Ilya Kaminsky is a poet I admire. With the release of The Ecco Anthology of World Poetry, which he co-edited with Susan Harris, and of Polina Barskova’s This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press, $11.95), which he edited and co-translated with Kathryn Farris, Rachel Galvin, and Matthew Zapruder, it seems the perfect time to talk about translation. Ilya’s first book of poetry, Dancing in Odessa (also Tupelo, $16.95), won the Dorset Prize, the Foreword Magazine Poetry Book of the Year Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award.
This interview precedes a conversation with and poem by Polina Barskova, from her recent Tupelo Press title, forthcoming next week.
Hi, Ilya. Thanks for talking.
I’ve just been reading this essay by some of the scientists at Google, about developing a translating program that can replicate meter and rhyme. Of course they fall on the academic translator side of the great divide, but they’ve come up with some pretty interesting versions. It made me think of what you said in your interview with Adam Kirsch, paraphrasing Auden, that translators should know at least one language well, preferably their own. How close do you think we are to a computer knowing one language well enough that it can translate poetry as well as any live poet? Is it possible to get there?
I am no expert in computers. I would be curious to see the translation program that can replicate meter and rhyme. Simply for what it can tall me about English.
As for what such a program can do for translation from another culture—I am not sure of its success. What are we to do with certain Asian poetries of languages where every other word rhymes and so the short poem of three lines is a moment of stillness, a moment where no other word rhymes—how is that effect to be carried into a new language by a computer system?
I am, again, no expert in such technology, and I see no reason to be negative about it: any new way of playing with language and learning about it is a welcome trick in my book. Will that be successful? Time will show.
In The Lamentable City you work with a lot of other translators. Kathryn Farris, Rachel Galvin, Matthew Zapruder. I assume you made the cribs? Or were you active through the entire process? In a recent conversation with Jamie McKendrick, who translates from the Italian, we discussed what I consider a pretty bold move: translating an unrhymed poem into rhyme. What liberties did you take with Polina’s new book? Where there any particular difficulties?
Yes, I made the cribs and was active through the process. The collaborative translation is more like ping-pong game, a boring thing to do on one’s own. We never really did these in solitude. We always made a point to meet & discuss the work.
These texts are hardly translations; they are improvisations, versions, collaborations inspired by the original text—or whatever one wants to call them. They don’t go too far from the original in terms of meaning, but go quite far (at times) in terms of possible ways to deliver that meaning into a new language.
Russian modern literary tradition is considerably younger than English, and it is very rhyme rich and rhyme obsessed. The dangers of translating those effects into rhyme-poor English would be obvious: the dangers of making a sophisticated poem sounding like a sing-song. So, we chose to focus on delivering other elements of Polina’s work into what we call contemporary poetry in English: tone, image, address, irony, and so on.
Because so much of the original effect is lost, I find translation, always, to be an act of betrayal. I do not enjoy that part of it. What I do enjoy is making up to the betrayed original—by attempting to make it beautiful again, whole again.
How do you balance your creative productivity between translating and writing your own poetry? How separate are the two processes?
I have no hesitation in calling the process of translation an education of the poet. It is, basically, the closest possible reading of the original manuscript. It is also the closest possible investigation into the possibilities of the new language as it is faced with the infusion of the foreign sensibility, tone, and other intricacies. Frost told us all from the outset that poetry is what is lost in translation, to which Octavio Paz cleverly responded: poetry is what is found in translation.
What is found, what is still essential, in the work of art when all the prettiness, all the dancing around, is lost, and a naked voice remains on the page in front of us. And, what we can do with that naked voice, how we can make it pretty again, how we can dance around it to make it, once again, whole.
This sort of education of making and unmaking of a voice on the page, of architecture of the poem on the page, is better education, to my mind, than any creative writing workshop. We are not dealing here with first steps of a novice authors, but instead are dealing with the master poet: how is the work of the master poet destroyed as it enters the new language? How can the work of the master poet be saved by the new language?
The work of translation has nothing to do with my own poems. But it does offer a lot to my view of education of a poet.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a manuscript called The Deaf Republic. It is a book-long story of a married couple living in a time of civil unrest. It is a book about a country where everyone is deaf. To me, though, it is simply a book of love poems.
What is your favorite book of poetry in translation published this year? Anything else you recommend?
The book I am most amazed by in the recent months is the book that isn’t published yet, but hopefully will be published in the near future: Christian Wiman’s versions of Osip Mandelshtam. Wiman’s own incredibly gorgeous new book of poetry will be out in a few months from FSG. A few of those poems were published in Poetry International’s issue 15/16 and I find them remarkable. As for his versions of Mandelshtam, they are unlike any other we have in English so far. He attempts to do what every other translator of this poet had failed at: to translate Mandelshtam’s music into English. Those are not merely formal exercises in rhyme that one would expect from that computer program you and I mentioned above, but a complex infusion of formal lyricism and feeling—that at times desperate, at times incredibly tender feeling that Mandelshtam was a master of—embodied in English music of Wiman’s own making.
As for a good book published this year—I love Kary Wayson’s American Husband—and in that book I particularly love the title poem and also the piece called “More of the Same.” Wayson has a beautiful ear, very much her own, making the English language work against itself in a way that is utterly beautiful and compelling. She is, to quote late Joseph Brodsky, one of those poets by whom the language lives. I hope more people will discover her work.