Friday, February 29, 2008

The Boy Who Grew Up Too Fast, by Joe Mashburn, with illustrations by Jung Min Park

This is the account of a boy who thought that everything got easier as a person grew up. The unfortunate thing is that he lost sight of what really mattered: things that most people miss.

Lee was six years old. His daily routine consisted mainly of 1st grade and coming home to study his vocabulary words and then going outside to play in his backyard. His bedtime was eight, and on weekends it was nine.

However, life was not perfect. He didn’t have many friends at school because he was very shy. His best friend was his dog, whose name was Spike. Spike had lived with Lee since Lee was 2 years old. Spike was not a large dog and he was very timid. Spike liked Lee, but he liked anyone who gave him the occasional bite of food. Lee usually talked to Spike about life and school and his parents and things like that. Spike, being a dog, was a very good listener.

Lee also liked to take notice of small things, some of which the other kids took for granted. The grass appeared greener to Lee than it did to most kids. Colors in general were much brighter and clearer to Lee. What Lee felt was also greater than what the other kids felt.

One time, Lee jumped off a swing and when he reached the height of his jump, it felt like he would never fall. Everything melted away. When he looked down, all he could see were little ants, and the bright colors of trees and the red covered slide and the blue swing that he had just leapt from. It was the best feeling in the world to Lee, and he kept jumping off that same swing and getting the same feeling.

One day, the kids at school made fun of Lee. They picked on him because he did not want to go down the red slide. Lee was scared that he would get trapped inside and not be able to get out. When Lee got back home, his mother was teaching her students, as she was a piano teacher, and his dad was off in New York, but Lee had no idea what he did. His babysitter picked him up from school and took him home. She plopped him in front of the TV and started to read her magazine. All Lee wanted to do was talk to Spike. Slowly, Lee crept off into the other room where Spike was asleep on the couch. Lucky for Spike, it was Lee and not his mother, since she would have kicked him off the couch.

“The kids at school are not nice to me Spike. If I didn’t want to go down the slide, would you have made me?”
Spike’s response was to roll onto his back and sneeze.
“Of course you wouldn’t have. You’re much nicer than those kids at school. That slide was scary and dark, and you know how I don’t like the dark. See, if I were older, none of this would be a problem. Grown-ups have no problems with anything. You never hear them talk about how their friends pick on them, or how they can’t go down a covered slide because they’re scared. That’s because they aren’t scared, Spike. For some reason, they don’t think that the dark is scary. They can fix everything. It would be so much easier if I was older…”

At dinnertime, his mom took him out to eat a restaurant. She asked him how his day went at school and Lee avoided the question because he did not feel like explaining it to someone who would think it was an easy problem to fix. “Only Spike understands,” thought Lee. “Mom wouldn’t know what it is like.” This all took place on Friday, which meant that Lee’s bedtime was nine o’clock. Lee did not do anything between dinner and bedtime.

When bedtime came, Lee climbed into his bright orange dinosaur bedsheets quietly and listened to his mom read him a story. Before the story was done, Lee was asleep.

That night, something strange happened. Lee’s legs seemed to stretch, and his arms seemed to grow, and his stomach seemed to stretch. Everything changed on Lee while he was sleeping. His hair got longer, and he now had hair on his face. He woke up on Saturday to his mom telling him to get out of bed and go shave before he went to work. Lee was very confused by this, and got out of bed. As he turned around to make up his bed, he realized that his sheets were no longer the brilliant orange that they had been when he went to bed. They were very normal and very dry colors. In fact, his whole room had changed colors. Nothing struck Lee as being magnificent anymore. He was not surprised at how much color there was in his room. He looked outside, and the same thing had happened. The trees were now a boring color of green, as was the grass. Everything looked as though it was covered in a light smoke or something that was blocking the true color. The buildings that he saw out his window had even changed. They were not bright shades of white with the deepest of black shutters anymore. They were all copies of the same type. Even the birds that he used to hear every morning seemed to be further away. However, his mother was not, and she burst into his room screaming about how he needed to shave and go to work right away.

Lee, after a few mishaps with his razor, walked into what he used to know as a town. The birds still sounded far away, even though one was in the tree above him, and the colors still had a film of smoke over them. Lee was very confused. There was a chocolate shop up the street from where Lee lived and he had always said that he would like to work there. Lee guessed that this is where is mom meant, and he walked into the shop. The usual smell that came to his nose was gone. It was not fantastic anymore, or surprising. It just smelled… like a regular chocolate shop. They asked him if he needed anything, and Lee was so surprised that they did not tell him to get to work that he walked out of the store. He walked to the next drab building and walked in. This was the library. Lee always told himself never to get a job here, because he did not like that there were no interesting smells or colors or sounds in there. He walked in, and one of the ladies who worked there bustled over and asked him to fill the shelves in section C-2. Lee stared blankly at her and nodded. As she moved on to help a person looking for a book, Lee saw himself in a windowpane. He was very tall and very skinny. The blue eyes he had yesterday were now covered with the same smoky film that covered all the other colors in the world. They were now more of a grey, which made Lee very nervous. He liked his eyes, and colors in general, and wished that everything would go back to normal.

Before he could leave, however, he turned around and saw the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Now, he didn’t actually know she was beautiful. He couldn’t tell that for some reason, and the more he thought about it the more he fell away from the idea that she was beautiful.

But there was something about her, something magical almost. He went to talk to her, and realized that her eyes were completely green. There was no shade over them, and immediately he knew he was in love. Then he turned around and saw the blandness in the world.

Lee left the library and ran home. He thought since he had fallen asleep young and woken up older, that if he fell asleep again it might set him back to being young again. As he entered the house, his mom started to say something, but he held up his hand and ran into his room. He jumped in bed without even taking his clothes off and shut his eyes. He relaxed, and in fifteen minutes was asleep.

During his sleep, Lee changed locations completely. He woke up with a start and looked around him. He stood up out of bed and looked at his covers. “Oh-no” thought Lee, as he saw that his old dinosaur covers had been replaced by boring grey ones. He looked in the mirror and saw that he now had short black hair, and actual grey eyes, and grey everything. In fact, Lee looked around, and realized that everything was grey. He ran to the window, and all he could see was another window, which had grey curtains. He ran outside his room and ran to what he believed was the front door of his house. The girl with the green eyes was in his house with a ring around her finger. Her eyes were dull. Lee didn’t know what to do, since this was the girl who appeared to shrug all the effects of this horrible world off, and her eyes were grey. The door he found brought him to what looked like an alleyway, and he took a right and headed down the grey hallway. He found stairs at the end and ran down them, taking two at a time. He ran past two people who were walking their dog, which was grey, just like the people and the walls they were near. By now, Lee was getting nervous. He found a door that had a grey street behind it. He ran outside and was surrounded by the noise of nothing. All this time, Lee had not realized that he could not hear anything. There was a consistent buzz in his head that was fairly loud, but there were no birds, and there was nothing that reminded him of home.

When Lee went on the street, he saw something that terrified him. Surrounding him were giant buildings, so tall that planes would have to fly around them. The people who were near him were talking, but he could not hear them. They were all the same shade of grey as the buildings. They were talking very fast, and seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere. However, none of them seemed to be moving. They stood where they were, in a rush to get somewhere, but not actually going anywhere. Their outlines became blurry, and Lee could not tell where one started and the other ended. The world started to spin, and then there was nothing. Lee was floating in a huge amount of nothing. There was no noise, no color, and no smell.

