This excerpt presents to English readers for the first time Alfred Döblin’s dystopian epic of the future Berge Meere und Giganten (“Mountains Oceans Giants”), written in 1921-23 and published in Berlin in 1924.
In 1921, the lifelong city-dweller Döblin became seized by an overwhelming sense of Nature: “The Earth fetched me…I experienced Nature as a secret…as the World Being: weight, colour, light, dark, its countless materials, as a cornucopia of processes that quietly mingled and criss-crossed… I often became frightened, physically frightened, giddy in the face of these things–and sometimes, I confess, even now I feel uneasy” (Die neue Rundschau, June 1924).
For the first time in his writing career, he took a break from his day job as a neurologist to give expression to this feeling. The result was a monstrous 500-page vision of the next seven centuries, as humanity continues to give technology free rein regardless of adverse consequences for humanity and the world.
H. G. Wells, meet Hieronymous Bosch! Wells the Fabian, in The Shape of Things to Come, saw the solution to humanity’s problems in World Government and a better sort of committee. Döblin’s darker view is a literary counterpart to Bosch’s dark and powerful imagery. Try reading it with Bosch’s The Last Judgment at hand!
Mountains Oceans Giants explores themes relevant to our times: globalisation, consumerism, wealth concentration, mass migration, murderous elites, lust for power, headlong technological “progress” that often makes life worse for its supposed beneficiaries and the natural world.
The excerpt describes the development of synthetic food, marking a radical break between humans and their natural and social worlds.
– Chris Godwin
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
We all know the fairy tales of Perrault and Grimm, but few readers would recognise the name of Catulle Mendès, one of the great turn-of-the-century creators of fairies. His fairy tales in Les Oiseaux bleus (“The Bluebirds”) were first published in 1888, but were largely forgotten until 1993, when the collection was reissued in French. I discovered Catulle Mendès while researching his contemporary, Jean Lorrain, whose fairy tales I have also translated. I was tickled by the outrageous princess in “La Belle du Monde” (“The Only Beautiful Woman”) and was soon reading it to children and adults in French or in my translation.
In Les Oiseaux bleus, Mendès foresaw the extinction of fairies as interveners in human life. But here at the beginning of the collection, enchantment can still change the course of things for the better: a princess prefers riches and power to a good prince, but with the help of a little magic and a lot of muscle, the prince who has tried to win her love receives a far better reward.
Readers will recognise Perrault’s inspiration and a style reminiscent of Grimm, but Mendès’ storytelling breaks with their tradition of toning down the comedy; he explores the incurable selfishness of humans by invoking laughter at the princess’s trifling and time-wasting. Mendès often takes pleasure in surprising his readers with an unexpected turn near the end of a story, as he does here, giving us, and the prince, the last laugh.
– Patricia Worth
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
War is more than a political conflict–in late capitalism, it’s a way of life. From Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, this war is constellated by concrete acts of terrorism, such as 9/11, and also by a state of near-constant alert, or traumatic consciousness. “History doesn’t exist, it collapses,” the speaker says, moving between mediated images of war and the violence–some symbolic, much of it physical–we encounter every day. It’s tempting to return, in mind, to a time in modernity free from war, but other than a brief gasp between WWII and Vietnam, that time is a phantasm. The speaker of The War Years counsels the reader to continue to move forward, from an age where “we have buried God,” and no longer have a need for poetry, epic or otherwise: “don’t forget but don’t think/ go straight ahead/ carried by what was.” “What was,” is history; “what is,” includes, in this worldview, a confusion between worlds, languages, and us/them binaries wherein the enemy is identified with the path of waged destruction, and “us,” by adherence to “the way of champions.” The champions “eat prize-winning cows/ and all the biggest swordfish,” and “defend the highways/ where our blood flows.” As for the “enemy,” the semantic coordinates are blurred in translation, as they would be in any process of transposition or examination of the language and pronouns used to demarcate, identify, and possess: “you don’t know what they’re capable of/ they will insert themselves into your silence/ until you can no longer tell/ how many we are.” Within this maelstrom, there remains our inheritance of beauty, as preserved in the gaze of another: “and in your eyes…/ I see it already, smoking and beautiful/ Kandahar under the bombs.”
– Virginia Konchan
These two texts, which are taken from Johan Mijail’s short book Pordioseros del Caribe, are the result of a research project that fuses literature and performance art to shed light on Caribbean cultural and social life.
One theme these two texts address is that of displacement. Displacement has, in fact, been a recurrent preoccupation among most artists and writers in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Pordioseros, the author explores this theme by touching upon issues of human migration, gender, sexuality, sexual dissidence, colonial violence, and urban decay, among others.
– Amaury Rodriguez
Lana Abdel Rahman probes the internal world of her characters through dreams and memory. “The Sea Facing North” is from Abdel Rahman’s latest collection of short stories, Stories of Strangers. I kept returning to this haunting story, told with deceptive simplicity. Walking along the sea with a friend, a young boy is disturbed by a memory from his childhood, which he tells to his companion. When I asked Lana about “The Sea Facing North,” she told me a friend had told her the story about an honor killing. But she transformed a raw anecdote from daily life into a fable with repetition of images and details. The sea in Brazil brings up the memory of a sea from the past in Lebanon–which, in turn, forces the boy to relive the experience and tell the story.
– Gretchen McCullough
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
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since 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).