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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.

X

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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Between Water & Song: New Poets for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Norman Minnick (White Pine Press) $17

Includes: Ruth Forman, Ilya Kaminsky, Malena Mörling, Kevin Goodan, Jay Leeming, Terrance Hayes, Luljeta Lleshanaku, Sherwin Bitsui, Maria Melendez, Valzhyna Mort, Eugene Gloria, Brian Turner, Joshua Poteat, Maurice Manning, & Chris Abani

From the Introduction: A graduate student in a creative writing program said recently that we shouldn’t read anyone before the previous generation of poets because their poems don’t include cell phones and iPods and thus have nothing to say to the modern poet. Many poets are looking only to the poets of their own generation or teachers in their respective MFA programs, rather than, say, Li Po, Sappho, Mistral, or Machado…. I am reminded of what Denise Levertov says in her essay “Great Possessions,”

Much of what is currently acclaimed, in poetry as well as in prose, does not go beyond the most devitaalized ordinary speech. Like the bleached dead wheat of which so much American bread is made (supposedly “enriched” by returning the the worthless flour a small fraction of the life that was once in it) such poems bloat us but do not nourish.

What’s ignored is a deeper connection with the inner, or spiritual, life. Too many poets stay on the dry surface…

Notable: Without conceding wholeheartedly to Minnick’s analysis, I understand his selection criteria for this diverse group of younger but recognized poets. It’s a satisfyingly international group, with new work I’m excited to see from Mort, Kaminsky, Lleshanaku, and Bitsui.

Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry, ed. Kwame Dawes (Peepal Tree Press) £9.99

Includes: John Agard, Patience Agabi, Fred D’Aguiar, Maya Chowdry, Bernardine Evaristo, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jackie Kay, Roi Kwabena, John Lyons, Jack Mapanje, Raman Mundair, Daljit Nagra, Grace Nichols, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Lemn Sissay, Dorothea Smartt, Wangũi wa Goro, Gemma Weekes, & many more

Notable: All poems were inspired by Editor Dawes single word prompt: “red.” Later assembled in chapters and with frequent epigraphs—including Bob Marley’s “If a egg, natty inna di red”—, the poetry achieves an enjoyable dialogue between its contributors’ pages, made especially interesting by their respective experiences of Black British-ness. Its categorization of Black British poets seems to this American as nuanced as the UK use of contemporary racial affixes, its editor generous in definition to include Anglo-Punjabi poet Daljit Nagra.

From the Preface: Why “Red”? When Kadija Sesay asked me to edit the anthology I knew that I did not want to edit a conventional anthology based on a general call for poems by Black British poets. I felt there had to be some distinctive qualiyt to the anthology that would allow us to create an interesting and though-provoking series of images and that would also allow us to make a book that is attractive and unusual.… More than that, I felt that Black British poetry has now arrived at a place where the pressure to justify itself through works that somehow seek to explain, by theme and focus, what Black Britishness is as an ethnicity can now be resisted….

Saudade: An Anthology of Fado Poetry, ed. Mimi Khalvati, w. Vasco Graça Moura (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) £8.50

Includes Translators: Moniza Alvi, Michael Schmidt, Judith Barrington, Don Paterson, Grey Gowrie, Elaine Feinstein, Philip Jenkins, Ruth Fainlight, Pascale Petit, Fady Joudah, Alfred Corn, Sarah Maguire, Eric Ormsby, Fiona Sampson, George Szirtes, Marilyn Hacker, Carol Rumens, & David Constantine

From the Introduction: Of course, translation involves not only rendering a text, but also negotiating between two cultures. Arguments about the respective merits of foreignisation and domestication are endemic and call into question our ethical and aesthetic values. Poetry itself is estranging and translation, when it defamiliarises by allowing the ‘foreign’ to have a palpable presence in the text, further makes it new. But does this sacrifice intelligibility, readability? Poetry often asks for the subjugation of ego and translation for the ceding of one voice to another. But can this result in a true poem without the necessary connection to the writer’s self and experience? Our translators have faced not only the dilemmas that come with any translation, but those of poems desiged to be sung, and morever emblematic of national identity.

Notable: Would a contemporary poetry press publish this anthology of Fado poetry? Probably not. Khalvati has identified the reasons above, in the excerpt from her introduction, and the songs themselves, though perfectly representative of the “Portuguese blues,” are any poetry translator’s nightmare. As Michael Schmidt writes in his note, “I have translated complex poetry – by José López Velarde, by Octavio Paz and Pasternak and Hofmannsthal; I have translated, obliquely, from the Nahuatl (Aztec). No translation has been as challenging as this.” Though rendered into English in vastly different ways, some more resembling versions or tributes than real translations, the resulting poems are all fine, if few stand out as great. More valuable than the English-language poems are the translators’ notes, in which an A-list group of British and American translators explain their diverse approaches to translating the untranslatable.

DS

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Child of Nature, Luljeta Lleshanaku, tr. by Henry Israeli & Shpresa Qatipi (New Directions) $13.95

Lleshanaku won the 2009 International Crystal Vilenica Prize and this collection won the Black Mountain Institute/Rainmakers Translation Award; its worthiness of the latter is demonstrated within by Israeli and Qatipi’s muscular, spare translations. Similar in tone to other poets of the larger region, Lleshanaku’s poems are tinted with despair:
It begins
when she searches the darkness
for her likeness, a line of verse awaiting its end rhyme
or for a little music, or the exchange of carbon dioxide between flowers in the
evening
the feeling of turning forty….
When she approaches forty
or better yet, if she approaches forty,
being forty isn’t required
it’s her choice
like choosing a park bench
that faces away from the street
waiting for no one in particular.
Still an inevitable hope resonates throughout the collection, as in the poem “The Mystery of Prayers,” in which, though considered a weakness, prayer is as necessary as making love:
They prayed to catch a glimpse of Him
hoping to renegotiate their contracts
or to postpone their deadlines.…
In my house praying was considered a weakness
like making love.
And like making love
it was followed by the long
cold night of the body.

The book also includes a brief afterward by the poet, in which she discusses a period of her own writing journey when she was “following the wrong star, as if I had falsely adapted my literary sensibilities to an American aesthetic.” The essay offers an interesting practitioner’s perspective on the relationship between increasingly entwined American, English-language, and international poetries and poets, as well as the underlying urgency of expression that characterizes Albanian poetry in particular, and it was wise of New Directions to include it.

DS

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In Other Words: The Journal for Literary Translators, Winter 2009 / No. 34. Eds. Valerie Henituk & Amanda Hopkinson. £15 (2 issues, biannual)

This issue of the official magazine of the University of East Anglia’s young but deservedly respected The British Centre for Literary Translation includes Deborah M. Shadd’s notable essay on translation and metaphor, Caterina Sinibaldi’s essay on American comics in fascist Italy, and Daniel Hahn’s micro-memoir on translating The Piano Cemetery. Martin Sorrell’s essay on the increasing number of literary translation MAs in Britain, though unsurprisingly pro-program, offers a considered analysis, and the magazine is rounded out by a nice selection of two-to-four-page reviews of recent translations.

Rossica: International Review of Russian Culture, 19. Ed. Svetlana Adjoubei. £40 UK/£50 World (4 issues)

A beautifully produced, glossy-paged journal on heavy stock paper, this issue of Rossica features short fiction by Vladimir Makanin, German Sadulaev, Olga Slavnikova, Sergei Shargunov (b. 1980), and other contemporary Russians, all translated into English for the first time. The texts are accompanied by the spare and haunted meta-landscapes of Pavel Pepperstein, courtesy Regina Gallery, Moscow.

Swedish Book Review, 2010: 1. Ed. Sarah Death. £15 UK/$25 US (2 issues, biannual)

The first issue of SBR for 2010 highlights crime fiction, anchored by Anna Patterson’s essay on Kerstin Ekman and excerpts from four of her novels, contains translated fiction by Arne Dahl, Staffan Bruun, and Viveca Sten. Swedish fiction, and especially their crime novels, is a proven market, and the review is accordingly business-minded, listing sold rights and even foreign rights holders’ contact information. Still, despite its commercialism, it maintains a respectable level of editorial rigor in this issue.

Dodgem Logic, Issue No. 1. Ed. Alan Moore. £2.50 per issue

The hodgepodge brainchild of comics icon Alan Moore, Dodgem Logic contains a CD of Northampton music, a how-to comic about urban guerilla gardening, recipes for pudding and quiona [sic] soup, Graham Linehan’s reflections on how Twitter might have affected the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and how it might affect the meeting of the next Lennon and McCartney), and more. The magazine also includes an insert focused exclusively on Northampton, featuring an opinion piece by Alan Moore himself, as well as local music listings. My favorite piece is on its inside cover, the brief “Great Hipsters in History,” evidently the beginning of a series, also composed by Moore, featuring anarchist  and radical heros from days past, like Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson. On the whole, the magazine is enjoyable but uneven, certainly worth following until its character has been more defined—though maintaining its slippery nature seems to be its creators’ primary intention.

DS

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Stone Lyre, René Char, tr. Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press) $16.95

In his introduction Ilya Kaminsky writes that the great poets deserve a great many translations, and though René Char is a poet with a venerable pantheon of literary translators—among them James Wright, Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, and William Carlos Williams—Carlson’s sing most like the French originals. In her own note, she describes the difficulties of not simplifying the great Modernist’s semantic leaps, of maintaining the rich alliteration of the French, and even, of, “as [most] French words stress the last syllable… [trying] to end each line with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic.” These details—and she presents several other, similar examples—achieve their end without the clunkiness one might expect, as in her own example, “To Brother-Tree of Numbered Days,” in which only the last line retains the translatedness of Romance language poetry (and even then, not too distractingly):

Larch tree’s brief harp
On the spur of moss and flagstones in seed
—Forest’s façade where clouds break apart—
Counterpoint paired to the void in which I believe.

Carlson’s translations were selected from over five decades of Char’s work, and serve as an excellent introduction to his poetry. Despite their wide range of genesis they still maintain, as Kaminsky notes, the poet’s stylistic unity. That it is Char’s stylistic unity rather than Carlson’s again proves the quality of the translation. I especially enjoyed his later prose poems, which were also translated in strict imitation of French prosody, like “In Love,” here in its entirety:

Each square of the window’s pane is a piece of the facing wall; each stone sealed in the wall—blissful recluse—colors our dawns and evenings with gold dust mixed with sands. Our dwelling lives out its tale, through which winds love to slice.

Below, a narrow street where this fortune evaporates—pavement beyond our sight. Let anyone passing reclaim what he desires.

Borderland Roads, Hŏ Kyun, tr. Ian Haight & T’ae-young Hŏ (White Pine Press) $16

Korean poet Hŏ Kyun was born in 1569, worked as a prolific poet and diplomat, and was drawn and quartered in 1618 on false charges of treason. In 2006 a new collection of nearly 400 poems was discovered, mostly about his life abroad in China, written between August, 1615 and March, 1616. Responsible for writing Korea’s first novel, he was also a noted social reformer and critic.

Translators Haight and Hŏ introduce the volume in a manner they term “interpretive,” in fact a very unconventional but effective creative nonfiction narration of Kyun’s life in the second person. Its very strength is in its refusal to color the poetry with any academic interpretation, no doubt a nod to the poet’s own philosophy, reading instead as an obituary—and like an obituary, no doubt at times romanticized—of the poet. In a passage that describes his work and person well, they write:

You find your friends among the disenfranchised: the sons of concubines, the literati who have lost power or never had political connections, or those who, like you, are tired of the system and want no part of it. You write simple, plain-spoken poems that avoid the traditional aesthetics of the upper class, disavowing their literary embellishments. You write about the poor, about writing, about political life at court—how you wish it would end. You believe literature should be available to common people, and so you begin to eschew writing in the traditional Chinese for the Korean vernacular.

His poem “Writing What I See” exemplifies that practice, a poetry of witness without the artifice that might imply. It begins:

An old wife sits at dusk, grieving
in her charred village.

Her unkempt hair, like frost—
both eyes, muted.

Her husband imprisoned
by creditors.

Her son, drafted, follows the King’s son…

In the poem’s next section he describes more bourgeois Koreans, “Two old men / who’re not unhappy,” before offering more direct social criticism:

Charred remains of thatched houses
give people no shelter,

but to dig the castle’s moat,
half a family is called away.

Like Neruda, his social criticism is balanced by his descriptions of the natural world, as in his 1598 poem “Crossing Iron Mountain River,” in which he writes, “Dark waves rush south, / the north, plentiful / with new autumn colors. / The year goes— / I’ve already said it all.”

Though he sometimes writes with humor (“In Korea, there was a scholar, / who, though thin, had a fully developed mind.”) and frequently in praise of beauty, Hŏ Kyun is ultimately that most unusual poet, political in the most natural sense, exemplified by his 1604 poem “Indulgence,” also in its entirety:

Field and rice paddies, an abandoned desert.
Half the villagers, dead.
Taxes frequently collected,
a drought, a plague of insects.

