KR Reviews

September 2020 Micro-Reviews, Part 1

Translation is always relevant, but as we move through this current moment, to highlight translational work feels even more necessary, more urgent. Case in point, when I put out the call for new reviews at the beginning of June, only a handful of reviewers responded and even fewer presses with books. Come the end of August, I had more material than would fit here. And so, in honor of #translationmonth: the first of two parts of September’s microreviews of poetry in translation. #KRtranslatesKH

Etel Adnan. Time. Trans. Sarah Riggs. Nightboat Books, 2019. 144 pages. $15.95.

TimeIn her translator’s note, Sarah Riggs observes that as a translator, one is never “fully on both sides.” One is between. Between with hands reaching out to parallels always. Between as in connected to the one and the other, no matter how distant.

The same notion could be extended to the poetry of Etel Adnan in this collection. Written mainly as one end of a conversation between two poets, these poems are brief, spurts of life, in constant flux and motion, from one end of the earth to another, obsessed with “limits everywhere; how to reconcile / soul and body, / what to do between / two white sheets?” These poems exist somewhere between: between bodies and ideas, history and nothingness, and (thanks to Sarah Riggs) French and English. The collection doubles this transient quality as the majority of poems remain untitled (and when titled it is sequentially), flowing simply into the next poem. Where “thought takes pleasure in / measuring its borders,” these poems rejoice in dissipating them as they demand to be read touching each other. This innovation speaks to a larger quality of the text as a whole: this is a conversation. These are words, and “it’s in the spaces separating them that / great adventures take place.” What happens between distinct iterations of language is our entire life, deep in the middle: “our survival depends on / the capacity of the real to escape / the assault of language.”

Time is a place where language creates the meaningful space between souls, and the great threat to the truth. Time is a place where communication is sacred, where “love is the subversion of / death”, true living, and the body is a communicator of the self. “Describe the body / if you can / and you will see how unlikely / your soul is.” The body then too is essential to language, to communication, to the “inbetween” as “it bursts with life and lasts / briefly.” And its greatest threat is time. Adnan urges we “listen to the sound of [our] arteries.” She means everything has something to tell us. Everything is offering us an inbetween to come alive in, and we only have so long. —EP

Don Mee Choi. Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode. Ugly Duckling Press, 2020. 21 pages. $12.00.

Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial ModeIn her essay Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode, Don Mee Choi writes about her translation practice, stating that it is explicitly anti-neocolonial because it recognizes and destabilizes neocolonial structures held in place via both language and institutional structures, such as the military. For her, identifying as a twin—established from a life in the disjointed neocolonial space of Korea (a space both divided and occupied)—is a mode of re-conceptualizing the practice of translation as something carried out by a body that exists within an uneven structure of power and language.

Choi argues that power, language, and translation can be experienced in the individual human body. Whereas Walter Benjamin-via-Harry Zohn conceptualizes translation as a mode of mapping that potentially supersedes the restrictions of language, Choi says that such displacement reveals localized systems of power. She pushes against Benjamin’s notion of “pure language” with the example of oksusuppang, showing that the term reveals both the way the French word for bread moved from Japanese to Korean and how oksusuppang became a typical food for Korean school children after the Korean war as it came from US food aid. “So my tongue,” Choi says, “even before it had ever encountered the English language was a site of power takeover, war, wound, deformation, and, ultimately and already, motherless” (5). Recognizing that layers of colonialism can be located to the tongue, then, Choi wields this knowledge in her translation: “But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity” (8).

Mirrors, such as those that appear in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), like twins and like the tongue, are a site of translation, a place where something is repeated through deformation and manipulation. And this is precisely what makes Choi’s work so radical: she recognizes and articulates how translation and language are intrinsically tied to both colonialism and the individual body and pushes back against those systems of power by subverting orderly, institutionalized knowledge. For Choi, this means translating Korean women’s poetry, but her approach is broadly relevant—“whether we are from here or elsewhere, whether we are foreigners or not, whether we speak silence, foreign words, jibberish, or English” (19)—as she articulates how the translator can go about disrupting the intertwining of neocolonialism and language. —SB

Lucía Estrada. Katabasis. Trans. Olivia Lott. Eulalia Books, 2020. 110 pages. $18.00.

KatabasisOlivia Lott’s translation of Katabasis by Lucía Estrada makes a critical contribution to the discourse around translation practice. Lott chose every word in the English, but she didn’t do so in a vacuum. Her version of the translator’s “faithfulness” to the original text means loyalty to influence and lineage: to the spirit in which the original poems came to be, and to their language environment.

Written amidst “the complexities of conflict, crisis, and reconciliation” in contemporary Colombia, Estrada’s poems embody the struggle of deep elemental forces. Full of mythic and religious references, they’re at home in the abstract. Plath, Celan, and Varela (quoted in epigraphs) are fitting poetic guides in this project of descent (“katabasis”): “Then it’s not worth it, to put up your truth against a violence that sinks you effortlessly, finishes you off at the gates of you”.

Much writerly research went into “building the English,” to use Lott’s words. (Her translator’s note is in itself a stunning piece of writing.) Often when translators speak of research, they mean getting place names right, finding equivalent idiomatic expressions, or gathering specific knowledge required to explain cultural references. Lott researched her way into the particular English-language choices that make up these powerful poems.

Lott did a massive amount of reading of Estrada’s influences, steeping herself in “Estrada’s journey through the language of others”. She used phrasing built from the work of other translators, and sometimes “imagined what they might sound like in English,” in the case of many untranslated Latin American women poets.

I’m in awe of the sound in Lott’s poems: “a circle open to mix-ups” “so spot-on, heartless”. Often, she reaches for emotional spoken language, versus formal Latinate cognates: “you’ll finally feel on your own side” for the Spanish “a tu favor” (81). Lott’s choices also emphasize the loneliness of the speaker’s descent: “A wild, enemy hum is the one thing left behind” (emphasis mine). Other options (“all that’s left,” for example) would have the same meaning, but less gut-punch.

Katabasis is the first book of poetry by a Colombian woman to be translated into English (you read that right), but it’s not the kind of poetry that shouts its political stance. As Lott reminds us, poetry’s power lies in what’s “at stake ‘beneath’ the words”. The most political way to translate these poems is just what she’s done—to do the research necessary to give them a sound in English that prompts a breathless “Say it again.” —KV

Phan Nhiên Hạo. Paper Bells. Trans. Hai-Dang Phan. Song Cave, 2020. 61 pages. $17.95.

Paper BellsIn Paper Bells, written in Vietnamese by Phan Nhiên Hạo and translated to English by Hai-Dang Phan, the poet wanders a landscape of exile. Phan Nhiên Hạo, who fled from Vietnam in the Orderly Departure Program in 1991, returns to his land of birth in his poetry. The book includes poetry from the entire stretch of the poet’s life in exile, arranged in chronological order. The early poems have a placelessness rooted in apathetic wandering, anchored only by the time stamp titles. In “Saturday, May 10, 1998,” Phan Nhiên Hạo writes, “I open my hand / the lines on my palm tell me it’s not time to die yet”. The speaker repeats the refrain of “I open:” “I open Walt Whitman . . . I spread your legs wide open . . . I open the door of morning,” only to be unimpressed by what he finds. Although they detail countries around the world, the speaker rejects a sense of home in any of them as time goes on. The speaker shifts from being unaccepted in a place to choosing not to accept the places he occupies. In “Summer in Lisbon,” Phan Nhiên Hạo writes:

dining at the table of history
littered with leftovers.
He knows time is a tired waiter
who just wants last call for the night.

The subject is unanchored from the forward rush of time, his connection to place more physical than emotional. There are several poems from the end of the book that share this quality: connected to place through the title but rejecting its idiosyncrasies from any other place in the content. Over time, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry takes shape around the condition of exile, embraces an unmoored existence haunted more by the memories and stories of home than by the pull toward the place itself.

Although not the first book of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry translated to English, Hai-Dang Phan focuses on previously untranslated poems. As the poet notes, much of his work remains “unpublished and unpublishable” in Vietnam, making a double exile as Phan Nhiên Hạo does not conform to the official narrative of Vietnamese history. The preface gives context to the poetry, inextricably entangling the poet and the speaker of his poems. Throughout the collection, there are moments that are so immediate, so visceral, so deftly translated by Hai-Dang Phan, that they truly show, as Tony Barnstone said, the “poem behind the poem.”

