mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Here's a brief article by me about difficulties of translating poetry and ways to deal with them: compensation, paraphrase, adaptation, and word play. I use my own haiku as an example, and as you'll see, even with the finest techniques, the translations don't always work.

-- Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
Last week, the Futility Closet wrote about an untranslatable poem, a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:




Futility Closet does a good job of explaining what the poem means and why it’s supposedly untranslatable. The explanation isn’t long, and I’d rather send you there than repeat it:

As it says, would be hard in Spanish, which is similar to Portuguese, to create a close, literal translation that preserves the tight rhyming scheme, and impossible in English. But translations don’t have to be close and literal. They can be idiomizing and even free. For a difficult translation, rather than word for word, a good technique can be to aim for equivalence, which means the translation would have the same effect on the reader as the original, although it may vary quite a bit from the original.

For example, fairy stories in Spanish end “y fueron felices y comieron perdices,” which literally means “and they were happy and ate partridges.” The equivalent in English is “and they lived happily every after.” The literal translation makes no sense, and the equivalent translation would be the correct translation.

Here’s my equivalent translation of “Succinct Serenade”:




— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (NightFallsOnEurope)

Celebrate the art and activism of Maya Angelou with a multimedia tribute of music, film, and poetry presented by Casa de America in collaboration with Democrats Abroad Madrid.

Time: 7:30 p.m.
Date: Monday, June 30th
Place: Casa de America
Plaza de Cibeles, 2

Free admission. In Spanish and English.

More information here:

I will be reading one of her poems, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” written on behest of the United Nations. I’m part of a talented team of actresses, musicians, writers, and poets, and a hard-working producer. We don’t want her passing to go unnoticed.

From the press release:

Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, Maya Angelou’s art and activism left an indelible mark on both America and the world. She was at times a poet, author, film director and producer, journalist, dancer, lecturer, and above all a consummate humanist. Her contributions to the US civil rights movement and feminist movement, among other causes, were invaluable to our progress both as a society and as individuals, and she may be best remembered for helping to shape our national consciousness and direct our common moral compass towards empathy.

We will be paying tribute to this amazing woman through a multimedia presentation that will include readings of her poetry and prose, music, film of Maya herself, and commentary by two recognized experts in contemporary American literature. It will be great fun with a little blues and gospel music added for your pleasure.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Easter is the most important religious holiday in Spain, more significant than Christmas. Christ was born at Christmas, but he brought salvation at Easter. So this week throughout Spain, solemn religious processions mourn Jesus’ suffering and death.

Here is a song about that by Joan Manuel Serrat. The words are by Antonio Machado (1875-1939), a poet from Seville, and the poem is La Saeta.

It opens by quoting a popular saeta. These are songs for Easter week processions in Andalucia, in southern Spain. Northern Spain has different songs, but the drums are the same everywhere to mark the pace of penitent funeral processions for Jesus. The saeta asks for a ladder to take the nails from Jesus on the wooden cross. Machado’s poem goes on to lament that this song is always the same, always about Jesus’ death. “... It is the faith of my forefathers. Oh, you are not my song! I cannot sing it, I do not want this Jesus on the wood, I want the one who walked on the sea! ... You are not my song!”

Here is “La Saeta” sung by Joan Manuel Serrat:

Here is a version by Camarón de la Isla (1950-1992), one of the greatest flamenco singers ever:

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (window)

Haiku is plagued by rules, some of which are false. Others are little-known but essential.

False: the idea that a haiku consists of 3-5-3 lines. I'll let Gabi Greve and Haiku Society discuss that. In Japanese, there is a count, but it's not exactly English syllables.

Fewer people know about the kireji, or "cutting word." In Japanese, these act sort of like punctuation or add grammatical structure, and function similarly to the volta or turn in a classic sonnet. The kireji cuts the poem into two parts. In Japanese, a kireji may indicate a question, emphasis, surprise, completion, probability, cause, or interrelationship.

In English, these words are sometimes represented by punctuation, such as colons, dashes, commas, ellipsis, exclamation points, or question marks (: — , … ! ?) or words like but, how, and, yet, now, this, still (and a lot more) or simply by a line break.

Kireji link two ideas. The best haiku have more depth than a simple observation; they link an observation, often about the changes in nature and its seasons, to something else.

Kireji also free the poet from the constraints of a sentence. Words can be left out, and fragments of sentences can be connected to create both emphasis and brevity. (If you love 17-syllable sentences, you may wish to investigate the poetic form of American sentences.)

