“We feel time in what we read.”
April 9, 2021
As A Public Space’s new Editorial Fellow, I’ve been spending a good deal of time thinking about what it means to curate and edit poems for a magazine, in practice as well as in theory. I’m reminded of the artist Ulises Carrión, who wrote that “a book is a sequence of spaces,” structural containers for texts that we actively engage with in space-time. Carrión means that bookmakers must be conscious of how each page generates space and moves in time like music, that creating a book means thinking about those contained texts as if they were the infrastructure of a beautiful city plan.
With those thoughts in mind, I wanted to carve a moment out of this National Poetry Month to highlight poetry in translation, a form of writing devoted to expanding literary infrastructures. April’s Public Access—work from the magazine’s archive made free and open to all—showcases poets and translators who are making the foreign familiar and defamiliarizing what little we know. Brett Fletcher Lauer, A Public Space’s poetry editor, and two of the magazine’s contributors, Benjamin Paloff, a poet and translator; and Jennifer Kronovet, a poet, translator, and editor of Circumference Books, also answered some questions on editing and translation, and the ways in which their work conjures dialogue across incredible distances, between even the dead and the living.
Miguel Coronado is the 2021 Editorial Fellow at A Public Space. He has interned in academic publishing at W. W. Norton and has a BA in English and creative writing from New York University.
When selecting work for A Public Space, fantastic poems like Elisa Gabbert’s “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” what do you look for?
Brett Fletcher Lauer: It goes without saying that what I find excellent, interesting, or relevant is subjective, in that there isn’t a scientific method for what makes a poem work, and how a poem works and how it performs is largely a matter of taste. I’m setting aside issues of craft, because there are plenty of well-crafted, smart poems that don’t move me.
I tend to shy away from speaking about taste, which isn’t to say I don’t have preferences, but I feel that sometimes taste can read as dogma, a way of limiting the possibility for surprising oneself by what one might end up actually enjoying. If I were to say I am a sucker for poems about the dread of the human condition in nice orderly couplets (which of course I am!), I could end up reading a lot of poems like that in the submission system, which in the end wouldn’t be too much fun.
What is the relationship like between each individual poem and the larger structure of the magazine? Does a translation like César Vallejo’s "Trilce LVI" or prose-poem like Mary Crow’s "Each Gets So Shamefully Little," or a poem in couplets like Claire Hero’s "Want," influence the surrounding magazine?
BFL: A Public Space for the most part publishes the poetry in a portfolio, in contrast to say The New Yorker where the two poems are events within the issue, or a magazine like Poetry, which is dedicated to verse. The portfolio sets the poetry apart to acknowledge its presence and importance. And I appreciate the grouping together so that the possibility for the poems to interact or converse with each other exists.
As editors and translators, how do you deal with issues of context, historical or otherwise, when translating dead and living poets?
Jennifer Kronovet: I am absolutely old-fashioned in this sense, but my favorite way to learn about a book is from a friend. So while blurbs sometimes get a bad rap, I love to think of them as a way to form a community around a book, a community of readers and writers who are saying, “This book means something to me in my context, and I think it could mean something to you.” All the cover material that frames the book—the bios, the description—is trying to give friendly access to engaging with this strange and powerful thing that is a book.
Benjamin Paloff: Older texts demand a lot of sleuthing. It sometimes takes considerable effort to piece together not only what a word or phrase meant in its time, but what its tone was, where else a contemporaneous reader might have encountered it, what associations it might raise, etc., and the same goes for contextual information: How might an average reader of the original have understood this detail, and how do I, as a translator, recreate that same degree of familiarity or resistance?
The thing is, the more effectively the translator communicates time in language, the less troublesome the change in context becomes. The really tricky part is when the change in context raises an unanswerable question. For example, I regularly encounter details in Polish or Russian texts that rattle my American sensitivities concerning race or gender, though I understand that an equally sensitive Polish or Russian reader might not bat an eye. When we translate time into a text well, when we suffuse the text with a sense that it is not of our time, we effectively bracket the discomfort that might otherwise grow from conflicting mores.
That's a lot more complicated when it's a contemporary text by a living author. The translator might have to step in and explain how, owing to the shift in cultural contexts, something small and innocuous in one language might become glaring and offensive in another. That requires reengineering, which in my practice often involves exchanges with the original author in which we go back and forth with potential solutions: change the detail, expand the line, move the line, cut the line. If the poet is living, the entire poem might be on the table.
Do you approach noncontemporary translation differently from contemporary translation?
JK: The dichotomy for me is between work that has been translated before and work that hasn’t. There are new translations of classics that have come out recently that have totally blown my mind (hello, you shiny new Odyssey), but editorially, I’m interested in bringing out work that has never been published before in English. Our first books were by contemporary writers, and Footwork, just out, is by Severo Sarduy, who died in 1993. While Sarduy’s novels have been beautifully translated and well circulated, there’s never been a collection of his poetry published in English until now. Several of our books are not only the first English translation, but also the first publication of the original work. The forthcoming #evolutionarypoems by the Ethiopian poet Mihret Kebede is an example.
BP: The convenient answer here might be that I can ask the living author questions or suggest changes, whereas I cannot do that with the dead author. But that's nonsense: I ask the dead author just as many questions, and I make just as many suggestions. The real challenge of working with a noncontemporary author is not in their mortality-induced reticence, but in the fact that we feel time in what we read. Time accrues readily to text, both at the surface of language and deeper down, where meaning arises among associations with and references to a world that is always evolving. How do I convey the original author's "then" when I am writing the translation in my own now? That's the challenge. Attentive translation means attending not only to differences of grammar, lexicon, or cultural geography, but to differences in time.
As an editor, how do you make sure you’re attentive to poetry in translation? What’s the process for looking at a translation like Krzysztof Jaworski’s "Harbingers of the Deaths of Parrots"?
BFL: I have the freedom and responsibility to read in search of work I think is excellent, interesting, relevant. Including translations in the magazine is important to me personally because there are so few works in translation published in the United States, and I think all poetry editors should be adding to that number even if it is poem by poem. Reading translations does involve more legwork and research, as I’m monolingual. I believe I have solicited more translations for the magazine than English language poems. This has been done through research, seeing who has forthcoming books, who has received an NEA grant for a project, or in the case of the collection of Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian poems, coming across a mention of them in his memoir and being able to commission a translation.
How might you describe the relationship between a translator and a dead or living poet?
JK: I can only speak for myself here—my relationship with the dead poet I translated, Celia Dropkin, was intense and somehow collaborative. It was romantic and angry. It was discursive and silent. Translating Dropkin was a collaborative process with the amazing Yiddishist Faith Jones and theorist and writer Sam Solomon. Faith did a lot of research into how Dropkin was received in her time—and it was explosive. People were freaked out by and often hated how sexual and embodied and gendered her work was. So we used that as a guidepost to make her work explosive in today’s English.
BP: The relationship between the translator and a dead poet is not so different from the relationship between the translator and a living poet. Translators are, in essence, arrangers for someone else's composition, just as with music. We take something composed for one instrumentation, with the use habits, capabilities, history, and tradition specific to that instrumentation, and we arrange it for a different instrumentation. With a long-dead poet, it just happens that one is working with period instruments, but the relationship to one's work is the same. I know many translators for whom the absence of the dead makes translating them fundamentally different from translating the living. But for me, whether the poet is living or dead will have less influence on how I approach the translation than it will on whether we will get coffee next time I'm in town—if, indeed, I let anyone know I'm in town.
JK: I imagine the relationship between a translator and a poet, living or dead, is as various as poetry itself. Work in translation is a record of a transformative, kinetic engagement between two (or more) people. So much of the pleasure and depth of reading poetry in translation comes from that layering.
BFL: Taste changes, too. A translation I read a year ago hits me differently now. They are always subject to time and place. There is no science. Though I think all of the poems we have published are terrific, it doesn’t mean I haven’t passed on poems before that I might publish today. The poems that make it to the magazine are the poems I kept returning to, because I loved them, because I was curious about them, because they confounded me and I wanted to talk about them.
"Trilce LVI," César Vallejo, trans. Clayton Eshleman (No. 02)
"Want," Claire Hero (No. 06)
“The Museum of Nature,” Jennifer Kronovet (No. 08)
"Each Gets So Shamefully Little," Mary Crow (No. 10)
"Harbingers of the Deaths of Parrots," Krzysztof Jaworski, trans. Benjamin Paloff (No. 22)
"That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die," Elisa Gabbert (No. 28)
Jennifer Kronovet is the cofounder and editor of Circumference Books, a press for poetry in translation. She is the author of two poetry collections, Awayward (BOA) and The Wug Test (Ecco). She also cotranslated Empty Chairs (Graywolf), the poetry of Chinese writer Liu Xia, and The Acrobat (Tebot Bach), selected poems of experimental Yiddish writer Celia Dropkin.
Benjamin Paloff teaches comparative literature and Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan. He is the author of two poetry collections, And His Orchestra and The Politics (both Carnegie Mellon). He has translated several books from Polish, Czech, Russian, and Yiddish, most recently Dorota Masłowska’s Honey, I Killed the Cats (Deep Vellum).
Brett Fletcher Lauer is the poetry editor of A Public Space and the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America. He is the author of the memoir Fake Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures (Soft Skull) and the collection of poetry A Hotel in Belgium (Four Way).
"Once I thought that one could only write about things one adequately understood. But I do not wish to submit myself entirely to this assumption, as it becomes a definite way to silence myself. Why not give myself permission, instead?"
December 22, 2023 by Ruby Wang