J. Kates

Interviewed by Bredt Bredthauer

I’m interested in the way translators come to the poetry they translate. How did you come to Magny’s work and what made you want to translate him into English?

The story of this particular poem is rather unusual and picturesque, and illuminating, perhaps, of my general casualness. There is a Muse of Minor Poetry. She descended one afternoon, when I was at my desk trying as hard as I could to avoid responsible work. Suddenly, she laid her artificially bejeweled hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear these very words—“Translate a minor poem of the French Renaissance.” (I’m not making this up.) I reached over to a shelf conveniently within reach that held the Oxford Book of French Verse, and it fell open to this sonnet by Olivier de Magny, “Hola, Charon, Charon, Nautonnier infernal!” A half hour later, the translation was pretty much finished, except for a few touch-ups.

I think what caught my fancy most was that opening “Hola!” so much at odds with the rest of the language in the poem, and so contemporary to us, even as the rest proceeds using the attitudes and rhetoric of its own time. “Hola!” locates the dramatic dialogue instantly in a single place and time, making visible, audible, tangible, everything that follows. (It’s the exact inverse of a Philip Sidney sonnet, which, with its last line—and sometimes its last word—rewrites all the thirteen lines before it.)

This may be a purely hedonistic question, but I’ve never been visited by a poetic muse, minor or otherwise, so when you mentioned being visited by the “Muse of Minor Poetry” I was fascinated. Could you tell me what her voice actually sounded like and how her “artificially bejeweled hand” actually felt?

Do I look like one to kiss and tell? Ah, I guess, but poets always do kiss and tell. Hmmm. Try this (very much off the cuff):



Why did she ask you to translate a poem of the French Renaissance as opposed to any other?

Translation takes place across time and space. I try to translate an older poem with at least an indication of its original diction, without forgetting that it was contemporary in its own time and should sound reasonably contemporary, but not hip, to a modern reader. The sixteenth century is wonderfully flexible in the permeable boundary between passion expressed and very formal diction—in effect, the first grand flowering of confessional poetry. In one draft of this sonnet, the eleventh line began something like “Bucks this master of the Gods,” but that sounded completely out of time. On the other hand, “Ahoy” suggested itself immediately, even though I don’t know if “Hola” was the actual salutation among French boatmen in the sixteenth century.

I can’t help but wonder why more contemporary poets don’t read this work. It seems like quite a few of them could use a little more formal diction and passion. Do you agree?

I’d agree that most of what passes for poems in our contemporary culture does not match my definition of poetry—is that a statement about the culture or about me?—and that most of what survives from what was written in the sixteenth century does. I wouldn’t like to see contemporary poets writing sixteenth-century poems, though.

What was the most challenging aspect of the Magny translation? What surprised you the most?

I guess what surprised me most was the fluidity with which it came, which leads me to mistrust the result. But I think there’s also a subtle distinction in tone between Charon and the lover—and the drama of the dialogue needs to be maintained. This is, after all, a miniature one-act play—again, comparison and contrast with some of Sidney’s sonnets hovers in my mind. My version feels wordier than the original, less sprightly.

I assume the sonnet presents some unique difficulties for a translator. How much did you search for the most precise word and rhyme scheme? Were you more interested in maintaining the accuracy or the communicative function of the text?

A sonnet needs to be translated as a sonnet. I’m not at all a slave to form, but some conditions are non-negotiable. (Oddly, the converse is not necessarily true. Catullus’ “Cenabis bene, Fabulle,” obviously was not written as a sonnet, but translates beautifully into one. You might call it a proto-sonnet.) Accuracy as an abstract concept is also non-negotiable—but we can argue what constitutes accuracy: I change word order, loosen the rhymes (although I keep the scheme) and play other small games of my own. For some poems I take some pretty broad liberties—but not, I hope, license.

You discuss playing “small games” when translating. Could you go into more detail on the type of games you play? I’m curious if either readers or critics have reacted negatively to a translator playing games with other people’s work?

What is a game? It’s a sphere of activity played out according to arbitrary rules (if the rules aren’t arbitrary, it’s no longer a game) in an artificially defined space. Some games are traditional, even ancient: Chess. Sonnet. Some games are pick-up games: Tag, free verse. When I translate, I’m choosing to play somebody else’s game. Within that, I make my own moves, maybe creating my own game within the greater game. If a reader or a critic doesn’t want to play with us, let them go somewhere else, no hard feelings. But I always keep in mind Frost’s “Only when work and play are one / And the game is played for mortal stakes / Is the game ever really played / For heaven and the future’s sakes.”

How do you overcome the problem of cultural and historical gaps in the translation process?

I guess I have trouble defining cultural and historical gaps as a “problem” here. I assume (as Magny did) a reader who is reasonably familiar with the conventions of love poetry and the inherited mythology. This poem doesn’t call for much gap-leaping. (I could discourse long on others that do. My favorite example of failure is with two lines from Jean-Pierre Rosnay, which—see below—are genuinely untranslatable: addressing a schoolgirl, the poet writes, “Quand je vous parle du seizième / C’est au siècle qu’il faut penser,” literally, “When I speak to you of the sixteenth / it’s the century you should think of.” What needs to be translated is the double meaning of “seizième” as both the Paris arrondissement and the century of the French High Renaissance—each with its own cultural resonance; and the use of the substantive adjective to stand for either. In other words, both syntactical and cultural gaps between the original and any imaginable translation. Successes sometimes involve a translation of cultural references as well as of merely words, as when Brian Hooker takes Rostand’s parody of Théophile de Viau, “Le voilà donc ce nez qui des traits de son maître…” and turns it into Marlowe’s, “Was this the nose that launched a thousand ships?” For one Russian poem built around a popular song commonplace in Russia but unknown in English, I threw out the original entirely and replaced it with “Tea for Two.”)

You’ve translated both Russian and French poetry. Could you discuss the advantages and difficulties in translating these languages?

On one hand, they’re both, like English, just dialects of Indo-European. The other hand, I suppose, is the interesting one. French is structurally closer to English, as Russian is to Latin. French loves its verb tenses—Proust could never have written originally in any other language—while Russian relies heavily on nouns and adjectives, I like to say it’s far more demonstrative. I’m not a linguist, so I don’t have any academic foundation for any of this.

I learned the languages very differently, too. I studied French from school days, and became quite proficient in it, both reading and writing. Russian I pretty much taught myself, on the spot. My translation of Russian is more instinctive, and relies on my instincts as a poet. One poet I work with, Mikhail Aizenberg, has said that I make mistakes, but they’re the right mistakes. I took that as a compliment. In French I’m more likely to trip myself up with false confidence—that calls for a different kind of vigilance.

Some literary critics and academics have argued that poetry is untranslatable? How would you respond to this assertion?

With humility.

I agree with your response, but I feel it necessitates further elaboration. It makes me distressed that people would be denied the pleasure of reading poets like Anna Akhmatova and Olivier de Magny. Is this response justified or unreasonable?

The real point is that the translation is not the same as the original, and should not be expected to be. It’s a work of art in its own right that bears a discernible relationship to the original text. Nobody looks at Van Gogh’s painting and says, “But that’s not what sunflowers look like.” They understand that this is one vision, one interpretation if you will, of sunflowers—and one that may well affect how observers will look at “real” sunflowers when next they see them. Some readers expect far too much of translations. It’s curious that translations and children’s books are the only two genres of literature that are critiqued by those who are emphatically not their intended audience. The translator’s responsibility is rooted in remembering that s/he is writing for someone who does not have access to the original, not for the scholar who does. This does not excuse sloppy work, by the way.

In the article “Loss in Translation,” you were quoted as saying, “We live in a tremendous isolationist bubble” and that “the lack of books from other cultures can make us myopic.” Could you expand on these ideas?

Here’s an experiment. Walk into a literate crowd, even a literary crowd—an MFA classroom, let’s say—and ask the people there to name five contemporary American poets. Most can do it easily, even if they have to include their own workshop guru. Then ask them to name five contemporary Irish poets. Then five contemporary French poets…even five writers in any genre. Do we need to go farther afield? Americans in general know very little about culture abroad, about what’s going on in most of the world. This is a failure of vision, not of intelligence—nor, I’d even hasten to add, of will. But vision. What translation provides, in one of my many metaphors for it, is corrective lenses, enabling us to see farther and more clearly. None of us can see it all. I’m pretty short-sighted myself, but at least I know that I’m short-sighted and wear glasses, occasionally use binoculars and have even been known to stick my eye into a telescope. The sorrow and shame come among the readers and writers who think that what they see with their naked eye is what constitutes the world, or as much of it that matters.

As co-director at Zephyr Press, you have published a wide range of translations such as an anthology of Iraqi poetry and a collection of Korean women poets. Could you discuss why you decided to publish these editions and what you would like an American audience to gain from reading them?

Oh, come now! What we gain from reading poems is poetry—other voices whispering in our ear. The books Zephyr publishes, including the Iraqi and the Korean women’s poems—are first of all individual voices that we’re proud to amplify and broadcast. And they are voices that otherwise might not be heard. I think that’s enough, without trying to figure out how these poems are getting read.

I applaud the work you’ve done at Zephyr Press, but I have to ask, are Americans actively buying these translations? If so, then do you think the market is larger for foreign poets than domestic ones?

Well, we’re not matching The Da Vinci Code in sales at Zephyr. But it is curious that when we display our wares at writers’ conferences, we regularly outsell, sometimes by factors of two or three or more, the cookie-cutter small presses around us. I think that’s because what we have to offer is significantly different and alluring. I think the market is large, but the marketing problems are larger: Literary books of this kind are sold for the most part nowadays through personal appearances and readings. But our authors live far away, and may not speak English; and few book-buyers want to turn out just to see and listen to a translator.

According to your biography, you worked as a Freedom Summer volunteer, public school teacher and nonviolence trainer. How did these experiences influence your own poetry and literary translations?

I’ve been asked this once before, and it gave me pause the first time. Perhaps I’m better prepared to answer it now. Nonviolence training and community organizing—and good teaching, too—train a person to listen well and carefully, and to look at the world through different eyes, both individually and culturally. These are skills that inform translation as well.

I’m fascinated by how technology and the Internet have changed the process of writing, publishing and translating. Could you comment on these changes and whether they have been for the better or the worse?

For translation, I see nothing but good in the technological innovations that may curse our time in other ways. It used to take months to communicate between St. Petersburg and New Hampshire. Now it takes minutes. I can collaborate with poets and other informants in a way I never could before. I can play with drafts and variations like a musician. For writing in general, though, the loss of editing process and the loss of a time-lag are both crippling. The first encourages a logorrhea—graphomania if you prefer—and the second deprives both writers and readers of perspective. “Don’t publish until the ninth year,” Horace warned. Back to Cicero: O tempora, o mores!

I also agree with Horace’s warning, “Don’t publish until the ninth year,” but could you elaborate on how you feel this has adversely affected the poetry currently being published both domestically and abroad?

Time is a bold and discerning editor, who discovers far more than s/he loses. When the writing and editing and publishing processes automatically took days, weeks, months—years—they gave the writer excuse and opportunity for reflection and revision. A writer becomes a reader of his or her own work only after the passage of time. I have felt the temptation at my computer, having just finished a few singing lines, to open another file and zing them off to a magazine right away. Usually, waiting even a few days makes a tremendous difference, often saving me from ludicrous embarrassment. A good editing process also introduces other judgment between the writer and embarrassment. Right now I’m reading an excruciatingly bad novel written by a high-school classmate of mine—unedited and self-published, it’s a train wreck. There’s a good story buried in it. But buried.

I also wanted to ask you about your involvement with the American Literary Translators Association. Can you talk about your work with this organization?

I’ve been a member of ALTA for about twenty years. At first, I attended a conference simply because it was being held in a city I had never visited and wanted to see—Pittsburgh. I discovered a community unlike any other in the writing world—as I’ve said all too many times by now, translators by definition are people who are interested in other people’s work. That makes for a very different climate from most writers’ gatherings. In addition, there’s no money in literary translation; so everybody has a day job. ALTA becomes a point of contact among very diverse people. As for my work with the organization, as a publisher I’ve found it a source of sustenance as well as marketing. In return, I’ve tried to contribute to its effectiveness and continuation as best I can, by volunteering with committees and serving on the board and as an officer.

I’ll end with several commonly asked, yet practical questions. First, what other translations are you reading and who else are you currently translating?

I translate around the way I read around—the way some people sleep around. Not completely promiscuous, but I have my tastes. I keep going back to the same poets I’ve been translating for years, and I’ve also been playing with some poets I hadn’t read before. A young St. Petersburg poet, Aleksey Porvin, got in touch with me recently, and I’ve found him interesting enough to work with. The critic John Taylor in France introduced me to the work of Louis Calaferte, who died a few years ago, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with his poems. And I’m constantly working with my old friend and colleague Steve Sadow on Latin-American Jewish poetry, most recently Daniel Chirom and David Rosenmann-Taub.

And second, I’d like to know if you have any advice for someone who would like to try translating?

Stop fussing. Find what you love and do it. Learn on the job. Keep learning. Read.

Olivier de Magny’s poem “Sonnet,” translated from the French by J. Kates, appears in Subtropics 9.