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, William Dunbar, Charles D'Orleans and Layamon; ancient Greek epigrams, epitaphs and lyric poems by Sappho, Simonides, Sophocles, Plato, and other poets; Latin epigrams by Martial, 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 Bertolt Brecht and Rainer Maria Rilke; Spanish poems by Pablo Neruda; Russian poems by Marina Tsvetaeva; Chinese poems by Li Qingzhao; French poems by Charles Baudelaire, Veronica Franco, Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine; and Urdu poems by by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbāl.

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people receive different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his Hindi poems into English.—MRB

Speechless
by Ko Un
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Cherokee Travelers' Blessing I
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I will extract the thorns from your feet.
Yet a little longer we will walk life's sunlit paths together.
I will love you like my own brother, my own blood.
When you are disconsolate, I will wipe the tears from your eyes.
And when you are too sad to live, I will put your aching heart to rest.

When my father chose to end his life by forgoing dialysis, I chose to translate Native American travelers' blessings, prayers and proverbs that I found comforting and hoped he might as well. You can find the collection here: Native American Poems, Prayers and Proverbs.

NOTE: The next poet, Bertolt Brecht, fled Nazi Germany along with Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and many other German intellectuals. So he was writing from bitter real-life experience.

The Burning of the Books
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.

Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged — he’d been excluded!

He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fiery letters to the incompetents in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen —
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Burn me!


Parting
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

We embrace;
my fingers trace
rich cloth
while yours encounter only moth-
eaten fabric.
A quick hug:
you were invited to the gay soiree
while the minions of the "law" relentlessly pursue me.
We talk about the weather
and our eternal friendship's magic.
Anything else would be too bitter,
too tragic.

The Mask of Evil
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A Japanese carving hangs on my wall —
the mask of an ancient demon, limned with golden lacquer.
Not altogether unsympathetically, I observe
the bulging veins of its forehead, noting
the grotesque effort it takes to be evil.

Radio Poem
by Bertolt Brecht
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You, little box, held tightly
to me,
escaping,
so that your delicate tubes do not break;
carried from house to house, from ship to train,
so that my enemies may continue communicating with me
on land and at sea
and even in my bed, to my pain;
the last thing I hear at night, the first when I awake,
recounting their many conquests and my litany of cares,
promise me not to go silent all of a sudden,
unawares.

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 ...

Wulf and Eadwacer (Old English circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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 a series of splendid poems 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/interpretation 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.

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

Winter awakens all my care
as leafless trees grow bare.
For now my sighs are fraught
whenever it enters my thought:
regarding this world's joy,
how everything 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

How Long the Night (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Infectious!
by Hafiz aka Hafez
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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 the final tally
strictly
from Aunt Sally!

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

NOVELTIES
by Thomas Campion
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Original Latin epigram:

IN LIBRARIOS
by Thomas Campion

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

Three Rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer

I. Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation 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 of life and 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
loose translation/interpretation 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.

I'm guiltless, yet my 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
loose translation/interpretation 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.


Rondel: Your Smiling Mouth
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,
Your little feet—please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you’re far away
To muse on these and thus to soothe my pain—
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains.

So would I beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as I before have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day
By your sweet smiling mouth and eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains!

Spring
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Young lovers,
greeting the spring
fling themselves downhill,
making cobblestones ring
with their wild leaps and arcs,
like ecstatic sparks
struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,
so we can only hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
raked by brilliant spurs of need,
Young lovers.

The original French poem:

Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx
En la nouvelle saison,
Par les rues, sans raison,
Chevauchent, faisans les saulx.
Et font saillir des carreaulx
Le feu, comme de cherbon,
Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.
Je ne sçay se leurs travaulx
Ilz emploient bien ou non,
Mais piqués de l’esperon
Sont autant que leurs chevaulx
Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.


Oft in My Thought
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
    Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
    To give my lady dear;
    But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
        Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
    And robbed the world of all that's precious here―
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
    Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
    Her worth? It tests my power!
    I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
        For it would be a shame for me to stray
    Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near—
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
    And the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
    Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
    And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
        As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
    Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer—
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
    Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier—
    God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Winter has cast his cloak away
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Winter has cast his cloak away
of wind and cold and chilling rain
to dress in embroidered light again:
the light of day—bright, festive, gay!
Each bird and beast, without delay,
in its own tongue, sings this refrain:
"Winter has cast his cloak away!"
Brooks, fountains, rivers, streams at play,
wear, with their summer livery,
bright beads of silver jewelry.
All the Earth has a new and fresh display:
Winter has cast his cloak away!

Note: This rondeau was set to music by Debussy in his Trois chansons de France.

The year lays down his mantle cold
by Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

The year lays down his mantle cold
of wind, chill rain and bitter air,
and now goes clad in clothes of gold
of smiling suns and seasons fair,
while birds and beasts of wood and fold
now with each cry and song declare:
"The year lays down his mantle cold!"
All brooks, springs, rivers, seaward rolled,
now pleasant summer livery wear
with silver beads embroidered where
the world puts off its raiment old.
The year lays down his mantle cold.

