25 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life by Elfriede Czurda, translated from the German by Rosmarie Waldrop, and published by Burning Deck.

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and editor, not necessarily in that order. Her original poetry has appeared in Vanitas, the Dos Passos Review, Pressed Wafer, and Arrowsmith Press. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Asymptote, PEN America, and Words without Borders, among others. She is the founding editor of Anomalous Press.

Most of us have probably never heard of Elfriede Czurda. That’s because this translation is her first publication in English. More interestingly, it’s a translation of (almost all of) her first book to appear in her native German, as well as the entirety of her second book. It’s unusual for poets’ first books to be translated into English, in part because of most publishers’ self-fulfilling expectations that unknown poets are hard to sell, and even harder in translation. But translator, and extraordinary poet herself, Rosmarie Waldrop has an advantage in this sense: she and her husband co-edit this book’s publishing house, Burning Deck, and so can take risks on new work they feel deserving of an English readership. (Burning Deck, I want to point out, brought out the phenomenal BTBA finalist engulf — enkindle by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals that I reviewed last year for Three Percent.)

Which is not to say that Elfriede Czurda is unknown in German. She’s won numerous awards for her work which includes poetry, plays, and criticism, and has published three books in the past five years. But introducing new, living, experimental authors to an English poetry readership already resistant to works of literary translation is a daring move, one that we’re fortunate independent houses like Burning Deck continue to take. And that brings me to why, I think, Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life should actually win the Best Translated Book Award this year. It’s utterly daring.

The book is divided into two sections, “Almost 1 Book” and “Almost 1 Life.” The first part of the work is definitively hybrid: it includes lineated verse; long, meandering lines that spill across the page; blocks of prose; images; diagrams; and text-images reminiscent of the world-wide mid-century concrete poetry experiments. Take one page spread of the book as an example, the one that is the most varied:

The verso is the second and page of a section of a long poem called “Mutilation with Intent,” this section titled “manifesto of the stitchomantic cat.” I can’t imagine what the word “stitchomantic” was in the original German, my German being literary nonexistent. What I do know is that it’s evocative, inventive, and fascinating in English. It resonates with schizophrenic. It makes me think of an automated sewing machine, and a particular kind of invented advertising language that might say “stitch-o-matic.” The “-mantic” also could be “manic,” especially given that it’s a cat and all cats are of course neurotic. The recto is a narrative-poem-rhebus of sorts. This sets my mind spinning, thinking about translation of image-reliant poetry; how the images sound in English versus how they sound in German, the meanings that can be read into and out of them shifting based on context (of the poem, and of the culture). Images are percieved to be universal, but of course are far from that.

It’s not all flashy typographics. One of my favorite poems in the first section is a obsessively comprehensive microscopic description of a landscape that shifts into the poets body, and the body of an unknown you:

by the rain-puddled wheel-rutted road on the mossy ground rank
dandelion ribwort plantain clover milkwort grass
on either side of the road pear- apple- and plum-trees galore
a beetle with a black carapace and an orange dot in the lower third
of it climbs up a blade of grass and tries belly-up head-first to reach
the next blade belly and legs pale pink like shrimp shells

The excessive detail, the attempt at wholeness of description, the violence done to the landscape and the body in this attempt, is exquisite.

The second section of the book, “Almost 1 Life,” is a poem composed of seventeen sections with three “editorial digressions” and is part satire, part “(almost) true-life-novel,” and begins with discussion of the work at hand in relation to its reader:

i put the reader off with promises: all our famous animosities will
become characters in this (almost) true-life-novel
the reader’s reaction is not what i expected (he wants to wait and see)

And readers who do wait and see, who are willing to take the risk that Czurda and Waldrop have taken, each in their own language, are richly rewarded. The reward of a work like this is directly proportional to how challenging it is to read. The playfulness of the language belies a serious challenge to readerly poetic expectations, it gives with one hand and takes twice as much with the other. It entrances and disturbs, and stays, like good poetry should, lodged under your skin like a bullet.

14 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received this message from Erica Mena, one of the forces behind Anomalous Press, which is looking to take their virtual goods physical.

Anomalous Press is joining the physical world with a kick (start). [CWP Note: GROAN] We have six new books that are ready to be made flesh, well, paper.

Two of these books are very interesting, innovative works of translation. The first is a translation from the Latin of the 6th century poet/saint Venantius Fortunatus, collaged, manipulated and framed by poet and translator Mike Schorsch. The other is a highly literal ekphrastic translation of a Tintin comic done in French by poet Éric Suchére, and then translated from the French into English by poet and translator Sandra Doller. This book won the Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest for Innovative Translation selected by Christian Hawkey. There are excerpts of the books on the Kickstarter campaign page.

The full list of forthcoming books is below:

An Introduction to Venantius Fortunatus for Schoolchildren or Understanding the Medieval Concept World Through Metonymy by Mike Schorsch. Poetry/Translation (Latin).

The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider by Janis Freegard. Poetry
Ghost by Sarah Tourjee. Fiction.

The Everyday Maths by Liat Berdugo. Poetry, winner of the Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest selected by Cole Swensen.

Mysteréiuse by Éric Suchére, translated by Sanrda Doller. Poetry/Translation (French), winner of the Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest selected by Christain Hawkey.

Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature by Jonathan Levy Wainwright IV, age 15 by Askold Melnyczuk. Fiction. [CWP Note: Although I’m not big on the cover, this is the one I’m most excited about.]

