Two Words: The Blog of the Center for the Art of Translation

Translator Adam Giannelli on Poet Alejandra Pizarnik

Posted on October 31, 2011, 11:36:00 AM by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. This is the fifth and final, and it's with Adam Giannelli, who translated an excellent Argentine poet, Alejandra Pizarnik. (You can read more of Adam's translations of Pizarnik at TWO LINES Online.) Adam will also be at our NYC Counterfeits launch event with Luc Sante and a bunch more great people at McNally-Jackson on Nov 9. We're fortunate enough to have the event be part of The Bridge's fall lineup!

Scott Esposito: In TWO LINES we're publishing your translation of a long poem by Alejandra Pizarnik, and on TWO LINES ONLINE we're publishing a few more shorter poems. In your translator's introduction you note that Pizarnik is often compared to Sylvia Plath. Do you think those comparisons can stand up to scrutiny?

Adam Giannelli: Given the similar biographies and Plath’s popularity in Argentina, the comparison is often made, and perhaps too much of it has been made. Since both poets succumbed to similar fates, it’s tempting to read their work as a long suicide note. It’s true that both poets are lyrical and candid about their vulnerability. Pizarnik, however, is most known for her sparse voice, which transcends the particulars of her own life. Although Plath is broader in terms of imagery (it’s Plath who features a babushka in “Cut,” even though Pizarnik’s of Russian descent), some of Plath’s poems, such as “Daddy,” seem distractingly indebted to biographical events, although in her finest poems that is surely not the case. In “Elm,” for instance, Plath takes on a detached quality, reminiscent of Pizarnik: “I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” What draws me to both poets, however, is not simply the emotional terrain, but how emotion is controlled through craftsmanship. Although Plath, as she matured, explored looser forms, she never lost interest in questions of form, and Pizarnik’s distilled poems cohere through repetitions and wordplay. In his introduction to Tree of Diana, Octavio Paz, commenting of her concision, notes, “The result doesn’t contain a single false particle.”1

SE: You also state that Pizarnik returns “again and again to the same inexhaustible themes and simple diction: night, childhood, death, silence.” How, in your opinion, does she keep these few themes renewed in her writing?

AG: Even though her diction is simple, each word does not occur in isolation but within the web of syntax, so, even though the same words repeat, they accrue meaning through variations in context. The same could be said of a fixed form like the sestina, in which the repetition dramatizes an obsessed speaker encircling an elusive subject. The themes with which Pizanrik wrestles, like death and speechlessness, since they move beyond the tangible into the unknown, are inexhaustible. As she notes in her diary, “the bulk of each of us is inexpressible.”2 Like any formal constraint, the simple diction in her poems forces her to be inventive and recast, as with the sestina—in an endless search for expression—the same words in a new light. The poems, for instance, are playful with grammar. In “Shapes and Silences,” she writes: “Me quieren anochecer, me van a morrir” (They want to twilight me, they’re going to death me).3 Here she returns to the theme of death, but the syntax is idiosyncratic. Anochecer (to get dark) and morrir (to die), both intransitive verbs, are presented as transitive, as if they were performed on or to the speaker. In my translation I tried to replicate this jolt by employing nouns as verbs. Such acrobatics present challenges for a translator, but keep the language fresh and compelling.

SE: In "the Mirror's Path," which we're publishing in TWO LINES, I was struck by the line “But the silence is undeniable. That's why I write. I'm alone and I write. No, I'm not alone. There's someone here trembling.” Two questions: first, in addition to the influences you mention (Artaud, Cortazar) do you think she was inspired by Beckett? And secondly, is the kind of economy and precision found in this line something you look for as both a reader and a translator?

