Following the Barnard College Translation in Transition conference, Alison Macomber interviewed conference presenter Meg Matich about her translations of Icelandic poetry and translation theory that she’s found useful in practice.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current translation project(s)?
I think a little background info on my project would be useful here. I currently work primarily with Magnús Sigurðsson, a highly accomplished, young Icelandic poet. His work offers still-lifes of the natural world—mainly water and earth, less fire and ice. He homes in his interactions with nature, how nature mirrors human psychology, and, perhaps, the way that human civilization should emulate nature. Not in a dog-eat-dog way. In the quiet way that the earth grows and retracts. Animals are uncommon in his poetry.
At the same time, I've been translating other poets, some of whom are in the June 2015 feature of Words without Borders. They're also Icelandic. One of the writers, Gyrðir Elíasson, is a seasoned poet, who has contributed greatly, in my opinion, to the state of Icelandic eco-poetry as it is. Other authors focus on the commonplace occurrence and the language of the folk; one poet is an LGBTQ advocate, and her political bent shows through proudly in her poetry.
That being said, the project isn't necessarily innovative—the long tapestry of poetics and literature in translation is impossibly and miraculously full of similar projects. I believe what is important about the work is its capacity to contribute to English-speaking— in particular, the US—cultural consciousness about literature from Iceland. Not only literature from Iceland, but attitudes and lessons from Iceland: about empathy, I think, in particular, and about solicitude, having a strong sense of self and others. Respect. So in that sense, it's a way to teach, which, I think, is the greatest gift I have received. The ability to teach, in one sense, and having been taught, in another.
AM: How has translation studies influenced your methodology(ies)?
MM: I'm divided on this. There's a pushback against MFA programs, where I was educated in translation, because 'you can't teach creativity or talent.' My reading has helped me to articulate my stance on what translation does—because translation is an action, right, as much as an abstraction.
That said, I think that I've learned a great deal from experimental discussion of and approaches to translation—poetry is a great vessel for experimentation, both in the composition of the original and in the composition of a translation. Flowers of Bad is particularly packed full of really great variations on Baudelaire, and mimicking those strategies in my off-hours has helped me to understand the functions and possibilities of language. More traditional discussions about the polarity of translation—foreignizing, domesticating—have heightened my sense of the intricacy of translation and my self-awareness and self-consciousness in the process of translation.
When I was resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, I met translators from all over the world, translating both into and out of English. While our views about the importance of translation coincided, the ways that we approached the action differed. I should say, the ways that we had to approach translation differed, and much of that depended upon the ways that publishers in our various countries operated, how translators were thought of, and the genre translated, not to mention varying political climates. I have the good fortune of translating a living author, who I am able to consult should I need to. But when you're working with an author who isn't living — or you're working with an author who can't read your language—the work presents a different sent of potentialities and difficulties. Hearing about those challenges has enriched my work; once again, augmenting my sense of responsibility to myself and to my poet.
I think that the lesson here is to be curious. To sniff out everything, to use every resource you can find—from Google to monolingual dictionaries to thesauri. To speak to everyone. (Isn't that what I'm doing when I'm translating—initiating a conversation?) Don't disregard anything, not even an indefinite article. Indefinite articles are really interesting across languages. Know your language. Know its history. Know its literature. Because, if you're a translator and you're passionate enough, if you learn everything you can, then you'll end up at gnothi seauton—know thyself. And that's happiness.
Meg Matich (b. 1989 in Pittsburgh) is a New York City-based poet and translator whose translations have appeared in or are forthcoming from Catch & Release, Exchanges, Absinthe, and Asymptote, among others. She has received grants and fellowships from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, Columbia University, the DAAD, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. She has participated in Festival Neue Literatur and in workshops hosted at the Goethe-Institut. In 2014, she was shortlisted as a candidate in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program to Iceland. Most recently, she presented work on translating the literature of small European states at Barnard’s Translation in Transition conference. She is currently completing her MFA theses in Poetry and Literary Translation at Columbia University.