From now until February 26 you can pre-order copies and earn other rewards (handmade broadsides, books, and more) while helping us make our Kickstarter Campaign a success.

As per usual, there are different incentives for different donation levels, such as receiving 2 books, a postcard, and a shout-out online for contributing $25, or a lifetime subscription to the press AND a dinner date with an Anomalous editor for $1,000.

So, for you lonely Valentine’s Day folk, you should donate and get yourself some Anomalous date-times.

Or you could just give them some cash. They are really good people, doing really good work.

1 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.

There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English.

30 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

engulf — enkindle”: by Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Burning Deck Press

Why This Book Should Win: Burning Deck! Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop have done more for “experimental” international poetry in translation than anyone. They deserve to be honored.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena.

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following.

XI

finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song

Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.

This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

OK, I’ve really fallen behind with this series of posts, but I’m getting back on track now. . . . Although in my defense, I’m still waiting for a few more photographs . . . But anyway, here we go with Erica Mena’s write up:

Meeting Erica was one of the real highlights of ALTA. I’ve already gone on and on about how cool passionate translators are, and how many are — to steal a phrase from Susan Harris of WWB — “alluringly short,” and Erica fits both of these categories. At the first panel I went to, she stood up for the rights of young translators to essentially “play jazz” when bringing literature from one language into another. (This might be too much to explain here, but to provide a bit of a context, this panel was in honor of Suzanne Jill Levine, and during the discussion she talked about how translation was essentially performance. That in a way, the original text was a score, and it was up to the translator to bring it to life in a new context/space. Then someone said you had to practice for decades to become skilled enough to be able to do this. All the younger people gasped—who wants to slave away at translation for decades to get to the part where it gets fun! Obviously, you need to know the rules to know how to break them, but starting with that in mind sounds a bit more appealing and productive.)

We spent a good deal of time together at the conference—including an epic dinner that featured Erica screeding about Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which she totally abhors—and have become close friends since, so I could go on and on here.

But sticking with the professional side of things, Erica was also on the “future of ALTA” panel and will definitely be playing a large role in this organization’s evolution. She’s the head of the publications committee and is also helping redesign the website into something much more useful than what currently exists. (No offense, but the ALTA site is barely more functional than the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website, which is most definitely the nadir of all publisher websites . . . at least until Ron Hogan gets over there and starts fixing HMH’s e-strategies.)

Most importantly, Erica and I will be launching a translation-centric podcast early next year. (Not written in stone, but we’re thinking of calling it the Reading the World podcast . . .) We’re planning on recording a half-dozen episodes at MLA with people such as Larry Venuti, Esther Allen, and Suzanne Jill Levine. As someone who’s wanted to podcast for years, I’m really psyched to finally have a plan to actually do these . . . in that way, Erica’s a bit of a catalyst for good things . . . I’ll definitely post about this again once we have more concrete details about when these will be available, etc.

Anyway, onto the questions!

Your Favorite Word in Any Language: Enmudecer, which means “to fall silent.”

Personally, I love verbs for non-actions. Reminds me of Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. and the “Literature of the No.”

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: “Tales from the Autumn in Gerona” by Roberto Bolaño

Ok, so most everyone agrees that the poetry of Bolano’s collected in The Romantic Dogs isn’t really his best work. Or even necessarily great poetry. But according to Erica—and I’ve read a bit of her translation and have to agree—Bolano’s prose poetry is much, much better. “Tales from the Autumn in Gerona” is from Tres, which consists of three prose poems and which may be forthcoming from New Directions. (Although that’s a bit unclear . . . Maybe someone could e-mail/post a comment to clarify?) I know Erica finished a translation of this collection last year, and again, based on the part that I’ve read, I think Bolano fans everyone would appreciate reading this collection . . . In the meantime, Words Without Borders will be publishing “Tales from Autumn in Gerona” in their March issue . . .

Book that Needs to Be Published in English: String by Farhad Shakley, a Kurdish Poet

Another cool thing about Erica is the work she does helping collaborate on translations from Arabic into English. She’s not fluent in Arabic, but works wiht a fellow translator to transform a more literal translation into poetry. This sort of “collaboration” is always a bit controversial, with translators, publishers, writers, and readers coming down on both sides of the issue. See recent arguments about Pevear and Volokhonsky, etc. At Dalkey, we published a couple collaborations that Damion Searls did that were absolutely wonderful (I’m thinking of Jon Fosse’s Melancholy), and the retranslation of The Golden Calf that we’re releasing tomorrow is another excellent example of how translator collaborations can be extremely effective. In my opinion, however it happens, making more Arabic poetry accessible to English readers is indisputably a very good thing.

In terms of Farhad Shakley, here’s a link to his Wikipedia entry. [INSERT TYPICAL DISCLAIMER ABOUT WIKIPEDIA HERE.] Sounds like an interesting guy, both for his poetry and for the fact that he used to publish Mamosta-y Kurd, a Kurdish literary magazine.

Click here for the rest of the posts in the “Making the Translator Visible” series.



27 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not sure why/how we haven’t written about this until now, but there’s a new online literary journal called Anomalous that’s worth checking out, especially now that they just released their third issue.

Founded and run by Erica Mena, Anomalous came into being in earlier this year

as a non-profit press dedicated to the diffusion of writing in the forms it can take. Its backbone is an editorial collective from different backgrounds and geographies that keep an eye out for compelling projects that, in any number of ways, challenge expectations of what writing and reading should be.

At the time of its launch, Anomalous is an online publication, available in both visual and audio forms on various platforms. It has its sights set on publishing chapbooks, advancing audio forms and creation, and supporting all sorts of alternative realities of the near future.

A lot of translation people are involved with this, both in terms of providing content, and on the masthead.

In this new issue — which you can download for free as a PDF, audiobook, ePub file, or Kindle version — you’ll find a Mani Rao’s translation from the Sanskrit of Guru-astakam, attributed to Sankara along with Dick Cluster’s translation from the Spanish ob “The Sign” by Pedro de Jesus, original poems by translator Anna Rosen Guercio, original work from fellow translator John Pluecker, part of Andrew Barrett’s translation from the Ancient Greek of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, and Steve Bradbury’s translation from the Chinese of Hsia Yu’s “Lining Up to Pay,” along with work from a dozen other writers.

There’s a lot of poetry in here, which is one thing that really sets Anomalous apart. (That and the fact that every issue has an audiobook version.) It’s a very nice publication, and one that I’m sure we’ll be referencing again in the future.

5 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As started last week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member and Reading the World podcast host Erica Mena.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Publisher: Litmus Press
Pages: 144

Why This Book Should Win: Outsiders are cool, two-for-the-price-of-one, 1st ever repeat translator winner, the poetry will explode your brain and send you spinning into dreamspace.

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air are two separate books, collected into this single volume, and their contrast underscores Ayane Kawata’s breadth of poetic talent and Sawako Nakayasu’s impressive range as translator. Time of Sky is Kawata’s first collection of poems, published in Japanese in 1969. At the time of publication, Kawata was (and still is) an intentional outsider in the Japanese poetry world. This remove is perhaps the strongest feature of this first part of the collection: the distance of the observer from the poetic world she engages with.

These sparse, short verses seem at first to belong to the tradition of abstract, imagistic Asian poetry that most Western readers are familiar with. The grammatical minimalism, the intense images, the staccato rhythm of constrained lines, all of these things feel familiar, within the comfort-zone of contemporary Japanese poetry. But there is a dark tension lurking beneath the surface, and in places it bursts through, startling:

19

From the trace of the incontinent blood of an angel walking along
holding some sky cut out with a class cutter, the dawn—

27

Will the lark’s vein blow up
Or will an earful of the distant blue make its way inside

30

At the speed of a reed of blood crawling about the brain
As if to assault—
Sing

Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination.

There is also a layered femininity in these poems, that builds sexuality within protest and suffering.

37

O naked women letting out screams and passing through the
invisible automatic doors of the blue sky

38

Breasts that hatch
Like music
Mirrors resound and melt
The sky goes missing

50

How long will the women be gasping as they open and close their
arms in the towering forest of mirrors

The reflection of the body in a mirror is a clear gesture toward feminist positioning, but at such cold remove, such seemingly idle wondering, that the violence of the watcher’s gaze is all but undone. This first book is full of startling imagery, more striking for the distanced tone which Nakayasu preserves throughout. This tone, which could become monochromatic or dully repetitive, emphasizes the layers of image and meaning, and hints at innocence and indifference. But if the tone gestures towards indifference, it is even more exciting to encounter the violence and strangeness of these sharp fragments of image.

Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.

With an infant

A man is chasing me—so in order to escape I try to have a relationship with an infant. The idea is to drive the man away by having him see me make love to the infant. The infant understands the situation completely.

Throughout this sequence the poet struggles with impossibility – the attempt (often failed) to escape pursuit, to be seen, to be heard. Familiar tropes of an unsettled dreamer, these are transformed into revelations of weakness and strength.

Flute

I have a flute in my hands and try to play it, but no sound comes out. I accidentally breathe in and something like a scrap of silver foil gets left behind in my mouth. As I am wondering what it’s like inside the flute, the thin wooden flute splits vertically like a cicada shell, exposing the metallic scraps and grass seeds mixed inside. The flute sounds because of something inside it. I put it back together and try again to play it. Still no sound comes out.

This collection moves from cold remove to shameless vulnerability, from verse to prose, from imagistic to dreamlike. In maintaining a recognizable voice and preserving the disparity between pieces, Nakayasu created a remarkable translation, deserving of close and repeated readings.

28 March 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Erica Mena and special co-host Mike Schorsch talk with translator and poet Martha Collins about translation as political action, and translation of Vietnamese poetry

Read More...

28 February 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In this Reading the World podcast, Erica Mena talks to translator Mark Schafer about his two latest translations, Before Saying Any of the Great Words by David Huerta (Copper Canyon, 2009) and The Scale of Maps by Bélen Gopegui (City Lights, 2011).

Read More...

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Anja Utler’s engulf—enkindle, which is translated by Kurt Beals and came out in December from the admirable Burning Deck.

The best source for info on German poet Anja Utler seems to be this site (which, for those of you into poetry of the experimental flavor, looks pretty awesome on the whole), which has this to say:

Her first volume of poetry, asfsagen, was published in 1999, followed by münden – entzügeln (engulf – enkindle) in 2004. The year before, she received her doctorate for her thesis on women Russian modernist poets.

That same year she was awarded the Leonce-und-Lena-Preis, an award devoted to outstanding younger poets. That award jury described her poetry as “sensual sound constructions, on paper as in recitation, without being pure sound-poetry. Rather, they are language games of psychological world perception, that out of the substance of their words create shafts of illumination through which our curiosity, but also our bafflement in the exploration of language, feel their way.”

Erica Mena is a member of the Best Translated Book Award poetry committee (quick interjection: engulf—enkindle isn’t eligible for this year’s award, but come BTBA 2012 . . . ), who is also a poet, translator, and noted screeder.

But today, Erica is gushing rather than screeding . . . Based on the first paragraph alone, I think Erica kinda sorta likes this collection . . . (And be sure to scroll to the bottom to hear a recording Erica did of one of the poems):

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

Click here for the full review.

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

engulf — enkindle is a stunning book of poetry. It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

want now: you – drive into me
want to push to the edge, hang, you
haul all my: shale, scrape
it off from: the head, from the shoulders
to rootstock throat gravel: you split me
give me – as if severed – sharp
countours – fangs wolffian ridge
questions too – will i? –
i – take you to me
                                 balances I

The stacatto lines, broken by strange punctuation, expose themselves as duplicitious; the punctuation is superfluous, and yet it’s not. It’s a violation of the line, of the rules of grammar, but it forces a rhythm on the almost unwilling reader. It’s pleasurable and distressing simultaneously, mimetic of the poems. The I in the poem submits to the violence of the you, while exerting her own controlled violence over the reader, and the poem and ultimately her poetic body.

Like most “experimental” texts this work demands more of its reader, a different set of tools and strategies. It is a text that has been splayed wide open, disgorging multiple readings. This extract from the second poem could be read as describing what the poetry itself is doing:

     II

– percieve:     just at the opencuts: set free
furrow –          to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you
                        through the: fissures [. . .]

[The bracketed ellipsis is mine.] Pay attention to the slippery shifts of meaning across and through the punctuation, the way caesura is inserted into the lines and creates tension with the phrases that follow the colons. Feel the tension that is created by the speeding up and slowing down of the lines, the gaps in meaning and thwarted grammatical expectations (the missing subject for “am” for example).

This is poetry that demands several readings, at least one of which must be aloud. When I teach poetry, I always ask that the students read the poems out loud, as well as to themselves, and if I suspect they have not done it we do it together. Great poetry creates sonic space on the page, and visual space in the voice, and the movement between these opens up new meanings. Traditionally, this happens behind the semantic content of the poem, but Beals’s rendering of Utler’s poetry prioritizes its lyric qualities. In engulf – enkindle, the poems hinge on sound and silence, on rhythm and breaking, with meaning following. Try listening to this without reading along, and see what kind of difference it makes.1

XI

finally, startled from sleep, find:
the larynx deseeded is
hollowed: hands palpate,
it: fumbling, feathered, from
ribcage entwine themselves
deeper into the: reed swallow: light,
gurgling, darkly well, dimly
they: keel towards hulls towards hollows
weave: cavities, gorges of
stalks of fingers of (..)
so to speak: towards the bittern – neting place,
in the singing reed so it’s called – grow
entangled as – flotsam and jetsam – stitched
up to the: glottis rustling
almost trembling i hear you again: say
song you say song – what is: song

Kurt Beals is a genius. I can’t imagine how these translations could have come to be otherwise. He may have been working at an advantage; Germanic languages share many rhythm and sound paterns, two of the most impressive features of this translation. Still, the strangeness of these poems, which demand so much of the reader, must have demaned even more of Beals. To create this kind of complexity in translation is nothing short of stunning, an acheivment compounded by the shifting registers and pacing of the language.

This is an uncompromising work of brilliance on both Utler and Beals’ parts. It’s sharp and sexy, challenging and riviting and absolutely relentless. This is the poetry I’ve been waiting my whole life for.

1 Here’s a recording Erica made of “Utler IX”:

12 January 11 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

This episode of the Reading the World Podcast features a conversation with Fady Joudah, Palestinian-American poet, physician, and translator. He won the Yale Younger Poets Competition in 2007 for his collection The Earth in the Attic (Yale) and was just awarded the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award for Translation for his rendition of Mahmoud Darwish’s If I Were Another (FSG).

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10 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by BTBA judge Erica Mena on fellow BTBA judge Idra Novey’s translation from the Portuguese of Manoel de Barros’s Birds for a Demolition, which came out from Carnegie Mellon University Press earlier this year.

Erica Mena is a poet, a translator, and visible. She joined the BTBA poetry committee this year, and has reviewed for us in the past. She’s also the host of the “Reading the World Podcast series”: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/?s=tag&t=reading-the-world-podcast which is available by clicking there, or at the side, or on the iTunes.

I don’t know much about Manoel de Barros, but Idra Novey is phenomenal, and if she translated something, I’m sure it’s good. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia program. (Quick observation: so they’re using the “at” in the acronym? Is that because LTAC is that much easier to pronounce than LTC? Must be another department with that same LTC designation . . . The Long Term Care program?) She’s also a poet, a translator, and an overall awesome spokeswoman for literature in translation.

And as mentioned above, she’s also a member of the BTBA poetry panel. And just to make sure no one thinks the fix is in, to avoid potential conflicts, Birds for a Demolition won’t be considered for this year’s award.

But that doesn’t stop us from reviewing it . . .

Birds for a Demolition is a deceptively slight book of deceptively simple poems. Poems that at first glance seem embedded in the natural world, in the landscape of Brazil, in the language of the wetlands. But this is in fact an expansive collection, spanning more than forty years of Manoel de Barros’s illustrious career and a breadth of styles and subjects. Idra Novey’s first triumph in this book is the selection of these poems, which make clear the development of the poets trajectory, while elucidating de Barros’s unwavering interest in language and the poetic self. Her second is her successful performance, as she put it in an interview with Subtropics, of de Barros’s voice in English.

