Albanian poetry in translation






The poetry of the Albanians hasn't had much chance to be known and appreciated in English. So here's a selection, all translated by Robert Wilton. These capture the spirit, the meaning, the rhyme and, where possible, something of the rhythm of the original, while aiming at a meaningful piece of English poetry.

build a site

Ajkuna's lament Traditional

Ajkuna's lament is part of the 17th-18th Century cycle of Albanian highland songs Eposi i Kreshnikeve; in this part of the larger network of stories, Omer, the son of Gjeto Basho Muji and his wife Ajkuna, has been killed defending a castle.

Day has dawned but gives no light,
the sun is up but gives no warmth.
What's Gjeto Basho Muji doing?
Muji is burying his own dear son...

At last Muji took the lonely path home,
where the boy's mother asked him straight:
Our son? Mujo, why shake your head?
You mean you've left him in the green valley, dead?

Wretched widowhood is now her path;
the stars have fixed one life for her: grief.

When at last she'd reached the green valley,
the mother began to curse the moon:
- May your light expire, old sir moon,
that you sent no sign, not a single one,
to the green valley, that I should run
to enter the grave beside my son.

When she came to the grave of her boy,
she saw the beech, three centuries old,
the beech limbs writhing helter-skelter,
one of the finest spreading over the grave.

For boy and branch a beautiful spot;
a tear drops on the dust she loves.
They've stopped singing, the mountain doves,
They've stopped singing to listen.

- And don't you realise who has come,
unwelcoming and fast asleep,
beautiful boy of my own, o?

One last wish, beautiful son:
leave just once your darkened prison,
just one word from the son I bore;
you've never been gone this long before...

Beautiful Omer of mine, o;
is it your horse you're waiting for?
Run to play by the church once more;
go and hunt rabbits by Shala's roar;
scale the peaks with the ghosts of the brave;
your poor mother will guard your grave,
beautiful boy of my own, o...

Translated at Thethi, in the valley of Shala, Summer 2009. First published in Modern Poetry in Translation, Series 3 No. 13: 'Transplants', eds David and Helen Constantine, 2010.

Morea Traditional

My lovely Morea

My lovely Morea:
I have fled and you are dead;
I have fled, I have fled.
Could I somehow not have fled?

There I have a lord, my father;
There I have a lady, mother;
And there I have my brother
Hidden -
All hidden -
All hidden under the earth -

Oh, lovely Morea.

A couple of words, for the poets yet to come Dritëro Agolli

For love, we never had enough time to write,
Though as lovers we loved insane.
The state wanted songs of freedom's fight;
The state wanted songs of fields of sun-ripening grain;
The state wanted we wretched scribblers
To teach courses to read and write,
To put up dams in the rivers,
To carry into the highlands socialism's light.

So do not be surprised, you poets yet unborn,
And do not judge us, for that which wasn't done;
We, next to you, will seem like hermits wild and worn,
Burdened with iron chains, and grain ripening in the sun.
We who never slept, from dusk to morning dew;
We who gave our world so many works of art:
Couldn't we have written love into just a line or two?
Couldn't we once have murmured 'oh my beloved heart'?

You want to believe that our hearts were dry?
Oh, if you'd seen how we burned among our beloved beauties!
The wonderful words we whispered, into the golden evening sky!
But we had no time to publish them, among our other duties;
And our printers had more important fish to fry.

The Story of Skanderbeg Naim Frasheri

I

Sing his wisdom, angel, sing
All his deeds of virtue bright
That brave Skanderbeg might bring
The land of eagles light.
Like them, let your spirit fly,
Let mountain honey warm your tongue;
No man more brave, no lord more high
Than Skanderbeg was ever sung.
Angel, why this sweet oration?
What deeds make a warrior great?
While he boldly builds the nation,
Bravely he protects the state.

From the blazing spark of dawn
Fire the kindling of my story;
Illuminate how we were born
With his ever-burning glory.
Beautiful angel, open the sky
And with wisdom's shining sun
Fly before me angel, fly
That I may see what he has done.

