Rimas Uzgiris: on the Lithuanian poetry translation workshop, on *** by Nijolė Miliauskaitė

In this article, Rimas Uzgiris responds to our online translation workshop, focussing on the poem ‘***’ by Lithuanian poet Nijolė Miliauskaitė. The workshop is now closed, but you can access the workshop materials online, and read versions of the poem on the workshop page. Rimas selected one workshop entry to feature in our digital pamphlet on Lithuanian poetry: ‘***’, by Martyn Crucefix. Read Rimas’ thoughts on this version, and other workshop entries, beneath.

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It was a pleasure to see so many people working with the poetry of Nijolė Miliauskaitė, and I am grateful that MPT gave us a platform from which to share and explore the work of a first-rate poet who is just about unknown outside of Lithuania. Her poetry deserves more of an audience, and it was a treat to see people turning her work into fine English language poetry. I must say, I was also surprised by how willing people were to make interpretive translations, even re-arranging stanzas. Such efforts can always lead to new discoveries, and can help foreign poems find a home in English. Martyn Crucefix was especially free-wheeling with the stanza structures, more so than I myself would be, but as I read his version, I felt it works. Perhaps he has discovered some latent possibilities in Miliauskaitė’s poem and brought them to the fore in English. Though it helps that in other respects he was quite close to the Lithuanian. Lina Lebedeva and Maria Isakova also broke up lines and extended stanzas to discover new possibilities, with Isakova’s repetition of ‘Quiet’ left hanging in empty space especially effective. (See also her repetition of ‘the day before’ in the last stanza.) Lebedeva brought some of William Carlos Williams’ plastic (fantastic!) lines into the poem: ‘spare me | quiet and hushed life | just so’.

On the other hand, these interpretive reaches don’t all work equally well. Lea Krasnobroda has the young girls in the last stanza ‘mocking’ the old woman, when the Lithuanian text implies the self-absorbed laughter of teenagers. Nevertheless, her translation is, for me, one of the more attractive ones overall. For instance, ‘trees and mansions and towers | from Wilczynski’s folio—Let’s dwell | in them for a spell.’ Though, I do wish she had not skipped the ‘thoughts in head’ line, this phrase was problematic for many. My reading of the Lithuanian pushed for an understanding of those thoughts as being in the woman’s mind, not the child’s, as Martyn Crucefix makes clear with his ‘miserable | thoughts in her head’. Edwin Stockdale suggestively changes the thoughts into ‘unmerciful’ ones. I also quite like his repetition of ‘grant me’ in the first stanza, and he generally stayed admirably close to the original text in structure and diction, though in that same first stanza he sounds a false note by populating this Lithuanian city (almost certainly Vilnius) with ‘castles, obelisks’. Lithuanian cities with trolley-buses have one castle each, no obelisks. Oh, yes, and Mr. Crucefix turns the rather iconic Eastern European trolley-bus into a tram, which we don’t have in Lithuania. Perhaps this seems like nit-picking, but I do think it is an importantly local poem, as announced in the first stanza by the reference to Vilčinskis’ album. This makes the barracks a political phenomenon, a sense of the occupation, and brings a wonderful ambivalence to the fear at the end, or rather, the fear hinted at by questioning its existence: ‘like yesterday, like the day before yesterday, what should I fear’ (Stockdale). A local poem with universal appeal, then. I thank them all for their insights and creative attention to Miliauskaitė’s poem. She would be pleased, indeed.

– Rimas Uzgiris, Ph.D., MFA
Vilnius University