a bit about why they choose it, and read it. The whole thing takes a bit over an hour for around 20 presenters, after which people are free to mill around, chat and eat goodies.

I rarely read poetry, but quite enjoy it once it is shoved under my nose. The personal stories add so much. A familiar classic like "The Daffodils" takes on new meaning when we hear what it meant to a child in a two-room schoolhouse on the bald Alberta prairie.

What follows is more or less my contribution, including some remarks about the issue of translation.

A few years ago an online contact in the Netherlands sent me "De Steen" by poet/songwriter Bram Vermeulen. For some reason it hit me to the point where I made a stab at translating it.

Until I Googled it yesterday I did not know that Bram Vermeulen was a songwriter, rather than a poet, and that the poem has become a classic in the Netherlands. It is frequently performed at funerals. 

Translating poetry is tricky, even between two languages that are close kin, like English and Dutch.  Something always has to give. It can be the metaphors, or the music of the language, but choices have to be made.

Take the first line of this poem, which is the best, and at the same time the most difficult to do justice to. For my Dutch readers, it goes like this:

"Ik heb een steen verlegd in een rivier op aarde"

Literal translation: "I have moved a stone in a river on earth."
That doesn't exactly roll trippingly off the tongue, does it now?
The first item to get lost is the subtlety of the verb. "Verleggen" is a very precise term, implying picking up an item, and laying it down somewhere else. The prefix ver implies change. Ver-kleden is changing clothes. Ver-huizen is moving house. Move will do, but is more bland.

The main nouns: steen, rivier, aarde, are quite similar to their English counterparts : stone, river, earth. But the slight differences result in a total lack of rhythm.
Rivier is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, which is a long ee, as in beer. Aarde ends on the soft almost mute e, not with a thump like Earth.

I struggled for a bit with versions that used Planet instead. I ended up ignoring the whole dilemma, and choosing to retain the rhythm.  What is lost with the reference to Earth? To me it calls up the image of our planet seen from a great height, then zooming in to one pebble.

What remains is still a lovely poem. So here goes.

I moved a pebble in a flowing river
The water has to go another way
You can't hold back the current of a river
Water will always find a way around

Maybe one day, when rain and snow have filled it
the stream will take my pebble on its way
and carry it, till it's worn round and polished
to leave it resting in the ocean's lea

I moved a pebble in a flowing river.
Now I know that I will never be forgotten.
I furnished proof of my existence
Because when that one stone was moved
the flow of water was forever changed.

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