I spend most of my working time translating literature from French: fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. We literary translators suffer many indignities. Reviewers often ignore the translation altogether, as if they were reading a novel written in English. They may praise “the style” of a novel written in, say, Hungarian, whereas they’ve read the English version and what they’re praising is what the translator wrote to put it into English. Or they may praise a translation for its “smoothness.” But what if the original was not smooth at all? When translations are publicly evaluated, it is usually by people who don’t know the original language, or not very well, since those who know it well read the text in the original. Translation prizes are often given without considering the relationship between the original language and the English text. A novel in lyrical, rhythmic English may be given a prize by people who have no idea that the original was written in intentionally prosaic, gritty, non-lyrical Estonian. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, but it is perfectly possible.
The year I was one of the judges for PEN’s translation prize, we gave it to Philip Gabriel’s translation of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. I found the novel in English magnificent, but I wanted to know if it really rendered the Japanese, a language I do not read. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not ALTA, where translations are first evaluated by people who know the source language, but PEN. Now, PEN is a great, worthy organization and I support it with all my heart and wallet. But the misunderstanding of what’s involved in translation, or rather, the ethics of translation—and by accomplished literary translators, no less! stuck in my craw. I went behind their backs and asked an acquaintance who taught Japanese at Berkeley to take a look at the original. He did, and reassured me. I voted for it and everyone else did, too. So PEN got it right–at least that time.
Literary translators need to render the connotations, the tone, the rhythms of the writer while sticking as close as possible to the denotative meaning. Getting that meaning is, as I implied above, part of the ethics of translation. It is part of the unwritten pact between translator and reader. But a literary text is, of course, far more than the simple meaning of its words: it produces a complex esthetic, emotional and intellectual effect on the reader. My goal is to produce a similar effect on readers of English to that which the original French text had on readers of French. I realize this statement is not without problems (which readers, for example?) but I think it’s what most working translators really try to do as they work, as distinguished from what they may say about translation after their work—especially if they’re academics.
Thus, when I translated Jean Guéhenno’s Diary of the Dark Years, the journal a prominent left-wing intellectual and teacher of French classics wrote under German Occupation, I tried to get the English equivalent of his literary, tightly controlled, often eloquent French, so unlike the telegraphic, casual style of most diaries. It is no accident that it was also unlike the vulgarity of the Vichy propaganda in the newspapers and magazines Guéhenno read every day. Deposition, the Occupation diary by the anarchistic novelist Léon Werth, is entirely different, though it has the same contempt for Vichy and hatred of the Nazis. Here I tried to render Werth’s varied, lively style and his terse, ironic, quips in equivalent English. Now I’m working on a collection by a surrealist poet who was officially “excommunicated” from Surrealism at the age of 22 and died from an infected needle at 36.
Producing something close to the effect of French poetry in English obliges the translator to negotiate between the denotative meaning and sound patterns, whether regular and rhymed or irregular and “free.” No sound pattern, no poetry. That’s the true part of Robert Frost’s over-quoted (and misquoted) dictum that poetry is what gets lost in translation: if the sound doesn’t work in English, the poetry disappears. But anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s recent translations of the French Modernist Guillaume Apollinaire, for example, knows that sometimes poetry does not get lost in translation. These English poems let you understand why the French rank Apollinaire with the great poets of their literature.
Rendering Roger Gilbert-Lecomte’s strong, sometimes wild voice in English has its own special problems, but I doubt if they would interest anyone but a fellow translator. That’s why going to ALTA, the conference of the American Literary Translators Association, has been such a pleasure for many years. At last, people who understand what we do! Women and men who are concerned about literary translation, who love it and talk about their practice, the problems involved and suggestions for the best way of handling them, practical advice about publishing, and so on. An added bonus is the non-stop bilingual translation sessions, where you can pop in and hear Chinese or Romanian poetry read in the original and in English any time you like while panels are going on elsewhere, like a three-ring circus. Since literary translation pays next to nothing except for the few folks who’ve managed to get a job translating bestsellers for big publishing houses, most of our members are academics whose day job is teaching at a college or university. MLA would be our natural conference. But I found early on that when you go to MLA, people talk about their latest book or article. At ALTA, you hear enthusiastic recommendations of new translations from literature all over the world, not necessarily their own translations. In MLA panels, they read lectures that one could more easily follow in print. Reading papers has always been discouraged at ALTA: we talk to our colleagues, not at them. Translators are trained listeners and readers, not lecturers; we listen to what the author says. No one reads a piece of writing more attentively than the translator, who weighs every word, every expression, every paragraph. We have to.
