Welcome to the third year of National Translation Month! We have great things in store for you this February: two interviews with renowned translators, exciting new poetry, prose, an excerpt of an opera libretto, and even lyrics of songs by famous Russian rock bands, in one of the most eclectic and fun translation projects on the web today.
To get started, Claudia Serea interviews Roger Hickin about his craft and latest projects, featuring poems by Juan Cameron and Blanca Castellón, a Latin-American feat.
We hope you like these selections as much as we did.
And remember, in February and beyond, the world lies open. Take time to enjoy it. Read, write, and share your favorite translations.
—Claudia Serea & Loren Kleinman
Fleeing Between the Lines: an interview with Roger Hickin
Claudia Serea (CS): How do you decide which poems or poets to translate? Do you have favorite poets that you like to translate?
Roger Hickin (RH): Perhaps our favorite poets should be the only ones we translate. More often than not they are, or become so. Often it’s a case of one thing leading to another . . . Translating the Chileans Sergio Badilla Castillo and Juan Cameron probably contributed to my being invited to the IX International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, in 2013, which led to my translating Blanca Castellón who introduced me to the poems of Joaquín Pasos which led me to the poems of Carlos Martinez Rivas and his wonderful elegy for Pasos etc etc. My main interest is in Latin American poetry. There are many fine Latin American poets who haven’t yet been widely or well translated.
CS: How would you characterize the relationships that are created – your relationships with the poems and with the original poet?
RH: I think the close attention translation calls for is the only way, as James Wright says, to read any great poet. Being able to discuss their work with living poets is a real bonus.
CS: Do you try to stay true to the poem, in terms of denotations, connotations, tone, imagery, lines, rhythms? What are the challenges a translator faces? What do you understand your primary jobs and/or goals to be when translating a poem? Does this ever conflict with someone else, or with a poem itself?
RH: To the first question the answer is yes of course, as far as possible, though connotations (the oxygen in the water the poem swims in) are perhaps the least possible elements of a poem to translate: they slip with the water through the holes in the net. Every poem makes different demands, some flourish in English, some never will, but catching the tone of a poem is perhaps the primary goal. My early self-education in Spanish translation consisted in comparing the Neruda translations of Ben Belitt, Alistair Reid and Donald Walsh. Belitt’s knowledge and skill are dazzling but he goes too far in Belitt-izing everything. Walsh attempting to be literal often ends up inept and unimaginative. Reid seems to be able to be accurate while at the same time conveying Neruda’s tone.
The challenges a translator faces vary from language to language. In English translation one needs to be careful to avoid too many Latinate equivalents to the polysyllabic Latinate words that abound in Spanish. Words that sparkle and crackle in one language don’t always have vivid literal counterparts in another.The main goal in translating a poem is clear: try to reinvent the poem as the poet might have written it had he/she been writing in English.
CS: What is lost in translation? What is gained?
RH: What is lost is what lies in the ground beneath and in the air around the words of the original language, in the history of their usage, in their particular resonance for the culture that makes everyday use of them. (The connotations of the previous question.) It is not always possible to find an equivalence for all of this in another tongue, but you hope that something will come through if you spend long enough in the arms of the original, alert to context, listening for echoes. There is also what Cola Franzen calls “reading around the work”. In other words, over and above the essential acquaintance with the culture of the poet, it may be important to research particular events, ideas or beliefs that lie behind the poem. The balance of loss and gain constantly tilts this way and that. Sometimes the need for inventiveness can produce a better phrase, a better poem even than the original (not that I’ve ever managed that!)
CS: In what ways does your work as a translator affect your view of the world?
RH: To live without reading literature in translation is a bit like living in a house with most of the windows boarded up. Every time I translate a poem I feel like I’m helping to pull a nail from one of those boards. As Sam Hamill says in his introduction to Crossing the yellow river, a poem in translation is “a provisional entryway into the vast ecology of the poem within its greater tradition”.
CS: Tell me more about your press: what do you like to publish? do you favor translations in particular?
RH: Cold Hub Press is based in New Zealand and publishes the work of New Zealand poets and bilingual editions of international poetry.
CS: Tell me more about your latest project, So We Lost Paradise by Juan Cameron: when and how did it start? How did it evolve? Why Juan Cameron? What attracted you to his work? What challenges have you encountered while working on this book?