How does this work? Here are some of my haiku, offered humbly to avoid plagiarizing other better poets:

hard to say:
which day did the robins
leave town?

Christmas eve —
the woman in the checkout line
blinking back tears

back to school —
even the playground trees
are taller

old man
thinks no one is watching
and limps
(Here and is the kireji.)

bus stop
an empty bench
and a bag lunch
(It's and again.)

songbird hatchling
dead on the sidewalk
but Spring does not pause

on last year's poinsettia
a red leaf
(line breaks)

open gate
a girl climbs the playground fence
(Here the kireji is anyway. The location at the end of the haiku brings you back to the beginning, and gives an emotional closure to the poem.)

These haiku also include the traditional immediacy and personal experience — I saw all those things and was inspired by them. Something happened in the context of something else that created a meaning beyond the words themselves.


Recommended resources for learning more about Haiku:

World Haiku Review archives

Happy Haiku Archives

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my professional writer's website:

mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos4)

April is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour called Couplets, and today I'm proud to host Sr. Anne M. Higgins.

Fifty poets are participating in this tour. You can find links to other Couplets posts at:


Couplets: My life as a poet
by Sr. Anne M. Higgins

I wrote my first poem in fourth grade, at the encouragement of my teacher. It was nine-year-old occasional verse about Thanksgiving Day … but I had an ear for rhythm and rhyme. And I liked writing poetry, figuring out how to put words together.

My poems began to move into open form in high school, though I was still telling more than showing; still philosophizing. But they were published in the high school literary magazine, which was called Flight — prophetic for me as a future birder! Sometime in high school I found the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins … loved his poem "Heaven Haven" and really loved figuring out the meaning of his poem "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child." I loved the way he played with words, and the sprung rhythm he used, and I began to imitate his style.
In college, I had some good mentoring from Martin Galvin, a poet and professor at my school. It was then that I began to write as a practice, rather than writing as a way of explaining the world to myself.

My first poem published in a magazine was published by Commonweal in September of 1970; I literally collapsed on the floor when I read the acceptance letter! It was called "The Engineer on the Train" and described my encounter with a businessman/mathematician on a train trip from Baltimore to New York.

During the first five years after college, my poetry writing went into a major slump for many reasons. Finally I began to settle down; I was going to grad school at Hopkins in the evenings and summers while teaching at Seton, a Catholic girls' high school. In the midst of that organized busy-ness, I began to write again. Commonweal published a second poem: "Elizabeth Seton" about the newly canonized saint the school was named for:

Elizabeth Seton

Proud straight woman
with the snapping eyes,
you had to look up
to your benefactors.
You had to sail oceans
to make up your mind,
and lose all your lace
to be stubborn.
You had to be cold
in a damp stone house,
rubbing your hands together
before you could play
that piano,
and you had to wear black
to understand.
Proud loving woman,
pulled into heaven
between last minute
to earth!

This, too, was a prophetic poem. In 1978, at the age of 30, I joined the Daughters of Charity, the order of Sisters with whom I was teaching. Needless to say, it was a major life change!

My belonging to this new life has never prevented me from writing poetry, though, and in the last twelve years I have also been going to poetry conferences, meeting other poets, and widening my own writing. Since 1970, I've had about 100 poems published in small magazines, both print and online. I was especially excited when Garrison Keillor read two of my poems on The Writer's Almanac — one in October 2001, and the other in August 2010.

I write both fixed form and open form poems, though the open form ones predominate.
Josephine Jacobsen, a marvelous poet who died in 2002 at the age of 94, was my mentor for thirty years, and she used to say that it was the poem itself which dictated the form. I agree.
Here is an open form poem which grew out of a Boccaccio story and two paintings:

Handling the Pot of Basil

Holman Hunt, on his honeymoon,
used his wife as the model for Isabella.
She's passionately warm and fleshed out,
large dark eyes wide, head resting on
the pot of basil. Half of her
waist length black hair
is draped over the top of the pot.
The basil plant flourishes,
passionate and fleshy, bushy
and glistening.
The pot itself is full bellied,
gilt porcelain, richly designed,
though skulls the size of tennis balls
adorn four sides of its base.

Isabel had a lover, Lorenzo.
Her brothers lured him away
and murdered him
for the sake of the family honor,
buried his body and told her
Lorenzo had gone to another town.
But in a dream she sought him;
his ghost led her to his grave.
She dug up his body,
sliced off the head,
wrapped it in a shawl,
took it home,
planted it in that ornate pot,
planted the basil on his crown,
and covered it all with soil.
She watered this plant with her tears,
which it must have liked.
So, between the softly decaying
sinuses and corneas,
the tongue, though more earthy now,
whispered love words to her,
while the teeth grinned through the roots.

