Country, in Some Kind of Song: On Landmarks and Dayplaces in World Literature

By Chip RossettiJanuary 19, 2014

Landmarks by Susan Bernofsky and Christopher Merrill

I SHOULD ACKNOWLEDGE up front that reviewing translated fiction is always a tricky proposition, particularly if the reviewer hasn’t read the original text. Should the review be an assessment of the author’s text? If so, the reviewer has to take the translator’s word (as it were) that the English text she is reviewing has not done too much damage to the original. At best, a reviewer might feel confident discussing the plot, but be more hesitant about assessing a metaphor or commenting on the style. If there’s a startling juxtaposition of words on page 38, was the translator attempting to mimic a similar linguistic surprise in the original, or was he just getting carried away with his own cleverness? Without looking at the original, who can tell?

The reviewer’s problem is compounded with an anthology of texts such as this one, a collection of prose and poetry co-edited by Susan Bernofsky and Christopher Merrill, both of whom are prominent translators themselves. Landmarks features translations from 14 languages and at least 22 countries. There isn’t a polyglot alive who has that exact array of languages at their command, and none with the deep familiarity with the literatures out of which the writers emerged to assess how well their registers, rhythms, and literary echoes have come across in English. But ultimately, that may not matter: a translation is created for a new set of readers, not for those who can read the original. In his set of Oxford lectures published as The End of the Poem, the poet Paul Muldoon goes even farther, proposing that we should treat a translated poem as a separate, original work, since both the original poem and the translation are manifestations of a metaphorical “ur-poem” that exists behind them both.

With that proviso in mind, however, I can confirm that Landmarks succeeds at doing what a good anthology should: it offers a tantalizing array of good writing, enough to whet the reader’s appetite to read more by the writers represented here. Some, such as Daniil Kharms and Yehuda Amichai, have been previously translated and well known outside their language. Others are only now reaching an international audience: “Andrejs’s Religion,” by Latvian author Inga Ābele, for example, is a tour inside the head of a convicted murderer, taken from Ābele’s novel, High Tide, translated into English by Kaija Straumanis and published last September by Open Letter Press. In all cases, these writers and poets deserve to be better known by English-language readers. Fortunately, Landmarks is not a one-off publication, but part of the Two Lines anthology series, published under the aegis of the San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation and now in its 20th year.

Fiction written in languages other than English has a lot of hurdles to pass to reach English-language readers — US readers in particular: when you are a cultural hegemon accustomed to exporting your own films and fiction abroad, and when your tongue has become the world’s default second language, it is easy to ignore what the rest of the world is saying. The reality of American publishing means that these contributors now have a foot in the door of the Anglophone world, and their inclusion here may well persuade an American or British publisher to take a chance on translating something else by them. In that sense, endeavors such as Two Lines (and kindred spirits such as Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and others) are on the front lines of expanding our access to literary voices that would otherwise be simply inaccessible to American readers.

Scholars writing about translation often speak about the translator being “invisible” within the text, but all too often the translator is invisible elsewhere as well. I don’t mean simply that a translator doesn’t get credit on the title page or book jacket (although that has frequently been a point of contention for translators), but that the translator’s presence is often elided altogether, including in reviews. So it is heartening to see that Two Lines foregrounds this work by starting each selection with a brief note by its translator. In addition to providing helpful context about the author and the literary tradition in which he is working, the translator also addresses at least one thorny problem that emerged in the course of the translation. It’s a helpful reminder that every English word we are reading is the product of deliberate choices, painful compromises, and inspired workarounds.

And kudos to the Two Lines series for printing poems in their original language opposite the translation. (The book also prints the first page of the original for the prose selections, but for reasons of space, can’t include the entire text.) The original stares back at the reader, reminding him that the text itself is closed off to him and simultaneously accessible only through the diligence of a translator.

The special focus of this year’s edition is the Arab Spring. In a note at the beginning of the book, the editor Christopher Merrill reflects on the movement’s unpredictable nature: who could have predicted, they ask, that the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor would have such profound ramifications across the Arab World? To their own rhetorical question, they suggest that poets might have predicted it: although they are not soothsayers or fortune-tellers,

In their determination to find words adequate to their historical moment, to render precisely what they taste and touch, see and hear, imagine and remember, poets may glimpse a reality waiting, off-stage, for the cue to enter.