RH: In Cola’s case, she was given a book of Cameron. In my case, I was introduced to Cola by fellow Bostonian translator Jim Kates. She sent me a large manuscript of her translations of Cameron from which we selected material for two chapbooks. As his fellow poet Marjorie Agosín writes of him (introduction to Juan Cameron, Si regreso / If I go back, translated by Cola Franzen): “. . . Juan’s poetry is a shifting chessboard where word, sound, and image are intertwined in a rhythm that dances to the beat of irony and happiness mixed with sadness.” How can you not love such a poet?
Cola would have been sole translator but, 89 at the time, and with the loss of her husband, didn’t manage to complete the new translations with which she’d hoped to bring the selection up to date. In the end I added some of my own translations and approached Steven F. White who had translated some Cameron poems for an anthology some years ago. He didn’t have any new versions but I was able to include some of the anthology poems. Hence the trio of translators and the slightly makeshift nature of the latter part of the book.
CS: Do you have a favorite poem or a fragment from this project that you could share?
RH: Cola’s rendering of “Escrituras” is a translation masterclass in miniature. In her review of So we lost paradise in Modern Poetry in Translation (No 1, 2014, pp 105 -106) Margaret Jull Costa singles this translation out as an example of how a translator has to take risks if a translation is to have a life of its own, a sense of “someone using English at full stretch”.
Rasgo papeles derramo las ciudades
en busca de la imagen que te atrape
La pluma sin sentido camina sus veredas
Salta entre las briznas de las hojas caídas
Tú huyes entrelíneas.
I skitter through papers scatter cities
in search of the image that may snare you
The foolish pen traces its paths
skips among fibers of fallen leaves
You flee between the lines.
Of my own translations I favour “Cesare Pavese” with its unbearably tender last lines:
Vendrá la muerte dijo y pensaba en sus ojos
y en el torpe italiano que farfulló en el vino
y en la frase tecleada al volver a su pieza:
los borrachos no saben hablar a las mujeres.
Death will come he said and he was thinking of her eyes
and the clumsy Italian he mumbled into his wine
and the sentence typed on returning to his room:
drunks don’t know how to talk to women.
CS: Do you have any advice for the young translators just starting out? What should they do? What should they avoid?
RH: When I discussed this question with Cola her advice was: “Don’t be afraid to play. Strike up a friendship with the poem, and if you take it by the hand & run downhill with it, it won’t fall apart.” The only thing I’d like to add to that is that one should assume nothing. In the Hispanic world usages can vary from country to country. Things may not always mean what you think they do. Pay attention to context. Listen for the unsaid as much as to the said.
RH: As a publisher: Among forthcoming publications from Cold Hub Press three I’d like to mention are The Perfect Hour, selected poems by the marvellous Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919 – 2004) with translations by Colin Rorrison and Margaret Jull Costa, a selected poems by New Zealand poet & anthropologist Michael Jackson, and a new chapbook edition of Poems by Esenin translated by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909 – 1973) and Peter Soskice.
As a translator: At present I’m working with Mexican poet Rogelio Guedea, editing and translating a selected poems (Cactus body, a chapbook, has already appeared http://www.coldhubpress.co.nz/blanca-castellon-cactus-body-cold-hub-press-.html) by Nicaraguan poet Blanca Castellón. For my own pleasure and torment I’m also looking at the work of the great Nicaraguan Carlos Martínez Rivas, a poet who, though he only published one poetry collection in his lifetime, ranks with Rubén Darío and Ernesto Cardenal, but being less susceptible to translation, is virtually unknown to Anglophone readers.
Selections from Cactus body translated by Roger Hickin
De B. a B.
no te he visto últimamente
y todas esas cosas
que nos echan a perder
supongo que has usado
y has subido
a las nubes
que tanto te gustan
lo digo porque ayer
que alcé mis ojos al cielo
me pareció ver una
con tu perfil exacto
pensé en voz alta:
que me haces falta
y una brisa repentina
From B. to B.
I haven’t seen you of late
and all those things
I guess you’ve used
to the clouds
you like so much
I say this because yesterday
when I looked up at the sky
one seemed to have
your exact profile
I thought out loud:
Blanca come down
I need you
and a sudden breeze
to my eyes.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question” ––W.S
Para ser poeta
lo esencial es ser poeta
no importa si usas
que besan y se van
para ser poeta
lo esencial es ser poeta
saberse de memoria
la ruta exacta
de ida y vuelta
que conduce al mas allá
no importa si usas caites
o invoques a Marilyn Monroe
para ser poeta
en Paris con aguacero
o en Granada bajo el sol
ante todo y sobre todo
hay que ser poeta.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question” ––W.S
To be a poet
the main thing is to be a poet
no matter if you wear
a moth-eaten overcoat
if your subject
who kiss and depart
to be a poet
the main thing is to be a poet
to know by heart
the best route to take
to the great beyond
no matter if you wear sandals
catch a bus
ride in a taxi
or a limo
be it of dust in love
or Marilyn Monroe you invoke
to be a poet
in Paris in a shower of rain
or under the sun in Granada
before and above all else
you’ve got to be a poet.
Ha nacido un poema
en la muerte de hoy
tiene cuerpo de cactus
para los días de la sed.
In the midst of today’s death
a poem was born
its cactus body
for days of thirst.
translated by Roger Hickin
Patología del desaliento
Durante algunos años viví en un subterráneo
parecido a un submarino o a un vientre materno
Yo observaba el mundo a través de un periscopio
con su canal de televisión y el noticiario vespertino
Navegaba con cuidado por países con nieve
el Báltico el Mar del Norte las islas donde hablaban
un extraño murmullo que auscultaba a distancia
Confundía Helsinki con Temuco el blanco con el negro
y apenas emergía los fines de semana
cubierto por una escafandra y algunos libros bajo el brazo
Durante muchos años viví en un subterráneo
Las ratas y los periódicos me fueron conocidos
y supe de los zapatos de moda a través de una escotilla
que se alzaba apenas sobre la línea de flotación
bajo la bolsa marsupial
Me enteré de las cosas más increíbles tuve convulsiones
conocí paisajes que no supieron de mi paso
El silencio y unos pocos amigos fueron mis familiares
inscrito como estaba en la lista de desaparecidos
la hoja del boletín comercial comenzaba con mi nombre
Durante demasiados años viví en un subterráneo
conversaba con dos o tres personas cada fin de semana
el bullicio de las bicicletas espantaba mi oído
En mis salidas nocturnas (me perdone el poeta)
nadaba en la laguna junto a gansos y cisnes
que se agredían deportivamente por un pedazo de pan
para luego fondearse en su lugar de origen
No me arrepiento de nada aunque era bastante aburrida
aquella temporada en el subsuelo (en el invierno)
Un día desalentado por las circunstancias
quemé las naves y los libros y me convertí definitivamente
para inscribirme en los registros electorales.
The pathology of hopelessness
For several years I lived in an underground room
like a submarine or womb
I observed the world through a periscope
with its TV channel and evening news
On the Baltic and the North Sea cautiously I sailed
past snowy lands and islands where they spoke
in strange murmurs you could hear from far away
I confused Helsinki with Temuco black with white
emerged (only just) at weekends
clad in a diving suit with a few books under my arm
For many years I lived in an underground room
acquainted with rats and newspapers
and I kept up with the latest footwear through a porthole
just above the waterline
within the marsupial pouch
I learned of the most astounding things suffered fits
got to know landscapes oblivious to my visits
Silence and a few friends were my family
listed as I was among the disappeared
I got top billing in the debtors’ gazette
For too many years I lived in an underground room
I chatted at weekends with two or three people
the hubbub of bicycles was horrendous to my ears
On my nights out (may the poet forgive me)
I swam in the lake with geese and swans
who playfought for a crust of bread
then sailed back to their havens
I regret nothing though really it was tedious
that season in the ground (in winter)
One day fed up with everything
I burned my bridges and my books finally saw the light
and signed on to the electoral roll.
