Phoenix Translation

I recently had the novel (to me) experience of having a piece of creative writing published. David Hadbawnik and Chris Piuma put together a special issue on “dystranslation” for David’s journal, Kadar Koli. I feel quite privileged to be published amongst the people there, including friends like David and Chris, Jonathan Hsy, and Dan Remein. If you want to see the whole issue, I’d recommend heading over to David’s website, where you can order a copy for $7. I think the key to what they are conceiving of as dystranslation is nicely put by Chris’s introductory poem, “that translation / offers an opportunity to add poetry, / that poetry can be that which is gained in translation.” Their call came at a time in which I found myself trying to rekindle the sense of wonder that initially animated my dissertation, which begins with a similar premise, that our senses add things in translation.

One of my chapters is about the visual imagination surrounding the phoenix, which appears in a fourth century Latin poem that served as the point of departure for an Old English poem. I found the poems singing together and wanted to add my voice to the song, as well as that of Gaston Bachelard, who wrote about the origin of the phoenix in the language of poetry in words practically fitted to my two poems, in spite of never having read them. My method was to pair as closely as possible lines from the Latin and Old English, accompanied by translations and followed by tercets of my own composition. The diction of my tercets owes a debt to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught me to love alliteration before I had any clue how to read Old English. Snippets from Bachelard’s essay were juxtaposed with the sets of poems, so that they appeared in the form of a commentary to it. I’m not entirely sure how to create the effect in WordPress, so I have presented them within the text of the poems themselves at roughly equivalent locations, but it is best to not think of them as anchored to any particular part of the text.

As I was preparing to leave Toronto my friend Emily presented me with a visual representation of the phoenix in the form of a collage, whose composition of disparate elements drawn together into a single being seemed the perfect encapsulation of this magnificent bird, and I have included it after the poem.

Phoenix Dystranslation from Latin and Old English with Commentary by Gaston Bachelard

 mirandam sese praestat praebetque verendam:

     tantus avi decor est, tantus abundat honor.

It offers and presents itself to be wondered at and venerated:

so great is the beauty of the bird, so does its honor abound.

Wonder and awe,

beauty and honor,

the bird gives itself.

The Phoenix of the poets, exploding with flaming and inflammatory words, finds its place at the center of a boundless metaphoric field. An image of this sort does not leave the imagination undisturbed. It is ever born again of the detritus of its spent expressions.

primo qui color est malis sub sidere Cancri,

     cortice quae croceo Punica grana tegunt;

qualis inest foliis, quae fert agreste papaver,

     cum pandit vestes Flora rubente solo:

First, its color is the fruits under the constellation of Cancer,

which cover the Punic grains with saffron-colored skin;

it is as the foliage, which wild poppies bear,

when Flora spreads out her garments on the reddening ground:

Is se fugel fæger    forweard hiwe,

bleobrygdum fag    ymb þa breost foran.

The bird is fair    in form in front,

adorned with variegated-colors    about the front of the breast.

Fair-formed bird,

shadings of poppy and pomegranate,

fresh fire-coal freckles.

Admiration … serves as a substitute for belief—belief not in a real creature but rather in a creature born of heightened language, a poetic creature.

hoc humeri pectusque decens velamine fulget;

     hoc caput, hoc cervix summaque terga nitent.

the shoulders and breast becomingly shine with this covering;

the head, the neck, and the upper back shine.

Is him þæt heafod    hindan grene

wrætlice wrixleð    wurman geblonden.

His head is    green in back,

variegated splendidly,    mingled with purple.

Shoulders shine,

the emerald head

adorned with amethyst.

It is through language that the fabulous takes flight most fully. Fabulous images need to be told time and time again, variations at each telling always contributing something new.

caudaque porrigitur fulvo distincta metallo,

     in cuius maculis purpura mixta rubet.

The tail is stretched out, distinguished with tawny metal,

in whose spots mixed-in purple blushes.

To imagine the legend of the Phoenix sincerely I must always become the Phoenix of myself!

Þonne is se finta    fægre gedæled,

sum brun sum basu    sum blacum splottum

searolice beseted.

Then the tail is    beautifully variegated,

parts brown, parts crimson,    parts with shining spots

cunningly covered.

Dappled spots of purple and brown,

stippled and interleaved,

cover its shimmering tail.

