The (Mis)translation of Lorca and Cavafy

When I started doing this (mis)translations thing, I promised myself that certain poets were off limits. I drew up a list of them, poets who deserved better than to have their words manhandled out of shape and into poor English by me.

Lorca was, of course, one of them.

But I cracked in the vicious heat the other day while looking at the Puglian landscape just as he must have looked at the selfsame landscape in Spain, and suddenly realising, only one man has ever captured what I’ve seen here.

So, I am sorry, Federico Lorca.

Land without Song

Blue sky

and yellow field.

Blue mountain

and yellow field.

Across the roasted plain

an olive tree is walking.

An olive tree


And having broken the vow, one sin leads to another of course. So I decided to own the fault, and reached for a long-loved Constatine Cavafy poem which, like the Lorca one above, has already been perfectly well translated into English by poetry translators expert in the work of these authors themselves.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it flies in the face of the original idea of the (mis)translations project. Perhaps what will happen sooner or later is these two texts will quietly vanish from the internet some late night and never appear in the resulting volume. In which case, “enjoy” them while you can, I guess. Their mere existence is precarious and ambivalent.

After all, I didn’t want trouble, and I didn’t want to do the big names like Lorca or Cavafy anyway because there are specialist poetry translators who spend all their lives on those guys. I wanted to do like the B or C division voices, people who don’t often get translated.

And why MIStranslate them? Because I’m not one of those specialist poetry translators. But I am an avid reader, and sporadic writer, of poetry. And additionally, I’m singularly untalented at languages. My children are multilingual, but I have journalist’s command of foreign languages – ie the basic thirty phrases one needs to survive, in about seven or eight tongues that I’ve had reason to use in the past.

Being fully truthful, I’m probably only really capable of assessing a translation of poetry that moves between French and English. And I’ve NEVER seen Shakespeare or Yeats properly translated into French. Likewise, there has never been a remotely satisfactory translation of Baudelaire into English.

Your mileage may vary. You may perhaps utterly adore some of these translations. And that’s okay, a mere matter of difference in taste. But can you honestly say that the original is FULLY communicated in even the best of translations? That NOTHING is missing? No nuance, no context, no wordplay, no rhyme scheme or echo?

You know, it sometimes almost makes me angry, even when it’s someone like Voltaire or François-Victor Hugo (son of the author of Les Miserables) who translates Shakespeare. Why? Because so much is missing. So much is simply impossible to translate.

Hence the (mis)translations project. The point is that I don’t know any of these languages. I don’t speak them. I don’t read them for the most part. I am reliant on a range of dictionaries, online and in print, as well as pre-existing translations and advice from native-speaking friends, in order to produce these works.

That was the point, to prove that is all poetry is ultimately untranslatable. It cannot be translated, only creatively (mis)translated. The term is therefore an apology to the poets themselves, and the entire project an act of deliberate and conscious (and conscientious) failure from the get-go.

Anyhow, digression aside, I departed from my original plan by (mis)translating Lorca, and compounded the sin by then (mis)translating Cavafy. Since I have shared one sin with you, I might as well make you complicit in the other too:

As Much As You Can

And if you can’t make the life that you want,

as much as you can, at least try

not to humiliate yourself

in so many worldly contexts,

all those movements and speeches.

Don’t humiliate your life by shipping it about

all over the place, exposing it to

the daily nonsense

of relationships and socialising,

until it becomes a foreign cargo you must carry.

Bringing the Elites-In-Exile back home

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at conspiracy theories recently. I may have mentioned this before.

There is, sadly, no end of midwits out there inclined to believe in all manner of conspiracy theories. These aren’t truly stupid people. Rather, they are people who feel disenfranchised and seek a target to blame.

Probably the most prevalent conspiracy theory today revolves around the World Economic Forum, who do themselves few favours by being fronted by Klaus Schwab, who looks and sounds like a Bond villain. Optics in a visually-mediated world mean a lot, more than they probably should, after all.

Davos 2022: Klaus Schwab on Fixing the Global Trust Crisis | TIME

As a talking shop for elite futurists, the WEF are relatively easy to depict as psychotic Illuminati, so long as you don’t actually look too closely, and rely on carefully edited YouTube clips with jaundiced and misrepresentative commentary, rather than doing the long slog of actually reading their books and position papers and speeches.

The actual conspiracists are those disingenuous content editors who produce those shrill and alarming YouTube videos for profit. Which is not to say that some are not also true believers in what they produce. But they are self-aware enough to know that they have to carefully edit their material to produce the message they want. Their readers and listeners are not so aware.

For a conspiracy theory to be truly successful though, it must pass the midwit truth test, which is that it must speak to the sense of disenfranchisement of the audience, provide a scapegoat in the form of a conspiracy, and then propose resistance, in the form of an amorphous appeal to human liberty and autonomy.

Because what affects these conspiracist audiences is exactly that – a sense that their own lives are not theirs to command. In short, they lack the agency they feel they ought to have in their own lives.

We might additionally relate this to complexity scientist Peter Turchin’s idea of the overproduction of elites. Anyone who was told as a teen that their pathway to lifelong success was to become a graduate, but who then finds themselves a decade later paying off extensive loans even while working precariously in low-status service positions, inevitably feels cheated, and wants someone to blame.

So the audience for conspiracies is largely made up of what I term ‘elites-in-exile’, people who feel, for varying reasons such as educational achievement, societal expectation or self-importance, that they deserve much more access to power (and the concomitant trappings of wealth and status) than they actually possess.

Their constraints may be financial, or related to a sense of disengagement with the ongoing gallop or politics or technology in directions which they cannot relate to. And a successful conspiracy aims to hit all of these trigger buttons at once.

