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Category Archives: Translation

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

This dual-language book selects from Mercedes Cebrián’s four collections published in Spain back to the mid-2000s. They’re poems about her nation and its changes since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Healthcare, consumerism, globalisation, the EU, the hollowing of city centres, the Church, data access, relations with other countries… There’s even a poem called ‘Brexit’:

         […] no era
         un ir y venir, era la diferencia
         entre mutuo y recíproco. […]
         (It wasn’t a to-and-fro-ing,/ it was the difference/ between mutual
         and reciprocal)

Such big social subjects are treated with a surface cuteness that dissimulates a deeper (and darker) nexus. A poem about immigration links the arrival of kiwi-fruit to Spain with the arrival of Pakistani immigrants, and does so in a way that its phrase especies de otros mundos (‘otherworld species’) and its excursus about chimpanzee smiles indicating hostility can be read as deniable, provocative or seriously unsavoury. Poems about regret for the loss of colonies, complaints about paying tax, and irritation with people blaming Franco for everything can similarly sound whimsical, ironic or quietly nasty. Ambiguity is often the strategy of the politically timorous writer, but the malestar (‘discomfort/ malaise’, rather than ‘angst’) of the Spanish title seems to be the aim here. The few poems about relationships likewise have their emotions camouflaged under elaborate, comic but disturbing fantasies:

         En esta cantimplora que acarro
         llevo un marido líquido […]
         (I have a flask I carry round with me/ with a liquid husband in)

To these ends, the book’s most frequent stylistic devices are abrupt non-sequiturs in the manner of Ashbery, and ostensibly nonsensical declarations that match an abstract noun with a highly particular image in a way familiar from surrealism:

          Los temas escabrosas están en el azucarillo
          de este descafeinado.
          (All the unsavoury gossip is in the saccharine-packet/ for this decaf.)

Its favourite joke-tone, meanwhile, is a faux naiveté

         […] Panamá. ¿A quién se le ocurrió partirlo en dos?
         (Panama […] Who on earth split it down the middle?)

shored up with plentiful references to childhood and its soft toys, dolls and felt-tip pens:

         ¿Sirve el gesto de devolver el edding y a cambio no pagar
         los euros que Hacienda me demanda?
         (What if I handed in the Edding as a gesture,/ would that mean
         I didn’t have to pay the Revenue all those euros?)

Even so, this is an adroit poet, and the grim prophecies of ‘Población Flotante’ (‘Floating Population’) 

         El futuro ya está blanco
         y está hervido, en eso se parece
         a nuestra cena
         (The future is white now/ and processed, like our supper)

with its imageries of desertification (‘hervido’ above is strictly ‘boiled’) and missile attack seemed to me among several poems whose power to unsettle reached beyond the habitual gripes.

The bold translation makes many unexpected choices: ‘recycling centre’ for vertedero (landfill site); ‘to google’ for saber más (to know more). It embellishes (‘re-tweeted’ for decía (said)), advertises (agendas negras (black notebooks) become ‘Moleskine’ ones), tones down (‘continents’ and even ‘photos’ for the thrice-repeated razas (‘races’)) and plays freely with line lengths and syntax, always valuing stylishness before strict precision. Nonetheless it works well: for the intermediate hispanophone less obvious meanings are sometimes illuminated and the exuberance is entertaining, while the genetically-modified Cebrián served up to the monoglot can be read as entirely apt for the ironies elsewhere.

Guy Russell 29th January 2023

Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

To Virgil, the second half of his epic of Roman imperial destiny and its human cost was the maius opus (‘greater work’). The long voyaging from fallen Troy is over. Aeneas has accepted his ineluctabile fatum, arrived in an Italy already thickly settled with both migrated and autochthonous peoples, and wants land to settle and found his city. There are moments of respite: feasting, aetiological storytelling, divine portents and the extended ekphrasis of Aeneas’ God-made shield. But mostly it’s war: siege, raid, council, treaty, mass funerals and constant one-on-one combat. 

