Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘translation’

Over at Necessary Fiction this week, I review Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja, translated by Shelley Frisch.

Maybe Esther takes on so much emotional and political territory that it can feel disorienting. I mean this is a compliment, because I believe the book’s offering of a slightly overwhelming reading experience is entirely intentional, and much to its point. Petrowskaja relates entire constellations of stories: the schools for deaf-mute children run by her maternal grandfather’s family; the political assassin, Judas Stern, who was tried and shot in Moscow in 1932; the great-great-grandmother and great-aunt who faithfully made their way through the streets to what would become the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev; the long-lost American relative who made it through a ghetto, five concentration camps and a death march, and so many more family stories, as well as Petrowskaja’s own journeys around Europe. But it never feels as though Petrowskaja is sharing these stories and her questions about them in order to resolve their specific and personal mysteries. Instead, her persistent questioning and gentle paralleling to Greek tragedy and the Bible seems to suggest that the real mystery under investigation here is how did these events come to take place—historically, politically, humanly. How was all of this tragedy allowed to happen?

You can read the entire review here.

Also, if you missed it, you can also read my interview with _Maybe Esther’s_ translator, Shelley Frisch.

In May I spent a lot of my time sharing quotes from Katja Petrowskaja’s beautiful book, Maybe Esther. I was very taken with this book and it’s project of retracing 20th-century Europe through the stories of Petrowskaja’s family, but because of the nature of the book’s wordplay and linguistic focus (shifting constantly between Russian, Polish, and German), I was equally interested in the work that went into its translation into English. I had the opportunity to interview Shelley Frisch, who masterfully translated Maybe Esther and that interview is now published. Frisch answered my questions in great detail and it was a wonderful discussion of a unique book. Here is just a small taster:

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation.

You can read the entire interview here at Necessary Fiction.

I’ve also written a review of Maybe Esther that will be published on Monday.

And just a quick word on the title of the interview and this blog post – Shelley mentioned the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem in the context of our discussion but I cannot stop thinking of this line as the best description of translation I’ve ever heard:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

This month I have the pleasure of translating an art book about Rodin’s erotic drawings, and so I’m enjoying a glimpse into the art world of Paris in the early 1900s.

Research (mostly checking quotations from art critics and famous people about Rodin’s work) has thrown me into many a delightful rabbit hole, looking at the originals and any existing translations of a number of art books as well as The Goncourt Journal, which is mentioned several times in what I’m translating.

While looking for several quotes, I came across a few interesting anecdotes. One of Jules Goncourt happening upon Sarah Bernhardt wandering around in an art warehouse. It’s pouring down rain and she’s bundled up, musing over different art objects. And then she passes him and he describes her:

It is curious how this Sarah Bernhardt reminded me on this gray and rainy day of one of those elegant and emaciated convalescents who pass you in a hospital at about five o’clock, in the twilight, to attend prayers at the end of the hall.

There are also many mentions of evenings out or evenings in with Alphonse and Julia Daudet, as Edmond de Goncourt was great friends with Alphonse. The section I came across was one of Edmond spying a moment between the couple when Alphonse shows Julia the dedication of one of his newly printed editions.

We go down to the publishers; Daudet shows his wife the dedication, of which only a few copies have been printed, and which she has not yet seen. And Mme Daudet, reading it, denies her husband’s acknowledgments of her talent in words which have almost the emotional sputtering of a disappointed woman in love: “No, no, it’s too much. … I don’t want it … no, I don’t want it!”

(Both quotes are from an English (translator uncredited) edition published sometime in the first half of the 20th century.)

I’m so curious about this. Julia wrote and wrote, and I translated one of her beautiful short stories “The Unknown Woman” a few years ago for Spolia Mag, but she refused credit for all the editing and perhaps even writing she did of her husband’s manuscripts. It makes me think about Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife, and wonder how much “editing” Julia may have actually done.

I spent a good portion of yesterday looking for an article on a exhibition that Rodin did in Holland in 1899, of some drawings that were inspired, in part or in whole, by Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden. I found myself, quite at random, stuck reading through all April editions of La Presse (Parisian newspaper) and found myself reading the listings of duels – who was hurt, why they fought, whether it was swords or pistols. It was hard not to laugh, and yet how sad this is. We disagree, we fight to the death (or near death). Albeit, no one listed in these April 1899 duels actually died! Many of the fights were about literary disputes – that made me smile.

This book I’m translating also talks about how Rodin (like so many other artists) was heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints – and while checking for the correct spelling of one of the artists who influenced him, I fell into a lovely hour of browsing Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige and many others.

I love woodblock prints of Kyushu, a place that is lesser known for anyone traveling to Japan – even today — and Mt. Sakurajima in Kagoshima was a big inspiration for many artists.

This one is Kawase Hasui:

Kawase Hasui

This is another Hasui that I have always loved….

Kawase Hasui 2

And probably my favorite artist was one who came a bit later – Kiyoshi Saito. If you do an image search for him, you’ll see that his work was darker, more gray scale, and more modern than many of the woodblock artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Kiyoshi Saito

And finally, to finish, here is Hiroshi Yoshida’s Matterhorn. He was born on Kyushu but travelled extensively, so here we have Japan and Switzerland from 1925.

Yoshida Matterhorn



August is Women in Translation month – which was originally started by Meytal Radzinski and a fantastic initiative to highlight the issue of how few books by women authors are translated into English. This is something close to my heart, as both a devoted reader of ‘foreign fiction’ and as a translator.

I’m happy to finally report that a Swiss writer I’ve been championing for some time (and having a hard time placing anywhere) will see a first English translation publication later this fall. The writer is Clarisse Francillon – whom, for reasons of expediency, I tend to describe as the Mavis Gallant of Switzerland — and my translation of one of her short stories will be published in Mayday Magazine in a few months. I’ll be shouting about it when it comes out.

I have a very busy month of reading for Le Livre sur les Quais – a Swiss literary festival that takes place each September. This year the country of honor will be Ireland and a great number of interesting writers will be here. I’ll be moderating several panels for the English-speaking authors program, so most of my month has an imposed and diverse reading list: Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry, Emanuel Bergmann, Claire Vaye Watkins and Rachel Joyce. The small “in English” part of the festival has a healthy-sized list, not to mention the full French-speaking program! If you’re interested you can see more here.

Nonetheless, I’d still like to read a selection of women in translation this month and here is a small stack from my shelves, books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to yet. I am only picking four – but this seems ambitious enough with everything else going on. Here they are, and I’d love to hear if you’ve read any of these…

  • Stone in a Landslide, Maria Barbal, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell (Peirene, 2010)
  • Sun Alley, Cecilia Ştefănescu, translated from the Romanian by Alexandra Coliban & Andreea Höfer (Istros Books, 2013)
  • Baba Dunja’s Last Love, Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions, 2016)
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press, 2017)

Because I feel that list is woefully short, I’ll include here a list of some of my very favorite books by non-Anglophone women writers, available in English translation. Many of these books I’ve written about here or elsewhere, I’ll include a link if I have one:

  • The Wall, Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside
  • Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, tr. Giovanni Pontiero
  • Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector, tr. Stefan Tobler
  • Juletane, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, tr. Betty Wilson
  • Building Waves, Taeko Tomioka, tr. Louise Heal Kawai
  • The Summer Book, Tove Janssen, tr. Thomas Teal
  • Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud, tr. by the author
  • Farewell, Cowboy, Olja Savičević, tr. Celia Hawkesworth
  • Masks, Enchi Fumiko, tr. Juliet Winters Carpentr
  • The Waiting Years, Enchi Fumiko, tr. John Bester
  • Trilogy, Agota Kristof, tr. Alan Sheridan, David Watson, Marc Romano
  • Commentary, Marcelle Sauvageot, tr. Christine Schwartz Hartley, Anna Moschovakis

Just making this list, I can see so many of my blind spots. I feel decently well-read in Japanese and Francophone women’s fiction, but I’ve been meaning to search out and make a list of more diverse women’s voices: Asian and African writing, and Spanish-language writers, for example, that I know I’ve overlooked. Suggestions are always welcome…

To finish I’ll mention one book that I think SHOULD BE translated into English. Douchinka by the Swiss writer Dominique de Rivaz. This is a tiny little book set in a dystopian Russian future. It involves dubious art practices and institutionalized murder, and it is also one of the strangest love stories I’ve ever read. I read the book a few months ago and cannot stop thinking about it.





