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Small Press Beat: Wave Books

Drew Scott Swenhaugen is back on the beat, this time with Tin House friend and author, Matthew Zapruder.

When I get a new title from Wave Books, a feeling of ecstasy comes over me. Their simple design, their range of styles, all point to something I should know, something I should care about. They challenge me to write better and to be a better reader.

And now, two new bombshells, in translation: Gennady Aygi’s In The Snow & Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms.

Gennady Aygi, a twentieth century Russian poet who strikes chords with Mandelstam, Celan, and is algebraic like Dickinson with his use of dashes and stops. Gennady wrote during the “Thaw period” in the late 1950s and early 60s when Khruschev loosened the grip on artistic control, allowing the voice of the avant garde to finally be heard. Into the Snow should not be read as direct political language, but rather, as a celebration of the “Thaw,” a reintroduction of the artistic voices unheard during Stalin and the Cold War.

Jorge Carrera Andrade, an Ecuador-born journalist who experimented with the “stripping away of all decoration: the cult of naked and simple expression.” Micrograms was originally written in Spanish and published in Tokyo in 1940 while he was an ambassador for Ecuador. Influenced by the landscapes of haiku, Carrera Andrade utilizes the microgram’s gentle form. Carrera Andrade sums up his own work best : “I try to testify to an ordinary man’s orbit in time. At first he feels a stranger in the midst of a changing world but later receives the visit of love and discovery deep within himself a feeling of solidarity with all men of the planet. I have traversed new countries in different latitudes and have returned to others already known, in a pilgrimage as passionate observer rather than as curious traveler.”

I talked with one of the editors of Wave Books, Matthew Zapruder (Ed. note: Matthew has just signed on to teach at the 2012 TH Workshop!!!), about the nature of capitol “T” Translation, its possibilities and impossibilities, its failures, and its originality.

DS: Translation is a highly discussed genre in contemporary poetry. Many small presses have started translation book series, many of them are excellent  … amazing poets that haven’t been read in English. Which also means the original content of these books in their native language has never been read. Is the ideal of a translation to capture a “sameness” with its original?

MZ: This issue is at the heart of the whole project of translation. Sameness, or accuracy, is part of the equation, but as Walter Benjamin points out in his seminal essay “The Task of the Translator,” complete sameness is an obvious impossibility. It’s definitely a concern for both the reader and the translator (not to mention the original writer). As Benjamin also points out, different texts are more or less translatable. I think people worry a lot about this, maybe too much. Each translation is a compromise, and should be understood as much.

There is a different reason why, beyond some kind of important, yet ultimately abstract ethical responsibility to an impossible ideal of sameness, it is best to stay as close as possible to the text. A translator must be willing to accept an element of strangeness or unfamiliarity or even infelicity in the new text. The worst thing a translator can do is to unconsciously allow his or her own ego — the desire to be seen as a “good” translator or writer — to begin to control the translation, so that subtle “improvements” are made in the text. This almost always results in clichéd, familiar, boring, language in the translation. If a translator finds him or herself saying something like, “that’s what the original seems to be saying, but it seems weird or unusual in the translation,” that is almost certainly the very place where the particular style of the author, what makes this author interesting and challenging and worthwhile as a creative artist, is manifesting, and to take that away and replace it with “acceptable” language in the translation is a disaster.

I heard Richard Pevear (who along with his partner, Larisa Volkhonskaya, are the preeminent translators of Russian prose) express this idea, one that I have had for a long time as well, in a talk he gave recently at UC Berkeley. So I think I’d like to give him the last word here, from an essay he wrote about translating Tolstoy:

“But then, literature is precisely not the conveying of information. It is the making of an image, and through the image of an experience, using all the resources of language — rhythm, sound, texture, tempo, suggestion, intonation. What’s more, every good writer has a particular way of using those resources. That is what the translator must try to follow as closely as possible. The transposition can never be total, and therefore it is always worth trying anew. In this way translation, which is a dialogue between languages, also becomes a dialogue in time, a fresh response to the ongoing life of the original.”

DS: Walter Benjamin and Paul Celan both have rich opinions on translation, lasting arguments, a great deal of presentness and warning. Celan wrote as one translates, the product runs the risk of being language  with “all the syllables standing around.” I think he means that are a multitude of linguistic, historical and cultural aspects of translating that make some things untranslatable. Translation as “carry over” language. A fascinating topic. I borrow this question from Kerstin Behnke, who wrote an essay on Celan’s translations of Dickinson: What does it mean to translate poetry as poetry into poetry?

And of the specific translator of work. Does it matter if said translator is a poet? Must he or she be the poet of the poet? What part of the translator’s personal style and poetic principles come into play? This is a theoretical question, without asking a specific translator the question.