David Ball’s latest translation is Léon Werth, Deposition 1940-1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France, which he also edited (Oxford University Press). His Diary of the Dark Years: 1940-1944 won the French-American Foundation’s 2014 translation prize in non-fiction (they do examine the original) and his Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1927-1984 (University of California Press) won MLA’s prize for literary translation in 1995. His own poetry has appeared in half a dozen chapbooks and many ephemeral magazines. He is Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at Smith College. See what he’s published in AGNI here.
In Meghan McCain’s eulogy for her father on the first of September, she mentioned that he’d memorized a poem he learned while a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo prison, Vietnam, also derisively called the “Hanoi Hilton.” Apparently, a fellow prisoner had “rapped it out in code” for McCain, and in this way he learned the poem by heart. I’d heard of the author, Robert W. Service, but not the work itself, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a rollicking, gothic echo-chamber of a work that makes you feel simultaneously disconsolate and pleased that the beginnings of American verse trail ineluctably through Poe. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” has an ungainly rhythm that includes seven accented syllables per line, occasionally going aground with arrhythmia. Its dark humor, though, strikes you as exactly the poem John McCain would choose to regale people—even, apparently, his wife-to-be when he was courting her, as Meghan recounted.
In John McCain’s own words, one interchange of such code rapping started when he gave the “shave and a haircut” greeting to the person in the next cell, after which McCain “started tapping out the alphabet—one tap for ‘a,’ two for ‘b,’ and so on.” Imagine wanting a poem badly enough to sit through such transliteration, letter by letter, as the prisoner communicated to him the long heptameter ballad, “The Cremation.” How odd to have such a tappity poem transmitted in a rapping code, the double paradiddles underpinning your “reading” of it as you sit in solitary confinement.
But my main purpose here isn’t to write about John McCain, though I know a lot of us have surprised ourselves recently by realizing a larger sense of loss than we anticipated. Nor is my purpose to write about poor, hapless Sam McGee. What I want is to praise the pragmatism—the utility—of poetry.
A type of ingenuity that remains relatively unlauded, poetry as utility becomes clear by way of its connection with beat, however insistent or subtle the rhythm. Even in a gruesome place, the arts restore uplift, steel camaraderie, buoy fellow feeling, encourage cross-identification, and enliven us to see the creative light in each other. These are survival skills. McCain learned “The Cremation of Sam McGee” for the most important audience in the world: himself, and his fellow POWs as they all attended to their own and each other’s sustenance. They worked to keep the sense of innovation intact and their creative souls whole, because that’s what creativity sways one to do.
On a basic level survivors know that song saves. They know internal rhythm rescues.
The utility of poetry arrives at a crux at which we register fully that verse is a basic human need—a need I’m convinced encodes us as humans. It delivers us.
Poetry rattles necessary meters through our bones, teaching us to feel and think at the same time, as Muriel Rukeyser describes in her apt phrase, “the truth of feeling.” The truth of feeling marries two forces seemingly at the antipodes into a strong union we might refer to, for lack of a better term, as the ability to “feel/think.” To encounter a poem is to flag humanness, to breathe—as respiration, inspiration—and to find the live crossing between emotion and thought.
Every university course should begin with a poem. Each class meeting of every university course should begin with a poem.
Yes, I mean a course in physics, a course in materials technology, a course in medicine, a course in business management. Start them all with a poem. In fact, let every gathering, everywhere, begin with poetry.
To speak only from feeling is dangerous—feeling alone gives way to conspiracy theories and sentimentality, for example. To speak only from thought is differently dangerous, resulting in corporate greed and institutional abuse, for example. Poetry relies upon the interlacing of the two. A cluster of words without this entwining will disintegrate before it can be said, before it can be a poem.
From the moment a baby is born, poetry, our birthright, curls a thin song in the aorta, and threads its fine connecting lines to the brain, and around again to the heart. Poems arise from such delicate wiring. Strength and resolve arise from this redoubled resource.