Sumer is icumen in
a modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing achu!
Groweth sed
And bloweth hed
And buyeth med?
Cuccu!

I Loved You
by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

Il pleure dans mon coeur (“It rains in my heart”)
by Paul Verlaine
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town;
Heavy languor and dark
Drenches my heart.

Oh, the sweet-sounding rain
Cleansing pavements and roofs!
For my listless heart's pain
The pure song of the rain!

Still it rains without reason
In my overcast heart.
Can it be there's no treason?
That this grief's without reason?

As my heart floods with pain,
Lacking hatred, or love,
I've no way to explain
Such bewildering pain!

Spleen
by Paul Verlaine
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The roses were so very red;
The ivy, impossibly black.

Dear, with a mere a turn of your head,
My despair’s flooded back!

The sky was too gentle, too blue;
The sea, far too windswept and green.

Yet I always imagined—or knew—
I’d again feel your spleen.

Now I'm tired of the glossy waxed holly,
Of the shimmering boxwood too,

Of the meadowland’s endless folly,
When all things, alas, lead to you!

To a Daughter More Precious than Gems
by Otomo no Sakanoue no Iratsume (c. 700-750)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Heaven's cold dew has fallen
and thus another season arrives.
Oh, my child living so far away,
do you pine for me as I do for you?

I have trusted my jewel to the gem-guard;
now there's nothing to do, my pillow,
but for the two of us to sleep together!

I cherished you, my darling,
as the Sea God his treasury's pearls.
But you are pledged to your husband
(such is the way of the world)
and torn from me like a blossom.

I left you for faraway Koshi;
since then your lovely eyebrows
curving like distant waves
ever linger in my eyes.

My heart is as unsteady as a rocking boat;
besieged by such longing I weaken with age
and come close to breaking.

If I could have prophesied such longing,
I would have stayed with you,
gazing on you constantly
as into a shining mirror.

I gaze out over the fields of Tadaka
seeing the cranes that cry there incessantly:
such is my longing for you.

Oh my child,
who loved me so helplessly
like bird hovering over shallow river rapids!

Dear child, my daughter, who stood
sadly pensive by the gate,
even though I was leaving for a friendly estate,
I think of you day and night
and my body has become thin,
my sleeves tear-stained with weeping.

If I must long for you so wretchedly,
how can I remain these many months
here at this dismal old farm?

Because you ache for me so intently,
your sad thoughts all confused
like the disheveled tangles of your morning hair,
I see you, dear child, in my dreams.

Otomo no Sakanoue no Iratsume (c. 700-750) was an important ancient Japanese poet. She had 79 poems in Manyoshu ("Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves"), the first major anthology of classical Japanese poetry, mostly waka. The compiler of the anthology was Otomo no Yakamochi (c. 718-785). Otomo no Sakanoue no Iratsume was his aunt, tutor and poetic mentor. In the first stanza, Lady Otomo has left her children in Nara, possibly to visit her brother. In the second stanza, it is believed that the jewel is Lady Otomo's daughter and that she has been trusted to the care of her husband. As for the closing stanza, according to the notes of the Manyoshu, it was popularly believed that a person would appear in the dreams of the one for whom he/she yearned.

You can crop all the flowers but you cannot detain spring.—Pablo Neruda, translation by Michael R. Burch

If nothing can save us from death,
still love can redeem each breath.
—Pablo Neruda, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Every Day You Play (Excerpt)
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation 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 lovingly
like a cornucopia, every day, with ecstatic hands ...

The Book of Questions
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Is the rose nude
or is that just how she dresses?

Why do trees conceal
their spectacular roots?

Who hears the confession
of the getaway car?

Is there anything sadder
than a train standing motionless in the rain?

In El Salvador, Death
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Death still surveils El Salvador.
The blood of murdered peasants has never clotted;
time cannot congeal it,
nor does the rain erase it from the roads.
Fifteen thousand were machine-gunned dead
by Martinez, the murderer.
To this day the coppery taste of blood still flavors
the land, bread and wine of El Salvador.

Love Sonnet LXVI
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation 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 makes me implore you all the more
so that in my inconstancy
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 the key to contentment.

In this tragic plot, I murder myself
and I will die loveless because I love you,
because I love you, my Love, in fire and in blood.

Love Sonnet XI
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
I stalk the streets, silent and starving.
Bread does not satisfy me; dawn does not divert me
from my relentless pursuit of your fluid spoor.

I long for your liquid laughter,
for your sunburned hands like savage harvests.
I lust for your fingernails' pale marbles.
I want to devour your breasts like almonds, whole.

I want to ingest the sunbeams singed by your beauty,
to eat the aquiline nose from your aloof face,
to lick your eyelashes' flickering shade.

I pursue you, snuffing the shadows,
seeking your heart's scorching heat
like a puma prowling the heights of Quitratue.

Love Sonnet XVII
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation 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 embraced in the dark ...
secretly, in shadows, unguessed & unnamed.

I love you like shrubs that refuse to blossom
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 knowinghow, 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 ... so it seems ...
so close that your hand on my chest is my own,
so close that your eyes close gently on my dreams.

If You Forget Me
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I need you to know one thing ...

You know
how it goes:
if I gaze up at the glowing moon,
if observe the blazing autumn’s reddening branches from my window,
if I touch the impalpable ash of the charred log’s wrinkled body ...
everything returns me to you,
as if everything that exists
—all aromas, sights, solids—
were small boats
sailing toward those isles of yours that await me.

However ...
if little by little you stop loving me
then I shall stop loving you, little by little.

And if you suddenly
forget me,
do not bother to investigate,
for I shall have immediately
forgotten you
also.

If you think my love strange and mad—
this whirlwind of streaming banners
gusting through me,
so that you elect to leave me at the shore
where my heart lacks roots,
just remember that, on that very day,
at that very hour,
I shall raise my arms
and my roots will sail off
to find some more favorable land.

But
if each day
and every hour,
you feel destined to be with me,
if you greet me with implacable sweetness,
and if each day
and every hour
flowers blossom on your lips to entice me, ...
then ah my love,
oh my only, my own,
all that fire will be reinfernoed in me
and nothing within me will be extinguished or forgotten;
my love will feed on your love, my beloved,
and as long as you live it will be me in your arms ...
as long as you never leave mine.

Sonnet XLV
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Don't wander far away, not even for a day, because—
how can I explain? A day is too long ...
and I’ll be waiting for you, like a man in an empty station
where the trains all stand motionless.

Don't leave me, my dear, not even for an hour, because—
then despair’s raindrops will all run blurrily together,
and the smoke that drifts lazily in search of a home
will descend hazily on me, suffocating my heart.

Darling, may your lovely silhouette never dissolve in the surf;
may your lashes never flutter at an indecipherable distance.
Please don't leave me for a second, my dearest,

because then you'll have gone far too far
and I'll wander aimlessly, amazed, asking all the earth:
Will she ever return? Will she spurn me, dying?

My Dog Died
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My dog died;
so I buried him in the backyard garden
next to some rusted machine.

One day I'll rejoin him, over there,
but for now he's gone
with his shaggy mane, his crude manners and his cold, clammy nose,
while I, the atheist who never believed
in any heaven for human beings,
now believe in a paradise I'm unfit to enter.

Yes, I somehow now believe in a heavenly kennel
where my dog awaits my arrival
wagging his tail in furious friendship!

But I'll not indulge in sadness here:
why bewail a companion
who was never servile?

His friendship was more like that of a porcupine
preserving its prickly autonomy.

His was the friendship of a distant star
with no more intimacy than true friendship called for
and no false demonstrations:
he never clambered over me
coating my clothes with mange;
he never assaulted my knee
like dogs obsessed with sex.

But he used to gaze up at me,
giving me the attention my ego demanded,
while helping this vainglorious man
understand my concerns were none of his.

Aye, and with those bright eyes so much purer than mine,
he'd gaze up at me
contentedly;
it was a look he reserved for me alone
all his entire sweet, gentle life,
always merely there, never troubling me,
never demanding anything.

Aye, and often I envied his energetic tail
as we strode the shores of Isla Negra together,
in winter weather, wild birds swarming skyward
as my golden-maned friend leapt about,
supercharged by the sea's electric surges,
sniffing away wildly, his tail held erect,
his face suffused with the salt spray.

Joy! Joy! Joy!
As only dogs experience joy
in the shameless exuberance
of their guiltless spirits.

Thus there are no sad good-byes
for my dog who died;
we never once lied to each other.

He died, he's gone, I buried him;
that's all there is to it.

Tonight I will write the saddest lines
by Pablo Neruda
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tonight I will write the saddest lines.
I will write, for example, “The night is less bright
and a few stars shiver in the distance
as I remember her unwarranted light ...”

Tonight I will write her the saddest lines:
that I loved her as she loved me too, sometimes,
all those long, lonely nights when I held her tight
and filled her pert ears with indecipherable rhymes ...

Then she loved me too, as I also loved her,
compelled by the spell of her enormous eyes.
Tonight I will write her the saddest lines
as I ponder love’s death and our mutual crimes.

Outside I hear night—silent, cold, dark, immense—
as these delicate words fall, useless as dew.
Oh, what does it matter that love came to naught
if love was false, or perhaps even true?

And yet I hear songs being sung in the distance.
How can I forget her, so soon since I lost her?
I seek to regain her, somehow bring her closer.
But my heart has been blinded; she will not appear!

Now moonlight and starlight whiten dark trees.
We also are ghosts, by love’s failing light.
My love has failed me, but how I once loved her!
My voice ... this cursed wind ... what use to recite?

Another’s. She will soon be another’s.
Her body, her voice, her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her! And why should I love her
when love is sad, short, mad, fickle, unwise?

Because of cold nights we clung through so closely,
I’m not satisfied to know she is gone.
And while I must end this hell I now suffer,
It’s sad to remember all love left undone.

Advice to Young Poets
by Nicanor Parra Sandoval
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Youngsters,
write however you will
in your preferred style.
Too much blood flowed under the bridge
for me to believe
there’s just one acceptable path.
In poetry everything’s permitted.