AG What I like about the line that you mention is the apparent contradiction that, since there is silence, one writes. I think she’s saying that writing is a way to fill the silence. She then seemingly contradicts herself again—alone, not alone—as if the self has fragmented. This constant elaboration and readjustment is evident in many of the poets—Herbert, Dickinson, Bishop—that I admire. I think it is also a characteristic of Beckett’s work and many of the exchanges between Estragon and Vladimir:

VLADIMIR: He said Saturday. I think.
ESTRAGON: You think.
VLADIMIR: I must have made a note of it.
ESTRAGON: But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday?
VLADIMIR: It's not possible!
ESTRAGON: Or Thursday?
VLADIMIR: What'll we do?
ESTRAGON: If he came yesterday and we weren't here you may be sure he won't come again today.
VLADIMIR: But you say we were here yesterday.
ESTRAGON: I may be mistaken.

We tend to think of the lyric voice as solitary (“an instant of emotion,” as Stephen Dedalus puts it), while drama is inhabited by plurality, yet I feel a successful lyric achieves plurality through shifts of tone. Pizarnik’s poems are dialogs, but dialogs with the self. For this reason, in “The Mirror’s Paths” she refers to herself as “pilgrim of myself,” and in another poems claims, “I can’t speak with my voice but with my voices.”4 Pizarnik’s impulse to pluralize the lyric voice is met by Beckett’s impulse to strip down the stage. Although Waiting for Godot is an ensemble piece, Beckett did explore monologue in Happy Days and dramatizes a dialog with the self in Krapp's Last Tape. I think the bare stage in Beckett finds its counterpart in Pizarnik’s blank page. Both signal an interiorizing, a shift away from the social world. Interestingly, Pizarnik did write an absurdist play, Possessed among Lilacs, which María Negroni compares to Endgame in her book Lucid Witness.5 The play, which incorporates lyrical and bawdy passages, further demonstrates Pizarnik’s many voices, and many of her prose pieces—“Entirely Blue,” “Portrait of Voices”—take the form of dialogs.6


1 From Árbol de Diana (1962): “El producto no contiene una sola partícula de mentira.”
2 “lo principal de cada uno es indecible.”
3 “Figuras y silencios” in Extracción de la piedra de locura (1968).
4 “Caminos del espejo” in Extracción de la piedra de locura: “peregrina de mí.” “Piedra Fundamental” in El infierno musical (1971): “No puedo hablar con mi voz sino con mis voces.”
5 Los perturbados entre lilas in Prosa Completa (2002). Negroni, El testigo lúcido (2003).
6 “Toda azul” and “Retrato de voces” in Prosa Completa.

Carolina De Robertis on The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

Posted on October 27, 2011, 12:48:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. This is the fourth and it's with Carolina De Robertis, who translated an excerpt from The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (the whole book will be published eventually by Riverhead Books). This translation is from our special "Focus on International Noir" section, edited by Luc Sante.

This translation joins De Robertis' translation of Bonsai, by Chilean Alejandro Zambra. She's also the author of the acclaimed novel The Invisible Mountain and has a forthcoming novel titled PERLA. (You can also listen to our Lit&Lunch event with De Robertis, talking about Bonsai.)

Scott Esposito: First I'd like to ask you about the tone of Roberto Ampuero's The Neruda Case, one of the novels excerpted in our "Focus on International Noir" special section, and which you’ve translated. The book is set in 1973 and involves a poet in Chile and the Cuban exile who is trying to help him solve a mystery. In your translator's introduction in TWO LINES, you mention that The Neruda Case ranges among everything from Che Guevara's death and "the secret weapon to be found in Cuban rum," to references to Virgil, Hitchcock, Brecht, and Georges Simenon. Does this book take noir to one of those dark places, maybe like David Peace has done lately in his Red Riding Quartet, or is it more along the lines of a satire or farce, like Robert Altman's Long Goodbye?

Carolina De Robertis: The Neruda Case is more warm-blooded satire than dark grit. It is full of humor and exuberance, a wry take on noir tropes that celebrates and subverts them at the same time. That said, there is a seriousness to the book as well. The reader can viscerally feel the author’s complicated love for Neruda—not only the poet, but also the flawed man. And the book is deeply concerned with sociopolitical themes, painting a vivid portrait of Latin America in the turbulent 1970s.