The wiring together of feeling and thinking attunes us—you might even say tunes us—to the only viable way to live when in extremis, as do prisoners, of course, but as we do right now, to a less extreme extent, as across the globe we are fighting political oppression. It tunes us to the most viable way to live in a treacherous era.
I suppose this little essay is another defense of poetry, though not one that starts from “I, too, dislike it,” as in the recent and astute argument of Ben Lerner, but instead that starts from “A Noiseless Patient Spider” who from a point of isolation flings filament after filament into the “vacant vast surrounding.” Though Whitman’s speaker seems not to be granted immediate connection, he or she still believes the “thread” will “catch,” just as a prisoner keeps tapping code on a wall until the listener holds a cup up to his ear on the other side of the wall. The search for rhythmic partnership delivered through rarified vibration creates inceptive, authentic connections. Even in solitary confinement.
In the combinatory graces of what it is to feel/think, voice enters. In those combinatory graces, voice stays.
Daneen Wardrop’s books of the last several years include Cyclorama, Life as It, winner of the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Award and, appearing just this month, Silk Road. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and her poems have been included in magazines such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. See what she’s published in AGNI here.
The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less… —Annie Dillard
Despite being raised a cultural Muslim and only recently, in the last five years or so, finding myself deeply drawn to its mystical branch, Sufism, I also frequent churches with my dear wife, a practicing Catholic, from time to time. In fact, I frequently refer to a line from a homily I heard while visiting a church in Buenos Aires, and seek to apply it whenever I am stuck (in either life or literature):
El misterio necesita silencio y contemplación. The Mystery requires silence and contemplation.
Yet, on account of a quirk in my temperament that I only partially understand, I am not a practicing anything (other than artist). I realize that Paths are also relationships and, to be meaningful, they require fidelity. I also know that it’s all very well being a spiritual tourist, keeping in mind that one cannot truly know a place until you live there. To put it slightly differently, the Sufis say that a person who tries to find water by digging a little here and there will die of thirst. Whereas the one who digs deeply in one spot will find water to drink and share with others.
Thus, I’ve come to regard unfortunate spiritual tourists or erratic diggers, such as myself, as being the playboys of religion, perpetually thirsty—with a glut of choices, overfed, yet undernourished. What I’m describing, of course, is not unique; it’s almost a modern predicament. So, despite finding great beauty, meaning and solace in different religious expression and traditions, to my regret, I find that I’m unable to fully commit to any one (and, in turn, reap the benefits of a sustaining discipline). Instead, I continue to pore over the lives of saints and mystics for guidance—Daoist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim—longing for transformation as I continue to fashion my queer artist’s metaphysics.
Is there “resolution” in matters of the Spirit? All we can do is to share what we have. What I have, at this stage, is a profound and abiding appreciation of mystical literature as soul-transforming, and a calling. In turn, I attempt through my writing (poetry, aphorisms, even meditative prose pieces) to take readers There. Despite the personal impasse I find myself at, I’ve come to an understanding of my vocation. With humility and wonder, I view the artist as a kind of mystic, and art a form of prayer.
There is a quotation I find myself returning to, regularly, to better explain my literary-spiritual predicament:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. ―Frederick Buechner
Which is to say, not only are callings mysteries to the bewildered persons being summoned, but it’s also marvelous how our inner longings correspond with outer needs.
I would never have imagined, for example, as a reactionary Existentialist (in my teens and twenties) who turned my back on my culture’s oppressive religiosity—by throwing the luminous baby out with the sordid bath water—that I would one day find myself drawn to mysticism, specifically Sufism, or called to serve as a type of apologist for the vilified faith of my Home: Islam.
Yet, such is where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger met. Strange to say but, recently, I’ve come to think of myself as something of an ex-writer, no longer enamored by art for art’s sake, or purely literary concerns. Instead, what I try to do, lately, as an immigrant and poet living in the divided states of America and our wounded world, is to share the beauty I find in Sufism in hopes this might bring about some peace and healing— encouraging readers to question received wisdom, move past the false idols of popular culture, and begin the difficult work of heart purification.
