Tag Archives: literary translation

GLEANINGS (Henry James on “Mr. Whitman”; new work by Lynn Strongin; a memoir by Joanna Foreman; audio books of Danish poetry, tr. Michael Goldman)

150th_issue_cover_otu_img[1]1. Received yesterday morning the April edition of the usually weekly magazine The Nation, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with this 268-page anthology of some new but mostly historical material. In my initial browsing I came upon a November 16, 1865 review of Walt Whitman’s book Drum-Taps (one fragment, now, along with Song of Myself and much else, of his ever-evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass). The reviewer is Henry James.

This is where I confess that I have never read anything by Henry James, though I am familiar with Henry’s brother William through The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand’s book about the American Pragmatists. Henry, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, “was a regular contributor of reviews and short stories to American periodicals” from 1865 on, so this review would have been one of his first. Some of his novels (like Portrait of a Lady, 1881) are “chiefly concerned with the impact of the older civilization of Europe on American life”; and in others, more specifically English in setting and content, “he analysed English character with extreme subtlety, verging at times on obscurity.”

I stop on this background on the reviewer for what it might explain of his negative take on Whitman, a less disciplined and mannered writer working in a distinctly American style: a new kind of poetry – ecstatic, ebulient, rough around the edges – that quite deliberately ran away from its European predecessors.

“Mr. Whitman,” writes James, “prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry. It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.”

In James’s view, Whitman’s poetry is quite simply “an offense against art,” and James has some specific advice with regard to it: “To become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough to discard everything in particular and to accept everything in general, to amass crudity upon crudity, to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public. You must respect the public you address, for it has tastes, if you have not.”

image097[1]In the retrospect of 150 years, that dismissal might well strike one as a tad snobbish, but at least James has his standards. The general American public, in any case, from northern to southern hemisphere, seems to have had a different view of things – or perhaps just a different understanding of artistic taste. Be that as it may, Whitman is honored and imitated perhaps more than any American poet before or since. His chief imitator would have to be Carl Sandburg, who wrote no less ecstatically, in free and ranging verse, of his rough-and-tumble Chicago. And who, like Whitman, was a great admirer (and in Sandburg’s case, biographer) of Abraham Lincoln.

The poems that immediately follow Drum-Taps, entitled Memories of President Lincoln, include the much-anthologized “O Captain! My Captain!” This elegantly crafted poem, which I recall teaching to my eighth-grade English students, is surely proof that Whitman could write a perfectly disciplined poem if he chose to.

As for Song of Myself, while the poet does seem to go overboard from time to time, I have come to find it quite admirable in the sheer boldness of its scope. And where at times Whitman may seem a bit full of himself, possessed of boundless, perhaps excessive self-regard, it is at least partly because of the inclusiveness of his usage of the pronoun myself, which intends to include everyone. If perhaps not so much the more elitist, Europe-gazing Henry James.

The individual poems in Drum-Taps were unknown to me before a couple of years ago, more or less, when I finally got around to wading through the immense entirety of Leaves of Grass. I have to say that it particularly moved me. In part because for the first time, it seemed to me, the poet’s seemingly boundless optimism was brought to its knees, overwhelmed by the horrors of an internecine war whose wounds, this century and a half later, are still not completely acknowledged, let alone healed. And, in the face of this day’s apparently endless international “war on terror,” I needed him to acknowledge the limits of optimism.

That impression is perhaps most clearly expressed in the following short poem, which I cite in its entirety:

 Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!

Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,

A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,

Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,

Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?

And sullen hymns of defeat?

It seems to me that our political discourse, of late, could stand a dose of this modesty. Before the present drum-beats to war with Iran turn the whole region, and perhaps the world, into a conflagration that is bound to decisively give the lie to all our exceptionalist triumphalism.

2. Have been acquainted with Lynn Strongin, strictly by long distance, since editing some of her poems during my year as managing editor of the online journal New Works Review. She has an extensive body of work since the Sixties and seems to have no intention of slowing down in her own seventies, having two new books (one just published, the other forthcoming) in 2015.

As she has herself pointed out, Strongin has been exploring essentially the same subject and themes for all these years, over and over and yet never the same: every poem, every particular narrative, seems completely fresh and original despite the familiarity. And by no means less skillful than earlier work.

Lynn Strongin as a childMost evident in all her work is her experience as a child victim of polio, which left her in a wheelchair but did nothing to inhibit her intellectual and artistic adventuring. This infuses her work with a particular sensitivity to young people of any day, whatever the specific troubles physical or emotional that sometimes isolate them. Additional themes that resurface in her work include the menace of the Holocaust and other forms of marginalization and prejudice manifest variously in our shared human experience.

In a sense, one might say, her concerns are at once universal and unifying, touching on the world of nature as well as on the varieties of human experience. I especially remember some moving passages, in previous work, on the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, connected as that inevitably is to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to nuclear talks today between Iran and much of the developed world, to traumas both physical and spiritual from the Middle East to urban and rural North America.

None of which is to say that her work is oppressively dark or depressing, quite the contrary. Rather it seems to burst with light and possibility. Her voice is distinct and wholly original. One might say that her words shimmer.

The following radiant poem (I love the closing image!) is from The Burn Poems, just published in time for International Women’s Day on March 18, by Headmistress Press (Sequim, Washington) which specializes in publishing chapbooks by lesbian writers:

Were those sorrowful times

Back on Cook Street?

Did it all melt down to kitchen?

That galley that hung

Me with gin?

Why should those times be more sorrowful than these? Ruined cities always were in my spine:

Fort Mason. Fort Saint John. Fort Spaceman.

To a child it was cruel. To be a woman? There are no words:

Instead I trap


Cup a bird in hand

And let my tears bathe him. 

