Matthew Landrum

The Lonesome Savior (Cold Hub Press, 2015)

translations of poems by Agnar Artúvertin

If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook of translations, what songs would be playing?

My friend Jen Hinst-White says The Lonesome Savior is the perfect name for a bluegrass album. So that’s how I picture it – something along the lines of Crooked Still’s album Still Crooked. She said she’d sing harmony if I ever set it to music. I’ll hold her to that.

Did you translate this chapbook while listening to anything, or do you listen to anything when you translate in general, or is it all silence?

I listen to people. Music makes me useless as a writer. Rhythms conflict. So I like to go to bars and let the light and noise of glasses and indistinct conversations wash over me.

What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the translating?

Translating means seeing your way into a piece, understanding its guts and being able to keep its soul intact in the interlingual journey. Struggling with a literal version of a poem and then suddenly finding a key that turns it from a wooden poem to a poem of flesh and blood – that’s magic.

For instance, I wrestled with the title “Hin Ótilpassaði” for a week. Various versions of that – “the non-conformist” or “the unconformed one” – sound political or non-Englishy. Both jarred against the psycho-sexual serenity of the poem. And then the title occurred to me in a flash: “The Protestant.” It keeps the meaning of non-conformist and adds a new dynamic to the poem that rounds out its guilt and sense of another world. Epiphanies like that make translation for me.

Did the chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript?

I looked at hundreds of Agnar’s poems. The 16 in this book spoke to me. Others didn’t. That doesn’t speak to the quality of the poems I didn’t translate. I’m sure there’s a translator out there who could do them well – just not me. So this book represents the near totality of my work with Agnar.

There were a few poems that I knocked my head against and never could quite crack. One went like this:

vit eru einki                                                  we are nothing

vit minnast einki                                            we remember nothing

av einkjum skulu vit aftur verða              from nothings/widows we shall again be

einkjur                                                           nothings/widows

The words for nothings and widows are homophones in Faroese. So translating the wordplay is near impossible, a difficult riddle. So I widened the translation to include an idea or nothingness and a type of woman and came up with none and nun. I posed the riddle to my friend and fellow translator William Braun and his version is my favorite.

we are nothing

we remember nothing

you rule this kingdom, a baroness

of barrenness

Maybe someday, other of Agnar’s poems will magically swim into focus. He’s not writing anymore so there’s nothing new to go on.

What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?

I love the work Anomalous Press is doing with its wonderful and frankly weird lineup. They do a lot of work with hybrid genre and translation. This spring I read and loved Anatomy of a Museum Or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Icelandic Phallological Museum, But Were Afraid to Ask. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Erica Mena, the editor, and her team just do a really fantastic job of curating a varied and wildly interesting lineup.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks (of translations, poetry, or prose)? How did they influence your translating or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

My favorite is The Beginning and the End of Snow by Yves Bonnefoy translated by Emily Grosholz. It’s beautifully translated – I’ve read the same material done by another translator and it isn’t even close to the breathless, first snow feeling of Grosholz language. And it’s a whole book about snow. That’s hard to pull off. It’s a beautiful edition from Bucknell University Press with watercolor illustrations from Iranian artist Farhad Ostovani.

I also read and reread Brett Elizabeth Jenkins’ chapbook Ether/Ore from Nap which I reviewed it in my blog a few years ago. The chapbook is a sublimation of anxiety into an obsession with the sun exploding. It’s hard to find a copy now but I can’t recommend it enough.

What’s the oldest translation in the chapbook?

The first poem I ever worked on was “Eternal Drunkenness.” I hashed it out with my host family’s sister Sana one night as a way of learning Faroese. It took a long time for it to reach its final form though and by the time it was published in Specter, I had already published a half dozen other translations.

What’s the chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from other translating or other writing you’ve done?

That’s an interesting question, one that gets at the heart of translation as an art.

One answer is that the chapbook isn’t about anything (it’s just the 16 poems I chose to translate). But translation is always and inescapably about the imposition of vision on a work. So the other answer is that this chapbook is a New Testament to Agnar Artúvertin’s Old Testament. The title of his first collection of poetry translates as The Return of Jehovah. In this book, the poet is an avenging ancient God judging society. But the Lonesome Savior is a poetical hero who sacrifices everything to bring light to society. The author says, rightly, that this is only my interpretation (and not what he meant at all) but it’s the interpretation that lead to the book.

Did it change between the submitted version and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of the chapbook?

It’s been a fantastic experience working with Cold Hub Press. Roger, the editor in chief, helped me clean up some uneven lines and bald mistakes. We had a great back and forth and the book ended up much better for it. I’m just hopeless when it comes to anything visual and am grateful for Roger’s design acumen. The book looks fantastic and the cover art perfectly captures the sense of the thing.

What are you working on now?

I keep lots (too many sometimes) irons in the fire. I’m shopping a manuscript of Jóanes Nielsen’s work in translation. I’m also working on a chapbook of imitations/experimental translations of Federico García Lorca. And then there’s my own poetry which goes in fits and starts. This February I’m doing 30/30 with Tupelo Press for a second time, writing a poem a day for the month. It’s a grueling slog of writing. I can’t wait.

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Matthew Landrum is poetry editor for Structo Magazine. His translations have recently appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He lives in Detroit.

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Three Poems by Agnar Artúvertin

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THE LONESOME SAVIOUR

Prometheus stole firewater

from the rich and gave it to the poor.

Pursued by the law, he fled

to the mountains

where he pickled his liver

with Eagle Rare whiskey.

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