music and words by Irving Berlin
"from the deep south. . ."
from the movie "There;'s No Business Like Show Business"
What a hassle!
It’s been so much to keep.
Burnt wrist, hang nail, the weight
of 3 p.m.
Obstacles of hair and heat
behind knees. I want
red clay for breakfast
and have no use for bags.
My limbs extend already
the whole city’s width.
Feet in the Hudson
head in the East river
skin screaming down the FDR.
I would like to swallow twenty
tulips whole and grow them
out my belly.
I would like to blink into
the old towns of Edam,
eyes in the sandstone, mouth
full of whey.
I would like to keep to myself!
Or anybody else, and try
Is there not yet an algorithm for this
Upload me! Download me!
I’ll take the shot I can
to get beamed
through the moon-roof
part and parcel of sky.
CONCERN OVER SEXUAL PURITY ISSUES IN THE MILITARY COMPELS ME TO TELL THIS STORY
-- I entered Navy boot camp at the Great Lakes base north of Chicago. It was bizarre from the start but for the first three days my company of 100 recruits did nothing. We sat in a barracks. I became an expert shoe polisher. I can still beautifully polish a shoe.
We were eager to see who would be our company commander, like the drill instructor in the Marines. Finally on the third day a guy came in. He was in his 30s, medium height, thin, his eyes kept darting back and forth like he was crazy.
He held up both his hands. He said, "I'm not a big man but I have big hands." His hands did seem big, with the thumbs kind of bent back. He said, "I like to put my hands around somebody's throat and talk to him."
He continued on about inspections and stuff and about the horrible things that would happen to anybody who fucked up. I had a flash of insight, and I'm still surprised that I was able to come up with it at age nineteen. I realized that I was not going to be able to hide from this guy -- Greene was his name -- and that I had to stay as close to him as possible.
At the end of his talk he said he would need somebody to keep careful records of the company's activities. That would be the company clerk. He said the company clerk would need good handwriting. Later we were supposed to fill out some papers and I was careful to write neatly.
That night I was informed that Greene wanted to see me in his office. When I got there Greene was there with another recruit whose name I didn't know because we had all just arrived in training. But I noticed that the other recruit seemed extremely fragile, kind of girlish, and he was obviously terrified. He was trembling like in a panic attack.
Greene said, "You two swinging dicks got the highest scores on the intelligence test." He looked at the trembling recruit and said, "You got a perfect score." But the kid was obviously so upset that he couldn't possibly be the company clerk. Greene told him to leave.
Then Greene and I were alone and it was the only time that ever happened during basic training. Greene started talking. After a while he said, "I'm not married but if I was married I could satisfy my wife."
I had no idea what he was talking about but I said, "Yes."
He screamed, "YES SIR!"
I repeated, "Yes sir."
Then he said, "I could satisfy my wife and if I couldn't I would send her to church. When she got back from church I would put her in the bathtub and scrub her with a wire brush until she was bright red. Red as a beet! Then I would tell her I expected my meals on time."
He led me out of the office onto a long balcony that extended the length of the barracks. There was a recruit sentry standing there with a rifle. Sentries like that were everywhere, it was a rule. Greene took the rifle and leaned over the banister. Below, on the ground floor, there was another sentry. Greene dropped the rifle onto the ground floor sentry. If it had hit him on the head it would have killed him but it hit him on the shoulder.
I saw that Greene was really crazy. He also said something about how when he was going to fuck a whore he didn't shave because he liked to scratch her with his stubble. The memory of this makes it hard for me to worry about having a sanitary sexual atmosphere in the military.
Meanwhile the trembling, girlish recruit -- he seemed like a central casting version of gay -- made it through the training and no one cared if he was gay nor it would have mattered if he was transgender or if he had wings and a tail.
-- July 28, 2017
to John Ashbery
born July 28, 1927
Great American Poet
a Leo with Virgo rising
who shares a birthday with Gerard Maney Hopkins, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Marcel Duchamp, and Malcolm Lowry
I’ve tried to translate it,
but it won’t stay on the page.