These sparse poems are poems of “re” and poems of “un.” Poems that reinvent the natural world, that undo the poetic self, that redraw the relationship between language and nature and undermine it. “Before anything else a poem is an un-utensil.” (“from Thrush in Darkness III”).

Click here to read the full piece.

10 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Birds for a Demolition is a deceptively slight book of deceptively simple poems. Poems that at first glance seem embedded in the natural world, in the landscape of Brazil, in the language of the wetlands. But this is in fact an expansive collection, spanning more than forty years of Manoel de Barros’s illustrious career and a breadth of styles and subjects. Idra Novey’s first triumph in this book is the selection of these poems, which make clear the development of the poets trajectory, while elucidating de Barros’s unwavering interest in language and the poetic self. Her second is her successful performance, as she put it in an interview with Subtropics, of de Barros’s voice in English.

These sparse poems are poems of “re” and poems of “un.” Poems that reinvent the natural world, that undo the poetic self, that redraw the relationship between language and nature and undermine it. “Before anything else a poem is an un-utensil.” (“from Thrush in Darkness III”). Or take sections II and III of “An Education on Invention”:

II

To uninvent objects.
The comb, for example.
To give the comb the abilities of not combing.
Until it is left with the inclination to be a begonia.
Or a gravanha.

To use some words until they belong to no language.

III

To repeat and repeat—until altered.
To repeat is a gift for flare.

There is an echo of Auden’s aphoristic “poetry makes nothing happen” in all this repeating to undo. And it is the kind of nothing that is replete with intent. It is the poetic nothing that requires sharp precision in language to inscribe. It is seeing anew the everyday; the ability to alchemize language into thing and thing into nothing.

14.

What I don’t know how to construct I unbuild in phrases.

To make nothing appear.

(What it demonstrates is that man is a dark well.
From here, above, one can’t see that nothing.
But when you arrive at the bottom of the well, there it is.)

To lose that nothing is an impoverishment.

(“Desiring to Be”)

The empty space that is at the heart of this book reflects in part the emptiness of the Brazilian countryside, deserted as millions move to cities chasing a dream of a better life. There is melancholy rooted in this unbuilding, in the movement of nature over the constructions of man, but there is beauty and silence also in the nothing.

Grounds besieged by abandon, given over to poverty.
bq. Where men will have the strength of poverty.
bq. And the ruins will bear fruit.

(“Six or Thirteen Things I Learned About Myself”)

The fruit of the ruins for de Barros seems to be the poetry, though that too is fraught with denial, undoing, and nothingness. Being a poet, de Barros is justly concerned with what poetry is, how language works (or doesn’t), and what that means for the poet. The aphorisms Novey creates in his voice are eminently quotable:

A poet is a creature who licks words and gets delirious.

(“Six or Thirteen Things I Learned About Myself”)

Poetry is to flap without wings.

(“An Education on Invention”)

*

There are many serious ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true.

(“The Book about Nothing”)

But the slightly self-deprecating tone, the derisive pithiness that underlies this navel-gazing concern gets a bit tiresome. “The artist is nature’s error.” de Barros says later in “The Book about Nothing.” The sense that poetry always falls short of the thing it wishes to be, that the language can never fully alchemize, the emphasis on lack which seems intended to soften the potential for ostentation with humor, only serves as an irritant.

Where the book is most powerful is where the power of language and the power of nature combine. In “from Song of Seeing” the subject of the poem, perhaps a stand-in for the poet, spends years living in nature like a bird until he gains the ability to observe “things the way birds observed them. / All the unnamed things.” The power to name, to create and transform the natural world, is celebrated. But that power transforms the poet, the namer as well.

And, if he wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter
of opening the word bee
and stepping inside it.
As if it were the infancy of language.

These poems are tightly packed, sharp little lyrics cutting through the world. And it is a testament to Novey’s poetic sensibilities as a translator that they are so dense, and yet so light. That the voice is varied, yet consistent. That the poems invent in English without sounding stilted. She does this exquisitely in “Small World.”

Here, if the horizon reddens a little,
        the beetles think it’s a fire.
Where the river starts a fish,
                     river me a thing
River me a frog
River me a tree.

Novey brilliantly performs de Barros’ simultaneous un- and re-construction of himself and the natural world through language. Packed with luminous, inventive and often witty verse, A Demolition of Birds preserves the nothing at the core of poetry, nature and being.

3 September 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

This month we talk with poet and translator Forrest Gander about approaches to translating poetry and his forthcoming translation “Watchword” by Pura López Colomé.

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30 June 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

This month we talk with translator Bill Johnston about Polish translations, dialects, and his forthcoming translation “Stone upon Stone” by Wieslaw Mysliwski.

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13 May 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

This month features a discussion between Esther Allen, Erica Mena, and Chad Post on all sorts of translation things, mainly related to Esther’s translation of Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex.

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2 April 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

This month we talk with Suzanne Jill Levine, famed translator and author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

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8 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This month’s episode features Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, who came on to talk about WWB’s educational programs and the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry that she edited along with Ilya Kaminsky.

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18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Erica Mena’s examination of Pablo Neruda’s World’s End, which came out last year from Copper Canyon, and is translated from the Spanish by William O’Daly.

