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  • Hiding Content: Notes on Translating Stevens’ “Colors” and Frost’s “A Time to Talk”
  • Jeroen van den Heuvel
Colors Kleuren
Pale orange, green and crimson, and white, and gold and brown. Lichtoranje, groen en karmijn, en wit, en goud en bruin.
Lapis-lazuli and orange, and opaque green, faun-color, black and gold. Lapis-lazuli en oranje, en dekkend groen, faun-kleur, zwart en goud.

WRITTEN IN 1909 and first published in 1957 in Opus Posthumous, “Colors” consists of two parts, each a list of colors. Most of the colors have easy counterparts in Dutch. Exceptions are crimson, lapis-lazuli, and faun-color. This last one is intriguing. We cannot know whether the written text has faun or fawn if the poem is read aloud. The use of this homophone draws attention to the auditory dimension, thus broadening the poem’s message about perception to multiple modalities. But in Dutch the word for fawn (geelbruin) nowhere resembles the word faun. Unfortunately, then, this aspect is lost in translation.

The name crimson refers to the way the dye was made using dried bodies of the kermes insect. For this reason, it is best translated into Dutch with the word karmijn. The name lapis-lazuli refers to the semiprecious stone with this distinct color. The name consists of the Latin word for stone, lapis, and a Latin genitive form indicating where the stone was mined. The name refers to its own origin, both by being in a language that had a major influence on English and by using the genitive form to indicate source. It could be translated in multiple ways, but I decided not to translate it.

The colors describe a scene or object or even a person. Or possibly a painting thereof. This remains unclear. Most of the color names could be adjectives. They are, however, nouns as becomes apparent from faun-color. The color names are entities in themselves. Together they form a veil that hides the very thing they are describing.

The main structure of each of the two parts of the poem is the list. Stevens plays with the grammatical conventions of writing down a list by [End Page 113] using the Oxford comma not only toward the end of the list. This has multiple effects. One is that it gives the impression of the poet enumerating the colors he sees. He thinks he has reached the last one, uses the Oxford comma, but to his surprise needs to list yet another color. This introduces the notion of time, as well as a sense of process while the reader is reading the poem. Another effect is an emphasis on the lingual character of the poem. Even something as simple as listing colors becomes a struggle with commas and conjunctions. The list is a language construct. In Dutch, the rule of thumb is not to use a comma in front of a conjunction, not even in a list. I kept the commas and conjunctions in Dutch just as they appear in English, because they give the poem its overall rhythm.

First published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost’s poem is metrically based on lines of four iambs, even though only three of the ten lines conform to it. Time is important in this poem, as the title suggests, and so is distance. The latter is reflected in the rhyme scheme: abcadbceed.

A Time to Talk Een tijd om te praten
When a friend calls to me from the road Als een vriend naar me roept van de straat
And slows his horse to a meaning walk, En doelbewust zijn paard trager leidt,
I don’t stand still and look around Houd ik niet stil en kijk niet op
On all the hills I haven’t hoed, Naar alles wat me te doen staat,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?” En schreeuw van waar ik ben “Wat moet je?”
No, not as there is a time to talk. Nee, voor praten is er altijd tijd.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, Ik steek mijn schep met het blad ten top
Blade-end up and five feet tall, En vijf voet...


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pp. 113-116
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