Marilyn Hacker has translated several of the works of Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Here to celebrate her latest translation A Handful of Blue Earth, Marilyn discusses the translation process and what inspires her about Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Read on for a poem from A Handful of Blue Earth.
A Handful of Blue Earth is your translation of the poems written by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. When did you first read these poems and what initially drew you to them?
This is the sixth book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I have translated since 2000. I had read collections of her poetry in French, and been intrigued by how much implied history there was – history in the macro-historical and in the tale-telling sense –informing them. I was asked, back in 2000, by an editor to give a reader’s report on an anthology of French and Francophone women’s poetry scheduled for publication. There were a couple of poems of Vénus’ that were so full of howlers of mistranslation – which I signalled to the editor – that I was impelled to re-translate them. Some months later, I met Vénus through a mutual writer friend, and knowing her, knowing the person and the personality behind the work, was another impetus to engage with it.
Throughout the collection, there are a range of poetic forms and styles. Is there any particular form that you would say presents a particular challenge as a translator?
There are no actual metrical /rhymed/stanzaic ” fixed poetic forms” — either coming from the French (or Arabic) literary canon or invented by the poet – in this book, or in any of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, though there is a difference between the short-lined verse of the “Lady of Syros” and the more surreal prose-poem-like paragraph-stanzas from the “Book of Petitions” , while the long “Mothers and the Mediterranean” poem partakes of both. The rhythms and the breath of the short-lined poems are quite different from the marvellously meandering sentences of that border on prose. It’s not hard to keep them apart.
There are not as many formal – in the sense of metrical/syllabic , etc. forms – virtuosos working currently in French poetry as there are in contemporary poetry in English — thinking of George Szirtes, Mimi Khalvati, Derek Mahon, Patience Agbabe , for example , though Jacques Roubaud is an exception. I once translated a series of (also surreal ) sequences in decasyllabic dixains – ten-line stanzas of ten syllables each – by another poet, Marie Etienne, which was surprisingly easy, given how much iambic pentameter I had written myself – and even led me to write something using the same form.
Do you have a particular process when translating poetry?
No…I often find myself reading a poem in French and “recreating” it in English, and that’s the impulse to translate it. If there’s a book of translations to complete, the process is less meandering than that.
This poetry collection deals with a variety of themes such as exile, warfare and female relationships. Is there any motif in particular that stands out to you as the defining theme of the collection?
Oddly, the only relationship between women I noticed in this collection was that of the daughter who “becomes” the pre-Cycladic statue to her mother. It’s a subject that has been primary in my own work, and an intense ,conflicted mother/ daughter relationship is central to another book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I translated , Nettles, published by Graywolf Press in the U.S. in 2008. Exile and expatriation, though, are themes that run through all this poet’s work – quoting from “The Book of Petitions”:
How can you weep in a language no longer your own
what can you call walls not imbued with your sweat
In both the “Lady of Syros” and “The Book of Petitions,” death itself is seen as a kind of exile or expatriation – which, paradoxically, makes it seem less final and inexorable: exiles sometimes return. Whereas the state of war evoked in “The Mothers and the Mediterranean” seems almost more permanent than death – and I think it was the persistent murderous state of war now in Syria, in Iraq, that brought the civil war in Lebanon so urgently back to the poet’s imagination…as well as the city of Beirut, where she grew up, very specifically evoked in that sequence.
Would you say that reading and translating Vénus’ poems has influenced your own poetry?
I’ve translated extensively from the work of about ten French or Francophone poets in the last going-on-twenty years, and there has been, intentionally or inadvertently, dialogue with several of them in my own work. Here is a glosa, a Spanish form in which the poet takes 4 lines from a poem by another poet, and composes 4 ten line stanzas, each ending with one of those four lines in turn — this was written elaborating on four lines of the poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata that is given in its entirety, following.
The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow
But nothing consoled her
Who is the night among all nights ? she asked the owl
But the owl doesn’t think, the owl knows
Vénus Khoury-Ghata : “Borderland”
Dumb heat, not snow, sheathes Paris in July
and sheathes suburban Washington.
Planes rip through the fabric of a frayed
afternoon torn open
by words no afterwards will clarify.
Knowing what happened, no one will know.
We had a friend ; she had a young son.
There was exile, its weight on a day.
There was the heart’s ice, its insistent glow.
The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow.
Trope upon silvered trope, of what might a mirror
remind her : copper, black silk , the eloquence
intelligence gives eyes ? Reflected terror
that conscripted all intelligence.
I am a great way off and cannot come nearer.
I do not know what the night or the mirror told her
or the sense of the words she wrote when nothing made sense,
or if they made a sense that seemed clearer and clearer.
The child raised his arms to be lifted, to be held, to hold her,
but nothing consoled her.
Put the morning away in the murk of myth :
not the unthinkable, but Radha’s dance
breaking her bangles, imploring the dark god with
metered and musical lamentations,
repeated measures meant to distance death
suggest a redemptive spiral for the soul
(child, child bleeding to death, no second chance)
in the containment of despair and wrath
within the peopled descent of the ritual.
(Who is the night of all nights she asked the owl.)
No dark god was there, and no god of light .
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment ; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead , read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.
it should have been beautiful and it was merely sad
gardens departed this life more slowly than men
we would eat our sorrow down to the last drop then
belch it in splinters in the face of the cold
the sun’s spirit kept the sun from warming us
a sun that eventually ran dry from so much concentration
It was elsewhere
it was a very long time ago
tired of calling us the mother left the earth to enter the earth
seen from above she looked like a pebble
seen from below she looked like a flaking pine-cone
sometimes she wept in sobs that made the foliage tremble
life, we cried out to her, is a straight line of noises
death an empty circle
outside there is winter
the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow
But nothing consoled her
who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl
but the owl doesn’t think
the owl knows
Translated by Marilyn Hacker
(from Names, W.W. Norton and Co., 2010)
Marilyn Hacker is the author of thirteen books of poems, including A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015), Names (Norton, 2010), Essays on Departure (Carcanet, 2006), an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (Michigan, 2010), and fourteen collections of translations of French and Francophone poets including Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Habib Tengour and Rachida Madani. DiaspoRenga, a collaborative sequence written with the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, was published by Holland Park Press in 2014. She lives in Paris.
Christopher Gill, author of Plato’s Atlantis Story, discusses the philosophical significance of Plato’s compelling Atlantis story and how the mythical city has captured our imagination throughout time.
Could you give us an overview of Plato’s Atlantis Story?
First of all, it’s not just the story of Atlantis. That is the famous name, but it’s actually a tale of two cities. It’s the story of Atlantis and Athens, two long-ago cities in Greece, and both of them are set in an idealised past. It’s about the character of the two cities, especially the contrast between them, which is a contrast in constitution, structure and character. The story describes each of them separately and leads up to a future war which is never actually described, a war which leads to the defeat of Atlantis – and that is something that is often glossed over in people’s idea of Atlantis. Ancient Athens wins and Atlantis is defeated.
What is the philosophical meaning of the story?
To get the philosophical meaning, it’s useful to think about the relationship between the Atlantis story and other major Platonic works of philosophy. There is an explicit link to the Republic in that the philosophical meaning of this story is a political one. We have the equivalent of the ideal state of the Republic set in ancient Athens and we have a kind of counter-ideal in Atlantis. The focus, in both cases, is on their structure or constitution, which is what Plato’s Republic is also about. Political structure is important and gives rise to events – and this is part of the philosophical significance of the story.
You get another indication of the philosophical significance if you think about the relationship to the Timaeus, the story of the creation of the universe – both stories are put side by side in this text. Both stories, in different ways, place human life in the context of the cosmos, and this greatly expands the perspective that you have on the city as a political community. In the Atlantis story, we find a massive expansion of time, space, and geography; we go out to the far west and we go far back in time. The story invites us to place the city in this much broader perspective. Also, the description of the city is very much centred on its physical context, showing the city in its material and environmental context, just as the creation story is an account of human beings being formed within the universe as a physical entity.
