For J.C.'s Spring 2001 riverviews

For J.C.'s translations from the Spanish of Ivón Gordon Vailakis

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riverviews At water's edge is how I locate my life: Great South Bay marshes and beaches of Long Island; peninsula of Pittsburgh narrowed by the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers; bank of the Susquehanna in Harrisburg; and now the Delaware's levee in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill at my back. As a poet, too, I've stood to the side of the mainstream, in the marshy detritus of language from which new language emerges, myself a river and reiver, splitting and splicing, plundering and rescuing, making a language of my mother tongue, being made by it. So, a river's view of riverviews, this column of musings on language and poetry.

By J.C. Todd

***** The query was sent electronically, but the official invitation came by post. Would I participate in Poezijos Pavasaris (Poetry Spring), an international poetry festival held in Vilnius, Lithuania, and please send a selections of poems to be translated. Sent by the Lithuanian Writers' Union, it was signed by Eugenijus Alisanka, whose name I wasn't sure how to pronounce, nor can it be reproduced correctly in this column because its diacritical marks demand a special font for both sender and receiver. With this simple problem of phonemic representation, we find ourselves in the muddle of language-crossing that is literary translation.

***** I'm not a stranger to this muddle. Reading international poetry in translation has enlarged the scope of my poetics, and translating the poems of Ecuadorean writer Ivón Gordon Vailakis has enlarged my consideration of interplay between written and received text. Who is the sender? who the receiver? Translating and reading translations, I'm constantly addressing the endlessly-repeating joke/conundrum: who or what conveys whom or what to whom or what—text, writer, translator, reader? An image that conveys this rich complexity can be found in the Tarot, the Major Arcana card of Temperance, the mingling of elements. In the Walker deck, Temperance is represented by a figure at water's edge, pouring from two jugs mingled streams of water into the littoral on which she stands, one foot in water, one on land. If this feels like an Escher drawing, well, yes, on what threshold are you standing, in what tongue are you speaking, when your consciousness is amidst languages, in the limen of translation's temperate zone?

***** All this was on my mind when I heard from Eugenijus Alisanka which of my poems had been selected for translation and publication: an homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins; a lyric on pre-pubescent ovaries; a rape narrative; an elegy whose central image is men kissing; and a love poem to a man pissing. What would they be in Lithuanian, a non-Teutonic, Indo-European language like no other (although Latvian is similar), prized by linguists for its similarities to ancient Sanskrit, a language that Uldis Berzins, a Latvian poet and philologist who speaks Lithuanian, claims is impossible to really learn unless “you are born into it.” More declensions and conjugations than Latin. Unregulated floating accents that make the language almost tonal. Spellings that shift so radically through cases and tenses, even Lithuanian writers sometimes find it difficult to identify roots. A word pool half the size of English. Historical/political associations and language infusions from the peoples who have occupied or lived in Lithuania for more than seven centuries: indigenous peasants, Teutonic Knights, Prussians, Poles, Jews (Yiddish), Roma, Russians and, in the past 50 years, Germans and Soviets (not only Russians and Belarussians but immigrants from all the former Soviet socialist republics). If “language is politics,” as Grace Paley has said, then what would become of my poems, a question of deep curiosity whose answer remains elusive although I have been to Lithuania, heard the poems read, watched the faces of listeners, spoken with the translators and discussed the poems with Lithuanians who read them in both original and translation. When a university student said in English, “That is an amazing poem,” after hearing “Pissing” in Lithuanian, I had to wonder, “What poem?” The poem she heard I will never hear, the distance between our mother tongues being too great for me to cross.

***** In Lithuania, I got a measure of that distance while comparing names of flowers, and home in Philadelphia a month later, another herbal reminder. I offer these stories not to disallow translation's possibilities but to illustrate its fruitful deceptions. First, the Philadelphia story. “JC and the virgin's birth control” a Lithuanian-American acquaintance wrote on the reverse of the touristy snapshot he sent of me sniffing rue, a dooryard herb our Lithuanian guide had romanticized as the plant-of-choice for wreaths that maidens wore for celebrations and brides for their weddings. Puzzled, I turned to Lesley Bremness' The Complete Book of Herbs: the leaf, infused as a tea, acts as a menstruation stimulant and should never be taken during pregnancy. If this new and surprising somatization were to filter into “With rue my heart is laden,” Housman's rue of sorrow would be tinged with blood, the heart bleeding over youth and friendship aborted by death. It is a more horrible image, closer in tone to “The Death of the Ball-turret Gunner,” but is it a misreading or an enriched reading of “To an Athlete Dying Young?” Thus an image fixed in the mind is flexed by culture-crossing, a part of language-crossing that necessitates a change of mental structure by firing new connections whose aptness is difficult to unravel.

***** Language-crossing sometimes demands an adaptation in oral structure and ear-tuning as well as mental structure. On my first day in Vilnius, walking together in the courtyard of the President's complex, the photographer Dzoja Barysaite gave me the Lithuanian word for pansies: naslaites. My tongue and soft palate have not been molded to its faintly nasalized a, more of an au, nor its dipthong, nor the slight elongation of its final vowel, nor its consonant blend, shl, which you, Reader, cannot see to hear because the diacritic that turns the s to an sh does not appear on your screen. If I cannot pronounce the word, can I hear it? “Say it again,” I asked, and Dzoja did, adding that it means “orphan flowers,” an association that counters “heartsease,” pansy's common name in country English.. The sense of thoughtfulness suggested by the French pensée is made more poignant by the tilt of what suddenly has become orphans' faces toward the sun, a tilt I can see, although whose faces they are shifts each time I look because Lithuania has a troubled history of orphan-making invasion and conquest. I can see but not fully say because I cannot pronounce naslaites. And so the connotation naslaites, encoded in the image of pansies, attaches to my English language word because I do not have the Lithuanian to hold it. Here we arrive at the knot that is literary translation: to unravel it is to lose the design; to be unable to unravel it is to lose the complexity of association. Perhaps translating is tracing through the limens of meaning and sound the root and the rootings, the routings and the route. At its least, word salad; at its best, marvelous muddle.

N.B. For inquiries or to place an order for the Lithuanian-language anthology of poetry from Poezijos Pavasaris 2001 published by Vaga Press (ISBN 5-415-01582-5), contact:
Leidykla VAGA
Gedimino pr. 50
LT-2600 Vilnius
or email Eugenijus Alisanka: eleres@takas

In the Fall issue, a column on Poetry Spring events and travel in Lithuania and Latvia. In the Winter issue, a feature on contemporary Lithuanian poets in translation.