4000 Listens

I’ve been clocking the listens for Ba Ren Chi on Jamendo by the thousand, and it seems to hit a new threshold every couple of months, but I missed the four thousand mark a week or so ago. 4000 listens! Fantastic! Hello, listeners!

In the meantime, since I can’t release a single on Jamendo and then include it as part of an album (I don’t like this feature), I released a single through LANDR’s distribution system, which puts it out on Spotify, Deezer, iTunes/Apple Music, Tidal, and elsewhere. It is called “Fata Morgana,” and here it is on Spotify. I plan to include it in the album I’m working on, to be released through Jamendo, which will be number two for Ba Ren Chi. The title of the album is still in flux: Ba Ren Chi Ni is possible (ni means “two” in Japanese), but I also like “Attacca,” the term for when there is no break between movements in a multi-movement composition. We’ll see.

This particular tune, and this concept, has stuck with me, so there was an earlier version under a different name released in, I think, January of 2021, which feels like three years ago. Anyway, it has legs, and I might still be working on it, so the final version for the album might take a slightly different form. We’ll see about that too.

The LANDR distribution system tracks plays wherever they happen, unlike the Jamendo system, which just tells you how many there are, so I know that Peru continues to be the place where my music is finding the most listeners. Hola peruanos! I also have exactly one “monthly listener” on Spotify, and that person is in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Espero que estés leyendo esto, my friend.) This makes me so happy!

People Reading Kin

I’ve been very happy to see several positive reviews of Kin in the past few days since its official release.

Sarah McEachern’s piece in the LA Review of Books, “Entangled in Family: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin and Semezdin Mehmedinović’s My Heart,” takes the title and the book’s biggest thematic thread as its main focus, with special emphasis on what it means to be from a place, especially one that no longer exists, and the limitations and possibilities of language. Her essay also takes a comparative approach by viewing Kin in relation to Celia Hawkesworth’s new translation of Mehmedinović’s 2017 novel.

The review just published at The Modern Novel relates a good deal of the book’s plot, including the relationships of the main characters and the core tragedy that links them together. It contains a couple of basic errors. A small one is a reference to the length in the final line, “The book is 800 pages long but I was not bored for a minute,” which makes its point twice over in a sense, since the book is actually 900 pages long (so they must be sailing by such that one doesn’t even notice the page count). A bigger one has to do with the book’s genre, which the reviewer refers to as “a family novel”; actually, the reviewer claims that the author calls the book “a family novel.” But this is the genre designation only for part two; the first part is called “a presentation,” part three “quartets,” part four “a report,” part five “inventories,” part six “fictions,” and the final part is “history, photographs.” These designations name the literary kind as a way of helping readers orient themselves. The book’s overall genre is always in question, which is why I was impressed by the focus in all three reviews on what sort of book this is and what sort of author Jergović is.

Duncan Stuart’s “Leskov Amongst the Tombstones: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin,” published at Exit Only, takes on this topic directly:

One of the perplexities of Kin is how to classify it.  It has been referred to as an “epic”, a “saga”, a “family novel”, a “chronicle” and an “historical fiction.” Many of the sections in the chapter ‘Inventories’, however, read like essays.”

Stuart’s claim that in fact Jergović should be thought of first and foremost as a storyteller is a notion announced in the piece’s subtitle, “The Storyteller and the Legacy of Annihilation” and then made explicit:

[Walter] Benjamin says that Herodotus was “the first storyteller of the Greeks.” Herodotus’ task was, according to Hannah Arendt, to “save human deeds from the futility of oblivion.” This task of the storyteller, to at least save something temporarily from oblivion, to stave off forgetting a while longer, is how Jergović understands storytelling too.

This commitment to storytelling as an act of salvation, Stuart suggests, has a major consequence for reading:

This commitment to storytelling, to understanding Jergović as not a novelist but a storyteller, helps explain the repetitions and reintroductions of family members that pepper the book. For these repetitions invoke a sense that this is, more than anything, a collection of stories, to be read in any order.

