Sunday, 13 November 2016

Arcadia, or The Land of Milk and Honey

I entered this poem for the Stephen Spender Poetry in Translation Prize 2016 and now that the prize winners have been named and I'm not one of them (sob! - Just kidding), I am at liberty to pop it up on my blog. "Arcadia, or The Land of Milk and Honey" is a translation into English of the poem "Das Märchen vom Schlauraffenland" by Ulrike Almut Sandig (b. 1979) whose poem "Hinemoana" I have already translated on this blog. The version below is very much a loose translation, more of an adaptation to render Sandig's words - which are very explicitly about German culture, history and myth - into an English that would make sense to most English speakers.“Das Märchen vom Schlauraffenland” is a free-verse soundscape of surreal ideas and images, blending modern-day references to the refugee crisis with a childlike, fairy-tale dream of Germany as a land with nothing evil in it, and juxtaposing the two. The first (and boldest) decision I had to take, as do all translators, was whether I wanted my translation to hew closely to the original or to say something striking and dramatic in English – to be fidèle or belle, as Flaubert puts it. I chose the latter, if only because the cultural reference points in German are so uniquely German, so echt Deutsch, that they speak little to us; rendered in English, they do not stir up an understanding of the relationship between modern and mythical in the way the German words do for German-speakers. On the other hand, images of Caliban in Stratford, of Dad’s Army jokes misquoted, of British chat-shows and comedians, help to build up something of the “national mythos” in the case of Britain which Almut Sandig has already done for her homeland. Where she stresses the works of the Brothers Grimm, I have overlaid my version with Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest (how fortuitous, then, that träumte er wieder from the German original translates directly as “he dreamed again”, almost word-for-word one of Caliban’s most memorable phrases) and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Where she relies on the iconic Socialist hymn Meine Heimat sung in the German Democratic Republic, I have substituted I Vow To Thee My Country (necessitating an elongation of the stanza in the process, probably the greatest structural alteration). This could be seen not as a translation, but as a companion piece to the original: sufficiently distinct, yet unable to exist without Sandig’s words. But that is what I believe all good translations ought to be: self-sufficient, and yet not self-sufficient.

Britain, Britain, Britain! Put that light on!
Let’s be perfectly clear, let’s say it how it is

Those who want in: chomp your way through
The cake that says EAT ME (no Wonderland this)

Those who want out: sling yer hook out the backdoor
Quicker than it takes to think up the fourfold word,

The one you say thrice: Arcadia, Arcadia
In your shopping arcades we go astray, our currents turn awry…

But then, but then, they all look the same. In Lindisfarne
An obese girl purchasing an angel made of clay

Asks the cashier, “What’s that word mean? ‘Hope’?”
In Stratford, Caliban drinks a coffee; he dreamed again

Of swimming his way through that milk-and-honey Med
Only to be run aground on the silted-up flats, the muck

Of Arcadia’s streets. A Cambridge priest
Receives a monetary fine after three years on trial,

‘Cos they caught him cutting off a police car
Which wasn’t going to run over no protestors, honest, not a one.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love…
And I vow my love to you, the gatekeeper, the bouncer,
You standing before the door. I dream

He looks like Sacha Baron Cohen, asking for an “Open Sesame”:
Tell me about this mythical reindeer with a bright red nose,

Say it three times one after the other: you ain’t coming in,
You ain’t coming in, you ain’t –


  1. Hey Tom! Do you have the original as well, or can it not be published due to copyrights? Only Grimm links come up via Google .. x

    1. Yeah sure! I'll fire you a Facebook message. T