Lost and found in translation: John Foggin


Last lap. First of all , thank you, Gyula Friewald for a morning of writing that pushed me (for one) into new and uncomfortable places. I can’t say that I understand the business of adaptation/translation any better than when I started.

Recently I wrote, for the excellent on-line journal The High Window, a review of Peter Sirr’s Sway (versions of poems from the Troubadour tradition) by Peter Sirr [Gallery Books 2016.  €11.95] . You can read the whole thing, if you want to chart the problems I had with it: https://thehighwindowpress.com/category/reviews/ ). This was my starting point, and one, I think that illuminates what I was up to with my own retellings (I think that’s what they are) of Gyula’s poems.

“The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.

That seemed to resonate with what Peter Sirr says in his splendidly helpful –and reassuring – Afterword: I hung on to this ; he says he began the collection by a combination of fluke and compulsion:

“It was the lines in what we now call Old Occitan that I couldn’t get out of my head. The opening gambit ‘Farai un vers de dreyt nien’ (I’ll make a verse out of nothing at all’) leapt from the page, seeming to arrive fully-formed in its self-confident flourish and strut,….playing …with the idea of poetry and the role of the poet”

He goes further:  “These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. “Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.

I could go along with that, as with Clive James’: “A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ (I love that!). Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’.”

The message is simple enough. Read the poems as poems. Listen to them. Ask if they have that kind of force….and above all, find the moments, the core images where the poem’s meanings seem to cohere.So, here are my versions.


Like clockwork


Old mother. Shapeless, bloated;

yesterday they found you on the street

and now you’re carrying the card:


officially unstable. You husband went

years ago; you can’t breathe. They own the air.

How your lungs labour; tired wings.


Your wasted years, the years you never lived,

are clenched  knots of old arguments

you couldn’t win. The table’s rigged,


the cards are marked. You have a ticket

to the Public Gardens. Wild flowers,

herbs and simples. Asphodel.


Welcome to your pension-free retirement;

welcome to a crochet comfort blanket

of 24 hour TV, the vodka you’ve got stashed.


Poor Ophelia in your little music box

the apparatchiks engineered. A trap

of stiff coiled springs and ratchets


where you wake and wail and wail;

you croon old nursery tunes and discords;

you grow slow; you are catatonic.


And this is the System’s lying diagnosis.

It’s prescription: factitious dramas,

depressives. Psychosis is in its blood


like yeast in bread; like genes.

The politicians of the media

chew listlessly, hand feed you nostrums


simple as barbed wire border fences.

Parliament squats in a Neo-Gothic dream.

Plays chess with you. With all the people.


child on a step


The mountains of Buda were green

and smiling in the distance. Hope

planted trees that whispered.

Nine carpenters came before me.

Men with calloused hands who built roofs

that cradled my first years. My forefathers.


The years and family collapsed

like ancient rafters, fell on the deaf ears

of yellow daffodils that nodded,

as I waited by the river,

waited on the step, waited for my ash-gey father

wrapped in his dreamed immortality.


Lost. Absorbed by anthill circuses

I saw crouching dragons

where I waited in that old, slow

Danube backwater; waited,

tranced, forgot the breaking

of my family, the twitching of its severed hands.


I’m not sure what Hilary and Christopher discovered as they worked through this exercise. I think they stay closer to the originals, their shapes and rhythms. To their diction, too. They preserve more of the abstract thinking. But I see how illuminating was Christopher’s pointing out the centrality of the image of hands in one poem. I think, too, that I learn a good deal from the way he applies a cool precision to his version of the ‘Clockwork’ poem. And I was more than impressed by the way Hilary preserved the shape of the ‘Budapest Boy’, seeing it as an image of cupped hands. I’m interested too, by the way she makes a coherent narrative of it. I’m not sure what I make of my versions. I’m pretty sure that what I responded to in ‘Waiting’ was the central (for me) image of the child on the step. It triggered suppressed guilt about what I see as my own absenteeism during my children’s growing up. Not a physical absence. It’s just that I let work be far too important. I wonder where on earth Ophelia came from in the other poem. No idea. I don’t even know if she belongs there.

Still. At the end of it all, it seems to me that the whole business was about connection, about imaginative listening. About reaching out of your self. You never know. There could be a spark.



We’ll be back to something more normal on Sunday (or Monday, or….) we’ll be having a returning guest. So, uniforms tidy, ties tied, shirts tucked in, and no chewing. See you then.



4 thoughts on “Lost and found in translation: John Foggin

  1. Re your comments: I am known for my tendency to narrative. And I remember being arrested by the shape on the page offered by Gyula the sculptor. It seemed to me an imperative.

    My work stopped on both poems when I gave them to you in Spain. They’re still work in progress.

    I note how much the poems are clearly Christopher’s, yours, mine, Gyula’s, carrying our own preoccupations and style. You were arrested by the absent father, I by what he told us of the grandmother of these big boned carpenters. Christopher does detachment coloured by humanity. Gyula’s work is intense, passionate. We translate but remain ourselves.

    There’s a future here, a pattern of work worth exploring again. We were fortunate that our four voices are so distinct, so recognisable.


  2. Thank for all three of you to share your own views or interpretations of these two writings of mine in English. For me, it was an interesting and inspiring exercise. On one hand, your unique perceptions of the same subjects from three experienced poets point of view. On the other hand, the use of your own language to express my feelings in my stories.


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