lip wolf, by Laura Solórzano, translated by Jen Hofer (Action Books, 2007)
The Drug of Art: Selected Poems of Ivan Blatný, translated by Justin Quinn, Matthew Sweney, Alex Zucker, Veronika Tuckerová and Anna Moschovakis (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007)
Secret Weapon, by Eugen Jebeleanu, translated by Matthew Zapruder (Coffee House, 2008)
In the opening to his essay “On the Problem of Translation,” Nietzsche writes that “One can gauge the degree of the historical sensibility an age possesses by the manner in which it translates texts and by the manner in which it seeks to incorporate past epochs and books into its own being.” The question of literary translation continues to be troubled by this insight, since it takes as a given the conditional nature of this process of textual incorporation. From this perspective, the act of translation raises the possibility that a nation never sees the state of its literature clearly, that there is a kind of irrevocable failure of self-recognition. America revels in its illusions about itself, most strikingly that it’s a monolingual culture. Our sense of a national identity is perpetually dependent on ideas of our originality (suitable for commercial export) and our isolation (resistant to cultural import). This goes a long way toward explaining why so few books of translation are released in the United States each year. In 2004, translations made up less than 3% of published books, a figure that lags far behind other developed countries. Like so many other absences in cultural exchange, what we are missing is impossible to quantify. This loss is only accountable if we believe that what makes our literature important is an understanding of what it means to be American, rather than a larger sense of what it means to be human. How much poorer would we be then—if we actually thought that we learn this more dearly from Dickinson and Ashbery than Baudelaire and Bracho. What if, rather than being the place where poetry is lost, translation is a means through which poetry might be discovered?
With the mix of violence and intimacy that the book’s title suggests, the poems in lip wolf claw their way toward knowledge or apprehension of the “you,” the other who is not altogether distinct from the speaker herself. The book is the first English-language collection from the contemporary Mexican poet Laura Solórzano, whose unwavering lyrics progress deliberately—sometimes by inches, sometimes by great leaps—through their own knotted intensity. A poem in the book’s opening sequence begins:
To call you storm ingesting its lagoon, dragonfly
reviewing the pistil of its illness, to call you of head
and of cuticle, to call you only you in fallen water,
in lightning. To open my chest to speak with invincible
launches to your ear.
As in other parts of this sequence, the poem casts the scene of its action with infinitives (“to call,” “to open”) that bewitch the speaker’s existence—past, present, and future. The poems are not the story of what the speaker does or did inside a particular narrative moment, but a speculative account of the self in the world, of how the world contains the self. The speaker in Solórzano’s poems struggles to reckon with, to describe and to name (literally to come to terms with) her place in a world that is at once profoundly narrow—defined by its boundaries and centered on the speaker’s relationship with the “you”—and unimaginably vast, producing a flood of images from her surroundings.
Solórzano’s poems are populated with familiar lyric imagery, drawn primarily from nature (seeds, trees, water, stones), weather (lightning, wind, rain), and the human body (arms, face, tongue, sweat). Yet the old concerns of lyric poetry are rendered in this work with fresh intensity. Solórzano doesn’t cheapen the bodily realities behind these tropes with abstraction, forcing eroticism, for example, to become yet another coinage for poetic exchange. Instead, this imagery serves as an authentic means of reckoning with the world, of seeing clearly what constitutes the self and the other. In Solórzano’s writing, knowledge—even half-knowledge—can come by any means, as in “(fallow),” where the speaker imagines the self as a tree,
From swamp to swamp, a door.
A stalk arriving, a flare in the deity
of the plantlet that’s barely budding.
And among the seeds I call the plant on its stroll,
as I’d call the foot.
or, in “(movement),” as a seascape,
. . . I pursue a lagoon
of intermittent rock, and at the tip of the hatch I watch you
work as if in pursuit I might succumb.
Most often, though, knowledge is made possible by the speaker’s own encounters with language—through the use of seductive alliteration propelling the lines forward, through the sense shifting across line breaks, and through the acts of naming, invoking, and asking. In “(path),” an accumulated series of highly metaphoric conditions—“If your head tires of tumbling, if constructions trot on / horseback in your body”—leads directly to a flurry of prophetically charged, image-laden statements that are unleashed as a kind of perfect linguistic inversion, definitive and irrevocable.
In response to the vast infinitives of the book’s opening poems, lip wolf closes with a sequence made up entirely of questions. Where the opening sequence proposes ideas about the “you,” these final questions are aimed at understanding this figure and the experience the two share:
do you arrive at the voice? do you voyage to arrive at watercress?
do you return, in swallows of ostrich? these sails are yours?
. . .
which is the finger for donating the honeycomb to you?
do you wait to watch the mountain?
As with Pablo Neruda’s Libro de las preguntas [Book of questions], Solórzano’s inquisitive persistence—at once catechistic and elliptical—wonders, goads, and presses on.
Jen Hofer is among the best translators of Mexican poetry working today, not only for what she brings to the page, but also for what she doesn’t. Hofer does not meddle. She does not seek to arrest control of the poem—and her contribution, therefore, is indispensable. Lip wolf manages to be literally faithful to the content of the original Spanish, while also delivering for readers of English the processes by which the poems unfold. Hofer’s translations reflect not just the basic formal elements of the original poems, such as line length, but also their inherent push and pull. In her versions, we are allowed to follow the poems’ shifts and turns, looking with their penetrating gaze as they “pull you over to call,” “cry to complicate your music,” and “ascend to sips of the tongue.”
If translations of poems have the feel of poetry, we may enjoy their craft but doubt their fidelity. If they have the feel of prose, we assume they have authority, since, they seem to imply, any attempt to recreate a sense of the poetic would undermine their claim to accuracy and precision. Whichever choice a translator makes, there is the alchemy of something foreign and unintelligible becoming a text that we can read. We see this change take place before our eyes, but distrust what we are given or think little of how it was done. The translator’s foreknowledge of how a poem will end before her work begins is also eerie to our lingering Romantic conception that art must be spontaneous. The premeditation and self-awareness of translation, and the practical use to which it is put, make its charms suspect. The nakedness of its function—something art supposedly lacks—reduces it to a sub-basement of literature, somehow necessary to the operation, but no place to venture willingly. Translators have been described as traitors arresting creative control or as failed writers pursuing the “unpoetic” goal of making the foreign familiar. Most often, though, they aren’t described at all, perhaps with the assumption that their work is as invisible as glass before a painting.
What if poetry does not transform the world but merely watches as life flickers into darkened silence? Such is the question that haunts the poetry of the Czech poet Ivan Blatný (1919–1990). In the poems that make up The Drug of Art, a new collection of Blatný’s work translated by four different writers, we are given a collage of images from the poet’s surroundings that are not meant to express the beauty of life but only to stand in evidence of its reality. For Blatný, poetry is not a means of transcendence. Instead, it allows us to come to grips with the world that’s given—from the terrors of war to the most commonplace household objects. Most often in his work, this means facing hardship, sorrow, and death unadorned. A humble music of images repeats and mixes in a halting song. The poem “Small Variation” opens,
Thursday 8 pm. On the table:
Matches, cigarettes, tobacco, knife, and lamp.
You already know my music from five or six things,
You already know my music from five or six things,
My little song.
Blatný’s early poems look to the work of Langston Hughes, a debt made apparent not only by emulation but also by Blatný’s use of several epigraphs from Hughes’ work. Like Hughes, Blatný records the homely details of a modern urban life resonating with the magnitudes of love, death, hope, misery, and alienation. Both poets draw on the blues as more than a sound or structure, presenting it as an attitude toward life, a philosophical stance.
