Between Us: Translators in Conversation

In this series, we listen in as Drunken Boat’s renowned translators talk with one another about art, craft, and the role of translation in the world. This second installment features Anthony Seidman and Boris Dralyuk.

Anthony Seidman is a poet-translator who resides in Los Angeles. His most recent collection of poetry is A Sleepless Man Sits Up In Bed, published by Eyewear Publishing earlier this year. His volumes of translations include Confetti-Ash: Selected Poems of Salvador Novo (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2015), Luna Park by Luis Cardoza y Aragon (Cardboard House Press, 2016) and Smooth-Talking Dog, poems by Roberto Castillo Udiarte (Phoneme Media, 2016).

Boris Dralyuk is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) and co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). He has translated several volumes of prose and poetry from Russian and Polish, including Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). He is the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

ANTHONY SEIDMAN Not many American readers are familiar with Russian poetry, apart from the big names, like Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam… How often do you find yourself in the position of being a curator, of deciding what must be translated so that the landscape of Russian poetry is better understood, even if means translating poets you admire less? That is, minor figures who, somehow, also nourished the literature of their epoch. Finally, how do you resist the attempt to improve the work of these fringe poets in translation?

BORIS DRALYUK I’ve had two chances to curate — and that’s a good word for it — Russian poetry for an Anglophone audience. In 2011 Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski asked me to join them in selecting, commissioning, and translating texts for The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. We spent the next four years working our way through countless literary histories and monographs, poring over earlier anthologies in both Russian and English, reworking draft after draft of each original translation — in short, having the time of our lives! Robert and Irina are the finest, most sensitive readers I have ever encountered. They are true poets — inspired masters of their craft. I am lucky to have them as teachers and friends. Here’s one thing they taught me…

Although we featured nearly 80 poets in the book, our selections were guided by one principle: poetry in translation is poetry. Full stop. If a poem is important for its Russian audience but cannot be made to work in translation, what’s the point of ruining its reputation in English? The verse of Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), Russia’s greatest poet, is a case in point. For nearly two centuries Anglophone readers encountered his work in bad, indifferent, or (thank you, Nabokov!) willfully atrocious translations. I can hear those readers now: “So this is Russia’s greatest poet? Well, you can keep him.” Right they were. It’s only in the past few decades that worthy translations have begun to emerge — Stanley Mitchell’s sparkling version of Eugene Onegin, his and Antony Wood’s The Bronze Horseman (in our Penguin book), etc.

I translated many poets for the Penguin book that are less well known in English — Afanasy Fet, Sergey Yesenin, Georgy Ivanov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Anna Prismanova, Sergey Chudakov. But I translated them precisely because I admire them, because I love their work. I was moved to create English poems that — I hope — approximate the power of their brilliant lyrics. And the same holds for the work I included in my new anthology, 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press). I don’t usually tackle work that needs improving — or rather, I don’t look at a poem with an eye to what needs improving. Each poem has a total effect, to which its “flaws” contribute, like beauty marks or scars; it works on me as a whole, and I try to make a translation that works as fully and strongly on an Anglophone reader.

ANTHONY SEIDMAN I have not translated a lot of prose into English from Spanish. I have just completed one project, J. M. Servin’s memoir For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant, and I found it to be rewarding, yet exhausting. Would you, as a seasoned translator of prose, please describe the differences and challenges when it comes to translating writers from that genre? Which is most rewarding? Why?

BORIS DRALYUK Prose demands a great deal of time, stamina. It’s a 9-to-5 job, regular hours. Poems, on the other hand, emerge on their own terms. Most of my poetic translations have, in Rilke’s words, “sprung from necessity.” That’s not to say that translating prose doesn’t call for inspiration. I approach prose — especially the intensely lyrical prose of Isaac Babel, say — with as much reverence as I do poetry, in the same state of heightened sensitivity and attentiveness. It is, after all, literature — “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” As far as rewards go, be it a line of verse, a quatrain, a sentence, or a story, getting it right always triggers euphoria.

Did you find that your work on For Love of the Dollar drew on some of the same skills as your work on Salvador Novo, Roberto Castillo Udiarte, and the other poets you’ve translated?

