If Javascript is disabled browser, to place orders please visit the page where I sell my photos, powered by Fotomoto.
Powered by Squarespace

Entries in translation (14)


Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards.

I was fortunate enough to get to meet the great Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis sometime around 2002, in the basement of the Dailes Theatre. Over the joyful pump of dueling accordions celebrating the birthday of his wife, an actress in the theater, I shook his hand. I told him I had to remind myself to use the formal "Jūs" with him; he said not to worry about it, that he wasn't so formal himself. He told me the story of how he once went to speak to some children at a school. One boy said to him, "but wait, you're not dead?" And he said, "no, I don't think so." And the boy said "how strange, I thought we only read dead people in school!"

Imants Ziedonis passed away today at the age of 79, long after they started studying him in schools.

After his death had been announced, the following was posted on his Twitter account:

Grīdas dēļu šķirbās vēl guļ vakardiena. Viena nopūta dus trauku dvielī, un viens lamu vārds dus pavarda pelnos.

Translation: Yesterday still lies in the cracks between floorboards. One sigh rests in a dish towel, and one curse word rests in the fireplace ashes.

He always did write my favorite words. Rest In Peace, Ziedonis, wherever your words may fall.

(photo by Uldis Grasis)


Dangling socks and handwashed shirts, revisited.

(I'm currently in the process of reigniting a translation project, and while looking around for a few things, I found this in my archives. Tiny polished fragments. Unfortunately, things aren't all that different in my work process from how they were four years ago... fortunately, I'm not translating Ziedonis, so I'm less likely to get trapped in every single phrase. Ziedonis is a master trapper, and it was nice to come across these old familiar refrains.)

I haven't been translating for a while. As with everything I abandon, it eventually gets taken up again in a flurry of "I MUST"s. And so I picked up some old fragments of translations (Imants Ziedonis, Ephiphanies, wanting poetics in my prose) and made stuttering attempts at progress. Immediately, I was aware of my greatest and most debilitating weakness: I get trapped in the phrase.

We are the seers. We see what we don’t have to.

I fixate on one tiny sentence, and become so lost in finding its perfection that I have a hard time moving beyond it and polishing the rest of the piece. Or I fall in love with a sentence, and can't let it go.

My dangling socks and handwashed shirts.

I roll it around in my head and smile to myself, satisfied with the sound it makes. Unwilling to tackle the ugly misshapen phrases to its left or right.

My dangling socks and handwashed shirts.

You see? I'm trapped. Do writers do this too?

"He didn't squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end, but from the middle; he dipped his spoon right in the sour cream, and his whole life had neither end, nor edges."

I dwell in the wrong places, and become trapped.

Throw out the pike in the dewy grass. I have no need for evening pike. I reel in the line and look at the water as the light dawns again. That is what I want.

If there were awards for tiny polished fragments, I would be covered in gold.

(Originally posted on October 8, 2008)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Silver Edges

I once read about a Latvian poet who renamed himself "Sudrabu Edžus" — "Silver Edges." I like to picture him in his wooden house, surrounded by bare birch trees creaking under the weight of freshly-fallen snow. The poet writing away by the fire, his felt boots hung in the hall, composing his poems about tears in the gloomy Daugava, and taking a deep, satisfied breath before he signs his chosen name at the end. As if his name could wipe the soot off his brow, tip the snow from the trees. As if his name could drag the sun kicking and screaming in through the window on a dark and gloomy night.

The importance of names. I sometimes translate the names of my Latvian friends: Partridge. Basement. Daugava dweller.

I wanted to write something warm on such a cold day. Create words that could melt snow. Something I could wrap my hands around so that they'd be toasty again. Instead, I play these word games, changing one word into another to see the world a new way. Like lying on a bed upside down.

Imants Ziedonis's wrote in his Epiphanies:

Words flirt, vowels are coquettish, consonants vamp. Here anecdotes are told. A deceptive mosaic of words shining in a playful light. Are you going to eat those pepper-cakes, or are you going to decorate the Christmas tree with them? Tonight are we talking about caradmom, cinnamon, or vanilla?
I love those coquettish vowels. And for some reason I feel warmer.

Could it be that these words come from such a cold place that, when bent and twisted into my own words, broken like a pocket warmer, they begin to warm my hands?

I don't know how it works. But somehow the sky doesn't look so gray anymore, there where the silver edges peek from under the clouds.

(Related: At Granta, Jeffrey Yang wrestles with translation, via Maud.)


Blinks: Translating Myself To The West Coast Edition

I have barely had time this week to sit down and make sure I still have all my fingers and toes, much less collect my thoughts into anything worth sifting into this little white box. There are beautiful things right outside my window (honestly! you should see the clouds today) that I'm fighting to tie down inside my brain until I'm able to find a moment to wrestle them onto the page.