Ben Sana Mecburum: “You are indispensable”
by Attila Ilhan
loose 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?
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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour,                                     Now skyward the rose and the lily flower,
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
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.

skruketh = break forth, burst open; stour = strong, stern, hardy; 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)
loose translation/interpretation 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)
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Brut (circa 1100 AD, written by Layamon, an excerpt)
loose translation/interpretation 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 question 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
Lifeless at Thermopylae:
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, nor the inhospitable sea-gulf, nor 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

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

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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 130

loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shattered your heart;
now I limp through the shards
barefoot.
by Vera Pavlova, loose translation/interpretation 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, loose translation/interpretation 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 to be one of the very 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.

This Distant Light
by Walid Khazindar
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Bitterly cold,
winter clings to the naked trees.

If only you would free
the bright sparrows
from your fingertips
and unleash 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,
sheltered by shade from a sweltering sun?

Can you not always remain like this:
stoking the fire, more beautiful than expected, in reverie?

Darkness increases and we must remain vigilant
now that this distant light is our sole consolation ...
this imperiled flame, which from the beginning
has constantly flickered,
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.

These are my translations of poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Archaischer Torso Apollos (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”)
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Der Panther ("The Panther")
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Herbsttag ("Autumn Day")
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Komm, Du (“Come, You”)
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This was Rilke’s last poem, written ten days before his death. He died open-eyed in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium, of leukemia and its complications. I had a friend who died of leukemia and he was burning up with fever in the end. I believe that is what Rilke was describing here: he was literally burning alive.

Come, you—the last one I acknowledge; return—
incurable pain searing this physical mesh.
As I burned in the spirit once, so now I burn
with you; meanwhile, you consume my flesh.

This wood that long resisted your embrace
now nourishes you; I surrender to your fury
as my gentleness mutates to hellish rage—
uncaged, wild, primal, mindless, outré.

Completely free, no longer future’s pawn,
I clambered up this crazy pyre of pain,
certain I’d never return—my heart’s reserves gone—
to become death’s nameless victim, purged by flame.

Now all I ever was must be denied.
I left my memories of my past elsewhere.
That life—my former life—remains outside.
Inside, I’m lost. Nobody knows me here.

Liebes-Lied (“Love Song”)
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

How can I withhold my soul so that it doesn’t touch yours?
How can I lift mine gently to higher things, alone?
Oh, I would gladly find something lost in the dark
in that inert space that fails to resonate until you vibrate.
There everything that moves us, draws us together like a bow
enticing two taut strings to sing together with a simultaneous voice.
Whose instrument are we becoming together?
Whose, the hands that excite us?
Ah, sweet song!

Das Lied des Bettlers (“The Beggar’s Song”)
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I live outside your gates,
exposed to the rain, exposed to the sun;
sometimes I’ll cradle my right ear
in my right palm;
then when I speak my voice sounds strange,
alien ...

I'm unsure whose voice I’m hearing:
mine or yours.
I implore a trifle;
the poets cry for more.

Sometimes I cover both eyes
and my face disappears;
there it lies heavy in my hands
looking peaceful, instead,
so that no one would ever think
I have no place to lay my head.

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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

I Cannot Remember My Mother
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I cannot remember my mother,
yet sometimes in the middle of my playing
a melody seemed to hover over my playthings:
some forgotten tune she loved to sing
while rocking my cradle.

I cannot remember my mother,
yet sometimes on an early autumn morning
the smell of the shiuli flowers fills my room
as the scent of the temple’s morning service
wafts over me like my mother’s perfume.

I cannot remember my mother,
yet sometimes still, from my bedroom window,
when I lift my eyes to the heavens’ vast blue canopy
and sense on my face her serene gaze,
I feel her grace has encompassed the sky.

Patience
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

If you refuse to speak, I will fill my heart with your silence and endure it.
I will remain still and wait like the night through its starry vigil
with its head bowed low in patience.

The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and your voice will pour down in golden streams breaking through the heavens.

Then your words will take wing in songs from each of my birds' nests,
and your melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.

Gitanjali 35
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been divided by narrow domestic walls;
Where words emerge from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not been lost amid the dreary desert sands of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Gitanjali 11
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Leave this vain chanting and singing and counting of beads:
what Entity do you seek in this lonely dark temple with all the doors shut?
Open your eyes and see: God is not here!
He is out there where the tiller tills the hard ground and the paver breaks stones.
He is with them in sun and shower; his garments are filthy with dust.
Shed your immaculate mantle and like him embrace the dust!
Deliverance? Where is this "deliverance" to be found
when our Master himself has joyfully embraced the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all forever!
Cease your meditations, abandon your petals and incense!
What is the harm if your clothes become stained rags?
Meet him in the toil and the sweat of his brow!

Last Curtain
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

I know the day comes when my eyes close,
when my sight fails,
when life takes its leave in silence
and the last curtain veils my vision.
Yet the stars will still watch by night;
the sun will still rise like before;
the hours will still heave like sea waves
casting up pleasures and pains.
When I consider this end of my earth-life,
the barrier of the moments breaks
and I see by the illumination of death
this world with its careless treasures.
Rare is its lowliest seat,
rare its meanest of lives.
Things I longed for in vain and those I received, let them pass.
Let me but truly possess the things I rejected and overlooked.