December was a markedly different reading month compared to the rest of 2016, and in a very good way. I read some wonderful books in 2016, but not enough, and much of my reading time was spent on manuscripts – my own and those of friends, and reading for work. That is often wonderful, interesting reading in its own right, but I did miss the larger range of books I usually choose to read over a year. As I mentioned in my last post, I filled December with a wonderful list of essays and short stories and this brought me reading wildly again. Such a pleasure.

More than this, however, I spent the last week and a half of December at home without any work projects. Aside from a few larger family responsibilities for the holidays, it was a very quiet break. Can you guess how I spent it? Curled up in my favorite spot, with a large pot of tea at hand and a stack of books, some of which I’d read before and were in need of a re-read. For some reason Japanese modernism fit my mood (there’s probably a political analogy in there somewhere) and I began with Enchi Fumiko’s 1958 Masks, translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in 1983. Masks (referring to Noh masks and to overlaid representations of the self) is a dark little novel about desire and revenge and, in some sense, too, about scripted drama. I remember loving it the first time I read it, and I found it no less interesting this second time around.

I was still in the mood for something I’d read before, so I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1935-1937). I’d forgotten how interesting Kawabata is, and so I followed this with Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (1949-1954), which I hadn’t read before. I loved it more than Snow Country. And then, not willing to stop until I’d finished all the Kawabata sitting on my shelves, I then read his Thousand Cranes (1949 – 1951), finishing it up in the early morning of December 31st in a quiet house with a stunning winter dawn breaking over the mountains and the lake outside the window of my favorite reading spot.

These are all beautiful little books (all of them translated by Edward Seidensticker in the 1970s and 80s). Kawabata has a gentle lyrical style and a very perceptive eye for distinguishing character traits. I love his lens, because the “eyes” of all three novels are male, but their gaze is tightly focused—either in a curious or an obsessive way—upon a series of eccentric women characters.

That word “eccentric” is a hesitant choice. I don’t mean to say that these women characters are outlandish or bizarre. I mean it in the sense of “unconventional” and this seems to me to lie at the heart of Kawabata’s queries in these novels, which are all looking at fundamental social shifts and generational changes in Japan. The relationships tethering his male narrators to their female family members and lovers and friends open up a window onto either a hint or a fully realized portrait of some unconventional trait in each of the women. He tends to play with ideals and traditional stereotypes and explodes them over and over again—but it’s all done in a soft and quiet way.

I want to write about Sound of the Mountain in more detail, mostly because I absolutely adored Shingo Ogata’s character and perspective, but also because I braved reading the English and Japanese side by side, and found myself curious about many of Seidensticker’s translation choices. Not arguing with them necessarily, although sometimes that, too, but just looking at the way his translation shapes a reader’s perception of the story. Always fascinating for me.

In any case, I’ll stop here and just say Happy New Year, leaving off with a line from Thousand Cranes that fits what is outside my window right this second:

For the rest, the night was so dark that he had trouble following the line between trees and sky.

Wishing you all a chance to read everything and anything in 2017.


Over the last few months I have been very lazily reading Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. (And I think I owe a big thank you to Marina Sofia for recommending this book to me, it’s splendid.). For Day 2 of my advent reading, I read the third chapter, “The World is Loud and Full of Noises,” which, serendipitously, is about translation.

The chapter begins with the idea of how uncomfortable people can be with translation, and where this comes from in terms of prohibitions about translations in sacred texts. I’ve never made the explicit connection, but now it seems glaringly obvious—if words have any whiff of the sacred, it would be sacrilegious to altar them in any way. Move that idea forward a few millennia and there is this, exquisitely expressed:

Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole.

When you look at it this way, translation isn’t just a superfluous extracurricular that’s nice to have around if you can, it’s a vital component of a society with an ability to look outward.

