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The Center for Art in Translation connects cultures through language -- and fun

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
The first book I acquired as an editor was an illustrated edition of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, with a translation by the renowned poet W.S. Merwin. It was an English-only version -- I decided, for some reason, that the Spanish originals would be off-putting -- and so Merwin's rich interpretations ruled. Unfortunately, there was no information about Merwin printed in the book, though even then he was famous in his own right. Instead, there was a long introduction about Neruda, written by a scholar, as well as short bios of the poet, the scholar, and the illustrator. In retrospect, the omission is embarrassing but not surprising, since most translators -- even famous ones -- are all but invisible.

The Center for Art in Translation, a tiny outfit in the SOMA District, aims to bring translators out from the shadows. Its original mandate was to provide a forum for translators to discuss the big issues of their work -- in particular, how one deals with the fact that some interpretation is only a "fuzzy approximation" of the original (as Olivia Sears, the center's executive director, described it in one published interview). There's no good answer, Sears realizes, to the question of how to interpret a difficult word or phrase; even the best translators struggle with this issue. Some lean toward literal translation, where you may lose the rhythm or nuance of a word but you'll get the precise meaning, while others lean more toward feeling, where the exact connotation may be slightly different, but the emotional gist of the piece comes through.

From that exchange of ideas grew Two Lines, an annual thematic journal that puts translators front and center, both in print and at live readings. (The next edition, "Ghosts," comes out May 29.) Two Lines is a good read even for those not normally interested in translation. Commentary from the translators helps us English-only speakers understand the layers of meaning in each poem or story. The translations are all original and previously unpublished, and though I can't verify their quality, I can say that in English they're sharp, telling, and often funny. Two Lines' unifying themes give each edition cohesiveness and structure without limiting the kinds of pieces included. Among its peers, the publication is known and respected: Translatio called it "a daringly innovative journal," and Zack Rogow of UC Berkeley's popular "Lunch Poems" reading series said it "plays a vital role in the literary community."

Beyond the journal, the center has taken on an ambitious program of teaching bilingual schoolchildren how to translate poetry. Poetry Inside Out, as the program is known, aims to prove to elementary and middle-school students that it's not necessary to leave behind a first language in order to succeed in a second. PIO brings respected local translators into Bay Area schools (it recently expanded from San Francisco into Oakland, Berkeley, and Redwood City) to work with children on interpreting both famous poems and pieces they've written themselves. In a city where at least 30 percent of students claim a language other than English as their primary tongue -- and in a world where a terrorist's words or a statesman's speech come to us through a translator -- the center's mission is particularly critical. Cultural understanding can only be helped by allowing bilingual people to hold onto their ancestry and language; after all, one means of oppression is to cut people off from their mother tongue.

Each edition of Two Lines is a small manifesto. Though a compact, horizontal 8 1/2 inches by 5 1/2 inches, it packs a lot of punch. Its 250 pages are filled with poems and prose excerpts, printed in their original alphabets, opposite English translations published for the first time. At the start of each piece, the translator gets a few pages to discuss the author, the selection, and the difficulties of interpretation -- an unusual opportunity.

Monolingual people like me rarely think about how tough it must be to move from one language to another. The complexity of English makes it a difficult language to translate into -- we may not have 100 words for snow (or whatever), but even native speakers have trouble with our bizarre mix of words from every other place on Earth. On top of that, the exactness of poetry makes it especially hard to convert. Marina Allemano, writing in the 2000 edition, "Crossings," about converting Danish poems by Suzanne Brøgger, explains that the art of moving from another language into English is complicated: "Brøgger's images are vivid and emphasize the immediate, and her word choice tends to be precise and unpretentious. The challenge for the translator is thus to avoid the cute, the banal, and the affected -- while maintaining the light and humble tone and reproducing the stark, sometimes surreal, imagery." Sure, no problem. I'd have enough trouble achieving such qualities in my own writing, in my native tongue.

Every year, the editors at the Center for Art in Translation come up with a theme for that year's edition of Two Lines. Chosen for their evocative qualities as well as for their appropriateness to the act of translation, the themes have turned out to be remarkably, almost eerily timely. In 1997, the year of O.J. Simpson, the center published "Possession." In 2001, the motif was "Cells," which embraced everything from terrorist cells to human cells, like those surrounding the cloning and stem cell debates.

This year's edition will be called "Ghosts." Olivia Sears, the journal's editor and publisher, says that she and her colleagues originally chose the word to refer to looking back, to history, as well as to the way the future haunts us; it may also symbolize the notion that a translation is a ghost of the original, a semblance of the piece's soul in different form. As Sears explains, "We had no idea there'd be so much bloodshed, so much war" -- so many ghosts produced in just a few months. The publication includes everything from war fiction to ghost stories, Holocaust poetry to meditations on family history.

If previous editions are any indication, "Ghosts" will be gorgeous -- yet sad. In "Cells," the translators of the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote, "Ultimately this translation can at best be an accompaniment to the original, the way reading the score of an aria can enhance our appreciation of it, but can never approach or replace the beauty of hearing it sung in the original language." The bittersweet truth of every copy of Two Lines is that unless you can understand or experience the original, you may miss something in the translation.

That's why you have to go to the launch party. When "Ghosts" comes out on May 29, the center will throw a big bash at the Hotel Rex, including six to 10 readers of originals and translations, as well as some students reading their work from the Poetry Inside Out project. It's open to the public, there'll be food and wine, and it's free.

It may not be readily apparent that reading poetry and fiction from other cultures is a political act. But understanding another group's art comes close to understanding its soul -- and the better we understand each other, the less we hate each other. The Center for Art in Translation gets the word out that communication between cultures is not only vital but fun, and then puts money where its mouth is by bringing the bridge of language directly into schools. Now's the time to cross that bridge. As Pablo Neruda wrote in the poem "The Flag" (from a bilingual edition of The Captain's Verses): "... conmigo levántate/ y salgamos reunidos/ a luchar cuerpo a cuerpo/ contra las telarañas del malvado." Or, as Donald D. Walsh translates: "... stand up with me/ and let us go off together/ to fight face to face/ against the devil's webs."

About The Author

Karen Silver


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