Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life Is Lost So Easily

We had just returned from opening a bank account. A cat lay on the road, kicking the air as if in an attempt to escape the ground. Its back was broken and, mercifully, it died moments later.

When you decide to make a change for the better, angels appear to you out of the blue. We had to buy a bed and had just received delivery at the door of the warehouse, from where we wheeled our new acquisition in the direction of the car and wondered if we could get away with the boot being open on the ride home. We’d already spotted some traffic police, who had pulled over a Range Rover with British number-plates and a stocky Bulgarian in the driver’s seat trying to reason with them. Traffic police in Bulgaria are like briars, they’re everywhere, especially when the boot of your car is open. My wife was in favour of paying twenty euros for the official transport to take the bed home, but I figured a two-metre bed, like a human, should be able to fit inside the car and wheeled away. Once at the car, we shunted the bed in until it touched the rear of the front seats and set about trying to tie the boot down with a piece of string our son had magically turned into a tangle. Twice the boot pistoned open and, prior to the third attempt, my wife consulted a man in a neighbouring Lada (Bulgarians are very prone to exchanging opinions, unlike the English, who will do their best to complete the task in hand without being noticed), who said not to worry, it wasn’t illegal and the police wouldn’t stop us. He jerked his head skywards, which in Balkan sign language means ‘no way’, and resumed his silent conversation with the girl in the back, his daughter or granddaughter no doubt. But when he saw we were making a hash of things and he could be of help, he got out, opened the boot of his Lada and produced a bungee cord, which he proceeded to fit with greater mastery than our own. I read the tattoos in the kindness of his eyes and thanked him.

We rode away, making sure to avoid the corner with the traffic police, but of course there were more round the next corner and the car in front slowed down to turn left, causing us to slow almost to a halt right next to the second set of policemen, who fortunately were previously engaged and so fooled by my blank look, which said there’s nothing wrong with us and no, that’s not a bed sticking out of the boot. The rest of the journey was uneventful, despite speeding down the middle lane of the main thoroughfare into Sofia centre, cars overtaking right and left, buses blurring the dividing line between their lane and ours.

He was not the only angel to come to our aid in the face of oncoming change. Suffering causes two reactions in people: they will either do all they can to avoid you suffering the same or inflict their own suffering on you. As the poet Ivan Teofilov commented to us over blackcurrant juice and cakes the other day while swirling a glass of whisky and reminiscing about taking part in the Edinburgh festival back in 1969, when my wife and I were one and still couldn’t walk on to the stage, life is lost so easily.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Absinthe 12 and ALANDIA

To celebrate the publication of Absinthe 12 we held an intimate party at John Cowley and Sons in downtown Farmington. Many guests had the opportunity to sample their first taste of absinthe, thanks to our new sponsor ALANDIA who provided a bottle of their Absinthe Maison ALANDIA. Several people mentioned that it was the best absinthe they had tried, a sentiment shared by this writer. ALANDIA is the official sponsor of the Absinthe web site and we strongly suggest checking them out for absinthe, absinthe spoons and glasses, and much more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Their Name Is Today

A rather beautiful quote from Gabriela Mistral, the translation of whose book Madwomen by Randall Couch won this year’s Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation. Gabriela Mistral, who died in New York in 1957, was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she achieved in 1945. This is my translation.

“We are guilty of many mistakes and omissions but our worst crime is to abandon children, denying them the source of life. Many of the things we need can wait, children cannot, now is the moment, their bones are forming, also their blood, their senses are developing, we cannot say to a child tomorrow, their name is today.”

Popescu Prize winner announced

The winner of this year’s Popescu Prize for Poetry Translation is Randall Couch for his translation of Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral, published by University of Chicago Press.

The prize is administered by the UK’s Poetry Society. On their website they call it a “prize for poetry translation” and, further down, a “prize for European poetry translation” featuring “poetry translated from another European language into English”. This is, we are told, “a wonderful opportunity to travel through Europe’s amazing landscapes and cultures”. The longlist invites us to “explore the poetry of Europe” and gives a list of “countries represented”, which is actually a list of languages. Alan Brownjohn, in a history of the prize, describes this as “a European Translation Prize for a book that rendered the work of a European poet into English”.

The Poetry Society seems to be guilty of mixing the concepts of language and statehood. Is English a European language? Is Raymond Carver, because he wrote in English, a European poet? The only American poet we “English” are in the habit of claiming as our own is a certain T. S. Eliot.

Gabriela Mistral also spent time in Europe, and boasted Basque heritage, but to my knowledge this doesn’t make her a European poet. Certainly the Chileans might disagree with such an appellation.

If the Poetry Society is going to call this a prize for European poetry in translation, it needs to tidy up its website and remove the equation language:country. The alternative would be to open the prize up to include all poetry a translator and publisher agree is worth translating.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wall in my Head

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a life-changing event for me and for Germans no matter where they lived. On American TV, my compatriots were always portrayed as Nazis, deranged psychiatrist, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were either barking orders or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplatter dance. On November 11th, 1989 the image of Nazi Germans was suddenly replaced by joyous Germans infecting the world with their good will and spirit.
After enthusiasm and celebration reality set in. Two million East Germans left their homes to seek their fortune elsewhere. In many parts of the former GDR unemployment is in the double digits. East Germans earn 20% less than West Germans. The catch-up might take another twenty years. Germans are no longer surrounded by a cement wall but twenty years later the wall in the head still exists.
With the exception of hosting the World Cup in soccer in 2006, Germans have not displayed joy and enthusiasm in large numbers. But now, at the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the wall, we are allowed to feel good about ourselves once again. In New York many events —readings, films and even a dance performance —celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Columbia University hosted a conference “Freedom Without Walls.”
“Words Without Borders” organized a reading and panel discussion at Idlewood Bookstore on November 10th to launch their new anthology The Wall in My Head. The book includes writers who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who grew up in its wake [Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple.]
At Idlewood, Polish writer Dorota Maslowska, German writer Kathrin Aehnlich and Romanian writer Dan Sociu read excerpts and spoke about how they witnessed the events at age six, twelve, and thirty-two. Eliot Borenstein, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, moderated.
Dan Sociu, a younger poet of the so-called “2000 Generation,” a movement Romanian literary critics called “Miserabilism”, brought down the house with his deadpan humor. Dorota Maslowska (Snow White and Russian Red) spoke about the difference of her generation to older, more established writers. “They want to write pretty literature; we want to rape literature,” she said. Kathrin Aehnlich read a hilarious segment from her latest book Everyone Dies, Even the Paddlefish in which teacher Aunt Edeltraud ruled the children in an East German kindergarten with the iron fist of a prison warden.
Kathrin Aehnlich, a Leipzig native, was the only one old enough to not only have witnessed the fall of the wall but also to have actively participated in the Monday night demonstration that she believes prepared the fall of the wall.
The room was jam-packed. The audience asked a lot of questions. Most people stayed and engaged in lively conversation after the event. They polished off the hors d’oeuvres and drank the wine to the last drop. The mood was festive. When the bookstore closed many were not ready to go home. I joined a group of German and American journalists and writers, a Dutch restaurant owner and a Canadian real estate agent at the Old Town Bar. There we continued our discussion over greasy bar food and Paulaner beer.
The fall of the wall was one of the few positive developments in recent world history. Who knows when we'll find such a good reason to party the next time?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hats Off to Pachyderme

Pachyderme, by Frédérik Peeters (Gallimard, 2009)

Let’s see… in the breathless opening to this 90 page graphic novel we get a traffic jam due to a wounded elephant; a blind pigkeeper; a gray hydrocephalic baby—vaguely alien-looking—in the woods; a cavalier and alcoholic skirt-chasing surgeon; and a beanpole of a Swiss secret policeman, complete with trenchcoat, stovepipe hat, and prosthetic proboscis, who like Get Smart’s Agent 13 turns up in the unlikeliest of places. A woman—our heroine Carice—walks though it all—from her car through the woods, as if in a trance, to a hospital to visit her diplomat husband, indisposed from an auto accident. Her goodbye note, which she intends to deliver in person, is in her purse. The hospital is vast, remote, and forbidding, filled with suitable loonies. Among those Carice meets in the lobby are a paraplegic who offers to help hide her if she’s a Jew, and an orderly who insists she’s come for the annual show patients put on. The secret policeman insists she see the Don Juan of a doctor before her husband, because the former has a file that should be in the latter’s hands: a file valuable to the Soviets, detailing activities of the Red Cross. The book's first third ends with Carice waking an apparently dead body in the morgue with her whistling. Chopin? the body asks. Carice nods. We learn of her too-early marriage, her dashed dreams as a concert pianist, and in the course of conversation realize that the aged cadaver she’s talking to is her future self.

This is a dream, Carice says. I must be dreaming.

Or I am! the dead body merrily replies. Or they are, all around us! Who knows?

Or maybe, Carice reflects, I’m not here right now…

It’s Switzerland, 1951. Despite the cavalcade of unlikely characters, the willfully eccentric situations, the tone is somber, the art insistently realistic. Nor is credibility stretched; the increasing strangeness is eerily convincing. We’re in something like a David Lynch version of The Shining.

Pachyderme is the latest from the Swiss creator Frédérik Peeters, dubbed “a young master” in the world of Francophone comics by no less than The Comics Reporter’s resident Euro-expert, Bart Beaty. He first came to notice in 2001 with the raw, headlong memoir Pilules bleues (Atrabile), about living with an HIV positive lover (translated by Anjali Singh for Houghton Mifflin as Blue Pills in 2008). After five Best Book nominations at the Angoulême Festival, Peeters finally took home the prize for the final volume of his black-and-white science-fiction tetralogy Lupus (also from Atrabile). This meandering saga, low on tech and long on character, is a record of Peeters’ increasing sophistication as both writer and visual storyteller, and starts out sort of Firefly to end up more Solaris. In the first book, rich girl runaway Sanaa jumps in with two unlikely buddies, Ted and Lupus, sportfishing on a distant planet, accidentally causing Ted’s death at the hands of bounty hunters her father has sent after her. The series becomes a headlong space chase; the odd characters Lupus and Sanaa meet along the way include a disgruntled revolutionary clearly modeled on a soixante-huitard. Once they outdistance their captors on an abandoned space station, the story rhythms relax into road trip and even domestic drama, as Sanaa announces her pregnancy. Of note as well are Peeters' two recent crime volumes RG, a collaboration with Pierre Dragon, a police intelligence officer.

Lupus featured frequent dream interludes, and alarming close-ups so macro as to be abstract, but these were clearly set off from the linear story in the here and now. The achievement of Pachyderme is a stunning poetic compression of dream and reality, and a surehanded marriage of image and narrative. For most of the book the reader is no more certain of what’s real and what isn’t—even what’s past and what’s present—than the heroine Carice, and yet like her we move smoothly forward, ever deeper into mystery, confident and troubled, trusting and compelled. The transitions are abrupt but enticing. The action moves too quickly for us to dwell on our befuddlement. Patterned wallpaper sprouts pink blossoms. A woman dancing is arrested by the eye of a stuffed flamingo. The whirlwind story blends several genres: haunted house, espionage, romance.

How does Peeters manage to make a seamless whole of it? For one, he conscripts the spectrum, displaying a canny mastery of color matched to décor. With such deft schemes are entire moods established. The tan fields, the russet woods, the blue hospital walls, the green morgue, Clarice’s purple dress and lavender stole… Peeters deploys an orchestral command of mood. When at last Carice enters the doctor’s lair, the sumptuous red drapery introduces a menacing note, heretofore unheard, to the book’s lush chromatic symphony. Only later do we notice the deft separation of lush, saturate fantasy from paler reality.

His dialogue also perfectly sustains the tone, at once worldly

“I’ve had to fend off more sophisticated techniques of seduction, Doctor. I won’t go so far as to say you disappoint me, but—”

and dreamy

“There must be several types of brain, don’t you think? With certain particular predispositions. For instance, I always know when a woman’s lying, but on the other hand, unlike most people, I have no sense of direction.”

Pachyderme is so tightly told, so invisibly rigorous, one almost imagines it embedded in a longer story, like the Dali sequence in Spellbound. (Only one panel made me groan: nosebleeds are so cliché.) Though the book features two pachyderms—including a golden pendant—one reaches the end with the enigma of its title tantalizingly intact. That so convoluted a narrative should lead us, down its byways and secret passages, to a moment of triumph, reassurance, and even grace, beside a hospital bed! The final page invites us to stand and applaud. This reader did. He leapt from his easy chair and clapped out loud.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yuri Andrukhovych in New York

I had other plans for the evening, but when I heard that Yuri Andrukhovych was in town I changed my mind immediately. I had read his literary essays "Disorientation and Locality” and “My Europe” (co-published with the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk) in the German translation and often found myself laughing out loud while reading. I had read his novel,"Twelve Book", which many consider his best work in the German translation. A few years ago Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief of New Directions, asked me to read the book, write a report and make a recommendation if his work might do well in the American market. Despite my enthusiasm and praise, New Directions decided against translation and publication. Yuri Andrukhovych’s work has been published in Poland, Germany, Canada, the United States, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Serbia, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, he remains largely unknown to the American reader.
Cosponsored by the Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and the Kennan Institute this event was not advertised anywhere. Nevertheless the room on the top floor of the International Studies building with the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline was packed mostly with native Ukrainian speakers.
Yuri Andrukhovych had forgotten his reading glasses. So he read little and told stories instead, thereby revealing his unique sense of humor and remarkable talent as a raconteur. He spoke about the origins of his poem “Werwolf Sutra.” In 1986 he had a grant to stay in an East German artist residency. In the surrounding forests of Wiepersdorf he found the ruins of a former Soviet army town with its barracks, firing ranges, and outhouses covered with graffiti.
He recounted the background story of his novels "Recreations"(CIUS Press, 1998), "Perverzion" (Northwestern University Press, 2005) and "The Moscoviad" (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2008) and read selected excerpts.
He touched on the problems of translation. “Werwolf Sutra,” for example, had not been translated into English from the Ukrainian original but from the Polish translation. Of the four prestigious international literary awards he won; three were awarded to him in Germany, the other in Poland. Asked why he was so well received in Germany, Yuri Andrukhovych pointed out that Germany stood out in Europe for its knowledge about Ukrainian literature. Highly professional translators are available to translate from Ukrainian into the German language. He noted that Germany historically had always looked East and to the Russians, idealizing a quality they thought they lacked. “Just think of their quest for Lebensraum,” he said.
At 9:00 PM the organizers of the event urged the audience to leave, but the majority remained. Most mingled, shared their reactions to the reading and lined up to have books signed, to take photos, and to question Yuri Andrukhovych. All the available books were sold immediately.
“It is more important to live than to write,” Andrukhovych stated at one point during the evening and the crowd seemed to take his word for it. It was a great event featuring an inspiring writer. It was a privilege to have met the author of this distinctive literature.
.Before coming to New York Yuri Andrukhovych appeared at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. A video of that forum can be accessed at
He is scheduled to go to Cleveland next. If you get a chance to hear and see him in person, by all means take it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The European Book Club

I am a voracious reader. I read everywhere: on the couch, in the bath tub, in bed, on park benches, airplanes, busses, and in the subway. Reading, I shut out the world and immerse myself in the world the author has created for me. Reading is my solitary pleasure. The bond is between the writer and me. I have never allowed anyone in to share my pleasure. It felt as if I’d be letting the world in to watch me making love.
For that reason, I have never participated in a book club. The last time I discussed literature in a large group was more than 30 years ago in high school, more specifically my German Gymnasium. Back then, only one interpretation of a work of fiction was allowed, that of the teacher’s. I sat in class knowing that the teacher was wrong, that there was more than one way of looking at the text, that all interpretations had value. Writers are open-minded; they present the lives and motivations of even the most despicable characters and often do so without judgment. So it was with great trepidation that I attended my first book club meeting.
Fifty percent of all the books in translation published worldwide are translated from English, but only six percent are translated into English. This amounts to 400 foreign fiction books (of which approximately seven are German) per year translated into American English. The European Book Club was launched one year ago by the librarians of the Austrian, Czech, French, German, Italian, and Spanish Cultural Institutes in New York City to expose more Americans to the wonderful literature of their homelands. From the beginning, it was a huge success. The Polish, Romanian, and Norwegian libraries have subsequently joined.
I was prepared. Reading Katherina Hacker’s The Have-Nots had not been a pleasurable solitary experience. In fact, I had to force myself to get through the story of well-to-do thirty-somethings, who like the rest of Germany, seemed to suffer from low-level chronic depression. I had a hard time following the multitude of characters and the simultaneous stories lines. I didn't care for the 9/11 reference, the wealthy protagonists, their pain, angst, and ambiguity. I wondered why Hacker had won the 2006 German Book Prize.
At the Goethe Institute’s new downtown location, twelve women and one man sat in a circle. Unsure how to act, I sat back to observe. Many participants found the novel difficult to read. Some had not finished the book. The group explored the motivation of the characters. The protagonists were one-dimensional and lacking in empathy. Had that been the writer's intention? We discussed the different prose style of American and German writers: great storytelling, entertaining literature as opposed to literature as Bildungsauftrag that made the reader work hard.
In no time I felt totally at ease and plunged into the discussion. We jumped around quite a bit, touched on the role of Holocaust in post World War II German consciousness, German guilt, and Herta Müller winning The Nobel Prize. Should we read her next? We discussed modernism in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Maybe Katherina Hacker tried to do something similar? We all agreed that she didn't have the skill of those writers. We shared personal experiences about 9/11, living in Berlin, Poland, in Ceausescu's Romania, and as a Jewish American in 70s Germany.
I was impressed how polite and inclusive the group was. No one cut each other off. We pointed to the weak portions of the book with kindness. I sat there thinking what if I was to discuss this book with my friends in Germany? Would we have trashed the book, used much stronger language? Would we have been so kind?
After the official end of the book club, most stayed and continued the conversation over wine and pâté crackers. A diverse group of people had been brought together by their love for European literature. I was glad I had been part of it. This had been an extremely enjoyable evening. “When is the next meeting?” I asked before walking out the door. “Count me in.”


Friday, October 9, 2009

Interview with the Italian Writer Gianrico Carofiglio

Stefania Rega interviewed the Italian writer Gianrico Carofiglio for Absinthe.

To Judge and Tell:
An Interview with Gianrico Carofiglio
by Stefania Rega

Gianrico Carofiglio's first novel, Testimone inconsapevole (Involuntary Witness), was published in 2002. At that time, he was just over 40 and was working as a judge in Bari, southern Italy. Since then, he has published four more novels, including Il passato è una terra straniera, which has recently been made into a film. He has also written a graphic novel (Cacciatori nelle tenebre, 2007) and an essay about the power of words. His most recent prizes include Bremen Prize and the Grinzane Cavour Noir.

He is considered the only notable representative of Italian legal-thriller fiction.
With his elegant prose, Carofiglio unfolds his stories of common life characters involved in judicial cases against the unfailing background of his home town. His books are small paintings of common lives troubled by a crime before eventually returning to their quiet normality. His best known character is the lawyer Guerrieri, the lead of three of Carofiglio's novels — in addition to the one already mentioned, there is also Ad occhi chiusi (2003) and Ragionevoli dubbi (2007). Clearly fallible as he struggles with his indecisions and questions, Guerrieri embodies a sort of new hero, one that any reader can identify with.

In this interview, Carofiglio talks about himself and his novels, but also reflects on more general issues regarding literature and fiction.

Q: Your most famous character, Guido Guerrieri, is a great lawyer who brilliantly wins his cases. Nevertheless, it seems that most of his investigations are solved by chance and not so much by skill. And also he isn't so successful in his personal life. He actually seems a sort of anti-hero. Does his character signal a cultural and epochal indication? Is Guido Guerrieri the true modern hero?

A: In the real world investigations and trials are much more ruled by chance than in films and novels, or at least in certain novels. In my stories, I always strive to reproduce the procedures of the real world. If my readers, as it actually happens, find that Guerrieri is a sort of anti-hero… well, I am happy about that.