In 1948, while on a cultural exchange tour of England, Blatný publicly criticized the regime that had taken power in Czechoslovakia that spring and announced that he would not return home. The response was severe and immediate. He was condemned in the Communist press, as well as by his friends and fellow writers. Thus began a nearly thirty-year silence during which he sought psychiatric treatment and political refuge as a resident in various English mental institutions.
Blatný’s poetry was rediscovered in the 1970s. The intervening years of isolation had reshaped his work. His later poems are direct and incomplete, reading like postcards that, by turns, lament his exile, as in “Sunday,”
maybe Brušák will show up on the road
they’ve been abroad here for years and I still haven’t seen them
I have poems ready
we’ll talk about literature
the world will be full of life again.
or, as in “Autumn,” celebrate his one lasting companion, the written word,
I found a letter, written only in lead,
rain worn, half torn.
O epistolary era, where have you fled?
I have written long letters as Rilke used to;
no more, farewell, it’s November, late.
The red horses are out of the gate.
Disunion is the necessary condition for all of Blatný’s poems. The thread that links the disparate modes of his career is an assertion that violence is inextricably political and personal, psychological and real. Blatný’s writing makes this recognition feel terribly alive.
The Drug of Art is a massive undertaking, and the collection provides a generous and varied sampling of Blatný’s poetry faithfully and ably rendered into English. Blatný’s stylistic variety makes it fitting that his work be rendered by many hands. His poems from the 1940s are expansive gestures toward representing the world in which he lived. They follow railroad tracks and city streets, pursuing heartache and decay with the Romantic longings of youth. By contrast, his poems from the 1970s are interior and fragmentary lyrics outlining remnants and absences. As far as the translations are concerned, Blatný could have received no better introduction for readers of English. Of the large-scale apparatus of critical material—there are eight forewords and afterwords in all—that accounts not only for Blatný’s history but also that of the translations themselves (almost like documents proving the existence of this vanished poet), the most complete and helpful is Veronika Tuckerová’s introduction, which provides enough valuable context to lead readers straight to the core of these haunting poems, at once shaped by and kept apart from their own troubled history.
There is odd comfort in the notion that poetry is untranslatable; comfort, too, in the idea that translation is a technical, almost systematic, process. And perhaps there is also comfort in the thought that these theories of translation, along with a host of others, are battling it out somewhere just out of earshot. Talk of translation often produces arguments about “power,” with the task of the translator hovering somewhere between the utterly necessary and the deeply unnatural. Here are four recent statements about translation that fall along this spectrum:
“I surrender to the text when I translate.”
“Translation is always a form of collaboration: between two (or more) poets and also between two (or more) languages.”
“I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through. This is an amiable fantasy (transparency of the self) within which most translators labor.”
“I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injection of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power, but I know they are both.”
Is translation undergone or undertaken? Or does translation itself overtake the text? Is it an act of submission or of conquest? Collaboration or negation? Each of the equations above is a way of describing the sort of violence that takes place when the author(ity) is absent. A translator has at best only secondhand knowledge of the experience that lives behind a poem’s conception, and so by necessity the focus of translation is on the form of poetic experience that can be conveyed—the experience of encountering the poem rather than that of creating the poem. Such is the prickly distinction that clings to translation, which, though ostensibly a pragmatic activity, yields a result that—however imperfect, however arrived at by hook or crook—constitutes a work of art, a made thing. Translations are not produced because of theories nor in spite of them.
Eugen Jebeleanu (1911–1991) wrote the poems in Secret Weapon, which will be released in February 2008, during the 1970s while living under Romania’s Ceauşescu regime. As Romanian citizens endured food and fuel rationing, frequent blackouts, and political oppression, Jebeleanu was a poet sanctioned by the state—his poems appearing serially in a major newspaper—who had ceased to believe in communism’s promise and had begun to write subversively, shadowed by guilt for his own complicity in the government system. This difficult history is perhaps the reason why Jebeleanu is little known outside Romania, aside from his critical epic “The Smile of Hiroshima.” Secret Weapon, translated by the poet Matthew Zapruder with historian Radu Ioanid, is the first collection of Jebeleanu’s late poems in English.
