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Posts Tagged ‘Translation’

It is uncommon for Molossus to feature magazines but I am always happy when we do, as I so admire their succinctness and digestibility. That said, I can be quite harsh in my opinions, as so few magazines maintain their quality from beginning to end, much less from issue to issue. The few we do feature here are the best of the best, discoveries we’re excited to share.

Two Lines World Writing in Translation XVII: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, ed. Natasha Wimmer & Jeffrey Yang (Center for the Art of Translation) $14.95

The San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation publishes Two Lines each year, its contents selected quite curatorially by a tandem of guest editors. The newest edition was assembled by notable Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmers and New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. Still published in its strange horizontal format, the book-style magazine collects the best work of working translators. Highlights of this issue include Bolaño’s short note on the importance of translation, which perfectly accompanies his advice on the writing of short stories, bilingual poetry by Xi Chuan, translated by Lucas Klein, the cleverly translated “Tropes” of Oliverio Girondo, by Heather Cleary Wolfgang, and the nimble transfer of Carlito Azevedo’s concrete poem “Traduzir” into the equally effective English-language “Translation,” by Sarah Rebecca Kersley. As always, a translator’s note accompanies each translation; these alone are worth more than the volume’s purchase price. The book ends with a special section dedicated to Uyghur poetry, including both contemporary and classical work translated by Dolkun Kamberi and Jeffrey Yang. More on that impressive survey is forthcoming on Molossus in February, when our interview with Yang is scheduled to appear.

In his essay “Translation is a Testing Ground,” which appears toward the end of Beautiful Signal, Bolaño writes

How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated.

That’s exactly what Two Lines does: the graceful legwork required for recognizing works of art. Without fail, the poetry and prose within stands the test of translation.

Signal: 01: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture, ed. Alec Icky Dunn & Josh MacPhee (PM Press) $14.95

Like Two Lines, Signal culls the best and most interesting material from around the world. Using interview as their primary method, the editors allow practitioners to speak for themselves, be they the Xicana printmakers of Taller Tupac Amaru, Johannes van de Weert, the Dutch creator of Red Rat, an influential comic during the rise of the Dutch punk scene in the 1980s, Felipe Hernandez Moreno, a printmaker in his 70s who participated in the Mexican Student Movement of 1968, or Rufus Segar, who designed almost every cover of the 1960s magazine Anarchy.

The first issue also includes a photo-essay of work by Midwestern graffiti artist IMPEACH, who tags boxcars with Wild West-styled lettering of simple messages like “IMPEACH,” “TORTURE,” “BAILOUT,” and “POVERTY,” in a rolling commentary on contemporary political buzzwords and the larger policies they represent. The most unexpected article in :01 is about adventure playgrounds, first organized by Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen during World War II. Also known as junk playgrounds, the projects offer children the opportunity to reflect their own vision of creative space.

In the introduction to the first volume of their new book-style magazine, Dunn and MacPhee write,

The production of art and culture does not happen in a vacuum; it is not a neutral process. We don’t ask the question of whether culture should be instrumentalized towards political goals, the economic and social conditions we exist under marshal all material culture towards the maintenance of the way things are.

Their wide-ranging interviews examine those economic and social conditions with a lens that is political but not politicized. Unsurprisingly, Signal is beautifully designed, with a surplus of graphic material that would be difficult to find elsewhere. My favorite images are the Mexican prints from 1968, especially interesting when compared to the contemporary print-work of Taller Tupac Amaru, but the wide range of covers of Anarchy come in a close second. I look forward to Signal:02.

DS

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Come to Mi Alma Gardens, 4016 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, at 2.00 PM this Saturday 13 November to see live literary performances sponsored by Molossus. The event will feature Los Angeles poet Mandy Kahn reading original poetry, British music journalist Sophie Heawood and her bear companion Whitey reading from their seedy memoir about the underbelly of contemporary music, and David Shook performing “The Flyswatter,” a prose poem by Hugo Hiriart, translated by Shook and accompanied by Adrian Wong and Sarah Harball on viola and Olga Volozova directing a collaborative shadow puppet show. Limited editions of MOLO EPH double-fold broadsheet “The Flyswatter” will be available for $5, beer will be on tap from Firestone Microbrewery, and the music should be good too.