Much of my new book of 800 original aphorisms, Where Epics Fail, is composed under the influence of Sufi literature, which I increasingly turn to for sustenance and inspiration. Aphorisms are connected to a Sufi-informed world view in the sense that Rumi meant when he stated in his discourses, Fihi Ma Fihi (It Is What It Is): the best words are those that are few and to the point. So, aphorisms are connected to wisdom literature, in general and, Sufism in particular. Ibn Ata Illah, for examples, is an important Sufi saint and sage of 13th century Egypt who bequeathed us his treasured Kitab al Hikam (Book of Wisdom) composed of aphoristic writing.
I define aphorisms as “what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.” Which is to say that, out of the ongoing conversation I have with myself, occasionally I’ll overhear a line that I think is good enough to stand alone and represent the subject I’ve been musing on. My hope is that my spiritual aphorisms, found in my latest work, might serve as a form of peace offering and balm in these troubled times. Below, is a mixed bouquet from Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By:
The contemplative life is not a passive one.
Our most profound prayers hardly reach our lips—they are made with our entire being.
The divided self is spiritually immature. Divine union begins with self unity.
Wings are, always, on loan.
Think of existence as a great love story: every shy creature or timid truth wants to be courted; every secret wants to be told —cultivate the art of listening.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker, poet, and author of seven books, the latest of which, Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By is now available here. See what he’s published in AGNI here.
I say that because the last few years have delivered a seemingly unending stream of disturbing truths about people we’ve long looked up to—almost entirely men—inside and outside the writing community. We’ve heard revelations of cruelty, abusive behavior, assault, of stomping on the humanity and well-being and voices and career prospects of others. In some ways these revelations have actually been inspiring, watching people—usually women—stand up to tell the truth about the abuse they’ve faced at the hands of more powerful men. But of course there’s no escaping the misery of the facts themselves—the real harm done.
We—even those of us who haven’t been directly harmed—also can’t avoid seeing the abuser in a new way. In this way, we’ve lost hero after hero. But the point I want to make is that these losses are painful—here I’m speaking just about the pain of people who were not directly harmed by the abusers—only because our culture has encouraged us to be reliant on others (rather than ourselves) to model humanity properly.
Which is why I think we can’t afford heroes anymore.
I only recently read the novel Go Set a Watchman, which is called a Harper Lee book, although for most of her life she never seemed to be in any great rush to release it and claim it. The announcement of the book’s forthcoming publication, not long after the death of Lee’s protective sister, was suspicious, too. So that’s one of the reasons I took so long to read Watchman: I’m not sure she really wanted it to be read. Another reason was because the book had been widely panned. But I guess I couldn’t resist forever, and now I have an idea why people dislike Watchman so much.
First of all, in some ways it’s just not a great novel. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s prose power operates heavily through the writing’s masterful and overwhelming charm. Have you ever thought about the fact that the trial in Mockingbird doesn’t start until a quarter of the way through the book and ends with a quarter of the book still remaining? The rest of the time we’re drawn along not by plot so much as an extremely charismatic and appealing narrative storytelling style. But in Mockingbird the charm’s there to pull you into something really significant, bigger than any of the characters individually or than the Finch family as a whole. In Watchman, on the other hand, that sense of significance never gets much bigger than the main character and her loss of faith in her father. And even that significance wavers; at crucial moments the narrator wanders off frustratingly into stories about growing up spunky in a small town. The charm, in other words, lacks a sense of purpose.
But that’s not the reason most people complain about the book. They generally complain because Atticus Finch, the hero of heroes of To Kill a Mockingbird, is revealed in Go Set a Watchman to be anything but. He belongs and has belonged to civic organizations dedicated to White supremacy, and he thinks Black people shouldn’t be allowed to secure equality and justice as quickly as they might like. Finch has rationalizations for all of it, but the rationalizations don’t work; his character reads as racist and ought to read as racist.
This seems to be the main reason why people don’t like the book: because it shows that Atticus Finch, the paragon of justice, might be just as bigoted as most of the rest of the small town he’s lived in for his whole life. This is upsetting partly because his views and actions are themselves disturbing, but I suspect it’s more upsetting because they violate our sense of Finch. That’s where it becomes a betrayal, and only because Americans—almost entirely White Americans, I would bet—had this character on a pedestal in the first place. In this way, our feelings are like (the protagonist) Scout’s childlike feelings of horror as her view of her father shatters.
