Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

Poetry & Film Fuse in the Works of Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

One of the most influential filmmakers in American cinema and a pioneer in dance films, Maya Deren (1917-1961) believed the function of film was to offer a viewer an experience that would evoke new conclusions. As with her poetry, Deren’s focus continually evolved and remained dynamic as she combined her interests in subjective psychology, dance and Haitian culture in her short films. Deren’s best-known and most influential experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), beautifully combines poetic elements with cinematic devices. In 2015, the BBC hailed it as one of the top 100 greatest American films. Deren’s popular cinematic works also include At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation in Violence, and A Study in Choreography for Camera.

Maya Deren best expressed her view of the freedoms of independent cinema when she said, “Artistic freedom means that the amateur filmmaker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words…to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot…nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes…Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.”

‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ and its Influence

Using a second-hand Bolex camera, Deren and husband Alexander Hammid created Meshes of the Afternoon. It was the first narrative work in avant-garde American film, establishing the New American Cinema. The editing and filming techniques used in the short have a deep sense of rhythm and create a sense of continued motion through discontinued space, conveying a deeper meaning of discomfort and distrust. The abandoning of the concepts of space and time in the film, the juxtaposition of shots, and multiple views of “self” convey a stream of consciousness that breaks viewer expectations.

Compelling themes throughout Deren’s work include reflection, dreaming, vision, ritual, identity and rhythm. Meshes of the Afternoon directly inspired David Lynch, John Coney, Su Friedrich, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and other major traditional and experimental filmmakers.

Deren on the Freedoms of Independent Cinema

When discussing the liberties of independent cinema, Deren was opposed to Hollywood’s practices and standards. She felt that artistic freedom meant never sacrificing visual beauty and drama to spoken lines and explanations of plot. Deren took advantage of movements that happened naturally—the wind blowing, balls bouncing, water running—rather than invent plots. She stated that when an artist uses his or her freedom to experiment with visual ideas, mistakes are forgiven.

At the 1953 Poetry and Film Symposium, Deren stated that poetry “is an approach to experience.” She explained that a poem’s structure makes it distinct. Its construct is the result of a situation’s vertical investigation, as it looks into a moment’s implications, qualities and depth. Deren stated that the result is poetry that doesn’t focus on what’s happening, but on how a situation feels or means.

Filmmaker and Poet, Ann Huang, has long been inspired by the Deren’s works. Cinematic and poetic visions influenced her first film, Palpitations of Dust. Reviews received from a film festival’s screening committee further support that Huang’s work reflects the freedom ideas promoted by Maya Deren:

“Interesting juxtaposition of the actors and artwork with the poems.”

“Loved the dichotomy of the Renaissance art with the visuals of the film.”

Surrealists suggest that art is a part of life. Therefore, it is vital that filmmaking be viewed as pure and keen as automatic writing or poetry writing. Poetry, filmmaking and other forms of art make the invisible, undocumented moments in an individual’s life tangible. For example, these moments are eloquent yet mysterious, wise yet innocent, and charismatic yet elusive. The portion of existence that survives without an audience must be preserved for an artist to remain whole.

poetry translation

How Culture and Literature Intertwine During Poetry Translation

poetry translationIn the United States, a trainer is an individual who teaches skills. In Great Britain, it is an athletic shoe. A bog in the U.S. is a swamp. In Great Britain, it’s a toilet. In Oregon, a buggy is an old-fashioned term for a stroller, horse carriage or car. In North Carolina, it’s a modern term for a shopping cart.

Even when nations speak the same language, the cultures within it greatly influence what different words mean. When translating poetry, an individual must take a broad idea that can be interpreted in many different ways and translate it into a recognizable, familiar idea that remains true to the original text. The skill is a subject activity and multi-faceted process tangled with linguistic and cultural restraints that lends itself to new interpretations that the original poet may have never imagined.

Cultural Considerations When Translating Poetry

Literary and Cultural Understanding and Bias

One of the most challenging tasks when translating poetry is communicating culture-specific ideas because a translation isn’t just affected by the poet’s culture, but also the translator’s understanding of and biases toward the poet’s and target’s culture. Ancient Romans understood this during their conquests. To introduce Romans to Greek culture, for example, Roman translators carefully imitated Grecian stylistic elements to keep the literature as faithful to the original literature as possible. After conquering Greece, however, Roman translators did not feel the need to pay as much attention to preserving the integrity of the original texts. Instead, they adapted the texts as a way of demonstrating Roman literary achievements. As a result, the translations didn’t serve as an imitation or interpretation; they were the competition. The translations accommodated Roman views of Grecian society. This was not the first culture to do this, nor will it be the last.