It also attempts to be all things to all midwits. Hence something like the WEF conspiracy manifests in an almost bewildering array of variants, mutating like a virus to accommodate pre-existing anxieties and concerns.

Therefore, the WEF conspiracy tells anti-Semites that the forum is secretly run by Jews, while simultaneously presenting it as Communist to those who oppose far-left politics. To those with a strong sense of ethnic affiliation, whether racist or simply nationalist, it becomes a globalist attempt at genocide and depopulation – the Great Replacement theory. To those concerned about the ongoing march of technology in directions which alarm them, it mutates into a cabal of ardent transhumanists. To anti-vaxxers, it aims to control or kill us all using experimental medical treatments, and so on.

In these ways, a successful conspiracy like that centred on the WEF can leverage pre-existing concerns by concentrating them on a target, amplifying them, and providing a simple one-stop solution to their audience’s concerns – resistance to and eradication of that target.

And because a successful conspiracy is constantly mutating in form to address different audiences, it becomes hugely contradictory, yet almost impossible to counter. Ultimately, the solution is an extremely difficult one to implement – addressing the agency gap for the elites-in-exile who have been abandoned to producing or consuming such conspiracies in an attempt to obtain access to the power over their lives they feel has been denied to them.

The problem with achieving this is manifold. Firstly, the democratic gap even in liberal democracies is such now that almost no one has such a sense of agency anymore. That would require a systemic reset of how we do politics at every level, to embed participatory (and much more direct) democratic modes into what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian or technocratic world.

Additionally, conspiracy theories reward the few with exactly what they are seeking – wealth from their monetised proselytising of conspiracy, status as opinion leaders within the audience, and the power to project their perspectives widely. That these perspectives are factually incorrect, erroneous, self-serving, carefully curated and deliberately misleading is less important to them in this regard.

The utter erosion of the public sphere in recent decades – a product of many malign societal developments including an overly combative adversarial politics and an overly punitive reaction to disagreements (such as cancel culture) – has left a space in which conspiracies may flourish without the disinfectant of scrutiny and debate.

There are, in short, no easy answers. But for our elites-in-exile, an easy answer is what they want in this complicated world. Even when it’s patent nonsense.

The Little Ministry

It’s just over 33 years now since the great Brazilian avant-garde poet Paulo Leminski was untimely taken from us. Perhaps it seemed at the time that he was a lightning flash in the sky, a sudden illumination swiftly darkened. After all, his entire published career lasted barely more than a decade before his death from cirrhosis in June 1989.

And yet that flash continues to live on the optic nerve of Lusophone lovers of poetry everywhere, burned into the collective psyche. This latest (mis)translation is one of so many of his poems which like the man himself, seem to maintain a presence long after their encounter.

The Little Ministry

(mis)translation of Adminimistério by Paulo Leminski

When the mystery comes

you will find me sleeping,

half-turned towards Saturday,

half-turned towards Sunday.

There is no sound or silence

when the mystery grows.

Silence is a senseless thing

that I never stop watching.

The mystery is, I think, something

more of time than space.

When the mystery comes back,

my sleep becomes so unfixed

that no fear in the world

could hope to sustain me.

Midnight, an open book.

Mosquitos and moths land

on the doubtful words.

Could it be the white of the page

resembles light solidified?

Who knows the scent of blackness

fallen there like remnants?

Or do the insects greet

the letters of the alphabet

as distant relations, family?

Talking Türkiye

President Erdoğan yesterday renamed his nation Türkiye, in what is clearly not an attempt to distract from the ongoing economic collapse he created last Autumn.

He’s not the first to try a rebrand. It was very popular during the decolonising period of the late 20th century, but even recently, we’ve seen Swaziland become eSwatini.

Erdoğan’s reason for rebranding was because his nation gets confused with the bird that people eat at Christmas (except not actually in Turkey, because they mostly aren’t Christian.)

Turkey changes its name to Türkiye to avoid confusion with bird of same name
Confused yet?

But that bird has a lot of names, mostly toponyms (or placenames.) In other words, we call the bird turkey, but Turks call the bird Hindi (after India), as do a whole load of languages including Armenian, Hebrew, Polish and Ukrainian.

A bunch of other languages call it after the Indian city of Calicot, for some similar reason. What’s confusing about all of this is that turkeys don’t come from Turkey or indeed India. They come from America.

I suppose we should give Portuguese some credit for getting the hemisphere correct at least. The bird is called Peru in Lisbon!

What undermines Erdoğan’s argument somewhat is that you simply don’t see Peruvians or their government getting upset because some Portuguese people call a bird after their country. I’ve not heard the Indians complaining either.

But perhaps the best thing would be to agree a universal name for the bird in all languages that accurately reflected its origins. I suggest yanks would be appropriate.

“More roast yank, mum?””Don’t mind if I do, dear! Lovely dinner!”

What can we learn from Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

I refrained from posting anything about the Depp-Heard hearings because I don’t know these people and they don’t impact my life at all.

In the obscene orgy of public cheerleading on social media, it became evident that many people were overly engaged and inappropriately so, treating it like a sports game which required a colosseum audience.

Johnny Depp e Amber Heard, la loro storia al centro di un documentario
Surface image =/= Reality

It’s clear also in the aftermath that the media itself was also culpable of partisan viewing and foregone conclusions. Amid the many hamfisted attempts to map the peculiarities of this case to ALL women, ALL men, the most salient point, for which I thank both Heard and Depp, was almost totally ignored, which is this:

Hollywood takes desperate narcissists and feeds them vast wealth, public platforms, and stimulants, resulting in lives which while idyllic on the surface prove later to be beyond appalling.

Ordinarily we must wait for such people to be long dead to discover the horror of their existences. We owe Heard and Depp our gratitude for lifting the veil so comprehensively on the truth of their sordid and horrifying marriage.