“Look for Me” in the Guardian

I’m very pleased to have this translation as Poem of the Week. For a poem of 12 lines it took a long time to get right, and I think now I should have made that final effort for the alexandrine to sound right in English – it makes a lovely rallentando in Russian but I was afraid it would simply sound like a mistake.

There’s a comment from Pinkroom on the Guardian website:
“I like the sense of this poem but the translation is not working for me. Not liking the flitting (rotten poetty word) preferring ‘fly’ nor the quivering (ditto) preferring ‘trembling’. Got to get your verbs just so or the poem has the wrong energy. This is limp lettuce where it should be charged/electric.”

“Trembling” comes in the third stanza, and there does seem to be a strong rule in English writing that the same word doesn’t get used twice unless there’s a strong reason for it – apart from which the Russian poem has different words, too. The Russian “как взмах неощутимых крыл” [kak vzmakh neoschutimykh kryl] means literally “like the flapping of imperceptible wings”, so “fly” wouldn’t be enough to give that meaning. Poets get ticked off a lot for using words that are allegedly too poetic, and some words do get pretty shopsoiled, but I’m against banning them for any number of reasons. I don’t think “flit” or “quiver” are so seriously damaged, anyway. Pinkroom is lucky this poem doesn’t contain the word “soul” which I’ve been told any number of times is a banned word in poetry – but as it seems about 50% of Russian poems contain that word there’s not much a translator can do if there’s going to be any kind of faithfulness. With poems written nearly 100 years ago I don’t want to be too much either striving for period or updating, but I do want to find something that gives the right kind of experience to an anglophone reader. That can mean using words that might not occur in a new poem now.


Waiting for the Barbarians again

I wrote this a long time ago, based on Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”. It’s very out of date in a lot of topical detail but not in other ways.

after Cavafy; 2001

Something’s going on here at the Eurostar terminal.
What’s it all about?

Didn’t you hear? It’s a welcoming party for the refugees.

Is that Jack Straw over there? And Anne Widdecombe,
hovering close to those canapés?

Yes. They really felt they should make an effort.
The House of Commons is all down here today,
they could use a break, and the refugees are really more important.

And Her Majesty, nice headscarf.

Yes, very Balkan, isn’t it.
She’s brought some Balmoral tartan ones to give out as presents.

Look at Tony and Cherie, absolutely dazzling –
is that Vivienne Westwood they’re wearing?

Yes, they thought they’d push the boat out,
show off the best of British.

Is he going to make a speech about how glad he is to welcome them?

No, he’s realised no one takes any notice,
least of all the ones you mean to impress.

What’s up? People are murmuring.
Someone’s already started the Bulgarian Merlot
and Anne Widdecombe’s got stuck in to the butterfly prawns.
Shouldn’t they have waited for the refugees?

We’ve just heard that the train’s in
and everyone’s papers were in order.
Nobody clinging to the axles, it’s all rather a let-down.
Maybe they’ve just stopped coming.

And they’ve only just built a new reception centre
on the Greenwich peninsular. Now what do they do with it?
Who do they blame?