“Unexpected Vistas”: Rimas Uzgiris Translates Judita Vaičiūnaitė

Thanks to great translators, AGNI readers get to know the writing of people working in a wide range of languages. We want you to hear from those translators. Today, the thoughts of Rimas Uzgiris on his experience of translating the poet Judita Vaičiūnaitė for Issue 82.

I first picked up Judita Vaičiūnaitė’s Kristalas: Poezijos Rinktinė (Crystal: Selected Poems) in 2011 (published in 2010). The Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius were at an end, and I was looking for a new poet to translate. Previously, I had translated and published poems by Tomas Venclova and Paulius Norvila, but knew next to nothing about what Lithuanian women had been writing (other than the WWII era Salomėja Neris, whose musical verse I was finding untranslatable). A poet had recommended Vaičiūnaitė’s work. I bought the book, read it, loved it.

What struck me first and foremost were the thematic concerns in her work: a focus on the city, the life of a single woman in the city, and her Cavafy-esque ability to convey the thoughts and feelings of historical and mythological figures. This was something new in Lithuanian literature and I wanted to share it with the world. A Fulbright Scholarship in 2013 sent me to Vilnius, and was followed by an NEA Translation Project Grant in 2014 that allowed me to dedicate myself to this work. I am pleased to say that my translation of Crystal will be published by PicaPica Press in early 2017.

As is readily apparent from the poem’s title, “Vilnius. Archeology” is one of Vaičiūnaitė’s city poems, written in the late 80s, during the death throes of the Soviet Union. For a Western poet, there would be nothing unusual about a city poem written in the second half of the 20th century. Not so in Lithuania. The Soviet occupation that robbed Lithuania of its independence ushered in processes of forced industrialization and the collectivization of farms. The flourishing rural economy was devastated, with many family farms and even villages completely wiped out. Lithuanian identity, long rooted in an agricultural way of life, was under threat. Poets, as one means of resistance, began emphasizing nature and rural life in their work (see, for example, Sigitas Geda, Justinas Marcinkevičius and Marcelijus Martinaitis). On top of that, most Lithuanian poets were from the countryside. Vilnius, the historical capital, had been occupied by Polish forces during the interwar period, and was predominantly a Polish and Yiddish speaking city. So the only city of note that belonged to the independent Lithuania of the interwar period was Kaunas. And this is were Vaičiūnaitė was born, moving to Vilnius with her family after the war. She was, almost uniquely among writers, of the city.

“Vilnius. Archeology” also represents a unique stylistic development in Vaičiūnaitė’s poetic form: fractured, meandering lines linked by dashes and commas. It is important to see this in contrast to some of her earlier, neo-romantic work, often composed of rhyming quatrains. One might even speculate that her attention to the city, and to the old town of Vilnius in particular, led her to this form of fractured unity. Urbanites are both connected and apart. The Baroque streets wind this way and that, yielding unexpected vistas, surprising twists and turns. You never know where you will end up. Formally, she enacts the city. Yet the surface, and the present, is not her only concern. She digs down. She uncovers the past, searching for that identity, the source of who we are. Vilnius is Lithuanian because of its past (which is not Polish, not Russian, not Soviet), and it becomes more and more Lithuanian as we wander its streets with the knowledge of that past underfoot.

The translation seeks to preserve her formal structure. Likewise, though this poem (like all her city poems) is not marked by end rhymes, it finds its own music in the anaphoric repetition of “We dug up” (Atkasėm), and with the strategic use of alliteration. Perhaps my only deviation of note is the lack of repetition of the word “quarry” in the final stanza. In its first appearance, I substitute “an ice abyss” for “a quarry of ice.” The very next line repeats the word, and in Lithuanian, the word “karjerą” occurs at the end of each line, rhyming them together. Now, Lithuanian is an inflected language, allowing far more freedom in word order than English. I could not find a satisfactory way to achieve the same effect, so I chose a different one: emphasizing with “abyss” the depths into which the search for Lithuanian identity reaches (thinking here of Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” where “the depths are bottomless”). Although it is common to say (thanks to Robert Frost) that something is lost in translation, perhaps something can be found as well.

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IMG_5437 - Version 2Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Atlanta Review, Kin, Quiddity, Per Contra, Hudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Vilnius, 2015). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, he teaches literature, translation and creative writing at Vilnius University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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