Stuck in traffic in the cab from the train station to our new apartment in Aix-en-provence, France last May, my wife pointed out the window, laughing. Next to us, in a diminutive, early-nineties Renault was a young man shifting from first to second as the traffic picked up, his eyes never leaving the novel he was holding with the hand that rested on the steering wheel.
I’ve now been in Aix—a small but culturally rich city about a half hour north of Marseille—for nine months, and I’ve seen three reading drivers. One of them was even packing and lighting a pipe at the same time (the French are still quite committed to smoking).
As much as San Francisco is a "wired" city, where on the sidewalks, BART, and in cafés, screens dominate, Aix is a city of books, and representative of a larger reading culture that seems much more engaged and diverse than the U.S.’s. The cafés are full of readers (and not an e-reader in sight); bookstores not only have more work in translation, they usually have small sections of literature actually in other languages.
I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time this year, and had many (many) meetings with European publishers. The dominant feeling I got from them was that the U.S., while a valuable market purely for its size, is not nearly as important for their books as sales in other parts of Europe. Sample translations were made in German or French more often than in English. Europeans read American authors, much more than Americans read European authors, but I really think that’s a symptom of the Europeans just reading more.
America’s showing at Frankfurt is abysmal compared to the lavish and beautiful displays from countries from all over the world. Some of that is because we don’t have a centralized governmental organization that is putting money and effort into disseminating our books, but some of it, I think, is just malaise.
In our small community of translators, publishers, and readers of international literature, we complain about how little translated literature is getting into the United States. It’s interesting to see, though, the relative indifference our government and larger publishing houses have in exporting American work abroad—there seems to be an assumption that American cultural dominance will continue. That “exceptionalism” is seen to the world, more and more I fear, as provincialism.
I’m not advocating that we read while we drive, certainly. But I wonder whether, if we continue to ignore the importance of this huge conversation about literature throughout the world that we’re not really a part of, we’re going to realize, perhaps too late, we are not on the inside letting those we want in, but actually on the outside without an invitation.
Last week’s post mentioned a poem by Nicaraguan poet Daisy Zamora that Poetry Inside Out students were translating. We wanted to share the original poem and a student translation to give you a sense of the poems that Poetry Inside Out students study, debate, and translate every day.
Our students are incredibly diverse: more than half are immigrants themselves, and many speak a language other than English at home. The poems they study come from more than 20 languages and countries, intentionally chosen to reflect their own cultural heritage and experience.
Zamora is a Nicaraguan poet who grew up under the Somoza dictatorship and was a participant in the Nicaraguan Revolution during the1970s. Because of her activism she was exiled, but continued to fight for the cause from abroad. After the revolution she became Nicaragua’s Deputy Minister of Culture. Zamora's poetry focuses on the human rights of women, children and the poor.
Se despierta extrañada
desconociendo el cuarto.
¿Adónde se fue el padre,
dónde la madre
que hace un momento apenas
Se levanta y suspira.
Este cuarto extranjero
y la luz indiferente
de una mañana cualquiera
que la hiere.
Desde la calle
los ruidos de la vida entran.
Y el suelo queda estrujado
como un pañuelo.
The translation by 5th grade Poetry Inside Out students:
She wakes up banished
in an unfamiliar room.
Where did her father go,
where is her mother?
Barely a moment ago they were
She stands up and exhales.
This foreign room
and indifferent light
of an ordinary morning
From the street
the noises of life enter.
And the floor stays all wrung out
like a handkerchief.
Poetry Inside Out is taught by teaching artists who lead lessons during the school day, and by classroom teachers who integrate the program into daily language arts instruction. We recently asked current Poetry Inside Out instructors to share some of their most memorable classroom moments. Instructor Tai Rockett is a poet who has taught Spanish and media and performance arts in Oakland schools and has worked with youth in communities in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. She says “my deep love of storytelling and my own empowerment has encouraged me to teach poetry and literary arts to youth.”
Group work is what I love most about bringing Poetry Inside Out into the classroom. When I go into a class, I have a general idea of what I want to happen. Group work brings that plan alive. But I could not plan the authentic connections students make with each other about the works they translate.
The truth is, group work is messy. Sometimes I see students cringe when I first tell them to get into groups. It takes a lot of planning and training, but the end result always outdoes what I had in mind.
One student in my fall classroom in Oakland’s Emerson Elementary School shared her family's immigration story with her group after translating the poem “Inmigrante” by Daisy Zamora. She told me the next session that so many students came up to her with follow up questions. She exclaimed, "I didn't even think that story was so important! My parents are always so happy, I never knew how hard it was for them. When I told them what Daisy Zamora wrote, they told me about other experiences immigrants have."
