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Val Vinokur
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Last summer I launched a small press: Poets & Traitors. The first book was by Ahmad Al-Ashqar––Advances in Embroidery: Poems, with Translations form Mahmoud Darwish––and it set the template for the kinds of books I've always wanted to publish: hybrid volumes of original and translated poetry by one poet-translator. Poets & Traitors Press wants to demolish the barriers between creative writing and translation by publishing books that cultivate a dialogue between the two. The name of the press comes from that old chestnut that translators love to hate: Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor) — an accusation made by Italians against French translators of Dante. But much of the inspiration comes from something the poet/translator Octavio Paz once wrote: “Baudelaire said poetry is essentially analogy… Between the language of the universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator.” From poet vs. translator, we arrive at poet=translator. But then, if we complete the syllogism, maybe poets are traitors, too. What, if anything, could that possibly mean? That question led me to revisit an old poem of mine, "Your Worship," published in The Boston Review a decade ago: I am your pilgrim, who wanders to stay home; your monk, who keeps silent when you demand confessions and theology. You are too difficult to love directly; you have no roof or floor, and I am too pious for your rain and mud. So I keep your shrine, the best of you, the clean, the singing rest of you. I am a stubborn priest, who knows himself only in the dwindling oil of you, the weeping and rebellious flame about to die. "Your Worship" got picked up on Poetry Daily, a few random blogs and pinterest boards, an anthology called the Poet's Quest for God, and was translated into Arabic––probably because it means whatever one wants it to mean. One blogger liked its formal but (according to him) unforced use of paradox. Sure. Is it about God? Is the title sincere or sarcastic? Yes. Is it about a complicated lover? Is it about a creepy stalker? Is it a whimsical rejoinder to Billie Holiday's "All of me"? Absolutely. Yesterday, it reminded me of Haddaway's "What is Love." Today, I've decided "Your Worship" is about translation. Isn't the translator an oddly peripatetic, stationary pilgrim, a lover building a shrine to the beloved original? This reminds of something the author-translator Alice Kaplan wrote after her own disastrous experience with an impossibly overbearing translator. She describes "the intense critical response one can have to a book one is in the process of translating": We translators can love, but we can also see every flaw, every mistaken fact, every awkward transition in the work we are translating. I also recognized in him, again in exaggerated form, something we might call the 'depit amoureux' of the translator: the desire to get into the skin of a book, the desire to become its author––to create, not just translate. We translators... Continue reading
Posted Jan 12, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so much, David and Stacey!
"It is the opposite which is good for us." ­­–– Heraclitus of Ephesus I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, in a country that was afraid that its citizens would leave and wary of foreigners somehow contaminating or stealing something from the homeland. As we were preparing to leave Moscow forever (we thought) in 1978, my grandmother's little brother, whom she had raised back in the shtetl, a rail engineer who had been briefly jailed under Stalin on suspicion of sabotage ("wrecking," it was called), called from Vladivostok to condemn us for abandoning our motherland. We could not bring rubles with us and were obliged to buy vast quantities of tchotchkes that we could supposedly sell abroad. For three months in Italy and for many years in Miami, we lived surrounded by Russian folk kitsch that nobody would buy: lacquered chess tables and chairs and coffers, infinite nesting dolls, wooden motion toys consisting of bears roasting mushrooms or playing tennis. After a while, getting rid of them became unimaginable. The bears would hoist their little wooden buckets to remind us of who we were and who we weren't: not Russian enough for Russia, and forever Russian in America. The Soviet Union was a fortress, a place embodied by its border guards. It even policed the domestic travel and migration of its own citizens. In the correspondence between Stalin and his chief henchman Lazar Kaganovich, one finds the following remarkable response from June 23, 1923: "1. We should limit ourselves to establishing one more Donbass district in Ukraine. 2. Regarding the grain exports, our recommendation is to reduce sharply the Rozengolts plan (for the third quarter). 3. In my opinion [Isaac] Babel is not worth our spending hard currency on for his trip abroad. --- I. Stalin." Such was the profound concern of the Soviet state for the travel plans of individual citizens. One of the first things that struck us about the United States was its relative lack of borders. If you had an American passport or green card, you could pretty much come and go as you pleased. Visiting Canada was perfectly banal. We even visited the Soviet Union in 1989; it seemed that nearly everyone there at the time, Jewish or not, wanted to come back with us. After each trip abroad one would be welcomed back into the United States with a smile, or at least without any reproach about whether you liked it better somewhere else. Of course, this wasn't true for everybody. Never true for Haitians or "economic" refugees from Latin America--and before that for Japanese Americans interned during World War Two. But still, compared to the world's many fortresses, the United States could still lay claim to being a gateway, a window, a country of immigrants and free movement. After 2001, however, the balance began to shift towards Homeland Security, and after the 2016 election, it is clear to me that we are quickly becoming a nation ruled by Customs... Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Babel on a stud farm. The event that occasions my guest bloggery for BAP is the recent publication of my annotated translation of seventy-two stories by Isaac Babel, The Essential Fictions. Anyone who knows a little about Babel will note the pun in the title of the collection. For Babel, fiction was essential to real life, which, in his words, "wants nothing more than to resemble a well-made story," and real life––or at least Babel's deployment of "autobiography"––was also essentially fiction. About ten years ago, in my book The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas (Northwestern, 2008), I wondered about why Babel never wrote poetry. Now seems a somewhat propitious time to revisit and reassess what I wrote then. To paraphrase: You could argue that Babel, who composed his stories on tiny strips of paper, was really a poet. It's even been suggested that he wrote prose as a somewhat mercenary adjustment, to fulfill the young Soviet establishment’s desire for a “Red Tolstoy,” and that Red Cavalry was Babel’s version of Tolstoy's debut, The Cossacks (1863). Perhaps the assumption here is that only a repressed poet could compress a 150-page draft of “My First Goose” into a few sheets. But I would offer another view: Babel was a committed writer of prose, one who admired Tolstoy’s obsession with fiction as a mode of seeking the truth, of following the aesthetic and ethical imperative to love experience—an obligation that compels narrative. Tolstoy and Babel shared a specific kind of curiosity, if utterly different temperaments. As Babel once put it: "When you read Tolstoy, you feel the world is writing, the world in all its variety, . . . [but] although I am a devotee of Tolstoy, in order to achieve something I have to work in a way opposite to his. . . . Tolstoy was able to describe what happened to him minute by minute, . . . whereas I, evidently, have it in me to describe the most interesting five minutes I’ve experienced in twenty-four hours." No, Babel’s world does not “write itself”; and in a certain sense, Babel’s condensed art may be more humble and honest than Tolstoy’s "loose, baggy monsters." I also wonder if Babel’s “most interesting five minutes”—released from the formal parameters of the realist novel—are a response to Dostoevsky’s novels, which are strung together from scores of intense five-minute encounters. But if it's true, as George Clay once helpfully put it, that "Tolstoy is what happens the most and Dostoevsky the most that can happen," then maybe Babel’s Dostoevskian “five minutes” are taken from Tolstoy’s “twenty-four hours.” In other words, where Dostoevsky, according to Babel and others, offers us a revealing (but often unkind) intensification of the human condition, and where Tolstoy is the apotheosis of a transparent (and often overbearing) objective descriptiveness, Babel arrives at a poetic and narrative distillation of the world as it is––"the essence of things," in his words. Babel’s best fiction reduces the world to its irreducible ambivalence—but it... Continue reading
Posted Jan 8, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
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Jan 7, 2018