Omnidawn Translators: Kyoko Yoshida, Forrest Gander, Maxine Chernoff, Donald Revell, & Paul Hoover
Interview by Cynthia Reeser
What are the primary challenges of translation you’ve faced? What has been the most challenging work for you?
Donald Revell: The greatest challenge is, always, to give the translation every evidence of being the utterance of a living man, i.e. to give breath to the cry of its occasion. Too often, a poem translated begins as a relic and ends as a reliquary. I felt this with especial poignancy when working with Laforgue. In his Derniers Vers, Laforgue knew all too well that he was dying; his every syllable was urgent, and his vocabulary was the vocabulary of visionary, cosmopolitan desperation. As his translator, I had to seek a way to be careful whilst throwing caution to the wind. It was an exhausting and spiritually thrilling experience, to have died a portion of his death with him.
Maxine Chernoff: Translating the works of Hoelderlin the primary challenge seemed to be to strike a balance between his fragmented and often opaque approach and the necessary clarity and deep sense of lyric also there to convey his richness and beauty to a contemporary reader in English. Secondly, since he wrote over a period of many decades and personal fragmentation and deep mental anguish, it was also a challenge to maintain a sense of his continuity and consistency throughout the poems that struggle but also gain great power through his own adversity.
Paul Hoover: My work with Maxine Chernoff on the poetry of Friedrich Holderlin was a challenge. His syntax is complex and his sentences sometimes run for half a page. On the other hand, translating the hymns that are not fragments (“Bread and Wine” and “The Rhine,” for instance) was not particularly difficult. The hexameter of these works unburdens the syntax and brings ease of expression and openness into play.
My work with Maria Baranda in translating the Poesias of San Juan de la Cruz presented some difficulties because English doesn’t have the range of rhyming words that Spanish possesses. The mystical and philosophical meaning of the poems came to us readily, because it lies beyond the rhyming limit.
Forrest Gander: For me, with Spectacle & Pigsty, depending upon a co-translator was difficult in the sense that for the first time as a translator, I couldn’t read the original text. Fortunately, Kyoko Yoshida was a fabulous, generous, and super-diligent collaborator. She recorded herself reading the poems in Japanese, provided me with kanji and romanji versions along with trots, notes, and first drafts. And that served as just the beginning of our translation work. There are moments in Kiwao Nomura’s poems when he uses characters that may be more expressive as sounds than meanings, although they also have textual meanings. Those are especially hard to translate because even pure sounds carry different resonances and associations in different cultures. (Dogs don’t sound the same—if you consider how their “bark” is represented in different languages.)
Kyoko Yoshida: In translation of poetry, the difference between the agglutinative Japanese and the inflectional English always causes me a headache because word order is crucial in every line. When translating drama, the handling of cultural contexts implicit in the text poses a considerable challenge, as does the emulating of varied lingo and tones of speech. In any case, these difficulties have given me nothing but the pleasure of solving good puzzles because while the difficulty of creative writing is a conundrum with infinite possibilities, translation comes with the starting point and the goal, both of which is the original text.
Translating Kiwao Nomura’s poetry was by far the most challenging, even though I had Forrest Gander as my mighty co-translator. I intentionally picked difficult poems for the collection, but of all the poems, the series “On the Way to the Site of Doppo’s Lodge” really tested my endurance, skills, and knowledge, not just because of its complexity but also because of its length and ever-changing voice and form.
How did you first come into translating?
DR: I first came to translation via loneliness. I very much needed a friend, a travelling companion, and Guillaume Apollinaire took my hand… Afterwards, I found that I had no heart anymore for travelling alone. Thus, Rimbaud, then Laforgue and, nowadays, Paul Verlaine. As Bob Creeley so often avowed with deepest gratitude in darkest occasions: “One had the company.”
MC: As a young woman I had translated a handful of works by Karl Krolow and Christian Morgenstern, but sitting down with Paul Hoover to try our own approach to Hoelderlin after feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the Hamburger translation led to a moment of realization after about 100 pages of experiment that we were involved in a serious project to which we committed several more years of collaboration.
PH: Maxine and I had long talked about translating from German. In the summer of 2004, we began with a couple of poems by Nietzsche, of all people. We then moved to the early odes of Holderlin, a wonderful lyric poet. We worked every day and had 100 pages translated by the end of the summer. Our energy was made possible by the beauty and interest of the poems.