The emotional power of this, the Aeneid’s Iliadic half, accumulates iteratively. The relentless and grisly scenes in which, over and over, a character is given a mini-biog only to ‘vomit thick gore’ or have ‘his face […] covered in hot brains’ a few lines later, becomes sickening as well as pitiable. The pity is reinforced by scenes of grieving loved ones wishing for death themselves, even while each killing inspires yet more vengeful bloodbaths. The poem famously ends with a maddened Aeneas’ refusal of mercy, and its last image of battlefield murder sends us back to the real world without consolation or excuse. 

This interesting new translation gives us an Aeneid that’s Americanized (‘mom’, ‘my ass’, ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’, &c.), film-friendly (‘Zoom in on Lavinia’), humorously anachronistic, hyper-dramatized (‘“Drop what you’re doing!” screams Vulcan.’) and considerably abridged. It bypasses several whole scenes and a massive chunk of Book VII, besides countless smaller details. Many battlefield deaths, notably, become mere name-lists, soft-pedalling the horror that’s the flipside of the epic concept of glory. 

The style is richly and sometimes brilliantly idiomatic. ‘Cum tandem tempore capto/ […] Arruns’ (lit: ‘when finally, having seized the moment, Arruns…’), for instance, becomes ‘This is the break Arruns has been waiting for.’ Indents, spacing and typography stand in for the elaborate soundplay, caesurae and positional emphases of the Latin hexameters:

          When he thinks        the enemy’s
                       close enough PALLAS
                                     moves first     hoping
                        for anything that might            improve
                        the odds […]

The word virtus (bravery, manliness) gets left untranslated, along with occasional other source terms, either to flag significance or for atmospherics. Classical buffs might miss the gratifications of Roman oratory: the most frequent rhetorical device here is cacamphaton (‘What the/   actual/    fuck,’ says Juno). ‘Tough’ is the favourite translation word – the warrior queen Camilla, for instance, is a ‘tough babe’.  

The colloquial parlance co-exists nonetheless with a traditional high-flown register (‘Why/ does fate urge you to unknown war’ &c.), which generates abrupt tonal changes. When Tarchon addresses his men: ‘Now O chosen guys’, the registral discord reaches parodic levels, and when we’re told Evander ‘spews forth’ his poignant farewell to his son, and then ‘blacks out’, it’s patently self-conscious flippancy rather than tonal lapse. This translator, recasting the Aeneid as part-comedy, part-Hollywood blockbuster, is propounding that we (or he) can’t take heroic epic seriously nowadays, and is willing to burlesque the horror and pity in order to subvert its martial vanities, while transposing it to genres more accessible to a contemporary audience. It’s undoubtedly a valid approach. The result feels like it was fun to write, is certainly more fun to read than twenty po-faced translations, and adds an innovative new ribbon to the rich braid of Virgilian studies. Just maybe don’t make it the only Aeneid you read.

Guy Russell 22nd November 2022

Trilce by César Vallejo Translated by Michael Smith & Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman Books)

Trilce by César Vallejo Translated by Michael Smith & Valentino Gianuzzi (Shearsman Books)

This very timely book marks a century from the first publication of Trilce in 1922. The cover boldly hails this as a ‘masterpiece’, of a significance in Latin and Spanish letters to match The Waste Land and The Cantos of Western Europe. I find that a bit strong and unsustainable, although Trilce breaks new ground, certainly looking a lot more experimental than it would now. In many ways it must be acknowledged its significant place, perhaps in that sense of The Cantos of being just a bit difficult to read, but one of those titles it would almost be irresponsible to overlook. Vallejo was an admirer of Ruben Dario; others find certain resonances not inconsistent with Whitman.

Much of Vallejo’s interest is that he breaks with tradition. He had a fondness for neologisms such as the chosen title, the most plausible reading of this is perhaps a combining of ‘triste’ (sad) and ‘dulce’ (sweet) from the Spanish. There is that sense that the book was likely ahead of its time, and in many ways has a style of diction comparable perhaps to US writing of the ‘50s and ‘60s, rather more so than with the highly effusive if not unchained Whitman.

It should be acknowledged that this is essentially a centennial reprint of a translation that was first done in 2005, and then included in a Complete Poems of 2012; accomplished by Irish poet Michael Smith and Peruvian Valentino Gianuzzi. Probably the most significant alternative take would be that of Clayton Eshleman.

