The HyperTexts

The Best Poetry Translations of Michael R. Burch, or, "How the Hell Did I End Up Translating Other People's Poetry?"

This page includes modern English translations of: Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems; Middle English poems by Geoffrey Chaucer, Layamon and William Dunbar; ancient Greek epigrams, epitaphs and lyric poems by Sappho, Simonides, Sophocles, Plato and other poets; Latin epigrams by Seneca and Thomas Campion; an ancient Egyptian love poem; an ancient Norse poem; haiku and tanka by Basho and other Oriental Masters; Native American poems and proverbs; Holocaust poems by Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Miklós Radnóti, Wladyslaw Szlengel and Ko Un; a Hiroshima poem by Kurihara Sadako; Arabic and Palestinian poems; German poems by Rainer Maria Rilke; Spanish poems by Pablo Neruda; Russian poems by Marina Tsvetaeva; Chinese poems by Li Qingzhao; French poems by Charles Baudelaire and Veronica Franco; and Urdu poems by by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbāl.

Speechless
by Ko Un
translation by Michael R. Burch

At Auschwitz
piles of glasses,
mountains of shoes ...
returning, we stared out different windows.

Infectious!
by Hafiz aka Hafez
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I became infected with happiness tonight
as I wandered idly, singing in the starlight.
Now I'm wonderfully contagious—
so kiss me!

Dispensing Keys
by Hafiz aka Hafez
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The imbecile
constructs cages
for everyone he knows,
while the sage
(who has to duck his head
whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys
all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy,
prison gang.

The Tally
by Hafiz aka Hafez
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Lovers
don't reveal
all
their Secrets;
under the covers
they
may
count each other's Moles
(that reside
and hide
in the shy regions
by forbidden holes),
then keep final tally
strictly
from Aunt Sally!

This is admittedly a very loose translation of the original Hafiz poem!

Three Roundels by Geoffrey Chaucer

I. Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translation by Michael R. Burch

Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are my life and my death, my queen ...
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Original text:

Your yën two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, whyl that hit is grene,
Your yën two wol sle me sodenly;
may the beaute of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey yow feithfully,
That ye ben of my lyf and deth the quene;
For with my deth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yën two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

II. Rejection
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translation by Michael R. Burch

Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

Though guiltless, my death sentence has been cast.
I tell you truly, needless now to feign,—
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain.

Alas, that Nature in your face compassed
Such beauty, that no man may hope attain
To mercy, though he perish from the pain;
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

Original text:

So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

Giltles my deth thus han ye me purchaced;
I sey yow soth, me nedeth not to feyne;
So hath your beaute fro your herle chaced
Pilee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne

Allas! that nature hath in yow compassed
So gret beaute, that no man may atteyne
To mercy, though he sterve for the peyne.
So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

III. Escape
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translation by Michael R. Burch

Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

He may question me and counter this and that;
I care not: I will answer just as I mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean.

Love strikes me from his roster, short and flat,
And he is struck from my books, just as clean.
Forevermore; there is no other mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

Original text:

Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.

He may answere, and seye this or that;
I do no fors, I speke right as I mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene.

Love hath my name y-strike out of his sclat,
And he is strike out of my bokes clene
For ever-mo; [ther] is non other mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.
Explicit.

I Loved You
by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I loved you ... perhaps I love you still ...
perhaps for a while such emotions may remain.
But please don’t let my feelings trouble you;
I do not wish to cause you further pain.

I loved you ... thus the hopelessness I knew ...
The jealousy, the diffidence, the pain
resulted in two hearts so wholly true
the gods might grant us leave to love again.

Les Bijoux (The Jewels)
by Charles Baudelaire
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My lover nude and knowing my heart's whims
Wore nothing more than a few bright-flashing gems;
Her art was saving men despite their sins—
She ruled like harem girls crowned with diadems!

She danced for me with a gay but mocking air,
My world of stone and metal sparking bright;
I discovered in her the rapture of everything fair—
Nay, an excess of joy where the spirit and flesh unite!

Naked she lay and offered herself to me,
Parting her legs and smiling receptively,
As gentle and yet profound as the rising sea—
Till her surging tide encountered my cliff, abruptly.

A tigress tamed, her eyes met mine, intent ...
Intent on lust, content to purr and please!
Her breath, both languid and lascivious, lent
An odd charm to her metamorphoses.

Her limbs, her loins, her abdomen, her thighs,
Oiled alabaster, sinuous as a swan,
Writhed pale before my calm clairvoyant eyes;
Like clustered grapes her breasts and belly shone.

Skilled in more spells than evil imps can muster,
To break the peace which had possessed my heart,
She flashed her crystal rocks’ hypnotic luster
Till my quietude was shattered, blown apart.

Her waist awrithe, her breasts enormously
Out-thrust, and yet ... and yet, somehow, still coy ...
As if stout haunches of Antiope
Had been grafted to a boy ...

The room grew dark, the lamp had flickered out.
Mute firelight, alone, lit each glowing stud;
Each time the fire sighed, as if in doubt,
It steeped her pale, rouged flesh in pools of blood.

I love you only because I love you
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I love you only because I love you;
I am torn between loving and not loving you,
Between apathy and desire.
My heart vacillates between ice and fire.

I love you only because you’re the one I love;
I hate you deeply, but hatred
Bends me all the more toward you, so that the measure of my variableness
Is that I do not see you, but love you blindly.

Perhaps January’s frigid light will consume my heart with its cruel rays,
robbing me of any hope of peace.

In this tragic plot, I am the one who dies,
Love’s only victim,
And I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, my Love, in fire and blood.

Love Sonnet XVII
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I do not love you like coral or topaz,
or the blazing hearth’s incandescent white flame:
I love you as obscure things are loved in the dark,
secretly, in shadows, unnamed.

I love you like shrubs that refuse to bloom
while pregnant with the radiance of mysterious flowers;
now thanks to your love an earthy fragrance
lives dimly in my body’s odors.

I love you without knowing how, when, why or where;
I love you forthrightly, without complications or care:
I love you this way because I know no other.

Here, where “I” no longer exists, nor “you” ...
so close that your hand on my chest is my own,
so close that your eyes close gently on my dreams.

Every Day You Play
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Every day you play with Infinity’s rays.
Exquisite visitor, you arrive with the flowers and the water.
You are vastly more than this immaculate head I clasp tightly
like a cornucopia, every day, between my hands ...

If there was one thing I was damn sure I'd never do, it was translate poetry. Writing original poetry in one's native tongue is hard enough; only a masochist would try to translate someone else's poetry into other languages. And I sure as hell never dreamed of translating Anglo-Saxon or Ye Olde Englishe poems into modern English, because I had always found high-school- and college-enforced readings of lengthy "Beowulf" and Chaucer passages beyond tedious. But something made me change my mind: the stunning lyric poem immediately below. I fell in love with it, but I didn't really care for any of the translations I was able to find ... hence I was forced to attempt the impossible, or, the highly implausible ...

Ben Sana Mecburum: “You are indispensable”
by Attila Ilhan
translation by Nurgül Yayman and Michael R. Burch

You are indispensable; how can you not know
that you’re like nails riveting my brain?
I see your eyes as ever-expanding dimensions.
You are indispensable; how can you not know
that I burn within, at the thought of you?

Trees prepare themselves for autumn;
can this city be our lost Istanbul?
Now clouds disintegrate in the darkness
as the street lights flicker
and the streets reek with rain.
You are indispensable, and yet you are absent ...

Love sometimes seems akin to terror:
a man tires suddenly at nightfall,
of living enslaved to the razor at his neck.
Sometimes he wrings his hands,
expunging other lives from his existence.
Sometimes whichever door he knocks
echoes back only heartache.

A screechy phonograph is playing in Fatih ...
a song about some Friday long ago.
I stop to listen from a vacant corner,
longing to bring you an untouched sky,
but time disintegrates in my hands.
Whatever I do, wherever I go,
you are indispensable, and yet you are absent ...

Are you the blue child of June?
Ah, no one knows you—no one knows!
Your deserted eyes are like distant freighters ...
perhaps you are boarding in Yesilköy?
Are you drenched there, shivering with the rain
that leaves you blind, beset, broken,
with wind-disheveled hair?

Whenever I think of life
seated at the wolves’ table,
shameless, yet without soiling our hands ...
Yes, whenever I think of life,
I begin with your name, defying the silence,
and your secret tides surge within me
making this voyage inevitable.
You are indispensable; how can you not know?

Wulf and Eadwacer (Old English circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My people pursue him like crippled prey.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different!

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
Here, bloodthirsty curs roam this island.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different!

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained, as I wept,
the bold warrior came; he took me in his arms:
good feelings for him, but their end loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

What an earthy, dirty, brutally honest poem written from a female perspective about what sounds like war, a family being split apart, and perhaps rape, sex slavery and child abduction and/or infanticide. Much remains in doubt: did Wulf abduct the child, perhaps thinking the child was his, or did the the mother, the rapist or perhaps the rapist's wife get rid of the child? In my opinion the original poem is one of the truly great poems in the English language, so my translation seems like a worthwhile endeavor, especially if other people like what I've done.

There was another poem that also vexed me because I didn't really care for the translations of it that I had read, and it was perhaps the first poem to be written in the then-fledgling English language:

Cædmon's Hymn (Old English circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now let us honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect      and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father.      First he, the Eternal Lord,
established      the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the First Poet,      created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men,      Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind.      Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master almighty!

"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and may be the oldest extant poem in the English language. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English because Cædmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the Angles were a Germanic tribe. Nevertheless, by Cædmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God.

Now here are four splendid but little-known poems from the early 13th century that may predate Chaucer. Please note the introduction of end rhyme ...

Westron Wynde (anonymous Middle English lyric, found in a partbook circa 1530 AD, but perhaps written much earlier)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Western wind, when will you blow,
bringing the drizzling rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
and I in my bed again!

NOTE: The original poem has "the smalle rayne down can rayne" which suggests a drizzle or mist, either of which would suggest a dismal day. 

How Long the Night (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

This World's Joy (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Winter awakens all my care
as leafless trees grow bare.
For now my sighs are fraught
when it enters my thought:
regarding this world's joy,
how it all comes to naught.

[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]
 
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.


Pity Mary (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy face—fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

In the poem above, note how "wood" and "tree" invoke the cross while "sun" and "son" seem to invoke each other. Sun-day is also Son-day, to Christians. The anonymous poet who wrote the poem above may have been been punning the words "sun" and "son." The poem is also known as "Now Goeth Sun Under Wood" and "Now Go'th Sun Under Wood." Here's another poem from the same era:

Fowles in the Frith (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The fowls in the forest,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad:
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

Sounds like an early animal rights activist! The use of "and" is intriguing ... is the poet saying that his walks in the wood drive him mad because he is also a "beast of bone and blood," facing a similar fate?

I am of Ireland (anonymous Medieval Irish lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy realm of Ireland.
Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of saintly charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland!

Ich am of Irlaunde,
Ant of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, pray ich the,
For of saynte charité,
Come ant daunce wyth me
In Irlaunde.

The poem above still smacks of German, with "Ich" for "I." But a metamorphosis was clearly in progress: English poetry was evolving to employ meter and rhyme, as well as Anglo-Saxon alliteration. And it's interesting to note that "ballad," "ballet" and "ball" all have the same root: the Latin ballare (to dance) and the Italian ballo/balleto (a dance). Think of a farm community assembling for a hoe-down, then dancing a two-step to music with lyrics. That is apparently how many early English poems originated. And the more regular meter of the evolving poems would suit music well.
Is this the oldest carpe diem poem in the English language?

Whan the turuf is thy tour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

1.
When the turf is your tower
and the pit is your bower,
your pale white skin and throat
shall be worms’ to note.
What help to you, then
was all your worldly hope?

2.
When the turf is your tower
and the grave is your bower,
your white throat and skin
worm-consumed from within ...
what hope of help then?

Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitë throtë
Shullen wormës to notë.
What helpëth thee thennë
Al the worildë wennë?

Ech day me comëth tydinges thre
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Each day I’m plagued by three doles,
These gargantuan weights on my soul:
First, that I must somehow exit this fen.
Second, that I cannot know when.
And yet it’s the third that torments me so,
Because I don't know where the hell I will go!

Ech day me comëth tydinges thre,
For wel swithë sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennë,
That other that Ich not whennë,
The thriddë is my mestë carë,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farë.

Ich have y-don al myn youth
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I have done it all my youth:
Often, often, and often!
I have loved long and yearned zealously ...
And oh what grief it has brought me!

Ich have y-don al myn youth,
Oftë, ofte, and ofte;
Longe y-loved and yerne y-beden –
Ful dere it is y-bought!

This is my translation of a wonderful poem by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" has been one of my favorite poems since I first read it. I decided to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

The original poem by William Dunbar:

Sweit rois of vertew and of gentilnes,
Delytsum lyllie of everie lustynes,
Richest in bontie and in bewtie cleir
And everie vertew that is deir,
Except onlie that ye are mercyles.

Into your garthe this day I did persew.
Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of hew,
Baithe quhyte and rid, moist lusty wer to seyne,
And halsum herbis upone stalkis grene,
Yit leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.

I dout that Merche with his caild blastis keyne
Hes slane this gentill herbe that I of mene,
Quhois petewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane
That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,
So that confortand his levis unto me bene.

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 11th century AD)

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour,                                                Now skyward the rose and the lily flower,                               skruketh = break forth, burst open
That whilen ber that suete savour                                                  That will bear for awhile that sweet savor: 
In somer, that suete tyde;                                                              In summer, that sweet tide; 
Ne is no quene so stark ne stour,                                                  There is no queen so stark in her power                                  stour = strong, stern, hardy
Ne no luedy so bryht in bour                                                         Nor no lady so bright in her bower
That ded ne shal by glyde:                                                             That dead shall not glide by:
Whoso wol fleshye lust for-gon and hevene-blisse abyde               Whoever will forgo lust, in heavenly bliss will abide
On Jhesu be is thoht anon, that tharled was ys side.                       With his thoughts on Jesus anon, thralled at his side.                tharled = thralled?, made a serf?, bound?

A similar poem to the one above, in time and language, is "Blow Northerne Wynd," which has been called the "most ancient love poem in the English language," perhaps composed during the reign of King John. But I prefer the lovely poem above, if not the Christian sentiments of the closing couplet.

Adam Lay Ybounden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
translation by Michael R. Burch

Adam lay bound, bound in a bond;
Four thousand winters, he thought, were not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerics now find written in their book.
But had the apple not been taken, or had it never been,
We'd never have had our Lady, heaven's queen.
So blesséd be the time the apple was taken thus;
Therefore we sing, "God is gracious!"

The poem has also been rendered as "Adam lay i-bounden" and "Adam lay i-bowndyn." Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

Adam lay i-bounden, bounden in a bond;
Foure thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerkes finden written in theire book.
Ne hadde the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our Lady aye been heavene queen.
Blessed be the time that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen, “Deo gracias!”


I Sing of a Maiden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
translation by Michael R. Burch

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless.
The King of all Kings
For her son she chose.
He came also as still
To his mother's breast
As April dew
Falling on the grass.
He came also as still
To his mother's bower
As April dew
Falling on the flower.
He came also as still
To where his mother lay
As April dew
Falling on the spray.
Mother and maiden?
Never one, but she!
Well may such a lady
God's mother be!

Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

I sing of a maiden (virgin)
That is makeles: (matchless / mateless / spotless)
King of alle kinges
To her sone she chees. (for her son she chose)
He cam also stille (He came as silently)
Ther his moder was (where his mother was)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr (mother's bower, perhaps meaning both bedroom and leafy nest)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the flowr.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the spray (blossom and/or budding twig)
Moder and maiden (Mother and virgin)
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady (such a lady)
Godes moder be.

IN LIBRARIOS
by Thomas Campion

Impressionum plurium librum laudat
Librarius; scortum nec non minus leno.

Novelties
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Booksellers laud authors for novel editions
as pimps praise their whores for exotic positions.

Brut (circa 1100 AD, written by Layamon, an excerpt)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch


Now he stands on a hill overlooking the Avon,
seeing steel fishes girded with swords in the stream,
their swimming days done,
their scales a-gleam like gold-plated shields,
their fish-spines floating like shattered spears.

Layamon's Brut is a 32,000-line poem composed in Middle English that shows a strong Anglo-Saxon influence and contains the first known reference to King Arthur in English. The passage above is a good example of Layamon's gift for imagery. It's interesting, I think, that a thousand years ago a poet was dabbling in surrealism, with dead warriors being described as if they were both men and fish.


Around the same time that I was finding myself frustrated with other people's translations of the poems above, I also discovered certain Greek epigrams that seemed to deserve more attention. So I created a collection of English epigrams modeled after epitaphs gleaned from ancient Greek gravestones and called the collection:

Athenian Epitaphs

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Passerby,
tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Here he lies in state tonight: great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not, neither does War relent.
Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon

Blame not the gale, or the inhospitable sea-gulf, or friends’ tardiness,
mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

Now that I am dead sea-enclosed Cyzicus shrouds my bones.
Faretheewell, O my adoptive land that nurtured me, that suckled me;
I take rest at your breast.
Michael R. Burch, after Erycius

If you liked these modernizations of ancient Greek epigrams, there are more at the bottom of this page. Now here are three of my translations of the epigrams of Sappho, one of the first great lyric poets, and perhaps the first great female poet whose name we know today:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains
uprooting oaks.

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Sappho, fragment 130

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May the gods prolong the night
  —yes, let it last forever!—
as long as you sleep in my sight.

Haiku can be similar to the best Greek epigrams: short and sweet, or (more often) short and bittersweet. Here's my translation of one of my favorite haiku, by the master Basho:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here's another haiku I particularly love:

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!

Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here is my only translation of a tanka (at least to date). Again I am struck by the similarity of great Oriental poetry to the best ancient Greek epigrams:

Our life here on earth:
to what shall we compare it?
It is not like a rowboat
departing at daybreak,
leaving no trace of man in its wake?
― Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are more of my haiku translations; every other poem is by the Master Basho; I consider him one of the greatest poets of all time, in any language:

Deep autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue, I wonder ...
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

One apple, alone
In the abandoned orchard
reddens for winter
― Patrick Blanche, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A kite floats
at the same place in the sky
where yesterday it floated ...
― Buson Yosa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there's no rice
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Grasses wilt:
the braking locomotive
grinds to a halt
― Yamaguchi Seishi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wild geese pass
leaving the emptiness of heaven
revealed
― Takaha Shugyo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I shattered your heart;
now I limp through the shards
barefoot.
by Vera Pavlova, translation by Michael R. Burch

The last poem above is by a contemporary Russian poet, but I think it rivals the work of the Oriental masters. There are more haiku translations toward the end of this page. The Romans also wrote epigrams ...

Just as I select a ship when it's time to travel,
or a house when it's time to change residences,
even so I will choose when it's time to depart from life.
―Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD), speaking about the right to euthanasia in the first century AD, translation by Michael R. Burch

Through the fields of solitude
by Hermann Allmers
translation by David B. Gosselin with Michael R. Burch

Peacefully, I rest in the tall green grass   
For a long time only gazing as I lie,
Caught in the endless hymn of crickets,
And encircled by a wonderful blue sky.  

And the lovely white clouds floating across       
The depths of the heavens are like silky lace;                           
I feel as though I have long been dead,
Softly drifting with them through eternal space.  

Walid Khazindar was born in 1950 in Gaza City. He is considered one of the best Palestinian poets; his poetry has been said to be "characterized by metaphoric originality and a novel thematic approach unprecedented in Arabic poetry." He was awarded the first Palestine Prize for Poetry in 1997.

Distant Light
by Walid Khazindar
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Bitterly cold,
winter clings to the naked trees.
If only you would free
the bright sparrows
from the tips of your fingers
and release a smile—that shy, tentative smile—
from the imprisoned anguish I see.
Sing! Can we not sing
as if we were warm, hand-in-hand,
shielded by shade from a glaring sun?
Can you not always remain this way,
stoking the fire: more beautiful than necessary, and silent?
Darkness increases; we must remain vigilant
and this distant light is our only consolation—
this imperiled flame, which from the beginning
has been flickering,
in danger of going out.
Come to me, closer and closer.
I don't want to be able to tell my hand from yours.
And let's stay awake, lest the snow smother us.

Here are my translations of three German poems by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

We cannot know the beheaded god
nor his eyes' forfeited visions. But still
the figure's trunk glows with the strange vitality
of a lamp lit from within, while his composed will
emanates dynamism. Otherwise
the firmly muscled abdomen could not beguile us,
nor the centering loins make us smile
at the thought of their generative animus.
Otherwise the stone might seem deficient,
unworthy of the broad shoulders, of the groin
projecting procreation's triangular spearhead upwards,
unworthy of the living impulse blazing wildly within
like an inchoate star—demanding our belief.
You must change your life.

The Panther
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

His weary vision's so overwhelmed by iron bars,
his exhausted eyes see only blank Oblivion.
His world is not our world. It has no stars.
No light. Ten thousand bars. Nothing beyond.
Lithe, swinging with a rhythmic easy stride,
he circles, his small orbit tightening,
an electron losing power. Paralyzed,
soon regal Will stands stunned, an abject thing.
Only at times the pupils' curtains rise
silently, and then an image enters,
descends through arrested shoulders, plunges, centers
somewhere within his empty heart, and dies.

Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Lord, it is time. Let the immense summer go.
Lay your long shadows over the sundials
and over the meadows, let the free winds blow.
Command the late fruits to fatten and shine;
O, grant them another Mediterranean hour!
Urge them to completion, and with power
convey final sweetness to the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, never will build one.
Who's alone now, shall continue alone;
he'll wake, read, write long letters to friends,
and pace the tree-lined pathways up and down,
restlessly, as autumn leaves drift and descend.

Here are my translations of four poems by the great Holocaust poet Miklós Radnóti. They were written on what became his death march as Nazi soldiers herded Jewish concentration camp prisoners away from the advancing Russian armies.

Postcard 1
by Miklós Radnóti
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Out of Bulgaria, the great wild roar of the artillery thunders,
resounds on the mountain ridges, rebounds, then ebbs into silence
while here men, beasts, wagons and imagination all steadily increase;
the road whinnies and bucks, neighing; the maned sky gallops;
and you are eternally with me, love, constant amid all the chaos,
glowing within my conscience — incandescent, intense.
Somewhere within me, dear, you abide forever —
still, motionless, mute, like an angel stunned to silence by death
or a beetle hiding in the heart of a rotting tree.

Postcard 2
by Miklós Radnóti
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A few miles away they're incinerating
the haystacks and the houses,
while squatting here on the fringe of this pleasant meadow,
the shell-shocked peasants quietly smoke their pipes.
Now, here, stepping into this still pond, the little shepherd girl
sets the silver water a-ripple
while, leaning over to drink, her flocculent sheep
seem to swim like drifting clouds.

Postcard 3
by Miklós Radnóti
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The oxen dribble bloody spittle;
the men pass blood in their piss.
Our stinking regiment halts, a horde of perspiring savages,
adding our aroma to death's repulsive stench.

Postcard 4
by Miklós Radnóti
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I toppled beside him — his body already taut,
tight as a string just before it snaps,
shot in the back of the head.
"This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here,"
I whispered to myself, patience blossoming from dread.
"Der springt noch auf," the voice above me jeered;
I could only dimly hear
through the congealing blood slowly sealing my ear.

This was his final poem, written October 31, 1944 near Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary. "Der springt noch auf" means something like "That one is still twitching."

Here's my translation of a moving poem by Hiroshima survivor Kurihara Sadako:

Let Us Be Midwives!
by Kurihara Sadako
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Midnight . . .
the basement of a shattered building . . .
atomic bomb survivors sniveling in the darkness . . .
not a single candle between them . . .
the odor of blood . . .
the stench of death . . .
the sickly-sweet smell of decaying humanity . . .
the groans . . .
the moans . . .
Out of all that, suddenly, miraculously, a voice:
"The baby's coming!"
In the hellish basement, unexpectedly,
a young mother had gone into labor.
In the dark, lacking a single match, what to do?
Scrambling to her side,
forgetting their own . . .

These are my translations of poems by the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva:

I Know The Truth
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by  Michael R. Burch

I know the truth—abandon lesser truths!
There's no need for anyone living to struggle!
See? Evening falls, night quickly descends!
So why the useless disputes, generals, poets, lovers?

The wind is calming now; the earth is bathed in dew;
the stars' infernos will soon freeze in the heavens.
And soon we'll sleep together, under the earth,
we who never gave each other a moment's rest above it.

I Know The Truth (Alternate Ending)
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by  Michael R. Burch

I know the truth—abandon lesser truths!
There's no need for anyone living to struggle!
See? Evening falls, night quickly descends!
So why the useless disputes, generals, poets, lovers?

The wind caresses the grasses; the earth gleams, damp with dew;
the stars' infernos will soon freeze in the heavens.
And soon we'll lie together under the earth,
we who were never united above it.

Poems about Moscow
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

5
Above the city Saint Peter once remanded to hell
now rolls the delirious thunder of the bells.

As the thundering high tide eventually reverses,
so, too, the woman who once bore your curses.

To you, O Great Peter, and you, O Great Tsar, I kneel!
And yet the bells above me continually peal.

And while they keep ringing out of the pure blue sky,
Moscow's eminence is something I can't deny ...

though sixteen hundred churches, nearby and afar,
all gaily laugh at the hubris of the Tsars.

Undine
by Renée Vivien
translation by Kim Cherub

Your laughter startles, your caresses rake.
Your cold kisses love the evil they do.
Your eyes—blue lotuses drifting on a lake.
Lilies are less pallid than your face.

You move like water parting.
Your hair falls in rootlike tangles.
Your words like treacherous rapids rise.
Your arms, flexible as reeds, strangle,

Choking me like tubular river reeds.
I shiver in their enlacing embrace.
Drowning without an illuminating moon,
I vanish without a trace,
lost in a nightly swoon.

Undine

Ton rire est clair, ta caresse est profonde,
Tes froids baisers aiment le mal qu'ils font;
Tes yeux sont bleus comme un lotus sur l'onde,
Et les lys d'eau sont moins purs que ton front.


Ta forme fuit, ta démarche est fluide,
Et tes cheveux sont de légers roseaux ;
Ta voix ruisselle ainsi qu'un flot perfide ;
Tes souples bras sont pareils aux roseaux,

Aux longs roseaux des fleuves, dont l'étreinte
Enlace, étouffe, étrangle savamment,
Au fond des flots, une agonie éteint
Dans un nocturne évanouissement.

The Seashore Gathering

by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation by Michael R. Burch
 
On the seashores of endless worlds, earth's children converge.
The infinite sky is motionless, the restless waters boisterous.
On the seashores of endless worlds earth's children gather to dance with joyous cries and pirouettes.
They build sand castles and play with hollow shells.
They weave boats out of withered leaves and laughingly float them out over the vast deep.
Earth's children play gaily on the seashores of endless worlds.
They do not know, yet, how to cast nets or swim.
Divers fish for pearls and merchants sail their ships, while earth's children skip, gather pebbles and scatter them again.
They are unaware of hidden treasures, nor do they know how to cast nets, yet.
The sea surges with laughter, smiling palely on the seashore.
Death-dealing waves sing the children meaningless songs, like a mother lullabying her baby's cradle.
The sea plays with the children, smiling palely on the seashore.
On the seashores of endless worlds earth's children meet.
Tempests roam pathless skies, ships lie wrecked in uncharted waters, death wanders abroad, and still the children play.
On the seashores of endless worlds there is a great gathering of earth's children.

Come As You Are
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Come as you are, forget appearances!
Is your hair untamable, your part uneven, your bodice unfastened? Never mind.
Come as you are, forget appearances!

Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.
If your feet glisten with dew, if your anklets slip, if your beaded necklace slides off? Never mind.
Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.

Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?
Flocks of cranes erupt from the riverbank, fitful gusts ruffle the fields, anxious cattle tremble in their stalls.
Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?

You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.
Who will care that your eyelids have not been painted with lamp-black, when your pupils are darker than thunderstorms?
You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.

Come as you are, forget appearances!
If the wreath lies unwoven, who cares? If the bracelet is unfastened, let it fall. The sky grows dark; it is late.
Come as you are, forget appearances!

Unfit Gifts
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

At sunrise, I cast my nets into the sea,
dredging up the strangest and most beautiful objects from the depths ...
some radiant like smiles, some glittering like tears, others flushed like brides’ cheeks.
When I returned, staggering under their weight, my love was relaxing in her garden, idly tearing leaves from flowers.
Hesitant, I placed all I had produced at her feet, silently awaiting her verdict.
She glanced down disdainfully, then pouted: "What are these bizarre things? I have no use for them!"
I bowed my head, humiliated, and thought:
"Truly, I did not contend for them; I did not purchase them in the marketplace; they are unfit gifts for her!"
That night I flung them, one by one, into the street, like refuse.
The next morning travelers came, picked them up and carted them off to exotic countries.

This Dog
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Each morning this dog,
who has become quite attached to me,
sits silently at my feet
until, gently caressing his head,
I acknowledge his company.

This simple recognition gives my companion such joy
he shudders with sheer delight.

Among all languageless creatures
he alone has seen through man entire—
has seen beyond what is good or bad in him
to such a depth he can lay down his life
for the sake of love alone.

Now it is he who shows me the way
through this unfathomable world throbbing with life.

When I see his deep devotion,
his offer of his whole being,
I fail to comprehend ...

How, through sheer instinct,
has he discovered whatever it is that he knows?

With his anxious piteous looks
he cannot communicate his understanding
and yet somehow has succeeded in conveying to me
out of the entire creation
the true loveworthiness of man.

Here are two translations of poems by a wonderful female Chinese poet:

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The migrant songbird on the nearby yew
brings tears to my eyes with her melodious trills—
this fresh downpour renewing the stains of older spills;
another spring gone, and still no word from you ...

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This year with the end of autumn
I find my reflection graying at the edges.
Now evening gales hammer these ledges ...
what shall become of the plum blossoms?

Le Balcon (The Balcony)
by Charles Baudelaire
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Paramour of memory, ultimate mistress,
source of all pleasure, my only desire;
how can I forget your ecstatic caresses,
the warmth of your breasts by the roaring fire,
paramour of memory, ultimate mistress?

Each night illumined by the burning coals
we lay together where the rose-fragrance clings—
how soft your breasts, how tender your soul!
Ah, and we said imperishable things,
each night illumined by the burning coals.

How beautiful the sunsets these sultry days,
deep space so profound, beyond life’s brief floods ...
then, when I kissed you, my queen, in a daze,
I thought I breathed the bouquet of your blood
as beautiful as sunsets these sultry days.

Night thickens around us like a wall;
in the deepening darkness our irises meet.
I drink your breath, ah! poisonous yet sweet!,
as with fraternal hands I massage your feet
while night thickens around us like a wall.

I have mastered the sweet but difficult art
of happiness here, with my head in your lap,
finding pure joy in your body, your heart;
because you’re the queen of my present and past
I have mastered love’s sweet but difficult art.

O vows! O perfumes! O infinite kisses!
Can these be reborn from a gulf we can’t sound
as suns reappear, as if heaven misses
their light when they sink into seas dark, profound?
O vows! O perfumes! O infinite kisses!

Duellem (The Duel)
by Charles Baudelaire
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Two combatants charged!
                                        Their fearsome swords
brightened the air with fiery sparks and blood.
Their clashing blades
                                clinked odd serenades,
reminding us: youth's inspired by overloud love.
But now their blades lie broken, like our hearts!
Still, our savage teeth and talon-like fingernails
can do more damage than the deadliest sword
when lovers lash about with such natural flails.
In a deep ravine haunted by lynxes and panthers,
our heroes roll around in a cozy embrace,
leaving their blood to redden the colorless branches.
This abyss is pure hell; our friends occupy the place.
Come, let us roll likewise here, cruel Amazon,
let our hatred’s ardor never be over and done!

Hadrian’s Elegy
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My delicate soul,
now aimlessly fluttering ... drifting ... unwhole,
former consort of my failing corpse ...
Where are we going—from bad to worse?
From jail to a hearse?
Where do we wander now—fraught, pale and frail?
To hell?
To some place devoid of jests, mirth, happiness?
Is the joke on us?

An Ancient Egyptian Love Lyric (circa 1085-570 BC)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Is there anything sweeter than these hours of love,
when we’re together, and my heart races?
For what is better than embracing and fondling
when you visit me and we surrender to delights?

If you reach to caress my thigh,
I will offer you my breast also —
it’s soft; it won't jab you or thrust you away!

Will you leave me because you’re hungry?
Are you ruled by your belly?
Will you leave me because you need something to wear?
I have chests full of fine linen!
Will you leave me because you’re thirsty?
Here, suck my breasts! They’re full to overflowing, and all for you!

I glory in the hours of our embracings;
my joy is incalculable!

The thrill of your love spreads through my body
like honey in water,
like a drug mixed with spices,
like wine mingled with water.

Oh, that you would speed to see your sister
like a stallion in heat, like a bull to his heifer!
For the heavens have granted us love like flames igniting straw,
desire like the falcon’s free-falling frenzy!

A Courtesan's Love Lyric
by Veronica Franco
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My rewards will be commensurate with your gifts
if only you give me the one that lifts
me laughing ...

And though it costs you nothing,
still it is of immense value to me.

Your reward will be
not just to fly
but to soar, so high
that your joys vastly exceed your desires.

And my beauty, to which your heart aspires
and which you never tire of praising,
I will employ for the raising
of your spirits. Then, lying sweetly at your side,
I will shower you with all the delights of a bride,
which I have more expertly learned.

Then you who so fervently burned
will at last rest, fully content,
fallen even more deeply in love, spent
at my comfortable bosom.

When I am in bed with a man I blossom,
becoming completely free
with the man who loves and enjoys me.

Here's another loose translation of mine, this one of a poem written in Scots by Hugh MacDiarmid. A "watergaw" is a fragmentary rainbow. This "translation" may be a bit unusual, since MacDiarmid wrote both English and Scots versions of the poem, but I like my English version better ...

The Watergaw
by Hugh MacDiarmid
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

One wet forenight in the sheep-shearing season
I saw the uncanniest thing—
a watergaw with its wavering light
shining beyond the wild downpour of rain
and I thought of the last wild look that you gave
when you knew you destined for the grave.

There was no light in the skylark's nest
that night—no—nor any in mine;
but now often I've thought of that foolish light
and of these irrational hearts of men
and I think that, perhaps, at last I ken
what your look meant then.

Intoxicants
by Amrut Ghayal (a Gujarati poet)
translation by Kanu V. Prajapati and Michael R. Burch

O, my mind! You're such a fool, afraid to drink the wine!
But show me anything in the universe that is not intoxicating.

Here are my translations of several Urdu love poems by two wonderful poets, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mirza Ghalib:

Last Night
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Last night, your memory stole into my heart
as spring sweeps uninvited into barren gardens,
as morning breezes reinvigorate dormant deserts,
as a patient suddenly feels well, for no apparent reason ...