In politics, it’s impossible
to be the best disciple of Confucius;
I have compassion only for my hometown.
Vaguely, I feel shame from my salary:
2,000 bags of rice
and still not practicing virtuous governance.

DS

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Tim Saunders is a Cornish-language poet who resides in Cardiff, Wales. He also works as a journalist, writing in Breton, Cornish, Irish, Welsh, and English. A Bard of Gorseth Kernow, he is also editor of The Wheel, an anthology of modern Cornish poetry.

Cornish is recognized as an official minority language of Great Britain, spoken by roughly 2000 speakers. Since the early 1900s it has been one of the most heavily revitalized languages of Europe, and its literary champions, like Saunders, continue to promote its use as a language of daily life and culture.

Not unlike haiku, Saunders brief poems call places into being and recount the power of nature. Though, as he writes, “crag becomes gravel,” Cornish literature defies that attrition, as its writers shape gravel into crag.

Bosrudhynn

Kleger dhe row kepar ha kyns;
tewes an myns a nos amal pow:
garm an gwanegow a worthyp dhe’n gwyns.

Bedruthan Steps

Crag becomes gravel just as formerly;
sand is all that marks the edge of a country:
it is the shout of the breakers that answers the wind.

X

Golowji Godrevi

Ewyn war row, trumm dhe lyr klys;
kerdh skwith a-brys, dewdhen ryb tan glow:
y kanav golow dhe beswar bann bys.

Godrevy Lighthouse

Foam on coarse sand, keel into sheltered waters;
a tired and timely walk, a couple by a coal fire:
I sing light to the four quarters of the world

X

Lannwedhennek

Pan bowes roev, pan bowes pal,
yth hedh an howl yntra heyl ha hal:
ot anall glor yn-tromm war ow thal

Padstow

When oar rests, when shovel rests,
the sun pauses between estuary and moor:
suddenly there is a cool breath on my forehead.

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Running Away, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, tr. Matthew B. Smith. (Dalkey Archive) $12.95

In a great scene from Jean-Philipiie Toussaint’s Running Away, the unnamed narrator gets lost in thought as he contemplates the geometry of bowling. The white pins form a tidy triangle, which sits at the end of the lane, a greased wooden rectangle. He hurls the spherical ball down the lane and feels a violent rush of pleasure as the ball collides with the pins, knocking them down. The narrator has been knocked off-axis by the news that his girlfriend’s father has died, and for an instant, he is allowed to escape his anxiety:

I was alone before the lane, my ball in hand, my eyes focused on my sole objective, the only place in the world and only moment in time that mattered to me, isolated from all past and future moments (84).

Many of the best passages in this often-breathtaking novel are moments where order briefly supplants chaos. The book has so many of these passages that my choice of the bowling scene feels arbitrary. And there’s plenty of chaos. To stick with bowling, the narrator has found himself at the bowling alley (disco-bowling, actually), which is either in or near Beijing, after being escorted there by his French girlfriend’s Chinese business associate (what the man actually does is unclear), who may or may not be dealing drugs and who also may or may not be competing with the narrator for the affections of a woman from Shanghai whom they both met at some art function (the man also might be playing the role of a courteous tour guide). The presumably French narrator never says why he’s in China (“I don’t feel like going into details”), and while he’s there, the narrator is ushered around by the possible drug-dealer, a string of bizarre incidents that culminates in a chase scene, although, at the end, no one appears to be chasing them (11). Then, suddenly, the narrator is back in Europe, staring at the Mediterranean Sea.

Running Away could have been a typical postmodern parable, filled with more questions than answers, but Toussaint writes with surprising tenderness, balancing the absurdity of the hero’s existence with the beauty the man sees in the world. Even while he is making out with the Chinese woman in the bathroom of the train, the man pauses to describe his surroundings:

It was a tiny space, violently bright, with a wall mirror stained with water streaks and flecked with spots . . . Up higher on the wall, an opaque window, swung open, looked out into the black sky, and a moist draft of air mixed with the roaring of the train reached us with an extraordinary force (35–36).

Although many of the themes in Running Away have been covered thoroughly in the last couple of decades—cultural isolation in a shrinking world, constant jet lag, lost connections, etc.—Toussaint filters them through his generous and attentive eye. The result is an affecting and original contemporary novel from a seriously talented writer.

Kevin Funkhouser is an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University’s creative writing program. He lives in Costa Mesa, California.

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