In a very informative Introduction to the poems a number of substantive observations are made. We should note that by 1922 Vallejo was just 30. Vallejo was the youngest of 12 children, some of whom he was very close to. His relationships with women were also consequential, they ‘were not few’ (pxvii) including Otilia Villaneuva, the predominant affair, and Zoila Rosa Cuadra.

These factors and his mother’s death in 1918 had a decided bearing; equally Vallejo got involved in a public dispute involving his creative friends, and ended up in jail for 112 days. After release he was soon to leave Peru, with no going back, in 1923, when he left for Paris. There is some indication that ‘Trilce’s import was not immediately recognised and would only later emerge. Vallejo may very well be the finest of Peruvian poets, land of the Incas, although in the Pacific, Peru warred with Chile, a

hospitable place for poets, in which the latter tended to prevail.

The work eschews standard poetic forms, including rhyme, as Whitman did. The work consists of some 77 poems. There is the intimation of a strong ego, the ‘I’, but it is not especially introspective. The current book, helpfully, is bilingual, Spanish to the left.

I think comparing Vallejo to Eliot and Pound is a bit strong. There is not the guidance toward construction, nor that many highly memorable coinings or phrasing. But to Vallejo’s credit he has an air of difficulty and authenticity, some darker passages (one might compare the rather unlike Chilean Neruda) and an immersion in words. It might be suggested that levelling this text up against The Waste Land is not going to be very productive, whereas a comparison with other Latin poets, like Neruda, might be.

There is almost an unsparing quality, and Vallejo’s life was perhaps not at an altogether benign spot at the time. Here for instance is a stanza from poem XXVII;-

               The surge that knows not how it’s going,

            gives me fear, terror.

            Valiant memory, I won’t go on.

            Fair and sad skeleton, hiss, hiss.    (end p61)

Vallejo is unafraid of letting the darkness in, of examining it. He, creditably, does not seem to be going out of his way to please or placate the reader.

Vallejo, as Orrego remarked in his 1922 introduction (published for the first time here in translation) ‘strips his poetic expression of all hints of rhetoric’ (p202), such was its stylistic advance at the time. Vallejo took on convention, sometimes in ways that might have affected his work;- here is poem XLV;-

                  Let us always go out. Let us taste

            the stupendous song, the song uttered

            by the lower lips of desire. 

            O prodigious maidenhood.

            The saltless breeze goes by.   (p101)

I think there is little doubt that ‘Trilce’ amounts to being one of the most important Latin poems of the 20th Century. Yet he is that bit inimitable. The ego does come to be asserted, probably less so than in the prodigious Whitman, although it’s to cite American context, rather more out of the New American poets, and certainly very far off Language and conceptual poetry. I’m inclined to place him for Latin relevance alongside Neruda, Paz, Huidobro and Mistral and very likely Dario and perhaps de Rokha. Ironically Vallejo’s trailblazing innovations have by now seemed quite absorbed, used and recognised. But the book is a landmark and certainly essential to Latin poetry, rendered here in a very attentive and capable translation.

Clark Allison 5th November 2022

The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Bitter Oleander Press have already published two books by Franca Mancinelli, a book of prose poetry and another of poetry, both translated into English by John Taylor, and this paperback of prose, poetic prose and poetics will only add to the evidence of Mancinelli as a major contemporary Italian writer.

The short prose which makes up the first section of the book is a surprising mix of the romantic, personal and gently shocking. Childhood memories and fairy stories turn into stories with corpses, frozen tears which form stalactites in the eyes, blood and portentous signs. Yet these are deftly written, engaging and lucid tales, written with an accomplishment and flair that does not linger on the darkness but works to produce worlds of magic and light, and of promise, even when things seem grim. Here’s the end of ‘Walls, Rubble’, a story of claustrophobia, paranoia and ‘not feeling at home’: ‘I believe this space will collapse: a cataclysm will fall on this apartment. I will live under the rubble in an air gap, until I reemerge, come back out free.’

If there’s a problem with this I might challenge the vague use of the word ‘free’, which is in sharp contrast to the physical and emotional realities Mancinelli uses elsewhere in this piece. It’s a problem I have later on in the book when she addresses the topic of poetry, but first there is a selection of what I take to be non-fiction pieces.