SE: One of the things The Neruda Case deals with the larger upheaval surrounding the coup in Chile of 1973. Is this something that you see discussed frequently in Chilean literature, and how in particular does Ampuero approach it in this book?

CDS: Chilean novelists have grappled with the coup and its aftermath in various ways. Isabel Allende made those events central to her first two books, The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. Roberto Bolaño’s novels, at their heart, are a fierce reckoning with the impact of the coup on his generation, whether directly, as in By Night in Chile and Distant Star, or indirectly, as in his final masterpiece, 2666, where another atrocity in the form of the Ciudad Juarez murders provides a prism for his obsessions.

Currently, a young generation of contemporary writers who were born during the dictatorship (including Alejandro Zambra, whom I’ve had the pleasure to translate) are writing fiction in which the horrors of the 1970s only exist as an unspoken, understated backdrop to portraits of twenty-first century Chile. Roberto Ampuero is not of that latter school. He was a young man when the coup occurred, and it marked his life with exile and enormous change. His project in The Neruda Case is to bring history to visceral life—not only the story of Pablo Neruda, but also of Salvador Allende’s epoch and his violent last days, so that readers can travel to 1973 Chile and vicariously experience its noise and sights and smells, its chaos and hopes, its tragedy and resilience.

SE: You also discuss Ampuero's sentences, which you write have a "sweeping beauty" and "rely on a specific word order." Did you try to adhere to the word order in English, even when the English didn’t want you to?

CDS: No. If the English feels awkward, or doesn’t flow the way it wants to, the translator has not completed her job. Let’s say you are transposing a musical piece from piano to violin. It is your job to be intimate with the limitations and potential of your instrument, and to honor your instrument’s nature along with the composer’s intentions. How would the composer have written the piece if he had been a violinist? He would have made it sing—and so should you.

SE: In the introduction you also talk about the challenges of translating Ampuero's colloquial Spanish into English. Did you have a favorite word or saying that proved untranslatable?

CDS: There’s a wonderful moment in the original Spanish in which Neruda says, of his wife, “Donde manda Matilde, no manda marinero.” It’s a witty play on a saying that translates loosely as “Where the captain gives orders, the sailor does not.” Neruda has replaced the word “captain” with “Matilde,” his wife’s name—transforming her into a captain and himself into sailor, and deepening the proverb’s alliteration to boot. Unfortunately, the reference only works if the reader is familiar with the original saying. I had to resign myself to conveying the essential idea in colloquial English. The best I could come up with is “What the boss says goes, and she’s the boss.” Not nearly as evocative, but close, I think, to how Ampuero’s fictional Neruda might have said it if English had been his literary instrument.

Translator Chris Andrews on Varamo by Cesar Aira

Posted on October 25, 2011, 02:20:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. This is the third and it's with Chris Andrews, who translated an excerpt from Varamo by Cesar Aira (the whole book will be published eventually by New Directions). This is Andrews' fifth Aira, and it of course joins books he's translated by Roberto Bolano, as well as many others.

Scott Esposito: When Varamo, which we're excerpting in TWO LINES, publishes in 2012, it will be your fourth Aira translation into English. Have you found that you approach the books differently, or have encountered various writing styles? And do you have plans to publish more Aira translations? (If so, please tell us what books they are.)

Chris Andrews: Each book has its stylistic particularities, but the odd one out, of the four I’ve translated, has been How I Became a Nun, which has sections that are wild and choppy, quite different from the syntactically impeccable prose that Aira usually writes. In that book there are internal “psychological” justifications for the stylistic wildness, for example, in chapter three the narrator recounts an experience of delirium when she (or he: depending on the point of view) was recovering from arsenic poisoning. But Aira has also said that he wrote the book very quickly, in an unusual state of exaltation, and that he was trying to break out of his habitual correctness.              

I hope to do more Aira translations, yes. I know that New Directions have acquired the rights to quite a few more books, but I’m not sure what’s next. That’s in the hands of the publisher.