Yo nunca estuve en Ambato
Yo no conozco Ambato
me han dicho que en sus calles han nacido escritores y próceres y tal vez hasta toreros
y algún movimiento que sacudió esta tierra como un movimiento de tierra
pero no todos los próceres de la patria han nacido en Ambato
ni todos los escritores ni todos los toreros ni mucho menos todas las muchachas hermosas de este país al centro de la tierra
que pueblan las tardes de domingo los paseos de la capital
aunque de Ambato han arribado muchachas más hermosas que el Pichincha
más hermosas incluso que el mismo Chimborazo
muchachas más peligrosas que el Terminal del Sur
que amarizar en Quito sobre una laguna rodeada de edificios en medio del camino de la vida
y por eso siento por Ambato una nostalgia casi suicida
aunque jamás estuve en Ambato aunque tal vez me sea difícil hallar la huella del camino
y en los sueños sea un valle placentero donde amanezco en cada sueño
deseoso de vivir y bendecido.
I’ve never been to Ambato
I don’t know Ambato
they tell me that writers and national heroes and perhaps even bullfighters have been born in its streets
as well as some movement that shook this land like an earthquake
but not all the nation’s heroes were born in Ambato
nor all the writers nor all the bullfighters certainly not all the beautiful girls of this country (that is surely the centre of the universe)
who on Sunday afternoons throng the avenues of the capital
although girls who come from Ambato are much more beautiful than Pichincha
more beautiful even than Chimborazo
girls more dangerous than the Southern Bus Terminal
than touching down in Quito on a lake ringed with buildings in the middle of the road of life
and so I feel for Ambato an almost suicidal nostalgia
even though I’ve never been to Ambato even though perhaps I’d find it difficult to locate the road that leads there
and in dreams it seems a pleasant valley where I dream I wake up
blessed and hungry for life.
One of the major voices of contemporary Chilean poetry, Juan Cameron was born in Valparaíso in 1947. His poems, which for many years reflected the split reality of living first under a dictatorship & then in exile, have been both antipoetic & lyrical, nostalgic & irreverent: rather than Neruda, his forebears are Huidobro, Parra & Enrique Lihn. Members of his own generation were just commencing their literary careers when the Pinochet dictatorship began. To circumvent draconian censorship laws that forbade any criticism of the regime, they resorted to a coded language that could be understood by anyone familiar with the situation. Not belonging to any official group, Cameron could not earn a living, & after some years of struggle, he emigrated to Sweden, where he remained for ten years. Now back in Valparaíso, he lives within earshot of the creaks of the cable cars, with his wife & collaborator, the graphic artist Virginia Vizcaíno. His fellow poet Aristóteles España has described Cameron’s poetry as “a house of memory”, subject to drafts of “Gogolian air”, its obsessional imagery redolent of rain-showers & thunderclaps. His most recent books are Ciudadano discontinuado and Bitácora (which won the Premio Internacional de Poesía Paralelo Cero 2014).
Apart from three chapbooks of translations by Cola Franzen (Si regreso / If I go back, Cross-Cultural Communications, New York 1993; Anoche terminó la guerra / Last night the war ended, Cold Hub Press 2010, & Invocaciones a Pincoya en el país de la lluvia / Invocations to Pincoya in the country of rain, Cold Hub Press 2011), So We Lost Paradise is the first selection of Juan Cameron’s poetry to appear in English. http://www.coldhubpress.co.nz/juan-cameron-so-we-lost-paradise-cold-hub-press.html
Cola Franzen has been named by Christopher Maurer “the most graceful and faithful of translators”. In 2000 her translations of Jorge Guillén’s poetry, Horses in the Air and other poems, won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, & her Poems of Arab Andalusia has been described as a literary treasure. Now 91, Cola considers herself retired at last.
Blanca Castellón (b.1958) is a celebrated Nicaraguan poet whose books include Ama del espíritu (1995), Flotaciones (1998), Orilla opuesta (2000), Los juegos de Elisa (2005). Cactus body http://www.coldhubpress.co.nz/blanca-castellon-cactus-body-cold-hub-press-.html (Cold Hub Press, 2014) a bilingual chapbook of recent poems was launched at the 10th Festival Internacional de Poesía, Granada, Nicaragua in 2014. A bilingual (English/Spanish) selected poems is in preparation. Her poetry has been described as “both as light as foam and as sharp as a cut-throat razor.” (Rogelio Guedea)
Roger Hickin is a New Zealand visual artist, poet, translator & editor of Cold Hub Press.