Dimitra Kotoula is a poet you have clearly worked with many times, on many projects. How has your approach to poetry translation, the way you communicate with Kotoula, and the final outcome itself, changed/developed over the six years you’ve worked together?
First, translation is a job within many other jobs. As a translator, I’m the person in between Dimitra’s poems and my English versions. To boot, I’m an agent, a writer, and a friend. Together, over the years, Dimitra and I have formed a closeness that I joke is similar to common-law marriage. We’ve endured our ups and downs, and why wouldn’t we? Seven years is a long time. We openly communicate, quickly resolve misunderstandings, firmly set appropriate boundaries, and actively care about one another.
In the meantime, our work has changed because over the years, I’ve grown more adept at translating her poems. She’s a challenging writer, to be sure, and very different from me, but as I’ve grown to know and love her poetry, I understand more of the nuances, and my Greek has improved. We’ve become close as people, and had the pleasure of becoming friends who are involved in one another’s personal lives. I told her when I ended a six-year relationship. She told me when she was in the throes of the Greek financial crisis, and all the ATMs in the country limited the citizens’ withdrawals. I sent her my wedding photos, and she told me her daughter kept clapping her hands when she saw my beachside ceremony. We correspond when family members get sick. We tell each other everything, so we’ve cultivated a good understanding of one another’s limits, strengths, and loves. Getting to know her has allowed me to translate her poems better. I GET a Dimitra poem because I GET her both on and off the page.
There is clearly a lot of work going into carrying the meaning, musicality, and poetics of a poem into a new language. When you translate a poem/group of poems and have that work published, what amount of ownership do you feel, if any? Do you ever feel like it is your responsibility to leave your mark, in some way, on the work?
I feel a ton of ownership; there’s no way not to. Translation is a humble practice and a scary one. People who are fluent in Spanish will look over a Neruda translation and say, “That’s not right” or “That translator could have done better.”
Although not as many people in the U.S. read modern Greek, I still want the work to stand up as a sound American poem, a Maria Nazos translation, AND a Dimitra Kotoula poem. Preserving that integrity is tough, tough, tough because I have to negotiate. Part of negotiating, sadly, means you have to give something up in each iteration. Each time I sit down, I ask myself, “What am I forgoing, and what am I gaining, if I give up the rhythm, meaning, or rhyme?
The fact is, I can’t have it all. Translation is a huge responsibility and a lot of work and trust for someone to lend you their words. Someone fluent in Greek told me that a part of my translation was inaccurate, but Dimitra reassured me that her poems “Are a puzzle for the even most experienced translators,” and she felt certain that I did justice to the line. So, I want to leave my mark, but not as Maria Nazos, the poet. I want to leave my mark as Maria Nazos, the translator that accurately rendered the original work as a stand-up American poem that preserves most of its Greek integrity.
How does target audience affect the choices you make as a translator? How fully do you have an American reader in mind when you’re translating?
I try to make sure the poems stand up as American poems; an ambitious feat but not an easy one. Throughout Dimitra’s work, she makes implicit and explicit references to the Greek financial crisis, to culturally specific allusions (“You didn’t keep the Lyra tuned as you were taught”), and philosophy, including Plato’s Politeia (“blinded by the aspalathus thorns”).
All of these choices are difficult to render. My sincere hope is that between footnotes and negotiations with the author, we’re able to preserve most of the integrity while tweaking other references. There are certain idiomatic expressions, for example, that simply can’t come across in English, so we’ll choose the closest approximation. During other instances, such as the Plato mention, I’ll sparingly use footnotes.
What can you say about a poem’s form in regards to translation? Are there cases where the poem’s form might change? For instance, the piece, “Cavafy Tries to Forget,” is center-aligned, which is a relatively atypical formatting decision in literary poetry today. Why did Kotoula decide to center-align that poem, and did you feel any desire to align it differently in an American context?
Wow. That is such a good question. She has written a few centered poems, which I’ve never thought about until now, so thank you for asking. For “Cavafy Tries to Forget,” now that I think about it, doesn’t the form look like a person? And isn’t Cavafy trying to forget the shape of his lover unclasping his hair? And isn’t he struggling to remain true to that form, in his writing and memory, while also trying to erase it? He’s contemplating the youth’s form, and the poem itself, as much as trying to escape it. Yet, there it is, in the centered poem, at the center of his psyche, shaped like his lover. As I write this, I realize that form plays an even larger role in Dimitra’s poems than I thought.
What has been your favorite part of translating Kotoula’s work?
Moments like these! It’s fun to contemplate why someone who is a very different writer made the aesthetic choices that she did. I love those little “a-ha” moments like the one above, ESPECIALLY if they happen in the act of translation. Then, I feel like I’ve bridged the gap between oceans, minds, and hearts, and if only for a minute, done my job.