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New Pearl Series

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Beginning in February, New Directions will release a new series by favorite ND authors in small format books, similar to the ND Bibelot series that ran from  1993–2004.  The Bibelot series served as short introductions to the great 20th century modernist authors such as Henry Miller and Ezra Pound, as well as reissuing short modern classics.  The new Pearl series will relaunch some of the Bibelots and introduce short works by new ND authors such as Javier Marías and César Aira.

The editions are pocket sized, with clean designs by Rodrigo Corral, New Directions’ Creative Director at Large, whose minimalist style gives the books a unique look—a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color; an abstraction of a pearl shining on the spine.

These gorgeous-looking, affordably priced ($9.95!) miniature masterpieces are also quite pragmatic.  I really can’t leave my house without something to read, which can be problematic at times, like when I just have to walk down the street to meet a friend or something, does it really makes sense to carry a book with me?  But there’s always the chance that the person I’m meeting will be late and I’ll be stuck without a book, but then I end up having to carry a bag with just one book in it, or folding a paperback in half and stuffing it in my back pocket.  The Pearl series can solve a lot of these problems for me.

February will see the release of the first series of Pearls, including Patriotism by Yukio Mishima, Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca, and Tales of Desire by Tennessee Williams. The two I’ve read so far have been great.  Patriotism is one of the most intense reads I’ve experience in a while, and Bad Nature is a wry tale that takes a comic premise down a dark alley.  I used the descriptions from the back jacket of each book:

Patriotism by Yukio Mishima, Translated by Geoffrey W. Sargent

Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Japanese army, comes home to his wife and informs that his closest friends have become mutineers.  Torn between his allegiances to the Emperor and his rebellious friends, Shinji and his beautiful, loyal wife Reiko decide to end their lives together.  Incredible detail Mishima describes Shinji and Reiko making love for the last time and the ritual suicide by seppuku that follows.

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, Translated by Esther Allen

“It all happened because of Elvis Presley.”

A boiled-down gem of a Marías story about how Elvis (in Acapulco to film a movie) and his hard-drinking entrouage abandon their interpreter in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals after insults start to fly.  When the local kingpin demands to be told what the Americans are saying, Elvis himself delivers an even more stinging parting shot–and who has to translate that?

In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca, Translated by Christopher Mauer (Poems translated by Norman di Giovanni, Edwin Honig, Langston Hughes, Lysander Kemp, W. S. Merwin, Stephen Spender, J. L. Gili and Christopher Mauer)

The notion of “duende” became a conerstone of Federico García Lorca’s poetics over the course of his career.  In his lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende,” he says, “there are no maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende.  We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned…”  The duende is portrayed by Lorca as a demonic earth spirit embodying irrationality, earthiness, and a heightened awareness of death.  In Search of Duende gathers Lorca’s writings about the duende and about three art forms most susceptible to it: dance, music, and the bullfight.  A full bilingual sampling of Lorca’s poetry is also included, with special attention to poems arising from traditional Spanish verse forms.  The result is an excellent introduction to Lorca’s poetry and prose for American readers.

Tales of Desire by Tennessee Williams

“I cannot write any sort of story,” said Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal, “unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.”  These five transgressive Tales of Desire—”The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” “One Arm,” “Desire and the Black Masseur,” “Hard Candy,” and “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen”—show the iconic playwright at his outrageous best.


Politics and power in Evelio Rosero’s THE ARMIES.

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The Armies

For the past 60 years Colombia’s social and political climate has been defined by violence. The root of Colombia’s three decade-long civil war can be traced back to the period known as “La Violencia,” which stemmed from the assassination of the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán and the seizure of government power by conservatives. As a result, numerous left wing and communist revolutionary groups formed throughout the country, notably the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). In turn, conservative paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) were created in response to these collectives. For these groups violence is the route to power. Both the leftist guerillas and conservative paramilitary groups have terrorized the populace through massacres, kidnappings, extortion, rape, robbery, assassination, disappearances, lootings and intimidation.

The Bojayá massacre of 2002 exemplifies this: In 2002, the AUC paramilitary group occupied the town of Bojayá in order to rid the area of FARC guerillas and to gain possession of the coca plantations surrounding the town. Despite protests from the local inhabitants that the presence of the paramilitary groups would only bring suffering to the town, the AUC remained. Then, on May 2nd 2002, FARC began shelling the town with primitive mortars, indiscriminately killing both civilians and AUC members. 119 citizens were killed and 98 were seriously wounded. In the wake of the atrocities, it became evident that the people of Bojayá were viewed as expendable by all combatants. The AUC reportedly used civilians as human shields, to have looted the town and confiscated goods, vehicles, and equipment from the denizens of Bojayá. Furthermore, the Colombian government failed to prevent the pillage, despite warnings from the UN of the brutality that would occur.

In The Armies, Rosero depicts this lack of concern for lives of the Colombian people. The armies playing out their gruesome war games are nameless, but are meant to evoke groups such as FARC, ELN and the AUC, who for many years have brutalized the Colombian people in the name of politics. Although Rosero elects to render anonymous the warring militias who wash through the town, murdering at will, the narrative trajectory of The Armies is fuelled by accounts of the very specifically named people of the fictional town of San José. From Chepe the restaurant owner whose pregnant wife is abducted, to the outsider figure of Hey, the empanada vendor who is eventually decapitated, no life in San José is left untouched by the book’s violent and destructive course. Rosero says of the specificity of victims and the facelessness of the killers: “Everything is reduced to death tolls without ever reporting on the causes, the offenders. Impunity is our daily bread. To tackle this aspect of the Colombian reality from a human perspective, to tackle the life of the citizen, the unarmed people stuck in the middle of crossfire, was a tremendous challenge, because I am a novelist and couldn’t take sides. I couldn’t let it fall into becoming a propaganda piece, so through writing I was able to use the literary art as a witness.” This refusal to “take sides” renders the novel all the more powerful as a depiction of humanity on the brink of destruction: the people are pawns in this game; husbands and wives are taken and used for ransom, innocent children are transformed into soldiers and murderers and the corpses of women are raped and defiled. No one in the novel escapes the grip of terror that the armies bring.

Furthermore, the reader cannot identify any recognizable incentive for the acts of either the insurgents or the paramilitaries, other than monetary gain and greed for power. The war seems in this way apolitical–the stated goals of the guerillas and paramilitaries are merely a front for their quest for power. Despite the political ambiguity of the book, figures of authority are lampooned heavily in The Armies, rendering the novel a tragicomedy of sorts. Nobody dodges Rosero’s ridicule, which acknowledges the position of those in the socio-political hierarchy and proceeds to underscore their foibles, both political and moral. The local priest is an adulterer, the chief of police a paranoid “nutter” and even the professor Ismael, our narrator, is a man tormented by lust in spite of the fact that he is incontinent and approaching decrepitude. We, like the villagers, only hear of the army general indirectly, as a man who uses helicopters to evacuate his livestock rather than aid the people. The guerillas are depicted as mocking children, and even the people of San José, caught in the chasm of violence, remain ignorant of the reasons behind their plight. In rendering his characters ignorant, Rosero has made it difficult to surmise whether or not this is satire in itself, a stereotype of rural life, in which peoples’ only concerns are the quotidian, the humdrum life of a small village.

However, it would appear that Rosero uses ignorance and anonymity in order to highlight the ruthless nature of this war, one in which sides are irrelevant and all noncombatants are victims. In his Colombia, the fictional town of San José is quite literally stuck in the middle of the greater power struggle occurring throughout the country. The villagers thus come to embody the suffering of the people of Colombia under these figures of power, and our hero Ismael, with his descent into decay and forgetfulness, becomes a metaphorical allusion to Colombian politics, a system plagued by violence and poverty, in which reason and certainty hold little meaning.
–Katie Raissian

Written by New Directions

September 10, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Translations of classical Chinese poems

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Just last month, we released our two new selections of Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese and Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese.

About a week or so ago, I received an email from one bookseller commenting on the books, saying that he generally found Rexroth’s Chinese translations more interesting than the Japanese ones but also expressing an ambivalence about a certain flatness of tone in Rexroth’s translation. Not knowing any Chinese, I asked one of the editors who speaks and reads Chinese. The editor replied that the bookseller was correct, that there is a certain flatness in Rexroth’s translations but it was that exact quality which he liked so much in Rexroth’s translations. However, he went on to say that he knew poets who preferred David Hinton’s translations.

I’ve been meaning to hunt down a Chinese poem translated by various translators to do a comparison…so I turned to The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New Directions has a long history of publishing poems from the Chinese since they first published Ezra Pound’s translations which Pound worked through to arrive at his Ideogrammic method of poetry. Many of the classic Chinese poems that are being translated today are the same poems that were translated by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

In light of the email, here are some comparison translations of a poem by Meng Hao-Jen:

William Carlos Williams’ translation:

Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descent while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops,
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.

Kenneth Rexroth’s translation:

Night on the Great River

We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.
As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
The plain stretches away without limit.
The sky is just above the tree tops.
The river flows quietly by.
The moon comes down amongst men.

Gary Snyder’s translation:

Mooring on Chien-Te River

The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island
Sunset, my loneliness comes again.
In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees.
In the clear river water, the moon draws near.

How personal and interpretative, a rewriting in essence, a translation can be is revealed in these variations. In the first translation, Williams leaves the poem untitled while Snyder and Rexroth give quite different meanings to the title. Rexroth’s Night on the Great River is quiet and static while Snyder’s uses the verb “mooring”. I was struck by how both Williams and Snyder used the word “misty” while Rexroth used “hazy.” Additionally, Rexroth’s choice of “nostalgia” has a very different tone than Snyder’s loneliness or Williams’ more dramatic “sorrow.” Rexroth’s translation is looser, less condensed. While not quite vernacular, there is an almost everydayness to Rexroth’s language.

And here’s the same poem by Li Po translated respectively by Ezra Pound and David Hinton:

Ezra Pound’s translation:

Separation on the River Kiang

Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.

David Hinton’s translation:

On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to Meng Hao-Jan Who’s Leaving for Yang-Chou

From Yellow-Crane Tower, my old friend leaves the west.
Downstream to Yang-chou, late spring a haze of blossoms,

distant glints of lone sail vanish into emerald-green air:
nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.

In this poem by Li Po, if I didn’t see the two translations set side by side, I would think that they were actually two different poems. Pound’s translation embodies much of the musicality in his Cantos, and I assume that he’s freestyling much more than Hinton in order to achieve alliteration. While the difference between the two can be seen (the short title by Pound and the long title by Hinton), it is most obvious when reading the translations out loud. Pound’s short lines and muscular language makes for a more staccato read while Hinton’s word choices which are heavier on vowels forces the tongue to slow down.

By the way, even though the translations are by various translators, it’s worth mentioning that The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, Written on the Sky, as well as Songs of Love, Moon and Wind were all put together by the singular Eliot Weinberger.

~Soo Jin