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Portrait © Travis Elborough

Jamie McKendrick’s translation of Valerio Magrelli were released in the UK by Faber in 2009 as The Embrace, then re-released on the other side of the Atlantic this year as Vanishing Points (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). The volume has since won the Oxford-Weidenfield Translation Prize. McKendrick is an award-winning poet himself, whose most recent collection, Crocodiles and Obelisks (Faber & Faber, 2007) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. As Jamie’s friend and former student I’m undoubtedly too biased to say much more with any critical integrity, so I offer our conversation as proof positive of his talent as a translator whose work is distinguished by its wit and creativity.

DS

 

I know you’ve been working on this selection of Magrelli’s poetry for a long time. How did the project change over time? How did your own understanding of—and relationship with—the work evolve?

The length of time says a lot more about the intermittency of the work than about any virtue of steady application, but I take it as a good augury that at no point during the dozen or more years did I feel any lessening of enthusiasm. The first poems of Magrelli’s I translated were one-offs, and I only gradually began to see the possibility of a whole book. The admiration I felt for the originals at the outset is the same I feel now, though an increased knowledge of Magrelli’s overall work has deepened it.

Each new poem you try to translate presents its own problems, but there’s a chance that with a growing knowledge of the poems, and more practice at confronting them, you begin to have a quicker sense of what direction to take, how to find the right tone of voice, the right pace – things of immense importance in Magrelli’s often very short and compact poems.

In your introduction you talk about your process of putting “Parlano,” a poem that didn’t rhyme, into rhyming English, to “intensify the acoustics.” Can you expand on that idea, perhaps with any other examples from the text?

A presumptuous point to have made, given the perfect acoustics of the original! Better to say that I’ve tried to find another way of making the sounds work – it’s a poem besieged by noises and voices, so it really matters how these are made to resonate. It’s a case, among many, where the translator has to make a decision about what’s most important; and often enough with poetry, presenting an exact phrase-by-phrase equivalent is not the most important thing. In the introduction I gave another example showing the various changes that occurred with the untitled “Amo i gesti imprecisi” – which I called ‘The Tic’. But to take something I haven’t mentioned before, one of Magrelli’s early poems:

D’estate, come i cinema, io chiudo.
Il pensiero mi vola via e si perde,
il segno si fa vacante,
l’aria è calda
la tavola piena di frutta.

My version is:

Summertime, like the cinemas, I shut up shop.
Thought flies off elsewhere and evaporates.
Billboards write white,
the air’s warm,
the table weighted with fruit.

Though there are small changes throughout, the third line is where I’ve taken the most liberties. I’ve imported a well-known phrase from Henry de Montherlant (“Le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches” – or “Happiness writes white” as it’s cited in English). This may look a slightly impertinent solution, but I think it’s in key with the unhooked, lazy air of the poem, strangely happy and blank. I went astray, or further afield, because “il segno si fa vacante”, which works so economically in Italian, in literal English becomes dull and abstract. The prompt to use “write white” may also have had to do with sound – in keeping with the dentals of shut/Thought/evaporates/weighted/fruit – effects not necessarily conscious but which give a tone and tenor to the translation.

Do you think that working on Magrelli’s poems for that long has affected your own poetry? If so, how?

One of the great attractions of translating is to escape from your own – and learn about someone else’s – voice, concerns and habits of mind. Magrelli’s poems are very different from my own, though there’s a definite sense of affinity which spurred me on.

I love the way his writing dwells on a perception, and slowly turns it round until you find that it’s been utterly reshaped by the end of the poem. The almost forensic patience with which he stays with a thought and explores it is something I would very much like to have learned. Also the way each of his books has a formidable coherence.

Unsatisfactory as it may be, the answer is I really don’t know. In my last book, I have one poem, ‘Typtographia’, which is dedicated to Magrelli and would not have been written without his third book Esercizi di tiptologia. (Typtology, I learnt the word there, refers to communication by rapping or knocking.) But mine is about Kropotkin’s escape from the Petropavlovskaya Fortress and doesn’t have a direct connection with any of Magrelli’s poems. Except as a homage, at a slant.

