MK: How did you choose Luljeta Lleshanaku as a subject for translation?
HI: I came to translate Luljeta Lleshanaku through a series of fortunate events. In 1992 I was an MFA student at the University of Iowa. At the time, I was translating the poems of Israeli poet, Ronny Someck, who was visiting as part of the International Writing Program. Uk BuÁpapa, an eccentric Albanian poet and translator who was also part of the IWP at the time, had the habit of soliciting just about anyone he could to help him translate both traditional epic and lyric Albanian poetry as well as the work of contemporary Albanian poets. After much prodding I agreed to help him in translating three of them and I had the good fortune to show them to Donald Revell, who happened to be a visiting teacher in the MFA program at the time. He took all of them for publication in the Denver Quarterly.
After BuÁpapa returned to Albania he continued to send me reams of translations he was working on. Eventually we decided that we would focus on putting together an anthology. He kept sending me work by other poets, but I wasnít thrilled with most of them. In 1996, while I was living briefly in Paris, a series of poems by Lleshanaku that we had translated received an award from a small journal called Visions-International.
I decided then to book a plane to Tirana to meet the poets whose work Iíd been translating. Xhevahir Spiahu, one of them, told me that he thought an anthology wasnít a good idea, that I should concentrate on the writing of one poet. I was feeling like our original plan wasnít going anywhere so I took his advice to heart and decided to settle on the work of Lleshanaku whose work seemed to me to be at the forefront of a new movement of post-communist Albanian poetry.
MK: What do you mean?
HI: At the time, although everyone vehemently hated the repressive Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, poets were still caught up in the style of Socialist Realism. They werenít writing communist or patriotic poetry. On the contrary, they were writing anti-communist, hate poetry. What they didnít realize was that they were still using the same methods as before, using poems as a sort of rallying cry. It was like there was a revolution, but only the names changed, not the system. Lleshanakuís work was different. It felt nearly apolitical. The poems focus on imagery, on painting small, detailed pictures. I donít think she realized it, but her work was more revolutionary than the angry verses that abounded at the time. She was on her own track you see, because she couldnít have read that much international poetry as it had been banned under Communism and at the time, just a few years after the fall of the dictatorship, very little had been translated. Still, her work felt clued in to poetry as we know it. The thing is she was cutting it out of whole cloth.
MK: Are you fluent in Albanian?
HI: Not at all. I couldnít have done any of the work I did at the time without the help of Uk BuÁpapa. Unfortunately, Mr. BuÁpapa was very upset by my decision to concentrate on Lleshanakuís poetry, and things got ugly very quickly. Lleshanaku searched around for other co-translators for me to work with while I was furiously trying to put together a manuscript.
In the meantime, Peter Constantine, a brilliant translator fluent in many different languagesóthe polar opposite of meósaw some of my translations in Grand Street and contacted me to ask me a question about an Albanian word he was having trouble with in translating a novel of Ismael Kidare. Of course, I was no help at all to him, but Constantine encouraged me to send a book proposal to Peter Glassgold, an editor at New Directions he knew. I did, and to my delight, it was accepted. Peter wrote the introduction, and I ended up using a slew of co-translators. Since then Iíve settled on one, Shpresa Qatipi, who seems to be working out quite well.
MK: Did you take courses in translation when you did your MFA at Iowa?
HI: I took a Translation Workshop with Daniel Weissbort who works primarily with Russian and Polish poetry, and enjoyed it tremendously. Iíve also read some theory by Benjamin, Nabokov, and a few others. But mostly Iíd say Iím self-taught in the school of trial and error.
MK: Do you have a set process that you use, or does it vary from poem to poem?
HI: Since I write and publish my own poetry, I try to translate with the eye of an editor, focusing on the revision process. I first study the literal translation which is sometimes quite decent, and sometimes as unformed as a block of clay. And I also look at the original because I like to see the shape and length of the original lines and I like to be able to verify that no major changes have been made by the Albanian translator.
I try to understand what the poet is getting at, how the images build on or reflect each other to create a sum greater than its parts. I interpret and I shape the poem one draft at a time, often letting it sit for long periods of time between revisions to clear my mind of residual memory of the earlier drafts.