The titular poem, early in the collection, repeats the futile claim that “the paper bells make no sound”. As the speaker of the poems changes, the title of the collection evokes the sound of hearing powerful music through a paper speaker, where the weight of its age and the echo of its history give it a new quality instead of muting the music’s beauty. Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry, even at its most hopeless, believes in a history that can be remembered justly, and Hai-Dang Phan, giving his words an additional life in English, proves that hope right. —CA

Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution. Eds. Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja. Tin House, 2020. 241 pages. $18.95.

Resistencia: Poems of Protest and RevolutionIn Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution, editors Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja have meticulously curated a powerful collection of poems by fifty-four poets from all across the Americas that is both timely and vital. Gathered in this anthology are the battle cries of one hundred years of rebellions, calls to action, social criticisms, testimonials, and demands for justice—each poem, standing shoulder to shoulder with its English translation across the page, just as relevant and poignant today as when it was first penned.

In her introduction, Julia Álvarez commends the anthology’s “radical inclusiveness” noting the great care taken to showcase well-known poets alongside lesser-known ones, as well as traditionally marginalized or excluded poets, and those “writing not just in Spanish, but in French, Portuguese, Kreyòl, Quechua, Mapudungun.” In this way, the collection not only challenges conventional representations of the Americas, it grants access to anyone who identifies with its revolutionary spirit. Resistencia thus becomes an invitation to belong to something bigger, to join forces with one’s neighbors, and to recognize a greater universal truth about the human condition.

Organized chronologically by date of birth, Resistencia opens with Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral’s famous poem “Little Feet,” and closes with “To President-Elect,” Javier Zamora’s autobiographical poem about the perils of crossing the US border alone as a child. Written a century apart, in different languages and countries, both works highlight the suffering of children, whose unprotected bodies are left exposed to the elements, as a way to point out the willful ignorance of their respective societies. This phenomenon is evident throughout the anthology, as poems of older generations reverberate in the verses of younger ones, uniting past and present, and transforming individual poets into a collective force.

At this critical moment in US history, when people are protesting authoritarianism, racial injustice, and police brutality during a global pandemic and an upcoming election that threatens the survival of its democracy, Resistencia appears with arms wide open, ready to lend its voices in solidarity to those of its US counterparts, amplifying what Álvarez so aptly described as a “chorus of love and hope.” —JG

Fabián Severo. Night in the North. Trans. Laura Cesarco Eglin and Jesse Lee Kercheval. Eulalia Books, 2019. 172 pages. $16.00.

Night in the North“Before / I wanted to be Uruguayan. / Now / I want to be from here,” announces Fabián Severo’s speaker in Night in the North, a collection of sixty numbered poems translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin and Jesse Lee Kercheval. The “here” in question is Artigas, a Uruguayan city on the border with Brazil. Severo’s choice to refer to the poem’s setting as “here” rather than specifically naming the place indicates how, from the perspective of the political centers of both countries, the border is a blank space. Artigas is “an abandoned station” and “a lost land in the North / that doesn’t appear on maps.”

In response to this rhetoric of nullification, memory becomes a form of rebellion, enacted through the speaker’s opening vow to “write the memories down so I won’t forget.” It is not just the act of remembering that is important, but rather the medium used to record these memories. As the collection unfolds, we realize that this choice is not a neutral one. In poem forty-seven, the speaker’s mother gives him “a shoebox / full of rolls of film” and tells him, “One day, Fabi, you’ll be able to develop these photos.” However, we find that even memory is subject to economic constraints:

But we were never able to develop them.
There was no money.

I still have the box in my closet.
I saved the words,
I’m missing the images.

By comparing these recording media, Severo emphasizes their political implications. Night in the North is translated from Portuñol, the language spoken on the Uruguayan-Brazilian border. In their translators’ note, Cesarco Eglin and Kercheval write that “Portuñol, as the language of this text, is crucial to the culture and experience of the border.” The translation’s bilingual, en face presentation aligns with Severo’s project of bringing greater visibility to both physical and linguistic borders.