Q: You have often pointed out the wearing out of words, the progressive fading of their meaning. Yet, lawyer Guerrieri wins using his dialectical skills more often than by the evidence he provides. Is it the lack of the objective truth that leaves space for pure rhetoric?

A: On the contrary. Guerrieri wins (when he does) because he can use words that have a meaning. And that's totally different from the worst rhetoric.

Q: Speaking of words, your novels have been translated into many languages. Do you think that translations take something away from a literary text?

A: It depends. Good translations can teach many things to the author himself.

Q: You have also written a graphic novel together with your brother Francesco, the illustrator. In your opinion, is the combination of words and images another literary genre?

A: Yes, sure. It is a completely different language.

Q: Novels, graphic novel, film. How important is the means of expression to the telling of a story?

A: It depends. There are stories that can be told in many ways, others that require what is, still today, the most sophisticated form of expression: the novel.

Q: Other Italian authors of genre fiction — Faletti, Camilleri, etc. — are also best sellers. Why is this kind of literature so successful, in your opinion?

A: Many readers feel attracted by the dark side of these types of stories and from the chance that thrillers and noir offer to glimpse at least the basics of order among the disarray of crime.

Q: We had many great novelists in Italy after World War II: Calvino, Pavese, Moravia, Morante, Deledda … After one generation, how is the health of Italian narrative, in your opinion?

A: There are many talented writers in Italy right now. Some of them are really good, but none is truly enthralling.

Q: Besides being a writer, you are also a judge. Like you, many other contemporary Italian writers have another job. In the list of best-selling books we can find judges, comedians, physicists, screenwriters. Why do you think so many writers do not come directly from the Art of Letters?

A: Well, first of all most of these bestselling authors do not write novels, even if they try to tell stories. Apart from that, it has always happened that a good number of writers come from other professions, sometimes very different from literature.

Q: How did your work as a novelist emerge from your activity as a magistrate? I mean, in what way does being a judge support your storytelling?

A: As a boy, I did not want to be a judge, but a writer. That said, there is no doubt that being a judge provided me an almost unlimited mine of stories and characters. It's not an insignificant advantage if, one day, you start writing novels.

Q: You are also a Senator of the Republic. Do you think that literature also has a political aim or that it should respond exclusively to aesthetic criteria?

A: I think literature has an ineludible ethical value and that the worst sin for a writer is dishonesty, is using nickel-and-dime tricks, is being disrespectful to the reader.

Rome, August 2009

And the Winner Is ...

Barack Obama! Really.

And you've probably already heard that Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As usual, there's excellent coverage over at the Literary Saloon.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Doisneau You Don't Know

After a recent visit to Avignon, France, I was enamored with an exhibition of Doisneau's works at the Musee Angladon-Dubrujeaud. The museum itself is a treat; teeming with European charm, it is the former house of Jean and Paulette Angladon-Dubrujeaud whom are 'heirs of the famous Parisian couturier and collector, Jacques Doucet'. Painters and engravers themselves, they generously donated their former home to showcase works from the 18th-20th century including some little known, but no less impressive works by Degas, Van Gogh and Modigliani. My favorite Modigliani they displayed was, of course, a woman sitting in a chair. Also, the little known Vang Gogh struck me for it's typical Van Gogh style, but an out of the ordinary subject-trains.Among the impressionist and expressionist works of the past two centuries, the black and whites of Doisneau were a wonderful contrast to the malleable lines and vibrant colors of the paintings. When most people think of Doisneau, images of the Paris that everyone dreams of are conjured up within a moment. His ability to capture what is uniquely "French" and perhaps even Parisian have been mass produced on everything from coasters to posters. But his portraits of artists and well-known figures add another dimension to his work. True, there is the presence of his inimitable eye in all of his work, but these photographs bring an intimacy, depth and humor to his oeuvre. These two following photos, Picasso with Bread Hands and Cesar Baldaccini (The Sculptor Cesar in his Workshop, show all of these elements as a perfect balance.

It's impossible to ignore the overwhelming sense of nostalgia that imbues his work, but when he turns his lens on fellow artists the positivity and compassion is evident. He makes us see in them what he sees in them. And that is what is magnetic about his work. Gazing at a photo of an artist working on a painting, you see the levels he was trying to uncover in his mind. The subject with his art as a subject, as if we are looking into a creative spiral. If you're in the neighborhood of Avignon, this is an exhibit to make a point to see.

Friday, September 25, 2009


for E. and S.

We descended out of the mist and saw the hut below us, an orange shack and four multi-coloured tin bungalows perched on the grass. In the hut, we were met by two boys, one jangling metal and the other with a nervous laugh. Their stoned gaze made me fear for our safety overnight in a place so remote our cry would be another high-pitched call the wind swept far and wide.

After a four-hour, 5000-foot descent through snake-infested, brushed-back grass, we entered the church of the monastery, our final destination. The wood carvings glowed golden in the candle-lit dark. A sign showed numerous articles not allowed in the sanctuary of the church, including our backpacks, which, after buying candles, we were asked to deposit in front of the church. I waited outside.

In the hut, we fell into conversation, languages combining and colliding to reveal a painful past: an ugly neighbourhood, broken relationship, impossible return. Tea was served, which made my nerve-ends jingle. I wondered if it was drugged. Later, when the lion espied through binoculars a gaggle of Middle Eastern youths descending the valley, I felt we had been saved, its scent diverted to meatier, easier prey.

