Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bunting's Persia: Bunting's Firdosi and Davis' Ferdowsi

I’ve been comparing Bunting’s Firdosi with Davis’s Ferdowsi.  This is not about ‘accuracy ‘or ‘faithfulness’, just about differences between the two translations . I don’t read Persian.  I like both versions.  Davis’ prose is clear and when he breaks into rhyming couplets he handles them elegantly (Pope and Dryden would be proud.) But Bunting is obviously the focus of this.
The story so far. (see previous posts)
1)   We know that Pound and Bunting disagreed over the results of Bunting’s translations of the ‘Shanemeh’.
2)   It’s hard to know how much influence Pound’s highly contentious attitudes towards translation had on BB.  It is possible to infer that they were significant on the following grounds: Bunting thought Pound’s scandalous Sextus P one of the two great poems of the century.  He was not scandalised by Pound’s “mistakes” but obviously invigorated by them.  His ‘Villon’ contains one magnificent passage that is a translation of,  but in no way a formal equivalence translation, of sections of a Villon poem.  His later translations  of Horace and Hafez are noticeably ‘Poundian’.

3)    My subjective experience of reading the two versions it that while Davis’ reads like a story told about something that happened a long time ago, Bunting’s feels more like an eyewitness account.  Davis’ narrator is a mostly invisible presence whose comments on the action tend to be ‘religious’ or moral: ‘And you who murder Kings, who live in fear/Learn from these criminals whose tale you hear'.   Bunting’s sounds like someone who is retelling what he’s seen and overheard, not a participant but an observer with an opinion, sometimes impatient, sometimes baffled.  The syntax invokes a speaker, and an oral performance: “ No impression on Tur. Not gratified. Did not want peace.” Maybe I’ve just listened to too many recordings of Bunting.
My other experience of reading  is that Bunting’s telling moves more swiftly, sometimes at the expense of clarity. At times Davis’ clearly wins in the clarity stakes:
DD: ‘Feraydun was told of the envoy’s arrival and had the curtain drawn back so the horse could enter.’
BB: “Watchful sentinels told the Great King of his coming/ A dignified Chamberlain bade lift the curtain.” where ‘bade’ seems awkward.

Sometimes Davis’  prose seems preferable. When the brothers start plotting:
DD: ..The two brothers , one from China and the other from the West, met together and mingled poison with their honey, discussing how they should act
BB:  Fate was stripped stark. The brothers started/From Rome and China with honeyed poison/met, discussed policy public and private.
There’s a loss in BB’s “honeyed Poison” compared with “mingled poison with their honey”

4)  Bunting reduces: he uses three broad techniques I’ll call omission, condensation and summary and accept they are very vague terms. So roughly if you have fifty words and cut them to ten, but the ten you’re left with were in the original, you condense.  Summarising is taking that fifty words and saying what’s in them as briefly as you can.
a.     Omissions…Bunting cuts when he can, but he doesn’t alter the sequence of events. As in a medieval English poem like Lawman’s 'Brut',  the messenger is called, the message is given, the messenger rides, is received, delivers his message and we learn how the message is received.  A modern film would simply have the messenger give the message,  in a medieval  text the pattern reveals the characters of those involved. When Faridun receives his son’s abusive message, his treatment of the messenger tells us a great deal about him (to his credit).  Character is revealed by speech and action and by the comparisons such formal patterning allow. One could assume that part of Bunting’s attraction to this story is the way it fits with his own poetics of direct presentation.
b.     Condensation. Not surprisingly Bunting condenses and with the qualification noted above it usually is an improvement. After all this was the man who wrote in ‘I Suggest’: “ 6. Cut out every word you dare. 7. Do it again week later, and again”,  who said that what he most learnt from Pound was “How to chop out the rot”.  In Davis the envoy sees Feraydun’s face: “The envoy saw that Feraydun’s face filled all eyes and hearts; that he was like a cypress in stature, that his visage was like the sun’s, and his hair was like white camphor about a red rose; his lips were all smiles, his gaze was modest and welcoming , kingly words adorned his lips.”  In Bunting, “His glance lit on Faridun’s form and was held/cypress tall, ruddy face, rosy cheek, hair like the vine/smiling , modest, royally gentle voice” .
c.      Summary. This is one of the ways I think he gives his narrator his voice.
BB: Iraj saw them and ran to meet them affectionately/received them in his tent, but their talk/was nothing but Why and Wherefore..
Where the “why and wherefore” both summarises and dismisses the conversation.

5)   Bunting’s version tends towards specific visual images.
DD:  “Let neither wind nor swirling dust delay your journey as you hasten on your way”
BB: “Dont hang an arse/don’t let your own dust overtake you/nor the wind either”. The idea of the rider going so fast that his own dust can’t catch him seems to be an advance on “don’t let dust delay your journey.”

6)   As the above quote shows, Bunting’s diction tends towards what used to be euphemistically called “demotic”, and this is another way he gives his narrator his character.  Word choice suggests Judgement: The bothers are ‘ruffians’, their message is “surly”  as does his syntax: “Tur heard. Made no answer.”

7)   The poem does not show much evidence of his usual emphasis on sound. His letter to Pound (see previous posts) showed he knew this, but for a man who was adamant that poetry was sound there’s not a lot happening here . At times the terse syntax approaches epigram and ghosts a memory of Anglo-Saxon: “Fate was stripped Stark”.  But some of the lines are so flat it’s possible to see why Pound was unimpressed. Bunting had already written ‘Villon’ and ‘I am agog for Foam’. The same man who wrote the latter and ”Remember imbeciles and wits..etc’’ in ‘Villon’ was now writing: ”I am going to write with an aching heart/on the off chance it may bring you home safe and sound/for I have no life but in you”. The absence of his characteristic sound/rhythm architecture is quite dramatic.

8)   And it’s not simply a problem of narrative. Compare this to the first two Cantos of Pound’s,  which are narrative, and which swing and sing.  Whatever the virtues of Bunting’s Ferdowsi, and I obviously think there are many,  I think it’s fair to say that judged by his own standards and previous achievements,  Bunting’s translation doesn’t rise to Pound’s challenge that a translation should work as a modern poem in its own right.  Although that leaves the main question begging…how do you write a narrative poem with Bunting’s poetics?