C.K Williams on translating

from a Thursday lecture on the triumphs and tribulations of translating

-poetry is itself a language
-poetry can only be translated into poetry
-poetry is the gap between what you know and what you do

We are, he said, mainly unconscious of how much translation has functioned in our history and culture. The Renaissance was heavily works translated from Greek and Rome, for example, and U.S. poetry was rescued from strangling formalism in the 1950s by translations that poured into the country from Latin and South America and Europe.

Bishop — “translating poetry is like trying to put your feet into gloves.”

Always an issue of form vs. content — do you translate the meaning, the poetic vision, the meter, the rhyme? Try for some kind of hybrid? Poetry is music and lyrics, and compromises must always be made.

There are levels of translations — literal, free, translation of the vision by choosing new words and images from the second language. Then there are “versions,” where the translator doesn’t even pretend to convey the work of the original poet, but to make new poems out of the old. “Grand theft auto translation” he called this latter, “past the edge of where translation can go.”

He is now considering “thick translations,” where the poem is translated but then followed by pages of commentary explaining how and why it worked in its original language and what choices the translator made.

Most translated poems are shared work, between someone fluent in the first language and a poet skilled in the second language.

Transfiguring is also a possibility, shifting art in to poetry, poetry to dance, etc — this is a kind of shape-shifting as opposed to translating between languages.

And lest anyone think we all sit around politely reciting verse, here’s C.K.’s comment on one translation, ” It had nothing whatsoever to do with the original and furthermore is just crap.”

Notes on Paul Celan and translating

from a lecture on Saturday by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Paul Celan was a Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor whose family was killed as first the Soviets and then the Germans occupied his land. He grew up in what was then Romania, speaking German at home, later Russian and Romanian in school. His parents were deported in 1942, and later he was sent to a labor camp. After he was liberated from the camp, he ended up in Paris, trying to use writing to reflect the horror and the loss, and, I think, to save himself. He wrote poems still very highly regarded by critics, that have been translated in to many languages. But, like so many other survivors, the crushing weight of the violence was unbearable, and he eventually took his own life. Celan wrote in German, even though he spoke 8 languages, because it was, he said, the only language that he could write poetry in, but German haunted him at the same time.

All of which is background to what really interested me – the discussion about languages, history, trauma, and meaning. Mihaela described Celan’s German as “a language informed by history.” That is, Celan could not write in German without simultaneously knowing that his mother’s killers spoke to her in German before her murder. In Celan, she said, we have intra-lingual translation — two different Germans, the formal, literary German he learned as a child, and the traumatized German he wrote in as an adult, and that in profound ways these are different languages. Consequently, his poems are really tricky to translate, because he stretches and warps the language, trying to make meaning from the horror and emptiness. She described one critic who said of Celan, “words are inscribed into his poems like wounds.”

Words inscribed like wounds — this is such an accurate description of so many other writers, too. I’m thinking of Gloria Anzuldua, Sylvia Plath, some of Adrienne Rich, so many lesbian poets and so much writing about violence against women. And having to stretch and warp our own language because it cannot convey what has happened to us.

One of my poet cohorts, Monica, says of herself that English is her second language, but she hasn’t yet remembered her first. Which is the point of the saying, made trite as it became a t-shirt slogan, “I speak patriarchy, but it isn’t my mother tongue.”

I have only one language — what are the ways it can’t convey what my life has meant?

Celan had 8 languages, and still struggled with a horror too big for all of them.

This is where poetry is the revolution, because we shape language, and ride it when we can’t grasp it enough to shape it.

Paul Celan

Paul Celan

Notes on Dickinson, Poetry and Language

from our afternoon lecture by Anne Marie Macari

-language is hypothesis and experiment
-poetic language expands our boundaries
-metaphor is instinctual groping

Dickinson’s definition of “redemption” is those things that force us into immediate experience, to the embodied, physical realm

Dickinson would improvise for hours on the keyboard, and was a singer with perfect pitch — no surprise that her poems are strong musical compositions, with lines of harmony and dissonance, and cannot be understood aside from this. The rhythm, the pacing — you have to pay attention to these, for they can change and shape the “surface” meaning of the words.

In many of Dickinson’s poems, she casts herself as a rival to God as a creator (Surprised? That whole “lonely spinister of Amhearst” crap has so limited how most of us understand Emily)

The male critics who spend all their time searching for men in Dickinson’s life, limited by their assumption that some man somewhere has to be connected to such creative brilliance, have “Dickinson Envy,” Anne Marie says.

Dickinson has, in the words of one biographer exploring gender politics, “a power disembodied from its user.” Dickinson claims so much power in her poetic voice, challenging religion, god, men, but at the same time is distant from that power. No surprise, given when she lived. Rich’s essay on this in On Lies, Secrets and Silences comments that, in a masculine-assumptive world, “active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression.”

