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March 20, 2003

Eve Tushnet, Garcia Lorca, and a retired librarian
Posted by Teresa at 10:29 PM *

First, Eve’s contribution to the general enterprise of warblogging:

TWO WAR LINKS. How to pray the rosary. How to go to Confession. “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” —Matt. 25:13
Second, she reproduces Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry”, by way of encouraging readers to buy a particular children’s poetry anthology she’s high on. A sample thereof:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. …

For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.

For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.

For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.

For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.

For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.

For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.

For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.

For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
This pleases me. It’s a night in need of civilization.

Earlier this evening I was in search of a poem by Garcia Lorca. This is one of the best things about the web, that you can find partly-remembered songs and poems that have haunted you for years. I’ve been gradually working through my backlog.

This time it was a poem from my junior high school Spanish textbook, something about a horse and rider travelling toward Cordoba: unforgettable, but alas, not fully remembered. I fed “poem Spanish Cordoba” into Google, and like a good reference librarian it informed me that what I wanted was “Canción del Jinete” (“The Rider’s Song”) by Garcia Lorca:
Canción del Jinete

Lejana y sola.

Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.

Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja.
La muerte me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.

Ay qué camino tan largo!
Ay mi jaca valerosa!
Ay que la muerte me espera,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!

Lejana y sola.
I can understand the Spanish far better than I could when I first encountered it, but I still fall short, so I went looking for the translation I remembered. I didn’t find it. I found a bunch of others, though.

It turns out that, as one site put it, “Canción del Jinete” has enchanted and humbled translators into every language. It’s a beautifully clear and simple little poem, and it’s impossible to get it exactly right in any other language.

It’s not the same effect if your language doesn’t use a single word to express both “to wait” and “to hope”, as Spanish does. In some places you have to pick one meaning and lose another; Aunque sepa los caminos doesn’t specify whether it’s the rider or the horse that knows the way. And La muerte me está mirando, a plain clear construction in Spanish, can be taken to mean that Death is looking for me, looking at me, watching me, watching out for me, and asst’d other interpretations; so this being poetry it means all those things not otherwise ruled out by the rest of the poem.

Herewish, my best reconstruction of the translation I read in that long-ago Spanish textbook. How much it owes to the mutations of memory, or to the other translations I’ve subsequently read, I can’t begin to say:
The Rider’s Song

Distant. Alone.

Black my pony, full the moon,
and olives in my saddlebags.
I know this road and yet I know
I shall not get to Cordoba.

Through the plains and through the wind,
Black my pony, red the moon.
Death is looking out at me
from the towers of Cordoba.

O, the road is long!
O, my pony brave!
O, that death waits for me,
before I get to Cordoba!

Distant. Alone.
One of the sites where I found a translation of “Canción del Jinete” struck me to the heart. There’s no getting away from the troubles of the moment. Barry Tobin is a litterateur of various sorts, a retired librarian born in Ireland but now living in Cardiff in Wales. On his home page, a large block of boldfaced type says:
I wish to express deep sympathy with all those affected by the terrible events of Tuesday 11 September 2001, especially the families and friends of the victims.

I also wish to express my unreserved admiration for the members of the New York fire and police departments—and other emergency services—who lost their lives with such amazing courage and uncalculating selflessness. Who can forget how they climbed up the stairs of the doomed Twin Towers past the office staff as they made their way down to safety.

We can and must be critical of many aspects of United States policy in today’s divided world. However, the unimaginable heroism of that day in New York was, is and will continue to be of another order where debate falls silent, where only praise is heard and where the only feelings are those of wonder and compassion.

Ar dheis Deó go raibh a n-anamacha dedlse.

Heddwch i’w llwch.

May they rest in peace.
But then, after that, he’s added:
The launch of a war against Iraq in the face of worldwide opposition marks the opening of a new and sadder phase in the history of the relations between the USA and the rest of us. Many people of my generation recall the years when the USA was the welcome and admired leader of the free world but feel deeply disappointed, even alarmed, as an erstwhile role model turns into a domineering, hectoring and selfish one man band. The USA no longer considers itself bound by any international laws, treaties, usages or customs and sees itself as being solely concerned with looking after its own interests leaving the rest of us to flounder in a leaderless world. It has become another example of the old story of “Every man for himself and God for us all”
as the elephant said when it danced among the chickens.
My god, this is terrible. I wrote him a letter, which I reproduce here because I can’t get it to send to the e-mail address on his page:
How do you do, Barry Tobin? I found your page because I was looking for translations of the Cancif3n del Jinete. I like yours, and your brief remarks on Garcia Lorca.

