22 agosto 2012

Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer, translated

This week's poem is Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk bandPussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". Is there any truth in the accusation? It's worth taking a closer look at the lyrics of Punk Prayer.

This, of course, is the song that sparked the trouble when the three women performed it in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago. The performance was mildly shocking, at least for any believer unused to trendy vicars putting on rock concerts. Loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about. But the lyrics are not all raw obscenity: they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure. Western commentators have cherry-picked simple-mindedly to find quotations. In offering my version of Punk Prayer as Poem of the Week, I'm expressing solidarity with the singers, objection to their absurd and horrible sentence, and annoyance with the cynics who accuse them of staging a PR exercise. In another context, dramatic acts of self-sacrifice for a cause are known as martyrdom.

Punk poetry without performance is an oxymoron. Still, it was an interesting challenge to try and inject a little of Pussy Riot's performance-style into the words. The song brings together two different musical genres. It has a hymn-like opening chorus, very melodic and redolent oftraditional Russian Orthodox chanting. The mood soon changes, though, and everything erupts into punk rant, a slam of hard-hitting images connected by minimal syntax. The chorus returns, exhorting the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, and finally, with its original plea for Putin's banishment, it concludes the song.
I deliberately used archaic language for the chorus: "banish" rather than "drive out" and "we pray thee", a supplication not in the original. Elsewhere, I did a certain amount of syntactical joining up – perhaps a little too much. I'd like it to sound punkier. But I aimed at a poem, and a poem needs more than a list of images. I hoped the message would be emphasised and not anaesthetised by some added syntax.
The first verse centres on a vivid symbol of the unholy alliance of church and state: the priestly robes and the militaristic gold epaulettes. The antithesis is repeated in other unlikely pairings, such as the black limousines ("cars" in my translation), with their mafia associations, processing with the cross. Pussy Riot's performance in consecrated space is itself a further metaphor of this culture clash.
For the verses, I went for short lines, mostly trochaic. There are some obscurities in the original lyrics, such as the reference to the missionary who goes to school and gets paid, which I couldn't solve. The penultimate line in the penultimate verse was another tricky one. It translates literally as "the belt of the Virgin cannot replace meetings". I have guessed that this belt is a sacred accessory, and therefore a ritual object. The meeting referred to I think must be a protest meeting. Hence my "Fight for rights, forget the rite". But it's rather a long shot.

Finding a short version of the Patriarch's name wasn't too difficult. Kirill Gundyayev (he who allegedly called the Putin era "a miracle of God") becomes "Gundy". The nickname in the original is similarly harmless. But a heavy insult lies in waiting: "suka", meaning "bitch". This doesn't work as a masculine insult in English. So, for the sake of a rhyme with "virgin" and a zoological reference, I went for "vermin".
The Russian word "sran" becomes English "crap" in my version, rather than "shit". This line, particularly offensive for some, has been translated as "shit, shit, the Lord's shit". Not only is this ambiguous (it could mean either "the Lord is shit" or "shit from/of the Lord"), it's inaccurate. Derived from Gospod, meaning Lord, "gospodnaya," is an adjective. It could be translated as "religious", though I tried something different. "Crap" has a stronger metaphorical dimension than "shit" and comes a shade closer to "bullshit". The song is simply saying that all this state-controlled religious stuff is bullshit. It's interesting that these disgraceful sentiments would have represented, until recently, the official Communist party view ofreligion.

I'm not claiming the translation is anything special. Feel free to take it apart! And the original lyrics aren't wonderful poetry, either. Artistic comparisons with Joseph Brodsky are far-fetched. It's the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment that recall Brodsky's trial, and also the fate ofIrina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs. How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church's support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!
Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven,
Gay Pride's chained and in detention.
KGB's chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don't upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.
Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary's in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Punk Prayer, English version by Carol Rumens

04 agosto 2012

Terra de Magalhães, from Strange Maps

Fernweh [1] is what the Germans call that longing for faraway places, the poetic certainty that things are better elsewhere. But there is a superlative degree of geographic desire, a Fernweh even more sublime: the ache for fictional faraway places. Of such nonexistent locations, the mythical continent of Magellanica surely is the crowning glory. By rights of pedigree and size, it should be the most prominent of of phantom lands. Yet  Magellanica is as absent from the imagination as it is from contemporary maps - those prosaic projections of mere topographic fact. 
Magellanica has had many names and shapes, and regularly occupied large swathes of the southern hemisphere on world maps from the 15th to the 18th century. The most fantastic climates, cities and costumes were attributed to her. But most cartographers shied away from focusing on this hypothetical, as yet to be discovered continent. Conventionally, it is shown as an upside-down curtain, arbitrarily undulating upward from the South Pole, which in the projection popularised by Mercator is smeared out along the entire bottom of the map. However, this map, from Petrus Bertius' [2] Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum (1616) audaciously places the entirely imaginary continent at the centre of the map.