In case anyone’s keeping track, that makes two—count ‘em, two—poetry reviews in the past month. All credit to Erica for both pushing for more poetry coverage (confession: the only poetry books I read are the ones that win the BTBA), and for writing these reviews. And I know there are many more poetry pieces to come . . .

Speaking of Erica, in addition to being a poet and translator, she’s also behind the Alluringly Short blog and is the co-host of the Reading the World podcast. (Which you all should a) listen to, b) subscribe to on iTunes, and c) give a five-star rating to.)

Yeah.

So here’s the beginning of her piece:

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Click here for the full review.

18 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine that there is anything new to say about Pablo Neruda. But Neruda, probably the most prolific poet of the twentieth century, provides endless opportunities for his readers, scholars and critics to re-evaluate his oeuvre. World’s End (Copper Canyon, 2009) is a treasure-trove of intimate insight, available in its entirety in English for the first time in William O’Daly’s careful and precise translation. In this expansive book-length poem Neruda oscillates between moments of vulnerable reflection on his own life and work (including his controversial early support of Stalin for which he denounces his naivety), bitter condemnation of the violence of the twentieth century, and a prophetic poetic voice.

World’s End, written towards the end of the poet’s life in 1968-69, is in many ways a response to the sometimes naive exuberance of his only other book-length poem Canto General, which was written over a much longer period of time from 1938-49. World’s End follows in the epic footsteps of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but instead of the celebratory and ultimately hopeful sense of Canto General, in this work Neruda bitterly confronts the century of violence he has participated in as witness and activist.

Here we have the mature Neruda. A Neruda of silence and of memory—his own, and historical. Of forgetting and the unforgettable. Here is a Neruda at times disillusioned about the power and usefulness of art in the face of so much violence:

It is our heavy epoch,
the age of iron paws,
the bloody and circular century,
and we must recognize
the wheels of the Apocalypse.

After all, they did not serve us,
the fragile human towers,
everything was soft and breakable,
any painting may be riddled with holes,
a sonata does not defend us,
the books burn and pass on.

(Death of a Journalist)

Despite this horror, this despair, Neruda (and this is why can forgive him so much) is ultimately certain that his work as a writer is vital: “I do not dedicate myself to the ashes, / I go on naming and believing” he writes in an elegy for Oliverio Girondo of the same name.

In the dizzying vastness of the book, Neruda telescopes from the intimate to the expansive. Encompassing everything, he writes bestiaries and indictments of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam, elegies and love poems. He condemns himself with one breath and defends himself with the next. He laments and he celebrates. It is the contradictions that make this work so important, and so human. It is also this unrestrained breadth that makes this poem seem less like a coherent sequence and more like a collection of individual poems.

For a patient reader (or more likely, a Neruda scholar), reading it as a sequence reveals subtexts that form the skeleton of the poem. Confronting the recurring violence, the modern mechanisms of war, the technology of destruction that threatens to overwhelm his humanity, there is silence and forgetting. Ultimately, this is a work about the unforgettable. The shared burden of violence and the responsibility of the poet to remember the unalterable truth. And only once that truth has been committed to poetry is it possible to “forget / so as to sustain hope” (“The Worship II”). This contradiction—silence as the way to bear witness, and forgetting as the way to remember—rests on the plurality of silences and of forgettings. Neruda writes between “the truthfulness of silence” (“The Passion”) and the missing who are “crucified in the silence / of this age of agony” (“The Missing”). In a “century of communicating / failed communications” (“Know It Know It Know It”) “words will come to an end / all language will be burned” (“Bomb I”) because language can’t withstand the abuses of propaganda, cover-ups and official lies. Language must lapse into silence in order to recover the ability to remember truth, and in doing so, allow the poet to unburden himself of that truth.

Neruda finds this restorative power primarily in his relationship to the natural world. In “The Idler” he writes:

May the enemy forgive me
if I wasted too much time speaking
with sands and minerals:
I had no real reason
but I learned a lot about silence.

Politics and nature depend on one another in this work, and as the cycle nears its end Neruda reclaims his power as a poet connected intimately to his people, his land and his sea.

But I move forward singing
my song, and the roads tell me
of the many they have seen pass
in this century of people without a country.
And the poet keeps on singing
so many victories, so much pain

(Exiles)

This book is perhaps most valuable for the insight it provides into Neruda’s political engagement with the major events of the twentieth century, and his contemporary writers. In addition to coming to terms with his role in history, he places himself among (or in opposition to) the great writers, mentioning among others Whitman, Vallejo, García Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Zola, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The personal-historical, the mediation of history through the voice of the poet, is most interesting in this case for what it tells us about the poet.

And what it tells us about the poet is told in the voice of William O’Daly, the translator of this book, along with the other eight late and posthumous Neruda books published in this series by Copper Canyon. O’Daly re-creates in English the variety of Neruda’s voices within this poem. Surrealism mixes with politics and love poetry, and in the refusal of a distanced poetic voice O’Daly meets the challenge of Neruda’s self-implication in a heterogeneous vocabulary and a multitude of registers and dictions. From the prophetic to the elegiac, the nuanced variation of language is beautifully explored in resonant English. In contrast to the melancholic politics already quoted, take this short poem “Physics:”

Love, like the resin
of a tree filled with blood,
hangs out its strange odor of the origin
of natural enchantment:
the sea goes to extremes
or the devoured night
breaks over your motherland:
your soul breaks inside you,
two bells of bone sound,
and nothing happens but the weight
of your body, empty once again.

