(Keith Ekiss is Artistic Director of TWO LINES. His first collection of poems, Pima Road Notebook, will be published next year by New Issues Poetry and Prose.)
When translating closed form poetry, the formal elements (meter and rhyme) are often the first thing the translator abandons. It's common to read sonnets in translation, for example, that dispense with the rhyme and meter of the original. I'm no neo-formalist, but when a translator comes along who's able to convey not only the sense of the original, but an approximation (or recreation) of the rhythm and rhyme, I pay attention. George Szirtes, a prolific writer and translator born in Budapest, who has lived in Britain for most of his life, is that kind of poet.
This Day, Szirtes' translation of the Hungarian poet Anna Szabó's A mai nap, subtitled Wherever I lie is your bed, gives the new TWO LINES anthology it's title. It's a cinematic poem, jump cutting between scenes and years in the poet's life. We follow the writer as a seemingly casual search for a new apartment turns into uncertain panic and terror.
Fog everywhere: anxiety was a tight
cold sleepless night;
that's my life I thought and felt it glide
swiftly away but I wasn't part of the ride;
my life went on without me inside.
The form is important. The irregular, though pronounced, rhythm and the rhyme attempt to reign in, if only slightly, the poet's inner turmoil. To lose the form would decrease the tension. A quick glance to the left-hand side of the page, without knowing any Hungarian, confirms that Szirtes's translation preserves these patterns.
Szirtes's second translation, Dog (Kutya, in the Hungarian), is by the Budapest born Krisztina Tóth. In his introduction, Szirtes describes Tóth as writing love poems with a [ ] disillusioned bitter, haunted edge to them. The poem bears agonizing, protracted witness to a couple who come across a severely injured dog, one recently struck by a passing car, though not their own. The poem is unflinching in its description of the wounded animal's suffering, mouth wide open, it sat there, a half-dog / though I could tell from its eyes that it saw everything.
But it's the poem's second half where the tension increases, when it becomes clear that the man's hesitant refusal to save the dog stands in, from the poet's perspective, for the couple's broken relationship, with the constant fury / and resignation involved in even love-making, and the way / you asked me just what it was that I wanted you to do.
Szirtes is also an active blogger, whose posts are well worth reading.
(Adolfo Bioy Casares is certainly one of my favorite Latin American writers, and one that I feel is quite underappreciated in the U.S. So I was very pleased to see that Green Integer has just reissued Suzanne Jill Levine's translation of many of Bioy's stories. (Incidentally, Dalkey is also reissuing Levine's excellent book on translation, The Subversive Scribe.) I asked Levine to write a little about this collection and this is what she had to say.)
I gathered this selection of stories in collaboration with Bioy Casares himself, who first organized his short works in anthologies under two categories: Fantastic Tales and Love Stories. These stories are very Argentine in that Bioy, like his compatriots, was an inveterate traveler—always with that sensation of being far from the center, so faraway from Europe, especially Paris—hence several of them take place elsewhere, even if that elsewhere is across the delta, in Uruguay. From his famous Invention of Morel on, Bioy was a meticulous stylist. Less is more was the stoic tenor of his stories and novellas, though there is of course an ironic opacity in his understated approach. As translator, my task was to bring to life his quick humor, and to catch not the tiger by his tail but something just as elusive: the exact nuance or register of his language. He had a subtle ear for colloquial speech, and his narrators and characters tend to invite the reader's laughter unexpectedly, either because of wry depictions or because no matter how hard they seek dignity, their actions and utterances are buffoonish, in a Kafkaesque world where the individual hasn't a chance. A description of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's comic mode by Tom McCarthy (NYT, 12/21/2008) would serve well to depict Bioy's writing: Comic in . . . the sense in which . . . Bergson used the term . . . comedy entailed a tendency toward the mechanical. People, gestures and events become like automata. And yet, we sympathize and identify with these characters: they are us with all our pathos and absurdity.
Prize-winning Russian translator and steadfast TWO LINES supporter Marian Schwartz always seems to have an interesting new project on her hands. From her recent translations of classics like Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard or Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov to her forthcoming forays into Russian noir, detective, and train stories, Schwartz is consistently poised to introduce great Russian writing to English readers.
