The pleasure of being translated

Donald Gardner © Roeland Fossen

I recently invited Elisa Gallego Rooseboom and Kristian Kanstadt to make translations, Spanish and Dutch respectively, of ‘Dust Sheet’, a poem I wrote ten years ago in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and which appeared in my collection The Glittering Sea (Hearing Eye, London 2006). I chose this poem because it epitomises the festival theme of chaos; as for the order, that is as hard to find as ever. Maybe we will just have to make it ourselves.

Having been so much on the translator’s side of the table over the years, it was great to experience what it is to be translated. The poet is enthroned by his or her translators. He or she is like an author of a play whose words have to be taken at their face value by the actors. A translator is like an actor or a musician following a score. Having one’s work translated is thus a major luxury in a poet’s life given that on the whole, contrary to the usual supposition, poets don’t have easy lives. There is the uncertainty of the struggle to win the poem. The bread-and-butter aspect of poetry is too well-known to deserve mention: “So you write poetry; but what do you do for a living?” Then there is the backbiting of colleagues, the competition for the few honours there are in this field. There are the cutting reviews the upcoming poet has to face – or, worse still, the complete absence of reviews. The book, in its limited edition of 500, many of which will be remaindered, is after a while returned to the silence it originated in. Poets are not exactly spoiled darlings. So when our work is translated, it’s as if we are granted accolades that to all appearances we barely deserve.

© Kristian Kanstadt and © Elisa Gallego Rooseboom

There is the pleasure of having one’s words understood. Of them being looked at from all sides. Of levels of meaning in one’s work being discerned that one hadn’t suspected. Above all there is the rediscovery of one’s own poem, through the eyes of someone else whose commitment to your words is absolute. My colleagues’ tracking of the underlying themes of ‘Dust Sheet’ have, in my view, given it a new lease of life. Here are the results, thanks to my excellent translators.



Like a pit of sacrifice,
this sudden amphitheatre
where light pours down like rain.

Like rabbits in a headlight blaze,
we’re hypnotised by what we see
but do not yet believe.
Like little puppets in death’s ham fist.

Like all those dreams where I forget my lines,
revealing what I always knew at heart –
and this is what breaks the heart –
how redundant we have always been
on any weighty scene
where governments and assassins tread the boards.

Like a group by Auguste Rodin,
a grey herd of citizens
is driven towards the camera,
yet petrified
in monumental freeze
by its Medusa lens.

Like a Christo artwork gone dreadfully wrong,
dust drapes the city,
stopping our pores
like a huge conspiracy.

© 2006, Donald Gardner


Como un pozo sacrificial
este anfiteatro repentino
donde cae la luz como la  lluvia.

Como conejos ante el resplandor de un faro,
estamos hipnotizados por lo que vemos
pero no acabamos de creernos.
Como marionetas en el torpe puño de la muerte.

Como todos los sueños donde olvido las palabras,
que revelan lo que siempre tuve a corazón –
y es esto lo que rompe el corazón –
cuán superfluos hemos sido siempre
ante cualquier escena grave
donde gobiernos y asesinos ocupen las tablas.

Como un grupo de Auguste Rodin,
un rebaño gris de ciudadanos
es impulsado hacia la cámara,
aún petrificado
en estupor de estatuas
por una lente de Medusa.

Como una obra de Christo mal envuelta
el polvo viste la ciudad,
obstruyéndonos los poros
como una gran conspiración.

© 2011, Elisa Gallego Rooseboom


Zoals een schacht voor offers,
dit amfitheater opeens
waar licht als regen indaalt.

Zoals konijnen in een laaiende koplamp,
zijn wij door wat we zien gehypnotiseerd
maar tot geloven nog niet in staat.
Als trekpoppen in de warrige vuist van de dood.

Zoals al die dromen waarin ik mijn tekst vergeet
onthullend wat ik diep in mijn hart altijd wist –
en dit is wat het hart breekt –
hoe overbodig wij altijd waren
in wat voor gewichtig schouwspel ook
waar regeringen en beulen het podium bespelen.

Zoals een groep van Auguste Rodin,
een grijze kudde burgers
naar de camera wordt voortgedreven,
echter versteend
tot monumentale verstilling
door zijn Medusa-lens.

Zoals een werk van Christo uit de voegen,
drapeert stof de stad,
verstopt onze porieën
als een enorm complot.

© 2011, Kristian Kanstadt

Donald Gardner is a poet and a translator of work from Dutch, Spanish and other languages. His translations have appeared on PIW and this year he translated festival poet biographies into English. I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, his book of translations of Remco Campert’s poetry, was published by Arc in 2007. He has also translated Octavio Paz’s The Sun Stone and Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. His books of poetry include The Glittering Sea (2006), How to Get the Most out of Your Jet Lag (2001) and Sleight of Tongue (2010).

Kristian Kanstadt is the pen name of J. C. Maat. He has translated into Dutch from German (the Mauthausen Memorial project) and English (a manuscript of selected poems by Donald Gardner).

Elisa Gallego Rooseboom is a translator/interpreter of Spanish/Dutch origin but has lived in Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam. She is an intern for Poetry International Web 2011.

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