stats
globeinteractive.com: Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /globeandmail.com
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space


Search

space
  This site         Tips

  
space
  The Web Google
space
   space



space

  Where to Find It


Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business

  Sports

  Technology

space
Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store


Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business

  National

  International

  Sports

  Arts & Entertainment

  Editorials

  Columnists

   Headline Index

 Other Sections
  Appointments

  Births & Deaths

  Books

  Classifieds

  Comment

  Education

  Environment

  Facts & Arguments

  Focus

  Health

  Obituaries

  Real Estate

  Review

  Science

  Style

  Technology

  Travel

  Wheels

 Leisure
  Cartoon

  Crosswords

  Food & Dining

  Golf

  Horoscopes

  Movies

  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...

space

Services
   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site

 Newspaper
  Advertise

  Corrections

  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us

  Reprints

  Subscriptions

 Web Site
  Advertise

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


GiveLife.ca

    

PRINT EDITION
Can poetry be effectively translated?
space
As two recent Griffin Prize winners illustrate, translating language is an act of transmogrification
space
By EMILY DONALDSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
  
  

Email this article Print this article
Saturday, July 20, 2019 – Page R10

Our default assumption about translation is that something is always lost in it. And if that's true for a novel, or an essay, how much more so for poetry, which relies, more than any other literary form, on the nuances, syntax and idiosyncrasies of the language in which it's written. (The phrase "lost in translation" was in fact made famous by James Merrill's poem of the same name.) In Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels's character Bialek compared reading a poem in translation to "kissing a woman through a veil." Some question whether poetry should be translated at all.

In his remarks at the Griffin Prize readings in June, prize founder Scott Griffin noted that when the prize first began, in 2001, he and the founding trustees were advised not to include works in translation. Yet how do you call yourself an international prize when you're only considering poems written in English? Griffin ignored the advice and went one further.

Not only would works in translation be considered, the translator would take the lion's share of the prize's substantial spoils. Korean poet Kim Hyesoon's win last month for her book Autobiography of Death thus entitles her to 40 per cent of the $65,000 prize money; her translator, Don Mee Choi, receives 60 per cent. That approach treats translation not as an attempt to "fail better," but as an act of transmogrification: the translated poem retains the original's shell (a poet might say carapace), but essentially becomes another poem.

Still, Choi and Kim's win marks just the third time in the international Griffin's 18year history that a work in translation has won it. Paul Celan and his translators, Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh, won in the prize's first year. In 2013, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan won with translator Fady Joudah. This year's two nominated translations were written in languages never previously represented at the Griffin.

In the case of Luljeta Lleshanaku's Negative Space, that's hardly surprising. Lleshanaku writes in Albanian, which, despite being among the oldest languages, is spoken by only about 7.5 million people worldwide. If you're an Albanian poet, that makes for a limited audience, and an even more limited pool of potential translators. Lleshanaku was thus fortunate to strike gold in 41-year-old Ani Gjika, a poet herself, whose translation of Negative Space has been nominated for two prestigious American translation awards in addition to the Griffin. The book draws from two collections published in Albania in 2012 and 2015, and took Gjika more than four years to translate.

Translators generally translate into their mother tongue. That's technically not the case with Gjika, who grew up in Albania, but having exclusively written her own poetry in English, she now sees it as her native language.

Language and translation have been constants in her life. When she was a child in Albania, her grandmother translated daily to her from the Greek Bible (Bibles were banned in the country at the time).

In high school, Gjika majored in Russian, and, like many Albanians, picked up Italian from watching TV. Her mother is also a poet, her father a professor of Albanian literature and linguistics. When the family moved to the United States in 1999, when Gjika was 18, she served as their translator for the first few years. She delighted in translating poems by Emily Dickinson and Rumi for her mother, and for a group of Albanian writers in a writing workshop.

And yet it was only 2009, when she enrolled in an MFA program in poetry at Boston University, that she began to consider translation as a career. She's since translated poems, short stories and essays by a dozen Albanian writers and teaches the craft at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

Albanian is a notoriously difficult language - considered an isolate within the Indo-European language family, it shares little with the languages of neighbouring countries. To an English ear, it sounds a bit like a record played backward. It has a smaller vocabulary than English, though Gjika sees this as an advantage for translation in that it gives her greater choice when rendering images and phrases.

Lleshanaku is one of Albania's best-known poets - certainly the most prominent to be translated into English - and has been the recipient of several national awards. Before she was Lleshanaku's translator, Gjika was a fan.

She first read the poet's work in 2009, in English, and was so taken with its cinematic qualities and emotional resonance that she wrote to Lleshanaku to ask permission to translate a few of her poems for a graduate-school project, one of which ended up winning the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize.

Negative Space is inspired by Lleshanaku's experience growing up under family house arrest during Enver Hoxha's autocratic communist rule, though the poems never mention this explicitly. Gjika describes the book as akin to "entering the darkroom of a photographer who is at once skilled but also willing to allow you to learn her skill." Lleshanaku speaks enough English to discuss translations as they progress, and sometimes makes adjustments accordingly. In the case of one poem, Menelaus's Return, Gjika was having trouble making the ending work, so Lleshanaku decided to change it altogether.

Says Gjika of the process, "When I translate Luljeta Lleshanaku, I'm acutely aware that I am not just translating poetry from my mother tongue, but someone's unique form of ars poetica." Like Gjika, Don Mee Choi - who was born in 1962 in Seoul - migrated to the United States in her late teens, and is also a poet; though unlike Gjika, she came alone, to study visual arts in California.

When Choi was 10, her father leveraged his work as a war photographer for ABC News to help the family escape South Korea's military dictatorship. They initially went to Hong Kong, from which Choi's father covered the Vietnam War in its entirety (his footage appears in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter). Choi's parents and two siblings eventually settled in Australia, Choi in Seattle, with her husband, though she's currently in Berlin on a one-year DAAD artist's fellowship.

Choi first realized the impact translation could have after reading a book by Hwang Sun-Won, a well-known Korean writer, in English. It moved her enough that she drove hundreds of miles to a Korean bookstore in Los Angeles to seek out untranslated versions of Hwang's other work.

Choi originally intended to translate fiction, but changed her mind after coming across three female Korean poets - Ch'oe Sung-ja, Yi Yon-ju and Kim Hyesoon - whose fiercely feminist work, written during the politically oppressive 1980s, she found electrifying. Born in the 1950s, the three are part of the so-called hangul generation, hangul being the writing system originally developed for women and commoners in the 15th century that was officially adopted in 1919, during Japan's occupation of Korea (when Koreans were forced to use Japanese), as a means of nationalist resistance.

Korean women have composed poetry for millennia, but it was mostly transmitted orally owing to their marginal status in a highly patriarchal society. In the 1930s, yoryu, or "women's poetry," was expected to be gentle, passive and sentimental. Kim's experimental poetry - which often draws on war, violence, bodies and the grotesque ("Today, Mommy cooks panfried hair / Yesterday, mommy cooked braised thighs / Tomorrow, Mommy will cook sweet and sour fingers") - is, needless to say, about as far from yoryu as you can get.

The South Korean poetry scene has long been male-dominated, but it hasn't been immune to the winds of the #MeToo movement. Choi says it has affected the community so profoundly that Korean literary journals now publish women almost exclusively.

It was while translating an anthology of Ch'oe, Yi and Kim's work that Choi began to view translating as a means of connecting with her birth culture, and as an act of decolonization. "Translation is not just about translating language, stories, poems, but it is also about generating counter-memory, counter-knowledge of one's (gender/class/race/nation) location, dislocation, history," she wrote in an e-mail.

"Translation is a huge part of my poetics - it is what shapes the language of my poetry."

Choi has translated six of Kim's books to date. Asked whether their relationship is that of colleagues or friends, Choi says, "Korean culture is such that it wouldn't be proper for me to say that I see Kim Hyesoon as a friend. I think of Kim Hyesoon as a poet I deeply admire. I think she is the most remarkable poet to come after [early 20th-century avant-garde writer] Yi Sang."

Reflecting further, she offers an alternate paradigm: "I'm a comet that orbits a blazing star called Kim Hyesoon."

Associated Graphic

Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, top left, and Albania's Luljeta Lleshanaku, bottom left, have won Griffin Prizes for their respective collections, but the prize also rewards their translators - Don Mee Choi, top right, and Ani Gjika, bottom right - as a nod to the intrinsic role they play in bringing the text from one language to another.


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Roy_MacGregor Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail
 

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement
space

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.

Advertisement

7-Day Site Search
    

Breaking News



Today's Weather


Inside

Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes


Editorial
Where Manley is going with his first budget




space

Columnists



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.

 National


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
space
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
space
Margaret Wente arrow
Counterpoint
space
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game
space
 Business


Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
space
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
space
Mathew Ingram arrow
space
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
space
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
space
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
space
Andrew Willis arrow
Streetwise
space
 Sports


Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
space
Eric Duhatschek arrow
space
Allan Maki arrow
space
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
space
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
Golf
space
 The Arts


John Doyle arrow
Television
space
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
space
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
space
Johanna Schneller arrow
Moviegoer
space
 Comment


Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
space
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
space
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
space
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
space
Paul Knox arrow
Worldbeat
space
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
space
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
space
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
space
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
space
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
space
William Thorsell arrow
space





Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels
space

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page