Metaphors

Metaphors are one of the most important elements of figurative language and are often ripe with culture-specific undertones. They contain the core of a poet’s message and serve as a source of enrichment for the target audience. Because metaphors often relate to a culture’s customs and history, they may create unique difficulties in translations.

Metaphors born of traditions, religious beliefs, geographical surroundings, environment and historical events are sometimes difficult to translate. In English, for instance, the word dog is relatively neutral. An individual might say a lottery winner is a lucky dog. In Chinese, the word dog may have a derogatory connotation and be a word used to describe someone who is snobby or mean. When a metaphor in the original language does not make sense in the target language, an individual might have to translate metaphors using similes to retain the original idea or image.

Allusions

Allusions in poetry can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, to translate if the cultures in question did not share the same history or texts. When an Arab poet alludes to Qu’ranic texts, for example, a Western reader might not understand the scriptural origins. In such instances, a translator might have to provide a reader with footnotes, glossary or other notes to explain the context of the idea.

Translating the nuances found in poetry is a complicated yet vital task. When a translator sees culture as a collection of experiences that give daily life its form, the individual links more than just words; she links worlds.

Translations That Get Adopted as Originals in Their Target Culture

dictionary for poetry translation

Neruda once declared, “Nothing remains except that which was written with blood to be listened to by blood.” Neruda trusts and celebrates his senses and inextricably links his experiences, quite specifically, to the natural world he loves: to the damp forests of southern Chile; to the thick, gnarled roots of the pines deeply penetrating the earth; to the lonely rains that occluded the sun and cast the world through its fine veils; to the roiling rivers and seas that brought renewal and hope and, sometimes, destruction. For Neruda, this tightly woven web of nature symbolism became a grid through which he could begin to make sense of his life, to explore both the spiritual and physical worlds. For him, it was a continuous geography.

He spoke to the Chilean people of their mountains and trees, of their rivers and nocturnal flowers, of their dreams. Neruda held up a mirror in which Chileans could view themselves and be pleased. Reading Neruda, they could feel a common identity beyond their separate lives, landmarks, and scents they could call their own.

Several artistic and literary movements emerged that reflected the social and philosophical crises of the times: cubism, futurism, Dadaism, ultraism, creationism, modernism, and in the same year that Neruda published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, the explosion of surrealism.

With their gorgeous sweep and intimacy, their sensuality and rhapsody, and their “secret revelations of nature,” Neruda’s poems also made me want to reclaim Spanish, the language of my teenage years. It is not an exaggeration to say that they helped me to discover who I was what I was meant to do. How I sang these poems aloud, again and again, in Spanish and in English, for the pure joy of hearing them on my tongue, for the imagery they conjured up and the longings they roused.

Neruda’s poetry challenged readers to less static lives, lives susceptible to transformation, like nature itself. He talks about Chilean earth, the country, more so in a subconscious state to illustrate to his countrymen the country’s beauty as opposed to the physical beauty of a woman. There is this raw sense of patriotism, natural, imperative and inherent. It shows the political climate at the time in Chile, whilst the people in Chile despise their government in comparison to the sense of darkness of the night. Neruda’s poetics are more indirect in showing the pain and they are whimsical and charming combined with melancholy.

Merwin’s translation evokes more the inclusive experience of an individual, more on a conscious level (of choices and of knowing), a man’s perception on his woman’s physical and spiritual beauty. His translation of Neruda’s poems is solemn and straightforward.

Below are four Spanish-English original translation comparison examples of Pablo Neruda’s poems, translated by W.S Merwin.

SIEMPRE

Antes de mí
no tengo celos.

Ven con un hombre
a la espalda,
ven con cien hombres en tu cabellera,
ven con mil hombres entre tu pecho y tus pies,
ven como un río lleno de ahogados
que encuentra el mar furioso,
la espuma eterna, el tiempo.

Tráelos todos
adonde yo te espero:
siempre estaremos solos,
siempre estaremos tú y yo
solos sobre la tierra
para comenzar la vida.

Pablo Neruda.

ALWAYS

I am not jealous
of what came before me. [1]

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,

come like a river
full of drowned men
which flows down to the wild sea,
to the eternal surf, to Time!
Bring them all
to where I am waiting for you;
we shall always be alone,
we shall always be you and I
alone on earth,
to start our life!