That lesson sparked a deeper interest in translating poetry. And I could tell that the students were beginning to really listen to each other. I could see this by walking around and sitting in on some of their conversations. When students shared with the entire class, they now shared what their group members said in addition to their own thoughts.
As the sessions went on, we decided to focus on individual skills they had to offer their groups. The mood around group work shifted drastically when the students decided to present a showcase of their work for the closing of the Poetry Inside Out session. Students chose their own groups for the event and decided on leadership roles based on their skills. They took pride in their roles. One student was chosen as the head choreographer because he was really good at coming up with moves. In the final showcase he was placed at the center. The group decided on this together, explaining that he was the smallest and the best.
Through group work I witnessed students see their own voices and the voices of their peers as integral to learning and experiencing the joys of poetry translation. When we first started, many students pleaded to work by themselves. Towards the middle of our unit students couldn't wait to take the poem to another student. My favorite thing to hear a student ask another student is what do you think?
The most inspiring part was that even though we messed up (a lot) along the way, students were able to see the progression. We would have a not-so-good class one session and I would come back the next session cheering them on. I would say, "We have another chance to try our best." They were able to see how we were getting better. I learned so much: that students want the chance to try out new ways of learning, and they want to feel safe enough to not get it right the first few times. Most importantly, they need to hear how they are getting better, even if they still have a ways to go.
On Wednesday, January 28th, 3rd and 4th grade students from Emerson Elementary School in North Oakland took the stage to showcase their poems and translations in front of an audience of teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians, and fellow students. The event marked the end of the fall Poetry Inside Out program at Emerson. Poetry Inside Out instructor Tai Rockett served as the master of ceremonies.
In their classes this fall students read and translated poems by haiku masters Matsuo Basho and Mizuta Masahide. One group of 3rd graders eagerly took the stage to act out Basho’s 17-syllable poem about a frog hopping into a pond. Another group recited a Masahide poem in its original Japanese with accompanying stomps and gestures. Tai Rockett said that the students were drawn to the biography of Masahide, who was a samurai as well as a poet. They decided to incorporate samurai techniques into their choreography of his poem in order to capture the poet’s culture and identity (check out the video to see their samurai moves).
Over the course of the presentation students came up to share “Who Am I?” haikus, giving out clues to a flurry of eager hands as their classmates tried to guess the names of the animals that were described. Instead of merely adhering to the haiku’s strict syllable count, several students added similes and metaphors to their poems, playing with language like the great poets they had read and translated.
“After our lesson I continued to use metaphors and similes with the class and have them point out when I did,” Tai told me. “I’d be shooting hoops with the kids during recess, and I’d say ‘Wow, you are quick like a cheetah on the court’ and things like that. Students would chime in, ‘Simile, simile!'"
"If you want the students to feel comfortable using metaphors and similes the lesson has to continue outside the classroom.”
Although some of the students performed alone, most of the presentations were collaborative, reflecting Poetry Inside Out’s emphasis on group work.
Many of the students said they connected personally to the stories they uncovered through translation, including that of Daisy Zamora, the Nicaraguan poet who was exiled from her country before immigrating to San Francisco.
“She looks like me,” one fifth-grader proudly told me, her classmates nodding along.
With these stories in mind, and in conjunction with their unit on Martin Luther King Jr. this month, the students wrote longer poems and, of course, haikus (their favorites!) on justice, freedom, and peace. “Justice is water,” as they put it.
Students received copies of the Poetry Inside Out creative writing workbook at the showcase.
The debut of Two Lines 21 this last fall marked our 21st issue as well as the beginning of our 21st year. The idea that reaching the age of 21 marks the entry into adulthood harkens back to English common law when a man could enter the knighthood — and of course this milestone was only relevant to men, and men of a certain class.
But 21 has been very good to women at Two Lines. In addition to the numerous impressive women translators in our pages (as always!), I'll draw attention to two fascinating women writers we feature in Two Lines 21. Chika Sagawa, the pen name of Aiko Kawasaki, was born in 1911 in Hokkaido, Japan. One of Japan's first female Modernist poets — as well as a prolific translator of Joyce and Woolf during her brief lifetime — her strange and vivid poems were posthumously collected in 1936, but only now brought to English by Sawako Nakayasu. Unlike Sagawa, the award-winning dystopic writer Hon Lai Chu has lived to see her work published widely; the award-winning Hong Kong writer has twice had her novels counted among the 10 best Chinese novels. Here translator Andrea Lingenfelter brings to English “Lin Mu yizi” (“Forrest Woods, Chair”), the story of a man who aspires to be the perfect chair. It is a strange world we live in.