Lee awoke with a start. He looked around him and was surprised to see vivid color. He looked at his bedsheets and realized they were his brilliant orange dinosaur bed sheets. He looked in the mirror on his door, and smiled when he saw his brilliant blue eyes. He jumped out of bed and ran to look outside. Overnight it had snowed, and the snow lay over everything equally. On the pine tree that covered his driveway, the occasional patch of brilliant green caught his eye, and then was gone, taken up by the brightest white Lee had ever seen. He went downstairs where he was sure he could smell pancakes being made. He was right! When he opened the door, his mom was standing in front of the griddle yelling at Spike to get off the couch. Spike was ignoring her. She turned and looked at Lee, and he realized that she had brilliant blue eyes also. Her robe was an astonished shade of red, and her hair reflected the light into millions of different patterns on the wall. Lee ran to find his favorite thing in the house: the crystal, which hung in one of the windows. When he found it, he stopped in his tracks. The blue and red and green and yellow that fell on the floor in patterns were the most astonishing things that he had ever seen. And they were all so alive and vibrant, he could hardly think of what to do next. He stared for a couple more seconds, then left to go tell Spike about his dream.

Now, some people say that there are different endings to this story. Some people will tell you that he talked with Spike for over three hours about his dream and how he thought that he never was supposed to grow up in the first place. Others will say that when he saw Spike, he realized for the first time that Spike actually was many different colors which combined to make him a beautiful peachy white, which Lee thought was the most gorgeous thing that he had ever seen. But I know what really happened. When Lee sat down to tell Spike about his dream, Spike leapt up and gave Lee a giant lick right on his face. Lee laughed and said to Spike: “You don’t really even need to know about my dream, do you? I bet you already know what happened!” and then laughed some more. Lee hugged Spike, and for a split second, Spike’s eyes changed from the deepest black to the bluest blue and in a flash, were black again.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Talking to Strangers by Jon Hartmann

Having spent less than a week in India, I began what would become a dangerous habit: riding trains hanging out of the open boarding gate door. When you blow your nose after riding in this way for a while, you find it is coated with the dust of spent coal belched out by the engine-car, and dirt off the train tracks. This is how I saw most of the Indian countryside, wind-in-hair and occasional pebble-kicked-up-in-face, with dusty shirts and blackened nostrils.

I think I first realized the unspoken consciousness of class that all people have at a train stop outside of Delhi. It was one of my first train rides in India, and I remember, as the train slowed down, being interested in the way people of this particular town had taken to growing pumpkins on top of their tarpaulin shacks. They let the vines curl around their tin walls, blackened by railway soot. And soon, at a total halt, the boarding platform appeared. It was an area of packed earth with a Hindi station sign and a tree. The tree itself was one of the sacred-fig trees planted at the stations across the Indian plains to provide shade. Sacred figs, the same variety as the Bodhi-tree that Buddha attained enlightenment under, are actually sacred to Hindus. They’re often the resting places of Hindu holy men, or Sadhus, who occasionally erect shrines around them. This tree’s keeper, orange-robed and turbaned, shot me a startling glance. It was piercing and unwavering. I knew it was because I was not Indian, and I appeared to be wealthy, yet I was riding in the manner of the poorest of India. Whether this was puzzling to him, or aggravating, I clearly saw the division in his eyes that would haunt my seven months in India.

There’s an unheralded class in Delhi that doesn’t appear to live anywhere in particular; they’re seen on highway service projects, sweeping streets, and selling chickens. When you stop your car in traffic, they’re there with a baby in arms and shattered teeth, asking for loose rupees. Sometimes the baby is dead. I was rummaging through a lower residential bazaar, and had finally come upon the source of its foul smell: a poultry slaughterhouse. I noticed its gutter in the ground at the entrance, the stream that bled avian fluid onto the sidewalks and alleyways of the bazaar. Clouds of flies reassured me that it was the foulest smell I had ever detected in my life. Near vomiting, I stumbled past several bazaar children, who were amused I had wandered so far into the slaughterhouse. Finding some fresher air, I watched them, matted hair and torn green cardigans, begin to kick an improvised cricket ball back home.

Their home was the square kilometer of packed clay earth between the railroad tracks and the slaughterhouse. It was dusted with chewing tobacco packets, and spent beedi cigarette stumps. At the height of the afternoon, the greater part of the community was languishing in the heat, seeking shade in their hodge-podge of shacks, made mostly of tin siding, tarp, mud, and the more salvageable parts of Delhi’s waste. Some families had a tire full of drinking water, or an outdoor bed, raised off the trash-covered and infestation-prone ground. The government had put up a stick fence around the entire lot to hide it. I sat for a while, and no one seemed to mind; it was as if they knew what I was thinking. They could exit the enclosure, but they could never leave. The children smiled.

Earlier that day, when I rode the train into Delhi, I sat in the open boarding gate with one of the train’s conductors. We were discussing railroad life and his home, when the train began to slow down as we pulled nearer to the station. We stopped in the thick of a slum. I at first was inapprehensive. Just beyond the tangle of power lines, I saw the tin roofs and blue tarps, bonfires, smelled the air of unrefrigerated meat and dairy. A group of children came skipping up the railroad tracks, matted hair and dusty clothing, homemade toys of electrical wire wheels and soup-can chassis. Immediately the leader of this group ran up to us and began shooting pictures with his small yellow camera. The situation quickly escalated as the conductor demanded they leave “Jao!” – but they didn’t leave. “Go f--- your sisters,” the conductor said in Hindi. The camera boy spat as the conductor closed the boarding gate door. The children skipped quickly back down into the sea of tin, as the conductor threatened to throw a piece of fruit from behind the tinted window.

I asked him “why did you do that?” He said “because they are salas, they are bastards and rascals.” I only hoped that the reason he had done that was because I was present, and that normally he would have even let them on the train. “May I have a tip?” he said. “I have no money with me,” I replied. It was true. I even showed him my empty wallet; he laughed.

* * *

The cicadas had just begun their evening chorus when a certain farmer discovered the reason I had been resting atop one of his trees for the past half hour or so. The time of course made no difference to him, as he did not have, and had potentially never seen a watch. His guard dog, mastiff-like and wearing a nail-studded collar to deter leopards, had pursued me and several other backpackers until we scaled the nearest trees. Laughing to himself slightly, he persuaded the dog to return to his yurt. I descended the tree, slipping on monsoon ferns and fungal growth. Half apologizing, he beckoned me and my two fellow hikers to follow him and the dog back to the yurt.

At that moment, I felt resistant, resistant to accompanying a total stranger, whose ferocious and completely obedient dog had just chased me up a tree. Ignoring my screaming western “practicality” or “common sense,” I followed him. We were soon sitting in the evening shade of his walnut tree, audience to the chorus of the cicadas and jungle crows. He shot me a searching look, and adjusting his wool hat, thought to give me a bag of walnuts. I smiled, and we both ate walnuts looking down into the Himalayan valley, sharing something unspoken or intangible, a knowing collision of two cultures in the wilderness. Realizing that walnuts are prized produce in the Himalayas, I made an effort to give him a small amount of money. Ten rupees, enough to buy his family a few kilograms of rice; he declined. I continued to insist and he said in Hindi “Because you give out of love, I cannot refuse.” His crumpled brow loosened, and he stuffed his hands into his grey kurta-pockets.

At the Baha’i Lotus-Temple in Delhi, out of respect, all visitors are expected to take off their shoes and tread barefoot on the woven mats that lead up to the temple’s entrance. I remember first seeing the temple, somewhat masked by the haze generated in Delhi’s own greenhouse-like atmosphere. It sits on a parched grass lawn, and is shaped like the traditional flower of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, twenty-seven interlocked petals emerging from a pool. I accompanied several Buddhist monks to the doorway, and stood back for a few moments watching them enter the base of the marble lotus. Looking out over the walkway, Asian tourists, Hindu holy-men, all backgrounds of Indians, and the occasional Westerner slowly pushed their way through the humidity to the temple entrance. Unaware that I was blocking the door, I was urged by a French backpacker, currently a Baha’i door-holder, to enter the temple.

