Fake Poets, Falsely Translated [Promoting The Ambassador]
As some of you might know, Bragi Olafsson’s new book — The Ambassador — released a couple weeks back. It’s an incredibly fun book centering around the journey of Icelandic poet Sturla Jon Jonsson to poetry festival in Lithuania where he loses his overcoat, steals someone else’s, is accused of plagiarism, and gets drunk a lot. While he’s there, he also receives The Season of Poetry, a small book featuring poems from the various festival participants.
In the novel, this book is referenced, and a few of the festival-goers are described, but not very many, which is what led translator Lytton Smith to come up with the fun idea of having American poets and translators recreate this poetry collection. Each of the participants invented a poet, and a poem by that poet that they then supposedly translated into English . . . In other words, this is a collection of fake poets, falsely translated, and plays off of the themes of truth, fiction, and plagiarism that run throughout the novel. (There was a panel at this year’s ALTA on imaginary translations, which this would’ve fit into perfectly.)
Click here to download a PDF, EPUB, or Kindle edition of the collection, which features “translations” from such writers as Sawako Nakayasu, Jason Grunebaum, Idra Novey, Eliot Weinberger, Jesse Ball, Matthew Zapruder, and Becka Mara McKay.
There’s also this playful intro from Lytton himself:
From the mystified pop culture references of Argentine poet Silvia Plata to the almost intangible tracings of Danish-Yogaslavian-Croatian poet Lørpsliç Bierkegårt, from the deeply personal lyrics of Greek poet Ioanna Theodorou to the distressed political writings of Hindi poet Radhika Matiyani, the selection of poems before you, translated by English-language poets from America and the U.K., offers a rare glimpse into the world of translation.
These poems originate in a strange volume, titled The Season of Poetry. _The Season of Poetry apparently gathered poems by writers from across the world who had come together in Lithuania for an International Poetry Festival one October. Based in Vilinius and the spa town Druskininkai, participants in the festival shared their verses, met one another face to face, and attended talks covering topics including “the work of German poet Günther Meierhof” and “references to overcoats in European modernist poetry.”
I stumbled across this book online—and how nice it is to still be able to stumble across a book in this digital age—via a series of chance hyperlinks in a salvo of blog comments about poetry readings and academic conferences. The only document I could find surving from this festival was a fragmentary PDF scanned from an unidentified archive. As far as I can tell, the original, assembled and edited by one Gintaras (his last name was nowhere recorded), contained the poems in Lithuanian translation and, on the facing page, in the source language.
Struck by the beauty and happenstance of this unusual assemblage of poets, all of whom had somehow escaped my notice, I contacted a number of writers and translators to see if they would bring these poems into English. My hope was to honour the original volume’s desire to spread the word about international writing, and in the process to encourage readers to discover international poets as yet unknown to them. Since each poet at the festival was asked to recommend one other poet, we now have, despite the partial nature of the PDF, a set of reading suggestions to which we might turn after this book.
Little else can be ascertained about the project. Gintaras did write a foreword, which promisingly began by explaining his desire to “assemble a poet from every corner of the globe, as though the globe has more than just four corners,” with the hope that “we will have poets we could pin onto an atlas like noticeboard pins, brightly colored and one per country.” However, the foreword soon digresses into a tirade about the pressures of organizing an international poetry festival when the organizer is faced with having to arbitrate between American and Icelandic poets and antiques dealers over the theft of items of clothing from restaurants. The reference (possibly to some work of European or Scandinavian literature?) is confoundingly mysterious.
One poem from the volume surviving as that fragmentary PDF is not translated here: a poem called “The Lesson” (or, in the original Icelandic, “kennslustund”). The poem, a meditation on how much life one is allotted on this earth, would have made a lovely addition to this translation of The Season of Poetry. Sadly, however, there was some debate as to the original author (was it really Sturla Jónsson?) and some question of plagiarism lurking around the text. While my own opinion hovers over labelling this as a case of ‘influence’ rather than literary theft, I decided to omit the poem from the current document in order that everything presented be nothing less than entirely upfront and aboveboard. Should readers be curious about the details of this literary theft, which makes for an intriguing story, they can be found in the book The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson (Open Letter Books, 2010).
Lastly, I hope this small pressing of poems might, like some form of rhizome, hypertext us all to other poems. May I suggest as a starting place the other poetry translated and written by the translators who have kindly given their time to this project, a list of which can be found in the Translators’ Bios at the end of the volume?