Testimony of Circumstances by Rodrigo Lira, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, Cardboard House Press
Latin America gave the second half of the twentieth century some of its most destructive and incendiary poetry. In Bogotá, in the 1960s, the Nadaistas threw copies of Cervantes into a bonfire and shouted from rooftops of an imminent socio-poetic revolution, and anyone who knows the name Bolaño has likely heard how Mexico’s Infrarealistas heckled the hell out of Octavio Paz. This was the period of poesía rebelde, rebel poetry, in which agitation played a big role on the street and the page. One particularly volatile poet from this milieu was Rodrigo Lira, who stuck out even at a time when this sort of counter-cultural militancy wasn’t unheard of. Testimony of Circumstances, translated into English by Rodrigo Olavarría and Thomas Rothe, secures his position as a true outsider in a world full of pretenders.
Born in 1949 into an upper middle-class family, Rodrigo Lira received a good education and spent his first fifteen years in close proximity to Chile’s elite, but as a teenager he began to veer far from bourgeois respectability. He ingested substantial amounts of weed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had electroshock therapy at his family’s insistence. He rallied behind Salvador Allende’s socialist government until Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup turned Chile into a nationalist, ultra-capitalist nightmare. Anyone with left-wing sympathies risked persecution, and the new regime kidnapped and executed thousands of its own citizens on that very charge. Although Lira grew quiet on political matters, he was hardly mute.
Ahmet Altan’s writing is sprawling, ambitious, radical—so radical that the author is currently serving a life sentence on charges of inciting the plotters behind Turkey’s 2016 failed coup. In the latest instalment of the Asymptote Book Club interview series, Altan’s co-translators, Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, reveal that their only contact with the author is through his lawyers. No written materials can be carried into or out of the prison where Altan is serving his sentence, but work continues on the final volume of the monumental Ottoman Quartet.
In conversation with Asymptote’s Garrett Phelps, Freely and Türedi give us an insight into how they came to translate Altan’s work, and why a novel sequence of novels dealing with the events of the early twentieth century has never felt fresher or more contemporary.
Garrett Phelps (GP): Like a Sword Wound is set during a momentous period in Turkish history and details the cycle of chaos which ultimately results in the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. As translators, did you feel the setting added to your burden of responsibilities?
Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi (BF/YT): Both of us are quite familiar with this period, so the setting as such did not present any particular problem. However, we were aware of the echoes of the current political situation in Turkey, and of how little the main political currents seem to have changed in over a hundred years. In practical terms, although Like a Sword Wound was written in modern Turkish rather than Ottoman Turkish, Ahmet Altan made an effort to reflect the language of the period, often choosing outdated words and phrases. In our initial meeting to discuss the translation, he was concerned about how we would approach this. We agreed to take the same approach he did—that is, to prefer older words and phrasing to evoke the mindset of the period while still keeping the language current enough to avoid alienating contemporary readers.