I expected there to be some sort of ceremony or activity inside; however, there was nothing, nothing but the stone silence of several hundred people breathing. Never before had I encountered a congregation of people simply sitting, listening to silence, simply thinking. I sat on one of the few hundred wooden benches and stared three stories upward at the ceiling. The temple itself is surprisingly light for having so few windows. It seems to collect the sighs and soft murmurs of its occupants, bottling them into a collective and primal drone.

I was at first puzzled by the meaning of the temple, and my posture must have displayed this clearly as I walked back to the parking lot. Kicking a bit of trash up the road and trying to spit the dust out of my mouth, I passed a strip of bazaar that sells various religious goods such as marigold garlands and strings of peppers to ward off evil spirits. I spotted a Hindu holy-man sitting underneath one of the open air stalls, the dusty air just agitating his beard and dreadlocks out of their resting position. He was bare-chested, with eyes ablaze; our eyes met.

Several months later, I again found myself entering the home of a complete stranger. He was a Rajasthani folk artist, one of the precious few painters still using ground minerals and oil as watercolors. We sat for a while on his rooftop, looking out over the desert city Jaipur, drinking tea out of shot glasses. He said “I hope I’m not boring you.” I immediately responded “not at all,” looking out at the paper kites flying above the city. Every telephone wire in the city is wrapped in twine and kite skeletons. I was silent for a moment, looking at the swarms of people below us, flowing through the bazaar, the heavy traffic of rickshaws and greasy diesel trucks, the occasional cow demanding to cross the road. Moving to his studio, we discussed art for a while. The walls of his studio were covered in parchment, each bearing a famous scene from Hindu legend. The incarnations of Vishnu, the birth of Ganesh. He smiled, said “artists need to help other artists out,” and handed me a small package of water colors.

I came to rest by one of the small shrines interspersed throughout the twisting bazaar pathways. This particular one had been built up around a withered tree that was now coated with religious calendars, hundreds of spent incense stubs, and layers of sweet oils. The shrine bore the presently sooty and oiled image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles. I sat for a moment looking up at the parched growth on the surrounding mountains, and back to the shrine, interested that no one had stolen the coins from the oil-filled offering bowl. I thought, “because you give out of love, I cannot refuse.”
[photos courtesy of Austin Ryer and Jon Hartmann]

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sasha Geerken, Arizona (2007)

The politics of translating

[The following is the text of Nick Benson’s presentation at ‘The Power and Politics of Translation,’ a panel discussion at the recent AWP (2/2/08); also on the panel were Natasha Sajé (Chair), Forrest Gander, Khaled Mattawa, James Kates, and Lisa Katz. Scroll down for text of the presentations by Lisa Katz and Forrest Gander in previous posts.]

As I was reading around lately with my mind on this panel, I came across this bit of text by Lawrence Venuti: “Translations position readers in domestic intelligibilities that are also ideological positions, ensembles of values, beliefs, and representations that further the interests of certain social groups over others.” As this quotation from Venuti’s The Scandals of Translation (NY: Routledge, 1998: 78) indicates, translation would seem to offer yet another rich site for polarizing debates. In this scenario, literary translators are just as good as anyone else at pushing the envelope, creating and toppling Babel, infringing upon and appropriating; they’re foreignisers or domesticators, academics or poeticizers, activists or originalists, and, just like everyone else, they give politics a bad name. Maybe this habit is somehow reassuringly familiar in its hard-wired, involuntary compulsiveness. Or maybe things aren’t quite as bad as all that, not ten years after Venuti wrote those remarks. One of the co-editors of Calque, the new literary journal that offers new translations each issue, closes the preface to the latest issue (Number 3, Nov. 2007) with these words: “This journal juxtaposes writers from distinct, even disparate literatures. Most are appearing for the first time in English. Others are being rewritten by translators with a critical vision different from that of their predecessors. The only aesthetic connecting them is one of multiplicity – in our case, a literature that loves adaptation, refraction, transgression. In translation, literature is always becoming something new. Calque hopes to illustrate this process.” I mention this editorial statement by Steve Dolph because it’s one of the latest signs that ‘the politics of translation’ − with its suggestion of competing camps, tribal boundaries, binary oppositions – looks in fact like a healthy body politic: that out there, among the publishers, the binaries or poles of literary translation are deliberately being given space to coexist, rather than being thought of as mutually exclusive.

Translators are well aware – maybe all too aware − of the fraught nature of their endeavor, and their prose (intro, afterword) is often marked by a startling and even embarrassingly frank discussion of merits, and a disavowal of grand ambition that is singular in the world of letters. Translators strike me as similar to anthropologists in their deep knowledge of their own hubris, with a sometimes paralyzing recognition of how context dictates worth and credibility. I like this statement by Ronald Knox, English translator of the classics, writing fifty-plus years ago: “The translator must do his best by using the speech that comes natural to him, fortified a little by those good old English words which are out of favour, but not obsolete. His style must be his own, his rhetoric and his emphasis must be that of his original. And always, at the back of his mind, he must imagine that he is the original. Can he hope, in any case, that his version will live? At least, if he does his work well, he will have the comfort of being pirated by his successors” (“On English Translation,” New England Review 25:1-2 [2004]: 112-25; 124). So, translators realize that their endeavor lives – for now. They know that it is in fact a wonder that their effort appears in your hands at all (more about this later).

When it comes to politics, though at times it would seem that translators are uniquely empowered, in fact there aren’t many with less power than translators, and (surprise) I’m disposed to think well of them. My mother was a translator in the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow when I was a kid. Maybe my next-generational move toward literary translation is a logical evolutionary step: in a way, it’s an appropriation of agency, since I decide what I’ll translate, and whether it will be read at all.
So much for the political power of the literary translator.

Staying with this admittedly reductive point of view for the time being, one might ask whether the literary translator in fact gains some advantage from his marginal status. A review in the pages of the New York Times Book Review recently opened with some comments on the marginality of poetry in the States being to its poets’ advantage, since this marginality has ostensibly helped poets listen to themselves and to preserve their independence and originality. You could easily make the argument that such a statement in the New York Times constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a case of the market dictating certain parameters. Maybe the point the reviewer was making about poets is better made about literary translators, all the more poignant since they weren’t even mentioned; let’s assume that their marginality is to their advantage, since their independence allows them to choose projects without concern for the marketplace. It sounds good, but anyone who has tried to publish work in translation knows that this unfettered independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Although I don’t want anyone else to decide what to translate for me, I invite influence as a matter of course; Attilio Bertolucci was a suggestion by my Master’s advisor, and Palazzeschi was suggested to me by a publisher in the States. Even with these prompts or leads, my story of having gone through a dozen or so publishers before finding Parlor Press and their new poetry series, Free Verse, is not at all unusual. Along the way I received some very nice rejection letters – really! Looking back, it seems to me now that I needed the encouragement contained in a couple of those letters to keep on going. Still, I doubt I would have sent the manuscript to another press, if Parlor Press hadn’t taken it. I had resolved to move onto a new project and to spend that sort of psychic energy elsewhere. The translator needs patience, pragmatism, persistence − and computer skills, or the help of a magnanimous friend. The whole process, though, constitutes a kind of training wherein the translator refines his concept of what he’s doing. It forces one to create a kind of mission statement for the work of translation and the specific project. So right now I’m translating Aldo Palazzeschi’s book from 1910, L’incendiario (The Arsonist), a work originally published by F.T. Marinetti and the volume in which Palazzeschi uses onomatopoeia, slang, dialogue, and an apparently reckless free verse style to deflate the exaggerated self-regard of Italian poetry. I owe the NEA profound thanks for helping to support this work; it may not be easy to find an interested publisher, as a writer of the avant-garde a hundred years ago is more than likely still a writer of the avant-garde today.

My goal in this translation of Palazzeschi that I’m doing isn’t that unusual. In spite of the wide array of rhetoric used to describe and defend translations, it seems to me that all literary translations are attempts to come as close as possible, in the target language, to the same rapture/rupture that the original effected in its own time in its own language. It’s not entirely possible, there’s something curatorial in it, but there it is. I’d hypothesize that it is the rare literary translation these days that ‘gets in the way of’ or radically departs from the original − and those that do announce and explain their strategy in an introduction to their translation. And only in the rare case does the reader have to guess what the translator’s intention was, because there’s a sort of textual confession-box otherwise known as the ‘translator’s introduction,’ or sometimes an afterword, in which the translator recounts any exceptional translation problems and (provisional) solutions. (Of course, sometimes the problems win; only in rare cases does one hear why, but a happy exception is Dick Davis’s essay “On Not Translating Hafez” in NER 25:1-2 [2004]: 310-18. To read on this subject: the new book by Emily Apter, The Translation Zone).

It must have been the perfection of the device of translator’s intro, or perhaps its easy availability, that shamed or intimidated me into failing to construct much of a defense of my own translation of Bertolucci (Winter Journey, Parlor Press, 2005). I thought that some readers would be knowledgeable in both languages and would let me know where I strayed from the right road, if my effort was decent enough to warrant comment when I had erred. In fact there have been a few insightful and instructive pieces of advice to put to use in a revision, if it happens. Anyway, I thought it was more important at the time to emphasize Bertolucci’s connections to Italian and world literature than to justify my translation choices, and I think such an effort by a translator is always appreciated by readers (a book of poetry in translation with a skimpy introduction always seems a bit disappointing).

I like a fairly commodious idea of translation as a scrolling work in progress, in which the scroll is the space of the mejdan, the piazza, or maybe the Corso in which one feels free to go forth and back continuously refining and revising, enjoying the paradoxically public confidences of the streets. In his essay “Spacey Rooms: A Note on Translating ‘Lamentation on Ur,’” Tom Sleigh remarks that “If we think of ourselves as language islands in an archipelago that is all the languages of the world, and of the sea surrounding us as the universal drive toward language – what certain linguists call ‘deep structure’ – then translation is the attempt to experience that structure through the alienating medium, the at first incomprehensible strangeness, of another tongue” (Interview with a Ghost. St. Paul: Graywolf, 2006: 64). So the notion of translation as an open society is an appealing one, and it works across time as well as space; later in the essay just cited, Sleigh explains that translation is a sort of triple threat: it is an alienation machine, time machine, and projection machine (72). As I was thinking about this, Borges reminded me – I was listening to a CD of one of his Norton Lectures – that the word ‘threat’ originally meant ‘an angry mob’ (Borges cites the example of its use in the first lines of Beowulf). So now, behind each individual translation project, I see an impatient mob of translation projects. But I also see the December ’07 issue of Harper’s, in which there are excerpts from an essay by Auden, translated from the French by Richard Howard (“The Mental Kitchen” in 'Readings,' pp. 19-22; since published by Princeton UP in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume III, 1949-1955). We only have this essay by Auden due to the fact that it was translated into French and published by a journal in France, since there’s no trace left of its English original. This is just one recent instance of translation matter-of-factly yet magically transcending the limits of language and time, if not politics, lent greater poignancy by the essay’s title: “De Droit et de Gauche” – ‘Of The Right and The Left.’

I’ll close with some words of incitement from Eliot Weinberger, from his essay “Mislaid in Translation”; he was making the point that translation allows new voices to be heard and allows new writing to happen. “Translation is not a means for allowing the foreign to speak. The foreign has already spoken, they don’t need us. But we need them, if we are not to end up repeating the same things to ourselves. Translation is one of the ways that lets us listen. It expands the range of possibilities of what we, right now, can hear. From listening, we learn to speak. Translation expands what we can write. Which in turn expands what we can hear. Translation is a necessity, not an accessory” (‘Mislaid in Translation’ (1993), Written Reaction, 160-167; 167). Have these words been heeded? Have publishers recognized this necessity? Judging by the exhibits in the Book Fair at the AWP, the answer would appear to be a resounding ‘Yes.’ And yet consider that it is only a generous estimate that 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation (as reported by the University of Rochester’s journal 3%, among other sources).

A quick & partial survey of necessary (re)discoveries in twentieth-century Italian poetry: Giorgio Orelli is an Italian poet from the Canton Ticino, Switzerland, born in 1921, whose work I’ve only seen in old anthologies in the States. Valerio Magrelli is widely considered one of the most important Italian poets writing now; worth seeking out is the outstanding Anthony Molino translation, The Contagion of Matter (Holmes & Meier, 2000). Molino is also the translator of the poet Lucio Mariani, whose work is very well represented in the selected poems, Echoes of Memory (Wesleyan UP, 2003). As far as I know, still to have volumes translated are the intriguing writers Cesare Vivaldi (b. 1925; wrote mostly in Ligurian dialect) and Giancarlo Marmori (b. 1926, also Ligurian). Recommended reading: recent translations of Vittorio Sereni by Peter Robinson and Marcus Perryman; of Luciano Erba by Peter Robinson; of Andrea Zanzotto, edited by Patrick Barron; and of Antonia Pozzi by Lawrence Venuti. I'm hunting for a copy of Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti’s translation of War Variations, a 1964 volume of poetry by Amelia Rosselli (1930-1996), published by Sun & Moon in 1995, as well as her volume Sleep: Poems in English (1953-1966). Silvia Bre won last year’s Viareggio Prize for her third volume of poetry, entitled Marmo (Marble), a volume of superbly controlled intensity. In the ‘90s, Sun & Moon Press turned out two bilingual anthologies of twentieth-century Italian poetry, I novissimi: Poetry for the Sixties and The Promised Land: Italian Poetry After 1975, both of which should be sought out. And Geoffrey Brock, the translator of Disaffections, an essential collection of Cesare Pavese’s poetry, is currently assembling an anthology of twentieth-century Italian poetry.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ian Engelberger, 'We the children'

Monday, February 18, 2008

Falling by Josh Johnston

I am falling. There is nothing below me. My stomach, formerly in knots, is now completely… gone. There is nothing inside me. Yet I feel okay. Will I ever be fine? Nevermore. Will I ever laugh or joke, or see those eyes again? Yes. And I will be thankful. I will learn to be propitious. To be the best I can be. Why? Here is my story:

I see a face. I cannot make out any features of it. All I know from the knowledge of a face is that there should be a nose, two eyes, and a smile, the feeling of absolute loveliness. But there are no eyes. Just tears. Tears falling from two empty holes. I see right through them. Behind the holes is no brain, but thoughts. Thoughts of memories, of fantasies, of one's deepest darkest most undisclosed secrets. Quite possibly the moral dilemma, or the ethical choices. And for certain, the thought of me. The smile is replaced, not with a mouth, but just a throat. From that throat emerges sound, but not of regular voice. A wailing, a whining cry that seems to resonate all around me. I slowly crouch to the ground, and curl up into a ball. I hear nothing but wailing, and sobbing. The tears pour around me, engulfing me in a salty water pond. The nose is expelling sniffles and snorts of stifled crying. My own ears pound with this sonic boom. I suddenly hear I’m sorry. I’M SORRY! And I suddenly realize it is not this face that should be sorry. It is I. I left myself open. I opened my heart – and I never closed it. I am still falling.