I'm about to head to California for the amazing Broad Summit, and just when I thought I could completely relax and enjoy my preparation for the fun ahead, I get word that my translation skills are required to bulk up a fragment for the Frankfurt Book Fair next week. So! I will be spending the flight trying not to be too distracted by the enticing smile of the woman sitting next to me, and instead decorating sheets and sheets of paper with red pencil, trying to find translations for words that I don't think actually exist. (This is where I try to creep closer to calling myself a translat*r.)

Thus: a theme for the links below. Or at least as far as I could shape them into some sort of theme in my addled, busy, westward-gazing brain.

  • Living in Riga brings appreciation for heat
    From now on you can just assume I'm going to link to everything my friend Rich writes, because descriptions like this deserve to be shared: Juris looked like an exiled officer from some Russian novel, fallen badly into disrepair. His long tangled hair spilled out from under a greasy fur hat that he apparently wore all year round. He had only a couple teeth left in his mouth, which emitted a putrid stench laced with garlic and sausage. And on his feet, jutting out from under a ratty brown overcoat, was a pair of pink bedroom slippers with embossed golden letters which, when placed together, spelled out the words "TOO SEXY."

  • The invisible hand
    Sounds like translator Anne MacLean could probably teach me a thing or two. (via Bookslut)

  • Formal
    Jim has no idea, but he's just taken a picture of the inside of my brain when I'm translating. Or, alternatively, what a translation feels like when it's nearly done. (I love this picture. So much. I wish there was a word for it, in any language.)
See you on the left coast.



I love picking up a book that begins like this:

I am lying on white sheets. And I'm watching how above me everything is growing from top to bottom. Becoming even darker, leaves overgrowing the lamps. Everything is green, richly green, the leaves are thick and full of moisture. They grow downward, extending before me, tiny insects starting to gnaw their way through them, falling into my bed and crawling over me, searching out where they might burrow their hole.

Chlorophyll flows through my cells. I am monkshood. Aconitum napellus.

As they cut me, I say to them, I don't want to be buried in the earth, to be burned and scattered, to be saved in any way. Throw my body in a field somewhere, so that it decays, so that it grows in the earth, so that birds might get a meal out of me.

Nurses march back and forth like guards. They carry sterilized instruments. They carry gauze and ribbed sheets. Place them in white piles like sandbags in trenches.

I've broken both legs, my arms in several places, I have a broken backbone, I hear only the urgent ambulance sirens. I am aware that they're operating on me, I'm even aware that I could die. The light at the end of the tunnel is a fabrication, nonsense! The end of the tunnel is only darkness, and of darkness you too shall be. I can't tell them to leave me alone, because I can't speak, I no longer understand where I start and where I end. I hear some voice encouraging me: you just have to be patient. Nelly lies two floors below me, tormented by a completely different ailment, but soon I'll get better and I'll be able to visit her. Then her bacilli will cling to my wounds and fester, poison me completely. I'll ask for her permission and I'll lie down next to her. Some people who I won't know or recognize will come to me and plead with me to summon my strength, to live. Before or after that they'll say the same to Nelly, knowing already that she won't be getting better at all, and she too will know this, and I will know this. They will want to send us to the best hospital in the city, we'll both say no. The nurse will leave the room and I will tell her to leave the light on so that they know that I'm home.

I hear a distant voice echoing somewhere in the corridor walls. The nurses are watching television. The nurses are watching the weather. Paris +12, +5. Marseille +11, +4. Zurich +8, 0 – +1. Amsterdam +6, 0. Milan +15, +10. Venice +17, +10. Belgrade +18, +11. Istanbul +16, +8. Larnaca +22, +12. Minacu +21, +17. Lusaka +20, +7. Livingstone +19, +7. St. Petersburg 0, -5. Etc.

And wouldn't it be all the more amazing if this book were available in English? Unfortunately, it's not. It's a book by a young Latvian author, Inga Žolude — apparently one to watch in Latvia (thanks, Rich!) — called Silta Zeme (Warm Earth). This fragment, rapidly translated, so that I could share it with you. I couldn't resist. If I had all the time in the world, I'd translate the whole thing. Even though I don't have a lot of time these days, I wanted to do this little bit.

Besides, I needed a distraction.

This is what I do to take my mind off of the most exciting political moment I can remember in my adult life. I've said what I have to say, I'll vote first thing tomorrow, and I hope you will too. But I need a distraction. Because I can no longer process all of the punditry, all of the polls, all of the words. Until then, I spin words of a different nature. So that birds might get a meal out of me.