Archive for the Translations Category

With that kiss …

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on February 26, 2015 by James Munro

Ramón Jiménez

(from the Spanish of Juan Ramón Jiménez)

With that kiss, your mouth
to my mouth, a rose-tree
was sown whose roots
gnaw at my heart.

It was autumn, the vast, empty sky
filled with sunlight
that sucked up all the gold of life
in columns of splendour.

Now, dry summer-time
has come, and the rose-tree – everything passes! –
has opened, too late
a bud of pain in each of my eyes.

Translation © James Munro



Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on February 2, 2015 by James Munro

jacques prevert

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the white coffee
With the little spoon
He stirred
He drank the white coffee
He put down the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit
A cigarette
He blew smoke-rings
With the smoke
He put the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put
His hat on his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I took
My head in my hands
And I wept.

Springtime Long Ago

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on December 6, 2014 by James Munro

Luis Cernuda

(from the Spanish of Luis Cernuda)

Now, in the purple sunset of the evening,
With the magnolias in flower and wet with dew,
To walk along those streets while the moon
Waxes in the heavens will be a waking dream.

Flocks of swallows with their keening will make 
The sky more immense; the water in the fountain
Will loose the deep voice of the earth; then
Sky and earth will fall silent.

In the corner of some cloister, alone
With your head in your hand, like a ghost
Returned, you will weep thinking
How beautiful life was, and how pointless.

Translation © James Munro

A cloister in Barcelona


Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews, Translations with tags , , , on August 29, 2014 by James Munro

Danse Macabre coverThe world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten had been eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.


But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where is last year’s snow?”

Here is the second stanza in French and in English:

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Where is wise Heloise for whom
Pierre Abelard was gelded, then
Was made a monk in Saint-Denis?
For his love he bore this pain.
Similarly, where’s the Queen
Who ordered Buridan
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine?
But where is last year’s snow!

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution“. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. And I must tell you here that I had read this book, and enjoyed it immensely (and learnt a great deal from it) before I wrote my novel Thirteen-Card Spread, which is set in Paris just a few years earlier.

Lost in Translation

Posted in Translations with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by James Munro

Some Writers on Translation

The Ideal

I believe that a poem ought to be translated in the way the poet himself would have composed it, had he belonged to the nation for which he is being translated. (Henrik Ibsen)

The Difficulty

Translations (like wives) are seldom strictly faithful if they are in the least attractive. (Roy Campbell)

The original is unfaithful to the translation. (Jorge Luis Borges, on Henley’s translation of Beckford’s Vathek)

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. (Robert Frost)


Great successes that are not always “strictly faithful”

These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,
Each softly lucent as a rounded moon;
The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,
Fitzgerald strung them on a English thread. (James Russell Lowell)

(Click on the image to read Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, the poem to which Lowell refers. It is an almost perfect poem in English, but apparently a very imperfect translation!)


Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water. (The translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, 1611)

The Way

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on August 17, 2014 by James Munro

Antonio Machado

(from the Spanish of Antonio Machado)

The clock struck twelve … and they
were twelve blows of the spade
upon the earth … ‘My time!’ I cried …
Silence answered: ‘Do not be afraid;
you will not see fall that last drop
which trembles in the water-clock.

‘You will have time a-plenty
to sleep upon the old, familiar shore,
ere one cloudless morning you awake
to find your boat moored on the other side.’

Translation © James Munro


Posted in Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , , on July 11, 2014 by James Munro


José Luis Hidalgo

(from the Spanish of José Luis Hidalgo)

Sir: you have everything; one world of darkness
and another of light, bright, sky-blue.
But tell me: those who have died,
is it the night or the day that they inherit?

We are your children, those you bore,
those who, naked in their human flesh,
offer ourselves like barren fields
to the hatred or love of your two claws.

We live with the clamour of war
sounding darkly deep down inside us; for it is there
that you fight without ever defeating yourself,
and leave us the blood-soaked terrain.

So tell me, tell me, Sir: Why us?
Why choose us for your battle-field?
And after it all, in death, what reward can we expect?
Eternal peace or eternal strife?

Translation © James Munro

City Cemetary

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , on May 28, 2014 by James Munro


(from the Spanish of Luis Cernuda)

[composed, apparently, in Glasgow, Scotland]

Behind the open railings and the walls
Black earth with neither trees nor grass;
Some wooden benches. There, in the afternoon,
Old folk sit in silence.
Houses stand all about and shops nearby,
Streets where children play. Trains
Run past the graves. A poor neighbourhood.

Like patches in the grey façades
Rags damp from the rain hang in the windows.
Inscriptions are eroded
From the stones of the dead of two centuries;
They have no friends to forget them, the faceless dead.
But when the sun comes out for a day or two in June
Those old bones down there must feel something.

Not a leaf, not a bird. Nothing but stone. Earth.
Is Hell like this? Pain without forgetting,
Noise and destitution and hopeless endless cold.
Here the silent sleep of the dead
Is unknown, for always
Life stirs among the tombstones, like a prostitute
Pursuing her business beneath the unchanging night.

