It’s a popular notion in the literary community to say that people don’t read enough literature in translation, especially poetry. It’s one of those opinions that most people nod along with, probably because they don’t read enough translated poetry but ‘have always been meaning to.’ It’s likely that, even in the most well-read of literary circles, most people’s only interaction with poetry in translation are the classics required by grade school and university syllabi—Homer, Ovid, Dante, etc. One major cause of this lies at the root of poetry itself—it can be incredibly difficult to translate something as nuanced and delicately organized as a poem. Poets spend years tweaking even the smallest of details in their poems, details that can be so specific to their language of origin that there is literally no equivalent in the translated language. Thus, poetry in translation is a work of art upon itself, rather than just a copy of the original work in a different language. The translated poem takes on a life of its own, closely related to the original poem but still unique.
In A Midsummer Night’s Press’ new series ‘Periscope,’ three international poets publish in English for the first time. Publisher Lawrence Schimel notes that the goal with Periscope is to publish poets that are not only obscure to English-speaking audiences, but are also notably difficult to translate. Schimel says, “translation allows us to see between languages, even if there is not always a straight line of sight, as is often the case when translating poetry, where the translator must often recreate a metaphor or meaning in the target language.” Three books have been published in the series so far, all from female poets in different European countries.
One is None by Katlin Kaldmaa (transl. Miriam McIlfatrick-Ksenofontov)
Prolific Estonian poet and translator Kaldmaa kicks off the series with her collection of poems that reach far and wide while sticking with a few select thematic elements. One of the most obvious trends amongst this collection are Kaldmaa’s ‘My _____ Lover’ series, which feels almost like a Bachelorette-esque reality series cascading through the book. In the first of those, ‘My Bosnian Lover,’ the speaker evokes scenes of romance and passion while weaving a thread about the deep scars of war that still ails Bosnians:
My Bosnian lover
longs for his kin
and is always up at night.
When he walks his footfalls fit
into those of his forerunners.
In another poem of this ilk, ‘My Icelandic Lover,’ the lover in question starts to feel more ethereal, almost “general” as if the speaker isn’t addressing a real lover in this series, but the country from which each lover is purported to be from:
My Icelandic lover
is man, woman, child, creature
from the youngest of places
known to planet and people.
This is a land on the edge
of the one and the other.
The speaker here addresses a deep love for Iceland and its people, history, and culture—reinforced by the use of multiple pronouns in the poem. Both “her” and “him” are used interchangeably when addressing ‘My Icelandic Lover’.
Love itself is also a common thread within ‘One is None,’ finding itself in ten of the sixteen poems in the collection. Some are quite good, like in the poem ‘geography of love:’
but most of all,
yes, most of all i have loved you in this town
where the snow never leaves
where the sun never comes,
and where longing
is the most common feeling.
Others miss the mark a little, as with the last poem in the book, one of the ‘Lover’ series of poems, ‘My Swiss Lover.’ The poem moves between grand statements about Switzerland disguised as comments about the Lover, and overly specific comments that don’t exactly feel married to the first section of the poem.
Nevertheless, Kaldmaa’s writing (and that of her translator) is still excellent in many of the poems, and the thematic framework of the book works well for the most part.
Dissection by Care Santos (transl. Lawrence Schimel)
What initially stands out about the second book in the series by Spanish author Care Santos is how different it is to the Kaldmaa collection. Any notion that translated poetry is any sort of genre is quickly dispelled when reading books as different as these two. Santos bursts through the gates with the first poem in the book, ‘Self Portrait,’ a visceral and self-deprecating look at what’s expected of women in culture:
For many years I’ve felt proud
of knowing how to practice an ancient trade:
(and at the same time being able to receive it).
While the first book in the series has a playful and often allusive look at sex, ‘Self Portrait’ gets real and gritty from page one.
Much of Santos’ work gets even more detailed and gruesome when speaking about flesh, using titles and terms that might seem more at home in a coroner’s report or scientific research paper than a book of poetry: the second section of the book is entitled “THE DIVISION INTO PARTS OF THE CADAVER OF AN ANIMAL FOR THE EXAMINATION OF ITS NORMAL STRUCTURE OR ORGANIC ALTERATIONS.” The poems themselves tend to have a similar feel, focusing on flesh and bones and the physical properties of humans. In one of the poems that stands out in particular, the speaker is both brutal and beautiful in two simple lines:
For now Oblivion is just a restaurant
where together we feast on my entrails.
As the book nears its end, themes of death and darkness creep into the poems, and the vocabulary becomes a little more abstract. Many of these late poems have a bit of a nihilistic vibe to them, but in the final poem ‘Penitence,’ the speaker devastates in just a few lines:
If you’ve reached here
and you’re still breathing
you’ve already paid for everything you’ve done.
Anything Could Happen by Jana Putrle Srdic (transl. Barbara Jursa)
It’s understandable that, when publishing for the first time in a new language, one would want to provide a sampling of their best work. In the last book published by Periscope so far, Slovenian author Jana Putrle Srdic provides a sampling of poetry from her first three published collections. The goal is to show off Srdic’s range of subject matter and language, which the collection does, but at the expense of a rather disjointed collection as a whole.
Anything Could Happen jumps from theme to theme without much connecting them, aside from the writer’s style and general structural preferences. The author comments on life in the city in ‘The Other Side of Skin,’ and jumps to the writing life in the next, ‘And You Write.’ This isn’t to say these poems aren’t good poems with beautiful writing, like the last two stanzas of ‘The Other Side of Skin:’
The city gives us an infusion of glittering
rhythms and saves us from a sweaty
apartment, flowers in pots that we are quietly dying away,
the city is a recourse of cellophane
and we wait patiently—rabid dogs.
Srdic later shows off some serious poetic ability, like in the poem ‘Fish,’ in which the speaker compares the cleaning of a fish to the organization of one’s home, connecting the two by their roles in the grand order of things.
The collection finishes with a poem that, while different from many in the collection, demonstrates very well the skill that Srdic shows throughout the book. ‘Our Tongues’ is a commentary on the culture of language and translation in the author’s experience of Europe, and she tosses in a sexual metaphor that does as much to evoke that culture as the rest of the poem does altogether:
Still, this language insurmountably
this honey-sweet tongue in our mouths
with which we’re licking each other.
As a whole, the Periscope series does a great job at finding and translating poetry that would have otherwise never found its way into the hands of English-language poetry readers. The lessons of the series so far should serve as an example both to future translations by Periscope, and to other English-language publishers translating new work: first, that the right poetry will need to have the right translators that can do the work justice (as far as I can tell, the Periscope series did a fantastic job finding appropriate translators), and second, that individual collections do a better job at teaching new audiences about a poet, rather than a sampling from different collections. The art of writing and ordering a poetry collection says nearly as much about the poet as the poems themselves, and its a disservice to both poet and reader to pick and choose rather than let the reader experience a single collection from a poet. But if A Midsummer Night’s Press and other translation publishers continue to publish poets as good as the three in the Periscope collection, they’ll have done a great things for the global poetry community.
— Spenser Davis
Spenser Davis is a freelance media and culture writer based in Seattle, WA. His work can be found at VICE, Pacific Standard, and The Freelancer. You can read more of his poetry reviews for Structo here.
The first three books in A Midsummer Night’s Press’ Periscope series were published in November 2014.