Short and sweet: the podcast I’ve been working on with Chad Post of Open Letter Books for the past few months launched! The first episode which is available now is a conversation we had with Lawrence Venuti at MLA in December about his translations of Catalan poet Ernest Farrés’s book Edward Hopper (which I reviewed earlier for Three Percent). We also talked about publishing and poetry and some other great stuff.
I’ve been recently very interested in translation from a language that you don’t know. Actually, this is far from a recent interest for me – its one of the ways I was initially introduced to literary translation as an art form. But only recently have I realized how controversial, how marginalized this practice can be in a practice that is already marginalized by creative writing and academia as institutions of cultural production.
Ezra Pound, W.S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Martha Collins, and many many other brilliant writers and translators have chosen to work from languages that they don’t read. Their translations are among the most superb available of these poems. Case studies aside, or perhaps later, there are a couple of problems in opening any discussion on this topic. One is that it lacks a coherent term. I’m beginning with ‘collaborative translation’ though when using that as a research term you tend to get translation firms who work as a team to produce a technical translation. Another one that struck me as a possibility was ‘blind translation’ but that seems overly pejorative. ‘Team translation’ too sporty. ‘Co-translation’ seems like another contender. But for now, I’m going to stick with collaborative, and I’ll tell you why.
Collaborative translation involves at least two people, though they don’t have to be directly involved. One is a reader (preferably fluent or native) of the language of the original text. The other is a writer (fluent and native, and preferably gifted) of the target language. In Pound’s case, he didn’t have direct access to a native speaker for much of his work, and he relied on transliterations (trots or ponies) created by someone who was also not a proficient speaker of the original language. Still, his translations are arguably some of the most influential translations published in the 20th century. So in this case, the translator collaborates with pre-existing texts, and I would take this to include transliterations prepared specifically for the translator (as in Pevear and Volokovsky’s work) or transliterations prepared for scholarly or academic purposes, or even multiple literary translations of the same text.
The other kind of collaborative translation, one in which the translator and (to borrow and subvert a term from Spivak on translation) the ‘native informant’ work closely together in a literary exchange. This is often most fruitful if the translator is working directly with the author, but any native speaker with literary sensibilities and the desire would suffice. And this is something that I’ll want to come back to in another discussion.
The common factor that makes both of these processes collaborative translation is that which also requires any product of this process to be viewed as a work of creative originality as well as a work of translation. It is the requirement of this process that the translator not have linguistic authority in the source language, but artistic authority in his own. And in my mind, that is what essentially separates literary from technical or merely academic translation in any case.
So as I said, my first encounter with literary translation was a one-day workshop as part of the Joiner Center’s Writers’ Workshop (an excellent two-week workshop for writers interested in social engagement through their writing in Boston). Martha Collins, poet and translator from the Vietnamese, was teaching an afternoon master-class in translation, and my friends encouraged me to go. We began by looking at three different translations of a Neruda poem, and though I speak and read Spanish proficiently, most in the class did not. Then, with those three and the original Spanish before us, we set about making our own translations. I was confident that as one of the readers of Spanish in the room I was going to produce something that was ‘better’ – and my youthful hubris was immediately shattered when we shared our versions. We repeated the process with a poem from the Vietnamese, and I was stunned that my creative abilities were sharpened by my distance from the original.
This experience is not unique – the first several masters-level translation workshops I attended had us practice the same exercise. Using the excellent and sadly out-of-print book The Poem Itself edited by Stanley Burnshaw my first translation workshop had us render two different Chinese poems. And most recently, during the first meeting of this semester’s MFA Translation workshop, we began by rendering a short Chinese poem from a previous version and a trot. The merit of these exercises as exercises points to what I think is ultimately the merit of collaborative translation as a practice: that semantic fidelity is ultimately fallacious, that metaphor and image and dependent on too much to transfer between cultural contexts, and that rhyme and rhythm function differently between time periods within the same language, much less between different languages. And this means that poetry is eminently translatable, so long as the translator is freed from the burden of linguistic policing.
This is a massive subject, and I hope that somewhere someday I can listen to people far more brilliant than I am discuss it (I haven’t been able to find any scholarly or critical conversation on the subject, though there are a number of anecdotal pieces of work on the practice). For now, I’m leaving you with three versions of a poem by Ch’ang Chien (8th C A.D.), as rendered by three poets independent of one another with access only to the original Victorian translation (follows at end):
Way when June shown in
Translation by Frodebart Winslow
The dawn in the temple grounds
The dawn on many trees
A path to a covered place
A hut in dense trees
The dawn a happy mountain over birds
Images of a pool empty, a mind
of 10,000 noises, silence
A bell chimes.
Written September 11, 2001
Adapted by Blaz Lilienthall
All’s cold and still as dawn lips the convent
door and breathes a yellow breath on tree-topped
hills. Beneath the canopy, gold stops short
and limns a path of winding dark that’s sent
me to Dhyâna’s hall, where fir and birch
gate a palace for the birds. They cry my
heart from shadow I lose my shadow. Turmoil
roils away to nothing in this lake.
The altar bell tolls with each drowning wake.
Inscription at Broken Mountain
Translation by K. Ripley
Dawn dawns clearly clear the sacred ground.
First sun shines through deep leaves path
slipping past the seen. Meditate here:
trees flowers dense deep; broken mountain
light illuminates the birds the earth
a reflection in the pool empty images empty
heart and mind and silence ten thousand times
the all silent stone bell chimes.
Translation by Herbert A. Giles
The clear dawn creeps into the convent old,
The rising sun tips its tall trees with cold,—
As, darkly, by a winding path I reach
Dhyana’s hall, hidden midst fir and beech.
Around these hills sweet birds their pleasure take,
Man’s heart as free from shadows as this lake;
Here worldly sounds are hushed, as by a spell,
Save for the booming of the altar bell.
Reading today from On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s by James D. Sullivan for my Printer as Publisher letterpress class, I came across a passage quoting Beatrice Warde’s essay on typographic design “The Crystal Goblet: or Printing Should Be Invisible.” It struck me suddenly that I am, and have always been, a practicioner of invisible arts. Or at least, I have enjoyed and hopefully excelled in the invisible rather than the visible arts.
I began my professional career as an editor, and I would like to believe a good one, for a small independant press in Boston. Putting together manuscripts of poetry, culling from them to create coherent books, providing feedback and suggestions – these were things I loved about my job that were seen by only the author, serving the author’s work in presenting it to an unacknowledging public. As it expanded to include production and design I developed myself as a designer in the school of “good design should serve the text.” Then as I turned more seriously to literary translation, one of the first books I read about translation was Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility. Now, as I begin to seriously study letterpress printing and the art of handmade texts, I am realizing once again that the ultimate marker of success for me will be in remaining unacknowledged.
The trend is obvious – the things I have committed myself to doing have always resulted in the prioritizing of others’s work. And that’s something that I’m rather proud of, as a practicioner of invisible arts. It’s sometimes hard to see the connection between disparate activities, and I love these moments of insight that allow me to connect all the various things that I care about.
A good friend of mine who is dominicana and I have been talking a lot about translating a book or few from the DR together. She’s not a literature person, but she has the intimate knowledge (or access to it) of the literary landscape that I don’t have. I think this all started on a field trip to the stacks at Widener last year to scour the Latin American poetry section for Puerto Rican poetry. We found not that much (the usual suspects, Julia de Burgos, Luís Pales Matos and Clemente Soto Velez) but that was about it. But the Dominican section was relatively better represented, so while I read through the PR she was reading through the DR.
Side-note, and something I’m sure I’ll write more about: it’s incredibly frustrating to me that there is so much missing in English of Puerto Rican literature (Corretjer, Chevremont, Llorens Torres and that’s just the first three that come to mind). And it’s even more frustrating to me that Puerto Rico isn’t really a legitimate area of study. Research grants for international literature study won’t take you there, because it’s a U.S. territory, and the American lit doesn’t historically cover it because the literature is in Spanish. But I have a fantasy of someday compiling an anthology of independantista poetry….
But back to the DR, where you can get funding to do research and translate. We ended up putting things on the back burner while I applied to MFA programs, and she applied to nursing programs, but over this break we’ve picked back up and are actually doing real actual reading and research. Very, very exciting. She just sent me a list of poets to look into, and so I decided I would collect my findings here. Why not?
