A poem to be translated is a house, if not a palace, on fire. It contains diverse occupants to be carried over (translatio) to safety in another place. The fire exists because of the incommensurability of languages, and its intensity ensures that, at least in the first instance, the act of translation will result in loss. So the question “To what, or to whom, must the translator be faithful?” can be dramatized as “What, or who, can be saved?”
Theories about translation are as complex as they are varied, and I find each of them compelling, perhaps because, on one level, all language acts, especially poems, strike me as “translations” — from somatic or emotional experiences and interior states into text or speech. No translator myself, my only “other language” is a very rudimentary German, good enough to ask for a glass of beer or a room with a shower, but that’s about it. As a result, I have been the grateful reader, via translation, of poetry to which I would otherwise have no access.
After two recent translated volumes of poems came across my desk for review in the past months, it occurred to me that, in many ways, a translation is a “second act.” To build on Couch’s analogy, survivors of house fires, for instance, will not only recount what they’ve been able to save from a burning building — a child, a pet, photographs, a piece of family jewelry, the clothes on their backs, a beloved book — but often speak as well of having been given a second chance, the gracious opportunity of starting anew.
So, for this installment of my Second Acts column, I’ll depart from my practice of pairing a second book written 20 or more years ago with one released recently, and instead focus on two volumes receiving their second acts in English: Francesc Parcerisas’s Still Life with Children and Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country. Having no fluency in either Catalan or Chinese, I won’t attempt to speak to the ethics, accuracy, and methods by which Cyrus Cassells and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, respectively, have translated their source texts. I’ll be speaking only about the poems they have created. In his essay on translation, Couch quotes Cocteau’s “Il est court le chemin”: “Si le feu brûlait ma maison qu’emporterai-je? / J’aimerais emporter le feu” (“If my house was on fire what would I take? / I'd like to take the fire”). In my meditations on these volumes, I’ll be, more often than not, reading toward that fire.
Both volumes contain work written over a period of years. Both are bilingual, with source texts and translations on facing pages. Each is accompanied by helpful prose commentary. In the case of Still Life with Children, Cassells offers both an “Introduction” in which he reflects on his first encounters and his early translation work with Parcerisas in the mid-aughts, and a “Postscript,” written in 2018, when Cassells returned to Barcelona to finish up the book in the company of Parcerisas, who is himself a translator, as well as one of the premier Catalan poets of a generation who came of age when Franco’s ban on the Catalan language came to an end. Parcerisas has translated a number of writers into Catalan, including T. S. Eliot, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allan Poe, Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, and — most famously — J. R. R. Tolkien.
Quite naturally, the October 2017 referendum in Catalonia, which led to violence and to the exile and imprisonment of Catalan leaders, finds its way into the “Postscript,” as does a general call-to-arms in defense of suppressed languages. Interestingly, Parcerisas, born in 1944, did not grow up speaking Catalan, but chose to write poetry in it, as Cassells tells us,
partly because he associated the suppressed Catalan language with patrimony and culture, and enforced Castilian (in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, public signs that read “Don’t bark; speak the language of the empire!” were common in defeated Barcelona) with Franco’s callous, confederate reign of repression.
In 2018, Parcerisas had the opportunity to speak in Brussels before members of the exiled Catalan government, and in his speech he wrote,
We Catalans have an enormous advantage on our side: our language has always been on the sacrificial altar, it has always been the language of the once weak and impoverished underdog who fights back. And if we, as poets, can delve into it, we will always be able to make our culture flourish again.
Parcerisas’s deeply felt and politically charged statements quoted in the “Introduction” and “Postscript” might suggest that his poems also take an overt activist stance. But, with a few exceptions, Still Life with Children eschews the rhetoric of protest and is lambent instead with poems that pay sensuous attention to matters quotidian, domestic, mythic, spiritual, and literary. And it is perhaps in commitment to the Eros of attention that Parcerisas makes his case for the ways in which language, in all of its translations, possesses the potential to preserve culture, and to save humanity itself.
Cassells, himself a poet attuned to Eros and to beauty, has curated a selection of poems from five of Parcerisas’s collections — The Golden Age (1983), October Fires (1991), Still Life with Children (2000), Two More Days in the South (2006), and Sixty-One Poems (2014) — but has made the effective choice not to present the poems in chronological order, but rather to weave older and newer poems together.
For instance, the collection opens with “Shave,” an early poem, and a fitting one, given its deep gaze into the mirror and its frank appraisal of what the speaker sees: “Observe yourself in the mirror,” the poem begins,
These wrinkles, these graying temples
that you’ve already accepted gracefully
— affable guests who showed up
so suddenly, that you can’t quite recall
their initial appearance …
This hardly seems the poem of a man still in his 30s, but it wisely alerts us to one of Parcerisas’s obsessions: the fickle, uneasy “alliance” the self makes with the ever “dissolving” body, a theme we see throughout the book, whether a poem’s subject is a lover, a mythic figure, the “good thief” at Christ’s crucifixion, or the process of aging.
The next poem in the book is “December Orange,” which concerns middle-age anxiety and Eros, and was published over 20 years after “Shave.” Here the speaker, in bed with his beloved, identifies with the waning light of a December evening:
I listen to the sweet December orange:
it tells me No,
then Maybe still.
Only in wintertime
do plummeting raindrops on the patio
splatter with such intensity.
The tempest and the dead
jar me awake.
Look at the ferry passengers, the ones
too long at the beach:
welcome or lost, dauntless,
and still at large.
Sleep when it comes to us
I prize and depend on all this:
as if time’s wheel wouldn’t dare
savage such a young body
alive with pleasure,
I reach for your back …
I’m always interested in the kinship between poets and their translators, especially when the translator is also a poet, as is this case with both Cyrus Cassells and Fiona Sze-Lorrain. I wonder about what attracted the poet-translator to the source poet — a similar subject matter? Stylistic sympathies? One reason Parcerisas’s book attracted me is because I so admire the ardent, sensuous poetry of Cyrus Cassells, and this is my favorite way to read: to let one writer lead me to another. Reading a translation by a poet one admires is like listening to a cover version of a song — Sloan Wainwright’s contralto interpretation of Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter, and The Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain,” for instance, which owes, in part, to the old-timey American tune “Little Birdie.” Each iteration is its own cosmos, but there’s a shared aesthetic DNA, as in the last poem in Still Life with Children, “Portrait of the Poet,” from Parcerisas’s late Sixty-One Poems:
Freezing pipes, icicles
tapering from the eaves
in the blizzard’s howling wind.
After a long bout of darkness,
it’s a minor blessing
to close your book,
to snuff out the table candle,
and, under the glow of the fireplace,
to nestle in bed,
soundlessly, never stirring
the young body by your side,
dozing in all its purity.
Blanket-buried, close your lids,
re-enact this not uncommon day.
Relish this tiny, elating moment
that ennobles everything,
as you cup her sighing breast,
your face lost, entangled among
her hair’s fluent, soft strands.
Will death be this way?
Welcome, like this drowsiness
you succumb to,
this sensation of sheer mildness,
without reproach or lament,
this uncluttered gratitude
for life’s hard-to-measure gifts?
Will it be like this —
that on our way to darkness,
we’ll encounter light?
Timeless, wondering, heeding the “elating moment / that ennobles everything,” the poem bodies forth its writer, its translator, and a helical strand of poetic DNA that stretches back to the earliest verse, made from those pre-literate human impulses to weep and to laugh that lie at the heart of lyric poetry.
In his “Foreword” to Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translation of 66 poems from the first three books of Chinese poet Ye Lijun, written over the past 15 years and collected under the title My Mountain Country, Christopher Merrill picks up on this notion of poetic DNA: “Think of [the translated poems] as a message in a bottle, composed together by Paul Celan and Tu Fu clinging to a piece of driftwood out at sea, which Ye Lijun subsequently found on the beach and translated for this age of apocalypse.” In fact, many traits connect the younger Ye (a surname meaning “leaf”), born in 1972 in a remote, impoverished area of Zhejiang Province, to the older Parcerisas, born in Catalonia in 1944: their sense of wonder; their close, sensuous attunement to the physical world; their awarenesses of mythic power and literary legacy.
