Begoña Paz is, to my mind, a necessary writer for the world to know. She writes about topics that I notice most English-language writers seem to avoid (I could never imagine someone from the US writing “The Weight of My Desire”), and in such a startling, beautiful manner. To me, “The Weight of My Desire” represents some of the best characteristics of flash fiction, and the things that draw me to it: in the space of about a page, Paz is able to evoke so much of the history of this crumbling marriage in such simple ways. For example: “Despite every year’s present, a jar of Pond’s wrinkle cream.” With one image she evokes an uncaring husband, not only giving the same present every year, but a present which is a constant reminder to the protagonist that she is aging, that she no longer satisfies him, that he wishes she were younger, and that she feels emptiness over her inability to do anything about her situation. The story delves deep, probing, moving slowly until, with the last two paragraphs Paz turns a slow, pensive narrative into one with charge, moving at lightning speed. It gallops forward towards its conclusion and ends so fast that the reader is left as confused and disoriented as the narrator, who seems, when it is all over, to be wondering what happened and looking down at the page, or the husband, to check and see if it truly did occur.
One of the challenges of translating her poetry is that she has a great economy of language and beautiful imagery: “And cars like pills/ for anything and/ for nothing,/ and pounds/ of dreams/ that spread/ over sidewalks/ at twilight/ so that we step on them/ on our way to the/ jobschooljail of/ our everyday lives.” There is a sort of vague clarity to these lines from her poem, “Proof,” that sort of foggy clarity one gets if awake around that hour before the sun has fully risen and it’s still dark outside. The challenge of linguistic economy becomes greater when dealing with Galician—the amount of contractions in the language makes English seem tame. The Galician language, too, has such a distinct sound to it that it can be hard to approach the sonority of the original, best exemplified by “Motel Silviculture.” In the original, the last stanza reads “Elixe./ Elixe./ Elixe.” In Galician that “x” has a soft, “shh” sound, which softens the tone of the middle-heavy word (e-LI-xe). The word in Galician has a heavy emphasis, but is softened by the “shh” sound, giving a sense of harshness and pressure at the same time as it has a voice-in-your-head, whispering quality to it. In English, the two best translations of this word, which is an imperative verb conjugation of “elixir,” would be “choose” or “decide.” With “choose” readers get some of that softness from the Galician “x,” with “decide,” readers get that pounding iambic nature of the original—faced with a choice between two words in English which only contain half of the original’s sonority, how does one choose, how does one decide?
– Jacob Rogers
These translations are a meditation on the notion of translatability. Written by a young poet and assistant editor, they offer a humorous leftist political critique of bigotry, conservatism, and small-mindedness through a lens of orthography and syntax. In “Ooh, Oooh!” the poet explains the difference between the long and short vowel “u” in Hindi, as a critique of ignorance and conservatism slowly shimmers into view. For “Ooh, Oooh!” I have offered three possible translations and an illustration of an owl (my own), an ullū, a word which contains both the short and long “u” in Hindi. In Hindi and Urdu, owls are symbols of foolishness, rather than wisdom, and this owl is pointing to the foolishness of the task the translator has set out to accomplish. For the other three poems, I have gone with the “freestyle” approach suggested by the third translation of “Ooh, Oooh!”. In “Sub-Editrix,” the poet expresses his annoyance at an editor who does not know how to spell. In “News Editor,” another editor’s confusion over the difference between the spellings of Iran and Iraq (in Hindi, “Iran” starts with a long “ī”, and “Iraq” with a short “i”) unfurls into a thought on the constant state of war in the Middle East, and in “Communalist Statement,” the poet plays with syntax to critique bigoted statements (in India, the term “communalism” refers to bigotry toward members of other religious communities).
– Daisy Rockwell
We are well acquainted with Sappho’s legend. Few details of her life are confirmed, but thanks to her cult of personality (and people’s delight in salacious gossip), we can make out hazy images of her: holding a lyre, within a circle of young women, singing hymns to Aphrodite, falling—and failing—over and over again in love and in lust. Her reputation as lyric virtuosa has inspired hundreds of renditions of her poems, and thousands of words written about her in the course of literary history. So why visit her again and again?
A characteristic theme of Sappho’s poetry is the phenomenology of lust and heartbreak. In the many already extant translations of these poems, Sappho sometimes appears all too remote; she seems oracular, a high priestess reaching out to goddesses and girls of a bygone, mythic era. This is beautiful in its own right, but it contradicts her intense descriptions of physical sensation. The vision of a lover causing fire to run under one’s skin is an invention born of Sappho’s particular experience, and yet it is strikingly relatable. We should have Sappho brought to us as close as possible, thereby rendering her earthly and tangible. We should let her make us her confidant, an intimate rather than an audience member. Hence my aim with these translations—to render the drama of our pagan poet as immediate, sympathetic, incarnate.
Following Pound’s advice, I did not attempt to copy Sappho’s quantitative meter, but rather to approximate it in free verse, letting the form follow from content but always with a sensuous music underlying it all. Sappho’s world was a pagan one. She and her contemporaries sought out the divine in nature, and saw it oftentimes in the face of a lover. This seems justification enough for an engagement with her ancient art, to remind us of the vital importance of the ineffable in nature and in each other.
– Christina Farella
Chronic Heart (Cœur chronique, Le Castor Astral, 2013) by Eric Sarner, winner of the Prix Max Jacob 2014, is a poetry collection composed of three parts, three melodies. Sarner tells us that Chronic Heart “recounts events, names of places, people, works, and words that, at any given moment” resonated emotionally with him. He adds that, “from beginning to end, what grabs us are our emotions and what often accompanies them, our questions. The work of the poet is to give voice to all that.”
I chose three poems from the collection’s third part, Almost a Wandering Song. This is the heart, the chronic heart rhythmically beating, punctuating us, marking time. The titles of the poems in Almost a Wandering Song are eighty Ladino words brought back from trips by the poet. While the poems are written in French, some lines are also in Ladino. The poems are stories, testimonies, time revisited through language.
– Hélène Cardona
My translation process for this work was informed by the theoretical works of Haroldo de Campos, the late Brazilian poet, translator, and critic who emphasized that the structural elements of a poem are as important as–and sometimes more important than–its semantic aspects. Here, I have tried to maintain the metric structures, compressing them when possible, but still maintaining rhythm and other aspects.
– Alessandro Palermo Funari
The following versions of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems are covers in the popular music tradition. Singing them I hope to discover an elasticity in the German that can almost, if not quite, cover my English.
The arc of the life so briefly described in the biography provided here reminds me of the arcs of the lives of so many blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the American 20th century—great musicians who made huge contributions to the sounds of the century through their own writing and playing and through their influences upon other artists, but who, for various reasons, including passionate temperaments, fell off the success tracks and were immediately or slowly left behind by their friends and colleagues, perhaps to spend decades in quiet towers writing and singing mainly to themselves, much as Hölderlin did.
The three poems presented here are from the initial phase of a project to compose a (book or) album of cover versions of short Hölderlin poems. The project has two principal goals: to please myself (I have fun composing these versions—it’s like singing Aretha or Zeppelin or Queen in the shower); and to do something to bring Hölderlin’s life and work to the attention of readers who have not yet heard of him. I love the Janus-like gaze of cover versions of music, songs that deliberately read past works and yet might, if they give pleasure, take an active part in conversations to come.
– Daniel Bosch
Book twenty-one of Homer’s Iliad covers the core of Achilles’s rampage, after Patroclus’s death and before Hector’s, and includes Achilles’s battle with the river Xanthus, one of the best set pieces in the epic. The book opens with the Trojans, who were on the cusp of victory the day before, in full retreat. In the confusion half the army stampedes into the Xanthus, and the other half is making its way over the plain, trying to reach the shelter of Ilios’s walls. What follows is a summary of this version’s conventions.
Achaeans, Argives, Danaans, and their fellows are flattened to “Greeks,” unless the context asks for some distinction between regions. Trojan factions are treated similarly.
Patronymics (“son-of-Atreus”) are treated as surnames, and surnames may be used alone where Homer uses a patronymic alone and there is no danger of ambiguity. That is,
McCartney = Paul McCartney = Paul, son of Cartney
Peleus = Achilles Peleus = Achilles, son of Peleus
Aeacus = Achilles Peleus Aeacus = Achilles, son of Peleus, grandson of Aeacus
Homer is lax about pronoun referents (“he chased him and he fled” would be an acceptable construction) and this translation is lax about countering this laxity. Ambiguous cases are clarified in notes.
