I actually had this nightmare

A Translator’s Nightmare

I think it must have been in Limbo where,
As Dante says, the better poets share
Old friendships, rivalries, once famous fights
And, now they’ve left it, set the world to rights.
As I was being hustled through in transit
To God knows what damned hole, I thought I’d chance it
And chat to some of the assembled great ones
Who looked as bored as trapped theatre patrons
Who’ve paid good cash and find they hate the show . . .
I picked on one: ‘I rather doubt you know . . .’
He started up and peered at me: ‘Know you,
You snivelling fool? Know you? Of course I do!
You ruined my best poem. Look who’s here . . .’
He turned to his companions with a sneer,
‘Traducer and destroyer of art,
The biggest stink since Beelzebub’s last fart.’
They jostled around, each shouting out his curses,
‘You buried me with your insipid verses . . .’
‘You left out my best metaphor, you moron . . .’
‘You missed my meaning or they set no store on
An accurate rendition where you come from.’
‘He comes from where they send the deaf and dumb from,
He got my metre wrong . . .’ ‘He missed my rhymes’,
‘He missed puns I don’t know how many times,
Then shoved his own in . . .’ But I turned and fled,
Afraid that in a moment I’d be dead
A second time, torn limb from spectral limb.

A mist came down and I was lost. A dim
Shape beckoned; thinking it must be my guide,
I ran for reassurance to his side.
But it was someone I’d not seen before,
An old man bent beside the crumbling shore
Of Lethe’s stream. He stared a long time, then
‘Did you translate?’. I screamed, ‘Oh not again!’
But as I backed off one quick claw reached out;
He clutched my coat and with a piercing shout
(He didn’t look as though he had it in him)
Cried, ‘We’ve a guest! Who’ll be first to skin him?’
Then added, ‘Just my joke now; stay awhile,
The crowd in these parts is quite versatile,
Though we’ve one thing in common, all of us:
When you were curious, and courteous,
Enough to translate poems from our tongue
All of us gathered here were not among
The chosen ones.’ I looked around – a crowd
Now hemmed us in and from it soon a loud
Discordant murmur rose: ‘Please, why not mine?’
‘You did Z’s poems, my stuff’s just as fine . . .’
‘The greatest critics admired my verse . . .’
‘You worked on crap that’s infinitely worse
Than my worst lines.’ ‘Some of my stuff’s quite good –
You will allow that? – It’s not all dead wood?
Why then . . . ?’ and slowly the reproaches turned
To begging, bragging, angry tears that burned
Their way into my sorry soul.

Once more
I ran and saw my guide, tall on the shore
– The other shore – of Lethe. ‘Rescue me!’
I called, ‘Get me to where I have to be
For all eternity . . .’ He smiled: ‘My dear,
You’ve reached your special hell, it’s here. It’s here’.


from Touchwood: Poems 1991-1995 (Anvil, 1996), © Dick Davis 1996, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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