Place: Iowa

Translation Tuesday: “wrong connections” by Andra Rotaru

she sits on a tuft of grass: drying under her.

The results of our Close Approximations contest winners are in! Find the official citations as well as links to the winning entries here. For the next two months, we will spotlight these contest winners as well as their work. First up, we present an excerpt of the top entry in the poetry category. Judge Sawako Nakayasu says: “I’m thrilled to have selected this year’s winner for poetry: ‘wrong connections’ by Andra Rotaru, in Anca Roncea’s excellent translation from the Romanian. I love how this work reads like a film that can only take place in the mind of the reader. The scenes (I read them like scenes) carry you through a changing landscape that can be menacing, historical, scientific, or downright violent all in torqued connection with each other like the ‘incorrect connections’ of the tribar.”

“In the British Journal of Psychology R. Penrose published the impossible ‘tribar.’” Penrose called it a three-dimensional rectangular structure. But it is certainly not the projection of an intact spatial structure. The ‘impossible tribar’ holds together as a drawing purely and simply by means of incorrect connections between quite normal elements. The three right angles are completely normal, but they have been joined together in a false, spatially impossible way.”

—Bruno Ernst, The Magic Mirror of M. C. Escher

she sits on a tuft of grass: drying under her. even her clothes dry on her. make some wishes when throwing something in the water. rust solders iron under water, no one passes, sounds of bursts of water.

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Spotlight on Banned Countries Feature

A Q&A with ALTA director Aron Aji and co-translator Bakhit Bakhit

After our Blog Editors’ and Section Editors’ Highlights, we turn our attention to our Banned Countries Special Feature, put together by founding editor Lee Yew Leong. These Q&As by new Assistant Interviews Editor Claire Jacobson shed further light on the creative process of translation. First up, we are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Aron Aji and Bakhit Bakhit, who collaborated on a translation of Mohamed Abd-Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence”. Bakhit, originally hailing from Sudan, is an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa, where Dr. Aji is his advisor. 

Beyond the obvious differences between the Arabic and English grammar, Abd-Alhai’s syntax presents particular challenges to the translator. Often adverbs and adjectives are placed to accentuate sound and rhythm, more than sense. To ‘correct’ their placement in order to conform to the English usage would hurt the sound structures in the poem. Likewise, each stanza presents a single thought unit through the network of linked images and ideas developed across the four or more more lines. It is not unusual for particles or pronouns to simultaneously refer both to a preceding verb, noun, or image and to one that might follow. The translation, therefore, has to reflect these simultaneous links, working against a conventional linear reading. The actual process involves breaking down the original stanzas into phrasal units and to reconstruct them with these links in mind. A good example are the lines:

She on her loom waiting
driving time, onward once, then back

that should capture the movement of the loom back and forth and the workings of her mind between memory of loss and the longing for return.

Bakhit Bakhit’s collaboration with Aron Aji, too, involves the weaving together of two discrete translation processes that yield or resist to each other—now interrogating now complementing—hopefully moving toward an English version remains sensitive to the Arabic cadences—in sound, sense, or imagery.

—Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji

In your translators’ note above, you mention your “two discrete translation processes” that work together to produce a single translation. Can you describe the different approaches you take to the text, and how you were able work together to produce this translation?

Bakhit is the one who knows the poet, the poem, its aesthetic and socio-cultural context. Our collaboration begins after Bakhit completes a relatively advanced draft; then Aron enters into the process, silently reading the poem while listening to Bakhit read the original in Arabic; Aron marks the translation according to the rhythms and sounds he hears in Bakhit’s reading, in places where the Arabic feels more resonant, more charged. What follows is a rich conversation about individual words, lines, etc., in order to tease out this “charge.” Some inevitable semantic revisions notwithstanding, our conversation is about carrying into English the subtler, less intellectual, more intuitive aspects of the original, what belongs not so much to the body of the poem, but maybe to its soul.

Can you talk about your decision to leave the words al-samandel and hijra wal awda in Arabic?

We preferred keeping the Arabic phrase hijra wal awda to counteract the negative reception of the words, immigration and immigrant, nowadays. In Abd Alhai’s poem, immigration as hijra is always attached with return as al-awda. It is a journey where the immigrant always comes back after attaining self-knowledge and knowledge of his/her roots. Coming back may not always mean physical return to the homeland. But it always means growth, recognition, wisdom that has to do with a reconciliation with, a consummation of the past.  He may be welcome with songs and celebrations or he may die with honor, “if lost in his inclination to the sea ….”

As for al-samandel, the English translation is “salamander” but does not necessarily carry the mythic resonance that Al-Samandel does.

In these instances, we were not deliberately trying to be foreignizing or to provide a cultural flavoring. Rather, both hijra wal awada and al-samandel are meant to function like windows through which the sincerely curious reader will look and find out much that would have otherwise seemed lost.

What do you see as Abd-Alhai’s contribution to the conversation on banned countries, given that he wrote in a different time and context? 

The “Inclination to the sea” is about the nomad condition—whether of the hero, the immigrant, or the refuge—which lies at the heart of Homer’s The Odyssey as it does of Abdl-Alhai’s poem, which, in fact, directly engages the classical epic. The woman at the loom may be Penelope or Fatima, but also represent homeland, a place of real or imaginary return.

Find Mohamed Abd Alhai’s poem “Al-Salmandel at the Edge of Absence” in Bakhit Bakhit and Aron Aji’s translation here, where you can also listen to Bakhit Bakhit’s reading of the poem in the original Arabic.

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Translation Tuesday: Multilingual Poems by Ann Cotten

In honor of our July Issue, a super-special multilingual Translation Tuesday—Ann Cotten translates Ann Cotten, and back again!

Ann Cotten is a multilingual poet based in Berlin. These poems hail from Fremdwörterbuchsonette, her first book of poems. Inextricably multilingual, maddeningly compelling, borderline cantankerous—her poems are all unique valences of self-translations that interrogate place and language in way that evokes both the familiar and the jarringly new.

Select translation:

nonesuch I (from Fremdwörterbuchsonette)

 

The ghost entered me like a kind of shirt.

It hung next to the dancefloor and was opposite

to all. That sounds a bit odd, not quite

credible, certainly I cannot say it right.

 

Something was backward in the whole construction

of what I happened to be working on.

Time seemed to have some purpose further on

with me, wrung me and couldn’t work it out.

 

And so I leant against the wall and smoked,

and watched the Russendisko on and on and smoked

too much. And I was much too bored to write.

Still not at all ill at ease, squandering my light

I thought of never going home to better-lighted dirt

and suddenly began to see the ghost in the shirt.

 

“O ghost,” spake I, “please understand my wonder!

I didn’t know that ghosts would deign to wander

casting their eyes perplexingly asunder,

in shirts, our fears and echoings to pander.”

 

The ghost just stared at me. A girl came over

and asked me for a light. My boyfriend came

and told me he was going home. It was the same

to me. I nodded, quite the midnight rover,

 

knowing myself to have become rather a dud,

my self’s long-empty shell, and how my words

rustled and shifted, like rice in gourds,

vague and conceited like smoke from a cigarette,

cold and precise like condensation.

 

And I awoke, as cold as ash, in my own tub.

***

nonesuch II (from Fremdwörterbuchsonette)

 

In my own tub I lay and dreamt of girls

who come around and ask you for a light.

Their little souls rotate inside their eyes

as my lighter renders them closer than the night

 

which is the reason why I love these rituals

in which the incomparables and I unite.

And all the while I know my cigarettes are all

exactly the same length, and they seem to invite

 

their and my own interconfoundability,

white, lightweight, full of discontent,

rattling and wheezing when they’re full of tea

and, taken, all desire just to be spent,

as air races through them, they wake the ghosts

and attract minutes, posted between the lips’ red boasts.

 

The ash upon the water forms a brittle film.

Mein Liebling, erklärst du dich zu meiner Giraffe,

verspreche ich, dass ich dich immer lachen mache.

The past has risen and is lapping at my chin.

Die Biber haben alle Bäume abgenagt, mein Lieber, sieh,

noch während wir hier stehen, beknabbern sie meine Knie.

 

The tap presses a lullaby into my nape,

the boiler hums a low and dismal tune,

I watch myself scratch myself like an ape,

and fall asleep into the arms of monster rune:

 

It isn’t realistic to be lying here.

In all the fog and damp time seems to override itself.

