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Inside the Echo Chamber: A Conversation with Alissa Valles

By James Marcus

Alissa Valles was born in Amsterdam to an American father and a Dutch mother. She grew up in the USA and the Netherlands and studied Slavic languages, literature and history at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London and later at universities in Poland, Russia and the United States. She has worked for the BBC World Service, the Dutch Institute of War Documentation and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and now works as an independent writer, editor and translator. She has contributed to Polish Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, 2007) and The New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008). Her poems and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review and elsewhere, and she regularly translates for the theater. Her first collection of poems, Orphan Fire, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2008.—Editors

James Marcus: Could you explain how you got started as a translator?

Alissa Valles: I started to translate at the time I started to write poetry, that is, in my teens. I grew up in a multilingual household, so translation was a natural part of life. I started publishing poetry translations at university in England; the poets I translated were the poets I most wanted to learn from, mainly Russians and Poles, and occasionally Dutch and German poets. The first Polish poet I started to translate was Ryszard Krynicki, a very fine poet, born in 1943. He carried on a conversation, not to say a polemic, with Herbert from the Sixties onward.

Marcus: And when did you get involved with Herbert's poetry?

Valles: I came to Herbert when in graduate school. I was preparing to write on his work and was dissatisfied with some of the existing translations, so purely for myself I made new translations. Several years later I learned that Ecco Press was looking for someone to do a new version of the poems, and I sent mine in for consideration, not expecting to be given the honor.

Marcus: Critics have remarked on the relative simplicity of Herbert's idiom. As one of his translators, does that strike you as an accurate description?

Valles: Herbert strove for a very high level of clarity—I find that a more useful word. In his earlier poetry, the language is often quite complex. The Mr Cogito poems simplify the idiom but ask it to convey complex meanings. "Deceptive simplicity" might be an apposite phrase.

Marcus: Generally speaking, did you make any attempt to reproduce the music of Herbert's Polish in English? Or is that a lost cause?

Valles: I certainly attempted to convey Herbert's sound, no doubt with varying success. I found him often too flat in translation. In fact, his rhythms are strong, and it is possible to approach them in English. Conveying his tone remains the biggest challenge. It is quite elusive, and missing it means losing a whole dimension of meaning.

Marcus: In her interview at WWB, the poet and scholar Anna Frajlich suggested that Herbert's art changed profoundly around 1974, when he introduced Mr Cogito. Would you agree with that statement? Can you think of other watershed poems in his career, where a new path seemed to be marked out?

Valles: I don't think anyone would dispute that Mr Cogito marked a central shift in Herbert's poetry. I think Study of the Object (1961) as a whole book marked the beginning of Herbert's mature poetry—though there are fine poems in his first two books, which I love dearly. Rovigo (1992) marks a certain decline. It has some very weak poems as well as some strong ones.

Marcus: Obviously non-Polish readers are missing a considerable political subtext, at least in certain poems. Could you discuss this a little?

Valles: I think the best poems transcend the political circumstances in which Herbert lived. The political subtext is often broader than the purely Polish—a poem like "The Power of Taste" or "Report from a Besieged City" obviously refer to Communist Poland and martial law, but they can also be read as poems about the abuses of power and the temptations of conformism elsewhere, anywhere. One doesn't have to have been a member of Solidarity to appreciate them. Obviously, some basic knowledge about twentieth-century European history helps.

Marcus: More generally: what else do you think non-Polish readers are missing? Or to put it another way, with a tip of the hat to Robert Frost: what gets lost in translation?

Valles: One major loss is of the many echoes of Polish poetry in Herbert's verse; I could sometimes indicate these in a note, but that's not the same thing, of course. Like any substantial poet, Herbert was an echo chamber of poetry in his own language, and as he was often rebelling against the Romantic tradition in Polish poetry, the effects of his echoes are complex and powerful.

Marcus: I know that you never met Herbert himself, but I see that you thanked Katarzyna Herbert in your translator's note. What sort of help did she furnish?

Valles: Katarzyna Herbert is simply a very warm and charming person, and feeling her trust in me was fortifying. She gave me full access to Herbert's archive and personal library, which were then still housed in his old study in their apartment, but have since been moved to the National Library in Warsaw. She lent me many books and sound recordings of Herbert reading, which was extremely helpful—he had a marvelous voice. She answered questions I had about the circumstances in which certain poems arose as best she could, without ever pretending to be able to speak for Herbert. Such conscientiousness is very rare.

Marcus: It's clear that "Apollo and Marsyas" strikes you as a key poem. If you had to select just a handful of additional poems to represent Herbert, which would you choose, and why?

Valles: "Nike Who Hesitates," "The Seventh Angel," "Five Men," "Naked Town," "Preliminary Investigation of an Angel," "Why the Classics," "Mr Cogito Reflects on Redemption," "The Envoy of Mr Cogito," "To Ryszard Krynicki—A Letter," "Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp," "Breviary," and "Fabric." I think these poems might be able to reflect the arc of Herbert's work from beginning to end; they address his great themes in a masterful way, welding irony, pathos, humor and moral clarity. This is not a list of my favorite poems, of course, which would be much more idiosyncratic.

Published Feb 3, 2008   Copyright 2008 James Marcus

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