[1] I always understood before as a true temporal adverb but curiously there are other English translations appear to be “…facing you, I’m not jealous..”. I’m not saying that they are not consistent texts, only wonder about the accuracy of the temporary nature of the word before as the potential meaning for the poet.

CUERPO DE MUJER

Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,

te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros
y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa.
Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma,
como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.

Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo.
Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme.
Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia!
Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!

Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia.
Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso!
Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue,
y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.

Pablo Neruda.

 

BODY OF A WOMAN

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,

you look like a world, lying in surrender.[2]
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.[3]
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road![4]
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

[2] Merwin’s translation is quite powerful and literary, compared to other popular versions that are more conscious-driven and literal in your attitude of giving.

[3] Here Merwin’s translation exceeds again over other popular translations by focusing on “… en mi…” hence, the night became an active role. The other popular translation would be “I was invaded by the power of the night.”

[4] Shifting road on top of boundless desire is complementing, much stronger than “my infinite anguish, my indecisive path…”even though this is less close as a translation version, it is closer to what Neruda meant originally.

INCLINADO EN LAS TARDES

Inclinado en las tardes tiro mis tristes redes
a tus ojos oceánicos.

Allí se estira y arde en la mas alta hoguera
mi soledad que da vueltas los brazos como un naufrago.

Hago rojas señales sobre tus ojos ausentes
que olean como el mar a la orilla de un faro.

Solo guardas tinieblas, hembra distante y mía,
de tu mirada emerge a veces la costa del espanto.

Inclinado en las tardes echo mis tristes redes
a ese mar que sacude tus ojos oceánicos.

Los pájaros nocturnos picotean las primeras estrellas
que centellean como mi alma cuando te amo.

Galopa la noche en su yegua sombría
desparramando espigas azules sobre el campo.

Pablo Neruda.

LEANING INTO THE AFTERNOONS

Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens  and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes[5]
that move like the sea near a lighthouse.[6]

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that is thrashed by your oceanic eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare[7]
shedding blue tassels over the land.

[5] Other popular translations use the word “over” to hinder “sobre” instead of “across.” It’s interesting to see the different perspective from Merwin’s translation, so the protagonist is sending red signals TO her instead of ABOVE her, which connects well to Neruda’s political inferences the next line.

[6] “Smell” would be a typical choice for “olean.” However, “move” is the more sensible option. This way, the protagonist becomes the sea or the people of Chile, and the lighthouse has transformed to be the government that needed enlightenment. Here, Merwin’s translation makes a big leap from personal yearnings to state-level affairs.

[7] The choice “its” for “su” instead of “her” does reinforce the political interpretative layer linking to [6].

ME GUSTAS CUANDO CALLAS

Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

Como todas las cosas estan llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mia.
Mariposa de sueno, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolia.

Me gustas cuando callas y estas como distante.
Y estas como quejandote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
dejame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.

Dejame que te hable tambien con tu silencio
claro como una lampara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.

Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.

Pablo Neruda.

I LIKE FOR YOU TO BE STILL

I like for you to be still: because it is as though you were absent, [8]
and you hear me from far away and my voice does not touch you.
It seems as though your eyes had flown away
and it seems that a kiss had sealed your mouth.

As all things are filled with my soul
you emerge from the things, filled with my soul.
You are like my soul, a butterfly of dream,
and you are like the word Melancholy.

I like for you to be still, and you seem far away.
It sounds as though you were lamenting, a butterfly cooing like a dove. [9]
And you hear me from far away, and my voice does not reach you:
Let me come to be still in your silence.

And let me talk to you with your silence
that is bright as a lamp, simple as a ring. [10]
You are like the night, with its stillness and constellations.
Your silence is that of a star, as remote and candid.

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.
One word then, one smile, is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it’s not true.

 

[8] A better translation for this line should be “I like you when you are quiet,” in the sense that stillness is not enough, quietness on both physical movement and speaking terms would be.

[9] Here I’d translate to “a butterfly in lullaby” for “mariposa en arrullo.”

[10] I’d like the word “clear” for “claro” here because of the narrator’s unblemished reasons, not in reference to the light intensity.

What Happens When a Poem is Translated from the Original Language?

poetry translation

Languages are wonderful devices that have their own nuances that add to a poem’s depth. Rather than learn several different languages to enjoy the works of international poets, professionals translate them. While translations allow you get a general idea of what a poet communicates, they often don’t capture a poem’s true essence. By being aware of how translations change a work, as well as cultural considerations, you can derive a deeper meaning from the words on the page.