Thank you for your kind words about 9/11. I live in New York City. Would you believe me if I told you that almost all the people I know here are deeply unhappy about the attack on Iraq? It feels like a bereavement; like our flags should be flying at half-mast. We know it wasn’t Iraq that attacked us, and that that idiot fratboy and his advisors don’t care.

(He stiffed the FDNY, you know, after getting all those great photo ops standing next to them. He made lavish promises of help while the cameras were running; but last I heard, they hadn’t even gotten enough to replace the equipment that was destroyed on the day.)

These days I’m taking courage from small things: That our military (which isn’t stupid) have gone into Iraq with a sober attitude and no flags flying. That the State of New Mexico’s legislature passed a resolution abrogating the so-called Patriot Act, instructing its state police to neither use nor enforce the act’s provisions, nor cooperate with federal officers who seem likely to do so. That there were candlelight anti-war vigils in the towns of Logan and Kanab in Utah, which in the past I would have reckoned as likely as pigs taking wing.

Where these loud hectoring near-fascists are coming from is a mystery. They claim they represent the majority, but the people I know don’t believe that. We’d know more of them personally if they were anything close to a majority. Their true aims and beliefs are likewise a mystery. I suppose we’ll all find out, sooner or later.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that America is still here, and we’re appalled.

Cheers —

Teresa Nielsen Hayden
And so good night to you all, and sleep well.
Comments on Eve Tushnet, Garcia Lorca, and a retired librarian:
#1 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 09:09 AM:

I've always read "la muerte me esta mirando desde las torres de Cordoba" as "death is considering me". I see it as an old woman, leaming against the battlements, carefully deciding if/when... And the man below, feeling her gaze, suddenly chilled to the bone...

#2 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 10:31 AM:

Some readers may not know that Benjamin Britten scored portions of Christopher Smart's poetry for orchestra and chorus. The resulting work is "Rejoice in the Lamb", and it's available in a bunch of good performances, including one downloadable from eMusic.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 11:58 AM:

Oooh. "Considering." That's good.

I love English dearly. It's my life and my world. But it doesn't do everything better than every other language. One of the tradeoffs for our enormous and finely differentiated vocabulary is that it's much harder to create such multiple equivalently ambiguous meanings. English can give you dozens of renderings of la muerte me esta mirando desde las torres de Cordoba, but every one of them tips the meaning in one direction, and consequently away from all the others.

#4 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 12:28 PM:

Gosh. Shivers. Thank you for the "Cancif3n del Jinete"

#5 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 04:54 PM:

Translation seems accurate. I wouldn't try to twist the meaning of everything too much--the language is very simple. "Death is looking at me" has enough diversity of meaning as is. As does "Death is waiting for me."(In an allegorical or symbokic sense, there's a lot of meaning.) "Jaca" also has the connotation of the English "nag" [referring to a horse], I think. Was this written during the Civil War, or earlier?

#6 ::: Berni ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 09:30 PM:

Re Eve Tushnet's warblogging, I can't help but be reminded, when I think of Bush and his crusade to remove Saddam Hussein, of the story in the gospel where Jesus' disciples were unable to expel the demon. Jesus drives it out and tells his disciples that that kind can only be removed by prayer and fasting. You'd think the president would pay a little more attention to his favorite philosopher in matters like this.

I loved the "My Cat Jeoffry." I had stopped reading Eve's blog last year some time as St. Blog's Parish exploded and there were so many things to read, I couldn't read them all. So I would have totally missed this otherwise.

#7 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 10:00 PM:

Teresa, two of my favorite bits of poetry in one post; thank you.

Berni, my theory is that the person who has been reading the Bible to George has not got past Joshua at Jericho. Jesus is going to come as a great shock to him.

#8 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 10:08 PM:

Hmm. Maybe George has a translation in which Jesus and Joshua are properly rendered as the same name. Maybe all this time, he's been thinking Christians are the guys who bring down the walls and kill all the men and women, and the rest of the book is boring commentary.

#9 ::: Christopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 05:41 AM:

Since my cat is also named Jeoffry, I owe it to him to make one small correction--Smart's poem is actually titled "Jubilate Agno." It's a wonderful piece of writing no matter what you call it, even if he did write it in an insane asylum.

