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.

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