2014 was a great year for books by women at Two Lines Press, too, where we had the opportunity to publish the astounding Naja Marie Aidt, whose stories in Baboon evoke the dark forces lurking in our everyday existence — and Marie NDiaye, whose Self-Portrait in Green proves her mastery of the slippery and unreliable nature of reality. (read excerpts of Baboon and Self-Portrait in Green here)
But there is only so much one can do to rectify the mistakes and crimes of history; most of the poetry anthologies published in Italy, for instance, include no more than 10% women. At the 2014 American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, a prominent editor of poetry from Latin America told me that he struggled to find enough poetry by women from certain nations to balance his anthology.
Then again, this week we learned that Lydia Davis (whose translations will be featured again in Two Lines 22 this March) has been named Officer and Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters for her writing and translation. (That's right: she's been granted knighthood.)
All of this is to say: we strive to honor the vision of women writers of the past. And to you women writers and translators of the present: keep it up! We need you.
In case you missed it after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, today is Giving Tuesday. Created just three years ago as a way to counteract the growing commercialism of the holidays, it’s a great way to give back to the more than 10,000 non-profits (like us!) that are working to solve problems and enrich our lives.
Please join us—-here are 3 ways to give back:
1. Give Time
Many non-profits are understaffed and need volunteers to deliver vital services. But many others (like ours) are always looking for board members and can benefit from business or technical expertise in the legal, financial, or organizational development areas. Contact us for more information about getting involved.
2. Give Money
Non-profits depend on the many supporters who provide the resources for us to do our work. Any donation you make is an investment that pays huge dividends—instead of just a financial return, you’ll know that you’ve played a part in making a better future. For us, that means building a vibrant literary center that will connect local and international audiences for literature in translation. And bringing poetry and translation to younger generations. Your gift today gets us closer to that goal.
3. Share Your Story or an Unselfie!
Why do YOU support the Center, or your other favorite non-profits?
Maybe you share our conviction that great literature changes lives.
Maybe you’re passionate about the transformative potential of arts education.
Or you’re a fan of literary events with international writers and translators.
Whatever your cause or your reason, tell us! You can post your comments on our Facebook page or Twitter (@CAtranslation), and share an “unselfie”—a photo with your favorite book in translation or a message about why you support the Center.
Happy Giving Tuesday!
Funding for arts education in California is among the lowest of all 50 states--despite the fact that having arts in schools keeps students engaged and learning. But many cities, including San Francisco, have come up with solutions to make sure that all students have access to arts activities. Because of what we have witnessed in Poetry Inside Out classrooms when kids are exposed to creative lessons, we strongly support the renewal of Proposition C on the November 4 ballot. Read on to learn more about what Prop C means for the city. If you're a San Francisco voter, we hope you'll join us!
In 2004 San Francisco voters approved the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF) to provide funding to improve the quality of education for San Francisco’s children. The Fund provides sports, libraries, arts, music, health services in schools, gives families access to preschool, and supports hundreds of local community organizations in every neighborhood in the city. On November 4th voters will be asked to renew this measure by voting yes on Proposition C. A Yes vote will guarantee funding for PEEF for the next 25 years – without any increase in taxes.
PEEF has impacted the lives of thousands of students and their families across the city:
Learn more about this important measure and vote Yes on C this Tuesday.
Next week, our very own Scott Esposito will host a conversation between Edouard Levé’s translators Lorin Stein and Jan Steyn as part of the Two Voices event series.
Associate Editor Marthine Satris looked at the connections between Levé and experimental French writer Georges Perec—a member of the surrealist Oulipo movement in the 1970s—and has written a great piece over on the Two Lines Press blog.
Here are some of her thoughts of Levé’s Autoportrait (one of the works they'll discuss Nov. 5):
If Perec turned the reader outwards, toward only observable facts, Levé brings us in. One reads on, eager to find out what the author will reveal next.