This strikes me as a fine insight into Jergović’s writing, and I would add only two thoughts. First, the approach implies aspects of realism in an almost Tolstoyan sense: there are things that are true of life that literary conventions often omit or twist into other forms: you don’t introduce characters unless you’re going to do something with them; you don’t have two characters with the same name; you build to the set piece and give readers the set piece, etc. In other words, literature is neat but life is sloppy, so any commitment to realism requires that one toy with the conventions of literature. And second, in a somewhat different vein, the book performs its subject by telling stories in the manner that large families tell stories–with repetitions, variations, and a constant inventive impulse.

Kin’s Arrival, blogging, and podcasting

My copy of Kin came in the mail a few days ago, all 911 pages of it. It made the mailbox sag a bit. I didn’t have time to think much about it at the time, but since then I have scrolled back through the blog that I kept while translating the book beginning in May of 2015 with a post called “Big New Book.”

Some of them really take me back, and one that I re-read today actually gave me a shiver as I remembered the sense of discovery I was feeling almost daily at the time. I had gone to Zagreb to meet Miljenko Jergović and then travel on to Sarajevo, where so much of the book takes place. Actually, just the other day it occurred to me that much of the book is a leave taking of sorts, both with the city of his youth and with his mother, and the two are intertwined to the very end.

The September 2017 post, which is called “Description of a Description of a Place,” is now also available as a podcast, just like this post, as it’s a technology that has been tempting me for a few months, and I finally took the plunge. The blog, in the meantime, has acquired categories, one of which is “Reflections on Kin” (where there are some 45 posts over the past five years of working on the book) while another is “On Translation,” which features all of the Kin posts but also a number of others related to other aspects of translation. At this point, there are about a dozen episodes of the podcast, all available on RadioPublic, Spotify, Pocketcasts, Google Podcasts, and Breaker.

The hosting platform, which is called Anchor, and is linked to WordPress, makes all the linkages pretty easy to manage, and the production process for the podcasts itself is intuitive and even rather fun.

Three Rubaiyat

(Feel free to listen to this post as a podcast on Spotify if you’d like.)

Cleaning up my office, I found these three translated rubaiyat (in Russian rubai) by the Uzbek author Sabit Madaliev that I must have translated in about 2005 or so. They were published back then in an earlier incarnation of eXchanges magazine, which, being in an online format from those days, has not been preserved in an accessible form. So I’m guessing no one will be bothered if I put them up here along with Sabit’s originals. Plus, I don’t know what else to do with these old stray papers.

If you don’t know the format of the rubaiyat, you’ll figure it out, even through my slantedness.

Повернулась судьба пустотою экрана,

где по белому белым и всё без обмана.

Я в бессонных ночах без тебя заблудился,

как весло, унесённое в даль океана.

Fate turned with the emptiness of a screen

where white is white and all pristine.

I lost myself in sleepless nights without you,

like an oar carried far out to the sea.

У предела души моей, где преломляeтся свет,

на веранде, где ты всё сидишь ещё, кутаясь в плед,

там меня уже нет, но хранят твои вещи мой взгляд,

как деревья хранят неземное дыханье планет.

At my soul’s border, where light splinters,

on the balcony where you still sit, bundling in a blanket,

I am absent, though your things keep my gaze,

as trees keep the foreign breath of planets.

Здесь вновь я обездолен в час земной,

и вынужден колодец рыть иглой.

Но только здесь о родине заплакать

могу я неожиданно порой.

Here once more I’m burdened with earth time,

constrained to dig a well with a thimble.

But it’s only here that I can mourn my homeland,

unexpectedly, once in a while.

Now I just wish I could find the book that these came from.

Kin in The Harvard Review

This month was earlier slated to be when Archipelago Books released Miljenko Jergović’s Kin in my translation, but that got pushed to the middle of next month. Instead, a short piece, “In Springtime When we Air Out the Graves,” has appeared in this month’s Harvard Review (No. 57), alongside work by Rita Dove, Gregory O’Brien, Lauren Slaughter, and a translation by Forest Gander and Tomoyuki Endo of the poetry of Shuri Kido. It’s the sort of company Jergović deserves to be keeping, and it makes me feel good to see him there.

Post-Short Russian Fiction 2021

I finished grading the short Russian fiction class last week, and, having used a little new material and more new methods, wanted to write a few things down before I forget them.

First, one surprise was the Lyudmila Ulitskaya story “Happy” (Nadya L. Peterson, tr.), which was surprisingly easy to teach, probably because it is so packed full of life experience and history. It also paired well with Bunin’s “Light Breathing” and allowed me to talk more about frames and the way fabula and siuzhet can make a story more interesting. A double surprise was that some students read right through aspects of the story, even after I thought we had spent enough time doing the slow reading method that we began with. This meant that some of them didn’t even notice that the couple was Jewish. I guess this is what class discussion is for, as other students certainly did notice and had plenty to say about the Holocaust as a sort of backdrop to the story.

Another surprise for me was Konstantin Ryabov’s story “Spit” (in Victoria Mesopir’s translation) which I have taught before but this time found unsatisfying, even if it is well crafted. It seems a bit gratuitous and lacks any moment of rising above. But some of the students defended it, and one or two said they found it the most interesting story we read all semester. Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, only that it wasn’t satisfying. I am glad I included it.

I only taught one story each from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “Notes from Underground,” respectively, and the latter was the longest and the last thing we read. NfU still works fine, but I find it harder and harder to teach because of the general nastiness of the second part, which makes me feel more and more like I need to bathe. The translation exercise that I have used several times (where I give them several versions of the first paragraph and have them craft something of their own) did not work as well this semester, and I’m not sure exactly why. Possibly I didn’t sequence enough of the reading of NfU before asking the students to do that first paragraph paraphrase.

The film adaptation exercise, on the other hand, worked very well. The most popular choice was Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (one anime version was especially good), followed by Gogol’s “Nose,” Isaak Babel’s “My First Goose,” and Natalya Klyuchareva’s “One Year in Paradise” (in Mariya Gusev’s translation).

The tendency of many of the students to skip details and just read right through things that they didn’t understand was common, even though we spent time at the beginning of class reading very slowly. I hoped to make it if not a habit then at least a pattern for following in this class. Some students got it, or maybe already had it before they arrived, and some only did it for the slow reading parts. As soon as I assigned a whole story, even if it wasn’t long, many went back to a cursory and superficial reading method, so to really bring this home, probably the only thing to do would be to reduce the number of pages even more than I already have, something I will think about for the next installment of the course.

There was some plagiarism, even on the short reflection exercises that were due after each class. When TurnItIn flagged something, I would have a look and, when it was clear, give the students a zero, remind them that there was no need to look anywhere else but inside for a reflection piece, and give them the opportunity to do it again. A few people kept their zeros, and a few gave it another try with predictably better results.

The stories and authors students responded to were all over the place. Some loved Pushkin, others Gogol, others Chekhov, while some preferred Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and some, as mentioned above, took to the more contemporary authors like Ulitskaya and Ryabov.

Topping 3000 listens

Ba Ren Chi’s music on Jamendo topped three thousand listens a couple of days ago, which makes me happy. This since I first started making it available in October of last year, so about six months overall. It comprises the album Cool 7, a remastered version of Meaner Than That and then the singles Oni Daiko, Too Cool, Lontan Da, and Da Levante. Then another fifty or so listens on the various LANDR-connected services (like Tidal and Spotify), where the biggest number of plays have been through Youtube Music and they’ve happened in twenty-one countries, with Peru having the most listens in one place (hola peruanos!).

I’ve got more coming, but other projects have been pressing, so it’ll probably be another couple of months before I finish the second album. Shooting for summer.

