Sunday, August 17, 2008

Poems and Translations by Yvette Gottshall

Poems and translations from the German by Yvette Gottshall, an excellent poet we will be hearing more from. These are from her manuscript, The Damage Done To Certain Souls Is Proof.


The city on the hill makes for little light,
for all its claim of liberated bushels it gives
off little burning. The eight-hundred block
turning left off Seminary Drive smacks you
with the fried-chicken smell of the cotton
gins and mills over on Main. This smell
overhangs the 65 dollars-by-the-week
roomers across from Our Lady of Victory
School, settles on your shoulders as you
pass that Chinese vacuum repair and rental
place between the school’s empty dodgeball courts
and merry-go-round and the Gospel Truth
Mission. What is the truth? What is
the mission? Do you accept the poured out
fragrance of La Tortilla Ria, Tienda
and Restaurante, the Forty-Ten Club and
the yellow-eyed smokers gathered on its stoop?
What would you witness as you walk
quickly past the convenience store’s grilled
windows, the liquor stores, the check-cashing
storefronts. What will you give for the new
world smelting in the knocked out windows
and black crow rafters of the cotton-seed
mills and the barely up to code gins on Main?


I will gather my people into myself,
gather them into that coliseum cloud of witnesses.
I will be room enough for all of us,
and a room for each of us. I will be
the places of honor seating thousands
come to bear witness, come to cheer me on.
I will be the gladiator.
I will be the lion.
I will be the runner fleet of foot.
I will be, too, the one who falters,
the one who trips.
I will be the chariots and
the chariot’s wheels,
and the spoiling of enthrallment - calamity.
I will be the bread that is broken,
the good word spoken,
the banners of allegiances and alliances
blowing in the breeze and I will be the breeze.
I will be the dust the breeze stirs up,
the broken cup, the wheel, the potter and
the clay. I will be the fresh light of each new day.
I will be a few stars lost along Orion’s belt.
I will be the bruises and the welts
upon the bodies of the slaves
brought forth to be consumed for our little play.
I will be the slaves, the salve for which they pray,
the cells, and the doors and the doors’ lifting - Let
the offerings begin. Let us pray. I will be
the offerings, and the gods to be
appeased. I will be appeased.
I will be the banquet, and
the wine, and its lack, and I will
be the wine’s miraculous flowing
back. I will be the new wine in old skins –
and too, the new skins expanding to
encompass aromas -
unattainable, the grafting into the vine
to make a new line. I will be the chaff gathered
up and burned, the wheat that wisdom has learned
to gather and to store in the coming lean-cow years.
Sickly lean cows, seven will I be, and the fat cows -
seven will I be - the famine and the feast.
My people are crying. My people are laughing – their cups
are running over with wisdom-gathering, with dying.
Those virgins waiting in the darkness by the door?
I will be the virgins trimming their wicks, and I
will be the wicks. I will be the thorns
which prick the brow, and the vinegar
-soaked cloth to draw out the How,
the innate death, the spear piercing the side,
and the collapsing of the breath. I will be the cock
crowing thrice to deny all these things I will be.
I will be the table, and the dogs sprawling beneath
the table for the crumbs which are falling
from my people’s hands, I will be the one crawling
to touch the hems of holy garments, the one
who will be healed by my faith. I will
be the anointing, the anointed one.
I will not be healed; I will be dead.


Your mouth on mine.
I lost everything outlined.
Thousand small blooms
their cups opened
on my body.

You kissed me tenderly
and went.

Dry shame like a fire
stood red for me
on belly and chests.

(Translation of poem by Hilde Domin)


We have a bed, we have a child,
My wife!
We also have work - work for two,
and have the sun and rain and wind;
and we lack just one little thing
to be as free as the birds are:
only time.

When on Sundays we go through the fields,
My child,
and over the corn, far and wide,
the blue swallows can be seen darting,
Oh, then, we want not for slight clothes
to be as fine as the birds are:
only time.

Only time! We sense a thundering wind,
we people.
Just one small forever;
We lack nothing, my wife, my child,
but all that blossoms in us,
to be as bold as the birds are:
only time.

(Translation of a poem by Richard Dehmel)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Found in Translation: Alexis Romay on Miguel Correa Mujica

The following text accompanies Alexis Romay's translation of Miguel Correa Mujica's novel Al norte del infierno (North of Hell), forthcoming from Green Integer. This piece originally appeared in Passport: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation, issue 4.

In 2003, I was working as a Spanish-language editor, translator, and copywriter for a New York publishing house when I came across a copy of Al norte del infierno, Miguel Correa’s first novel. The book had had an amazing trajectory: in 1983, the manuscript had won the Jesus Castellanos Literary Award in Florida and was published by SIBI within a year, with an introduction by Reinaldo Arenas that any writer would have killed for. The broadcasting rights were immediately bought by a Miami radio station, and the chapters were read every week to an amused and clandestine Cuban audience back on the island.

Shortly thereafter, the book fell out of print, the publishing house kept the rights, and for eighteen slow years, the author, like Penelope, had to stop, learn to weave, and wait for his moment. Finally, in late 2001, after Correa had regained his publishing rights, Carlos Espinosa, a Cuban writer, editor, and scholar, offered to publish an edition of the original Spanish work.

And here you have, in two condensed paragraphs, a summary of two decades of tribulations for the Spanish edition of North of Hell.

I bought my copy of Al norte del infierno soon after meeting the author at a reading at Columbia University. It was July, 2003. At that point, La entrevista, Correa’s first play, had been performed on the radio in Argentina and on the stage at Rutgers University. The Firestone Library of Princeton University had purchased the original manuscript of Al norte del infierno for its magnificent archives. An excerpt of the novel had been published in a German anthology of Cuban literature, and the same excerpt had appeared in English in an American quarterly. However, throughout the years, Correa’s work remained systematically ignored and/or banned on the Island of Dr. No. (Although it has never been officially disclosed, the list of forbidden books in Cuba may have as many digits as your bank account.)

Until then, I had never translated a work into English, with the honorable exceptions of a couple of short stories and articles by my admired friend Enrique Del Risco. I had under my belt almost a dozen picture books translated into Spanish and would soon embark on translating, also into Spanish, Flight to Freedom, a novel by Cuban-American author Ana Veciana-Suarez. But I had never considered translating a major work into English, mainly because Spanish was my native language. I was frankly horrified by the mere thought of “reverse translation.”

And then I read Al norte del infierno.

My first reaction was that of complete shock: although the book had been published in 1984, it described my complete Cuban experience, and I had left the island in 1999! The novel was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, or rather, horrifyingly hilarious: It tickled my fear, my nostalgia, my sense of loss--of a place, a culture, a language--my permanent state of paranoia, and my personal exodus. The really scary part was that Al norte del infierno could also comprehend the gestalt of those who had fled the Socialist Tropical Paradise in the early sixties.
When I reviewed the re-edition of the novel for the New York Spanish-language newspaper Hoy, I wrote: “A healthy writer’s envy forces me to admit that this is the book, or one of the books, that I wish I had written” [translation mine]. I mentioned this factor--my familiarity with the content, that is--not only because I felt that I could have written Al norte del infierno, but actually because I (and, for that matter, anybody who had lived at least one year under the rule of He Who Mustn’t Be Named) had this book inside, knew this book before having read it. Correa’s novel was at once virus and antibody: something indelible, probably acquired through the Cuban water supply.

I was still a greenhorn when I first read Al norte del infierno: a displaced human being, a Cuban element surrounded by an overwhelming ocean of English-speaking editors and “book people.” As odd as it was for all parties involved, this was also mutually beneficial: I, Neanderthal-at-Large, would learn office politics from my colleagues and, in exchange, they would constantly bombard me with questions about my place of origin. Was I in contact with my family in Havana? Did we have nice beaches down there? Could I go back? Where did I stand in the case of the famous little rafter? Was I a rafter myself? Was I close to my relatives in Miami? Did I know a good recipe for black beans? Was I a defector? Was mint the secret twist to Mojitos? What would happen after the demise of Castro?

I would spend many hours and much energy trying to explain to my American friends and colleagues the many fallacies of the so-called Cuban Revolution until I realized that I had all the answers in my hand, in a delicate Spanish edition that was starting to fall apart from all the wear and tear. If only I could recommend to them that book.

The issue was, of course, that the book was in Spanish.

As a consequence of my constantly quoting from Al norte del infierno, a colleague dared me to translate the book into English. His suggestion came around the time I had finally coped with the fact that this novel had already been authored by Miguel Correa Mujica. (Some chutzpah!) I could not write something that had already been written. But I needed to have some kind of involvement with this book. So I decided to take the challenge. I approached Correa, told him of my fascination with his work, and asked him if he would allow me to translate his novel into English on speculation, in the hopes that we would find a publishing house for North of Hell. Once I had his approval, a minor issue arose: in order to embark on the translation, I had to convince myself that English was no longer my second language. That was an easy task. I lived in English; I worked in English; I spoke primarily in English. My communication with my wife, novelist Valerie Block, would take place a good eighty percent of the time in English. Spanish was my native language, no doubt, but at some point it had fallen to a secondary status.