When in his all-holding hand
The true great God raised rock from sea
He formed this ancient mountain land
And the men to make her free.
Albania was born to praise
Without fear and without shame,
Like her men of ancient days,
Brave and wise and born to fame.
The king was product of the clan,
Strong and good and clever;
Albanian - which means a man -
With a name to live for ever.






When dawn first burned the early skies
It thawed the peaks where eagles flew,
The Mother-country of the wise,
The home, the hearth-stone of the true.

Alexander - great, but cursed
Unmatched to set the world aflame,
To never master glory's thirst,
Nor the loneliness of fame -
War-wild Pyrrhus, and their peers -
Who scorched their names on history's page,
Men whose lives outlived their years,
Men whose deeds outdid their age -
Were born amid the eagle's peaks.
At heart they were Albanian-born:
Not Bulgarians or Greeks,
But from the land of the rising dawn.

Pyrrhus stood the storms of Rome
Which scoured the lands that once were free;
Alexander charged the foam
Of the boundless Asian sea.
Like the mountain stallion's foals,
Like the beaks the eagle hatched,
These men were Albanian souls -
They lived unbeaten, died unmatched.
They pushed the map to unknown lands
They drove, they fought, they won, they spread.
Europe's cities, Asia's sands,
Heard their voices, felt their tread.

The mindless marching Roman menace
Could not break the mountain shields;
The slave-rowed greedy fleets of Venice
Could not buy Albania's fields.
The eagle's claws have felt no chains,
No tyrant cloud overcast its sky;
Fear never chilled its burning veins,
Nor caused a tremor in its stony eye.
It rose with glory in its beak -
Blazing like the dragon's breath
That tamed the highest snow-chilled peak -
Feared dishonour more than death.

Her enemies failed;
Albania soared;
The shadows paled
In the light of the Lord.
It shone most hard on
Where Kruja towered,
And in that rocky garden
King Gjon Kastrioti flowered.
Friendship, honour and truth
Were the richest of fruits;
From an honest man's word grew the
Strongest of roots.

Thus then was Albania blessed;
Thus she soared on fortune's graces;
Thus goodness ruled the eagle's nest.
But towards this calm oasis
Charged a wild, blood-thirsty beast;
Looming shadows it unfurled,
A dawn of darkness in the east,
Imposing night across the world.


A nation damned, a cursed race,
Its every word was snake's deceit,
Madness glistened in its face,
Its heart pumped evil beat by beat.
Where its cloven feet had paced
Blood and tears would surely flow;
Fertile fields would grieve and waste;
Where it trod no grass would grow.

One face burned with blood and hate,
One with the betrayer's smile;
The feral faces of man's fate -
The jackal's teeth, the fox's guile.
Good's decisive test was here: a
Hunt for evil to its lair;
But evil shifts, distorts - a mirror -
And good itself is in the snare.

Enlightenment grew dim and died;
Darkness uncreated day.
Wisdom paled and failed beside
Blood and death and black decay.
The world was in the devil's pit -
The longest night of humankind.
Left to rot, unfree, unlit,
Civilisation lost its mind.

Crystal (Kristal) Ismail Kadare

It's a while since we've seen each other and I feel
As if I'm forgetting you bit by bit,
As the memory of you dies in me -
As hair dies, and all things.

So now I need a point at which
To leave you; I'm hunting high and low
A verse, a note, a jewel
Where I release you, I kiss you, I go.

If no grave will hold you,
Neither marble nor crystal bed,
I don't have to drag you round,
do I, half-alive and half-dead?

If not a dyke to ditch you in,
I'll find a field of flowers and trees
Where, so softly, I will scatter
You, like pollen, upon the breeze.

I'll lull you like this, perhaps, and kiss you
And never return to that setting;
And neither we, nor anyone will know
Whether this was, or was not, the forgetting. 

Even when my memory Ismail Kadare

Even when my wearied memory -
like the trams at dead of night -
is only touching at the main stations
I will not forget you.

I'll remember
the silent evening, the infinity of your eyes,
the muffled sob dropping on my shoulder
like snow that won't be shifted.

Then the break-up:
I went far away from you...
nothing unusual about it,
except that one night
someone's fingers will weave into your hair
with my distant fingers, all those miles away...

The Red Pashas Ismail Kadare

1.
The Cabinet met at midnight.
What happened in the north? Do you know?
What's going on in the valley?
Clouds in the sky, and winter bringing snow.

Tell me the people aren't seething.
Tell me it's going to be calm.
Tell me Ambassadors haven't been sending
messages of alarm.

No. The country's borders are quiet.
From Dragodan, not even a frown.
And this winter, in our new democracy,
everyone's keeping their heads down.

It's business as usual, and the days
pass, and the evenings are getting more light.
So why, then, so unexpectedly,
does the Cabinet meet at night?

2.
States never fail for a broken roof,
however much it lets in the rain;
They rot from the foundations.
Our state,
sui generis, is just the same.

From the top, everything can seem fine:
speeches, tenders, old songs, reviews,
and the heroic faces of our leaders
on billboards and banners and the evening news;

messages of support, gleaming smiles,
elections and kissing the babies' heads.
While below,
right down in the foundations,
slowly the cancer spreads.

Against our enemies we've guns, songs, postures; 
the Embassies will always make the call.
But what weapon against the system?
Guns are useless,
and the Ambassadors do nothing at all. 

3.
Behind the applications/delegations, declarations, expropriations
- the signing ceremonies, red carpet on the floor, 
the sober satisfied poster smiles -
the paperwork is something more.

Not splashed with ink,
like jolly, busy bureaucrats, ho ho ho,
but sinister,
with blood-washed hands,
up to their elbows in it I see them.
I see them plunging deep,
right to the heart of our liberation.
What are they doing?
Why are they wrenching
our martyrs' bodies this way, that way, and inside out?

Flagging (Under the flags of melancholy, Nën Flamujt E Melankolisë) Migjeni
a contemporary adaptation

In our country
there are rather
sorry-looking banners flapping
everywhere…
… and no-one can say if
this is a state
really trying to create
something new-born.
Somewhere behind
the banners
you can find grey men
desperately trying
alchemy, a death-defying
effort to turn hope into glory,
to turn huff and puff into magic!
But all that we see
(and this is a little tragic)
Is merely a flea.
This farce has shattered
the joy of that February night
and, as if out of spite,
we crumbled.
Over the hunched men in cafés
And the chilly girls on Nënë Terezë
the banners flap and droop
looking rather sorry.

Resignation (Rezignata) Migjeni

We show our consolation only in tears...
Our inheritance from all these years
is misery... because within the womb
of the Universe our world is a tomb,
where mankind are condemned to sneak like snakes,
and their will as if squeezed in the fist of a giant breaks.
- One eye glittering with distilled drops of the deepest pain
glimmers from far across the vale of tears,
and sometimes an instinctive pulse of frustrated thought
flashes out across the spheres
seeking an outlet for anger overwrought.
But the head sags, and the sorrowing eye is hid,
and a solitary tear squeezes through the lid,
rolls down and off the face, a single drop of rain;
and from the tiny raindrop of that tear, a man is born again.
And each such man must take his fate in his own hands,
hoping for the smallest victory, and seek out distant lands;
where all the roads are laid with thorns and on every side walled in
by gravestones all besmeared with tears and lunatics who, silent, grin.

Two lips Migjeni

Two reddened lips,
two flames of desire,
that swallowed my heat
and, with my joy spent,
like a phantasm went
into some better, other world...

Two lips of blood-fire,
two flames of desire,
that swallowed the heat
from my lips when they met -
reason undermined,
heart deaf and blind,
poisoned my mind -
and fled, no word behind...

Two reddened lips,
the fatal beauty
of a sorceress queen
who took from me spring,
who cut my heart's string,
and who wrenched from me joy...

Those two reddened lips,
and two tears of mine,
were the marks of my pain
when beauty knocked me cold,
when love took hold,
when my innocence turned old.

of beauty's hot blast
of the love that held me fast
of my young innocence past.

Take Your Pick (Merr e Zgjidh) Fan Noli

Do you want to start a war?
Got enemies knocking at your door?
What's needed in the cannon's roar
Is Kosovars - say ten, not more.
 