Getting Students to Stay With Me

Keeping students motivated to come to class and do their work is one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching. Since I’m teaching a course that requires reading, encouraging them to read is yet another challenge. This semester I’ve tried a new teaching method and a different way of reading and writing with them that has seemed so far to work well.

Basically, I’ve used the “scaffolding” approach that education scholars have written so much about, where one assignment leads to the next, each building on skills and ideas that have come earlier. I noted in an earlier post that I had decided to read a lot few pages than usual, focusing on short texts that don’t require multiple meetings to discuss, though I do go back to review things we’ve picked up in the past, especially after I read the student essays, which give me a chance to see how they’re doing, what they’re responding to, and what they might be missing.

This class meets twice a week, and thirty minutes after every class they have a reflection piece due. These are short, no more than a page (300 words), and I’ve generally been asking them pretty narrowly focused questions (e.g., about the rain in “Gooseberries” or the personality of Gogol’s storyteller in “The Nose”) because I don’t want them to recount the plot for me or tackle the MEANING of the story. I have also asked them very simple things like which of these four stories that we just finished did you like the best and why, and which did you like the least and why. The why is of course the crucial part.

There are three other parts to this exercise that are essential–I’ve been adjusting as I go. First is that they don’t know exactly what the writing assignment will be until we are in class that day. I have it prepared already, but they just can’t see it yet. The topic and the “criteria for success” become available about 10-15 minutes into our class. In the meantime, however, we have already been discussing one or more aspects of the writing assignment without their knowing that it will be the writing assignment. And most often, we actually take time in class to write. For instance, I will ask them to put on their comparison caps and write for ten minutes on the similarities between this story and the one we just read, then they come back, and we play a little “tag,” with three or four of them offering their thoughts and passing the baton on to someone else.

We might do this two or three times in class on a given day, with writing time followed by discussion time. This is the second of the three essential parts–writing time in class. At some point, I actually say, “and this is what I want you to reflect on in your writing today.” They should be able to see the assignment by now on our Canvas site, and I also copy and paste the writing prompt in the chat. Then I give them some additional time to write and we come back to discuss. Sometimes I throw in an additional piece to it–I have warned them that I will do this, and this also helps to keep them coming and alert.

I don’t really care that we tend to get the same volunteers (though I’ve been happy that it seems to be a variety of about 10 students out of the 30 or so) because I want the students who might not have any ideas to hear the students who do. If they borrow each others’ ideas for reflection pieces, that’s great. By-products of these writing periods are that (a) we don’t need to take any scheduled breaks; and (b) class time goes by strangely fast. This last was a surprise to me, and some of the students have remarked on it as well. Filling 2.5 hours of class time is not a struggle. In fact, I sometimes feel that we don’t quite have enough time–just like a face-to-face class…

The third of the three parts to this that seems to me essential is that these short reflection pieces are due (again through the online system) 30 minutes after class is over. I do this for several reasons. First is that I don’t want them putting them off and then trying to remember what we discussed and then staying up all night to finish them. Second is that we have the class time, so why not use it? Third is that we are doing a lot of these, one for every meeting, which means I need to read them and give them back some comments and a score (out of 10, which is based primarily on their answering the question, using examples from the text, and demonstrating that they’ve thought). Then I post their grades ASAP. Those who might be inclined to skip see what happens to their score in the class very quickly when they get a 0, and while there were a few at the beginning who weren’t showing up or turning in their papers, most of them have shaped up. It is not hard, but they have to stick with me, which might in fact be the main benefit that I’ve seen.

The scaffolding for this comes partly from the fact that once I’ve asked the same question a couple of times, they start to get the hang of it, and I can ask slightly harder questions. And then partly it’s because at the end of class, I want them to take two of these reflection pieces and polish them as basically mini-essays of 500 words each. We’ll see how that goes.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction in Practice

My eight-week online course is now underway, with two meetings and several short assignments under our belts. As the class satisfies a number of requirements in the Arts and Humanities and World Cultures categories, the students come from all over the university and have lots of different backgrounds, career trajectories, skill sets, levels of preparation, and interests.

