A Conversation Across Languages

by Derick Mattern

Derick Mattern is a poet and translator. His work has appeared in Subtropics, The Los Angeles Review, Mantis, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Asymptote, and elsewhere.

When two languages meet, a conversation begins. All the more so when multiple languages come together. Translation is the art of facilitating such a conversation. In these nine pieces—across eight languages, several language families, multiple genres and geographies—a conversation unfolds in new and unexpected ways. They speak to us in English for the first time, as well as to one another. As with any conversation, our role is both to listen and engage.

“You think about the similarities between Japan and Iceland,” Marie Silkeberg writes in “Bárðarbunga,” one of two long poems translated from Swedish by Kelsi Vanada. “If similarities exist.” This is the pleasure the conversation offers us: to work out the similarities between these pieces, if they can be found. In an excerpt from Nasim Marashi’s novel Fall Is the Last Season of the Year, translated from Persian by Poupeh Missaghi, a young student pursues a visa to study abroad. This outward journey, paradoxically, prompts a series of character studies of Iranians; her encounter with the “other” gives us the opportunity to see her compatriots from her own perspective. Seeing the similar in the dissimilar is an old trick of poetry, perhaps even its purpose; it certainly relies on the reader’s effort at reading-in. How else can we read “unfinished poem,” one of five poems by Ahmet Haşim translated from Turkish by Donny Smith: “In these gardens a bird is thinking / … his golden plume … for autumn …” It’s up to us to fill in the gaps, or dwell in them, or simply let them hang there, as a pause in the conversation.

Seeing the similar in the dissimilar is an old trick of poetry, perhaps even its purpose.

What’s not said can be as important as what’s said, or even more so. These pieces trust the reader to do the work of gleaning the politics happening on in the background, to take some small historical mention and be inspired by it; to hear the implication, and challenges us to see “similarities,” both real and projected. In “Good Fate,” one of two stories by Virginia Suk-yin Ng translated from Chinese by Mary Bradley, food cooked for a New Year’s festival provides a child’s-eye view of Hong Kong a generation after the Japanese occupation and a generation before the island’s return to China. We then get to see that later generation in “600 Square Feet,” in which a magistrate wears his ex-lover’s gloves to polish her collection of sunglasses. The two stories become a before-and-after tale in a free-wheeling conversation.

“He is the event that alters place he says,” writes Silkeberg in “Zero Meridian,” a long poem pruning speech from multiple sources. It’s inevitable that these pieces also alter the places, or at least our perspectives of places, of the mixed geographies in which they’re set: breakfast tables, a family apartment in Hong Kong, refugees in transit, bureaucratic waiting rooms. And at times the place terrifyingly alters these characters—and us—in the most unexpected ways, as in Markiyan Kamysh’s “The River,” translated from Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv, which takes us on a harrowing journey through the Chernobyl exclusion zone where his protagonists “takes mouthfuls of water from the river, in turns, and this drink burns his insides, sending him off into slumber.”

Kamysh’s story, like many of these works, charts a course across the map of nostalgia. “This river washes away our memories,” he writes, “our delusions, our inescapable anxieties, our worries about the unknown future. It heals, like a week-long binge drinking at the shipyard.” As does a sequence of poems by Gabriela Aguirre translated from Spanish by Lau Cesarco Eglin: “The desert I knew is also that: / a city where I am no longer.” With the simple trick of juxtaposition, it’s hard not to read Aguirre’s desert as Kamysh’s river, and vice versa.

These pieces also alter the places, or at least our perspectives of places, of the mixed geographies in which they’re set.

Some of these pieces are directly conversational. An interview by managing editor André Forget with Jennifer Croft, translator of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, the first Polish winner of the Man Booker International Prize, is a model of its kind. An excerpt from Sema Kaygusuz’s novel The Barbarian’s Laughter, translated from Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury, is essentially a delightfully frank discussion of the female orgasm.

Several of these pieces also demonstrate the possibilities of smuggling some part of their own language into English, even as their authors borrow fragments of others and elsewhere into their originals. In a long poem by Andra Rotaru translated from Romanian by Anca Roncea, the speaker says “I was told you read time on a clock by looking in the direction you stir mămăligă. as a child I preferred digital clocks that played music, usually Love Story.” By the same token, we also see a blurring in several of these works between language and the body. In Aguirre’s poems, women “write them a letter without words / on the neck they kissed” and in a poem by Dimitra Kotoula translated from Greek by Maria Nazos, fidgeting turns into prayer: “I want to pray / —tap tap— / Her five fingers say.

These authors first spoke to the audiences in their own countries, and while now they speak to a new audience in English, those who have listened to them the longest and deepest have been the translators themselves. What is more, each translator has brought their own voice to the table. One of the joys of gathering this small collection has been the conversations I’ve had with the translators about their work. All are friends or personal acquaintances, some from the Iowa Translation Workshop, some from the American Literary Translators Association, others from elsewhere. Putting together a collection of this type is not so different from assembling a small anthology. It’s easy to get bogged down in questions of representation and adequacy. I have attempted to include a variety across several axes—native vs. non-native translators, emerging vs. established, languages underrepresented in English vs. those familiar to many English-language readers of translation—but the truly binding thread through them all is friendship and conversation. They have been a pleasure to work with and it is a privilege to share their work.

 


Derick Mattern is a poet and translator. His work has appeared in Subtropics, The Los Angeles Review, Mantis, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Asymptote, and elsewhere.

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