Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Translation in "Poetry"

Detail of cover for "Poetry," April 2006 (Nathan Theis, "Voice") / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

For a few years, there was no periodical publication I awaited more eagerly than Poetry’s annual translation issue. It came out each April, and it contained work by major poets in translations done by some of the best literary translators working today. From 2006 to 2009, I would open the April issue and encounter poems from familiar voices and new ones alike: Marina Tsvetaeva in a translation by Sasha Dugdale, Saadi Youssef by Khaled Mattawa, Rainer Maria Rilke by David Ferry, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill by Paul Muldoon, and Osip Mandelstam by John High and Matvei Yankelevich, just to name a few of my favorites.

Alas, those days are no more. I’m not foolish enough to hazard a guess at what went through the minds of the editors and publisher of Poetry, but for whatever reason, they chose to stop putting out the April translation issue. Still, the magazine has been including more and more translations in their regular issues. Last month’s pages contained translations of work by three writers, including a spellbinding set of poems by the fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir (translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra), and the April issue features John Ashbery’s translations of prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud. In Poetry’s podcast for the current issue, the editors asked Ashbery why he had decided to translate the nineteenth-century Frenchman, and he replied, “I was just translating it originally for the pleasure of doing it, as I sometimes do with French poetry, and perhaps as a kind of exercise to see if it might have some kind of impact on my own poetry.”

 In fact, even before he began translating these poems, Ashbery seems to have been reading Rimbaud through his own poetics—that is, through Ashbery’s poetics. In his note to the poems, Ashbery refers to “the simultaneity of life” as an essential condition of modernity, but when the editors asked him about that phrase in the podcast interview, he said, “Well, it’s probably much more my notion than it is Rimbaud’s. … I guess it could be construed as an attempt to describe how poetry seems to happen to me—a sort of a sudden changing and flooding which erupts and is something completely new and inexplicable.” An honest reply, to be sure, but I wonder if placing oneself at the center of a translation project is such a good idea. (I write this, by the way, as a longtime admirer of Ashbery’s poems.)

Word has it that next month’s issue of Poetry will include Stephanie Sandler’s translations of two poems by Elena Shvarts, the Russian poet who passed away last year. I can hardly wait to see them. As it happens, Sandler’s translation of Shvarts’s “We are birds in migration” (“Мы – перелётные птицы”) was featured this past Sunday on the Boston Review site, which is posting a new poem each day for National Poetry Month.

Several years ago, I heard Elena Shvarts read in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she was hosted by the University of Michigan’s Slavic Department, and since then I have always kept an eye on her work. Her engagement with historical and personal trauma fascinates me. In fact, I once tried my hand at translating one of her poems, “What to Do with an Orphan (Instructions)” (Что делать с сиротой), a distressing text whose middle lines I am excerpting here:

What do you want to say? That an orphan’s a measure—
the measure of all other measurable things?
That’s not it at all. I’ve somehow been mesmerized—
orphans work better than worms when you’re fishing.
Use them to catch fish from the flowery depths
or creatures so white you can’t believe that they’re birds.
In the sleepy water, even God would be tempted—
they say He’s really biting in the reeds.

(Что ж, ты хочешь сказать, сирота – это мера, / Мера всех измеримых вещей? / Ничего не хочу, в сироту только верю – / Как в наживку – он слаще червей. / На него ты поймаешь белую в обморок птицу / Или рыбу в придонных цветах, / А на сонной воде может Сам им прельститься – / Бог клюет хорошо в камышах.)

NOTA BENE (5/25/11): It turns out I was mistaken: the translation issue is back!

1 comment:

  1. I got my copy of the May issue of "Poetry" in yesterday's mail, but unfortunately Sandler's translations of poems by Shvarts do not appear in its contents. Where did they go?

    I heard from two sources that a couple of Shvarts poems would be forthcoming in the May issue, but since that didn't happen, let's hope that they continue to come forth next month, or the month after, or at least sometime soon.

    Curiously, the May issue does contain original poems by Sasha Dugdale, another Shvarts translator.