As I waited outside the monastery church, my camera open, a monk trundling crates of bottled mineral water drew a line one foot from where I was standing. I could take photographs on the other side of the columns, he informed me, but not where I was. I wondered how many crates he had already carried, bottles containing water that splashed off the mountain behind.

In the hut, we were no longer alone. The boys set about preparing our supper: lentil soup, cheese omelette, fresh salad and a grilled pepper that had been skinned and sprinkled with cayenne and garlic. We asked them how at 7000 feet, with no discernible road, they had such products. They brought them up from the nearest village. And how did they cook such delicious food? Using Calor gas. We didn’t ask about the clean sheets, the bathroom they were building. As night folded in, the water turbine kicked into action, providing a gentle glow through which we saw the others as in The Potato Eaters, everything turned to shades of brown.

The monastery reception was closed and no one answered when I dialled the mobile phone number listed on the wall. A young monk finally turned up, produced three sets of stapled paper: name, sex, address, purpose of visit, serial number. I thought I had completed mine when he pointed to a second slip of paper on which I affirmed I had come to bow my head at the altar and would like, in return for overnight accommodation, to contribute (minimum 10) leva. I knew the going rate for a foreigner was 30, a resident 12, and, having lived for over five years in the capital and agreed this on a previous visit, was about to write 12 when he asked if my passport was Bulgarian. No. Did I have a residence permit? It was in Sofia. Then I would have to pay as a foreigner. I refused and stormed out.

In the hut, now that everyone had eaten, the boys served themselves, picking at their food but mostly smoking and enjoying the conversation. They drank rakia from a mineral water bottle, which they handed around. When we thanked them for the food and their hospitality, one laughed, the other said it was what they were here for. Later we too gazed at the Milky Way, our upturned lamps answering the stars’ twinkle. I slept worst of all that night. Tomorrow we would sleep in a soft bed next to the monastery, a drunken waiter whirling like a dervish and demanding baksheesh. When we set out from the hut the following morning, one boy had disappeared, the other rested in the sunlight, proud as a mountain cairn.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Some Notes on Translating Arseny Tarkovsky's "Field Hospital"

Arseny Tarkovsky, the great Russian poet and translator, lost his leg due to gangrene after being shot during World War II. His great poem, "Field Hospital," recounts his survival. I wrote an article about translating this poem, which recently appeared at a Russian website, which translates as "Thinking Aloud." I've been working on a book-length version of his poems, with Dmitry Psurtsev, ever since my trip to Russia at the end of summer.

Here's the poem, in translation:

Field Hospital

The table was turned to light. I lay
My head down, like meat on scales,
My soul throbbing on a thread,
And I could see myself from the outside:
I, without any additions, was equalled
By a fat market standard weight.
It was
Amidst the snowy shield,
With gaps along its western side,
In the circle of never-freezing swamps
Of the trees with fractured legs
And of small railway stations
With split skulls, black
From snowy caps, sometimes double,
Sometimes triple.
On that day time stopped.
The clocks didn't march, the souls of trains
Didn't fly anymore along the levies
Without lamps. Upon the gray flippers of vapor,
And neither crow weddings, nor snow storms,
Nor thaws were in this limbo,
Where I lay in disgrace, in nakedness,
In my own blood, outside gravity
Of the future.

But I moved a bit and on the axle started going
Around the shield of blinding snow,
And low over my head
Some seven planes turned back,
And gauze, like tree bark,
Upon my body grew hard and was running
Another person's blood into my veins,
And I breathed like a fish on sand,
Swallowing the hard, micaceous
Cold and blessed air.

My lips were covered with sores, and also
I was fed from the spoon, and also
I couldn't remember what my name was,
But became on my tongue alive
The vocabulary of King David: And then

Even the snow went away, and early spring
Rising on tiptoes covered the trees
With her green scarf.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

European Writers in New York City

Having returned from two months in Europe I am excited to be back. There are so many great readings and literary events in New York City. Thursday’s book launch party for “Girl Mary” (Simon & Schuster) by Romanian author Petru Popescu at the Rumanian Cultural Institute was well attended. I can’t wait to start reading. The book promises to tell the story of Mary of Nazareth’s girlhood, her love for Joseph, her relationship with God and the events that led to God’s intervention in her pregnancy.
Saturday afternoon I headed downtown to the Bowery Poetry Club. Swiss author Christoph Keller's read from his memoir “The Best Dancer”, translated into English by Alison Gallup. Keller’s is a unique story. At age 14, he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disorder. Ignoring his doctors’ advice to take it easy, he began living life to the fullest.
Fond of Russian literature, I will definitely be at the Housing Works Bookstore Café on 9/21 when Tin House Books launches Rasskazy’s “New Fiction from a New Russia.” Publishers Weekly said: “The current state of Russian identity — artistic, political, social and beyond — is vigorously examined in this anthology, offering readers a multifaceted portrait of the complex nation, from short, poetic pieces like Oleg Zobern's 'Bregovich's Sixth Journey,' to nearly journalistic narratives like Arkady Babchenko's powerful and harrowing remembrance of the Chechen war ('The Diesel Stop'). “
Maybe even better, I will treat myself to the bilingual reading of new Russian literature at The Russian Samovar on 9/22. Having a shot of ice-cold vodka and some delicious blini will make the listening so much more enjoyable.

