Saturday, January 5, 2019

Picking the Right Work for a Literary Translation

One part of the art of the literary translator that is rarely talked about is the hunt for the right work to translate. For most translators, extensive research and digging goes into selecting poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or drama to translate. It’s not unusual for a translator to read forty poems by a particular writer just to find one that s/he wants to translate. A translator might also read multiple biographies of an author to discover which novel or play by that writer to translate.

But where do you begin? Finding the right work to translate is like being a detective on a case with few leads. You have to look at everything about a writer to see if anything is slightly out of place, searching for something that stands out. Sometimes you have to interview people who know the literature of a particular language, probing for ideas that might work for you.

I was researching the poet French surrealist André Breton when I came across this description almost six hundred pages into Mark Polizzotti’s definitive biography of the poet:

“Far more consequential was Breton’s meeting in 1954 with the twenty-six-year-old poet Joyce Mansour.…it was other aspects of her personality—the dark, frenzied eroticism that emerged in her poetry; her unconventional public behavior—that had most drawn Breton. Soon after she joined the Surrealist group, a legend sprang up that Joyce lived exclusively on oysters, hot water, and cigars…”
Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, pp. 589­–590.

André Breton and Joyce Mansour, 1959
That reference intrigued me. A woman poet in a literary movement known mostly for male writers, and she came along decades after the surrealists had made their initial splash in the 1920s.

I starting looking for Joyce Mansour’s Oeuvres complètes, her complete works. It wasn’t an easy book to track down in the United States—the least expensive copy is currently selling for $463 used on Interlibrary loan is often a good way to obtain a hard-to-find book of this sort.

When I did find the book, I realized that there were many gems among Joyce Mansour’s poems. I looked quickly through the 600 pages in her complete works—not reading every page, just skimming at first, searching for a style and themes in her work that spoke to me.

Joyce Mansour (1928–1986)
Once I settled on several of her poems that I liked, I started to do rough drafts, looking for poems that would work in English. Sometimes that’s not the same as a writer’s best efforts. There are factors that make a piece of literature work in another language, and factors that have the opposite result. Writing that brilliantly uses local dialect, for example, may not be as effective in translation, since there is often no equivalent in the target language for that particular style of speech.

I was also conscious that some of Mansour’s work had already been translated into English, and I was prospecting for poems that had either not been translated, or where the translation stopped short of conveying the “dark, frenzied eroticism” that Polizzotti described.

In fact, what I found in Mansour’s poetry was somewhat different—eroticism, yes, but permeated with compassion, wisdom, and honesty about intimacy. It was those qualities in Mansour’s writing that I wanted to try to recreate in English. I was seeking poems by Mansour that touched me personally, and there certainly were several where I hoped that I could add something by translating them in my own way.

That is also part of the translator’s quest. What is it that you as a translator have to contribute that is unique to you? You want a project where the work of another writer matches up with your own sensibility in a way that gives you insight into how that author should sound in your own language. Ultimately, you are looking to become a vehicle to convey that writer’s personal style and subject matter to readers of your own language.

Here’s a poem by Joyce Mansour that I translated, to give you a flavor of her writing:

            Joyce Mansour

“Do you still know the sweet scent of plantain trees…”

Do you still know the sweet scent of plantain trees
Familiar things can seem so strange when someone leaves
Food can seem so sad
A bed so insipid
And cats
Do you remember the cats that screeched their claws
That yowled on the roof when your tongue ransacked me
And that arched their backs when you dug your nails into me
They vibrated when I yielded
I don’t know how to love anymore
Those painful bubbles of delirium have dried on my lips
I’ve thrown away my mask of leaves
A rose bush agonizes under the bed
I can’t wiggle my hips anymore in the midst of all this rubble
And the cats have fled the roof

translation © 2019 by Zack Rogow 

Another post on how to choose the right work for a translation project, focused on George Sand.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry