Translations

Translation Tuesday: “He Who Is Worthy of Love” by Abdellah Taïa

I am gay. Gayer now than ever.

As countries around the world celebrate Pride Month, this week’s Translation Tuesday reminds us of the challenges many members of the LGBTQ+ community still face every day. In this short story by Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, a gay man agonizes over the death of his mother, with whom he had a fraught relationship, and reflects on the power of both her disapproval and her love.

“My mother has gotten younger. The wrinkles on her face are gone. Look. Look. Her skin is brighter. You can see her veins. They’re blue. You can see the inside of her. Look. Look. It’s red, red. Mother’s younger than us now. She’s sleeping. That’s all. She won’t cry out anymore.”

It’s your daughter Samira who says this about you. And I’m surprised. More than surprised. She’s not afraid of you dead. She’s not gripped by any strange feeling or vertigo. You’re her mother. You’re dead. In an hour she won’t be able to touch you anymore, to physically feel the link to you. She’s not afraid at all. She looks at you. She sees you like she’s never seen you before. She puts her hand on your face. She says “my little mom” and she doesn’t cry. Like the other sisters, she stays focused, she doesn’t want to miss this last real moment with you, she doesn’t want to spoil this ritual. She puts all her heart into it. She forgives you, for absolutely everything. She says it.

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Translation Tuesday: “Verdict” by Perveen Shakir

What to say to the ASI? / He who has outsourced the whole working of his mind / what would he know of the perfume of the soil?

Towards the last decade of her life, Shakir worked in different departments in bureaucracy, including the department of Customs and Central Excise. The natural vibrancy and inquisitiveness of her temperament was, understandably, at odds with the drudgery and apathy of mindsets prevalent in these circles. Her writings, provocative on many counts, often got her into trouble with authorities, but she remained steadfast in her poetic verve.

Her encounters with authority figures from the world of bureaucracy form the subject of some of her most interesting poems, ranging in character from light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek encounters, to verse that reads like an open indictment and battle cry.

“Verdict” is part of a selection of one hundred poems published in Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019). This first translation of her work with an international publisher makes her work accessible to the English-speaking world.

—Translator Naima Rashid

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Francisco Layna Ranz

If there’s any heart left to swear on, I do it to sue for innocence.

To write seems a common salve for grief, and in this week’s Translation Tuesday, we’re reminded of why, in times of darkness, we turn to the written word for solace. Francisco Layna Ranz’s words are rife with the sharpness of new sorrow, clean and stark, yet with a keen eye he turns toward the motion that is an inevitable consequence of living. With language we may continue, and the action of admittance in poetry is a good thing, a good thing that results from continuing.

A Friend’s Son Died

A friend’s son died.
I pay my respects.
It’s Tuesday, cold between the stones, and I come back by Daroca Avenue.
Brick wall.
The bricks always look old. I don’t know: I think I’d start smoking again if I could.
It’s also too soon for sound. The proof is in the frost on the weeds and garbage.
It’s a question of innocence in the reading of what happens: soon and late
are words of now.
And all I can do is babble excuses for what’s left of my life, and everybody else’s life.
Of course a written letter is a sign that you’re getting old. For paper and for you it’s already much too late.
I know it makes no sense, but maybe I should go back to that crematorium and stay for what’s left of the morning.
Sitting on those benches, thinking of nothing.
Hear the traffic and think of nothing, the way the cold does.

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Translation Tuesday: “In the City of White Paper” by Nagae Yūki

Each spring we wish / to leave the city, and we will always / end up staying.

In today’s Translation Tuesday, Nagae Yūki captures the alienation felt by urban office workers who have lost their connection with the natural world. She draws on the image of fleeting cherry blossoms, a staple of traditional Japanese poetry, to emphasize how little time we have to waste on meaningless tasks.

In the City of White Paper

Though not on the calendar,
the year begins for us city-dwellers
in April. That’s when the fiscal year
resumes and we trade in our selves
for desks. Earth still spins, news
cycles don’t stop to consider
our triumphs or griefs. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Closing Time at the Drunken Farmer” by Lorenz Just

In the corners of his mouth are the stubborn vestiges of frothy spittle—a vital bodily fluid holding everything together and postponing decay.