If Neruda, like Whitman, contains multitudes, then here we come to him in his full multitudinousness. Volumes could (and likely will) be written about the implications of this work in understanding one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Equally, in reading this book at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have an unparalleled vantage point from which to reflect on the suffering, the pain, and our implicit share of that guilt of the most violent century in history. The perfection of the technologies of destruction requires the poetics of this book to remember, and to help us forget, the unforgettable.

3 February 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Recorded in Philadelphia at the recent Modern Language Association convention, Chad Post and Erica Mena meet Lawrence Venuti and discuss his translation of the Catalan poet Ernest Farres’s Edward Hopper: Poems.

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7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Edward Hopper, a poetry collection by Catalan author Ernest Farrés, translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Graywolf Press.

I’ve been interested in this collection for a while—partly because I love Catalan lit, but also because Quim Monzo’s Gasoline (which we’re publishing in April) opens with a Hopper image, which seems like an odd coincidence. (Or maybe not, since it’s not like Hopper’s unknown or anything.)

Anyway, Erica and I interviewed Larry Venuti about this book for our forthcoming Reading the World podcasts, and it was an absolutely amazing conversation. Larry’s explanations of how the project came about, all the theoretical and practical implications, his unpacking of one of the poems . . . very amazing.

That will be online soon (er, relatively speaking), but in the meantime, I want to encourage everyone to check out Alluringly Short, Erica’s new blog about poetry, translation, and poetry in translation (there’s a great post about Chilean Poetry definitely worth reading). And instead of trying to write a one-sentence bio, you can find out more about Erica via her entry in the Making the Translator Visible series.

And here’s the opening of her review:

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

Click here to read the full review.

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

The ordering of the poems is brilliantly narrative, moving from the self-reflective interior to a railroad station and train that takes Hopper/Farrés from a rural setting to the archetypal city and eventually through middle age to Cape Cod. The bulk of the book is comprised by a sequence of cityscapes, including Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks, 1942” as an existential dialogue between the man and woman in the painting confronting the realization that “nothing in life is irreplaceable.” These insights, sometimes heard in the voice of Hopper, sometimes in a muted Farrés, and sometimes in the voice of the subject of the painting (which is always ultimately the self of the artists) border on the overly philosophical. It is the ironizing context of retrospective engagement with modernity, and the plurality of persona, that pushes these reflective moments into poignancy. Voyeurism and aural intrusion into the painting implicate the reader as well as the poet/painter/translator in these mini-dramas in which every subject is self. “Hotel Room, 1931” exemplifies this, spinning into the dizzying progression of time:

          At the hotel a woman in her underwear
          pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
          in low spirits and bone-tired,
          she’ll start to pace around the room
          leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
          that reeks of mustiness.
          A week later they’ll be no
          tangible results. A year later
          she’ll be the object of caresses.
          Another four and no lullabies.
          Another ten and the delicate balance
          between youth and age will be gone.
          Another twenty and she’ll cling
          to an expansive ethics of listlessness
          and Triumph of the Will.
          Another century and nobody’s
          going to remember a thing about her.
          In two centuries there’ll be
          no polar ice caps. When five
          billion years go by,
          there won’t even be a sun.

The fixed moment in history recorded in the painting expands into present and future—a bleak shared future of oblivion. We intrude on the intimacy of the moment, as Hopper does, and intrude on the intimacy of the moment of Hopper’s painting it, as Farrés does. This woman, privacy violated, becomes the catalyst for an ironic nihilism in which we are “directly implicated” (“The City,” 1927).

The city poems pulse with motion and frenzy, the fears and passions of a young Hopper/Farrés. In “The City, 1927” we along with him are submerged “deep down, in the very marrow, amidst a whorl / of elliptical subjects, colorful scenes.” Here, the careful density and pace of sound and rhythm in the language is evidence of a masterful translation, and Venuti’s Farrés is most powerful in places like “Summer in the City, 1949”:

          The man is looking for trouble,
          thrills, sublime ecstasies, places
          short on folklore, deals,
          calculated approximations, objects
          of desire that grab
          your attention and keep
          your cool, the latest rage
          at your fingertips, binges,
          infatuations, sexual icons,
          irrefutable proofs, joyrides, advice
          within parentheses, green lights, comfy shoes,
          forms of expression that presuppose
          supremacy, free tickets to the game,
          ways of killing time that are reckless and frenzied,
          the upper hand before bellyaching, answers
          as plain as the nose on your face.
          The woman, however, is looking for love.

The building, pulsing momentum of desire, of the city, and of moving through life is enthralling. The places where syntax slips over the enjambment—“grab,” “keep” and “rage” sliding into “advice” and “answers”—brush against the erotic tension of this poem, and the concise unenjambed second sentence of the poem counterpoints the cascading frenetic energy of male desire. Just glancing across the page at the Catalan reveals Venuti’s masterful treatment of the poem, which in the Catalan is one line shorter and doesn’t place the woman on a line of her own. There’s also the surprise of “bellyaching” which glides smoothly in the voice of Hopper, until the startling realization occurs that this is Hopper speaking Catalan and so “bellyaching” is a moment of linguistic impossibility that prevents the reader from becoming too comfortable with the language.