The problem, though, might be more with Mockingbird than Watchman. The truth is that To Kill a Mockingbird is not exactly the book it appears to be. In theory it’s a tragedy; because of the actions of some particular White characters and a climate of White supremacy generally, Tom Robinson is convicted of a crime he could not possibly have committed, despite Atticus Finch defending him in court, and Tom ends up dead. That should be a tragedy. But in actuality the novel doesn’t operate quite like the tragedy it ought to be. In actuality the book acts as a kind of reassurance for White readers. As I said above, it goes on for a while after the trial, focusing mainly on the Finches, and on the uprightness and goodness of Atticus in particular. That last quarter of the book leaves us with a message: Okay—there are some bad White folks—you, the reader, are nothing like them, surely—and racism is a shame, but there are good White people like Atticus Finch, and we can admire them, and that’s good enough. And who knows? Maybe those wonderful White people will even do something about racism someday.
That’s the message that falls out of To Kill a Mockingbird. And the worst sin of Go Set a Watchman, in this light, is that it shows that message to be a lie. A lie that some of us may be desperate to believe.
For its part, Go Set a Watchman tells us that there are no heroes—or at least not the kind who will reassure us and let us go about our undisturbed, privileged lives secure in the knowledge that we’ll be ennobled and protected and maybe someday even saved by those heroes.
So maybe Watchman isn’t a great novel, but I do think we need to hear its central truth. We need to realize that a dependence on heroes obscures the world from us. It oversimplifies the people we admire, first of all. Far worse, the glowing status we bestow on certain people gives them power, including power over others, and it sometimes shields them from critical scrutiny as well, freeing and even licensing them to do whatever they want, which might (as we keep discovering) include some terrible things. Which is why we really have to stop believing in heroes.
That said, I do still believe in heroism. There’s a difference. Heroes are other people, and propping them up absolves us of our real responsibilities. Heroism, on the other hand, is a quality we can all take on: we can pursue justice, can resist, can support others and others’ voices. And “hero” is also a problematically static idea—a person is or isn’t one—whereas heroism is a quality that we are called on to take up again and again. It’s not “Are there heroes?” or even “Are you a hero?” but “Did you behave heroically today? And are you going to behave heroically again tomorrow?” Those are the questions I think we should be asking.
I don’t know if, ethically speaking, Go Set a Watchman should have been published; I don’t know if it truly honored Lee’s wishes. But, unlike many other folks, I welcome the book’s surprising portrayal of Atticus Finch. I welcome it because the world doesn’t need false reassurance. It doesn’t need cardboard watchmen. It needs us—real people, committed to getting our own actions right.
David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.
It seems that the primary reason they domesticated us, at the same time as humans became domesticated to agriculture and a sedentary life, was to remind us of the sensuous things that keep escaping us. And what is more sensuous than death? What is more luxurious, what is more eventful, what is more poetic? A cat contains the poetry of death—and indeed it is the highest form of poetry, because this poetry comes from silence and ends in silence—like nothing else on earth.
The cat’s every movement and gesture and sound and hesitation and flurry and escape and approach is designed to embody the idea of death.
The idea of death is a furry softness we touch and grope and fondle, thinking we are touching a cat. Squeeze a cat in the belly and hear him utter that half moan, half mewl, half plea, half grump, squeeze him and feel how delicate and fragile he is, how absurdly small despite his usual proclamations to be a tiger in a cat’s little body. He is small and he knows it but most of the time he doesn’t want you to know it, except when you rub him a little too hard, he realizes then you have penetrated the membrane of forgettability, you have raised questions!
A cat does not want to answer questions. This explains why he’s often not around to take them. Or not take them at moments inappropriate for him. Or he takes them on sufferance. Or he takes them as answers in themselves, not bodies he’s accountable for.
A cat has the most fluid sense of accountability, like you should as a writer, a cat is unaccountable and unknowable and unchangeable as you were in your best moments as a child.
Remember when the ocean of gratitude washed over you in the playground, as you ceased for that moment to try to grow into something, a viable man or a viable woman, a bigger, taller, stronger, hardier being? You paused in the stillness of the midmorning sun, unable to calculate, unable to add two plus two, unable to remember your name even; all you knew was that you had shown up in the world just that morning, unmade, unborn, unreal.
A cat is born into the world anew each morning. (This is what you misinterpret as his need for luxury, for conspicuous ease, in fact you misinterpret all his gestures as his need for luxury.)