I’m interested in your process of translation—in how it’s different or similar to your process of writing an original poem. What is the rough ratio of your creative time spent engaging each discipline?

Translating’s very similar. You just have to stay with it until you get there.

What’s so different is that someone else has done it first, and so I can see it’s worth staying with, whereas with my own poems I have no such guarantee.

There used to be a good ratio. Over the last few months, though, I’ve just finished a translation of a verse play by Pasolini (Affabulazione) and am spending several hours a day working on a translation of Giorgio Bassani’s Gli occhiali d’oro. In the meantime only one poem, with a possible two others I might hold on to.

What are you working on now? What are you reading, watching, listening to?

Apart from the Bassani novel, I’ve also been translating more poems by another contemporary Italian poet Antonella Anedda. In a similar way to the Magrelli book, I began translating her more than fifteen years ago, because I found myself haunted by the poems, and have just kept going. What I’d like – and am not far off – is a book of them.

Watching too much late-night junk TV.  Listening to the usual random tapes – blues, folk. Recently, Mompou playing his own Cançons i danses and a brilliant recording of Alexandre Tharaud playing Couperin, thanks to my partner who knows about music. Re-reading War and Peace, after more than thirty years. What’s odd is that the stuff I like best this time through – like the description of battles and the day-to-day events in soldiers’ lives– was what I once trudged through, bored; and vice versa: soul-searching conversations between Pierre and Prince Andrei, for example, I now find tedious.

September 2010

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As I do each summer, I’ve been on the road this year, first touring the UK for the Poetry Translation Centre’s Mexican Poets’ Tour, and eventually making my way—via Mombasa, Los Angeles, and Texas—to Bujumbura, Burundi. As always, I carry an extra suitcase to accommodate books I’m reading and reviewing. These are a few of my favorites from this summer: some of them travel with me, others I devoured so quickly I left them at home, all of them are noteworthy. Congratulations to their authors, translators, editors, and publishers. I hope they make their way into the hands of many readers.

A Definitive Edition & Two Beautiful Reissues

César Vallejo’s The Complete Poetry (U California P, $65) sets a high bar for international poetry collecteds, with its bilingual presentation of all Vallejo’s poetry alongside an intelligent and balanced commentary by Mario Vargas Llosa, Stephen Hart, and Efrain Kristal. Clayton Eshleman’s translations are superb, proving that Vallejo is a poet of staying power and increasing relevancy.

New Directions continues their beautiful reissues of modern classics, with the slender, pocket-sized Everything and Nothing ($9.95), by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Yates, Irby, Fein, and Weinberger, and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas ($14.95). In his succinct introduction to the latter, Paul Muldoon summarizes Thomas’ enduring appeal, “When we tear away the tabloidian tissue there is revealed a poet who has overcome so much—his influences, his being under the influence—that our impulse to reach for him when our own sense of the world is obstructed or obscured turns out to have been well founded”

Books Noted

Homero Aridjis’ latest book in English, Solar Poems (City Lights, $17.95), translated by George McWhirter, continues in the same vein as his later work: the poet still writes with an intense lyricism, but the regular insertion of politics—Aridjis has worked day jobs as a Mexican ambassador, as representative to UNESCO, and as spokesperson for several environmental initiatives—often seems more intrusive than natural. Durs Grunbein’s The Bars of Atlantis (FSG, $35) is as intelligent and cosmopolitan as his poetry; a perfect companion to FSG’s Ashes for Breakfast, it already ranks among the best of books of prose by poets to be released in 2010. It’s translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hoffman, and Andrew Shields. Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues, $15) is a great addition to the TrenchArt Maneuvers Series, both conceptually dense and continually interesting, as it answers  questions like “What if evolution was decided by committee and revolution by mere chance? What if man was a subspecies?” The second issue of The Folio Club ($7.95), edited by Robert Pranzatelli, showcases the second of Onsmith’s cover illustrations celebrating bibliophilia. Its interior continues to develop the magazine’s concept of well-crafted narrative prose. Robert Walser’s The Microscripts (New Directions/Christine Burgin, $24.95)—read our excerpt here—is one of the most beautiful books published this year. As elegant as their other much-hyped release, Anne Carson’s book-in-a-box Nox, but more reserved, its heavy stock paper resembles that of a museum catalogue. Susan Bernofsky’s translations and the scans of Walser’s tiny stories are both incredible: the awe factor is deservedly present.