It is not meant for land.
I chase it down a channel and attempt
to reel it in, only for the thin line to break—
for me to find myself in the water with it.
And for a moment I catch it: it’s just a wall of blue
post-it notes. It’s just a glass of wine on the table.
An affinity diagram of faint marks. And each time
I go to bold the connection, the one next nearest
collapses, and in an instant, it is morning again.
The cool dawn—the wide eye. I levitate above it
breezed into predicament; my ricocheted mind
tracing its way to the creamer.
This is my last post as Author of the Week. It’s been an exciting experience. Since this is the Best American Poetry website, I’ve decided to end the week with three poems I translated by Charles Baudelaire, my favorite French poet. This is my first attempt to translate poetry, and I hope that you’ll enjoy them. Please listen as you read.
Sincere thanks to all of you have read and responded to these posts.
Nature is a temple, where living pillars
Sometimes utter indistinct words.
We wander through it amidst forests of symbols
That observe us with familiar looks.
Like long echoes blending from afar,
In a deep, dark unity
As vast as darkness or light,
Smells, colors, and sounds speak to one another.
There are smells as fresh as children’s flesh,
As sweet as oboes, green as prairies
--And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
That spread without end:
Amber, musk, benzoin, and incense,
Which sing of the rapture of the mind and the senses.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857
Translation by Richard Kutner © 2017
Soon we will be plunged into icy darkness.
Farewell, bright glow of our too-short summers!
I can already hear the echo in the courtyards
As logs fall to the pavement with a funereal thump.
All of winter will penetrate my soul: anger,
Hate; chills; horror; drudgery,
And, like the sun in its polar hell,
My heart will be only a frozen block of red.
Trembling, I listen to the crash of every log;
There is nothing to mute the sound of the mounting gallows.
My mind is like a tower, collapsing
Beneath the blows of a relentless battering ram.
Rocked by this monotonous pounding, I seem to hear
A coffin being hastily nailed shut.
For whom?—Only yesterday it was summer; now autumn is here!
This mysterious sound rings like a departure.
I love the greenish light of your long eyes,
My lovely, yet today all is bitter to me.
Nothing--not your love, not your bed, nor the hearth--
Can compare with the sun glistening on the sea.
And yet, love me, tender heart! Be a mother,
Even for one so ungrateful--for one so bad;
Mistress or sister, be the fleeting sweetness
Of a glorious autumn or a setting sun.
So quick a task! The tomb awaits, its appetite so huge!
Ah! While my head rests on your knees
As I mourn the white, torrid summer, let me taste
The sweet, yellow rays of this late fall.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, 1861 edition
Translation by Richard Kutner © 2017
When the sky, heavy and low, weighs down like a lid
On the moaning soul, prey to long bouts of ennui,
And, embracing the arc of the horizon,
Spills upon us a black light sadder than the night,
When all the earth is transformed into a damp dungeon
Where Hope, like a bat,
Beats its timid wings against the walls,
Knocking its head on the rotten ceiling,
When the rain, falling in thick, dark strands
Mirrors the bars of a vast prison,
And a host of vile, silent spiders
Spin their webs at the back of our minds,
Bells suddenly cry out with fury,
Launching a terrible scream into the sky,
Like homeless, wandering spirits
--And long hearses, without drums or music,
Pass slowly through my soul; Hope,
Vanquished, sobs, as Anguish, atrocious and despotic,
Plants its black Flag on my bowed skull.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857 edition
Translation by Richard Kutner © 2017
Look for Remus in the index of a book
And you are bound to get “See Romulus”
Which is perfectly logical but makes me wonder
About indexes, or indices, and why I prefer the former
As the plural except in a financial context, and how
An index to a book that may not exist may imply
A whole biography, as my friend Paul Violi
Showed in his poem “Index.” My late friend
Paul Violi, whom I still see in the street
Sometimes, walking along at an unhurried pace
So if I walk fast I will catch up to him at the corner
Before the light turns green.
-- David Lehman (2013
An avid student of history, Paul was born on 20 July 1944, an historic day; the day the plot to take Hitler's life failed.
From an interview (with Martin Stannard, May 2004):
"I was quite happy to get the award but it was that 'lifetime' modifier -- 'Lifetime Bereavement' is what I also heard. Sounded more like a gong than a bell. A 'Hey, don't rush me!' reaction. The check hasn't arrived yet. Now that always has a rejuvenating effect."
"The main thing about the NY School was the openness, the adventurousness, the links with artists and painting."
"There are poems I've been reading for decades and they're still giving me reasons to read them again. Keats' 'On First Looking at Chapman's Homer' -- That's magnificence! Images of vast silence used to describe astonishment at a "loud and bold" voice. Not bad for a 21-year old."
Michael Quattrone's profile of Paul Violi appeared in Jacket. A brief excerpt: "Sixty-six West Twelfth Street. Paul Violi wears a Harris Tweed jacket over a pale blue Oxford shirt, a pair of chinos and practical leather shoes. He looks decidedly sheveled, although he has been shuttling between uptown and downtown campuses all day. He has just had another espresso and a smoke. He has made some last minute photocopies for this evening’s workshop, which will begin at eight. His sheaf of papers includes the student work that caught his fancy this week, as well as sample poems by Gregory Corso, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Philip Sidney, and Stephen Dunn. On a different day it might be Mayakovsky, Robert Herrick, Rilke and Verlaine."
"The critic Terence Diggory, whose readings Violi admires, was the first to posit that Violi acts the part of Renaissance Fool. That characterization of the poems is appealing because it accounts for their humor without neglecting the more serious concerns of craft or depth. In a review of Breakers, Diggory writes, ‘The spirit of spoof is so prevalent in Violi’s work that it is easy to mistake it for mere game playing.’ He adds that the work ‘reveals serious aesthetic, cultural, even metaphysical implications.’"
"A partial inventory of the mundane forms Violi has poetically adapted includes: a page of errata, a glossary, a multiple choice exam, and a survival guide; the notes of a naturalist, an elevator notice, mock histories, mock translations, and a product testimonial; one catalogue of fireworks, one of used books, and a third of damaged antiquities; a motivational flier, the advertisement of a sponsor, a radio pledge drive, and a police blotter; clues to a crossword puzzle (whose numbers follow the Fibonacci sequence), a cover letter, a television listing, an acknowledgements page, and a personality survey." -- Michael Quattrone
William Grimes's obituary appeared in the New York Times on April 15, 2011.
And here's a link to Coldfront's ten-part celebration of Paul's life and work (scroll down for links to the 9 previous parts): https://coldfrontmag.com/celebrate-the-life-and-work-of-paul-violi-by-robert-hershon-and-paul-violi-part-10/
The American poet John Ashbery, who turns 90 this month, is often figured as the epitome of cosmopolitan sophistication – as a refined but radical innovator whose open-ended lyrics and narrative-free long poems refract and dramatize the anxieties of postmodernity. Doyen of the avant-garde Ashbery may have become, and yet, as Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of his poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the compound of guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris.
Ashbery’s parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm about a mile south of Lake Ontario, where winters are long and snowy. Chet, as his father was known, could be ill tempered. “He used to wallop me a great deal,” Ashbery recalled in an interview, “so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” I’ve often wondered if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.
Young Ashbery escaped whenever he could to the reassuring home of his maternal grandparents, Henry and Addie Lawrence, who were more interested in artistic and intellectual matters. Indeed, since there was no kindergarten in Sodus, the small town nearest to the Ashbery homestead, he spent much of the first seven years of his life living in Rochester with Addie and Henry, who was a professor of physics at the university. It was there he developed a taste for reading, poring over The Child’s Book of Poetry in his grandparents’ well-stocked library, as well as Things to Make and Things to Do, a volume affectionately parodied in his first great long poem, “The Skaters”.