Another promising event is the launch of “The Salt Smugglers” by Gérard de Nerval's on 9/24 at the Idlewild Bookstore. Alberte Manguel said : “Every intelligent English-speaking reader must be grateful to Richard Sireburth and Archipelago Books for rescuing from oblivion this gem of factual fiction, revealing a Nerval poised somewhere between the subversive Diderot and the vitriolic Voltaire.”
My calendar is filling up fast. It’s a great time to be in New York, a great time to catch up with European writers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Art of Failure: Poetry in Translation

[The following article appeared in somewhat abbreviated form in Poet's Market 2010.]

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another.”—Paul Auster


The historical importance of translation for English language poetry is undeniable. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Æneid in 1554, because the Latin original was unrhymed yet metered, and no equivalent existed in English. Blank verse, brought to us by a translator’s ingenuity, allowed for Shakespeare’s plays to be written as we know them. The sonnet (sonetto or “little song” in Italian) was created by Giacomo da Lentini and enjoyed a boom among Italian poets such as Calvalcanti, Dante, and Petrarch in the mid-13th and early 14th centuries. It was not until the 16th century that sonnets began appearing in English, in translations from Italian and from French. And the list of gifts translators have brought English poetry goes on—couplets, villanelles, sestinas, and, some have argued, even free verse via attempts to translate Chinese poetry. The question now is: What is the cultural and artistic place of translation in the age of globalization?

According to a Center for Book Culture study on the number of books translated into English between 2000-2006, it’s a pretty dismal place. Most countries had fewer than one book per year translated into English, and literary heavyweights such as France, Italy, and Germany had fewer than ten books per year translated into English—and this includes novels and nonfiction as well as poetry. The percentage of books in translation tends to be estimated, by such organizations as the NEA and PEN, at about three percent of the total published in America. (Incidentally, there is an excellent blog about translation, out of the University of Rochester, called Three Percent.) Does this mean the effort of translation is hopeless or unimportant? Not necessarily.

Translation is very complex; the process, the need, and the market for it are not so easily summed up. To understand the landscape, we have to look at the differences between publishing translation as books or in journals, translating contemporary or older work, working alone or collaboratively. Likewise, the politics and ethics of translation play a role. And perhaps most importantly, the process and joys of translation need to be understood.

The Process of Translation

The primary goal of translation is to recreate the effect of the original poem in the target language (the language into which you are translating). The problem, of course, is that if the poet did her work properly in the original (or source) language, then she made use of every available trick and tactic, thus making the job of recreating the poem almost impossible. This is why Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure.” But while perfection is perhaps not possible, there are thousands of excellent translations in existence. So, how were they done?

You have to determine whether you want to transport the source text into the target language or transport the reader of your translation to the source culture. If you are translating, for example, a contemporary Mexican poet, and the word buñuelo appears, you have to decide whether to replace this very specific Mexican sweet bun made with orange juice with some American equivalent (a honeybun perhaps) or to simply leave the Spanish word in the English translation and hope the reader knows what a buñuelo is. A third option is to retain the Spanish word and footnote it, though footnotes can ruin the effect of a poem if there are too many of them. The general rule is to avoid them when possible. Of course, the problem with replacing a Mexican pastry with a traditional American pastry is that—forgive the pun—you damage the original flavor of the poem, though you do not run the risk of losing or confusing your reader. But both tactics lead to problems, as nearly everything in translation does. I don’t mean to suggest that a translation can’t do both. In fact, most good translations do, but each successful translation, in order to have its singular effect as the original had its singular effect, ought to privilege one effort over the other.

Depending on the source text, your level of mastery of the source language, and whether there are pre-existing translations, the first stages of working on a new translation of a poem will differ wildly. When translating Latin and Greek literature, David Slavitt uses pre-existing literal prose translations of the poems as well as his personal knowledge of Latin and Greek “to turn the prose translations back into poems.” Slavitt says, “When you translate prose, you are the original author’s clerk, but when you translate poetry, you are his partner.”

Frequently, translation is also done collaboratively. Likely the most famous contemporary duo is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have redone many of the Russian prose masterpieces. A notable team in poetry translation is Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, who collaborate on translations of ancient literature. The make-up of the team is frequently a scholar of the source language/text and a poet who knows the tricks of English verse and who might have some knowledge of the source language.