If a snow-capped mountain peak -
A big tough highlander - you seek,
Strong but kindly to the weak,
Go to Kukes and take a peek.
 
Want discord? This barrack lawyer
's a best-of-everything-enjoyer.
If pie lacks finger, employ a
charlatan who's from Tropoja.
 
Need some people for your party –
Family viewing, not too arty?
The worthiest men and women come
From old Shkoder with pipe and drum.
 
The smartest folk you're sure to meet
- Tongues so smooth, minds so great -
Are all around on every street
In Diber, home of good debate.
 
Want a fool or want a thief,
An ass who wants your filthy lucre,
A cheat, a rogue, a bandit chief?
Go and get ripped off in Puke.
 
Need a real chest-beater
A swaggering fire-eater
Won’t rest until the job’s complete?
Take a couple from Mirdita.
 
The men of Mat are able sorts,
Forged in fire in raised in forts.
If you care for law and order
Shove them out to watch the border.
 
Want a con, a scam, a plan?
Want an all-deceiving clan?
Swear black white and sell their gran?
They lie in Kruja, to a man.
 
Finding lazy folk for Brussels
Is hardly work to tax the muscles:
Tiranasi will fall in line
If you just tell them where to sign.
 
If your tastes are more exotic,
Flirty, dirty, and erotic,
Such obliging people can
Be picked up in Elbasan.

(That bit had me quite perplexed;
It should in truth be merely ‘x’d.
But if you want an outline text:
In Elbasan they’re over-sexed.)
 
Want the news on Fan or Zog?
The gossips gather, all agog,
Idle, waffling, ever-curious,
At cafes and corners throughout Durres.
If among the unwashed masses
You want seditious stubborn asses -
If it’s these you want to hire -
Go and get them in Kavaja.
 
The search for hoxha or for priest
Shouldn’t get the brow too creased;
They’ll be where the sin is at:
Behind the windows of Berat.
 
Do you like your young things bright,
Fitted for the goodly fight
Smartly ordered left to right?
In Laberi you’ll find your knight.
 
Does hard work provoke alarm,
On the workshop or the farm?
Need a strong and willing arm?
That, you see, is Korca’s charm.
 
Want gaping mouths that only eat?
Want cattle walking on two feet?
Fecklessness you want? Then get you
Gone and wander round Myzeqe.
 
Want to keep your grasping hands
On your gold, your goods, your lands?
A Gjirokastran understands
(they build their homes on rocks not sands).
 
Want good food and want good frolic?
The kingly banquet, all well-set,
Cleanliness and etiquette
You find only in Permet.
 
Won elections? Well, good on yer!
A cabinet’s your next endeavour.
Seek your people in Kolonja,
‘cos down there they’re really clever.
 
Doing business in Skrapar
Is never trouble-free or painless;
But for high office that’s no bar:
It’s good to have a couple brainless.
 
Flaming Nora, we forgot Vlore!
Let’s not shed blood; let’s end right:
Let’s share something of their glory;
Drinks all round, and so goodnight.

Morning Lasgush Poradeci

Within the breast the dark heart sleeps:
The lake within the mountains' clasp.
Reflected far down in its deeps
The night is drowned with empty gasp.

I see the death, I see the pain;
Those eyes of hers, deep blue the shade,
Those eyes of hers that blink and strain,
Are stars that glimmer once and fade.

Beneath the surface, dawn's first ray
now gleams and hints at life to be;
Unseen, the daystar shrinks away,
A grain of sugar in the sea.

Look there! Look there! The day is born -
The water cracks - a pelican's beak
Has like a herald of the morn
Just pierced the sky in lightning streak.

In terms of breadth and volume, the single best online resource for Albanian culture is almost certainly the site of the late Robert Elsie, who - as well as being a patient and generous counsellor - arguably did more than anyone in recent generations to preserve Albanian literature. If you're interested in Albanian poetry in literary rather than technical translation, the selection above are a few contributions to the effort. (And here’s Robert Wilton at the Festival of Literature in Orllan.)