Jennnifer Grotz (left) on the Bread Loaf inn porch, photo by Brett Simison; Simone Kraus (right) in the Bread Loaf inn
“…seeing, reading, writing, translating are to me inextricable modes of being and thinking.”
Simone Kraus: In one of the co-interviews during the Bread Loaf Writers’ Reunion in October 2017, Patrick Phillips asked you, “When did you know you wanted to be a poet?” And you said, “I can’t remember not writing poems. I can’t remember not doing it.” I was in the audience at the time, and I still remember this part vividly. To become a poet, to become a writer wasn’t a choice you made. I’ve brought up this aspect, because Patrick’s question made me think about a writer’s decision to be a translator. While it’s definitely hard to find an answer to the “when” from a writer’s perspective, it may be easier to answer the question “When did you know you wanted to translate?”. How did you enter the world of translation, Jennifer?
Jennifer Grotz: That’s true, what you say, that I don’t think I ever made a conscious choice to be a writer, but I always knew inside somehow that I was one. When Patrick asked me that question, I started thinking about the Illustrated Bible my grandmother gave me when I first started to read, around the age of five. That Bible, and the Yellow Pages we had in the kitchen by the telephone, and the Avon booklets advertising makeup and jewelry that I would help my mom distribute (she was an “Avon Lady,” as they used to call their sales staff), were these texts I’d pore over and sort of gloss in the margins with pencil or crayons, adding my own endings to stories in the Bible, drawing in lipsticks or perfume bottles sometimes, making lists like the lists in the phone book. What I was saying earlier about how reading, writing, and translating all seem like modes of the same central human activity was certainly true for me back then, back from the very beginning.
But the world of translation you’re really asking me about came much later, in my twenties. I had studied French in junior high and high school; it had been one of my majors in college, and I’d studied my junior year abroad at the Sorbonne. But after that deep immersion and connection with French, I found it hard to preserve once back in the United States, especially when I was out of school. I started translating just to try to keep French close to me, to have it be a part of my weekly if not daily life. Languages are like relationships; they have to be given a great deal of attention, ongoing and preferably frequent, in order to be maintained. At the time, I was trying to be very disciplined as a young writer, also learning to write outside of school and away from external deadlines. I think trying my hand at translation was a way to be disciplined but also practical about keeping my French. Plus I had a poet in mind, Patrice de La Tour du Pin, that I’d wanted to read more carefully, particularly his updated psalms.
To be honest I should say that I don’t think I would have started translating if I hadn’t believed that it would somehow help me as a poet. Otherwise I probably just would have made a practice of reading novels in French, for instance. Poetry is a jealous god, and most of the major decisions in my life have come down to how to let poetry be a central focus. La Tour du Pin taught me a great deal about psalms, couplets, devotional poetry, forging poetic authority, and the intimate address of prayer. But poets throughout history have turned to translation; it’s actually hard to think of a really major poet who hasn’t. I like to tell students—and I truly believe this to be the case—that translation is how poets acquired their craft before the very recent (and American) invention of the writing workshop.
That said, I’ve also undertaken less selfish forms of translation—accepting invitations to translate a given work, as I did with Hubert Haddad’s Rochester Knockings, or finding deserving and significant unread-because-untranslated poets and taking on the task of correcting that by translating them, as I’ve most recently done (with a cotranslator, Piotr Sommer) with the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski.
SK: No matter how good you are as a translator, no matter how much experience you have, every time you sit down with a text in order to translate it, a new journey begins. An adventure from the first to the last sentence. Recently, I watched an interview with John Irving—who was at Bread Loaf for nine years beginning in 1975—in which he shared his thoughts on the writing process. He doesn’t write a story until he sees the ending or the last sentence. From his perspective, to write a story implies writing towards this sentence. To a certain extent, there is a similarity between Irving’s method and a translator’s approach to a text. As translators we have to know the whole story, i.e., to see the ending, before the real work can begin. On the other hand, we are given the opportunity to live two lives. While we recreate a text in another language, we let someone else’s voice speak through us; we are allowed to write while we don’t have to be ourselves. At the same time, we are in the position to play with different versions of a sentence until we think we have found the best possible version. How do you feel about the last sentences of poems you have translated? How hard is it to write the last sentences of your own poems?
JG: This is surely one of the most significant ways in which translating and writing are the same—that humbling if not helpless confrontation of the blank page at the start of a new project, a new day of sitting down at the desk, how it is always the blank page, no matter what experience and success one has had on other pages in the past! I’ve heard many writers say something similar to what John Irving suggests in this description of his own writing process, but I have to say that for me, it’s never worked that way. I mean, I’ve thought I’ve come up with the last line of a poem—some place where I had the sense a poem I might write would want to arrive, but just as often as not, that line, if it remained, could end up being the first line in the poem! Or anywhere else in between. What’s truer to my own experience as a writer is that getting a line like that is enough to lure me into trying to write toward it, as Irving says, that is, to start a poem. But once the poem is begun, then it’s all about the mystery of process.
A friend and colleague of mine, the fiction writer Laura van den Berg, has this amazingly astute observation about process and revision. She says: “For reasons unknown, some pieces of work will require much more from us than others.” Oh, have I found this true in my own poems! But I certainly have found it true in every work of translation I’ve undertaken as well. When I was working on Rochester Knockings, my first time translating a novel, I was always trying to stay on a schedule, i.e., to translate so many paragraphs or words a day. But what I experienced was that one day I could translate five paragraphs easily, then the next day one single complicated sentence or confusing paragraph would take up my entire writing time. It was never for a single reason or even a clearly parsable set of reasons—it was always unpredictable and essentially for “reasons unknown.” I found it bewildering, and frustrating, but there were so any other pleasures that commingled with the process that made up for it. One was what you also mention here—the translator’s “opportunity to live two lives.” For me, a poet who can’t really imagine being able to sit down and write a novel, I had this amazing experience of getting to write a novel! I suddenly understood so much of what other novelist friends had described. I longed as soon as I woke up in the morning to grab my coffee and go upstairs and be with the characters and in that world. I laughed and felt alongside them, I literally wept as I translated the death of certain characters. And when the translation was finished, I missed them. It was an unforgettable vicarious experience translating that novel brought me. I also longed, just as significantly, to be in the mind, as it were, or in the company, of the author, Hubert Haddad. His sensibility, his way with descriptions, his patterns of sentence-making, were also what I was communing with. Andres Neuman describes this pleasure wonderfully; he says translating is the closest you can come to reading and writing a text at the same time.
So, when you ask about how hard it is to write the last sentence of my own poems or translations, I have to say they are just as hard to write probably than any other part—or rather, the difficulty will or won’t be so difficult for “reasons unknown.” But I haven’t said much about the other interesting part of your question—which is about the significance of endings themselves, either in writing and translation, which also deserves our meditation. Endings, it seems to me, whether they be the endings of lines, sentences, paragraphs, poems, or any other literary unit, are what signal the shape, the made-ness of something. All writers know from working with words that content is more something formed than expressed. Louise Glück put this succinctly in her poem “Celestial Music” (in fact it’s the ending of that poem!): “The love of form is a love of endings.” I think you’re right therefore that any translator as well as writer will struggle and take great care about how endings of various kinds work in any given poem, story, novel.
SK: You once told me that your poem “Window Left Open” explores your idea of translation as an analog to the sensual and spiritual life. Jennifer, could you describe your take on translation in this poem in more detail? Is your poem an ode to translation?
JG: You and I have spoken before about the opening chapter of George Steiner’s After Babel, in which he performs an exhausting and spellbinding close reading of a passage from Act II of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Steiner’s thesis is that translation is, among other things, perhaps the most sophisticated form of reading there is. This is a wonderful text to introduce to young translators because it reminds us of how much learning and meaning are in a given text and thereby how much learning and meaning must be undertaken and generated in a successful translation.
Reading After Babel is probably the first time it occurred to me that translation is a mode of living in that regard, but it’s something I’d already been thinking about and exploring a lot in poems in a more inchoate and intuitive way. No matter how long I looked at either the world or any work of art, I found that the meaning in it was unfixed and inexhaustible, and this has always fascinated me. Everything in my experience and life with words and languages has made me believe that writing and translation and also reading are really all modes of some central activity that humans are constantly immersed in. On some days I find them all to be essentially the same thing; on other days when I think they’re otherwise, I still find them so deeply interconnected that it feels unprofitable to separate them. It’s one of the reasons it felt so urgent to me that we start the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. As you’ve heard me say before, inherent in the conference is the belief that translators are writers and deserve to be treated, trained, and supported as such. So maybe the poem isn’t exactly an ode to translation so much as it is an ode—or maybe an ars poetica—to how seeing, reading, writing, translating are to me inextricable modes of being and thinking.
SK: The first sentence and the last sentence—speaking of last sentences again!—of your poem “Window Left Open” resonated powerfully with me: “All you have to do is open the window” and “translate me.” Who is speaking? The translator? Could it be a text that needs to be translated? Or both?
