(Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, from Najwan Darwish, Exhausted on the Cross, NYRB Books 2021.)
I don’t know the Arabic word that is the title of this poem. The English word can mean a logical fallacy–changing the meaning of a term between one part of an argument and another–or a deliberate trick. Macbeth calls a promise “that lies like truth” “th’Equiuocation of the Fiend.”
Deceit is a fault, but equivocation can also imply an inability to decide, or even a choice to remain undecided, like Keats’ “capab[ility] of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts. …” One can equivocate because several options seem attractive, or because all seem terrible.
I read Darwish as self-critical. He is confessing his equivocation, his failure (sometimes) to take a stand, much as, in “In Shatila,” he asks himself how he could have turned smilingly away from an old refugee:
How could you smile, indifferent
to the brackish water of the sea
while barbed wire wrapped around your heart?
How could you,
you son of a bitch?
But what should be expected of him? At a time when everyone is supposed to take one side, to state one truth–when we are all our own communications departments, and silence is called complicity–I resonate with the poet’s equivocation. His uncertainty becomes a doubt about who he is, and that doubt becomes the country he dwells in, wherever he goes. It’s the only country he has.
(By the way, I have no idea whether Darwish feels equivocal today, and I don’t mean to attribute any stance to him in this moment. The poem is several years old. It does speak to me today.)
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC displays The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini with additions by Titian (1514/1529), The Old Musician by Edouard Manet (1862), and The Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso (1905). These major works talk to each other.* We might say that the Bellini is a work of art, the Manet is a work about art, and the Picasso is about the artist.
Bellini’s painting illustrates a story from Ovid (Fasti I:415ff.). Mario Equicola, a courtier in service to the Duke of Ferrara, had given Bellini detailed and learned instructions about how to represent the original passage (Colantuono 1991). Equicola argued that poetry was the greater art; painting was merely derivative. Some contemporaries disagreed with this assessment, but all expected art to represent classic texts: usually Scripture, but in this case a pagan myth.
Bellini creates a kind of set for the gods, a flat area with a backdrop (which is now mostly Titian’s work). The characters are shown frozen in the midst of action.
The artist counts on certain expectations that make the image easily legible. As usual in Renaissance art, light comes from a sun behind the viewer’s left shoulder. Space is reserved between the major objects and the edges of the canvas, so that the scene is “framed” both aesthetically and literally. Objects that are further away are not only smaller but blurrier and lit differently from those at center-stage (sfumato). Although the characters are Greco-Roman gods, they wear costumes and hold props from Bellini’s own time. Their bodies and other objects are represented with glowing detail; for example, the ceramics represent the earliest depictions of Chinese porcelain in European art.
If this is what we expect from art, then it is hard to see how anyone could surpass Bellini. He knows all the tools and techniques. He can represent round objects and faces rotated on all axes; light reflecting on metal, glass, porcelain, and liquid; water flowing through space; shadows and highlights; and naked and clothed bodies with discernible weight. But once this kind of painting has been produced at a high level for several centuries, the whole approach could become tired–especially once artists become enthusiastic about radically different styles from other cultures and times.
Manet’s The Old Musician bears some similarities to Bellini’s work. Again, several characters are presented on a flat stage with a tree and the sky behind them and light coming from the upper-left. However, the edges of this image cut right through one human figure and the tree, reminding us that we are looking at a painted canvas. Especially in the foreground and around the boy’s silhouette, the paint strokes are easily legible (another reminder that this is a painting). A horizon is visible, but the background is ambiguous. Flat ground behind the boy seems to morph into a low wall behind the young man. The sun casts shadows to the right of the violinist but to the left of the man in the tall hat. Perhaps the setting is the outskirts of Paris or another great city, but the location is obscure.
And there is no story. Maybe the people will move later on, but they are not evidently in the midst of doing anything now. The musician has stopped playing his violin, which might have animated them before. No character looks at any other, except that the musician stares at us.
You need a guide, such as Charles Fried (Fried 1969) or David Luban (Luban 1994) to tell you that the figures here are quoted from previous works of art, including an ancient statue of the philosopher Chrysippus, Watteau’s Pierrot (1718-19), and Manet’s own Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). The subject of this painting is not any story but art itself. The tradition within which Bellini painted has come to an end, like a tune previously played by a musician who is now “old.”
The figures in Manet’s painting are timeless and may combine costumes from diverse periods, but it’s safe to say that they are socially marginal. The young girl is barefoot and responsible for a baby. This is not a conventional family or a respectable organization but perhaps a band of homeless people. One of them, the violinist, is clearly a kind of artist, and the painting implies that artists in general are outsiders. In contrast, Bellini had painted his work for the private study of Duke Alfonso d’Este. From Bellini to Manet, successful artists have evolved from well-placed courtiers to bohemians.
