Eduardo Lalo’s poetry collection Necropolis recollects the memory of trees that were cut down to become pages, words that struggled to recognize themselves on the page, language imputed with the weight of colonialism. Lalo’s reader was not surprised when news broke about the government’s failure to secure an economic future for the Puerto Rico, having already discovered the vast cemetery of Necropolis–the site where an unwritten literary tradition perished invisibly.
Toward the beginning of a poem titled “Unend,” Lalo writes, “I’ve travelled the biggest mall in the Caribbean from one end to the other without buying anything. Unconsumption: liberty.” In March of 2015, Rican merchants coordinated a day of #noconsumo (#noconsumption), closing down their businesses for the day in protest of the government’s attempt to impose a value-added tax. (Can writing be prophetic even if it is already dead?) The day after, a nonprofit called Puerto Rico Reads released a video addressing the governor of Puerto Rico, attempting to explain the precarious nature of intellectual production within an island stuck in the liminal space between autonomy and statehood. The owner of a bookstore called Libros AC speaks to the camera and says, “Without books, we are condemned to be a society of beggars, incapable of competing with the rest of the world in any industry, depending always on those who do have fair access to books.” In the title poem of his collection, Lalo pronounces, “I live in a necropolis / surviving after catastrophe and roving / its illiterate city.”
Are we there yet, then? Are Puerto Ricans living among Lalo’s Necropolis? What is the temporal nature of his anti-utopia? Is it a metaphorical present, or the literal description of a death that happened long ago? Reading these poems now feels like digging, like discovering a prophecy. And so I find myself questioning what I’m doing, what translation can be, if reading means unearthing a cemetery of language.
In the past couple of months, my translation of Necropolis has revealed itself as an endeavor to communicate the significance of these poems by filtering them through the anxious rhythm of the current economic crisis. I’d also like to believe that my work has morphed into an attempt to make sense of what literary stagnation could look like, to understand how the death of books would manifest itself both literally and metaphorically. To learn how to mourn once I recognize myself in the necropolis.
– Maru Pabón
Klaus Merz is one of the most prominent, prolific, and versatile Swiss writers writing today. Born in Aarau in 1945, he worked as a secondary school and adult education teacher before devoting himself full time to writing. He has written more than two dozen books of poetry, long and short fiction, essays, and commentary, along with screenplays for television and film, and stage and radio plays. His projected seven-volume Collected Works is being published by Haymon Verlag. Merz has won numerous important prizes, most recently the 2012 Friedrich Hölderlin Prize.
In 2016, Seagull Books will publish his three novellas, Jacob Asleep, A Man’s Fate, and The Argentine in a single volume entitled Stigmata of Bliss in Tess Lewis’ translation.
Andrée Chedid’s Textes pour la terre aimée (Texts for the beloved earth) was originally published in 1955 by les éditions Guy Lévis Mano (GLM). Lévis Mano was a French typographer, editor, translator, and poet who spent five years imprisoned during World War II. Upon Lévis’ return to Paris in 1945, GLM published such luminaries as René Char, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, and Jacques Prévert. In 1987, Textes pour la terre aimée was republished by Flammarion as part of a collection titled Textes pour un poème: 1949-1970. Chedid dedicated the volume to Lévis Mano, “mains et voix de la poésie” (hands and voice of poetry).
Writing about the process of bringing “ces textes lointains” (these distant texts) to new life in the latter half of the twentieth century, Chedid posed a series of questions in the introduction to the Flammarion collection: “Pourquoi tous ces textes, forgés à prix d’anxiété et de plaisirs? Ces textes qui charrient peines et joies, ruines et clartés, qui apaisent parfois, interrogent le plus souvent….Pourquoi toute cette chasse aux mots, ce besoin de rapprocher le poème—à travers défrichements, confrontations, emboîtements inattendus, alliances qui surprennent—d’une émotion, d’un bouleversement intime, d’un cri du dedans, d’un chant indicible? Et pourquoi s’acheminer vers un espace qui n’aura jamais lieu?” (Why all these texts, forged at the price of anxiety and pleasure? These texts that carry pain and joy, ruins and clarity, that sometimes soothe, more often ask questions….Why all this hunting after words, the need to bring the poem closer—through clearings, confrontations, unexpected articulations, alliances that surprise—towards an emotion, an intimate dislocation, a cry from within, an unutterable song? And why move toward a place that never had location?)
Never one to leave her reader in the dark without a companion, Chedid also offered a response that, almost thirty years later, continues to reach out a hand: “En réalité, je ne cherche pas d’épilogue, ni de jardin perdu; seule la poursuite me mène….Ainsi, chaque poème achevé continue de m’apparaître comme un caillou dans la forêt insondable, comme un anneau dans la chaîne qui me relie à tous les vivants.” (In truth, I don’t seek an epilogue, nor a lost garden; only the pursuit leads me….Such does each completed poem continue to appear for me as a pebble in an unfathomable forest, as a link in the chain that connects me to all the living.)
– Marci Vogel
Pier Paolo Pasolini, like Pablo Neruda in the generation prior to him and Wanda Coleman in the generation subsequent to him, was not only one of the great civic poets of his epoch, but one of the supreme lyric poets, although lyrical poetry can very well be a civic one and vice versa. Pasolini’s first book of poems was written in Friulian, the dialect native to the region in northeast Italy where his mother grew up in the town of Casarsa. It is from this book that the four Friulian poems translated here are drawn. The book, which appeared in 1942 under the title Poesia a Casarsa, was comprised of 14 poems and self-published by Pasolini. He had chosen Friulian in part as a counter to the authoritarian linguistic policies of the fascist regime. In fact, Pasolini, who had come with his mother and brother to live in Casarsa during the war, had joined a group of young people who had formed an association meant to preserve and defend the dialect. To write in Friulian was thus an overarching politico-cultural affirmation, and all the more because it was not even a second familial language for him but rather a learned language. To write in Friulian was for Pasolini an affirmation of what he saw as the more emphatic authenticities of agrarian-peasant class struggle and existential immanence. Friulian was the language spoken by those whom he “loved in all tenderness and vehemence.” It was thus a self-propelled “regression from one language to another, to one more pure.” As Massimo Cacciari has written in a marvelous essay on Pasolini’s Friulian verse (“Pasolini Provencal?”), if Goethe could speak of “singing a song in an unknown language” then just because “Friulian is not his language” Pasolini is able to find the pure “language of song.” Shortly after the book’s appearance Pasolini received a letter from the well-known literary critic, Gianfranco Contini, telling him that “he liked the book so much he would write a review of it.” The joy Pasolini felt was one he described as an absolute fulfillment such that a poet would never again need more. “I danced along the balustrades of the University of Bologna!” And already in this first book we see in the immediacies and intensities, in the erotics and exultations of his lyricism the shimmering of an ever exhilarating and deeply affectionate intelligence, one that has always been at the center of his verse.
His justly celebrated poem, “The Ashes of Gramsci,” which appeared in 1957 in a book of the same title, made him famous and won him a place among the great poets and civic poets of the twentieth century. But too often this poem becomes the primary focus of commentary and unfortunately leads to neglect of the enchanting and sustained brilliance of other poems in the book, such as the unsurpassable “The Apennines.” But if the long form suited the essayistic and civic side of Pasolini’s poetic project, he still found his way back to that “singing of song” in concentrated and short poems such as this wonderful suite of “nocturnes” which are the Italian poems translated here. Written during the years 1943 to 1949, they first appeared in Pasolini’s 1958 volume of poems L’usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (The Nightingale of the Catholic Church), which collected together the verse from the aforementioned years. The force of intelligence and existential tenderness–the dynamism and vibrato of a mimetic of lyrico-social and lyrico-critical reckoning–ever interlace in this diction so clear, so serene, so joyous, for all its ache and anguish and for all the analytical weight it has taken upon itself. Like the music of Frédéric Chopin and the paintings of Naoko Haruta, Pasolini’s “nocturnes” are the transcription of the absolutely finest points of soul and sentience.
– Steve Light
Laughter, anguish, pain, and beauty are all sensations Rodrigo Lira’s poetry arouses. Though his life was cut short by suicide in 1981, he continues to influence contemporary Chilean poetry today, establishing an essential point of reference between experimental neo-avant garde movements of the 1970s and 80s and younger generations of post-dictatorship poets. Combining erudite literary knowledge, intense language, and dark burlesque humor, Lira’s work is often read in comparison to contemporaries Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, both of whom greatly admired his poetry.
From a historical and political perspective, Lira offers a glimpse into the suffocating environment of Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship (1973-90). Shifting between explicit and more concealed political criticism, Lira’s poetry profoundly reflects the psychology of living under dictatorship, as expressed in “4 Three Hundred and Sixty-Fives and One 366 Elevens,” one of his longer poems whose obscure title refers to the number of years past since the military coup of September 11, 1973. In this poem, Santiago is on the verge of dystopia and, despite attempts to resist repression, the lyric personae only finds consolation in death, albeit through humor.
Interest in the poetry and figure of Rodrigo Lira has yet to spread much beyond the borders of Chile, due mainly to the difficulty of translating his work into other languages. While exploiting Chilean slang and complex wordplay, Lira also develops a particular way of integrating pop and popular culture into his writing. The effort to transfer such poetry into another language, with its own distant cultural references, must forsake certain interpretations and possible impacts among Chilean readers. These translations attempt to break down those barriers and bring Lira’s poetry closer to an English-speaking audience.
– Thomas Rothe
Yordan Yovkov’s short stories blend polished descriptions of people and places with the modest speech of Bulgarian peasants. “Seraphim’s Overcoat,” like many Yovkov works, depicts senseless suffering met with benevolence. Much like a biblical parable, the tragedy’s cause is unimportant, but the human response is. For Yovkov, loving compassion is the most remarkable human trait, and it is not embodied in urban life or among the rich but only in the sophisticated simplicity of ordinary moments and people. Very little occurs in “Seraphim’s Overcoat” other than an unassuming man’s act of extraordinary empathy. Thus when translating Yovkov, one must carefully fluctuate between creating common speech and uncommon descriptions to make the ordinary, momentous.
– David M. Jones
Czar Gutiérrez’s book-length poem La caída del equlibrista (The Fall of the Tightrope Walker), originally published in 1997, is divided into nine acts, each of which depicts a moment in the tragic fall of its central character, the eponymous tightrope walker. One could say the poem enacts its speaker’s attempt to reconnect through a sustained lyric to God, to his parents and loved ones, and to his own psychic principle. If we pay heed to one of Gutiérrez’s most important influences Nietzsche, then it’s possible to see ourselves as a tightrope walker, moving from one pole to another, seeking, as the book’s epigram announces, fraternity over the abyss (Paz).
– Nick Rattner
The acclaimed Taiwanese writer Chen Li is best known for his poetry, and is regarded as one of the most innovative and exciting poets writing in Chinese today. Less known, however, is the fact that he is also a prolific essayist, and has published seven collections of essays in addition to his fourteen books of poetry. Although his poems have been translated into English and some other languages, his essays are largely unknown to non-Chinese readers. His essays—both lyric and personal—exude no less elegant and artful poetics than his poetry. In Voice Clocks, his exquisite and tantalizing essay that was selected to be included in the standard textbook for junior high school students across Taiwan, the fluidity and musicality of his language—accessible, effortless, yet enchanting—is on full display. He’s a master at capturing and distilling the poetic grace from the most mundane aspects of everyday life. As Chen Li once observed, “Any time you look at something from a different perspective, you will see it in a whole new light.” Reading his writing, this essay in particular, one can’t help taking another look at the inevitable earthly tedium of our existence through his imaginative lens, and savoring its innate beauty. Hualien, Chen Li’s beloved hometown on the mountainous east coast of Taiwan, has been the central locale of his writing. His deep love and pride for his native land, as reflected in this piece, are palpable. The main challenge, as well as joy, of translating this essay was to seek to render its incredible euphony into English while at the same time retaining the rich flavors of Taiwanese culture.
– Ting Wang
Oddly enough, I first entertained the idea of translating poetry while reading Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics. I say “oddly” because it is a tract whose aesthetic import is predominantly restricted to its allegations concerning the end of art and–as far as I know–rarely referenced in expositions of literary aspirations. Hegel also, however, opines briefly on “bad poetry,” that is to say prosaic thought coerced into poetic form, and its opposition to true poetry, which is of course a unified act of poiesis. It is from these–albeit enigmatic–musings that I believe two conflicting ideals can be derived and subsequently made available to the translator who finds themselves faced with the challenge of translating poetry: the translated poem and the poetic translation. For me, this aspirational bifurcation is not a difficult one to approach; I would much rather be remembered as an adequate translator than a poetaster, and as such it is towards the poetic translation (and to a form fitting of the translation) that I aim. With ends thus determined there are certain repercussions that permeate directly into questions of form versus sense. This dialectic is, I believe, especially pertinent when attempting to translate Edith Södergran with the reverence this particular poet is due. There is a poem by another canonical Swedish poet, Karin Boye, that I like to imagine, despite a conspicuous lack of philological or historical evidence, is in fact an ode to Södergran and her poetry. The second stanza closes with the following lines:
A redness hovers
behind paleness of cheek.
A sea of fire burns
where no one knows,
where no one reaches.
It is these words (reminiscent of when Södergran herself–in the guise of the last flower of autumn–proclaims, “red flames erupted on my white cheek”) I have tried to keep somewhere in the back of my mind when working with Södergran’s works; it is this eruption, this sea of fire burning below the surface, that I have attempted to know, and to reach, when translating Södergran; and it is a dedication to this sense which I believe justifies certain formal sacrifices. All this is not to say that I believe myself to have a kind of supernatural ability to grasp the artistic intentions of a consciousness not my own, an ability to once and for all unearth the true meaning of Södergran’s poems. What I am referring to is the sense that Edith Södergran has for me (as an avid reader and aspiring translator). In my eyes, the true sense of Edith Södergran is not that of the meek victim, one subject to a fate decided by debilitating illness and crippling circumstance; rather it is that of the wickedly ironic benefactor of conditions beyond her control, conditions she would continue to vigorously resist despite no hope of victory. I hope that a dedication to just this sense has allowed me to render poetic translations worthy of Edith Södergran the poet.
– Nicholas Lawrence
As a lifelong Indian civil servant, Shrilal Shukla was intimately familiar with every aspect of government in his native state of Uttar Pradesh in North India. This story showcases not only his often very subtle satire—he was not the sort to look for belly laughs, inspiring something more along the lines of wry smiles—but also his detailed knowledge of the daily life of the Chief Minister of a state (the equivalent of an American governor). Here he leads us into the mind of an extremely powerful man surrounded by sycophants, who is really no better than the members of his entourage. The title of the story ‘A Few News Items’ suggests that each incident that occurs in the story might be something one would read the next day in the morning paper. One of these, the inspection of an enormous natural disaster, leads the Chief Minister to a moment of true humanity, as he remembers a similar flood in his own childhood. As he becomes overwhelmed by what he sees, he suddenly loses his ability to think like a politician, an ability that he is sure to recover soon enough.
Many thanks to Aftab Ahmad for his help on this translation, and to Sadhna Shukla for granting permission to publish it.
– Daisy Rockwell
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).