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Is Poetry Untranslatable? Ask Aditi Machado.

Is Poetry Untranslatable? Ask Aditi Machado.

The first Dear Poetry Editor of 2018 introduces readers to Aditi Machado, poetry editor for Asymptote, an international journal of translation. This ongoing series offers readers insight on poetry and publishing from editors who shape the content in literary magazines and institutions around the world.

Machado is the author of Some Beheadings (Nightboat, 2017) and the translator of Farid Tali’s hybrid novella Prosopopoeia (Action, 2016). She is from Bangalore, India and currently lives in Denver, Colorado.

On Perspectives of Poetry

Poetry is untranslatable. It’s a notion that persists despite a long-desired increase in the visibility of translators, much astonishing advocacy work, and the multitude of journals and presses today that invest in translation. There’s always someone, inside or out, who thinks that a translated work isn’t “as good” as the original. Plenty of scholars who translate still struggle to convince tenure committees that their published translations are valuable. But translation isn’t simply some post-Babelian necessity. It isn’t simply sociological or anthropological work seeking to make other cultures “intelligible” to us—it’s a full and necessary literary activity in which politics and aesthetics can’t be disentangled. I rather love the provocation of Asymptote founder and editor-in-chief Lee Yew Leong’s thought that sometimes “translation can be more effective than the original if we set aside the question of primacy.”

There are misconceptions about who or how to translate. I’ve been thinking about the prevalent notion that poetry ought to be translated into idioms/forms/aesthetic paradigms already available or au courant in the target language. It’s not wrong necessarily but that method is simply one possibility — and then there are other possibilities.

On Poetry

I don’t think there is a poem for me, but I do tend to value poetries for which language is never transparent. It’s a kind of thickness people are moving through, paring it down, drying it out, or making it even denser. Translators know this intuitively—there is nothing clean about rewriting something in a different language. In what we commonly call original compositions, I tend to value proximities to other languages—classical, contemporary, rare, invented. Multilingualism, embodied prosodies, or negative capability, not just as metaphysics but actual physics, the way thought moves through and against sound, image, and matter. I tend to gravitate toward work by poets who also translate or whose work can’t be located in one linguistic space.

On Publishing

I hope the perception people have of our magazine and the content we publish is that we’re brilliant. I would say we are known to be global in the full sense of that word: people on our masthead live all over the world. We tend to be diverse with regard to languages and genres. We are aesthetically eclectic. The journal has a strong overarching vision “to unlock the literary treasures of the world” but there are also micro-visions one might glean through the praxes of different section editors or in the intense, eruptive curations of our special features—a recent feature focused on Indian activist-poets and another on writing from the seven countries Donald Trump “banned.”

Asymptote is also perceived as being innovative with its online platform. It fascinates me how the website (designed, maintained, and improved by a dazzling individual, not myself) actually invites me to edit in a certain way. An exciting way, sometimes an ethical way. Web space allows us to include source texts, translators’ notes, hypertextual footnotes, images, video, an interactive map—and, my favorite, recordings. There is a half-hour long recording of cult Chilean poet Rodrigo Lira’s “Testimony of Circumstances,” performed by one of his translators; and the voice of Nathan Trantraal, who writes in Kaapse Afrikaans, a dialect spoken mainly in areas still devastated by South Africa’s apartheid rule. Occasionally, I’ll publish a long poem, or a considerable excerpt from a book-length work—because it seems to me the work needed to exist that way, needed the space, a prolonged moment with the reader.

On Regret

Not that I can think of—there is often work I wish I had published, but it was withdrawn too quickly or I solicited someone too late. My instinct is to be jealous of other editors and journals, then I remind myself that I’m being ridiculous. The point is to get the work out there.

Visit Asymptote Journal for more information on submissions.

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