There are descriptive yet still personal responses to the hills, cities, the beach, Milan Central Station, along with a meditation on her given name Maria, which the author has deleted from her writing name. Physical description, memories, geography and the imaginary coalesce into vivid moments and portraits of place, with a final, lengthier piece, ‘Living in the Ideal City: Fragments in the Form of a Vision’, emerging from contemplation of an unsigned painting in the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Again, there are some vague phrases I would question, such as ‘unstitched by wide rips of emptiness’ as part of a response to having her backpack stolen at the station. The same story, early on, also uses the phrase ‘[t]he law was to go, to follow the train timetable, the platform’, which I wonder might work better as ‘the rule’ rather than the (I assume) literal translation of ‘law’?

As I get older I am more and more fascinated by how others write poetry, and their creative process. Mancinelli’s ideas are no exception, although at times I almost shouted aloud at some of her romantic notions of what poetry is! (I accept I tend to have a reductionist approach that starts from the notion of text and language as something to build, remix and collage with/from, rather than any initial desire of self-expression or shared emotion.)

Yet, we share many traits. I have never been taken for a traffic warden, but I too stop and make notes in the street (and elsewhere), just as Mancinelli does in ‘Keeping Watch’; and I like her down to earth summary here: ‘I am making a report, and delivering it.’ I also understand the confusion and sense of being lost as one composes, shapes and edits a poem, but I reject the idea that ‘poetry is a voice that passes through us’ or the idea that she has ‘caught something’, both of which seem like a refusal to take responsibility for what has been written. Neither, for me, is poetry rooted in my sense of bodily self or ‘a practice of daily salvation’; and I do not believe that ‘[i]t is the forceful truth of an experience that generates poetic language.’ I like it, however, when she writes of ‘broken sentences’, ‘fragments’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘other meanings’, although I do not believe poetry is anything to do with ‘salvation’ or ‘transcendence’: we experience and describe the world through language, and it is language we use to make poetry (and other writing) from. It’s good, however, to be challenged and engage with what other authors think.

Taylor, in an intriguing ‘Postface’, considers Mancinelli’s writing with regard to ‘dualities of flux and the search for stability, using ideas of home and homelessness, place/space and elsewhere, highlighting the biographical, the physical body and notions of a more spiritual or metaphysical self’, but also a more ‘existential dilemma’ and ‘ontological resonance’ dependent upon the invisible. He also unpicks the idea of the book’s title, quoting the author, who explains that it ‘is a place steeped in the memory of childhood, whose boundaries have blurred over time, and at the same time it is the space of writing […]’. The butterflies of childhood have long faded and turned to dust, but Mancinelli’s desire to make words live and fly again, informs her strange and original writing that evidence traces of both her and our being.

Rupert Loydell  7th September 2022

We Build A City by Kinga Toth translated by Sven Engleke & Kinga Toth (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

We Build A City by Kinga Toth translated by Sven Engleke & Kinga Toth (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

In We Build A City the Hungarian poet Kinga Toth reassembles, almost as an architect /builder, both language and genre: she is a ‘(sound) poet illustrator, translator, frontwoman, performer, songwriter’ who writes in Hungarian, German and English,  living now between Hungary and Germany. Her work has won several important prizes. This book was originally published in Germany in 2019 and has been co-translated by the poet herself into English: the edition is sleek and elegant with a grey industrial landscape as its cover, however the dominant image, a rounded breast-shaped silo, hints at the deep gender concerns raised within.

Originally a philologist, her work signals a deep fascination with language per se ,

and she is not afraid to mould and transform it , experimentally stress its materials to breaking-point in order to create  new structures. This is an ambitious collection: the poems and graphics are collective in their range, remind us of plans and maps of unrecognisable sites, slash vertically and horizontally, and imagine strange and provoking structural relationships between the (obliquely gendered female) body as metaphor for a city in both biomorphic and mechanistic terms. Toth regards the poet as part machine and language as self-generating: meaning is always fluid, elusive, and words run together as hybrids – ‘newdeed’, ‘foldstool’, ‘tormentbelts’. The effect is powerful and sometimes menacing. Here is the beginning of the poem ‘WOMAN’ :

