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.

Krisztina Tóth


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.


Space Bar said...

What a lovely word 'attent' is. And what it's absence would do to the lines
'A week we tended the dog, because we thought
at least it’s better off home with us giving it attention,'

OT (only slightly, though): In Hindi, the word for 'dog' is 'kutta'.

Mick H said...

Well, this one made me think.

What I get from the poem is a powerful view of a man-woman relationship. Doesn't have to be man-woman, I suppose, but it usually is - especially established couples. The woman's demanding something: you have to do this, don't you see? You have to do this. The man knows in a way she's right. Like in this case, once you've seen the dog, you can't just leave it there. But also...what? What exactly? Take it home? Kill it now? If it was up to him, he could easily justify driving on. Hell, that's what everyone else is doing. It's a cruel world. It's just a dog, after all. Why get involved? But he doesn't want to say that. Not to her. Sounds callous. (Though he could easily say it to his mates in the pub when he was telling them about it. A fucking dog! Nearly dead anyway. Jesus!) And why is she demanding that it's him who has to act? He hates to be put on the spot like this. Can't he just pull over while she collects the thing, makes the decisions? Why is she always demanding that it's him who does it? What do you want of me? What is it you want? Tell me! But somehow he knows - and he knows that she knows - that there's an element of bad faith in that cry.

Of course that has wider application. I think somehow she's saying that there's always that barrier: with love-making, for instance - the constant fury and resignation. He wants to please her, make her happy....but how? It's never enough. She wants him to really mean it. But how does he do that? His eyes, for her, are always focused somewhere far away - but for him, that's just, well, the way he is, the way it happens. But, you know, he'd make the effort if he just knew what she wanted. Really he would. What do you want of me? What is it you want? Tell me!

This being poetry, of course - the gift that keeps on giving - nothing of that conflicts with what you've said already about the poem.

michael said...

Unflinching. My second thought was whether the poet had ever previously read Stafford's poem "Traveling through the dark".

George S said...

Ah, Mick. Parts of the class gave it a feminist reading, which is much as one would expect. My response was/ is - though I articulated it far more politely of course - that if I thought it was another case of a woman bellyaching because he just doesn't understand, he has no feelings, he is so clumsy, he can't even make love properly, none of them do, you have to teach them everything, I wouldn't have gone near it. Enough already. Bellyache to each other. Can't you hear the cars pressing their horns behind us? Why should the whole world stop because you think the world revolves around your feelings?

Clearly the sexual element is there but I did not register the poem as accusation, more as universal human helplessness and isolation. That seemed to infuse my translation too, because it would only take a few delicate adjustments to turn it into a complaint.

I don't know the Stafford poem, Michael, though the title seems familiar so maybe I do. Ill look it out. Thank you.

The Contentious Centrist said...

The poem, to me, more than anything, is about raw emotions and the powerlessness that comes with them. Of course everything else that has been noted is there. The love that cannot transcend or eschew, its carnality, the sheer horror of the sight of the smashed dog with its pitiful clinging to life, the sheer futility of the rescue, the inability to just drive on without doing anything, the paralysis about killing it as an act of kindness. It's a moment in which the chaotic irrationality of living crystalizes in all its hopelessness. The poem is sufused with pity and love, which are completely useless in dealing with the situation at hand.

I was reminded of a very short poem, translated from the French. It is not at all about roadkills. It is about families and the butchering life:

“Le père. Le prédicat.
La famille.
Parfois, la viande."

"The father. The predicate.
The family.
Sometimes, the shambles."

(The poem is from Normand de Bellefeuille's "Categoriques 1 2 3" and is
translated by Doug Jones)

George S said...

Yes, the pity and love too. Should have said so. No helplessness without it.