The frenzy of youth and the city thread through the bulk of the book, tempering bit by bit as the feminine (the presence of Nivison, Hopper’s wife and model for many of his female figures) becomes more prominent. The diction becomes mimetic of the journey out of the city to the bucolic Cape Cod setting, expanding into placid, airy and languorous description. The prosaic overtakes the poetic as comfort and familiarity replace the angst and frenzy of youth. Towards the end, as we fall into a comfortable rhythm, we are told:

          You’ve got this down pat. We sketch orbits
          around a highly valued microcosm,
          a landscape composed of organic dust,
          and calmly accept that the march of time
          will make us different from what we were,
          filling with meaning what was empty
          emptying of meaning what contained it.
          (“Sea Watchers,” 1952)

In “Sun in an Empty Room, 1963” (my personal favorite Hopper painting), which is placed near the end of the book, Hopper via Farrés via Venuti tells us:

          I rediscover myself and leave a sign.
          . . .
          All the same, I’m not moving very far.
          No matter where you go, you never find
          the way out of the labyrinth.

The labyrinth of these poems are much more than an homage to Hopper. They are a rediscovery. A new look at the intricate stories that make up the imagined life of one of the most important twentieth century U.S. painters. A poetical-fictional biography that succeeds in its imaginative power to entice the reader into believing it as truth, which of course it is. Like the works of great art they illuminate, these poems reveal a moment (of life, of time, of history) in its fullest dimension. In this book’s ambitious transcendence of the individual, Farrés shines through Hopper as a poet to pay attention to.

17 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I may have cocked up the title of yesterday’s ALTA post—my typing/hearing skills are pretty suspect . . . It should’ve read “Short Stop Only While Getting It Off,” although “short drop” might be a bit more, um, dirty—but I’m positive I have today’s right.

It actually came from John Nathan’s plenary lecture “Translating Style,” which was an extremely interesting and engaging presentation about the difficulties of capturing the author’s voice when translating Japanese literature. Anyway, the title of the first Mishima book that Nathan translated can be literally translated as “Tugging in the Afternoon,” but the Japanese word for “glory” is homonym for “tugging,” a bit of word play that would totally be lost in English. So instead, Nathan suggested “Glory Is a Drag,” which didn’t go over too well . . . Eventually—thanks to Mishima’s ability to come up with dozens of great titles—the book came to be known as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.

Anyone who reads this blog or thinks about/is involved with literary translation knows that this sort of bold departure is rather common. Translators are always faced with difficult choices—whether to cling to the original or cut and compensate in the target language, how to translate dialects, etc.—and it’s the way that great translators solve these questions through their great skill, imagination, and understanding of the literary art that makes them Great Translators in the first place.

Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe is dedicated to exactly this. The first event I attended at ALTA was a special session in honor of Dalkey Archive’s recent reissue of this collection. (Unfortunately, none of the editors from Dalkey attended ALTA, although I did have a chance to meet the very cool Jamie Richards, who is one of the current translation fellows.) A lot of interesting things came up on this panel that sort of highlight what it is that I really love about translators and ALTA as a whole.

A lot of the discussion revolved around the idea that the translator is responsible for “recreating the reader’s relationship with the text.” In contrast to more academic activities and papers in which the professor tries to enact a fake sort of “critical distance” from the text they’re discussing, Jill (and translators as a whole) are much more personally engaged with the book. Aside from those instances in which loaded independent publishers use our enormous wealth to convince a translator to take on a project they’re not interested in (something that happens, well, like, never), translators work on books that they love. And they translate because they want to share that love with others who can’t experience the pleasure of reading the book in its original language.

One of the more fruitful metaphors to apply to the process of translation is to talk about it as a performance. That the original text is like a musical score and the translator the musician who jazzily reproduces the original in a new form. Obviously, there are many valid ways to “play” a text, and the art of the translator is being able to nail those verbal runs and bring the new set of readers into the author’s amazing world.

Which means that a translator has to be pretty damn creative. (Not to mention extremely talented. That’s why I’m just as in awe of great translators as I am of great authors.) And that’s sort of what Jill was getting at with her use of the word “subversive.” It’s not that she was sowing the seeds of revolution (although why not?) but pointing to the fact that translation is a creative process. That subversion = creativity. (Leading to an awesome quote about her relationship with the person who translated The Subversive Scribe into Spanish: “I was subverting him while he was subverting me.”)

(Sidenote for all who were there: I totally agree with the very awesome Erica Mena who objected to the comment that young translators have to spend a couple decades—couple decades?—practicing before they perform in this way. It’s always good to try these things with a partner, but it’s important for young translators to approach this as an enjoyable, playful, creative act. And that they should mature in the tradition of translation as jazz performance—it’ll only pay of bigger dividends in the long run.)

One of the more disheartening stories of ALTA revolved around Jose Lezama Lima’s Oppiano Licario. On a panel about Cuba, Pam Carmell—who received a NEA Translation Fellowship for her work on this translation—talked about why she translated Lezama Lima’s baroque masterpiece in the way that she did. That she made very conscious decisions to retain the baroque, stuffed, labyrinthine sentence structure of the original, instead of simplifying and boiling the book down to its basic plot structure. What I’ve seen of her translation is beautiful, and as a fan of Paradiso, I’d LOVE to read this . . . but, alas, the publisher didn’t quite agree with Pam’s approach and apparently this book is either never coming out, or is being retranslated into something that’s “easier” to understand. . . . And yes, I do know more about this particular situation, but I honestly can’t write about it here . . .

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll write a bit about Ilan Stavan’s plenary speech, which irritated me in the way that Malcolm Gladwell irritates me . . .

....
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