ANTHONY SEIDMAN As far as the usage of jargon, double-entendres, and a narrative style that attempted to reflect diverse socio-economic realities, there were a lot of striking similarities between Castillo-Udiarte and Servín. Both of the authors — the border region poet Castillo Udiarte, and the “chilango” gonzo-journalist Servín — consciously draw their energy and rough-and-tumble weltanschauung from growing up in tough, urban settings, as well as from youthful readings of Céline, Henry Miller, Bukowski. It’s important to note that Castillo-Udiarte is celebrated as the first translator of Bukowski’s poetry into Spanish. Apart from that energy field, both of the writers grew up immersed in rock or punk music: Castillo-Udiarte’s first poem was a translation of “Lady Jane” by The Rolling Stones, executed when he was a teenager in Tecate. He translated classic rock songs for his peers at high school. Numerous pages in For Love of The Dollar brim over with praise for the antics of The Ramones, for the tight rhythms from the kick pedal and snare drum in the music of James Brown. Of course, as a translator, I remained focused on how to convey those presences in the work of these two Mexican writers. Mexican literature, especially its poetry, has been a very delicate jewelry, chiseled and polished to reflect Valery and other Gallic voices. It’s only recently that we encounter voices like those of José Eugenio Sánchez or Edgar Rincón Luna. Castillo-Udiarte, with his poetry about junkyards and border-crossings, gringos getting drunk in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, and amorous stray dogs, proved to be a gift for this translator. I found the voice that helped make some contemporary narrators from the Mexican desert and border region feel entitled to write about their reality. At last, the Mexican writer need not be someone living in Paris on government grants to “foment creation.” A similar rush took over me when I translated Servín; he’s an author who shares more with a Seymour Krim, or a Hunter S. Thompson, than the highly stylized classicism of some of his fellow countrymen.

This prompts me, Boris, to ask how you convey the fingerprints of American or French letters in contemporary writers from Russia. I know that Salvador Novo translated many, now forgotten or under-read American poets, and I felt that in certain poems it was my duty to render a translation that vaguely suggested a line by Carl Sandburg or Vachel Lindsay. How do you convey the presence of other languages and traditions through translation?

BORIS DRALYUK That’s a great question. I remember translating a poem dedicated to a brilliant Russian translator, Mikhail Lozinsky, into English. The poem incorporated lines from Lozinsky’s modern Russian translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, weaving them seamlessly into the poet’s own narrative. In my translation, I couldn’t quite fit Shakespeare’s lines to the context; the syntax was off. They were the wrong jewels for the setting. So I reworked Shakespeare, subtly — in order to ease the transitions, but also to indicate that we were dealing with Lozinsky’s Shakespeare, not the original.

But even when a poem or a piece of prose bears no direct traces of Anglophone influence, I always use Anglophone authors — familiar voices, established styles — as tuning forks. I wrote a little essay about hearing echoes of Elizabeth Bishop in the work of one my favorite Russian poets, Julia Nemirovskaya, and using those echoes to navigate my way through a translation.

ANTHONY SEIDMAN There’s no doubt that translation, like writing poetry, completing another chapter, is a lonely affair. What gets you through the daily goal? Do you have routines, rituals, work hours, or a drink or smoke?

BORIS DRALYUK I never feel lonely when I’m in it. Everything else drops away. And I only stop when exhaustion sets in, when the words stop coming. When dealing with prose, the words usually dry up after about five hours. After a stretch of steady work, I usually have somewhere between 500 and 1000 words, rarely more. Of course, it all depends on the density, the richness of the original; I could have as few as 300. And poetry is unpredictable. If I attune myself to a lyric, out it comes, whole. To be revised later, of course — but all there, like Athena sprung from my forehead. How about you?

ANTHONY SEIDMAN I’m glad to see that my daily goal, when it comes to translation of prose, mirrors your own expectations. Your experience is far more significant than my own. As I view myself primarily as a poet, I can’t help but admit that I view the translation of poetry as a type of urgent blood transfusion, even a cannibalization at times, much like the communicant’s brief union. It’s something that has been necessary at times. Thus, I can go on for hours, for days. As Darío noted, I chase after a form that doesn’t coincide with my style. Many of the poets I have translated, such as Díaz Mirón, José Gorostiza, or a contemporary like Alberto Blanco, write in a way that I view different from my own work, and yet a magical commixture occurs, and there are flashes when a fragrant residue of their strophes or metaphors appears unexpectedly while I write. As far as rituals, well, a cup of strong coffee works… but mainly silence, and access to books and dictionaries. I was hoping to hear that you wore an ascot or smoked a pipe! As far as loneliness — once I step out into the street, I realize what wonderful company I had!

BORIS DRALYUK There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you — what do you feel makes a translation bad? What’s your yardstick for the art?

ANTHONY SEIDMAN Allow me to riff a bit with regards to the question. I think a bad translation, like rotten meat, is often self-evident. I’d rather talk about translations that miss so many marks, yet are radiant translations that actually become canonical poems in the translator’s tongue! I’m thinking of such obvious examples in 20th century poetry like Pound’s version of “The Seafarer.” Despite some blunders, despite the presence of Latinate words, French words, and very Poundian twists, it’s a masterful recreation of alliterative verse, and it’s a great poem in English. Longfellow’s translation of Jorge Manrique’s Coplas commemorating the death of his father is another example. I remember some wine-charged evenings on my balcony when you and I read from Jean Calais’s translation of Villon — pseudonym of Stephen Rodefer, and published in 1968 by The Pick Pocket Series — and how we gleefully read the homophonic translations, the wild inclusions of anachronistic proper nouns, and how it all made sense. Villon was there with us, as if he had had the chance to be resuscitated and sit at a table in the San Fernando Valley. Creating that balance between creation and veneration is key. There’s something about Borges’ definition of poetry as “Algebra and fire” that applies to translation as well. My all-time hero would be Paul Blackburn for his translations of Lorca, and especially of El Cid. I wish I could provide a formula, a yardstick. At best, all I can say it’s there… teetering between algebra and fire.

BORIS DRALYUK I feel the same way. I once picked up a copy of Personae at a used bookstore and found that some pedant had, in a fit of cold rage, “corrected” Pound’s translations. That’s a bit like scratching out William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and replacing it with dictionary definitions of wheelbarrow and the color red. The originals were Pound’s inspirations, and the results were poetry.

Tell me, what was your first translation — and when did you became aware of yourself as a translator?

ANTHONY SEIDMAN My first translation was a short poem by Paz. (I gave it to a girl I was in in love with while I was a student at Grant High.) I often feel that I was raised speaking the wrong language. Let me clear about this… I was adopted as an infant, by a New York Jewish father, and a French mother whose parents were from Morocco on her father’s side, and her father spoke Ladino and Arabic as a child, and her Polish mother grew up in a German-speaking region. Biologically speaking, I think of Williams’s “the pure products of America go crazy!” I’m a mix of Ute, Polish, and Irish blood. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, was Bar-Mitzvah’d, yet attended public schools where Spanish was the primary language, heard Yiddish expressions at home, French at the dinner table, and spent times with younger cousins who had yet to learn English. While in high school, I was the chambelán to a friend’s sister, and even gave confession prior to the party! I also was introduced to different literatures directly in their original languages by enthusiastic readers who were second-generation children of Mexican or Central American parents. My mother insisted that I read French literature, and she scoffed when I mentioned that I wanted to read Twain! As far as she was concerned, reading Hugo was more important! In short, translating the words of my grandfather, following the Hebrew on the Torah scroll, understanding the quips in Yiddish, and speaking in broken, and then in better and better Spanish to the parents of friends… I have been a translator all my life! And you?

BORIS DRALYUK That was beautifully put… I recently mapped the twists of fate that brought me to translation in another interview. It all comes down to an insatiable need, doesn’t it? Wanting to understand, and wanting to share that understanding… We’ve quoted Williams twice, so why not give him the final word? I often feel that something urgent has been said to me — done to me — and that I must relay this message, this effect. The matter is urgent.