Spanish writer Juan José Millás notices what happens when everyone else is looking the other way. His short fiction intrudes upon the intimate, uncomfortable, often shameful but pivotal moments of his protagonists without introduction, warning, or apology, all with a distinct “Millasian” style: he peers upon an isolated human experience, takes a snapshot of it, winks at the reader, and leaves, usually in the span of two pages. Reading his work is much like spying on a voyeur who is simultaneously spying on someone else. It is discomfort, once-removed.
This brief selection from Stories Out in the Open (Cuentos a la intemperie) unfolds on the streets of Madrid at the close of the twentieth century. When our instinct is to avert our gaze, Millás forces us to look closer yet: at a father’s rage on a family road trip, at the adult man who claims to be the son of a pajama-clad stranger, at the Devil perusing religious literature at the European equivalent of Barnes and Noble. This perpetual uncovering, the initial discomfort that results from bearing witness to such private moments, eventually gives way to amusement.
Millás is a household name and public figure of the Iberian Peninsula. He belongs to a generation of writers born at the height of Franco’s dictatorship, but who began writing during the so-called “transition” to democracy. Despite their insistence upon everyday human experience, Millás’ stories are inextricable from their larger historical and political context: they emerge as the products of one who grew up in a dictatorial pressure cooker and who now wants to write about anything but that. Through a deliberate avoidance of key words such as “Spanish civil war” or “Franquismo,” combined with an experimental form and growing emphasis on the effects of the economic crisis, his stories are unmistakably situated in turn-of-the-century Spain. Millás is a rare jewel for the reader; despite his national fame, his work remains largely absent from the Anglophone literary circuit.
– Gabriella Martin
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
Sébastien Rongier’s enigmatic novel 78 brings us into a provincial French brasserie in 1978, where a disparate collection of characters grow tipsy, argue, break up, smoke cigarettes, read, watch each other, and listen to the rasp of Johnny Cash’s voice wafting from the jukebox. Their stories unfold through chains of Georges Perec-like vignettes, which are gradually braided together as the characters interact.
In 1978, France was still haunted by the bitter and bloody Algerian War, which had ended sixteen years previously. Millions of pieds-noirs (European Christians and Jews living in French Algeria) and harkis (Muslim Algerians who had fought in the French army) had fled Algeria for France after Algeria gained its independence. The nostalgia for a French Algeria played a significant role in the development of the National Front political party in 1972, a far-right, nationalist, anti-immigration party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The National Front is still alive and thriving today, and Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, has taken the helm; the last two years’ regional elections in France have seen historic successes for the party, and connections have been drawn between its right-wing populism and that of Donald Trump.
We see these tensions reflected in 78. Max, the owner of the brasserie, had fought in Algeria, where he met Mohamed, an Algerian who is now the brasserie’s chef. Although the two had been on opposing sides, they struck up an odd friendship. Max eventually saved Mohamed’s life: after Mohamed was nearly killed in the bloody Paris massacre of FLN (pro-liberation) Algerians in 1961, he came to Max for help. Max has been hiding and employing him illegally ever since. Meanwhile, four of the brasserie’s customers are National Front disciples, who discuss politics loudly. They are hoping to convert Max to their party, unaware of his pro-Algerian sympathies.
Rongier relies heavily on the French pronoun on, which can mean you, he, we, or they, depending on the context. While this works well in French, rendering the text all the more mysterious and giving it a lilting rhythm, it makes translation into a language without such a catch-all pronoun particularly difficult. I sacrificed some strict faithfulness to the text and to its spirit of mystery in the name of clarity, often replacing the pronoun with “the man” or “the boy.”
– Gretchen Schmid
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
Author Tatsuhiro Ōshiro—who once served as the director of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum—is best known for storytelling that has made Okinawan history and culture accessible to a wider audience. He is credited with reinvigorating the traditional narrative dance form known as kumi odori by exploring themes of cultural hybridity and gender. His masterpiece, The Ryūkyū Disposition: A Novel, relates the buried chapter of world history in which the Ryūkyū Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) was annexed by Japan during its 19th-century modernization campaign.
Ōshiro is no stranger to controversy when it comes to current affairs. The Cocktail Party—which broaches the subject of rape committed by U.S. servicemen—is one example of Ōshiro’s efforts to portray the complexities of life under occupation for the natives of Okinawa, which hosts more than 70 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan and is the nation’s poorest prefecture. Such works attest to the sense of injustice and betrayal harbored by a cultural group that lost a third of its civilian population in World War II and underwent a forced linguistic shift to Japanese that has resulted in the Okinawan dialect being listed by UNESCO as an endangered language.
Published in 2011, the novella To Futenma takes its title from Air Station Futenma, a U.S. marine base located in Ginowan, a city with a population of just under 100,000. The base has been at the center of a deadlock for two decades: local opponents of the U.S. military presence have organized mass protests aimed at shutting it down, while Tokyo has pushed forward with a relocation plan that would move it to a different part of the island, bringing with it the same adverse effects—aircraft accidents, noise, pollution, crime. Told through the eyes of a young woman who practices the art of kumi odori, To Futenma reveals a family’s intergenerational struggle to preserve their indigenous culture amid turmoil.
– Bonnie Huie
A special feature on Québécoise poet and novelist Rachel Leclerc in Lettres québécoises (No. 146, 2012) states: “Few bodies of work are as coherent, singular and constant. Rachel Leclerc is one of the great voices of Québec literature. Not one that proclaims loud and clear, but one that whispers, like the voices we hear in church or in libraries. And what she sings is sacred.” (my translation)
This excerpt of six poems is drawn from her 1992 book Les vies frontalières (“Borderlives”). In awarding the Prix Émile-Nelligan to this work, the jury’s president said it was chosen for “its purity of language, variation of rhythm, the strength and evocative character of its images, and the economy of its presentation.” These poems recount Leclerc’s return to her native Gaspésie, which she left as a young woman some fifteen years prior. She returns with her lover, in a quest to reconcile with a past marked by loss and turmoil. It is a passionate, deep exploration of the estrangement she feels–broken ties with family, a land, and a heritage–and the struggle to find a new way of being, what she refers to symbolically as “living at borders,” or borderlives.
There are many reasons why I translate Leclerc’s poetry: the luminous beauty of her language, the striking images, the juxtaposition of the prosaic and cosmic, the search for the essential, the ability to be enchanted. I particularly like its musicality. When I read her poems aloud, I hear the sounds of the Gaspésie: waves rolling onto pebble-covered beaches, wind blowing through pine trees on mountain paths. Sometimes the words are a slow interior recitation, other times they are an incantation, even an imperious cry. I work hard to capture and reproduce such effects in my translation. It requires careful word choice and a judicious handling of enjambments and ellipses, two techniques that Leclerc uses with great mastery. Sometimes it requires breaking with Leclerc’s complete eschewing of all punctuation and using (sparsely) an exclamation or question mark (see poems #3 and #5). This is necessary because in French the stress naturally falls at the end of a word, fragment, or clause, whereas English blank verse is built on groupings of stressed and unstressed syllables.
– CS Lemprière
The choice of the words drunken and intemperate is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. While people might disagree about which of the words indicates a greater degree of dependence, this is entirely the point: The narrator is not in agreement with his father about what the words in question mean, and the pompousness and illogic of the conversation in question is of course characteristic of conversations among inebriated people.
The translation’s “the Potato Rows” is a fairly well-established literal translation of “Kartoffelrækkerne,” the name of a distinctive Copenhagen neighborhood of row houses that was created in the nineteenth century as affordable housing for working-class people but comprises real estate that is very expensive for new buyers today due to its central location and attractive local environment. The narrator’s temporary home on Nørre Farimagsgade; the Botanical Garden, where the narrator’s father claims to have gone for a walk earlier on the day on which the events of the story take place; and Kjeld Langes Gade, where the narrator remembers having lived as a child, are all a short walk from each other and from the Potato Rows.
I have rendered the words attributed to W.C. Fields in the story into English as a close translation of the narrator’s Danish version, which is slightly more brutally formulated than the version of the quote in question that is often elsewhere attributed to Fields, “I feel as though the Russian army had been walking over my tongue in their stockinged feet.”
– Peter Sean Woltemade
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
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an essay by Faleeha Hassan describing her experience living as an Iraqi refugee in the United States. You can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/04/iraqi-refugee-living-in-america-some-wish-me-dead.
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
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).