I cannot reach you, not with beer, nor animals, nor jokes;

everything runs out; the ghost of the night lives to side with itself, but chokes.

nonesuch I (from Fremdwörterbuchsonette)

 

Der Geist betrat mich wie eine Art Hemd.

Es hing am Rand der Tanzfläche und bildete

den Gegenpol zu allem. Das befremdet,

wirkt unerklärlich, wenn ichs schildere.

 

Es war etwas verkehrt an dem Gebilde,

an dem ich zu der Zeit gerade arbeitete;

die Zeit führte mit mir etwas im Schild,

wrang mein Gebein und kriegte es nicht raus.

 

Und so lehnte ich rauchend an der Wand,

schaute der Russendisko zu und rauchte

zu viel. Zum Schreiben war mir viel zu fad.

Ich war trotzdem nicht unzufrieden, dachte

entfernt daran, eher nicht heimzugehen,

plötzlich begann ich diesen Geist im Hemd zu sehen.

 

“O Geist,” sprach ich, “verstehe mein Befremden:

Ich wusste nicht, dass Geister auch in Hemden,

die großen Augen gegenteilig wendend,

Widerhall, Trost und Unbehagen spenden.”

 

Der Geist indessen starrte mich nur an.

Ein Mädchen kam zu mir und bat um Feuer.

Meine Begleitung kam und sagte, dass er heimgeht.

Ich nickte nur, als ging es mich nichts an:

 

Ich war schon lange nur mehr eine Panne,

die Schale meiner selbst, und ausgehöhlt

klimperten geistermäßig meine Worte,

vag und geziert wie Zigarettenrauch,

kalt und präzise wie Kondensation.

 

Ich wachte auf, wie Asche kalt, in meiner Badewanne.

***

nonesuch II (from Fremdwörterbuchsonette)

 

Ich badete und träumte von den Mädchen,

die herkommen und mich um Feuer bitten.

In ihren Augen rotiern ihre Seelchen

in meinem Feuerschein in kurzen Augenblicken.

 

Deswegen liebe ich ja diese Sitten,

in denen unvergleichlich sich vereinen

jene und ich. Und meine Zigaretten

sind glatt und alle gleich lang. Bescheinigen

 

sie ihre und meine Vertauschbarkeit,

weiß, leicht und voller Unzufriedenheit,

klappernd und rauschend, wenn sie altern,

und jung voller Verlangen, wenn der Atem

sie schnell durchzieht, so wecken sie die Geister,

binden künstelnd Minuten, an Lippen gekleistert.

 

Die Asche auf dem Wasser bildet einen Film.

My darling, if you will be my giraffe,

I’ll promise to do things to make you laugh.

Mir reicht Vergangenheit bis an mein Kinn.

The beavers, dear, have gnawed off all the trees,

and as you look at me they’re working on my knees.

 

Der Hahn drückt mir ein Schlaflied in den Nacken,

der Boiler summt den Bass betrübt und wüst,

ich schaue mir beim Dösen selbstgesprächig zu,

gleich wird das Brainmap mich mit den Tentakeln packen:

 

Es ist nicht realistisch, hier zu sitzen

im Dunst, im Nass hebt Zeit sich aus den Angeln.

Erreich dich nicht mit Tieren, nicht mit Witzen, es läuft aus und

der Geist der Nacht sitzt tief im letzten Gurgeln.

Ann Cotten, born 1982 in Iowa, U.S., grew up in Vienna, Austria and moved to Berlin in 2006. Her first book of poems—excerpted here—consisted of 78 double-sonnets and made waves in the German poetry scene. She then published her diploma thesis on concrete poetry (Nach der Welt, Klever Verlag 2008), a second book of poetry and prose ostensibly written by a palette of characters (Florida-Rooms, Suhrkamp 2010), a 1-Euro elegy (Das Pferd, SuKultur 2007), part of an underground-bibliophile "Schock" edition (Pflock in der Landschaft, 2011), and a book in English: I, Coleoptile (Broken Dimanche Press, 2011). In 2013, she published The Quivering Fan, a collection of short stories with erotic, philosophical and political content. In 2014, she started a project on mnemotechnical poetry working with Japanese Kanji. This year will see her second English-language publication, Lather in Heaven (Broken Dimanche Press).