Emma Lee enjoys the translated poems by Emilia Ivancu but regrets not having copies of the originals

ivancuWashing my Hair with Nettles
Emilia Ivancu
Parthian www.partianbooks.com
ISBN 978191049701 
62pp        £7.99

Emilia Ivancu’s poems have been translated into English from their original Romanian by Diarmuid Johnson. The originals have already been published in book form so are not presented alongside the English translations. This makes it difficult to see how closely the translations have followed the original forms or sound patternings in the originals. In the title poem,

Now into a kettle of simmering water and pungent needles
I poured, together with the leaves, a flood of dreams.
None of which had ever been known to me before.

These are dreams born of nettles, through only once a year,
Dreams seen by eyes that will become mine to see with
Only when silken needles have begun to grow out of my waxless hair
Only when fresh nettles have broken through the soil once more
Only when winter has ended, and when the sun has set for the last time.

The poems focus on myth and legend within nature or human interaction with nature. In “April Snow” the poem’s narrator is watching a herd of deer in heavy snow,

Driven by hunger, they have set out
To beg for food at bright windows in the village
As night draws near, snowfall thickening
Hunger too deepens in the gut,
Driving all things to the limits of their ken.

The choice of the Scots word “ken” rather than “knowledge” is a surprise here. “Knowledge” echoes the sound of “village” and “to the limits” is redundant because “ken” implies “range of knowledge” rather than just knowledge”. Without sight of the original poem, I don’t know if the translator is being literal or using the spirit and sense of the original rather than a direct translation. “Two Women of Armenia” looks at human nature,

You wrote to me of the scars concealed in people's smiling 
Who refuse hate a licence to consume them,
And how, in a single lifetime, time and again, we may succumb to death
Yet, despite our dying, we sentence no-one to the grave,
For this concerns no other than and God and us.
You wrote to say you would send the gods to raise me up
If, bound for the peak of Ararat, I should ever fall,
To say how the white vultures would heal of their wounds my knees, my arms.
And then when I awoke I no longer was myself
But a shadow, moving on the desert, among the women of Armenia,
Those whose wounds none had nursed.

There’s some light relief too, in “Harmony” written after listening to guitar and flute music in Râmjeti, Romania,

Tremor of string, hum of wood
The wind wipes a wet cheek
And hands the sky its scarf.
Now dew glistens on thatched roofs
And the eye flickers faintly
As, in the well, the waters suspend their flow.
Tremor of string, hum of wood:
We listen to the mountain dreaming.

Translations of poetry are always welcome. They broaden perspective and appreciation of literature and what poetry can do. I appreciate there are copyright issues and expense involved in producing a book where the original poems are presented alongside the translations. However, I felt as if I couldn’t read these poems too closely because I didn’t know what approach the translator had taken, whether the focus was on the accuracy of literal translation or whether the focus was on maintaining the rhythms and sound patterns of the original. This shouldn’t detract from the poems themselves which demonstrate a respect for nature, spirituality and mythology.


Emma Lee‘s Ghosts in the Desert was published by Indigo Dreams. She was co-editor for Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015) and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.