Saturday, December 20, 2008

UnCommon Sense

Denise Levertov is one of those great poets who is sometimes overlooked because of her politics. Which is why Jacket's issue on her is such an important thing. These essays, reflections and sharings of very personal interactions with Levertov are necessary, not only because she is a poet of peace and we are again in a time of seemingly endless war, but because she has particularly valuable insights about poetry's role in the world.

As the responsibility of the poet (which makes me think, now, of the wonderful poem "Responsibility" by Grace Paley read last week at the Joiner Center's tribute to her), Levertov is recorded by poet Mark Pawlak as saying:
"It is not the responsibility of the individual writer to increase the literacy of the masses,” Denise asserted. “To assume oneself responsible and able to do so would be arrogant. A complete upheaval of the social order is necessary to achieve that. It is rather the individual writer’s responsibility to work toward a revolution."
This profoundly reasonable understanding of how a poet can be 'of the people' addresses something I've thought about for a long time, since first reading Neruda and Vallejo as a teenager. How can a poet write in the voice of the people without a kind of condescention? And this quiet private conversation points me in the right direction.

Later in the same piece, Pawlak shares another few sentances from an interview which hold the kind of no-nonsense wisdom that I associate with Levertov:

"A poem can have only literal meaning and still be a poem. I think of such poems as ‘plain’ poems. But, myself, I prefer that layering of meaning upon meaning which metaphor allows. However, any metaphor deserving the name must in poetry arise from the literal; and the layering of one meaning upon another must never obscure the literal; reading of the poem.”

Metaphor arising from the literal, the layering of meaning upon meaning while still remaining transparant to the concreteness of the image, this has always been for me the ultimate poetic achievement. I find this to be the common ground in every poem that moves me - though I couldn't have put it into these words exactly.

Finally, in the same Pawlak piece, he discusses her view of writer's block, something I have languished in recently.

She has as much as said that the creative unconscious has a natural rhythm of its own that cannot be rushed. Because one is not putting pen to paper, she has explained to me, does not mean that there is inactivity in the unseen depths of ones being, activity that might eventually surface as poems.

And this rational, undramatic approach to writing and life is perhaps what inspires me the most about Levertov, and about the perspective offered by this issue. Levertov has been for me one of those poets that I want to know better, that I want to read more carefully. This is still true, perhaps it will always be that she is one of the poets I feel like I can never fully approach, or appreciate. But the demonstration of her uncommonly common sense, her practical apprach to the world, and to writing is something that is so often missing in poetry. She dispenses with the mystique, the persona and is simply engaged with the world, without pretension. This is why now more than ever we need to read poets like Levertov - poets who engage the literary world with the actual world, who see with rationality and sense the work that needs to be done, and literature's place in doing it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Language v. Culture

"Reconciling language and culture is both a science and an art." So ends the NPR featurette on "The Art of Translation" which examins several issues that arise in the process of literary translation. And it is both a science, in the sense of languages being a science, and an art in the sense of creative writing. This bridge that literary translation creates between the critical and the creative, the objective and the subjective, is what perhaps initially drew me into its practice. But it is more than a science and an art, it is and has to be a love.

I was told in one of my first translation workshops with renouned poet and translator Martha Collins that there aren't very many young literary transltors. It seemed odd to me at the time that any craft would have much to do with the age of its practicioners. But it occurs to me that perhaps it has something to do with that requirement of love. As a creative writer, the love I hold for my own work is somewhat selfish - it's hard to get real distance from it, to seperate it from my intentions and emotions. As a translator, the love I bear for the work I'm translating is significantly different. It's not that I don't feel intimately attached to the work - I certainly do - possessive sometimes, proprietary over the original. But that to devote yourself, your creative energies, entirely to someone else's work requires a kind of selfless love that comes with perspective and time.

The NPR story correctly identifies several issues of literary translation as meaning, sound, cultural context. But there are some worrying statements: "A good translation needs to be true to the original and able to stand on its own for a new audience." While I tend to be on the faithful side of the translation spectrum in my own work, it's absurd to say there is no room for more experimental translations, ones that intentionally aren't "true to the original," like Lowell's famous imitation-translations of Akhmatova. Neruda believed that translators could improve upon the original. And being true to the original doesn't necessarily make the translation good - not by a long shot. Trots are the primary example, but I've read stilted, 'true' translations of verse into verse. This is where standing "on its own" comes into play, but what does that really mean?

While I'm lothe to attemt to define what makes a translation 'good,' it seems to me to have something vital to do with power. The effect that the piece has on its reader, or rather, the effect that the piece has on its translator, must be conveyed as faithfully as possible. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the syntax, grammar, word choice, sound, rhythm, etc. also have to be. These are the choices a translator makes, what to sacrifice, what to gain. And the cumulative effect is what makes a translation good or not.

This myriad of possible choices, an endless permutation of decisions, is what makes multiple translations not only possible but in many cases necessary. Compare the three Victor Hugo excerpts on the NPR article, and find subtlely different takes on the character. Each one may shed light on a different part of the book. Even moreso with drastically different versions. As Bea Basso says in the interview, each choice influences the next step, so the intentions of the translator are insinuated into each line, each word of the text. It is inevitable, though not undesirable so long as the readers are aware of the fact that they are coming to the work through the lens of another reader. Being aware of the possibility of different interpretations of an original text, different equally valid translations, encourages a deeper critical engagement with the text, inspires readers to move from a passive receptor to an active participant in the work.

And here is the issue with that closing quote. Translation isn't about "reconciling language and culture" as though they are two opposing forces working against one another. Language serves culture, culture serves language - they are overlapping subsets of a greater whole. Translation can't and shouldn't view language and culture as obstacles to overcome, or warring parties to mediate between. They are the very medium of the art form, the materials from which both the original and the translation are shaped.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Common Words for Common People - Repackaging the Liberals

Reading this New York Times article on a psychologist who is helping liberals re-brand their message I had a two-fold response: it's about time, and now we're no different than the conservatives. Because those of us with critical thinking abilities have seen for a long time that the conservative message is just neatly packaged and sold, and ultimately gets people to vote against their political, social and economic interests by playing on fear and emotion. And I for one have been proud that the liberals aren't stooping to those tactics.

On the other side, a friend and I were lamenting a few years ago that 'liberal' has become a dirty word. That tolerant and progressive are negative qualities, at least according to the conservatives and their populist rhetoric. It's not that the voting masses were actually against tolerance or progress, just that these things had been metaphorically tarred and feathered. And it seemed like the liberals, who for all intents and purposes should be master word-smiths, or at least be able to draw upon some, were just spinning in circles, unable to reclaim or re-imagine the context of the debate.

But should we really use the dirty and deceitful rhetorical stylings of the right? The article reads:
The handbook does not offer a script so much as a menu of options, each of which was poll-tested against
conservative arguments. On economics, for example, one message begins with “I want to see the words ‘Made in
America’ again.” Another reads, “We need leaders who don’t just talk about family values but actually value families.”
These insubstantial phrases are all bells and whistle, sound and fury, with no purpose. These, frankly, are something I can hear Sarah Palin or George W. Bush saying to a crowd of cheering people who don't want anyone smarter than them to be in charge. That's the whole problem with this "common words for common people" take, as far as I'm concerned.

I am not the smartest person in the country. I don't think that people who are smarter or better educated than me are inherently elitests or privledged. Many incredibly smart people come from working class backgrounds, and make their opportunities with the help of a system that is designed to reward merit (at least as well as wealth and class). This is a uniquely American construction, and something I'm proud of. And when it comes down to it, I want the person in charge to be smarter than me, by a lot. I don't understand the complexities of government, economy or foreign policy. So this reliance on 'straight talk,' which is just a euphamism for dumb talk, is part condescention taken to it's worst and part shame of being intelligent. Neither of these is a good thing.

However, it is past time that the liberals get energized, come up with some new messages or new ways of conveying the same messages, and stop rolling over for conservative dirty tricks. I just don't know if the lowest-common-denominator rhetoric is the best way to do that. Because then, how are we any different?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spider Curtains

Recently I got involved with a filmmaker who is doing a project on the translation of poetry. I've long been interested in the interplay between poetry and film, since both as an art form rest so heavily on expression of image. Her project is examining the aspects of poetry that are able to be translated, and will consist of several translations of the same poem being read over sequences of images. I'm thrilled to be involved - especially since the poet is Enrique Molina, a brilliant 20th century Argentinian poet.

So I started working on my translation today, and was humbled by the language in this poem. Much of what I've translated has been prose-poetry, or more generally approachable lyrical poetry. This piece, besides the modismos (word usages specific to the author's country) and elevated diction, is mostly lacking in punctuation. It makes it difficult in some cases to determine the grammar of each phrase, and if I happen to find myself moving too quickly I end up with delightful neologisms like "spider curtains." The phrase, properly punctuated (or prosaically punctuated) would be "...spiders, curtains..." But as I've always found when working through someone else's language, these mistranslations that are often as rich as the intended meaning.

Spider curtains: webs in an abandonded house grown so thick that they diffuse the light; finely wroght lace curtains with a web-like pattern; the image is layered with potential. It is only by suspending my own voice, my own sense of logic and structure and image that I can genuinely translate, and it leaves me open to words and pairings I wouldn't have come to on my own. That, perhaps moreso than any other reason, is the joy in translation - the being rendered open by language, and to language.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poet Arrested for Insulting Islam

Last week I came across this article on the New York Times website, and then this one on the BBC website. A 27-year old Jordanian poet, Islam Samhan, was arrested for combining Qur'anic verses with sexual themes in his poetry. According to The Guardian the controversy surrounds his first collection, Grace Like A Shadow, Menassat that it is called Elegant Like A Shadow (oh the rich problems of translation), and The National says it was a collected works called In a Slim Shadow. This blog hedges the middle saying that the current controversy surrounds Grace Like A Shadow despite the popularity of his previous release of collected poems In A Slim Shadow. Whichever it is, sources agree that his poetry has been called innovative and beautiful, and is now at the center of a heated controversy in Jordan.

The poet is still imprisioned in Jordan, and will appear in court on October 30th on charges of apostasy which might carry a potential death sentance, a banning of the book, fines and imprisonment according to various sources. This blog has it that the poet could be forced to divorce his pregnant wife and not contact her or their children again were he to be found guilty of the charges. The details may be skewed but the issue is painfully clear.

It is both terrifying and heartening to know that in some places poetry can land you in jail. In the United States poetry hasn't been able to land you in jail since the 50's, which some may think speaks of tolerance and I think speaks of unimportance. But here, this poet and the writers who are supporting his cause, are given an opportunity to make a difference in their world, change perception. Reminiscent of the controversy over the Danish cartoons, which drew global attention, a major difference is that Islam Samhan has said he was not intending to mock, disparage, or insult Islam, that he was merely influenced by the beauty of Qur'anic language. Intention should count, especially in the interpretation of abstract, perhaps even esoteric art forms like poetry. But it can't be everything, and it traces a dangerous line to assert no harmful intention, for where would that leave more controversial poetry? Islam's poetry, in any case, cherishes and celebrates Islam, but in a way that makes it surprising, new, unexpected, as any poet worth the name must do. This is called innovation.

Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, warned: “One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates. And if anyone has a say in literature, it should be a literary critic and not anyone from a different field who doesn’t know anything about old or contemporary literature.” This is similar to the arguments made in the smut trials in the US during the 50's over now-classics like Ulysses. Artistic freedom must be granted in order to allow the best art to develop unfettered, and art can only be interpreted by artists. All in all, a sound argument, at least so determined the US courts. Now we can only hope the Jordanian courts will see the logic of letting poets to their own devices, and not interpreting literally the verses they read. Perhaps an Art of Poetry class is in order for the officials charged with determining the offense of poetry.

All glibness aside, this poet deserves the freedom to express that which he finds beautiful and moving, deserves the possibility of surprising his contemporaries and the ability to intend to innovate. I hope he will be acquitted, and his book made available. Frankly, I would love to read it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I've wanted to start blogging for a bit now, never quite mustering the inspiration necessary to do it. But finally, I've figured out that if I want to start I need to just start. So this is the purpose: literary translation. Hopefully not only a catch-all for interesting news and new books, but also to think out loud in a manner of speaking the processes of translation, of publishing, of research and the quest for a graduate program suited to the interests of literary translation.

And why was I not informed that underwater archeology was a career possibility? Really?

So why Beneath Sense? Other than the fact that sometimes I am. My husband asked me what was the process, the path so to speak, of literary translation. The first thing that occurred to me was that, in the translation of poetry in any case, we delve beneath sense - the surface meaning - to excavate the poetry.

Robert Frost famously quipped that poetry is what is lost in translation. I disagree, not with Frost but with how that statement is commonly interpreted. Perhaps he really did believe that poetry could not move between languages. But I'd like to think that he was poet enough to recognize the universal, transcendental qualities of poetry: those that make Dante relevant today, that make Du Fu important, that make Neruda necessary. I understand the statement to be merely that the translation of poetry requires a poet to reintroduce the poetry that is "lost" into the final work. Transliteration requires a good dictionary and a native speaker. But the subtle secondary meanings, insinuation, allusion, hyperbole, rhythm and syllabance--those require a poet to recreate in the target language. I've seen it argued that Frost refers to the 'essence' of poetry here, that which absolutely cannot be translated. Without beginning to consider if poetry has an essence, and if so what that could possibly be, it seems to me that poetry must be translatable, if only because it moves from the page to the voice. Translation of medium requires a mutable essence, one that can be formed and reformed. Perhaps, through translation, even improved as Neruda and Paz believed.

These things I will seek and fall beneath sense.