• Dan Disney

Don Paterson's Orpheus—a version of Rilke (2006) is an English-language text that transmutes Rilke's original Die Sonette an Orpheus (1922); this is a text that sets up exemplary modes of production for poet-versioneers. Re-reading Marianne Moore's poem 'Poetry' as enshrining affectivity as no less than categorical and generic, this paper agrees with Paterson's impulse to abandon the imperative for equivalence when translating poems by instead seeking to transmute (as Paterson puts it) the 'spirit of the original' source text. Re-reading sound as the echo of a poem's spirit, I speculate that versioneering requires close listening paired to a range of creative strategies (ekphrasis, technē, poeisis). This paper explores these processes through an examination of my own English-language versions of poems by Italian poet Alda Merini—versions which seek to capture and transmute the implication-filled sounds of the source texts.


Keywords: translation—creativity—versioneering—Don Paterson—Alda Merini


If all language is sonic, and if poetry organises linguistic noise into particular shapes and sounds (recalling the etymology of meter is ‘to measure’), then poems at least partially communicate sub-linguistically—that is, musically. So then how to transfer equivalent sound-triggers between phonologically discrete materials? If we agree with TS Eliot’s longstanding credo that genuine poetry communicates before it is understood (Eliot 1975: 206), then part of the task of those who transfer poems between languages is not only to read closely but also to become adept at closely listening to other tongues’ poetic sounds.

In her poem ‘Poetry’, lyric poet Marianne Moore defines affectivity as categorical and generic, and authorises poets to invent or discover ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ (Moore 2003: 135). She is asking—requiring—that poets treat experience as prima materia that needs next be transmuted into sheer emotion. Without the sonic transference of affect, Moore insists that the result is not poetry but simply a suite of images ‘dragged into prominence by half poets’ (Moore 2003: 135). So, then: how to drag resonating images fully into prominence when transferring emotion from one linguistic material to another?

In the afterword to Orpheus—a version of Rilke (2006), contemporary poet and versioneer Don Paterson claims that ‘one can no more translate a poem than one can a piece of music’ (Paterson 2006: 77). Paterson persists with valorising critical distance between translation and version when avowing that—

A translation tries to remain true to the original words and their relations, and its primary aim is usually one of stylistic elegance (meaning, essentially, the smooth delineation of syntactic and idiomatic artefacts from the original tongue: a far more subtle project that it sounds)—of which lyric unity is only one of several competing considerations. It glosses the original, but does not try to replace it. Versions, however, are trying to be poems in their own right; while they have the original to serve as detailed ground-plan and elevation, they are trying to build themselves a robust home in a new country, in its vernacular architecture, with local words for its brick and local music for its mortar. (Paterson 2006: 73)

In making his raid on the articulated sound-shapes of Rilke’s source text, Paterson further states that versions will fail if they ‘misrepresent the spirit of the original’ (Paterson 2006: 81). In attempting to capture this spirit, Paterson undertakes a process in which he reinhabits ‘that extralinguistic silence the original poem once itself enjoyed’ (Paterson 2006: 75). Creative producers may recognize this zone—of reflection, pure apprehension, epiphany—as that site from which poetry swarms. We might say, then, that translations are doppelgängers, strange copies; versions, however, work to engineer the spectral and uncanny sounds of the source text’s affective content.

Entering an essentially creative zone, the versioneer does not act as a traduttore-traditore, or ‘translator as traitor’ or betrayer—an idea first coined by Italian scholars mistrustful of early French translators of Dante. Nonetheless, scholar and critic Helen Bridge believes betrayal has happened in Paterson’s versions, when she casts doubt on ‘whether a version can ever really convey “the spirit of the original”, especially in the case of a poetry whose spirit is so bound up with structures of sound and syntax’ (Bridge 2007: 265). But Bridge fails to understand that, navigating out of the opacity of silence, Paterson is purposefully singing his own songs. Paterson is part-Argonaut, and his enterprise entirely Orphic: he is not a traduttore-traditore but instead functions as a traduttore-traghettatore, or ‘translator-ferryman’, who can be framed as performing a reversal of Charon’s underworld activities. Moving backward across rivers of forgetfulness and death (viz silence, non-comprehension), Paterson transports the spirit of Rilke’s sonnets by ferrying a radical new text into new sounds and shapes. Versioneering, then, is a hybrid process somewhere between translation and ekphrastic response.

These mutant versioneering processes culminate in the arrival of new poems which are indeed robust new homes. In his essay ‘What are poets for?’, Martin Heidegger applies the force of his gaze to Rilke’s sonnets before speculating that poetic language ‘is the precinct (templum), that is, the house of Being’ (Heidegger 1971: 129). Whether a house or a garden (or a house with garden), a version’s vernacular architecture is originary, a site that grounds readers the same way Rilke’s source texts are dwellings (for Heidegger) which open onto phenomenological vistas of who and what we are (or can be). Heidegger’s notion of poetic creation as a mode of sacred making is complexified by Denise Levertov in her essay, ‘Some notes on organic form’, when the following etymological word game unfolds—

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur’. It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation’; its synonym is ‘to muse’, and to muse comes from a word meaning ‘to stand with open mouth’—not so comical if we think of ‘inspiration’—to breathe in. (Levertov 1992: 68)

In light of these evocations, Rilke’s source texts can be re-read as word-temples, modes of observance in the absence of the gods. The poet is a seer apprehending primal affective states which communicate partly through pure sound, and these are the spirits Paterson apprehends (as versioneers must), reinhabiting extra-linguistic silence first in order to react and then to essentialise. But a question remains—how might proto-versioneers follow Paterson’s lead, into silence?

Rilke entered silence by living for substantial periods of time in self-exile: in absenting himself from society, the noise of human behaviour was perhaps less distracting. In 1922, the poet worked on the Duino Elegies in the Château de Muzot, when the sonnets arrived to catch him by utter surprise. Rilke describes the arrival of these texts as follows: ‘Never have I gone through such tremendous gales of being-taken-hold-of’ (Rilke 1985: 164). Open-mouthed contemplation? A tremendous gale of inspiration? Perhaps a monumental intake of breath … the poet seems to have endured some sort of mania of inspiration (as Plato would have it, explaining his agon with poets: ‘all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed’. See Plato 2000: 11). In two sittings totalling less than a fortnight, 54 sonnets arrived and by late February Rilke had completed the suite. The poet’s subsequent bewilderment is clear—

They are perhaps the most mysterious, even to me, in the manner in which they arrived and imposed themselves on me—the most puzzling dictation I have ever received and taken down. The whole of the first part was transcribed by me in one single breathless act of obedience ... with not one single word in doubt or needing to be changed. (Rilke 2000: 4)

Shifting into the realm of extra-linguistic silence, Rilke offers the following enigmatic aphorism on what he regards to be the role of poets: ‘We are bees of the Invisible. We perpetually gather the honey of the visible world in order to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible’ (Rilke 1942: 158). Working in his isolated chateau, the poet-in-exile may well have been suffused with a sense he was inhabiting an extra-systemic site, somewhere between the human realm and a preternatural place swarming with primal ideas swept up by gales of inspiration. In the ‘Afterword’ to his version, Paterson avows that Rilke ‘was not a normal man. His mind, at times, resembles nothing so much as that of a giant articulate insect’ (Paterson 2006: 62). Perhaps, then, in entering extra-linguistic silence, versioneers must undertake their own weird communion—we are (if not insects) momentarily extra-logical and sublime, chthonic as underworlders apprehending and then ferrying the spirit of the source text—somehow, or however possible—across to a target language.


