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Books The artistry and difficulty behind translating poetry

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.

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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 18-year 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.

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Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, seen here, won the Griffin Prize last month for her book Autobiography of Death.

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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.

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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.

Poet Ani Gjika, seen here, translated Negative Space. She grew up in Albania and has exclusively written her own poetry in English.

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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.

Negative Space author Luljeta Lleshanaku, seen here, is one of Albania’s best-known poets – certainly the most prominent to be translated into English.

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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.”

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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.

Don Mee Choi, seen here, translated Autobiography of Death. She first realized the impact translation could have after reading a book by Hwang Sun-Won, a well-known Korean writer, in English.

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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 pan-fried 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.”

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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.”

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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