How to be a translator

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What you’ll need: fluency in at least two languages, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Speak My Language by The Cure

Further reading: The Craft of Translation

I got my dad a book of poems for Christmas by the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Tomas Tranströmer. The poems in this edition are translated from their original Swedish into English by several different people, including poet Robert Bly.

This got us to talking about the translation of poems–is it possible? What’s the best method? Who best to do it? I brought up American poet Jane Kenyon who translated twenty of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s poems…without knowing any Russian. She had a fluent Russian speaker create English transliterations–direct translations of each word, with notes on subtleties–and from those she created her own poems.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a translation. Perhaps it seems like Kenyon was using Akhmatova’s poems more as inspiration than subject. Or perhaps it seems presumptuous that Kenyon did not need the original language to create poems loyal to the originals.

Unfortunately, loyalty is one of the most controversial and difficult subjects in the field of translation. To whom does the translator owe the greatest loyalty–to the author, the work of literature, or the audience for which the new work is being created? As the Italians say, Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor).

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

For a college course on translation, I did a project on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a brilliant Mexican woman who entered a convent so as to continue her studies, and wrote biting criticisms of the sexism rampant in her 17th century society. One of her most famous poems, Hombres Necios (Foolish Men), attacks the hypocrisy of those men who condemn prostitutes for their sin and yet are the same men who frequent brothels.

Translating this poem was difficult enough–she writes in a very formal style with strict rhythm and rhyme scheme, which is hard to pull off in English. To add to it, though, I also decided to translate a parody of the poem, Hembras Necias (Foolish Females). In translating the parody, I realized I had to parody my translation. Which is to say, the parody that I wrote in English related more to my translation of Hombres Necios than to the parody in Spanish, so that English readers might see the connection and understand the puns involved. This led to me another conclusion: all translation is, in a sense, parody (so long as we think of parody not necessarily mocking the original work but being created in its form).

In this project, I used the theory of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who said that all literature and indeed all language is in continual dialogue with everything that has come before and will be changed by everything that comes afterward. Nothing is said or written in a vacuum. Translations, then, are just a part of this dialogue. “Perfect” translations cannot exist, because words in different languages are not equal–they have different connotations, different histories, different users. So perhaps there is no correct way to create a translation of a poem. As the translator does not wish to replace the original, the best she can do is submit a new work in the ever-shifting landscape of literature and hope the it continues the dialogue in some meaningful way.

Poems I’ve memorized

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As I mentioned on Monday, in June of 2007 I began to memorize poems to prepare myself for a summer of being around writerly folk in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I imagined us interns at the Fine Arts Work Center giving recitations over glasses of wine, and being called upon by the great visiting writers to speak the words of our favorite poems at will. Thus, I memorized Lee Young Li’s poem DwellingTo the Harbormaster by Frank O’Hara, Onions by William Matthews, and Robert Hass’s Meditation at Lagunitas. I tried to memorize Maxine Kumin’s Jack and Stanley Kunitz’s The Portrait, both of which make me cry every time I read them. I worked on committing to memory longer poems, such as Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich and Robert Frost’s Mending Wall.

A view of Provincetown Bay

When I arrived in Provincetown, I quickly realized that no one was going to call on me spontaneously for a poetic recitation (not even Maxine Kumin herself, whom I helped by carrying her luggage to her rooms on my first day of work). The words I’d worked so hard to remember drifted away, but I wasn’t disappointed. I filled my mind instead with the new works that I was continuously exposed to.

In my final week at the Fine Arts Work Center, novelist Colum McCann was one of the teaching artists. Being an equal-opportunity drinker he invited everyone he met out to the bar, from his students, to random Portuguese fishermen, to the “bears” visiting for Provincetown’s annual Bear Week. We interns were included nightly in these trips and after we’d each had several rounds one night Colum began singing Irish folksongs. When he stopped singing (a beer or two later) he looked at us.

“Now, who’s got a poem to recite?” he asked us. My heart sank. Any work I’d done memorizing poems that hadn’t already been erased over the course of the summer was now muffled under the wool of alcohol. Still, I volunteered, hoping that a poem would find its way out of some pathway of my brain.

When I began to speak, though, it was not one poem that came out, but a mongrel of them all. My favorite lines from each had mixed into one superpoem, that was both wonderful and incomprehensible. And thus I recited:

First the air is blue and then

it is bluer and then green and then

black I am blacking out and yet,

I can feel my cheek

still burning.