As with Still Life With Children, My Mountain Country is not organized chronologically, but rather thematically, allowing poems from various periods and books to speak to one another across time and place. In her illuminating afterward, “More than Mountains: Reading the Mystery in Ye Lijun,” Sze-Lorrain, who has been translating Ye since 2011, describes her decision to arrange Ye’s first three books
with an outline more authentic to their emotional authority, artistic truth, and narrative arc: the first section, “Song of Tremble,” sets the stage for Ye Lijun’s green house and mountain days, as well as her various inner landscapes when she approaches middle-age. The intermediate “Partial Solar Eclipse” — a metaphor of sorts for a lapse in memory and plot — includes texts that relate to the poet’s family and personal past […] and travels, [while the] last part, “In Search of Porcelain,” returns to Ye’s growing sense of spiritual ecology and revivifies her previous lives spent in a mountain hut.
We also learn in Sze-Lorrain’s essay that Ye Lijun was born into rural poverty to a peasant father and a mother who was “a member of a generation of intellectual youths sent to the country for ‘labor re-education’” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. After studying art, she served for nearly 10 years as a junior high art teacher near her native city Lishui. In 2001, access to the internet opened Ye’s world and rekindled her love for writing and literature. An autodidact, she began her poetic education by means of a deep, wide-ranging engagement with work in translation. In subsequent years, she moved to Hangzhou to study painting, married, bore a daughter, suffered family losses, and rented a small Thoreauvian “green cabin” for herself, where she could get away in order to think, write, read, and walk through the natural world she felt changing around her. In 2004, her poem “Passing by Thousands of City Lights in Black Night” was published in Poetry, one of mainland China’s top literary journals, which then featured 16 of her poems in a subsequent issue. Her poetic career and reputation have steadily grown since that time. My Mountain Country is her English-language debut.
A peripatetic isolato whose relationship with the natural world, and with lovers, is by turns symbiotic and ephemeral, Ye writes spare poems that are anachronistic, aphoristic, seasonal, and at once bodily and metaphysical, as in “Cool Autumn Painting”:
Never enough. Yet days
dilate in defiance. I carry human chaos
and the simplicity of wild beasts
You’ve changed … Over the phone my lover bites his tongue
Really? I turn up my collar in the autumn wind
Fool as I am, no banner or flags in this lifetime, no idols
My body is what acquaints me with the world
Too many things a soul can’t paraphrase. Used
to getting wet on my own
I spring from my capricious body
At times emotionally self-protective (“A hardened part of me / never weeps,” she writes in “Mountain Night Climb”), but utterly open to the natural world (“bright moon at the window / I survive in such fugitive instants,” she writes in “Ancient Town Again”), Ye is a searcher: for self, for meaning. In “Partial Solar Eclipse,” she admits that “[h]er travels / can never transcend her selfhood.” Yet in “Self-Baptism,” Ye makes clear that her stalwart vision of loneliness is not devoid of hope, and is inextricably tied to the planet, her island home:
At every turn I fail, but my heart still struggles
I beat around the bush
Why can’t I unfurl at your touch?
In clear, crisp autumn
I return the sky the sky-blue in my blood
my shadow under an oak
This poet with “sky-blue” blood is so in love with the world that the temptation to be devoured by it, as well as to devour and re-embody it, comes through with pulsing passion, as in this excerpt from “Flower Complex”:
I love eating pumpkin flowers most
tucked with tender pumpkin and stemmed leaves, minced sliced, stir fried with ginger bits
then cooked with porridge, smooth and delicious
Blanch the orange daylilies. They cook better after being drained
Grass-seed flowers keep a strong fragrance
I also eat a lot of gardenias …
Hibiscus can be deep-fried or used for making soups
I collect sweet olive as a condiment, usually stored with sugar
Eating raw azaleas is like drinking blood …
In the poems of both Parcerisas and Ye, the fresh and visceral is always balanced by the humbleness of the quotidian, and by the awareness of life’s mutability. As Ye puts it in “Delirium”:
So be it, as a grain of dust
I’ve never resented my slightness. Likewise
I disapprove of the so-called earthly
truth and supreme authority — if you
find it a pity, then just
whisk me away. Like wiping off
my last illusion.
I find myself especially grateful to the translators of these volumes for allowing me into the work of two beautiful poets. To quote Sze-Lorrain at the close of her afterword, “translation at its most sustainable is at heart a mystery.” By carrying into English the “fire” of their source texts, Cassells and Sze-Lorrain have done justice to the mysterious, powerful art of translation.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.