Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Translating Gorter’s Lyrics

On Translating Gorter’s Lyrics[1]

        To begin with, the language...How to translate a language (in this case Dutch) in which one and the same word (schoot) can mean ‘lap,’ ‘bosom,’ or ‘womb’? And this in poems by a man who was straining to achieve a join between the beauty of a woman’s anatomy and the beauty of her...ahem, her what? considering that the same word (geest) can mean ‘mind’ but also ‘spirit’...Are we to admire her thoughts (mind), or her passionate ideals and hopes (spirit)?
        Again: ‘lucht,’ one of Gorter’s favorite words, can mean ‘air’ but also ‘sky,’ ‘scent,’ ‘word of...’
        So far I am only mentioning the ‘legitimate’ or ‘dictionary’ meanings of words. But Gorter is the supreme player on words, their sounds, their possible and other-than-possible associations. ‘Naakt’ as an adjective means ‘naked,’ but as a verb it is the third-person singular present of ‘to approach.’ A commonly heard informal form ‘nakend’ can mean either ‘naked’ or ‘approaching, nearby.’ So, if you are the translator, how to handle a poem in which the woman is both naked and approaching?
        Another thing: the length of the Lyrics sequence, and how to handle it. In the eight-volume set of Gorter’s complete works published between 1948 and 1952, the Lyrics appear as part of one volume. Doubtless to save space, one page usually contains two separate poems with a gap between them. In their original (posthumous) 1930 publication, the Lyrics occupied three volumes and each poem, no matter how short, had a full page to itself. This arrangement was repeated in the typographically splendid 264-page reprint supervised by Jacob Groot in 1981. As one who first discovered the Lyrics in Groot’s edition, I can testify to the decisive difference made by giving ample space, hence also time and focus, to each poem. (Groot himself in his afterword compares the 1930 typographic layout to a musical ‘score.’)
        It may seem paradoxical that while I am in favor of giving such ‘weight’ to each individual poem, my own version of the Lyrics is abridged, comprising some 60 percent of the original. It is exactly in the interest of maintaining musicality and focus that I have chosen to omit some of the poems that seemed to me ineffectively repetitious, or which I could not get to sound plausible in translation.
        I believe Gorter himself would have revised the existing text of Lyrics if he had lived to do so. From what is known about its publishing history, it seems clear that the existing version is one possible selection among others that could have been made, from a larger body of poems many of which have survived in manuscript. Supposedly the selection was made by Gorter himself, though during his lifetime he chose not to publish it, instead having it privately printed in three copies – one for himself and one for each of his two lovers.
        One of the latter, Jenne Clinge Doorenbos (1887-1973), is known to have been a very active sounding board in the process of Gorter’s writing and editing. She was also co-editor of the eight-volume set of his collected works. A curiosity which I am unable to resolve is that in the text of Lyrics in that set, published in 1950, in what I would call poem number 105 there is a slight but meaning-fraught difference as compared with the earliest published version from 1930. Where the 1930 text has ‘klaar,’ the 1950 version reads ‘haar.’ Either, it seems to me, could make sense in context. The question is: did Jenne Clinge Doorenbos, based on her personal knowledge of the unpublished earliest text, revise ‘klaar’ because it was a misprint that had crept in in 1930, or did she and her co-editor Garmt Stuiveling quietly change ‘klaar’ to accord with ‘haar’ which occurs in an almost identical passage in the following poem?
        Whatever – getting back to the point I wish to make, it seems to me that in translating for the modern reader who is not a professional Gorter scholar, maintaining the exact structure of Lyrics, including its length, is less important than trying to convey something of what I think are its many lyrical and rhythmic high points.
        More generally, I think a very long poem or poetic sequence may often be improved by judicious shortening. As an outstanding example I would cite William Carlos Williams’ Asphodel, That Greeny Flower. I first encountered this work in the drastically foreshortened version included in the Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams published in 1968 by New Directions. Where the original – at that point unbeknown to me – was made up of three lengthy ‘books’ and a ‘coda,’ the New Directions selection contained only the first book and the coda. I found reading it to be not only a satisfying but a moving experience, so much so that I made a full Dutch translation. Years later, I read the full three-book version, more than twice as long and introducing new areas of subject matter, as published in Williams’ 1955 collection Journey to Love. With all due respect, I felt the expanded bulk and complexity actually detracted from the incisive uniqueness of this magnificent poem.
        In any case, I do not doubt the New Directions abridgment has been much more widely read than the original, and in that sense could almost be said to have replaced it. Coming back to Gorter, undoubtedly a great majority of his Dutch readers, if they are familiar with the Lyrics at all, have never read the full text. They are likely to have seen the radically short selection (about one-sixth of the whole) that Stuiveling included in the selected volume of Gorter’s poems which he edited in 1956. That volume has been reprinted many times and is a standard introduction to Gorter. My selection is not only much longer than Stuiveling’s but includes some of the more explicitly political poems like the sonnets to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But like Stuiveling and like Gorter’s other major anthologist J. C. Brandt Corstius whose selection came out in 1946, I could not get myself to include the hero-worshipping sonnet to Lenin.

--Lloyd Haft

[1] My translations of poems by the outstanding Dutch poet Herman Gorter [1864-1927] can be found on this blog in the archives for October 2013, December 2013, and January 2014.