Death
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

You who are the final fulfillment of life,
Death, my Death, come and whisper to me!
Day after day I have kept watch for you;
for you I have borne the joys and the pangs of life.
All that I am, all that I have and hope, and all my love
have always flowed toward you in the depths of secrecy.
One final glance from your eyes and my life will be yours forever, your own.
The flowers have been woven and the garland prepared for the bridegroom.
After the wedding the bride must leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.

While the following poem is not a translation, per se, it is my interpretation of another poet's idea, as explained after the poem ...

The Pain of Love
by Michael R. Burch

for T. M.

The pain of love is this:
the parting after the kiss;

the train steaming from the station
whistling abnegation;

each interstate’s bleak white bar
that vanishes under your car;

every hour and flower and friend
that cannot be saved in the end;

dear things of immeasurable cost ...
now all irretrievably lost.

The title “The Pain of Love” was suggested by Little Richard, then eighty years old, in an interview with Rolling Stone. Little Richard said someone should create a song called “The Pain of Love.” How could I not obey a living legend? I have always found the departure platforms of railway stations and the vanishing broken white bars of highway dividing lines to be depressing, so they were natural images for my poem. Perhaps someone can set the lyrics to music and fulfill the Great Commission!

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

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

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

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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!

Veronica Franco (1546-1591) was a Venetian courtesan who wrote literary-quality poetry and prose. Renaissance Venetian society recognized two very different classes of courtesans: the cortigiana onesta (intellectual courtesans) and the cortigiana di lume (lower-class prostitutes, often streetwalkers). Franco was perhaps the most celebrated cortigiana onesta, or “honest courtesan.” Thanks to her fine education and literary talents, she was able to mingle with Venice’s elites, befriending and sometimes bedding aristocrats and noblemen, even King Henry III of France, to whom she addressed two sonnets in her second book. She also became close friends with Domenico Venier, a patron of female poets, and was able to take advantage of the Venier palace library. Her poems display both passion and intelligence, and she sometimes engaged in witty poetic “duels” with the male poets she knew. For instance, Franco wrote the poem below in response to a poem by Marco Venier:

A Courtesan's Love Lyric (I)
by Veronica Franco
loose translation/interpretation 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 is a second version of the same poem ...

I Resolved to Make a Virtue of My Desire (II)
by Veronica Franco
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My rewards will match your gifts
If you give me the one that lifts

Me, laughing. If it comes free,
Still, it is of immense value to me.

Your reward will be—not just to fly,
But to soar—so incredibly high

That your joys eclipse your desires
(As my beauty, to which your heart aspires

And which you never tire of praising,
I employ for your spirit’s raising).

Afterwards, lying docile at your side,
I will grant you 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 freely enjoys me.

Franco published two books: Terze rime (a collection of poems) and Lettere familiari a diversi (Faa collection of letters and poems). She also collected the works of other writers into anthologies and founded a charity for courtesans and their children. And she was an early champion of women’s rights, one of the first ardent, outspoken feminists that we know by name today. For example ...

Capitolo 24
by Veronica Franco
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

(written by Franco to a man who had insulted a woman)

Please try to see with sensible eyes
how grotesque it is for you
to insult and abuse women!
Our unfortunate sex is always subject
to such unjust treatment, because we
are dominated, denied true freedom!
And certainly we are not at fault
because, while not as robust as men,
we have equal hearts, minds and intellects.
Nor does virtue originate in power,
but in the vigor of the heart, mind and soul:
the sources of understanding;
and I am certain that in these regards
women lack nothing,
but, rather, have demonstrated
superiority to men.
If you think us “inferior” to yourself,
perhaps it's because, being wise,
we outdo you in modesty.
And if you want to know the truth,
the wisest person is the most patient;
she squares herself with reason and with virtue;
while the madman thunders insolence.
The stone the wise man withdraws from the well
was flung there by a fool ...

Life was not a bed of roses for Venetian courtesans. Although they enjoyed the good graces of their wealthy patrons, religious leaders and commoners saw them as symbols of vice. Once during a plague, Franco was banished from Venice as if her “sins” had helped cause it. When she returned in 1577, she faced the Inquisition and charges of “witchcraft.” She defended herself in court and won her freedom, but lost all her material possessions. Eventually, Domenico Venier, her major patron, died in 1582 and left her with no support. Her tax declaration of that same year stated that she was living in a section of the city where many destitute prostitutes ended their lives. She may have died in poverty at the age of forty-five.

Hollywood produced a movie based on her life: Dangerous Beauty.

When I bed a man
who—I sense—truly loves and enjoys me,
I become so sweet and so delicious
that the pleasure I bring him surpasses all delight,
till the tight
knot of love,
however slight
it may have seemed before,
is raveled to the core.