MOLO

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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.

DS

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.

October 2010

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Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, Joanna Neborsky, tr. Luc Sante. (Mark Batty Publisher) $24.95

Joanna Nebrosky studied under Maira Kalman, and it shows. That influence has less to do with the collage and drawing techniques employed than its general aesthetic, which combines intelligence with whimsy in equal portions. The concept is simple: Nebrosky illustrated Fénéon’s newspaper bylines, first published in Sante’s translation by the New York Review Books as Novels in Three Lines. Some of my favorites include:

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Giquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophîle Papin of Ivry collapsed.

The laundrymen of France welcomed yesterday at the Gare du Nord the illustrious laundrymen of London.

Most of Nebrosky’s collage incorporates old newsprint, especially to populate its characters, but her work also demonstrates skill in a wide variety of other mediums, from colored pencil to marker and water color, each well chosen for its specific effect. In her own introduction, she writes

I have spent the last year elbow-deep in the newsprint and gore of Félix Fénéon’s antique news briefs, severing bowler-hatted heads from ascots and vested bodies from pantaloons in fields of torn Xerox and construction paper. A gruesome business, collage. The form lends itself to depicting unlucky ends, which is good news for the collagist illustrating Fénéon, if not such good news for Bonnaut (stabbed by a gangster named Shoe Face, Montreuil), Mme Lesbos (run over by a tourist omnibus, Versailles), and Inghels (pile of logs, Qaui d’Austerlitz). The true short stories of Félix Fénéon, in which people die ignoble, comic, half-forgotten deaths, confirm that we are each hurtling toward unseen disaster. The thousand of them attest, like collage itself, to the absurd miscellany of life.

Three-Line Novels is beautifully produced: the first thing I noticed upon removing it from its packaging was the smell of ink. It’s colors are bright and Mark Batty Publisher has done what small publishers do best, by managing this edition with care so that the “gruesome business” of collage truly does attest “to the absurd miscellany of life.”

DS

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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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Víctor Terán

Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán, from Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, gave the following speech at a recent gathering of indigenous writers in that state of Southern Mexico. Terán’s work has appeared widely in English, including work in Poetry, World Literature Today, Agenda, and on the Poetry Translation Centre website.

DS


 

Víctor Terán with translator David Shook

 

Makers of literature generally make it in the language they most dominate, generally the language in which they breastfed, their mother tongue; that’s why the question What language do you think in when you write? would be facetious if it weren’t the case that a numberless quantity of writers in “indigenous languages” pretend to write in their mother tongues to win fellowships and prizes. Does this dishonest practice, belonging to opportunists, help or hurt indigenous languages? At first I thought that if this perverse practice didn’t help indigenous languages, neither did it damage them, given that they’ve managed to survive—for more than five hundred years—the national politics of destruction & discrimination that our governments have used to “incorporate” us into a monocultural system they call “civilization” or “modernity.”

Still, today I note with some preoccupation how indigenous languages experience an accelerated process of degeneration & extinction because of the lack of policy that encourages their permanence and development, & because of the exclusive use of Spanish in schools (those called bilingual aren’t as they should be) & in means of communication. The phenomena of homogenization between Spanish & the indigenous languages that make us talk & think according to the logic of the Spanish language & not that of our indigenous tongues (in addition to corrupt practices), like the soapbox discourse of evangelical pastors, the orators of community radio stations, and the literary output of these dishonest writers, leads me to affirm that those in this last group are indeed agents of destruction of our languages.