Out of the thirty-some enrolled (“some” because some have yet to show up, and I can see they have never visited the Canvas page, so who knows whether they will turn up ever), there are individuals all class levels, from first-year to (two) grad-student auditors, with majors from finance and sustainability studies to kinesiology, arts management, biology, chemistry, and history. Their backgrounds are all over the place — a number come from Indiana, a couple from Bloomington proper, but others are from other states (Illinois, New York, and South Carolina are those I know of at this point) and countries (China, Korea, Mongolia, and India), with one military veteran (there could be more I haven’t learned about yet), and at least one transfer student.

Two of the students seem to have had some Russian in high school, but most have no background or particular knowledge about Russian literature, culture, or history. Their hobbies — I know some of this because I had them make introductory videos or write introductions of themselves for their classmates — include fencing, stock market investing, rock climbing, music (listening and performing), yoga, vegetarian cooking, and — surprise — reading. Actually, quite of few have noted how much they like to read, and a few have read these stories before in Russian.

So far the two-and-a-half-hour Zoom meetings have sped by, and several of the students in our one-on-one conferences have said they were surprised by this, just as I was. I’m still trying to decide why they seem to go so fast. At this point, I think it is due to multiple things.

First, since this is all online and I need to be super-prepared, I have really super-prepared and lined things up so that we move from one thing to another without my needing to check my notes or think what’s next. This doesn’t mean I’m always moving fast, only that I’m not fumbling over my notes. There’s enough fumbling with the technology already, so no one needs more fumbling.

Second, I’ve been using regular in-class reading and writing moments. So we might have a twenty-minute discussion of a passage they read before class, using questions I gave them beforehand (plus, I either put those questions up on my shared screen or post them in the chat to remind them).

But then, when we do get to that discussion, I have used the “tag” method that my colleague Rebecca Spang recommended, where I say, okay, now we’re going to be using that discussion “tag” method we used last time, where I tag someone, who answers the question, and then that person tags someone else, who answers or spins off from what the first person said. One reason I like this method so much is that I get out of the way and give the students the opportunity to take things in directions I might not think. It also lets me triangulate a bit, zeroing in on issues that several people have mentioned. I’m never really out of the discussion obviously, but that little bit of distance helps a lot.

Sometimes I break this up by reading to them, and as long as they have adequate connections and are not struggling with audio quality (some of them are struggling at times with such quality), these moments are a little like a podcast, and my semi-pro headset mic is doing exactly the work it needs to do.

And then beyond the in-class discussion and reading, I give them time to read sometimes on their own, timing the availability of, let’s say, the end of the story we’re reading, such that they can’t read it before class starts, only when I say go. Then we all get quiet for some time (10 minutes or so if the passage is long) while they read, then return to talk about it: for instance, how does that ending change the things you were thinking about before? It’s short fiction, so the ending almost always does change something fundamental. This was a surprise discovered during my prep, but now that I’ve used it a couple of times, I think I can fine tune it a bit and use it more effectively.

Then there’s writing. I decided I wanted to give the students a variety of different kinds of writing to do, not just analytic expository essays. So they’re doing a number of other things, e.g., an adaptation exercise where they create the ancillary materials (cast list, advertisement, soundtrack) for a film adaptation they would like to see made on the basis of one of the stories, along with a one-page rationale for how they’ve approached the piece (got this idea from Tom Beebee’s essay years ago in Teaching World Literature); or, one I devised years ago myself, they create their own version of the first paragraph of Notes from Underground, either compiling it on the basis of multiple translations I provide for them, or creating something brand new, potentially changing the medium as well. In the past I’ve had students create dramatic settings (the U-man is split into different characters, or different versions of himself) or innovative language experiments (the monologue in Tweets, or Nadsat, or LOL Cat) along with, here again the most important part, a rationale and explanation for what they’ve created, from whom (audience), and how they’re choices follow from that.

But in class these are too elaborate and require too much time. What they can do is short reflective pieces, so we’re taking class time to do these, and I’m having them turn them in within a half-hour after class is over. I don’t want them spending a lot of time on these in the wee hours. I’d rather have them think and write (and write and think, because these two work together), turn something in, then get my comments. From these, they’ll be able to pick two to polish and expand (but not a lot) to turn in at the end of class. Basically, they get to pick which stories they want to return to in this way. So far this is working exactly as I envisioned, and since that almost never happens, here it is for future me to remember, especially later in the class when future me might be doubting all this. And obviously for anyone interested–feel free to take anything you think might work for you.

Translating Amanda Gorman

Non-translators might not have paid much attention to the recent controversy over the projected translation of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s first book of poetry into Dutch, but many of us who translate have been following and discussing it quite a bit. The basic story is that the contracted publisher (Meulenhoff) hired author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to do the job, a choice Gorman appears to have supported. Rijneveld announced being excited about taking on the work on social media, then some folks criticized the choice, including Dutch journalist Janice Deul, who wrote in de Volksrant, “Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? She is white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff is still the ‘translator of dreams’?” and elsewhere: “Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black?” (I’m afraid I don’t know who translated these quotes from Dutch; they are in many of the English-language stories online, however, so thanks to you, invisible Dutch-English translator!) Rijeneveld resigned over the criticism, and the publisher announced that they’ll be working with a team of (as yet unnamed) others to do the work.

Rather than re-hash some of the most often repeated (and rather superficial) reactions about the pernicious cancel culture that forced the translator to resign, etc., I’ve been drawn, as always, to more fundamental translation issues in this episode.

One is an unstated but ubiquitous implication that translators, especially translators of poetry, need to have some sort of deep “simpatico” relationship with their author, even to the point of being of the same age, race, gender, political persuasion, and so on. I’m not pronouncing judgment on this idea, only pointing it out, because, as I just noted, it is often there without our perceiving it clearly. (In any case, Lawrence Venuti has critiqued it quite a bit already, and anyone interested in this line of thought should consult his books with an eye toward the use of the word “simpatico.”)

The forms that this basic notion takes are wide-ranging and can sometimes be spotted in translator introductions and afterwords. One of the most fascinating instances I have read was in Ciaran Carson’s brief preface to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, where he notes, with disarming frankness, that when he began his work, he really didn’t know any Italian, and then proceeds to make a case for his experience in the Troubles of Northern Ireland as somehow akin to those of Dante in 13th-century Florence: the implication that two poets with kindred experience trumps the mere linguistic expertise of the Italian specialist is hard to avoid.

This move, I say, is more common in poetry translations, where the persona of the translator often matters a great deal, than it is in prose, where the translator’s role is frequently erased altogether, such that we might think we are reading the words of the author, not those of the translator. It’s a fascinating kind of translation-reading magic that publishers, especially large publishers, have tended to encourage historically, often neglecting to even note the presence of a translator in the book’s creation, putting a picture of the author on the cover, not including the translator in the publicity materials, and generally doing everything they can to encourage the illusion that the work has not been filtered through another’s mind and writing practice, let alone the editing, publishing, and broad political context of the receiving culture, which transforms it into something “acceptable” (so publishers hope) to readers in that culture. Let us call this the illusion of limpidity (thanks to my friend David Depew for coining this phrase), which is especially strong in what are often thought of as canonical works of world fiction.

Poetry, however, especially the poetry of well-known authors, seems to often require more of the translator’s ethos in order to be accepted. In some ways, this is a marketing and publicity phenomenon, which is on display in the Gorman-Rijneveld case as well, as publishers are hoping to put books into people’s hands, and that won’t happen if readers and critics reject the product out of hand. This means that either the publishers need to find a well-known name in their own publishing environment whose credentials are likely to be accepted as adequate to the task (e.g., a poet refugee from East European totalitarianism translating another East European poet refugee), or they need to pick someone whose background and public persona are perceived as somehow matching that of the individual whose work is being translated. If they can do both, that is of course ideal. It’s worth noting that doing both is likely to be much easier in a place like The Netherlands or France (partly because of their colonial past) than in a place like Japan or Saudi Arabia, where the notion of “simpatico” translation, if it exists at all, is likely to take very different forms from in New York, Paris, or London. (This is probably also why readers in Japan, for instance, read translations with greater charity, as it were, knowing that the translators are almost invariably Japanese by both birth and heritage, and not having any expectations to the contrary.)

These sorts of marketing and publicity motivations, however, are for the most part, short-term attempts to capitalize on the moment. They are about selling books in the first months (it used to be years but now it’s months) of a release and getting good revues from prominent voices in important venues, which are all key aspects of the contemporary publishing business. It is in this context that the optics of who is selected as a translator for an up-and-coming artist with an enthusiastic following tend to be very important. The longer term, however, is anyone’s guess. It could be that the book becomes extremely popular in another culture over time, but that is very difficult to know, and publishers are generally not thinking about such things these days, when the idea of “building a back list” is rather rare. In the same way that time has tended to annihilate space in our hyper-commercial culture, so the timeline of what counts as success in publishing has tended to become shorter and shorter. Perhaps the time is coming when such success will happen even before the book comes out. Maybe we’re already there.

Of much greater interest to me are the embedded assumptions, in these discussions, about the skills of translators as being either portable or not, as well as a clash of sorts between those who think of translation as art and those who think of it more as a trade or vocation. The portability and vocation advocates might make a claim such that, in principle, any experienced translator should be able to translate anything by anyone. Those who claim for translation the status of art may very well cringe at such an idea, which makes it sound like all one needs is to be certified by an appropriate body, pass some tests, hit some numerical markers, while such intangibles as inspiration and poetic sensibility, which are frequently the reasons a poem ends up “singing” or not in the receiving culture and becoming part of that culture over time, cannot, in fact, be measured, let alone certified. It’s entirely possible, moreover, for one person to hold all these views at the same time. Translators are a complex lot — talking and listening at one and same time does things to you.

An additional divide, no less stark in my experience, tends to set freelance translators (those who make a living from translation) against those who have day jobs, e.g., as editors, teachers, publishers, and so on. The former rely on translation to pay the bills and often simply cannot afford to turn down a job. While they are also all (in my experience) highly ethical people who care about the social and cultural effects of the works that they translate, it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of a translation one takes on, for whatever reason. In this context, I cannot help thinking of the negative example of the distinguished translator Angelo Treves, an Italian Jew, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Italian for Bompiani in 1934. How could he know? The divide here comes at least in part from the fact that some have another job that pays the bills, which allows a kind of distance and critical stand that might not be as readily available to those who need that translation contract. It is easier for those of us with day jobs to critique the actions of those who live by translation, an often unstable and inconsistent way to make a living.

Finally, this episode has brought to mind a rather contentious exchange between Cherrie Morraga and Bob Shacochis that I witnessed at a conference on the promise of empathy at the University of Iowa in early 2002, in which Shacochis insisted he could “imagine his way” into the point of view of anyone as a way of writing a piece of fiction, including, for instance, an antebellum slave woman on a Georgia plantation, while Morraga equally insistently claimed that he could not, and if he did, he would be exploiting the suffering of people who really had experienced that imagined point of view. At the time, at least, there was no common ground. The artist claimed he could do it. The activist said don’t you dare.

While I suspect the conversation would be different today, I have found myself thinking about how a translator’s role might fit such a situation, especially when it is assumed, as the Gorman-Rijneveld case highlights, that the translator in important ways can stand in for the poet in the receiving culture, taking on not just the poet’s message but also the poet’s mission.