John White Alexander painted her, too,
in 1897.
Here, she's wan as the pot,
in which no basil is evident.

Trance-trapped, she's lit from below.
Her fingers trace shadows on the skin of the pot.
Her feet are hidden beneath volumes
of gauzy white nightgown.


Eventually those damned
interfering brothers,
seeing that she had gone round the bend,
crazed with grief,
wondered why she lingered with the basil plant
on which she lavished care and tears.
They took it from her,
upended it, and finding
the remnants of tissue,
tearstained skull,
knew they must get out of town,
far away.
The story does not tell
what happened to Isabella.

That's something else I love to do: write ekphrastic poems. I love to wander the Phillips Gallery in Washington in some kind of daze, waiting for a painting to call out to me.

For the last twelve years, I've had the joy of teaching English at Mt. St. Mary's University, a small coed school set on the side of a mountain in rural Maryland. I teach Freshman Comp as well as a variety of other courses — my favorite is Introduction to Poetry, where I get to introduce my students — mostly non-English majors, and all four years of undergrad school — to the work of poets I love: Richard Wilbur, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, and yes, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

During these years, after countless rejections, I have finally had some five books of poetry published. This didn't happen until I was in my fifties, so I say to younger poets — don't lose heart!

mount_oregano: Let me see (window)

To celebrate National Poetry Month, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a poetry blog tour, and today I'm hosting Carol Berg. I've already written about translation from Spanish in another post, and today Carol talks about translation from a Swedish without having mastered the language.

Fifty poets are participating in this tour. You can find links to other Couplets posts at: Celebrate poetry!


On Translation, by Carol Berg

One of the first poems I ever published, "Make Believe," was about my grandfather who lived in Jamestown, New York. My grandfather was Swedish and I never learned how to speak Swedish and always felt that was such a loss. When my family traveled to Jamestown, everything would change, even my father. He would try to speak Swedish to his friends, although he only knew certain phrases. For that reason, and many others, I chose to translate three Swedish contemporary writers for my third semester project while I was getting my MFA in poetry at Stonecoast's Low-Residency program. Translating, I believed, would introduce me to the Swedish language as well as strengthen my own poetry in ways I would probably learn only intuitively.

Clearly, not being fluent in Swedish presented some problems. I needed to find Swedish speakers willing to help me. Being a member of the Wom-po list-serve (a discussion group of women poets), I emailed a request for Swedish speakers and received a number of responses. I also decided to use two different methods of translating. The first was to go through the poem myself and translate it word for word, then use an existing English translation to help in understanding. The other method was to ask a translator for a transliteration of three poems by each of the poets and then to turn these literal translations into poems in English.

The tools I worked with were The Hippocrene Standard Swedish-English Dictionary, Swedish: Essentials of Grammar, as well as an online Swedish dictionary website In addition, I accessed the Swedish online newspaper SvD and tried to read it often.

I immediately realized how difficult translating is when I began translating Eva Ström's poem "Jag är Steinkind". The first line of the poem, "Jag är Steinkind i min svarta klänning," translates directly to "I am stonechild in my black dress." For me "black dress" conjured the sexy little black cocktail dress and not a funeral dress, which to my mind would be "black clothes." After struggling with the possible meanings and the rest of the poem, I made what I considered my first true translational choice, which was changing the word "klänning" to "cloth" instead of "dress." In my mind, "cloth" sounded similar to "klänning," but the connotations would be different. At the very point of making such a decision, I felt a responsibility for the poem. To read my translation of this and another poem by Ström, go to

One of the ongoing arguments about translation is whether the translator should attempt a translation in a language he or she knows very little about. After my experience, I can honestly say that having a fluent understanding of Swedish may have helped me create better translations. I am thinking mostly of having the connotations of words that could have enabled me to make different choices. But I feel that, especially with the tools now available to a translator, such as hearing the language on the internet, the ease of finding on-line dictionaries — in short, the ability to immerse oneself into the target language from one's own home — makes translation a different process than it has been before.

If you are interested in translating, I would highly suggest asking around in your particular communities first for native speakers, be it an on-line virtual community or one that is in your neighborhood. Buy some dictionaries in your target language. Look for international blogs in another language and visit them daily, without worrying about trying to understand the language. And finally, choose a poem that's relatively short in length.

