Translations

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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Translation Tuesday: “Forbidden to pass by and stay” by Oriette D’Angelo

I allied with your former lovers / emerged victorious / in the midst of the void

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we are witnesses to a protest pulled forth from the body by outrage, sorrow, and an inherited music. Oriette D’Angelo’s poem is set to a revolutionary thrum of defiance against injustice. As we move with its lines, we arrive at a place that is not quite as simple as solace, but a space that resounds with the necessity for love. 

Forbidden to pass by and stay

My country is a protest march
a cry of rage
with thunder and dance music

You couldn’t handle the birds sleeping on my forehead
you fractured the entire structure of my deformed breasts
squeezed the throat to silence my body
so it wouldn’t scream:                    I don’t like what you say!

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Translation Tuesday: “Untimely Love” by Konstantinos Poulis

She’s grabbed Nikos tightly by the arm and they’re making their way together, huddled in a crowd trying its best not to run and cause a stampede.

On August 20, 2018, Greece officially exited from the series of bailout programs that had imposed vicious austerity on the Greek people ever since 2010. Now, an international narrative of Grecovery—a tale in which austerity triumphs and the curtain falls on the country’s alleged recent return to “normalcy”—has firmly taken root. But Greece’s so-called clean exit is much dirtier than they’d have us believe: the ongoing relief program ensures that the country will be shouldered with a brutal debt burden until at least 2060.

Konstantinos Poulis’ story “Untimely Love,” from his 2014 collection Thermostat, was first published when Greece’s crisis was a fixture of international headlines. Though it shares with Poulis’ other stories an interest in the power and perils of the human imagination, “Untimely Love” differs in the kinds of questions that it poses about its limits. How do we carry on when the outside world seems to have little space or patience for imagination? What happens to storytelling when circumstances (such as police strikes and teargas) conspire to cut short our daydreams of happy endings?

This was one of very few stories in Thermostat to foreground the crisis. Now, against the fairytale of Grecovery, Nikos and Maria’s untimely love acquires a new kind of timeliness. The national victory claimed by politicians (“We reached our destination,” Alexis Tsipras triumphantly pronounced on August 20, 2018) is hardly the kind of ending that, according to this story’s logic, would allow Nikos and Maria their own happily-ever-after. And though politicians and media have pronounced the crisis over, daily realities constantly shatter that illusion—just as they shatter Nikos’ fantasies of romance. In a manner of speaking, it still “simply isn’t an age for falling in love.”

—Translator Johanna Hanink

 

It was the sweetest love story that blossomed after the outbreak of the sovereign debt crisis. Times were tough, and no one would have expected that, in a tense era of rapacious capitalistic attacks on working people, at a time when the international capitalist financiers had declared open war, Nikos would fall in love with a girl, a regular sweetheart. She’d happened to pass by the office to see a colleague, Anastasia, who worked in Accounting. The problem is that Nikos didn’t have much of a relationship with Anastasia, so he didn’t have the courage to find out more about her friend. He just gazed at her every time she happened to drop by to get Anastasia so the two could leave together in the afternoon.

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Translation Tuesday: “Coming of the Rivers” by Pablo Neruda, exclusive translation by Waldeen

You were fashioned out of streams / and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

Poet-translator Jonathan Cohen has recovered these stunning translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, made in 1950 by the extraordinary Waldeen. Who? Learn about her and the secret of her translations in Cohen’s essay, “Waldeen’s Neruda,” appearing on our blog tomorrow. Here, published for the first time in this week’s Translation Tuesday, is her rendering of the complete “Coming of the Rivers” sequence. Comprising five poems, the sequence comes from the opening section of Neruda’s epic Canto General titled “La lámpara en la tierra” (“Lamp in the Earth”) in which he celebrates the creation of South America.

 

Coming of the Rivers

Beloved of rivers, assailed by

blue water and transparent drops,

apparition like a tree of veins,

a dark goddess biting into apples:

then, when you awoke naked,

you were tattooed by rivers,

and on the wet summits your head

filled the world with new-found dew.

Water trembled about your waist.

You were fashioned out of streams

and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

From your dense mists, Mother, you

gathered water as if it were vital tears,

and dragged sources to the sands

across the planetary night,

traversing sharp massive rocks,

crushing in your pathway

all the salt of geology,

felling compact walls of forest,

splitting the muscles of quartz.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Fox-Terrier” by Mempo Giardinelli

An even greater silence fell, as if all the sound and noise of the world had died in that plaza.

An impactful feature of “The Fox-Terrier” is the way in which the opening paragraph throws the boundary between fiction and nonfiction into doubt as the narrator mentions a personal detail which is also true of the author: that he has written a book called La revolución en bicicleta, which the real-life Mr. Giardinelli published in 1980. Although Mr. Giardinelli asserts that “The Fox-Terrier” is purely fictional, the use of this true detail as a framing device for the untrue narrative which follows lends the story’s climax a chilling believability. The reader is left wondering, Could it be that this terrible thing really happened? This question leads, in turn, to a larger consideration of human nature and its capacity for cruelty, and the way human evil returns again and again throughout history “like a neverending Piazzolla tango.”