Tonight
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Do not strike the melancholy chord tonight!
Days smoldering with pain end up in ashes
and who the hell knows what the future may bring?
Last night’s long lost, tomorrow's horizon’s a wavering mirage,
and how can we know if we’ll see another dawn?
Life is nothing, unless together we make it ring!
Tonight we are gods! Sing!

Do not strike the melancholy chord tonight!
Don’t harp constantly on human suffering!
Stop complaining; let Fate conduct her song!
Give no thought to the future, seize now, this precious thing!
Shed no more tears for temperate seasons long vanished!
All sighs and cries soon weakly dissipate ... stop dithering!
Oh, do not strike the same flat chord again!

Ghazal
by Mirza Ghalib
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Life becomes even more complicated
when a man can’t think like a man ...

What irrationality makes me so dependent on her
that I rush off an hour early, then get annoyed when she's "late"?

My lover is so striking! She demands to be seen.
The mirror reflects only her image, yet still dazzles and confounds my eyes.

Love’s stings have left me the deep scar of happiness
while she hovers above me, illuminated.

She promised not to torment me, but only after I was mortally wounded.
How easily she “repents,” my lovely slayer!

Ghazal
by Mirza Ghalib
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It’s time for the world to hear Ghalib again!
May these words and their shadows like doors remain open.

Tonight the watery mirror of stars appears
while night-blooming flowers gather where beauty rests.

She who knows my desire is speaking,
or at least her lips have recently moved me.

Why is grief the fundamental element of night
when everything falls as the distant stars rise?

Tell me, how can I be happy vast oceans from home
when mail from my beloved lies here, so recently opened?

Ghazal
by Mirza Ghalib
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You should have stayed a little longer;
you left all alone, so why not linger?

We’ll meet again, you said, some other day like this,
as if days like this can ever recur!

You left our house as the moon deserts night's skies,
as the evening light abandons its cycle.

You hated me: a wife abnormally distant;
you left me before your children were grown.

Only fools ask why Ghalib still lives:
his fate is to live desiring death.

Ghazal
by Mirza Ghalib
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Not the blossomings of song nor the adornments of music:
I am the voice of my own heart breaking.

You toy with your long, dark curls
while I remain captive to my dark, pensive thoughts.

We congratulate ourselves that we two are different:
this weakness has burdened us both with inchoate grief.

Now you are here, and I find myself bowing:
as if sadness is a blessing, and longing a sacrament.

I am a fragment of sound rebounding;
you are the walls impounding my echoes.

Here's another Urdu poet:

I’m like a commodity being priced in the market-place:
every eye ogles me like a buyer’s.
—Majrooh Sultanpuri, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

If you insist, I’ll continue playing my songs,
forever piping the flute of my heart.
—Majrooh Sultanpuri, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon has risen once again, yet you are not here.
My heart is a blazing pyre; what do I do?
—Majrooh Sultanpuri, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now here's a poem whose second line enthralled C. S. Lewis. I'm not sure about the source of the original poem, but my "translation" is based on a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ...

Tegner's Drapa
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes
intent on a sun sailing high overhead—
but a sun now irretrievably setting.

Then I saw the sun’s corpse
—dead beyond all begetting—
borne through disconsolate skies
as blasts from the Nifel-heim rang out with dread,
“Balder lies dead, our fair Balder lies dead! . . .”

Lost—the sweet runes of his tongue,
so sweet every lark hushed its singing!
Lost, lost forever—his beautiful face,
the grace of his smile, all the girls’ hearts wild-winging!
O, who ever thought such strange words might be said,
as “Balder lies dead, gentle Balder lies dead! . . .”

These are three English translations of Holocaust poems written in German by the Jewish poet Paul Celan. The first poem, "Death Fugue" ("Todesfuge" in the original German) is one of the most famous Holocaust poems, with its haunting refrain of a German "master of death" killing Jews by day and writing "Your golden hair Margarete" by starlight. The poem demonstrates how terrible things can become when one human being is granted absolute power over other human beings.

Death Fugue
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Black milk of daybreak, we drink it come morning;
we drink it come midday; we drink it, come night;
we drink it and drink it.
We are digging a grave like a hole in the sky; there’s sufficient room to lie there.
The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
in the Teutonic darkness, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
we drink you at midday; we drink you at night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house plays with serpents, he writes ...
he writes when the night falls, "Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith ..."
We are digging dark graves where there’s more room, on high.
His screams, "You dig there!" and "Hey you, dance and sing!"
He grabs his black nightstick, his eyes pallid blue,
cries, "Hey you, dig more deeply! You others, keep dancing!"

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
we drink you at midday, we drink you at night;
we drink you and drink you.
The man of the house writes, "Your golden hair Margarete ...
Your ashen hair Shulamith." He toys with our lives.
He screams, "Play for me! Death’s a master of Germany!"
His screams, "Stroke dark strings, soon like black smoke you’ll rise
to a grave in the clouds; there’s sufficient room for Jews there!"

Black milk of daybreak, we drink you at midnight;
we drink you at noon; Death’s the master of Germany!
We drink you come evening; we drink you and drink you ...
a master of Deutschland, with eyes deathly blue.
With bullets of lead our pale master will murder you!
He writes when the night falls, "Your golden hair Margarete ..."
He unleashes his hounds, grants us graves in the skies.
He plays with his serpents; he’s a master of Germany ...

your golden hair Margarete ...
your ashen hair Shulamith.

O, Little Root of a Dream
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

O, little root of a dream
you enmire me here;
I’m undermined by blood —
no longer seen,
enslaved by death.

Touch the curve of my face,
that there may yet be an earthly language of ardor,
that someone else’s eyes
may see yet see me,
though I’m blind,
here where you
deny me voice.

You Were My Death
by Paul Celan
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You were my death;
I could hold you
when everything abandoned me —
even breath.

Here are two translations of poems by the Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi:

Shema
by Primo Levi
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You who live secure
in your comfortable houses,
who return each evening to find
warm food,
welcoming faces ...

consider whether this is a man:
who toils in the mud,
who knows no peace,
who fights for crusts of bread,
who dies at another man's whim,
at his "yes" or his "no."

Consider whether this is a woman:
bereft of hair,
of a recognizable name
because she lacks the strength to remember,
her eyes as void
and her womb as frigid
as a frog's in winter.

Consider that such horrors have been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them in your hearts
when you lounge in your house,
when you walk outside,
when you go to bed,
when you rise.
Repeat them to your children,
or may your house crumble
and disease render you helpless
so that even your offspring avert their faces from you.

Buna
by Primo Levi
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wasted feet, cursed earth,
the interminable gray morning
as Buna smokes corpses through industrious chimneys.

A day like every other day awaits us.
The terrible whistle shrilly announces dawn:
"You, O pale multitudes with your sad, lifeless faces,
welcome the monotonous horror of the mud ...
another day of suffering has begun."

Weary companion, I see you by heart.
I empathize with your dead eyes, my disconsolate friend.
In your breast you carry cold, hunger, nothingness.
Life has broken what's left of the courage within you.

Colorless one, you once were a strong man,
A courageous woman once walked at your side.
But now you, my empty companion, are bereft of a name,
my forsaken friend who can no longer weep,
so poor you can no longer grieve,
so tired you no longer can shiver with fear.

O, spent once-strong man,
if we were to meet again
in some other world, sweet beneath the sun,
with what kind faces would we recognize each other?

Note: Buna was the largest Auschwitz sub-camp.

Here's a translation of a poem by Wladyslaw Szlengel about his friend Janusz Korczak. Both were victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust ...

Excerpts from "A Page from the Deportation Diary"
by Wladyslaw Szlengel
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I saw Janusz Korczak walking today,
leading the children, at the head of the line.
They were dressed in their best clothes—immaculate, if gray.
Some say the weather wasn’t dismal, but fine.

They were in their best jumpers and laughing (not loud),
but if they’d been soiled, tell me—who could complain?
They walked like calm heroes through the haunted crowd,
five by five, in a whipping rain.

The pallid, the trembling, watched high overhead,
through barely cracked windows—pale, transfixed with dread.

And now and then, from the high, tolling bell
a strange moan escaped, like a sea gull’s torn cry.
Their “superiors” looked on, their eyes hard as stone.
So let us not flinch, as they march on, to die.

Footfall . . . then silence . . . the cadence of feet . . .
O, who can console them, their last mile so drear?
The church bells peal on, over shocked Leszno Street.
Will Jesus Christ save them? The high bells career.

No, God will not save them. Nor you, friend, nor I.
But let us not flinch, as they march on, to die.

No one will offer the price of their freedom.
No one will proffer a single word.
His eyes hard as gavels, the silent policeman
agrees with the priest and his terrible Lord:
                                  “Give them the Sword!”

At the town square there is no intervention.
No one tugs Schmerling’s sleeve. No one cries
“Rescue the children!” The air, thick with tension,
reeks with the odor of vodka, and lies.

How calmly he walks, with a child in each arm:
Gut Doktor Korczak, please keep them from harm!

