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Recent translation: Algaravias by Waly Salomão
Extracurricular: Poet (The Distancing Effect, BlazeVOX, 2016); Lecturer (Harvard University); Contributing Editor (The New Inquiry); Artist, Video Artist
Honors: Honors: 2017 PEN Literary Translation Prize Nominee; 2014-2015 Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow
Read: “Jet-Lagged Poem” by Waly Salomão
How does translation relate to your art work?
In its strictest sense translation (from translatio, “carried across”) implies conversion, transfer, or shuffling back and forth. For me though, it works in my work through a generative register. Put simply, in the artistic process one thing can multiply and create many more things. This can happen in a series of juxtapositions. This is the possibility translation gives us, outside of a narrow understanding of “one language to another,” and it absolutely has a place in my visual art because working in non-hierarchical series—beyond, say, binary opposition—is a strong tendency. Diffusion, expansion, a multiplicity of possibilities from a singular starting point—that’s how I see it working.
There are more obvious and literal ways, of course. In Sanctuary, filmed at a donkey refuge, I wrote the script in Persian and subtitled the film in English, keeping spoken dialogue in the original language. This was a strongly deliberate choice since the film set up a relationship of activation between the audience watching and the animals and narrators being watched and heard.
Do you feel that Persian is an under-translated language (into English)? Why do you think this is?
Persian is my native language, and the language I speak with my family, so I ascribe a warmth and closeness to it. That it retains that intimate feeling while also the high-caliber range of classical and modern literature is a testament to its plasticity, and I wish more people gained access to it because of this largesse. In terms of geopolitics, however, it’s a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, there is interest in Persian or Iran (as not all Iranians speak Persian, and not all Persian-speakers are Iranian) because of the political animosity ratcheted up against it since at least the mid-20th century, and much further back on the historical continuum too. When a culture or language becomes reduced or animated by its politicized shell, we should pose the question why—such as burgeoning interest after Iran was included in the “Axis of Evil.” And if we need literature to humanize a demonized people, as if their humanity were under question, we should absolutely reject that claim.
On the other hand, though I can’t accurately gauge the interest of the North American reader of literature, books appear in the public domain because of the efforts of those who care deeply about them. There’s something to be said for demanding to experience a consciousness outside of one’s immediate access point. From a creator’s point of view, if you believe in it urgently enough and pursue it with the care it requires, people gather. So beyond the reach of a “soft” Orientalism or imperialism around this language I hope people create or respond to that demand.
You translated the Waly Salomão, who was himself Syrian-Brazilian. What brought you to his work? And do you have a particular interest in the Syrian diaspora?
I was a college student living in Rio de Janeiro when Waly was alive, and though he died before I could meet him I don’t believe that the encounter was accidental. Because he carried such a dynamic presence in Rio—not just as a cultural figure but someone who would pop up and give spirited street readings of his work—a lot of ordinary people knew him. People not necessarily connected to literature knew his poetry, which is meaningful given what we think of as “small” audiences for poetry in contemporary society. My landlady introduced me to his work, and I was hooked. I ended up meeting a close friend of his, Duncan Lindsay, and I ended up tracing his footsteps in bookstores and literary cafés all over the city. By the time I was close to meeting him—and it turned out we lived in the same neighborhood—he suddenly died. Translating Algaravias became a personal mission from that point on, and his death became the subject of one of the first poems I ever published, “Against Nepenthe.”
Waly’s connection to Brazilian art forms—particularly Tropicalism—and the people associated with them is clear. I do think he went beyond the confines of Tropicalism in subject matter and sensibility though, and early on, before translating Algaravias, I wrote an essay called “Travel and Anti-Travel” essentially arguing this point. The complexity found in stillness—if one can overcome inner restlessness and turmoil—is a central tenet of his, and I felt kinship for that idea in the process of translating the book. I spent every weekend of a long, hot summer in the unglamorous depths of a basement work studio, translating about two poems at a time. It’s a process you go through alone, but never lonely. The humor and intricacy of his poetry were warm companions. It is also a book that was very much ahead of its time in terms of digital awareness, and that enlivened my interest as someone coming up in the world in the internetal age. “RIO(coloquial-modernista).DOC” was written in the early ’90s but the perceptiveness is of someone writing 20 years beyond that. The book is as an oracle for both those vestiges of modernity, the ephemeral and the virtual.
After my initial encounter in Brazil I ended up studying Arabic in Syria. One one of those trips I traced Waly’s steps to his ancestral home in Arwad, the country’s only island. When I got there I was holding a first-edition copy of Algaravias, which had a photograph of the coast on its cover. It was kind of magical to hold up that book cover—showing sailboats and fishing ships—against the backdrop of the actual place. This personal mythology of Algaravias—about making a home in foreign tongues and transitory places—is very close to me.
Of course, Syria has been totally devastated since then, with the Syrian people fleeing for their lives in great desperation. This land that has given the world innumerable gifts has been ravaged beyond belief.
Who or what are some untranslated writers or works from either Portuguese or Persian that you would like to see in English? Why?
Recently I was reading a long series of books by writers with cancer, and tried to find an English translation of artist Christoph Schlingensief’s cancer diaries, Heaven Can’t Be as Beautiful as it is Here! (So schön wie hier kanns im Himmel gar nicht sein!) as my German is practically inexistent. That’s the book I most wished to access. Despite the notion that Anglo-European authors are plainly available, access denied!
In terms of Portuguese, I wish more people knew the works of Ana Cristina César, who was both a poet and translator. She is often compared to Sylvia Plath—and her suicide in 1983 may have entrenched this connection. Her Inéditos e Dispersos is something I carried around with me a lot in Rio. In Persian, I feel perhaps the strongest connection to Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, in terms of the impact of both his prolific writing and political commitments on me. He was incarcerated after the U.S. helped assassinate Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
What is a recent translation challenge you faced?
Some of Waly’s neologisms and lexical variations were so unusual that when I would show them to Brazilian or Portuguese natives, they all had the same response. “This is so difficult!” Yet there’s something very familiar in the difficulty, because they understood the poem without necessarily being able to explain the invented or variegated word. I find this mixture of accessibility and difficulty fascinating. One advantage you have as a non-native speaker, I find, is approaching the entire text with a degree of distance. I find that helps tremendously when translating invented syntax or culturally inscribed words. In “Jet-Lagged Poem,” Waly writes, “a palavra OXENTE.” It’s a particular exclamation, from the elision “oh gente!” To keep the regional sensibility embedded in that word I translated it to “LAWD,” a similar exclamation prevalent in the speech of the American South, where I lived as a child.