When, in 1990, the few professionals that wrote in our indigenous languages began a process of empowerment with the support of intellectuals from the left, like the late writer Carlos  Montemayor, we never imagined this perverse practice would so surge. The efforts of the Encuentros Nacionales (in Ciudad Victoria, San Cristobal de las Casas, Ixmiquilpan, Texcoco, and Mexico), begun in 1992, & the establishment of the Association of Writers from Indigenous Languages in 1993, lead to the development of literature grants for indigenous languages from FONCA, the establishment of the House of the Writers from Indigenous Languages, & prizes like the Nezahualcoyotl and the continental Song of America. These achievements now benefit opportunists more than those who actually write in indigenous languages.

Who are these opportunist writers? Those that write their literature in Spanish & then translate (with or without help) the original into the indigenous language they speak. What’s the problem with that? some will ask, acknowledging that translation is a universal practice, both valid & necessary. I respond that there would be no problem if the translation were based on the grammatical structure of the indigenous language, but this, unfortunately, is not the case. How can they translate correctly without mastering the syntax of their indigenous language? If they had mastered it, they wouldn’t write in Spanish in the first case, but in their own language. So the upheaval is severe, as the writers collaborate in the degradation & destruction of the language of their ancestors.

Do these writers understand the destructive role they play for indigenous languages? I’d like to think that they don’t, I suppose it’s because of the dearth of opportunities for personal development within our nation, people are bewildered, then forced to get what they can by whatever means possible, in this case the literary grants  & prizes that do exist; & to guarantee receipt of said stimuli, they pervert their work by writing as clearly & finely as they can in Spanish, to the pleasure of the assessors of our cultural institutions, who are frequently disconnected from the realities of indigenous literature, & whose jaws drop upon reading the incredible Spanish versions, thinking the indigenous language originals say the same thing in the same manner.

What happens when these works make their way back to speakers of their respective indigenous languages? I have seen how they ignore the work with a smile on their lips, after reading the first few pages, & how they quickly forget the act, without comment or discussion, I suppose because these works represent nothing of life in the villages. What they don’t see is the prejudice of the next generations, who, noting how such prize-winning writers write, attempt to write similarly, disgracing their literary careers & the language of their ancestors.

Without fear of mistake I can say that over fifty percent of those who call themselves indigenous writers are fakers. How can this infamous practice be stopped when we live in a degraded national culture of competitions & corruption? I suppose there’s no way, but what is possible is that those who continue creating indigenous literature as an effective instrument of fortification & renovation of our languages invest in the discovery, formation, & expression of new writers in indigenous lamguages, & fight to make effective the laws that dictate “including within educational planning & programs” assignments like the reading & writing of our languages, our history, & the culture of the original nations of our country. It’s urgent that we bring this teaching to the curriculum of our public schools, with school programs at every level of basic education.

Indigenous languages represent the same life as the Mexican culture, to corrupt them because of vanity & materialism is to play irresponsibly with our destruction. The future of indigenous languages will depend on the conscienceness & love that we all have to preserve them, we must lift them up & not rest, we must appeal to the highest—& not the lowest—levels of indigenous literatures.

In spite of the adversarial conditions we face, our languages will find the way forward in this chaotic & changing world. We indigenous writers have much to do to ensure this happens: we place at the forefront honesty, creativity, quality, & innovation in the literary genres we develop, & everything else will come. Without honest literature & without education there’s no future for our languages.

Encuentro de escritores zapotecos, 15 – 18 July 2010
Centro de Artes de San Agustin, Etla, Oaxaca

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

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Man at Leisure, Alexander Trocchi (Oneworld Classics) $16.95

It’s unusual to read an afterword that admits “the verse collected in this book is of variable quality,” but refreshingly honest, and Stewart Home goes on to contextualize both Trocchi’s poetry on the page and his Situationist “poetry of living.” John Calder, in his preface, accounts for some of the variation of poetry within, explaining it was written over the course of two decades, slightly edited then published by Calder only once it had been illegally obtained from Trocchi’s desk drawer. William’s Burrough’s introduction has been preserved from the original edition; no dount history will prove his comparisons of Trocchi to Donne exaggerated in execution if not vision. Vision is evident in manifold poems. In “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters,” perhaps my favorite poem of the collection, Trocchi gathers his loose (and occasionally dead-on) imagery and ad hoc rhyming with proper names and places:

The wise men came from the east.
its wisdom is dried up,
a fig with its many seeds;
its sayings (deeds)
inscribed on tablets
endures as stone endures,
but they are not precisely statements;
they are elliptical as the thighs of its women.
consult the sufis, the masters of zen.
remember Li Po, Saladin.

The east is a great beast at bay
in the desert, a mongol caravan.
distances are far.
there is snow in China.
there is whiskey at Kandahar.

The west is electric trains
a brass figure on a cross and
supply & demand
profit & loss.   there is no prevailing
colour in the west
unless we speak of that dictated by Schiaparelli
and that is for spring or autumn only.

Elsewhere, as in “Did I meet You in Persepolis?” he more plainly exercises the humor of his considered hedonism:

When you speak of the “cannabis problem”,
he sd then,
placing the wee green-
black ball of hashish
upon her gleam-
ing, creamsweet abdomen,
I take it you refer
to the garden of my uncle, the emir,
where the problem
is the manner in which you prefer
to absorb it…

Burroughs is correct when he says that Trocchi writes about more than just flesh, but “flesh and death and”—this is where I think he is right—“the vision that comes through the flesh.” Trocchi’s poetry suggests a poet much like his “Man at Leisure,” which begins with the indented triplet:

his world picture was
his word picture and
his vocabulary, obscene

Sepulchres, Ugo Foscolo, tr. J.G. Nichols (Oneworld Classics) $13.95

Again, in an unusual display of honesty, translator J.G. Nichols writes in his post-poetry “Extra Material” that “Foscolo’s poetry is uneven in quality.” In tone—and indeed in century as well, having been born in 1778 and having died in 1827—Foscolo is quite distant from Trocchi, much more formal and generously appointed with allusions to the classics. Born on the Ionian Island of Zante to a Greek mother and a Venetian father, Foscolo engaged his passion for the not-yet nation of Italy in his professional and poetic lives, both serving in Napoleon’s army and later writing poems decrying some of his edicts. The poet eventually settled in English, where he made a living writing essays. In his spare time he translated Milton—an excerpt, retranslated into English, is included here—and wrote at least one poem in English, included as an appendix. My favorite poem in the collection, which is certainly not as accomplished as the fragmentary “The Graces” or long title-poem “Sepulchres,” is “Against Lamberti,” which reminds me of the bureaucracy  and opportunism that breeds within government-funded arts initiatives:

“What is Lamberti doing,
That learned man?”
“Printing a Homer
He works hard upon.”
“Does he comment?” “Oh no!”
“Does he translate?” “Oh! Oh!
He is revising his first proof,
And issues every month one leaf;
We’ll see it end with the decade;
Unless Bodini is already dead.”
“That is a work undying!”
“The Government is paying.”

It is difficult for me to critique the translation of work from this period, but it seems Nichols has done well to preserve Foscolo’s poetic high speech, often employing the Anglicized constructions of the Romance languages to a formalizing effect. While I at first found his capitalization of each line—which Foscolo doesn’t himself employ—annoying, I came to understand and then admire its use as another subtle formalizing device. As an example of Nichols’ translation, as well as a more representative example of Foscolo’s work, the first five lines of “Sepulchres” follow:

All’ombra de’ cipressi e dentro l’urne
confortate di pianto è forse il sonno
della morte men duro? Ove più il sole
per me alla terra non fecondi questa
bella d’erbe famiglia e d’animale…

Shaded by cypresses, and kept in urns,
Consoled by weeping, is the sleep of death
Really not quite so rigid? When the sun
For me at length no longer fills the earth
With such a family of plants and beasts…

DS

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