MZ: I guess an alternative to translating poetry as poetry into poetry would be translating poetry as poetry into prose? That is, translating poetry “as poetry” means respecting what is poetic about the poetry above everything else, by saying it is untranslatable “as poetry” “into poetry.” That’s what Nabokov did, out of frustration and respect, with his prose translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I have read in the original and admit seems as if it would be absolutely impossible to translate into any kind of poetry. Then again, people seem to have done it with Shakespeare’s sonnets, which seem to me to be equally untranslatable.

I think you do the best you can to try to get as much of it over as you can, while acknowledging that it is an inevitable compromise. That sounds really wishy-washy, but it’s true.

And no, I don’t think someone has to be a poet to translate poetry. Maybe translating poetry inevitably turns you into a poet though. Beware!

I think I addressed above a little bit the dangers of allowing one’s own “personal style and poetic principles” to take over the translation. I personally have found that most poets I know who write good poems don’t have any poetic principles other than write poems. And I think that the same could be said for good translators: their principle is, don’t allow their principles to prevent them from making the best translation under the circumstances.

To be specific, a great example of this is Glottal Stop, the Celan book that Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov translated. In the introduction they talk about how sometimes translating Celan’s syntax in German exactly into English would have given people the false sense that (in those particular poems at least) Celan was some kind of experimental poet. I can imagine a translator who might have been very pleased at that so-called discovery. I think McHugh and Popov showed a great deal of integrity by attempting to find structures in English sentences that were analogous to the ones Celan was using in German, while staying true to the text. They worked on this problem as best they could (and by the way, as they freely acknowledge, discarded the translations where it was not possible to deal with this or other issues), and then acknowledged it in the introduction to the book.

DS: I celebrate a work of translation, especially from a such a carefully edited press such as Wave. How, as an editor, do you help celebrate the work? Is an expansive introduction to the work adequate? Does how you push a work of translation differ from promoting a new title from the Wave cadre of English speaking poets?

MZ: We’re pretty sure people who would read Wave titles would want to read these translations. We think they reflect similar values, while also expanding (just as our authors do, with each new work they produce) our sense of what is possible in poetry. My guess is, it will go quite well, and hopefully bring even more people who don’t ordinarily read poetry, but are interested in the cultural products of these different countries, to poetry. High hopes indeed.

As far as an introduction. I think it depends on the book, and the poet being translated. For an author who is unfamiliar to most English speaking readers, some kind of introduction might be desirable. Certainly it seems adequate. If the poems don’t stand on their own in English, they are not translations we are going to be interested in publishing.

DS: How did the two new books come into being? What was the submission/solicitation process? Are there plans for a translation series for Wave?

MZ: The short answer to this is, there was at the time no submission or solicitation process. We were not particularly looking for translations to publish, though we were not in any way opposed to it. When we came across these works we realized we had an opening to begin publishing translations, which was really exciting to us, so we went forward with it.

While we don’t have any plans to hold an open reading period for translations in the near future, that certainly could change (if it does we will announce it on our website and widely). In the meantime, we will continue to do what we always do as editors (and what most editors I know do as well): read literary magazines, go to readings, look around for things on the web, talk to a wide range of respected writers and readers, and so on. Even though we don’t read unsolicited manuscripts, we are always on the lookout, on a daily basis, for new work. So poets, and translators, can rest assured that if they are doing their job of getting as good at their work as possible, and getting it out there into the world a little bit, we will sooner or later come across it.

DS: Wave’s second annual 3 Days of Poetry Festival is happening soon in Seattle. I plan on taking the train up from Portland to party with y’all. What can I expect?

MZ: I love trains. I’ve never been on that particular ride, but I bet it’s beautiful. Maybe just as an experiment you could think of the train ride as a translation of Portland into Seattle. I don’t know exactly what that means. But please report back!

I mentioned above the inevitable compromises involved in translation. One could therefore rightly say that any translation is a failure. Another way to look at it is, beyond the value and beauty of the new text, the translation itself is an opportunity to bring out into the open these compromises, which if they are discussed and grappled with can help us understand even better the work of the original artist, poetry, and the functioning of language in general.

The many brief lectures we are offering on an hourly basis over the course of three days will give you a chance to go to a lot of different short talks, and our hope is that many ideas about particular translation will resonate with each other to begin to engage with larger questions as well.

We are also pretty sure that getting all these interesting people together in the same place for a couple of days will be fun, and a chance for enthusiasts of translation and of poetry to hang out together. So we’re glad you’re coming up!

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, including his most recent collection, Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon, 2010).  A 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, he currently works as an editor for Wave Books, and teaches as a member of the core faculty of UCR-Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing.

Drew Scott Swenhaugen co-edits Poor Claudia and co-curates the Bad Blood Reading Series.

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Comments: 2

(1) Comment

  1. James Cunningham says:

    Love Wave! More of these, please.

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  1. [...] There is another installment of Small Press Beat up at Tin House’s blog. This time Drew Scott Swenhaugen interviews Wave Books Editor Matthew Zapruder. [...]

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