An iconoclastic portrayal of Italian domestic spaces (the kitchen, the body), The Guest (L’ospite) is an examination of the tangled network of family, and especially of the lineage of women that extends from Elisa Biagini’s great-grandmother to herself. It explores the intimate space that belonged to those women, and the ways in which that space made them both slaves and tyrants. The domestic interior and the female body often become one another in these poems in ways that are frightening and illuminating (in the first poem of this excerpt, for instance, skin that used to be butter has now become a paper bag for bread; in the last, dinner plates are white blood cells). In this way these poems exhibit the dangers and powers of the body’s ability to transform and morph into the spaces that it occupies.
One of the primary challenges of translating this startling and intensely physical poetry is how to render the sound and vivid imagery evoked by the Italian verse in English. We read these poems out loud to each other many times, both in Italian and English, as we worked on these translations, in an effort to reproduce that tactile and immediate quality of Biagini’s language in our work. Elisa Biagini is a translator of Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Lucille Clifton, and their directness of language has definitely influenced her Italian writing; another challenge was to allow those echoes to return in these English translations.
– Sarah Stickney and Diana Thow
Reading Dino Campana’s Orphic Songs for the first time is much like watching a David Lynch film. Thrilling and even a bit disturbing, it is guaranteed haunt you like only the most beautiful of nightmares can. For Campana’s poems function as unexpected and striking visions, loosely wrapped in classical Italian, but ready for modern consumption. Through the humble means of repetition and imagery, they tightly grip the ordinary and concrete, taking the overlooked or willfully ignored and turning it on its side until the sublimity of the grotesque leaks through. These poems are filled with equal parts danger and recklessness, as well as all that is human and bright. Once released from their Italian and slightly rusty cages, they crystallize a nascent urban vivacity which continues to ring through our lives today, connecting with us contemporary readers perhaps even better than when they were originally published. Because, as Campana demonstrates in Oh poem poem poem, even a woman screaming for her little dog can be a stunning instant of clarity.
A troubled and lonely soul who spent his youth in and out of asylums (his own unwell mother reportedly claimed he was the Antichrist) and wandering the cities of Europe on the brink of World War I, Campana infused his works with the electric energy that was pulsating through city streets at that time. The beauty he presents is one that must be snatched from the barbaric, for it is feverish, weak, and on the verge of certain death. And it is this urgency, that of a perceived madman searching for purity, of a soul on fire running for safety amidst the chaos of cruelty, that continues to make his poems unique and captivating to this day.
– Sonya Gray Redi
One of the most interesting works among this selection–all of which are taken from Santiago Vizcaíno’s most recently published collection of poems Hábitat del camaleón–is the long-form prose poem song of oneself. As both translator and reader, I thought it might be interesting to delve more deeply into the influences and processes which went into creating this particular piece. What follows is a brief interview with the author.
Q: What is the purpose of using Whitman’s famous poem as influence and point of departure in song of oneself? How was such an idea born, in particular the use of third person and the constant repetition of your own name to direct the phrases (a type of punishment/ bullying/black humor) towards a deformed version of yourself, the author?
A: The reference to Whitman is without doubt sarcastic. While Song Of Myself is the highest expression of poetry in conjunction with life, that is to say, the exaltation of the self and of nature, song of oneself —in which Whitman’s poetic “I” becomes the poetic “one”—turns rather to the more sincere and absurd pathos of the poet. It is no longer the romantic “I” imbued with an almost religious spirit. It is the poet character looking in from the outside, fed up with repeating his name. It is a poet who opens up, but who also reinvents. There is an intention to demystify. That is precisely why a poor translation of one of Whitman’s verses is used, as an epigraph.* It is to say that the poet is no more than a bad translation of himself: an impostor.
Q: What place does the Latin American experience and/or Ecuadorian poetics have within this work, and how is it evidenced?
A: Perhaps the clearest influence would be Trilce by César Vallejo (Peruvian poet, writer, playwright and journalist, 1892-1983). This fundamental book in Latin American poetry has had a great deal of influence on the writing of this poem, divided into four parts. Vallejo’s sorrow is, of course, Santiago’s sorrow. But there is also irony, which I take from Nicanor Parra–although it might be better called sarcasm. I’m a bit fed up with poets who exalt their condition. song of oneself is a mockery, but it is also testament to the fact that the poet is no medium for divinity.
* Estoy enamorado de mí mismo, hay tantas cosas en mí tan deliciosas: “I am in love with myself, there are so many things within me which are so delicious.’ I have left this epigraph untranslated—while it seems to be from a widely circulated version of Song of Myself (Canto a mí mismo, in Spanish), it not so much a translation as a free-form, modernized interpretation of the original work. I was unable to find anything near to its equivalent in either the original or in more traditional translations into Spanish, such as the one done by León Felipe in 1941. I think the context provided here allows for some insight into why such a choice was made, and justifies leaving it “as is” in the poem.
– Kimrey Anna Batts
The following selection of poems comes from Vito Bonito’s most recent collection of poetry, Soffiati via. The title could simply be translated as “Blown away” but it is something more. The title refers to a state of nirvana, an otherworldliness where there is neither suffering nor desire. The poems are short, often sharp, and create a chorus of ethereal voices. They are filled with violence and beauty, and I was drawn to them because of their unique use of the Italian language. At times the syntax is markedly disjointed and childish, yet equally as often the poems use Latin phrases and references to the poetry of Montale and Pascoli, and the films of Herzog and Korine.
Translating these poems has been an education, a way into a new world. A feature of Bonito’s work I particularly admire is the level of moral distance the poems take from the brutal actions they narrate; the poems are free of judgment. Bonito asks readers to push themselves and their understandings of compassion beyond the sentimentality that’s often mistaken for true emotion.
The poems are voices from truncated childhoods. When I first read the poems, it was unclear to me what continued to pull me in, but in the end I knew it was this shortened yet eternal infancy that can call to each of us. Learning that Giovanni Pascoli is one of Bonito’s main influences led me to read more Pascoli as I translated. I learned that Pascoli wrote about the voice of childhood, and how it remains within each of us, never quite abandoning us, for better or worse. I was reminded of Avital Ronell’s assertion in the chapter from her 2012 book Loser Sons: Politics and Authority entitled “On the Unrelenting Creepiness of Childhood: Lyotard: Kid-Tested”: “Childhood, in any case, will leave us with inhuman surges of deregulation, with a level of fear and distress that can come up at any point in the trajectory of so-called human development.” Bonito gives voice to the pain and disenfranchisement alive within each of us. His poems give us the opportunity to experience the distress and confusion that often characterize childhood.
– Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
Sowohl, meaning “white moon” or “humble moon,” is the pen name of Kim Jung-Sik. Born in 1902, he lived most of his life in Chung-Ju, a small town northwest of Pyongyang in present-day North Korea. Chung-Ju, his ancestral home for many generations, was renowned for its natural beauty: the Yellow Sea in the west, the nine majestic mountain peaks toward the north and east. Rivulets from the mountains converged to form a river that wove through the villages and irrigated the rice fields throughout the lower valley–a pre-industrial, unspoiled countryside. This landscape surely nurtured Sowohl’s poetic sensibility; an intimacy to nature, like a second skin, resonates throughout his poetry.
Sowohl grew up during the tumultuous Japanese Occupation of Korea. When he was two years old, Japanese railroad workers robbed and beat his father, leaving him with a permanent mental disorder. Sowohl’s grandfather was responsible for his early education and, before Sowohl attended primary school, he taught him classical Chinese characters as was the custom for Yangban, the landowning class. Sowohl began writing poetry at the Oh-San secondary school where he met his mentor, Kim Uk. Kim Uk was a well-established poet and a translator of French symbolist poetry, and his influence on young poets was far-reaching. Although the Oh-San school was burned down by Japanese authorities for its participation in the March 1 Liberation Movement in 1919 and forbidden to reopen again, Kim Uk remained a mentor and friend to Sowohl. When Sowohl was eighteen, Kim Uk introduced his poetry to the literary world, hailing him as a gifted new poet.
In 1925, Sowohl’s first collection of poems, Azalea Flower, was published, and he was regarded as a brilliant poet. Sowohl found an authentic modern lyrical form by employing both traditional folk rhythms and colloquial expressions. The poem “Azalea” was particularly beloved: the azalea flowers that brighten the mountains of Korea after the harsh winter, instead of being the hopeful sign of spring, become a metaphor of the colorful sorrow of dejected love and the means to sublimate that anguish.
By the end of the 1920s, Sowohl had ceased writing and was struggling with financial difficulties, depression, and heavy drinking. In 1934, he committed suicide at age 32.
Sowohl is the most beloved modern poet in Korea and many of his poems were composed into songs still widely sung today. His simple words and his mournful rhythm resonate deeply with people across generational and social divisions, the trauma of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War which resulted in one million refugees from the North, and the massive migration from the countryside to cities in the South. Sowohl’s poetry consoles people’s yearnings for their homeland, which for many Koreans still lies inaccessible beyond the 38th parallel of the Demilitarized Zone, and reminds them of their deep bond with nature.
I began translating poetry as a way of quenching my homesickness while raising children in the U.S., far away from my native home of South Korea. At the time, my language deficiency felt bottomless since English was my third language. I believed translating would deepen my understanding of the English language as well as teach me something about writing my own poetry.
I was acutely aware of the difficult task ahead of me; the concision of Sowohl’s diction and his unique lyrical qualities defy translation into English verse. Despite inevitable losses, in these translations I have attempted to capture some of the musicality present in the original Korean. And I tried to retain the same physical layout of the original poem as much as possible.
For this translation, I am very grateful for the encouragement and critical input of my late teacher, Ottone M. Riccio and my fellow poets, the poetry group previously known as the Lincoln group and the Boston Literary Translators group. I especially thank Lee Mendenhall for taking the time to proofread the entire manuscript with care and make many invaluable suggestions. Lastly, I thank my family, especially our two daughters, Pendry and Julia, for inspiring me and helping me to complete this project.
– Sekyo Nam Haines
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
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
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
Silke Scheuermann is decidedly a lyric poet, but her language is not ornamental. Instead, her lyricism is plaintive, imaginative, and humorous, and Scheuermann evokes familiar, accessible language to recall a more uncertain space. Through apparent syntactical coherence Scheuermann devises possibilities and impossibilities, wonders out loud, reimagines familiar stories as playfully unfamiliar, and tests the waters at language’s edge. In translating these pieces, I have tried to preserve the innocent, curious lyricism that I find so integral to her work, a truly unique and vulnerable lyricism unlike that of any other poet I know. Scheuermann is unafraid of cliché: she is a poet in constant state of wondering, and I hope I have translated this exuberance.
– Patty Nash
My older sister took out Niels Fredrik Dahl’s Antecedentia from the library when it came out in 1995. I was fourteen at the time, and as far as I can remember, these are the first poems that truly fascinated me. Antecedentia is Dahl’s third collection of poetry. The book has big themes: love, history and the passing of time, suffering, ill fortune, and humanity’s darkest sides. But it’s also filled with the local and specific: references to places, news events, pop culture, and real people, done in an elegant and sometimes humorous way. Dahl creates vivid stories with few words and keeps his readers on their toes. Antecedentia has always given me a feeling that the world is large and rich with hurtful detail that one can access through poetry.
When I had to pick a translation project for a graduate workshop, Antecedentia was a natural choice. I was a complete novice, but I’d been working in the territory between English and Norwegian ever since I’d started writing as a young teenager. Like everyone else in Norway, I grew up with TV and pop music in English, and started honing my knowledge of American idioms and slang early on. I spoke English with parts of my family, and it felt more intimate than Norwegian did. Writing felt natural in this English, which was full of satisfying, cool phrases. I felt free to pour out things that were too painful or embarrassing to express in Norwegian. I think I share this sensation with many Norwegians—almost all Norwegian pop stars, for example, write their lyrics in English. Later, I would translate my writing into Norwegian. When exposed to the bright light of my native tongue, these pieces curled into themselves and tightened up, until only the strongest and smallest possible structure of terse Norwegian remained. This became my modus operandi for years. I was primarily a poet until I switched to fiction and left Norway to pursue my MFA in the United States. Attempting to bring the no-nonsense clarity of the Norwegian language into English via Dahl’s poems has been a very interesting experience.
Translating poetry can be frustrating, so I consider a bonus anything I can manage that carries over a little bit more of the original’s unnamable qualities. Dahl uses punctuation sparingly, and changes verb tenses and tone midway through a poem. Translating his tightly packed sentences without losing even their most basic meaning is sometimes challenging. I hope I’ve been able to do the poems justice.
– Karen Havelin
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).