Schwartz has contributed several translations to TWO LINES over the years, including stories by Julia Nemirovskaya, Sergei Task, and Oleg Radzinsky, and she co-edited with Geoff Brock Power, the eleventh volume in the TWO LINES series, which includes some excellent translations from Eavan Boland, Donald Yates, and A.E. Stallings, among many others.
Schwartz's latest translation appears in a new anthology of Russian short fiction entitled Life Stories, which compiles short stories by nineteen of Russia's most acclaimed contemporary writers?all but one of the stories appearing in English for the first time. Hailed by Russian critics as the best of contemporary Russian fiction, the Russian edition of the anthology just came out in March of this year and is already topping Russian bestseller lists. For the anthology Schwartz translated a story by Leonid Yuzefovich, a biographer and novelist, whose historical thrillers are wildly popular and have even been adapted for television.
Life Stories is published by the same people as the new literary journal Chtenia:Readings from Russia, and all proceeds are being donated to benefit hospice care in Russia.
(We've been discussing Greek author Ersi Sotiropoulos, whose story Rain at the Construction Site appears in the Center's forthcoming anthology of translated literature. Here we present an interview with Karen Emmerich, who translated Rain, as well as a collection of Sotiropoulos' stories that will be available later this year.)
Scott Esposito: In your introduction to Rain you note that Sotiropoulos started writing as a poet. Though she now works in prose, she's trying to maintain her poetic roots and strip her prose down until nothing but the absolutely essential remains. I'd like to ask two questions based on this. The first is: To help readers get a little context, what are some other authors that you think write in a similarly spare style?
Karen Emmerich: It's always hard to answer questions that call for comparisons between authors—it's so much easier to say who Ersi isn't like, to describe what she doesn't do. But for some reason two authors come to mind: Amy Hempel and Nadine Gordimer. And perhaps Grace Paley, in a way. Or Flannery O'Connor. There must be some men out there, too. J. M. Coetzee, perhaps. Thematically they may have nothing in common, but they all seem to share a certain spareness of language: every word counts, and every word belongs where it is. You read and you have this sense that if you dared shift even a word, the whole edifice of the prose might come tumbling down.
But Ersi's writing is so different from all of theirs. In these stories specifically, plot often seems incidental, secondary to language and to image. It isn't poetic language, in the usual understanding of that phrase. It's often very flat, very bare-bones. And the stories sometimes seem like a series of still-lives, freeze frames that show a life or a relationship—from the most involved to the most tenuous—captured at a particular moment, in a particular (sometimes disturbing or estranging, but often tender and fragile) configuration.
SE: The second question is: What kind of challenges does this pose to you as the translator? In prose that has been this carefully worked, do you feel like you can adequately bring across things like rhythm and sound?
KE: It's enormously challenging as a translator—you don't feel the kind of freedom you sometimes do, with fiction writers for whom plot drives a piece. You have an added sense of responsibility. Not necessarily to rhythm and sound, in this case, but to phrasing. If every word belongs where it is, what do you do when all the words go away and you have to find new ones to take their place?
SE: Sotiropoulos's story is a somewhat elliptical tale centering around an unfinished road. It combines a feeling of the unseen—things we have come to trust as facts are continually undercut by new details that make them feel false—with elements of missed connections: a wife who might miss her divorce proceedings, a father failing to connect with his daughter. The story seems to be about how we move forward and create meaning in our lives despite the fog of life. Are these themes and concerns that are present throughout
KE: They are, yes. But I think they're far more general than that—isn't that what all fiction is about, in some sense? Even the need to write fiction, and to read it, seems wrapped up in that dance of meaning and fog you're talking about: we write and we read in order to create meaning, to move forward through the fog of life, to bring the structure of narrative into a potentially chaotic world.
This is a gross generalization, of course. And in terms of Ersi's work specifically, while the tension between an overwhelming meaninglessness and small daily acts of meaning is certainly a strain that runs throughout her many novels and collections of short stories, I think it's a particularly strong component of the stories we've included in Landscape with Dog. So much in them goes unsaid; so much of the dialog carries the weight of those unspoken thoughts or emotions; so many of the relationships are painful, mismatched, utterly real.
Perhaps I would say that these stories celebrate, in a way, how relationships persist, in spite of everything: nothing is ever right, or complete, no connection is ever really true—and yet we continue to make them, imperfect as they are.
SE: Lastly, Rain will be available in a forthcoming collection of Sotiropoulos's work that pulls together stories from two of her collections. What did you and Sotiropoulos take into consideration as you were pulling together stories for this?
