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
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
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).