The translation of Al norte del infierno occurred almost entirely during a daily rush-hour commute to New York City, facing industrial decay and the swampy reeds of the Meadowlands through a window of a train on the Boonton Line of New Jersey Transit. Every night I would return home with almost one vignette translated. As soon as I finished each chapter, I would share it with my wife, who would return the piece the same night with great recommendations for English usage, English equivalents, and, of course, with all the prepositions corrected. Correa would receive each new fragment by e-mail, fresh as a Boston lettuce, the next morning. He would comment when necessary, praise at all times, and call back at reasonable hours with an enormous wave of gratitude.

Translating his novel took as long as it took. And that was the relatively easy, enjoyable part. The tough job was finding a house interested in publishing a literary translation of a novel that followed no traditional narrative pattern.

I submitted the work to eight publishing houses, large and small, throughout the USA. In less than a year, we received two lovely rejection letters, were monumentally ignored by four houses, and had two publishers interested in North of Hell: David Landau, from Pureplay Press--who ended up buying the rights for Correa’s second novel, both in Spanish and English, as well as for my bilingual book of poetry--and Douglas Messerli, from Green Integer, who took the deal home for North of Hell.

And here you have, in just a few pages, a summary of two years of tribulations for the English edition of Al norte del infierno.

It is common knowledge that there are always things that get lost in translation. I must add that, in this, my case, quite literally (and literarily) some things have been gained, mainly to my advantage. With the advent of this new English edition, Al norte del infierno, North of Hell, my dear friend Miguel Correa Mujica and I will be, once and for all, bound in translation.


Correa Mujica, Miguel. “A Decent Woman.” Trans. Judith C. Faerron. Caribbean Review 12.3 (1983): 30-31.
-----. Al norte del infierno. 2nd ed. Cincinnati: Término, 2002.
-----. Al norte del infierno. Miami: SIBI, 1984.
-----. “Eine anständige Frau.” Trans. Christiane Friedl Zapata. Geschichten aus der Geschichte Kubas. Ed. J. A. Friedl Zapata. Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1990. 183-87.
-----. Furia del discurso humano. Los Angeles: Pureplay, 2006.
-----. North of Hell. Trans. Alexis Romay. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006.

Romay, Alexis. Ciudad de invertebrados / City of invertebrates. Trans. David Landau. Los Angeles: Pureplay, 2006.
-----. Rev. of Al norte del infierno, by Miguel Correa Mujica. Vida Hoy 14 Nov. 2003: 9.

Veciana-Suarez, Ana. Vuelo a la libertad. Trans. Alexis Romay. New York: Scholastic, 2004.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reading on South Silk Road

I was in Montclair, New Jersey last Wednesday to read translations alongside host and fellow-translator Alexis Romay. The event was at the teahouse Cha Ma Gu Dao, well worth the visit if you’re in the area – and there is now the reading series, hosted by Alexis and his wife, the writer Valerie Block, with readings every Wednesday evening. Many thanks to our lovely and gracious hosts, who accommodated our unruly caravan in style and with unflappable charm. Stay tuned for some of what Alexis read, from his translation of Miguel Correa Mujica’s North of Hell (Al norte del infierno), which is set to be published by Green Integer. Here’s something I read, from my translation in progress of the volume The Arsonist (L’Incendiario, 1910) by Aldo Palazzeschi (1885-1974).

The Festival of the Dead

The poets sing
this festival day:
each one the same way,
whether the day’s black or gray.
(But you can surely sing
an entirely different way.)
They say it never rains
but pours,
that everything flowers from mud
in a spring of muddy spray.
The same foolish old sayings
of the same old folks!
And yet today, it’s not raining,
a glorious sun shines;
the wind brings us its finest.
Black thoughts?
Come find release
in the cemetery.

You can enter, come in,
everybody forward,
the gates are open wide,
even to those with no one to mourn!
Everyone can come
and wander as they wish;
a poet too can certainly mingle
to his heart’s content.
The usual jesters’ shacks
stand outside the gate −
the social class that has the goal,
more so even than the astronomers,
of making men aware
that the world turns.
Monkeys dress as ballerinas
or in military uniform;
one walks off arm in arm
with a little sergeant,
another tries to pull
a corporal into a room;
one dressed as a maid
is busy with the cleaning,
a captain slaps
a petrified private.
Women yell themselves hoarse
about some scientific miracle,
the latest scientific revelation
within reach of the common man,
odd bodies, psychological freaks!
And the well-intentioned fairgoers
stand speechless before them.
Horns, cymbals, tin pans,
everyone shouts like mad:
it’s the festival of the dead!
And the homemade pastry, unforgettable pastry
everyone’s waiting for,
the hot roasted birds
they did not neglect to castrate.