Still looking up at blackness, looking down at that floor that never seems to be drawing nearer. I try to feel my stomach again, and I place my hand around my stomach – or where I thought my hand should be. Placed on my non-existent entrails, I don’t even see my own hand. I see the black and white outline of where a hand should be. Without being resolved, I am disappearing. Scared, I start to cry out, slowly I begin to panic. What has happened? And then the face in full appears. And my epiphany: that face will always be there, whether I see it or not. Will the cause of my loss always be? Never. For never in the world can it happen that a force stronger than mine would present itself. I am too good. I am the one. I believe it, but I drew myself in a little too much. My weakness. I will never have it again. But I will have something greater – the face. Just the face, always there – and now, it is a face, not a figure with holes. The holes have been filled up, and the eyes present a greenish glint that reflects my own eyes. I am clean-shaven, and the face smiles. Perfect teeth, and a beauteous smile, the nose is center, and non-expelling now. I begin to slow my fall, because for some reason, I can still see past the eyes. I can still see into the space where a brain should be. I see the thoughts, the joy, the secrets, and the shame. It is here that I stop falling – stop right in midair, and look around. There is the face again, and again, all around me. Not just a face, but a body and clothes to accompany it. And a personality, unlike any other I know. Things are okay, I say to myself… Things are going to be okay.

Will I ever forget the fall? Never. For as I fall, the most vulnerable I’ve ever been, and as I think, harder than I ever have, I realize that the fall was the first changing point in my life. I realize that I must step past obstacles, and hold my head up high. I know at this point – and it is at this point that the ground appears below me – that if I ever need that face, if I ever feel down, or in despondency, I can just ask for that face, for that smile, and the rest of her. I will be okay, and as I take my first step, again, I feel brand new. Nothing is forgotten, but everything is much clearer. I have learned that nothing is forever, and that what I had, before my fall, which is another story, is something so powerful, that the consequences must have impacted me beyond my wildest and most naïve thoughts.

I start off at a brisk walk, into the darkness, with my most loyal, my best friend, this face, behind me: my guardian angel, watching over me, forever.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Poem by Mark Rudman


"The only possible history is contemporary history."


Peasant life, Jura mountains, revolution.
Success, ruin.

Courbet’s three sisters among the rocks of the field: pied clouds.
Thistles even now exploding from the foreground.

Foam at the edge of the cave’s mouth, rippling over stones,
a man poling a raft toward the dark core,

undaunted, vertical as a post.
Terror of the horizontal, a human terror.

Let’s look at this from the truer, inhuman point of view:
rocks and fields and lakes, splayed raggedly,

not a square or a circle, not even a round hole,
they torment the mind, these surfaces, being so close….

Nature, in its casual perfection, offers no respite,
no matter how far we stray by day from the village bell

its tintinnabulation echoes and reverberates,
seeks out the wanderer in the woods,

plucks him from thickets and groves of beech trees
where the tinkling of cowbells, flat and toneless

in the mountain air, and the pastoral
music of a sunken time from parish churches

set him to dreaming about the tavern:
night and wine.


The Stonebreakers—destroyed when Dresden was bombed.
Photograph of a photograph, close-up of a close-up:

Courbet and labor: Chink of the pick.
The men with their backs to us.

The old man, on his knees,
crouched by the roadside

in the dust and summer heat,
straw hat, patched trousers, striped vest,

and through the chinks in his cracked shoes
faded blue socks revealing his heels.

The young man standing beside him as if the two
were one person at different stages of life.

Looked at like this, the universe is a cramped place.
What is will remain unforgiven.

And in The Winnowers the woman
on her knees with her back to us,

sifting the wheat through the basket,
looks as if she’s about to pray.

This is not what the two women
in Young Women on the Banks of the Seine

are doing, facing us with closed eyes,
forcing our eyes to meet theirs in reverie,

the women daydreaming the spectators
dreaming the women….

3 The Artist’s Studio

Courbet, brush in hand, at his easel, more at ease
than we will ever see him again, reaching out
to dab some more black-green into the "trees,"

some gray-black into the "rocks,"
flanked by the naked model, the "muse,"
buxom, motherly, alluring, within sight, possibly within reach,

her nipples in line with his fingertips,
and the curious urchin, whose eyes we don’t see…;
the fair-haired rustic who looks as if he had stepped out

of the canvas to stare back at the painter’s hand;
the child whose response we are not given,
(possibly the artist as a child, possibly the artist’s child),

whose innocence and wonder we must draw from the angle
of his head gazing at whatever "detail" Courbet is about to lay
onto the canvas,
as if the source of original light were the source of the Loue

whose waters rush through his arm as he holds fast
to the pulse and throb of the first impulse.
The Origins of the World.


The "real" Gustave Courbet…:

Courbet the wanderer, dressed in white, his beard aimed
at his patron Bruyas’ chin, on the road to Sête near Montpellier.

"To be in a position to interpret the customs, the ideas, the
various aspects of the age as I see them, to be not only a
painter, but also a man, to make living art, that is my aim."

To apply the same eye to fops and laborers.
Equality a dangerous truth.

To capture the avid surface.

Courbet and seeing:

The paint, laid down with a palette knife, crusting,
the eye stilled, arrested,
banishing illusion,
sending the dream into exile, no longer
to dream any dream but the dream of the real—

"There is only one other, "he said, "who understands the sky."


Courbet and the unpeopled landscape and seascape:
the earth as it is without us.

Boats and masts on the shore, broken horizons, thickness
of waves, graininess of sand, the rocks breakdown of particles.

Courbet broken, not enough sinew in the trees, snow
too white, the crows not black enough.

Uneven ground the snow reveals, the snow conceals,
and above it all, blue shadows.


Alone now, in a prison courtyard in Sainte-Pélangie,
he stands at his ease, in his earth-

colored beret, smoking his pipe,
his foulard red as a torch geranium,

and finds three scrawny trees
beyond the unlatched window and the bars

searching for a glimmer of sunlight.
There are men who are consumed by the pressure

of seeing, all their senses directed to one end.
And something inhuman about them.


So many matters left untended:
Courbet and Fourier, Courbet and Jean Journet….
The judgment day sky
in The Valley of the Loue
and in the Burial at Ornan,

a sky that sucks its charcoal
out of caves and wells,
and tiers of white rocks flocking diagonally
across the gray sky,
and the other darkness, unseen but still

present, of night, waiting
for gravediggers to fill up that hole;
a night that is not night
but comes disguised as water as
it ripples over rocks or gathers

in bold storm clouds over the valley.
And a light, a light that is the light
of the Jura flooding Courbet’s studio
in far away Paris.
Light that breaks off his raised

knife. And though we find ourselves
in open air the road is not open:
No one walks unburdened down these narrow lanes.
No one strolls.
Something stands in the way.

And the rocks’ expression, they are almost
thoughtful, as if from long gazing.
And the sky. What happened to the sky?
Let’s pass over the lists
of his imperfections,

remnants strewn over his decline
by those who would malign him
for not being who he wasn’t;
for too much laughter,
for guzzling beer

with the air of a jeering peasant;
for not knowing more than the earth he knew,
the deep green valleys,
waters, and rocks of the Jura
where it is still possible to go.

“Courbet,” from Mark Rudman's book The Nowhere Steps, was commissioned by Linda Nochlin for 'Courbet Revisted' at the Brooklyn Museum. There is a huge Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) exhibition opening at The Met on February 27.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Power & Translation: Lisa Katz at AWP

[Poet and translator Lisa Katz teaches literary translation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was just announced the winner of the 2008 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize. The following is the text of her presentation at 'The Power and Politics of Translation,' a panel discussion at the recent AWP (2/2/08 in NYC) with Natasha Sajé (Chair), Forrest Gander, Lisa Katz, Khaled Mattawa, James Kates, and Nick Benson.]

A Plea

Delete me please,
delete me absolutely
from da list,

no more Iz-ra-el, no more
Jewish blood, no
more history,

just no-ting,
quiet, peace,

delete me, just delete,
I beg you, please.

