A New Beat in Our Chests

A New Beat in Our Chests: Jazra Khaleed Finds his Ensemble of Translators

by Panagiota Stoltidou

Khaleed’s most urgent lyrics erupt when he chooses to build up his political anger quietly, imperceptibly, only to reveal its full force at the end. The effect is haunting, and Khaleed’s translators are aware of it.

The Light that Burns Us by Jazra Khaleed, edited by Karen Van Dyck and translated from the Modern Greek by Peter Constantine, et al. World Poetry Books, 128 pp, $16.00, October 2021, ISBN 978-1-954218-01-7.

Fourth in the list of rules that Lawrence Venuti lays out in his canonical essay on how to read translations is the invitation to read, indeed, never to skip, translators’ prefaces and critical introductions. As Venuti rightly points out, these are useful statements of the interpretive principles that guide the translation — crucial tools for anyone who wishes to appreciate the creativity at work in both translation and source text. Peter Constantine’s preface to the newly published edition of Jazra Khaleed’s Greek poems into English, The Light that Burns Us (2021), is a beautiful testament to the importance of Venuti’s fourth directive.

Constantine is rare among translators for his diverse repertoire. Having produced critically acclaimed translations from German, Russian, French, Italian and Greek — to name but a few of his working languages — he is very attuned to Greece’s contemporary literary scene, and Khaleed’s unique voice in particular. His preface begins with a razor-sharp quote by the poet:

Words are my Praetorian Guard.
When I give the sign they leap into the line of fire.
Whoever comes at me feels their spears.

Translated by Peter Constantine

Gradually, we get to learn more about Khaleed and his work. Born in 1979 in Grozny, Chechnya to Greek refugees, now in his forties living in Athens, he appeared on the Greek poetry scene in the early 2000s, in samizdat and on blogs, and has since become known as one of Greece’s most influential literary voices and the co-founder and editor of Teflon, the most widely read free poetry magazine in the country. “Hard-hitting,” “sophisticated,” “street,” “feral,” and “elegant” are only some of the diverse adjectives that Constantine uses to denote Khaleed’s language and poetic sensibility. Yet, it seems, none of these suffices to fully capture the nuanced complexities of either the poet or his craft. Prior to any direct mention of Khaleed, the introduction peruses Greece’s current sociopolitical and economic climate with an honesty as bleak as it is refreshing. For Constantine, the poet is best understood if situated at the vanguard of a new generation of poets that took shape from 2008 onwards, amidst the ruins of Greece’s financial crisis. This information is crucial insofar as it alerts the American reader to how Khaleed’s “electrifying” and “feverish” language, his aesthetic and poetic concerns, are most revealing in translation: they must be read amidst the ruins.

Khaleed was first introduced to the English-speaking literary world in Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (2016), Karen Van Dyck’s bilingual anthology of contemporary Greek poets, and in her in-your-face translation of “The War Is Coming,” first published in the Guardian in 2017. English translations of his work have also appeared on the online platform lyrikline.org, where the poet can be read in Japanese, Chinese, Haitian, Serbian, and Irish, among other languages. Printed by World Poetry Books, one of a handful of U.S. presses dedicated exclusively to publishing translations of international poetry, The Light that Burns Us deserves praise for being the first book-length volume of Khaleed’s selected poems in English, containing both old and newer translations.

In a 2017 essay on Austerity Measures for PN Review, Van Dyck insisted on the significance of the bilingual format of her work. For her, translation as an interpretive practice is best “laid bare” when the Greek poem and its English translation are set alongside each other. Overall, there is much to gain from a translation with facing original text, even for a mono-alphabetic audience. Looking from left to right and back again between source text and translation, readers of all linguistic backgrounds may be able to register the ways in which the latter visually deviates from the former, and by extension the formal creativity that is at play in the production of all translation. It is a shame, then, that Khaleed’s English debut is a monolingual one, breaking away from the beautiful example set by Austerity Measures and some of World Poetry Books’ own publications of Greek poetry in translation.

Khaleed’s poetry manifests an arresting sincerity. The rage, indignation, and despair are not hidden behind calm facades. They explode onto the surface of the fast, rap-like verses and demand to be read out loud. In what counts as one of his most powerful statements about poetry, Khaleed, talking to Max Ritvo for the Los Angeles Review of Books, explained how he sees both himself and his art as part of a larger political discourse — anti-fascist discourse. For him, every verse he writes should and does connect to posters on the streets, magazines, protests, and acts of solidarity. In a country where anti-immigrant temper and sexist attitudes run high, and the media fail to uncover the magnitude of the injustices and human rights violations perpetrated by the state, this unrelenting poetological approach matters deeply. The Light that Burns Us is an insightful introduction to someone who dares to weave a radical anti-governmental narrative in the very language of his nemeses; someone who, though living and working in Greece, refuses to endure the silence.

