I t is a well-worn truth that translation—especially translation of poetry—is a process of interpretation. The reader needs a pathway to navigate new text, and the translator is tasked with forging this path through landscapes of meaning both plain and obscure. Caught between the weight of preserving the author’s intent and the reshaping pull of new language, this path is that of the efforts, doubts, and decisions of translators.
As a young poet writing and translating in Latvian—a language of roughly two million speakers—I feel the special weight of translation in smaller languages, and of particular translators’ roles in shaping the Latvian poetic tradition and linguistic landscape. (Latvian even denotes poetry translation, atdzeja, with the Latvian word for poetry, dzeja, rather than the word for translation, tulkojums.) As a reader, I could admire Ingmāra Balode’s translation of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, or Amanda Aizpuriete’s treatment of Russian poets, not to mention the seemingly endless efforts of Uldis Bērziņš toward both contemporary and ancient texts. To treat these poets’ translations as mere mirrors of their sources would be a diminution of the authorial role of their efforts. And yet, I only began to understand what drove such efforts once I embarked on a translation of my own.
"As a young poet writing and translating in Latvian—a language of roughly two million speakers—I feel the special weight of translation in smaller languages, and of particular translators’ roles in shaping the Latvian poetic tradition and linguistic landscape.”
It was not long after I moved to London for university when the book found me. It happened in a used bookstore near Bloomsbury that held all the familiar fittings: a welcoming ding at the door, the shop table overcrowded by incoming packages and outgoing pulp, and shelves upon shelves of mostly aging classics and the comforting caramel smell of old cellulose. I was hoping to find a poet of my own to force me outside my comfort zone, and to mask my lax knowledge of the classics. The masses of cheap Shakespeare reprints and thick anthologies of English verse simply would not do for me. I only knew that I needed something contemporary, and fortune led me to Eduardo C. Corral’s debut collection Slow Lightning. An American poet and professor, Corral was the first Latino recipient of the Yale Younger Series Poet award—the longest running annual literary award in the United States—joining the likes of Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Hass.
The book’s cover drew me in: black, winding snakes. Its first lines drew me in further: “Before nourishment there must be obedience. / In his hands I was a cup overflowing with thirst.” The collection that followed was a maze of dense imagery, deft English-Spanish code-switching, and careful craft indebted to the American tradition then unfamiliar to me.
Like many others in Soviet Bloc, the Latvian poetic tradition post-World War II has been greatly influenced by the censorship regime enacted by the occupying Soviet Union between 1940 and the restoration of Latvian independence in 1990. Until the late 1950s, Soviet Latvian poetry was often constrained to socialist realism with a propagandist, didactic tone. Following a thematic break in the 1960s, it became more associative, aphoristic, and lyrically oriented. Though it would be overly simple to attribute these developments solely to the Soviet occupation, it was sometimes a deciding factor; that is, censorship constrained not only free expression of poets’ own work but also readers’ limited access to texts not approved by the censorship apparatus. At the same time, poetry was popular because of the apparent freedom of coded speech. This once-central political image of poetry is still evoked by readers and critics lamenting poetry’s decreased presence in popular culture, sometimes attributing it to the less accessible artistic directions taken by contemporary poets.
American poetry was published sporadically in Soviet Latvia, appearing in anthologies such as Pasaules tautu lirika (The Lyric of the World) in 1959 as well as individual collections like the Langston Hughes compilation Skumjie blūzi (The Sad Blues) in 1968. Until the 1980 anthology Visiem, visiem jums Amerikas vārdā (To All, All of You in the Name of America), few contemporary American poets were officially available to Soviet Latvian readers. Though recent years have seen book-length translations of several canonical American poets (such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, e e cummings, and Charles Bukowski), there is something paradoxical in presenting established authors as novelties. These translations might be interpreted as affirmations of the breadth of poetic expression in Latvian, as if we were catching up to the developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry we were once cut off from. My efforts to translate contemporary American poets, starting with Corral, extend this drive to incorporate voices beyond our own.
I was unsure of my abilities to translate Corral’s poetry into Latvian and to preserve what made his poems unique. These twin problems of craft and identity drove many of my early decisions in translating Corral and have shaped my outlook on the authors I have translated since.
First came the text itself, with its special twists and alignments. As a reader, I was excited by Corral’s evocative, often tension-building line breaks, such as in “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”:
A deer leaps
out of the brush
and follows me
in the rain, a scarlet
in its dark antlers.
curled around a shard
it’s like holding the hand
of a child.
I was taken not just by the imagery itself, but by the balance struck in Corral’s pacing. Each line was an entirety that built on the last, still leaving the next free to go elsewhere. I sensed that translating Corral meant replicating his approach to such symbolic alignments. While I had little trouble with the words themselves, and dictionaries were always available if I were ever in doubt, the finer issues of reconfiguring enjambment—line breaks not fitting ends of phrases—were a different matter.
My failures and successes in translating these alignments taught me a first lesson: the spirit of a language lives in its syntax. It allows text to unfold in logical succession and it can be turned around to undo such logic. Missing the syntactic flow of a sentence or sequence of images renders it lesser and disrupts how phrases support one another, making them feel disjointed and cluttered. At worst, this makes the translator a tourist in their own language, aware of all the signposts but in touch with neither meaning nor context. At best, transferring Corral’s phrasing one-to-one would still reveal a disregard for the different musics and logics of English and Latvian, missing some of what makes translation so worthwhile. I was helped by the guidance of Kārlis Vērdiņš, a more experienced Latvian poet-translator and teacher at several writers’ camps who helped notice and smooth out the troubles of phrasing. I have been helped by many others since, mending serrations and indignities I’ve risked inflicting upon other texts.
Recognising the music of syntax was the first step. Other considerations—like how Latvian grammatical inflections come into play—were similarly ones of grammar, not of vocabulary. Every line that broke differently in Latvian was mine to break, and every alignment was mine to fit. I tried my best to mimic what drew my eye at my first reading. Though it may not amount to much difference in the end, every move made on another’s behalf is one best made with care, especially in the uncertainty of early efforts. At the very least, this awareness has stuck with me as a reader and guided me as an author; this recollection reminds me that much of the sense for line-breaks and spacing in my own poetry draws from my reading of Corral.
I am aware of how much of Corral’s poetry remains inaccessible to me. He often writes from his family’s Mexican-immigrant heritage (“Illegal-American” as he calls it in “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”), freely incorporating passages in Spanish. On some level, I lament that I do not speak Spanish, and that these passages have remained essentially inaccessible to me save for basic meaning gleaned from translation software. Given the love translation builds for the text, having part of it beyond my reach feels like a personal failing as a reader. On another level, I recognise the code-switching as part of Corral’s American context that I am bringing to the Latvian readership. The translation recognizes America as both Anglophone and Hispanophone, albeit in different framing; whereas the original presents Spanish as the Other against the Anglo normative, both become Other in the Latvian context: Other White America, Other Hispanic America.
Amid my efforts, I emailed Corral to offer thanks and ask for advice. I am grateful that he was receptive to my efforts and introduced me to a range of other authors. With his encouragement, the generous blessing of the authors, the editorship of fellow young poet Raimonds Ķirķis, and the advice of many others, I managed eight more translations of contemporary American poets in the Latvian literature and philosophy portal Punctum Magazine, titling the series “Nowhere to Arrive,” after a poem by Jenny Xie. The series has been my greatest challenge and adventure in literature thus far.
Many of my initial anxieties followed me throughout the series. At points, I worried whether selecting poems that emphasized the authors’ identities risked fetishizing them. In other moments, I wondered whether I did enough to show their different strengths and angles. On either end, this was more a consideration of voice than of content and a lesson in the importance of that distinction. I am glad to have offered nine contemporary American poets’ voices to a readership that may not have found them otherwise. I am heartened by the kind words I’ve received from other poets and translators, some of whom have borrowed the authors’ books from me. I still don’t know where some of those books are.
Since translating the American series, I have a different appreciation for the Latvian poetic tradition as well. Though Latvian poetry sometimes lacks the craft I admire in contemporary American poets, I recently found myself describing Latvian poetry as “much less academic, far more lyrical and introspective, more off-the-cuff.” I feel something staid and unaffecting in American poems by learned authors whose dense clusters of imagery don’t appeal to me. When I am disappointed by Latvian poets (myself included), the blunders feel closer to home. Perhaps these are the workings of language and culture, the scopes of which envelope every speaker. The series also served as a reminder that neither tradition is unchanging, and that the broad banner of a canonical American poetry might obscure different American poetries outside or at odds with the canon.
A few winters ago, I had the honor of taking part in an American poetry reading in the culture bar “Hāgenskalna komūna” alongside renowned Latvian translators Ieva Lešinska and Jānis Elsbergs. The place was full of people I knew, admired, or both. We listened with admiration as Lešinska read her favorites of Eliot and Pound, and as Elsbergs animated the texts of Robert Creeley and Robert Kelly—late-twentieth-century wonders still new to our ears. When it was my turn to read, I couldn’t help but also think about how many of those listening carried several such voices with them, and that there was space for more voices still. ◘