Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Trial

During his great speech the prosecutor
kept piercing me with his yellow index finger
I'm afraid I didn't appear self-assured
unintentionally I assumed a mask of fear and depravity
like a rat caught in a trap an informer a fratricide
the reporters were dancing a war dance
I slowly burned at a stake of magnesia
all of this took place in a small stifling room
the floor the benches creaked plaster fell from the ceiling
I counted knots in the boards holes in the wall faces
the faces were alike almost identical
assessors judges witnesses for the defence and the prosecution
and also the audience—they belonged to the same organization
I vainly hoped the defender was a man from town
but he too was a member of the union of magicians

in the first row sat an old fat woman
dressed up as my mother with a theatrical gesture
she kept raising a handkerchief to her dirty eyes
but she didn't cry
it must have lasted very long I don't know how long
the old blood of the West was rising in the gowns of the judges

the real trial went on in my cells
they certainly knew the verdict earlier
after a short rebellion they capitulated and slowly started to die
one after the other I looked in amazement
at my wax hands

I didn't speak the last word and yet
for so many months years I was composing the final speech
to God to the court of the world to the conscience
to the dead rather than the living
roused to my feet by the guards
I managed only to twist my head and then
the room burst out in healthy laughter
my adoptive mother laughed also
the gavel banged and this was really the end

I don't know if I was hung or if the punishment
was changed to a life sentence I'm afraid however
neither the one nor the other happened
therefore when I wake I don't open my eyes
I don't move my head my hands tightly against the body
I breathe lightly because truly I don't know
how many seconds of air I still have left

—Zbigniew Herbert


Blogger Caratacus said...

Thanks, Mary!


9:49 pm  
Blogger Richard Epstein said...

"I don't know if I was hung"

My jr high school English teacher used to say, "Pictures are hung; men are hanged." Of course he also had a passion for diagramming sentences.

It is so difficult to judge the merits of a poem read only in translation. In a poem written in English, we'd reject "I looked in amazement" and "like a rat caught in a trap" out of hand, asking for a little verbal invention, not cliches offered in their most cliched form; but without an ability to read the original, I can't tell whether it's the poet at fault here or the translator.

By the way, who is the translator?


10:04 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

The whole topic of 'translation' is an interesting one. Robert Frost and all that. I think we can only 'transcreate'--use an original text as the starting point and source for a creation of our own, a new artifact which must exist within the syntax and poetics of the language the original is rendered into. Wo translated this? I don't know: it was donated, along with a swag of others, by Eratoshpereans. I'll ask the donor.


5:47 am  
Blogger NJH said...

I agree about the transcreation element. I've translated some of Rum's rubayyaat into 'proper' form and found that the elasticity of the Persian in its declension (huge rhyme possibilities) allows for a concision not possible in English if you want to keep metre, rhyme and meaning - something has to give. Added to this is the particle-laden nature of English due to its relative lack of verbal inflection.

That said, the very best imagery lives through multiple translation - the original brilliance sometimes overcomes the palimpsest of the translator's best efforts. Ibn Jakh (1oth century Andalusian) is a prime example with his 'scorpion tears'



10:02 pm  

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