Translating tankas from the Valencian

by Jan S. Reinhart

After publishing his experimental fantasy novel Els paísos del tallamar in 2014, Joan-Carles Martí I Casanova decided to focus his literary efforts in poetry. Over the next few years he wrote Milanta tankes I una elegia (A Myriad of Tankas and an Elegy). It comprises five short volumes of tankas written in his southern Valencian dialect of Catalan preceded by an elegy to his late brother. The volumes of tankas are written from the perspective of the poet, alternately in his modern identity as a resident of the city of Elx (Elche in Spanish) and from his imagined personas in Berber North Africa and the rural Valencian countryside.
The tanka is a compressed Japanese poetic form closely related to the better known haiku, which was also codified by the Twentieth Century Japanese critic Masaoka Shiki. Whereas the haiku consists of three phrases of 5-7-5 syllables, the tanka adds two more lines of seven syllables apiece
Joan-Carles does not write in rhyming verse. Like English, Catalan is characterized by clipped consonantal endings to its words – at least when compared to the euphonious vowel endings of closely related Romance languages like Spanish and Italian – and its best poets tend to prefer free verse. So my challenge was to somehow represent the literal and allusive meanings of the original text in my English translations.
There are no word-for-word translations, not in novels, not in tractor manuals and especially not in poetry because words do not precisely overlap between languages. In particular, the connotative meanings so important in poetry that surround a word in the original tongue are usually lost in another language and with another culture. Nevertheless the translator’s job is to create a working version of the original in the target language, one that largely captures the meaning and feel of its model. With a form as tightly constructed as the tanka, the options are few even without the challenge of rhyming.
Then how to translate the economical poetry of Joan-Carles’ Valencian tankas into coherent English? First, by recognizing and responding to the underlying sensuality of his poetry. He does not describe images so much as feel them. Whether it is of ripening dates in the ancient Phoenician orchards of Elx or a walk down an arid stream bed, the verses emanate from longing and loneliness, so merely producing a string of nouns is inadequate. Then there are his lexical choices: modernist Catalan with light touches of the Arabic influenced Elxan dialect. I tried then to keep the English as straightforward and unaffected as possible.
But another aspect of the poet novelist’s literary output is how it resolves in a kind of Catholic mysticism like the passion plays and pageants of his beloved home city. I noticed this in his tanka recalling an otherwise uneventful flight home from Brussels: “Palpes els núvols /mestre, a terra davalles/trànsit de casa”. Literally, “You touch the clouds/Master, the Earth below/in transit home.” The tanka invokes the antique Catalan “verb”, or Word of God, and ends in an orgasm meant to signify the explosive joy of
his spiritual and physical return to Elx. My solution was to make the religious subtext explicit by borrowing phrases directly from English Biblical and hymnal literature. If the frankness of the tanka’s final word, “orgasme”, then might seem tamed by my translation of it as “enrapture”, the English version captures the ecstatic state. (And the poet himself has recognized as much in our conversations regarding the translations.)
Perhaps the most challenging tankas to translate were the handful from the end of each volume written in Provençal. This was a nod to Joan-Carles’ early childhood living on the outskirts of the former capital of Provence, Marseilles. Although he began his life as a speaker of standard French, or “Langues d’oï’’, the ancient Occitan, or “Lenga d’òc”, was still common outside the major cities of Southern France a half century ago. Moreover, Joan-Carles keeps in touch with activists and writers trying to save this profoundly endangered but once grand language from a dismissive Paris-oriented state.
At first I translated these tankas into straightforward English, but that seemed like a cop out. The poet meant for these pieces to be read by Catalan speakers who would experience the neighboring language of Provence (which shares a close ancestry with Catalan) as both familiar and distant. Ultimately I elected to translate them into Scots, the dialect of English spoken in varying degrees north of Hadrian’s Wall. Not being a native speaker or expert on Lowland Scots, I relied on a collection of dictionaries and grammars from the past century. Obviously there is a bit of mixing and matching of current and antique vocabulary going on here, but the original tankas, written as they are by an outsider to Provençal, share the same strategy. In the end, I think the haunting effect Joan-Carles was attempting in his work is reflected in the translations.
The last tanka is not part of a formal project. Joan-Carles wrote it for his Facebook page nearly a year ago as the Covid-19 crisis engulfed Spain and he was confined to a small apartment in Guardamar del Segura. I believe the poem (and its translation) speaks for itself.

© Joan-Carles Martí I Casanova  

a tramuntana
d’Elx, els horts de palmeres
del vent fan núvols;
les pedres són escrites
el cor en canal s’obre.

Per vós els dàtils
verdegen al setembre
enmig les palmes;
dels peçons de l’orella
dolçor ple de frisança.

brossa amb baladre
vermellor dins la gola
roig washingtònia
tamarits dalt la banca
arrap boig de sang fresca

De vera prima,
rams, diumenge de palmes,
verdeja, el colze
al camí se m’eixampla
devers la flama encesa.

Palpes els núvols
mestre, a terra davalles
trànsit de casa;
el verb dins teu tremolo
car viu dels mots l’orgasme.

l’estel de Venus
més amunt les palmeres
mentre els ulls torque;
aquesta immensa pèrdua
del frec i pell dels somnis.

benlèu qu’òc l’home
sap pas ont a son èime
paratge abita:
siatz luenh milanta lègas
viril votz de mon fraire.

Çubran dels pobres
amb el capell m’aplegue
avall carrera,
sóc a la riba esquerra
la suor a les cuixes.

Gela a Brusel•les
demà tornaré a casa
la porta oberta;
espera’m a l’andana
escalfor dels meus somnis.

dol de dobleta
llum de lluna lluenta
rosa assasina;
dels néts plors amb cridòria
temps del coronavirus.  

© Joan-Carles Martí I Casanova

in the rocky north
of Elx, the groves of palm trees
lend clouds to the breeze;
the very stones are inscribed
the ditch-riven heart opens.

For you the date fruits
green ripe in September
amidst the palm fronds;
like ear lobes
sweet and full of longing.

brush with oleander
blushing in the throat
ruddy Washingtonia
salt cedar over the bank
clings madly to the fresh blood.

In the true springtime
branches, bracts, palmy Sundays
turn green, my elbow
widens the path before me
toward the flame now burning bright.

You touch the clouds, then
Teacher, to Earth you descend
en route to your house;
the Word inside you trembles
for words alone enrapture.

there, the Evening Star
high above the palm orchard
while I wipe tears from my eyes;
this lost and utter vastness
from the warp and weft of dreams.

Aye, mebbe man-growen
‘at kens whaur laigh his spirit
I onair dae bide;
Ye are thousants o faws gane
Duineil tung o ma brither.

To St. Cyprien
Cyprien of the poor
summon me with your miter
further down the street,
for I am on the left bank
sweat dripping down to my thighs.

Freezing in Brussels
tomorrow I return home
the open door;
wait for me at the crossroads
torrid heat of my dreams.

a round wake of grief
revealed in a full Moon’s light
rose-colored killer;
tears, shouts from the grandchildren
times of coronavirus.

Translation by ©Jan S. Reinhart

Joan-Carles Martí I Casanova (Marseilles, France, 1958). The son of emigrants from Elx, where he has lived since the age of 14. Prior to the family’s return to Valencia, he grew up in Marseilles and then Sydney, Australia. He has university degrees in tourism and in Translation and Interpretation from the Universitat d’Alacant. He is fluent in Spanish, Catalan, French and English and served as an interpreter in the Bosnian War. Currently he is the director of the tourism office of the city of Guardamar del Segura, located on the Mediterranean coast near his home city of Elx, where he had served as a tourism official until 2007. An activist for the city’s native Catalan language since the repressive Franco period, he founded the award-winning El Tempir association in 1993 to advocate for pubic and private use of Catalan in the language’s southernmost outpost. He is the author of five books, including the widely renown social history of Elxan Catalan, Des del rovellet d l’ou d’Elx (From the Yolk of the Egg of Elx) and his magical realist novel of his global childhood Els països del tallamar (The Countries from the Ship’s Tiller). He has published poetry and essays in numerous Catalan language publications since his adolescence.

Jan S. Reinhart (Toledo, Ohio, 1964). The grandchild of German and Polish immigrants who came to the American Midwest to work in the region’s once vibrant industrial sector. He has a master’s degree in Spanish, Option in Translation, from Rutgers University, as well as undergraduate degrees in Spanish and Portuguese and journalism. He worked as a newspaper journalist in the Midwest and East Coast of the United Sates and (briefly) in Brazil before managing the audio-visual department of the Rutgers University Libraries from 2001-2019. Currently he teaches Spanish at Middlesex College in Central New Jersey. He translated the acclaimed short story “Clara Bou” by Pep Puig in Best European Fiction 2012 (edited by Alexsandar Hemon) for Dalkey Archive Press.

All rights reserved.

Painting by Joaquin Sorolla, Yellow tree La Grangia (1906)

3 thoughts on “Joan-Carles Martí I Casanova & Jan S. Reinhart: Tankas from “Milanta tankes I una elegia”

  1. Dear Matilda,

    I write as it flows on a sunny spring Tuesday morning from my home in Guardamar overlooking the Iberian Valencian Mediterranean just in front of Italy on the other side of our Mare Nostrum. I also learnt Italian and can read the language with ease. I feel so honoured -as a non Italian in an Italian to English language blog- to represent my Catalan language as a southern Valencian writer and poet from Elx. As a translator myself, the Internet relationship with Jan Reinhart [in New Jersey] has made not only two near far-away friends. We have discussed so many things “divine and human” in the past decade or so. I’m overwhelmed with my inclusion in your blog and with his beautiful and masterful translatoonsm Thank you! What else can I say? I’m not usually at a loss for words but thank you again. To you both, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great painting to illustrate the post! The great Valencian painter Sorolla was the visual arts equivalent of his contemporary and countryman Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.

    Liked by 1 person

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