Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Carles Riba, Catalan poet, in perhaps pointless translation - other images of such unthought-of meaning

Now, a good try.  A moderately useful book, the Poems of Carles Riba, with poems from 1919 through 1952 translated by J. L. Gili, a longtime champion, translator and publisher of Catalan literature.  Thirty short poems, with Catalan and English, so barely a book, really.

My rummage through poetry circa 1920 has pointed me towards some poets like Riba who first published at the time (1919) but whose more important works came later, perhaps much later.  For Riba, that might mean Les elegies de Bierville (1942), poems written during Riba’s exile in southern France after the Civil War.  The first French translation was just published in January, which also caught my attention – who is this?  Perhaps I will learn French and read that translation, because the English only includes four poems from that book:

from Elegy III

I do not remember it [a park] as I saw it, but as it was imagined,
    a change enriched and made pure by the joy of the sea,
the last cluster in the nocturnal course.  But more
    innocently still other images and of such
unthought-of meaning have been changed, and are cherished
    in the ardour of the two youthful lovers
who in the heart of the immense smoky city admitted us
    into their paradise of light, voluptuousness and adventure.

It helps to know that the poem is written in exile, that I can plausibly place its “inert memories” in the poet’s youth in Barcelona, and the poems all have a detectable Mediterranean flavor – well, lots of sea references – but otherwise the English often slumps into abstract goo.  “Last cluster of the nocturnal course,” huh?  (“l’últim flotó maragdí del rumb nocturn”).

Riba was a formalist.  All of the poems in the book are in classic – or Classical – forms.  Lots of sonnets.  Even tankas.  My understanding is that a good part of Riba’s achievement was exactly his use of these forms in Catalan, a rejuvenation and modernizing of the poetic language.  That is tough – perhaps pointless – to move into another language.  Perhaps the value of reading Riba in English is knowing that he exists.

Some images or ideas survive regardless.  These are the last six lines of a sonnet about a fish:

from Fish in the Fish-bowl

From much further than a memory
the light comes to you; you are
dark underneath the still glory

in which you dwell, your eyes quiet,
as one who, perplexed, contemplates himself
in a mirror that is for ever turning.

De més lluny que d’una memòria,
la llum et visita; tu ets
obscur sota la immòbil glòria

que travesses, amb ulls quiets,
com qui, sense comprendre, es mira
a una mirall que eternament gira.

If I pretend that this is Spanish, it is clear enough what I lose – rhyme, rhythm, all of the internal resonance (quiets / qui, mira / mirall), but I suppose the sense is fine.  What is it like to be a fish?

Carles Riba was also a translator.  His list of translated works is astounding, including The Odyssey in verse – two versions, one early in his life, one late – Hölderlin, Gottfried Keller, Greek tragedies, Poe, Scott.  I will bet that not one reader of Riba’s Sophocles or The Bride of Lammermoor could not have read the plays in some other language.  So the deep commitment was to the experience of the play in Catalan, to whatever beauties and meaning might be available in Catalan and not elsewhere.  Translators into small languages are culture heroes.


  1. Boy, those translations sound French to me. I was going to say "I guess Catalan poets of the day, or at least Riba, were more influenced by French poetry than Spanish," but then I remembered that I knew almost nothing of Spanish poetry of that period.

  2. You are likely detecting something real. In the early 1920s, Riba had a life-changing encounter first with the poems of Paul Valéry, and then with the man himself. SO there's that, at least.