These initial speculations influence my own versions of Italian poet Alda Merini’s work. I have at my disposal a range of tools—a basic understanding of Italian grammar, a group of literary-minded Italian friends, Italian/English dictionaries, a suite of ever-unreliable machine translation devices (which, if nothing else, prove the age of sentient machines is not yet upon us), numerous pre-existing scholarly translations, and a creative practice in my native language coupled with years of close reading in the genre.

Merini’s poem ‘Guerra’ is a 16-line free verse text which has an internal logic suffused with a disjunctive, image-based narrative, in which each line contains no particular meter but syncopates with a preponderance of assonant sounds—


                       O uomo sconciato come una fossa
                       in te si le mani i servi,
                       i servi del delitto
                       che ti cambiano vesta parola e udito
                       che ti fanno simile a un fantasma dorato.
                       Viscidi uccelli visitano le tue dimore
                       sparvieri senza volto
                       ti legano i polsi alle vendetta
                       che vogliono dissacrare il Signore.
                       O guerra, portento di ogni spavento
                       malvagità inarcata, figlia stretta
                       generate dal suolo di nessuno
                       non hai udito né ombra:
                       sei un mostro senza anima che mangia
                       la soglia
                       e il futuro dell’uomo.
                       (Merini 2009: 60)

Attempting to capture the spirit of the original, one of my first priorities in versioning this text is to listen closely to its sonic contours … what I first notice about Merini’s poem is that there are a series of repeated sounds which agree, perhaps unconsciously, with the theme—‘War’—and so I am once more with TS Eliot, nodding in agreement that, yes, lyric poetry can communicate before it is understood. Listening closely, I notice a series of implication-filled ‘oh!’ sounds which begin from the first line’s ‘O uomo sconciato’; the ‘oh!’ resonates to the groundnotes of dismay, shock, surprise—embodied, and this is the sound of tremor or shudder. The poem also emits a series of ‘ss’ sounds, as if hissing at readers to pay close attention to the ‘oh!’ of what is being said. Finally, toward the end of the text, there is a series of ‘ah’ sounds (captured, for example, in the line ‘senza anima che mangia’), which work contrapuntally (oh! ah) to syncopate the shuddering with a pattern of cathartic release—shock (oh), then empathy (ah). Repeat.

Of course, my close listening is necessarily subjective, and my foreigner’s imagination only somewhat tuned to the cadence of enculturated ideas; after living on several occasions in Piedmont, I understand ‘il Signore’ (the Lord) has particular resonance to a Roman Catholic tradition still very much alive in contemporary Italy. My change to ‘the gods’ (as seen below) follows Walter Benjamin’s argument in ‘The task of the translator’: noting how the German word Brot and the French word ‘pain’ contain particular cultural significations, Benjamin avows that ‘the object is complementary to the intention’ (2000: 18). My version, which changes ‘il Signore’ to a pluralistic ‘the gods’, seeks to keep close to Merini’s overriding theme (horror, desolation) without colouring the tone through transmitting an exactly equivalent term which, outside the Italian context, would signify a different (and ideological) intention.

Thus, close listening engages an understanding of the source culture: alongside Eliot’s fiat, Levertov states the sound of a poem should be a kind of ‘extended onomatopoeia’, to contain the sound of an experience of a feeling (Levertov 1992: 71) that is at least partially culturally defined. And so, scanning Merini’s text, I am working toward my own understanding of how enculturated sounds extend the sense so as to next replicate this intuitive mode of communication in my version—


                        O man, corrupt as a ditch
                        in you the hands of servants, washing
                        and murderous, those
                        who change your words, your hearing, your clothes,
                        turning you into a golden ghost.
                        Clammy birds visit your dwellings
                        those sparrows without faces
                        your wrists knot to the vendettas
                        of those
                        who wish to desecrate the gods.
                        O war, prophet of fear
                        and overarching evil, you true daughter
                        descended from air
                        you neither hear nor cast a shadow:
                        soulless monster, you feast
                        at the thresholds
                        upon the future of us all.