To hear many many international poets read their poems in the native language, and to find poems written in another language, go to and browse around. It's a start to your translating project.

mount_oregano: Let me see (Default)

It's National Poetry Month. To celebrate, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a poetry blog tour called Couplets, and today I'm on tour at Christina Nguyen's blog:

She and I have written a series of linked hiakus for a year in Minnesota, where she lives, and Spain, where I live.

Fifty poets are participating in this tour. You can find links to other Couplets posts at:

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Default)

It's National Poetry Month. To celebrate, Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour called Couplets. Fifty poets are participating by hosting guests at their blogs or being guests at other participants' blogs. Here is the list for the first week. Take a look and enjoy!

mount_oregano: Let me see (Bamboo)

The Twitter-zine 7x20 has published two of my haiku.

December 16:!/7x20/statuses/147654786186084353

December 28:!/7x20/status/152003409854218240

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (OpenMic)

The Twitter 'zine 7x20 (@7x20 or has gathered the best from its first two years of publication into the anthology 140 And Counting. Enjoy literate and entertaining tweets — very short stories, haiku, American sentences, cinquains, and other short poems. It includes poetry by me.

Kindle edition:


More formats coming soon.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (HappyPortrait)

In December, the online journal Seven by Twenty will publish an ebook anthology of works that have appeared there — including mine. It publishes on Twitter:!/7x20

You can see a preview of the anthology here:

You can also help crowdfund it — those ISBN numbers don't come free. A donation of $5 is essentially a pre-order of the book.

I repeat: You can pre-order the book! Only $5!

It would make a great Christmas present.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Seedlings1)

Haibun: a combination of prose and haiku. Its focus is often on everyday experiences, but sometimes on a journey in the style of the originator of haibun, a Japanese monk named Bashô, who kept travel journals.

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has brought Chernobyl's disaster back into the headlines. This is a haibun I wrote after visiting Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 2006. Organized tours have been permitted since 1994, and about 2,000 tourists go each year from all over the world. In fact, visitors are welcomed.

Viktor Yushchenko, then the president of Ukraine, said, "I hope that Chernobyl, just as it is, and perhaps Pripyat and those abandoned and dead villages that you find along the road will be visited, and the more people the better, because to see them will allow us to think in more conscious and more forward-looking ways about what happened."

This is what I saw:

A military checkpoint marks the entrance to the Exclusion Zone, the contaminated area roughly 30 kilometers around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The zone was evacuated within days of the catastrophe on April 26, 1986. A soldier wearing a film badge to measure his radiation dose checked our identification, then we stopped at the Chernobyl Interinform Agency. There, we met our tour guide, a cheerful, square-built young man who could answer any question in Ukrainian and quite good English. He gave us an overview of the continuing problems in the Exclusion Zone, and we returned our bus to head toward the areas marked red on the maps.

his pocket dosimeter
ticking ever faster
our smiling guide leads on

First we had to put on disposable paper hooded coveralls over our clothes -- one size fits all, or rather, no size fits anyone. We wondered if flimsy paper clothing really protected us from anything. Certainly not ridicule.

our radiation suits:
uniformed soldiers
point and laugh

Eventually we figured it out. The purpose of the suits was merely to identify us. Looting and vandalism remain a problem in the Exclusion Zone, but we were obviously under proper supervision and fearless leadership. Our guide, with his colorful maps, had impressed upon us the size of the zone. He also told us about the wild animals -- wolves, boars, eagles -- that now live there. Most have moved in from the surrounding area, but several dozen Przewalski's horses were deliberately introduced in 1998, a species almost extinct in the wild due to lack of habitat. The herd in the Exclusion Zone has thrived, and we saw some on our way toward the nuclear power plant.

wild horses --
and a pasture twice the size
of Luxembourg

The plant itself, the infamous plant, the symbol of so many failures, looked like a large, abandoned old factory, but a new building and parking lot stood beside it.

Visitor Center:
women in face masks
plant tulips

The cesium and plutonium spewed out during the disaster has washed into the soil, so in some locations digging requires precautions. Plants pull radioactivity back up through their roots, as a Geiger counter set on the pavement and then on the lawn can prove.

keep off the grass:
twice the dose
as asphalt

During the lecture in the Visitor Information Center, we learned about the precarious condition of the plant and the shelter erected over it, the Sarcophagus. Its roof is buckling and has gaps that let in rain and animals.

bird nests
in Chernobyl's tomb:
no hawks, no danger, right?

