18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A current MALTS student here at the University of Rochester, Allison M. Charette is also a translator from the French who recently helped launch the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America. After attending this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, she wanted to write up a couple of the more interesting panels. Here’s one.

You know those list-y blog posts, right? “Top Ten Things You’re Doing Wrong at Work” or “8 Commonly Mispronounced Words” or “25 Ryan Gosling GIFs to Make You Smile”?

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of them.

But I, a true member of my generation, read lots of them. Some of them even have to do with translation (which I also do). And those lists of “Top Ten Things to Make You a Better Translator” always include a directive to talk. Specifically, to read the original text out loud. Then to read your written translation out loud. Everything is supposed to make more sense when you do.

Jordan Smith agrees. As he pointed out in his panel at the recent ALTA conference, “Decentering Semantics: Poetics and Meaning in Translation,” there’s more to words and characters than just their content and contextual meaning. He’s currently translating some wonderfully experimental poetry by Yoshimasu Gōzō, a Japanese poet, which involves a lot of puns, wordplay between different languages, and homophonographic play within its own language.

There’s a practice in Japan called ateji, which replaces a normal kanji character with different characters that are pronounced the same. English has these word games, too—mondegreens, or the physical card game Mad Gab—but it seems to be more poetic and less slapstick in Japanese. Jordan gave an example from Gōzō’s “火・Fire . . .” (published in last summer’s Poetry Review):

smoke: kemuri 煙
ke               mu                           ri
毛               無                             里
HAIR          NOTHINGNESS    VILLAGE

By sounding out each word carefully, the reader gets a new, alternate meaning in each character (or, in English, set of letters). Sounding it out gives it a new sense. In this particular poem, it’s a deeply interesting feature and a novel idea.

In poetry translation, though, it’s something more: the most extreme way to support the idea that sound is more important than content. Rendering a poem literally into another language is stilted at best and wildly off the mark at worst. Jordan argued that the best approach is to keep the semantic meaning decentered, or at least to recenter it somewhere in the space between languages.

To translate this ateji, though, Jordan was faced with a challenge. No matter how you elongate or twist the sounds in the word “smoke” in English, you’ll never hear anything about hair, or village, or a void. But if the sound is all that matters, then “some-oak” or “sumo-oak” should work just fine. And so it does, in Jordan’s translation:

          Thinking of the fire in the heart of Adonis
     «drapé de feu»
“soft flames of the earth’s surface, …….(July 8, 2000. From Miyake-jima, like the hand of an infant, // fresh some,oak (smoke, …….) = hair,nothingness,village (ke毛,mu無,ri里, ……)”
     door = «戸»
seed of the fire even beyond the seed of the fire in the heart of Adonis-san
     door = «戸»

My first reaction to this poetry was “wow, this is strange.” This poem includes three different languages in just this one little excerpt, plus bibliographic information as part of the poem itself. It’s not something you see every day. But it’s beautiful. It sounds beautiful when you speak it out loud. Even though there’s no semantic reference to “oak” in the original poem, it fits. The sound itself fits. And in the end, with poetry, that’s what matters most.

This poem and more will be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Alice, Iris, Red Horse: Selected Poems of Gozo Yoshimasu: a Book in and on Translation, edited by Forrest Gander.

17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Grant Barber on Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin, from Copper Canyon Press. Selected Translations is a collection of Merwin’s greatest translations, representing authors from all over the world and languages from almost every corner.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Collections like this are always fascinating to me—we get to see a wide range of the translator’s abilities and tastes, and are simultaneously introduced to more than one era, style, and form of poetry. So if you find it difficult to sit through an entire book of haikus, but would find more pleasure in reading a haiku here or there among a plethora of other poetic styles, this collection will be right up your alley.

Here’s a part of Grant’s review:

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

Click here for the entire review, and some preview poems.

17 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“South”

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of water in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arch of the entrance the damp
—these very things may be the poem.

-Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, 1899-1986

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

“Yscolan”

Your horse is black your cloak is black
your face is black you are black
you are all black—is it you Yscolan?

I am Yscolan the seer
my thoughts fly they are covered with clouds.
Is there no reparation then for offending the Master?

I burned a church I killed the cows that belonged to a school
I threw the Book into the waves
my penance is heavy.

Creator of living things you
greatest of all my protectors forgive me.
He that betrayed you deceived me.

I was fastened for a whole year
at Bangor under the piles of the dam.
Try to think what I suffered from the sea worms.

If I had known then what I know now
the liberty of the wind in the moving treetops
the crime could not be laid to me.

-Myrddyn, Welch, ca 6th century

Merwin at age 19 visited Ezra Pound when Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital; Pound told Merwin that the best apprenticeship is to translate the masters, to draw from the well from which poetry arose. In following this advice, Merwin grounded himself in ancient poets and even more so in medieval poetry from Romance languages. The medieval poetry shares with Merwin’s larger poetic project the crystallizing use of images; these images carry deeper into the psyche than mere words on the surface might discursively capture. One doesn’t need to know the legend story cycle from which “Yscolan” is taken to hear the experience suffered from sea worms while being imprisoned under a dam, and then contrasted to the freedom of winds in a tree.

