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The Translator

March 26, 2013

I first read about John Crowley’s novel The Translator over at Shelf Love and had to find a copy immediately, as Jenny describes it there as a novel focusing on poets, lost children, and the difficulties of translation, one that is “based on irony, mystery, and ambiguity, like a pun in another language that has no English equivalent.” I had never read anything by this author before, but now I’ve started, I’m pretty sure I can’t stop with one.

The first interesting thing about this novel is the layers of story, beginning with the main character, Kit, meeting President John F. Kennedy because one of her poems had been selected for a young peoples’ anthology and him mentioning to her “a new poet from Russia, Falin” when they’re in the reception line. Then we see Kit, much older, flying to Russia and meeting a friend of Falin’s, promising to tell him the whole story of the poet’s life in the U.S. Only after that does the story begin at the beginning of Kit’s college career, in 1961, when she met Falin and took his poetry class.

What kept me reading were Falin’s observations about poetry; what it is, what it does, what a person can do with it. One of the first observations I marked is what Falin says to Kit when she explains why she stopped writing poetry for a while, because she felt she had nothing to say. “And he said that’s what poetry is, the saying of nothing. The Nothing that can’t be said.” I was also fascinated that Falin began his poetry class (which Kit takes) by asking the students to go around and “say a poem that has meant something to you.” Wouldn’t that be a great way to meet people–what poem would you say? I would have to fall back on my old standard, the first poem I memorized without really meaning to, Yeats’ “That the Night Come.”

I also really like the way Falin presents his grading standards for the class; it makes me wish I could take the class from him:
“I cannot give you grade on what poetry you write. This would be foolish, as though to grade you for your beauty or your strength. I can grade on how hard you try, and how hard you try to understand the poetry of others. And so midterm, and final, test will be only that you write down in blue books the poems we read together. So you must memorize, commit to memory, learn them by heart is how you say it, yes?”
Would you want to take this class?

Kit’s reacts as I do to many of the events of the novel, making me think that if I were in her situation, I might react something of the same way–as outrageous as that seems, since the focus of the novel is on the Cuban missile crisis (before my time) and the crises she faces are a million times more dramatic and heart-breaking than any I have ever experienced or expect that I will. Here is how she falls into blank verse, though, much as I once did (and as Eleanor did, too):
“Blank verse was just a matter of nerve. At the library she’d come upon the old Mermaid series of Elizabethan poets…and she started reading Marlowe and Massinger and Webster and counting the beats on her fingers, da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum. As soon as she found the courage to do it too, it began immediately knitting lines up as though by itself….”

The way Kit says goodbye to her brother is familiar to anyone who has ever been left by a sibling eager to seek his fortune in the wide world:
“’I’ll come back,” he said. ‘I’ll always come back.’ But she knew what this meant now, what it meant for him to say this: it meant that he wouldn’t come back, could not ever come back, that no one ever can; to say that he would was to admit that he couldn’t, to admit that there was no way back at all.”

Kit is a more passive person than I think I would be in her situation, however. At one point she says that she “sometimes thought heaven would be like the reading of an endless, or eternal, big slick magazine. Always interesting and undemanding, a new page to be turned whenever boredom threatened, to reveal something welcomed and unexpected: new things to desire, but not seriously; new beautiful movie stars or homes you might be or live in; moving stories of children far away, of dangers or bad weather, but now where you were; always more silly or witty ads and clear-eyed people looking right at you and brief cute anecdotes, no end to it ever. Happiness.”
This doesn’t sound like happiness to me. Does it to you? It sounds very passive to me; I’m usually pretty bored by magazines after about 10-15 minutes.

Some of the charm of the novel comes from something Jenny asked me to think about, the way Crowley creates the two poetic voices for the two main characters. He writes the bits of poetry that the novel quotes as by them, and the voices are distinct and interesting and, most amazing of all (at least to me), there are some pretty good lines of poetry.

At one point, when Kit thinks she is trying to help Falin translate a poem from Russian into English, he tries to explain some of the feeling of the poem to her. The description is pages long, but it culminates in the discussion of one letter he chooses as an example to explain why he says he cannot explain the poem:
“cannot find equivalents….You see here. The innocent yat: yat is that small letter, there. It was a useless, a redundant letter in Russian alphabet; after the Revolution, language was reformed, and that letter was got rid of….Look, look. ‘Some smoke of the northland, known to him, and to me.’ This is easy, everyone knows. Northland is name of popular type of cigarette. It seems both father and son smoke this kind. But also smoke of chimneys of far northern camps, prison camps, everyone knows.”

The same kind of thing happens when Falin talks to Kit about the meaning of her own poems, as when they discuss one called “Silos” and Falin says:
“Silos where nothing but the grapes of wrath are stored…I found this image striking: the grapes of wrath. But I think is title of famous American book. In Soviet Union we all read.”
She laughed aloud, then covered her mouth. He looked at her: What? And she shook her head. “It’s in an old song,” she said. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
Now he laughed, chagrined. “Like Italians making wine,” he said. “The Lord.”
“Purple up to his knees.”
“With blood.”
“I guess.”
“I prefer not knowing this,” he said. “I thought those grapes were John Steinbeck’s. And yours.”