Pedro Mir – this name was familiar to me already, but I’ve now learned it’s because I probably encountered him in Azul Editions‘s 1993 Countersong to Walt Whitman & Other Poems (now sadly out of print) translated by Donald Walsh and Jonathan Cohen. Lucky for us, Cohen has posted part of his translation online. While Anglo Americans remain fascinated with Latin America’s fascination with Walt Whitman (which would make a great hemispheric studies course), Mir’s work is extensive and very important (he was named the poet laureate of the DR in 1984 and won their National Prize for Literature in 1993). I’d love to read El Huracán Neruda and just about everyone who’s done any Caribbean studies has read or heard of “Hay un país en el mundo.”
It’s not often that I come across someone that doesn’t have a wikipedia page (standard wikipedia disclaimer). Usually it means they are very contemporary. But not José Joaquin Pérez (not José Joaquin Pérez Mascayano, the President of Chile and subject of perhaps the most hilarious one-line wikipedia bio ever, which I have to quote in full: “He served as the president of Chilean National Ballet between 1861 and 1871, simultaneously serving as president of Chile.”). José Joaquin Pérez (1845-1900) was a nationalist poet of great merit, though the poetry for my tastes is a bit formal. His Obra Poetica was published in 1970 by Universidad Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña, and his individual works were made available in the late 1980s by Fundación Corripio. I didn’t find anything indicating that any of his work was available in English translation.
And for works that are more contemporary, I’m totally enthralled by the following:
José Mármol (not the famous Argentine novelist) is an incredibly interesting and prolific contemporary Dominican poet called “the most outstanding male representative of the [Generación de los 80]” in Culture and customs of the Dominican Republic by Isabel Zakrzewski Brown. I’m not sure if there are more outstanding female representatives of this movement, because she doesn’t say — in fact he is the only member of this movement discussed here. Still, it’s an impressive statement. What little I’ve found of his work (it’s hard when you have the same name as a famous novelist from another country) is exciting, and I’m hoping to find more about it when I get his selected poems which I just requested through my library.
Rita Indiana Hernández is a very young Dominican author whose first novel La estrategia de Chochueca (published when the author was 25) was called the most important contribution to Dominican narrative in 20 years. Wow. There is an interesting interview in English with her here in which she talks also about her poetry and her 2005 novel Papi neither of which I can find out more about, but would love to. She’s also apparently in a Dominican indie-pop band Rita Indiana y Los Misterios which sounds to me like merengue/rap/reggatone with a bit of pop-synth for good measure. Her work has been called, in the references I can find, “dirty realism” and a “performer of Caribbean decadence.”
I’m sure someone out there knows the difference, but it’s not me. For a few years now, since translating a remarkable book of prose poems, I’ve been fascinated with the genre and it’s history. The excellent White Pine anthology The House of Your Dream has kept me occupied with prose poems from around the world and I’ve even begun experimenting with my own compositions in the form. In my list-of-classes-I-someday-want-to-teach (along with a class on the defense of poetry) is a semester-long grapple with prose poetry. I’m constantly adding to my bibliography on this subject, hoping someday for the time to read everything.
Today’s new issue of Words without Borders (beautifully launching their new design!) is themed around flash fiction. I’m not a passionate reader of most fiction, but I was struck by the excerpts from “Do You Understand?” by Andrai Blatnik in translation by Tamara Soban. I suppose in a sense they are closer to fiction because they describe concise narrative arcs, but there is poetry in here too. Especially in “Marks” which wonders with poetic insight:
All my lovers give me bookmarks. They seem to think I must read a lot. I put all the marks into the same book, the one I never open. When I can’t sleep at night I think about how I should, how I ought to open it and see what I’ve marked. What would a story made up of only my marked pages be like?
Or the sequence “Poetics of Wonder: Things They Say about Mogador” by Alberto Ruy-Sánchez translatied by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan. Twenty-two begins:
In Mogador, the heart is considered the most precise clock, or at least the most respected, not just for its consistency but for its ability to distinguish the profound nuances of each instant. It is a clock that falls in love, becomes frightened and aroused. Those skipped heartbeats become milestones of life shared by more than two and at times by all.