I wanted to be sure to reach you;

You sit down to eat with a rumor

of onions still on your twice-washed hands.

Longing, we say, because desire is full

of endless distances.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

And the places on her body have no names.

Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone

did you remember that one good winter?

And, because everyone else had had as many beers as I, they all applauded noisily (having probably not understood what I was saying anyway) and Colum started up another Irish shanty. The memorization had been worth it after all.

Craigslist poetry

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When I was in high school, one of my favorite things to do was go to a local coffee house with my best friend and read a section in our local newspaper called “I saw you.” The paper has since discontinued these stalkerish personal ads, perhaps due to the popularity of Craiglist’s Missed Connections site. On Missed Connections, you can write of your love-at-first-sight for the man at the gas pump next to you or the woman whose eye you briefly caught while you were both stopped at the traffic light. And you can hope that this person–potentially your soulmate–will see your ad, recognize themselves in your description, and respond. Happily ever after.

In fact, I once worked with a woman who spontaneously posted a Missed Connection after seeing the same two guys at a few consecutive concerts around the Twin Cities. One of the guys saw it, responded to it, and married her a few months later. And it’s this kind of story that inspires all those other thousands of hopeful romantics (or unrealistic creeps) that a Missed Connection might turn into a Mr. and Mrs. Connection.

Sophie Blackall illustrates the butterflies of love at first sight

This mixture of romance and delusion most often amounts to nothing more than bad poetry. But, for bad poetry, it is strangely compelling. Sophie Blackall, blogger and artist, has made a name for herself illustrating the beautiful and bizarre missed connections of New York. Searching the recent Twin Cities missed connections, I found several contenders for a high honors in bad poetry. Here are four of my favorites:

No shoes, big headphones on the bridge 

You intrigued us,

mister.  Where were

your shoes? Why were you running

so sporadically? What

were you listening to?

– w4m

Sharing a bear suit is equivalent to second base in some countries

I’m broken… 

I don’t think

this is for me, but

I feel the same way.

This morning

during half moon pose, I was thinking,

“I’m bending, bending, bending…

and feeling fragile enough

to break.”

– w4m  – (Singing, dancing, traveling, flossing)

Twins Game 

I am not sure

if you are recently single –

we never talked –

who were you with, and

who was I with?

– Sunday – m4w

‘I Like Your Glasses!’ 

I responded

with ‘I Like Your Hair!’

We parted

with ‘Have A Nice Night!’

It’s a start…

At Walgreens – m4w

DIY: Write a sestina

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Although seemingly counterintuitive, limitations nourish creativity. If someone asked you to write a poem in one hour and gave no guidelines whatsoever, you might end up staring at a blank piece of paper for sixty minutes. On the other hand, if the person specified that this poem must be twelve lines long, rhyme in an ABAB pattern, and include the words “salt,” “dive,” and “molten,” your brain would be much likelier to start firing with associations and possibilities right away.

It’s no surprise, then, that poets often turn to predetermined forms to get their creative juices flowing, such as haikus, villanelles, sonnets, pantoums, and ghazals. One of my favorites is the sestina, which happens to be the only poetic form that the web version of the literary magazine McSweeney’s accepts for publication.

Creating a sestina is like putting together a puzzle, and is more confusing in description than in action. Each of six stanzas has six lines, and those lines end in the same six words. However, in each successive stanza the order of those words changes. A seventh stanza, just three lines long, includes the six words again, two to a line. If we assign each of these ending-words a letter A-F, here is their order in the seven stanzas:

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

See how Elizabeth Bishop employs this form below using the end-words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

*Now it’s your turn! With the end-words “dawn,” “noise,” “black,” and three of your choice, write a sestina. Quick now, I’m only giving you an hour…

St. Paul sidewalk poetry

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One way to celebrate April as National Poetry Month, as the Academy of American Poets website directs, is to “Put a poem on the pavement.” Four years ago, my home city took this advice to heart and started the Saint Paul Sidewalk Poetry Contest. Winning poems are pressed into newly poured cement so that the city is slowly turning into a canvass for local poetry. In my neighborhood you can hardly go a block without treading on someone’s words. Alas, the quality is not always good, but these poems are not meant to be more than brief images that temporarily commingle with your thoughts. Still, here is a nice one from a past winner:

A dog on a walk

is like a person in love −

You can’t tell them

it’s the same old world.