Merwin does this in good company, during an important moment in time of world letters for English speakers. In the late 1960s into the 1980s, one larger poetic project/school was referred to as “deep imagists.” Along with Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Robert Hass (among others), Merwin shared a use of seeming surrealist images which bypassed rational thought to reach emotional/spiritual reality. These writers also translated poems of varying eras and geographies in what seems in retrospect to be a new blossoming of translations into English.

In the first “Forward,” Merwin points to this impulse for both deep image and translation: “Translation may be no more dangerous than any other to a growing recognition of the true original that, in del Vasto’s words, ‘tastes of the source.’ It is love, I imagine, more than learning, that may eventually make it possible to be aware of the living resonance before it has words . . .” The Borges poem cited previously evokes this ‘source’ with ancient stars and the silence of a sleeping bird; the poet does not know the names of stars and constellations imposed by people, but does enjoy direct apprehension of them, and the smell of jasmine, the sound of the “ring of water in the secret pool.” Poetry bypasses intervening mythological/scientific constructs to grasp reality itself.

from “Looking Across the Field”

A peony appears
in my mind
after the petals have fallen

The evening I cut
a peony stem
and felt my spirit whither

The summer night is short
dew gathers
on the hairy caterpillars

-Yosa Buson, Japanese, 1716-1783

Merwin’s own poetry continued to grow and change in subject matter. He has deep ecological concerns, so nature figures significantly in both his own poems and those he translates. Love and its challenges figure importantly. Liminal moments—twilight, an approaching horizon, seasons as they are changing (especially into fall and winter), and most recurrent—the inevitable reality of death—thread through Merwin’s larger poetic project. The Buson poem Merwin chose presents all this by content and form: the natural world suffuses the images—a peony both mentally conjured and in a garden and a summer night’s dew fall—lovely, yes?—but the third line of each stanza, not only finishing the brief thought/image each in lines longer than the two preceding, but also turns the building image into something troubling—all the petals fallen, a spirit withered and, most graphic, a wet hairy caterpillar.

Formally, Merwin’s own poetry omits punctuation (since his first four books); he explains that punctuation seems to nail down the words and poem to a page in a limiting manner. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why Merwin is drawn to the Asian haiku-like verse of Asian poets such as Buson in addition to more recent, European authors:

“Words”

They were talking about
pretend love
at the old table
riddled with worms
the fire warmed up the stove
the lentil darkened as it cooked
and in the open doorway
facing human words
composed in well-tried syntax
the beauty of the bitter foliage
and birds with red breasts
were shining.

-Jean Follain, French, 1903-1971

This photographic tableau captures conversation around this decaying table in a kitchen/dining room that is not comfy, but in a place of falseness and paucity. Over against the interior space is the exterior, which has beauty—albeit somewhat bitter—and is alive with the shining red quickness of the birds.

This former Poet Laureate of the US, Pulitzer Prize winner, author/translator of over 50 volumes of poetry and prose, is now in his mid-80s. Of interest is how the poet returns to the same sources of ancient languages and medieval poets in the third, most recent period of translating; this after a middle period more characterized by modern poets. His forward to this last section is also ruminative, recalling his life as a poet through personal detail; he is no longer as caught up in the issues of translation.

Next month his Collected Poems will come out from the Library of America to make him the second only living poet to be so honored (John Ashbery is the other). Other poets may join him in importance for American poetry of the 20th/21st centuries. None surpass him. This Selected Translations is amazing in scope, mastery, themes, artistry, imagination: a testimony to a life time of consequential work.

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.

28 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In James Buchan’s review of Paul Celan’s Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems he asks just this:

Is there any purpose to translating poetry? A poem does not contain information of importance, like a signpost or a warning notice. If you do not understand what Sereni meant when he wrote “è la mia / sola musica e mi basta” or Propertius “sunt aliquid manes” or, come to that, Yeats “I must lie down where all the ladders start”, nothing so very dreadful will happen to you.

Which is bound to upset some people.

Well, today, Carol Rumens responds in her Guardian blog.

So why translate? My first answer is that poetry in translation simply adds to the sum total of human pleasure obtainable through a single language. It opens up new language worlds within our own tongues, as every good poem does. It revitalises our daily, cliche-haunted vocabulary. It disturbs our assumptions, jolts us with rhythms flatter or stronger than we’re used to. It extends us in the way real travelling does, giving us new sounds, sights and smells. Every unique poetry village sharpens us to life.

Fair enough. And I especially agree with this sentiment:

Some people would disagree, saying poetry in translation is the wrong side of the tapestry – it just can’t be done. But they are talking about replication, not translation. It is perfectly true that you will never get a replica of the original – nor would you wish to. The way it works, when translator and original are in tune, is that a third poem is created. It is the child of two parents and simply couldn’t exist without them.

Exactly.

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