Monday, 20 October 2008
Draft translation of a dog
This is a draft translation of a poem by the Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth about a Dog. Here's the translation, a few brief notes after.
It seemed no more than a clump of earth in the thaw,
a snowball that had rolled down a steep slope.
The day was darkening, nothing to see at all
just fields like tin, the windscreen part steamed up,
but as we neared it seemed vaguely to shift
like a heavy coat raising a loose sleeve,
a ditched hitchhiker’s shade thumbing a lift
in the brief glare that passing headlights weave.
It was there one moment, gone the next. Each car
in the queue steered well clear of the thing
but I looked out for it on the hard verge
and suddenly there it was. It was propping
itself up on its legs, the nearside ones in sludge
as if about to run, its nose held to the air,
its upper part attent. But behind I saw
its lower half, wrecked to a pulp. And there,
from its blood-clotted coat, stuck its back leg
that to a regular, agonising pulse kept kicking;
mouth wide open, it sat there, a half-dog
though I could tell from its eyes that it saw everything.
I cried out, Stop! draw up at the side
of the road. I begged you to save it or kill it now,
anything, let the cars behind us provide
an ending. But what can I do? What? Just how
should I end it? And so your voice grew sharp.
What do you want of me? What is it you want? Tell me!
I wanted you not to leave it, I wanted you to stop.
Once you found it you should look after it or kill it.
A week we tended the dog, because we thought
at least it’s better off home with us giving it attention,
as if it were we ourselves who had hit it and left it out
in the road, a fact we had somehow not to mention.
But I could still not help wanting you wrapped
about me at night: I watched your muscular arm,
trying not to think of the body that lay propped
in the roadside ditch, of the leg beating like a drum
while your eyes were focused somewhere far away
but did not answer; about the constant fury
and resignation involved in even love-making, and the way
you asked me just what it was that I wanted you to do,
striking the steering wheel over and over again,
and not once looking directly at me ,while I
watched as beyond your shoulder rain beat down,
soaking fields under the bloodshot winter sky.
I was talking about this translation with a group of Masters translation students this evening and we were speculating not only on what was going on but what lay at the core of the poem, as experience.
So there's this car going along in a queue down a country road on a horrible night, when the woman (not driving) spots a badly, in fact grotesquely, injured dog at the roadside. She insists the man (the driver) stops. It seems - in my version anyway - that they take the dog home and nurse it for a week, but that the dog hangs over them like a shadow as they make love. She sees some parallel between the dog and the act that disturbs her,
In other words the dog - a most physical, fleshly and bloody dog, the subject of the poem - serves as something beyond itself, as an emblem. Of death? Of loss? Of danger? Of the spectral half-dogness of life. Or, if the dog isn't really brought home but remains only a thought they keep thinking about for a week, as an ominous sign of the potential troubles between the woman and the man, or by extension, between women and men.
This draft is a reading of the poem in the sense that seems most powerful to me, that which says life is a mangled half-dog at times, and when it is we are utterly and unbearably alone, even as we hold each other most tightly. It's a formal poem in the Hungarian rhyming generally a-b-a-b but not too perfect rhyme most of the time, and that must mean something too, if nothing else a kind of discipline, a holding at due distance.
I cannot, of course know what Tóth means. Indeed, I even suspect that Tóth herself does not fully know, that no writer fully knows. That there is no full knowledge. The translation is the poem sense it tends to point to in me. Maybe there is no other sense.