Friday, 28 December 2007

On translating a playwright's poetry

Thomas Bernhard was a great playwright. Of that there's no doubt. Works like his dark comedy Elizabeth and his Nazi study Heldenplatz are classics in Austro-German theatre. They can be translated straight off and are sure to work. No problem.
When it comes to poetry however his style is very theatrical and in translation it needs to be slightly otherwise or the poem stands the risk of merely translating into a rant against God, illness, poverty or whatever. A straight translation of Bernhard is therefore likely to fall at the first hurdle. Poet-in-Residence has reflected long and hard on his first translation of the first poem of Under the Iron Moon(trawl sidebar) and now seeks to bring into it some poetic qualities; some rustic sounding alliteration for instance. After all, Bernhard (1931-89) spent most of his time in the rural Alpine region of Salzkammergut. Here then is P-i-R's second version:

Untitled (1st poem)

The year is like the year a thousand years ago
we carry the jug and switch the rump of the cow
we scythe and bleat and know nothing of winter
we quaff our scrumpy and know nothing
and soon enough we'll all be forgotten
and the poetry perished like the snow before the house.

The year is like the year a thousand years ago
we peer in the woods as if in the stall of the world
we tell lies and make baskets for apples and pears
we snore while our perishing shoes
repose before the door of the house.

The year is like a thousand years ago
we know nothing
we know nothing of the end
of the sunken towns, of the flood in which the horses
and people were drowned.

P-i-R translated from
'Under the Iron Moon'
by Thomas Bernhard.

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