Interview: Translators

We recently conducted an interview with Matthew Landrum, Diane Rayor, and Ian Haight in lieu of their upcoming panel discussion (along with Rebeca Castellanos and Médar Serrata) hosted by Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. You can read the interview below either in .pdf  booklet format, or in a simple text format. The panel discussion will be Wednesday, August 5th, at 6:30pm.

Here’s the link to the .pdf: Interview: Translators

1.) You’re all featured guests in an upcoming panel discussion on poetry in translation, locally, here in Michigan – Why this panel, why here, and why now?

Matthew Landrum: I’ve read Ian Haight’s wonderful translations of Korean poetry for years and have published some of his work in Structo Magazine, where I’m poetry editor. When he asked me to jump in on this translation panel with Diane Rayor, another translator I’m a huge fan of, it was a no-brainer. As far as why now – 3% of literature published in America is translation. That’s not enough. Translation should be at the fore of American letters. This is part of that.

Diane Rayor: I was invited to speak and it seemed like a fun event. I’m very glad that my GVSU colleagues Rebeca Castellanos and Médar Serrata are speaking, too.

Ian Haight: Translation for me has many purposes but when I think about community and place it’s always about sharing and understanding the cultural “other.” I love Michigan and call it home. Bringing that together with the “now,” I think it’s really important for people to have a sense of one another—where we come from as human beings and that despite our outward appearance of difference we all have feelings of love and longing. We are all human beings having a shared experience of life. Literary translation as an art helps bridge the cultural gaps of time, place, and language between human beings, and reminds us of what we have in common—or in the same way but just as importantly—how differently we experience what we share.

2.) Why do you translate literature? How do you choose what to translate?

Matthew Landrum: At its base, translation is a deep form of reading. So first, I translate to read work otherwise inaccessible for me. Then I get to share it with other readers. Since I translate out of a minority language, I get to share the whole world of the Faroe Islands with readers. There’s great art and culture happening in the Faroes and it’s under-translated.

Diane Rayor: I translate ancient Greek poetry and drama into English because they are incredibly beautiful and tell fascinating, relevant stories. Not many people can read them in ancient Greek, so my passion is to help people experience these classics in accurate, vibrant English poetry or drama. For example, I translated the tragedies Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Antigone in staged productions directed by Karen Libman (a Fulbright winning director), so that I could hear how the actors say the lines. I keep revising until the lines work, for actors speaking, audiences understanding, and accuracy. As a Classics professor at GVSU, I tend to translate literature that I want to teach. Partly, I chose what to translate based on need: what needs a better translation for reading or staging? And what will Cambridge University Press give me a contract for? Most of all, I chose plays with strong, active, interesting female characters. I have translated Sappho for over 30 years because she is the earliest Greek woman poet (c. 600 BCE) whose work survives, and her poetry is stunning. Sappho’s subjects include family (mother, daughter, brothers), marriage, religious rituals, and other aspects of women’s lives. However, she is most well-known for her songs of love and desire for women.

Ian Haight: Originally I was attracted to translation because, as a writer, I noticed all the writers I respected had done translation. I figured if I wanted to be a good writer I should also do translation. When I actually began the process of translation I noticed almost immediately my understanding of the culture I was living in (at the time, Korea) deepened. The momentum from those initial impulses continues. I need to be attracted in some personal way to the writing I translate otherwise I can’t make the deep commitment good translation requires. I have chosen to translate Buddhist poetry because I do meditate and have a practice of spiritual and ethical beliefs in sympathy with Buddhism. Other writers I have translated I felt close to because of the things they suffered or wrote about—social justice, love, spiritual thought, the beauty of the world. The writing has to also be driven by an intelligence and aesthetic; I have to feel that the writing is art, or be able to find the art so that I can value it enough to try to bring it into English.

3.) What can literature in translation uniquely give us? When translating, what needs to take place to give the reader that uniqueness?