In the taverns they’re playing guitar,
they’re singing songs of the country,
the latest folk tune
or Neapolitan romance.

They hang bleeding at the butcher’s,
the phenomenal, superb fresh hams,
those of All Saints’ Day,
that have already felt the first frost of the dead.
And on the counters, in stacks,
or sinuously linked,
miles of sausage
that seem the heaped diseased intestines
of all the dead.
The deli owners have hung
the new salamini, cotechini,
zamponi, mortadelle;
and an appetizing aroma
of hare and pappardelle
issues right into the street.
Everyone lurches to the feast
and eats till they burst.

The mounted Carabinieri
with their feathered red hats
proudly take up their positions
amidst the heedless throng of fairgoers.

You can go to the cemeteries
with flowers or without,
but even the most insufferable,
remotest relative
can expect a flower on that day
from his kin.

The dead aren’t all the same,
as some believe,
and above all, they’re not mute –
those in the cemeteries at least
are shameless gossips.
On the marbled skin of their faces,
far better than on those of the living,
their character’s features
are clearly revealed.
“Here lies
a man of rare virtue:
Telemaco Pessuto,
fifty-three years of age,
exemplary husband and father.”
If we’d encountered you alive,
who’d have known?

Everyone wanders around, reading,
more or less in a rush,
some sounding out the words.
Don’t you know that what
you’re so blandly reading
are the faces of the dead?
That all those sweet expressions
are the looks on their faces?

Oh! Curious coincidence!
“Celestina Verità
ninety-seven years of age”
and alongside:
three years of age
of the Del Re.”
Strange coincidence!
Which of you two forced your destiny?
Each of you were meant to reach a hundred,
yet, Peppino Del Re,
Celestina Verità,
against your will
you made such brief society
of your lives?
Was it Peppino who came to you, o Celestina,
and unexpectedly took from you
three years of your life?

Or did you, Peppino, at birth,
find your years
already virtually spent
by Celestina?
One of you is the parasite
of the other.

What little space the dead occupy,
far less than seems natural.
And some of you were sole owners
of some plot of land
that had always seemed so tiny!
Those high walls
with all those heads packed in tightly,
no room to budge,
seem the walls of a loggia
for an exceptional emissary.
And everyone wanders around indifferently,
chomping on hot roasted game,
sucking on sweets or mints,
reading distractedly, hypocritically,
the doggerel of those poor souls.
Clever men,
who always walk amongst the living,
and can’t wait for the moment
to walk amongst the dead.
The living have such faces,
so expressive, yet mute,
even a scoundrel’s
can appear sympathetic;
but the faces of the dead
are full of excellent information.
If you meet a thoughtful lad in the street,
how can you tell if he’s virtuous?

At the highest point of the cemetery,
atop a great platform
built for the occasion,
they’re putting the skulls up for auction.
They press around
in the hundreds,
fixed on the athletic auctioneer
who yells himself hoarse, at the top of his voice.
Cops are everywhere.
– Four!
– Five!
– Eight!
– Ten!
– Fifteen bucks!
The first ones sell like hot cakes!
− Think about it, gentlemen!
The impatient ones pay even more
than a buck per skull.
Many wait for competition to die down
and the price to fall.
– Four!
– Six!
– Eight!
Bathed in tears,
a young newlywed
clasps her husband’s arm:
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet! the young man says to her.
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet silly,
toward evening they’ll be giving them away for nothing.
– Ten!
– Eleven!
– Twelve!
– Think about it, gentlemen!
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet I said,
can’t you see it’s a crummy old skull?
– Buy me that skull.
– If you’re not quiet we’re leaving.
– That could be the skull of my own mother.
– What’re you talking about!
– What happened down below?
– The cops are on the run!
– Where are all those people running to?
– They’ve arrested that dwarf
who was selling those second-hand skulls.
And along the roads,
the winding country lanes,
in a pretty sunset full of smoke,
of violets and flame,
the people happily return
from the cemetery.
And every good devil
makes off with a skull under his arm.

(Thanks to the editors of the journal Calque for publishing this translation in their issue #4.)