These poems find ingenious means of talking about the repressive state, the daily rounds of violence and death, and even Ceauşescu himself, parodying the dictator as a diminutive Caligula riding through the bowed legs of his wife. Many of the poems are unsettling social allegories in miniature. In “Brotherhood,” for instance, the speaker is tried before a jury of crows. The poem ends:
I croaked seven times, then again seven times,
three times secretly striking the bitter branch.
And they decided, He’s right, it’s enough—
and they tore me apart.
In “The Saddest,” the poet openly laments state censorship:
The saddest poem
is the poem which is not written
swallowed with knots
stalked by customs officials . . .
Yet, in the end, the violence and pain of Secret Weapon are directed inward. The lyric intensity of the poems reflects crises that are psychological and moral rather than political. They are a means of talking about an interior reality that has no other form of expression, a reality in which the self is caught inside an endless state of terror and dread. The known quantities are large and inescapable—injustice, ruin, and death—while Jebeleanu’s images are small and commonplace: birds, teeth, sleep, and the isolated figures of women and men.
These late poems are stylistically similar to the work of Eastern European writers who may be more familiar to American readers: Czeslaw Milosz and Tomaž Šalamun, in particular. They are often underpinned by simple narratives—like fairytales without happy endings—darkened by surreal shifts and a gallows sensibility. For example, the poem “The Quiet One” begins with a girl frightened by a dream that she has died, and continues:
And she climbed up to me in bed, small and crying.
And danger shone black in her black eyes.
And I caressed her hair of light.
And I calmed her, telling her: It was just a dream.
The oblique movement of the lines constructs a narrative tinged with contrasts of danger and care, light and dark. By the poem’s end, though, we see that any sense of forward movement suggested by the word “and” is only an illusion, as is the idea that the girl is alive. There is no transformation, no magic escape.
Elsewhere, the poet imagines ordinary elements of the world transformed into, or transfused with, something foreign and free: a cloud is made of a potato (“Potato in the Clouds”); “The forest is a green immobile elephant” (“Confusion”); and a bird is a seed that “sprouts only by spreading her leaves / in skies plowed by the wind” (“Wings and Earth”). Just as Jebeleanu’s poems transform these familiar images, the translations themselves offer readers of English something wondrous hidden before our eyes. Secret Weapon is a revelation. It places an original and indispensable voice in our midst.
No matter how faithful a translation attempts to be to the original poem, it can never truly be the same. So goes the old, simple fact to which readers and translators endlessly return. Yet what may be a lament for the reader is, for the translator, a means of entry. Inevitably, the process of translation results in something new. This should worry us only as much as it delights us. We value creativity in readers, why not in the intermediaries who deliver us to the texts? And besides, what poem doesn’t require us to be a little lost? What poem worth reading isn’t worthy of our surrender? Translation forces us to interrogate and wonder. Despite the inability of anyone to agree exactly on its value—or its limitations—translation is something we cannot do without. It energizes the English language and keeps the narrow space of American poetry from caving in on itself.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Problem of Translation,” translated by Peter Mollenhauer, in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays From Dryden to Derrida, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
 See “Comparative Literature,” Jascha Hoffman, New York Times Book Review, April 15, 2007. Examples include Spain, where translations made up 25% of books published in 2004, Italy with 22%, and even China with 4%.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti (New York: Routledge, 2000), 398; Charles Bernstein, “Breaking the Translation Curtain: The Homophonic Sublime,” in towards a foreign likeness bent: translation, edited by Jerrold Shiroma (Duration Press, 2005), 10, <http://www.durationpress.com/poetics/translation.htm>; Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), x; Forrest Gander, No Shelter: The Selected Poems of Pura López-Colomé (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002), viii.