Watching them struggle with translation is a big part of the pleasure of this novel:
“She felt at first, and never entirely ceased feeling, like a slow pupil, a fumbling apprentice without even the skills to know how to begin, as though he had to teach her English as well as Russian; as though her only role was to nod, and puzzle, and shake her head and laugh in bafflement, while he worked calmly (calmly, mostly) through the agonies of metamorphosis. His meanings struggling to get out, like chicks from their hard shells. But he said it wasn’t like that: there wasn’t a poem trying to get out of one language and into another; the shell and the chick were one.
‘When I was a little kid,’ she said, ‘I mean a really little kid, I used to wonder if poems in other languages rhymed in the languages they were written in, or only rhymed when you translated them into English….I guess I thought English words were the real names of things, and other languages were just like masks; games those people played. For fun….I mean how could things have two real names?’
‘Let us look,’ he said. He put his finger on the words she had typed.

In some worlds my torturer is but a man as I am
And his bosses are men, as well
And their bosses men like me
And the leader a man, a man I myself could be.

Weep, weep, children; mothers, run and hide;
Go, day; sink, sun, don’t look upon us.

‘Is not instruction, you see,’ he said. ‘You instruct stars to turn, day to go; my lines say only that they will.’”

After the work of translation, there are understandings in the novel. To appreciate the understandings, you have to read the novel, just as Falin says that you can’t translate poems, but that “you can only make other poems.”

One of the things Kit begins to understand, before the novel’s end, is that “when we grieve in our lives, we grieve for just the one person, friend, brother, son; but when we grieve for our own in poems, we grieve for all, for every one.” Readers of the novel can see this in “the poem that would become the title poem of Ghost Comedies,” her first volume of poetry…in this novel, which is fiction. It’s certainly a thoroughly imagined fictional world, ending with the feeling of the poem the novelist writes in Kit’s voice:

“If you return, O my dead, and you will, from your ashes and earth,
Return if you can as the ghosts in ghost comedies do:
Unwounded, unrotted, not limbless or eyeless (though fleshless,
Invisible till you take form, just a drape or a candle-flame fluttering,
A wineglass that rises and empties itself in the air);
Come walking through walls in your nice clothes…”

It’s perhaps not the best poetry I’ve ever read, but better than any other I’ve ever read by a fictional character, with the exception of the poetry Samuel Delany uses in Babel-17, purportedly by his fictional character Rydra Wong but actually composed by his wife at the time, the award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    March 26, 2013 9:47 am

    I had to memorize “A Time to Talk” by Robert Frost in third grade and can still recite it. I’ve learned other poems since, but I think that and some A.A. Milne will always be sharpest in my mind.

    • March 29, 2013 8:19 am

      Things we memorize as children do seem to stick the best. I think of this when I try to memorize lines for a play–as an adult, it’s not as quick.

  2. Jenny permalink
    March 26, 2013 11:32 am

    Jeanne, what a completely satisfying review. I am so pleased — I think you are the first person (with the exception of Teresa, whom I actually forced to read Little, Big) I’ve convinced to read something by Crowley. And I think this is the perfect way to review him: to quote and quote and quote. He writes so very well. You have so many great observations here, but the one about passivity is the one I pick out: I think Kit’s passive ideal of happiness is one forced on her by the traumatic events she’s been through and is undergoing. I think she has a different ideal by the end.

    • March 29, 2013 8:22 am

      Yes, she is less passive in the end, and I could have said that. By the time I got to the part about understandings, I didn’t want to say too much and so I didn’t tease out all the right threads. I’m glad you found most of it satisfying, though; he’s an author that makes you want to do justice to his book, I think.

  3. March 26, 2013 8:59 pm

    Wow, this is a really awesome review. I am much swayed by this — I love reading about how other people approach reading. It’s something I love so much, and something everyone whose books I read loves as much as I do, but I feel like I rarely see a good, critical description of what reading is like, and writing, and translating. Love these excerpts.

    • March 29, 2013 8:24 am

      If you like the excerpts, you’ll like the rest. I had trouble resisting quoting all of it, except when I looked at the part I wanted to quote, it went on for pages!

  4. March 27, 2013 10:39 am

    Great review, Jeanne. As someone who doesn’t know much about poetry, I feel I’ve learned a lot here. Translation and interpretation is always interesting to read about, so in that way I guess this book is a good read in general, rather than just if you like poetry. “I cannot give you grade on what poetry you write” – those sorts of teachers are the best!

    • March 29, 2013 8:26 am

      This novel shows how interpretation can have an effect on the world. It’s a good trick, weaving teaching and poetry and translation and interpretation into a plot about politics and love, which is what Crowley has done here.

  5. March 28, 2013 11:17 am

    Since I struggle with poetry, a novel about poets sounds fascinating. I wonder if it would help me understand poets and poetry better.

    • March 29, 2013 8:27 am

      It might help you understand how poets think about words, which seems to me an essential part of understanding poetry.

  6. March 30, 2013 2:29 pm

    I’m so happy for you, reading your first Crowley!

    “Nicholas Nye” by Walter de la Mare.

    In her defense, magazines were better back then (more words, fewer and better ads, uncluttered photo spreads). I didn’t remember that passage, actually, but I did remember the strong feeling of their translation sessions, and I remembered the wineglass and walking through walls poem quite vividly, so I think you must be right about Crowley’s imaginary poetry being better than most.

    I also think you should teach a comparative imaginary poetry course some day!

    • March 30, 2013 5:24 pm

      “Half asleep and half awake,” huh? I can see how that poem would stick in a person’s head pretty easily. In fact, I’d forgotten that at one point I had memorized the one of his that starts out “I must go down to the sea again.”

      Comparative imaginary poetry would be an interesting thing to organize my reading around.

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