Picasso was a spiritual heir to Manet. A young migrant from Spain, living in bohemian Paris among poets and artists, he embraced a marginal and critical role. He and such friends as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire regularly visited the circus, where they felt (or at least claimed) an affinity with the performers. In The Family of Saltimbanques, Picasso depicts a group of acrobats from the lowest tier of that profession. The landscape is even emptier than in the Manet.
The harlequin figure may be a self-portrait, the large jester is probably Apollinaire, the woman may be Picasso’s lover and model Fernande Olivier, and the girl may represent an orphan whom Olivier and Picasso had recently adopted, only to return her–rejected–to an orphanage. This image, then, is self-referential and confessional, in contrast to the outward stance of both Bellini and Manet. It exemplifies Picasso’s Rose Period, which had recently succeeded his Blue Period, and it can be understood as an objective correlative of the painter’s evolving mood.
These three paintings share several motifs. For instance, the feet. The Naiads in the Bellini are barefoot, per Ovid:
Naides effusis aliae sine pectinis usu, 405
pars aderant positis arte manuque comis;
illa super suras tunicam collecta ministrat,
altera dissuto pectus aperta sinu;
exserit haec umerum, vestes trahit illa per herbas,
impediunt teneros vincula nulla pedes.
There were Naiads, some whose hair flowed down without a comb,
others having arranged it by hand with skill.
This one serves with her tunic gathered above her calf,
another opens the robe to reveal her breast:
This one uncovers a shoulder, another drags her hem in the grass
No tender foot is shackled with a shoe.
These naked feet are meant to be mildly erotic. Not so with Manet, whose shoeless young girl is poor and encumbered with an infant. With her dirty feet, she may refer to Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto (1604-6). And Picasso’s saltimbanques wear slippers for acrobatics.
All three paintings relate in important ways to poems. I’ve mentioned that Bellini’s work illustrates a passage from Ovid’s Fasti. This is a somewhat distasteful story. Priapus (whom Bellini shows erect under his tunic) is about to rape a Naiad named Lotis while she sleeps, but a donkey brays, awakening the whole company and subjecting Priapus to ridicule. He then kills the donkey with his scythe. (In Bellini’s version, it looks as if Mercury was already watching before the donkey brayed.)
Manet’s friend Baudelaire encouraged him to paint modern society. These lines of Baudelaire’s can be compared with The Old Musician:
À une Mendiante rousse
Blanche fille aux cheveux roux,
Dont la robe par ses trous
Laisse voir la pauvreté
Et la beauté ...,
To a Redhead Beggar Girl
Pale girl with auburn hair
Whose clothes though their holes
Let your poverty show
And beauty ...
Most of all, the fifth of Rilke’s great Duino Elegies is entirely about Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, with which he lived (in the Munich home of Hertha Koenig) for several months in 1915, after having seen the same painting in Paris. The poem addresses each character in turn.
Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig
Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst, die dringend von früh an
wringt ein wem, wem zu Liebe
niemals zufriedener Wille? Sondern er wringt sie,
biegt sie, schlingt sie und schwingt sie,
wirft sie und fängt sie zurück; wie aus geölter,
glatterer Luft kommen sie nieder
auf dem verzehrten, von ihrem ewigen
Aufsprung dünneren Teppich, diesem verlorenen
Teppich im Weltall.
But who are they, tell me, these drifters, just a bit
More fleeting than ourselves, wrung out from early on--
by whom, for whose desire, by what insatiable will? Instead, it wrestles them,
bends them, loops them and swings them,
throws them and catches them again; as if through oiled,
slippery air, they come down
on the worn-out mat, worn ever thinner by their constant
leaping, this carpet that is spent in space.
Rilke takes Picasso’s static image and gives it a story, a before-and-after, much as Bellini had turned Ovid’s narrative into a snapshot. Not only does Rilke imagine that the acrobats were jumping before the calm moment captured in paint, but he discusses how they gradually learned to leap.
He begins a later stanza:
Ach und um diese
Mitte, die Rose des Zuschauns:
blüht und entblättert.
Oh and about this
center, the rose of onlooking:
it blooms and sheds its leaves.
Most translations (collected by Martin Travers) presume that the acrobats form the rose. That is probably correct. However, I suspect that Picasso is also the “rose of onlooking.” During his Rose Period, his pink-ish mood suffuses his work. The painting is a kind of self-portrait as well as an answer to Manet and the tradition of narrative art that preceded them both.