DS

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To celebrate the American release of Derek Walcott’s White Egrets (FSG, $24), Molossus is proud to publish the below poem. Farrar Straus Giroux also kicks off their celebration of National Poetry Month—which includes their publication of titles by Walcott and Don Paterson—today at their blog The Best Words in the Best Order.

35.

All of this happened when I turned away,
the deliberate delight in incoherence, the whiff of chaos
off the first page of some new book, the putrescent decay
of drawing which I had begun to smell, the coarse
exuburance that passed for wit, it’s still incredible the way
my gift abandoned me like a woman I was too old for,
I thought it was the  violet that stood up to the armoured car,
I thought it was the wet leather smell of a mare,
I thought it was my voice, my shell-cupped ear,
all of this happened when I turned my head
for a slight second from the page. I couldn’t hear whose—
either the gift or what it loved was dead,
not just the nightingale’s, but the ground dove’s coos.

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Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American doctor and poet. His first collection of poems, The Earth in the Attic, won publication as the selection for the  2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets, judged by Louis Glück. The Butterfly’s Burden, his 300+ page volume of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems was published in 2006 by Copper Canyon, and his latest selection, If I Were Another, in 2009 by FSG. In December, Molossus published an excerpt from the latter volume, available here.

Joudah and I corresponded by email for about a month before we began the following conversation. During the process of the interview we continued to exchange links to reviews and essays about poetry, translation, and the literary world. I was fortunate on a short layover in Houston to connect with him for coffee near downtown, at Catalina Cafe. It took a moment to recognize the now-bearded poet, but we were soon conversing animatedly, sharing opinions and stories over our dark americanos. I found Fady to be a generous, deep thinker, with a desire for a precision of phrase that I imagine makes him as excellent a doctor as he is a poet and translator.

DS

Darwish & Joudah in Translation, by Geoff Gossett

What was your relationship with Mahmoud Darwish like? How did you come to translating the work of such a literary icon?

It was a simple relationship, based on poetry and translation and publication. He was an open and generous man, perhaps to a fault. I simply called him up one day, and he told me that translation is a universal right. Obviously, we built a good relationship as time passed, and towards the end some confidentiality existed between us. But I would never say I was his friend in that intimate sense. I always tried to give him space, a space he often suffered to keep private.

Following Breyten Breytenbach’s conversational poem with Darwish’s memory, Voice Over (Archipelago), he writes in a note that “One could interact with him forever.” His long poem does indeed contain an echo of Darwish’s poetry: borrowed phrases, most obviously, but also a certain tone. How do you foresee the literary legacy of Darwish? What is it about his work that will continue to endure?

Breyten’s tribute is a lovely one. Marilyn Hacker has a lovely one also, “A Braid of Garlic,” in her latest book, Names (W.W. Norton), and I think that Darwish’s spirit is also present in at least one more poem in that book, “Pomegranate.”. Michael Plamer wrote a wonderful tribute in his Company of Moths (New Directions), “Dream of Narcissus.” This is all to echo Breyten’s remark that the wealth and breadth of Darwish’s aesthetic offers a limitless or boundless dialogue. How does one, then, answer your question? Darwish was that rare poet who never ceased developing his art, experimenting with language and diction, ontology and epistemology. All these waves have to be read and studied and embraced in order to better answer your question or make sense of the answer; which is to say, Darwish is still a novelty in English. But, as I pointed out in The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon), one can begin by examining his private lexicon and its recurrence and richness. And, as I pointed out in If I Were Another (FSG), one can examine his use of dialogue, drama, and epic to envision another meadow of his poetry.

