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Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review (UK) and other journals. His first collection of poems, North of Paradise, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books (2019). A collection of his poetry will also be published in Lithuanian translation by Kauko laiptai (2019). He is translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night’s Press), Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understand by Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (Parthian), and Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). Uzgiris has contributed significantly as editor and translator to two anthologies: How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Lithuanian Culture Institute), and New Baltic Poets (Parthian). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and the Poetry Spring 2016 Award for translations of Lithuanian poetry into other languages, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

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Illustration: Monika Furmana, A Chorus of Wants, 2017

Saulius Vasiliauskas Interviews Rimas Užgiris

 

As we begin our conversation, I am thinking about how the profession of a translator, if it were to be compared to that of a writer, receives much less attention in the public eye, yet the translator’s role in literary and cultural processes is no less significant. As you are both a translator and a poet, how would you compare these two creative spheres and which one of these matters to you more?

Writing poetry, creating poetry, that is without a doubt first and foremost what I consider my work. Translating poetry is also my work, but I consider it “in addition” to the writing of poetry. It is also a kind of writing of poetry, but more from the craft perspective. As a translator, I don’t myself have to come up with the theme, subject matter, voice, movement of thought, tropes, symbols, and so on. In other words, the so-called inspiration is already given to me by the original text. I use that given to find the language it needs to live and breathe as an English language poem. It is a creative activity, for sure, but closer to acting than to authorial creation: you have to embody someone else’s voice, bring it to an audience that wouldn’t hear it otherwise. Translation deserves more respect than it often gets. Nobody looks down on actors, after all, for not writing their own lines. (But there are other considerations there, I understand: translators don’t usually look like Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts.)

This year your first collection of poetry, TARP [Between], will be published in Lithuanian. Do you think that your role in the Lithuanian literary field as a translator, which you are more frequently associated with, will affect the interest in your book? Which poets, in terms of style, worldview or otherwise, are closest to you in Lithuanian literature?

Both of my first books will be published this year. North of Paradise, my debut poetry collection, by Kelsay Books, and TARP, my debut in Lithuanian translation, published by Kauko laiptai. The books overlap, though are not identical. Obviously, I don’t really know how many people will take notice of either book. Certainly, the fact that I am a known translator of poetry who has published five books of poetry in translation in the US and UK can’t hurt. My name is out there in the poetry world, and hopefully, that will help encourage people to pick up the books.

My interest in poets and styles is rather wide-ranging, so it’s hard to say anything in general. The poetry, for instance, of Tomas Venclova and Marius Burokas has always seemed close to me, though they are not much alike! I felt a strong connection to the work of Judita Vaičiūnaitė while translating her. Who else? Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Gintaras Grajauskas, Aušra Kaziliūnaitė… The last two books of Kęstutis Navakas have especially captured my interest, and I feel a strong desire to find that voice within myself in English.

In one of your previous interviews, you spoke of the time up until 1993 when you returned to Lithuania. You stated, “Before then, I lived in Southern California studying for my bachelor’s degree at UC-San Diego. I began to dislike the local culture, I did not fit in. I thought that I might feel differently in Lithuania, yet upon my arrival I understood straight away that I’m different, I’m American – my world view and manner were different.”[1] Presently, do you feel like you fit in in Lithuania, are you welcomed in the community of translators and writers? Are there any repeating characteristics of Lithuanians that irritate you?

People have done a lot to make me feel at home in the literary community here, so I can’t complain about that. The fact that I write in English is still a bit of a barrier, naturally enough, I suppose. Overall, I can’t say I feel completely at home in Lithuania, despite my family roots here, though I wouldn’t say I feel entirely at home in America either. But then, which America? Southern California? Northern California? Texas? Alabama? Wisconsin? New York? I feel rather broadly European, or like a cosmopolitan New Yorker. I suppose I would feel most at home in a large city in Europe or the Northeastern US, or climbing a mountain slope with skis on my back, the sun in my face, my brother, sister-in-law and a few friends beating a path with me, looking forward to carving turns in virgin powder…

You completed your PhD in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What was the subject of your dissertation? How does philosophy correlate with the practices of translation and writing? How did these studies affect you as a person? And why did you decide not to continue on the academic path?

