Poetry Review: “Dialogos” — Superb Poetic Conversations

Translator George Kalogeris’s modernizing does what it should: It brings the poems into the thought-world where modern readers live.

DIALOGOS: Paired Poems in Translation by George Kalogeris, with a foreword by Rosanna Warren and a commentary by David Ferry. Antilever Press, 92 pages, $10.95.

By Maryann Corbett

Works of translation are usually reviewed by the people least likely to need them. In the normal order of things, a book of translated poems will be reviewed by someone who is comfortable in both the original and the target languages, someone who may very well have translated the same works, someone who can answer the questions, Is this a good translation? And just how is it good? This review will be a bit outside the normal order of things.

But then DIALOGOS is itself something of a departure from the norm. It gathers 24 poems, each written by a different poet, but it doesn’t limit itself to a historical period or a theme as anthologies usually do. The lives of the gathered poets range over 26 centuries, and their poems are in eight languages, or nine if you count ancient and modern Greek separately. I am not too proud to admit that I need a translation for some of those nine, and that I am grateful to have access to some of these poems for the first time. My out-of-the-ordinary conclusion is the surfaces of these translations sometimes look very different from their originals, but the surface differences are there to draw us into each poem’s core.

For translator George Kalogeris, the main aim of this book is to pair the poems, as its title says, so that some measure of the effect is in the combinations. The book’s fascinating cover image looks rather like a diagram of the double-helix DNA molecule (the original art can be seen here), a choice that speaks to the notion that combination produces results greater than the originals being combined. The poems are paired for reasons other than themes, but the thematic reasons for the matches are clear. For example, the first pairing is Borges’s “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology” and Cavafy’s “The Trojans.” Both poems are in conversation with details drawn out of ancient Greek poetry, and both focus on the eternal rediscovery of the sort of moment that will never change—for Borges and his minor poet, always the nightingale of Theocritus; for Cavafy and the first-person-plural speakers of his poem, forever discovering that they are like the Trojans, outside the walls, doomed, looking back at Priam and Hecuba who weep for them.

More examples of pairings follow: Leopardi’s “Saturday Night in the Village” lies beside Pessoa’s “Anniversario,” the pleasant remembered hours of anticipating Sunday paired with a pained nostalgia for a time before some unnamed fateful change. There’s a pairing on love, in joyful moments and in the dread of separation (Montale and Akhmatova). There’s a pairing on the passage of time, disappearing mysteriously and unthought of for most of humankind and crawling miserably along for the prisoner (Hoffmansthal and Tasso). There are two meditations on the transience of beauty (Rilke and Sappho) and a pair of sonnets on death (Michaelangelo and Nerval). There’s a pairing of ancient and modern uses of classical meters (Theocritus and Radnóti), one for undying art and the other for the death camps.

The surnames of the poets are all we get by way of information about most of them. There are two exceptions, and for those there are only two brief end notes. One is Miklos Radnóti, of whom we learn that the poem was found in the pocket of his corpse, exhumed from a Nazi camp mass grave. The other is Tasso, who is writing to the new wife of his jailer, Duke Alfonso, to plead for his release. Whatever else might be written about the background of the other poems is omitted. The absence of information seems to say to readers, “Focus on the poems here, and the poems only.”

The absence of author biography is not the only feature that delivers that message. Apart from a few line numbers, there is no scholarly apparatus to distract from the translations as poems in English. The original Greek of Sappho’s Fragment 58 requires a great deal of reconstructing, but no hint of this appears. The Hoffmansthal poem given the title “Days” in this collection is called in German “Uber Vergänglichkeit,” more often translated “On the Transitory” or “Of Mutability.” The change makes finding the original poem, if one doesn’t already know it, a bit more challenging than it might be.

A look at the first tercet of that original is a good way to illustrate the way Kalogeris works:

Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen:
Wie kann das sein, daß diese nahen Tage
Fort sind, für immer fort, und ganz vergangen?

Charles Wharton Stork’s conventional, formal translation, dated 1918, took this shape:

Still, still upon my cheek I feel their breath
How can it be that days which seemed so near
Are gone, forever gone, and lost in death?

Here is how Kalogeris relaxes those lines and opens them out:

I can still feel their breath on my cheek,
Though they vanished without a trace of their stay—
Those days that were here just last week;

Those days that were always here today
And gone forever tomorrow….