This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Jeff Clingenpeel’s rendering of a bemusing and sensual tale by Lorenz Just. A short and striking stream of consciousness set at the eponymous Drunken Farmer, this story merges head spinning, confusing abstractions and speculation with pungent, visceral sensory imagery to mesmerising effect.

It’s like I’m sitting on a highway of ants, a dark chasm running through my ass. For the past several minutes, my conversation partner has, as near as I can understand, been talking about nasal spray dependency. I can hardly follow him, so intense is the itch between my butt cheeks. My conversation partner, a man, sniffs whenever he pauses for even just a moment to put his words in order. He raises his index finger, wipes his knuckles across his nostrils and down to his mouth, and then, like a gecko snatching insects, sends his tongue darting out from between his lips to the mucus clinging there, which he fishes into his mouth; finally, he audibly scratches his unshaven cheek and talks and talks. I don’t want to see it or hear it. But he forces me to stare at him—he won’t let me out of his sight for even a second, not even when he labors to blow his nose into his hanky.

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Translation Tuesday: “I Want to Live Another Life” by Pak Jeong-de

A life that newly begins fluttering whenever a wind blows; / A life that is unrelated to gravity

There is an urge to cut ties and run in this week’s Translation Tuesday, though it is not with a sense of fear but, more wonderfully, a charged and stirring wanderlust. Pak Jeong-de’s poem sweeps us up in motion and emotion that are as grand as they are reckless, as if to say: if you’re not going to go all the way away, you might as well not go at all. (Another note: Pak Jeong-de reads with a great sense of theatre; check out a performance of his, in Korean, here.)

I Want to Live Another Life

by Pak Jeong-de

I kick a ball, dreadlocks flapping.
It was perhaps the peak of Bob Marley’s life.
There’s a face that suddenly appears in my mind.
What my life would be like
If I spent my life with that person,
I imagine from time to time.
It’s amazing that I still live on earth.
Many people I knew have already moved to another planet.
There’s been no news from them since. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Winter is Good for Fish” by Anna Weidenholzer

When your house pet freezes to death in the refrigerator, you’re faced with an unpleasant situation.

This week’s Translation Tuesday draws us into the mind of a middle-aged woman named Maria, who is struggling to find a job. As she moves through her humdrum morning routine, Maria’s thoughts stray to her parents, her husband, and her former employer, and, from these fragmentary memories, we begin to piece together the circumstances that led to her current situation. In a prose colored with pathos and loneliness, Anna Weidenholzer, in Elisabeth Lauffer’s translation, nevertheless maintains a lightness and humor that make this story a pleasure to read. 

When he opens the door, I’ll say, Thank you for the invitation. I’ll say, My name is Maria Beerenberger, pleased to meet you. Have a seat, he’ll say, offering me a chair. I will have known what to wear. I will have thought about how I’d describe myself as a person. He’ll be wearing a necktie and a silver wristwatch. He’ll say, Frau Beerenberger, tell me a little bit about yourself. Gladly, I’ll say, gladly. I am familiar with the material. At least I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And now we wait. What are you saying, he’ll ask. Frau Beerenberger, what are you talking about. Well, I’ll say, I am sitting across from you because I know the things people say, people who know what life is all about, because I’ll be one of those people. I didn’t believe in myself, you see, I didn’t believe in my future. Why, he’ll ask. Please explain. Then he’ll fall silent, lean back in his seat. Very well, I will say. As you wish. The day goes on, the light goes out, my neighbor used to say. Let’s start at the end.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from The Bird God by Susanne Röckel

Cowering in the gloom, I was overcome with exhaustion as the bird dove without haste from the precipice.

In the prologue to Susanne Röckel’s uncanny novel The Bird God, we are transported to a remote, unnamed corner of Europe, sometime during the twentieth century. The vagueness of the setting is entirely intentional and adds to the unworldly character of the story. This opening passage reads like an ornithological expedition to the back of beyond. Indeed, the text is presented as the unpublished account of an inveterate birdwatcher, Konrad Weyde, whose unbridled ambitions and inner demons eventually prove to be his undoing.

Prologue

. . . It was, as I soon realized, that fabled region about which I’d read so much by the greats of my field. While the battered old locomotive was towed off to a depot, I was approached by several local taxi drivers sporting mustaches and muddy rubber boots who offered to drive me over the winding and pothole-ridden mountain road to the next railway station, but after glancing at the sky, which promised to be unusually bright and clear, I decided to remain right where I was and seek accommodation in the village of Z.—an irregular assemblage of leaning structures perched high among the cragged rocks, like the nesting site of a peregrine falcon.

The path that had been pointed out to me wound its way gently upwards through meadows, groves, and fields. At first glance, the landscape appeared picturesque, but as I trudged with my heavy bags I realized that my gaze had been clouded by the memory of the books that I’d read. Pechstein and von Boettiger had rhapsodized over the diverse views of the cultivated fields, green hills, gushing springs, and charming woodlands, with the stunning silhouette of the rocky peaks rising in the distance. Droste had—I particularly recall this passage from his Wanderings of an Inveterate Birdwatcher—described how the melodious singing of industrious peasant women had blended with the devout exultation of the larks. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “The Logic of the Soap Bubbles” by Luna Sicat-Cleto

. . . actually, it has now become more complicated because I now get imaginary enemies and lovers.

The mania present in this week’s Translation Tuesday is forceful and visceral, poured forth with a tide of senses, memories, tastes, smells, and visions. Upon the arrival of a spectral personification named Sandali, the inner monologue of Luna Sicat-Cleto’s narrator detonates, threading seamlessly through the past, the present, and the future. The word sandali, in Filipino, can be roughly translated as “moment.” In this story, we are reminded of exactly how broad, and how various, a moment can be.

That moment comes, unexpected, uninvited, she just appears, like a visitor, a visitor whom I cannot shove off, I let her inside, offer her coffee, she will not drink the coffee, she will merely stroke the cup’s ear, and will look at me from head to toe, like a child, she will stare, and I know that she is sizing me up because I too am sizing her, she will look out the window and whisper something about the weather, I will nod, as if I had heard what she had whispered but actually hadn’t, I have been deaf for a long time, I don’t recognize the noise I heard, I no longer know if birds still sing in the morning, whatever noise I heard, I’m sure that my eardrums have already burst, a noise that had pierced through to my brain, but it’s funny that I still recognize the sound of my own name, and this gives me hope, hope is a dangerous thing, they say that it is what thrusts people to madness, and when the visitor called my name, I did not know if I was dreaming, I lifted my head up and smiled, I was about to mention something about the weather, or our weight, whether we have gained or lost some, but I had forgotten what I was about to say as soon as she squeezed my palm, where the pulse lies, where the welt from the blade rested and she whispered: flee, flee and I will know what she wanted to happen, she wanted to sleep with me, I will not object, I will be even the one to usher her to bed, and I will feel her trembling, I will take off her clothes and she will do the same and we will begin our voyage, that’s how I see it, a voyage I will not object to, I will try not to think, I will let it be, she will come again tomorrow, my door will be open, I will not refuse, for I want our world to be filled with our children, the whole universe even, so that I wouldn’t feel lonely anymore, isn’t it right, Sandali, for that is her name, Sandali, she has neither parent nor sibling, neither home nor job, she is not bound to anything or anytime. Sandali, her name does not suit her, perhaps I needn’t give her a name, she is like a poem, a poem that does not have a name, if a person labels a poem a poem, it vanishes, it disappears like bubbles that can no longer be touched.

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Translation Tuesday: “Funeral” by Gabi Csutak

I tried to imagine what it would be like if I really was planted out on that bare hillside to gaze for years at the gravestones.

In today’s Translation Tuesday, Gabi Csutak captures the conflicting emotions that funerals often produce. Her young narrator, soaked in rain and mud at a relative’s burial, muses on the absurdity of death and the rituals surrounding it. 

The ground had been sodden for days when they took Grandad’s coffin out to the cemetery beyond the bridge. All the relatives marched behind it in single file between the graves where the ground had become a muddy stream. Uncle Árpi went in front, of course, and set the pace, like he did on every family hike. He had rolled up his trousers with care and pinned them in place with clothes pegs, like cyclists do, so that his yellow boots could lead the way. Dad set off eagerly after him, but the soles of his shoes were so smooth that he slipped all over the place. He kept trying different cross-country skiing manoeuvres to stop himself from falling or crashing into anything. But from time to time his own trouser legs tripped him up. The fabric reached the ground and had soaked up the mud in a manner of minutes, almost up to his knees. He clutched at Aunt Zsóka from time to time, then pushed himself off again. She was the most secure point, her stiletto heels drilling deep into the earth with every step, but every time she freed herself from the mud again it was touch and go whether she would need to proceed barefoot. You could see the sole of her foot straining, arching improbably under her laddered tights. She lifted her shoe out with her toes, then once again sank into the mud.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Erri De Luca

We pave roads, shovel snow, / smooth lawns, beat carpets, / gather tomatoes and insults, / we are the feet and know every inch of the land.

In this Translation Tuesday, Italian poet Erri De Luca reflects on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and movement across borders, seas, and languages. From desert crossings and the “thrashing of dust in columns” to exploitation in the first world, De Luca poignantly evokes the struggles faced by the newest Europeans.

 

Six voices

It was not the sea that welcomed us
we welcomed the sea with open arms.

Descending from highlands burnt by war and not the sun
we crossed the desert of the Tropic of Cancer.

When from a high ground we were able to view the sea
it was a finish line, a caress of waves at our feet.

Ending there was Africa, the under-sole of ants,
from them caravans had learned to tread.

Under the thrashing of dust in columns
the first man alone is required to raise his eyes.

The others follow the heel that precedes them,
the voyage on foot is a trail of backs.

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Translation Tuesday: “Mulberries” by Mahmoud Saeed

I offered him my heartfelt thanks while panting because I was so frightened that my spirit had virtually left my body. Privately I praised God.

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, Mahmoud Saeed brings us a tale that transverses multiple nations and seemingly multiple visions of time. With the transitive nature of a fable and the striking imagery of reality, this story turns and dreams and lingers, much like the sweetness of remembered fruit.

I wasn’t merely delighted when I saw a mulberry tree in Chicago, I was so ecstatic that—as we say in Iraq—I felt I was flying. When we say this, we really feel we are aloft, even though none of us ever did fly into the air whether from happiness or sorrow. The point is that I rushed over to it and stood beneath its branches, which were heavily laden with a crop of delectable fruit.  Many mulberries had fallen and created a large, solid circle around it, turning the earth a deep blue-black color. I didn’t even know how long it had been since I tasted a mulberry! Perhaps it had been a quarter century, and that had been in Turkey, where I had eaten white mulberries that gleamed in the sunshine. Each of those mulberries had been almost as long as my thumb, but thicker, and that was the first time I had seen such large mulberries. Their taste was extremely delicious, and each one almost melted between my teeth, filling my mouth with its unique juice. Once this enters the stomach, it is a balm that cures almost all digestive complaints.

In America, there are a few types of mulberry, but none of them rivals the distinctive taste of the mulberry that grows back home in Iraq. The taste here is either sweet-sour or sweet in such a flavorless way that it doesn’t appeal to the taste buds. It may also be sweet but have a bitter aftertaste. In any case, in America I’ve never found a variety of mulberry I like without reservation. When I spotted this particular tree with its black mulberries, I decided to try them and put some in my mouth. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Grandpa’s Little Glove” by Ilka Papp-Zakor

So I waited there under the tree, and Grandpa was slowly absorbed by the fog, which drizzled and grew ever thicker.

During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.

Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.

He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.

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Translation Tuesday: “Genealogies, Imprints, and Flights” by Ana Luísa Amaral

in an invisible layer: / an imperceptible figment of skin, and an inherited voice: / more kora than cello / and played to a European beat

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we follow a moving lyrical meditation on family, belonging, and racial identity in an Angolan-Portuguese family as Ana Luísa Amaral traces the elements of a ‘glorious imperfection’ through music, photography, and the contours of the human face.

Genealogies, Imprints, and Flights

My great-great-grandmother was Angolan and black,
the other day I found her name on the reverse
not of a poem stuffed in a drawer,
but of a piece of paper imprinted
with silver salts and light
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