Ian Haight: Good literature in translation is unique in that it introduces the world to the reader in a way that’s typically been unexperienced. We could say that of all good writing except that with translated literature, there’s a nuance of culture involved in addition to a way of dealing with language. In that respect, a good translation of literature is a different, unique way of engaging and refining “self-other” duality, because what’s being resolved is not just another person, but another person’s culture and/or “civilization.” What makes a good translation is being able to express what the original author intends. As much as I don’t like to make blanket statements, I think the verdict on translation is it is impossible to re-create in totality by means of translation what an author intends. As translators, we pick and choose what we understand from the original text as most valuable and then try to emphasize those points when rendering the translation. Given all this, what the translator needs to first do is have a thorough understanding of the context of the writing and writer—background, culture, influences and references of all kinds, etc. The translator also needs to be able to have questions answered about context, as questions inevitably come up. Then comes the picking and choosing game in terms of what needs to be emphasized in that original author’s context. There’s the art of it of course—the translator needs to bring all this to the reader so the reader has at least a smidgen of the point of view of the author’s art. It’s hard going but if done well, rewarding for all parties involved.

4.) How can translations of the same work/poem be so different from each other? Why are new translations needed?

Diane Rayor: Translators first read and interpret the poem, and then put their interpretation into writing the new poem (the translation). There are so many choices to make, in terms of words and form. New translations are needed as language changes, and as scholarship advances. For example, there are many translations of Sappho available. However, earlier translators sometimes added their own lines to fill out fragmentary lines in the Greek or left out parts; both were strategies to make a poem with pieces missing look whole. A popular translation by Mary Barnard, left out inconvenient bits. In addition, she translated from a very bad Greek text, in which the editor had combined poems and added his own lines into the Greek itself. So while her translations are beautiful English poetry, they aren’t all Sappho’s. My translation is the definitive English translation (for now). It is the only translation that includes all the poems and fragments, including the recent papyri discoveries from 2004 and 2014. These finds introduced new poems and substantial additions and corrections to other fragmentary poems. Earlier translations are no longer a reliable guide to Sappho. My translations are very accurate and meant to be read aloud, emphasizing the oral quality of Sappho’s songs. The New Yorker review by Daniel Mendelsohn noted these aspects:

5.) What will you be talking about for the panel and why did you choose the topic?

Matthew Landrum: I’ll be talking about fidelity – how far a translator can stray from the original/what being faithful to a texts means/ what to do with idioms.

Diane Rayor: I’ll be talking about one of the new Sappho poems discovered in 2014. It’s a love poem in which Sappho asks Aphrodite, the love goddess, to give her a break from suffering. It’s a beauty. Also, the Greek text has something new added just this summer; it is exciting.

Ian Haight: I’ll be talking about a poem I translated by the 16th century Korean poet, Nansorhon. The translated poem is titled, “Seeing beyond This World,” and I’ll be talking about how the poem was a breakthrough for me in terms of devotion to translation process, understanding a writer, and bringing that understanding to a reading audience. I happen to love this poem and it’s by the first author I committed to translating, so it’s a personally special poem.

6.) How has translating literature changed how you see the world?

Matthew Landrum: Translating has gone hand in hand with travel. So I’ve found a new home in the Faroes. Going back there is like putting on an old pair of jeans. That means expanding my way of seeing. That’s what translation and reading translation (as well as travel and language learning) has to offer us.

Ian Haight: For me it’s helped me live another person’s point of view on so many things—class, race, gender, power, sexuality—you name it. I feel like a more complete person because of the close reading, research, and understanding of cultural circumstances that literary translation requires.

7.) What projects are you working on now? Why are you working on them and what is exciting or of interest about them, to you personally and possibly other readers?

Matthew Landrum: I’m translating one of the leading poet of the Faroe Islands, Jóanes Nielsen. I’ve just finished a book of his and am looking for a publisher. To date there have been zero complete books of poetry translated and published from the Faroes. I’m hoping to change that.

Diane Rayor: I just got a contract with Cambridge University Press to translate two more Greek tragedies, Euripides’ Helen and Hecuba, to go in a collection of dangerous women in tragedy. I’m working on Helen first, which has a very strange story: Helen never went to Troy. Instead, the gods made a phantom Helen whom Paris took to Troy, while the real Helen was dropped off in Egypt, where she has been waiting chastely for 17 years for her husband Menelaus to bring her home. The real Helen is good and intelligent as well as the most beautiful woman in the world. The Trojan War was fought over false pretenses. The tragedy is that a ten-year war was fought, a city destroyed, and thousands of people died for nothing. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Ian Haight: There are several projects in various stages of process for me now, but one in translation that is closest to birth is titled Homage to Green Tea by the 19th century Korean monk, Ch’oui. The book is a collection of poetry and prose about green tea from the Korean point of view. I like the mixed genre approach of the text and for this book I decided to commission illustrations, so that’s new and different for me. I enjoy working with other artists and the collaborative spirit that comes from rendering fresh perspectives on a topic. Some of the illustrations are a bit provocative but still appropriate; I’ll be interested to see the response to this book once it is published.