The lyric novel, Fabrytius’ Chylde (Albuquerque, New Mexico: Casa de Snapdragon), forthcoming later this year, has the feel of an extended prose poem, its narrative comes forth in shimmering blasts that allow the story to emerge slowly, with repetitions of phrase and image that help reinforce it. At slightly over a hundred words, it begs to be read at least twice: once straight through to get the feel of it, and again lingeringly to take it all in more completely.

The title alludes to a 17th-century painting by Carel Pietersz Fabritius, “Rembrandt’s most famous pupil,” with whose subject (the painter’s daughter) this 21st-century narrator self-identifies. She is an older woman, looking back on a lesbian relationship of some fifty years. The painting is The Goldfinch (1654). The following passage, from the beginning of chapter one, helps to set the stage:

This is the story of Velvet and Angel. Velvet was the name given me when Velma-Sue was outgrown, just as Angelique, with whom I fell in love, became Angel, and these names remained ours for life. If I was a Dutch painter’s dream of a girl, Angel was a burly, Roman woman with brogue shoes, a broad-muscled soldier. Her years as instructor had developed her biceps. Her crop of chestnut hair, bangs glistening as though painted with thick oil paints made her resemble a small woman, Roman soldier who fought on burning bridges and canals by sun, lit like candle. She was a delicious woman, Hercules.

the-know-it-all-girl-joanna-foreman-sm[1]3. Recently joined, for support and companionship, the Southern Indiana Writers group, which meets occasionally in Indiana’s original frontier capital of Corydon, at about an hour’s drive from my Indiana home in Tell City. As a former Mormon missionary in South America, no longer practicing the faith but by no means hostile to it, I was interested to read group member Joanna Foreman’s The Know-It-All Girl: A memoir of a former Jehovah’s Witness. (2013. Madison, Indiana: Hydra Publications)

Our experiences have been very different, though both of us have turned against the patriarchal and doctrinal certainties of our former faiths. In her case, I think, the experience was on the whole more restrictive, mine less so given the existence within Mormonism of a distinctly more liberal and expansive wing in opposition or counterpoint to the anti-intellectual wing that, at least in my particular experience, came to suck the original joy from Sunday worship and daily practice. Some of that, both the positive and the negative, is at play in my new Young Adult novel, tentatively called Original Sins and still looking for a home, whose lead protagonist is a Mormon girl (as opposed to her classmates who are not Mormon) with a dilemma (what to do if her boyfriend turns out to really be gay). And who tries to solve the dilemma by drawing some risky lessons from the Mormon version of the Adam and Eve narrative. But that’s a whole other story, which I don’t need to get into just now.

Joanna’s narrative, in any case, is an affecting account of spiritual struggle and growth which should have large appeal to anyone who enjoys reading popular biography and memoir. While the Organization, as it is called by its members, became too restrictive a place for Joanna’s adventurous and inquisitive spirit, the story of her relationships within the faith with, in particular, her mother and a dear girlfriend, are for the most part positive. As is the overall thrust of her narrative, which ends in a good place and is related with appropriate and abundant humor. The title alludes to the illusion of sure knowledge that the faithful have through reliance on the church elders or patriarchal leaders: because, whatever question anyone could have, they claimed to know all the answers; so all you had to do was listen and obey.

The following passage, part of a chapter that develops her ultimate relationship with belief and doubt even more fully, I particularly admire:

 Most days, I don’t believe there is a god anymore. Occasionally, I think maybe there is, but for me, He or She or It is not a god who knows our every thought (or even cares what we’re thinking), who will strike a match and torture us forever if we refuse to follow specific, complicated and oftentimes silly rules. When I hold a newborn I believe there must be a god. When I see violent anger and hate among the human race I figure there cannot be a god. I walk outside on a spring day – birds sing and a fresh breeze ruffles my hair – or I witness a glorious sunrise; then I think maybe there is a god. But when I see the insensitive, unnecessary bickering and wars between people of various religions, I truly believe with all my heart that if a god exists, he is involved in the self-serving beliefs of the people only in their imaginations. I confess I want to believe in God, first of all because I followed that comfortable path for nearly half a century; second, I like the feeling of having a higher power watching over me. 

It seems to me that Joanna may be leaning toward the American Transcendentalists’ sense of God in Nature. Aside from Emerson and Thoreau, whom a high-school English teacher taught me to appreciate, I am also thinking of Emily Dickinson whose poetry I am presently reading. She has a Transcendentalist sensibility, anyway; and when Joanna speaks of appreciation being superior to worship, I think she means the same thing as Dickinson does as she re-defines worship: “My period has come for Prayer – / No other Art would do – ” she writes; but several stanzas later, at poem’s end, she has come to a new place:

The Silence condescended –

Creation stopped – for me –

But awed beyond my errand –

I worshipped – did not “pray” –

(poem # 525)

And then there’s this little jewel, one of my favorites (#23) in its utter simplicity:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –

And of the Breeze – Amen!

Benny Andersen

Benny Andersen

4. Finally, in passing, a note from my translator friend Michael Goldman, whose rendering of a poem by Danish poet / lyricist Benny Andersen I re-published here (it originally appeared in the Cincinnati Review) on October 23, 2013. It seems that he has some audio books out with Andersen’s poetry and that of a pair of other Danish poets. If relaxing to someone else reading fine, accessible Danish poetry sounds like something you would enjoy, then here’s your ticket to poetic bliss. I have not listened to these particular tapes, but I have heard Michael read his poems on more than one occasion – in person and online – and can thus assure you of their quality.

Here’s the link:  http://hammerandhorn.net/audiobooks-3/ Happy listening!

And as a bonus, here from Michael’s website is a short essay called “Translation is Like Carpentry” (his day job, by the way, is carpentry), a profound poetic glimpse at the craft of literary translation:

I was out on a snow hike last night,  imagining that a piece of Danish literature is not unlike a Danish house to which only someone fluent in Danish has a key.  As a translator and student of literature I have access  to enter that building and experience it in all its facets.  I perceive the building elements, the blueprint, the intent behind the construction.  And I can reconstruct that house, make a replica, though not an exact twin.  Not every screw and nail will be in precisely the same place.  It could be that the original wood is not available anymore.  But the building will appear and feel the same, inside and out.  It will be the American-English neighbor.  And the English reader can enter with their key and experience the same mood as inside the original house – experience the same rooms, the dimensions, the decor, the usefulness and the whimsy.  It takes an enormous amount of work  to replicate literature, of course, not unlike building a house.  And not just to build it, but also to find people who will come and enter, and stay for a while.

February 20, 2015


An extraordinary new review and contextualization of Passionate Nomads

Passionate NomadsThis has been an uncommonly good week for my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s La pasión de los nómades (Passionate Nomads, Aliform Publications, 2011). First Janek Pytalski’s generous and passionate review for Three Percent, the Open Letters Books blog for translation reviews (1/23/14 posting); and now Lucina Schell’s remarkably thorough, nuanced, and well-researched review at her Reading in Translation blog. Click on the following link to read what she wrote:   http://readingintranslation.com/2014/01/27/passionate-nomads-by-maria-rosa-lojo-translated-by-brett-alan-sanders/

One delight in reading Lucina’s review is her contextualization of the novel in relation to Eva Gillies’s translation of Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1997). Her close reading of María Rosa’s text in my translation and of Mansilla’s in Eva’s translation allow her to point out how pertinent both of those Argentine books are to our own sad history of conquest and genocide in these United States of America. That is a point that perhaps I have not made well enough myself, and I am indebted to Lucina for making it so well for me.

ProductImageHandler[1]It was Eva Gillies, incidentally (I wrote to her after encountering her remarkable translation of Mansilla’s work, which I had been working at translating myself), who put me in touch with María Rosa, telling me that she had a book in need of a translator. This was around the year 2000; some other time, perhaps, I will share my essay “In Search of Dorotea Bazán” (published previously online in New Works Review and later in River Walk Journal, at its editor’s invitation) which relates this story in more detail. But the short of it is that I did translate María Rosa’s Mansillan novel, among other of her work, and that both she and Eva helped me critique and refine my own Mansillan novella called, in the version that was eventually published, A Bride Called Freedom (Ediciones Nuevo Espacio, 2003; in a bilingual edition with Sebastián Bekes’s Spanish-language translation).

Eva, who died two years ago this month, became a close friend and mentor and I owe to her much of my early progress as a literary translator. It must have been around August of 2002 or 2003 that she visited me and Anita in Tell City, Indiana. The new school year had just started and she was my guest in my high-school English and Spanish classes, where she spoke about her experience in Asia and Africa as both an anthropologist and an interpreter. And about her Buenos Aires childhood: she was the daughter of a German man and a Jewish-Argentine mother; born in Germany in 1930 and left there with her parents when her father determined that Hitler was not going to go away any time soon; then, during the Perón years in Argentina, went to study in England where she ended up spending much of her adult life.

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

Eva Gillies in Córdoba, Argentina, July 2005

On Saturday after her classroom visit, my wife Anita and I traveled with her to neighboring New Harmony, Indiana where in the 19th century two different utopian communities flourished, one religious and the other not so much. Later, at the end of June and beginning of July 2005, we met up again with María Rosa in the city and province of Córdoba, Argentina. There the two of them were keynote speakers at a historical conference on Lucio Mansilla and his sister Eduarda, and I was invited to read a passage from Sebastián’s translation of my novella. Before that weekend I was fortunate to spend time with Sebastián and his family in Concordia, Entre Ríos and also with María Rosa and her charming family in the suburban Buenos Aires neighborhood of Castelar. (It was also in Córdoba that I met María Gabriela Mizraje, who gave a brilliant presentation on Mansilla and whose fiction I recently published in The Antigonish Review.)

51EitcgLwIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Just recently I received word that Eva’s book The Memoirs of Eva Gillies: An Interpreter at Large, is now on sale at amazon.com. I was privileged, before her death, to read and help proofread her draft manuscript. I have ordered my copy of the finished product, which after I read it again will go on my shelf beside her husband Mick Gillies’s memoir (Mayfly on the Stream of Time); he had recently died when I initially wrote to Eva to compliment her Mansilla translation, to share a copy of my little chapbook Quixotics, and to ask her to read 411l+0KHR2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]my own Mansillan manuscript. One of the most important letters I ever wrote. (Mick Gillies, by the way, was an entomologist who spent a fair amount of his time in Africa working on the problem of mosquitoes and malaria. His charming memoir includes an account of his trip with Eva to Argentina in the 1990s. The picture at right is a later edition of his book – with a new subtitle – from the edition that presently rests on my shelf.)

To return to the subject of Lucina’s review of Passionate Nomads (and, tangentiallly, of Eva’s translation of Mansilla, who plays the male lead in María Rosa’s novel), I couldn’t have asked for a better or more thorough critique. I hope that you, my readers, will enjoy reading it and that it will move you, if you haven’t already, to purchase a copy of the book and read it too. It is a book that, as Janek and Lucina help make the case in their different ways, richly deserves a much wider readership in the English language. Thank you for any efforts you might make to further spread the word.

New Publication and Review

Passionate NomadsToday a new review of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publishing, 2011) is up at Open Letter Books’s “Three Percent”  blog for reviews of literary translations. It is written by Janek Pytalski, whom I met at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in Bloomington, Indiana in October. After attending my reading from the original Spanish text and English-language translation, he was enthusiastic enough that he purchased a copy so he could get on with the pleasurable business of reading. Click on the following link to read his review: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=9332 And if you like it please be so kind as to share with others on your mailing list who might be interested as well.