These themes, the political theme and the theme of the universe, are expressions of the more general idea of making the ideal into something concrete, physical and actual. The two cities are specific expressions of the ideal and the un-ideal political community and Atlantis functions as a foil or contrast to the ideal.
What is the significance of Plato’s presentation?
This volume brings out the significance of the use of dialogue and the interplay between characters. The dialogue between the figures (Socrates and the other characters) frames the story, which forms part of their conversation. Plato in other writings uses dialogue form and tells stories (his ‘myths’). But this story is quite unique in Plato, offering a quasi-historical description of two cities, going back far beyond Plato’s own time. It is very vividly presented, with highly specific and graphic presentation of both the cities, their geography, topography and the physical expression of their political life. Of course, that’s what has captured people’s imagination over time. The description reflects the 4th/5th century Athens of Plato’s personal experience whilst also creating an idealised past.
Also, Plato presents the account in such a way that the theme of truth runs through the story. It poses the question, implicitly: what is truth? Critias insists that his story is true and accurate but it looks suspiciously unlike a true story, and more like a philosophical fable. The story starts like a myth, so it is puzzling when it is described as true. Running through the conversation between the characters is this interplay between truth as fact and truth as ideas. This interplay feeds back into the core philosophical point in the story about making the ideal into something actual. It’s difficult to work out when the story is set, whether it is real or not, whether it could have been real. There is a slightly surreal quality to it all, which helps to unsettle our notion of truth and makes us raise profound questions, which is Plato’s ultimate aim in the story.
Why do you think people are still drawn to Plato? What makes him so significant?
The reason why we’re drawn to Plato is because he is an absolutely brilliant, world-class philosopher. It’s like being drawn to the Bible or Shakespeare or Darwin. The ideas are still philosophically powerful for us. But also, I think Plato also still attracts because he’s a wonderful writer. He is bold, his conceptions capture people’s minds and imagination. He combines philosophical and literary brilliance. It’s that combination of the philosopher and the author that makes him still continually compelling to us.
The story-telling is key in this text, people return to again and again because it seems so vivid that people almost feel it must be true. It’s so wonderfully told, and with such richness of detail, that it has driven people over time to actually look for Atlantis even though it absolutely isn’t there.
What do you think will make this book useful to students?
There are two kinds of readers who will find it really useful. One is Platonic scholars or philosophy scholars in general; they will appreciate the fact that it is comprehensive, with the text, the commentary, the translation and vocabulary brought together in a compact format. There’s a very long and in-depth and new interpretive essay which builds on previous scholarship on the work. So the book has a definite appeal at the academic level.
But there’s also something for everyone because some can just use the translation, and others can make use of the book as a whole. It is especially directed at students, people studying Greek at university or school. It is a very practical text, in a number of ways. This is partly because it’s comprehensive, but also because it gives a lot of help with the grammar and translation, help that students need to work their way through this text. There is a detailed grammatical commentary and a full vocabulary of Greek words, as well as a new translation of the text. Alongside this, the unusual presentation of the text in bite-sized chunks of notes and commentary makes the content more digestible. This book is practical, engaging and designed to provide what modern students need.
For more information on Plato’s Atlantis Story please visit our website.
Learn more about Black German, the compelling memoirs of Theodor Wonja Michael, translated into English for the first time by internationally acknowledged expert in black German studies Eve Rosenhaft. Here she explains a little about Theodor Michael, and why these powerful memoirs continue to draw people in.
For those new to the subject, could you introduce Theodor Michael?
Theodor Michael is a member of the first generation of native-born Afro-Germans – possibly the last surviving one. He was born in Berlin in 1925. His father was the Cameroonian Theophilus Wonja Michael, one of a substantial number of men who travelled to Germany from what were then German colonies in Africa, and who remained in Germany after it lost its colonial empire following the First World War. His mother was Martha Wegner, a white German. Theodor Michael lived through the social and political upheavals that Germany experienced in the twentieth century – the rise of Nazism and its ‘racial state’, the Second World War, post-war reconstruction in West Germany and reunification after 1989. He experienced the hurts of racism, but he also benefited from the opportunities offered by the post-war world to develop a career as a journalist and Africanist, and he was ‘present at the birth’ both of the pan-African movement of the 1960s and of Afro-German activism since the 1980s.
How did you become aware of Theodor Michael and his memoirs?
I have been researching the history of black people in Germany since the late 1990s; in 2013 my colleague Robbie Aitken and I published a monograph on the subject, Black Germany. The memories of Theodor and his surviving brother and sister, captured in print and in film documentaries, are among the most frequently cited sources for that history, so I’ve been aware of him for some time. We consulted him directly when we were researching our book.
Why are the memoirs so important?
The story of Theodor Michael’s generation, and of their parents, is an important chapter in global black history and also in German history, as we come to acknowledge that Germany was involved in the European colonial project of the 19th and 20th centuries and that the colonial experience left its mark on Germany even though it was relatively brief. But we have very few memoirs or other forms of testimony from the individuals themselves. Theodor Michael’s autobiography is particularly valuable because of the breadth of his experience and because, at the end of a long life, he is quite self-conscious in reflecting on the politics of race and identity.
What made you decide to do this translation?
In the last ten years or so there has been an upsurge of interest in the lives of black Germans and the experience of black people under Nazism. Novels like Esy Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, or Amma Asante’s new feature film Where Hands Meet are examples of rising popular interest. In British and American universities, the black German experience is increasingly on the syllabus in both German studies and history. I proposed the translation to LUP very much in the spirit of making a key text available to teachers but also to a wider public that can’t (alas) read German.
Were there any particular challenges that arose in translating the text?
Theodor Michael writes in a style that is mainly pretty transparent. As a trained social scientist and journalist, he sometimes adopts a rather academic voice, and sometimes his German is quite conversational. I had to decide whether to leave those ‘two voices’ as they were or go for a conversational style – the easier read – throughout. In the end readers will find both styles in the translation. Another challenge for me was translating into American rather than British English (for the bigger market!). I’m a native New Yorker, but I’ve been in the UK for over 40 years, and it was sometimes a struggle to remember the differences of vocabulary; I’m afraid a couple of Britishisms got through: prizes for readers who spot them and let me know.
You’ve added a lot of editorial material. What have you added and why?
Theodor Michael has included quite of lot of explanatory background material in his own text, but I’ve added a chronology of historical events at the back of the book, so that readers who don’t know the details of German history can situate particular episodes in the wider history. I’ve also added some explanatory notes, drawing on the archival research for Black Germany. Among other things, I hope these help readers to see Theodor Michael as part of a generation rather than an isolated individual, and also to understand better the wider context for his experiences as a ‘Black German’. There’s a bibliography of English-language texts for further reading, too. My foreword offers some suggestions as to how this autobiography relates to other personal accounts by Afro-Germans and its key political messages.
Who do you think will be most interested in this book?
As I said, I hope it will be useful for teachers and students, but most readers interested in history – black, German, or just good stories – should find it a good read. It offers a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose warm personality and courage really shine through.
What do you hope readers will learn from the book?
Like most historians, I think that what makes the past interesting is the complexity and variety of events and experiences. Theodor Michael experienced ‘history’ in many dimensions: he was the son of an African ‘prince’, a working-class boy in Berlin, a foster-child in a loveless household, a ‘circus kid’, a film extra, a Mischling and forced labourer in Nazi Germany – all before he was 19 years old. And he went on to be a husband, father, actor, journalist and activist. He would agree that his story tells us much about the origins and trajectories of racism, and how they can culminate in what we call the Holocaust, but what is more important is that it gives us an inside view of how racism works as well as how it can be challenged and more than survived.
What are your favourite parts of Theodor Michael’s story?
I love the leitmotif that he adopts to characterise himself ‘a German in a grass skirt’ – reflecting on his very earliest experiences in ‘show business’, when he performed as an African native in ‘human menageries ’with other members of his family. In terms of the overall narrative, I am most fascinated by his life before and after the Second World War: Before the war he worked in his foster-parents’ circus, and he gives us a fine inside view of how circuses operated. In the post-war period, the story he tells with great candour of how his marriage to a (white) refugee woman survived the stresses of poverty, racism and his mental and physical ill health is both moving and illuminating.