Make Me Lose Control

Years ago (ten? god.), three of us huddled around a too-small table in front of the Java House in Iowa City: myself, Tomislav Kuzmanovic, and Edi Shukriu. We were attempting the precarious and perhaps foolhardy trick of maneuvering a poem from Edi’s Albanian to my English by way of Tomislav’s Croatian. The protracted process went something like this: Edi, a poet, archeology professor, and political change-maker from Kosovo, would self-translate a poem into Serbo-Croatian (official language of the former Yugoslavia), then transcribe Serbian’s Cyrillic into the Latin alphabet of Croatian. Tomislav, Croatian literary scholar and my fellow translation MFA, would work through it with Edi, then go off to produce an English draft.

At our next meeting, Edi would read the original aloud, Tomislav would narrate the choices he’d made, and I would get a lecture on language politics, as well as the intricacies of Kosovar metalwork and Hammurabi's Code. Off I’d go with all my notes and their versions to write a poem in an English I hoped would harmonize with Edi’s original.

Reconvened once more, we’d set aside original and para-texts to dig into the English version together, hashing out sticking points, comparing the sounds, digressing without fail into Yugoslav politics, and coming to a version we were all excited to share with the English-speaking world.

Efficient it was not. And it fell short of the platonic ideal of a marvelously talented Kosovar-American translator with Edi’s specialized knowledge, Tomislav’s double-agent insights, and my soft-focus ear for the possibilities of poetry in U.S. English.

But what riches it yielded for the three of us, and what lovely poems it birthed. Not to mention that brilliant Kosovar-American literary translators were thin on the Iowa City ground that season. The formal constraint of that absence forced the three of us into a process so creative and illuminating that, afterward, it was sad to go back to my own solitary translations from Spanish.

Recently, I took a deep breath and waded into an activity I both love and dread: translating a novel. Though my day job is substantive editing of translated fiction, I am a commitment-phobe when it comes to translating my own. Unlike the poems I usually dance with, obsessing over words and breaks, safe in the circumscription of the thing, a novel looms. It demands stamina. It heralds long, lonely hours.

And yet I couldn’t resist El ombligo del cielo, a literary thriller by Rafael Courtoisie, whose sly, piquant poems I’ve published in a number of lovely venues—most recently M-DASH. The first chapter was intoxicatingly dense, dark, and funny, and I immediately needed to share it. Though proud of what I’d wrought, I craved conversation to help me think more deeply about the strange world Rafael was unfolding. I also had a few questions — fiddly bits like South American slang terms for the Catholic devil that I, a Humanistic Jew whose non-native Spanish is a slurry of Mexican and peninsular, couldn’t presume to feel confident about, no matter how much internet digging I’d done.

So I showed the chapter to one of my closest co-conspirators, Drunken Boat's Translation Assistant Editor, María José Giménez. She loved the book, green-lighted my devil slang, and helped untie a couple of knots. As we enthused together about Rafael’s prose, I took a leap and asked if she’d like to tackle the rest together.

Trust María José though I do, it was nerve-wracking giving up control that way. As Cole Swensen said in a panel we were on at the recent AWP conference, collaborative translation means compromise. It adds another layer to the already infinitely regressing negotiations of translation. It’s messy, inefficient, and yet, just as with Edi and Tomislav, already proving generative and enlivening in ways that solitary translation just can’t. Collaborative translation is a reminder that translation is always a conversation between texts, and through them, writers, languages, and cultures. It’s a mobilization, a real live performance of that conversation.

The novel no longer looms. Now it stretches out luxuriously, a series of video calls and chat flurries in which I’ll get to learn from and laugh with my brilliant friend. We disagree; we digress; we give up control in service of the process and the product. I've missed this. I should do it more often.

Anna Rosenwong’s translation of the first chapter of El ombligo del cielo is forthcoming from Two Lines. Her joint translation of the novel with María José Giménez is currently looking for a publisher. And they’re accepting submissions through June 30th for a Drunken Boat feature on collaborative translation.

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