Arguably, Khaleed’s most urgent lyrics erupt when he chooses to build up his political anger quietly, imperceptibly, only to reveal its full force at the end. The effect is haunting, and Khaleed’s translators are aware of it. Consider the last stanza from “Kid/Stoplight,” a prose poem told from the perspective of an underage window cleaner working at the stoplights. Here, the initially contained intensity leads up to a final line that is as unexpected as it is explosive:

I know you well
But you don’t know
That as I reach out my left hand
In the right hand I hold tight
A knife

Translated by Sarah McCann

Consider also the similar effect of the short poem “Refrain”:

My name is J-A-Z-R-A
Here I’m illegal, in spite of the Left
I was born in the dusk of the West
And this evening is just splendid
For smashing fascist heads

Translated by Sarah McCann

Contrary to the controlled emotion traversing the rest of the stanza, the final line punctures a violent hole in the page. McCann’s sense of Khaleed’s sudden climax is remarkable here. Her penultimate line (“And this evening is just splendid”) opens up a space in which the jarring content of the last line can resound fully, propelled by the arresting internal rhyme in “smashing” and “fascist.”

Formal elements of Khaleed’s stylistically agitated Greek are brilliantly reworked in the translations. Take, as one example, “Somewhere in Athens”:

Somewhere in Athens December the Sixth
The kid will kill the cop before sunup
Somewhere in Athens December the Seventh
On the streets the banks are burnt one by one
Somewhere in Athens December the Eighth
Let’s cut a rug in Parliament’s rubble
Somewhere in Athens December the Ninth
The poets in the streets eulogize fires
Somewhere in Athens December the Naught
Because the rebels shot the bell-tower clocks

Translated by Sarah McCann

The original Greek text stands out for its continuous coupled rhymes and the decisive playfulness of its lexicon, both of which make it read like a children’s song, and give a rather ironic twist to its grim subject matters of police brutality and sociopolitical uprising. At the level of content, the translation carefully renders the vividness of Khaleed’s disconcerting images. Sarah McCann’s attention to the form of the Greek text is also poignant insofar as it gives shape to a rendition that bypasses the impossible task of reproducing the original rhyming scheme within the foreign auditory realm and instead creates new possibilities for formal playfulness. In that regard, her English alliterations are especially elegant (“kid” – “kill” – “cop” / “banks” – “burnt” / “rug” – “rubble”).

Other translations locate further clever techniques for releasing the ironic undertones of Khaleed’s formal aspects into the alternative architecture of English. In “Greek Democracy,” the last stanza exchanges Khaleed’s dry allusion to Greece’s “Hymn to Liberty” for a direct quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s official English translation of the anthem from 1918:

By the lights of thine eyes,
and Pallas’s Flaming Sword,
you shall live a thousand years
unblemished in deed and word

Translated by Peter Constantine and Max Ritvo

Here, a more literal translation of the Greek lyrics could have resulted in something awkward and unpalatable. While it isn’t true that foreignizing a translation always and inevitably alienates the reader — for French translator Antoine Berman, “foreign writing” is the most miraculous and graceful paradigm of translation — Constantine and Ritvo’s more domesticating variant translates Khaleed’s intertextuality by creating a rich reference in the new culture that is in immediate conversation with another translation.

Beyond the translations by Constantine, Van Dyck, McCann, and Ritvo, The Light that Burns Us also includes contributions by Angelos Sakkis, Josephine Simple, and Brian Sneeden. This is a collaborative work, and it could have easily resulted in cacophony. Instead, it bristles with the euphonic complexity of Khaleed’s voice. His familiar, testimonial agitation shines through in both Ritvo’s and Simple’s renditions of the Greek texts, and his interrogative tone is reflected equally in Sneeden’s “The Steel in Our Hands” and Constantine’s “RE: Lotus Eaters.” More concretely, perhaps, Constantine’s Khaleed in “Black Lips”:

I will drive a verb into your eyes
I will plant a beat in your chests,

reads as performatively as Ritvo’s in “Fuck Armageddon”:

Fuck off flower poets. Fragile as your amaryllis. Blinding and bloating yourself with silk: constantly eating and shitting a chrysalis. The doddering leftists toast with milk the stinking rats on the sinking Samina, who flee too fast to let the cheese curdle. My words are Fayadeen: verbal, fatal, fertile — where will you be when the blood begins to burble?

As a whole, these translations point to the collective love that gave them shape — a love for Khaleed’s own Greek and for the Greek language more broadly.

My father speaks Greek, and Greek only. Whenever I send him poetry in English, be it someone else’s that I really like or my own haphazard scribblings, I don’t expect him to understand more than a few lines or scattered words. It is the act of communication, however sparse and fragmented, that I cherish. But my father won’t leave it at that; he sends a quick apology and copy-pastes my texts on the machine translation software of his phone. The results are always bittersweet: inevitably funny but marred by the absence of an actual translation. They echo both a great lack and a great need: that for good translations of poetry, from all languages into all languages, constantly. Thoughtful and linguistically careful, Khaleed’s English debut plants the right beat in our chests.

Panagiota Stoltidou (b. 2000, Thessaloniki) is an undergraduate student of Comparative Literature and Sociolinguistics at Freie Universität in Berlin. She is currently completing a one-year academic exchange program at Columbia University in the City of New York, where she is also an editor for the college literary magazine The Columbia Review. She translates from Greek and German.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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