Bilingual Reading to Celebrate Women in Translation Month

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On August 27, 2020, PEN AMERICA sponsored an online reading by five authors and translators to celebrate Women in Translation Month. The event featured works in Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Sinhalese and Turkish.   After the author’s readings, English translations were read by the translators. The event was moderated by the poet, translator and editor Nancy Naomi Carlson.

The first author/translator reading was by the Hungarian poet Zita Izso whose works have been translated by Agnes Marton. Zita is the recipient of numerous awards and grants for her poetry. Agnes is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in the UK, is the reviews editor of the Ofi Press and the author of the recent collection Captain Fly’s Bucket List. The first poem, “Like Mouthbrooders,” is a devastating account of an attack on two sisters by soldiers of an unnamed army. As the elder sister is dragged outside from their hiding place and the soldiers force snow into the older sister’s mouth to mute her screams, the narrator recalls the taste of snow on her tongue when the two girls played in the snow as children. She thinks that God must be carrying her not in his palm as her mother used to say, but in his mouth since she cannot hear his voice, just as her own voice is silenced. The second poem, New Hope, is a brief elegy on the death of a beloved child.

The second pairing was that of Italian poet Mariangela Gualtieri and her translator Olivia E. Sears. Mariangela has published over a dozen plays and collections of poetry, among which is the bestselling book Bestie di Gioia. Olivia, whose translations of Mariangela’s poems have appeared in various publications, is also the founder of the Center for the Art of Translation and serves on the editorial board of Two Lines Press. Olivia read three untitled poems from “Beasts of Joy.” The first expressed the poets’ bond with the suffering of the animals of the world while yet acknowledging the moments of joy and lightness that still exist in the natural world. In the second poem, the poet used the metaphor of a goat to evoke the idea of sleeplessness while acknowledging that there is still happiness and light to be found in the darkness. The third was a beautiful evocation of a comet falling to earth from a distant star, bringing water, the source of all life, to the planet.

Natalia Rubanova and Rachael Daum then read from Natalia’s play which is tentatively entitled “Awesome” in English. Natalia’s plays have been performed in Russian and also in London, where she won the Best New Writing prize at the SOLO International Festival. Rachael translates from Serbian, Russian and German. She holds an MA from Indiana University and is the communications and awards manager for ALTA.  “Awesome” is an epistolary work told in the voice of a nameless young man who, like Goethe’s Werther, searches unsuccessfully for romantic love and ultimately destroys himself in the process. In the excerpt that was read, the narrator ruminates on some of his romantic encounters with women. The Russian text evokes the theme of the superfluous man prevalent in Russian literature going back to Pushkin while in the English translation there are echoes of the current incel and red pill movements.

The next paired reading was by the Sri Landan poet Thilini N. Liyanaarachchi and her translator Chamini Kulathunga. The first poem, “To be a Queen is a Sin” ponders the story of the sole female ruler in Sri Lankan history, Queen Annula of Anuradhapura. History portrays her as an “erotic being” who reputedly poisoned every man she married. At the same time, history ignores the fate of the many concubines of the kings of old. The poet wishes she could speak to the queen because only she knows what truly happened. The second poem, “Shall We Ask Time to Stop,” is a gentle musing on the poet’s aging mother and the poet’s desire to stop time and remain nestled in her mother’s arms. Also read was the brief and startlingly evocative poem “Inebriated Love,” which compares love to inebriation from substances like smoke and alcohol, a domain that is traditionally out of bounds for South Asian women.

The last reading was from the Turkish writer in exile Nazli Karabiyikoğlu and translator Ralph Hubbell. Nazli is currently a full-time resident of Georgia and is the winner of the Writers-in-Exile Scholarship awarded by PEN Germany for 2021-2022. Ralph Hubbell’s fiction, essays and translations have appeared in numerous publications. He is currently working on a translation of Oğuz Atay’s short stories. Nazli and Ralph read from a yet unpublished novel which describes the experience of a gay woman who has not yet come out but whose family suspects the nature of her sexual orientation. The family brings her to an exorcist with the goal of cleansing her of the “demon” living inside of her. The reading is a harrowing account of the physical and emotional stress to which the woman is subjected at the end of which the exorcist proclaims that she should be “OK” now.

I found this event remarkable in the breadth and intensity of the ideas and emotions expressed. To hear five such diverse and intriguing voices from all around the globe was truly an inspiring experience.

By: Patricia Stumpp


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