And Hirshfield talks about this from a political perspective, but also a literary one, mentioning the ways in which translation of “foreign” poetry has enlivened and rejuvenated English language poetry in important ways.

She moves then to talk about the act of translating and what it involves, how it actually feels. I love her description of translation as erotic:

…the translator enters into an erotic engagement with the chosen text, reading the poem again and again for its meaning, its resonance, its kinetic and musical bodies, its ambiguities, rhetoric, grammar, images, and tropes—for all the rustling of its many leaves and for the silences at its roots as well. The translator reads in the desire to join with what she reads, placing the life of the poem thoroughly within her own, discovering how each entering word modifies that life.

Her point, and I’d agree with it, is that both the text and the translator are altered by the experience. The two are no longer separate when all is said and done and a translation appears, wholly unique but still connected, deeply although somehow inexplicably, with the original text.

The rest of the chapter gets quite technical—in the best way—with Hirshfield writing about her experience translating the famous Japanese poets Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi. She gives examples and details her process. It’s fascinating, and quite inspiring.

I’ve been terrified to attempt any translation involving actual poetry, probably because I don’t trust my own poetic instincts, and I’m afraid of the constraints involved. But Hirshfield makes me want to try, she presents the translation of poetry as more of a liberating experience than one marked by rules and limitations. That seems much less scary.

She ends the chapter by citing a short poem by the Japanese monk Kūkai, who is credited with developing the kana system, which is used in combination with Chinese characters, to write Japanese. Knowing that about him, and seeing the poem, and thinking about the sacred nature of words, and how any language is “translated” from thought to expression when articulated, I could get lost inside this poem for years:

Singing Image of Fire

A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,

Triangles, squares: all things change when we do.

The first word, “Ah,” blossomed into all others.

Each of them is true.

I’ve written before about Agota Kristof—a Swiss writer, originally Hungarian, who escaped to Switzerland in 1956 and made her life here as a writer and playwright. If you don’t already know it, her work is brutal and provocative. Often difficult to read but yet intense and hard to put down, she is most famous for her trilogy The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie.

I discovered, quite by accident, a small collection of her short stories that came out in 2005, C’est egal. The collection contains 25 very very short and sometimes cryptic pieces. As far as I know, the collection has not been translated into English, although perhaps some of the stories have in different publications. Something I love about her work is the anger in it. It’s palpable and rises up off the page, with sharp teeth. The first story here, “The Axe” is written in the voice of a woman, explaining (innocently? naively? insanely?) to the doctor she’s just called, why she woke up to find her husband dead, his head split in two with an axe. The collection continues in much the same vein.

The title, by the way, comes from one of the pieces and given the context of that story could be translated as It doesn’t matter, or Whatever, or Who cares. This gives an pretty clear indication of the tone of the collection.

In any case, I couldn’t help myself, and have translated two of them here:

The mother

            Her son left home very young, when he was 18 years old. Several months after the death of the father.

She kept on living in the two room apartment; she was on good terms with her neighbors. She did housecleaning, mending, ironing.

One day her son knocked at the door. He was not alone. With him was a young girl, fairly pretty.

She opened her arms to them.

She hadn’t seen her son for four years.

After supper, her son said, “Mother, if it’s all right with you, we’ll both stay here.”

Her heart leapt with joy. She prepared the largest room for them, the most beautiful. But they went out around ten o’clock that night.

She told herself that they had surely gone to the movies, and she went to sleep, happy in the little room behind the kitchen.

She was no longer alone. Her son was living with her again.

In the mornings, she went out early to do her housecleaning and the small jobs that she didn’t want to give up because of this change in her situation.

At noon she cooked them good meals. Her son always brought something. Flowers, a dessert, wine, and sometimes champagne.

The coming and going of the strangers she sometimes passed in the hallway did not bother her.

“Come in, come in,” she said, “they’re in the room.”

Sometimes, when her son was not at home, and so the two women took their meals together, her eyes would meet the sad, battered eyes of the girl who was living with her. And so she would lower her own eyes, and murmur, while massaging a little ball of the soft white flesh from a piece of bread, “He’s a good boy. A nice boy.”

The girl would fold her napkin—she had manners—and walk out of the kitchen.

So much is left out of this story, so much implied. Kristof does this with a lot of her work, leaving implication and insinuation as the largest spaces for the reader to situate themself in, which can be uncomfortable or exciting, depending how you look at it.

The second story has a strange narrator, which is hard to pin down. I quite like that, avoiding the easy interpretations and thinking about this piece in terms of its relationship to the rest of her work–which spent more of its time on issues of war and totalitarianism and psychological oppression, than it did on religion.

The Great Wheel

            There is someone that I haven’t yet wanted to kill.

It’s you.

You can walk in the streets, you can go drinking and then walk the streets, I won’t kill you.

Don’t be afraid. The city isn’t dangerous. The only dangerous thing in the city is me.

I walk, I walk all throughout the streets, I kill.

But you, you don’t have anything to fear.

If I’m following you, it’s because I like the way you walk. You totter. It’s lovely. It’s almost like you limp. A bit like you’re hunchbacked. You’re not actually hunchbacked. From time to time you pull yourself up and you walk straight. But I really love you when it’s late at night, when you’re weak, when you trip, when you hunch yourself over.

I follow you, you tremble. From the cold or from fear. Although the weather is hot.

Never, nearly never, maybe it has never been so hot in our city.

And what is it that could make you afraid?


I’m not your enemy. I love you.

And no one else is able to harm you.

Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m protecting you.

I’m also suffering, you know.

My tears—fat drops of rain—run down my face. The night covers me. The moon lights me up. The clouds hide me. The wind tears me apart. I feel a kind of tenderness for you. Sometimes this happens to me. Only rarely.

Why for you? I have no idea.

I want to follow you for a great distance, everywhere, for a long time.

I want to see you suffer even more.

I want you to have had enough of it all.

I want you to come begging to me to take you.

I want you to desire me. Want you to want me, to love me, call out to me.

And so I would take you in my arms, I would hold you close against my heart, you would be my child, my lover, my beloved.

I would take you away.

You were afraid to be born, and now you are afraid to die.

You are afraid of everything.

You shouldn’t be afraid.

There is just a great wheel turning. It’s called Eternity.

I’m the one turning the great wheel.

You do not need to be afraid of me.

Nor of the great wheel.

The only thing that can make you afraid, that can hurt you, is life, and you already know it.


This week I’m reading three books, moving from one to the other and back again. The books are: David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. What an odd and wonderful conversation these books are having. All so different, all turning over similar questions about how language works to make meaning.

The Appointment is fiction, obviously, but it’s running a careful hand along the idea of individual identity in a system which wants to forbid (destroy might be a better word) individual thought. The novel covers a single day as a young woman rides the tram to an interrogation session. She’s being watched because she was caught sewing notes (‘Marry me’, with her name and address) into the lining of the men’s suits bound for Italy from the clothing factory where she works. This is life under Ceaușescu.

The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough?

It’s really hard to categorize David Carl’s book Heraclitus in Sacramento. It’s a study, really. A collection of writings and thoughts around the acts of reading and writing. There is a fictional or personal thread as well, which draws it all together. But not tightly. Although it’s a bound book it feels more like a bursting folder collecting notes scribbled and torn from the margins of other books; these notes are in dialogue with so many other works, as is the elusive narrator. It’s a slow and curious read, and I’m really enjoying it. The first section is called “Lucubrations” and here is some of what it looks like:

Is he still at liberty to believe that the reading of words might improve him; might go some distance in making him a better person?

He still believes in such things as better and worse; if not in perfection, then at least in perfectibility. He believes there are things he can do that will make him better than he is, as surely as he believes that there are things he can do that will bring him pleasure.

But what do words have to do with this?

That is a question for him to live with a bit longer.

According to Aristotle, “Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane.”

Poetry is the liberation of language, and language the very possibility of poetry.

Nine Gates is Jane Hirshfield’s collection of essays on understanding poetry. It is more classically academic in tone than the other two, but Hirshfield’s language remains lavish and alive even when she’s in an explaining mode. The first essay of the book is about concentration and it reminded me of Jan Zwicky’s interview printed at the back of her collection Chamber Music, in which she talked about “that wordless configuration in the world which lit up, arrested my attention” and the idea of “lyric availability.” Hirshfield gets at this from a number of different directions, using other poets’ ideas as well as her own descriptions. Everyone trying to describe the state of heightened attention involved in artistic creation.

