An interview with Marius Burokas

Claire Jacobson

Photograph by Vladas Braziūnas

Lithuanian poet, translator, and editor Marius Burokas has many theories on what it means to be a translator—“a co-author, a rewriter, a medium”—but the root of his underlying drive to translate is simple: “the joy of sharing an author, a poem, a short story I like with others who I hope can experience it, too.”

It is this joy he carries with him in all his endeavors, a joy that feeds the sensory acuity that is ultimately the source of his poetry. He derives inspiration from listening to the world around him (read: eavesdropping on the bus), recording scenes and impressions from walking the streets of Vilnius, and closely observing such simple moments as his daughter swimming in a lake:

i wait
until the small bright head
emerges from the water
eyes shut
as if born again
tearing her way to the surface
again—with all her strength
thirsting to drink
of this world

this light


(“By Holy Lake,” trans. Rimas Uzgiris)

A self-described “omnivorous reader,” Burokas is casual about the remarkable range of texts and authors he has read, reviewed for National Radio in Lithuania, or translated himself, insisting that “it’s nothing out of the ordinary reader’s experience.”

Burokas serves as the editor of the Vilnius Review, a magazine of Lithuanian literature in translation, and spearheaded the publication’s transition to an online platform. As he wrote recently, “The best way to present the literature of a small country is not to hand out free brochures or pamphlets, business cards or magazines, but rather to open a digital window to anyone who is curious, who is searching, or who is just passing by. The Vilnius Review is such a window. In our view there is no such thing as ‘small’ literature; there are only writers who are not good enough or writers who are not publicized enough.”

—Claire Jacobson

Can you tell me about your work with the Vilnius Review? How did you get started, and what are some of the most remarkable developments you’ve seen?

The Vilnius Review has a long history. It was born in the nineties as a print magazine published in English and Russian, and its main aim was to promote translations of Lithuanian literature, popularize it abroad, and inform people about it. The first editor of the Vilnius Review was poet and essayist Eugenijus Ališanka. The magazine came out twice a year (one edition in Russian, another in English), and it was handed out for free and used for representation in various foreign book fairs and literary festivals.

But then came the time of the Internet, and a paper format was not enough. I was asked to be an editor and I decided to go digital. It’s simple and modest, but we publish texts more or less regularly from Lithuanian poets, prose stylists, essayists, and documentarians translated into English, reviews of their works, articles about them, and interviews with them. The Vilnius Review also started to publish Lithuanian writers living abroad, as well as works created by emigrants (writing in Lithuanian or in English). Currently these writers are few in number, but no doubt their ranks will increase in the future.

There will be some new developments in the future: We are compiling a cultural map of Vilnius with all the addresses and locations of bookshops, literary magazines, and cultural institutions. We are also adding descriptions of the main Lithuanian literary events and festivals there. I hope it will go online this winter. We also recently started a poetry video series, also on YouTube, for which poets themselves read one of their poems in their favorite location. The video is subtitled in English, so you can hear the music of a poem in its native language and read the translation.

The Vilnius Review comes out in paper, too. Once a year we publish an anthology of the best Lithuanian prose, poetry, reviews, articles about literature, and so on. The 2017 edition came out in late December. 

You’ve translated such well-known Anglophone authors as Dave Eggers, Charles Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson into Lithuanian. How did you come to translate them, and how have they been received in Lithuania? How has the English language and body of literature interacted with that of Lithuania, and how (if at all) have they influenced one another?

My first translated book was the Charles Bukowski novel, Post Office. It was also the first Bukowski book published in Lithuanian. Since then, Bukowski has become almost a Lithuanian national writer! He is very popular here. I don’t know why; maybe a drunkard is always popular with a nation that drinks a lot.

I usually try to pitch authors and books to publishing houses, try to interest them in publishing translations, but it doesn’t always work that way. I am really happy I translated Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—I had so much fun translating it, with all its puns and eloquence. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. I can say the same about Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian. These two books were well received in Lithuania and are widely read.

Have English and/or American literature influenced Lithuanian literature? Of course, and in many ways. We are not the exception, alas. Most of the foreign language books, most of the translated books, most books people read are translated from English.

But we can speak only of one-way influence here. There are but a few good Lithuanian novels (for example Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis) and a couple of poetry books translated into English. English and American publishers and readers are very self-centered, and of course they are overwhelmed by their own literature. It creates the illusion of big literature and a big world you can access, but it isn’t so. Anyway, as far as I know, the situation is changing now. There are a lot of African, Asian, and Latin American writers being translated into English, and readers are interested in them. I hope that our Lithuanian authors also find a niche in world readers’ hearts.

What are some of the unique challenges of translating between Lithuanian and English, whether grammatical, stylistic, cultural, or something else?

The biggest challenge, at least for me, is slang (American or British English). Lithuanian is an old, rich, and beautiful language but rather poor in slang—in Soviet times we used Russian slang and curse words a lot, and they’re still in use, but the youth don’t understand Russian anymore. So, you sometimes have to improvise and invent. Of course, when you’re translating you always have to look out for cultural and other references and you have to know the context well.

I had a tough time translating Woody Allen’s short stories—the wordplay, the hidden quotes, the humor (some of which is hardly translatable). These stories were difficult. The same was true of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It looks easy, funny, snappy, and so on, but when you start translating suddenly nothing works, and the tone and sentences become clunky. How do you transplant “gonzo” style into Lithuanian? I’ve tried!

The most difficult things in poetry were Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish” poems—how to translate his slangy conversational beatnik style combined with long, Whitmanesque lines. But it was real fun. That is what translation is about for me—diving into the language, seeking unexpected and interesting solutions, and having fun.

Who are the writers, from either within or beyond the Lithuanian literary community, who have influenced your work the most over the course of your career? And who are you reading these days?

Well, the list would be rather long, and would include books in Lithuanian, Russian, and English, and a lot of authors. And those influences are quite varied—you never know which line or thought just comes into your head while writing. I used to read Lithuanian poets (I can name the names, but their poetry is hard to find in translation—Vytautas Bložė, Antanas A. Jonynas, Sigitas Geda, Kornelijus Platelis, Sigitas Parulskis, Judita Vaičiūnaitė), Russian Silver Age poetry, Polish poets (especially Tadeusz Rozewicz), American poets (Robertson Jeffers, Kenneth Patchen, H.D., Jack Gilbert, Robert Bly, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and the list goes on). I’ve read my Joyce, Brodsky, Cavafy, Nabokov, and Kafka, Cortázar, and Márquez, and so on, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary reader’s experience here.

I still am an omnivorous reader; I read not only poetry and literary fiction, but also science fiction, noir and detective novels, and thrillers. Of course, since I am also a book reviewer on National Radio and in a couple of Lithuanian magazines, I have to read a lot, two or three books at a time. Usually I try to divide my reading time into three parts: early in the morning, I read books that I have to review; during the day and in the evening, I read mostly nonfiction and poetry (these are books I want to read, not for reviews); and in bed before going to sleep, I read some thriller or detective story. I don’t know if this is a weird schedule or not, but it helps me—if each category has its own designated time, my brain doesn’t confuse different plots and writers.

This week, I am reading a novel by Finnish author Selja Ahava, Things that Fall from the Sky, and Polish Memories—a series of autobiographical sketches by Witold Gombrowicz composed for Radio Free Europe in the fifties. I just finished the detective novel IQ, by Joe Ide. And I’ve just discovered a Russian poet, Lida Yusupova, currently based in Toronto. I am reading her book, Dead Dad, which came out last year, and trying to translate some of the poems. I have just ordered Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, so I am waiting for that to arrive. And there is a novel by Bruce Chatwin, Utz, which I’ve just bought and am very eager to read.

How does your work as a poet inform your translation work, and vice versa?

