Art Talk with Literature Translation Fellow Ani Gjika

By Paulette Beete
a young white woman with long dark curly hair
Ani Gjika. Photo by Ben Poulin

“I believe art comes from a very genuine part of who we are, something we finally tap into when engaged in the process of art making. So the work is more us than we are, better than we are and much more complex than the world it tries to depict, reflect, or react against.” – Ani Gjika

NEA Literature Fellow Ani Gjika is both a literary translator and a poet. She inhabits both roles so equally that, as she told us in an e-mail interview, "I can’t separate them anymore. When I’m a poet, I’m a translator and vice-versa." A native speaker of Albanian—she immigrated with her family from Albania to the U.S. in the mid-1990s—Gjika has published translations of work by Albanian writers Agron Tufa, Mimoza Hysa, and most extensivley Luljeta Lleshanaku. She plans to use her NEA fellowship to translate Lleshanaku's poetry collection Negative SpaceGjika has also published her own collection of poetry, Bread on Running Waters, which was brought out by Fenway Press in 2013. She has also been the recipeient of the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, a Banff Centre International Translators Residency, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize, among other honors. Keep reading to hear more from Gjika on her earliest inklings that she might be a poet, how she thinks about the art of translation, and why she thinks we need to have more work by Luljeta Lleshanaku available in English. NEA: What’s your origin story as a poet? ANI GJIKA: This is tough. I honestly have more than one origin. The first poem I ever wrote was a eulogy. I was 7. It was in response to the death of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator. I couldn’t figure out why everyone was crying so much, but I couldn’t. Then there’s the origin story I’ve heard from my parents. My dad tells of coming home from work when I was three years-old and as he would often do those days, he’d sit down and tell me stories. But one day he was so tired that he dozed off mid-sentence. How could he do that? How did the story end?! He hadn't slept for a second or two, when I slapped him across the face demanding “fol mirë, jo glirë,” which translates from Albanian as “Speak clearly, not ‘glirë-ly’” where glirë is a word I made up at that moment not knowing one I could use to describe the slurred way he was speaking. But it rhymed so well with mirë and it tickles me to think that it’s maybe at once my origin as both poet and translator. But I have to also mention the day I sat down on the fire stairs of a house my family and I rented in Massachusetts back in 1999 and wrote some 30 little poems in one sitting, in English. We’d been living here for three years by then and I had just discovered Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, and Stevens in college classes. It was the first time I wrote poems in this language, and I’ve been writing in English since, though, unfortunately, never again as prolifically.  NEA: To borrow a term from the nonprofit world, what’s your “mission statement” as an artist? GJIKA: I write to be intimately honest with someone. To cause an emotional response in the reader because our hearts are open at that moment. Whenever I read Rumi, Szymborska, Simic, Amichai, Hirshfield, Sappho, Glück, I experience their poems as though they were reaching me from across a long time in either direction of infinity. If I could write something free of chronological, political, religious, cultural boundaries like them then I’d be happier. NEA: What drew you to the art of translation? GJIKA: Initially, I just fell into it. I’m a writer. In my twenties, English became my first language. But my mother tongue, Albanian, is still pretty strong even though I’m more at home, creatively, in English. So I wanted my friends and teachers, particularly those at Boston University, to read good Albanian literature in a language they understood. I didn’t know that I would soon discover how much I enjoy the process of literary translation. The process itself, more so than the final product, makes me feel both alive and like I'm truly bringing something to life. NEA: Why do you think literary translation is important/necessary as an art form? GJIKA: Because, like all forms of art, it is a creation/a reinvention and it originates in a selfless calling. Selfless because I really believe that whether you’re writing a poem, translating it, writing a song, making a film, whatever the art form, when you’re first beginning to make it, you’re not really concerned with how good this thing you’re making is going to be, but with who needs it the most. Who’s your work going to save? Translators are something of a midwife in the sense that they arrive, through the powers of language and imagination, at the moment the text was coming to life and deliver it again in a new language. NEA: For your grant project, you are translating work by Luljeta Lleshanaku. What draws you to her work, and why do you think it’s necessary to make it available in English? GJIKA: What draws me to Lleshanaku’s work is her power of seeing through human experience and her power of translating that insight into