Posts Tagged ‘Jamie McKendrick’

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.



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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Heaven’s Kitchen

Xby David Huerta, translated from the Spanish by Jamie McKendrick

Heaven’s kitchen is supplied with infernal utensils,
sagging, lilac-coloured cauldrons, fat forks
between whose prongs are tangled strings
of archangels’ spit and frayed voices
that rose from the left-hand shirt of God.

A soup was being cooked when Love appeared,
a rare broth sprinkled with flaming scriptures
and glints of seaside holidays. The oil became fire,
seeped into the skin and stayed, vigorous,
iridescent, in the eyes of the blessed.

The elaborate coven stopped work: elongated odours
invaded the heavenly kitchen; pure spices
for the feverish construction of Spring
and its rippling; Aprils whose flowers are teeth,
whose jaws are crammed with dragonflies;
Eros’s entire wardrobe for the Salad
with its curled coiffure; the brilliance of stabbed embraces
and the sea of hands, blue as can be, multiplying.


David Huerta was born in Mexico City in 1949, son of poet Efraín Huerta. He is one the leading poets of the generation that first came to prominence during the 1970s in Mexico. He published his first book of poems, El Jardín de la luz [The Garden of Light] (1972), while still a student at UNAM. It has been followed by numerous collections, among them: Cuaderno de Noviembre [November Notebook] (1976), Huellas del civilizado [Traces of the Civilized] (1977), Versión [Version] (1978), El espejo del cuerpo [The Mirror of the Body] (1980) and Incurable [Incurable] (1987), a long poem in nine parts that encourages the reader to participate in constructing the meaning of the poem.

Aside from his poetry, David Huerta has translated works from Italian and English, and is an editor of the Mexican publishing house Fondo de Cultura Económica. He writes a column for the Mexican weekly Proceso, and teaches literature at the Universidad Autónoma de México. His latest book, El correo de los Narvales, is dedicated to the work of Pablo Neruda.

In 2006 David Huerta was awarded the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for the new edition of Versión and for his lifelong contribution to Mexican literature. He is an active member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores.

Read the Spanish original, listen to the poem in both languages, and learn more about the process at the Poetry Translation Centre website. Look for Huerta’s forthcoming outpost in the next issue of Molossus partner World Literature Today.

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Mexican Poet David Huerta

These photographs were taken by British cult author Travis Elborough, author of The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster, The Long-Player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again, and a forthcoming book about the British seaside. Elborough, the Poetry Translation Centre’s Mexican Poets’ Tour Manager, shoots with a 35mm Lomo camera with no flash—more details forthcoming—and retains all copyrights to the images here.

The Poetry Translation Centre‘s Mexican Poets’ Tour traveled through London, Manchester, Leeds, Oxford, Grasmere, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, featuring readings by David Huerta, Coral Bracho, and Víctor Terán, alongside their respectice translators Jamie McKendrick, Katherine Pierpoint (with Tom Boll), and me, David Shook. For more on the tour, listen to short programs on Deutsche Welle or Radio Netherlands.

British Poet-Translator Jamie McKendrick with David Huerta

Poet Katherine Pierpoint, British Poet-Translator for Coral Bracho

Isthmus Zapotec Poet Víctor Terán

Molossus Contributor Sydneyann Binion with Me, David Shook


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