Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Howdy, folks! Tuesday is upon us again, & this week it brings my translation of a poem by Romanian-born poet Tristan Tzara. Tzara was one of the founders & spokesmen for the Dada movement, & was a colleague of Breton, Éluard, Péret & others who gradually morphed from Dada’s nihilism into the efflorescence of the Surrealist movement. Tzara was active in both art & politics—not only was he a poet of note, but he also worked in the French Resistance during World War II, & expended a great deal of effort on reconciling the tenets of Marxism & Surrealism.

I translated quite a bit of Tzara during my translating binge of the 90s, tho I always found him quite difficult—for instance, what exactly to make of:

“les empereurs sortent dans les parcs à cette heure qui ressemble à
l’amertume des gravures”

For the curious, that’s the end of the last stanza. Besides the “bitterness” of engravings, a translation I’ve seen by Charles Simic & Michael Brownstein also uses the adjective “precise” to modify the “engraving”—which makes some sense in a mental picture of the evening.

Hope you enjoy this!


fishermen return with stars from the waters
they parcel out bread to the poor
string beads for the blind
the emperors take a walk in the parks this hour that's about as bitter
      as an engraving

servants bathe the hounds
the light puts on gloves
consequently shut the window
put out the light as you’d spit out an apricot pit
like a priest from his church

good god: weave soft wool for melancholy lovers
dip little birds in ink and renew the moon’s face

— let's catch beetles
and stick them in a box
— let's go to the river
and make clay jugs

— let's hug
beside the fountain
— let's go to the public park
stay till the cock crows
and the town's outraged

or in the granary
the hay pricks we hear cows moo
as they keep after their little ones
let's get to it

Tristan Tzara
translation by John Hayes © 1990-2009


  1. Wow!! Tristan is one of my heroes (that probably comes as no surprise). And as you know I love your translations. You have a knack for it, for getting a flavor just right.

    Thank you! Wow.

  2. Now I do like this one and I think your interpretation of the bitter engraving is the right one. It is a perfect surrealist image.

  3. I keep thinking I've found my favourite line in that poem; then another one jumps out. I think the winner is

    "dip little birds in ink and renew the moon’s face"

    What a lovely poem.

  4. Hi Reya & Alan & Sandra!

    Reya: You have good heroes! Thanks for your kind words.

    Alan: Thanks for that!

    Sandra: Yes, this has a lot of memorable lines--glad you liked it!

  5. Agree with Sandra Leigh for favourite line.An impressive translation ,John, I don't begin to have notion how such a thing would be done. Brilliant.

  6. Thanks TFE--Tristan actually seems as tho he might be up your alley a bit.


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