—Translator Cameron Baumgartner

 

In This is Not the End of the Book, a conversation about books and reading by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, the authors mention a story by Restif de la Bretonne, a French novelist from the eighteenth century whom I haven’t read, that is similar to a story my father used to tell, and which in 1980 I almost included in my book La revolución en bicicleta.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Physiology of Memory” by Ricardo Lísias

The most torturing memories aren’t necessarily images, frozen, but films of about three minutes each.

In this haunting short story by Ricardo Lísias, the narrator contends with multiple stubborn memories, around which his narrative revolves. From an injured taxi driver in Buenos Aires, to overwhelming loneliness in Krakow, these memories are strung together to create a potent, overwhelming mixture.

I

I have determined why I am so upset by writers of clear sentences: they don’t struggle with memory. Their transparency denounces a simplistic intelligence. If someone cries because they are not able to render trauma into words then that person is a deep person.

I identified the root of my issue with clear-writing writers when I was in Poland. It is a very stark memory. I felt, standing more or less five hundred metres away from a small bus terminal in Krakow, the most intense loneliness I have ever experienced.

A year later, when I decided to dig up the loneliest moment in my life, I realized that it is not a bad feeling. It doesn’t hurt me or make me suffer.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius by Ričardas Gavelis

It goes without saying that among the general company there was a dissected frog trumpeting the end of the world.

This week’s Translation Tuesday sees Elizabeth Novickas render Ričardas Gavelis’ hallucinogenic modernism at its most intense and challenging. In this short extract, we follow the stray dogs, rubbish-tip flies, and neighbourhood drunks of Vilnius as the everydayness of their actions is transformed into something altogether stranger. 

The most important musical happening in Vilnius—and therefore the Universe—is the brilliant concert of the flies over Karoliniškės’ garbage containers. It is considerably deeper and metaphysically purer than Tarasov’s famous fly-sound installation. It’s a true live concert brimming with improvisation; its sounds determine the movement of the stars, the smells of Vilnius’s streets, and Vilniutians’ sexual mores.

Those flies buzzing above the new gray containers are numberless, but only a complete idiot would say they’re identical, or more or less identical. If that was all they were, they certainly wouldn’t determine either the movement of the stars or Vilniutians’ sexual moods. Those flies are much more varied than humans: from the tiny Drosphila to the impressive horse shit fly. When Apples Petriukas went looking for the meaning of life in the garbage dumps, he counted one thousand seven hundred thirteen varieties of flies. I go up to Korals’ reeking garbage containers and simply wave to that surreal orchestra with my hand—I don’t even need a baton. The domain of the flies greets me with a majestic fortissimo, in which individual musical themes diverge only later: humming, whining, buzzing, as well as all the other fly sounds. But this is merely the beginning of the beginning—the buzzings will out-buzz one another; primary and secondary motifs will be born, as well as fly self-disclosures and leaps into infinity toward the Absolute of the flies. And on top of all of that, you need to add the smell! Only the concerto grosso of Vilnius’s flies synthesizes a flawless musical sound and an artistic smell. The reek of that concert is simply unmatched—almost as amazing as that of my attire.

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Translation Tuesday: “Shchepliak” by Zigmunt Leyb

The long gray years are stifling his marrow, devouring him piecemeal, chilling his blood.

From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.

Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.

Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.

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Translation Tuesday: “At Least Here, It’s Warm” by Guram Rcheulishvili

“There was the sound of smacking lips: he threw the blanket over his head, but still, he heard it. His heart ached.”

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, Guram Rcheulishvili tells the story of Vaja Jandieri, alone, in an unfamiliar environment, as he attempts to ski in Bakuriani, Georgia. Excitement and then ennui set in amongst the snowy slopes where the people speak Ossetian, and are from another world unlike Vaja’s . . .

Vaja Jandieri was now sitting in a small, warm room. He could hardly ever find such a room. This year, Bakuriani was extremely cold. Thin walls were unable to stop these freezing chills. Vaja was sitting, pleased that he had found such a warm room. The housekeeper set the tea to boil as a small boy memorized his algebra formulas. The door suddenly flew open, as a woman, his Ossetian neighbor, burst in.

“This year is so cold,” she said.

“Yes, woman, the walls aren’t able to stop it,” said the housekeeper.

“Mom,” said the boy as he closed his work, “in school it’s so cold, tha-”

“At least here, it’s warm,” said Vaja.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from The Lobster by Monique Proulx

The world froze for a fraction of a second; the cashier hurriedly sponged the counter as she leant towards Marceau: “What would you like, Monsieur”

Tensions in the family bubble and boil over in this excerpt from The Lobster by the award-winning Monique Proulx, translated by Frances Pope. What happens when Marceau brings home a lobster he can’t afford? Read on to find out.

“Are you mad? What d’you expect me to do with those? How d’you even eat them?”

As always, Laura’s first words were recriminations. It has to be said that the creatures were no less threatening for being quite dead; amongst the tangle of legs, claws, and feelers which now filled the sink, you could make out here and there the glimmer of a small, black, malevolent eye—more alive than the others, you’d swear—peeking at you with belligerent hate. Marceau had stopped twice on his way home, hearing the wind flap against the big plastic bag, worriedly checking to make sure that the contents weren’t still wriggling, and that his hand wasn’t about to be sliced clean off by a claw.

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