Monday, December 21, 2009

Where are the Translations?

I’ve been browsing bookstores in New York, which has become an even greater pleasure since living in Israel, where there are no English language bookstores and the English language section of most Israeli bookstores is taken up by bestsellers and books on Jewish/Israeli themes. One point struck me—the volume of poetry books that are translations from other languages. Of course this includes such classics and required reading by authors like Beowolf, Chaucer, Dante, Homer, as well as what might be called translation candy (so good no one can resist and that seems to find its way into everyone’s stocking at some point) from Rilke, Rumi, Neruda, etc.

But taking up a lot of shelf space were fairly recent translations of Durs Grunbein, Adam Zagajewski, Jorge Luis Borges, Mahmoud Darwish, C.P. Cavafy. Not that any of these poets are likely to displace the Steven Kings and Dan Browns of the poetry world. Yes, you know who I mean—Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins. Although I think all three of these poets have great merit. And what would my father give me every three years if not Billy Collin’s latest book of poems?

So I spent a few minutes congratulating readers of poetry for their broader interest. Certainly Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, couldn't have mean poetry readers when he said last year, "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." Engdahl went on, "That ignorance is restraining." Well, maybe, maybe not. Because after my few minutes of satisfaction, I couldn’t help but note the lack of contemporary translation. Yes, there was another translation of Rilke, another of Darwish, but what of the thousands of poets writing around the world right now, today?

Of course I know the difficulty of translation, especially when most local poets in their respective countries have yet to garner a large enough body of work (not to mention local audience) to have translators outside their borders take note. Still. To that point, I want to shout out about a couple of blogs that highlight translations and works (in English) being produced outside US borders. Two I like are ShadowKnifePen, which always has interesting news and anecdotes of South American poets, and Absinthe Minded, which focuses on European poetry.

If you know of any, please dash off an e-mail to me. I’d love to take a look.

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