I am currently translating (for publication in autumn by Calque Press, which is a publishing house that my wife and I are setting up in the UK; more details here) Sonia Bueno’s amazing poetry collection Aral, which is set in large and in part around the dying Aral Sea, the Sea of Islands, a lake whose waters were in the twentieth century diverted and misspent in a Soviet attempt to irrigate the desert and boost Uzbek cotton production. It’s a moving, oblique set of poems, in which the inner desert mirrors the outer one: a book you have to read ‘closing your eyes, so the dust doesn’t get in them‘. It is also, clearly, very difficult to translate. Here’s the last poem in the collection.
This is a relatively simple one, as these things go. It’s not one of the poems that makes extensive use of puns, for which many thanks: I’ve been going over the first phrase of the first poem in the book, luz arada, or ‘ploughed light’, for a while now, trying to get the half-play on ‘Aral’ contained in arada across into English; at the moment ‘harrowed light’ is my preferred option, but that might change.
The words aren’t really the complicated part of this poem: literally, the translation runs ‘ghosts. | sailors | of cotton. | ghosts.’ Nothing to frighten the horses.
But beyond that, the question even of something so apparently simple as layout is vexing me. Sonia Bueno (ah, she’s a friend, let’s just call her Sonia) uses the space on the page in a complex and sophisticated fashion, isolating words and turning the poems into something that might be seen as (not to be too wanky) sculptural. Here, for instance, the grammar of the middle sentence of the poem is brought into question by the fact that the sailors are set further to the right than the adjective describing them.
I don’t like the word ‘of’ in poems all that much, and ‘cotton sailors’ sounds much more effective to me than ‘sailors of cotton’, but I want if possible to keep the sailors on the right. So what do I do? The options I’m playing with are, schematically, the following; all of them seem to have some degree of legitimacy to them. Ah well, it’s better than working. This may be the first book that I translate directly into the layout.