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Art Talk with NEA Literature Translation Fellow Maia Evrona

“Literary translation saves us from provincialism.” – Maia Evrona

Words have distinct weight and power. Good writers wield them in a way that enables us to see and feel the world through fresh eyes; even transporting us to other times and places. Add to the mix access to the literary treasures of other languages, and the magic expands exponentially. 

Today the NEA announced $275,000 in recommended grants to support the translation of works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from 11 original languages to English. These grants give translators the time and means to bring works into the English language, thereby unlocking new worlds for readers. 

Poet, memoirist, and translator Maia Evrona is one of 20 2015 NEA Literature Translation Fellows. Her work will bring a Yiddish poetry collection titled Poems from My Diary by Abraham Sutzkever into the English canon of literature. Sutkever is considered one of the foremost Yiddish language poets, and his work explores the beauty and depth of humanity, all beneath the weight of the Holocaust. We chatted with Evrona about the importance of literature translation, the power of a place, and the misconceptions surrounding Yiddish poetry. 

NEA: Describe your earliest encounter with art.  

MAIA EVRONA: Some of my first memories were of lullabies, and folk songs, and a book of poetry that I really loved as a kid. I was inseparable from it. One of my first memories was weeping because we went on vacation, and I left the book in the car. Then in my later childhood and adolescence, I developed a severe illness that was not diagnosed properly, so for over 10 years, I was very disabled. During that time, art and poetry and music were all great gifts to me and encouraged me to find worth in what I was experiencing. 

NEA: How did you first become interested in the field of literary translation? 

EVRONA: I write poetry, and in the process of writing poetry, one really has to read a lot of poems. Translation is the way of reading very deeply. I felt also when I was learning Yiddish that I had something to offer because I had skills as a poet, and hopefully, that meant I would be a pretty good translator.

NEA: Why do you think it's important to support literary translation?

EVRONA: Literary translation saves us from provincialism. It's a way to learn about countries, cultures, experiences, and ways of thinking that are different from our own. It really frustrates me that people tend to put translation down. I hear a lot of, "You can’t trust translations," and a lot of bemoaning what's lost in translation, rather than what's gained—which I think is a great deal. Nobody can learn every single language on the face of the earth, so translators really do us all a great service. Most of the poets I really like and connect with are poets I myself read in translation or poets whom I translate.

NEA: What work of literature in translation can you no live without and why? 

EVRONA: The collection Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems by Yehuda Amichai, but then I guess if it didn't exist, I would translate it myself.  

NEA: Tell me a bit about this particular grant project and what drew you to it.

EVRONA: It's a collection called Poems from my Diary by Abraham Sutzkever who is one of the foremost Yiddish language poets and a very beloved figure in the Yiddish literary world. When I first started studying Yiddish seriously, I started reading his work. I had read that Poems from My Diary was considered his masterpiece, but at first I was mostly reading through some [of his] other collections. When I did start translating from Poems from My Diary, I opened the book and randomly chose a translation, and I just fell in love with it. I wanted to share the collection.

NEA: Why do you think it's important to translate all of the poems in Poems from My Diary together as a collection?  

EVRONA: The collection is cohesive, and the vast majority of the poems are written in the same form, four quatrains. One of the things I really enjoy about translating Sutzkever is feeling like my voice as a poet is merging with his voice as a poet, and I wanted to keep that voice throughout it. I felt that leaving out some of the poems that had been previously translated would give an incomplete view of the book. Obviously if I publish this book—which I hope that I will—it’s going to be all of my translations, and there are some poems that I feel I can't leave out. 

NEA: I understand that you spent some time in the author's hometown, Vilna, Lithuania. How do you think the experience of being there will inform your translation? 

EVRONA: It definitely makes me feel more connected to Sutzkever. [When I] studied Yiddish there, we were always talking about Sutzkever, and his presence was always felt. [That] definitely made me more interested in translating his poetry. It's also surprisingly helpful in understanding the poems. I mentioned in my application that I translated the poem called “The Blade of Grass from Ponar.” Ponar was a mass-killing site where nearly 100,000 Jewish people were murdered. We visited there, and it is helpful even to have an understanding of the geography, to know how close Ponar was to Vilna and to have a sense of what the city looks like.  