Each morning he tells you, the writer, he is shocked to be alive. Is any of it real? Is he actually breathing, beside the slant acrostics of the sun, under that revolving fan that throws kooky shadows over the walls, is he actually breathing? In and out, in and out, watch his nose flutter, watch his eyes purr in disbelief, yes he is breathing something of the air we all share. (Air is nothing but the volume of unreality that rises and falls in proportion to the quota of tragedy that has been your lot for the day. You don’t believe that the air is thicker or thinner on any given day? Then you haven’t been around cats long enough, sorry.)
A writer knows that a cat reincarnates more prolifically than a person. A single cat may die and reincarnate twenty or twenty thousand times, reappear in all the different hotspots around the world to put his foot down and throw his scent around and lay out the smartest paths of escape. But here’s the difference from people reincarnating: a cat has no choice but to relive his finest instincts each time, the failure of nerve, unfortunately common to people, not a shortcoming he needs to reappear to correct.
It’s quite possible that cats invented reincarnation.
A cat looks at food and insects and birds and trees and flowers and grass and pillows and newspapers and dogs and bookshelves and drinking fountains and socks and purses as objects in the process of reincarnation, things that have been here before and will be again, things that have always existed, so that it is not possible to conceive of their non-existence. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be paying at least that much respect to objects around you?
So what does your cat want from you?
He wants you to be as indifferent as he is to solving crossword puzzles.
He does not want you to go out in the rain, because you will get wet and antsy, you will bring in a trail of sodden worldliness, the world drenched in the excess of the weather, the world as weather, the world crying from happiness, he does not want you to remind him that other forms of being overwhelmed besides the one he wants you to know are possible, so he does not want you to go out in the rain.
Actually, nothing is sufficient to explain why a cat does not want you to go out in the rain.
But he does want you to write as though the world had ceased to exist.
He wants you to be alone, a lot more than you have ever managed to be. He means alone in the sense of forgetting how to speak, occasionally, alone in the sense of carving out that big hollow ball of cautious fur where you can lay down away from the tyranny of seconds and minutes and hours.
He wants you to fail, fail at everything you thought was yours for the taking, for only in failing is there the reminder of death which is the only point of life, his and yours.
But he wants you to succeed too, only not in the way you thought you were going to, but in a different way, different not to the world but to you, because you experience success, meaning the world noticing you, as…well, this is the hardest thing to define, so let me have him, the cat, step in for a moment, and take a direct shot at it:
“The world is rain. Or shelter from rain. When you feel the glow of success it’s as if you’re sheltering in the rain. But what I like about you is when you can be in two places at the same time. Or many, many places, too many to count. When you recognize other people you cease being in more than one place at a time. Then I find it hard to speak to you, until you come back to me. And it’s even worse when other people recognize you. Strangers who have never poked at your ribs or puffed in your ears or clawed at your eyes, strangers who think they know you. Do not write for them. I will never recognize you in that familiar way.”
There, good job, cat!
A cat wants you, the writer, to rethink all you thought you knew about love. Love is not a gift, it is not a treasure, it is not a possibility, it is not a heritage. You can only experience love to the extent that you’re determined not to experience it. If you want to be in love, you cannot be in love. A cat knows that better than anyone, because he is a connoisseur of death, and you can see it anytime you look in his eyes.
What exactly do you, dear writer, see in a cat’s eyes?
They are full of emerald beatitude, and the end of the world in a sunny explosion, and layers of truth in the moment of death, of course they are full of all these things, but what else do you see in a cat’s eyes?
A cat wants you to see in his eyes a trail of sadness and laughter that ends because it cannot end, the fluid glass container of grace that takes its own measure, glassy poetry that does not blink, does not pause for the sake of the pause alone.
A cat is, almost, a futurist, but not quite.
A cat moves from one thing to another without the blank aura of questioning. Do not ask the wrong questions. Do not waste time asking questions with no answers. In fact, do not ask any questions. This is the nature of a cat’s curiosity that a writer likes best. It is not about questions and answers, it is about not visibly and transparently moving from one moment to another, not traversing moments in a nuanced, atmospheric, observable way, but just being in one moment at a point in time and then reappearing in another at a different point in time—without transition!
This is the only thing that negates death. Well, not really, but the only attitude, this simultaneous reappearance in infinitely many guises, that plays death’s own game, does not try to cheat it but pays it due homage.