KE: Mostly it was a combination of choosing our respective favorites, thinking about what stories would work well in English, and trying to create a collection that could hang together as a whole, since we were pulling stories from two Greek collections published a decade apart (plus one story too recent to have been included in either). Those two collections are actually quite different in nature: the earlier stories are much more narrative and tend to be longer and more involved, but the same threads are still there. Throughout the process, we also relied heavily on the wonderful instincts of our editor at Clockroot, Hilary Plum. She's one of the best around, and has a keen eye for what works and doesn't, for how certain stories might either compliment one another or clash. The process of putting this volume together was enormously collaborative, actually. Believe it or not, in the final stages, Ersi's dentist helped with the ordering of the stories; it's apparently something of a secret talent, and Ersi always asks her opinion when putting collections together.
On September 5, the Center will be co-sponsoring an event in Berkeley, CA, with PEN West. The event is open to the public, but seating is limited.
Chinese dissident poet Huang Xiang will be in conversation with translator Sandra M. Gilbert to discuss and read from their work. The event will run 2 hours, from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm.
The event will be at the home of Brenda Webster, President of PEN West, in the lovely Berkeley hills close to the UC campus. Seating is limited, so if you want to attend you should RSVP as soon as possible. RSVP by calling 510-548-2618 or by sending an email to Websterbrenda1 AT aol.com.
Following up last week's post by Ersi Sotiropoulos's English-language editor, here are links to a couple of her pieces available online:
Three Steps for Nunzio at SmokeLong Quarterly, translated by Kay Cicellis
Can Anybody Hear Me? at Words Without Borders, translated by Karen Emmerich
(In Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, we're anthologizing a story from Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos. She has a new collection of stories available in English translation this fall from Clockroot Books, and here Sotiropoulos's editor, Hilary Plum, discusses this interesting author. For more on Sotiropoulos see our audio with translator Karen Emmerich, in which she discusses the author and reads from her work.)
I fell into the extraordinary luck of editing the English translation of Ersi Sotiropoulos's novel Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees at the age of 24. So really I came of age as an adult reader and as an editor with Ersi's work, and I find I can't pretend to write about her in any objective, academic manner. But I suspect Ersi's writing would resist that approach from anyone. I imagine that if you started a proper paper about her—a paper with the beginning, middle, and end that Ersi dreads—you'd find yourself taking the dog for a walk, although he had been sleeping, or going out for cigarettes, although there were plenty in the drawer. Your night would end not having produced a well-thought-out analysis but having spent hours tending to some scarred-up but chafing memory, or looking vaguely for an old acquaintance better left alone.
This is how it is with Ersi's writing: the stories in Landscape with Dog start something like stories you know, adept in a vivid, punchy realism, and end somewhere much more upsetting. To steal her words from The Pinball King, it's like when you think you recognize a silhouette on the street and follow it for a few blocks, then turn down some other street without finding out who it was. This without-finding-out is a great summary of her work: it's not that she leaves you hanging, but that she makes you see how in fact you leave yourself hanging.
In Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees you drift along in the four characters' dark humor and lyrically rendered apathy, to realize later that you have been complicit in what could only properly be described as their amorality. Did there have to be quite so many spitting contests? one reviewer bemoaned of Zigzag. Yes, of course: Ersi's writing makes one dwell in just these interludes, these drawn-out meeting points of pleasure and disregard. How we like to watch the spit roll down the television screen, how many hours we waste in ways we'd never say. Ersi draws her characters with empathy and an eye for vibrant, even harsh detail; then leaves just enough space within and among them to devastate us. In this way her work becomes its singular combination of tender and voyeuristic: No, really, look, she says, and thrusts before our noses some perfect, biting line of dialog, some image of an Athens that, even if we've never been there, rings so true it sets our teeth on edge. It's hard to write about Ersi's work because it's as hard and as easy as saying, we see ourselves in it. And, more frighteningly, we are seen.
Hilary Plum is co-editor of Clockroot Books. She is a graduate of Amherst College and is an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Amherst.
Iran is a place that's been in the news a lot lately, and it's also a place that's been making a bigger and bigger mark on world literature. It must have been a high point of sorts when James Wood reviewed Censoring an Iranian Love Story in The New Yorker.
The Complete Review has a post today rounding up a lof of the recent and forthcoming literature from Iran. Well worth having a look at.
Following up on the coverage of Celia Dropkin we've had around here of late, here are two of her poems.
More of her work can be found in the books and journals Yerra Sugarman mentioned yesterday in our interview, as well in the volume of her selected poetry Sugarman is currently working on, and of course in our anthology, available for order right now and in bookstores later this year.
(Last week we published Yerra Sugarman's essay on the life and poetry of the Yiddish modernist Celia Dropkin. In this interview, Sugarman expands on the piece, noting Dropkin's similarities to Sylvia Plath and discussing the Dropkin poem we're publishing in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. Sugarman also discusses where readers can find more of Dropkin's verse in English translation.)
Scott Esposito: In your essay, you mention the blossoming of Yiddish-language writing in New York during the 1920s. What were some of the works that came out of these years, and are they available for readers in English translation?
Yerra Sugarman: The modernist group of Yiddish poets that came into prominence in the 1920s was called The Introspectivists (In Zikh in Yiddish, meaning, literally, Inside the Self). Significant poems were written by Jacob Stodolsky, Jacob Glatstein, or Glatshteyn, Celia Dropkin, N.B. Minkov, Aaron Glants-Leyeles, B. Alquit, Mikhl Likht, and by others, not directly associated with the group, such as H. Leyvik or Leivick, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Anna Margolin, and Mani Leyb. Margolin and Dropkin actually defied categorization, the latter only loosely associated with The Introspectivists.
Readers can find excellent translations of their work in anthologies, such as The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, edited by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk; American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav; Jewish American Literature (A Norton Anthology), edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein; and in A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.
Shirley Kumove recently translated a volume of Margolin's poems, titled Drunk from the Bitter Truth, published by the State University of New York Press in 2005. Other collections of poems by single authors, such as Jacob Glatstein, have been translated; many translations, however, are out-of-print, which is why some of the best sources for the important poems are anthologies.
SE: In your introduction in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, you mention that Dropkin has been compared to Plath. What are the common threads between the two poets, and do you find those comparisons legitimate?
YS: Although Plath's work is abundant with complex metaphors and imagery to an extent that Dropkin's is not, the comparisons between them are appropriate in that they were both groundbreaking in their transgressions, their struggle to bring together their sexual and emotional ardor with the demands made on them as a women, mothers, and poets composing a highly interior, personal poetry pivotal in its honesty about sex, love, motherhood and death. In so doing, they were not loath to express risky, brutal and disturbing feelings of rage, despair, darkness, and vengeance with venom, violence, wildness, theatricality and wit, boldly dealing with taboo subjects. They were audacious and unconventional in their creation of poetry that was completely unsentimental, but rather feverish, autobiographical, and shocking in its emotional intensity, rage and freedom, inwardness, depression, passion, obsession with death, conflict regarding life, self-destructiveness, gender friction, anger about women's vulnerability, sexual euphoria, eroticism, the longing of a woman's body, psychological complexity, and sensual imagination. They could both be playful while also dark and violent. The speaker in Dropkin's work negotiates tenuous borders between life, the solace she sometimes derives from her children, illicit love, and the allure of death. Of course, Plath's work was deeply invested in her feelings about death and love, and she also wrote about motherhood. Dropkin's poetry actually embarrassed some of the male critics writing at the time.
SE: In your essay, you write: If Dvorak wove the plaintive melodies of his homeland into his modernist music, and T. S. Eliot incorporated the speech of Cockneys in experimental poems, Celia Dropkin used Yiddish lullabies and children's rhymes to set a certain folk innocence and experience beside her modernist concerns with the experiences of a woman's body. This is apparent in your piece in Wherever I Lie—it starts with the hot wind of the title being compared to a mother singing hush, little baby and then ends with the wind submerged into an erotic dance of sin. Why do you think Dropkin juxtaposed these elements in her verse?
YS: There are a few reasons for Dropkin's juxtaposition of these elements in her verse—cultural and deeply personal. In the broader cultural sense, the editors of The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse note in their Introduction as follows: What we now think of as good 'literary' Yiddish . . . draws openly and eagerly from . . . immediate folk sources and imitates ordinary conversation. In this respect, Dropkin, along with maintaining her transgressive concerns as a woman, was achieving a juxtaposition that other modernist Yiddish poets were achieving in their own poetry in an attempt to transform the spoken and living Yiddish tongue into something new: a modern literary language linked, at the same time, to its use as a mother tongue spoken by millions of people around the world since the 10th century.
