Lightwall by Liliana Ursu, Trans. Sean Cotter
Sean Cotter, in his introduction to this translation, suggests, via Lydia Liu, that English serves as “host” to its Romanian “guest.” What we find here, then, is the best kind of host: one that is attentive, yet not too doting. In other words, we find translations that allow the guest to adapt itself to the new environment in English. This adaptation sometimes means severe alterations, or, more accurately, reductions that result in poems that are shorter in English than in Romanian. The blank pages that sometimes face the original, then, serve as a visual reminder that translation is not an exercise in literal reproduction. In his discussion regarding these blank pages, Cotter suggests that he was avoiding the “strategically vague, awkward, or misleading line.” Those readers, like myself, who cannot read the Romanian, might wonder what was excised; however, the advantage of such an approach is a collection that offers poems with individual thrust, energy, and clarity. And the collection, overall, works to bring resonances between poems into illuminating focus, so much so that as we read, we become immersed in Liliana Ursu’s world, as it becomes ripe with “the dizzying scent of lindens,” “cherry trees,” and “wild strawberries from the Isle of Patmos.” Entering Cotter’s translations of Ursu’s world—as she travels from Romania to Pennsylvania—moreover, makes us feel as if the world is both specific and expansive, that the familiar always resides near the unfamiliar, that the real intersects with the fantastical and mythical, that it is caught between the gripping present and the stretch of longing. In the poem “My Oar,” “Ovid starts whispering, ‘Lend me your oar, please/ All I want is to go home,’” and with this translation Cotter offers Ursu—and us—an oar, while reminding us that the work of translation must provide a new map, a new idea of home.
Ashes in Love by Oscar Hahn, Trans. James Hoggard
Like Ursu, Oscar Hahn travels between two worlds—the poet’s country of origin, Chile, and his academic life in the U.S.—and as such, considers the divergent histories that shape the poet’s worldview. The two collections contained in this book negotiate these spaces by contemplating the quotidian, literary, political, personal, and philosophical concerns of the poems’ speakers. In doing so, they move effortlessly between free verse and traditional forms, and between sex and death, Kurt Cobain and St. John of the Cross. Touching upon this, James Hoggard writes in his introduction, “As dramatic as that display of versatility is, Hahn’s ability to unify the voices in both approaches is even more impressive.” It is this voice—casual yet meticulous, at once personal and restrained—that is the constant in this book, and James Hoggard’s translation skillfully delivers it to his readers in English. We become intimate with Hahn, even as he pulls us from one subject to the next, even as he embodies Rimbaud, and reveals, as if speaking of his own exile, “I return to my country after 16 years away/ I look like a skeleton and people are scared of me.” In this same poem, “Notes in Rimbaud’s Diary,” Hahn, as translated by Hoggard, writes, “I’m alive you’re the dead one/ You’ll put the paper boat in that puddle of water/ and you’ll arrive where you’ve never arrived before.” Hahn’s paper boat joins Ursu’s oar in providing us a metaphor for these steady and confident translations: with them, Hoggard hands us a paper boat, and as we sail through a thematic and formal archipelago, we sense a capable navigator at the helm.