JG: I love this question because it helps me see and think about my own poem in a new (but not at all unrelated) way—that’s a gift. I want to answer “all of the above,” and maybe also suggest that the poem is spoken by a lyrical speaker (pretty much, I’ll admit, myself). I wrote the poem, as most of the ones in that book, at a former Franciscan monastery in the French Alps. It was a place that lent itself to the fusing of the spiritual and sensual world. It was also a place where I was the only English speaker, so I was spending my days with others in French and then writing in English in my head when I was back in the room. So a natural and kind of constant translation was happening in that setting. I remember going back to my room after every walk or meal to add to my list of new vocabulary for various plants or moths or whatnot.
You point to the first line, “All you have to do is open the window,” and that’s significant because the poem (for me) is really about trying to keep some channel open between and interior and exterior, which is maybe more of a metaphysical or lyrical analogy, yes, to the cultural work that literary translation does. I didn’t intend anything so ambitious or idea-driven as that exactly when I wrote it, but the poem does its thinking through images. The moths that fly in first “effervesce in a stream / toward the lamp,” but then later in the poem I start to think of them as something the air “borrows” from the night so it can be seen. Some of the images of the moths come from direct observation: “I see / what they are: perched tightly together like carnations, / a fidgeting corsage of little engines.” But the associating mind also leads that to a larger analogy, comparing the moths suddenly to “words / the lamp knows how to translate / from the teeming night.” This is really all poetic thinking, but I remember feeling some kind of solace or pleasure when suddenly I was able to envision the moths that way, which is what led to the final utterance of the poem, asking God to “translate me.” It seemed like the best prayer one could ask for.
SK: In my final school year in Germany, our French teacher put Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] on the reading list—a play that he wrote in French. It was the first time I had realized that writers sometimes choose to write in a language other than their native language or mother tongue. Beckett once wrote: “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.” Another writer who adopted French as his literary medium is Milan Kundera. His decision to abandon Czech was due to the political situation in Czechoslovakia and the necessity to emigrate and find a new audience in a new language.
I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s book In Other Words, a very personal meditation on how she fell in love with the Italian language and what the total immersion in another language—”a language that has nothing to do with my life” —meant for her identity as a writer. Lahiri’s voluntary exile in the Italian language changed her life in profound ways. She began to write in Italian as well as translate from Italian.
Jennifer, you have translated works of literature from French into English, including poetry by Patrice de La Tour du Pin, collected in Psalms of All My Days (2013), and Hubert Haddad’s novel Rochester Knockings (2015). I would love to hear more about your relationship with the French language. Why and how did you learn it? Would you like to write poems in French? Maybe you want to add information about your relationship with Polish as well.
JG: I love to hear stories of how people choose and fall in love with different languages, but my own stories are not so dramatic or political or significant as the Beckett, Kundera, or Lahiri examples you cite. I treasure each of those authors and their translingual commitments and experiments with writing. I have found that when I’m in France, and speaking French, I write a great deal of French in my notebook that I scribble in daily. If I’m trying to write poems, then I have to translate that into English, but usually it’s just phrases or occasional lines. I have never made a substantial attempt to write poems in French, though after reading Rilke’s French poems while I was studying in Paris, I did try my hand a couple of times. It’s hard! I found it handicapping, because my French is not anywhere as strong or expressive as my command of English. I miss the variety of register and diction and trust my ear, in terms of music, with English best. But as Lahiri explores in In Other Words, there can still be worthwhile reasons for such an undertaking.
I grew up in Texas, and the predictable thing to do would have been to study Spanish. In fact, kindergarten when I was growing up was bilingual state-wide, so I had in fact dabbled in Spanish and encountered it a lot—I suspect it felt therefore too quotidian for me to study, though I regret that I felt that way and wish I’d acquired Spanish while growing up. I also was half-German, so the other predictable thing to do would have been to study my familial language, one I’d heard spoken by my grandparents. But—maybe as Lahiri was explaining—I wanted to study a language that had nothing to do with my life, that felt not utilitarian but artistic, if that makes sense, though I don’t mean to over-intellectualize it—I was twelve or so when I made this decision!—so I chose to study French.
Learning French in small-town West Texas is a curious thing. Our accents were just awful. I remember being taught that “l’amour” and “la mort” were pronounced identically (but then, I also grew up believing that “pen” and “pin” were pronounced identically). My first French teacher explained to the class that “vous” was French for “y’all.”
I had a rude but wonderful awakening when I eventually made it to Paris. I was extremely poor when I was there, so I didn’t eat out in a restaurant ever (and even now I still feel my vocabulary for food, for example, is relatively impoverished), but felt actually very rich that whole year, surrounded by so much culture and art and history. I studied literature and paintings intently and went to classes and museums and learned some of their art of philosophical debate and conversation. So in a certain sense, I really did end up thinking of and using the language more intellectually and artistically than practically.
