Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

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puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

An Italian year

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nell’angolo della terra

Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:

If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.

All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.

Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).

Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!

Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.

Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.

This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.

Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.

Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!

Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?

First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.

Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.

And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.

Ruth Speirs

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in the bookshop’s window

I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.

When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.

I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.

A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.

This quote from a review of her translations of Rilke summarizes what is known about her later life:

she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.

The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:

After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.

The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.

As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.

Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.

Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.

Three books

I published a beautiful book
on eternity
art
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
in unison
sternly
rejected
my book.

Did I plunge into grief?
No!

I published another,
written with fervour –
a book
on brotherhood,
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.

In vain
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
modernistic inkstands
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
in vain.
And then,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
smiled:
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”

And then,
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
but streetwalkers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
I,
coming home,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
and
started to write:
“Practical hints
for men who rob the exchequer,
murders,
couples living in sin,
inexperienced writers,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”

Twenty tycoons
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.

And when it was published
thousands
of bright
lights
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.

Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
my face
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.

The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
shouted:
“Three cheers!”

Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”

But
a progressive
tobacco firm
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name.
Trīs grāmatas

Izdevu grāmatu
skaistu
par mūžību,
mākslu
un dvēseli,
izdevu,
bet visi veikali
asi
kā viens
atteicās
no manas grāmatas.

Bet vai es noskumu?
Nē!
Izdevu otru es
grāmatu —
grāmatu kvēlu
par brālību
palīdzību
cilvēces nākotni
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.

Tomēr velti
es meklēju viņu
veikala logos
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
modernām tintnīcām
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
velti.
Un, kad es,
iegājis veikalā,
prasīju grāmatu,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
jaunava smaršaina
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
smaidīja:
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
Un tad
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
ziedu vietā
smaršoja tikai vairs
ielu meitenes
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
es,
mājās atgriezies,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
sēdos
un —
rakstīju darbu:
“Praktiskie padomi
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
vekseļu viltotājiem,
slepkavām,
nelaulātiem,
rakstniekiem iesācējiem,
caurkritušiem abitūrijā,
auto šoferiem un
deju nepratējiem.”

Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
tūkstošiem
mirdzošu
gaismas reklāmu
raidīja tautā
manas grāmatas vārdu.

Blakus
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
Hlorodontpastai
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
rēgojās pretim
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.

Firmas
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
sauca:
— Lai dzīvo! —

Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
Jaunkundzes dvesa:
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —

Bet
viena moderna
tabakas fabrika
izlaida
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.

Too bad

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we walk on them / quietly like cats

In the early 2000s, I participated in the International Poetry Club. We would meet every couple of months in someone’s house, share food, and recite poetry in different languages. Each session had a topic, and each of us would present a poem related to that topic, in the original and in English translation.

Several times I presented poems by Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a famous Latvian poet.

His poetry is a mixture of modernism, futurism, and absurdism, but above all, he is an urbanist. Whereas most of his contemporaries were singing the beauty of Latvian countryside, he was singing the hustle and bustle of a city. More precisely, the city, his Riga, where now a central street, always busy and at places seedy, bears his name.

Čaks is one of my favourite poets. I like his humour, his extravagant comparisons and unusual metaphors, unexpected, even absurd turns and twists.

This poem is entitled Slikti, meaning ‘Too bad’, a title rather appropriate for the current situation.

Too bad:
I, Latvian poet
What shall I sing about?
My heart
Is dry and thin
Like worn out leather
of an armchair.

Were I a black poet,
I would sing songs
About lips,
Dark and warm,
Like nights in July,
Without stars and wind,
Would sing songs
About flesh of girls,
Brown and strong like the earth,
Would sing songs
About freedom far away,
Like clouds in the air,
Were I a black poet.

But now?
Now we have
Bad freedom,
Skinny girls,
who paint their tiny lips like cloth,
Radio towers,
Rubber soles,
We walk on them
Quietly like cats,
Feel quietly,
Think quietly,
And die quietly.

 

Slikti
es, latviešu dzejnieks,–
par ko lai es dziedu?
Sirds mana
sausa un plāna
kā izkopta āda
atzveltnes krēslam.

Būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks,
dziedātu dziesmas
par lūpām,
kas tumšas un siltas
kā jūlija naktis
bez zvaigznēm un vēja,
dziedātu dziesmas
par jaunavu miesu —
brūno un stingro kā zemi,
dziedātu dziesmas
par brīvību tālo,
kā mākoņi gaisos —
būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks.

Bet tagad?
Tagad mums:
brīvība slikta,
jaunavas liesas,
kas lūpiņas krāso kā drēbi,
radiotorņi,
gumijas zoles,
ar kurām mēs ejam
klusi kā kaķi,
izjūtam klusi,
domājam klusi,
un nomirstam klusi.

The enth of Marchember

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Набережная Неисцелимых, Pavement of the Incurables

Today is World Poetry Day, celebrated every year on 21 March.

My relationship with poetry is contradictory. On the one hand, I know hundreds of poems in Russian from school, when learning by heart was required, and dozens of poems in Latvian, French, Spanish, and German, from my language studies.

