The workshop from which this group of translations emerged (featured in ‘How to Swim’) took place at the British Council offices near the National Gallery in London in October 2018. My companions in the workshop were the British poet Richard Scott, whose acclaimed first collection Soho had appeared from Faber earlier that year; and the two Lithuanian poets, Dovydas Grajauskas and Agnė Žagrakalytė, whose presence in London was supported by the Lithuanian Cultural Institute. The poet Sasha Dugdale, a leading translator of Russian literature and former editor of MPT, was our chair for the workshop. We were also joined – crucially – by Julija Gulbinovic, a native Lithuanian who has been living for some years in London and working as (amongst other things) a translator and language teacher, and who acted here as our bridge translator. Julija, I think we all agreed, was the linchpin of the sessions, and had to concentrate more intensely and more tirelessly than any of us.
The translation process through which Sasha guided us was based on a method developed by David and Helen Constantine, accomplished translators and former editors of MPT. First, the poet reads their poem aloud in its original language. This is a chance for the group to encounter the poem musically and rhythmically, and – perhaps – to catch a sense of the poet’s demeanor and tonal delivery. Then, beginning with the title, the poet – aided by the bridge translator – talks through the poem word by word, defining and explaining each term used, letting the other poets know exactly which word does which job in a sentence, and alerting them to any unusual effects or deviations from conventional grammar. We were told nothing about the poems in advance: no framing or summarising, no hint of the poem’s subject. This meant that each piece unfolded, word by word, as a total surprise.
Such a procedural description sums up a bit too neatly what was necessarily approximate and iterative work, constantly interrupted by questions like, ‘Can you tell us a bit more about the normal contexts in which you might use that phrase?’, ‘Sorry, can you just remind me which word was the verb in this sentence?’, digressions on comparable effects in other poems, and – often – ‘Can you describe the tone of this bit here?’; or else devolving into a sort of free-for-all of synonyms, with everyone chipping in, the translator saying yea or nay, and poets side-barring in their common language. My annotated copies of the Lithuanian poems are covered in strings of alternate possibilities: ‘endless, without edges’ (the word bekraštis), or ‘clearly/evidently/obviously’ (ryškiaia).
It must be said that the English-language poets were responsible for more than their fair share of these discussions: it took far longer to crib Lithuanian poems into English than it did for the Lithuanians to create satisfactory cribs in return. Richard and Sasha and I were full of questions; we wanted to tease out all the nuances and connotations of the language chosen, sometimes forcing Agnė or Dovydas – in a state of amused alarm – to protest, ‘It just means what it says.’ They both preferred not to ruminate on their own work. Asked whether he’d had a particular subtext in mind for a particular passage in his poem, Dovydas might reply, ‘I can’t remember’; or, ‘If that’s what you think.’ He claimed not to revise.
Agnė was also impatient with long discussions of poems, but more because they led us away from what the poems were truly, inarguably about. This was her preference when translating, too. Several times, when I was trying to explain what was going on in one of my own poems, she would interrupt to ask, ‘But what is the literal meaning?’ Chastened, I would answer. She wrote it down. That was that. When it came to her own work, she also had a clear idea of what she wanted to denote. She would refuse synonyms or tonal interrogations, returning us again and again to the text.
Dovydas and Agnė are very different poets, at very different stages of their literary careers – Dovydas was only twenty-two at the time of our workshop; Agnė, in her late thirties, has already published several books – but this process revealed what I take to be their common faith in the literal word of the poem. The process also revealed a common faith amongst the English poets: an insistence on ambiguity, irony, wordplay, and subtext as central to poetry. We seemed always to be chasing the unspoken or implied spirit of the text (a shared preoccupation that was surprising given how I would otherwise have considered us quite distinct in our working practices).
These two divergent faiths led inevitably to divergent approaches to the practice of translation, and different conceptions of its ultimate aim. Agnė said to me very directly that she was concerned to translate as closely as possible. For her, a faithful, close translation, a translation in absolute service to the original text, was the ideal. This seemed personally important to her as she worked on my and Richard’s poems, but also – implicitly – how she wanted her own poems to be handled by others. Of course this is Agnė’s individual theoretical preference; but it struck me also as one possible consequence of writing in a small and isolated language. Lithuanian has only three million speakers worldwide, though its roots are as ancient as Sanskrit, and relatively uncorrupted by the influence of other European tongues. It does not travel often, and maybe not well. Given a chance to reach a wider audience, then, you wouldn’t want your poetry to be co-opted completely by the bullying tide of globalised (and globalising) English; you would want as much as you can of it to survive, not least because English often acts as a gateway language, allowing further translations into further languages to emerge. The need to make a poem feel alive in the ‘target’ language is one way of doing justice to the original poet, and has resulted in many beautiful and energetic versions of non-Anglophone works; but making oneself as inconspicuous as possible is another, and Agnė made her preferences clear.
Having read only the poems each of these poets brought to the workshop, it feels difficult to characterise their work. Let me say instead what I responded to in the texts that we worked on together. Dovydas’s poems felt to me very fresh and recently-drawn; they had a quality of casual immediacy, and of detached, even amused, observation of one’s own feelings. The Hollywood machismo in ‘San Andreas Fault’ is deflated, and superseded, by the bald truthfulness of the poet’s admission that he’d stay at home if the world was ending – though whether out of cowardice or out of attachment to his family is deliberately unclear. There is a guarded, knowing, take-it-or-leave-it attitude at work.
Agnė’s poems, on the other hand, were somehow volcanic: eruptions created by immense emotional pressure, running hot and then cooling into unusual organic forms. These emotional imperatives often found expression in a single powerful metaphor or image to which the poem would obsessively return: the varieties of barbed and spiked sea-creatures in ‘The woman on the Metro gives me back my handkerchief’, or the ultra-violent fantasy of smashing one’s enemies’ faces into a pulp in the poem ‘10k, or: You look like the back of a bus in that skirt’.
This latter poem presented a surprising challenge: the verb pisčiau means literally ‘to fuck in’; it hinges on a queasy yoking-together of penetrative sex and violence that has some parallels in English but nothing that seemed like a true equivalent. I considered ‘fuck her up’, for example; but it didn’t seem specific enough, especially when the fucking-in is enacted imaginatively upon the woman’s snukį, her ‘snout’: it’s the nosy, spying face of the woman, and later the smug, preaching mouth of the male poet, that must be destroyed. ‘Smash her fucking face in’ was the best I could do; it has, I hope, something of the raw graphic aggression Agnė wants.
Another of Agnė’s poems, ‘The woman on the Metro…’, concerns an encounter a woman crying on public transport, who tells the poet her woes. The word nuoskauda is repeated several times. In the workshop, both Richard and I seemed to take this word to denote ‘pain’, and we both used the word ‘pain’ repeatedly in our (otherwise very different) translations. But it bothered me, and quite possibly bothered Richard, too. It seemed like a blunt instrument for what was a poem of exacting sharpness. I presented my translation as-was at the poetry reading we all gave on our final night, but walking back to the hotel with the Lithuanians afterwards, I found myself saying, ‘Pain isn’t the right word, is it?’ Agnė turned to me with a serious look and said, ‘No.’ Both she and Dovydas began trying to explain the term again. It has no equivalent in English, they emphasised. In a sense it means pain, but it means a particular kind of pain, emotional, or social; a sort of injustice that has been suffered, or an insult that has been received. Something interpersonally terrible had happened to this woman, and she had not been able to respond or defend herself, and the humiliation had festered in her.
My final effort to translate this word was to abandon the repetition Agnė uses in her poem altogether, and instead to make use of several of these different approximate terms: ‘wronged’, ‘grievance’, ‘insult’, ‘injustice’, as well as ‘pain’. In doing so, I have sacrificed one of the formal patterns that holds the poem together. I hope that the translation compensates for this by more effectively conveying the complex, layered emotional state the original describes. Or maybe this is just another example of my deviating from Agnė’s actual compositional decisions in pursuit of an ephemeral ‘reading’ of her poem.
Frances Leviston, February 2019
Frances Leviston’s most recent book of poetry is Disinformation (Picador, 2015). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Nation, London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and are forthcoming in The New Yorker. She lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.