Last December, while searching for some volunteer translation work, I found this description from the Morgan Library and Museum, in New York, on idealist.org:
This is a wonderful opportunity for an individual with a serious
interest in 19th-century art and literature and a high proficiency
in French translation to assist the Cataloguer of the Morgan’s
Gordon Ray Collection. Duties include deciphering and translating
handwritten letters of luminaries from the worlds of art and
literature, conducting research where necessary or appropriate,
and preparing concise summaries of the letters for inclusion in
CORSAIR, the Morgan’s online collections catalog.
I thought, “This is for me,” applied, underwent a six-part background check, and was accepted.
Since January, I have been translating and summarizing mostly nineteenth-century French letters by noted authors, artists, scientists, politicians, and other public figures—Balzac, Baudelaire, Dumas (father and son), Condorcet (eighteenth century), George Sand, Renoir, counts, kings, and queens: the list goes on and on. Some of the letters are fairly mundane: “Thank you for your gracious dinner invitation. I will see you at 6:00 on Thursday.” Others involve intrigue about entry into the Académie Française, letters on various subjects from authors to their publishers, requests by generals for troops, lawsuits (many), and complex political, philosophical, or artistic discussions. I have learned a great deal about people I knew about and others I had never heard of.
It’s difficult to describe the constant thrill of reviewing documents in the handwriting of someone I’ve read or studied and realizing that I may be only the sixth person ever to have set eyes on them: the author, the recipient, the dealer, the collector, the cataloguer, and me.
Writing a summary is sometimes complicated, especially when the handwriting is difficult to read (either illegible or very small), when I’m dealing with a fragment or unsigned document, or there is little or no information about either the author or the recipient. I end up doing a lot of detective work. Is the person who wrote the letter really who the file label says it is? Sometimes it’s a relative, often with the same first and last name. Occasionally, the document turns out to be about the subject, not written by him or her. And at times the author is known by various names.
Often I need to research dates and addresses, check to see if the author’s correspondence has already been published (which makes it much easier to read), and look for postmarks. When I suspected that a letter was from Balzac, writing about the woman he would later marry, I went online to see if he had indeed been in Karlsrühe at the time the letter was written. (I was right.) Sometimes there is little or no punctuation, even when it’s a letter from a famous author, and often words are run together. There are people, like George Sand, whose handwriting changed dramatically during their lifetime. And once in a while, French is not the writer’s mother tongue, and there are many errors (for example, a letter from Caroline of Ansbach, the German wife of King George II of Great Britain).
If the letter is long or the handwriting is difficult to read, I transcribe it into readable French first. Then I do the translation in my head. I can summarize short, easy-to-read documents directly from the original. Often, the letters are witty or droll, and they’re always full of French charm, especially when written to someone of the opposite sex. Occasionally, what I’m working with isn’t a letter at all, but rather an excerpt from a play or novel.
In any case, I get to use my love for language and sharpen my skills, using materials from the period of French culture about which I’m most passionate. And my supervisor, whose intelligence and problem-solving skills are dazzling (and whose patience is remarkable) is always a great help.
I’m in France soaking up everything French I can right now, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Victor Hugo has to say when I get back to New York. And I can’t wait to start in on Flaubert.
a real concern may turn out in a dream as “to be continued”
or make you sleep soundly for being common currency
splintering off café tables where free-lance shrinks
keep office spreading patter butter out of which “sex,”
the word, pops up at a higher or lower octave like a pigeon
pretending to ignore the fallen crumb of pizza shining nearby.
so that’s what you sound like, new york, no different than
you always sounded, though more at ease with pop-psych lingo,
and maybe less ability to tie your shoelace or another’s without talk.
In my absence you have acquired a lot of bla-blah underwear.
Newsprint and screens obscure “sex,” the thing not the word,
but what do I know? I can afford to be alone, deliciously alone,
and when I gain the street I am with others tripping over their
shoelaces to get to their café therapists where they can tie their
shoelaces together. Unless they are working for the city
with health benefits uppermost in mind. When these employees
want sex they pay for it. They wear work boots tightly laced.
Dear city, the same always, making twisted nothings and steel towers.
I spent time in america and I can feel your shoelace coming loose
-- Andrei Codrescu
What was it like to translate the memoir of a boy who escaped from a French-Nazi internment camp in 1942? One of my biggest challenges was recreating the exuberant, authentic voice of a scrappy eleven-year-old Paris street kid. I kept asking myself, particularly when translating dialogue, “Does this sound like a child?” I think that being an elementary school teacher for so many years helped me to understand how children think and talk. But kids today do not talk they way they did 75 years ago. I had to learn the street slang of 1940s Paris and put it into English that was appropriate for that period. Paris street slang is particularly spicy, and I needed to make sure that I kept its zing.
Sometimes it took many tries to capture the vitality of the language. How, for example, was I going to say, “Je dévale l’escalier à tout berzingue”? I worked on it for a long time and finally came up with “I zoom down the stairs full speed ahead,” which I think captures the energy of the French and keeps the important buzzing “z” sound.
Joseph Weismann, the author of After the Roundup, is unusually clearheaded, and his style is extraordinarily lively and direct. It is this very clearheadedness (and his out-of-the-box thinking) that saved his life. It was therefore of the greatest importance to me to use clear, direct language. Like him, I used vivid verbs and sentences that were short and uncomplicated (yet never choppy) to create a strong sense of immediacy. I avoided any language that sounded stuffy or slowed down the pace and force of his words.
The greatest challenge perhaps was dealing with overwhelming waves of emotion that I knew I’d have to face once again with every rereading. I have never experienced anything like what Joseph went through beginning in July 1942, when he was rounded up, put in an internment camp, brutally separated from his parents--and then decided to make a daring and difficult escape. In order to cope with this intense emotion, rather than shutting it out, I decided to try to imagine myself in Joseph’s situation, to feel his emotions as much as I possibly could, like an actor preparing a role, so that I could convey them in their full depth.
Despite its dark moments, After the Roundup is an uplifting and hopeful book. Joseph wrote it when he was 80, having kept his experiences locked away for 69 years, yet he was able to recall every detail of his ordeal. While some might not consider his style highly intellectual or literary, it clearly reflects his positive outlook and amazing life force. His book makes for compelling reading because of his intelligence, frankness, and energy, not to mention his one-of-a-kind, sometimes hair-raising experiences. It is a lesson for the world of today about what can happen when people are viewed as “others.”
After the Roundup is the true memoir of eleven-year-old Joseph Weismann, who was rounded up in Paris by the French police with 13,000 other Jews on July 16-17, 1942. He and 8,159 others—half of them children—were held in appalling conditions in the Vélodrome d’Hiver. From there, they were transported by cattle car to the transit camp of Beaune-la-Rolande. After being brutally separated from his parents and sisters, who were sent to Auschwitz, Joseph made a daring escape, inching his way under the barbed wire for five hours. Then what? How would he survive the war and reconstruct a life for himself? His problems had only just begun.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Vélodrome d'Hiver Roundup.
Joseph is the only living survivor (of two) of the camp of Beaune-la-Rolande.
After the Roundup, by Joseph Weismann
Translated by Richard Kutner
© Indiana University Press, 2017
Zeina Hashem Beck’s second full-length collection, Louder than Hearts, begins with the lines: “I write in English the way I roam foreign cities—full of street light/ & betrayal, until I find a coffee shop that speaks Arabic.” The poems in Louder than Hearts range across Tripoli, Mosul, Syria, Beirut, London, Paris, and New York, illuminating what is simultaneously most foreign and familiar in those places: the fundamental human drive to connect with others through language and the complexities of doing so in a world divided by cultural, religious, linguistic, and political boundaries. Hashem Beck writes from a certainty in the consolations of the written word. For her, a poem is “a tree without roots/ a street with enormous wings”; each line here both defies uprooting and takes flight, suddenly and assuredly. As the title poem notes, the motions and avowals in Hashem Beck’s work are bound but not beholden to tradition: “The woman in me is thousands/ of years old, her voice louder/ than hearts and derbakkehs.” The ancient tattoo of drumbeat and bloodline cross corridors, balconies, playgrounds, land-mine fields, broken houses, wastelands, continents, oceans, and ideologies. Louder than Hearts bears witness to the scarred and to the disconsolate, to the war-ravaged and to the displaced, to the strange interior countries one must survey and commit to memory if one is to understand the reality of human suffering.
