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Argos Books: A New Form for Translation

By David Varno

The Other Music: Selected Poems from the 1970s, by Francisca Aguirre, translated by Montana Ray
If I Were Born in Prague: Poems of Guy Jean, versions by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

Argos Books, established last year by three poets and translators, has already built an impressive catalogue, with chapbooks, broadsheets, and collaborations between artists and poets, and they have now started a unique project of chapbooks in translation.  It’s an interesting form, because it highlights the work of the translators as much as the authors themselves in ways that are more prominent than with a conventional long-form book. The selected work is given generous space, with translations or “versions” placed next to the original. The short length allows the translators’ introductions to stay in one’s head from beginning to end. Two translation chapbooks have appeared so far, and their release was celebrated earlier this month at Camel Art Space in Brooklyn.

Guy Jean, a French-language Canadian poet of Acadian heritage, came to the reception to read from If I Were Born in Prague, and said during his reading that he approved of the many changes made to the poems by co-translator Ilya Kaminsky (WWB poetry editor), and noted that the “versions” were essentially new poems. Kaminsky actually doubled the length of one piece, and reduced another by more than half, and on the book’s cover, the role of authorship is attributed to the translators with the poet’s name in the subtitle. This kind of liberal approach to translation is certainly not unheard of, especially for poetry, but it was especially interesting to hear the poet read these translated “versions” himself.

Montana Ray, who selected and translated the work of Spanish poet Francisca Aguirre for The Other Music,, made subtler changes, and many of the lines seem to roll into English with the greatest of ease, and her occasional alterations work magically. “Parda como la corteza, compacto como los diamantes” becomes “bark brown, diamond hard,” and it’s clear that Ray achieved the goal outlined in the translator’s note, to make the “best possible English poem I could write.”  Meanwhile, the themes and references in the fifteen short poems blend and progress so seamlessly that it’s easy to imagine the collection, though it was drawn from three separate books, as something the poet compiled herself.

With both of these chapbooks, it is thrilling to look at the original lines and then back to the translation, a practice that can be exhausting with a longer book, usually leading non-academics to give up and rely solely on the translation (assuming the original is even available). Here in Argos’s chapboks, the new or revised lines rise up from the surface of the page in a new dimension, allowing us to trace the translators’ work as writers. Having one of these books in hand, mentally charting its landscape, makes it hard to doubt the argument for old-fashioned reading. The book can and should be an object of art in its own right. As with all of the projects from Argos so far, some of which are hand- stamped or sewn, much care was put into their production. The cover of If I were Born in Prague was letterpressed by Ugly Duckling Presse, and The Other Music is colorfully printed on satiny cover stock.

Argos cofounders E.C. Belli, Elizabeth Clark Wessel (who started Stray Dog Press in Sweden before returning to New York), and Iris Cushing met at Columbia (where I met them as well), and after discussions about poetry and literature and how best to engage with their communities, they decided to begin the press. Argos plans to release several translations next year, including a new translation of the Russian poet Elena Guro, translated by Matvei Yankelevich. 

See the Argos website for more information about their books.

Published Oct 19, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Varno

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