Finding words adequate to history — whether the lived reality of the present or the horrors of the past — is a task that literature frequently takes up, as do many of the authors in this anthology. Historical events haunt the poem “Survivors,” by Czech poet Pavel Šrut, written a week after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Prompted by the crushing of the Prague Spring, Šrut’s poem, translated by Deborah Garfinkle, offers eerie imagery of the past as a revenant, returning to haunt the present. The Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga confronts history as well in her story “The Fear,” translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud. The narrator is a Tutsi now living in exile in Europe, whose “true shadow” is her remembered fear of Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994. Much of the story is told in flashback, as the narrator recollects her time in secondary school, when her schoolmaster would look out the classroom window for signs of killing mobs, anticipating the moment “in one fell swoop, anxiety would erase those French words we had recited with such enthusiasm.” Language is not innocent here:  in a climate of fear and rumors, the narrator and her classmates sense that their own schoolbooks, and the assurances of order and reason they represent, are aligned against them, too: “we started to hate those foreign words, to suspect them of some involvement — we didn’t know how — in the misfortunes raining down on us.”

Mukasonga’s story provides a sadly familiar counterpoint to “1941,” taken from the novel of the same name by Slovak novelist Pavol Rankov. The novel, which won the 2009 EU Prize for Literature, is set in southern Slovakia during World War II. Like Mukasonga’s narrator and her French vocabulary, in “1941,” languages are inextricably linked to history: as the translator, Magdalena Mullek, points out in her introduction, Rankov conveys the ethnic and linguistic variety of Slovakia at the time by interspersing several different languages (Slovak, Czech, Yiddish, and Hungarian) in his narrative; as the war advances, the novel’s language changes, too, and German and Russian vocabulary began to seep into the text.

But literature is also adept at confronting the present as well, and many of the selections here (the Arab Spring pieces in particular) represent a writer confronting injustices or absurdities within her own society. One of the most powerful stories here is “1997” by Bolivian author Liliana Colanzi, a portrait of unearned, unquestioned privilege, told from the perspective of an adolescent girl in a wealthy Bolivian family. “The House,” from an 1989 Urdu novel by Indian author Paigham Afaqui, takes a more absurd bent in a story focusing on bureaucratic corruption, where a young woman’s odyssey to keep her house becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare of endless lines of petitioners seeking to bribe or persuade an ever-more inaccessible bigwig. Equally impressive, although taking a more oblique view of family life is “The Bottles in the Cellar” by the self-taught German writer Wolfgang Hilbig. A story that Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany, Hilbig’s contribution, fluidly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, is an eerie allegory of alcohol as a menacing family secret whose cloying sweetness seals within the narrator an “herbal-bitter heart.”

Given the range of literary styles and themes presented in an anthology like this, it is easy to fall into the habit of grouping prose selections thematically, as I have done above. Of the other selections here, I should mention one that seems uncategorizable: the Argentine writer Juan José Saer, whose story “Hands and Planets,” is translated by Roanne Kantor. Saer’s brief story is a standout in this collection: a vertiginous tour of the vastness of outer space over the course of three pages, shifting focus from an upturned salt shaker at a restaurant table to the moon landing and back to grains of salt again.


In spite of the proverbial impossibility of translating poetry, Bernofsky and Merrill have chosen a fine array of poets, including the late Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who lived in exile from his country since 1976 until his death this past week: in her essay, Gelman’s translator, Lisa Rose Bradford, pinpoints the creative nature of translation — the newness of them — by arguing that “in the most energizing sense of the word, translation is an occasion to open up language for enrichment by reinvention.” Ariel Ross conveys that reinvention of language in the jagged lines of another exile, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), whose poem “Wires” is written in elongated, jagged phrases meant to evoke telegraphic messages sent by wire to a distant lover:

Along the alley     
Of sighs—wire to post—
A telegraphic: I lo—o—ove…
. . .
These are—the farewells of steel
Wires—the fading

