Translation at AWP

Yep, this is what happens at AWP

Yep, this is what happens at AWP

This post comes to us from Two Lines Press intern Ali Bossy, who logged a number of hours at the TLP table during the AWP Conference, in between checking out panels, wandering the bookfair, and heading to offsite events. Here she talks about a really interesting translation panel, plus shouts out some of the cool, under-the-radar translation presses she discovered at the bookfair.

I was at the AWP Conference this year, helping with the Two Lines Press booth and attending some fantastic panels. You probably know that AWP is primarily about creative writing, but there’s also a very clear translation presence. That’s something that I appreciated, as an enthusiast of translation attending with a translation press.

One of the panels I attended was called “Poets on the Craft of Translation: A Conversation Between New and Established Translators,” and here translators possessed varying degrees of faith in the process of translating poetry. They debated some important questions: as translators, have we already surrendered an ideal for writing the perfect translation, despite how desperate we once were to obtain it? Can we even agree on what this ideal is, what its paradigm is, and whether this surrender is a risk that, in the end, either deems a work untranslatable or reinvents a work into a masterpiece? Ultimately, this surrender leaves us in an abyss between languages, where we must find ways to cope with the endless obstacles that we encounter during the process of translation.

The incisive translators sitting on this panel were Gloria Muñoz (who moderated), Kimberly Johnson, Jay Hopler, John Talbot, and Jennifer Kronovet.

Johnson jumpstarted the discussion with her three translation tenets: structure, syntax, and rhyme. When considering the translation of a line, “translating is imitating the sound.” One must consider “poem as bodily experience” and feel it. The translation must carry over the content, line, and wordplay from the original. And even though she labels her approach pedantic, she takes certain liberties, such as in the way a poem references its historical context, or an ethnic slur, but mostly, in prescribing to the idea of honorable cognate, not equivalent. Johnson concludes that in a translation, “the experience of reading the original is replicated as much as possible.”

On the opposite end of the translation spectrum was Hopler, Johnson’s husband, who claimed the non-existence of honorable equivalent, of synonym, even in English. Hopler explained the anguish he experienced after having translated the word snap from a German phrase, and having never reached a satisfying equivalent in English. He went so far as to claim that “language is untranslatable, therefore translation is impossible and not worthwhile.”

Our third panelist, Talbot, read aloud a letter he received in response to the submission of his book of poems, The Well-Tempered Tantrum, in which the editor joked that Talbot was stealing from Baudelaire—in reality, he was discovering Talbot’s use of embedded translations of lines from poems in his own work. In this method, the poet is no longer arguing over the accuracy, or faithfulness, or degree of interpretation of the translation but rather admitting to an inevitable unoriginality in his own work. If the translator embeds the translation in a new poem, then do we consider the translated lines to now be original lines in a new language, or do we consider the new poem false, since it contains “plagiarized” lines, since both genres are integrated in the same poem, side by side? Now it may be the poet who asks, how original is my poetry, or is it merely a mirror, that is influenced by, another poet’s work? It may be this method that assumes the most extreme stance in translation, verging on the border of original and new, by asserting ownership over the translated lines, and integrating them into your own work.

Lastly, Kronovet spoke, saying that her perspective on translation has transformed over years of practice: she initially valued the translation of the metaphor in a poem, abandoning a level of commitment to specific details. But later she came to perceive translation as “destroying the work.” But ultimately, after also training in the Kung Fu practice called “sticky hands,” Kronovent developed a new perspective that involves possessing sensitivity toward both the original poem and the creative process in the translation. Sticky hands taught her “not to fight the poem, but to move with the original.” This well-balanced approach wrapped up this excellent panel, which was one of my highlights of the conference.

Other great things we got to do at AWP: See two great translators, Erica Mena and Kaija Straumanis (who we’ve published in Two Lines) perform live at our event Journal Porn, which took place at the charming Black Coffee Co-op, with the company of fellow lit mags, Versal, Parcel and Big Fiction! We got to flip through the books of plenty of interesting presses, including Tavern Books, Brooklyn Arts Press, Wave Books, Third Man Books, Switchback Books, and Sensitive House. And we got to meet those of you who stopped by our booth! Until next time, AWP.

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