SE: Varamo is about a fictitious "masterpiece of modern Central American poetry," which is more or less made by accident by a low-leven Panamanian bureaucrat. At the end of your translator's introduction, you say that it's hard to imagine this poem "as anything but a document, a footnote to the lucid dream of its genesis." I wonder, would you describe Aira's novels in similar terms, given his odd "constant flight forward" method of constructing them?

CA: Yes and no. Yes, in that all of Aira’s novels are documents that we can use to construct the figure of the author, which is, I think, a natural, even irresistible, thing to do. However, in the introduction, I was saying that Aira’s novel, which pretends to be a dry scholarly document explaining how the poem was written, is itself poetically charged, but if we use the indications in the novel to reconstruct the poem itself, a great deal of avant-garde faith is required to imagine a text as interesting, and poetic, as Varamo. So I think poem and document have changed places. And here I’d want to resist an analogy with Aira’s novels if it implied that the “flight forward” procedure is more interesting that what it produces. The procedure is one thing and its application is another. Aira’s procedure is striking because it’s so radically opposed to common sense and received opinion, but as Raymond Roussel pointed out in How I Wrote Certain of My Novels, an innovative procedure doesn’t guarantee an interesting product: “just as one can use rhymes to compose good or bad verses, so one can use this method to produce good or bad works.” What is truly wonderful, I think, in Aira’s work is the way he applies his procedure, a way that I can only describe with a vocabulary that sounds rather old-fashioned: observation, imagination, a childlike joy in storytelling . . .

SE: You also note that Aira's advocates offer the charitable interpretation that the imperfections in his novels are part of the point, given that he constantly runs forward and doesn't revise. His detractors say the opposite, and you go on to say that this argument opens up interesting questions about art. Do you think this debate is somewhat beside the point, as Aira is clearly getting his books into circulation and making people thing hard about his bizarre premises?

CA: Yes and no. Yes, in that the detractors are clearly not preventing the circulation of the books, in Spanish and in translation, and that’s good news. But if you’re right, and people are thinking hard about his premises, some of those people are bound to find them uncongenial or unsound, because, as you say, they’re bizarre. In a way, Aira’s writing is designed to have detractors, at least for a start, and they won’t all be bad or unsophisticated readers (although I think they’ll be missing out). If his books met with no resistance, that would mean that they weren’t upsetting accepted standards for judgement and setting new ones, which is what they’ve done in Argentina, where Aira is a strong pole of attraction and repulsion. If the debate doesn’t happen in North America, that might tell us something interesting about the segmentation of the reading public there.

SE: Lastly, was there anything particular in Varamo that you found difficult to work in English, or even "untranslatable"?

CA: As always there were lots of difficulties, but most of them were quite banal. There is a wordplay on putter (the golf club) and puta, which I preserved by keeping the second word in Spanish. I think it’s clear enough because it’s a passage about two sisters who are suspected by the local gossips of keeping a house of ill repute, although in fact they make their money by smuggling golf clubs into Panama. But maybe the editor will think differently!

TUESDAY: Counterfeits Release Party at The Make-Out Room

Posted on October 20, 2011, 10:15:00 AM by Scott Esposito

Everyone in the Bay Area should make it a point to drop by our release party next week at The Make-Out Room (you'll be having a good time like these people). There'll be catered snacks, DJ'd music, beverages, and of course our new book, Counterfeits, co-edited by Luc Sante and Rosanna Warren, with writing from more than 30 international writers, including Cesar Aira, Primo Levi, and the ever-unpronounceable Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsk.

If you plan to go, be proud and let everyone know by saying "I'm Attending" on our Facebook party page. These are the details.

  • October 25
  • The Make-Out Room
  • 3225 22nd Street
  • 6:30 PM
  • $10 suggested donation

And you lucky NYC people get to see Luc Sante with translators Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters and author Magdaléna Platzováfor on November 9 at McNally-Jackson for our NYC release party, present as part of The Bridge reading series. These are the details for that:

  • November 9
  • McNally-Jackson
  • 52 Prince St.
  • 7:30 - 8:30 pm
  • FREE

Photo by Troy Holden

Alyson Waters on The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery

Posted on October 18, 2011, 02:17:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. This is the second and it's with Alyson Waters, who translated an excerpt from The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery (the whole book will be published eventually by New Directions). This is Waters' second Cossery, and it joins books she's translated by René Belletto and Eric Chevillard (forthcoming), two of my favorites, plus numerous more.

