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Someone Else’s Anthology: A Cautionary Tale
I still can’t believe I went for the okey doke, given that I didn’t have a minute to waste effing around. Translation is not my poetry bag, but occasionally, I need some fun. And being in yet another anthology with the nation’s most reputable contemporary poets is always a draw. (I’m in over a hundred-and-fifty of them, poetry, fiction and non-fiction, spanning 30-odd years — including M.L Lieber’s Working Words and A. Nanda’s Black California). Translating poems from what was ostensibly another language, another time, and a foreign culture was also attractive. Participating in this poet’s anthology, I thought, would give me the rare opportunity to stretch my brain and test my mettle. Hohoho. I wanted to be in it, if the project struck me as unusually challenging for the non-academic that I am.
The poet who contacted me seemed like a Good Guy. He had been quiet but well-spoken, and his department mates spoke kindly of him. He had picked me up at the airport on my second visit to his part of the country, and had driven me to my hotel, just as gentlemanly as you please, offering to blow for a meal if I needed one. I thanked him and went on to complete the literary business at hand. I would leave that region feeling well-received, thinking wonderful thoughts as I returned home to “the Horizontal Hell Zone,” as I called Los Angeles in those days. That had been well over a decade ago. He was still teaching, but his reputation as a poet had grown significantly — even if I hadn’t had time to keep up. Now we were emailing forth-and-back about His Translation Project, and how glad he was to have found me, and would I participate? He was working with a partner, someone I did not know, who was going to provide me with “a trot” or word-for-word prose translation. My job was to turn that “trot” into a “Wanda Coleman” version of the classic poem, which, itself, was a translation.
However, as it turned out, for reasons unknown, the “trot” failed to arrive. As did the contract, with honoraria disclosed. Too, they had contacted me late in their project, months after the other participants, and mere weeks away from their editorial deadline. I soon discovered that the other poets, while translating from the same language, had not only gotten their “trots,” they had selected the shortest, most frequently translated, and best known of the poems the anthologists had chosen. I was left to pick over ungodly lengthy works. Undeterred, I leapt into the abyss and began translating the best known of what remained — hundreds of lines in a tongue with which I was only modestly familiar.
Six weeks and six lexicons later, I proudly presented my Frankenstein’s monster of a translation. Days of silence passed without a word from the anthologists. I wondered.
Early on, they had cautioned me about what they wanted. It was incumbent upon me to be true to the original. If I got lost or doubtful, I was to contact them immediately. I did get lost. I did get doubtful. I did contact them as requested; however, they were too busy to respond in full, one traveling the country with his poetry, either saying that directly or putting me off. Left to my own devices, I had sailed on and completed my task on my own. I emailed them the massive document of 300 lines. I thought my “translation” a heck of an accomplishment. Why didn’t they say something?
Ultimately, it was up to me to work the phones.
Regretfully, they rejected my poem as “a riff” on the original — which was NOT what they wanted. But — I sputtered — “riffing is what I do!”
When the smoke cleared, I was left to stew.
Then, I decided not to let it rest. I went to the anthology’s publisher with my complaint. Insult to injury, his tone was snidely patronizing; however, he did offer me a kill fee — an amount which translated into ten cents per line.