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Literature and Ideas

Orpheus Lost

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld
by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875).
Do not look back. A mighty secret lies
behind your back. The birds are rotting high
above your head, and ceaseless sufferings
you watch in bloom as noxious raindrops fall.

You wander, wounded by mental stars. She walks
in lucent steps that follow yours, but you
of all are not allowed to look. Her glow
falls on your back — could they have taken her?

Two mangy dogs1 stand by where you should find
the entrance. Now close your eyes: the weather’s bad.
And you’re forever damned. There’s evil in
your heart. The dead will deem you alive — not of
their kind. If they exist. You are a man
behind whose back the world emerged, as if
forever yearning to conspire against you in
these torturous turns of events. You're scourged by fate.
Ne osvrći se. Velika se tajna
iza tebe odigrava. Ptice gnjiju
visoko nad tvojom glavom dok beskrajna
patnja zri u pogledu i otrovne kiše liju.

Zvezdama ranjen u snu lutaš. Sjajna
ona ide tvojim tragom, al od sviju
jedini je ne smeš videti. O sjaj
na tebe njen dok pada nek je i sakriju

ti ceš naći ulaz dva mutna psa gde stoje.
Spavaj, u zlu je vreme. Zauvek si proklet.
Zlo je u srcu. Mrtvi ako postoje
proglasiće te živim. Eto to je
taj iza čijih ledja nasta svet
ko večita zavera i tužan zaokret.

Branko Miljković

Commentary

I am far from fluent in Serbo-Croatian, but I studied the language intensively a few years ago when visiting the region on holiday. So I did not rely on any existing translations to guide me, for fear of being guided to places I would rather not go (the underworld excluded), but instead used multiple dictionaries to check and recheck the many meanings and connotations of almost every word, not all of which I kept; I have a strong grasp of the language’s grammar, having studied other highly inflected languages and having previously pored over a heavy handful of Croatian textbooks — its sister language Serbian, recently separated by political borders, is so similar as to be functionally identical.

The poem easily reaches beyond its original language, given its subject, Greek myth, and its theme, lost love and the tragedy of fate. The poet took his own life at 27, hanging from a bough; some say because of unrequited love, others speak of political frustrations, while more still simply attribute it to the Weltschmerz that is seen in much of his work (there are those, too, who hold to the theory that he was murdered); we may know only his fate, not its cause. But his unfortunate end may add a certain pathos to the poem with its insistence on the finality of death.

I didn’t follow the rhyme scheme of the original as faithfully as Eurydice did Orpheus, not wanting needlessly to constrict the translation, and lend too stilted a style, but instead rendered it in a steady rhythm while retaining the use of rhyme and half rhyme where most meaningful. The first two stanzas roughly follow the Serbian in form, but I have purposely extended the last in order to give greater weight to the fateful, final turn.

This translation was originally written for entry into a competition, hence the short accompanying commentary.


  1. There was only one dog who guarded the gates of hell. Orpheus’ confusion here arises because Cerberus was no ordinary pooch but had more than one head: some sources say three, some say two (the early Greek poet Hesiod gave him as many as fifty, and there are many other strange and creative variations on this theme).

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