Above all else, Zeina Hashem Beck’s work attempts to translate her particular understanding of human suffering into a poetics of radical empathy. Her poem, “Body,” emblematizes the elegiac uplift and heartache at the center of this collection. The poem reads:
For Hassan Rabeh, young dancer displaced from Syria, who killed himself by jumping from a seventh-floor balcony in Beirut,
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
& perhaps you flew. I read the news, how you plunged from the seventh floor, a Beirut balcony,
& I am filled with a sound of sirens, a need to be alone. This war this theater this city this.
& I was at a Da Vinci exhibit at the museum this morning.
& what a blessing, to say I was at a Da Vinci exhibit this morning.
& he was a pacifist who designed killing machines, for money always comes from warlords.
& he, who like no other knew of the divine proportions of the body,
& he who preferred to trace limbs & ligaments
& the glide of bat wings in the air, he who preferred the theater,
& the projector, & the drum, & bridges, imagined the machine gun
& the submarine, & the tank, sculpted a bullet with a more precise dance.
& oh how the mind bends & how light & shadows fall.
& you, young dancer, tell me, what do you know of the flight of birds,
& of the difference between theatricality & war, dissection & witchcraft, dance & death?
& were you searching for your Palestine in Damascus, for your Damascus in Beirut,
& were you looking for Allah in the joint, the spine, the twirl?
& that last scribble your body made in the air, was that you,
& were you trying to write backwards, to lift instead?
& did you? Tell me, are the mountains blue in the distance?
& does poetry matter, & does dance?
& is there a bridge where the displaced go after they’re gone?
Here, as always in the poetry of Zeina Hashem Beck the world pliés before us in all of its ruthless beauty and terror. Hashem Beck does more than merely commemorate the life and mourn the loss of Hassan Rabeh in this poem. She articulates the endless adhan of art. She proclaims our ummah as everywhere, on the round earth’s imagined corners, where a poem might begin to take shape, to be uttered, heard, and remembered.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for DIALOGIST and the poetry book review editor for Arcadia.
Translating Fear of Paradise
Like any translation, Fear of Paradise was an artistic endeavor and an act of creation. As always, I needed to maintain the author's tone and voice and make the book sound as though it were written in English rather than translated. But Fear of Paradise involved some extra challenges.
Most of the novel is set in Puglia, the heel of Italy, a rugged, sunbaked, glorious region of olive trees and fishermen, of deep blue sky and golden cliffs overhanging the green Adriatic. It was important to keep the setting in mind at all times, because in this book it plays a key role in defining the characters’ personalities and directing their thoughts and actions. Furthermore, Belgian novelist Vincent Engel is a master at describing setting. I therefore had to be very careful in choosing words that evoked the landscape just the way he wanted. Vincent’s style is both realistic and poetic, and I worked hard to bring out both these aspects of it, fundamental to understanding the book.
European authors tend to write in long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes very long). We avoid doing this in English, so I had to find where I could divide things while still maintaining the beautiful flow of the text. French authors also tend to repeat words, even in close proximity, something we discourage in English. That meant finding just the right synonym with the appropriate nuance to express Vincent’s meaning. In many cases I changed the verb tenses, since they are not used the same way nor have the same implications in English and French. Sometimes I changed words altogether, because what sounded right in French sounded wrong in English.
Most of Vincent Engel’s books take place in Tuscany, where the characters are worldly and well educated. In Fear of Paradise, however, they are poor, uneducated, superstitious, and uncommunicative. They hardly speak at all, so whatever dialogue there is must sound realistic and fit each character and situation with no wrong notes. I needed to penetrate the characters’ thinking so that I could use the correct language to express their thoughts and feelings even though they couldn’t. This was a particular challenge. Luigi does not talk like Valentina, and Basilio doesn’t think like Forza, so each person’s way of speaking had to capture his or her character perfectly even if they’re all taciturn. Moreover, the action begins during the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s, continues to the 1940s, and jumps to the 1960s. I had to make sure that the dialogue was always in sync with the times and that it reflected the changes in the characters’ ages and ways of thinking.
Fear of Paradise is a haunting book. It stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to translate it. Because of the nature of his characters and setting, Vincent used language to create a special music for this book. It was very important to me to keep this musical quality—the flow, the sound of the words, the rhythm. I think that my training as a musician was helpful in this regard. I thought about the cadence of the sentences, about the number of syllables in them, and a great deal about how they ended. A sentence that ends in a vowel sound floats off into the air, while one that ends in a hard consonant has a sense of finality or even brutality. One that ends with a word of two or more syllables makes a soft landing, while one that ends with a one-syllable word crashes down. Faced with a choice of words, I chose the one that conveyed my sense of the author’s idea most successfully.
Translating Fear of Paradise was a privilege and a pleasure. My wife and I read it and reread it so many times to make revisions and corrections that we both felt we had to go to Puglia to see the landscape we had inhabited for six months. We weren’t disappointed. I hope that when you read this wonderful book, you will think about my concerns in translating it and take the time to reflect on the choices both Vincent and I made.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Fear of Paradise is a story of longing and missed opportunities, of separation, the passage of time, and the unforeseen consequences of innocent decisions. Set against the rise of Fascism in 1920s Italy, Vincent Engel’s novel takes us on a journey through a wild and romantic landscape where two lonely adolescents forge a strange and wonderful relationship. Between the sea and the forest, in the heart of Puglia, lies the remote fishing village of San Nidro, frozen in time. Here, Basilio and Lucia swear their love and loyalty until an irreparable act sets them on a collision course with the tragic realities of history.
Fear of Paradise, by Vincent Engel
Translated by Richard Kutner
© Owl Canyon Press, 2015
It is a great honor to have been invited by The Best American Poetry to be their author of the week. Translators do not get much respect. In Italian, they even say, “Traduttore, traditore,” which means “The translator is a traitor.” Hmm. I am going to spend the week trying to disprove this dictum. Of course, the work we do is transformational, but we are artists and poets, too, and, while we try our hardest to be faithful to the author’s style and intent, we have our own concerns.
I hope that you’ll enjoy this week’s posts and that you’ll gain insight into what a literary translator does and the challenges he or she faces.
What does a translator do? What we don’t do is just change one language to another, word by word, like a machine. We have to get into the author’s mind, internalize his emotions and language patterns, and set down his ideas in flowing language that sounds as though it was originally written in English. At the same time we need to make sure every word has the correct nuance, deal with untranslatable expressions, capture the music and spirit of the author’s words, and, most of all, be faithful to his style and tone. Yet the language cannot be self-conscious, calling attention to itself. The translator’s words are there to be the invisible vehicle for conveying the author’s ideas and concerns. However, in the end, the translation is still something different from the original.
But that’s just the beginning. Every author has his or her own music—a personal rhythm, cadence, and sound—and the translator must capture it even when the language he or she is translating into may have a different structure and sound profile. The music conveys the ideas in varying ways. Short sentences with hard consonants and long vowels are useful for portraying quick action or strong, even violent emotion. Longer sentences with soft consonants and short vowel sounds are more successful at portraying lyrical scenes or tender moments.
How many syllables should a word have? Words of one syllable have a different effect from multisyllabic words. What kind of ending do you want the sentence to have—one that ends with a thud or one that floats off into the air? And what about words that seem to mean the same thing in two languages but have the slightest shade of difference? Every word a translator uses involves a choice, and it is essential to read a translation aloud to make sure that it sounds right.
