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National Poetry Month: 'The Translator' by Kevin Prufer

On the podcast: We're celebrating National Poetry Month with a series of shorts highlighting the work of Lesley poets.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode Notes

It's National Poetry Month and we're doing things a little differently this month. Each week in April, we're inviting one poet from the Lesley community to share some of their verses and talk about their work. It's the final week of our National Poetry Month series, and we're joined by Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Kevin Prufer, who reads and discusses 'The Translator,'  a poem from his most recent collection The Art of Fiction.

Kevin is a faculty member in Lesley University low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program. Among his many awards are four Pushcart prizes. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry multiple times. Kevin has written a number of poetry collections, including How He Loved Them, which was long-listed for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and today he’s sharing a poem from his latest book, The Art of Fiction, which was released earlier this year. Read more about Kevin Prufer.

Check out some of our other poetry episodes:

Check out all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and follow us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.

    Hi, everybody. My name is Georgia Sparling, I produce Why We Write, and this month, I'm excited to bring you a special series in honor of National Poetry Month. Every week in April, I've invited a Lesley poet to come onto the show, give us a behind the scenes look into their process and share one of their poems with us.

    Closing us out is a member of our Creative Writing program, Kevin Prufer. Kevin has won four Pushcart prizes and his poems have appeared in Best American Poetry multiple times. In addition to many of his other accolades, Kevin has written a number of poetry collections, including How He Loved Them, which was long-listed for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. Today he’s sharing a poem from his latest book, The Art of Fiction, which was released this year. Here’s Kevin.

    Kevin Prufer: Hi, I'm Kevin Prufer. And I teach in the graduate Creative Writing Program at Lesley, and I'm going to read this poem called “The Translator,” which is from my new book, which is weirdly called The Art of Fiction, but it is a book of poems that tries to think about what it means to say that something is fictional, or someone is fictional. Partly because I think we all feel fictional, in one way or another sometimes.

    I was at this lecture a few years ago. This translator was giving a lecture. He said in his lecture, “a poem in translation is like the dead body of a foreigner washed up on our shores.” And when he said that, you know, everybody in the audience went, “Oh, wow.” And so did I, and then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that's like the worst metaphor I've ever heard. That's just terrible. I mean, it's terrible to the poor, dead foreigner, whatever that means. And it's terrible to the idea of translation, because the translation is a living thing.

    I translated from German, and even a little bit into Germa.  It's an incredibly complicated process. One of the things I've learned translating, and then working so closely with other translators is that you know, that this idea that there is a sort of one right translation or a perfect translation is really just a falsehood.

    My friend, Martha Collins, she and I once did a book together, where we asked really well known translators to pick three different translations, or even more, of well-known poems, the same poem translated by different translators over time, and to sort of offer them all at once and just say what can we learn by reading many translations of the same poem? How can we come to appreciate how translation works? And how personal and complicated these choices are the translators make.

    Alright, it's called, it's called “The Translator.”

    A poem in translation,
                                                  the young man was fond of saying,
    is like the dead body of a foreigner
                                                                  washed up on our shores.
    he usually paused to let the metaphor sink in.

    Some members of the audience nodded thoughtfully.

    I will now read from my translations of a little-known ancient Roman poet,
    he told them,
                              shuffling his papers, then looking into
                                                                                                   the dark,
    half-empty auditorium.


    The dead body refused to be still. The waves
    loved it too much,
                                       pushing it onto the beach, then rolling it
    seaward again.
                                  And so it made its way down the beach,
    alighting for a moment,
                                                   or several moments,
                                                                                         on the wet sand,
    then bobbing out
                                      among the American swimmers.


    120 foreigners in a leaking boat
    is too many,
                            so the ocean fills with poems. Some retain
    the qualities of their original language,
                                                                            but others sink blackly
    into a new language.


                                   Here I am, out here! I can see your
    oil rigs glittering on the horizon,
                                                                   says the young woman whom no one
    listens to. Or,
                                she says nothing,
    clinging to the side of the waterlogged boat,
    where she has floated all night
                                                              among the drifting bodies.

    A few of them became tangled among the oil rigs,
    while others arrived
                                           gently on our shore.

    A poem that has floated some distance
    from its accident
                                      transforms—so the swimmers
    ran away in horror
                                         when at last he came to rest                
    on a crowded part of the beach.


    You foreigners in your many-sailed ships,
    come join the empire! the translator intones
                                                                                        from his spotlit podium,
    and the audience sighs.
                                                    Here I am, out here,
    says a little voice in the translation,
                                                                         a voice no one,
    not even the translator,
                                                 can hear.


    The audience
    had come to hear a lecture on poetry in translation

    and now the translator was going on
    about the ancient Roman tendency to absorb,
    and therefore transform,
                                                   foreign cultures,
    their gods and foods.

    Outside the auditorium, it had grown dark,
    a perfect summer night.
                                                 The thousand vessels
    on the great black ocean
    glittered and loomed


                    and for days, bodies
    washed up on the beach.
                                                   Now, the American workers
    zippered them into vinyl bags,

    which, in the translator’s metaphor,
    constitutes a kind of publication.


    But what is there to say
                                                        about that young woman
    still clinging to the wreckage
    two days into my poem?
                                                   A gentle summer rain
    prickles her skin. Here I am, she says,
    looking toward the oil rigs hunkering between her
    and the shore.
                                 Here I am.


    She is a very fine woman
    and someone should translate her.

    Georgia: And that concludes our Poetry Month series. Thank you so much for joining us and thank you to our poets for sharing their work and inspiration. It’s really been great. If you missed an episode, check out our podcast feed to give them a listen. I’ve included a link in the show notes. And if you’d like to know more about Kevin, there’s more about him in the show notes about him as well.

    If you haven’t done it yet, would you please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts? It will help other writers and readers find the show.

    We’ll be back in two weeks with travel writer Chaney Kwak.