Translationships 4: Adriana X. Jacobs’ Translation of Vaan Nguyen’s The Truffle Eye
by Magdalena Edwards
TRANSLATIONSHIPS is a column by Magdalena Edwards. Magdalena is a writer, actor, and translator born in Santiago, Chile, and based in Los Angeles, California. Magdalena translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including the work of Clarice Lispector, Márcia Tiburi, Silviano Santiago, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. She is currently translating Julio Cortázar’s Cartas de mamá for Sublunary Press. She is also working on a book-length project titled Translationships. More on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
I’m thinking here of the image of the “rotten eye” that opened these questions. Decomposition is such an active, transformative process, and I picture this eye offering up different views and perspectives as it breaks down. I hope readers come away with a sense of Nguyen’s manifold vision.
Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford and the author of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (University of Michigan Press 2018). Her translations have appeared in Gulf Coast, Seedings, World Literature Today, Poetry International, and The Ilanot Review, among other online and print journals. Jacobs’ essay “Where You Are From: The Poetry of Vaan Nguyen”—published in the Summer 2015 issue of Shofar—discusses how Nguyen, “the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who have settled in Israel,” both “engages and challenges—through the double position of the insider/outsider—the discourse of exile and return and the politics of memory in Israeli culture” in her debut poetry collection The Truffle Eye (Ma’ayan Press 2013) (83). Jacobs’ examination of Nguyen’s poems of double positionality unfolds alongside her analysis of Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror’s 2005 documentary film The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, which “introduced Nguyen as a poet; in fact, it is in this documentary that her writing was first presented to the public, in the snippets quoted in the film” (91). Jacobs received a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of The Truffle Eye, published this year by Zephyr Press in a handsome bilingual Hebrew-English edition with cover art from the series The Atlas by Lihi Turjeman.
Magdalena Edwards: I want to begin with a quote from the poem “The Truffle Eye”—which is where the collection gets its name—and ask you for your thoughts: “Eva pulls out her rotten eye and places it outside on the window-sill so it can observe the psychopaths. The men look at her intriguing eye and drool their price. Open up. Open up, they shout. We’ll buy that eye from you.“
Adriana X. Jacobs: Even though the words “truffle eye” don’t appear in any of these poems, images of waste, rot, decay, and bodily excretions pervade the collection: roadkill, vomit, sludge, worms, graves, pigeon shit, skulls, filth, scraps, dirt, semen, sweat, overripe fruit and dirty dishes. In the poem, “Culture Stain,” the speaker says, “I came from this rot,” a line that echoes in the episode you just quoted. As if the poems are reflecting the world seen through this rotten eye.
ME: How did you first begin translating Vaan Nguyen’s poetry and how has your relationship to this poet’s work evolved?
AXJ: Newspapers have been a crucial platform for Hebrew poetry for decades, so early in my studies I got into the habit of browsing news outlets for poems and that’s how I first came upon Vaan Nguyen’s poetry. I was teaching at Hofstra University at the time and wanted to include some contemporary poetry in my Israeli literature class, which I taught in English translation. Since there were no English translations of Nguyen’s poetry available, I translated a couple of her poems for my students. I felt a deep connection to her language, but it was also disorienting. That combination appealed to me—I wanted to experience it in a very intense, intimate way and translating it into English accomplished that. At first, I was happy doing a poem here and there, just following my own tastes and instincts. People who heard or read these poems asked for more and the idea of doing the whole book grew out of the feeling that there actually were readers for it.
ME: If I could ask you to describe how Nguyen’s poems feel and sound in Hebrew in contrast/comparison to how they feel and sound and taste and smell and read in English, what words would you use?
AXJ: I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed my perfume habit, but I tend to think about poetry in terms of perfume, so here goes: For me, Nguyen’s Hebrew is like Etat Libre d’Orange’s Eau de Protection, which was a collaboration with the Spanish actress Rossy de Palma. This is a rose fragrance with a lot of spice thanks to its black pepper and ginger notes. Jasmine gives it warmth, like a summer night, but the inclusion of blood accord and cocoa expose a sharp, almost metallic, edge. Roses are often associated with romance, but what I love about this perfume is that it offers up a bouquet of crushed and rotten roses. It’s completely over-the-top and yet, once it settles on your skin, it feels familiar and cozy. Throughout the process of translating these poems, I tried to resist the urge to connect all the dots, to force the poems to make sense. When I read my translations, I can see signs of that struggle. The end result is a fragrance with similar notes but less pepper, with edges more like cut grass, so vetiver instead of cocoa.
ME: What has been most challenging about translating Nguyen’s work and what has been most satisfying?
AXJ: The Hebrew is the most challenging and satisfying part of translating her poetry. I didn’t grow up in Israel or around Israeli Hebrew, or any Hebrew at all really. I wasn’t a child in Hebrew, I never studied math in Hebrew, I don’t do my taxes in Hebrew. My Hebrew is a patchwork doll, but so is Nguyen’s poetry. It’s full of sharp juxtapositions, sudden shifts in perspective, unsettling grammatical errors. The difference, of course, is that these effects are present in Nguyen’s poetry by design. In my case, translating is like spraying luminol over a linguistic crime scene, the features of my imperfect Hebrew becoming visible. Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate the linguistic mess that translation reveals, to see the creative potential in these mistakes. This is something I have learned from translating Nguyen’s poetry.
ME: Do you have a favorite poem in The Truffle Eye? If so, which one and why?
AXJ: My favorite poem is one that initially wasn’t in The Truffle Eye. I came across “Winter City Poem” online in the literary journal Ma’ayan, where a lot of Nguyen’s poetry first appeared. The chapbook had already come out, so I assumed that this poem would make it into the book version. Nguyen later told me that her editor didn’t think it was a strong poem and that’s why she had left it out. But I felt it belonged in the book, and with Nguyen’s blessing, I placed it near the end. As a poem about travel, it felt like the right bookend to “Mekong River,” a poem that opens with the lines “Tonight I moved between three beds/ like I was sailing on the Mekong.” “Winter City Poem” reminded me of the many nights I spent in hostels in Israel and Europe in the late nineties and early aughts. This is no longer my kind of travel, but at the time, I relished that particular loneliness of being in a new city, exploring it all day, and then returning in the evening to a hostel and the uncomfortable intimacy of sharing rooms (and bathrooms) with strangers. In the poem, a man interrupts a conversation that the female speaker is having in a café. He’s a bit condescending but she takes it in stride. Those lines grafted themselves to the memory of a day I spent alone in Tel Aviv, which ended with me on the tayelet (promenade) watching the sunset. A man came up to me and asked if he could watch the sunset with me. I told him that I preferred to be alone; he replied that he liked to be alone too. I thought we had an understanding, so I turned back to the sunset and a minute later, he walked away. It turned out that we hadn’t understood each other at all. For me, this poem captured the mood of that kind of encounter.
ME: There are moments in Nguyen’s poems that feel so familiar to me and, also, so very startling. One of them comes from the opening of the fourth stanza of her poem “Hollywood” (full disclosure: I live in Los Angeles): “Look at me. I’m a routine.” What about your translations of Nguyen’s poems startle you?
AXJ: Yes! That line stood out for me as well. I have a special fondness for that poem because my father grew up in Pasadena, which is also mentioned there. Once in Tel Aviv, I read some of these poems at a gathering the poet Marcela Sulak hosted at her home. When I said the lines “You still/ make me want/ to drive an axe into my head” (from “On the Hudson”), Aviya Kushner gasped. Her reaction startled me; I was so immersed in the translation of these poems that I hadn’t fully appreciated the violence and humor of these lines. I then made it a point to read the translations out loud at every opportunity, taking note of these moments of shock. If you run a wire hanger across a blanket, it minimizes the potential for static electricity. I think revision risks being like this wire hanger, so when I made changes and adjustments to the translation, I was careful to avoid smoothing over or defusing the charge of these moments.
ME: What would you like the reader of your translations to come away with after reading Nguyen’s poems in English?
AXJ: I’m thinking here of the image of the “rotten eye” that opened these questions. Decomposition is such an active, transformative process, and I picture this eye offering up different views and perspectives as it breaks down. I hope readers come away with a sense of Nguyen’s manifold vision.
ME: Has your translation practice, and in particular your translation of The Truffle Eye, shaped or influenced your original writing?
AXJ: My first academic monograph Strange Cocktail: Translating and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry was invested in exploring the relation between (Hebrew) translation and original writing. What I also tried to show there is how my own translation praxis had shaped my thinking and writing about translation. The book itself is an example of how translation has influenced my own writing. In one of my chapters, I relate how the Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg translated Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace into Hebrew (as Milchama ve-shalom) during a period of poetic drought. She writes about this in her journal, how translation filled that void until she was ready to write her own poems again. I’m not sure how conscious I was about doing this, but at some point, translating poetry became a way for me to share that part of me that identifies as a poet without having to bring my own poems out into the open (because I am shy, scared, etc.). This is also true for my academic writing which I’m often told is “poetic,” which is one of my favorite compliments because it means that the reader has glimpsed the poet’s elbow poking out from under the bed. But the pandemic encouraged me to get out of my hiding places, and I’ve started sending out some of the poems I wrote during this long Covid year. Some were absolutely inspired by The Truffle Eye, which I was revising in late 2020. “Poet of Nails” ends with these lines I love: “And if I were to write poetry then/ I would write prose—/ Which is a difference in rhyme/ and breath.” A more literal translation of the last line would be “the length of a breath.” In a year when we have been so focused on how and what we breathe, this line has been on my mind as I explore different forms—like the prose poem and hybrid essay—in my own writing.
ME: What’s next on the docket for you as a translator?
AXJ: Right now, I’m working on a translation of Tahel Frosh’s debut poetry collection Betsa (Avarice), a project that has the support of an NEA Translation Grant. These poems concern the relation between poetry and money and the material lives of poets. One of the questions the book raises is, what is poetry’s value, really, in a culture, society, and home. I have been thinking about this question a lot this year. On the one hand, we have Vanity Fair declaring that the pandemic has boosted poetry’s “cultural relevance,” and yet, on the other, poets have not been immune to this virus and the havoc it has wrought on their lives and communities. Translation is always contemporary, meaning that the moment you are translating a work it becomes of that moment. But I am nonetheless struck by the timeliness of Avarice and translating it has presented an opportunity to think about the labor and value of poetry and its translation.
Magdalena Edwards writes the Translationships column for Hopscotch. Her translations include the work of Noemi Jaffe, Clarice Lispector, Silviano Santiago, Márcia Tiburi, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. She is currently translating Julio Cortázar’s Cartas de mamá for Sublunary Press. Find her on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 3, 2021