It is important as well to keep the time period in which the work one is translating takes place. People in the 1920s or the 1940s did not talk the way people do now. Just watch an old film and listen closely. And there are more subtle gradations between the formality and informality of other languages and English, in terms of vocabulary, usage, and structure. For example, in 1850s Italy, people did not say, “Yo, dude, what’s up?” Pieces of furniture or architectural features that existed 50 or 100 years ago many no longer exist, yet the translator has to find a way to name or describe them so that the reader can understand.
Literary translation is hard work and just as much an art as writing, and I’m glad to see that translators are beginning to get the recognition they deserve. It is difficult to understand, though, why just 3% of the total annual book production in the US is works in translation (of which only one-third is fiction), when there is so much to learn and enjoy from the varying perspectives of authors from other countries. I especially encourage educators to use books in translation to give their students access to how people think and express themselves in other parts of the world.
This week we're thrilled to welcome Richard Kutner as our guest author. Richard graduated from Yale University with a major in French Literature. His translations from French to English include After the Roundup: Escape and Survival in Hitler's France by Joseph Weismann (Indiana University Press, 2017). Now 85, Weissman is a survivor of the 1942 Vél' d'Hiv Roundup in Paris. His story inspired the French film, La Rafle. Richard has also translated the novel Fear of Paradise by Vincent Engel (Owl Canyon Press, 2015), three Greek myths, and three graphic novels. He was awarded a Hemingway Grant from the Book Department of the French Embassy for his translation of Cast Away on the Letter A by Fred (TOON Graphics 2013).
Richard also works in the other direction and has translated 31 songs for Disneyland Paris, an entertainment website, and four Ghanaian folktales from English to French.
Richard taught at the United Nations International School in New York City for 33 years. He and his wife, Lynn, live in Manhattan, a short subway ride from both their sons. This year he began to translate and summarize nineteenth-century French letters at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
All my exes wish they lived by the ocean.
We wear boots on the firm sand as you
blend in, lack of color,
blue and gray liquid revolving,
I think maybe I could live here too
for a while. I smile as our dreams lace
like red crabs on the seafloor, we are lacing
undetected by light, scurrying across oceans-
Baja California, farther South now to
Panama. I am searching for your
flaws in my magnifying glass, revolving
optical clarity, tiny squares in search of color.
It is revealed to me in a flood of carnation, spectacles color
my list of pros and cons, I find I am wearing bright lace
under all this density of choice. We resolve
to bring our drinks out on the ocean.
My submarine eyes cannot stop examining you,
scarlet invertebrate, we too,
are juvenile, abundance of enthusiasm, we too
must eventually settle into a melting pot of color.
This new southern extreme aggregated by you
pulling at my ends like lace
strands, swarming in heat, an El Niño in my oceans
our moons and tides revolve,
your whiskey and smoke revolves
around our ecosystem. Some vital point depends on the two
of us upwelling from the bottom of the ocean
floor, our faces drained of color,
where spotlights blind us near the seamount, me laced
in patchworked fragments of you.
This phenomenon is not new to you,
who dreams in waves of rolling
hypnic jerks. A sleep paralysis of cola laced
bursts of bourbon on your tongue, I too
am not innocent in all this amnesia of color,
the tail-end of a successful recruitment in our ocean.
You, washed up on a San Diego beach, and I was there too,
revolving amid clouds of sediment, another anomaly of color,
Our spiked legs laced in bitterness, no longer submerged in a sheen.
On the day I went to visit Dostoevsky's grave...
It rained that cold & constant Petrograd rain
that gets between your bones and the meat.
I thought to get out of the rain
at the Moskva Intourist Hotel.
My Russian blue overcoat was wet
white sneakers soaked muddy brown at the ends.
As I went in a big guy in a blue blazer
looked down at my shoes and shouted at me in Russian
"You, where you going..." (Ti— Kooda!)
I said I wanted to buy a magazine
& he turned me around
hand big as a rump roast on my chest
"go on, go on, get out... ".
With my wronged American self image
my Russian faltered:
"but what but why can't I how buy magazine..."
In that moment he realized I wasn't Russian
and in clear English:
"Excuse me, sir, the newsstand is on the second floor."
-- Bruce Isaacson
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.