Monday, December 5, 2011

Words, words, words

Yesterday I asked a friend to verify a translation for me.  Two words, English to Hebrew.  She speaks and writes Hebrew, her first language.  What I had found, when I plugged the words into an online translator, was there would be four symbols, two per word. The issue, I thought, was that sometimes the symbols were shown in one order, other times in another.  So, it’s either this:

מר לב
Or this:
לב מר

The words are “bitter heart,” from a Stephen Crane poem that’s always meant a lot to me, a big inspiration for the novel I just finished.

My friend asked me what I meant by bitter heart, because this is not something they would say.  I told her it was bitter in the sense of harboring resentments, heart as in the way someone feels.  She said you could put the two words together but there was probably a better way to say it.  For instance, they have a word for a person who is unhappy, holds grudges, for a long time.  I said that it was interesting, because in the context of the poem, Crane is actually saying that the heart tastes bitter.  She said you mean, like sour?  I said yes, but I didn’t think that’s what the poem was about at all.  Actually, I told her, I’ve always felt the poem was about the creative process and the delving inside oneself, a painful but rewarding and totally necessary process.  She stared, blankly.  I said, what if we just did the two words—which order would it be?

It’s a miracle, really, that we’re able to communicate at all.  With the variety of dialects and experiences, the wide void between each person’s heart and another’s.  Heart in the feeling sense.  And maybe I don’t know what the Crane poem is about, but only what it meant to me.  So when the words are inked on my skin, in or out of order, no one else will understand anyway, not really.  It’s probably untranslatable.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

1 comment:

  1. I like the meaning you put to the lines. Translation that touch on the essence of a poem are the most convincing, irrespective of the actual words.
    You might like the free translations of Rumi's poems by Coleman and Barks.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka