This issue is dedicated – in a trend that is becoming increasingly (happily) noticeable in literary magazines of all kinds – to translation, and reflects the editors’ efforts to “sharpen Bombay Gin’s focus.” The Translation Portfolio includes versions from the Navajo of Frank Mitchell’s “17 Horse Songs” by Jerome Rothenberg and an accompanying essay; an interview with Zhang Er, followed by poems of hers translated from the Chinese; an interview with Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña, followed by her work; as well as poems, ancient and contemporary, translated from Japanese, Finnish, and French.
The translation of Navajo singer Mitchell’s work is fascinating. The verse is strange to the eye and the ear, but Rothenberg’s essay is enlightening and I would recommend reading it before tackling the poems/songs. His essay concludes with a consideration of the larger implications of translation: “Translation is carry-over. It is a means of delivery & of bringing to life. It begins with a forced change of language, but a change too that opens up the possibility of greater understanding…a full & total experience begins it, which only a total translation can fully bring across.”
Suzanne DuLany’s interview with Zhang Er, author of three collections of poetry and six chapbooks in Chinese, is equally informative and worthwhile. Here is the poet’s description of the way translation has influenced her thinking about poetry in its original language: “You realize that one language expresses ideas a certain way, and your language in another way. You become aware of your language, in terms of the possibilities of human consciousness.” I liked very much Er’s poetry, with which I was not familiar, and Martine Bellen’s translation reads like an original, seamless and natural, as in these excerpts from Because of Mountain:
What kind of switch outside anticipation
Illuminates the dream?
The road reaching there branches –
Only because through a window there is scenery:
mountains suspended on the wall
with maddening meticulousness
embroider every tree, every layer of sediment.
One of the aspects of Bellen’s translation I find most intriguing is the choice of the word “switch.” While I do not question the words “dream” or “window,” are more precise and concrete, “switch” is more nuanced and leaves room to ponder what the original might actually signify. This is what Er means, I think, about the way the language demonstrates what is possible in our consciousness, and thinking about these nuances and ambiguities is part of what makes reading translations such a rich experience.
DuLany interviews Vicuña, too, who also ponders the way poetry works to carry over from one culture/language to another: “if you believe in the multidimensional nature of reality, the bridges between them becomes apparent. It is not just one bridge, but many…for true poetry to take place, you have to allow for the unknown.”
In addition to the Translation Portfolio, this issue features new writing; a portfolio of visual arts (film stills); the transcription of audiotapes from the Naropa Institute, the journals’ publisher; and book reviews. New writing (poetry and prose) begins with a wonderful excerpt from Elsewhere by Scott Alexander Jones, which opens with these lines:
t a word
for the murmur of wind
caught in a vacant
The secrets we keep from ourselves
on the outskirts
anywhere but here –
How we never settled
on a middle
for the child
Jones captures the essential challenge and work of poetry – and of translation – in his first line, it seems to me, the way in which the poet must disturb my expectation of the natural order of things, while still making meaning; the effort to find a way to express the unique experience that defies description when a single word does not exist to denote it; the importance of naming…and of not naming.