Since his death—and perhaps beginning a little before—Darwish was gaining in popularity with a hip journal, MFA demographic, kind of like the Bolaño explosion of the last few years. In some sense, that’s great, but in another it troubles me that our literary culture is so controlled by trendiness. More often than not, it seems to me, that rather than encouraging a deeper interest in world literature—Palestinian literature, for example—it enables us to falsely feel more international, more cosmopolitan. You’ve mentioned to me before that Darwish has been tokenized in Arabic. Do you foresee that happening in translation? What, if anything, does the literary community lose if that happens?

By “tokenized” in Arabic, I mean by a wider and general readership, just the way Blake, or Neruda, or Lorca are tokenized. But I don’t see that happening in translation, at least not soon. Rilke or Cavafy are examples of becoming “tokens” only after decades have passed, and still they are always worth studying and reading aesthetically. If by “tokenized” you mean that rare event of achieving longevity for a poet, then yes, Darwish has done it; if by “tokenized” you refer to the way poetry is connected to the larger culture, to consumerism and fetishism (and poetry at times is subservient to them), then the answer is also, yes. It is part of the natural cycle of things, I think, a phenomenon that started in the eighteenth century perhaps, with the rise of the “Universal Empire,” and one can choose to be a purist about it, but I suspect that would lead to much contradiction and perhaps hypocrisy. Let’s not make of poetry more than it is. We are no longer in the age of prophets.

(more…)

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In anticipation of our forthcoming interview with poet and translator Fady Joudah, we’re happy to present the following excerpt from Mahmoud Darwish’s sequence Eleven Planets at the End of the Andalusian Scene, printed in the newly released  If I Were Another (FSG, October 2009, $28). A special thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for permission to reprint this excerpt.

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀II.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀HOW DO I WRITE ABOVE THE CLOUDS?

How do I write above the clouds my kin’s will? And my kin
leave time behind as they leave their coats in the houses, and my kin
whenever they build a fortress they raze it to erect above it
a tent of longing for the early palm trees. My kin betray my kin
in wars of defending salt. But Granada is gold
and silken words embroidered with almonds, silver tears in
the oud string. Granada is for the great ascension to herself…
and she can be however she desires to be: the longing for
anything that has passed or will pass: a swallow’s wing scratches
a woman’s breast in bed, and she screams: Granada is my body.
A man loses his gazelle in the wilderness and screams: Granada is my country.
And I come from there. So sing for the sparrows to build from my ribs
a stairway to the proximal sky. Sing the gallantry of those ascending to their fate
moon by moon in the lovers’ alley. Sing the birds of the garden
stone by stone. How I love you, you, who tore me
string by string on her way to her hot night … sing!
There is no morning for coffee’s scent after you, sing my departure
from the cooing of pigeons on your knees, and from my soul’s nest
in the letters ofyour easy name, Granada is for song, so sing!

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀III.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀I HAVE BEHIND THE SKY A SKY

I have behind the sky a sky for my return, but I
am still polishing the metal of this place, and living
an hour that foresees the unknown. I know time
will not be my ally twice, and I know I will exit
my banner as a bird that does not alight on trees in the garden.
I will exit all of my skin, and my language.
And some talk about love will descend in
Lorca poems that will live in my bedroom
and see what I have seen of the bedouin moon. I will exit
the almond trees as cotton on the brine of the sea. The stranger passed
carrying seven hundred years of horses. The stranger passed
right here, for the stranger to pass over there. I will soon exit
the wrinkles ofmy time as a stranger to Syria and the Andalus.
This earth is not my sky, yet this sky is my evening
and the keys are mine, the minarets are mine, the lanterns are mine, and I
am also mine. I am the Adam of two Edens, I lost them twice.
So expel me slowly,
and kill me quickly,
beneath my olive tree,
with Lorca …

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Mahmoud Darwish was born in the village of al-Birweh in what was then Western Galilee, Palestine. He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and ten volumes of prose. He was the recipient of numerous awards for both his poetry and his political activism.

Fady Joudah is a physician, poet, and translator. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

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