In 2021, just like in 2020, I will have three language learning priorities. The first two were easy to set: improving my English, a never-ending task, and learning Estonian, which I started chaotically in 2019 and continued systematically in 2020.
It took me a while to decide on the third language priority.
Finally, it is going to be German.
I spoke decent German in the late 1990s and read German books occasionally afterwards, but I did not put any deliberate efforts to improve it. My grammar is rusty, my vocabulary is primitive, and my listening skills are poor.
My interest for German language spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis better compared to its European neighbors. I consulted German epidemiologists’ articles as a source of reliable information about the virus, and much admired the corona speeches of Angela Merkel for their clarity, pragmatism, and scientific approach.
Given that we are not out of the woods yet, I thought it would be useful to have better, finer understanding of spoken and written German.
It would be useful for me professionally as well: at work, Germany is one of the countries we collaborate most.
But the moment I really said to myself ‘yes, German’, was in early December, when I read the beginning of this poem.
Das Jahr ward alt. Hat dünnes Haar. Ist gar nicht sehr gesund. Kennt seinen letzten Tag, das Jahr. Kennt gar die letzte Stund.
Ist viel geschehn. Ward viel versäumt. Ruht beides unterm Schnee. Weiß liegt die Welt, wie hingeträumt. Und Wehmut tut halt weh.
Noch wächst der Mond. Noch schmilzt er hin. Nichts bleibt. Und nichts vergeht. Ist alles Wahn. Hat alles Sinn. Nützt nichts, dass man’s versteht.
It is called Dezember (‘December’), is by Erich Kästner, and you can read it fully in German and in English translation here.
The comparison of the old year to an elderly gentleman with thinning hair, in poor health, who knows his last day and even his last hour, resonated with me. I found this image endearing and apt for the moment, and on the spot decided that I had to improve my German.
I will take stock of my German level after the celebrations and will set up a learning plan, but off the cuff, I need to learn the grammar properly, to enrich my vocabulary, and to work on my audio comprehension.
Meanwhile, happy new year! Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I published a beautiful book
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
Did I plunge into grief?
I published another,
written with fervour –
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
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,
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
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
started to write:
for men who rob the exchequer,
couples living in sin,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.
And when it was published
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
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.
The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
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!”
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name. Trīs grāmatas
bet visi veikali
no manas grāmatas.
Bet vai es noskumu?
Izdevu otru es
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.
es meklēju viņu
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
Un, kad es,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
smaršoja tikai vairs
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
auto šoferiem un
Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
manas grāmatas vārdu.
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
— 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? —
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.
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.
I, Latvian poet
What shall I sing about?
Is dry and thin
Like worn out leather
of an armchair.
Were I a black poet,
I would sing songs
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.
Now we have
who paint their tiny lips like cloth,
We walk on them
Quietly like cats,
And die quietly.
es, latviešu dzejnieks,–
par ko lai es dziedu?
sausa un plāna
kā izkopta āda
Būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks,
kas tumšas un siltas
kā jūlija naktis
bez zvaigznēm un vēja,
par jaunavu miesu —
brūno un stingro kā zemi,
par brīvību tālo,
kā mākoņi gaisos —
būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks.
kas lūpiņas krāso kā drēbi,
ar kurām mēs ejam
klusi kā kaķi,
un nomirstam klusi.
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.
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 Spanishhere.
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.