Also my translation “Pearls Before Swine,” of a short story by Sebastian R. Bekes (who previously translated my novella A Bride Called Freedom into Spanish), was published at the end of December in Rosebud. I was likewise pleased to see some poems by Zimbabwean author Tendai Mwanaka, whose collection of stories Keys in the River I reviewed in my September 26, 2012 blog. The poems are from his collection Voices from Exile (Lapwing Publications, 2010). Rosebud has long been publishing some of the freshest and most reader-friendly prose and poetry in the world of literary magazines; I encourage you to visit their site and, if you enjoy good reading, pick up a copy. Visit my newly updated Links page to link to their website.

Most of the other pages are updated as well, including the Publishing History main page and “Book Excerpts” sub-page where you can read a sample of Passionate Nomads.  Aliform Publishing’s link is on that main page as well as on the Links page and accompanying the review at Three Percent. Under Publishing History on the “Writing and Translation Samples” sub-page (not yet updated) you can still scroll down for another story by Sebastián.

I was sad to see on the Three Percent site that the Argentine poet Juan Gelman, whose book I reviewed in my last posting, died early this year at the age of 83.

On Reading Juan Gelman’s Poetry

Dark_Times_cvr_large[1]Note: I have decided to take the following review verbatim from my personal journal, so pardon its rawness; also pardon  the misalignment of lines that should be indented in the excerpt from “Watching People Walk Along.” Since writing this I have researched a bit more about Gelman’s life, but rather than add information or clarifications I will leave you, gentle reader, with the impressions of the moment. For further review of his work I refer you to Lucina Schell’s excellent review at her Reading in Translation blog (www.readingintranslation.com).

Friday, December 6

Dark Times Filled With Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman. Translated by Hardie St. Martin. 2012. Rochester, NY: Open Letter. 187 pages.

Simply stated, some of the most significant and remarkable poetry that I have read in my life: and to think that, though I had heard his name, before now I scarcely knew he existed! Frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature, I can’t imagine anyone who more deserves it. He is Argentine, like Borges who was also frequently mentioned for it but passed over – perhaps for the unfortunate decision to accept an honor from the Chilean dictator Pinochet. Gelman is significantly further to the left, and after the “disappearance” in 1976 of his son and pregnant daughter-in-law – victims of Argentina’s triumvirate of military dictators – he became an exile himself and remained out of the country for many years. In 2000 he finally located his graddaughter who had been given to supporters of the regime in Uruguay. What a terrible thing to have to suffer! But as he said (quoted in Paul Pines’s introduction): “There are losses. The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.”

Juan Gelman

Juan Gelman

In respect to the “equipment for living” metaphor, Gelman’s equipment is of the best. Burke would probably have considered him a good and eloquent Marxist, though I don’t know if he was ever a member of the Communist Party. But his poems are full of references to fallen “compañeros” and “comrades,” to images of struggle and defeat and hopes of future victory. As early as 1961, he uses the word “revolution”:

… we make our way back to the fire, the anger, the injustice

after making love.


In this city moaning like a madwoman

love quietly counts

the birds that died fighting the cold,

the jails, the kisses, the loneliness, the days

still left before the revolution. (“Winter,” p. 16)

This selection contains work from well over twenty collectons, with sometimes as few as one representative and as many as fourteen, written between 1956 and 1992. The single representative from the first, “Watching People Walk Along,” from Violin and Other Questions, is a stunning opening poem: I sat here and read it over and over, pronouncing each word aloud, savoring it, deeply moved. He speaks early on of “watching / people weep in the most hidden corners / of the soul and still be able / to laugh and walk with dignity.” At the end he gives us these wonderfully bracing and poignant lines:

I tell them,

it’s beautiful to walk along with you

I tell them, it’s beautiful, what a great mystery

to live treated like dirt

yet sing and laugh,

how strange! (p. 5)

The book’s beautiful title comes from the collection Facts (1974-78), the poem “Things They Don’t Know,” which begins thus:

dark times / filled with light / the sun

spreads sunlight over the city split

by sudden sirens / the police hunt goes on / night falls and we’ll

make love under this roof … (p. 70)

It appears to be in this collection that he began using the slashes within lines of verse (in the short excerpt above, from “Watching …,” I have inserted the slashes as per standard practice to indicate line breaks).

Among the book’s most moving sections (out of so many affecting poems in each excerpted collection!) are Open Letter, 1980, which is dedicated to his son:

Crestfallen my burning soul

dips a finger in your name / scrawls

your name on the night’s walls /

soul to soul it looks at you / becomes a child /

opens its breast to take you in /

protect you / reunite you / undie you / (“Crestfallen My Burning Soul,” p. 81)

and Com / Positions, which takes its inspiration from 10th and 11th-century Sephardic poets (he has Jewish ancestry). “i call the following poems com / positions,” he writes in the opening “Exergue,” “because i’ve com / posed them, in other words, put my own things in texts great poets wrote years ago…. their vision of exile shook me up and i added – or changed, went through, offered – the things i myself felt …” In the second stanza / paragraph he continues: “in any case i talked with them, as they did with me from the dust of their bones and the radiance of their words….” And in the third (of five): “such is the mystery of the human word. it has its origin, whatever the language, in the same flight between darkness and light and thus it consubstantiates them: its light is dark, its darkness bright….” (p. 153). I will cite the last four lines (of ten) in the poem called “The Moment,” whose subject I would say is evanescence (I think of The Tale of Genji):

in this world this hour alone is mine /

this now that i am /

shows its face and

like a cloud / passes on (p. 161).

He cites in attribution of source / inspiration poet Samuel Hanagid (993-1056, Córdoba-Granada-the battlefield). In the next poem, also inspired by the same poet, this closing statement about the lust for war, a theme I wish our nation of leaders and patriots would ponder:

my men laughed at life / at death /

each wound on their faces a crown /

oh young lions /

to die /

they believed / is to keep the faith /

and to live without faith / they thought / against the rules /

(“Moments During the Battle of Alfuente,” p. 162).

There is so much more that I could cite, but I am running out of pages in this journal and I imagine that what I have already cited and said will do enough for a sampling and a response. I have never read verses that have affected me more profoundly.


imagesSFFRY0NP12/9/13: I have myself never belonged to the Communist Party or any officially Marxist organization, but I did make the painful migration from my conservative Republican upbringing to the “radical” left wing of the Democratic Party – even voted twice for the “socialist” Barack Obama! And, yes, I sympathize with Marxist ideals, if not with the excesses of some of its proponents and practitioners.

Anyway, I have just finished reading the December 9, 2013 issue of The Nation and, in particular, Sophie Pinkham’s review of some works by and about Victor Serge (in particular Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which I think I want to read). “From a socialist perspective,” Pinkham writes, “Serge represents the path not taken, the democratic revolution that never was.”

I think that something like that was going on in Chile, with Salvador Allende’s democratic election, until Pinochet (with the aid and counsel of our CIA) murdered him and overthrew that government. I remember reading Allende’s niece Isabel Allende’s novel La casa de los espíritus (The House of Spirits), which included some horrifying description of a conservative anti-democratic revolution very closely modeled on Pinochet’s historical one. I have since read nonfictional accounts that closely mirror her fictional one. I was shocked at the time by the political sabotage that went on, before the coup, with the clear intention of destabilization of Allende’s government: the image from the novel that still stands out in my mind is of perfectly good food rotting in store windows because the interests of wealth refused to sell it at a price that the working class could afford.

I have often thought of that when I hear people say that “Socialism” has been discredited and that Capitalism represents the “best of all possible worlds.” And I have thought about it throughout Obama’s years in the White House as Republicans in Congress have openly sought the destruction of his agenda, with dishonest epithets with Marxist and Racist overtones.

And while in my dark moods I often despair of our ever overcoming the deep-seated American assumptions that keep us from a humane and rational blend of capitalistic and socialistic economic strategies (I have always been of a melancholic temperament), every now and then there is still a glimmer of hope: whether it is Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in NYC, or Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to make Wall Street honest, or any number of little signs of populist / progressivist activity.

In the spirit of that hope I modestly say: ¡Viva la revolución democrática! May it be resounding, aggressive, and peaceful.  

Why read work in translation?

978-0-7864-2386-6[1]At the ALTA conference in Bloomington last month I attended a session with translator Anne Fountain, who presented on the Versos Sencillos (or “Simple Verses,” as often translated) of José Martí. More specifically, she addressed the benefits of using multiple English-language versions of a literary text in order to teach students about the complex choices involved in bringing that or any text over from one language to another. Professor Fountain, who directs the Latin American Studies program at San José State University in San José, California, is a native of Argentina whose professional focus has been on Cuban literature. I came away from the conference with her very elegant translation of Martí’s most famous work in McFarland & Company’s 2005 “dual-language edition.”

Even if Martí’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, there is more than a reasonable chance that you have heard at least a portion of his verse – particularly if you are over forty or fifty years old, or if you have ever studied Spanish in high school. If you are familiar with the folk song called “Guantanamera,” then you might know that its verses consist of a more-or-less random (and varied) sampling of stanzas from Martí’s poems. Growing up in the Sixties I heard the Smothers Brothers perform it on their variety show and have since heard it performed by Joan Baez and undoubtedly others. This edition contains a brief foreword by folk icon Pete Seeger who is principally responsible for the song’s diffusion beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While I am now retired from classroom teaching, I taught the song to my high-school Spanish classes for some twenty years (in southern Indiana) and even presented it, during my first year of teaching, to my English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in Houston, Texas. If I didn’t fully grasp the power of those verses beforehand, I did after I had presented it to those mostly Mexican American students. Teaching in an urban junior high school was a kind of trial by fire for this slow-talking, slow-thinking Midwestern boy and to say that I encountered some discipline problems and youthful resistance would be an understatement. But when I played that song on my guitar, one of the boys who up to that point had tried me the most moved up beside me and listened with a rapt attention. Afterwards he went home and told his parents that, you know, that Mr. Sanders isn’t such a bad fellow after all, that he’s even surprisingly human. I wish I could say that with that gesture I was immediately transformed into another Jaime Escalante (super-teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver), but that would be something of an overstatement. Still, the episode is illustrative of the power of Martí’s poetry to win hearts and move souls.

Here, without the music, are Martí’s verses from the version that I taught, first in the original Spanish and then in Fountain’s excellent translations:

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crece la palma,

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma.

(A sincere man am I

Born where the palm trees grow,

And I long before I die

My soul’s verses to bestow.)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmín encendido:

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo.

(My verse is a gentle green

And is fiery red in part

In the forest refuge seen,

My verse is the wounded hart.)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar:

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace más que el mar.

(With the poor ones of this earth

I’ll cast my destiny:

The mountain stream is worth

Much more than the mighty sea.)

The very colorful cover illustration shows Martí walking amidst woods and flowers, with a white horse behind and a wounded deer at his side: Donde el verso es un ciervo herido (Where the Verse is a Wounded Deer), 1996, by the artist Adigio Benítez Jimeno. The title is drawn from the second of the verses cited above, in which the generic “deer” is substituted with the rhyming (and synonymous) “hart.”

To touch briefly on the question of Professor Fountain’s topic, it is a popular assumption that if you’ve seen one translation you’ve seen them all. Isn’t it just a matter of taking the precisely corresponding word in the second language and substituting it for the foreign word? To be brief, no. Even when both translators are competent and careful, differences will appear and each may convey a slightly different nuance, sometimes even a different interpretation altogether. The problem is worse when the translation is done hastily or without attention to detail: beware, in particular, translations found on the average Internet site, which may be particularly bad.

That, of course, is a larger topic, and is perhaps best illustrated by other examples from the text, but the crucial educational point is that the translation / translator does / do matter. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the best are objects to be treasured. For a closer look at the topic of literary translation I would recommend Lucina Schell’s excellent site at www.readingintranslation.com. Even if you aren’t a translator, you might learn something. I am a new visitor myself and have particularly enjoyed her essay on the art of the translator’s introduction.

But my topic is more general: why bother to read work in translation at all? I will not cite the ugly statistics, but we English-speakers in the United States are particularly unlikely to read work originally written in other languages. Though there is a lot of effort being made in particular by small presses and literary translators to bring a greater trove of translated work to the public’s attention. (I have myself recently been reading work translated from German and Polish, two languages that I can’t read in the original, though I am of German ancestry.)

images[2]Anyway, as I was reading Martí’s brief prologue, it occurred to me that one important reason is that we need more perspectives on the world than the very limited and even myopic ones that we get from what passes as a national discourse on foreign and even domestic policy (immigration, anyone?). To broaden our perspective is to add to our “equipment for living,” to use Kenneth Burke’s phrase which is by now at least passingly familiar to readers of this blog. A person (or a people; or a nation) with only one perspective is sadly ill-equipped for the complexities of life in an increasingly interdependent world.

And who better to illustrate the principle, it occurred to me, than Martí, who is universally beloved and respected for his humane verses and struggle for freedom – and who, as a journalist who lived several years in the United States, was a perceptive and friendly interpreter of American affairs and life to his Latin American compatriots.

Which is not to say that he was always an approving observer of gringo society and politics. It was with a worried heart over U.S. efforts to purchase Cuba from Spain, thus subverting to our own ends his people’s struggle for their own independence, that he accepted his doctor’s advice to take a vacation to New York’s Catskill Mountains where he wrote these poems full of reverence for his own land and people – this in 1890, five years before his dying in that struggle in an exchange of fire with Spanish troops.

When he wrote those verses, as we read in his prologue, during “that winter of anguish in which because of ignorance, blind faith, fear, or simple courtesy, the Spanish American nations gathered in Washington under the shield of the fearsome eagle” (he alludes to the Pan American Conference of 1889 in Washington D. C.), he was deeply worried about U.S. involvement in Latin America’s affairs. “Who among us,” he continues, “has forgotten that shield, an emblem on which the eagle of Monterrey and Chapultepec … clutched the flags of the nations of the Americas in its talons?”

The allusion to Monterrey and Chapultepec is to the Mexican War which we fought between 1846 and 1848, during the Presidency of James K. Polk who was anxious to annex what are now our Western states by fair means or foul. As the Spanish American War turned out, while we didn’t get Cuba we did Puerto Rico, among other possessions. Certainly Martí had cause to worry, since our motives and interests were clearly not of a wholly altruistic nature.

Now, today we may argue that those Western states are much better off than had they continued belonging to troubled Mexico. Though it should be noted that one of our most fiercely independent-minded American writers of the day, Henry David Thoreau, wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in protest of that war which he rightly saw as a war of American aggression against a weaker neighbor – and he went proudly to jail for refusing to pay his war tax.

And while we may argue that Cuba would have been better off with us than under the rule, first, of the tyrant Batista, and then of the Communist tyrant Castro, we will never know how the extremes of Castro’s rule might have been moderated if his movement hadn’t from the outset been threatened by the out-sized power and bellicose threats of its neighbor to the north, who even tried to assassinate him.

Regardless of how individually we might feel about those questions, to me it seems inarguably true that we can scarcely have a meaningful and productive dialogue with other nations or people if it has never even occurred to us that they might view things from a different perspective than we do. And that they might not always look kindly on our efforts, whether real or perceived, to enforce our will on them by military or economic fiat. And (gasp!) that they might have a point: that we could even be wrong, now and then.

None of which is to argue that the United States is the Great Satan, but it could certainly do us good to have a better sense of how the rest of the world perceives us – often for good, but sometimes not so much so. And not without reason, more often than many of us care to admit.

Thus, I would argue, one very practical reason for reading in translation. It equips us to live better and more wisely in a world of varying perspectives, no one of them wholly valid in isolation. Not even ours.


Of course, another reason for reading Martí in translation is for the same reason that people have read and loved him throughout the Spanish-speaking world for over a century: for the sheer pleasure of it, which (with the related concept of beauty) is its own kind of equipment for confronting the sometimes cruel vicissitudes of life. Martí himself, for instance, speaks in one of these poems of the “sweet consolation of verse” (dulce consuelo); and in another he writes, as Professor Fountain translates: “You, poem, are the poet’s friend” – and likewise the reader’s, I like to think.

 I must tell you that, if you are looking to explore these verses on your own, the McFarland edition may seem a bit over-priced at just under $40 for the paper edition. This was also the case when some years ago I purchased my friend Julie Sellers’s delightful book Merengue and Dominican Identity: Music as National Unifier. McFarland does have an impressive list and bills itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books,” so I suppose their marketing plan is aimed at universities and libraries and that they are thus able to take on projects that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.

1073063[1]If you can’t buy it for yourself, anyway, you might suggest that your local library purchase it. But also there is another edition from the Arte Público Press, by the Cuban American translator Manuel A. Tellechea, that is aimed at young readers and much more modestly priced. I do not have that version available and have not made a comparative study of the translations, though I am familiar with the press and it is extremely reputable.

Report from Schweitzer Fest

DoroteaAt the end of my last posting I announced that I would be at the market place at the Schweitzer Fest in Tell City selling and signing books. I am pleased to report that I did sell several copies of my Young Adult novella A Bride Called Freedom and of my translation of María Rosa Lojo’s amazing historical-fantasy novel Passionate Nomads. I also sold or gave away (with other purchases) a few copies of my Passionate Nomadschapbook Quixotics (pronounce: Quick-SOT-ics) with my poetic paragraphs on the subject of Cervantes’s masterpiece and my favorite book Don Quixote. Thanks to all who visited, even if only to converse or carry off a business card. I hope you enjoy the site. By the way, there are samples of each of the above-mentioned works under “Publishing History” and of Nomads in an earlier blog posting.

Following are some of my personal highlights of the festival:

 On the first evening I learned that a fellow teacher and writer – Eddie Price, from just across the Ohio River in Hawesville, Kentucky – was also present selling his historical novel Widder’s Landing. A novel of life in Kentucky around the time of the War of 1812, it comes in an attractive hardcover edition from the Acclaim Press in Missouri (www.acclaimpress.com). Anyway, I left my daughter Stephanie in charge of my booth for a few moments and walked down the row of vendors to introduce myself and propose a trade. The author is an amiable fellow and award-winning teacher who formerly taught history to Stephanie’s wife Rachel at Hancock County High School just outside of Hawesville. We did make a trade and I look forward to reading his novel, though I may be kept from it for awhile by other projects. It looks interesting, anyway, and I have a feeling that it may do as much for Kentucky as Carol Buchanan’s extremely adept historical novel God’s Thunderbolt did for Montana – I had the privilege of working with Carol on a related project during my brief stint as managing editor at New Works Review.

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

The author at Schweitzer Fest 2013

Another acquaintance happily made was with a bright young eighth-grader named Inca and both of her parents, who hail from The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee and were neighbor vendors of mine. It was from them that I bought the new floppy hat (similar to the kind of hat I used to wear in my distant youth) in which I am pictured here in the photo my son Jonathan shot. Among the subjects of my conversation with Inca, as she examined a copy of Nomads with a particularly wistful expression, was the dullness of standard textbooks and how a book such as she was holding would enliven the study of history. And with her mother, Amy, the desperate need in our American culture for a broadening of perspective such as might be acquired from the reading of more literature in translation from other languages and countries.

 Amy took away an extra of my cards to pass on to her friends at The Book Publishing Company at The Farm (https://bookpubco.com/), some of whose publishing interests might overlap with some of my own. My perusal of their site today reveals, also, a strong emphasis on healthy-living topics which might be of particular interest to some of my readers. But I was especially drawn to their Native Voices series for young readers and in particular a title (which I ordered) called Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends of Life, by Stan Padilla. My interest in that title, and in the beautiful cover illustration of a Yaqui deer dancer, stems from the fact that the Young Adult novel I am presently writing contains a first chapter that is called “Deer Dancer” and is inspired by a Mexican Folkloric Ballet presentation of that beautiful dance-as-ritual (or ritual-as-dance?).

HT-cover-Psalm-147-3[1] The other highlight I will mention is my conversation with Rhonda Patterson of the organization Hearts for Africa (www.hearts4africa.us), whose aim is to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking – about 80% of which involves sexual exploitation, in particular, of young women. It should be noted that this is hardly just a Third World problem but one that affects a startling number of girls in the United States – and not just runaways, as is sometimes reported, but often perfectly well-adjusted and academically successful young women whose greatest error is naively trusting the smooth-talking individuals (including women) who befriend and gradually lure them into the situations that end in their being enslaved for purposes of the creation of pornography or prostitution.

 In the group’s efforts to raise awareness among those who might become targets of such abuse, as well as to aid those who have been victimized and rescued, Hearts for Africa is selling some very nice jewelry, bags, and clothing that is obtained from the organization Fair Trade or made by former victims of this devastating modern form of slavery. Anyone interested in learning more about the organization’s educational services or in helping out in any way should certainly visit their very attractive website.


I should also mention the hard work of Anita, my lovely wife, in raising funds again for the Alzheimer’s Association. The group she has led for the past few years is named Kroessman’s Krusaders for my grandmother Mary Kroessman who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Thanks also to the local artists who contributed original work to help in that effort.

Language and Propaganda

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some time ago I read a novel by German writer Günter Grass called (in translation) Crabwalk. Without going into any more detail than the present point requires, it is concerned with historical resentments still present beneath the surface of German society decades after World War II. Part of Grass’s rhetorical point is that when we suppress such resentments they don’t just go away. And if the circumstances that feed the resentments aren’t openly discussed and dealt with, they do more than just not go away – as evident in the resurgence of racist and xenophobic ideology associated with Naziism.

At the risk of over-generalization, I think it fair to say that we have a similar problem in the United States with racial resentments stemming at least indirectly from the Civil War – perhaps more directly from the Civil Rights Era, whose great achievement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is presently under assault by what I consider a highly regrettable Supreme Court decision and the subsequent frenzy of efforts by state legislatures to press forward in recent efforts (exhaustively well-documented in relation to at least the past two Presidential election cycles) to suppress the minority vote.

Now before I go further in this direction let me just point out, as seems appropriate enough in an essay (as my title suggests) on language and propaganda, that already I have revealed a propagandistic bent to today’s writing. In my defense, before the potentially antagonistic reader jumps ship, let me cite a couple of authorities on the subject of language and rhetoric.

First Richard Weaver, who argues that “language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching” (from his essay “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook, 1994, edited by Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown).

And then Kenneth Burke, who writing (in 1926 in The Southern Review) of the proletarian strand in early 20th-century American literature speaks favorably of the sort of propaganda that neither preaches to the choir nor cynically manipulates the reader but instead attempts – “with the more ambiguous talents of the diplomat” – to persuade the reader toward a broader perspective or attitude.