The continent is labelled Magallanica, sive Terra Australis Incognita: 'Magellan's Land, a.k.a. the Unknown Southern Land'. The name of the Portuguese explorer [3] was attached to the hypothetical continent because he supposedly skirted it in 1519, but the putative existence of a large mass of land in the southern hemisphere had been posited by Aristotle (4th century BC) and elaborated by Ptolemy (1st century AD).  
You read those dates right: the idea that the Earth was a sphere was much more common in Antiquity (and even throughout the Middle Ages) than one might think. But the idea that the 'Arctic' continents on the northern hemisphere needed an 'Ant(i)arctic' counterweight on the planet's southern half was based on a false analogy, and the bitter disputes about whether those places were habitable [4], or their inhabitants doomed [5], sound completely nuts these days.
As the Age of Discovery rolled back the outer limits of the unknown, world maps started showing the Terra Australis Incognita in various shapes - initially quite far north, into the habitable zone. Discoveries of land near the Southland's potential extension, were seen as proof of the Southland's existence. Tierra del Fuego, Java, New Guinea and the northern coasts of Australia were at some point all included in the shoreline of Magellanica. Other expeditions, like Dias' rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, kept pushing the imagined continent further south.
This map is late enough to catch some of these improvements, before Schuiten and Le Maire's 1616 expedition around Cape Horn would shrink Magellanica, Tasman's 1642 voyage south of Australia detached its northernmost extension, and Cook's second voyage in the 1770s relegated what was left of it to the uninhabitably cold polar region. The Bertius map links a few separate discoveries to the single landmass that isn't Magallanica. On the map, the regions mentioned are:
  • Terra del Fuogo (i.e. Fireland), which was to the left [6] of Magellan's journey through the Strait.
  • Promontorium Terrae Australis (the Cape of the Southland), maybe based on a sighting of South Georgia [7]?
  • Terra Psittacorum (Parrot Country), south of Africa [8].
  • Beach Provincia, just south of Java: a mistranscription of Locach, a kingdom mentioned by Marco Polo as being abundantly endowed with gold. Possibly based on a sighting of what is now Australia [8].
  • New Guinea is tentatively attached to the mainland of Magallanica.
Over the centuries, and while it shrank, Magallanica was known by a number of different names: Terra Australis Incognita (or Ignota), Bresil Inferior, la Australia del Espiritu Santo, Mowalanijia (on Jesuit-produced Chinese maps), Jave la Grande,  etc.
Eventually, in much-reduced state, and divorced from its original 'function' as balance for the northern continents, it would be discovered and named as Antarctica.
This map was found here on the website of Princeton University Library. It has an eerie similarity - also qua mistakes - with Mercator's map of the North Pole (see #116) 
[1] pronounced [FEHRN-veh].
[2] Latinised name of the Flemish cartographer Pieter de Bert (1565-1629), brother-in-law to fellow mapmakers Hondius and Van den Keere. Building upon his personal involvement with Arminianism, he published a theological tractate that went down badly with the mainstream of Dutch Protestantism; Bertius lost friends, influence and jobs, and left for France. He converted to Catholicism, which allowed him to work as a geographer, mathematician and historian at the royal court and universities of Paris. 
[3] Ferdinand Magellan - in his native Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães (1480-1521), led the first, Spanish-sponsored circumnavigation of the globe, although he was killed before his crew completed it. Magellan named the Pacific Ocean, discovering it after sailing through the narrows that still bear his own name. This Strait of Magellan separates the mainland of South America from Tierra del Fuego.
[4] People had a very hard time imagining what people who lived 'upside down' would look like: with feet where their heads should be, and vice versa? And why didn't they simply fall off the planet?
[5] Some geographers in Antiquity thought that the Earth had two habitable zones, in the north and south, separated by an impassably hot zone around the Equator. Later Christian thinkers thought that this either meant that Jesus would have had to make a second appearance in the southern hemisphere, or that those who lived in that impenetrable part of the world were automatically condemned to the fires of hell. 
[6] That's port for all you sea dogs out there. The right hand side of a ship is called starboard.
[7] For more on the world's remotest inhabited island, see #519
[8] The name of Australia, for a long time also called New Holland, was popularised by British explorer Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s; he thought the name had a better ring to it than the rather clunky-sounding 'Terra Australis'.
Strange Maps/Big Think

Wuthering Heights

“He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine.”

- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte