Three Questions With Elena Bossi

I’m a fan of recently-established Dunedin ebook publisher Rosa Mira Books, for several reasons:

– I like the publisher, Penelope Todd
– I like the idea of a New Zealand publisher tackling ebooks head-on, rather than side-stepping nervously around them, and I want to see that effort succeed
– They publish good books.

But there is a fragment of self-interest in there as well. Rosa Mira Books launched with the short story collection Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, which includes my story “Said Sheree” and lots of fine stories from New Zealand and international authors.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is “The Ache”, by Argentine writer Elena Bossi, translated into English by Georgia Birnie. It distils romantic yearning down into two lovely pages.

I recently asked Elena three questions about her writing, and here are her answers. English is not Elena’s first language, and so she asked me to tidy up her answers for an audience of predominantly native English speakers. I have tried to do so without losing the flavour of her replies.

Three Questions For Elena Bossi

1. Besides the quality of the fiction, one of the things I like the most about “Slightly Peculiar Love Stories” is the wide range of countries the authors come from. How did a writer from Argentina become involved in an anthology of love stories edited by a New Zealander?

I knew Penelope, and many of the other “Peculiar” writers, from the International Writing Program in Iowa in 2007. Of course, all of them read me in English translations. That’s it. Penelope and Kavery Nambisan (from India) helped me a lot with translations. As did two different students from the Translation Workshop of the University of Iowa.

2. Your story “The Ache”, which is one of my favourites in the anthology, was translated from the original Spanish into English by Georgia Birnie. Do you enjoy the process of having your work translated?

I really do like the process of translation, it is actually like reading another story again and now I can read it as other. It is very “peculiar” to see our own words as the words of others and this make me think that our words are always strange in some way. We have some strange insight which is a little scary too.

3. In New Zealand at least, the publishing industry is changing rapidly, and all but the best-established writers have to be adaptable to keep getting their work published. Is now a good time to be a writer in Argentina?

I think a better time to be a writer in Argentina was during the ’60s and the ’70s. After this time, and also because of the military government, a commercial change began which concentrated all the little publishers we had into big ones and began to be more interested in selling than in literature. The figure of the publisher/editor disappeared and a regular manager took the place.

Now, little by little, big international publishers are losing space and a lot of more or less familiar publishing houses are coming again. So I hope things are going to change a little but the volume in our bookstores is too big (more than 10,000 books) to allow authors who are not very best sellers to stay on tables enough time. So, we can say it is quite difficult to live like a writer. A little easier, to make a living writing children’s literature.

Tuesday Poem: The Translator

Shutting out the torment and the fear
deep into the night’s cold morning hours
I work on my translation.

Improbable, that in another tongue
such lines as these were born,
set down, are vivid on his page

and will not come across to mine.
Two ways to go: the forced rhyme
the flaccid filling phrase

or terse, unrhymed,
trying to capture the meaning
as if that could ever be known.

But something does translate —
a voice from bleak immensities
perfect for nights like these:

the wind’s forgotten murmur,
the war that beggars language
speaking the creole of slaughter.

Credit note: First published in New Zealand Books (December 2004), included in Best New Zealand Poems 2004, and then collected in All Blacks Kitchen Gardens.

Tim says: I have had something of a translation theme going with the Tuesday Poems on my blog recently, one way or another, and furthermore Best New Zealand Poems 2010 has just been launched – congratulations to all those who’ve had work selected! – so I though I would post my poem “The Translator”, which appeared in BNZP 2004. At that time, I also supplied an exuberant set of notes on the poem.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week’s other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

Writing Past Each Other? Literary Translation and Community

I was sent information about this conference by the organisers, who asked me to pass it on to people who may be interested – and what better place to do that than this blog? In particular, the organisers are keen to publicise the call for papers, which closes on 31 March.

As someone with an interest in the translation of poetry, I am especially interested in the sessions they are planning on poetry and translation, which are being organised by poet Chris Price:

As a special feature of the conference, we are also organising translation workshop sessions with noted New Zealand poets (participants should pre-register; details to come). There will also be an evening reading session.

Here is the full announcement. For other details, e.g. how to register, please check out the conference web site.

Writing Past Each Other? Literary Translation and Community International Conference in Literary Translation

Victoria University of Wellington
11-13 December 2010

Lawrence Venuti
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Announcement and Call for Papers

Metge and Kinloch (Talking Past Each Other: Problems in Cross-Cultural Communication, 1978), explore the ways in which those from diverse backgrounds misread important cultural differences in everyday life.

At this conference we hope to explore how literary translation promotes awareness and appreciation of such differences, while simultaneously creating a sense of community across local and international boundaries, or how a lack of such exchange can contribute to the isolation of literary cultures: how is globalisation affecting international literary exchange? how might translation contribute more to literary communities?

While papers on how these issues are articulated in the Asia-Pacific region are especially welcome, we also encourage paper proposals on a wide range of topics related to practical and theoretical aspects of literary translation and covering cross-cultural linguistic interaction from across the globe. Panel proposals (3 to 4 speakers) are especially welcome. Conference papers are to be delivered in English, but may relate to any of the world’s languages.

As a special feature of the conference, we are also organising translation workshop sessions with noted New Zealand poets (participants should pre-register; details to come). There will also be an evening reading session.

Please send abstracts (title of paper, name of presenter, 250 word outline and a short (50 word) bio-bibliographical note) by 31st March 2010 to NZCLT (at) We plan to publish selected papers from the conference in a refereed volume. Conference attendees wishing to have their papers published should submit them by 31st January 2011 for consideration.

Fallen / Niedergang

A couple of years ago, a poem from my first collection, Boat People, was selected for inclusion in Wildes Licht, an anthology of New Zealand poetry with German translations, edited by Dieter Riemenschneider.

I was pleased not only because it always feels good to have work anthologised, but also because I have an interest in literary translation, and a particular liking for books which have the original on one page and the translation on the facing page.

Subsequently, however, due to a change in publishing arrangements, the manuscript had to be shortened, and mine was one of the poems cut. I was disappointed about this, but since Mark Pirie and I had undergone exactly the same process while finding a publisher for Voyagers, I recognised that this is just one of the realities of the publishing process.

Dieter was kind enough to send me the translation of “Fallen” that would have appeared in “Wildes Licht”, and give me permissions to publish it here. The print version has some indentation which didn’t work well online, but that apart, here are “Fallen” and its German translation, “Niedergang”.


Driving through Mandeville. Empty windows, empty houses,
a craft shop sprung like fungus from the bones of the dying town.

The cenotaph stands roadside. Blunt, unwearied,
it commends to our attention the names of the anxious dead.

They grew, these Southland towns, on the graves
of the children of Tane. Mandeville, Riversdale –
Myross Bush, Ryal Bush, Gummies‘ …

the land groaned with the weight of their money.
As the tribes were pushed to the margins, fat lambs
grew fatter. Knives flashed cold on the chains;
eels tumbled and writhed over offal.

Now, thistles nod in the hard-pan fields. Children
are a letter from the city, a ten-hour drive at Easter.
The wealth
went with them. No mirror glass monuments here.

But the Council keeps the graveyard clean; and our dust
settles impartially
on the sign: “Country Crafts – Buy Here!”
and the sign that their dead live on, and will do so, chiselled in stone,
till new trees and new ferns drag them down.


Eine Fahrt durch Mandeville. Hohle Fenster, leere Häuser,
ein Kunstgewerbeladen wie ein Pilz aus den Knochen der sterbenden Stadt entsprungen.

Das Ehrenmal am Straßenrand. Plump, unermüdlich
empfiehlt es uns, sich der Namen der Toten zu erinnern.

Sie wuchsen, diese Südlandstädte, auf den Gräbern
der Kinder Tanes. Mandeville, Riversdale –
Myross Bush, Ryal Bush, Gummies’ …
das Land stöhnte unter der Last ihres Geldes.
Während die Stämme an den Rand gedrängt wurden,
setzten fette Lämmer mehr Fett an. Messer blitzten kalt an den Ketten;
Aale wandten und stürzten sich auf die Innereien.

Jetzt nicken Disteln auf den pfannentrockenen Feldern. Kinder
sind ein Brief aus der Stadt, eine Zehnstundenfahrt an
Ostern. Der Wohlstand
zog mit ihnen fort. Keine Spiegelglassdenkmäler hier.

Doch der Stadtrat hält den Friedhof sauber; und unser Staub
senkt sich unbefangen
auf das Schild ‘Einheimisches Kunstgewerbe –
hier zu kaufen!’ und das Schild, dass die Toten weiter leben und weiter leben werden,
in Stein gemeisselt,
bis neue Bäume
und Farn sie niederziehen werden.

An Interview with Lee and Nogi Aholima

Earlier this year, I reviewed Penina he magafaoa and Takai, two collections of poetry written in English by Lee Aholima (top author photo) and translated into Niuean by his mother Nogi Aholima (bottom author photo). Since I enjoyed both books, and have an interest in literary translation, I wanted to find out more about them – so Lee and Nogi kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of both Penina he magafaoa and Takai. What can you tell me about the books? Where can interested readers find more information about them, and how can people buy copies?

Lee – Thankyou. The poetry in the books were written from the period 1993 to 2008. I started out posting the poems from Penina he magafaoa on the Niue Global Community mailing list and then someone suggested that I apply for a Creative NZ grant in 2006. I also posted a few from Takai on the mailing list. The idea of bilingual poetry books was to promote the language and to preserve our cultural heritage. Also the idea that I would have a better chance of getting the grant as I had my own doubts about the quality of my poems after submitting them to a couple of publishers. The poems were written in English first and then my mother translated them.

You can find both books in most libraries in Auckland. They are also in a few university libraries and libraries overseas. You can buy them from me via the PublishMe Shop or buy them from South Pacific Books Ltd.

Are these the first poetry collections to be published in both Niuean and English?

Lee – Tose Tuhipa the editor believes they are.

When you started work on the poems in these collections, was it always the plan that they’d be published in both languages?

Lee – Yes and no. Yes when I wrote those poems for Penina he magafaoa in 2006. They were short monologues that I was going to attempt to write in Niuean myself. I then recruited my mother to help me when I realized it wasn’t going to be easy. No too in that a lot of the poems in both books were already written back in 1994-1995.

Has there been a lot of translation from other languages into Niuean? How about from Niuean into other languages? Has fiction and poetry by John Pule been translated into Niuean?

Nogi – There’s been a few done by others through the Learning Media – but all junior reader stuff for learning of the language – both from other languages into Niuean and a few specially written Niuean readers into English and into other PI languages. I don’t think that any of JP’s work is translated into Niuean.

Lee – The biggest stockist I know of in New Zealand of Niuean books is South Pacific Books Ltd out in Bethells Beach. They would be lucky to have a dozen books and most of those are for learning the language. The most well known translation of an English book is the bible. I don’t know if there are many if any books translated from Niuean into another language. I am not sure if any of John Pule’s books have been translated into Niuean.

What specific issues and decisions were involved in making these translations?

Lee – One issue was transliteration. I didn’t mind transliteration of words not in the Niuean dictionary. I was keen to keep the names of people and places intact in English. My mother seemed happy to transliterate everything including names. My mother had some freedom with translation so there was some creativity in creating a Niuean version of some of the English sentences – e.g. my version ‘satyrious in their love’, her version ‘planting seeds at random’ or something like that.

Nogi – Transliteration is a big issue – A lot of the words used in the poems do not exist in the Niuean language and that does not include place & people’s names. The Niuean dictionary is full of transliterated words & I don’t believe that that is unique only to the Niuean language. I don’t see the point of translating English into Niuean & retain many of the English words /names, etc: or to be using too many Niuean words to describe its meaning. And it’s poetry not story writing. I find that if the topic or the environment in the poem is familiar, then it’s easier to translate. There’s never been a Niuean poet writing Niuean poetry in Niuean nor writers of any sort. The only other book besides the bible that is in Niuean & English is the book “Niue – A History of the Island” & it’s published jointly by the Institute of Pacific Studies of the Sth Pacific University & the Govt of Niue. And the writers – all bilingual Niueans like myself.

What response have you had from the Niuean community, both in New Zealand and on Niue, to the publication of these books?

Nogi – The only response I’ve had about the 2 poetry books are from my close palagi friends here in the deep south & they can only comment on their reading of the English versions. They were very positive about the books.

Lee – I am not sure if the Niuean community has completely embraced the books. Some have enjoyed them. What I have heard is that older people have some reservations. There are some who criticize things such as use of transliteration when there is already a word for it. And there are some older folk who are not used to the creative use of the language – they prefer literal.

I enjoyed the science fiction poems in Takai, such as “Liogi lanu lau kou” / “Green Prayer”. Do you read a lot of science fiction, and do you have plans to write more?

Lee – Yes I pretty much have cleaned out the Wellington Library and read all of the best sci-fi books in the library in the time I lived in Wellington. I would like to write some more but they will be few and far between. I read science fiction because more often than not it is based on bleeding edge science and technology and I like to escape. However my poems tend to be religious, philosophical, political and social commentaries as well as observations of things.

Which poets have had the most influence on your work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading? (Of course, these might be one and the same.)

Lee – I read more poetry now but nobody has really influenced me with these 2 books. I did buy Playing God by Glenn Colquhoun to have a read of it. I don’t find reading other people’s poems always that enjoyable, unlike reading a sci-fi. I do like writing poems though and reading my own – they are more a classification and posterity of my thoughts at the time hence the date at the bottom.

How do you see the future of the Niuean language?

