An Adaptation

I’ve been recently in my acting class with a modern adaption on Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, a play called “Life Sucks,” it occurred to me that I could apply the concept of an adaptation to some of the translations I was doing.   In other words, I would translate the original poem into English and then turn it into a poem of my own through the process of adaptation.

Here is the poem I came up with:


An adaptation of 1909 by Guillaume Apollinaire

(Translated and adapted by Guy Conner)

The woman had a dress,
A silver sheath,
With straps across her shoulders.

Her eyes danced like angels.
She laughed and laughed and laughed.
Her face was like the flag of France –
Blue eyes, white teeth, red lips.
Her face was like the flag.

I could see the outline of her breasts,
Beneath the silver sheath.
Her hair that dangled brazenly,
Her beautiful naked arms.

The woman with her silver sheath,
The straps across her shoulders
Her red lips,
Her dangling hair…
She was so beautiful,
You would scarcely dare to approach her

Women of the neighborhood
Used to attract me;
Working women, sweat on their brows
Creatures of our technocratic age
But this woman was so beautiful,
She frightened me to death


And here is my original translation:

1909 by Guillaume Apollinaire

Translated by Guy Conner

The woman had a purple dress
And her gold-embroidered tunic
Was composed of two panels
Attaching at the shoulder

Her eyes danced and danced
She laughed, she laughed
She had a face like the Flag of France
Blue eyes, white teeth, red lips
She had a face like the Flag of France

Her dress hung low all around
Her hair done up in curls
Her beautiful naked arms

Midnight will never come

The woman in her purple dress,
Her tunic embroidered in gold
Dress hanging low
Shaking her curls
Her golden bandeau
Dragging her tiny buckled shoes

She was so beautiful
You would not dare to love her

I liked the horrible women in the parts of town
Where each day a few new beings were born
I liked, I liked the people skillful with machines
Luxury and beauty are only their foam

That woman was so beautiful
That she made me afraid

Interpreting Borges

For this translation of Borges, I decided to start with the fact that the original poem (Un Ciego) is a classical Shakespearian sonnet.  The decision to respect the form of the original poem when translating leads to a new poem that, while preserving the essential themes and sense of the original, adds and subtracts details for the sake of the form.  I call this kind of translating  “interpreting” to emphasize that a poem arises from the process that is both the original poem and a new poem in and of itself.


The Blind Man
Jorge Luis Borges
(interpreted by Guy Conner)

I try imagining my face
Reflected in that mirror there.
Would I see an old man with a trace
Of weary rage, or perhaps despair?
Slowly does my hand explore
My features – not so old in fact.
The vision comes to me once more
Of you as I knew you in our youth.
I agree with Milton when he says
That blindness is a state of mind.
Vision deals with surfaces,
I see images of a deeper kind.
But still, if I could see my face,
I’d know myself and knowing, know my place.

A little taste of Borges

For a change of pace, how about a little Borges?

The Nightmare
Jorge Luis Borges
(trans. Guy Conner)

I dream of an ancient king,
His crown of iron, his look of death,
There are no faces like that nowadays,
You sense his firm blade will obey him, loyal, like a dog

I do not from where he comes – Northumbria or Norway;
I only know that he comes to us from the North,
Close cut red whiskers everywhere;
Never have I seen the like;
Such empty eyes.

From what strange looking-glass,
From what wild sea-faring adventure,
Has this man, this gray and grizzled man,
Burst forth to oppress me with his bitterness?

I know that was a dream, and I treat it as a dream.
Day becomes Night;
I don’t know where it has been.


Garcia Lorca

I had expected to return to this blog with a number of essays on politics, but so far, I’m having trouble finishing the ones I have started.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I am trying my hand at translation again, this time of Spanish poetry.  I began by reading through the Complete Works of Federico Garcia Lorca, whom I admired greatly when I first read him in college (in English).   It quickly became clear that, in order to understand many of the poems, I need to brush up on the history of his time (1898 – 1935) in Spain.  Most of his poems are rooted in his historical moment (he was a major political activist) and can’t be fully understood out of context.  I did find one short abstract poem (Claro de Reloj) that I felt I could do a sort of justice to, as I learned this new craft.

Hanging Out with Time

I sat
In Time’s green glade,
A haven of silence,
Of pure, white silence,
An amazing ring
In which the stars collide
With twelve black numbers.

What do you think, my Spanish-speaking friends?   (Yes, I know that “Claro de Reloj” doesn’t mean “Hanging Out With Time”- it is not a literal translation)

The Influence of Form

I have written about my approach to translation from one language to another here.  Recently, it occurred to me that recasting a poem from one form to another in the same language is also a form of  translation. Let me illustrate.

In April of this year, I posted my translation of the introduction to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.  The fourth stanza reads as follows:

The Devil holds our puppet strings,
He leads us through the murk and mire
Nearer to Eternal Fire
And makes us like disgusting things.

This simple verse  is shaped by my stated goal, which was to preserve the sense and the rhyme scheme of the original French.   But suppose we decide to express the same concept in another form , say, a cinquain.  Then we get this:

The Devil’s
Fingers pull our
Strings; he make us like the
Vilest things; he carries us down
To Hell.

By eliminating the requirement to preserve the rhyme scheme and changing the form of the poem, we have lost some detail, but we have gained a more natural progression of ideas.

At some point in the future, I intend to do further experiments with this kind of translation.

On Translation With an Example

Elsewhere  I promised to discuss my philosophy of translations.    First and foremost, my goal has always been to produce a satisfactory poem in English that represents to the best of my ability the meanings, nuances and rhythms of the original poem.   If the original poem has an underlying rhyme scheme, I attempt to produce that as well.  A secondary, but very important factor, is my affinity for the poet him or herself.   I have, in my time, tried my hand at translating three important nineteenth century French poets – Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire.  My Mallarme translations all remain unfinished; I have one satisfactory Rimbaud translation, which I may choose to share at some point.   Almost all my translations are of Charles Baudelaire, and I have begun to reflect on what my affinity for his work says about me.

Baudelaire’s imagery is overripe; mine sometimes verges on the nonexistent.   Baudelaire was frank about what he called his nostalgia for the gutter; I have tended to suppress and hide my scarier emotions.   As I begin to work with the techniques I have learned from my friend and business partner Cathy Wild , who specializes in helping writers and other artists to bring out their full creative powers, I have come to realize that I have ripeness inside me, and that my scarier emotions can be turned into art,   We shall see in the months to come.

Oh, yes, and here is another example from Les Fleurs du Mal:

A Little Chat

The sky is pink and clear – a perfect day,
But sadness sadness rises in me like a tide,
Which then flows out, and when it’s gone away,
–The stinging taste of bitterness inside.

You stroke in vain my swooning breast,
You search, sweet friend, for a hollow core,
Woman has sunk her claws into my chest,
My hear is eaten; search no more.

My heart’s a palace for crowds to wreck.
They drink and pillage, sack and kill.
–A perfume swims about your neck.

Oh, Beauty, scourge of souls, oh, work your will,
With your eyes of fire, shining like a torch.
The mob has left some scraps for you to scorch.