He keeps the terza rima form, though he loosens the line, but the 13 lines of the original become 24 in the translation. Typically, these translations expend more space on any given idea than the originals do. The 12 lines of Mandelstam’s poem numbered 126 become 25 lines. Leopardi’s 50 lines become 76. Borges’ 20-line poem grows to 37 lines. And so on. While the Borges translation gives an indication of the liberties it takes—an epigraph that reads “from the Spanish of Borges”—none of the others are marked to distinguish free translations from close, as the translator’s notes make clear. We are meant to focus on the English result, not to make close comparisons.

Nor do the poems hesitate to introduce details that make the ideas contemporary but that could reasonably be called anachronisms. For example, Pindar’s “Olympian Ode 14” gets an epigraph from Paradise Lost. To Juvenal’s “Satire X,” lines 191–195, which talk about the ugliness of the old, Kalogeris adds the parenthetical thought, “Are these the same people as those in their wedding albums?” I question very few of these expansions: for example, Borges’ tiny, pointed, undecorated observation on his minor poet, eres una palabra en un indice (“You are a word in an index”) gets the grander treatment “Your name survives as a footnote/salvaged…/by a dense appendix,” dressed up with an added editorial tool, an extra modifier, and a more interesting verb. Has the printed index really become so much more irrelevant than the footnote or the appendix that the idea has to be illustrated for moderns? Once in a great while, to add is to lose the effect of brevity.

Poet and translator George Kalogeris teaches English Literature and Classics in Translation at Suffolk University in Boston.

But this is quibbling, and much more often Kalogeris’s modernizing does what it should: It brings the poems into the thought-world where modern readers live. Here’s another example. The translation of Petrarch presents the poet’s way of describing his dog, like this: “Chasing, to no avail, the flocks of wild geese/He seems to know it’s all a wild goose chase,” and it recounts Alexander the Great’s vulgar way of saying he wanted a dog that would fight as “a dog/That wasn’t a pussy, as the impetuous tyrant/So crassly put it….” The poem being translated, Petrarch’s “Metrical Letter III,” is an odd hybrid, a letter but composed in Latin hexameters, literary in its expression. It is meant for a friend—a powerful patron, but a friend—yet it maintains a learned stance. It gets little attention from translators, so being able to read it in contemporary, English verse is a real gift. Kalogeris’s word choices adapt the message to our modern ears, while his blank-verse form keeps up erudite appearances.

The verse forms deserve some extended comment, even though most readers probably expect free verse and are unused to perceiving form. (More observations about Kalogeris’s technique are available in the commentary by David Ferry on the Antilever Press web site.) The meters in these translations are loose and accentual, but all the poems make use of some stress-counted meter; Ferry prefers to call it rhythm.

Occasionally, the form of the original poem comes across in the translation. The sonnets by Michaelangelo and Nerval remain sonnets in translation, though their rhymes become a mix of true, slant, and barely there. Most of the time, though, the translator’s way of adding elaboration and detail needs more room than the original form allows, so Kalogeris creates a new form that may or may not relate to the old one. The Celan poem being translated is itself a translation of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” and Celan’s version keeps the original meter and rhyme scheme. Kalogeris needs more lines per stanza to show us how Celan has adjusted Dickinson’s sense, and he makes all the lines tetrameter so as to have more syllables to work with. Baudelaire’s abab quatrains in “Le Cygne” disappear into 10-line, blank-verse groupings. The extra roominess often allows space for sound devices, echoes, internal rhymes. In other words, the forms are not there to tell us anything specific about the form of the original. They’re there to be enjoyed for themselves, and sometimes to indicate that form per se was an aspect of the original, an important statement on its own.

The main aim of these translations, then, is to present the ideas of the original poets in language that brings them within modern reach and in forms that are neither too strict for modern taste nor so free that they negate the presence of form in the originals. For the often-translated poems from the French, Spanish, and German, the reader who already knows the originals can enjoy seeing them rendered in a fresh way. The poems in languages that are less taught in English-speaking countries will be made real to many readers for the first time. If the translator is a little less transparent than usual in this book, his presence, his way of intervening for our benefit in the poems, and his presentation of poems in combination are all results we can be grateful for.

Maryann Corbett is the author of Breath Control (David Robert Books) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (forthcoming in 2013 from Able Muse Press). She is a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and her poems, essays, and translations have appeared widely in journals in print and online and in a number of anthologies. New work is forthcoming in PN Review, 32 Poems, and Italian Americana.

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