As a bonus, Alyson will be at our NYC Counterfeits launch event with Luc Sante and a bunch more great people at McNally-Jackson on Nov 9. We're fortunate enough to have the event be part of The Bridge's fall lineup!

Scott Esposito: We're here to talk about your excerpt from The Colors of Infamy, which comes from the third novel by Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery to be published in the past couple of years. Cossery, who died in 2008 and did most of his writing decades ago, has become something of a sensation lately, with these new translations getting rave attention in a lot of leading periodicals. Why do you think Cossery has caught on so much?

Alyson Waters: I wish I could say that he’s moved into best-sellerdom, but that would be overstating the case a bit! I think that Cossery’s a great writer, and maybe it’s taken some time for people to realize that here—an Egyptian author who writes in French translated into English is not everyone’s first choice as a “go-to” book. We’re fortunate to have wonderful publishers like New Directions and New York Review Books who took a chance on publishing these translations in the last few years, although some of his work was translated into English decades ago, but it’s all gone out of print. I started translating The Colors of Infamy for the pleasure of it some seven or eight years ago, but it wasn’t until I won a PEN Translation Grant for the book that publishers sat up and took notice. I was lucky that Barbara Epler of New Directions wanted me to translate A Splendid Conspiracy as well. And now, in addition to The Jokers, brought out last year in Anna Moschovakis’ translation, New York Review Books is bringing out a revised version of a translation by Thomas Cushing of Proud Beggars that was originally done in 1981. It would be nice to think that all this interest has to do with the Arab Spring, and that may be true right now as far as new readers are concerned, and I hope interest continues to grow. But those of us who have been pushing for Cossery to have a bigger presence in the English-speaking world have been doing so for about a decade, some even longer. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, a very appealing anti-work/anti-capitalist/anti-materialist philosophy that goes with our current recession mood, I think, and a rather cynical—though some might say accurate—view of the benefits of any revolution for the poorest of the poor—all of which can be seen quite clearly in The Colors of Infamy.

SE: Cossery lived the first two decades of his life in Egypt before moving to France, where he did all of his writing. Was his written French influenced much be the time he spent in Egypt?

AW: Cossery was a prolific reader of French novels in his youth—he was schooled in French in Egypt. But his daily life, his interaction with people around him, took place in Arabic in his formative years, and all his books are set in the Middle East, and all except one, in Egypt. He always said he was an Egyptian writer who happened to write in French. The French he writes in is fairly standard; of course, like any writer, he has his idiosyncrasies, his idiolect if you will, lots of hyperbole, and a continual use of simile and metaphor that play on really sly, funny comparisons. That being said, in his dialogue he has a lot of fun with what are supposed to feel like direct translations from the Arabic, with phrases such as “By Allah!” and “Peace be with you,” and “Effendi” and “Bey” appearing now and again for “local color.” It was an interesting challenge from a translation point of view to keep that distinction between narrative voice and dialogue, without making the dialogues too stilted or odd in English; but they are stilted and odd to the French ear, too, and so that had to be retained.

SE: In your translator's introduction to the excerpt we're publishing, you mention Cossery's "extremely dense, baroque" sentences, as well as the very heavy irony that he writes with. Did you have any particular challenges getting this book into English?