A fool rushes up with a reprieve in hand:
“Look Janusz Korczak—please look, you’ve been spared!”
No use for that. One resolute man,
uncomprehending that no one else cared
enough to defend them,
his choice is to end with them.

Here's one of the first Old English/Anglo Saxon poems to employ a refrain:

Deor's Lament (Anglo Saxon poem, circa 10th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Weland knew the agony of exile.
That indomitable smith was wracked by grief.
He endured countless troubles:
sorrows were his only companions
in his frozen island dungeon
after Nithad had fettered him,
many strong-but-supple sinew-bonds
binding the better man.
   That passed away; this also may.

Beadohild mourned her brothers' deaths
but even more, her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She predicted nothing good could come of it.
   That passed away; this also may.

We have heard that the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lady, were limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
   That passed away; this also may.

For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Mæring stronghold with an iron hand;
many knew this and moaned.
   That passed away; this also may.

We have also heard of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he held wide sway in the realm of the Goths.
He was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his kingdom might be overthrown.
   That passed away; this also may.

If a man sits long enough, sorrowful and anxious,
bereft of joy, his mind constantly darkening,
soon it seems to him that his troubles are endless.
Then he must consider that the wise Lord
often moves through the earth
granting some men honor, glory and fame,
but others only shame and hardship.
This I will say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga's scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors gave me.
   That passed away; this also may.

"The Wife's Lament" or "The Wife's Complaint" is an Old English (Anglo Saxon) poem found in the Exeter Book which is generally considered to be an elegy in the manner of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song," although there are other interpretations of the poem's genre and purpose. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, but of course the poem may have been written earlier.

The Wife's Lament
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these words from deep wells of my grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, never more than now.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain.

First, my lord forsook his folk, left,
crossed the seas' tumult, far from our people.
Since then, I've known
wrenching dawn-griefs, dark mournings ... oh where,
where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart,
across earth's wide kingdom, and my heart broke.

Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few friends in this unknown, cheerless
region, none close.
Christ, I felt lost!

Then I thought I had found a well-matched man –
one meant for me,
but unfortunately he
was ill-starred and blind, with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions, plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever –
our friendship done, severed.
I must hear, far and near, contempt for my husband.

So other men bade me, "Go, live in the grove,
beneath the great oaks, in an earth-cave, alone."
In this ancient cave-dwelling I am lost and oppressed –
the valleys are dark, the hills immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

The injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
On earth there are lovers who share the same bed
while I pass through life dead in this dark abscess
where I wilt, summer days unable to rest
or forget the sorrows of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved,
opposing breast-cares and her heartaches' legions.
She must appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.

Like a criminal exiled to a far-off land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded love, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish,
is reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing.

Practice Makes Perfect

an original poem by Michael R. Burch

I have a talent for sleep;
it’s one of my favorite things.
Thus when I sleep, I sleep deep ...
at least till the stupid clock rings.

I frown as I squelch its damn beep,
then fling it aside to resume
my practice for when I’ll sleep deep
in a silent and undisturbed tomb.

Originally published by Light Quarterly

Here are my translations of poems by Sir Muhammad Iqbal (علامہمحمداقبال), also known as Allama Iqbāl (علامہاقبال, Allāma meaning "The Learned One"), a Lahori Muslim poet, philosopher and politician.

O, Colorful Rose!
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You are not troubled with solving enigmas
O, beautiful Rose! nor do you have sublime feelings in your heart

Though you ornament the assembly, still you flower apart
(In life's assembly I am not permitted such comforts)

In my garden I am the complete orchestra of longing
While your life is devoid of love's passionate warmth

To pluck you from the branch is not my custom
(I am not blinded by mere appearances)

O, colorful rose this hand is not your tormentor
(I am no callous flower picker!)

I am no intern to analyze you with scientific eyes
Like a lover, I see you with nightingales' eyes

Despite your innumerable tongues, you have chosen silence
What secrets, O Rose, lie concealed in your bosom?

Like me you're a leaf from the garden of Ñër
Far from the garden I am, far from the garden we both are

You are content, but I am a scattered fragrance
Pierced by the sword of love in my quest

This turmoil within me might be a means of fulfillment
This torment, a source of illumination

My frailty might be the beginning of strength
My envy might mirror the cup of divination

My constant vigil is a world-illuminating candle
And teaches this steed, the human intellect, to gallop

Bright Rose
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

You cannot loosen the heart's knot;
perhaps you have no heart,
no share in the chaos

of this garden, where I yearn (for what?)
but harvest no roses.
Of what use to me is wisdom?

Having abandoned the garden,
you are at peace, while I remain anxious,
disconsolate in my terror.

Perhaps Jamshid's empty cup
foretold the future, but may wine
never satisfy my mouth,

till I find you in the mirror.

Jamshid's empty cup: Jamshid saw the reflection of future events in a wine cup.

Withered Roses
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

What words of mine can describe you,
desire of the nightingale's heart?
The morning breeze was your nativity,
the afternoon garden, a tray of perfumes.

My tears welled up like dew,
till in my abandoned heart your rune grew,
this dream-emblem of love:
this spray of withered roses.

Firefly
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A candle among roses
In the evening garden
A shooting star
A flash of the moon's gown
A spark of the sun's hem
In syncopated eclipse

Emissary of day
In night's dark kingdom
Unseen at home
Lucid in exile
Opposite of the moth
The firefly is light

The Age of Infancy
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The earth and sky remained unknown to me
The expanse of my mother's bosom was my only world

Her every movement communicated life's pleasures to me
Yet my own voice conveyed only meaningless words

During infancy's pain, if someone made me cry
The clank of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon those long, lonely hours,
Regarding its silent journey through broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and its plains
Only to be surprised by some prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lips to speech
My heart was inquisitiveness personified

Fiction
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

"Why didn't you make me immortal?"
Beauty asked God, perplexed.

God, vexed, said "The world is a fiction
fashioned from emptiness.

You were born bright, ever-changing:
true beauty is transient, estranging."

The moon overheard their discord,
beamed it on to the morning star

who whispered dawn's clouds their dark secret
till the dew heard it all, formed a tear,

and drenched all the shivering rose petals
(now survived by the hardier nettles).

Coal to Diamond
Allama Iqbāl, after Nietzsche
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My flesh is so vile, I am less than dust
while your brilliance out-blazes the mirror's heart.
My darkness defiles the chafing-dish
before my cremation; a miner's boot
tramples my cranium; I'm covered with ashes.

Do you know my life's bleak essence?
Condensations of smoke, black clouds stillborn
from a single spark; while in feature and nature
starlike, your every facet's a splendor,
gleam of the King's crown, the scepter's jewel.

"Please, friend, be wise," the diamond replied,
"assume a gemlike dignity! Carbon must harden,
to fill one's bosom with radiance. Burn
because you are soft. Banish fear and grief.
Be hard as stone, be diamond."

Excerpts from "The Tulip of Sinai"
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

1

My heart is bright, from burning inwardly.
My eyes weep blood, for all the world to see.
Am I the fool, or is it only he
Who calls all Love mere wild insanity!

3

Love grants the garden soft breezes of May.
Love teaches the meadow sunflowers to be gay.
Love rockets bright rays even into the deep
So that fishes' schools can find their way.

4

Love reckons the price of eagles cheap.
Love surrenders pheasants to the falcons’ steep
Murderous dives. Our offended hearts weep
till suddenly, out of ambush, Love leaps!

5

Love paints the tulip petals’ hue.
Love stirs the spirit’s bitter rue.
And, should you could cleave this carrion of clay,
You would behold Love’s bloodshed too.

7

A spent scent in a garden: hopes expire.
I know not what I seek, no, nor require.
But whether I am satisfied, or starved,
Still here I burn: a martyr to desire.

13

How long, my heart, will you be like the moth,
Infatuated with a bit of cloth
Or winking flame? Just once, my foolish heart,
Be fully consumed in yourself, or depart.

Excerpts from "Cordoba"
by Allama Iqbāl
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I

Chain of day and night
Creator of events
Foundation of life and death
Two-toned silken thread
Weave of attributes
Pitch of future prospects
Chain of day and night
Sitting in judgment
Setting a value upon us
Whenever we're lacking
Death, your destiny
Death, my destiny
What else is reality?
The pulse of an age
Neither day nor night
All crafts vanish
Black and white blur
Annihilation, the end

II

And yet in this form
Hues of eternal life
Splendor of man's love
Love, life's foundation
Death has no claim on love
Love, the tide
Stemming the torrent
Love, the nameless eras
Love, Gabriel's breath
Love, the Prophet of God
Love, the Word of God
Love, the radiant rose
Love, the transcendent wine
Love, the goblet of kings
Love, life's music
Love, the passion for life
Love, the fire of life

III

O, Mosque of Cordoba
Born of love with no past
Color or mortar or stone
Lyre or song or speech
Man's passionate creation
A drop of blood turns
Stone to beating hearts
The heart's cry is joy
Illumination and melody
You brighten my heart
My song wells up in my breast
You draw man's heart
Into the presence of God
But the passion of love
For God is man's alone
I ignite man's passion
Though his sight is finite
His heart's more expansive than the sky
So what if God desires, rules?
He doesn't earn the pain!
I am an Indian infidel
Witness my fervor
In my heart, prayers
On my lips, blessings
Love is my flute
Love, my song
In my every bone
"God is God"

IV

Witness of man's worth
Your glory mirrors his soul
Stone columns soar
Palms freshen Syrian sands
Sinai's roofs gleam
Gabriel crowns the minaret
A Muslim can never despair
Standing where Prophets once stood
His horizon infinite
Tigris, Danube, Nile flood his veins
Cup-bearer, stallion-rider
In love, a warrior
A sword's shadow his armor
"There is no god but God"

V

You reveal man's destiny
The ardor of his days
The dissolution of his nights
His submission
Is to God's hand
As is the believer's
Man prospers according to his deeds
He is clay and fire
Divine within
Free of both worlds
His ambition, small
His purpose, immense
Pure-hearted in peace and war
God's compass revolves
Around man's faith
Yet the world is illusion
The man of God is reason's horizon
The harvest of love
The fire of the ingathering
Heaven's passion

Here are more of my translations of haiku and other Oriental poetry:

Silently observing
the bottomless mountain lake:
water lilies
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This snowy morning:
cries of the crow I despise
(ah, but so beautiful!)
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

We cannot see the moon
and yet the waves still rise
― Shiki Masaoka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Like a heavy fragrance
snow-flakes settle:
lilies on rocks
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face
― Shiki Masaoka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Whistle on, twilight whippoorwill,
solemn evangelist
of loneliness
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Cranes
flapping ceaselessly
test the sky's distant limits
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

An empty road
lonelier than abandonment:
this autumn evening
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The new calendar:
as if tomorrow
is assured ...
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Spring has come:
the nameless hill
lies shrouded in mist
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Because morning glories
hold my well-bucket hostage
I go begging for water
― Chiyo-ni, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The first chill rain:
poor monkey, you too could use
a woven cape of straw
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Ah butterfly,
what dreams do you ply
with your beautiful wings?
― Chiyo-ni, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The cheerful-chirping cricket
contends gray autumn's gay,
contemptuous of frost
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Tonight I saw
how the peony crumples
in the fire's embers
― Katoh Shuhson, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Pausing between clouds
the moon rests
in the eyes of its beholders
Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

War
stood at the end of the hall
in the long shadows
― Watanabe Hakusen, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

No sky,
no land:
just snow eternally falling ...
― Kajiwara Hashin, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

See: whose surviving sons
visit the ancestral graves
white-bearded, with trembling canes?
― Matsuo Basho, translated by Michael R. Burch

Along with spring leaves
my child's teeth
take root, blossom
― Nakamura Kusatao, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Graven images of long-departed gods,
dry spiritless leaves:
companions of the temple porch
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Stillness:
a single chestnut leaf glides
on brilliant water
― Ryuin, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The sea darkening,
the voices of the wild ducks:
my mysterious companions!
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The snake slipped away
but his eyes, having held mine,
still stare in the grass
― Kyoshi Takahama, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Will we meet again?
Here at your flowering grave:
two white butterflies
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The bitter winter wind
ends here
with the frozen sea
― Ikenishi Gonsui, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

These brown summer grasses?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I remove my beautiful kimono:
its varied braids
surround and entwine my body
― Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Fever-felled mid-path
my dreams resurrect, to trek
into a hollow land
― Matsuo Basho, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Right at my feet!
When did you arrive here,
snail?
― Issa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This day of chrysanthemums
I shake and comb my wet hair,
as their petals shed rain
― Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, brilliant moon
is it true that even you
must fly as if you're tardy?
― Issa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Falling snowflakes'
glitter
tinsels the sea
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Blizzards here on earth,
blizzards of stars
in the sky
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Completely encircled
in emerald:
the glittering swamp!
― Inahata Teiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Spring
stirs the clouds
in the sky's teabowl
― Kikusha-ni, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It fills me with anger,
this moon; it fills me
and makes me whole
― Takeshita Shizunojo, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Because he is slow to wrath,
I tackle him, then wring his neck
in the long grass
― Shimazu Ryoh, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Pale mountain sky:
cherry petals play
as they tumble earthward
― Kusama Tokihiko, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The frozen moon,
the frozen lake:
two oval mirrors reflecting each other.
― Hashimoto Takako, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, bitter winter wind,
why bellow so
with no leaves to fell?
― Natsume Sôseki, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Winter waves
roil
their own shadows
― Tominaga Fûsei, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

As thunder recedes
a lone tree stands illuminated in sunlight:
cicadas shrill
― Masaoka Shiki, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Girls gather sprouts of rice:
reflections of the water flicker
on the backs of their hats
― Kyoshi Takahama, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Murmurs follow the hay cart
this blossoming summer day
― Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The wet nurse
paused to consider a bucket of sea urchins
then walked away
― Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May I be with my mother
wearing her summer kimono
by the morning window
― Ippekiro Nakatsuka, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The hands of a woman exist
to remove the insides of the spring cuttlefish
― Sekitei Hara, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon
hovering above the snow-capped mountains
rained down hailstones
― Sekitei Hara, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, dreamlike winter butterfly:
a puff of white snow
cresting mountains
― Kakio Tomizawa, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Spring snow
cascades over fences
in white waves
― Suju Takano, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Petals fill the fountain;
the ochre of the orange-coloured rose leaves
clings to the stone.
― by Ts'ai Chi'h (also Ts'ao Chih, Cao Zhi), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now here's my translation of a another poem by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar. My translation of Dunbar's "Sweet Rose of Virtue" appears toward the top of this page.

Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mêlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in her tower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen Him pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me! ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”

Here are more of my epigrams based on ancient Greek epitaphs ...

More Athenian Epitaphs

Be ashamed, O mountains and seas: these were men of valorous breath.
Assume, like pale chattels, an ashen silence at death.
Michael R. Burch, after Parmenio

These men earned a crown of imperishable glory,
nor did the maelstrom of death obscure their story.
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

They observed our fearful fetters, braved the overwhelming darkness.
Now we extol their excellence: bravely, they died for us.
Michael R. Burch, after Mnasalcas

Stranger, flee!
But may Fortune grant you all the prosperity
she denied me.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

I am thine, O master, even in the grave:
just as you now are death’s slave.
Michael R. Burch, after Dioscorides

Dead as you are, though you lie as
still as cold stone, huntress Lycas,
my great Thessalonian hound,
the wild beasts still fear your white bones;
craggy Pelion remembers your valor,
splendid Ossa, the way you would bound
and bay at the moon for its whiteness
as below we heard valleys resound.
And how brightly with joy you would leap and run
the strange lonely peaks of high Cithaeron!
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Having never earned a penny,
nor seen a bridal gown slip to the floor,
still I lie here with the love of many,
to be the love of yet one more.
Michael R. Burch, after an unknown Greek poet

I lie by stark Icarian rocks
and only speak when the sea talks.
O, tell my dear father that I gave up the ghost
on the Aegean coast.
Michael R. Burch, after Theatetus

Everywhere the sea is the sea, the dead are the dead.
What difference to me—where I rest my head?
The sea knows I’m buried.
Michael R. Burch, after Antipater of Sidon

Stripped of her stripling, if asked, she’d confess:
“I am now less than nothingness.”
Michael R. Burch, after Diotimus

Here is my translation of a quotation by Sophocles:

Not to have been born is best,
and blessed
beyond the ability of words to express.
―Sophocles (circa 497-406 BC), loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Here are more of my translations of Sappho:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros shakes my soul:
a wind on desolate mountains
leveling oaks.

Sappho, fragment 130

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May the gods prolong the night
  —yes, let it last forever!—
as long as you sleep in my sight.

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Gold does not rust,
yet my son becomes dust?

Sappho, fragment 52
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon has long since set;
the Pleiades are gone;
now half the night is spent
and yet I sleep alone.

Sappho, fragment 145
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

If you're squeamish,
don’t toe or trouble
the beach rubble.

Sappho, fragment 94
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Shepherds trample the hyacinth;
its petals litter the heath ...
foreshadowing shepherds' grief.

Sappho, fragment 134
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Selene came to Endymion in the cave,
made love to him as he slept,
then crept away before the sun could prove
its light the more adept.

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Death is evil;
the Gods have so judged:
for, had it been good,
the Gods would die
(or do the Gods lie?).

Sappho, fragment 145
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Prometheus the Fire-Bearer
robbed the Gods and the Sun, and so
brought mankind and himself to woe ...
must you repeat his error?

Sappho, fragment 156
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents in a dressing-case
and her sense? In some undiscoverable place.

Sappho, fragments 122 & 123
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Your voice—a sweeter liar
than the lyre,
more dearly sold
and bought, than gold.