We moved on to Pripyat, a city built for the power plant's workers and families. Its 50,000 inhabitants were evacuated the day after the disaster with two hours' notice. They were told they were only leaving for three days, although authorities knew it would be forever: the radiation will subside to liveable levels in a thousand years.

busy ants. . .
do they notice
the city is empty?

It was a model Soviet city, with lovely tree-lined boulevards and many amenities. Its designer even had one rose bush planted for every inhabitant.

among the weeds
a few tough roses

We visited Chernobyl the day after Palm Sunday. With no palm trees in Ukraine, the faithful use willow catkins and bring bouquets of them to churches to be blessed. They were in bloom in Pripyat, too.

pussy willows --
980 unholy springs
until Resurrection

The tour company owner (in the yellow jacket in the photo) had been a boy in Pripyat when the disaster happened, a third grade student at School Number 1. It has partially collapsed, spilling books, furniture, and students' possessions across the cracked and mossy sidewalk.

a string of beads
on the ground: everyone looks
no one touches

We got back on the bus and passed through the "Red Forest," the pine woods next to the power plant and directly under the path of the worst fallout. The pine cones and needles turned red overnight; the trees died, and were cut down and buried. The radioactivity there can still reach 1 roentgen, 50,000 times normal, the most radioactive outdoor location on the planet.

Red Forest
dust to dust. . .
Geiger counters scream

Our guide pointed out a tall metal grid visible over the new, young, radioactive trees. It was the early warning radar screen for Chernobyl II, a top secret nuclear missile site whose bombs could have reached the United States. An American spy satellite on a routine top secret mission passed over the area 28 seconds after a huge explosion. At first, U.S. analysts thought a missile had been fired. (That must have caused a scramble.) When it didn't move, they thought a missile had exploded in its silo. Then, looking at a map, they realized it was the nuclear power plant.

Chernobyl II
the bigger danger next door:
who knew?

And so we left, with one final stop at a Ukraine Army checkpoint to test our radioactivity. We all passed. Our exposure had been slight, equal to the radiation we receive in many routine activities. No tee-shirts, no souvenirs. Just memories.

like a small x-ray
but with nothing
to show

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Seedlings1)

One of my haiku is scheduled to appear on January 12 in the twitter-zine Seven By Twenty:

If, like me, you don't use Twitter, you can follow tweets via Internet.

Seven By Twenty publishes twitter-length literary and speculative works. Writers should note that it is open for submissions, and fiction is especially welcome at this time. Guidelines here:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Madrid)

Author: Unknown.
Location: The intersection of Fuenterrabia and Andrés Torrejón Streets, Madrid, Spain.

No te quedes inmóvil (Don't stand still)
al borde del camino (at the edge of the road)
no congeles el júbilo (don't freeze the joy)

no quieras con desgana (don't want it half-heartedly)
no te salves ahora (don't avoid it now)
ni nunca (or ever)

no te salvas (don't avoid it)
no te llenes de calma (don't be calm)
no te reserves del mundo (don't hold back from the world)

— Sue Burke, photographer and translator

mount_oregano: Let me see (OpenMic)

I have a haiku about Chernobyl in Honorable Mention and another in Haiku of Merit in the World Haiku Festival 2010 in Nagasaki Competition on the theme of the Atomic Bomb:

I also have a Haiku of Merit in Neo-Classic Haiku and another in Shintai Haiku:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (OpenMic)
William L. Fox on why, as a university president, he works poetry into many of his speeches, and why doing so resonates with alumni.

It may help that he picks outstanding poetry.
mount_oregano: Let me see (OpenMic)

I'll be participating in the 5th Mad Open Mic: Captured Words at 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 21, at the Café Concierto La Fídula, calle Huertas 57, Madrid. Nineteen people have registered to share prose, fiction, poetry, and other creative words. The readings will be in English, and the participants come from around the world. In previous editions, I was impressed by the quality and variety of works.

I plan to read a poem about dog poop on the sidewalks of Madrid.

If you're in Madrid, please come!

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Gredos1)

The poem "Poe" has earned an honorable mention from Ellen Datlow for her anthology Best Horror of the Year for works published in 2009.

The poem was originally written in Spanish by Alfredo Álamo, and it won Spain's Ignotus Award for poetry in 2007, the equivalent of a Hugo. Gwyneth Box and I translated it for the spring 2009 issue of The Magazine of Speculative Poetry.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (ColorfulMe)
  My Christmas haiku closes out the year for the twitter-zine Seven by Twenty, which features short poetry and fiction: This poem, by the way, is not fiction.

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