*Picasso definitely knew The Old Musician. Manet may not have known The Feast of the Gods, which was in England in his day. He’s responding to the overall tradition of European painting. References: Anthony Colantuono (1991) “Dies Alcyoniae: The Invention of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods,” The Art Bulletin, 73:2, 237-256; Michael Fried (1969), “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859-1865,” ArtForum, vol. 7 no. 7; David Luban (1994) Legal Modernism, University of Michigan Press. See also: Velazquez, The Spinners; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); Manet’s “Old Musician” (from 2004).
How can you translate writing that’s densely allusive if you expect few of your readers to recognize the allusions? How can you translate poetry–or any other formally complex writing–into a totally different language while conveying some of the experience of the original form? And how can you translate passages from a language that has one kind of grammatical structure into an entirely different one?
One option is to translate loosely into a poem that works in your own language, sacrificing accuracy for experience. An alternative is to translate into literal prose and provide many footnotes or other explanations. That gives your readers some of the information they need, but it offers a very different experience from reading the original poem.
For instance, consider these two translations of the first stanza of a Sanskrit classic, TheMeghaduta or Cloud Messenger by Kalidasa. First, H.H. Wilson (1786-1860) offers a loose translation into Victorian rhymed couplets.
Spoiled from his glories, severed from his wife,
A banished Yaksha passed his lonely life:
Doomed, by his lord's stern sentence to sustain,
Twelve tedious months of solitude and pain.
To these drear hills, through circling days confined,
In dull, unvaried grief the god repined...
In contrast, E.H. Rick Jarrow (2021) translates “scrupulously and thoroughly,” avoiding constructions that would sound “choppy” in English but striving to convey each name and idea from the original text
A Yaksha, banished in grievous exile from his beloved for a year,
his power eclipsed by the curse of his Lord for having swerved from his duty,
made his dwelling among the hermitages of Ramagiri
whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka's daughter
and whose trees were rich with shade.
“Drear hills” may convey some of the mood of the poem but gives us no sense of the importance of the particular hills where the Yaksha has to live. Jarrow’s “The hermitages of Ramagiri whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka’s daughter” incorporates more information but sends us to notes if we want to make sense of the references. Both translations are poems, but Wilson’s is rhymed and metered in a way that is typical of Victorian verse and perhaps honors the formal regularity of the Sanskrit.
Both translations have merit, but I am excited by the innovative approach of Mani Rao (2014). Here is how she renders the same first stanza:
Some yaksha who made a mistake was cursed by his master:
One entire year
An ordinary yaksha
Not a hero
When even a season’s separation’s unbearable
Kalidasa does not specify
Some lapse of duty
Same word for ‘duty’ and ‘right’
Has the hero lost the reader’s heart
In the very first line?
Heavy the pangs of separation from his beloved
His prowess gone like a sun that’s set
He lived in hermitages on a mountain
named after Rama
Groves cool, waters pure
Sita once bathed here
Remember Rama remembered Sita
Remember messenger Hanuman
Flying like a cloud
Why hermitages, in the plural?
More than exiled. Unsettled.
The plain text is her translation of the original poem into free English verse. The italicized text is her own commentary, also in verse. It’s as if we were listening to someone–or perhaps a chorus–recite the poem while another person interjected comments and questions from the side.
Rao’s additions are not exhaustively explanatory. For instance, she does not retell the story of Rama remembering the absent Sita, which is an allusion at the beginning of the Meghaduta. I do not know that story–but I can look it up once someone mentions the names. The explanation, being a poem itself, is marked by explicit emotion, irony, misdirection, and other literary features.
Rao’s approach may have precedents. (I would not necessarily know.) I have appreciated how Anne Carson supplies prefaces to her Greek translations that are themselves poems. For instance:
i wish i were two dogs then
i could play with me
(translator’s note on euripides’ bakkhai)
Dionysos is god
of the beginning
before the beginning.
your first sip of wine
from a really good bottle.
I see great potential in this general approach of using verse to convey context for verse.
Sources: The Megha d?ta or Cloud Messenger: A Poem in the Sanskrit Language by K?lid?sa, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, revised edition (London: R. Watts, 1843). E. H. Rick Jarow, The Cloud of Longing: A New Translation and Eco-Aesthetic Study of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Oxford University Press 2021); Mani Rao, Kalidasa for the 21st Century (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014); Anne Carson, Euripides: Bakkhai (New Directions, 2017). See also: The Kural; translations from Kuruntokai; there are tears of things.