Nogi – Niueans are not as strong as other Pacific Islands nations i.e. Samoans at holding onto their cultural heritage especially the language or dance, etc here in NZ. I don’t really understand poetry as such but I do try to understand so as to translate them. Most Niueans are here in NZ and nearly all or all NZ born Niueans can not speak or understand the Niuean Language. This apathy to the culture will eventually lead us to obscurity/obliteration culturally unless we as Niueans get involved in some way.

Lee – I am not really sure. For me I just have to try and do my bit with my mum to preserve the language.

Facing Pages

This article was originally published in a fine line, the magazine of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

Facing Pages

Translation is a strange business. Take these two translations of a four-line poem by Osip Mandelstam:

Into the distance disappear the mounds of human heads
I dwindle — go unnoticed now
But in affectionate books, in children’s games
I will rise from the dead to say: the sun!

(quoted as an epigraph to Gene Wolfe’s novel The Sword of the Lictor)

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

(from Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems)

The first version is my favourite poem. The second – well, it’s OK. Yet they are both translations of the same four lines of Russian poetry.

What’s so special about poetry in translation? Well, for one, only the best poetry from other languages tends to be translated into English, so in picking up a volume of translated poetry, there’s a reasonable assurance that there will be some good stuff inside. For another, I like poetry to surprise me, and I’ve found that there’s more chance of being surprised by poets and poems from languages other than English. This isn’t to claim that poets in English are unimaginative; but the poetic tradition in other languages differs from the poetic tradition in English, and a good translation will preserve the “otherness” of the source poem. Beauty and strangeness — the perfect combination!

When the Iraqi poet Basim Furat lived in Wellington, I attended several readings at which he read in Arabic, and Mark Pirie then read a translation of the Arabic poetry into English. Arabic poetry is about as far removed from the unrhetorical, conversational tone of most New Zealand poetry as it is possible to get: Arabic poetry is rich in extended metaphor, imagery, and rhetoric. I couldn’t get the hang of it at all at first, but after hearing it a few times together with the translations, I have grown to appreciate the style. (Many of the translations into English of Basim’s poems are included in his collection Here and There.)

My favourite format for books of translated poetry is to have the original and the English translation on facing pages. This goes both for languages that I can puzzle my way through armed with a dictionary and dim memories of language lessons (Russian, and to a lesser degree French, Spanish and Maori); and those I’m completely out of my depth in (German, Norwegian). It’s like opening one Christmas present and finding another one inside: the poem in English on the right and, its riches less accessible, the original poem on the left.

Two of my favourite poets are Anna Akhmatova and Paul Celan. While Celan is notoriously cryptic, Akhmatova writes in clear, classical Russian. Nevertheless, her poetry presents the same problem for the translator as does most Russian poetry: to rhyme or not to rhyme. Russian is a very regular language, every bit as declined and conjugated as Latin, and sense does not depend on word order. This means that the rhyming resources available to the Russian poet are much greater than those available to the poet writing in English.

Many translators of Russian poetry attempt to preserve the rhyme scheme, or at least come up with an equivalent scheme. In even the most highly skilled hands, however, this creates the risk that the translation will stray too far from the sense of the original for the sake of finding rhymes. On the other hand, unrhymed translations are inherently less “Russian”. It’s a choice with no obvious right answer, and the translators of my Akhmatova Selected Poems have rhymed, or not rhymed, as seems best to them for each poem. It’s a fine collection and a good introduction to a wonderful poet.

But if the translator of Akhmatova faces problems, these pale beside those faced by the translator of Celan, a poet who exudes difficulty and breathes paradox. Michael Hamburger’s introduction to the Celan Selected Poems is a testament both to the difficulty of Hamburger’s task as translator, and to the zeal and commitment with which he pursued this task.

The previous paragraph reads like a “Danger-Keep Out!” warning posted on the approach to Celan’s poems, but I’m not trying to put you off. Despite their difficulty, these poems are wonderful: fascinating, endlessly inventive. I don’t speak German, but as I look between the translation and the original, the German roots of English words start popping out at me, and I can begin to see why the translator has made the choices he has, and how he has attempted to translate what many would regard as the untranslatable.

I was given book tokens for Christmas. I’ve just used some of them to buy a copy of Jorge Luis BorgesSelected Poems (read my subsequent review). Facing pages again, this time Spanish and English. I open the book and my eyes flick from right to left and back again. In the space between the facing pages, a new poem grows.

– Tim Jones

Books cited

Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor, Volume 3 of The Book of the New Sun (Arrow, 1992)

Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (Penguin, 1977)

Basim Furat, Here and There, edited by Mark Pirie (HeadworX, 2004)

Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (Collins Harvill, 1989)

Paul Celan, Selected Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger (Penguin, 1990)

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman (Penguin, 2000)