I realized, as my doctoral studies dragged along, that my heart wasn’t really in it. I felt that a part of me wasn’t being expressed, a part that was screaming out for expression. Clearly, an artistic side needed to find its voice. So, I moved my dissertation in that direction, writing a thesis called “Desire, Meaning, and Virtue: The Socratic Account of Poetry”. I continued to teach philosophy after I finished the thesis, but knew that I was not interested in writing academic papers. I needed to find my artistic voice, and dabbling in poetry – like for Gauguin being a “Sunday painter” – was just not enough. I needed to go all in. So I did. (Though somehow I moved to Lithuania instead of Tahiti.) The main struggle then was to release the so-called right side of my brain. My training had been in analytical philosophy: all logic and clarity. You don’t usually want that in poetry, so it has been a process of training my brain to express itself differently. In that sense, my philosophical studies inhibited my poetic development. In another sense, I learned what I needed to do with my life, and had no doubts anymore.

When commenting on your poem “The Ancients and Us” you stated that the stimuli to write it came after reading an academic article: “My poem was written after reading an academic article about Socrates that got me thinking about our “post-truth” moment, Trump’s tweets and Ancient Greek rhetoricians, and when Christmas made an appearance as well, I thought, yes, Rattle, yes”.[2] How significant can academic research be to poetry and poets?

The article I read was by my former thesis advisor, Terry Penner. He is a brilliant interpreter of Socrates and Plato, a deep thinker, passionate and engaging. A good sense of humor too. Genuinely an inspiration as a philosopher, intellectual, and human being. And when I read that article of his that I hadn’t read before, I had all these ideas about writing philosophical essays… Instead, I wrote a poem. Ha! (At least Terry liked it, though.)

Honestly, you never know what kind of reading can give rise to a poem. It could be a philosophy article, it could be historical, from the natural sciences, and it could be something from the other arts. Of course, usually it is experience and memory that inspires, but reading what happens to interest you can call things forth unexpectedly. Poets have to keep their feelers open to all kinds of experience and knowledge.

You translate a good deal of Lithuanian poetry. You published poetry books in English by Marius Burokas, Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, Gintaras Grajauskas, Ilzė Butkutė and Judita Vaičiūnaitė. You have also edited (with Marius Burokas) an anthology presenting contemporary Lithuanian poetry: How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets, and also selected and translated Lithuanian poets for the anthology New Baltic Poetry. Thus, you engage in very important work for Lithuanian culture and literature. Yet, it would be interesting to hear, how do you find the process of attracting the interest of the international audience and publishers? Is it easy to convince them of the value and originality of one or another poet’s work in a wider context? Or maybe, when considering how small a nation we are, is it a complicated, even Sisyphean labour?

The English-speaking world is notorious for how little it publishes in translation. This is partly because there is a world of English-language literature out there, from India to Africa to Europe, from North America, the Caribbean to Australia/Oceania. You don’t have to leave native English language literature to experience world literature. In a way, this is too bad, because people writing in other languages can see things differently because of the language and its associated cultural “baggage”. So, we need to fight for translations into English. It’s hard to get publishers, especially when you are not meeting them face to face. People are interested in Lithuanian literature, but book publishing for poetry in translation is a very small market and Lithuania is competing with a very large world. Great Argentine poets like Alejandra Pizarnik and Juan Gelman have only recently had books published in English, so it’s hard for a small country to compete, a country that is barely on the literary map at all. We are building Lithuania’s literary reputation almost from scratch. But it can be done. It doesn’t help that most small poetry publishers in the US want to see complete manuscripts, and our translation programs here only support samples… unless you already have a contract with a publisher: a catch-22!

I think, when evaluating Lithuanian poetry, we frequently shut ourselves up in our own context, within the framework of local traditions. Thus, it is not easy or simple for our contemporary poetics to be compared with the poetic tendencies of other – European, American – contexts. But maybe you could try?

There is a lot going on in Lithuanian poetry, just as there is a lot going on in American poetry! Obviously, some poets have been reading and translating American literature for a long time and you can see influences (e.g., Marius Burokas, Kornelijus Platelis). Certain tendencies have been appearing lately that seem to be influenced by American poetry movements, in particular, an increase in the amount of personal, or confessional, poetry. This is especially noticeable among LGBT poets in Lithuania: perhaps there is a desire to place the self as Other on the poetic map, to declare, I am here and my experience is poetically valid. But this tendency is not exclusive to them. (I would point out that personal poetry and confessional poetry are not quite the same: compare Frank O’Hara to Sylvia Plath or Sharon Olds and you will notice the difference.) Lithuanian poets take their influences from diverse sources. At times, you just feel how a poet has plugged into a general mood and applied it to his or her context, for instance, the post-modern irony of Gintaras Grajauskas that looks wryly and ruefully at certain features of post-independence Lithuanian life. Other influences are more specific. Some studied German language poetry, such a Gytis Norvilas, and that tradition would be an influence on his poetics. Others are specialists in Polish, such as Eugenijus Ališanka, and you can feel that influence there. French with Dainius Gintalas, Russian and Polish with Tomas Venclova, American modernism with Kornelijus Platelis, and so on. I am just waiting for Dovilė Kuzminskaitė’s poetry to spark with the sunlight of Spain! So, the multi-lingual nature of Lithuanian poets has led to a wide range of foreign influences which helps keep Lithuanian poetry diverse and vibrant. Of course, there are times when I read a poem and think, Oh, this is so Lithuanian! Well, all cultures have their frameworks. The native cultural and literary context is still the primary influence, but that is quite natural: you must, as a poet, absorb the usage of the language you write in. There is no other way.

For you as a translator, is the biographical context of the author you are translating relevant? Can it benefit you during the translation process?

I don’t usually have time to worry about biographies – deadlines! And it is usually more useful to know, for instance, as I said above, that Norvilas was influenced by German language poetry, Ališanka by Polish, Burokas by English, etc. Then you can try to tailor your language to that style. Of course, one needs to know that Venclova was an exile, that he was friends with Brodsky (who appears in certain poems, sometimes not obviously). When I translated Vaičiunaitė, I read one of her memoirs (Mabre viešbutis), and it was good to know her background of growing up in the cities of Kaunas and Vilnius; it was also important for me to know she was a single mother, that most of her poems are written from the context of an occupied country, but these are basic background facts. Details of biography that are not explicitly in the poems are rarely significant for a translator, especially because Lithuanian poetry has for so long avoided the personal and confessional!

For numerous years you have taught translation at Vilnius University. When working with students, what do you emphasize the most? Are the students receptive to translating literary works? In general, do the students even want to translate literature, poetry?

When I get the students in their third year, they have had very little practice with actual translation. They have mostly been studying languages. I give them practice with literary works (e.g., The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, White Teeth by Zadie Smith) that involve significant cultural Otherness, including words from multiple languages and cultural realia. I make them read a lot of fiction to develop their language skills, expose them to different cultures,  and challenge them as translators. On the other hand, one of my elective courses is on translating contemporary Lithuanian literature, and one of the goals there is to just get them reading again in their native language. Many of them have been turned off of literature in their high school studies. I try to get them to realize that contemporary Lithuanian literature has a lot to offer them, that the way authors are now using the language is different from what they were taught in high school, that they shouldn’t worry about what some bobutė in the kaimas is going to think, and that it is important for them as translators to experience the cutting edge of the tongue (e.g., we have read Pietinia kronikas by Rimantas Kmita, Strekaza by Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Trys sekundės dangaus by Sigitas Parulskis). Some of them catch the flame and and want to translate more literature. Most just want a degree and a job, but now perhaps (or in my dreams), with a book of poems in their pockets.

Your poetry is translated into Lithuanian by Marius Burokas, while you translate his poetry into English. Does a close relationship affect your perception of the text, or impact the translation process itself? Do you have arguments regarding one or another fragment of a poem (as you are both poets and translators)?

It helps to know each other’s work. We have an intuitive sense of what the other is trying to do. We also respect each other as translators and poets and understand the translator’s task. We have respect for the original text, and yet, if something needs to be changed to make it sound better in the target language, we understand the desirability of this. We don’t argue much. Sometimes Marius will react skeptically if I try to be too free, and out of respect I will try to rein myself in. We mostly just correct mistakes and mis-understandings, ask for clarification, and try to offer alternatives if we think the translation is losing some poetic power. It’s been a great benefit to me, to the quality of my translations, to be able to work with him.

I recollect, once I had a discussion with Malachi Black, a poet and professor living in the US, about the difference between the literary fields there and in Lithuania. One of those was the fact that in post-Soviet Lithuania many of the institutions that were operational during Soviet times still remain (The Writers’ Union, The Writers’ Club, festivals, prizes etc.), while in the USA it seems there are no analogous institutions, or no such centralized framework, where a single organization remains at the centre of the literary field, uniting the greater part of the high literature creating authors. Even though this institution – the same as other creative unions – is no longer very active, its role in the eyes of the public appears no longer so noticeable or significant either. Thus, here arise two questions: In your opinion, how do the literary fields differ in the USA and in Lithuania – or post-Soviet countries in general? What future would you predict for the institutions for writers, or artists in general? And how should their functions change (and whether they should change at all)?

I am no expert on arts institutions. I can say that the Lithuanian Writer’s Union does well in organizing events for writers, but could probably do more to support them in various ways. I am not sure such an institution would be desirable in the States. It would be just too large and unwieldy. Furthermore, there is a vast difference in the way the arts are funded. The government gives much more direct support to writers, publishers and institutions here, as elsewhere in Europe. This can be a double-edged sword, as we just saw with the Ivaškevičius controversy: if prizes are directly funded by the government, the government can be influenced to grant them on the basis of ideology. That’s how it was in the Soviet Union, but that ideology can change (and has changed). Of course, this latest attempt to influence the prize failed, but the closer the ties between the government and arts funding, the greater the danger. The US has a strange system where there is little direct funding, however, institutions and publishers actively seek charitable donations which the donors can then write off of their tax burden. This is an indirect form of government funding: money goes from individuals to private institutions (or foundations) because those individuals can then pay the government less in taxes. This is all part of a rather byzantine US tax code requiring a specialist class of accountants to maneuver successfully through it. I can’t say I recommend this model.

Institutions need to work hard to get the public interested in literature these days. People have so many distractions, and so little free time. And writers need readers! But in Lithuania, where the Poetry Spring Festival has events on national television, when that same national cultural channel would repeatedly show a ten minute clip of Gintaras Grajauskas reading his poems (a few years ago, anyway), and where poets are interviewed about their books on nationally broadcast shows, things are not so bad. I don’t remember ever seeing poetry readings on PBS in the States, or any contemporary poets at all. (OK, once I saw the then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky on Charlie Rose.)

When evaluating the texts of young authors at the annual Vilnius University’s Philology Autumn competition, you noted that a fair share of the debuting writers “live in an old language, but not in their poetry”.[3] Why do you think this occurs? Is it more of a problem with education? How should poetry be taught at school?

Well, it’s quite natural that young people will imitate what they have been taught. It is one way in which you learn how to write. There is also the fact that many of them leave high school with little or no understanding of contemporary poetry and the possibilities it has opened up, but this isn’t so unusual either. (I don’t remember contemporary American poetry in my high school.) At some point, young poets need to break out of the old tropes. They need to find a language that speaks to their experience here and now: to fully inhabit their poems, making inherited language work for them. There can be little doubt that American education puts more of a premium on self-expression and individuality. But all beginning poets struggle to find their individuality. And anyone who wants to write poetry should be reading contemporary poetry, and they should be asking themselves if the language they are using is right for their experience, or are they just re-hashing old themes with the same old linguistic devices?

With technologies improving, mechanical translation is improving as well. One translator I know has recently mentioned that popular science articles are now being translated by computer software, and the translator just looks it over, tidies up only those places where the software made mistakes or “was confused”. In such instances, who is the author of the translation – the computer or the person? And to sum up – how does the advancement of the technologies change the future of translations?

Speaking of literary translation, I am skeptical of computers ever really being able to inhabit a human voice and give it proper expression. Of course, they could give writers a decent draft to work with, but if the translator doesn’t know the original language well, how will he or she know the right direction to take in revision? And if the work is long, the translator has to shape the writerly voice from the very beginning. Great literature involves the expression of the most complex internal states and experiences humans can have, and it takes an intelligent, well-read human to interpret this and convey it. Furthermore, an experienced translator who knows the language well can work very fast as it is. As I tell my students, “Translate fast. Die young.” Computers are very useful in the sense that I can open in my browser a Lithuanian-English dictionary, a Lithuanian dictionary, a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary, and it’s all there at my fingertips. That’s a massive help in terms of working quickly. Though, of course, you want your work to sit for a while, come back to it later, question your choices, revise… But I don’t know what the distant future really holds for advanced artificial intelligence, enhanced human intelligence and other possibilities. Does anyone?

 

1. http://www.kulturpolis.lt/interviu/poetas-rimas-uzgiris-apie-sokiruojancius-dalykus-lietuviu-literaturoje-ir-gyvenima-jav/

2. https://www.rattle.com/the-ancients-and-us-by-rimas-uzgiris/

3. http://www.bernardinai.lt/straipsnis/2017-03-23-r-uzgiris-geras-poezijos-vertejas-turi-buti-beveik-poetas/157087

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