He makes this point in relation to Robert Cantwell’s short story “Hills Around Centralia,” which he offers as “a good example of a crucial propaganda situation embodied imaginatively.” The story, Burke writes, “is based upon the poignancy of the Crucifixion theme (the ‘benefactor’ persecuted as ‘malefactor’). Irony of clashing moralities. The author ‘weights’ his material propagandistically by showing us, first, the morality of the vigilantes in action, and then slowly widening our conception of the total scene by a sympathetic portrait of the strikers. Tactfully, he permits us to see how the interests of the vigilantes have led them to misinterpret the nature of a riot, while their grip upon the channels of education and publicity serves to shape ‘neutral’ opinions in their favor. The opposing worlds (of vigilantes and strikers) are eventually ‘synthetized’ by a bridge device, being brought together when some impressionable boys, who had been bewilderedly subjected to the vigilante view, come upon two strikers hiding in the woods (overtones of the ‘little child shall lead them’ theme). The author’s choice of sides is made atop the ironic, the relativistic – hence, ‘propaganda’ in the fullest sense, because [it is] profoundly humane. Strict ‘proletarian’ morality could not be so ‘shifty.’ It would be pitted squarely against the enemy. But the farthest-reaching propaganda (as a device for appealing to the enemy, and not merely organizing his opposition by the goads of absolute antithesis) requires the more ambiguous talents of the diplomant (who talks to an alien camp in behalf of his own camp.)” (from his review “Symbolic War,” in Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke, 2010, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber).

To return to my earlier point, the fact that I would “propagandize” about the issue of civil rights and the recent Supreme Court decision does not automatically suggest something ham-fisted or nefarious. We all propagandize, or “sermonize,” whenever we address matters of any emotional significance to us and to those we address.

Race in America

Race in America

I come to these thoughts, anyway, in the broader context of my recent comment on the Trayvon Martin verdict (and a subsequent exchange of emails with an old friend and reader). And more immediately in the context of an article from yesterday’s Evansville Courier & Press and an editorial from my local Perry County News – each one of which has some bearing on these particular issues.

The headline of the AP report in the Courier & Press reads: “4 out of 5 adults struggle in poverty”; and the subtitle: “Hardships soar in whites.” The editorial in the local paper addresses the “controversy” over a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family.

Within the AP report itself comes the clarification that these four-fifths of U.S. adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives” (italics mine), which still is evidence of increasing economic insecurity, the erosion of the American dream, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in this nation. But it also speaks, I think, to the relationship between economic insecurity and the incidence of racial animus and tensions. Because I can’t help but think that the two phenomena are to some degree connected.

It is a curious paradox that in this supposedly “post-racial” era of the Obama Presidency we have experienced such an upsurge in the incidence of white supremacist and other hate groups. And even among the vast majority of generally peaceable Americans there arises a sort of passively violent undercurrent to the emotionality of our response to someone’s pointing out the constant spector of racial profiling that people of color face, and which only exacerbates the perception of a judicial system that is weighted against them – even despite all the obvious gains that have been made since 1965 (though the Supreme Court decision reminds us of how easily even the most dramatic of those gains can be eroded).

A truly Burkean response in fiction to all the partisan feeling of those on the Zimmerman side of the Trayvon Martin debate – a response that is propagandistic in the fullest and most humane sense as Burke defines it – would have to somehow get beneath the layers of fact and (mis)perception to reveal the complexities and the humanity beneath the headlines of black-on-black violence and the much-touted decay of the black American family which are inevitably trotted out as at least partial justification for the reckless behavior that led to that tragic shooting.

As to what shape such a story might take, I can’t really say. Though I have, over the years, made some attempts of the sort. The closest to the present theme is a story called “Little White Sambo,” which after countless drafts and re-drafts ended up very obscurely published in an online venue called River Walk Journal. Though from a perspective necessarily outside that of the black community itself, and only tangentially related to the present circumstance, it does have something of the “little child shall lead them” theme that Burke mentioned. It is a not-too-loosely autobiographical account of my own fairly parochial experience of growing racial awareness.

In the opening sequence I play off an early childhood memory of fever dreams in which I am eternally chased by a tiger which I am certain is going to eat me. That experience is clearly enough connected, in real life as in fiction, to the parallel experiences of being read the Black Sambo story as a child and of eating (this being the early Sixties) at a restaurant called Sambo’s.

In the central sequence my fictional counterpart has moved on from kindergarten to fourth grade and spends a year in a Southern state. At his new school he makes a “best friend” of a black classmate and then naively invites him to spend the night at his house. But is is told that such things are not done there; and in the next scene, surrounded on the schoolbus by threatening white kids “who have been unfavorably noticing this unusual relationship,” he begins to understand why.

In the third and final sequence my only slightly less naive protagonist is in junior high and back in the North where he has been warned away – by a distinctly less friendly black boy – from daring show his face at the basketball game that evening (“Stay home, Little White Sambo, Melvin practically says to him, or I’ll eat you right up”). Stubbornly he goes anyway and the kid keeps his promise and beats him up. But vengeful thoughts are themselves beaten off – as befits my propagandistic need of the moment to transcend that very real violence – by a hallucinatory vision (of the absent boy’s face interposed on the antagonist’s) that descends on him just before and then during the actual beating:

“But it’s as if everything is happening far away from Joey. For this moment it seems that  the anger and fear is all slipping away from him as he has been starting to think it never would. He imagines a soothing presence. The touch of his mother’s hand against his face. His friend Clarence’s voice. He allows himself to believe that the throbbing he’s just now feeling is what’s really being dreamed. That in the morning, after they’re finally done with him, everything will be safe and fine. But of course he’ll have come back to himself long before then.”

By that final sentence, with its apparent negation of the happy vision of peace and harmony, I acknowledge the story’s (and life’s) hard physical reality without denying the idealized hope for transcendence.

imagesCAL06F4WPerhaps someone else can come up with an example more adequate than my poor effort to the present circumstance. But in any case the challenge remains of putting it in the hands of those of the “enemy” camp who might still be persuaded by our literary rhetorics. As polarized as our national dialogue has become, the conjuring of such a persuadable audience often seems more fantastic than Joey’s hallucination.

But try we must. Strive on …


By the way, anyone of my readers who might happen to be in the area of Tell City, Indiana between Wednesday, August 7 and Saturday, August 10 are invited to look for me at the Schweitzer Fest flea market on Town Hall square where I will have copies of my published books (my original historical novella – A Bride Called Freedom – and two works of literary translation) for purchase and signing. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new acquaintances.