Literally Lost in Translation

And sometimes not lost at all…

Mo Ringey Photograph, Bangkok, Thailand, 1996.

Image: Sign at Wat, Bangkok, 1996.

I never know where I am going with these posts, which is the common denominator in the endless metaphorical fractions of this life, but often the going becomes the posts and thus the posts tell of the going. Eventually I suppose they make a point.

Mo Ringey Photograph, Chaing Mai, Thailand, 1996.

Image: Point-Breathing Dragon in Bangkok, 1996.

It’s really quite a coincidence that foreign poetry and foreign places occurred simultaneously in my unforeign day, and it was perhaps all spurred by the simple loan of a scanner, for yesterday a friend brought me a scanner for my indefinite use and I started digging through dusty boxes.

The first images I came upon that seemed worthy of a scan were of a Wat I had visited in Thailand in 1996. The header image at the top is a detail of this Wat, which had been modernized. As we were leaving this Wat, in Chaing Mai, we wandered around to the back where we were not supposed to be, and where we found an abandoned bit of the Wat, a remnant, pre-modernization, thrown in a pile carelessly, like so many commas. Something about this discarded scrap of a sacred temple struck me as both wrong and beautiful.

As I was scanning this image I heard an email slide into my inbox. It was from a stranger, more and less, and it pointed to a poem. I felt that his poem seemed a perfect accompaniment to this image even though I had no idea what the poem said, being written in French. I translated it using babelfish and as it began to resemble sense, it seemed that somewhere in the sense there might be more sense and so I sent it to a fluently-French friend who fixed up the translation a bit for me. The resulting poem seems so relevant to the image and so I juxtapose the two below, with the machine translation and original poem below the below:

Mo Ringey Photograph, Chaing Mai, Thailand, 1996.

I think that in this moment
nobody maybe thinks about me in the universe,
that only I think of me,
and if I died now,
nobody, not even me, would think of me.

And here begins the abyss,
as when I go to sleep.
I am my own support and my collapse.
I contribute to covering absence with all sorts of things.

It is for this that maybe
That to think about a man
Comes back to a savior.

~hand-translation from a friend


I think that in this moment
person maybe thinks about me in the universe,
that me only I think myself,
and so now I died,
anybody, or me, would not think me.

And here begins the abyss,
as when I myself m’endors.
I am my own support and removes it for me.
I contribute to decorate with absence all things.

This is for that maybe
That to think about a man
Comes back to to save it.

~translation by a well-meaning machine


Je pense qu’en ce moment
personne peut-être ne pense à moi dans l’univers,
que moi seul je me pense,
et si maintenant je mourais,
personne, ni moi, ne me penserait.

Et ici commence l’abîme,
comme lorsque je m’endors.
Je suis mon propre soutien et me l’ôte.
Je contribue à tapisser d’absence toutes choses.

C’est pour cela peut-être
Que penser à un homme
Revient à le sauver.

Roberto Juarroz, Première Poésie Verticale.
Extrait de Poésie Verticale,
traduit de l’espagnol (argentin)
par Roger Munier,
© Fayard, 1980

-original poem translated and posted on facebook

5 Responses to “Literally Lost in Translation”


    Move through the woods and leave no trail; tread softly – carry no stick.
    Fear and respect are not my due. No progeny carries genes to a future I cannot see.

    There will be no monuments for me; no markers showing where I lie.
    No graven words by which to live – no pointers to a goal for pilgrims here.

    Spread my ashes to the four winds. Let them feed the trees that house the birds
    That soar above the earth, disdaining gravity and serious concern.

    My legacy is for Mother Earth; she need not try this experiment again.

  2. Jim Neill Says:

    I think machine translations serve as a chance for accidentally meaningful collisions to happen that would not have. The computer writes a poem. Sometimes when I try to write a poem, generally abandoning the effort after a few lines, I try to go out of focus rather than in because back there behind the high resolution world is where puzzle pieces that don’t fit, fit. The secret is connecting a whole bunch of them. Haikus are more likely to fully happen because of my ADD (or whatever the condition is that fires hundreds of slides and thoughts and silly string through my mind like buckshot from a sawed off shotgun ever second.) It’s fun to run an English paragraph through the computer into another language and then back to English, or from English to Spanish to French and then back to English. Or even more stages. I think this is how the poet Michael Palmer actually writes his poems. That’s sort of an inside joke. His poems are sometimes like a big vocabulary pile up out on the highway. The human translation of this poem is perfect for today. Who sent it? Was it just to you? I like the idea of spamming poems. Remember in school putting your name and address on a stamped postcard and tying it to a helium balloon and letting it go with all the other balloons all at once? I got a card back from across the Chesapeake Bay once. Another time, I got a card from my neighbor. The balloon had flown 10 miles from the school and almost made it back to me on its own.

  3. If you died, I would continue to think of you as I always do:
    now and immediately; always and forever, for you are my friend.

  4. Claudia Mendoza Says:

    Lost in transcription?
    For the original of Roberto Juarroz in Primera Poesía Vertical is not the one in french, but this one, published in Buenos Aires in 1958 by Equis editor.

    Pienso que en este momento
    tal vez nadie en el universo piensa en mí,
    que sólo yo me pienso,
    y si ahora muriese,
    nadie, ni yo, me pensaría.

    Y aquí empieza el abismo,
    como cuando me duermo.
    Soy mi propio sostén y me lo quito.
    Contribuyo a tapizar de ausencia todo.

    Tal vez sea por esto
    que pensar en un hombre
    se parece a salvarlo.

    Think, in spanish,is as well the fact of having an idea, as the fact of remembering, just like in english or french. And as the first word of each verse fullfits it with a special sense, I would say :

    I think that in this moment
    maybe nobody in the universe thinks about me,
    that alone I think about me,
    and if now I died,
    no one, nor me, would think about me.

    And here starts the abyss,
    as when I fall sleep.
    I am my own support y take it from myself.
    Contributing to cover all with absence.

    Maybe this is why
    thinking about a man
    can seem as saving him.

    Poetry is as a mirror, isn’t it?

  5. Claudia Mendoza Says:

    I am my own support and take it from myself.

    I was thinking in spanish!

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