The archetypal creation story of Latin America, the Popol Vuh began as a Maya oral tradition millennia ago. In the mid-sixteenth century, as indigenous cultures across the continent were being threatened with destruction by European conquest and Christianity, it was written down in verse by members of the K’iche’ nobility in what is today Guatemala. In 1701, that text was translated into Spanish by a Dominican friar and ethnographer before vanishing mysteriously.
Philip Nikolayev is editor ofFulcrum. His poetry collections include Monkey Time (Verse/ Wave Books) and Dusk Raga (Salt).
Alexander Pushkin (1799-83) is widely regarded as the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.
It’s for you that my soft and affectionate voice Disturbs at this late hour a silent night’s repose. Where by my bed a melancholy candle glows, My verse rushes along, burbles and overflows In brooks of love, filled with you, and at last I see Your eyes, out of the dark shining, smiling at me, And finally my ear makes out the cherished words: My gentle, tender friend… I love you… I am yours!
August 2020 Poetry Feature #2: Philip Nikolayev translates Alexander Pushkin
Every attempt to reach Osman al-Houri has failed. Some corroborative sources have informed me that the man has retreated to an isolated village, that he does not own a cell phone, and that there is no way to reach him. Even more than that, he has evidently given up—deserted, and renounced writing, or so I am told. It is May 2019, and at the moment there is a revolution in Sudan, and people, among them a great number of authors, have taken to the streets and squares, demanding the fall of a regime that has—like many of its “siblings”—weighed down on and repressed them for decades. The Sudanese regime—again like many of its siblings in such circumstances—has shut down the internet for nearly a month now, taken to shooting live bullets at protesters and setting loose its henchmen upon them. By so doing, the regime has further complicated the means of connection with a country whose connection with its Arab surroundings (perhaps excepting Egypt) is already complicated and semi-severed. In light of this, can one even speak of literary connection, especially in a field that in our times has become ever more “elitist”: that of the short story?
Connecting What Has Been Severed with Sudan: The Short Story as it Fills Voids with Imagining
Recreating the poetry of Anzhelina Polonskaya in English is tricky because her favorite poetic trope is ellipsis, which is easier to achieve in Russian. Russian, as an inflected language (like Latin), can place words in pretty much any order within a sentence, and the poet can use case endings to indicate the relationship of nouns to each other and adjectives to nouns. When something is left out of a sentence, the empty space can be filled in by the reader. Thus, a Russian poem, at least grammatically speaking, looks like a Lego construction, from which many blocks can be removed without destroying the structure. By contrast, English translations in our (almost) non-inflected language are more like houses of cards – and when you try to remove pieces of the grammatical structure the whole thing tends to fall down.
Anzhelina Polonskaya: Russian Poetry in Translation
These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.
His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.
When I translate Claudia Masin, I feel like I’m ice skating. This is not a foolproof metaphor, I know. But what I mean, mostly, is that it’s exhilarating. Her long, deft, elegant lines; her line breaks, both graceful and unpredictable; her limber back-and-forth between the broadly rhetorical and the minutely descriptive: all of this, all of her language, structure, and sense of timing, forms a surface, a gleaming expanse that I feel free—I want to feel free—to glide across. Fast enough for a sense of wonder, the illusion of ease; not so fast that I don’t notice what’s around me. Or beneath me: the inherent spookiness of ice, the shadows under the surface, the plants and creatures stilled but still living where we can sense more than see them.
For the most part, the Russian poets I have translated—however different in style and school—have been of my own generation and share many of my persuasions. How much more distant from me is Central Asia? Russian serves as a shaky bridge I cross with trepidation. But for the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi, born in 1981 in Aktobe—formerly Aktyubinsk—Russian is solid ground underfoot. “I live in Kazakhstan,” she has said, “but I was born in the Soviet Union… I did not choose the Russian language, did not evaluate it… It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood.”1
From early morning, Arrayga had been smoking ravenously, cigarette after cigarette, staring blankly at the bedroom ceiling. When she opened the third packet, Kultouma came over and, eyes welling with tears, anxiously inquired: “Arrayga, calm down. What is it, sister? You’re going like a train: puff puff puff. Speak to me, Arrayga. What’s upset you?”
The ride on the train from Kosti, known as “the steamer,” marked the start of the summer vacation. As soon as it began, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy—joy that I would be traveling on the westbound train again, and sadness at leaving my hometown, which rang with daytime noises and the singing of the fishermen on the river. I sobbed when I thought I would never return to the town’s embrace. Had my young heart already surmised that my departure would take me to a faraway country, much farther than my child’s mind could grasp? With my grandmother as my traveling companion, I started to discover the story of my family, the countryside, and the towns where her sisters and the rest of the family lived.
That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”