8.) Do you consider your audience when choosing work to translate? (IE, do you think of the US, or a region of the US and how what you’re translating will be received in that new culture?) or, How do think your work, especially being translations, communicates culturally between the originals’ home and the culture here in Michigan?

Ian Haight: The questions I ask myself go something like this: Do I like this writing? Is there enough good material here for a book, and if yes, what kind of book? Would I be able to publish said book, and if yes, who would publish it and how would I convince that venue to publish the book? For most of the venues willing to publish poetry in translation it’s a given that the audience will be limited, especially if it’s “non-western canon” material. I can say though that occasionally my books jump into the higher rankings on Amazon for Asian literature. I can’t tell you why that happens (Asian Culture Festival in New York? A Buddhist monastery in California suddenly bought a bunch?) but it does happen. I think the second part of the question though is important to answer: How do people in Michigan respond to this writing? Well, I don’t know. I do know when I was a young high-schooler I was interested in cultures and literature beyond the acres of the farm town of Lowell, where I grew up. I know there are other people out there who share these same sincere interests as I do, because I meet them occasionally; maybe for that young person I once was I continue to work, as well as the other people out there like me whom I grew up with.

9.) What’s the hardest part, in your experience, in translating poetry?

Matthew Landrum: A great poem in another language has to become great in translation which means the translator has to write a new poem in English which is great. Writing great poems is hard.

Diane Rayor: Getting the musicality of the Greek poetry into English.

Ian Haight: For me the hardest part has always been context, and that might be something particular to the kind of poetry I translate: classical Korean, which is almost like translating three languages at once, not two. Classical Korean poetry was written in hansi—the Korean use of Chinese characters to write Korean poetry. Even Chinese specialists who are experts in classically written Chinese struggle with or cannot read hansi because of the way Koreans use the characters. Add to that the poetry is highly idiomatic and laden with historical references from both China and Korea—well, it’s tough going, especially because my goal is always to end with a poem that has as few endnotes as possible. These kinds of obstacles might be why there have been almost no books directly translated from hansi into English.

10.) Do you have a favorite translation, either your own or someone else’s? Elaborate?

Matthew Landrum: I love, love, love Alteration Finds by Geoffrey Brock which takes three poems by three authors writing in three languages and makes it into a triptych English poem about changing life. I never write fan mail but I wrote a total fanboy letter after reading that for the first time in Poetry Magazine.

Diane Rayor: After translating a single poem of Sappho’s in college, my goal was the book I just completed, over 30 years later: Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. I’m really happy with it.

Ian Haight: There are many, but one that will always be especially relevant to me is Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance.” Former Grand Rapids Poet Laureate David Cope introduced this translation to me at the beginning of his teaching career in Grand Rapids—his first day or two of teaching, as I remember it. David fully explored the possibilities of meaning in the poem in a way so many students long for but never get. I learned that so much could be said with just a few words. This poem is more than 1,200 years old and comes from a very different culture from our own, and yet it remained in translation emotive, sensory, and real. I think I will carry that day’s lesson with me to my grave.

11.) Poetry can be tough to sell, especially to people who are unfamiliar with it. What, if any, is your approach to open poetry to a broader audience, especially with your translations?

Diane Rayor: I encourage my students to read it aloud.

Ian Haight: I like to utilize different mediums with my poetry and poetry in translation. I think by working with artists in different genres—whether it’s on book covers, illustrations, or music (some of the poems I’ve translated have been musically interpreted)—not only do the participating artists learn something from each other, but the audience for both artists is broadened. I like book trailers or video renditions of poems for that reason. A video of a poem allows for the potential of a different angled nuance on what is going on in the poem. That helps with audience reach—as posting the video on the internet naturally does.

12.) You have the ear of someone from Michigan for 30 seconds. What do you tell them?

Diane Rayor: Come learn Greek or Latin at Grand Valley State University! It is wonderful to read great literature in its original language.

Ian Haight: Thirty seconds, what could I say? Let’s see: be vegetarian or vegan if you can swing it, do a meditative practice every day, exercise, love your significant other, and come out for some cool poetry on Wednesday August 5th, 6:30 PM at Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters.

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