When dusk falls from the cloudy sky
And the smoke from the factories settles
In grey dust, voices come from the pub,
Then a passing train
Stirs longering echoes like a trumpet of wrath.

It is not the Day of Judgement yet, O nameless dead.
Stay quiet, and sleep; sleep if you can.
Maybe God, too, has forgotten you.

Translation © James Munro

To Samos

Posted in Favourite Poems, My Poems, Translations with tags , on May 9, 2014 by James Munro

Andreas Kalvos

(translated from the Greek of Andreas Kalvos for Stella, one of my favourite students)

Let those who feel
the heavy brazen hand of fear
bear slavery:
freedom needs virtue,
needs daring.

This (for myth may veil
the spirit of truth) lent wings
to Icarus – and though he fell,
the wingèd one and drowned
beneath the waves,

he fell from on high
and died free. Should you
die like a sheep, dishonoured,
at the hands of a tyrant,
your grave will be an abomination.

The Ballad of the Sleepwalker

Posted in Favourite Poems, My Poems, Translations with tags , on April 12, 2014 by James Munro

Federico Garcia Lorca

(from the Spanish of Federico García Lorca)

Green, how I love you green.
Green wind. Green boughs.
The ship on the sea,
the horse on the mountain.

The shade at her waist,
she dreams on the balcony,
green flesh, green hair,
cold silver eyes.

Green, how I love you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon
things look at her
but she cannot look at them.

Green, how I love you green.
Huge stars of hoarfrost
come with the fish of darkness
which opens the path of dawn.

The fig-tree rubs the wind
with the dogfish skin of its boughs,
and the mountain, a wild cat,
bristles with harsh maguey.

But who will come, and from where …?
She stays on her balcony,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming in the bitter sea.

Friend, I want to swap
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your blanket.
Friend, I come bleeding
from the passes of Cabra.

If I could, lad,
I would do a deal.
But I am no longer myself,
my house no longer my house.

Friend, I want to die
decently in bed.
An iron one, if that may be,
made up with linen sheets.
Do you not see this wound
from my breast to my throat?

Three hundred dark roses
soak your white shirt.
Your blood oozes and smells
around your sash.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house now my house.

At least let me up to
the high balconies.
Let me go up! Let me
up to the green balconies.
Balconies of the moon
where the water echoes.

So up the two friends go
to the high balconies.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of tears.

Little tin lanterns
flicker on the roofs.
A thousand glass tambourines
fragment the sunrise.

Green, how I love you green,
green wind, green branches.

Up the two friends climbed.
The sharp wind left a strange
taste in the mouth, of bile
and of mint and of basil.

Friend! Where is she, tell me,
where is your embittered daughter?

How many times she expected you!
How many times she awaited you,
fresh face, black hair,
on this green balcony!

On the surface of the tank
the gypsy girl floated.
Green flesh, green hair,
cold silver eyes.
An icicle of moonlight
kept her above the water.

The night grew as close
as a small town square.
Drunken civil guards
hammered at the door.

Green, how I love you green.
Green wind, green boughs.
The ship on the sea.
The horse on the mountain.

Translation © James Munro

The Eye of the Beholder

Posted in Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , on December 12, 2013 by James Munro

jacques prevert

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

A naked girl swims in the sea
A bearded man walks on the water
Which is the miracle of miracles
Which the greatest wonder?

Translation © James Munro

They will return, the dark swallows

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2013 by James Munro

Adolfo Gustavo Becquer

(from the Spanish of  Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

They will return, the dark swallows,
to hang their nests on your balcony,
and tap on your window-pane with their wings
once more as they play;

but those that paused in their flight
to contemplate your beauty and my good fortune,
those that learnt our names …
they will not return!

You will see once more the honeysuckle
climb the walls of your garden,
and the flowers open, even more beautiful,
as the sun goes down;

but those we saw beaded with dew,
the drops trembling and falling
like the tears of the day …
those you will never see again!

Passionate words of love will
thrum once more in your ear,
and your heart, it may be, will awake
from its deep sleep;

but kneeling, silent and absorbed,
as men worship God at his altar,
as I have loved you … do not be deceived:
you will not be loved like that ever again!

Translation © James Munro

From the threshold of a dream they called …

Posted in Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , on August 15, 2013 by James Munro

Antonio Machado


(from the Spanish of Antonio Machado)

From the threshold of a dream they called …
It was the good voice, the voice I love …
‘Tell me, will you come with me to see the soul?’ …
A caress reached my heart.

‘With you, any time.’ And in my dream
I went down a long, empty corridor,
conscious of the rustle of her robe,
the soft pulse of her tender hand.

Translation © James Munro

For You, My Love

Posted in Favourite Poets, Translations with tags , on August 11, 2013 by James Munro

jacques prevert

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

I went to the wild bird market
And I bought some birds
For you
my love

I went to the flower market
And I bought some flowers
For you
my love

I went to the hardware market
And I bought some chains
For you
my love

And then I went to the slave market
And I looked for you
But I didn’t find you
my love.

Translation © James Munro