N.B. We are pleased to be digitally republishing this chapbook (seen in photos below) with the permission of the publisher, authors, and translators. Hunger to Hunger was originally published in August 2012 by Aureole Press at the University of Toledo in a limited edition of 75 copies. It was printed on a Vandercook Simple Precision-15 press and features a unique multi-signature, tri-fold design, Mohawk Superfine papers, and Tiziano wrap-around covers. To purchase a fine press edition and learn more about Aureole Press, click here. –The Editors
for Chris, who opened the door
Poems don’t begin. Poems continue.
A poet may sit with pen and paper, or a blue-faced computer screen, and write that first word, but spinning in the poet’s head is a symphony of sounds and impulses, and preceding that first textual mark is a whole history of previous uses of that “first” word.
There are words before the first word. There are vast libraries before that first word.
Where does a poem begin? Each poem commences, has already commenced, in previous poems, just as it commences in a poet’s imagination as a poem—as an impulse to be written—as a poem with a lexicon and all its formal, artful possibilities waiting and stewing and sorting. Poems continue from that already-begun, never-finished set of words and ideas and impulses.
The question of literary translation is equally evasive. Is it good to translate a poem from one language to another? Is it possible? Is it folly? Yes, of course, is the answer. It is also, of course, necessary, for how would we have Sappho or Wang Wei without the nearly impossible act of translation? How would we have one human being’s essence, regardless of the language of origin and the lapses of time and place, without that leap of faith connecting one imagination with another, one set of human experiences with another?
Our great poet and translator, W. S. Merwin identifies this conundrum in his introduction to Selected Translations 1968-1978: “The whole practice is based on paradox: wanting the original leads us to want a translation. And the very notion of making or using a translation implies that it will not and cannot be the original. It must be something else. The original assumes the status of an impossible ideal. . . . ”
To speak is to translate. Every word, every phrase, every poem is a translation of experience and imagination—the past and the present—into something more and something less than the speaker intended.
Rather than wring my hands at the fallacy of beginning a poem and the futility of translating it, I have imagined the present project as a hearty embrace of the problems. In fact, they are not problems at all but paradoxes, as Merwin says, fruitful and inevitable paradoxes.
The idea is simple: take a poem, in this case “Hungry,” which I wrote in 2008, and ask someone to translate that English poem into another language, in this case Romanian. Why Romanian? Because my friend Chris Tanasescu and I have talked a long time about poetry, and because he is a gifted poet and translator, and because his first language is Romanian. In fact, Chris translated a hefty selection of my poems into Romanian and in 2009 we published that book, Omul Alchimic (Alchemical Man) with Vinea Press in Bucharest.
So I asked Chris to translate “Hungry,” and his work resulted in “Foame.” Chris’s “Foame” is a translation of my “Hungry” but it is also its own poem.
But what if—I wondered—we pushed harder? What if we went back and forth between English and Romanian, translation to translation, each iteration produced by a different poet-translator? American English is young, a mutt, deriving from so many other languages, though slightly more from Germanic bases than elsewhere, and Romanian is an ancient language, Latinate with heavy doses of Slavic influences. In one email Sean Cotter identified further aspects of cultural slippage: “[this] poem would be difficult to imagine a Romanian poet writing, with its calm detachment and system of streets and yards.” From tone to landscape, literal meaning to colloquial idiom, the embedded assumptions and the translators’ choices are fraught with difficulty. It’s like a game of literary telephone, one said; another said we could go on like this forever.
I have stopped at an English version in order to compare this “last” poem most easily with the “first.” That is, I decided to have one iteration for each line of the original poem—or nearly so, stopping one poem short, for reasons that you’ll see as you finish.
Some of the translators are acquaintances of mine or people whose work I knew already; some are suggestions of Chris’s or of other friends. In each case the invitation to participate in this project was simple: translate the poem I send you into English, or Romanian. I invited each translator (or translator team) to be as literal with the story, meaning, idiom, tropes, and formal concerns—or as free—as he or she wished. I hoped only that each iteration would be a coherent poem on its own merit. I knew that each iteration would evolve farther from the original “Hungry.”
These fourteen poems trace a story themselves, a story of poetic invention and correspondence. It’s fascinating to follow the versions. Some show daring steps of originality while others maintain surprising fidelities to meaning. There are adjustments to the central metaphors, there are literal miscues or misapprehensions, there are flashes of personality in the voice and tone and musical preference—the “ear,” as musicians call it. I have opted to present each work without editorial adjustment or correction or alignment. Each poem is its own self, with its own magic and meaning, as each poem has its origin in the others before it. In fact, literalists might take exception to some of the translators’ choices (redirections, changes in idiom, too much poetic license, perhaps even mistakes in literal meaning), but I have opted to be faithful to each version as I received it, without my editorial meddling. Part of this project is about slippage, an erasure of original intention, as well as a mixing of new accomplishments and voices and meanings.
To the poet-translators in this project, I extend my sincere thanks and salutation. To write a poem is to translate, just as to translate is to write a new poem or, as I stated earlier, to continue the poem already begun. In the end these attempts are all we have of connection and understanding—these textual manifestations of sympathy and hope. As Chris Tanasescu has written, at its best the act of literary translation is both “transmutational and communal.” Until the end, that’s plenty.
Until the end: that’s where we have no more voice. In “Four Dog Nights” Charles Wright identifies the final author of all things: “Time, great eraser.” It’s what we are hungry to resist until we can resist no more.