Last summer I launched a small press: Poets & Traitors. The first book was by Ahmad Al-Ashqar––Advances in Embroidery: Poems, with Translations form Mahmoud Darwish––and it set the template for the kinds of books I've always wanted to publish: hybrid volumes of original and translated poetry by one poet-translator. Poets & Traitors Press wants to demolish the barriers between creative writing and translation by publishing books that cultivate a dialogue between the two.
The name of the press comes from that old chestnut that translators love to hate: Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor) — an accusation made by Italians against French translators of Dante. But much of the inspiration comes from something the poet/translator Octavio Paz once wrote: “Baudelaire said poetry is essentially analogy… Between the language of the universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator.”
From poet vs. translator, we arrive at poet=translator. But then, if we complete the syllogism, maybe poets are traitors, too. What, if anything, could that possibly mean?
That question led me to revisit an old poem of mine, "Your Worship," published in The Boston Review a decade ago:
I am your pilgrim, who wanders
to stay home; your monk,
who keeps silent when you demand
confessions and theology.
You are too difficult to love
directly; you have no roof
or floor, and I am too pious
for your rain and mud.
So I keep your shrine, the best of you,
the clean, the singing rest of you.
I am a stubborn priest, who knows himself
only in the dwindling oil of you,
the weeping and rebellious flame
about to die.
"Your Worship" got picked up on Poetry Daily, a few random blogs and pinterest boards, an anthology called the Poet's Quest for God, and was translated into Arabic––probably because it means whatever one wants it to mean. One blogger liked its formal but (according to him) unforced use of paradox. Sure. Is it about God? Is the title sincere or sarcastic? Yes. Is it about a complicated lover? Is it about a creepy stalker? Is it a whimsical rejoinder to Billie Holiday's "All of me"? Absolutely. Yesterday, it reminded me of Haddaway's "What is Love."
Today, I've decided "Your Worship" is about translation. Isn't the translator an oddly peripatetic, stationary pilgrim, a lover building a shrine to the beloved original? This reminds of something the author-translator Alice Kaplan wrote after her own disastrous experience with an impossibly overbearing translator. She describes "the intense critical response one can have to a book one is in the process of translating":
We translators can love, but we can also see every flaw, every mistaken fact, every awkward transition in the work we are translating. I also recognized in him, again in exaggerated form, something we might call the 'depit amoureux' of the translator: the desire to get into the skin of a book, the desire to become its author––to create, not just translate. We translators ought to defend ourselves by claiming rights that are akin to rights of authorship: the right to innovate, the right to create, the right to be considered a writer, rather than merely a clerk. But translation is also, by definition, a crossing of boundaries––a stranger entering into a literary space and claiming it for himself. Here is where intangible emotions––love, envy, generosity, competition, and combat––come into play for the translator. X approached my texts a conqueror, and he violated my boundaries. And that experience, for this author, was something I can only describe as 'creepy.'
In other words, translation is a form of loyalty that travels a narrow bridge between over-identification and betrayal.
Osip Mandelstam, a poet who–like many 20th century Russian writers–was also a translator, likewise partook of this problem of ecstasy and translation in a powerfully ironic way. Here is my recent translation of one of his poems from May 1933, which I plan to include in my own forthcoming book for Poets & Traitors, Relatives & Genitives: Poems, with Translations from Mandelstam and Mayakovsky:
Do not partake of foreign dialects, instead try best to let them pass,
For all the same your teeth will never learn to bite a piece of glass.
A flight of foreign screeching, an offering of agony––
An evil fate is what shall guard against illegal ecstasy.
Because you know: a foreign name won’t save your dying heart
And your thinking and immortal mouth the moment they forever part.
And what if Tasso, Ariosto, those charmed enthrallers of our minds,
Are little more than monsters, with azure brains and scales of humid eyes?
And for your punishment, you prideful and persistent audiophile.
Accept this sponge of posca for your treasonable lips so vile.
Posca was the vinegar drink that was given on a sponge by Roman soldiers to Christ on the cross. Mandelstam is wise to warn translators of their fate! Nobody knows what it means to translate a poet. But this is only because, like most things worth pursuing, verse translation is a utopian project. Nabokov, suspicious of anybody else’s utopia, insists that the “clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Useful to whom? Certainly useful to the scholar already interested in the poetry in question (the scholar who might indeed be aroused by the “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers,” desired by Nabokov), but useless to anyone else, who is obliged to take the word of the clumsy literal translator that there is a poem here, somewhere. The first step of any good praxis of translation is to convey genre and quality: Reader, this is a great poem by a great poet! If the wicked “pretty paraphrase” leaves the reader at a distance from the original, at least this poor reader might now be motivated to learn the language of the original. In this effort of seducing readers on behalf of another poet and another language, no tool, including outrageously literal translation, should be neglected. This is a moral and not simply an aesthetic issue: the translator has debts to the writer, to the reader, and to oneself. As far as the writer and reader are concerned, it is simply wrong to turn something beautiful into something unlovely, however well-documented. (Just as it is to turn something deliberately grungy into something clean and pretty––the patina is everything, as the Antiques Roadshow has taught us.) And for the translator to tie one hand behind the back with the waxed twine of a theory of translation––well, that is a form of self-abuse. But this is no plea for the "free translation" that Nabokov associates with “knavery and tyranny.” Instead, I am suggesting a translation of obligations, in which the translator is never off the hook and must carefully compensate the author for some of the effects lost in the new version: a nervous, decidedly unfree translation that shuns the clean comfort of scholarly explication.
Then again, this is also how one could describe poetry––a free and presumptuous assertion of the right to take on infinite obligations. I will sign off my sojourn on Best American Poetry with "Of the Father Tongue," a poem I wrote in 2001 in Petersburg, smothered by poplar cotton, in response to Mandelstam's warning about foreign dialects:
Never tempt a native language.
Its roots are thin and deep.
Just when you think the old words
have forgotten you, then
the summer poplars burst and you
are tarred and feathered in a snow
of slurry endings.
Genitive, genitive, who owns whom?
This is late June in Petersburg,
there is no night to hide in here.
In any case you live under the name of the father,
like an eel darting from its rock at curious hands.
And now you’ve come back,
quick, open wide while the potato
words are hot. Repeat after me:
Preposition accepted, I take it all back,
Petersburg, I don’t want to be born
Val Vinokur is the author of The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas (Northwestern University Press, 2009), a finalist for the 2009 AATSEEL Award for Best Book in Literary/Cultural Studies. His poetry, prose, and interviews have appeared in The Boston Review, McSweeney's, Zeek, Common Knowledge, The Literary Review, New American Writing, The Massachusetts Review, The Miami Herald, Public Seminar, and LitHub. His co-translations, with Rose Réjouis, from French and Creole have been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lewis Galantière Award. Since 2001, he has taught literature at The New School, where he is chair of Liberal Arts in the BA Program for Adults and directs the minor in Literary Translation. His annotated translation of seventy-two stories by Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions (Northwestern UP), was published last fall. Vinokur is also the founding editor of POETS & TRAITORS PRESS, which publishes hybrid books of original and translated poetry.