            the woman is the container’s part

            on her head a yellow snapped helmet

            the channels crackle outside

            squirming as a maze

            not every one of them

            gets back inside the body

In a breakthrough poem ‘Ballerina’ from her collection All Machine, 2014, Toth evokes a rotating, robotic figure, a model dancer activated on the top of a music box by a key, and We Build A City would appear to explore this trope further. Poems here evoke the perplexing realities of being seen as a performer, a female receiver of the public gaze, while at the same time imagining ways in which linguistic imagery can evoke consciousness as a mechanistic system, partly human and partly human-made (as we all are to some extent now in the 21st century due to contemporary surgical and technological interventions within the body). Toth’s work also considers how bodies (and consciousness) are impacted by disability and illness. In contrast with the architectural project to create a perfected whole, this perhaps more compelling sub-text offers glimpses of the fragmented/broken, incomplete / unfinished in constant process. The graphics consist of images and patterns made from faded and sometimes smudged letters from vintage typewriter keys: there is a disjoint between the modern and the anachronistic but without any trace of nostalgia. By the end of the book, language as text disappears almost entirely and we have only smudged and disjointed single letters within these eerie diagrams. 

Pippa Little 31st August 2022

but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

but first i call your name by Hadassa Tal Translated by Joanna Chen (Shearsman Books)

The collection is composed of seven short parts each with incantatory titles that together could create a poem of their own:

within the whirlpool of your loss

run away, leave the poem

one instant – you’re gone

I will not be able to lift you

the one with no name

torso

the purple rose of Tel Aviv

Poems in ‘but first I call your name’ are elusive and ambiguous and based on paradox. Loss hovers between the binaries of beauty and pain: ‘apart from everything/nothing has changed’ says the epigraph on the opening page. The spirit of the lost ‘you’ wanders along ‘in the opposite direction/to laughter’. There are motifs of silence, birds, roses, music and dreams but pain is ‘nailed’, one title is ‘lacerations from an unsent letter’ and there is reference to ‘the crimson bond of blood’ while angels are warned to ‘take caution/with a slaughtering knife’. ‘Silence’ is a key word in these poems but, in the nightmarish ‘finito la commedia’, Pierrot cackles ‘A bird will scream tonight’.

Poems about loss – but the reader is offered no further information. There are references to motherhood with ‘nipples and honey’ and to a child, ‘a girl running in a field’, to a ‘morning star and a girl’ falling,  ‘scattering through the air’, but details are not intended for the reader, loss is conveyed through images, there is no name and the lost one is always referred to as ‘you’ or, symbolically, as ‘beauty’.

Poems in this collection are filled with yearning. One is titled ‘how much yearning does time weigh’ and begins ‘You yearn from within me/passing a shadow over my words, pushing/towards the source of light.’ We have the description of ‘running along stone platforms/ chasing you’ (‘Crumbs’). In ‘leave these words’ the narrator runs ‘like a broom through the city streets’ asking ‘Was it my yearning that created the rose you gave me/in a dream or was it yours –‘. In the poem ‘baby, you’ve got a snow-white coat with blue-red stripes’, yearning is described as ‘wafting like a wind,/whirling’. ‘Hold, let me hold you’ is the plea, ‘don’t slip away’.

This is a deeply philosophical collection. Time, as the instigator of grief, is interrogated throughout.  The ‘you’ has been ‘emptied of clocks yet time happens’. In the poem ‘silence’ Time is personified when he hears his own words and looks up ‘startled’ only to repeat the dreadful word ‘Nevermore’. In ‘twist’ we are offered this:

there’s no death, she said.

the spirit doesn’t die, is not born.

the sternum, a cage

of ribs, life before and after, all is one.’

Earlier I mentioned paradoxes and binaries and an essential one exists in the swing between the sublime and the void. In ‘but first I call your name’ the void is ‘emptiness/filled with itself’. The lost voice jingles in a bell ‘polished by the void’ (‘that’s that’). ‘o g-d’ begins ‘imagine voiding yourself: visibly absent./no present no sign. nothing. all shuttered … white recedes into darkness.’ The most chilling line, or fragment of a line, ends the wintry scene in ‘silence’:

‘Rain lashing a willow branch will be the only tune,

the world tethered to these words: you are no’

And the sublime? The poem ‘guesstimate’ offers some consolation perhaps, or at least a slight movement towards resignation:

they say your loosened curls are the wings of the bird of fate

that you were already who you would be

that you wouldn’t have been eternal

if you hadn’t been transient

This is an outstanding collection of poems, exquisitely written by Hadassa Tal and translated with empathy and delicacy by Joanna Chen. The book is haunting, in every sense, lyrical and innovative, both enchanting and painful. 