My decision to learn Polish was even more eccentric and impractical. (I’m often asked if I’m Polish but the answer is no.) I simply fell in love with contemporary Polish poetry. The truth is, a good deal of twentieth-century Polish poetry is marvelously translated into English (Miłosz, Szymborska, Herbert, Różewicz, Zagajewski), so my love affair started via literary translation. But then I studied under Adam Zagajewski and, along with him and Edward Hirsch, organized a poetry seminar that took place every summer in Krakow from 2002 to 2006. It was loosely centered around the poet Czesław Miłosz and was occasioned by his retirement from a long career of teaching at Berkeley and his return home to Poland. A lot of Polish poets—like Miłosz and Zagajewski—had come to the United States and had a great influence on American poetry. The idea behind our poetry seminar was to reverse the flow, to bring some American poets to Krakow and let them interact with Polish literary culture. Those were marvelous summers, and they allowed me to meet younger Polish poets who weren’t translated into English. My desire to study Polish was related entirely to poetry. To really become expert at thinking about it, I was going to have to read it eventually in the original. Plus, there were lots of poets I would otherwise have no other way to read!
SK: In a conversation with Matt Jennings, editorial director of Middlebury Magazine, you described Bread Loaf as a kind of ecosystem—a place that includes writers at every stage of the writing life or career. With two additional programs dedicated to environmental writing and literary translation we see this ecosystem expanding. The fact that the Environmental Writers’ Conference and the Translators’ Conference take place at the same time is particularly interesting. I have participated in two Translators’ Conferences; the presence of environmental writers had quite an impact on my idea of translation. Attending their readings and hearing their voices made me realize how many different definitions of the term “translation” exist; how the concept of translation is woven into the fabric of the world(s) we live in. To me, the two conferences complement each other perfectly. Jennifer, could you comment on the two conferences and how they “correspond” with each other?
JG: Thank you for that description—you’re not alone in observing and thinking about the palpable and inspiring synergy the two conferences increasingly generate each year. It’s something I kind of shake my head and marvel at every summer without being able to take any credit for it whatsoever! The truth is, it’s sort of an accident. Or maybe more accurately, the decision came out of purely practical reasons rather than philosophical or pedagogical ones. The former director, Michael Collier, and I decided to run the two conferences simultaneously as a way to reduce costs. Both, we knew, would at least initially be much smaller conferences than the flagship August writers’ conference. We wanted to protect them from each having to shoulder the entire cost of providing kitchen staff and maintenance for the whole mountain campus, essentially.
But as you aptly describe, the conferences have ended up complementing and corresponding with each other to a surprising degree. It started with small things, like the translators discovering the morning bird walks held by the environmental writers and suddenly discussing language and communication in a different context. One faculty member from the environmental writers conference recently confessed to me that she felt translators were maybe even more serious writers than writers! She said she loved hearing them discuss at astonishing length the repercussions of a certain word choice, for instance. One Bread Loafer put it to me this way: both conferences bring together writers who love literature and believe in things in the world that are larger than themselves, than their own work. In that sense, both conferences are bringing people together who are in service to something in addition to or beyond their imagination and creativity. Or perhaps another way to say it is that they’re wanting to harness their own art to work toward some greater good. There is also often an undeniable sense of urgency—a political engagement—that wants to “translate” or explain how the world is much smaller and interconnected than Americans may conventionally see it. It is also much more intricate, various, and complex than any single one story or culture or tradition can fully contain.
One final thing: there have also been now on several occasions writers who have attended one conference and then come back in subsequent years to attend the other! You yourself, actually, are an example of someone who first attended Bread Loaf as a translator and have come back to a different conference as a writer. I love that! That there are these gifted and versatile writers, who are seeking ways to nurture their gifts and develop their skills and also to share them with others in a community like Bread Loaf. And it points to how Bread Loaf might help writers of the present moment and with its present challenges in ways that are different than regular degree or MFA programs, for instance.
SK: Thank you, Jennifer. I’m looking forward to your forthcoming book Everything I Don’t know.
JG: Thank you, Simone!
Jennifer Grotz’s most recent book of poems is Window Left Open (Graywolf, 2016). Everything I Don’t Know, the selected poems of Jerzy Ficowski cotranslated from the Polish with Piotr Sommer, is forthcoming from World Poetry Books. Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, she teaches at the University of Rochester.
Simone Kraus, a NER nonfiction reader, is an experienced translator living in Germany and the Czech Republic. In 2016, she received a Katharine Bakeless Nason grant for emerging writers from the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. She holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the Translation School of Mainz University, Germany, where she taught courses in the translation studies program for nine years. She is the author of Prag in der amerikanischen Literatur: Cynthia Ozick und Philip Roth (Peter Lang, 2016), a book focusing on the literary representation of Prague in the works of Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth.