Daniel Borzutzky Interview

Daniel Borzutzky is the author of The Ecstasy of Capitulation and Arbitrary Tales. His writings and translations are published in Action Yes, Octopus Magazine, Mississippi Review, MiPoesias, Shampoo, Coconut, McSweeney's, Typo, La Petite Zine, Conjunctions, Fence, Denver Quarterly and more.

SK: What were some of the atrocities of the CIA-funded Pinochet regime in Chile? Which Chilean writers are you translating?

Daniel Borzutzky: To your first question: The atrocities are well-documented; the murders and disappearances of thousands; brutal torture and imprisonments; forced exile and the forced separation of families. In short, the destruction of a country.

You asked about the Chilean writers I have been translating. My family comes from Chile, though I have lived in the U.S. my entire life, and for me, the translation work I have done has helped me to maintain some connection to Chile.

Earlier this year, my translation of a book called Port Trakl by contemporary Chilean Mapuche poet Jaime Luis Huenún was published by Action Books; and in 2007 the Review of Contemporary Fiction published a special issue dedicated to my translations of the fiction of Juan Emar, a mysterious, surrealist-type writer who published four books in the 1930s and who then disappeared from the Chilean scene after offending the literati of his time. Juan Emar is his pen name, which he adopted because of its homophonic resemblance to the French phrase J’en ai marre, which means, I’m fed up. Emar is a bizarre and historically important writer (Neruda called him “Our Kafka”).

I just completed a translation of a beautiful and powerful book called “Song for his Disappeared Love” by the great living Chilean poet Raul Zurita. This book is a direct engagement with the disappearances and murders of the Pinochet regime, which Zurita lived through and experienced first hand. He himself was imprisoned, and after he was arrested he stayed in Chile and wrote poetry throughout all the bloody mess of the Pinochet years. This book will be published by Action Books.

SK: Please help me understand the difficulty of jumping languages with poetry. How hard is it to translate accurately? What does an accurate translation mean? How does being a poet help? Why do I read some recent Baudelaire translations and yawn, but go back and read some of what Robert Lowell translated of Baudelaire and become sexually aroused?

Daniel Borzutzky: I think it’s very hard to translate accurately, especially when you think about accurately translating not just content, but also sound. That is, often I think a translator can come up with a pretty decent translation of meaning, but translating sound and rhythm and tone from one language to another is much trickier, and in my experience it’s a problem not to be solved with a general theory of practice, rather I handle this instead on a case-by-case basis with each poem creating its own set of issues.

In terms of technique, I’m not sure if being a poet helps or doesn’t help. And there are many great translators who don’t write their own poetry. Why are some translations better than others? Commitment, hard work, transference of tone, rhythm and intent. Mental communion. Clayton Eshleman’s translations of Cesar Vallejo, for instance, are awesome. The same poems translated by Robert Bly and James Wright lack the power and force of the Eshleman version.

SK: What is your approach to the idea of meaning in poetry and the useful or (as I prefer to say) cancerous affects of most literary criticism? I mean criticism that doesn’t involve things like chemical castration.

Daniel Borzutzky: I am pro-criticism. We could use more criticism. Good criticism. Perhaps we could use less book reviews that are really plot summaries or long blurbs.

I’m not sure what you mean by the idea of meaning in poetry. I guess my approach is a literal one. The poem means what it says, says what it means.

SK: Do you envision an old trumpet stuffed with hair and gagging limp sounds when people use the word scatological as a reference to something beneath themselves?

Daniel Borzutzky: You’re leading the witness.

SK: Who are you reading lately?

Daniel Borzutzky: Marguerite Duras, Raul Zurita, Helene Cixous, Clarice Lispector, and student essays.

SK: Your first book Arbitrary Tales (from Triple Press) is stabbed full of poetic prose whereas each sentence perpetuated big embolisms as I read it. Is this a desired effect?

Daniel Borzutzky: Thank you for using the word stabbed. That’s quite a compliment.

SK: Did you know or meet Faruk Ulay in Turkey?

Daniel Borzutzky: No.

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