FG: I was living in Mexico on an NEA small press assistance grant and realized that, though few women were being published in the major literary magazines like Vuelta, they were being published by independent presses and some of those independent books included the most exciting poetry I was encountering. I started to translate as a way to understand the poetry better. That led to my first anthology of Mexican poetry, Mouth to Mouth: 12 Contemporary Mexican Women, and started me on my way to a long and deep relationship with Latin American literature. My most recent project is an anthology of mostly younger, innovative poets from Spain: Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century.
KY: My first literary translation from Japanese into English was a short story, “The Polar King,” by postmodernist sci-fi writer Yasutaka Tsutsui. After an MA in American Literature in Kyoto, I was applying for creative writing programs in America, and one of them had a translation program, so the director suggested that I include a translation in my application. I didn’t go to the program in the end, but the translation was published on Tsutsui’s website. That was 1995-96.
How do you approach a translation aesthetically? What are some of your initial considerations when first beginning a work of translation?
DR: I begin by listening, and listening. When I hear a cadence unmistakably not my own and equally sustained, even beloved, I begin to jot down lines, phrases, etc. translated from the original. When the cadence is no longer intermittent but continuous, I know I’m in the clear. It may take six months to get the first poem “right”; after that, it’s almost effortless. A second nature.
MC: Most important, I think, is to translate the spirit of the poem from one language to another and make it available to a contemporary audience. I want the reader to be able to read the poet on the page at this day and time, not as an historical marker of someone whose words no longer hold meaning or emotional and logical coherence today.
PH: Each poet presents his or her own issues, also each poem. The work comes first, not the philosophy of translation; however, I agree with those who believe in the value of paraphrase. German, Vietnamese, and Spanish, the languages from which I’ve translated, have their own temperament and rules, which are different from those of English. To capture the intent of the original, the expression must be recast in terms of what’s possible in English. The difference is most noticeable in the case of the traditional Vietnamese poetry of Nguyen Trai (1380-1442), which typically uses 5 figures to the line and 8 lines to the poem. English expression requires many more words to express the meaning of those 40 figures. Nevertheless, the translation is a true version.
The translator’s first decisions: what must he or she give up in order to translate the poem (see rhyme in San Juan de la Cruz) and, more imporantly, what is the cast of mind of the poet and what was he/she after in the poem? The translator must in some sense become the poet and think and feel on his or her behalf.
FG: I’m not sure I understand the question. I’m drawn to some projects and not others based, in part, on aesthetic inclinations. But then it is the translation that approaches the translator and the translator turns into a huge receptor and listens and looks and takes it in. I read and reread the work listening for the music of the writer’s mind. That gives me insight into the whole collection. I need to make sure I understand the difficult passages. I go over them endlessly and it can sometimes take days before I realize what the writer might have meant—as just now, translating a long prose introduction that the great Chilean poet, Raul Zurita, wrote in morphine-influenced inspiration while he was in the hospital and gravely ill. The syntax can get so complex, it makes mere Faulkner seem like Dr. Seuss.
KY: Presently I am only interested in translating contemporary experimental poetry and drama from Japanese into English. There are several reasons: this kind of translation rarely earns the translator any money, so it’s a task for someone with a day job; translation makes a great training for a writer in a second language like me; why contemporary? because one translates for her contemporaries, not for posterity, just like a baker bakes for his contemporaries. I believe works of literature are essentially perishables. A faith in the immortality of great works of art reminds me of believing in heaven, although on certain days I believe in heaven too. Finally, experimental poetry is theoretically untranslatable, so when translated, a piece cannot avoid being transformed. I am interested in this process of transformation. Some might call it mutation, but even the freakishness is exciting, and good experimental writers understand the excitement. In this sense, translation of experimental writing is collaboration between the writer, the translator, and the reader. The reader also plays a big role in the transformation process and, in fortunate cases, the reader gets transformed while transforming the text. All three involved parties become accomplices of literary metamorphosis. When playwright Masataka Matsuda talked of this transformation, when Andy Bragen and I were translating his play, I felt enormously encouraged and could perceive translation as an adventure, not a mere literary transaction. Playwrights are perhaps more familiar with the magic of transfiguration than poets and prose writers.