My big poetic gap is English. I keep telling myself that it would be immensely beneficial to get acquainted with English poetry. yet I cannot recite a single verse in English!

For many years, I have owned several bilingual English-Russian poetry books: T.S. Eliot with Russian translations, an anthology of American poetry, and a couple of others.

Until last year, I had not opened any of them. I did not want to read these poems in Russian, assuming that translations would pale compared to the originals, and I did not want to read them in English, as my English was not good enough to appreciate poetic sophistication.

Last year, however, I began reading one book on a whim, and enjoyed it immensely: both the English originals and the translations. What’s more, the book proved to be a treasure for a language student, as some poems had several translations by different authors, which I could compare and analyse. Still a long way to go before reaching any degree of familiarity with English verse, but a welcome first step.

Today, however, to mark the day, I found one of my favourite Russian poems, by Joseph Brodsky, in the original and in English translation, coauthored by the poet himself. I knew the Russian original for years, and was astonished how the English version matches the spirit, the rhythm, and even vocabulary .

Ниоткуда с любовью, надцатого мартобря,
дорогой, уважаемый, милая, но не важно
даже кто, ибо черт лица, говоря
откровенно, не вспомнить уже, не ваш, но
и ничей верный друг вас приветствует с одного
из пяти континентов, держащегося на ковбоях.
Я любил тебя больше, чем ангелов и самого,
и поэтому дальше теперь
от тебя, чем от них обоих.
Далеко, поздно ночью, в долине, на самом дне,
в городке, занесенном снегом по ручку двери,
извиваясь ночью на простыне,
как не сказано ниже, по крайней мере,
я взбиваю подушку мычащим «ты»,
за горами, которым конца и края,
в темноте всем телом твои черты
как безумное зеркало повторяя.

 

From nowhere with love the enth of Marchember
sir sweetie respected darling but in the end
it’s irrelevant who for memory won’t restore
features not yours and no one’s devoted friend
greets you from this fifth last part of earth
resting on whalelike backs of cowherding boys
I loved you better than angels and Him Himself
and am farther off due to that from you than I am from both
of them now late at night in the sleeping vale
in the little township up to its doorknobs in
snow writhing upon the stale
sheets for the whole matter’s skin –
deep I’m howling ”youuu” through my pillow dike
many seas aways that are milling nearer
with my limbs in the dark playing your double like
an insanity-stricken mirror.

The picture above, of a memorial plaque to Joseph Brodsky, was taken in Venice, on an embankment called historically Fondamenta degli Incurabili (‘Pavement of the Incurables’, named after the nearby hospital Ospedale degli Incurabili). In Russian, “Набережная неисцелимых” is a title of Brodsky’s autobiographical essay dedicated to Venice, that was among his favourite cities.

Don Quijote on a bus

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se vuelve a ver la figura de Don Quijote pasar

On a bus in Madrid, this poster caught my eye. It contained a poem about Don Quijote by an author unknown to me.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.

Y ahora ociosa y abollada va en el rucio la armadura,
y va ocioso el caballero, sin peto y sin espaldar,
va cargado de amargura,
que allá encontró sepultura
su amoroso batallar.
Va cargado de amargura,
que allá «quedó su ventura»
en la playa de Barcino, frente al mar.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.
Va cargado de amargura,
va, vencido, el caballero de retorno a su lugar.

¡Cuántas veces, Don Quijote, por esa misma llanura,
en horas de desaliento así te miro pasar!
¡Y cuántas veces te grito: Hazme un sitio en tu montura
y llévame a tu lugar;
hazme un sitio en tu montura,
caballero derrotado, hazme un sitio en tu montura
que yo también voy cargado
de amargura
y no puedo batallar!

Ponme a la grupa contigo,
caballero del honor,
ponme a la grupa contigo,
y llévame a ser contigo
pastor.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar…

Vencidos (“Defeated”) was written by León Felipe (1884-1968) whom Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a poet of the Spanish Civil War. This poem, however, appeared in his first book, well before the war. You can read an interpretation of the poem, in Spanish here.

The vocabulary is pretty straightforward. Barcino refers to Barcelona, to its name  in the Roman period. Abollado means ‘dented’, armadura, peto y espaldar are ‘armor’ and its  parts, but you do not need to know the meaning of these words to enjoy the poem. Grupa (f) is ‘rump’ or ‘croup’ of an animal, such as horse (whereas grupo (m) is ‘group’).

The only curious and obscure word is rucio:

Va en el rucio la armadura

Rucio literally means ‘pale grey’, and that is how Sancho Panza affectionately calls his donkey, a sort of ‘my grey buddy’.

If you are into memorisation, this poem, with all its rhythm, rimes, and repetitions, is an excellent choice.

You can listen to a wonderful recording by the poet himself in this blog post. If you are into songs, listen to this version or this one by Joan Manuel Serrat. An extra benefit: you will remember the imperatives singular haz, pon, and also llévame forever.