How Translations Change Poems

Missing Linguistic Equivalents

Every culture uses phrases that don’t make sense when directly translated into another language. In Spanish, for example, the phrase, “Nada que ver,” directly translates to, “Nothing to see.” In reality, the phrase means that one idea or circumstance has nothing to do with another (e.g., Missing lunch had nothing to do with getting a flat tire). If a translator is not aware of the linguistic nuances and its equivalents, a reader will not grasp the full meaning of a poem.

Linguistic Evolution

All languages evolve. This evolution gives birth to new languages. It sparks cultural revolutions and introduces one society to another.

When speaking English, individuals no longer say “thy,” “where for art thou,” and other phrases unless they’re intentionally using old English. If you don’t know what these phrases mean, it might be hard to understand Shakespearean works. Similarly, when modern interpreters translate ancient works and fail to account for the historical context of a poet’s words, the true meaning of the words might get lost.

Translator Inference

When translators interpret poetry, they change the words into something that they’re not so another audience can appreciate them. This makes the audience dependent on the translator’s understanding and knowledge of the poem, the poem’s original language, and the target language. If a translator lacks in any of these areas, the interpretation will not be as exact or faithful to original work. It becomes the translator’s poem, not what you necessarily intended to read.

Voice

A good translation maintains the original poet’s voice. Translators must choose words wisely to interpret and shape the text, and remain true to its rhythm, tone, logic, imagery and aesthetics. In this respect, a good translator must be as equally artistic as the poet is.

Cultural Considerations When Reading Translated Poems

Poets reference the world around them, making poems a means of cultural enrichment. A reader might not understand the significance of tin flatware or plain chipware in Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Bean Eaters, for instance, if they’re not familiar with household items that lower class Americans used in the 1960s.

Translating poetry is a subjective activity in which the professional is restrained by cultural and social factors. Professionals must understand the values, rules, attitudes, history and beliefs of the poet’s culture. They must understand how the poet felt and how the new audience will feel, as well as identify common cultural experiences and functional equivalents.

Culture-specific references in poetry include those about the names of places, foods, drinks, national pastimes, education, politics, art, history, legal systems, institutions, animals and religions. A translator must understand their significance when examining metaphors and allusions.

Grammar, gender and syntax are other important considerations when interpreting poetry. English is a gender-neutral language, while many other languages identify words as masculine or feminine. It also uses pronouns and punctuation marks differently than other languages. A translator must understand how the different grammatical elements in a work apply to a poem to provide an effective translation.

Examples of Famous Translated Works

Always

By Pablo Neruda

 

I am not jealous

of what came before me.

 

Come with a man on your shoulders,

come with a hundred men in your hair,

come with a thousand men

between your breasts and your feet.

Come like a river full of drowned men

which flows down to the wild sea,

to the eternal surf, to Time!

 

Bring them all to where I am waiting for you;

We shall always be alone,

we shall always be you and I,

alone on earth to start our life!

 

Dance

By Rumi

 

Dance when you’re broken open.

Dance when you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.

 

To a Creole Lady

By Charles Baudelaire

 

Translation I:

In scented countries by the sun caressed

I’ve known, beneath a tent of purple boughs,

and palm trees shedding slumber as they drowse,

a creole lady with a charm unguessed.

 

She’s pale, and warm, and duskily beguiling;

Nobility is moulded in her neck;

Slender and tall she holds herself in check,

an huntress born, sure-eyed, and quiet-smiling.

 

Should you go, Madam, to the land of glory

along the Seine or Loire, where you would merit

to ornament some mansion famed in story,

 

Your eyes would bum in those deep-shaded parts,

and breed a thousand rhymes in poets’ hearts,

tamed like the negro slaves that you inherit.

 

Translation II:

I met, among the amber tamarinds

and lotus leaves, blue seas and empty space,

down on a sun-touched island’s scented sands,

a lady whose great charm seemed out of place.

 

Black hair, enchanting eyes and olive skin,

a bearing of aristocratic grace –

the long-limbed, slim young huntress, wild Diane,

with quiet self-assurance on her face.

 

Madam, if you should visit Glory’s land,

along the Seine, beside the green Loire’s strand,

our noblemen would beg you for your hand,

 

A thousand new love songs would germinate

in budding groves where poets meditate,

more docile than those slaves you now command.

 

Translating poetry is a difficult task. Rather than forego the works of international writers, immerse yourself in different translations to derive the poet’s original meaning for yourself.