By Pat Owen

Are you a St. Paul resident? The fourth annual contest ends this Sunday, April 17th at midnight! Check the guidelines if you’re interested in submitting.

How to be a poet

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What you’ll need: an appreciation for the sublime and the profound in everyday life, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Further reading: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (the most comprehensive), The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (my favorite)

In the American tradition of giving causes their own days and months, April is National Poetry Month (this week is also National Library Week–a double whammy!) Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, poets, teachers, publishers and booksellers now celebrate the art form in a multitude of ways from readings to poem-a-day mailings to poetic tweets.

My own illustrious career began in the 3rd grade when we were doing a poetry unit. We learned about haikus and tankas and tried our hand at several forms. When we were instructed to write an ode, I quickly put together a poem about one of my best friends at the time. I turned it in to my teacher within a few minutes. She looked it over and suggested a few revisions, but I shook my head, assuring her that my artistic vision was perfect the first time around (somehow I already had a fully-formed artistic ego, and only learned the necessity of revision when I was about 21). The poem eventually won a contest judged by Garrison Keillor, for which I gave readings at a local mansion and a Barnes and Noble.

Cleopatra's poetry class at a dinner with Lucille Clifton (pink sweater) and Grace Paley (pink hat, gray sweater)

That early success has been unparalleled in the sixteen years since. Middle school was a particularly bleak time for my poetry (What more can I speak/of that which I seek?/Ah, this poetry is bleak!) But luckily I went to a college with an exceptional creative writing program and was gently nurtured from writing terribly crappy poetry to something a little more substantial. The winter of my junior year I was in a class led by the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis. For those three months, and about six months thereafter, poetry made sense to me. I could read a poem and be profoundly moved by it, and I saw the world in metaphor. That summer I had an internship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on the ferry ride over from Boston I started to memorize poems from my Vintage anthology (see above).

That summer was one of the best of my life, as I was surrounded by other fiction writers and poets my own age as well as published writers. As most of us interns were newly 21, we spent many nights out on the town, but it was perfectly acceptable to decline an invitation out if you had a poem or story in mind you just had to get down.

At the end of the summer, one of my fellow interns who was in her second summer with FAWC told me that things would never be as good as with this community. She had gone back to her senior year of college with high expectations, but had been disappointed by the lack of energy there. Though I had had a fabulous class the previous winter, I experience a similar let-down my senior fall. I was in a seminar for poetry majors, but the poetry I was writing sucked and it seemed like I had no hope of improving it. I continued on, miserable, and was denied entrance to the honors track in poetry, instead being assigned an independent study. Poetry just didn’t make sense to me in the same way it had, almost as if my ability to understand it had shut off. Luckily, at the last minute I changed my focus to fiction and was able to make the honors standard with a thesis of short stories, but it meant that I gave up the image of myself as a poet.

I still haven’t gotten back in the habit of creating poetry out of my everyday life, but I have recently started reading and finding beauty in it again. Maybe my ability to understand it is turning back on.


Eavan Boland’s Ireland

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My undergraduate thesis advisor recommended Eavan Boland to me, having recognized an aesthetic in her work that I seemed to be striving toward. Her poetry explores the nature of womanhood (look at me as a daughter would/look: with that love and that curiosity–/as to what she came from./And what she will become.”); and she is a woman clearly in tune with nature (“When the nest falls in winter, birds have flown/to distant lands and hospitality./The pilgrim, with his childhood home a ruin/shares their fate…”). She extemporizes on Irish mythology (“The blood of man turns back and flows muddy/from this changing heart, and this fair skin/is ruffling in the feathers of a swan”), and Ireland’s difficult history (“I was born on this side of the Pale./I speak with the forked tongue of colony”).

Many of her poems evoke the Irish countryside. Because this is Irish week, I will leave you with a short poem of hers about the Liffey, the river that runs through Dublin:

The Liffey beyond Islandbridge by Eavan Boland

The Liffey, as it breaks from iron into grass

Past town, the Liffey breaks from iron into grass,

Then wanders, with the swans preening

In the shaken warmth of early March

And white abandoned sea birds leaning

On the wind. A cat steps cautiously

Among the daffodils. Under a tree

An old man contemplates his shoe,

Or turns to what he never thought to see

Again, the water fretted by a cygnet’s thrust.

Look well. Further beyond that river bend

Are spaces teemed with cities which must

Strike a destiny. But here for aimless miles

The river flattens to the land.