Monday, May 3, 2010

Tomb Raider, by Grahame Davies

I challenge every empire
I challenge Microsoft:
Rewrite the code controlling
The moves of Lara Croft.

She'll come from our cyber ghetto
With a mission even greater,
No pillager of temples
But a mad museum-raider.

Not swiping ancient treasures,
No English lordship's spawn
But a daughter of oppression
Shouting like a gun.

From every ancient culture
And every ravaged race
She's coming to the capitals,
A fist in the first world's face.

She's blasting through the bookshelves
To take our legends back
With guns of endless ammo,
Fluent in Welsh...and black.

Relics of ancient Egypt
Of Celts and Navaho-
She'll smash each glass display-case
To steal back what you owe.

She'll blow away the watchmen,
Blast down the iron doors.
Yo white boy! Here comes Lara
To take what isn't yours.

The above is a translation of the Welsh (!) original, done by a Mr. A.Z. Foreman for his blog Poems Found in Translation. Mr. Foreman in his own estimation is "a linguistics student with a love of literary translation and a penchant for blogging" -- at least he didn't call himself a polyglot. His blog features dozens of his own English translations of poems originally written in a variety of languages. He claims to be able to read all of the source languages-- and, granted, he must have some proficiency in them -- yet I skeptically assume we have not found the Rosetta Stone just yet.

Each blog post typically includes (1) the translation (2) the original (3) an audio recording of the author reading the original. Foreman, I'm afraid, is snarky and perhaps a bit full of himself -- the following incendiary remark being based, of course, on little to no experience (but he has section on his blog called "Meditations" -- a worser word than "essays" if used in weakling ways). Despite this, and despite having already linked to the main page, I would feel remiss if I did not link directly to the post from which I copied this poem. ("Just because I don't submit to print anthologies doesn't mean I don't like receiving credit for my work. K? Thanks.")

And now... to the poem! (commence appropriate Batman music) This poem centers about Tomb Raider, a long-running and respected series of video games, and its titular character, Lara Croft. The series began in 1996, when computer processing limitations made Lara's improbably large boobs improbably square to boot. Since then the series has become one of the best selling in video game history; Lara Croft has been portrayed by Angelina Jolie in a couple of movies, and is one of the most recognizable video game characters, up there with Mario and Pacman.

But this poem wants none of that. Why, it's just like a Welshman -- focus on the negative, turn a well-loved character into a creature of the damned. You see, Lara Croft does exactly what it says on the box -- raids tombs...and other sites of archaeological significance. And she just so happens to be British, to talk with a cute little British accent (setting aside Angelina Jolie for just a moment). The temptation to make the connection to real life was too strong, it seems, for Davies. Some people just aren't the forgiving type.

So, from Davies' "fever'd imagination" comes a world fantastical, sadly unrealistic, where Lara is the exact opposite of all the empire and tyranny she apparently represents, where she raids museums instead of temples, where she is "fluent in Welsh...and black." And I thought my dreams involving Lara Croft were unrealistic (something with whipped cream and Esperanto). If nothing else it's imaginative...

There is a strong current of oppression through it all, of black people especially. There is the above quote, yes, and then there is the use of the word ghetto. The poet is, by all accounts, very white (I have it on good authority that Levi Coffin was black) and very Welsh, yet the poem seems peculiarly centered on white Americans' racial anxiety towards our darker brothers. Perhaps the translator shoehorned in these hints, or perhaps this poem is exactly the mirror that the author intended. I will probably never know as the Welsh language is almost completely opaque to me. Still, a little something managed to bore its way thru: the sentence Foreman translates as "Yo white boy!", in the second to last line, is written as "Hei, Honci!" in the original. Oh, how exciting is cross-cultural exchange!


  1. Hey there. A.Z. Foreman here! (Google tells me when the internet says something new about me.)

    Snarky and full of myself? You betcha. It's one of the side-effects of being good at what you do, and knowing it- rather ironic since literary translation can be quite a self-effacing project.

    For what it's worth, I actually corresponded with Grahame on this poem. It does seem to resonate with Americans more than anyone else. He read this poem, in Welsh, three times while on tour. First time, he no response from the audience. Second occasion, he reckoned they first needed more explanation of who Lara Croft was and so gave them a quick summary. No response. Third occasion, he gave them even more explanation. Still no response. He's never read it since.

    Americans, by contrast, seem to love it.

    Some more food for thought: the poem was inspired by Grahame's experience during a lecture by the French Marxist philosopher Jean-Jacques Lecercle at the “Chwileniwm” conference on literature and technology in Cardiff University in February 1990. The lecture was entitled "Can there be a Welsh Lara Croft?" Lecercle argued that even if a Welsh-language Tomb Raider game were devised, it would only be linguistically Welsh and not culturally Welsh as the actions of the character would still be inherently imperialistic. Grahame suggested to him that perhaps the character’s actions could also be adjusted to a minority viewpoint, and this fantasy led to the poem.

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  3. Well, well, that Google is a sneaky bugger...If I had known this post would find its way to you I might have said something nicer. Snarky and full of yourself? I'm blushing...Honestly, where do I come up with this stuff?

    Regarding your skill as a translator, really I have no true gauge. I can only say that your blog must have some appeal as I visit it regularly and I never quite know what I'm going to find; I like its "worldwide fruit salad" feel.

    Regarding Grahame Davies and this poem...that's a fascinating and quirky tale you told. Of course I can understand why Americans like the poem; but why not the Welsh? "Still no response. He's never read it since." It's always sad to see a poem put to rest. Well, at least it found a little new life with you.

    A Welsh video game...I cannot even begin to imagine. I'm sure there have been a few isolated translation efforts, but no original, culturally Welsh games to speak of. Certainly Lara Croft, would not be a good place to start.

    As a side note, I think I may add a little "blog roll" to the sidebar here, and Poems Found in Translation will probably be on it. It'll be in good company I assure you. :D