The poems end with a promise: ‘at daybreak I’ll release you to dawn’ and with an image of ‘the purple rose of tel aviv’ which the narrator, with pain holding her hand, will ‘dream into being’.

Mandy Pannett 23rd June 2022

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Controlled nostalgia suffuses the fourteen poems of Ariadne Radi Cor’s new collection. She moved from Trento in northern Italy to London in 2009 to pursue her new job’s projects. In this journey towards a new life in a big city, the author expresses the disquieting sensations of the duality of language, landscape and weather in the interweaving of past memories and present reality. The two worlds are in conversation but never merge completely, leaving the self in an uncertain suspended dimension. The book is bilingual; not only are the poems translated into English by the author with the help of translators, but also the blurb, the foreword and the afterword are presented with an English counterpart.

     The future is a faraway entity that is unknowable and unpredictable. Therefore, the focus of the poems is on the present in relation to the past which is unforgettable and is surrounded by an aura of extraordinariness:

Per noi solo l’indimenticabile, così non lo dimenticheremo

e comunque solo fuori casa

[…]

E papà diceva che non serviva andare a Parigi

dal momento che ero già straordinaria

For us only the unforgettable, so we’ll never forget it

and in any case always outdoors

[…]

And dad used to say I didn’t need to go to Paris

since I was already marvellous

     It is a dreamlike atmosphere evoked in the reference to La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini that connects the poem to the Italian cultural context of the time and to the illusions of memories. London, instead, is her everyday reality, which is mysterious and contingent at the same time. It is ‘a skeleton, an attendant – a skeleton […] a bowl of sugar in the rain’. She is unsettled by the absence of sunshine but eventually she learns to love London. A sense of displacement lingers in the allusion to Mary Poppins, whose bag is stolen leaving her deprived of her powers. Similarly to the heroine, the poet seems to be powerless when facing her double life between the present and the past, between London and Italy. Life goes on in London, the ‘unstoppable city’ where she finds her place but also wanders in search of meaning, in its vague ‘scent, a scent: whose, from when – whose?’ that questions her certainties:

e mi chiedo come sia possibile

se io stia occupando il posto di un’altra di proposito o per errore

e se questo fosse un mio errore

o l’errore di un’altra.

and I wonder, how did this happen

and I taking the place of another intentionally or by error

and is this my error

or someone else’s.

     It is an adventure, a journey towards a more complex identity that challenges her origins and enriches them too in a progression that is not always easy. She wishes to rewind, to go back to the past, to her ‘Tyrolean dress’, but she also wants to face the opportunities that London offers. The city is ‘a kind of Olympus, of dream of the century/an emission of our youth’, the embodiment of vitality.

     Four pictures comment on the poems; they are reminders of fragmented memories, apparently simple things but meaningful for the poet’s search, such as a newspaper clipping, a ticket for a sunbed session and a picture of a TV screen with William and Kate’s wedding showing on it. They are metaphors that help the reader understand and give a sense of deep connection to the author’s new life in London; it is an incessant movement that goes forwards and backwards between Italy and London.

     Radi Cor’s poems are skilfully crafted, similarly to the works of major Italian women poets such as Alda Merini and Maria Luisa Spaziani. Her lines express deeply felt emotions in imageries and sounds both in Italian and in the elegant and competent English translations. She recalls memories that shaped her personality in language. It is a shape-shifting identity which is enriched by two cultures and two realities. The reader is involved in this moving and ambivalent reality in which ‘by the Thames […] you sense Venice’ in an illusion of truth. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th January 2022

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Forms of Exile: Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva Translated by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Marina Tsvetaeva is one of those poets whose biography (privilege, revolution, poverty, exile, return, suicide) tends to generate more word-count than their work. Presumably that’s not merely because of her life’s drama and passion, and because the distance between the lived and written personae appears so small, but because the work is so difficult. Nonetheless, translators do love a challenge and there are nowadays plenty of options in English – Feinstein, Alvi/Krasnova, White, Whyte, Naydam/Yastremski, Kneller, Kossman, McDuff, just for starters – giving us Tsvetaeva’s who are fatalist, formalist, bourgeois, Orthodox, faithless, feminist, tsarist, unstable, ironic, bisexual, cool, or all of these. As for this book, most of the translations in its second half – from After Russia and the Thirties – are already available in Belinda Cooke’s praised 2008 selection from Worple Press with only minor amendments here. (And many of those look like typos, of which this book has rather a few.) The new ones come from 1917-8 and the early Twenties. This means we get less of the joyously passionate Tsvetaeva and more of the grief, anger and despair:

O, from the open drop

to fall below – to become dust and jet-black.

This Tsvetaeva often has a contemporary demotic feel (‘I’ve had it with obsessing’), though she can equally (‘That which is called death’) be grammatically traditionalist. Like most of her anglophone incarnations, she’s cut down on the abundant exclamation marks, so that for example, ‘– увы!’ (lit: alas!) becomes the much more English ‘Sadly, […]’. Some insistent anaphora is also softened, lines are occasionally moved about, and there’s no attempt to imitate the original’s rhyme-schemes. Visually, these versions (mostly) preserve stanza-lengths and indentations but indulge greater variance in the line-lengths. They also keep many of the dashes and ellipses attendant on Tsvetaeva’s compulsive aposiopesis, but don’t fetishize doing so; so that this, for instance (to a now far-distant Pasternak):

Не рассорили — рассорили,
Расслоили…

(lit: not fallen out — fallen out,/ stratified…)

becomes

they didn’t make us quarrel 

  but they dropped us like litter,

they lay us apart, put us in separate layers of cake,

The repeated ‘they’s replace the original ‘ras-’ head-rhymes. The liquids and sibilants are reordered but still detectable. And the translation explicates (or interprets) the concisions, albeit at some length. As a good Modernist, Tsvetaeva gives the underinformed reader no quarter, so it’s similarly useful to have, for instance, ‘the Twelve Apostles’ glossed as ‘Prague’s/ […] clock of the Twelve Apostles’. Often, however, the sonics are quite untranslatable. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ relies on the ‘gor-’ head-rhymes in the Russian words for ‘mountain’ and ‘grief’/’grieved’, and subsequently for ‘city’, ‘hump’, ‘spoke’, ‘Gordian knot’ and so on, so that the speaker like a weighed-down Atlas keeps emitting ‘gor’s as groan-sounds themselves. Feinstein tried ‘the mountain mourned’, but are those ‘m’s just too soothing a noise? Cooke, whether sensibly or despairingly, just doesn’t go there. 

Plenty remains, in whatever event, for the British reader to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’). This is a book packed with love and death, Classical and Biblical allusion, poems about how important poets are (we all like those), monologues on the model of the Heroides, lips, sin, the ‘milky call’ of the Russian language, ‘roses of blood’, ‘God in a brothel’ and ‘this most fairytale of orphanhoods’. What more do we ask of the world’s famous poets?

Guy Russell 8th October 2021

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

The Red Place by Lars Amund Vaage translated by Anna Reckin & Hanne Bramness (Shearsman Books)

This melancholy book-length poem, first published in Norway in 2014, begins with a motionless drama:

THERE IS A YOUNG MAN inside me

I see him standing

by a dark wall

somewhere in the forest

which sets the timbre straight off. ‘Inside’, in a way, means ‘outside’. We’re not going to be able to trust even the simplest language. Adjectives will cancel each other out: ‘the beautiful, ugly buildings/ the rich, poor rooms’.  Line-breaks are deployed to leave you rudderless:

Quietly I passed into that area of darkness 

which does not exist. 

[…]

Mother fell and moved around in a circle

which was impossible

and expected emotional reactions are denied: ‘I am not happy to see him/ nor do I mourn him’. Soon sets of spiralling metaphors are in play: the red place is the heart, which is the piano, which is the lover and the coffin, which is the forest which is the realm of the dead which is the red place. In a way. Meanwhile images of violation pervade: ‘I opened my memory/ all the way down to my heart’s floor’. ‘He is running into himself, through the small holes/ he once drilled.’ ‘Peace had eaten its way into her’. [A pianist] ‘plugs himself into the great, black body’.

There’s no conventional narrative, but a picture starts to build: this is a middle-aged or elderly man from a rural background, who was once a concert pianist (as Vaage himself was). His memory has become so intense that he’s having visions. There’s his childhood self, perennially at the piano. His youthful and professional selves, uncommunicative and inner-directed. And his now-deceased parents. His mum, who left with ‘the other man’, is always travelling or absent. His dad is always on the farm, working – he ‘empties work of work’. I found the narrator’s regrets at not communicating with them, especially with his father, more affecting at every rereading. The straightforward vocabulary and minimal punctuation make the book a speedy read, and that, along with the refusal of the normally expected sentiments, means the emotional surge only impacts belatedly. The narrator’s is not an unremitting loneliness; he mentions a friend (albeit a dead one) and twice addresses a presumed former partner. Nonetheless the piano, with ‘its kisses/ inside the canals of the ear’, becomes the meagre surrogate to romance: ‘The piano opened the door/ […] we emptied into each other/ But emptiness/ is a poor gift between lovers’. 

The translation looks welcomely unmeddled. Language geeks (unsurprisingly common among poetry fans) will find the original downloadable as an epub from ebok.no or similar, where they can check, for example, whether the glum puns on ‘play’ (the child plays only the piano, not with other children) or ‘autist’ (for ‘artist’) are also there in the Nynorsk. Spotify can let them hear the cadences; a selection has been recorded accompanied by appropriately spooky music. ‘The poems are constantly trying to take us through a door into another world’, wrote Michael Peverett of Vaage’s earlier Outside the Institution. And there are plenty of ghosts and doors here, among ‘sheep and cows so startled/ they had forgotten all they knew’, and the human costs of artistic practice. Certainly this is remarkably distinctive and special writing, which I guess is what we ask from translations: to deliver us stuff that no-one in our own language has done.

Guy Russell 24th September 2021

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

On the Banks of Damodar by Anant Joshi Translated Jayashree Naidu (Kalpaz Publications)

Poet and novelist, Anant Joshi’s contemporary novel, translated by Jayashree Naidu from Marathi into English, concerns the exploitation of subsistence workers by a coal mafia in the Jharkland state situated along the banks of the Damodar river. The narrative revolves around the practice by government workers of hiring impoverished people to ‘impersonate’ them and work in the mines at considerably lower rates than their salary. Some of the government workers meanwhile have other jobs during their duty hours or work on their own farms. The novel exposes the coal mafia and the ways they control illegal businesses selling off coal to other dependent businesses and delineates the elaborate systems of payments used to cover up the corruption. 

Marathi is India’s third most spoken language after Hindi and Bengali and is centred around the Maharashtra and Goa states of western India. It is an Indo-Aryan language with three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. The primary word order of Marathi is subject-object-verb and there is a lot of Sanskrit derived words in the language. The Marathi word for impersonators, ‘Baniharees’, appears to have no official English translation. This may be because it is a dialect word or because the practice of sub-hiring workers to work in your place is not officially recognised.

Written quite formally without ostentation, the narrative is more splayed than linear, outlining a chronology which explores the extent of municipal corruption and exposes the workings of the social structure. The novel has two strong female characters, Renuka, the senior police officer, and Kirti, a welfare office, and a sub-story around whether it is acceptable for a woman to provide for a man. The novel is very good at depicting male aggression, sexual harassment and the social situation of both female protagonists. The translation has formalised dialogue, occasionally over-written, includes some Bengali and untranslated Marathi words. I would have liked more of a multilingual approach to further illustrate the way access to and knowledge of key words impact on the various social relations under review.

The double narrative of municipal corruption, of good versus evil, and the condition of women in a patriarchal society where incidence of reported rape has increased this century makes this a fascinating read. Indian novels are written and structured quite differently to the conventional English novel. I am pleased to have spent time with this one.

David Caddy 26th December 2020

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