To look for the cause behind an image is to lose touch with what is most essential about it, and to forego the opportunity to experience the immediacy of its psychic powers.

alarum pennas insignit desuper Iris

     pingere ceu nubem desuper aura solet.

albicat insignis mixto viridante zmaragdo

     et puro cornu gemmea cuspis hiat.

Iris marks the feathers of the wings from above,

just as she is accustomed to paint a cloud from above.

The distinguished bird is white, with green emerald mixed in,

and its bejeweled beak of pure horn gapes.

All of us have experienced moments when the mind, empty of thought, is filled with syllables which come to form a very ancient word with no relation to our life today, a word of which we were not thinking!

            Sindon þa fiþru

hwit hindanweard    ond se hals grene

nioþoweard ond ufeweard    ond þæt nebb lixeð

swa glæs oþþe gim,    geaflas scyne

innan ond utan.

The feathers are

white in the back    and the neck green

below and above,    and the beak shines

like glass or a gem,    the jaws shining

within and without.

Wings of white and green,

couple-color clouds;

beak of gemmed glass.

The bird in full flight constitutes a center of poetic space. If its wings are ablaze with color it is property of the poetics of fire.

ingentes oculi: credas geminos hyacinthos,

     quorum de medio lucida flamma micat.

The eyes are huge: you would believe them twinned hyacinths,

from the midst of which bright flames glitter.

              Is seo eaggebyrd

stearc ond hiwe    stane gelicast,

gladum gimme,    þonne in goldfate

smiþa orþoncum    biseted weorþeð.

The nature of the eye is

hard and in form    most similar to a stone,

to a sparkling gem    when it is placed in a

gold-setting    by the art of smiths.

Fire lights in the eye—

sparks flash from stone—

wonder-work of smiths.

A Phoenix then has nested in a human eye. This Phoenix, as experienced by a poet, expresses in the form of a retinal drama the immensity of human longing to possess a fiery eye. Although it is an eye languishing somewhere between blindness and illumination, shadowed with despair, it constitutes a renascence of light and represents the courage of renewal.

aptata est moto capiti radiata corona,

     Phoebei referens verticis alta decus.

A radiated crown has been fit to its moved head,

suggesting the lofty decoration of Phoebus’s peak.

Is ymb þone sweoran,    swylce sunnan hring,

beaga beorhtast    brogden feðrum.

Around the neck    is also a ring of the sun,

the brightest of treasures    set in feathers.

A radiant ring

encircles the head,

flickering light.

A creature has surged from the text in its eagerness to be, a psychological shock which takes the writer unawares. A Phoenixical instant has come to superimpose itself upon the flatness of existence.

Wrætlic is seo womb neoþan    wundrum fæger

scir ond scyne.    Is se scyld ufan

frætwum gefeged    ofer þæs fugles bæc.

The stomach below is beautiful,    splendidly fair,

bright and shining.    From above the crest is

gloriously joined together,    over the bird’s back.

Wondrous the womb.

Its comb crests

above its back.

What a pleasure it is to read and experience the poem in two languages, twice imagined, twice conceived, twice freeing itself from the constrictions of sclerosed literary tradition!

crura tegunt squamae fulvo distincta metallo;

     ast ungues roseo tinguit honore color.

Scales cover its legs, marked out with tawny metal.

But color tinges the claws with rosy honor.

Great images communicate with one another, bolster one another, and melt into one another, growing together in magnificence.

Sindon þa scancan    scyllum biweaxen,

fealwe fotas.

The legs are    covered in scales,

the yellow feet.

Copper scales

tinge the legs

and fallow feet.

The Phoenix is the sum total of its poetic expressions, a play of multiple correspondences: fire, balm, song, life, birth, and death. It is nest and infinite space.

effigies inter pavonis mixta figuram

     cernitur et pictam Phasidis inter avem.

Its image is seen mixed between the figure of a peacock

and the painted bird of Phasis.

Se fugel is on hiwe

æghwæs ænlic,    onlicost pean,

wynnum geweaxen    þæs gewritu secgað.

The bird is in form

utterly singular,    most similar to a peacock,

blissfully grown up,   as writings say.

The Phoenix, a creature born of the mighty contradiction between life and death, is sympathetic to all contradictory beauty.

Singular in expression,

most like a peacock (or pheasant?),

the phoenix surges into being.



1 Comment

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One response to “Phoenix Translation

  1. Sam

    Thank you for posting this! I have three anthologies of medieval literature but this oddly enough wasn’t in any of them. Astounding really.

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