In many parks and gardens, autumnal trees flaunt their red and yellow leaves or let them drop onto a thickening blanket of colour.
My back yard is scattered with leaves from a crepe myrtle and ornamental grape, plants so beautiful in colour yet so sad as the branches strip off their leaves, remaining bare and to all appearances dying.
But looking at the trees lining Anzac Parade today I saw only the green of our native trees that don’t hibernate for the winter. On the lush lawns of the Australian War Memorial the white chairs are all in place for the Anzac Day services which more and more people are attending every year. On the day, Tuesday 25th April, great numbers of visitors will fill the chairs, and those who stand on the roads behind will watch and hear the services on huge screens. I popped down there this morning while the crowd size was navigable. And with the weather forecasters predicting an 80% chance of rain on the actual day, I realised that today (with about 0% chance of rain) was better suited for photographing April in Canberra for Cardinal Guzman’s ‘Changing Seasons’ challenge.
Yesterday, Easter Sunday. Perfect weather. All I needed was coffee and water. The former to drink, the latter to gaze on. With most cafés closed for the public holy-day, I walked for some time through the town of Queanbeyan before finding the open doors of the Central Café with its sign written in Coca-Cola calligraphy. Now with my take-away coffee and cake I headed for the Queanbeyan River where the grass is lush and even and green, a rare treat.
Down on my haunches beside the water, I was quietly photographing ducks when they spotted me and all began swimming my way. I tried to focus on one or two individuals, keeping the camera and myself still as still. Suddenly there was a loud flapping and sploshing of water, but I didn’t allow myself to be distracted from the task at hand. Then the image on my camera screen changed as a huge dark bird came in from the right. Without moving, I clicked several times until the splashing stopped. When I looked up, a black swan was coming to rest amid the froth of disturbed water.
Dense growth in a garden attracts birds. This morning, passing one of my Hakea trees, I heard munching sounds and looked into the branches. There, right in front of me, not afraid of me, was this Gang-Gang Cockatoo eating Hakea seedpods. It’s a rare treat for anyone in Canberra to see one up close. Higher up in the tree there were sounds of his mate cracking open some pods but she was disguised by leaves. I’ve read that Gang Gangs are left-handers, and indeed the little birdy is eating with his left hand!
By an unpleasant coincidence on this same fine morning when I was enjoying my foresty garden, a government man came to my door to tell me that an Ash tree with a split trunk growing on our nature strip (footpath) has to be cut down. Nooo!
Sixteen years ago when we moved into this house, I rang the government tree people and requested a street tree. Very soon after, they planted a young sapling and I’ve watched it grow into this lovely big tree. Its canopy is green and lush, and birds frequently fly into its branches for safety.
After the man left this morning, I went for a walk and in my absence he came back and sprayed this yellow mark of death on the Ash trunk.
So my morning was bittersweet. I’m so glad I saw the Gang Gang with his wispy red crest enjoying the Hakea trees. And I’m very glad their trunks aren’t marked with a yellow spot.
Once, I read two sentences that had a silent “Oh wow” effect on me; they were by Turgenev, in his story “The Tryst”. I had never read Turgenev, but now I wanted to know him better. I met Turgenev through Rebecca McClanahan in her very useful book, Word Painting. She quoted from “The Tryst” to illustrate description-by-negation, or rather she quoted from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation of Turgenev’s story, without crediting Hapgood. But she should have, for without the translation she would not have known about Turgenev’s skilful repetition in “It was not … not … not”, describing the sound of rustling leaves. Ivan Turgenev’s sketches of provincial Russian life are stories I’ve read and read again in English. Not only are they compelling vignettes of a country I’ve never been to, but his descriptions of closely observed Russian hunters and other forest frequenters hold my attention from beginning to end.
Wondering whether the beauty lay in the translator’s words or the author’s, I went searching for other translations of the same passage. Here are four versions of Turgenev’s description, followed by the translator’s name:
The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. (Constance Garnett, 1897)
The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner overhead; from their sound alone one could tell what season of the year it was. It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of spring-time, not the soft whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter. (Isabel F. Hapgood, 1903)
The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible, dreamy chattering. (Richard Freeborn, 1967)
The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. (Charles and Natasha Hepburn, 1992)
Which is the best?
Garnett: Her choice of ‘not … nor … nor’ is as good as Hapgood’s ‘not … not … not’. Each word in the two sentences is individual, and most consist of one or two syllables.
Hapgood: While it’s the translation chosen by Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate the suspense in ‘not … not … not’, it would be better if Hapgood hadn’t used ‘barely audible’ in two consecutive sentences. And ‘rustling’ and ‘rustle’.
Freeborn: Yes, he uses ‘not … not … not’, but there are too many words of three or four syllables, like ‘long-winded talkativeness’. But then ‘The leaves scarcely rustled’ is more concise than Hapgood’s ‘The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner’.
The Hepburns: They repeat ‘whispering’ and ‘whisper’ in the first sentence, and later in the same sentence their choice of ‘you’ is less literary, less poetic, than ‘one’ which keeps the reader at a distance. Also, ‘could have told the time’ at the beginning of this clause had me thinking of hours; I had to read it again.
So, for this little exercise, Constance Garnett is the better translator, and the one I admire. Or is it Turgenev I admire? Since I can’t read Russian, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that comparisons of translations often send me back to Constance Garnett.
P.S. I’m writing this in autumn, but not in Russia. There are no shy and chill babblings nor is there a cold, frightened rustling. It’s a stunningly beautiful day here in Canberra where the only rustling is from the currawong, shifting branches as he eats my figs!