AW: Did I say “heavy” irony? I shouldn’t have. Not much in Cossery is “heavy.” But yes, his sentences can be very alambiqué, as one says in French, which can mean both convoluted and over-subtle—so “baroque” in the sense of extravagant and flamboyant, definitely. In addition to the challenge that I mention above, which involved the help of some friends who speak both French and Egyptian Arabic to make sure I wasn’t missing anything in the dialogues because I am not, alas, an Arabic speaker, Cossery uses an abundance (some might say plethora) of adjectives, adverbs, and adverbial phrases that are far from “minimalist.” The opening passage of Colors, where Cossery is setting the scene of a dilapidated and chaotic Cairo (which he calls by its Arabic name, Al Qahira) provides a wonderful example of how his writing imitates the twists and turns of Cairene alleys, and the pandemonium of traffic, pedestrians, and crumbling buildings, all juxtaposed higgledy-piggeldy beneath the sweltering sun—as a translator you have to meander with him, plow through the obstacles he puts in your path, to get the rhythm of his sentences right.

SE: Lastly, The Colors of Infamy was Cossery's final novel, completed in 1999 when he was nearing 90 years of age. Did you notice any change in his style, perhaps over his 1975 novel A Splendid Conspiracy, which you also translated?

AW: Colors is a very compact novel; Cossery really cuts to the chase in this book (A Splendid Conspiracy is about 215 pages in English; The Colors of Infamy comes in at about 90). There’s a kind of urgency in Colors—it was, as you say, his last book, and one has the sense that he really wants to get everything he thinks into it about the themes that have always been important to him: the joys of male friendship, the hatred of the rich and powerful, his affection for the poor, and his respect for them. While there are plenty of humorous scenes in Colors as well, they take up less of the book than they do in say, Proud Beggars (1961) or Conspiracy (1975). But I can’t say that I sense much of a change in style per se. Cossery was very true to himself, and I think he found his voice very early on, perhaps really during or right after his first book, the collection of stories called Men God Forgot in English. It’s a voice that served him, and us, very well.

TWO VOICES: Carmen Boullosa and Pura Lopez Colome

Posted on October 17, 2011, 01:28:00 PM by Scott Esposito

A copy of this podcast can be downloaded here. You can also subscribe to all of the Center's audio on iTunes, or in RSS.

Mexico is traditionally thought of as a country in love with machismo, and that fact can be seen in the Mexican writers who succeed in English—among them Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and Octavio Paz. Yet there are many women in Mexico writing landmark literature, and this audio presents two of them.

As part of the annual Litquake literature festival in San Francisco, the Center for the Art of Translation partnered with the Mexican Consulate to present two of Mexico's most vital female writers: Carmen Boullosa and Pura López Colomé.

A novelist, Boullosa has been called Mexico's greatest woman writer by none other than Roberto Bolaño. She writes edgy, surreal novels that deconstruct the differences between societies and genders and that explore what she has called "the universe of the feminine." Her novels vary widely, ranging from pirates to small-town Mexico to Ancient Egypt. At the event she read in both Spanish and English from her novel Treinta años, published in English as Leaving Tabasco. (A story of Boullosa's can be read on the Center's website here.)

López Colomé is a widely lauded poet, who has won the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia prize and has translated works by Samuel Beckett, Bertold Brecht, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Her book No Shelter was published in Forrest Gander's translation by Graywolf Press in 2002, and she has been published widely in English in various journals, including the poem "Prism," published in TWO LINES. For the event she read a selection of poems in both Spanish and English.

Andrew Oakland on Angel of Destruction by Martin Reiner

Posted on October 17, 2011, 11:57:00 AM by Scott Esposito

We're celebrating the release of the newest volume of TWO LINES, Counterfeits, which you can buy right this second direct from us, on Amazon, Powell's, and just about everywhere else. To mark the new book we'll be publishing interviews with some of the translators who have stories and poems therein. The first is with Andrew Oakland, who translated the story "Angel of Destruction" by Czech author Martin Reiner. (Incidentally, that story can be read online as one of the pieces we're offering on our website.)

Scott Esposito: In your translator's introduction, you note that this story occurs on August 21, 1968, the day that the Soviet Union initiated the repression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. (In fact, it was published as part of that day's 40th anniversary commemoration.) That said, it takes a very atypical approach to that day, being told mostly through the eyes of a 4-year-old. Why do you think Reiner chose to approach this day through this slant, and would it have anything to do with the fact that Reiner himself was 4 years old in 1968?