poems that speak in an original, deeply intelligent, and highly imagistic way. That she is all of those things is evident whether you’re reading her work or listening to her speak through interviews or in person. It’s important to translate this poet in English, not because she’s one of few poets writing powerfully from a country whose body of literature is still scarcely available in English, but because she is one of the most imaginatively daring poets who speaks to us with candor about human experience. NEA: In your project description, you wrote, “When translating Lleshanaku I try not to domesticate her texts into English no matter how intricate and foreign some of her images are.” Can you talk about that? What are the specific challenges of bringing her work into English? What do you most want to preserve from the poem’s native form? What are you willing to lose? GJIKA: Yes, I was referring to the first line in her poem, “Flashback III.” The line literally translates “Wind blows like a change of epochs,” which in the English language sounds strange, foreign, even a bit of a stretch for a metaphor. But the word “epoch” and the theme of the passing of time and its absolute power over us is a distinct mark of Lleshanaku’s work. So instead of changing the image and metaphor by removing the word “epoch”, I translated it as “Wind blows like a shuffling of eras.” What I hope most to preserve from the original work is the poet’s voice, her argumentative tone, which is sometimes quiet and knowing like Wislawa Szymborska’s; other times as prophetic, almost biblical, as Solomon’s or St. John’s. What I’m willing to lose are diction or syntactical choices I have to make, risking slight departures from the original in order to either create or recreate linguistic intimacy and urgency.   NEA: How does your work as a poet inform your work as a literary translator? How does your work as a literary translator inform your work as a poet? GJIKA: I can’t separate them anymore. When I’m a poet, I’m a translator and vice-versa. All writing is translation to me. I think of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Our Whole Life”, that first line: “Our whole lives a translation.” Whether I’m writing a poem or translating one, I’m deeply conscious and concerned with word choice a great deal—finding the words to name what we see when it is often nonverbal.  NEA: What’s your superpower as a poet? What’s your superpower as a literary translator? GJIKA: I hope to never be too sure about this.  If I knew, then I probably wouldn’t push myself hard enough.  NEA: What do you wish you were better at as a poet? What do you wish you were better at as a literary translator? GJIKA: As a poet, I wish I were better at building an argument, something Lleshanaku is a master of. I'm not saying I wish I wrote more like that, but that I wish I could be good at it once in a while. As a translator, well, the fact that English is not my first language is always at the back of my mind. Whatever I translate I'm always left wondering if it's good enough and if a native speaker would have done it better. I’m learning to stop questioning this and just do what I love.  NEA: Every artist has to deal with the idea of failure in some way, and also figure out what success means to them. What do those words mean to you in terms of literary translation? How do you know your translation is successful? GJIKA: Failure to me means I didn't push the boundaries, I didn't take risks, I played it safe using the words that best match the original when I could have trusted myself to dare more in terms of word choice and why not, even with changing a metaphor if I have to. So success to me means more or less the opposite of that—daring to go where I sense the original author wanted to go. I check with the author first, obviously, but most often I've been lucky in that they've trusted me to take these kinds of risks with language.  I know my translation is successful the way I know my own poems are successful. It happens when there's a perfect unity of linguistic urgency, concrete imagery, flow and music in the lines, and deep emotional intelligence.  NEA: Art matters because… GJIKA: Art matters because it tears off the masks people and whole countries put on because we’re afraid to put ourselves out there instead. I believe art comes from a very genuine part of who we are, something we finally tap into when engaged in the process of art making. So the work is more us than we are, better than we are and much more complex than the world it tries to depict, reflect, or react against. NEA: What’s a question I should have asked you? How would you have answered? GJIKA: What's your favorite Lleshanaku poem?  I can’t bring up a few others like “Cities” or “Gloves” or “Almost Yesterday” because they’re not published yet, but here’s “January 1st, Dawn,” which previously appeared in Plume, in spring 2015. It makes me think of the poet as a seer or as Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Lleshanaku is like that, penetrating and exposing layers and varieties of human experience like an intricate x-ray machine. She knows exactly what hurts you and, beyond that, for how long.  Visit Writers' Corner to meet more of our NEA Literature Translation Fellows.