Anne Marie talked about the often astounding endings of Dickinson’s poems, lines that turn the poem, and often social order, inside out. She described these as “guillotine endings” — the poem has its head chopped off. Martin Espada, in a workshop, talked about creating poems where the last line automatically makes the eye bounce back to the beginning to start over. That made total sense to me, but the endings that crack open the world also appeal to me – such different ideas, such different poems.

A Dickinson poem I didn’t know:

#301
I reason, Earth is short-
and Anguish- absolute-
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die-
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven-
Somehow, it will be even-
Some new Equation, given-
But, what of that?

Anne Marie Macari

Anne Marie Macari

Sunday morning

Snow falling on poetry students. It’s beautiful here now, white everywhere, and the way a landscape is so quiet on the morning after snow. The pictures are out my dorm room / monastic cell window.

Last night the poets partied, in a poet kind of way, appropriating a lounge, wickedly violating the “no open bottles in public spaces” rule, reading each other our work, careening from tear-streaming laughter to tears. Two of the Southerners sang “Folsom Prison Blues,” including the guitar licks, the lesbians (many of us, it turns out), played “Six Degrees of Separation” focused on Rachel Maddow, the red wine and craft-brewed beer flowed, and a wonderful “Oh body, oooooh baby!” poem from that morning’s workshop was performed with a full back-up chorus. Kim captured the entire extravaganza on video, which I may either share or suppress, depending. Check in the links to the right for the Picasa album.

This morning I’m being quiet, happily so, reading and thinking and preparing for my meeting at 1 with poet-in-residence Gerald Stern — he’s won every award, has a shelf full of books, and is kind and warm and funny as hell. Then I meet with Alicia to firm up my study plan for the next four months, then a faculty lecture by Anne Marie Macari on Harmony and Dissonance in Emily Dickinson. Then another long evening off, which I definitely need. All this being social and “on” all day is too much for my hermit-self.

Some friendly advice — when traveling, avoid whichever continent “continental breakfast” represents. Really. You just don’t want to go there.

dscn0594

Saturday morning

No time to spare for days, spent my only free half-hour texting new ideas for protest chants to my companeras in PJJP. (From the river, to the sea/none are free til all are free; Never Again, Never Again/must mean both Jews and Palestinians).

I’ll have time tomorrow morning, will catch up, do fill in. Or sleep, since I’m down to less than 6 hours a night so I can go to everything here and do the writing and reading daily homework.

In the meantime, look to the right for the poem 5-ARD. I’m taking it to workshop right now. Yesterday we had to write a poem beginning with the line: “In my walled in space I have let everything grow with wild abandon.” I started by trying to write about Palestine, the “walled in” taking me there, but couldn’t let myself sink into that with only 15 minutes to write. So this poem began appearing. What’s posted here about 8 drafts later, with plenty still to go.

And Palestine — more than 700 dead in Gaza, 250+ of those children, and 5 of them Israeli soldiers shot in the back by an IDF tank. “Unintentional casualties” one and all.

Wednesday night

Too much work to do still, getting ready for tomorrow’s workshop, and kinda too overwhelmed, to begin to review everything that went past today. Maybe later, if I still have the ability to string prose together.

Tomorrow morning I have a workshop (which is four students and one faculty discussing one poem by each student) with poet Martin Espada, for whom I have so much admiration I’ve barely been able to say two words to him here! I’m paying too much money for this experience, and rearranging my life too drastically, to let my fear win out over my strength, so the poem I put in is both a form that’s new for me AND explicitly anti-Zionist. (It’s up here already, called “With so much complexity, nothing was inevitable) Martin writes poems that are strongly political and deeply poetic, so I think the politics will be fine. The form, though, well, we’ll see. Tonight I was talking to one of the other students who’ll be in the workshop, and we came out to each other as Jews with long histories of supporting Palestinian rights and being horrified at what Israel does in our names. Really long, for Kathy, who organized her first Jewish/Israeli/Palestinian poetry reading against the Lebanon war in 1982. So I think I’ll have at least one ear that is able to help me wrestle with the form and the content. Yeah!

Went to the library today, where I can check out books for six months cause I’m a grad student. Embarrassingly enough, it has been so long since I’ve been in an academic library that I was stumbling about trying to recall how to read call numbers on shelf ends. Egads. But hey, six books that I don’t have to buy! And, finally, online access to the world of scholarly journals, closed to folks outside of The Academy.

Mainly, though, my mind is on Gaza, about which there has been so far near silence here. But now I know I’m not alone, so everything changes.