They’re interconnected for me. I write poetry slowly—one poem or less a month—so the rest of the time I’m translating whatever appeals to me (or something that a publishing house has offered me). Translation is a way of not forgetting the craft of writing poetry. There’s so much that it teaches me: new techniques, linguistic economy, attentiveness, inventiveness. I’ve learned how to write narrative poems translating American poets. I’ve learned prose poetry, and some surrealistic tricks translating Charles Simic and Russell Edson. These are only a few examples, of course.

If we are to delve a little deeper into the dangerous and slippery territory of meaning—is it possible to fully transmit the meaning, style, and structure of a poem, novel, or short story from one language to another? This question bothers all translators. I think that it is almost unanswerable. A translator can be a co-author, a rewriter, a medium—there are many definitions.

I think poets are the best translators of poetry. But it’s paradoxical—they are the best translators only when they subdue their own poetic voices and personal styles, when they forget that they themselves are poets (but still know it deep inside).

Anyway, these are all theories, but in practical terms, translation is for me the joy of sharing an author, a poem, a short story I like with others whom I hope can experience it, too.

In your poem “ežiukas poetiniam rūke”/ “hedgehog in a poetic haze” you write, “so go/ i say, without a whimper,/ we are the ultimate knaves, hedgie/ go back to the book/ in which i will write you up/ after many years . . . ” Can you talk about the inspiration for your writing, what makes you want to write, and your process?

Inspiration comes from observation! I actually like to listen to people talking on trains, buses, on public transport, watch them, and invent their stories and biographies. It is much more interesting than just listening to music on your headphones or scrolling through Facebook.

Also long, aimless walking through the city helps me think about a poem—there is something about the rhythm of walking that helps the rhythm of a poem. I still write the first draft of a poem by hand, so I always carry a pencil and notebook with me. I’ve noticed that there are certain spots in my city where I usually get an idea, a first line, or a whole poem.

Poetry is for me the best form and the best means of searching for the answers to questions that do not usually have an answer. It is the best way to think, to cope with changes in society and the world, to ponder these changes. A poem can reach deeper and affect you more than an article, a manifesto, or even a rally or gathering in a square.

As I mentioned before, I am a slow writer, so the process takes time. But there is nothing new or unexpected in it: A poem has to go through three or four rounds of editing, and then I show it to the first reader—my wife, who is also a poet—and if she says it’s okay, then it’s okay.

Can you give some examples of things that you’ve observed, places you’ve been, or events that have taken place which inspired a work of poetry for you?

My poems are often born from impressions, from a street scene—some of them even work like street photography. For example, a poem called “By Holy Lake” is about my daughter, swimming in the lake, breaking the surface of the water. It reminded me of her birth, coming into this world.

I also have a cycle of poems called “Annotated Photographs”—these are poem-reactions to famous Lithuanian and global photographs (Masahisa Fukase, Walker Evans, etc.). I don’t describe them, but rather use them as a point of departure, as a stimulus. Some of the poems are reactions to terrible events—I wrote a poem called “After November 13” about the terrorist attack in Paris.

Do you think that poetry is also political? Do poets and writers have a responsibility to be political when they see problems in society, or can they be occupied only with art for art’s sake?

Yes, a poem can become a political manifesto, a call for action, or an inspiration to act and protest, even if it was not intended for such a purpose. A good poem is universal. I think political poetry is a subgenre of the form—short-lived, used for concrete purposes, and it has a right to exist. But it’s better when something that is just a poem, a good one, becomes a call for protest, a cry for change.

But I won’t call it a “responsibility.” A poet has only one “responsibility”—to write good poems. If these poems are about problems in society—good. If a poet is an active member of society, if he or she sees the need for change and wants to express it in poetry, that is his or her choice. And you can do a lot of good with such poems. Of course, there are poets who choose to be a socially active, political poet, but it is a slippery path, I think. You can be easily tempted to pen beautiful, empty slogans.

Sometimes I see a lack of political and social awareness in Lithuanian poetry—there are a lot of issues we poets could write about, but we don’t. Maybe Lithuanian poets are still tired of all the covert political struggle of the Soviet era, or maybe we are too cynical and can more easily see through all political manipulation and are disillusioned—so why bother?