We danced a youthful jig through that fair city—
Venice, our paradise, so pompous and pretty.
We lived for love, for primal lust and beauty;
to please ourselves became our only duty.
Floating there in a fog between heaven and earth,
We grew drunk on excesses and wild mirth.
We thought ourselves immortal poets then,
Our glory endorsed by God’s illustrious pen.
But paradise, we learned, is fraught with error,
and sooner or later love succumbs to terror.

In response to a friend urging Veronica Franco to help her daughter become a courtesan, Franco warns her that the profession can be devastating:

"Even if Fortune were only benign and favorable to you in this endeavor, this life is such that in any case it would always be wretched. It is such an unhappy thing, and so contrary to human nature, to subject one’s body and activity to such slavery that one is frightened just by the thought of it: to let oneself be prey to many, running the risk of being stripped, robbed, killed, so that one day can take away from you what you have earned with many men in a long time, with so many other dangers of injury and horrible contagious disease: to eat with someone else’s mouth, to sleep with someone else’s eyes, to move according to someone else’s whim, running always toward the inevitable shipwreck of one’s faculties and life. Can there be greater misery than this? ... Believe me, among all the misfortunes that can befall a human being in the world, this life is the worst."

I confess I became a courtesan, traded yearning for power, welcomed many rather than be owned by one. I confess I embraced a whore's freedom over a wife's obedience. – Dangerous Beauty, 1998

I wish it were not a sin to have liked it so.
Women have not yet realized the cowardice that resides,
for if they should decide to do so,
they would be able to fight you until death;
and to prove that I speak the truth,
 amongst so many women,
I will be the first to act,
setting an example for them to follow.

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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

If you insist, I’ll continue playing my songs,
forever piping the flute of my heart.
—Majrooh Sultanpuri, loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

These are translations of Latin epigrams by the Roman poet Martial:

You ask me why I've sent you no new verses?
There might be reverses.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me to recite my poems to you?
I know how you'll "recite" them, if I do.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me why I choose to live elsewhere?
You're not there.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You ask me why I love fresh country air?
You're not befouling it, mon frère.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You never wrote a poem,
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He starts everything but finishes nothing;
thus I suspect there's no end to his fucking.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You alone own prime land, dandy!
Gold, money, the finest porcelainyou alone!
The best wines of the most famous vintages—you alone!
Discrimination, taste and wityou alone!
You have it allwho can deny that you alone are set for life?
But everyone has had your wife
she is never
alone!
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I must admit I'm partial
to Martial!
Michael R. Burch

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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring snow
cascades over fences
in white waves
― Suju Takano, loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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 loyal to you, 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 still as 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,
bellowing as below we heard valleys resound.
And how brightly with joy you would canter 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.
Please 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

Little I knew—a child of five—
of what it means to be alive
and all life’s little thrills;
but little also—(I was glad not to know)—
of life’s great ills.
Michael R. Burch, after after Lucian

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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here are more of my translations of Sappho:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 130

loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Gold does not rust,
yet my son becomes dust?

Sappho, fragment 52
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 94
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 134
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

She wrapped herself then in
most delicate linen.

Sappho, fragment 70
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The softest pallors grace
her lovely face.

Sappho, fragment 113
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

No buzzing bee
but the bearer of honey
for me!

Sappho, fragment 121
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 153
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Queen Dawn,
solemn Dawn,
come!

Sappho, fragment 129
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Sappho, fragment 159
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

Hymn to Aphrodite
by Sappho
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Immortal Aphrodite, throned in splendor!
Wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, enchantress, and beguiler!
I implore you, dread mistress, discipline me no longer
with love's weariness, anguish and distress!

But come to me once again in kindness,
heeding my prayers as you have done before;
O, come Divine One, descend once again
from your Father's golden dominions!

Your chariot yoked to love's consecrated doves,
their multitudinous pinions aflutter,
you once came gliding from heaven's utmost heights,
descending through bright ether to the dark-bosomed earth.

Swiftly they came and vanished, leaving you,
O my Goddess, smiling, your face eternally beautiful,
asking me what unfathomable longing
compelled me to cry out.

Asking me what I sought in my bewildered desire.
Asking, "Who has harmed you,
why are you so alarmed, my poor Sappho?
Whom should Persuasion summon here?"

"Though today she flees love, soon she will pursue you;
spurning love's gifts, soon she shall return them;
tomorrow she will woo you, however unwillingly!"

Come to me now, most Holy Aphrodite!
Release me from my heavy heartache and anguish;
grant me all I request, be once again my ally and protector!

"Hymn to Aphrodite" is the only poem by Sappho of Lesbos to survive in its entirety. The poem survived intact because it was quoted in full by Dionysus, a Roman orator, in his "On Literary Composition," published around 30 B.C. A number of Sappho's poems mention or are addressed to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It is believed that Sappho may have belonged to a cult that worshiped Aphrodite with songs and poetry. If so, "Hymn to Aphrodite" may have been composed for performance within the cult. However, we have few verifiable details about the "real" Sappho, and much conjecture based on fragments of her poetry and what other people said about her, in many cases centuries after her death. We do know, however, that she was held in very high regard. For instance, when Sappho visited Syracuse the residents were so honored they erected a statue to commemorate the occasion! During Sappho's lifetime, coins of Lesbos were minted with her image. Furthermore, Sappho was called "the Tenth Muse" and the other nine were goddesses.

Unholy Trinity
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Visions
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Godless
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

Worm Food
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation 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
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

Love Stronger than Time

by Victor Hugo
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Since I first set my lips to your full cup,
Since my pallid face first nested in your hands,
Since I sensed your soul and every bloom lit up—
Till those rare perfumes were lost to deepening sands;

Since I was once allowed those pleasures deep—
To hear your heart speak mysteries, divine;
Since I have seen you smile, have watched you weep,
Your lips pressed to my lips, your eyes on mine;

Since I have sensed above my thoughts the gleam
Of a ray, a single ray, of your bright star
(If sometimes veiled), and felt light falling stream,
Like one rose petal plucked from high, afar;

I now can say to time's swift-changing hours:
Pass, pass upon your way, for you grow old;
Flee to the dark abyss with your drear flowers,
but one unmarred within my heart I hold.

Your flapping wings may jar but cannot spill
The cup fulfilled of love, from which I drink;
My heart has fires your frosts can never chill,
My soul more love to fly than you can sink.

To the boy Elis
by Georg Trakl
loose translation/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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/interpretation 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.

Raise your words, not their volume.
Rain grows flowers, not thunder.
—Rumi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Songbird/Birdsong
by Rumi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Birdsong relieves
my deepest griefs:
now I'm just as ecstatic as they,
but with nothing to say!
Please universe,
rehearse
your poetry
through me!

Yasna 28, Verse 6
by Zarathustra/Zoroaster
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lead us to pure thought and truth
by your sacred word and long-enduring assistance,
O, eternal Giver of the gifts of righteousness.

O, wise Lord, grant us spiritual strength and joy;
help us overcome our enemies’ enmity!

Translator’s Note: The Gathas consist of 17 hymns believed to have been composed by Zarathustra (Zoroaster), whose compositions may date as far back as 1700 BC, although there is no scholarly consensus as to when he lived. These hymns form the core of the Zoroastrian liturgy called the Yasna. The language employed, Gathic or Old Avestan, is related to the proto-Indo-Iranian and proto-Iranian languages and to Vedic Sanskrit. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy deems Zoroaster to have been the first philosopher. Zoroaster has also been called the father of ethics, the first rationalist and the first monotheist. In the original texts, Ahura Mazda means “wise Lord” or “Lord of Wisdom” while Vohuman/Vohu Manah represents pure thought and righteousness and Asha represents truth. Angra Mainyu was the chief evil entity, a precursor of Satan.

The Ruins of Balaclava
by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, barren Crimean land, these dreary shades
of castles—once your indisputable pride—
are now where ghostly owls and lizards hide
as blackguards arm themselves for nightly raids.

Carved into marble, regal boasts were made!
Brave words on burnished armor, gilt-applied!
Now shattered splendors long since cast aside
beside the dead here also brokenly laid.

The Greeks erected shimmering marble here.
The Romans drove wild Mongol hordes to flight.
The Mussulman prayed eastward, day and night.

Now owls and dark-winged vultures watch and leer
as strange black banners, flapping overhead,
mark where the past piles high its nameless dead.

Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is widely regarded as Poland’s greatest poet and as the national poet of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. He was also a dramatist, essayist, publicist, translator, professor and political activist. As a principal figure in Polish Romanticism, Mickiewicz has been compared to Byron and Goethe.

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

S.O.S.
by Michel Berger
loose translation/interpretation 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.

I was touched by this Latin prayer, which I discovered in a novel I read as a teenager. I later decided to incorporate it into a poem, which I started in high school and revised as an adult. 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 phrase can be traced back to Saint Jerome's translation of Psalm 42 in the Latin Vulgate Bible (circa 385 AD). I can’t remember exactly when I read the novel or wrote the poem, but I believe it was around my junior year of high school, age 17 or thereabouts. This was my first translation. I revised the poem slightly in 2001 after realizing I had “misremembered” one of the words in the Latin prayer.

The next poem is a loose translation of the work of the Romanian poet Stefan Ovidiu. This was my first translation after "Elegy for a little girl, lost" and the first one in which I translated the words of another poet.

Under Water
by Stefan Ovidiu
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Ammiditāna's Hymn to Ištar
Ancient Akkadian poem, author unknown
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1 iltam zumrā rašubti ilātim
2 litta''id bēlet iššī rabīt igigī
3 ištar zumrā rašubti ilātim
4 litta''id bēlet ilī nišī rabīt igigī  

1 Sing the praises of the Goddess, our awe-inspiring Goddess!
2 Sing the praises of our Lady, the greatest of the gods!
3 Sing the praises of Ishtar, our awe-inspiring Goddess!
4 Sing the praises of our Lady, the greatest of the gods!

5 šāt mēleṣim ruāmam labšat
6 za'nat inbī mīkiam u kuzbam
7 šāt mēleṣim ruāmam labšat
8 za'nat inbī mīkiam u kuzbam

5 Ishtar who becomes aroused, exuding lust,
6 dripping desirevoluptuous and amorous!
7 Ishtar who becomes aroused, exuding lust,
8 dripping desirevoluptuous and amorous!

9 šaptīn duššupat balāṭum pīša
10 simtišša ihannīma ṣīhātum
11 šarhat irīmū ramû rēšušša
12 banâ šimtāša bitrāmā īnāša šitārā

9 Her lips drip honey-sweetness, her mouth is life itself,
10 Her cheeks are flushed with delight!
11 She is lovely, with beads braided in her hair!
12 Her cheeks are comely, her eyes are irridescent!

13 eltum ištāša ibašši milkum
14 šīmat mimmami qatišša tamhat
15 naplasušša bani bu'āru
16 baštum mašrahu lamassum šēdum

13 Our Goddess is pure, her counsel uncontested;
14 She holds the fates of all worlds in her hands!
15 Seeing her brings prosperity and happiness
16 for her pride, splendour, and protective spirit!

17 tartāmī tešmê ritūmī ṭūbī
18 u mitguram tebēl šīma
19 ardat tattadu umma tarašši
20 izakkarši innišī innabbi šumša 

17 She is the Goddess of love-making and seduction,
18 of pleasure and harmony!
19 She teaches the naked girl to become a mother;
20 She will advance her name among the people!

21 ayyum narbiaš išannan mannum
22 gašrū ṣīrū šūpû parṣūša
23 ištar narbiaš išannan mannum
24 gašrū ṣīrū šūpû parṣūša  

21 Who can rival her glory?
22 Her powers are unlimited, exalted and manifest!
23 Who can rival Ishtar's glory?
24 Her powers are unlimited, exalted and manifest!

25 gaṣṣat inilī atar nazzazzuš
26 kabtat awassa elšunu haptatma
27 ištar inilī atar nazzazzuš
28 kabtat awassa elšunu haptatma

25 Highest of the gods, her standing immense,
26 Her word is law, she towers above them!
27 Ishtar among the gods, her standing immense,
28 Her word is law, she towers above them!

29 šarrassun uštanaddanū siqrīša
30 kullassunu šâš kamsūšim
31 nannarīša illakūši
32 iššû u awīlum palhūšīma  

29 They beg their queen to issue them orders;
30 they bow down obsequiously before her!
31 Acolytes orbit around her;
32 Men and women approach her in fear!

33 puhriššun etel qabûša šūtur
34 ana anim šarrīšunu malâm ašbassunu
35 uznam nēmeqim hasīsam eršet
36 imtallikū šī u hammuš    

33 Foremost in the assembly, her speech altogether exalted,
34 she sits throned among them, an equal to Anu, the king!
35 She is wise beyond comprehension
36 when she and her chieftan confer!

37 ramûma ištēniš parakkam
38 iggegunnim šubat rīšātim
39 muttiššun ilū nazzuizzū
40 epšiš pîšunu bašiā uznāšun

37 They sit at the dais together,
38 in their delightful dwelling,
39 as the gods stand respectfully
40 awaiting her bidding.

41 šarrum migrašun narām libbīšun
42 šarhiš itnaqqišunūt niqi'ašu ellam
43 ammiditāna ellam niqī qātīšu
44 mahrīšun ušebbi li'ī u yâlī namrā'i  

41 The king, their favourite, their hearts' beloved,
42 offers his sacrifice before them in splendour.
43 In their presence, Ammiditana, with his own hands
44 makes fattened offerings of bulls and stags.

45 išti anim hāmerīša tēteršaššum
46 dāriam balāṭam arkam
47 madātim šanāt balāṭim ana ammiditāna
48 tušatlim ištar tattadin  

45 From Anum, her bridegroom, she has demanded
46 for the king a long fruitful life.
47 Many long years of life for Ammiditana
48 Ishtar has granted!

49 siqrušša tušaknišaššu
50 kibrat erbe'im ana šēpīšu
51 u naphar kalīšunu dadmī
52 taṣammissunūti ana nīrīšu

49 At her command the four corners of the earth
50 bow down to him!
51 She has bound the entire orb of the earth
52 to his yoke!

53 bibil libbīša zamar lalêša
54 naṭumma ana pîšu siqri ea īpuš
55 ešmēma tanittaša irissu
56 libluṭmi šarrašu lirāmšu addāriš

53 Her heart's desire, the praise-filled song,
54 is suited to his mouth, the commandment of Ea.
55 "I have heard her eulogy," said Ea, "and I was delighted with it!"
56 "May her king live long and may she love him forever!"

57 ištar ana ammiditāna šarri rā'imīki
58 arkam dāriam balāṭam šurqī

57 O Ishtar, may he live long and prosper,
58 Ammiditana, the king who loves you!
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 Roughly 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
Geoffrey Chaucer
Charles d'Orleans,
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
Medieval Poetry Translations
Charles Baudelaire Translations by Michael R. Burch
Paul Verlaine Translations by Michael R. Burch
Rabindranath Tagore Translations by Michael R. Burch
Yosa Buson Haiku Translations by Michael R. Burch
Poetry by Michael R. Burch,
Michael R. Burch Free Verse

The HyperTexts