In a passage about how poetry connects the poet with the reader, or the poet with his or her own past, there is this marvelous line:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

She is writing about the intimacy of repeating words—one’s own or someone else’s. Giving them form in the mind or aloud. How this formulation/formation works through the reader or the thinker. This sentence speaks to both The Appointment and Heraclitus in Sacramento, bringing my reading into a little conversation that will keep me company as I continue through all three books.


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A lovely parcel arrived in the mail today, with my copies of WHAT IF THE SUN…

I love this cover so much – a huge thank you to Onesuch Press for choosing so carefully. It suits the mood of the book. It’s gray here in Switzerland today, which is fitting for the book’s story of a village waiting and hoping for the sun to reappear after months and months of no direct sunlight, and a prediction from a village elder who has told them all that this year, the sun won’t come back to them.

Here is a long passage from early on in the book, when one of the young men from the village climbs up higher into the mountain, despite the snow and the bad weather, to see if he can get a glimpse of the sun and prove to himself and the others that it’s still there…

He kept telling himself that the sun was above him. And, indeed, it seemed that the sun must show itself soon, because above Métrailler was a thinning of the clouds like a cloth whose weave has loosened. And, on the other side of the ridge, a reddish tint had begun to appear. Métrailler raised his head and, growing prideful now with his solitude, said, “I’ll show Tissières, I’ll show everyone!” He arrived at Grand-Dessus, which was a kind of platform jutting out like a peak from the ridge. In good weather, the view extends from there for more than 100 kilometers on both sides. Nothing could be seen, but Métrailler was not looking to see anything in terms of a view. He held his gaze now toward the sky. He sat down on the frozen snow and lifted his head with astonishment toward a window that had just appeared a little above him and to the south through the thinning canopy of fog, on the other side of a great ridge of mountain that we began to be able to see. It was there, indeed, where it came out—the sun—or something that could have been the sun, and it was there that it must have come out from behind the mountain, just in time to hide itself again.

But it had grown red and the rock where Métrailler was standing became red; and the sun up above had not shown itself, although it seemed that we had shown it; it had not risen, although it seemed that we had lifted it: disheveled, and all wrapped up, entwined with clouds which were themselves like clots of blood.

Exactly like a severed head around which the beard and hair still hung smoking; that we lifted in the air a moment, only to let fall again. And already the fog and the darkness had come back to their place.

The book is available from Indiebound, Amazon, and you can always order it from your local bookshop.



When I was first studying translation I read an anthology of essays on translation compiled by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, 1992, Univ of Chicago Press). I’ve been re-reading it over the past few days and enjoying a sudden re-immersion in the various discussions of translatability and “the art of translation.” These essays are so good. This morning I’m looking at Octavio Paz’s 1971 essay, “Translation: Literature and Letters.” In it he writes this, which I love:

Throughout the ages, European poets—and now those of both halves of the American continent as well—have been writing the same poem in different languages. And each version is an original and distinct poem. True, the synchronization is not perfect, but if we take a step backward, we can understand that we are hearing a concert, and that the musicians, playing different instruments, following neither conductor not score, are in the process of collectively composing a symphony in which improvisation is inseparable from translation and creation is indistinguishable from imitation.

This speaks to the other essay I am reading and re-reading. Well, not really an essay, but a longish interview published alongside Jan Zwicky’s marvelous collection Chamber Music, in which she talks about poetic/lyric “availability” and how it intersects with the practice of technique. She discusses music and especially jazz and ends her thought with this:

Poetry has organic form when the music of being inhabits the body of someone’s language, when the gesture of speaking becomes physical material, stuff, that the music can express itself through. A poet’s voice is what corresponds to the dancer’s body. The music of being doesn’t express itself through “language”; it expresses itself through someone’s language.

I love thinking about how this works in translation. The writer’s language, the translator’s language. Both as a creative act. The interplay between the two.