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– Jen and Donald
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and an autonomous region of Italy, perhaps best known in a literary sense for being the birthplace and home of Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. But Sardinia was also home to a number of other intellectuals, writers, and artists, including Sebastiano Satta (1867-1914), a journalist and lawyer who is widely considered Sardinia’s greatest poet.
While working as colleagues in the now defunct but still singular international MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong, we visited the island in 2014 as part of a contingent from the university and as guests of Beyond Thirty-Nine, an independent arts and culture platform. Our trip took the form of an immersion in various aspects of Sardinian culture, such as the masked ritualistic dance of the Mamuthones and the canto a tenore or polyphonic singing of pastoral songs. We were also exposed to the work of the island’s great writers and artists, among them Sebastiano Satta.
A committed socialist in the vein of Pablo Neruda, Satta spent his life advocating for the island’s working class, while his poetry (such as Versi Ribelli and Canti Barbaricini) celebrated the island’s terrain, especially the mountainous wilderness of the Barbagia region. We were introduced to Satta’s work with the caveat that his particular music and use of local dialect made translating him very difficult. Taking that as a challenge, we set about trying to render his work in English while retaining some of the lyricism of the original. The following translations were composed in Sardinia and performed at the open air gallery of acclaimed sculptor Pinuccio Sciola.
– James Scudamore and Ravi Shankar
By name, the qaṣīda is scarcely known to Anglo-American readers. It therefore bears mentioning that the qaṣīda is an Arabic poetic form, in fact the highest classical form, and that it was taken up throughout the African, Indian, Turkic, and Persianate languages of the Islamic world. Into the poetic traditions of Europe and the Americas, the qaṣīda has not made much of a crossing, with the exception of the Spanish-language casida (which borrows the name more than it does the poetic form). Its lack of presence in the West contrasts with the seeming naturalization of the ghazal, an Arabic-native mode that (after Persian poets gave new formal features to it) has been adopted by Western poets since Goethe. The fact that the Arabic ghazal derives from the qaṣīda has done nothing to raise the ancestral form’s profile in Western poetics.
Some obscurity in the matter is only natural. In modern Arabic, the word qaṣīda refers to a poem of almost any kind. Classically, however, it is a monorhymed suite of three or more thematic movements of no fixed length. The requirement that a qaṣīda be polythematic holds for the earliest sixth-century (CE) examples as it does for Arabic qaṣīdas of a thousand years later. The present qaṣīda is in four sections:
1. Amatory prelude (called in Arabic nasīb): verses 1-6
2. Wine song (khamriyya): verses 7-25
3. Travel exploits (raḥīl): verses 26-40
4. Praise of the patron (madīḥ): verses 41-58
There is a lot to say about all these sections, as well as their composer. Al-A‘shā (who died around 629 CE) was a pioneer of Arabic wine song, a mode already well developed in this poem. For their description of the blue-eyed tavern keeper and his milieu, the wine verses are of high literary as well as sociological interest. The ethnic alterity of the wine-seller remained a topos of Arabic bacchic verse (as in the poems of Abū Nuwās), and of historical drinking practice too.
One element of the travel section calls for comment because it is so typical. This is the description of the she-camel on whose back the poet’s heroic journey is made. For the raḥīl to be devoted to camel-description is common, and so is the likening of the camel to one of Arabia’s ungulates–whether a gazelle, an onager, or some other antlered beast of the wild. These subsidiary descriptions can run so long and deliver so much pathos that the camel is forgotten entirely. Once you become familiar with the trope of cross-species simile, it is an unbewildering source of charm. But no degree of familiarity voids the question: what motivates the persistent comparison of the domesticated camel to a hunted beast of the wild?
I leave the question open to workers in the growing field of Animal Studies. I also leave aside the political circumstances of the poem, beyond noting that it finds its dedicatee (a prince of pre-Islamic Yemen) at some odds with other members of the Ḥimyarite ruling class. (Line 44’s mention of Ḥimyar’s failure to guarantee a water supply may reference the early-seventh-century collapse of the dam of Ma’rib, which is mentioned in other poems by al-A‘shā, and in the Qur’ān at Sūrat Sabā 34:16). Al-A‘shā’s relationship to Salāma Dhū Fā’ish was one of propagandist to patron, and far from exclusive. In fact al-A‘shā is reckoned as the first Arabic language artist to turn praise-poetry into a professional career.
All but a very few of the editorial and interpretive decisions made in this translation are based in the commentary of Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā, the late-ninth-century grammarian of Kufa better known as Tha‘lab (“The Fox”). Tha‘lab presents variant readings for about half the poem’s verses, whose number and sequence vary from manuscript to manuscript; over these and other textual issues my translation passes in silence. In Tha‘lab’s collection of al-A‘shā’s verse, this poem is number eight.
– David Larsen
Heroic Sonnets is a translation from the French of the book Les Trophées by the 19th-century Cuban/French poet José-Maria de Heredia. Robert Lowell called him “The man who told the history of the world in a thousand sonnet scenes…with a Tennysonian density and finish.” Heredia was an influence on Lowell’s History, which has the same structure, and includes an imitation of Heredia’s sonnet “The Trebia.” Heredia writes with strong imagery, music, immediacy, and compression, and the translation tries to be faithful to those values. The sonnets are pictorial; a number of them were directly inspired by the paintings of his friend Gustave Moreau. Its alexandrine lines are rendered as blank verse. Though the translations are unrhymed, that music is in part restored through assonance and alliteration; the quatrains and tercets of the original, which the rhymes defined, and which in Heredia’s hands are essential aesthetic units, stand. Heredia is famous for his haunting last lines, and this translation was made with a view to keeping that resonance.
– Larry Beckett
Andrea Chapela is the daughter of a physicist and a mathematician, so she naturally studied chemistry. Luckily for me, she’s also a creative writer. The exciting thing about the poems in Fundamentals of Applied Chemistry is that they are a scientist’s exploration of life and relationships through poetry—and at the same time, a poet’s exploration of life and relationships through chemistry! Not only that, but they’re funny, cutting, insightful—and a lot of fun to translate. Ars poetica as lab report? Breakup poem as description of Bond Theory? I’m in. I think I learned more scientific terminology via translating these poems than I ever did in my high school chemistry class! To her credit, Andrea is also a patient teacher and was very helpful in talking me through the structural ideas guiding many of these poems. Though I don’t think intimate knowledge of the laws and structures she references is necessary to reading these poems, her explanations and diagrams were helpful in making sure I translated in such a way as to convey the overall metaphors. Andrea is an accomplished fiction writer, and these poems indicate she has a bright career as a poet as well.
– Kelsi Vanada
These five poems are all directed against Lucius Gellius Poplicola, who, according to Valerius Maximus, was accused of incest with his mother and plotting his father’s murder (evidence that there is such a thing as the Oedipus Complex, in some people at least!). He was, at any rate, renowned for debauchery and promiscuity. It will not therefore surprise us that he earned Catullus’ extreme animosity as yet another of Lesbia’s sexual partners. He was later to become consul in 36 BC and command the left wing of Antony’s doomed fleet at the Battle of Actium in 32 BC.
We who love Catullus love him as much for his viciousness as for the tenderness Tennyson ascribes to him!
– Ranald Barnicot
Based on the experiences of Luo Yijun’s immediate and extended families in Taiwan and China, Moon Descendants relates a story spanning four generations. A large part of the narrative pivots on Luo’s father, who joined hundreds of thousands of Chinese men in fleeing China to Taiwan after the Nationalist Party’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. What seemed to be a temporary retreat became a permanent exile, with a ban on traveling between China and Taiwan in place for the following half-century.
As in most writings of exile, memories play a significant role in Moon Descendants. How do memories intervene in an estranged life? How do memories construct time and how does time change memory? In Moon Descendants, narrative time is shuffled by the memories not only of Luo’s father but also of the author-narrator and other characters. The chapters are arranged as if they were a hand of playing cards. According to Luo, the conception of the story came from the imaginative practice of freezing time in fiction, i.e. stopping the time of a decisive moment, prying open the seam of the suspended time, and wriggling into an elaborate, spectacle-filled instant. In this way, Luo presents remembrances as different clocks of the narrative present, turned on and off by memories. These clocks make the time they mark circular like clock faces (as another part of the story portrays). The circular times sometimes intersect with one another, forming overlapping portions that, far from being in sync, trap the narrative present in conflicting arcs and movements of the past.
The translated excerpt is the sixteenth of the novel’s twenty-one chapters, a self-contained piece titled “The Flood” that explores the twists and turns behind the union of the narrator’s parents, with his mother coming from a lineage of adoptive daughters and his father leaving behind a wife in China. In the second half of the excerpt, these two lines of development merge—or submerge—in a flood caused by one of the biggest typhoons to hit Taiwan. Inundating the whole of Taipei and turning streets and alleys into waterways, the flood creates a transient world for the family’s history to rise to the surface of the water. Its effect is not so much to straighten things up as it is to flatten time momentarily and break down the border between past and present.
– Elaine Wong
The three poems included here are from Arturo Loera’s book La retórica del llanto (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2014). Apart from one poem in the anthology Poets for Ayotzinapa (Mexico City Lit, 2015), this is the first time his work has appeared in translation.
Loera’s voice is always candid. It treads that risky line where “poetic language” becomes difficult to distinguish from common ways of feeling, thinking, and, in this case, mourning. This is hard as hell to pull off. Often, though, it is a mark of good poetry. The imagery draws almost exclusively from the near-at-hand–place-names, regional attire, childhood memories–but is nevertheless rife with ambiguity. The language is plainspoken even as it works full-gear to perform multiple tasks at once. The simplest moments are the most equivocal. Whenever possible, I have tried to create equivalent effects in English.
On the whole I was strict with the meanings of individual words but not above taking liberties for the sake of sound. Example: replacing the Spanish word for “alcohol” with “liquor” in English just because it sounds better coming after “shatter.” There is a strong rhythm, conversational quality, and incantatory pulse to these poems which I hope feels familiar to American readers.
– Garrett Stanford Phelps
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).