Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Zack Rogow
By Lisa Carter, Intralingo Inc.

Lisa Carter: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

Zack Rogow: I translate primarily from French, but not exclusively. I learned French as a baby and then forgot every word of it. The language returned to me when I started to study it as a teenager. French comes more naturally to me than any other language. I’ve studied several other languages as well, and I do sometimes attempt a poem by Rilke in German. I’m one of about a thousand people who’ve tried their hand at “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” You can read my translation on my blog, Advice for Writers.

I keep coming back to French, partly because I feel a strong affinity for a certain current of French thought, the current that produced Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité; George Sand, Colette and French feminism; and the surrealist movement of the 1920s and 30s.

I also collaborate with other translators who are not native speakers of English, and I help them produce finished translations of poems. For example, I work with Hamida Banu Chopra, who is a highly respected scholar and reciter of Urdu poetry. Most of the poems she and I have worked on she knows by heart, and performs them so beautifully. Urdu is one of those intrinsically musical languages, like Italian, or Brazilian Portuguese. I work with Hamida on polishing translations that she does with her daughter, Nasreen Chopra, a physicist who is bilingual in Urdu and English and is a fan of poetry. Some of the poets we’ve translated as a team include Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhyanvi, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, and Allama Iqbal.

I’ve translated several different genres, including surrealist, symbolist and contemporary poetry; a play from the Fanny trilogy by Marcel Pagnol; and novels by George Sand and Colette. I enjoy the challenge of switching genres.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

ZR: Back when I was in college, my roommate and I were very curious about surrealist poetry. This was in the early 1970s, and the hallucinatory quality of surrealism was enormously appealing to us. It seemed like a way to make sense of a world where we knew something was very out of whack, and where surrealism provided a window into transformative possibilities. André Breton, who founded surrealism, said, “The imaginary is what tends to become real.” That was the quality in French poetry that appealed to me, that and the unabashed passion of the love poems. You don’t find that often in U.S. poetry. I started translating poems by the surrealists that had not been translated before, because I wanted to hear how they sounded in English.

I remember going to a lecture not long after that by the New York School painter Larry Rivers. Inevitably at a public event like that someone always asks the ridiculous question, “Why do you paint.” Larry Rivers actually had an answer to that question that was not ridiculous. He said, “Because there’s something I want to see.” I feel that way about translation. I translate because there’s something I want to read in English, and it doesn’t exist yet, or not the way it strikes me.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

ZR: I think the greatest privilege that a translator has is to be really close to the work of a skilled writer. I feel sometimes as if I’m looking over the shoulder of a master artist at work. There is so much to be learned about writing from translating.

Translation also connects me to people around the globe in a way that I would never experience otherwise. As a Jew, I feel that I have come to understand and appreciate some of what is beautiful in German-language culture through translating poems by Rilke. That makes me feel, personally, as if some terrible historic rift can be bridged for me individually in at least a small way. I find that healing.

What do I like least about translation? I’d say doing draft after draft. A translation is always a work in progress, it’s never finished, it’s never going to be as good as the original. That’s frustrating. But it’s also rewarding to get a translation as close to burnished as I can, especially if it’s a formal poem, such as a sonnet.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

Cover, Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island, by Colette, translated in part by Zack RogowZR: I completed a translation not long ago with my friend Renée Morel of the book Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island: And Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette. It was an amazing experience to work with Renée, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of French language, culture and history.

The Colette book was also an exciting project for me because it involved not only translating, but finding 200 pages by a writer I adore that had never been seen in English before. The existence of these works was not known by most Anglophone speakers. The book includes short stories, transcripts of radio talks that Colette gave, journalism and even an advice column for the lovelorn that she wrote for the women’s magazine Marie Claire.

The project became doubly stimulating for me because after Renée and I finished the translation, we started working with the marvelous actor Lorri Holt on dramatizing excerpts from the book. Lorri and I co-wrote a one-woman show based on the book where she plays the part of Colette. We recently did a reading of the show at the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. You can watch the video on their website.

That’s an area of translation that I’m getting more and more interested in, the performance of literary translation on stage. I’m also writing a series of plays about the lives of poets that incorporate translations of their work—not necessarily translations that I’ve done myself. So far the plays include celebrations of the life and work of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Nazim Hikmet, and Yosano Akiko. I’m hoping to get these plays staged by theater companies now.

Zack Rogow was a co-winner of the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award for Earthlight by André Breton, and winner of a Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for his translation of George Sand’s novel, Horace. His English version of Colette’s novel Green Wheat was published in 2004 by Sarabande Books and nominated for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award and for the Northern California Book Award in translation. His translation and adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s play Marius was produced by the Storm Theatre in New York City in 2012 and by the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley in 2005. He served as editor and artistic director for two volumes of TWO LINES. Rogow is also a widely published poet, essayist and blogger. He teaches in the low-residency MFA in writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Interested in sharing your insight and experience as a literary translator here on Intralingo? Contact editor@intralingo.com to learn more about being featured in a Spotlight interview.

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