Written in French in 2005, Autoportrait seems in some ways of our current confessional moment, rather than against it or apart. The personal essay dominates forms of expression now, at least in American print media, and like the writers of The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column or Lena Dunham’s Hannah on Girls, Levé turns himself inside out for us. Less estranging than Perec’s lists, which camouflage the writer in his surroundings, Levé nonetheless refuses to come to any conclusions about his life. He doesn’t organize it for us, or pare it down to a narrative that shows how everything led him to his current, fated moment. His raw emotion lacks all self-pity, which fascinates the reader even more—it’s like we, author and reader, are both studying the puzzle that is Levé. The Levé who writes, “Often I think I know nothing about myself,” yet fearlessly, shamelessly expose his fears, weaknesses, and limitations. Like Perec, Levé includes both the mundane details of life and the more “important” ones, but instead of wars and commercials, Levé balances confession and observation—and yet the confessions do not differ in tone from the observations, as in this moving, matter-of-fact, funny confrontation with his suicidal tendencies, and his musing social awkwardness:
‘In my periods of depression, I visualize a funeral after I kill myself, there are lots of friends there, lots of sadness and beauty, the event is so moving that it makes me want to live through it, so it makes me want to live. I don’t know how to leave naturally.’”
Satris writes: I thought I’d get bored reading this stranger’s look inwards. Yet I wasn’t. I felt like I’d been trusted with his tremulous life, and recognized a common human experience in how he wrote it down.
You can read the post, and don’t miss the event!
It’s all happening Wednesday, November 5, at The Lab
2948 16th Street, San Francisco
FREE (cash bar and copies of Levé’s books for sale)
Over on the Two Lines Press blog, we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about our newest title, Baboon, by Danish author Naja Marie Aidt. We’re incredibly excited about the book (set for official release October 14, but you can pre-order it now), and especially eager to share the news of Aidt’s recent 6-city U.S. book tour.
Baboon was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2008—very unusual for a set of short stories, and a testament to the power of the writing—and Denise Newman has made a masterful translation. In an interview with SFWeekly, Aidt talks about the translation process:
“I’m grateful that Denise wanted to involve me in the process,” she said. “Over years we’ve worked to transform the stories into English in a way that felt natural and kept the tone. For example, in Scandinavian it’s very common to have short sentences one after the other. But in English it looks weird. So we had to find a new rhythm for the stories.”
For an example of how her style of short sentences propels you through the book, check out “A Car Trip”.
LA Times book critic David Ulin calls the book “an explosive collection; strange things happen to the characters, leading to unlikely twists, through which the borders of reality blur.”
In a whirlwind weeklong book tour, Aidt started out at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 21, then hopped to Minneapolis, did two readings in the Bay Area, and finished in Seattle and Los Angeles.
On September 25, Aidt, Newman, and Esposito hosted a reading and conversation at The Booksmith in San Francisco. They talked about translating Naja’s prose; the unique aspects of the working relationship between Naja and Denise; why this book resonated so much with Danish readers (and why it was unusual that it won such major and prestigious awards); the unified aesthetic represented in the stories; Aidt’s influences as s short story writer; and more. We recorded the conversation, and you can listen to the full audio here.
If you would like to buy the book, you can order it for just $10. Or better yet, subscribe to Two Lines Press and have every title delivered to your door!
This week, September 14-20, is National Arts in Education Week. (We know we’re coming in at the tail end—we’ve been busy putting the final touches on next week’s author events for our new book, Baboon).
If you’re like 9 out of 10 Americans, you believe—like we do—that the arts are vital to a well-rounded education (thanks to the California Alliance for Arts Education for that fact and several more interesting stats).
You probably also agree that most students don't receive anywhere near enough (or any) arts instruction. Poetry Inside Out is changing that by integrating world poetry and translation into literacy instruction. No other literacy program that we know of combines poetry and translation to teach skills and spark imagination. Or allows kids the freedom to come up with their own ideas, not just the "right" answer
Our process sparks an amazing transformation in kids, as they realize that they can learn, create, and effectively express their ideas. Students have told us things like:
“Being exposed to new things, new words, new languages, different ways of thinking opened my eyes to see the world. I never imagined I could translate a poem from Mandarin into English, make it make sense, be a good poem, find the meaning behind all the characters and words.”
“In Poetry Inside Out I learned how to express my feelings and stand up for myself and it helps me write better."
You can come hear Poetry Inside Out students read their poetry at the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival, Saturday September 27 at Civic Center Park in Berkeley.
Want to do something else to show your support for arts education? Here are 3 easy ways:
1. Sign up for the Music March Out campaign supporting music education
2. Join “Start the Arts Week” to support the arts in schools, sponsored by the National PTA and PTAs around the country. Follow or post to #StarttheArts and @NationalPTA on Twitter.
3. If you’re a California taxpayer filing in October, you can make a donation to fund arts education through the Keep Arts in Schools Fund—just check the box on your return.