Some Greek words and particles, often cognates, are retained unmodified: agora (assembly), daimon (spirit, demigod), hero (warrior), mantis (seer), phalanx (battalion), and others, as well as prefixes such as ambi-, amphi-, para-, and poly-. Compounds such as “horsebreaking,” “greatsouled,” and “brazenshirted” reflect single-word epithets in the Greek, whereas hyphenates like “long-haired” correspond to multiword formulas.
This translation retains the Greek punctuation mark áno teleía (“·”). It functions like a colon or semicolon, separating independent clauses.
Occasional three-accent hemistiches, or half-lines, are employed for effect. The hemistiches do not reflect metrical irregularities in the original.
Line numbers in the English equate to line numbers in the Greek, give or take some syntactical variation.
– D. H. Tracy
Since the 116 extant poems of Catullus were recovered in the 14th century, his short poems (60 polymetra and 48 epigrams) have struck readers as distinctly modern. The poet grounds these works in contemporary life rather than in the mythic past. His erotic verse is as moving as his invectives are mean-spirited. His emotional range is great, perhaps shown most effectively in the portrayal of his love affair with Lesbia, a sophisticated noblewoman (likely based on the historical Clodia Metelli).
In translating, I emphasized that Catullus is an iambic poet. Dating from the seventh century BCE, the iambic genre owes its name to Iambe, a minor goddess of satire who, in the Homeric Hymns, rescues Demeter from sadness by means of bawdy jests. Invective is characteristic of iambus; accordingly, Catullus, learned poet that he was, refers to his attacks as “iambics.”
To better capture in English his manner–a blend of coxcomb and brute–I abandoned his hendecasyllables and elegiac couplets for free verse, enabling me to approximate his rhythms without sacrificing subtleties of sense.
In spite of the modern feel of these poems, written more than two thousand years ago, they differ from a good deal of lyric poetry written today in one important respect: Catullus prefers a personal mode of address to the meditative style that has prevailed since Mallarmé. Whether praising or blaming or some combination thereof, the Roman poet’s addresses to others read as genuine. T. S. Eliot believed that, for the ancients, the You of lyric was merely a formality. But with Catullus, there is no question that it is intended literally, and issues from the heart.
– Michael G. Donkin
Much like the work of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Atahualpa Yupanqui’s song lyrics are beloved as poetry, in addition to their role in music, and many have been published as such in a variety of editions. The works translated here are taken from two volumes: Guitarra, published in 1954, and Antología, published in 1973. The poems/lyrics themselves cover a wider span of time, with “Road of the Indian” written in 1928, when Yupanqui was 20 years old, and “The Heart and the Verse” written in 1970.
Yupanqui uses the word viday numerous times in his work. This word is a combination of Quechua and Spanish and literally means “my life,” but it is uttered as an interjection, a verbal sigh. When possible I have translated it, but there were instances when I felt it was better left untranslated.
– Maia Evrona
I met Zhu Zhu for the first time two years ago when he came to the US for a joint residency with me in Vermont. We established our trust over a long trans-Pacific phone call that lasted an entire night. Then it dawned on us that such trust could be extended to a book. Since then, I have read every poem he has written and selected with him a collection that encapsulates what this distinguished poet has achieved in the past decade.
This past decade has seen a Chinese economic boom, and many poets have abandoned poetry for lucrative businesses. Zhu Zhu took to the arts and makes a living by writing art criticism and curating art exhibitions in China and overseas. He has made a name for himself in the new field. It was the literariness of his words that first drew attention from a group of well-known artists. His art criticism does not distract Zhu Zhu from his poetry, however. Instead, it heightens his sensibility to the diverse emotional modes of expression inherent in artistic composition.
Though revered in poetry circles, Zhu Zhu remains on the periphery and his work in the art world gives him certain advantages in keeping his distance from the occasional riots within poetry circles. Zhu Zhu writes quietly. His paced poems weave slowly through personal and larger histories. The poems do not surprise for surprise’s sake; rather, they give the reader a painterly view at each and every turn. His smooth lines unfold like a scroll of painting and accrue meaning. Zhu Zhu’s poetry illuminates and sets the reader adrift in meditations, yet the poems are sharp as crystals that cut into the interiority of the mind.
– Dong Li
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).