This text seeks to replicate Levertovian onomatopoeic feeling: in spending time inside an extra-linguistic silence in order to reflect on Merini’s text, I am mindful of the sounds in her poem which need to happen in the target language. And so, for example, the run of end-rhymes in lines three to five—‘i servi del delitto/ che ti cambiano vesta parola e udito / che ti fanno simile a un fantasma dorato’—are captured in ‘and murderous, those / who change your words, your hearing, your clothes, / turning you into a golden ghost’: despite the fact that an equivalent of ‘che ti cambiano vesta parola e udito’ is ‘who change your clothes, your words, your hearing’, this fails to capture the significant middle repetition of the ‘oh!’ sound. And so it is that the version, in valorising non-equivalence, locates and preserves the original text’s sonic intentions.

Pragmatically, the goal is to create resonant versions rather than equivalent translations. The image (and its figural extensions) illuminate through projecting onto the blank screen of an imagination, while sound connects to the limbic system’s affective engine room to create epiphanies of either harmony or dissonance. When reading the first few lines of Moore’s ‘Poetry’, we see this connection between sound and sense –

            I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.                   
                        Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
                        it after all, a place for the genuine.

The plosive sounds of the hard ‘t’ will remind some readers of the onomatopoeic noise of remonstrance—a sort of ‘tsk, tsk, tsk’—and, to my subjective ear, though not present in the poem, there is an expletive that perfectly rhymes with ‘it’ … through a perhaps purposeful sonic connection between ‘it’ and ‘shit’, Moore’s theme—disliking poetry—intensifies, and is reified as abject. At the end of the fifth line, she abandons the hard ‘t’ sounds for a suite of vowels—‘aye’, ‘ohr’, ‘uh’, ‘eh’, ‘oo’—to indicate a sensuous arrival: all these sounds must be heeded by close listeners tuning themselves to versioneering, and Moore’s poem becomes instructive. When versioneers enter into that strange communion with silence, like bees of the invisible/inaudible, we must order our ideas to furnish the poem with images linked to sound that is genuinely persuasive. Otherwise, we simply drag concepts into prominence—the result, Moore tells us later in the poem, ‘is not poetry’ (Moore 2003: 135).

Merini’s ‘Elegia’ is another sonically resonant garden that swarms with bees—


            O la natura degli angeli azzurri
                        i cerchi delle loro ali felici
                        ne vidi mai nei miei sogni?
                                    O sí, quando ti amai,
                                    quando ho desiderato di averti,
            o i pinnacoli dolci del paradiso,
            le selve del turbamento
            quando io ci entrai anima aperta,
                        lacerate di amore
            o i sintomi degli angeli di Dio,
                        i dolorosa tornaconti del cuore.
            Anima aperta, ripara le ali:
                        io viaggio dentro l’immenso
            e l’immenso turba le mie ciglia.
                        Ho visto un angelo dolce
                        ghermire il tuo dolce riso
                        e portarmelo nella bocca.

Listening to the noise of this elegy, I am struck once more by a resonating repetition of ‘oh!’ sounds—‘io viaggio dentro l’immenso’ thrums out a particular clangour and, given that we can gauge from the title that this poem commemorates something or someone, to my ear the quick succession of repeated ‘oh!’ sounds rhythmically extend the theme of loss and yearning: ‘oh!’, ‘oh!’, ‘oh!’, ‘oh!’ the line sounds (in hexameter) as if seeking to connect readers to an epic emotional state.

Here is my attempt to capture Merini’s onomatopoeic emission of distressed noise—


                                    O, the nature of blue angels
            the low circles of their happy wings
            did I ever see them inside my slower dreams?
                       Oh yes, when once I loved you
                       and when I wished to possess you,
            o the sweet pinnacles of paradise,
                       the star-crossed forests,
            which I entered, my soul open
            and lacerated by love
            or the symptoms of God’s angels,
                       then a heart’s pain once more returns.
            Repair your wings, open soul:
            I travel into the immensity
            and the immensity bothers my eyelashes
                       I watch a sweet angel
                       clutch your sweet smile
                       then carry it to my mouth.

Where possible, I have tried to echo the ‘oh!’-ing in the source text; however, my version of Merini’s incredible line ‘io viaggio dentro l’immenso’ unavoidably changes the assonance from ‘oh!’ to ‘I’—‘I travel into the immensity’—and this now allows a new affect to enter the music of the text. ‘I’, ‘Ih’, ‘Ih’, ‘Ih’ flies out the line as if into immensity, and this new assonance stages its own onomatopoeic affect … while Merini’s text commemorates love as a transcendental repetition compulsion (‘oh’, ‘oh’, ‘oh’, ‘oh no, not again’), my version includes a spectral, sonic first-person narrator—the ‘I’ (going ‘Ih’, ‘Ih’, ‘Ih’ in) as lover who cannot stop falling into the immensity of the other.


A challenge is organised by Paterson when he proposes that a version must be a poem in its own right: if we agree with Moore’s fiat, that a poem should ultimately be an imaginary garden with real toads, then our task as versioneers is to remain sensitised as listeners who attend carefully to how sound can extend poetic sense. We are, ultimately, working in a strange kind of underworld, communing with spirits and their otherly noise, but rather than stay in these gardens of darkness and opacity, the versioneer locates strategic ways to listen amid the silence for ways to ferry the poem into language.

No less a legitimising force than the founding father of Translation Studies, John Dryden, can be called upon in support of those impulses, gestures, and creative processes at work behind the version as a mode of imperfect iteration. In his essay, ‘Preface to Ovid’s Epistles’ (1680), Dryden outlines three principles for translators –

First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another … The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not alter’d … The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. (2004: 78)

Dryden’s ‘Third way’ grants license for creative producers like Paterson to discover and invent after re-reading and re-thinking canonical texts; this is to be less an exercise for those with a scholarly eye and ear focused on translation with latitude—perhaps a variant painting-by-numbers—and Dryden’s Third Way instead opens up possibility for a mode of creative translation—versioneering—reliant on skill-sets encompassing poeisis (‘to make’), technē (as a mode of craft which turns Pound’s ‘Make it new!’ toward an impulse to ‘Renew the made!’), ekphrastic response, and homage: this small list serves to establish an emergent versioneering practice.

Ultimately, close listening will direct versioneers toward rearticulating melos (cadence, pitch, phonology) in new and poetic ways; recuperated by Paterson, Dryden’s Third Way sets up a Levertovian site for contemplation and inspiration which is essentially meditative: partially a matter of attention to sound, partially a matter of attention to the feelings sound produces, and partially a matter of understanding that some sound is culturally-defined, close listening necessitates reconnection. My English language reconnections of sound to sense are not—cannot be—exact duplications of Merini’s original poems. Using local words for my brick and local music as mortar, I have firstly listened, then intentionally not-listened and instead contemplated the native sounds of feeling, before building dwellings which contain a provenance of echoes. This, the task of the versioneer, is exemplified in the texts which follow …


original text

            ‘Io ero un uccello’

                        Io ero un Uccello
                        dal bianco ventre gentile
                        qualcuno mi ha tagliato la gola
                                    per riderci sopra,
                                    non so.
                        Io ero un albatro grande
                        e volteggiavo sui mari.
                        Qualcuno ha fermato il mio viaggio,
                        senza nessuna carità di suono.
                        Ma anche distesa per terra
                        io canto ora per te
                        le mie canzoni d’amore.


             ‘Once I was a bird’

                        Once, oh once I was a bird
                        with a gentle white breast
                        though someone cut my throat
                                    laughing, laughing
                                    I don’t know.
                        Oh once, once I was an albatross, grand
                        and ranging over the seas
                        though someone stalled my journey
                        and all the sounds of charity left.
                        But lying here
                        on the ground, I’ll sing for you now
                        my songs of love.


original text


                       Ti sei presentato una sera ubriaco
                       sollevando l’audace gesto
                       di chi vuole fare cadere una donna
                       nel proprio tranello oscuro
                       e io non ti ho creduto
                       profittatore infingardo.
                       Sulla mia buona fede
                       avresti lasciato cadere il tuo inguine sporco;
                       per tanta tua malizia
                       hai commesso un reato morto.



             ‘The Guest’

                       One night you turned up drunk
                       hoisting the audacious gesture
                       of one who’d wish to drop a woman
                       into his dark snare
                       I didn't trust you, mongerer.
                       Over my good faith
                       you’d have lowered your filthy loins;
                       so much for all that, you
                       committed more than a pale crime.


original text

             ‘La cosa piú superba è la notte’

                       La cosa piú superba è la notte
                       quando cadono gli ultimi spaventi
                       e l’anima si getta all-avventura.
                       Lui tace nel tuo grembo
                       come riassorbito dal sangue
                       che finalmente si colora di Dio
                       e tu preghi che taccia per sempre
                       per non sentirlo come un rigoglio fisso
                       fin dentro le pareti.



              ‘The most superb thing is the night’

                       The most superb thing is the night
                       when the final fears are each fallen
                       and a soul thrusts toward adventure.
                       There is one, silent within the womb
                       as if reabsorbed by blood
                       that finally takes the color of a god
                       and you pray for the quiet to hold
                       so you won’t hear the growing noise of him
                       yet within the walls.


original text

            ‘Alda Merini’

                       Amai teneramente dei dolcissimi amanti
                       senza che essi sapessero mai nulla.
                       E su questi intessei tele di ragno
                       e fui preda della mia stessa materia.
                       In me l’anima c’era della meretrice
                       della santa della sanguinaria e dell’ipocrita.
                       Molti diedero al mio modo di vivere un nome 
                       e fui soltanto una isterica.



             ‘Alda Merini’

                       I loved tenderly the sweetest lovers
                       though they never knew a thing.
                       Weaving spiderwebs from this
                       I always fell prey to whatever I made.
                       Inside me, the soul of a prostitute
                       and saint, of the one who lusts for blood and the hypocrite.
                       There were those who’d throw prejudice at my name
                       though none called out you, hysteric.





Works cited: 

Benjamin, W ‘The Task of the Translator’ in 2004 The Translation studies reader, 2nd ed (edited L Venuti) Oxon: Routledge

Bridge, H 2007 ‘Duino elegies: a new translation with parallel text and commentary, and: Sonnets to Orpheus, and: Orpheus: A version of Rilke's Sonette an Orpheus’ in Translation and Literature 16.2 (Autumn): 258-65

Dryden, J 2004 ‘Preface to Ovid's Epistles’ in The translation studies reader, 2nd ed (edited L Venuti) Oxon: Routledge

Eliot, TS 1975 Selected prose, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Heidegger, M 1971 Poetry, language, thought (trans and introduction A Hofstadter), New York: Perennial Classics

Levertov, D 1992 New and selected essays, New York: New Directions Books

Merini, A 2009 Love lessons: selected poems of Alda Merini (trans S Stewart), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Moore, M 2003 The poems of Marianne Moore (ed G Schulman), New York: Penguin

Paterson, D 2006 Orpheus: a version of Rilke, London: Faber and Faber

Plato 2000 [4 BCE] Selected dialogues (trans H Pelliccia), New York: The Modern Library

Rilke, RM 1942 Duino elegies (trans and introduced JB Leishman and S Spender), London: The Hogarth Press

Rilke, RM 1985 The sonnets to Orpheus (trans and introduced S Mitchell), New York: Simon and Schuster

Rilke, RM 2000 Sonnets to Orpheus with Letters to a young poet (trans and introduce S Cohn), Manchester: Carcanet