Martha Ann Selby, 2005 Literary Translation Fellow in Poetry (Austin, TX)

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Photo portrait of Martha Ann Selby.

Photo by Stephen Shepherd

Martha Ann Selby received a 2005 NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation to support the retranslation from classical Tamil of Ainkurunu, a fourth-century anthology of love poems. The Ainkurunu contains the work of five poets, each of whom composed 100 poems devoted to one of five "landscapes" of reciprocal love (jealous quarreling, tortured separation and lament, clandestine love, abject separation, and domestic bliss). Selby is an associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her previous translations include Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India and A Circle of Six Seasons: Old Tamil, Prakrit, and Sanskrit Verse.

NEA: What has receiving the translation grant from the NEA meant to you?

MARTHA ANN SELBY: The NEA translation grant came to me at just the right time. The funding allowed me to travel to Chennai, India, for seven weeks during the summer of 2005, where I sat down with my Tamil professor, Dr. R. Vijayalakshmy, and completed some final checking on the seventy poems I had translated during my tenure at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Dr. Vijayalakshmy and I also worked through another thirty poems together, and as the project stands now, the translation of the entire text, which I began in 1997, is nearly finished. I will return to India in May of 2007 to complete the final section of the text with remaining NEA funds that I have set aside for this purpose.

NEA: Can you say a little about your background as a translator i.e. how you entered the field, previous work, etc.?

SELBY: I came to translation quite by accident. While I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I had the great good fortune of being accepted into a special undergraduate poetry workshop that the late poet Donald Justice was running—this was in the fall of 1981. I was experiencing issues with writer's block at that time, and when I went to see Justice in his office, he looked up at me over his bifocals and asked me very sweetly and softly if I knew any foreign languages. (At that time, I knew French, German, and Sanskrit—Tamil came into the picture later on.). I said yes, and he smiled and said, "Translate me something." At the time, I was listening to a very fine recording that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had made of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). These beautiful songs were running in my head, and I found the text for them—they were poems by Friedrich Ruckert, who incidentally [had been] a professor of eastern languages (Sanskrit and Arabic). I translated the poems from German to English, and submitted them to Justice. He phoned me and asked me to bring a recording to class, and we sat and listened to the music while everyone read the text of my translation. Justice complimented me very highly, and this meant so much to me as a young student that I decided that this was what I would do with at least some, if not all, of my intellectual life.

NEA: What attracted you to the project of retranslating the Ainkurunu?

SEBLY: During my first visit to India in 1986, I began to study classical Tamil quite seriously.  My own aesthetic sense could be described as minimalist, and up to that time, I had found much early Indian poetry to be far too ornate for my stomach. The poems of the Ainkurunu are quite short—the shortest ones are tiny three-liners; and the longest run to six lines. These poems operate almost entirely on image. Some of them read like haiku, and have the same sort of after-effect on the reader. I fell in love with the text, and decided that I would eventually translate the entire anthology, but didn't get around to it until eleven years later.

NEA: Why do you think literary translation is important?

SELBY: There seems to be a tendency to give translation the "back seat" as a "craft" rather than as an "art."  I find many people . . . who seem to be under the impression that translation is something that any idiot can do, if they just sit in an office and work with a good dictionary. This is, of course, ridiculous. In order to translate competently, the translator must know the language, of course, but in order to translate brilliantly and well, the translator must know the culture, too. Otherwise, one loses all the depth underneath all those beautiful words and images. And in these times, when we seem as a civilization to err constantly on the side of cultural ignorance, translation is not merely important, it's critical and crucial.

NEA: Describe your process when translating a particular text i.e. how do you approach the first translation, how do you approach issues of voice, etc.

SELBY: When I am looking at a poem for the first time, I untangle its grammar, and then I look at the words apart from their grammatical structures. I generally engage in a very old-fashioned morpheme-by-morpheme linguistic analysis of every single element in a poem. After I have finished with that, I make a very literal word-order translation of the poem, and then I do what I call a plotting of images—in these little poems, the meaning is conveyed not so much verbally as it is through the ways in which images fall on a page. The penultimate version of the translation involves taking a poem out of its word-order version and transforming it into an image-order version. It is at that stage when I finally "English" it. For me, accuracy always comes first, and then comes the polishing that makes a poem stand on its own in English. Some translators choose to leave out "the hard stuff."  I never do, though at times, I find myself faced with sacrificing beauty over correct detail—I generally manage to work it out somehow, though.

NEA: Do you also compose your own original work? If so, how has working as a translator affected your own "ars poetica"?

SELBY: I used to write a great deal of my own poetry—I still do, occasionally. My bags, pockets, and desk drawers are crammed with stray lines scribbled on napkins, index cards, matchbooks, and used airline boarding passes. I find the writing of poems to be a bit frightening—one reveals a bit too much of one's inner life, I suppose, which is why I find translation to be so much more appealing. If anything, translation has made me much more conscious of form, and the poems which I now write often resemble haiku or tanka. But in the end, I would rather be in the business of bringing an old poem to life—and perhaps in doing so, telling the secrets of someone who lived long ago, without their permission!—than be in the business of telling my own.