Canto xvii of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journey (1939) opens with luxurious experiences, such as watching a morning scene over breakfast and lying in a bath “under / Ascending scrolls of steam,” feeling “the ego merge as the pores open … And the body purrs like a cat.” He writes these passages in the first person plural, and it’s not clear whether he’s alone or with someone at the breakfast table and in the bath. In any case, these moments end; we must leave them. It is a mistake to pursue “the luxury life.”
And Plato was right to define the bodily pleasures
As the pouring water into a hungry sieve*
But wrong to ignore the rhythm which the intercrossing
Coloured waters permanently give.
And Aristotle was right to posit the Alter Ego**
But wrong to make it only a halfway house:
Who could expect – or want – to be spiritually self-supporting,
Why not admit that other people are always
Organic to the self, that a monologue
Is the death of language and that a single lion
Is less himself, or alive, than a dog and another dog?
Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal: A Poem (1939), Faber & Faber, Kindle Edition.
*referring to Plato, Gorgias 493c (Lamb trans.): “and the soul of the thoughtless he likened to a sieve, as being perforated, since it is unable to hold anything by reason of its unbelief and forgetfulness.” Socrates continues: this metaphor “is bordering pretty well on the absurd; but still it sets forth what I wish to impress upon you, if I somehow can, in order to induce you to make a change, and instead of a life of insatiate licentiousness to choose an orderly one that is set up and contented with what it happens to have got.”
**Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1169b (Rackham trans.) “People say that the supremely happy are self-sufficing, and so have no need of friends: for they have the good things of life already, and therefore, being complete in themselves, require nothing further; whereas the function of a friend, who is a second self, is to supply things we cannot procure for ourselves.”
One of the most famous–and notoriously ambiguous–phrases in all of Latin literature is Virgil’s “sunt lacrimae rerum” (Aeneid 1, 462). In his response to the Covid pandemic, Pope Francis interprets the phrase in an environmentalist spirit:
If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion. We are reminded of the well-known verse of the poet Virgil that evokes the “tears of things”, the misfortunes of life and history
(Pope Francis, 2020, 33)
Others have equated the phrase with the Japanese motto mono no aware, which Dennis Washburn defines as “an intuitive sensitivity toward the sublime, sad beauty that inheres in mutable nature and transitory human existence” (Washburn, 2016). In turn, mono no aware can express the First Noble Truth of Buddhism–the essential pervasiveness of suffering (Saito 1997)–or it can be an alternative to that view, a way of collecting and relishing representations of impermanence and loss.
Very literally, Virgil’s three words mean “there are tears of things,” but that statement makes little sense in English and requires expansion–using other meanings of the Latin nouns and/or additional connectives. English translators have proposed phrases as various as “The world is a world of tears (Fagles) or “They weep here / For how the world goes” (Fitzgerald), or even “The universe has sympathy for us” (Stewart, 1971, p. 119).
Gawin Douglas was the first to translate The Aeneid into a relative of modern English (Renaissance Scots), producing a version that Ezra Pound particularly appreciated. Douglas wrote:
The context is important for understanding these words’ sense. The Aeneid begins in medias res with Aeneas, the sole important survivor of defeated Troy, trying to sail from there to Italy. The goddess Juno, who hates him and all Trojans, arranges for a terrible storm to scatter his ships and maroon him on the coast of Libya. Aeneas’ mother, Minerva, appears in the guise of a hunter and directs him to Carthage, which is under construction. He wanders into a temple of Juno, where the art illustrates the Trojan War, depicting Aeneas’ comrades, his enemies, and even himself in battle. Since this is Juno’s temple, we might guess that the paintings are supposed to celebrate Aeneas’ defeat. However, the sight gives him hope–the text says–and he blurts out:
"Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem."
"Even here praiseworthy deeds have their rewards;
There are tears of things, and mortal matters impress the mind.
Let fear go; this fame will also bring you some benefit."
Aeneas sees his own story as depicted by human artists, provoking thoughts of loss and sorrow but also pride. He utters a concise but mystifying phrase that pairs the words for “tears” and “things.” I imagine a companion following up with questions:
Do you mean that things are intrinsically or fundamentally sad?
– Yes, that is what I feel right now.
Or that these paintings are objects that make people cry?
– That too.
Are you somehow happy to see these sad events depicted?
– I suppose so.
Yet they make you sad?
– That is what I am happy about.
Do you want people who hear about your suffering to be sad?
– Yes, but I want them to relish that sadness.
In the end, I don’t think the original poem really provides a basis for interpreting the phrase as a statement of existential wisdom, comparable to mono no aware or to modern environmentalism. I suspect Aeneas is mostly interested in being depicted heroically in art. “This fame will bring you benefit” is his main point. However, the words “sunt lacrimae rerum” jump out of their context and can translate ideas from remote traditions.