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 11:06 AM:

I think Smart is a little confused about cats' purpose in playing with mice...but I love that poem. There's a modern, more cynical document called "Everything I Need To Know I Learned From My Cat," with items like "know where the sunny places are" and "shred all documents."

On the subject of translation, there's a very interesting book called Le Ton Beau de Marot, by the guy who wrote Godel, Escher, Bach. One of his theses in the book seems to be that if poem can be fully translated, it isn't really poetry. The book contains dozens of different translations of a brief poem by the eponymous poet; all the English ones are quite different, and each one leaves out some point or resonance that another expresses.

One of his examples of translation at its most brilliant is that when GEB (as his first book is often called) was translated into Chinese, the translators took his subtitle ("an eternal golden braid") and rendered it culturally as "a collection of rare jade;" they found Chinese characters to mean this, characters which, in Mandarin, are pronounced "jee ee bee."

I am thunderstruck with admiration for those translators.

#11 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 12:08 PM:

GEB is, of course, a wonderful, wonderful book, but Hofstadter's point regarding translations isn't terribly original (there's a long-standing definition of poetry as that which does not translate, or see Voltaire's line that "It is as impossible to translate poetry as it is to translate music"). Also, I hate to say it, but I didn't think the translations in Le Ton Beau were very good. They made his point admirably, but I didn't think they worked well as their own poems, which I think is the first goal of any translation of poetry.

It's not just poetry that doesn't translate, of course. Chinese dissident artist Xu Bing's magnificent Book from the Sky installation totally loses its effect on me because I can't read Chinese and therefore don't get the weird Borgesian reaction from a lovingly and expensively hand-crafted edition of a completely plausible but utterly unreadable text. His edition of the Bible incorporating romance novel cutups was good, but didn't pack nearly the same oomph.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2003, 08:37 AM:

Thanks for the link. That's an interesting installation. I have nightmares about books like that.

#13 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2003, 11:12 AM:

I'd never seen that Garcia Lorca poem before. Admittedly, I prefer other poets like Machado and Jimenez and Rosalia Castro. But my (New Directions) Garcia Lorca collection has it. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

In return, here's the translation from the ND book, by Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili:

Far away and alone.

Black pony, big moon,
and olives in my saddle-bag.
Although I know the roads
I'll never reach Cordoba.

Through the plain, through the wind,
black pony, red moon.
Death is looking at me
from the towers of Cordoba.

Ay! How long the road!
Ay! My valiant pony!
Ay! That death should wait me
before I reach Cordoba.

Far away and alone.

I tried to confirm mirar could mean "to wonder," but that seems to have migrated from Latin mirari to Spanish admirarse. However, my dictionary did give one meaning of mirar as "to aim."

#14 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2003, 11:13 AM:

Oh pooh, I meant to italicize all of the translation, not just the opening. Pooh.

#15 ::: Roger Burton West ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2003, 11:27 AM:

The letter to Barry Tobin is cogent, but I suspect Americans should long have been aware - as we in Britain are now having to learn quickly - that the distinction between "citizen of country X" and "supporter of the policies of the government of country X" is one that is rarely made by those outside that country.

After all, do we not say to other countries "We have democracy; it is the best system ever; and our governments do what we tell them to"? (If we don't say it, that's OK; our media do it for us.)

[On a side note, I am sicked by the media-driven canonisation of New York's mayor. This is the man who insisted that the emergency control centre budget be spent on one big flashy facility, rather than on three separate ones as everyone else wanted; and as a result, that one centre (conveniently put in the WTC complex) was unavailable on 11/9/2001, which is the sole reason for the lack of communications that was the main reason for deaths of rescue workers.

I suppose that making heroes of firefighters, or other people who actually did something, would have been "unfair", because not all of them could be heroes...]

Personally, I'm listening to Fish's Firestorm, and considering how appropriate it all seems.

#16 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2003, 11:06 PM:

It's been a long time since I thought of the Britten setting of "Jubilate Agno" -- but I remember singing that piece in my first year in the chorus I have sung with since a year after college, along with the piece Britten wrote specifically for the inauguration of the United Nations. ("Where is the equal of love? Where is the battle he cannot win?").

I remember Smart's verse, in symmetry, also having a section for the mouse (very roughly quoting):
For this is a true thing
Cat takes female mouse
Male mouse says "I will fight you, big as you are."
Bush et al., in their ideas of shock and awe, don't seem to have thought of this.

#17 ::: Jean ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2003, 08:06 AM:

To be completely frivolous - and if not now, when? - do you know the wonderful Wendy Cope's homage to Christopher Smart "For I will consider my lover, who shall be nameless"? There's a chunk of it at

#18 ::: language hat ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2003, 01:10 PM:

They claim they represent the majority, but the people I know don't believe that. We'd know more of them personally if they were anything close to a majority.

While I agree with your feelings about the war (and your sorrow at Tobin's remarks), this is a very unfortunate argument, reminiscent of '30s society ladies saying "My dear, nobody we know supports that dreadful Roosevelt!" I'm sure if you give it a moment's thought you'll realize that you're reflecting the limits of your circle of acquaintances rather than the nation at large -- which is what polls are designed to do, and do quite well. The sad fact is that a lot of Americans support both Bush and the war, and it's more productive to figure out how to change that than to wish away the problem.

#19 ::: Loren MacGregor ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2003, 05:05 PM:

You've sent me off on a side journey -- and, by good fortune, caused me to find what I would otherwise have started by saying was lost. For years, I've carried in my head an essay by Edna St. Vincent Millay on the difficulty of translation; the essay was in an old Washington Square edition of her translation of Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs Du Mal." In searching to make sure I had the right title, I found the book again.

Millay's essay is well worth reading. She talks about the need to have some sympathy with and understanding of the culture using the language from which you are translating, and cites, by example, Baudelaire himself. (He apparently was almost solely responsible for the reputation of Poe in France -- according to Millay -- but -also- dearly loved Longfellow's "Hiawatha" ... which he translated. Into Alexandrines.

I am now going to contemplate my shelf of Stoppard, representing a writer who uses English far better than I, when English is not his first (nor I think his second) language.

-- LJM

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 26, 2003, 03:52 PM:

File him next to Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad.

#21 ::: Thomas Yager-Madden ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2003, 08:27 PM:

Has anybody ever seen more of Smart's Jubilate Agno, either in print or online? I've run into the bit about the cat in a couple of different anthologys, but I understand it is merely an excerpt from a much longer (though unfinished) piece. I love the song of his cat Jeoffry so very much; it makes me want to read more.

#22 ::: Thomas Yager-Madden ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2003, 09:11 PM:

Never mind; I remembered how to Google:

#23 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2003, 08:53 AM:

"I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
Tis a like task we are at..."

Inextricably linked in my mind with "My Cat Jeoffry." (I typed 'inextricatly' the first time.)

Poems are good, he said thoughtfully.

#24 ::: WhiteKnight ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 10:23 PM:

Guys I had to translate this poem for Spanish homework tonight. I appreciate your help, as I was unclear on a little of the theme after trying to "decode" it this afternoon.


#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 11:23 PM:

You're welcome, WhiteKnight; and I hope the poem sticks with you as thoroughly as it's stuck with me.

#26 ::: debby ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2003, 07:50 AM:

I am a Spanish teacher. I assigned this poem to my Spanish 1 students. Alas! They do not care for poetry! Only 2 girls had attempted to memorize it.
The rest had the usual excuses, but I know that they did not even try. Why work when they can do nothing or watch tv? So sad!

#27 ::: deeb ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2003, 07:51 AM:

I am a Spanish teacher. I assigned this poem to my Spanish 1 students. Alas! They do not care for poetry! Only 2 girls had attempted to memorize it.
The rest had the usual excuses, but I know that they did not even try. Why work when they can do nothing or watch tv? So sad!

#28 ::: Teresa Alantua ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:14 PM:

I love that poem! I just "Englished" it for myself today: It isn't perfectly literal, but it pleases me...

"Song of the Rider"

Distant and alone.

Black horse, big moon,
and olives in my saddlebag.
Though I know the roads
I will never come to Cf3rdoba.

Through the plain, through the wind,
black horse, red moon.
Death is watching me
from the towers of Cf3rdoba.

Oh, the long road!
Oh, my brave horse!
Oh, that death awaits me
before Cf3rdoba!

Distant and alone.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 10:53 AM:

Nice one. Thank you for posting it.

#30 ::: michelle ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2004, 06:23 PM:

I really think that maybe the poetry on the home page should be spaced out better it was hard to understand when i was writing my anthology of poetry for my grade seven teacher(we need 20 other others in it)but other then that you guys rock live live to the fullest
love ya

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