Of Hades’ voices…Conjuring


Tsvaeteva’s fellow Russian poet and contemporary, Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) is as well known for his short, absurdist prose pieces (or “incidences,” to use the title of a recent translation of them) as for his poetry. Here he is represented by two short poems, deftly rendered in English by Melinda Noack. Despite the difficulty she acknowledges in replicating the rhythm and meter of the original Russian, Noack translates Kharms’s “One Million” in a sing-song style: the image of marchers, their numbers growing unstoppably, takes on subversive dimensions in this seemingly naïve verse. (Unsurprisingly, Stalin’s regime did not look kindly on Kharms’s idiosyncratic poetic style and erratic personality, and he ended up dying in a psychiatric ward in Leningrad during that city’s long siege.) One could easily imagine this poem in the hands of Dr. Seuss: a political allegory for adults disguised as a children’s book.

One of the joys of an anthology such as this is the surprising affinities one finds between very different pieces: among here, for example are three poems by the prominent Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). Amichai’s poems include “Bitter and Sudden,” a poem contrasting the “bitter and sudden” nature of “our now-time” with the “slow and sweet” nights the speaker has spent with a lover. Perhaps appropriately for an anthology of translations, this “now-time” is merely a Babel of tongues, a desperate wordiness that cannot compensate for a wordless unity before language:

And the further we get away from love,
the more we need to multiply speech—
words and sentences, long and orderly.

Had we stayed together, we could have
remained a silence.

In a similar way, the contemporary Brazilian poet Ana Martin Marques also evokes this futility of language. In “Us,” translated by Julia Sanches, Marques writes about words (including the pronouns “you” and “I”) as a poor substitute for a lover:

I search for your body
but find only words:


The challenges of translating poetry sometimes require unorthodox translation methods: in some of these pieces, the translator didn’t know the language of the original, but instead collaborated closely with the author on the translation. Jeffrey Yang, for example, worked with Uighur poet Ahmatjan Osman, now living in exile in Canada, on a translation of Osman’s long poem “Dwelling in the Warmth of Other Suns.” Osman writes poetry in both Uighur and Arabic, but since Yang knows neither Arabic nor Uighur, their collaboration worked by way of a “skeleton key in English” provided by the poet, which Yang would then forward back to the poet along with questions. As Yang puts it, “Let sympathetic readers judge.”

This sympathetic reader judges the result of the collaboration to be powerful and effective. Osman’s poem, “Dwelling in the Warmth of Other Moons,” evokes the image of the moon in Arabic and Persian poetry (in both, the moon is a conventional symbol of beauty.) But the moon in this poem has other, less salutary associations, too, calling to mind “Bread, Hashish, and Moon” by the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. In spite — or perhaps because — of the unusual process of translation, the long poem, in 15 short stanzas, reads beautifully and enigmatically in English:


The two rocks beneath the moonlight:
are they the lips of the warrior
who was felled on the mountain?
And the spring flowing silently between them:
is it blood?
or speech?



Once when dusk
fell across my window
I was weeping
and the moon entered
opening the door quietly
and stayed with me till morning
listening to my poems
When the moon left
me exhausted, dazed
it forgot its burning cigarette in the ashtray



Finally, we come to the “Arab Spring” section, a separate coda consisting of 10 authors, ranging from Egypt to Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, and, curiously, a poem in Hebrew by Israeli poet Ronny Someck. Given the variety of subject matter, style and structure. I was at first dubious about the decision to lump these very different writers under the rubric of the “Arab Spring.” After all, as recent events have shown, the uprisings given that collective label have played out very differently in the different societies and political contexts of each Arabic-speaking country — from the relatively bloodless transition in a small country such as Tunisia, to the far vaster and more complex situation in Egypt; the suppressed uprising in Bahrain colored by the Sunni-Shia divide; and the brutal civil war in Syria, soon to enter its fourth year. Arab nationalism, particularly during its high-water mark in the 1950s and 1960s, frequently elided local differences in the name of promoting a unified Arab politics, a tendency mirrored by generations of Western observers who too often have see the Arab world as an undifferentiated mass of headscarves, jihad, and hummus.

However, despite my doubts, all of the “Arab Spring” selections in their own way confront, enact, or respond to the range of frustrations — from domestic political oppression, to the disorienting effects of Western imperialism, to an individual sense of futility — that has contributed to the political upheavals and protest across the Arab world over the last two years. Counterintuitively, those same frustrations undergirded the feeling for many Arabs that with this season of change, new vistas were at last opening up for them, in spite of the complications and retreats that have followed.

Included here is a poem by Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan. The poem’s Arabic title, Amakinnahar, is a blend of the words amakin (“places”) and nahar (“day”), neatly rendered as “Dayplaces” in English. As with the Ahmatjan Osman’s poem, the translation is the result of the intensive collaboration between the poet and a translator who does not know the original language. The result is effective, not only because Hassan has a good grasp of English, but because the translator, Jon Davis, is a poet himself.

All the poem’s images revolve around times of day or night — an evening at the souk, a dream before the dawn. Trained as an architect, Hassan has authored four collections of poetry (three of them since the 2003 US-led invasion), and it is perhaps unsurprising that his verse, despite its dreamlike qualities, evokes images of lurking menace. The poem closes with a gesture towards the larger-than-life forces that have played themselves out on the lives of ordinary Iraqis:

We are not burdened by the past’s navel but its shadow; we who
          are naked in a hall that resembles history. We who are the
          inhabitants of a vial, that fills, only to empty again.

More explicitly political is the story “God After Ten O’Clock” by Bahraini author and activist Ali Al-Jallawi, recounting his harrowing experience following his arrest for participating in uprisings in Bahrain in the 1990s. Al-Jallawi, like so many writers in the Arab world, now lives in exile from his home country that once imprisoned him, and this story fits securely within the (sadly) familiar genre of “prison literature” (adab al-sijn). Al-Jallawi’s story presents a broad assortment of fellow prisoners — Pashto drug-smugglers, a gay Bahraini who killed his British boyfriend, a group of illegal Bangladeshi workers, and others — and the story of police abuse and a rigged courtroom is at once both illuminating and drearily familiar.

The translator, Ayesha Saldanha, has succeeded in making the English both formal and informal (and even crude, given the setting). That is partly the result of the narrator, who finds himself in a prison setting, but is not himself a hardened criminal, But it also relates to a more formal literary style in Arabic that would seem out of place or affected in contemporary English-language fiction. The term for literary writing in Arabic, adab, has historically had connotations of “good and refined behavior,” in addition to its more contemporary meaning of “literature.” As a result, the line between the Arabic acceptable for “literary” writing and the colloquial versions used in everyday speech has been sharper than in other languages. It is only in recent decades that authors have felt comfortable incorporating more non-standard, colloquial vocabulary into literary novels, particularly in dialogue. The combination of gritty setting and formal Arabic that Al-Jallawi employs in the Arabic would sound discordant in English, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as written by Henry James. But as Saldanha points out, “one advantage of the English translation is that, when required, it can use a less formal register than the standard Arabic of the original will allow.”

The change of register makes its way into “Transparent” by the Iraqi-born Israeli poet Ronny Someck. The only selection in the “Arab Spring” written in Hebrew rather than Arabic, the poem centers on a young Israeli Arab, Tayeb, who studies literature at Tel Aviv University. In their introductory essay, translators Robert Manaster and Hana Inbar explain that the Hebrew in the poem “drifts” from a more colloquial register to formal Hebrew: the formal language gives a distancing effect, reenacting the disconnect Tayeb himself feels, as he goes “to buy olives in spoken Arabic/ And to write poems about it in literary Arabic.” The poem closes with an image of frustration and dashed hopes, of a “swimmer of despair” furiously fighting against the current toward a platform “Upon which the lifeguards hung / A black flag.”

That sense of despair haunts “The Quilt,” a brief Kafkaesque tale of a nightmarish quilt by Egyptian author Mona Elnamoury. The quilt, “covered by tormented faces” has absorbed all the suffering of human existence: torture victims, dead whales, soldiers at war and the fictional Winston Smith from 1984. It eventually absorbs the woman who sleeps beneath it, although holding out the possibility that her disappearance means that she has been taken to a happier place beyond this world of suffering. “Tales of the First Love,” by Egyptian short story author Ammar Ali Hassan, also shares that notion of an otherworldly happiness, beyond the griefs of this world. (Interestingly, “Tales of the First Love” is translated by Mona Elnamoury — the only author in this volume who has also translated another selection — with editing by Marcia Lynx Qualey.) Hassan’s selection is taken from a full-length short story collection of the same name, involving 100 brief “tales” of longing and love unfulfilled. The tales’ motifs draw deeply on Sufi traditions, in which the lover’s desire symbolizes the Sufi disciple’s longing for the divine. Hassan’s narrator only catches tantalizing glimpses of his beloved, with the knowledge that she will never be his:


Whenever I went fishing her charming face would draw itself on the surface of the water. I would gather my hook and return empty-handed. 

Hassan also draws on the long tradition of ‘Udhri poetry in Arabic, in which the poet pines for a beloved he will never have, usually because she is married to another man. The most famous example of this ‘Udhri poet is the semi-legendary Majnun Layla (“Mad for Layla”), whose impossible love for the married woman Layla drove him to despair and madness. This poetic tradition, usually traced to poets in the Arabian peninsula in the 8th century, endured in the poetic traditions of medieval Andalusia, and is likely the source of the European troubadour tradition of chaste, courtly love. Scattered throughout are the tropes of ‘Udhri verse are scattered throughout — his beloved visits him in a dream, and he turns his back on the world, retreating to the desert, only to find her image there. But in a contemporary twist, the lover also finds himself among the protestors of Tahrir Square, where he is joined by his beloved, who tells him that “Victory is closer than you think.” In one image, Hassan comnbines the Sufi disciple’s longing for God, the ‘Udhri poet’s desire for the lover, and the protestor’s aspirations for political change.

For most countries in the Arab world, Western imperialism has played a prominent, distorting role in their histories and in their national development. It is unsurprising, then, that two stories here deal directly with the lived experience of colonialism and occupation, in very different contexts: the prolific Algerian-born novelist and poet Ahmad Kalouaz, now living in France, reconstructs the life of his father in “Avec tes mains” (“With Your Hands”). Born in 1917 in French Algeria, Kalouaz’s father is subject to a series of humiliations, as an orphan made to dig wells, and who can find money only slaving away for pied noir settlers. The reality that Kalouaz, like many of his North African counterparts, now lives in France, and writes his fiction in the language of the former colonial power, is testament to the enduring specter of colonialism: even decades after independence, policies that were set in place by colonial and military administrators — language, education, settlement, and economic policies — can continue to linger. It is impossible, in other words, to fully break with the past. As theorists of postcolonialism have so often shown, the colonized, paradoxically, come to feel both hatred and attraction for the colonizer, a metaphor played out literally in “Orange Lies” by the young Iraqi writer Gulala Nouri: in a brief opening vignette, an Iraqi woman sits in a microbus that has been held up in traffic by a convoy of American troops, and finds herself secretly attracted to the heavily-armed and body-armored US soldier outside her window, even as she loudly curses the occupiers for the benefit of her fellow passengers.

Like the uprisings collectively given the name “Arab Spring,” the poems and prose pieces in this final section hover between a grim realization of futility and a nascent glimmer of a new and better world, one that exists outside the confines of current realities. The tension between the two — between despair and hope — underlay the popular uprisings that arose in the wake of the suicide of the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in January, 2011. That same tension drives the narrative the rest of the world has imposed on events as they play out.

In his selection, “Five Songs for Something Forgotten,” the poet Ahmed Abdel Mu‘ti al-Hijazi — now one of the most prominent elder statesmen of Egyptian poetry — ends with an image of hope flickering like a distant lighthouse on a dark sea. Although published four decades ago, al-Hijazi’s final lines no doubt resonate with those protestors, activists, and common citizens in the Arab world that have struggled for a fairer society, only to see it recede in the distance:

There is a sail and somewhere there’s a ray of light
It flares a little, then fades out
And you’re in a song of some kind,
my country, you’re in some kind of song
resounding for your lonely child…


Chip Rossetti is a book editor and a translator of modern Arabic fiction.

LARB Contributor

Chip Rossetti is a book editor and a translator of modern Arabic fiction, including Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Egyptian sci-fi novel Utopia, Magdy El Shafee’s graphic novel Metro, and Sonallah Ibrahim’s Beirut, Beirut. He won a PEN America grant for his translation of Muhammad Makhzangi’s Animals in Our Days. He holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is the editorial director of the Library of Arabic Literature series published by NYU Press.


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