A cat is every moment paying homage to death. A writer should likewise always be paying homage to death. Together cat and writer grow into a languid sunflower that graces the noontime doorway, a rain that desires to idealize every evening as it accompanies the sun on its exit, a middlebrow butterfly that has yet to be called the sum of its parts, a bantering rabbi trying to discover the prayer that will negate all lazy prayers, a child playing in a doll’s house which is the only house that exists after the world has ended, a scholar tripping over a tower of books and laughing about atrophy and disappearance, a fish and a bird and a squirrel twisting this way and that in the sun over the churchly pond which will not abide intemperate moisture and grime.
A cat is not a puzzle to a writer. A writer is not a puzzle to a cat. A cat, when he takes you in his confidence, does so from the only heroism he knows.
Anis Shivani’s recent books are Karachi Raj: A Novel, Soraya: Sonnets, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears recently in Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, The Journal, Boulevard, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has previously been published by both AGNI’s print magazine and the blog. His forthcoming novel, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters Or Less, imagines the evolution of the feline-human relationship at key turning points throughout history—all from the point of view of the most perceptive cat there ever was. See what he’s published in AGNI here.
American author Paul Auster has referred to translators as the “shadow heroes of literature.” Too often unsung, these linguistic cryptologists “make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another…to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” Eugene Serebryany here discusses his English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, featured in AGNI 87 under the title “Sunrise on the Rails.”
Lauren Peat/AGNI: Literary translation is frequently described as a game of gain and loss: when smuggling a text from one language into another, the freedoms and constraints of the “new” language often diminish certain nuances within the original, and magnify others. When translating Tsvetaeva’s poem from the Russian, how intentional was your reckoning with gain and loss? Was there a particular element within the original that you felt was most important to communicate in the English version, and if so, were any sacrifices made to achieve that end?
Eugene Serebryany: There were plenty of sacrifices—if one takes a literal view of translation, then almost everything was sacrificed. The original poem has highly regular iambic meter and is divided into quatrains with the classic ABAB rhyming scheme. The translation keeps none of these things. Translators often say that a poem’s tone is the most important thing to convey—yet even the tone had to be subtly altered. “Sunrise…” is an emotionally intense poem. I judged that strong emotions are expressed in modern English poetry in a more subdued or indirect way than in the Russian poetry of Tsvetaeva’s time, so my translation has fewer exclamation marks than the original. There are a few images in the original that I downplayed in the translation; several others I emphasized. A few others I had to interpolate, either to make explicit cultural and historical allusions the original’s Russian reader would understand implicitly, or to recoup in another way some of the original’s tonal intensity.
What was gained in exchange for these radical sacrifices? A syntax more natural to English, for one thing. I felt that a poem this personal, this intense, could not stand with a stilted syntax or with word choice affected by meter or rhyme. A greater clarity was gained, I hope, because this poem is not only personal: it is journalistic, historical, and political, too. Those broader themes had to be conveyed—and where needed, clarified—if I were to avoid footnotes. Above all, I hope the translation gained a greater capacity for fostering empathy between the speaker and the reader across differences of time and place. I took care also to preserve or allude to the technical lexicon, drawn from civil engineering—that is, the railroad terminology Tsevtaeva’s original leans on. Something about this vocabulary seemed essential: the way it connects art and science, mental and physical construction; the way it grounds the poem in something solid, hard, and international.
LP/AGNI: Tsvetaeva led an intense and deeply tragic life: she lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the subsequent Russian famine. In an effort to save her daughter Irina from starvation, Tsvetaeva committed her to a state orphanage in 1919. Irina died shortly thereafter. With her remaining family, Tsvetaeva then spent time in Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they suffered increasingly desperate conditions. In 1941, upon returning to Russia, her husband Sergei was executed on charges of espionage; Tsvetaeva committed suicide that same year.
Written in October of 1922, “Sunrise on the Rails” recounts Tsvetaeva’s experience as a refugee from Russia. It is shot through with the pain of the grieving—of someone who has lost, but still harbors hopes of retrieval—as well as the pain of recognizing that things have irrevocably changed. “I can still keep Russia / Intact,” Tsvetaeva writes:
I can still stitch it together
From the drab fog, like a playhouse
For orphans—quickly now,
Before the switchman wakes.
I was certainly struck by Tsvetaeva’s biography. Do you think that your translation was marked by your own understanding of her life? Or were you more consciously motivated by the original Russian itself?
ES: Yes, certainly the tragedy of Tsvetaeva’s own life influenced the translation. Tsvetaeva’s daughter, as you mentioned, had died in an orphanage; her husband had been forced to flee Russia earlier (because, as a royalist military officer, he had fought against the Red Army during the civil war). So conveying the feeling of orphanhood was definitely important. The broader historical and political context of her life was very important also: her contemporary readers knew it and had lived it, but now, a century later and a continent away, I felt it needed some explanation. This is how the description of sunrise as a “red thumb” got into the translation—that’s not in the original at all, but was my attempt to briefly conjure up the history and outcome of the Russian Civil War and Tsvetaeva’s relation to it. The early stanzas, up through the passage you quote, were the ones where I took the most liberties of this kind, to set the stage; the latter ones hug the original more closely.
In fact, the passage you quote is a good illustration of the fairly radical approach I resorted to in those early lines. The original has no orphans in that particular stanza; what it does have is a juxtaposition of the word сырость (“syrost’,” dampness) and серость (“serost’,” grayness/drabness). The word сырость is repeated multiple times in the poem, building up the tension until it gets finally resolved by another wordplay that juxtaposes сырость and сирость (“sirost’,” orphanhood). By this language trick the one is “revealed,” in a sense, as the other. I decided not to attempt a comparable wordplay in English, so the notion of orphans had to be there from the start. Likewise, the original has no stitching and no playhouse; it talks only generally of “re-constructing” Russia. But the sense that the poet’s life as well as country had been torn asunder, and may yet be stitched back together by some furious feat of imagination—this made the choice seem natural (natural for English, that is!). And, of course, the entire poem is an act of constructing a sort of “playhouse for orphans”—an imaginary city, an imaginary home for herself, her remaining daughter, and her fellow refugees…. This stitching, this re-construction, is a self-consciously quixotic act, in a way: it recognizes itself as a game, a self-delusion, a stage of grief, even as, on a parallel level, it’s also an act of journalism, a show of determination.
LP/AGNI: Philosopher and biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (and later translation theorist Lawrence Venuti) famously entertained the idea of translation operating between two poles, even extremes: the first “foreignizing”—whereby a translation is made to reflect the “foreign” quality of its original—and the second “domesticating,” whereby a translation is made to fit seamlessly into the landscape of the new language. What is your own view of this theory? Do you align with either method, or do you have your own understanding of the relationship between a translation and its original?
ES: Yes, I was certainly conscious of where on that spectrum the translation would end up. After struggling through many drafts that preserved the form of the original (the rhyme, the meter, the exclamation points…), in the end I opted for a radically higher dose of “domestication,” as well as my explanatory interpolations. As you point out, there is an ideological choice involved. I am an immigrant myself, and Russian is my native language. So the greater challenge for me is usually to avoid over-foreignizing: creating a translation that is too syntactically awkward or culturally obscure for most of its intended readers to empathize with. A translation has to create cultural connection, this cross-cultural, cross-generational empathy, to convey the image of a mind or of a felt reality that is inaccessible without it. To create such a connection, especially with a text rooted in a specific cultural and historical moment, the translator has to intervene in the text in some ways, like a guide to a foreign landscape.
Such a “guided tour” might seem heavy-handed, but in cases like this I think it’s justified. Translation necessarily implies analysis, interpretation, explanation, and finally a new synthesis in another tongue. Even the most cautious translators can’t be completely transparent. They choose which poem to translate, and when, and for whom. I felt that the time and place that we inhabit needed this poem carried across, and that there was urgency in connecting to it. What if somewhere among the war refugees of our own time there is another Tsvetaeva? What if she could speak for some of them?
Eugene Serebryany was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to Massachusetts as a teenager. He attended Yale University, where he was strongly influenced by Peter Cole’s course on literary translation. His translations of XX century Russian poetry have appeared in AGNI, Cardinal Points, Inventory, and Modern Poetry in Translation. In his parallel life he is a scientist. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from MIT and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University. His scientific interests include protein folding, protein aggregation, and cataract disease. See what he’s published in AGNI here.
Native to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.