The poem above was written in English but in the Hebrew alphabet, so in truth I have transliterated rather than translated it. Its creator Admiel Kosman was born in Israel in 1957 to an observant Orthodox Jewish family; he was sent to Orthodox schools, then served in the army, studied at the Bezalel art college, and received a PhD in Talmud, the interpretation of Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. About five years ago, he moved permanently to Berlin, where he is professor of religious studies at Potsdam University and heads the first Reform rabbinical college in Germany to resume operations after the Holocaust. He has published seven books of poetry and has recently begun writing some of his poems in Hebrew letters – but in English, providing a jolting experience for Israeli readers. You’ve probably never heard of him. Why?

Andre Lefevere has identified 3 controlling factors that powerfully determine what gets translated and published [Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame 1992 Routledge]:

1. Professionals inside the literary system: critics, reviewers, teachers, translators – this last category includes us on this panel.
2. Patronage outside the literary system: powerful individuals (like Oprah), media outlets including publishers, institutions such as universities. (I am not sure how these are outside the system but this depends on how you define the literary network)
3. The dominant poetics – Favored literary categories and devices, or genres (what’s fashionable now? creative non-fiction, blurred borders between fiction and non-fiction, borders that were in truth always blurred – poetry is never too fashionable but there is some power, that is, some funding for the translation of poetry so it may be considered a favored area just now.)

-& the current concept of the role of literature, which to me is unfortunately quite weak if not ineffective but in times of trouble seems able to record at least our personal-social consciences.

With regard to Israeli poet Admiel Kosman: 1. I would seem to have power as a translator who chose to translate his work and send it out for publication – he’s been published in the Mississippi Review online, in an anthology called Men’s Lives and is included in the upcoming anthology in English of Israeli protest poetry, With an Iron Pen. But perhaps the opposite is true: translating his work empowers me; here I am talking in a public forum, and I’ve given papers on his work at conferences, even at MLA. 2. Still – I haven’t found a patron to make his work public. I haven’t found a publisher. If there is a publisher out there interested in a witty and political poet who uses Jewish religious texts to make his effects, please contact me. And now we’ve arrived at Lefevere’s third factor, that of dominant poetics, which in Kosman’s case is a help and a hindrance. 3. The helpful part is that translated poetry attracts interest in the terror-threatened English-speaking world, which rightly feels it should learn about the Other; protest literature is powerful right now, or lit which conveys other cultures esp those of the Middle East. But the down side is that the dominant poetics in translation is not ever likely to include poems that depend on intertextuality of a revisionary type. Even in Israel, in terms of dominant poetics, Kosman is well-known but marginal, because he uses Jewish sources to confound received thought about Israel & the Jewish religion. Even in Israel, Kosman’s broad, humanist concept of Judaism defeats the assumptions of readers who expect piety from what they believe to be religious poetry.

I’d like to remind us that power figures in another, more metaphorical way in translation. In our work, there is a kind of power struggle going on between the original text and the translated text.

Antoine Berman in "Translation and the trials of the foreign" [tr Venuti in Translation Studies Reader Routledge 2000] decries what he calls the "textual deformation that operates in every translation and prevents it from being 'a trial [or experience] of the foreign' " That is, according to Berman, translations present a hard time for both original and translation. They create:

1. a trial for the foreign culture which experiences the strangeness of the foreign text and word AND

2. a trial for the foreign text which is uprooted from its original language context.

This is not the time to examine his language but I’ll just say that Berman uses very aggressive imagery to describe translation, which maybe you thought was a peaceful act you committed in front of your computer.

Please understand what you can, and accept what you can’t, in the following poems, one about the rise of fundamentalism, and the other a response to terror, both using imagery from Jewish sources:

Admiel Kosman

Lament for the Ninth of Av

For cantor and congregants:
To be sung softly after reading the Book of Lamentations

Hardly any room for the body, my daughter.
The soul has seized nearly everything by force.
Hardly any room left for the body, though
it’s true, my daughter, words were etched in stone,
but violently.

Hardly any room for the body. Nearly everything’s been written.
And all is turned to plunder inside the temple.
The body, torn and split, crumbles from the weight of the soul
trampling and destroying, spreading fear all around. Hardly any room
left for the body. Crushed, my daughter, broken, my daughter. Totally destroyed.
And prey for the soul.

Hardly any room for the body, my daughter, in exile
or when it leaves its place to wander, like a deportee
coming and going on the face of the earth, inching along, in motion.
Didn’t we know exactly, everything was written
my daughter. In those days there was no king,
and there won’t be room for the body.
The soul will control everything.

Southern angels, northern ones, angels of rage and guilt,
will shroud the blood with gold...the ark curtain...a robe....
shroud the ark, sure to arrive, in the horrors of war.
And the heart will know its mistake,
terribly aware:
everything was etched in stone, but violently.

Translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz

Admiel Kosman

When the terrorists murder me at my window

When the terrorists murder me at my window for nationalist reasons, I’ll understand what I didn’t from the statesmen’s words, when I lived, breathed and walked among you, a simple man, an ordinary guy. When they murder me for reasons of flags, bunting, wreathes of flowers and stage pillars, the nationalists right and left will riot, my head suddenly jerked toward the center – the voice of murder will pass by like a declaration, a call to everyone in the eternal city, calling out loudly like a rooster, its mouth facing oblivion: Behold, I am scattered, my organs plastered on the ground. Can you find me? My unity? Ha, the terrorists are here at my place, at my window, and after all I’m only one ordinary person, just dust, a poor citizen, a regular guy – it’s you who hold the knives, bayonets, pliers, tools to wrench and uproot, those you aim from the right to pierce a hole inside me, and from the left to uproot my world, the same Law, still learned by heart – Knife Wisdom. And then suddenly it will come to me, oh, like thunder, a glimmer of understanding – just for a moment, before they cut me up in their rage into millions of slices, like Abraham’s ram (caught alone, near a tree, in Isaac’s story). And behold – when the work is done, at that blessed hour, they will remove one small piece of me, a pinch, a sample, a strip or chunk, right after the murder business, it will be possible, perhaps, in the service of good taste, just one crumb and that’s it, the size of an olive,[1] to turn me into a sign of blood, of eternal blood, of blood forever, my blood eternally staining the doorways and the doorframes, all the entrances to the fortresses, above the castle turrets, all the walls of the kingdom. From now on I will be a candle, an eternal flame, an eternal candle shining my light forever, in the eternal great hall, the eternal great hall of the world’s splendor and praise, and like a small shrine of bones I’ll be hefted now, like the heavy weight of remembrance, before each entrance, door or gate. And before each entrance, door or gate, now you will feast, after the murder business, you gang of leaders, with good appetite and at your ease. Oh, my leaders! My dear leaders, meeting now for a meal, with all the tribe, close friends, a few invited guests, and a thin sprinkling of family.

Translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz

[1] The least amount of food for which a blessing must be said, according to Jewish law.