But no matter your tactics or whether you work alone or with a collaborator, tough choices will have to be made. My translation of Jürgen Becker’s poem “Oderbruch,” which appeared in the Indiana Review, offers a simple example of the issues a translator runs into in nearly every line. I had translated “[g]elb graue Dämmerung” as “[g]old gray twilight” which caused the faculty member consulted about the accuracy of my translation to suggest that I change it to the more literal “[y]ellow gray twilight.” In one sense, he was right—“gelb” means “yellow.” But I felt that “gold” was close enough to the literal meaning, but it had the added poetic benefit of retaining the consonance and the number of syllables in the original. Ultimately, the poetry editors at Indiana Review agreed with me, but not because I was unquestionably right. We were both right about how to translate the line. It was simply that I was willing to make a small sacrifice in literalness to retain the music, whereas he was willing to make a small sacrifice of the music to retain a more exact meaning. Every poem will present a dozen or more moments where the translator must sacrifice one thing for another. Only rarely does a poem submit easily to transfer into a new language/culture. That, however, is also part of the joy. Nearly every translator speaks of the joy of finding an elegant solution to a seemingly insoluble problem.

Slavitt says, “I didn’t take a Hippocratic Oath when I signed on to be a writer. I feel no obligation to the literal meaning of the text whatsoever.” It’s the pleasure of the original he is after. Does that mean Twinkies show up in Ovid? Well, fine, let it be so. Or so Slavitt says. But the business of translation is a highly contentious one, and one where opinions are unusually strong and criticisms often bitter.

One of the joys of translation is what you can learn by doing it. Slavitt went to the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil in order to learn how to make a paragraph work in verse. Matthew Zapruder, author of The Pajamaist and translator of the Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu, reports, “I also had a sense right away that it would be a good thing for me, a poet just starting to find his way, to be inside the seriousness of the voice and the directness and implacable structure of the poems.”

Publishing Translations

The report on the market for poetry in translation is mixed. A recent New York Review of Books article points out that Iran publishes more literature in translation than the United States does—as do all European countries and most Latin American ones. That said, however, it has been my experience that original poetry and fiction are comparably hard to place in journals, whereas translation and nonfiction are much easier to place. This has, predictably, to do with the volume and quality of submissions in each genre, as well as current demand. Brett Fletcher Lauer, a poetry editor at A Public Space and an advisory editor at Columbia University’s Circumference, a journal dedicated entirely to poetry in translation, offers the following theory on why translations tend to be better and therefore more likely to be accepted: A Public Space receives a relatively small number of submissions of poetry in translation compared with the thousands of submissions of English-language poetry. That being said, the overall quality of translations submitted is very high. I'm not sure how to account for this fact.” He goes on to speculate, “The process of translating and the dedication it requires makes it so that it cannot be casual work, but, instead, a sort of over-time, and what we receive reflects this.”

“Generally journals were happy to publish the poems,” says Zapruder of his translations of Jebeleanu. “I had more difficulty publishing the book; in fact, I finished the translations in 1998, and it took almost ten years for the book to eventually come out with Coffee House Press.”

Slavitt says, If you translate a standard classic and are lucky enough to get it adopted as a text in enough courses, it will do much better than original poetry.” But he adds, “If you translate someone who needs translating—Ausonius for instance—it's about even [with sales of original collections of poetry].” Given the generally poor sales of poetry collections, this might not be very heartening, but it ought to be. Either a book of translation will sell about the same as an original collection or considerably better, especially if you can recast a classic poet in a new translation.

Some of the journals most supportive of poetry in translation are Absinthe, The Bitter Oleander, Circumference, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, Ninth Letter, Poetry International, and A Public Space. There are others, of course, but these are journals that are dedicated to translation solely or that publish some translation in nearly every issue. And presses that publish translation regularly include Northwestern University Press, Red Hen Press, Sheep Meadow Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. If a new translator wants to discover what is happening in translation today, she would do well to peruse these publications.

Advice for Getting Started

If you’re a first-time translator, it is unlikely that you’ll get the rights to translate and publish the work of a major author whose work is still under copyright—e.g., Günter Grass or Pablo Neruda. Mark Smith-Soto, the editor of International Poetry Review and a poet/translator in his own right, advises that a new translator find an author who enjoys a good reputation in his/her home country but who hasn’t yet been translated into English. “If you ask a poet whether he’d like to be translated, the answer is generally going to be yes,” Smith-Soto says. And here is where the unfortunate state of literature in translation can actually be a plus. Since there is so much excellent literature that has yet to be translated, you’ll have plenty to choose from. But since you’ll be spending many hours living in the poet’s work, it’s important to find work you admire. Otherwise, what should be a joy will become a chore. Once you’ve established yourself, then the larger gigs will come.

It’s also worthwhile to have a working knowledge of translation theory, which sounds daunting but which in fact can be attained by reading two excellent books out from University of Chicago Press, The Craft of Translation and Theories of Translation, both edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. These two reasonably sized volumes will bring you from Dryden’s thinking on translation through Goethe’s and up to Gregory Rabassa’s with excellent stops at Nietzsche’s, Benjamin’s, and others’.

So, read the journals that publish translations, read these two seminal texts on the theory and craft of translation, find poetry you admire, and get to work. It’s rewarding for both the translator and for the literary culture as a whole.

[Okla Elliott lives in Champaign-Urbana, where he is the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois. He received his MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University and holds a comparative MA in economics and politics from UNC-Greensboro. In addition to his American education he has studied at the University of Mannheim, Germany, and the University of Wroclaw, Poland, and at language institutes in Mexico and Quebec. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation appear regularly in various literary journals, and he is the author of two chapbooks of poetry as well as the co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov.]