Also, women tended to receive their educations, at the time, in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew, so that they had a special attachment to the language, especially as mothers singing Yiddish lullabies to their children and learning in Yiddish what would traditionally be taught to men in Hebrew, the sacred language.
On a personal level, Dropkin was a mother saturated with guilt for her unconventional life. For this reason, as I mentioned earlier, Dropkin's work attempts to reconcile the delicate borders between life, the comfort she receives from her children, illicit love and the draw of death. This juxtaposition was true to her in her efforts to bridge her sexual passions with her role as a mother, perhaps a means of allaying and balancing her conscience.
SE: Why did Dropkin change from writing in Russian to Yiddish? How did this change her writing?
YS: When Dropkin arrived in New York, she began to write in Yiddish because she became involved in the Yiddish cultural groups in the city for which writing in it, and turning it into a contemporary literary language was a groundbreaking achievement. She was among the pioneers who transformed it. The poets in these groups chose Yiddish above Hebrew, for example, because they were immigrants whose mother tongue was Yiddish and were writing for an audience of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had been moving to the US in large numbers since the 1880s. From the nineteenth-century until World War II, Yiddish had been evolving as a language for modern literature. It underwent transformations because it was the daily, vital tongue of those immigrants, so that it was a living, spoken language as opposed to Hebrew, which was the sacred tongue, the loshn koydesh, whereas Yiddish was the quotidian language of the people, the mame-loshn, the mother tongue. As the editors of The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse point out in their excellent Introduction: Exalted, Hebrew remained comparatively unchanged over the centuries, deprived of that lively transforming power which a language [like Yiddish] in daily use can possess, while Yiddish underwent constant and profound changes in diction, usage, and pronunciation . . . and [it was important to the poets that they] draw upon the vitality of Yiddish common speech as employed in the various eastern European dialects of the language.
In terms of the effect that Dropkin's shift from writing in Russian to Yiddish had on her poetry, I imagine that it liberated her to create the audacious poems for which she is known, and allowed her an inventiveness with language and form that she might not have found possible in Russian. It also promoted, in her poetry, a conversational, quotidian diction and merging of Yiddish folk sources with a modernist sensibility. In other words, it enabled her to produce something entirely new and daring.
SE: Are you aware of any other books where readers can find more of Dropkin's work in English?
YS: Readers can find more of Dropkin's work in the anthologies I mentioned, among many others, as well as in literary journals, such as Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Poetry International and in online journals such as Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, and in The Drunken Boat. To the best of my knowledge, there are no translations in English of her collection, In the Hot Wind (In heysn vint), but I am working on translating a Selected volume of her poems at the moment.
(This essay is by translator Yerra Sugarman, whose translation of Celia Dropkin's poem In the Hot Wind appears in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. Here Sugarman discusses Dropkin's career as one of Yiddish's important poets.)
Approximately five years after immigrating to the United States in 1912, Ce... [more]
I didn't know that the late David Foster Wallace's immense novel, Infinite Jest, was not previously translated into German. The first German translation of the book, six years in the making, will be available to readers on August 24.
Paralleling the Infinite Summer phenomenon happening in Englis... [more]
Translator George Szirtes has two Hungarian poems in our forthcoming anthology. Over at the excellent Words Without Borders, he's just published a translation of El ultimo Lobo by Laszlo Krasznahorka. (Szirtes previous published Kransznahorka's The Melancholy of Resistance with New Directions, which... [more]Posted on August 10, 2009, 05:01:13 PM
In memory of Mahmoud Darwish's passing, The Guardian has this piece by the noted activist and author Raja Shehadeh, who was Darwish's neighbor in Ramallah. He discusses interviewing Darwish during the siege in 2002:
The opportunity to find out more about my neighbour came when we were both under... [more]
This Sunday will be the first anniversary of the death of legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. When he died last year, The Guardian hailed his poetry, saying he did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness.
This weekend, I'll definitely be reading some of this intri... [more]
In last year's anthology from the Center, translator Lawrence Venuti contributed two poems from his work with poet Ernest Farres, who writes in Catalan.
The translations were from a series of poems Farres wrote based on work of the American painter Edward Hopper, and Venuti's translations in Str... [more]