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
Let the question asked and answered by one German critic stand as introduction to Vasilii Golovanov’s “documentary novel” The Island (Original Russian title: остров or Ostrov):
“A travelogue, a novel, an ethnographic report, a historical narrative, a cautionary tale, an autobiography, or a collection of stories and myths? It is all of this and more. It is the kind of book that only appears a handful of times in a century.”
Now it’s my turn. I say The Island is a transcendently beautiful book, both formally innovative and emotionally charged, possibly the first deep engagement with the extremes of the Russian Far North that is truly post-Soviet. And by “post-Soviet” I mean it is less concerned with bearing witness to great suffering and great crimes, and more concerned with the allure of the north (although Golovanov acknowledges crimes visited upon living beings and living land).
By “post-Soviet” I also mean a work that is not explicitly political (and much of the fiction we call “post-Soviet” continues to identify itself in terms of its stance toward the power of the state). In The Island, the state is marginal, marginalized. The focus is on the individual, his environment, and whatever informs him–past traumas, personal history, education and engagement with the world around him–and as such is liberating, for any reader, not just the Russian reader.
The Island details a number of journeys Golovanov made during the nineties to the island of Kolguev, a “tiny planet” in the Barents Sea. Golovanov claims these sojourns were a therapeutic response to a personal and professional crisis brought on by his work as a war correspondent. Over time, his involvement with Kolguev broadened into a meditation on the Russian Far North, its inhabitants, its natural beauty, and its tragedy; along the way, the work he produced to document this engagement deepened into an exploration as to the meaning of travel itself.
Formally, it may be the first Russian nonfiction novel (it is billed as such). It is certainly the first Russian work I know that mixes a wide variety of genres, and puts them all at the service of a rhapsody. It is a cut-and-paste picaresque, filled with lengthy discursive asides on flora, fauna, indigenous inhabitants, earlier encounters with the landscape (by Scottish explorers, by Soviet scientists, by other late-20th-century dreamers and refugees), myths, legends, personal stories, and the vast Russian literary tradition to which Golovanov lays claim, from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Aksakov, Platonov (to whom he consciously acknowledges a deep debt), and even the Babel of Red Cavalry. The theme of the book, or its impetus, is that of flight–and for the first time in Russian literary history this flight takes place within the vastness of Russia, because of Russia and not in spite of it, constituting challenge, possibility, and opportunity–for redemption, for self-discovery, for a deeper understanding of what it means to go to extremes.
– Adam Siegel
I never thought about translating my own work into a foreign language, yet with this story I decided to try for the first time. The reason, it seems to me, lies in the story itself (and not just in the fact that my native country is under the spell of an evil man and is descending into madness). The story plays out in a Southern California beach town. Everyone in it is an English speaker, so when I was writing the story in Russian I tried to echo the intonations of English. Translating the story was almost like re-translating it into the language that was original to its plot; but translating is always, in some way, a rewriting. This is a story of death-in-life, of alienation. Nothing spells alienation more clearly than a story told in a language alien to its teller. When I reread my translation, a chill goes down my spine because the form and the content coincide perfectly, and I can barely recognize myself either as the author or as the character of the story–similar to how the heroine can barely recognize her existence in the beach town as the life she was supposed to live.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ha Nguyen for her corrections and suggestions.
– Maria Rybakova
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
In Melanie Taylor Herrera’s short story “Journey,” a girl is abandoned, reclaimed, and again reclaimed. Mothering occurs as a plurality, the matriarchs, like the view from the streetcar, automobile, bus, horse, hip, whisking past, blurring countryside and city, nostalgic past and modernist present, refocusing even as eyesight worsens. Who is abandoned in the making of a nation, and for whom is it truly a nation? Which traces now recognized? Which lines can be transversed, by whom, and for how long? Or is the sound that is made collectively or the images that are combined the only true celebrations? A voice from the depths of the sofa. A call and need for a different mothering in the midst of. A woman like a country ages exponentially even as “progression” occurs at its pace. At which point the intersection?
The reader is in each place asked to exist and accommodate, as in grow comfortable, though in each place the female body is faced with danger, betrayal, quieting. How does this act as a metaphor for the country, Panama, now, as it celebrates anniversaries of construction, canal, nation; for conflicted memories of invasion; for a woman’s relation to power; and for globalization? Who has been considered a citizen? Who now is so easily adapted? Before whom does the law bend or turn its back? What knowledge in the wrinkled eye lost?
And as for home in instability and the contrast of enclosure and open air. The females who advocate for open windows, walks outside. Threats to security. Who should have been saved? Is not getting saved? Is saving? Is it a postcard? A ghostly trace of tracks stepped over. There are numerous hauntings, possessions. To be a devil or a ghost because memory remains and is desired to be shared. In the very center of the city hidden away or very far in the countryside open to the air. What is aging us prematurely?
Melanie Taylor Herrera included this story in her book Camino a Mariato. Each story offers a route into an interior slice. In “Journey,” our protagonist has been taken into the core of a nation and there enclosed. Female territory and mythmaking and agency. The book and the story offer up new possibility.
– Christina Vega-Westhoff
Paco Urondo’s poems figure in the conversational, revolutionary trend in Latin American poetry in the mid-to-late 20th century. He and his contemporaries engaged with the difficult political realities of their time, always with the intent to achieve art above all else. Though he would come to write conversationally and directly over time, his oeuvre preserves the legacy of Surrealism. His humor and pain, individually and in solidarity with others, make this poet crucial, unavoidable, to the reading of the poetry of the Americas.
Urondo was a victim of the dictatorship in Argentina, killed just months after the March 1976 coup. He was active in the guerrilla organization Montoneros and worked as a journalist. He was a contemporary of Juan Gelman, Mario Benedetti, Julio Cortázar, and many others who considered him a great talent and friend. Though his work appears alongside that of these renowned authors in some anthologies, it has largely been excluded from criticism and translation. Currently, his legacy is experiencing a revival in Argentina.
He is famously quoted as saying, “Empuñé un arma porque busco la palabra justa” (I took up arms in search of the just word). Urondo’s efforts to merge the roles of artist, intellectual, and militant were sites of devastation and of hope, confirming the poet’s valor and his trust in his work, in his compañeros, and in history, to effect the change he sought.
– Julia Leverone
The underlying concept for the book Geometry in the Dust concerns the idea of the city, and its extensive, facetious description. In the book’s first chapter, excerpted here, we learn that an Eastern, desert-dwelling king has dispatched his right-hand man–the book’s narrator–to a distant, nameless city. The aide’s job is to meticulously observe and notate the city, so that these descriptions might furnish instructions to build a city of their own, in the middle of their desert kingdom.
The book’s absurd conceit becomes then, how to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.
As with almost all of Pierre Senges’s texts, the narration unfolds with numerous erudite allusions. These can be overwhelming at times, but mostly they function as an invitation to explore the vast universal library from which Senges often gleans his material. Fortunately, no prior knowledge of Ibn Sahl, the mad caliph Hakem, or the Book of Rare Things in the Art of Calculation by Abū Kāmil–all mentioned here in passing–is required to enjoy this Borgesian tale’s wit.
Twenty-six large black-and-white drawings by the illustrator Killoffer complement the narrator’s anatomy of the city. Above all, they suggest visions of a frenzy: objects cluttered together, the violent pace of city life, and crowds overflowing with gruesome, terror-struck faces. As such, they afford a striking counterpoint to the narrator’s calm, collected, rational elaboration of the city’s aspects.
The book is available in a large, horizontal-format edition, with glossy pages and a cutaway cover, making this book a virtually one-of-a-kind collaboration. It was published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales as the first (and only, it turns out) title in a series entitled one wonders how such books find their way into readers’ hands. A very good question, indeed.
– Jacob Siefring
Born Liliane Cohen to a family originally from Salonica (whose Jewish community was essentially wiped out by the Nazis), Liliane Atlan attended the Gilbert Bloch d’Orsay school founded in Paris for youths traumatized by the Shoah, where she studied Talmud, Torah, mystical texts, and Jewish history. Her writing is steeped in this body of literature, and her French language is inflected with Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish. While living in Israel after the 1967 war, Atlan was a founder of a Jewish-Arab theatre company and was, until she died (in Kfar Saba), active in Jewish-Palestinian peace and cultural initiatives. Her literary, and especially theatrical forms are experimental, constructed at the limits of narrative, representation, temporal and spatial continuity. Her poems are her most accessible texts, and her final poems—represented here—are her most beautiful, at least to my mind.
– Marguerite Feitlowitz
“Hanácká ves,” which I translate as “A little village of Haná,” illustrates many of the themes and tropes present in many of the Silesian Songs. There is the tension between peasants and landlords, the rustics and city folk, between and amongst the Germans, Austrians, Jews, and Silesians. There is the defiance of the laborer against the monied land- or mine-owner. There is a snapshot of the culture of the region expressed in an idiom. There is the landscape and what it provides. And, too, there is the male gaze in all its gentle oppression.
– Jacob A. Bennett
Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone,” one of the outstanding works of early literary modernism, has been translated into English by many prominent poets and critics, among them Samuel Beckett, William Meredith, W.S. Merwin, Donald Revell, and Roger Shattuck. In creating my own translation, I can’t claim their expertise, only my affection. I first encountered “Zone” in college and have been moved and delighted by it ever since. First published in 1913 in Apollinaire’s groundbreaking collection Alcools, it is a collagistic and phantasmagorical rendition of a single day in Paris, with excursions, via memory and fantasy, to many other locations and scenes.
The mixture of high and low registers, of praise for secular new technology and nostalgia for the religious and Classical past, creates a terrific energy in “Zone,” as does Apollinaire’s rejection of punctuation and use of fragments of varying lengths. The poem veers between the lyrical, the playful, and the nakedly self-revelatory.
As the poet David Lehman notes, in the introduction to his own, interesting, translation of “Zone,” most translators avoid attempting to replicate the poem’s many end rhymes. But to me these rhymes give the poem much of its buoyancy, humor, and emotional impact, and I have worked to replicate their effect. Where there seemed to me to be a conflict between literal transcription and a looser word or phrase that better captured the rhythm or spirit of the original, I chose the latter.
Perhaps my greatest deviation is in the very first line. “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien” translates straightforwardly as “In the end you are tired of this ancient world.” Lehman rightly points out Apollinaire’s “audacity” in starting a poem with the words “in the end.” But my ear kept snagging on those few words, whether I tried “You’re weary in the end of this ancient world” or “In the end you’re tired of this ancient world,” or any other like translation. I ask Apollinaire’s forgiveness for the decision to enter swiftly into the hectic pace of his poem with the more frictionless “You’ve grown weary of this ancient world.”
“Zone” seems capable of being endlessly and compellingly translated, and no “right” translation will ever conquer all the others.
– Pamela Erens
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).