Andrew Oakland: That Reiner was four years old in 1968 is surely no coincidence. It is also significant that the story was written to be read on a particular day (it was published in a daily newspaper). As he was writing the story the author had no thought of having it translated into a foreign language (this was my initiative). Martin Reiner is an established writer of the "middle generation" who sometimes turns to writers of the "older generation" for inspiration—indeed, as a publisher he himself has been inspirational for twenty years in bringing the works of many older writers to print. (These generational distinctions might grate and can hardly be regarded as a catch-alls, but they are significant in a Czech context. Understandably perhaps, the interests of the current younger generation of writers are more contemporary; the few younger writers who do engage with their country’s past tend to address periods before their own lifetime. The history of the Czech lands has long been a popular inspiration for Czech writers of fiction.) Much of Reiner’s writing—prose and poetry alike—is richly autobiographical. It is very much in Reiner’s character that the narrator should address the events of August 1968 through eyes that might be associated with the author’s.

SE: In the story there's an instance of a soldier screaming "khui svyashchenniy!" It's the only thing in the story that you left in the original language, and I'd like to ask why you made that choice, and if you have any personal guidelines as to when you leave something in the original.

AO: These words are not Czech, so there is an obvious tie-in here with your next question! I chose not to translate the only words in the story spoken by the Russian soldier—he is cursing in pretty strong language—in order to retain a distinction made by the author. When would I leave something in the original? When there are two languages at play in the narrative. For example, the characters are native speakers of a language other than Czech but the writer and primary reader are Czech, so the original language of the text is Czech; if one of the characters says something in (perhaps broken) Czech, I leave this in Czech and, if it is appropriate to do so and circumstances allow, attempt to ensure that its meaning is clear from the context. (This is not uncommon in fiction set in a Czech past, the characters typically being German or Russian.) The text of dialogue may also be left in the original where the reader needs to make a connection with the sounds of the words spoken. As a reader of translated works, I tend to feel irritated or perplexed, sometimes even patronized by text left in the original to no apparent purpose.

SE: In your introduction, you also note that the author was concerned that an American reader might not have the cultural context to understand the significance of August 21, 1968, a concern that you do not share. When do you feel that lacking sufficient cultural context might begin to detract from an American reader's experience of a work in translation?

AO: They are so many angles one could approach this question from, and so little space! So I’ll limit my answer to "Angel of Destruction." I mention in the introduction that the story could serve to introduce the uninitiated to the events of the day it describes; viewed from this angle, a lack of knowledge of the cultural context might even be an advantage, a source of added freshness. But I certainly believe that the reader of a work in translation needs to get a handle on it fairly quickly. The everyday world of "Angel of Destruction" contains elements to which all readers can relate—early childhood’s merging of fantasy and reality, calf-love, first experience of a collective, the boredom of early childhood, a threat from an outside world barely understood.

SE: Lastly, you've noted that translating the child's voice presented complications to you as a translator. Was there anything in this story that you found untranslatable, or that forced you to go to far lengths to bring into English?

AO: First of all, the narrator’s is not really the voice of a four-year-old child; it’s the voice of an adult returning to his four-year-old self. And yes, to replicate the tone of a "remembered" child was certainly a challenge to me. The dialogue is, of course, (more or less) the true voice of a child, and one instance of dialogue from the middle of the story sticks in my mind. The kindergarten teachers are speaking about "okupanti" (occupiers) and the children are listening in. "I" does not know what "occupiers" means, and he naturally tries to relate it to something he understands. I came up with "occupying force" and by childish analogy "porcupine force."

TWO VOICES: Joshua Beckman Presents Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade

Posted on October 13, 2011, 11:40:00 AM by Scott Esposito

A copy of this podcast can be downloaded here. You can also subscribe to all of the Center's audio on iTunes, or in RSS.