If I get stuck on a word or line or image, I send an email to Lleshanaku directly, and she usually gets back to me with some kind of cryptic explanation that may help clarify things, but just as often leaves me more puzzled than before. Regardless, I chisel away at each draft until I feel the poem is working well enough as a whole in English. Then I send it back to Lleshanaku for approval.
If she thinks it needs more work, I go back to it. Occasionally I give up on an individual poem, and write it off as impossible for me to translate. I figure that sometimes itís a result of my own shortcomings, and sometimes itís something else. For instance, something may sound wonderful and clever in Albanian but flat and banal in English. But I want to be proud of each translation. Although I allow room for a foreign flavor or echo in the poems, I want each one to be as strong as if it were written in English.
MK: How do you see translation in relation to writing your own poetry?
HI: Well, with translation you donít need to do the grunt work, what I call the mining. You have the rough material and you need to give it form. Thatís why I think of my translating more as editing than writing.
When a poem, even a complete, masterful poem, is stripped of its language, and therefore its cultural and linguistic references, it essentially becomes a rough draft again, and the words need to be reaffixed to new signifiers. This is essentially an editorís job, an editor with a writerís sensibility and skill. But then again, most of the work in writing original material is editing as well. The original draft is often the easiest, or at least shortest, part of creating a poem.
MK: Some translators write their own poetry in addition to translations and others donít. Do you think that makes a difference?
HI: I donít know really. Iíve never seen poems by Clare Cavanagh, if they exist, but her translations are wonderful. Elliot Weinbergerís translations are splendid, but Iíve never seen a poem by him. Both of these translators are deeply intelligent and have the sensibilities of poets, without the egos of poets. Which leads me to believe that thereís a balance. Some poets make good translators, others donít. Poets who work as translators need to be wary of futzing with the original too much, trying to give the translation their own unique stamp or voice. A good translator needs to let go of her ego, and thatís a tough job for some poets who are blessed with an overabundance.
MK: Do you discuss your translations with Lieshanaku?
HI: Always. I listen to her feedback. I want her to be fully satisfied with the accuracy and artfulness of the work.
MK: You also run a poetry pressódo you see a similarity in bringing out the work of other poets and being a translator?
HI: I certainly do a lot of editing in my work for Saturnalia Books so I suppose it makes sense that thereís a similarity in the work itself. Iíve never thought of the similarity between ďbringing out the work of other poetsĒ and translating, but it seems there may be an analogy to be made.
MK: Well, I was thinking of the satisfaction involved in bringing someoneís work to the attention of the public, when otherwise it might not be known. And, in both cases, the necessity of putting the integrity of the work ahead of your own desiresóor of making that your primary desire. In any case, the submerging of egoÖ
HI: I think you're right there. The difference is that Lleshanaku came to me by happenstance, and I have no desire to seek out other foreign poets to bring to the publicís attention. I have no plans to translate other poets. My plate is full with writing my own work, translating Lleshanakuís poetry until sheís sick of me or me of her, running Saturnalia Books, teaching, tutoring, and raising my wonderful daughter. So my pleasure of bringing new writers to the forefront is well satisfied by my work with Saturnalia. Iím very pleased that the young writers weíve published have received a significant amount of public attention.
MK: Can you give some examples?
HI: Sabrina Orah Mark has been anthologized and her book was reviewed by at least 8 journals, all very positive. Kathleen Graber was made a Hodder Fellow at Yale, and her book has also received some wonderful reviews lately. And Sarah Vap won the Iowa Poetry Prize for a second book at about the same time as she won our prize for her first.
MK: What other collaborative writing have you doneóor donít you see the translation as collaborative?
HI: Many years ago I collaborated with a theater group on a play. They created the movement and I had to create the text. That was hard work. Exhausting. They ran around the stage like lunatics, screaming, singing, making noises, stilt walking, and I had to create some kind of narrative and dialogue to go with it. It was like spinning gold out of hay. And of course, in theater you're always dealing with many competing egos. With translation, I work with others, certainly, but most of the time I spend alone, just me and my keyboard, and itís clear that thereís only room for one personís ego, and itís my job to serve it as best as I can. Thereís nothing sexy about translation at all.
MK: What are you working on now?
HI: Iím working on a second book of my own poetry and a second book of Lleshanakuís. Neither have a title, or perhaps I should say, the titles keep changing. I hope to have both completed within a year.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Henry Israeli, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin