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Ani Gjika

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(2016 - Translation)

"Nagative Space" by Luljeta Lleshanaku

[Translated from the Albanian]


1968. At the dock, ships arriving from the East
dumped punctured rice bags, mice
and the delirium of the Cultural Revolution.
A couple of men in uniform
cleared out the church
in the middle of the night.
The locals saw their priest in the yard
in underwear, shivering from the cold
their eyes questioning one another in disillusion:
“Wasn’t he the one who pardoned our sins?!”

Icons burnt in front of their eyes,
icons and the holy scriptures.
Witnesses stepped further back;
as if looking at love letters
nobody dared to claim.

Crosses were plucked from graves. And from each mouth
– irreversible promises:
dirt mounds the rains would even out
sooner or later.

Children dragged church bells by the tongue
(why didn’t they think of this before?!)
Overnight, the dome was demolished, suddenly revealing
a myriad of nameless stars that chased the crowd
like flies after a dead horse.

And what could replace Sunday mass now?
Women took out cauldrons in the yard.
Men filled up their pipes.
Against gravity, smoke rose up.
Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata
that bled in the wrong places –
a new code of sanctification,
of man, by man.

Translation first appeared in World Literature Today, November 2014.

Original in Albanian

About Luljeta Lleshanaku

Luljeta Lleshanaku is internationally known as Albania’s most important and inventive poet of her generation. A winner of International Kristal Vilenica Prize in 2009, she is the author of seven books of poetry in Albanian and six poetry collections in other languages. Negative Space won 2013 Author of the Year Award by the Publishers Association at the Tirana Book Fair, Albania. Her American collection Child of Nature (New Directions, 2010) was one of 2011 Best Translated Book Award poetry finalists and her British collection Haywire: New & Selected Poems was nominated for the 2013 Popescu Prize by Poetry Society, UK.

Ani Gjika is the author of Bread on Running Waters, a finalist for the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire Book Prize. A native of Albania, Gjika moved to the U.S. at age 18 and earned an MA in English at Simmons College and an MFA in poetry at Boston University. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, the Banff Centre International Literary Translators Residency, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize. Gjika's own poetry has appeared in Seneca Review, Salamander, Plume, From the Fishouse, and elsewhere. Her translations from the Albanian have appeared in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, AGNI Online, Catamaran Literary Reader, Two Lines Online, From the Fishouse, and elsewhere.

Photo by Ben Poulin

Art Talk with Ani Gjika

Translator’s Statement

I began translating Luljeta Lleshanaku’s poetry in 2010 as an MFA student at Boston University in Rosanna Warren’s Translation Seminar. Since then, I’ve translated poems by her and other Albanian writers, and most recently I've focused on her latest collection, Negative Space. Lleshanaku is an outstanding poet writing with clarity and sensitivity about everyman-type characters in search of a motive for, or the significance of their survival. One cannot pinpoint a scene as belonging to a specific place today or one in the past. Instead, the experience of reading these poems, is akin to discovering places and people that belong to all times and places in the world at once.

In this collection, Lleshanaku reinvents herself and her craft by employing the concept of negative space, an element of artistic composition in which the space around objects, not the objects themselves, becomes the real, most significant part of an image. It brings balance to the whole of a composition. This method allows Lleshanaku to look back at the reality of her Albanian past giving voice to those who have historically failed to speak up for themselves.

To translate Lleshanaku’s work from my mother tongue into English, a language I’ve adopted both as an immigrant and as a poet myself writing in this second language, is a great honor and source of pride and joy. Winning an NEA fellowship in the process only confirms this project's significance to me at this time in my career. The fellowship is a huge confirmation to me as both poet and translator that I am doing my job well and that I need to work harder.