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She wrapped herself then in
most delicate linen.

Sappho, fragment 70
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

What country girl bewitches your heart
whose most beguiling art
is not hiking her dress
to reveal her nakedness?

Sappho, fragment 100
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The softest pallors grace
her lovely face.

Sappho, fragment 113
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

No buzzing bee
but the bearer of honey
for me!

Sappho, fragment 121
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A tender maiden plucking flowers
      persuades the knave
      to heroically brave
the world's untender hours.

Sappho, fragment 125
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Love, bittersweet Dispenser of pain,
Weaver of implausible fictions:
     flourishes in prosperity,
     weeps for life's perversity,
     quails before adversity,
dies haggard, believing she's pretty.

Sappho, fragment 127
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

To the brightness of Love
not destroying the sight—
sweet, warm noonday sun
lightening things dun:
whence comes the Night?

Sappho, fragment 132
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Love, the child of Aphrodite and heaven;
Sappho, of earth;
Who had the more divine birth?

Sappho, fragment 133
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Of all the stars the fairest,
Hesperus,
Lead the maiden straight to the bridegroom's bed,
honoring Hera, the goddess of marriage.

Sappho, fragment 138
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The beautiful courtesan Rhodopis,
lies here entombed, more fair
than when she walked with white lilies
plaited in her dark hair,
but now she's as withered as they:
whose dust is more gray?

Sappho, fragment 140
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Phaon ferried the Goddess across:
the Goddess of Love, so men say
who crowned him with kingly laurels.
Was he crowned for only a day?

Sappho, fragment 148
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A vagabond friendship,
a public blessing ...
gentle Rhodopis!

Sappho, fragment 153
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Queen Dawn,
solemn Dawn,
come!

Sappho, fragment 129
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sappho's sweetest utterance
Was the hymeneal hymn of Love.

Sappho, fragment 159
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May I lead?
Will you follow?
Foolish man!
Ears so hollow,
minds so shallow,
never can!

Sappho, fragment 68
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Death shall rule thee
eternally
now, my Lady,
for see:
your name lies useless, silent and forgotten
here and hereafter;
never again will you gather
the roses of Pieria, but only wander
misbegotten,
rotten
and obscure through Hades
flitting forlorn among the dismal shades.

Unholy Trinity
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Man has three enemies:
himself, the world, and the devil.
Of these the first is, by far,
the most irresistible evil.

True Wealth
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

There is more to being rich
than merely having;
the wealthiest man can lose
everything not worth saving.

The Rose
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

The rose merely blossoms
and never asks why:
heedless of her beauty,
careless of every eye.

The Rose
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

The rose lack “reasons”
and merely sways with the seasons;
she has no ego
but whoever put on such a show?

Eternal Time
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Eternity is time,
time eternity,
except when we
are determined to "see."

Visions
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Our souls possess two eyes:
one examines time,
the other visions
eternal and sublime.

Godless
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

God is absolute Nothingness
beyond our sense of time and place;
the more we try to grasp Him,
The more He flees from our embrace.

The Source
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Water is pure and clean
when taken at the well-head:
but drink too far from the Source
and you may well end up dead.

Ceaseless Peace
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Unceasingly you seek
life's ceaseless wavelike motion;
I seek perpetual peace, all storms calmed.
Whose is the wiser notion?

Well Written
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

Friend, cease!
Abandon all pretense!
You must yourself become
the Writing and the Sense.

Worm Food
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

No worm is buried
so deep within the soil
that God denies it food
as reward for its toil.

Mature Love
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

New love, like a sparkling wine, soon fizzes.
Mature love, calm and serene, abides.

God's Predicament
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

God cannot condemn those with whom he would dwell,
or He would have to join them in hell!

Clods
by Angelus Silesius
translation by Michael R. Burch

A ruby
is not lovelier
than a dirt clod,
nor an angel
more glorious
than a frog.

To the boy Elis
by Georg Trakl
translation by Michael R. Burch
 
Elis, when the blackbird cries from the black forest,
it announces your downfall.
Your lips sip the rock-spring's blue coolness.
 
Your brow sweats blood
recalling ancient myths
and dark interpretations of birds' flight.
 
Yet you enter the night with soft footfalls;
the ripe purple grapes hang suspended
as you wave your arms more beautifully in the blueness.
 
A thornbush crackles;
where now are your moonlike eyes?
How long, oh Elis, have you been dead?
 
A monk dips waxed fingers
into your body's hyacinth;
Our silence is a black abyss
 
from which sometimes a docile animal emerges
slowly lowering its heavy lids.
A black dew drips from your temples:
 
the lost gold of vanished stars.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: I believe that in the second stanza the blood on Elis's forehead may be a reference to the apprehensive bloody sweat of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. If my interpretation is correct, Elis hears the blackbird's cries, anticipates the danger represented by a harbinger of death, but elects to continue rather than turn back. From what I have been able to gather, the color blue had a special significance for Georg Trakl: it symbolized longing and perhaps a longing for death. The colors blue, purple and black may represent a progression toward death in the poem.

Mirror
by Kajal Ahmad, a Kurdish poet
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

My era's obscuring mirror
shattered
because it magnified the small
and made the great seem insignificant.
Dictators and monsters filled its contours.
Now when I breathe
its jagged shards pierce my heart
and instead of sweat
I exude glass.

The Lonely Earth
by Kajal Ahmad
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The pale celestial bodies
never bid her “Good morning!”
nor do the creative stars
kiss her.
Earth, where so many tender persuasions and roses lie interred,
might expire for the lack of a glance, or an odor.
She’s a lonely dusty orb,
so very lonely!, as she observes the moon's patchwork attire
knowing the sun's an imposter
who sears with rays he has stolen for himself
and who looks down on the moon and earth like lodgers.

Kurds are Birds
by Kajal Ahmad
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Per the latest scientific classification, Kurds
now belong to a species of bird!
This is why,
traveling across the torn, fraying pages of history,
they are nomads recognized by their caravans.
Yes, Kurds are birds! And,
even worse, when
there’s nowhere left to nest, no refuge from their pain,
they turn to the illusion of traveling again
between the warm and arctic sectors of their homeland.
So I don’t think it strange Kurds can fly but not land.
They wander from region to region
never realizing their dreams
of settling,
of forming a colony, of nesting.
No, they never settle down long enough
to visit Rumi and inquire about his health,
or to bow down deeply in the gust-
stirred dust,
like Nali.


This is my translation of one of my favorite songs, "S.O.S." ...

S.O.S.
by Michel Berger
translation by Michael R. Burch

Why do I live, why do I die?
Why do I laugh, why do I cry?

This is the S.O.S.
of an earthling in distress.

I have never felt at home on the ground.

I'd rather be a bird;
this skin feels weird.

I'd like to see the world turned upside down.

It ever was more beautiful
seen from up above,
seen from up above.

I've always confused life with cartoons,
wishing to transform.

I feel something that draws me,
that draws me,
that draws me
up!

In the great lotto of the universe
I didn't draw the right numbers.
I feel weird in this skin,
I don't want to be a machine
eating, working, sleeping.

Why do I live, why do I die?
Why do I laugh, why do I cry?

I feel I'm catching waves from another world.
I've never had both feet on the ground.
This skin feels weird.
I'd like to see the world turned upside down.
I'd rather be a bird.

Sleep, child, sleep ...

The poem below is based on my teenage misinterpretation of a Latin prayer ...

Elegy for a little girl, lost
by Michael R. Burch

. . . qui laetificat juventutem meam . . .
She was the joy of my youth,
and now she is gone.
. . . requiescat in pace . . .
May she rest in peace.
. . . amen . . .
Amen.

NOTE: I was touched by this Latin prayer, which I discovered in a novel that I read as a teenager. Many years later, I decided to incorporate it into a poem. From what I now understand, “ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” means “to the God who gives joy to my youth” but I am sticking with my original interpretation: a lament for a little girl at her funeral.

The next poem is a loose translation of the work of the Romanian poet Stefan Ovidiu. This was my first translation.

Under Water
by Stefan Ovidiu
translation by Michael R. Burch

Even my dreams
cry
sometimes,
for the souls of transported soldiers
buried so deep
beneath
the water mark.

They lost
their fortunate stars,
far from home's capacious skies
and their lovers' eyes,
unborn to the womb
of the earth's great lies.

I awake in the night
hearing the sound of the sea
breathe with you,
sighing, distracted,
probing the declivities

of a land so full of tears and stars.

Whew ... that's quite a bit of work for someone who was damn sure he'd never translate a line of poetry in his life! I certainly hope you found something worth the time you spent here, especially if you read this far.

Related Pages in Chronological Order: Song of Amergin, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, Deor's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, How Long the Night, Ballads, Sumer is Icumen in, Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary, Sweet Rose of Virtue, Lament for the Makaris, Adam Lay Ybounden, This World's Joy, Michael R. Burch Free Verse, Charles Baudelaire Translations by Michael R. Burch

The HyperTexts