"The purpose of this book is to send readers off to new places--new places of the mind." So began Joshua Beckman's Two voices presentation of Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade, described, in part, as the Japanese concept of haiku translated into the Latin America of the 20th century.

As Beckman explained, the microgram is a very postmodern idea. Andrade would frequently "discover" micrograms in the work of Japanese haiku poets, like Basho and his innumerable followers. Andrade also discovered them in the great epic Spanish poetry, as well as in poetry from many of the world's other traditions. As Beckman explained, Andrade saw poetry as "an act of attention," with micrograms being one form that such attention toward poetry can take. He stressed that micrograms are a combination of various times and aesthetics, they are cultural overlaps.

During the event Beckman also placed Andrade's micrograms into a larger context, calling them a "synthesis of literary history, imaginative reading, and manifesto." Beckman explained that Andrade was influenced by the Surrealists, as well as the many French literary manifestos circulating in the early 20th century. Andrade's hope was that, in addition to working as poetry, his book would function as a sort of manifesto. He wanted to inspire others to create micrograms, and he saw his work with the form as part of a larger the tradition of which he was but one practitioner. In fact, to inspire future microgramists he begins Micrograms with a curious essay/manifesto outlining these ideas.

In addition to exploring Micrograms, Beckman talked about his own idea of himself as a translator. He explained that he often sees his work as that of an "editor," as he frequently collaborates with others who have greater expertise in a given language. This idea of translation as a collaborative process was underlined by Beckman's remarks on haiku and micrograms being collaborative processes in their own ways. He explained that haiku relies on collaboration both in terms of poets working together to draw the familiar 5-7-5 haiku from larger poems and poets being in tune with the social and cultural currents around them.In a similar way, microgramists—and their translators—must be deeply aware of context and tradition.

Beckman also read numerous micrograms throughout the event.

Some Tomas Tranströmer Links

Posted on October 6, 2011, 10:20:00 AM by Scott Esposito

By now I'm sure everyone must know that Tomas Tranströmer is the newest Nobel laureate in literature. We actually published one of his poems back in TWO LINES 14 in Robert Hass' sterling translation, and you can read it right now online. It's here; and don't miss Hass' introduction to the poem, where he discusses how he managed the translation despite not speaking Swedish.

So one of the interests of "Song" is that it gives us a glimpse of the very young Tranströmer's sources in Swedish romantic poetry and in the Swedish landscape, particularly the Baltic of the Swedish archipelago to which his imagination has returned for grounding, lightly but over and over, in the course of his work. "Song" begins, I found as the Swedish got Englished for me, with a swarm of gulls, and with one of Tranströmer's characteristically acute, specific, and strange images—the grey of their wings has the color and look of "the ragged sailcloth of dead ships"—but it moves very quickly to an apparition front Baltic mythology. Vainamoinen, the hero of the Finnish epic cycle, the Kalevala, comes striding across the waves, and an antagonist, who is identified only as "the Other," rises to meet him. What suggests the later Tranströmer in all this is the way that the drama is played out inside an observer's imagination: "a man at the center of his fortune's wheel." And the fascination of the later part of the poem is the way that story plays out in the poet-dreamer with a "Slumberer inside" him.

In other news, the Literary Saloon has an excellent roundup, and The New York Times' ArtsBeat has uncovered a video (below) of Tranströmer reading and discussing the poem “Schubertiana.”


Posted on October 3, 2011, 12:03:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We are proud to present our October installment of TWO LINES ONLINE. This month we are offering more prose and poetry from authors and translators who appear in Counterfeits, the 18th volume of TWO LINES (which, incidentally, can be ordered right this second from our website).

We have three poems from Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik (pictured on the left) in Adam Giannelli's translation: Being Here, Signs, and Unfinished Shipwreck.

We also have one of my favorite stories from Counterfeits, Angel of Destruction by Martin Reiner, translated by Andrew Oakland (who also translated one of my favorite novels of last year, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz).

Last but not least, we offer At the End by Moshe Dor, translated by Barbara Goldberg, and Smile by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated by Patrick Phillips