Ian Engelberger, PROGRESS, ink on paper 2007
private collection, anonymous donor, 6"x2", cat #345XQY*@!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Found in Translation: Forrest Gander at AWP

[The following is poet and translator Forrest Gander 's presentation at 'The Power and Politics of Translation,' a panel discussion at the recent AWP (2/2/08 in NYC). The panelists were Natasha Sajé (Chair), Forrest Gander, Lisa Katz, Khaled Mattawa, James Kates, and Nick Benson; check this space again for future related posts. ]

This semester, I’m teaching a class called Latin American Poetry Live, focused on living Latin American poets. In part, my impetus is the desire to step in front of the pre-determined canon, to show students what’s coming over the border, and to let them cock their ears to the voices of their own historical moment, post-Neruda. From El Salvador, there are a couple books available, Claribel Alegria and Alfonso Quijada Urias, both published by Curbstone Press. Our execrable foreign policy in the 1980’s brought those books over by focusing our attention on El Salvador. From Argentina, there’s something by Mercedes Roffé coming out from Shearsman Books, which is like an international heritage press of compelling poetry. Belladonna just published Mauve Sea-Orchids by Lila Zemborain. But I went with Princeton University Press’s edition of Maria Negroni’s prose poems, Night Journey. Negroni, Zemborain, and Roffé are terrific poets AND they happen, all three, to live in New York where they come into contact with translators. There’s a terrific translation, from Junction Press, of the Cuban poet Jose Kozer translated by Mark Weiss. In the time honored tradition of friends turning on friends, Mark amigo Jason Weiss suggested that Kozer would be a great project for Mark, and Mark bit. From Mexico, there are more choices than from anywhere else; I went with Laura Solorzano’s Lip Wolf from Action Books. Solorzano hasn’t been to the U.S. and isn’t even well known in Mexico, but her translator, Jen Hofer, living in Mexico at the time, discovered her manuscript by sheer inspired attentiveness and the risk-taking Action Books brought it into print. There are several choices from Chile. Port Trakl, Daniel Borzutzky’s new translation of Jaime Luis Huenun, also from Action, wasn’t out yet. Paradise, a book by Raul Zurita, the poet who famously sky-wrote poems over New York City in the 1980’s, is more than thirty years old. I chose Cecilia Vicuna’s Instan from Kelsey Street. Vicuna has an international reputation; she travels and performs widely; and she, like the three Argentine poets, lives in the US.

It may be I missed things, but from the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America: Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay, I could find nothing in print in English by a living poet. For many of those countries, no poet, living, dead or in between, has had a book translated into English.

So the lessons for a Latin America writer who hopes to be translated in the U.S. are:

1. Move to Mexico or, barring that, to Chile.

2. Join a leftist revolution that stirs the United States into acting out reprehensible subversive paramilitary operations against your country (though this still isn’t guaranteed to give you a translator) or

3. Establish a reputation in your home country and then make yourself present to an American audience by living in or frequently visiting the United States. To this end, The International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, now run by Chris Merrill, does a tremendous service by hosting talented writers of all ages from all over the world for extended periods. Brown University is also well-known for its internationally-oriented reading series.

The one thing worse than being lost in translation is being lost to translation.

Even mistranslation is better than none at all. Mistranslations have, in fact, provoked important literary movements. As you may remember, the supposedly newly discovered poems of third-century warrior-poet Ossian—in translations forged by Scot prankster-poet James MacPherson and then really translated into German—fueled Johann von Herder’s Romantic re-conception of German poetics in the 18th century.

And like von Herder, American poet Ezra Pound helped launch a literary movement stimulated, in part, by translations based on a mistaken interpretation of the nature of the Chinese writing system.

As a translator myself, I approach the self-obliterating work with trepidation. All the more so because my own language rides a history of military and economic conquests that have deprived other cultures of their indigenous languages.

I may hope my own translations are less colonial raids than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power, but I know they are both.

Nevertheless, I’d suggest that translations undercut the presumed self-sufficiency, and the nationalism and jingoism it can encourage, of a native tongue. When we recognize that there’s no literary absolute, no language that is not an approximation limited by cultural restraints, we know for sure that ours is only one language among others. The ethical gesture of inviting the word of the other into our own understanding is the most elemental precondition for communication between individuals.

We might go so far as to say that one form of totalitarianism is the stuffing of expression into a single, standardized language that marches the reader toward some presumptively shared goal. If our country’s self-assurance, its reliance on a grammar of linearity and commerce, its obsessive valuation of measurement and scientific objectivity brackets-off realms of perception, of possibility and difference, then translation offers refreshment. It shifts our perspective and realigns our relation to the world, bringing us into proximity with others. It can draw us across that most guarded border, the one we build around ourselves.

* * *

In the last few years, spearheaded by writer/translators (of particular importance to me) like Ammiel Alcalay, Peter Cole, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Monica de la Torre, a wealth of literature in translation has altered what writers are writing and what readers are reading in the United States.

I’d guess that translations of contemporary French poetry have had the greatest impact on our poetry in the last twenty years, and books by Lisa Lubasch (Twenty-One After Days), Marcella Durand (Western Capital Rhapsodies), and Laura Mullen (Subject), among others, make the case. But the spectrum’s incredibly wide. John Ashbery lifts a Finnish form for his own “Finnish Rhapsody.” Serial poems by Charles Bernstein take their cue from Zukofsky’s Catullus. Slovenian Tomaz Salamun’s translated work is the catalyst for John Bradley’s War on Words. Prageeta Sharma’s Infamous Landscapes reveals her infatuation with Korean Kim Hyesoon, and Brenda Hillman’s “water” poems are nourished by Hans Favery, a Surinam-born poet who wrote in Dutch. It was Guy Davenport’s Greek translations that inspired Kent Johnson to write The Miseries of Poetry and Sappho translations affected the form and tone of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work. In his book O Wheel, Peter Sacks acknowledges the influence of translations of Medieval Hebrew poet Shmuel HaNagid. Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs is marked by her reading of Alphabet by Danish writer Inger Christensen. Both Paul Hoover’s Poems in Spanish and George Kalamaras’ Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair are inspired by translations of Spanish language poetry; so are recent poems by Stephen Burt and Susan Briante. Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota is loosely modeled on Pushkin’s Onegin. And Gerald Stern is one of several poets to record his encounter with translations of poems by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet. Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, Greek, Slovenian, Korean, Danish, Latin, Finnish, French.

And presses and magazines are making it happen. Princeton University Press, University of California, now Yale, Graywolf, Shearsman, and Copper Canyon have all launched poetry translation series. Ibis Editions publishes translations from Hebrew and Arabic. The wonderful Archipelago Press publishes only translations. Zephyr Press focuses on Russian and Chinese literature. Ugly Duckling on European work. New Directions continues to publish major books in translation from various languages. The magazines Absinthe, Circumference, Mandorla, Two Lines and the Center for Translation in San Francisco are great advocates for cross-border reading.

We all know that translation takes place as part of a politics connected with the flow of power. Nevertheless, translation always involves some aspect of dialogue between self and stranger, and out of that dialogue, every self returns to itself enlarged.

Forrest Gander is the author of a dozen books, including the poetry collection Eye Against Eye and the forthcoming novel As a Friend, both published by New Directions. Besides editing an anthology of poetry by contemporary Mexican women called Mouth to Mouth, he has translated No Shelter by Pura Lopez Colome and Firefly Under the Tongue, the Selected Poems of Coral Bracho, forthcoming soon from New Directions. With Kent Johnson, he co-translated two books by Bolivian wunderkind Jaime Saenz, most recently The Night, published by Princeton University Press.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Freewayistas in Parkingland

Archipelago Books published Anne McLean’s translation of Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: a timeless voyage from Paris to Marseilles late last year, and some reviews followed, lauding the translation and taking note of Cortázar’s considerable accomplishments, which include the novel Hopscotch, ‘Blow-up,’ the story adapted by Antonioni for the film of the same name, and much besides. Cortázar is indispensible to the story of twentieth-century literature. As the publisher reminds us, Pablo Neruda said it best: “Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease, which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder. . .and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.”

Autonauts is a journal of Cortázar and Dunlop’s thirty-three-day voyage on the Paris-Marseilles freeway in 1982, a voyage they undertook as a sort of paradoxical challenge, something of an inverse adventure. On this inventure, all rest stops were visited and careful observation of roadside flora and fauna became the foundation for much writing, done in deck chairs (the ‘Florid Horrors’), on a manual Olympia, and so on. Photos accompany the text, so as you read, the sensation of riding and camping along the highway is accentuated, as it is by the mock-scientific reportage of the logbook entries detailing time, temperature, location, what was eaten for breakfast, in a sort of parodic homage to the sixteenth-century scientist/explorers who set out from the Old World to ‘discover’ the New.

The book is generous and unpretentious, its coy charm unusual in any literary atmosphere, and it is bound to be treasured in particular by those who know Cortázar’s work. But the particular impetus for this post was the blistering response by Calque to the weirdly flimsy review of Autonauts published in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a case study in poor reviewing and a contrasting example of the benefits of blogging, as the review-of-review is on Calque's webpage. (Speaking of blogs, somehow the New York Review of Books' recent piece on the blogosphere – an omnibus review of books on the subject – failed to take notice of the many worthwhile literary blogs; it’s as though the article itself falls prey to the traps purportedly inherent in blogging. Read it for yourself if you wish; it’s in NYRB 2.14.08, pp. 16-20). A glance around the reviewing landscape reveals that Autonauts has been well received, if not always exhaustively reviewed, by Quarterly Conversation, The Austin Chronicle, the LA Times, and Bookforum.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

One of those days/India journal by Austin Ryer

This bastard was trying to rip me off.
“150 rupee good price sir, very good price.”
Yeah, good price my ass.
“No way in hell, I got one just like this two days ago here for 100, I’m not paying 150 for this one.”
“Good price, best around.” This guy was relentless. I went to walk out the door; no DVD was worth 150 off the black market, even if in America that was roughly three dollars. But suddenly as I stepped through the door, the old man had a change in heart.
“Fine sir, 100, but no more; you’re my only white customer.”
Can’t say no to that.

I walked out into the street, but barely. Something that might have been a Harley Davidson roared by, almost clipping my arm with its rearview mirror. I watched it move down the road, barely missing two school kids still in uniform, a dog, and an old man fighting with a monkey for an apple.

“You know that guy used to be a Nazi?” I heard my friend, Ian, ask.
“What?” I wasn’t really paying attention.
“The guy you just bought that movie from.”
“He seemed nice enough to me,” I replied, but who was I to say? He just tried to steal my money. I found it hard to keep a conversation when instead you can watch monkeys take food from shops.
“Maybe he wasn’t a Nazi, but he had a Nazi flag up a while ago, probably why he gave you the discount. The whole blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan race thing”.
“I won’t judge him, I just got a discount.” The monkey had dropped the apple and scattered to the rooftops, where it was going hand over hand along the power lines like James Bond to rejoin its troop a few stores down. After the monkey had run off, the man with the fruit stand found his apple lying in a puddle on the ground a few meters away. Without hesitation he dried it off and put it back on the shelf.

We kept walking along the commercial section of the Bazaar, moving slowly because there was nowhere we had to be. We passed an elderly man sitting against a wall calmly behind a box advertising “BODY MASSAGE” in big letters with a hole on top for money. Farther in we saw a group of little kids armed with plastic soda bottles harassing a cow on the street, even though cows are sacred in that part of India. Eventually we hit a food market, a place known as Rom Chander’s, notorious for handing out cheap gum as change. I had nothing to buy, at least until I saw the fireworks now on the shelves. This was the weekend of Diwali, a national celebration of lights and something about good conquering evil. And so I found myself eyeing fireworks that were nothing like I had ever seen before. Essentially gunpowder wrapped in aluminum foil with a wick, I asked balding man behind the counter the price.

“The small ones there, 2 rupees each, and those big ones 5, my friend,” he told me.
I noticed on the side of the display were some circles of cardboard, with what might have been a wick sticking out the side. On top was a cheap drawing of some Goddess on a purple background.
“How about for those little circle things?” I asked.
“6 rupee, but for you I make them 4 each.”
I loved getting reduced prices. I grabbed a pack of six small yellow ones, a few big ones wrapped in green paper, and 3 of the circular ones. When the man handed me back 15 rupees, I told him to hold it and grabbed a few more of the small ones. He gave me a pack of gum and a “Lacto King” lollipop instead of making smaller change.

Back on the street, Ian and I began walking back towards dorms; it was almost time for check-in. Towards the edge of town we began talking about school; it was the first time either of us had thought about it since getting out the day earlier.
“Any French homework?” I asked him.
“Would you do it anyway?” he asked me back. We both knew the answer was no.
We were walking by an “English Wine Shop,” called English because the Indian wine shops sell stuff that can kill you. I made the mistake of looking as we passed. The man behind the counter interrupted us.
“Chilled beer for you? Very good, yes” the man asked. His best income was probably from foreign students like us; why wouldn’t he ask?
“No thanks, ji, out of money” we told him. Usually calling an annoying shopkeeper sir and claiming you were out of money got him off your back.
“You sure? Very cheap, very good, best in Mussourie! Nice and chilled, you will like!” Of course he didn’t believe we were out of money. We were rich, privileged, and ignorant white adolescents. At least that’s what most the street venders believed.
“No, no, maybe next time” we told him. Before he could reply again though, we kept walking.

Five minutes later, when it was dark and we were out of town, we lit off one of the big fireworks. We didn’t know what to expect, so we handled it like a stick of dynamite. And from the size of the explosion, it might as well have been. Because I lit it, and therefore was closest, I couldn’t hear out of my right ear until ten minutes later. We lit off a few more before finally returning to dorms.

Earlier in the semester, I had been a part of the Woodstock football team. We practiced about three times a week, and played in various friendly matches against other local teams. But none were important except for the ones played in the RIMC tournament. It had lasted a whole weekend and even into the next few days as we moved up in rank. It was hosted by a military school down in Dara Duhn, a city below the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and closest to our school. We drove in through the main gates onto an impressive campus, on a thin road that wound among green lawns and low buildings surrounded by neatly planted trees. Occasionally to prove that it was, indeed, a military school, the road would pass by an old helicopter or rocket.

The tournament began with a ceremony, but hardly so. The teams formed up, some in shirt and tie, others in uniforms, and they marched with legs straight and arms swinging as far as they could swing them. Somehow the other teams could do this in unison, but ours simply didn’t bother. At the end of the march, some politician said some words barely audible under his accent, and some balloons were almost released. Most got caught on someone’s arm and had to be cut after they spent a minute attempting to untangle them. Then the politician said something else, and I asked the guy next to me, a Bhutanese named Pasa, what he said.
“This tournament is now open,” he replied simply.

It rained that first game, the one following the opening ceremony. It rained to the point where our ankles were submerged in the water that had gathered on the field, and still we played. It rained until the other end of the field was static, and nothing was clear because of the water dripping into our eyes, and still the game continued. There were struggles in midfield where no one could see who was on their team and who wasn’t, and everyone fought for possession of the ball until finally someone emerged from the splashes of muddy water coughing and slipping, surprised to realize he had come out of the fray with the ball. This kind of thing lasted five minutes, or so it seemed, and it happened often because it could not be avoided.

Our coach, a short Indian man called Mr. John, was shouting the usual slander from the sidelines.
“Come on, work together, kick the ball!” I heard him screaming into the rain.
He had begun the game clad with a pink umbrella, a weak attempt to stop the weather, but by halftime had lost it as well as his shirt, running around the sidelines to yell advice to us.
“Look, I’m soaking wet too, stop feeling sorry for yourself and get into the damn game!” he shouted at anyone who could hear him.

We won that match, and would move on the next day to play again. That night, before returning to school, we celebrated by eating at McDonald’s. Inside, it seemed more formal than a McDonald’s should be. With two floors and employees who will clear your finished tray for you and then clean the table, it seemed as if the Indians had gotten the McDonald’s ideal wrong; maybe they actually believed it should be a real family restaurant. Among the crowds of Indian businessmen and schoolchildren, I looked at the menu. Divided into either “Veg” or “Non-Veg”, it consisted of either something with chicken or something with some sort of substitute for the vegetarians. And still I had a hard time deciding. I ended up with a Chicken Mexican Wrap, a piece of a chicken patty wrapped with something that might have been salsa, mayonnaise, lettuce, and carrots. I ate it quietly, and I had to wonder why they didn’t have anything that good in the McDonald’s back in America. We returned to the school later in a bus that barely fit all the whole team, but we were fine with it. We had won.