The dual acts of writing and remembering also push back against the multiple forms of dispossession experienced by the people of Artigas. As poem twelve reveals, material resources are extracted from the peripheral space of the border and removed to the economic center:

Artigas had a sky full of stars
a river full of fish
country green with trees
earth brilliant with stones,
but someone’s taken it all some other place
and left us nothing.

In response to this attrition, Night in the North suggests that writing’s ambiguous position between public and private spheres and the elasticity of Portuñol both resist the capitalistic concept of ownership that has proven so damaging to Artigas. Cesarco Eglin and Kercheval point out that “Portuñol has no official or standard written version.” Or as Severo puts it, “Artigas has a language no one owns.” —ZA

Judith Santopietro. Tiawanaku: Poemas de la Madre Coqa/Poems from the Mother Coqa. Trans. Ilana Luna. Orca Libros, 2019. 165 pages. $17.00.

Tiawanaku: Poemas de la Madre Coqa/Poems from the Mother CoqaJudith Santopietro’s second collection of poetry paints vignettes of contemporary Bolivia, exploring themes of migration, women crossing borders, and the legacy of political violence. Her poems begin on the precipice of glaciers in the process of extinction, a physical and emotional edge that captures the immediacy and instability of the Altiplano. Snakes slide across the grassland and fissures develop on the surface of frozen lakes, threatening to submerge the lone traveler. Luna’s superb translation harnesses this movement through a combination of alliteration and adjoining words. Though in a place so fluid, the boundary between where the body ends and the landscape begins becomes impossible to recognize.

I fall from this peak
I hold the blade in one hand
          with the other  I feel the heart and its roar
I hold back the injuries that erode my mouth

The poetic subject embodies the Andes, imbibes its geology (“I slowly inhaled/the blue and black nerve of the mountain range”) which leads her to experience altitude sickness. To quell the nausea and fatigue, she turns to chewing—pijchar—the coqa leaf. In Bolivia coqa is sacred, though its recent cultural and economic exploitation by Western cultures has had devastating consequences for indigenous communities. Santopietro’s speaker in Tiawanaku seeks to disrupt colonial narratives about the coqa leaf, demonstrating how one can physically absorb the history and resistance of the Andes by swallowing its plant. In the poem “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” the narrator is hospitalized for altitude sickness and subject to examinations at the German Clinic in La Paz, Bolivia.

Thirty-six hours of exploring the organism: blood biochemistry urinalysis hepatic panel lipid panel photosynthesis of the hundreds of leaves that she ingested to cling to the          edge of the world

Santopietro is aware of the ways in which colonial language and the Western (medical) gaze can permeate her own ideology, so her poems are an intentional, subversive force—shattering stereotypes of the Andean landscape and its people and centering Aymaran women. The deeply political and dynamic poems of Tiawanaku achieve the same effect as the coqa leaf. They are able to draw upon the joy and spirit of a region while attempting to assuage its pain. —RB


Clara Altfeld lives in Nagasaki, Japan.

Zack Anderson is from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD student at the University of Georgia. His critical writing appears in American Microreviews and Interviews, Harvard Review, and the Action Books blog. His poems have recently been published in Fairy Tale ReviewNew Delta Review, grama, and Dreginald.

Rose Bialer is a recent graduate of Kenyon College where she majored in Spanish and Sociology. While there, she interned at 826 Valencia and was an associate at the Kenyon Review. She will be teaching English this year in Madrid, Spain.

Sarah Booker is a doctoral candidate at UNC Chapel Hill and translator from Spanish. Recent or forthcoming translations include The Iliac Crest and Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza and Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda.

Janelle Gondar is a PhD candidate at Yale and a Visiting Instructor of Spanish at Kenyon College. She has translated academic articles from Spanish to English in various publications, and is currently working on translating a novel on Japanese immigration to Latin America.

Katherine M. Hedeen’s forthcoming translations include from a red barn by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and prepoems in postspanish and other poems by Jorgenrique Adoum. She is a Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College, a Managing Editor of Action Books, and the Poetry in Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review.

Erintrude Pieta is a writer, translator, and current MFA candidate at North Carolina State University.

Kelsi Vanada’s translations from Spanish are Into Muteness by Sergio Espinosa and The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Rare Earth and the Program Manager of ALTA in Tucson.