It was also helpful that I lived in Israel for two years, and actually, I just came from three months in Tel Aviv. [Sutzkever] had been living for nearly equal amounts of time in Israel and his hometown Vilna, which is now known as Vilnius. He was a Jewish poet who was writing in a Jewish majority state, but the language that he wrote in, Yiddish, had been very much marginalized and was not the language of the state. It wasn't even an official language of the state. He had a community of Yiddish writers, but he was very much marginalized. The literature he wrote didn't gain a lot of attention, even though, for this collection, he did win the Israel Prize, which is a top honor.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Yiddish in Israel. People don't understand that there was secular Yiddish culture. They tend to think of it as the language of the ultra-Orthodox. At the same time, people don't realize that the Jewish community in Israel is really composed of many different minorities—Jews who came from Arab countries and Jews who came from Germany who were still somewhat attached to the German language—so in that sense, he was one of many. 

I would sometimes mention, when I was in Israel, that I translated from Yiddish. I noticed that even just compared with six years ago, which is the first time I was there, people were much more interested. Still, so many people had never heard of this writer who was really one of the greatest writers who ever lived in Israel. It was interesting to see how [little] they knew about Yiddish literature, but I think that that's changing.  

NEA: What is it in particular that draws you to Sutzkever’s work over other poets that you've come across? 

EVRONA: He was just so good. He was amazing. I was really bowled over when I first started translating poems from Poems from My Diary. They were just so good. Sutzkever has been a bit pigeonholed, I think, as a Holocaust poet, and he was a Holocaust poet, [but] I like that in this collection, there are poems that are explicitly about the Holocaust, and then there are love poems, lyric poems, and poems that are about the process of writing poetry, and the shadow of the Holocaust is in all of them, but they're also just about the general human condition. [They’re] very universal, and I really like that. They also demonstrate Sutzkever's resiliency and his level of life. It's really inspiring to be able to engage with that very deeply through translation. His other collections have poems I really love, like poems he wrote during the Holocaust, and poems he wrote after about 10 years in Israel when he was raising little children, and those are also really wonderful. Poems from My Diary is written with the wisdom he's gained after all those experiences.  

NEA: What responsibilities do you feel like you have as a translator when you're sharing an author's work, particularly when that artist is no longer living?

EVRONA: There are different philosophies of translation. There are people who are more accurate, and then there are people who take the original poem and do their own poem based on it, but it isn't really a translation. I think if you're translating somebody like Pablo Neruda or Apollinaire, a poet who's going to keep getting translated for centuries and centuries to come, you can have a bit more freedom than with Sutzkever who has been translated much less. I feel like I have to really do the best job I can, and also be very accurate. I'm using all of my skills as a poet in terms of craft to make a translation that's readable and engaging and musical; while at the same, I can't put too much of myself into it. Most of the time it really works out well, and I don't have to hold myself back. 

One of the things I'm most careful about is that I never want to make him sound silly in the translation. I want to be accurate to what he's saying, but I also want to create something that's engaging and musical. The thing about Sutzkever is that he really believes in the music of poetry. When it comes to being accurate word-for-word, that’s not what he would want me to do; he would want me to create something that's musical. One of the advantages of translating this collection is that [most] all of the poems are written in in the same form. Now that I've translated a lot of them, I'm more in the rhythm of it, and it's gotten easier. Sometimes people try to hang on to too much from the original language, and then you end up with a poem that seems to be in broken English. I think that does the original author a disservice, so you have to be willing to break with the original language and really create something that's in English. 

NEA: Art matters because… 

EVRONA: …because it's a human need. I think humans have the need to express themselves through art and to consume other art.   

If you're interested in the art of literary translation, you might like our publication The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation.

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