This reads to me like poetry, and since both flash fiction and prose poetry are concerned with breaking down the boundaries of the genre and expanding them outwards in form and function, it’s difficult to delineate a clean separation between the two. In any case, I’m thrilled to have the chance to read more, and may be revising my imaginary syllabus to include these kinds of genre-bending cases.
So I’m a fan of The Atlantic in general. I like their politics, I like their writers and I like that they include poetry which fewer and fewer non-literary publications do with any seriousness. And generally I like their poets and the poems they select. But this month it struck me that it’s been some time since I’ve seen anything really surprising or new in their selection of poetry.
Now, to be fair, they are not a poetry publication, and so why should I expect newness and surprise in their selection? But that equates to saying that people reading The Atlantic don’t want new, interesting poetry but rather the same comfortable lyrical confessionalism that has been the mainstream of poetry for decades now. And I think that Atlantic readers are more sophisticated in their aesthetic possibilities than that.
This is the problem that critics of The New Yorker or, for the more poetic-minded, Poetry Magazine have. That the publications that are responsible for introducing a lot of people to poetry that they otherwise might not encounter fail in encouraging newness, innovation, experimentation or even in encouraging writers who are not already established names. No one is surprised to see a poem by Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, or Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams in the current issue of The Atlantic. Or take June: Billy Collins and Jane Hirshfield. Really? I’m not saying that these poets aren’t worth reading, because clearly they are (especially Williams whose work seems to be getting more interesting). But that we already know they’re worth reading.
Ok, so the same old song about how the literary establishment is exclusive and publications like The New Yorker, etc. claim literary authority by publishing the already-well-known and prize-winning poets who may or may not happen to be friends of the editor, blah blah blah. I don’t know that I have much new to add to it, except that The Atlantic hadn’t in my mind been one that fell into that type of publication. And I don’t think it has to be, in order to claim literary authority. I was going to give examples of unusual choices they’d made in the past, but I frankly can’t find any…so maybe this is more an indictment of my own assumptions about the kind of publication The Atlantic is.
I’m thrilled that Poetry International Web (not to be confused with the excellent print publication Poetry International) is starting the year by ramping up their publications to bi-monthly – I always look forward to their email in my inbox and taking the few minutes to discover new poetry. PI is an interesting project that has the potential to be the most important resource for poets interested in reading around the world, and they keep on making the right moves. Each country on the site (though not every country is represented and there are major holes right now including the USA and Chile) is edited by a local expert in the poetry, ensuring that even the best-read (and I don’t think I can count myself among them) will find something new and wonderful on their site.
This first-of-2010 publication focuses on nano-poetics (which I’ve just learned from Gilad Meiri translated by Lisa Katz is mostly about miniaturisation and duplication) and poetry of the everyday. Having taught poetry of the everyday previously in a PEN Prison Writing workshop, I was excited to add more of this to my repertoire, and Japanese poet Yosuke Tanaka in Jeffery Angles’ translation is perhaps the poet I most want to read more of right now. Here is the first four lines of “A River in Summer“:
If no one is looking, I cannot get in.
[A dead bird]
[A bird in various colors]
If no one is looking.
The 10 poems on the site are just a tease really, and will demand a further and closer reading on my part, but someone needs to get me his book Sweet Ultramarine Dreams in English! The pull between experimental and lyrical, the tension of images that only just make sense, and only if you’re willing to leap fully into the language….the little truths just beneath the surface of the everyday. Just another taste, the last four lines from “The Station to Spring“:
In the darkness
The orange juice glows.
It seems to shine from within.
The station to spring is near.
And quite brilliantly the PI people have connected this poetry of the everyday to nano-poetics, which in David Avidan engage with the everyday:
Everything’s miniature, like microfilm.
And at the hour of need – enlarged.
It could have worked for us too.
The world is filled with creatures which are too large
and not always useful and not always necessary.
In nano-poetics, according to Gilad Meiri:
The use of size – poetry’s approach to the small – as an interpretive strategy is a natural extension of an essential feature of poetry itself, for a poem is the smallest, densest unit of aesthetic information there is.
