On happiness and other matters; or, “Something good in the state of Denmark”

Last week I was on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington – where more than two decades ago I did my undergraduate work in Spanish and English and took my first and only formal course in the art of translation – for the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association. This was my first ALTA conference and I hope not the last. It was good to be surrounded for a few days by a group of people who are passionate about the same things – in this case: words, languages, literature, cultures – and to make some new friends and establish new connections.

Willis Barnstone

Willis Barnstone

One of the personal highlights, among many, was running into a former professor, the renowned poet and translator Willis Barnstone. We were at an event at the Lily Library, where in my youth I worked as a page and made boxes for some of its rare books. Professor Barnstone was about to walk past me when he was struck by something in my appearance and took a double take. I took advantage of the moment to stretch out my hand, lean toward him, and re-introduce myself.

“You won’t remember me,” I said, “but I had a class with you many years ago.”

He commented, with his characteristically warm and radiant smile, that there was something about my “persona.” I was wearing my wide-brimmed black hat at the time, my beard just a bit on the bushy side. He thought I resembled Walt Whitman. It occurred to him, he said, that I had the persona of someone whose portrait should be hanging from one of those walls.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Later, in a less crowded space, we talked some more. He asked me if he had been a good teacher. “Fantastic,” I said with complete sincerity. I told him that what I most remembered from that class (on the Spanish poets of the Generation of 1927, as I recall) was hanging on his every syllable as he read to us the verse of Federico García Lorca. I had already loved those poems before properly understanding them, I said. He became all the more radiant, if that is possible, and exclaimed that he still loved Garcia Lorca’s poetry.

The author and Januk Pyalski after Declamación

The author and Janek Pytalski after Declamación

He thanked me for what I had said about his teaching and said I’d made his day. What he might not know is that I went out of there that evening feeling considerably uplifted just for the pleasure of conversing with him again. I am sure that it would have been so even if he hadn’t said what he did about my persona.

That was on Friday evening. A couple of hours later a good number of us were gathered for an event called Declamación. This is a relatively new tradition that has become immensely popular since its inception a few years ago. It is not a reading but a declaiming, a series of performances strictly by memory, of bits of poetry or prose or song in the original language and / or in English translation – ranging from the comic to the profoundly serious and moving. While I did read earlier that day (from La pasión de los nómades / Passionate Nomads), I was content that evening to be a spectator while others achieved marvelous heights of memory and entertainment.

The acts included an amazing rap performance, entirely in the ancient Greek, of the opening sequence of Homer’s Iliad; the plaintive minor chords of a traditional Vietnamese song; a recitation, in Middle English, of part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and a great deal of poetry in various languages.

One performance that I particularly enjoyed was Michael Goldman’s singing of a lyric by the Danish sensation Benny Andersen, whose CDs and poetry have both sold phenomenally in Denmark. Michael, a carpenter and musician from Florence, Massachussetts, who just happens to have married a Danish woman, has made it his life’s loving labor to bring Andersen’s work to an English-language audience. And as far as he knows this is the first time that one of Andersen’s songs has been performed in English.

Michael Goldman

Michael Goldman

The thing that most struck me about the funny, sweet, and strangely moving song that Michael sang is how deceptively simple and under-stated it was. That, Michael assured me, is the Danish way. I am glad I took him up on his invitation to attend his reading, the next day, of several of Andersen’s poems which again he presented in both the Danish and the English.

The translation I’m sharing with you now, which at my request Michael was kind enough to send me, is not one of those that he read but bears the same subtle wit and folksy wisdom. It was published recently in The Cincinnati Review.

Happiness

There’s something special about happiness

you can be really glad

when you feel it

but also anxious

you freeze for a second

then slowly step forward cautiously

like in a minefield

and every time you put a foot down

without being blown up

you either forget to enjoy your happiness

or you’re upset over not knowing

how long it will last

so when adversity finally appears

it’s a relief

like you’ve made it to safety again

it’s a shame

because there’s something special about happiness

that you don’t otherwise come across

maybe that’s the problem

we don’t know it well enough

should learn more about it

I think it’s a matter of training.

By Benny Andersen ©1964 “Lykken”

Translated by Michael Goldman

In retrospect, I am reminded of the subtle wit and wisdom of certain lyrics by Paul Simon, in this particular case the song called “Something So Right” (he can’t get used to it; it’s likely to lose him, to confuse him; whereas, if something goes wrong, well he’s the first to own it …)

***

Four literary friends

María Gabriela Mizraje, 2nd from left, with author and friends in Córdoba, Argentina in July 2005

A couple of good things of a literary nature have happened to me this summer:

First, my translation of María Gabriela Mizraje’s short story “Vía libre” (“Open Road”) was published in the summer edition of The Antigonish Review, a Canadian journal (from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia) which has been very kind to me in the past. Previously it has published my translations of work by María Rosa Lojo, first some prose poetry (from Awaiting the Green Morning) and, then, an excerpt (with my accompanying essay) from what would become Passionate Nomads, a novel of historical fantasy. This is the first of María Gabriela’s work to appear in English.

Second, I completed the full draft of a Young Adult novel called Original Sins. I am particularly grateful to my daughter Stephanie for her early reading of the first chapters and her advice that helped me get off on a more solid footing than I might have otherwise. So far the reviews on the finished draft have been good, but I am awaiting further feedback before doing a final revision (I hope) at the beginning of the next calendar year. Then I will most likely be looking for an agent who might like to represent it.

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4 responses to “On happiness and other matters; or, “Something good in the state of Denmark”

  1. Thanks for the lovely comments, and I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you while you were in Bloomington. Thanks, too, for sharing Michael Goldman’s Benny Andersen translation. Hope to see you next year! — Russell Valentino

  2. Nice, Brett, and nice to have met you. Until next year…

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