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
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
Isadora Duncan, who haunts our car-mares with her scarf entangled, has cut a wide swath through literary, art, and film history. It was an exciting project to translate from the French her story, so wonderfully told by Anne Reynes-Delobel, in our joint project, Glorieuses Modernistes, published just now by the Presses Universitaires de Liège. A story that, along with Anne’s chapter on Kay Boyle, completed the essays I had written on seven artist women in my Glorious Eccentrics; Modernist Women Writing and Painting, each essay so expertly translated by Anne. So it has turned out to be an equilibrating project, the most delightful balancing act I can possibly imagine.
– Mary Ann Caws
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
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
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
Crossing a River Twice presents the basic translator’s dilemma: how to tell a story set in a specific time and place in a way that is universally relevant. This problem is compounded in the first three chapters with the character of Itamar, who is alienated from modern society in a way that readers worldwide will recognize, but has a distinctly Israeli way to express this alienation. His stream of consciousness, often undistinguishable from the narration, is comprised of Israeli-specific references and expressions, and he has a habit of using these references and expressions in a literal and figurative sense at the same time. The solution I found was to have Itamar use slightly altered versions of English idioms. This way, צרת רבים חצי נחמה (literally, “there’s consolation in shared troubles”) became “there’s comfort in numbers” rather than “misery loves company,” since Itamar emphatically does not want company. Similarly, וטובה שעה אחת קודם (“and better an hour sooner”) became “an hour saved is an hour earned,” rather than “the sooner the better,” since Itamar means exactly one hour.
The story is set in Tel Aviv, and Itamar’s attachment to the city, and specifically the Yarkon River, is a major aspect of his character. To emphasize this (and to add some clarity for readers not familiar with Tel Aviv and Israel) I added subtle reminders throughout the text. For example, מישור החוף (“the coastal plain”) in the second line of the prologue I translated as “Israel’s coastal plain” to provide an early point of orientation for the international reader. Similarly, I added terms for terrain and infrastructure features (e.g. river, bridge, interchange) that will be obvious to the Israeli reader but perhaps necessary for the international reader. Ultimately, I tried to achieve a translation that would not sound foreign to the international reader, but that would engage their curiosity towards the setting.
– Tom C. Atkins
Elsa Cross is a Mexican writer and philosopher, widely recognized as one of the most important voices of her generation. She has produced a considerable body of work that consists of over 20 collections of poetry, books of essays, and translations. Octavio Paz wrote that Cross “is one of the most personal voices in recent Latin American poetry. Her work, already extensive, brings together some of the most perfect poems among those written by recent generations of Mexican authors. I say ‘voice’ and not poetic writing; although it is written, above all it is spoken. Two opposed aspects are united in Elsa Cross: complexity of thought, and diaphanous diction.”
Bomarzo (from which these poems are taken) is a book-length sequence examining a relationship through the lens of the Italian garden of grotesques built in the mid-16th century by the Italian architect Pirro Ligorio that gives the book its title. Both the imagery and the language used in these poems are ornate and dreamlike, reflecting the phantasmagorical nature of the sculptures of orcs and other creatures which inhabit what is called the “Villa of Monsters,” designed to shock and express grief rather than to delight or amuse. And this poetic trip through Bomarzo is metaphoric, not literal, resulting in a nostalgia as much for things that never were as for those that never could be.
For the translation, I’ve tried to preserve Cross’ heavy utilization of Greco-Latinate terminology, to reflect both the location and a certain linguistic extravagance that echoes the Park’s eerie beauty.
Relatively little of Cross’ work is available in English, although Shearsman Press in the UK has been striving valiantly to redress this. They published a volume of Cross’ Selected Poems in 2009, and have just brought out two more of Cross’ shorter Greece-inspired collections in a single volume entitled Beyond the Sea, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. A bilingual edition of Bomarzo is forthcoming from Mexican publisher Vaso Roto in 2017.
– Lawrence Schimel
Manas is an epic novel in free verse and a mashup of two different cultures: Hindu mythology and Existential philosophy from 20th-century Europe.
This excerpt from Manas includes the first 350 or so of the 13,000 lines of the epic. War-hero Manas returns victorious to Udaipur, but broken by his existential awareness of Death. He insists on going to the source of this sorrow: Shiva’s Field of the Dead in the high Himalaya.
Encounters with human souls and demons render Manas unconscious. Demons hijack his body, hoping to use it to go down to Earth. Puto is tricked into “killing” the body, and Manas’ soul wafts back onto the Field. Puto hauls the body down to Udaipur.
Manas’ wife Savitri refuses to believe that he is dead. She sets out on an arduous quest to find him, eventually coming to the Field, where she encounters Manas’ soul. Their coupling leads to Manas’ re-embodiment. Shiva makes contact with Savitri, now revealed as the universal principle of Love. She rejoins Shiva on Kailas.
Manas rejoices in his restored body, but is unsure of his individuality and shows no empathy for other humans. He captures the three demons who caused his earlier “death” and returns with them to Earth. Holy men declare that he and the three demons together make up one new and terrible personality. Shiva comes down to retrieve the demons, but Manas challenges him with his new-found Ego, receives Shiva’s blessing, and becomes a benign spirit facilitating the transmigration of souls.
These bare bones of the tale are wrapped in scene after intriguing scene of action, comedy, pathos, and lyrical description, which leave the reader wondering, “Gosh, whatever next?”
– Chris Godwin
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).