Do others sneak their words to our lips? Is it confiscated at customs, or will it suit our own angles of approach? These questions of language are ones that Uljana Wolf never poses directly in her debut collection kochanie i bought bread, published by kookbooks in 2005. Wolf’s ear is tuned to what happens at the porous borders between literary cultures, everyday experience, and national history, engaging a poetics in which this dissonance is galvanized into a vibration that rattles us. That we feel unsettled and seduced in this border dance, where “strophe by strophe / the guest is better versed,” alerts us to how we incessantly draw and contest borders through the particularities of language. For Wolf, born in East Berlin in 1979, the complex historical strata of Germany–the ineradicable shadow of the war, the East-West dissonance, the multilingual melting pot of Berlin–offer a site of intercultural contact, her poems brimming with multilingual and historical variances that provoke and kaleidoscope her homeland’s murky inheritance.
Wolf is equal parts inventor and dementor of language, and each poem shimmers with the possibility of what ordinary object or utterance might undergo metamorphosis. A phrase in “postscript to the dogs of kreisau” describes much of Wolf’s wordplay and my approach as a translator: “lautrausch,” or “sonic intoxication.” The semantic and aural qualities of words are not distinct categories in kochanie, but ones that infect each other.
– Greg Nissan
Max Jacob’s writing gives a glimpse of debauchery, the kind that might lie at the collapse of linguistic functioning or on the other side of cliché and metaphor. In taking on washed-up subject matter like the story of Don Juan, Jacob gives new life to staid texts— literary history is used against itself as the means to imagine an otherwise. Yet Jacob’s work poses a problem to translation. As is true of translating most surrealists, the task of the translator becomes more about capturing sound than meaning, more about the feeling of a word than its definition; speech over language.
Some liberties were admittedly taken in translating this text. To keep meter and rhythm, some French words were exchanged for ones with entirely different meanings in English. The sounds and connotations of English words, I hope, evoke the playfulness and tone of the original. I also kept the Chapter sub-headings in French (or semi-French) since, again, the materiality of language is definitively prioritized over the meaning of the words.
This text, neither poem nor drama nor prose but something veritably non-disciplinary, was found in an archival collection of Pierre Reverdy’s short-lived journal Nord-Sud. Though a good portion of Jacob’s work has been translated into English, his writings from this journal have mostly been overlooked. This might be because the orthography is difficult; the words seem somehow unedited and difficult to parse out. Yet I kept the punctuation, spacing, and capitalization exactly as they appear in the original in order to leave a remainder or reminder of the historical context within the text—to keep the rules out, so to speak.
– Mimi Howard
Jean-Baptiste Para, the author of four volumes of poetry, does not receive the kind of attention that some other contemporary French language poets or French poets receive. But then regimes and canons of visibility are always imperfect in their constitution and more than ever in the present epoch. I would stipulate that if there were but one contemporary French poet whom one could have the opportunity to read, then it should be Para, although I would immediately add that one should also read the late and lamented poet, Alain Suied (1951-2008). Para is a poetic and literary intelligence of the first order and the possessor of a sparkling and profound literary erudition, but the truly admirable wonder is that this intelligence and erudition resonate without remainder or constraint or imposition, resonate in seamless lacing with the diction and dynamism of his poetic vibratos and crescendos. Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson,” a poem greatly esteemed by Para, is as good a poem as Rexroth ever wrote, a perfect poem in its union of existential intelligence, socio-historical wisdom, and poetic reciprocity and tragico-existential magnanimity. But so many of Para’s poems have this shimmering and sentience of poetico-existential encompassment where life in its tragedies and celebrations emerges in a music which remains within us in ever the more sustained duration. Poems of existential and political immediacy are the most difficult of all poems to write, but Para’s tribute poem to Rosa Luxembourg, “Ghazal pour Rosa L,” greatest intelligence of her politico-historical epoch, whose terrible and tragic assassination was the gravest historico-political loss, is one of these rare poems where a subject finds its perfect election, its perfect music and duration. But so many of Para’s poems have this sustained and sustaining quality. There are poetries of richness and there are poetries of riches, but rarely a poetry in which we find both, find poem after poem as gift and reward in both breadth and depth. Para is a different poet than is Cavafy or Mandelstam, and yet in all three we find a poetic sounding and historico-existential savor and fancy that all at once are the only ones that a subject at hand could possibly have or beckon or instantiate in all actuality, attention, and affection.
– Steve Light
Hassouna Mosbahi’s fiction often sounds somewhat autobiographical, and this is certainly true for these two short stories. Each of them illuminates the character of the same type of contemporary Tunisian intellectual, who is a person torn between the cool comforts of Europe and the frustrating warmth of Tunisia.
– William Hutchins
My translation retains the original story’s street names (Frederiksborggade, Gothersgade, and Rosenvængets Sideallé) as well as the name of the bridge crossed by the narrator and Cora, Dronning Louises Bro (“Queen Louise’s Bridge”). Readers who are unfamiliar with Copenhagen and are interested in the spatial relationships referenced in the story would be well served by consulting a map; it is easy thus to recreate the approximate routes of the various short walks taken by the narrator and Cora to the lake Sortedams Sø, the parks, and the Church of Our Lady. We learn that during the lengthy stay with her grandparents that the bulk of the story describes, the narrator, then a schoolgirl, saw her mother only about once a week (and there is no indication that she saw her father at all); it is particularly worth noting that the location of the narrator’s (parents’) home on Rosenvængets Sideallé is in fact, as the description of the excursion to the lake suggests, within easy walking distance of the narrator’s grandparents’ home on Fiolstræde. The locations reflect typical generational differences: the grandparents’ apartment, which the grandparents have clearly occupied for many years already when the narrator is a child, is located in the medieval core of the city, while the narrator’s parents reside in a historically peripheral area that, while it was certainly considered quite attractive by the 1970s, when the story’s central events transpire, had not been heavily urbanized before the late nineteenth century.
The original story uses the very commonly-used Danish terms of address for “paternal grandmother” and “paternal grandfather,” Farmor and Farfar respectively. While I have generally used the formal English terms of address “Grandmother” and “Grandfather” respectively, I have rendered the original’s “Farmor og Farfars gæsteværelse,” which contains the first instance of the nouns in question, as “my paternal grandparents’ guest room.” While this constitutes a slight departure from the narrator’s usual tone, the translation would otherwise never definitively establish that the grandparents and Cora are the narrator’s relatives on her father’s side, a circumstance that suggests particular tensions and interpretive possibilities (it is of course striking that as far as we know neither the grandparents nor the narrator receive a telephone call from the narrator’s father during the narrator’s stay on Fiolstræde, much less a visit). The story is very much written in a Hemingway iceberg theory mode; it hints at but does not specify the exact nature of the problems in the relationship between the narrator’s parents on the one hand and between the narrator and her parents on the other hand, and it appears not unlikely that these problems have been a causative factor in the narrator’s undescribed breakup with the unnamed, undescribed father of her own children, about whom we know nothing except how old they are at the time of Cora’s death. All of these problems may ultimately be intimately intertwined with and have been determined by the narrator’s father’s early relations with his parents and sister or his genetic inheritance, or both.
– Peter Sean Woltemade
The complex process of writing my documentary play She He Me included the translation of its multilingual source material. One of my characters is Algerian (Randa), one is Lebanese-American (Rok), and one is Jordanian (Omar). So I was working from interviews in Lebanese Arabic and Jordanian Arabic (which are somehow similar), French, and English. Take Randa, for example. Algeria, like Lebanon, was colonized by the French, so Randa often spoke French during our interviews, especially when reading from her prison diaries. French is the language Randa favors for reading literature and expressing herself in writing, and she’d written her prison diaries in French with the additional intent of keeping less educated prison guards from understanding them. Randa had also traded in her Algerian dialect for a flawless Lebanese one because she felt more empowered by her experience in Beirut and her Lebanese femininity.
Not only were there different languages to contend with. Each character’s words were operating on a different emotional register, and there were also micro-nuances within that. Rok speaks a highly Americanized English with some “bro”-like phrasing, yet when he speaks Arabic, it’s very much a southern Lebanese cadence. I kept a few sentences from his mother in Arabic so we can trace the southern Lebanese village roots of her socio-political background, and we can understand their impact on Rok. Omar comes from Jordan, which was a British Mandate. Not only is he fluent in English, but he also studied in London, so he sometimes would throw the Queen’s English in the middle of a hardcore Transjordanian accent. That accent is very much associated with a kind of Transjordanian male bravado, which becomes an interesting and powerful reclaiming when a gender radical like Omar speaks it.
For the purposes of the hotINK readings, I wrote the script in English. We’re hoping to have a production in Beirut soon, and for that I’ll have to translate the script back into Arabic, hopefully with support from the actors. It’s true that people in Lebanon speak French and English as well, but I would really like to see this piece performed in Arabic, as a political statement.
– Amahl Khouri
Before the reading at the Lark, I was hoping that the audience would learn some interesting facts about my country, but at the same time I was hoping that both actors and audience would discover familiar things in the play, things that are universal.
I also was a little bit afraid–there are many things in the play that are so specifically Romanian that they cannot be translated 100%. Together with Ioana and the actors, I tried to bring these specific things as close as possible to the American audience. And I think we succeeded.
During the translation process, Ioana and I talked a lot about the situation in post-communist Romania, about all kind of people living together in blocks of flats, about young people over the age of 20 who are still living with their parents, about the factories that had to close leaving many people unemployed, about the importance of colored plastic bags.
The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines is not only about the problems of post-transition Romania, not only about a generation gap, a midlife crisis, loneliness, and a unusual love story. It’s also a play about the courage to follow your dreams. “The themes are universal,” and audience member wrote to me. “All this could have happened in a small village in the Appalachians, or the Adirondacks, or Rosedale, Queens.” “It’s a love story,” another wrote, “with each of the characters pining after an unrealistic love in order to distract themselves from their present reality.” Clearly the audience understood the message of the play, and even more. They discovered things I didn’t even think about while writing the play. And I think all this was due to the translation.
– Elise Wilk
Translating Elise’s play was a wonderful experience, in the format offered within the hotINK at the Lark project. To have the Romanian author, as well as the American stage director, assistants, and actors working together, discussing facts and characters, refining cue after cue, sounding layers of meaning, defining cultural differences, finding the right expression together where needed–that can well be considered the ideal way to finish a theatrical translation. It was indeed a time of warm cooperation and discovery. The members of the team brought to the table their professionalism and experience, their gifts and wholehearted involvement. The response of the audience in the end confirmed our work well done. A well-crafted foreign story from Romania came to be understood and considered relevant across the distance of a continent and an ocean, in the United States.
– Ioana Ieronim
The challenge of translating Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold has been to strike the right balance between staying true to the play’s subtleties and yet at the same time not to lapse into excessive opaqueness so as to disengage the English-speaking viewer or reader. Here is a play that is all about what is not said, or the hidden meaning behind the words uttered, and the challenge for the translator is to capture those subtleties in English.
There is a problem, indeed I would go so far as to say a crisis, with regards to plays that come out of the Middle East or are about the Middle East and reach an English-speaking audience. Often theatres mistake being “relevant” for headline-chasing, and so the Middle Eastern plays chosen tend to respond to current events and remain in the by now well-charted territory of terrorism, war, and Islamic fundamentalism. These are certainly worthy topics for any writer to tackle and I’m not suggesting we impose a moratorium on plays that deal with these subjects. Yet focusing exclusively on these topics can mean that we limit the space for other plays by Middle Eastern writers that deal with universal themes such as the quiet defeats of lonely individuals, which is the central focus of Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold. Abdullah Alkafri has created in Ghada a character that will resonate with audiences worldwide. Through her they will learn something about Syrian society, but far more importantly they will learn a great deal about themselves. For me that is when theatre is at its most alive.
– Hassan Abdulrazzak
“People come from wherever they can,” says one of the characters in Mine Water, Csaba Székely’s tragi-comic tale about horrible desires and broken dreams, with a witty linguistic humor. The characters come from their own past, a territory populated by actions. The question for the village priest, his adopted son, the schoolmaster, his daughter and all the other characters is how to go on in life. This play horrifies and amazes me. It is the third and darkest play in a trilogy (Mine Flower, Mine Blindness, Mine Water) about an imaginary Transylvanian mining region where people struggle to survive after the mines close down. Loss of resources and traditions, loss of love for nature and one’s fellow men–these are not questions of exotic and remote provinces, but of our own daily reality. Desires shape human relations with the force of the mighty sea or the hidden dark streams of mine water. Most people go where they can, but some of the characters of this play wish to decide where to go. And some just want to stay and forget.
– Maria Albert
On finishing up an “extracurricular” project (I am a Romanticist, currently writing a dissertation on William Wordsworth), a new English translation of Eno Raud’s Sipsik, an enduringly popular Soviet-era Estonian children’s book, and considering its chances for US publication, I found myself anticipating the ambivalent reactions: This lovely story is too quiet and too circumscribed for a contemporary North American audience—too quiet for, say, five- to eight-year-olds who may already have acquired a “thirst after outrageous stimulation” (Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical Ballads) and too circumscribed for parents who prefer that the narratives offered their children engage, however distantly, with social realities. The story, of a five-year-old girl and her imaginary companion, unfolding against the backdrop of the daily life of a sketchily, if realistically, rendered immediate family, might seem to float in some just slightly exotic and geographically unplaceable but otherwise comfortably familiar world of an idealized postwar, urban, petit-bourgeois domesticity.
(continued in post…)
– David Sassian
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since 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).