The small is an invitation to intimacy, he says, and through that intimate and minute look at the everyday, through the parodic effect of mechanical duplication and repetition, a concentration of the world in the nano. One last poem from Avidan:
Let me be a mummy.
once every thousand years with a shot of undiluted adrenalin, and then
I’ll burn Rome again, report on the event
with a pale face and a pounding heart, first I’ll castrate
all the barbarian warriors who conquered the city, possess
all their young women, so there’ll be
things to burn and men to castrate
in another thousand years. I have
patience for long-run missions.
I finally, for the first time since quitting my day job in July to pursue a non-career in literary translation, got my Google Reader subscriptions down to 0. When I started this morning, it was somewhere around 360… I unsubscribed myself from some blogs, and in following links subscribed myself to some new ones. And found that the only way I could get through everything was by saving for later the wealth of intriguing reviews on The Quarterly Conversation.
But it feels good to be at 0. We’ll see what happens tomorrow…
It’s the middle of the afternoon of first day of the new year, and according to some the new decade. And I’ve decided that I’m going to spend my day planning my reading for the next few months. So the first thing I did was download the updated 2009 Translation Database from Three Percent (my favorite blog ever) and sort it by poetry and language. I’m sure Chad will do a more comprehensive analysis of the statistics, but for my purposes there are 65 books of previously untranslated poetry that came out in 2009 in translation and out of that 12 are from Spanish. To get more specific, out of those 12, the most (4) are from Chile. Which seems like an absurd proportion of a relatively small amount of books to be from one country. Of course, the Chilean legacy for poetry is immense. And as a reader and translator of Chilean poetry myself I know that these poets, these poems and many more are deserving of translation and readership. But something strikes me as being disproportionate here.
In our recent recording of a series of podcasts to be launched at the end of the month, Chad Post and I talked a bit about the cannon of international literature. We talked with Susan Harris, about the limited availability of writers from around the world, and with Lawrence Venuti about how the U.S. reading public has a propensity to associate one (or sometimes two) writers with a country and that’s it – there’s no room for any more. Only academics, scholars and translators of particular literary traditions seem to engage more fully with the context surrounding the cannonical world writers.
So here I am bemoaning both the narrowness of such a large proportion of books being translated from the same literary tradition, eliding the breadth of Latin American (and world) literature in the limited publishing space available for translated poetry, while simultaneously whining that few readers are given the chance to fully engage with a complex national, regional or linguistic literary tradition.
And nonetheless, I’ve been recently searching for new Chilean poets to read. There’s the “all-star” list, those who have some if not lots of poems available in translation: Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Enríque Lihn, Óscar Hahn, Raúl Zurita, Gonzalo Rojas, Delia Domínguez, Jorge Teillier, Vincente Huidobro.
And then there’s the rest – well known, respected poets in the Chilean literary tradition who have almost no recognition or available translated works:
Efraín Barquero who in 2008 won the National Prize for Literature in Chile for his life work.
Eduardo Anguita, a member of the famous generation of ’38 and the surrealist movement (and selected alongside Neruda in the 40s for translation by New Directions…)
Carlos de Rokha who Enrique Lihn calls brilliant, and Erwin Díaz (editor of the 2006 anthology Poesía chilena de hoy. De Parra a nuestros días) thinks of as unfairly marginalized because of his difficulty. He was also the youngest member of the surrealist group La Mandrágora.
David Rosenmann-Taub a hermeneutic and somewhat mystical poet who has a strange foundation that supports only the preservation of his work, and may or may not have been involved in some strange activities in the seventies in the U.S., but who Armando Uribe calls the most important living Spanish-language poet. (And who may or may not be related to Mauricio Rosenmann Taub who is one of the most interesting and possibly untranslatable experimental poet I’ve read recently and whose 2007 collection was introduced by Raúl Zurita).
Bringing us neatly to Armando Uribe who won the National Prize for Literature in 2004 and is one of the important poets that began publishing in the 50s known for his short, untitled and often ironic poems.
And there’s no shortage of younger poets:
Why not? Susan Harris, the brilliantly witty editor of Words Without Borders coined the phrase in an ongoing joke with the brilliant Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, about how literary translators in large part tend to be on the shorter side. We all agree this is brilliant. Susan has cast our collective stature in a more positive light with the addition of “alluring” and thus it is that alluringly short comes into being.
While I have always aspired to alluring shortness, there are other potential interpretations for the phrase than physical description. Attention span, for example, or length of writing. We’ll see…
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