Translator's Note: Geoffrey Brock
“Alteration Finds” began with an attempt to translate a poem—George Seferis’s Άρνηση” (1931)—from a language I don’t know at all. By reading other translations, some of which I liked but none of which I loved, I came to love, or imagine that I loved, the original whose contours I glimpsed through the veils of translation. I had read about the original, had heard it read and sung, and had questioned two Greek-speaking friends about certain words and phrases. But having no Greek, I hadn’t read the poem itself, and so it seemed fraudulent to call my version a translation. On the other hand, precisely because I couldn’t consider it a real translation, I felt freer to take liberties. I began to think of it as that naughty hybrid, an “imitation.”
I first read Rilke’s 1908 sonnet about the marble torso of Apollo (or rather, translations of it, since I don’t read German either) some dozen years ago, around the time of a painful change—divorce—in my own life. As may happen with poems, this one acquired private meanings related to the circumstances of my original experience of it: the headless Apollo became, for me, an emblem of the other/lover, whose mind is fundamentally unknowable. Since the original has been translated so often, I allowed myself to stray again into imitation, imposing the Seferis poem as a formal model and whittling away the marble of the original—even ditching Apollo, though I hope his ghost remains.
In the Rimbaud section I take a different kind of liberty, since the original—a snippet of the “Délires I” section of Une saison en enfer (1873), in which the poet gazes on his sleeping lover (Verlaine) and longs to know his mind—is in prose. Seferis again provides the model, and oddly the snippet’s final phrase—changer la vie—became a protest slogan in France in 1968, much as Seferis’s poem became a protest anthem in Greece in the sixties. And Rilke’s final phrase has become something of a slogan itself, of course, an existentialist exhortation that echoes widely in many contexts.
Instead of saying what I think the point of all this is, I’ll say something about the title, which, like the sections of this poem, has been torn from its original context, and which, I hope, might fly here like the last shred of an ancien régime flag over a fallen—but perhaps not ruined—city.
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This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine