Friday, December 23, 2005

Imaginary translations

I'm curious to take a look at "Imaginary Poets", an anthology of translations of made-up poets. It's 20 well-known poets, each asked to make up a poet, translate the poem to English, and write an essay about the poet and their work.

It's a fun and playful idea. I tend to like that sort of thing. I liked that book that was a fake translation of an imaginary ancient Greek poet. I love things like "Songs of Bilitis" by Pierre Louys - I even love Ossian and that whole strange cult of Ossian. Flat-out parodies charm me immensely...

And yet I find that the idea of project at this particular moment in our country's history makes me sad and angry. If I felt that people in this country knew anything substantial about non-US cultures, history, or other languages, maybe I'd be less pissed off. I think of all the excellent poets, dead or alive, who are NOT translated or well-known even in literary communities in the U.S. Great - we're so ignorant about other cultures and languages and poets, we think we get to invent them and make them up. I'd be embarrassed to make up a fake Latin American poet. If I were going to do that kind of project, I'd do it in the context of science fiction or speculative fiction, and would make up a completely alien culture, and I'd do it to make some interesting political point; this distancing allows for a lot of play and exploration... Science fiction writers use alien races to explore ideas of race, class, gender, and utopia - all the time in the U.S. today.

There is at least room for some thought and questioning, some room to be conflicted about art, poetics, humor, and politics.

I'm sure many of the people who contributed to Imaginary Poets considered issues of cultural imperialism and cultural appropriation. There's some excellent and thoughtful translators in the table of contents. I'm very curious to see the book and see what they did with the idea. Will I be so charmed by the book's witty cosmopolitan sophistication that I won't care about the cultural politics? Or will I just be more embarrassed than I am now? I'll read it and report back.

3 comments: said...

I appreciate your comments and your seriousness of purpose, and I couldn't agree more that we -- all of us -- need not only to be mindful of other cultures, but drink deep.

That said, "Imaginary Poets" (Tupelo Press, 2005) is an exercise in the imagination and an ode to the creative process, not a subsitute for important translations of real poets, dead and living. To the extent that this experiment also calls attention to the existence of other cultures (not all instances of the "other" are playfully invoked in this collection), then that seems to me all to the good. Likewise, I hope and expect that these "maginary poets" might whet American appetities for the real thing for, as you say, there are far too many good works not currently favored with English translations.

Moreover, a glance at the table of contents says all one really needs to know about the cultural and ethical commitment of the contributors. Eleanor Wilner, Maxine Kumin, Anna Rabinowitz, Andrew Hudgins, Rosanna Waren, Khaled Mattawa, Mark Strand, D.A. Powell, Garrett Hongo, and so on -- all poets who have spent much of their careers focusing attention both beyond this country's borders and looking deeping into our own national conscience. None of the poets collected here have anything to apologize for.

That said, Tupelo Press is fully committed to the "real" thing as well. In a week or two we will be releasing a bilingual edition of Vietnames-American poet Phan Nhien Hao ("Night, Fish and Charlie Parker" -- trans. by Linh Dinh). Next fall we'll publish a large and important collection by the Korean poet Ko-Un ("Korea South & North" - trans. by Sunny Jung and Hillel Schwartz). We are currently considering traslations of Titos Patrikios (trans. by Christopher Bakken & Roula Konsolaki) - though we've not yet made a final commitment to the book. We have commissioned new translations of Rene Char and Cesar Vallejo.

We are always, always looking to publish translations, and are especially interested in poets who are -- as you say -- not previously translated or well-known (Char and Vallejo being, of course, exceptions to this general aim).

We welcome submissions (letter of inquiry first, please) from your readers and the community of translators.

Jeffrey Levine
Editor-in-Chief & Publisher
Tupelo Press

Liz said...

Well, I believe you! I'm amazed you noticed my casual posting. And it's nice of you not to mind that I asked those questions, and to take the time to answer.

I am planning to read the book and give it a serious and thoughtful review, here and elsewhere in print. In fact I just wrote you and begged a review copy. Now I'm feeling a bit sheepish! But that's what blogs are for, I guess - to expose the messy process of thought - and to embarrass the hasty. A little embarrassment is good for everyone.

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