The translator is a silent deconstructor, a night guard of the bridges of difference and understanding.
Nikola Madzirov (poet, essayist, translator) was born into a family of Balkan Wars refugees in 1973 in Strumica, Macedonia. His poetry has been translated into thirty languages and published in collections and anthologies in the US, Europe, and Asia. He is the recipient of the Hubert Burda European poetry award, the Miladinov Brothers poetry prize, the Studentski Zbor award, and the Aco Karamanov prize. He has received many international fellowships, and most recently, he was selected as writer-in-residence at the LiteraturRaum in Berlin. He is one of the coordinators of the world poetry network Lyrikline. His most recent collection, Remnants of Another Age, was released from BOA Editions in March 2011. Nikola Madzirov, welcome to The California Journal of Poetics.
Tender moments of personal history often find themselves in conflict with political histories in your book. The poem “A Way of Existing” challenges the traditional record of history with the lines, “They write of the fall / of empires and epochs but not / of the old man who looks at a toy / dug up by a bulldozer.” What is poetry’s role in the historical record? Do you believe that poets have a responsibility in constructing that record?
The responsibility of the poet is to answer the “official” histories, whether in a way of emotional reviewing of the history books or constructing a personal history which starts not at the day of his/her birth, but at the day when he/she starts to remember. The poet has to be strong enough in order to outline a distinctive border between history and remembrance, just as it is necessary for the poet to make a distinction between lie and imagination, or between global and universal, as global is more of a geographical category, while universality is humane and temporal. When my ancestors, who were refugees from the Balkan wars from the beginning of the previous century, started digging the new land in order to build their new home, they came across ancient swords from the time of the Ottoman Empire which ruled over these territories for 500 years, but they also found worms which my grandfather used for fishing, i.e. the basic food which they used in order to survive in those times. I was born at the crossroads between the historical battles that were fought in the yard where I live now and the mysteriousness of the land that covers all lost objects that belonged to the people who used to live here before me. Hannah Arendt says that nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is, is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth. But the poet could be an observer without wings, whose testimony is at the same time both personal and civilizational. If poetry existed solely for the purpose of affirming historical “truths,” it would have become history long ago.
While we’re on the topic of history, in the poem “Revealing” you write, “History is the first border I have to cross.” As a poet, what does it mean to cross the border of history? What does it mean to cross that border as a European, or more specifically, as a Macedonian?
Europe is outlined with the borders of expectations, and the Balkans with the borders of pain. Geographically I belong both to expectations and pain—historically I belong to uncertainty. Here everybody knows by heart the names of the people who disappeared in wars, because their presence is noted in the loud prayers and in the hope of their families, and rarely does anyone remember the names of those who prevented exoduses, at least not until those silent heroes become names of streets. History lives actively into the geographic awareness of the Europeans, since the borders are almost never a result of impassable mountains or rivers, but more of a historic moment after some important war. Until recently I needed a visa to enter almost every European or world country. The trauma of passing into and living in this narrow interspace of historic punishments, taught me that the passion for escaping from one language into another can be administratively tamed. Poetry is opening a new space of silence, and on the Balkans people keep silent most often at the borders. Sometimes because of the fear of history, sometimes because of the admiration for the old cultural testaments. Translating was one of the ways to break the chains of the painful ideological reality, perhaps the only way to travel silently through the homes that don’t belong to me.
You’ve spoken about growing up with the simultaneous influence of Western and Eastern cultures, and particularly music. In the poem “Usual Summer Nightfall,” you explicitly reference the traditional Eastern-style music of Macedonia. How does the intersection of Eastern and Western music play out in your poems?
I can remember the morning programs on the state radio and the traditional songs that used to wake me up together with the intense scent of cut orange coming from the room of my grandmother. She used to know by heart the entire lyrics of those songs with the preciseness of a garden keeper who differentiates between all the types of butterflies, although I never saw her write a single sentence. And maybe that is why she remembered the lyrics, because she never wrote them down. In the Balkans people are buried with their heads towards the East, but the heads of everyone alive here is turned towards the West. The hand from the compass of great expectations and disappointments is spinning hastily towards the west and people explain their fidelity to their country where they were born as a missed opportunity. The awareness of a different sensibility came to me first by means of sound, through the different cries of joy and pain, through the different silences that split the words. From my childhood I have listened to the sounds that were coming from the irregular eastern rhythms and the profound Byzantine melodies, but at the same time I opened my mind for the powerful recitals of Coltrane or Miles Davis, of Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt, of the enthusiastic freshness of the indie-rock bands. Into this natural clash of the different musical heritages I found the only border that could be noiselessly crossed. Kundera described this best through the long jazz-folk passages in his novel Joke, as well as in his literary-musical essays. It is not by chance that Schopenhauer puts music first, before all other arts. All the languages that I do not understand I would like to call “music,” not “misunderstanding.”
Is there anything lost in the translations of your poems, for example rhythms, rhymes, or wordplay, that you particularly miss? Do you feel that your poetry gains something when translated into English that helps make up for what is lost?
Translating is a ritual, because it repeats something that will continue repeating. In rituals there are no losses nor gains, but reconstructions of realities and semi-dreams. No matter how strong you squeeze the lemon into a glass, some drops of its juice will stay captivated under its peel, and a poem translated, just like the juice in the glass, is neither a gain nor a loss, but just restructuring of essence. Post-structuralists, in particular Derrida, claim that each act of writing is in fact translating as the author in a way interprets language while writing, so all original texts are already translations. By the act of translation nothing is lost, but by bad translating we lose everything—primarily, the silence in the poem.
You worked closely with your translators (Peggy and Graham W. Reid, and Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed) on this project. What can you tell me about the process? You’ve also collaborated with composers and filmmakers, such as Oliver Lake, who has worked closely with Björk and Lou Reed. How does this process of collaboration compare?
What cannot be told by silence or darkness, is said by words or images. All among them there is a strong and invisible entwining like the outspread roots of the redwood trees. In Chinese language image and word are so closely connected that Sergei Eisenstein explains film montage through the architecture of the Chinese ideograms. The tendency of returning towards the primordial power of image and sound is not new, nor is it retrograde and may be compared to the urge for connecting images and letters in the first sketches of children. The films of Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky or Godard hide and show verses by Pessoa, Arseny Tarkovsky or Éluard, while Philip Glass composed on Leonard Cohen’s verses and Hector Zazou on Rimbaud’s. Such connection is symbiotic and architectonic; it is about real expansion of the Borges library labyrinths. I am afraid of the identical words, not of the identical sounds or images.
Continuing on the topic of translation, to what extent do you think the translation of a poem in one language could be considered a new poem in the secondary language? As poems are translated into English, do you believe there is any transfer in authorship? And if so, to what extent?
Usually, when we speak about a translation of a poem, we refer to the translator, the author or to the poem itself, but we forget the position of the readers, their expectations and fears, their faith in language and the semantic variability. When William Merwin translated “Vertical Poetry” by Roberto Juarroz, probably for the reader each poem was new because he/she may have expected to recognize in it a spark of Merwin’s poetic spirit. In a translator’s mind, while translating, there is a historic conflict between the multiplication of the personal identities and his poetics’ homogeneity. The different language is the shelter for the writer when he doesn’t write. Heidegger says: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” Translators are certainly the architects of the streets and entrances to that home.
Have you translated poetry into Macedonian, from English or another language? How is your experience as a translator different than the experience of being translated?
The translator rewrites what he missed to say while the author writes what he missed to keep silent about. There are many poems in which we can recognize ourselves without having written them, just as there are cities where we have imagined ourselves much earlier before we travel there. The translator is a silent deconstructor, a night guard of the bridges of difference and understanding. Translating into another language, the translator is also saving the language from which he/she translates. Each replacement of one word with another is keeping both words from oblivion, unlike the thief who repaints the stolen car, not only to make it new but also ensure that the old one is forgotten. Therefore I do not agree with those who speak of the translator as a thief of meanings and the one who loses words. We write so as to remember, we translate so as not to forget. I have translated a lot into Macedonian from English and from several Slavic languages, and I have always fought to go round the surgical preciseness of the dictionaries that rank the words by the intensity of their use not by the intensity of their depth or untameability. When my poetry is translated into languages that are completely unknown to me, I see the entire process as translating the words into a civilizational palimpsest that does not belong to any state or national literature. The known words are like copied maps of belonging or mythical heroes mentioned in every second poem. In that whole process of interpreting words and histories, I consider silence as a universal language, although silence can be no longer found even on places such as graves, where people speak loudly about the remembrances of those who are no longer among us.
Your recent performance at SDSU sent a velvet shock wave through the audience as you deviated from the page, improvising repetition of lines and allowing your voice to veer quiet rather than loud. Do you write your poems with the intent of performance, or do you write with a reader in mind? Do you ever revise poems based on your performance?
The repetition of lines while reading is an attempt to “translate” the ambient into which those lines were created and such silent repetition cannot be termed as history, since it is always different. “The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence,” says Susan Sontag, according to whom silence can be also viewed as a form of self-punishment. The quietening of the voice may express closeness to the one we are addressing or a passion to reach the poetic invisibility through noiselessness—the ideal of Kim Ki-duk in his film 3-Iron. I do not think about the places where a poem I have written will be read, as those spatial expansions of the text could be sometimes a strong limit for the author. I have read in front of prisoners, policemen, and in front of those who know the origin of language or wars, and the poem has always settled into their eyes in a different way. In spite of everything, the public presentation of one’s creation does not mean that the dream has been dreamt, as Husserl would put it, but that it has only been retold and offered for remembrance.
What are you working on now? Is there a particular project we can look forward to in the next few years?
What I am always working on is how to fight against the inherited notions for a permanent home, language or truth. In our childhood, the first things that we learn are the usual constants of belonging – the names of our parents, the name of the street, the number of the classroom… And after that we spend our lives learning to belong to childhood only. Joseph Brodsky’s room and a half [described in his essay “In a Room and a Half”] becomes our permanent home always ready to be left and remembered. The poet should testify to all forced leavings and returnings, to the replacing of the borders of his losses and expectations, because poetry does not change worlds, it builds them.
Interviewed by L.A. Grove.