I have known Sasha Dugdale since 2016. She was the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) at the time, a fabulous magazine devoted to translated poetry. She not only published my translations of the Hindi poet Geet Chaturvedi, but also bowled us over with her warm personality. She is a brilliant poet, playwright and one of the most important translators of new Russian writing. Music permeates her literary landscape. Living between two cultures, English and Russian, between poetry and theatre, between memory and oblivion, her poetry is a stunning linguistic polyphony.
We had a conversation spread over several days. It was a delightful and illuminating experience; her work is an affirmation of love, courage and passion, telling us that poetry is not something to be read but to be celebrated. Excerpts:
Sasha, thank you for the time to talk about your work. First, I thought I’d ask you about your twitter status, ‘even now a mermaidenly hiding-place in my heart is full of fever and fury’. I find it beautiful!
Thank you for this question. These words are a quotation from an essay by Marina Tsvetaeva I have been translating from Russian, “My Mother and Music”. It’s a wonderful piece of prose that is both autobiographical and the laying out of a poetics. Tsvetaeva’s mother was a pianist and she wanted Marina to be a musician – so despite Marina’s own preferences for writing and books, she was forced to learn music from an early age.
But it is more subtle and complicated than simply being an essay about living with a coercive mother: Tsvetaeva notes her mother’s passionate fury and suffering which is her true legacy to her daughters, and also the musicality which she has inherited in her own poetry, and the essay is a beautiful example of this musicality and sound-inflected writing.
Congratulations on your recent shortlist for the International Booker Prize. You have been shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Poetry Prize, received the Forward Prize, and many other prizes. What do these awards and recognitions mean to you?
I’m glad if people read my work, so in that sense any shortlisting or prize is helpful. But on the whole I feel very ambivalent about prizes: they reflect contemporary taste, politics and fashion and many excellent writers exist beyond their reach. I can think of a number of really genius writers who have never had any recognition.
The other disquieting part is the money attached to some big prizes. This money enables writers (who are mostly existing on very limited means) to keep going, and I wish it could be dispersed more equitably among many more writers. Even established poets are often surviving on small grants and commissions. In many ways the relatively recent drive towards a prize culture in literature disguises a decline in serious broad interest in poetry.
It is good to hear your views on the prizes, the last sentence specially, different yet not entirely alien. What made you want to be a writer? You are an Oxford graduate. Did it help contribute to your literary endeavours?
I studied modern languages at Oxford and while I was there I began writing and translating. I wasn’t an English graduate or particularly involved with the poetry scene, but I was introduced to a wealth of Russian and German poetry and I have carried this with me all my life.
Many times, I am struck by your innovative sentence structures, the sparse and intentional use of punctuations, the use of line-breaks, almost speech-like, that create the atmosphere of drama, and the graphic of the characters. Could you describe the place of theatre and drama in your poetics and perhaps, identity?
Thank you, Anita. You have made me think about my work differently. Your question brought to mind that I have been a translator of new drama for a while now – in fact my first publications as a translator were of the Russian plays that were produced in the early 2000s. I love the voice and I love theatre, and when I write poetry I often try to speak the lines and give them a sound-life. My ideal poetry exists in the space between theatre and poetry and sound and aural texture is as important to me as meaning.
In this context, could you recall for us some of your experiences about the new Russian drama when you were working in Moscow?
Yes, I love discussing this period – recent history, I suppose, as I am thinking back 25 years now. I was working with the British Council in the 1990s, programming the arts work in Russia. The playwright Elena Gremina, a staunch advocate for young and emerging writers, came to the Council to ask whether we would be interested in working on a joint project with British and Russian playwrights.
At the time British New Writing had international attention, a few playwrights (Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, for example) had forged a new sort of dramaturgy, and Elena was keen to work with the Royal Court, the theatre in London which had promoted and supported this new wave in theatre. She wanted to expose young Russian playwrights to new techniques and approaches and make new theatre networks in Europe.
So we invited Elyse Dodgson, the international director at the Royal Court, to Russia. Like Elena, Elyse was a powerhouse – someone who made things happen. Her visit was the beginning of a decade of incredibly rich interaction between the two theatre cultures, and a number of important productions of Russian new work in the UK and US.
From the very beginning Russian playwrights were writing innovative exciting plays and it was soon clear that there was no one to translate these works – so I took this work on, and made it my own specialism. I loved translating voice and dynamic, although I am not a playwright myself – I just love the interplay of voices on a stage. I remember this exciting and artistically revolutionary period with some sadness now, as both Elena Gremina and Elyse Dodgson have since died.
I gather it was a phase in your (poetic) life that was thrilling, a journey into the immensity of language.
Yes, it really was. I love that phrase, a ‘journey into the immensity of language’. Because it was translating playwriting, which feels like ventriloquising the speech of others, it was also a journey into the immensity of human experience.
Your work is also aware of literary voices beyond its own – Auden, Blake etc. as also artists and artworks, Goya, Red House and so on. Even in your work of translation, In Memory of Memory, we find engagement with writers and artists such as Sebald, Salomon, Woodman, among many others. What was your research process like in the conception and development of a piece? Did they affect how you developed or translated the larger aesthetic of your or the translated work?
Maria Stepanova’s work In Memory of Memory is very concerned with the visual and in particular photography. I enjoyed following her trail of hidden visual images because I am also fascinated by the visual arts and the way they play differently on our imagination – colour for example has an almost physical effect on me, as well as many others. Maria charts this with beautiful precision in her prose and I tried to allow myself to respond to the text as a reader at the same time as making the text anew in English.
Maria commented once that she and I have different voices singing the same tune, and her observation refers to our mutual interest in how one might go about framing a contemporary modernist cultural sensibility in such a political age. I thought a great deal about translating Maria’s work, but in the end I translated intuitively, almost with my eyes shut, trying to allow the philosophy and the poetry to flow through me and putting my own linguistic resources at the disposal of the text.
I love this answer, Sasha! Could you also talk about the conception and creation of ‘Joy’, the long poem, it is such a compelling piece of art!
Thank you Anita, you are so kind to mention “Joy”. It’s a real pleasure when someone remembers and remarks on an earlier piece. “Joy” is a long poem written in the voice of William Blake’s widow, Catherine Blake. Catherine is remembering back over the many years of their creative partnership and the work they produced together (she was Blake’s assistant and her role in “his workshop” is now being reassessed).
But I wanted to focus on the grief of a relationship coming to an end, how joy and grief were two sides of the same coin: the closer and more fulfilling the joyful companionship, the sharper the grief. In the poem Catherine is offered forgetting as an end to grief, and she turns it down, preferring the feeling of loss.
Memory plays an important role in your writings and translations. Often your poem dwells between memory and oblivion: memory walking on the crutches of oblivion, absences, other place, imagined memory. What do you think of the relationship between memory and creation
I am interested by memory, history and myth. Both Maria and I have an interest in our respective countries’ moulding of history into myth, and how that process bears on the individual and collective memory. I’m also interested in the obscured and forgotten histories and how their elision affects us privately.
Deformations, my most recent book of poetry, is particularly concerned with the insignificant, those who aren’t written into history or myth and how those peoples’ lives and psychologies are not entered into the chronicles. There are many writers and historians doing this reclamation work at the moment. For me the work became suddenly urgent when I considered the important British Catholic artist Eric Gill, because I had to reckon with a cultural legacy that appeared to elide my own existence.
Your works have so much music and rhythm that I wonder if music has in anyway helped you with your creations, your own as well as translations.
I’m not a musician at all, but I am a linguist in the sense that I speak several languages and move between them, trying to recreate their effects in translation – as you do so brilliantly yourself, Anita. I think that sense of language as a contingent thing, a sound-instrument, does add to the feeling that music is a vital part of language, and the art forms of language, poetry and prose. I feel very warmly towards those writers who share my sense of linguistic contingency and are often translators, or people who exist between multiple cultures and languages themselves.
Talking about ‘multiple cultures and languages,’ what has Russian come to mean for you as a writer in English? How did you learn Russian?
I learnt Russian as a child and went to Russia as a teenager. I lived in Moscow for much of the 1990s. The Soviet-Russian attitude towards culture and particularly poetry has certainly shaped my feelings and thoughts about the medium.
It seemed to me, as a young student in 1991, that literary culture was far more integral to Russian life than it was to British life, and I embraced that seriousness and the sense that nothing mattered as much as the poetry! Plenty has happened since then, I’ve grown up, and of course Russia has also changed a great deal. However I suspect I am just as much in thrall to literature and the arts as I was then.
There are imagery-settings and other elements in your poetry that have an English flavour as well as Russian. Do you feel a sense of ‘in-betweenness’ living between English and Russian cultures? And perhaps aspire in your poetry to find a balance between the two traditions?
Yes, very much. I went to Russia at a formational period in my life, and it changed me. In many ways I am still dealing with that. Times have also changed and our culture is in flux and I now see that the narrative I have lodged within me is one that speaks more fluently to this age of translingualism.
I don’t know whether we can talk about a balance between different traditions, because I don’t know how two cultures relate or equate to each other, and I am interested to think about this. It strikes me as being a philosophical problem (or perhaps a mathematical equation?) that I cannot be sure of solving, but translation and writing are at least ways of seeking an answer.
You have translated many poets from the Russian, Elena Shvarts, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Boris Ryzhy, Vassily Sigarev, Stepanova. Their works are embedded in the nature, temper and tones of a language, deeply rhythmic and lyrical, culture-specific, classical metre rhyme, even slang and street speech. Many feel writings often fall flat in translation even when faithfully translated, in elegant impeccable language. What is the approach you take to negotiate such work – subscribe to a foreignising tendency and have the completeness of meaning even if you have to forgo elegance and clarity for that literal truth, or emphasise the emotional aspects of the verse, your poetic voice creating work that adds or subtracts a little to maintain the spirit and feel of the text in the target language? How fearless are you in your translations?
Sometimes I think that persistence is key: I just kept going in the only way I knew and I got better at negotiating things, I found linguistic and philosophical solutions to problems, I read more, and I wrote more, and so things came to mind as I worked on translations.
Sometimes the most important acquisition is a sense of confidence in your voice and your ability to match the author in energy and potency, and when we start out we don’t automatically have that confidence, I certainly didn’t. It took me a while to develop a voice in my own language, and a sense of my own poetics – and you need that stationary point, I think, to bounce the other voice off.
The other thing to note is that a translation culture is merely a collective of different voices and it’s important to remember that you affect that culture yourself, that people become used to your voice as part of that collective culture. There will be perfectly good translations that fall flat now, but may come to be accepted and loved as translation culture evolves.
I am curious to know how present-day Russian literature in translation is received as compared to the literature in languages like French and Spanish.
The truth is that I am not so sure. I have always been at one remove from the world of contemporary fiction or prose literature in translation. There are a number of new translations from Russian and it’s heartening to see the Russian translation community is renewing itself and gaining new members! Poetry is not a good bellwether, but there aren’t that many Russian poets in translation. Still it seems to me that poetry in translation from any language is pretty marginal in terms of our national (UK) publishing output – something I would love to change!
There are however increasingly readers and writers who straddle linguistic and cultural boundaries and who no longer abide by these notions of what a book or a poem should be, and I place my trust in them. Literature has to evolve to capture new experiences of the world.
Translation is such a close-reading of the writer carrying pieces of the other personality within them, I feel the writer-translator would (consciously or unconsciously) merge these shades and remnants into their own poetics. What are your views on influence? Do you find your act of translation influences your poetics? And vice versa?
I don’t have a conclusive view on this. One of the worries for me is not that the poet I translate will influence me – I have no doubt about that, every human interaction influences us to some degree – but that I won’t be cognisant of that influence. I rejoice in writing that affects me, I think of poets like Kim Hyesoon, Hiromi Ito or Don Mee Choi, for example, I love to be in dialogue with these writers, growing my thinking and my poetics, but I need to stay aware of this process, so I don’t cross the boundaries of ownership.
Of course translation is harder because we put our own voices at the disposal of the text, and our voices are organically changed by the process. Is that influence? Can we be sure of the boundaries crossed? What have we brought to the process and what has the text given us? Perhaps the best I can offer is the need to be aware, as well as open and unstinting, and to make sure the thinking on this process never hardens or withers, it remains live wood.
Many writer-translators translate in between their works, that they say provides them with a fresh way of looking at things and themselves. What has been your experience?
I sometimes wonder why I translate, but I think it’s to do with the way that you hear a line or a poem or a thought and you want to bring it into your language so others can feel it, too. It expands something in you, sometimes it feels almost physically so. And of course there’s such excitement when it feels possible, or the translation manages to convey something of the original to the reader.
I don’t know how to describe or measure the effect translation has on my own work, but I am sure there is an effect, and perhaps it is to be found in my deepening perception of the relationship between literary language and political and social convention.
In your lovely essay ‘William Blake in Russia’ in MPT, you mention that the Russian translator is in competition with the poet: Who can woo the poem with the greatest success? Poetry translations must be poems in their own right in Russia, they must be at least as great as the original, and greater, if possible. How do you see yourself, especially while translating Maria Stepanova?
Thank you for reading that article, Anita. That translation workshop was a long time ago and it’s a very cherished memory. I remember we were staying in Korolyev, the suburb of Moscow where the astronauts trained, and that seemed somehow very right for a Blake seminar! I don’t share that Russian view of translators wooing the poem at all, not least because it’s oddly gendered.
I think of translators as being simultaneously readers and creators, and I believe every translator has something to bring to the reading of a poem. The better and richer the poem, the more space it has for different readings. I don’t like the sense of competition here, because we are effectively competing over who has a right to read a poem. Poems have a utopian generosity in this regard!
And why do you say Korolyev, where the astronauts trained, seemed somehow very right for a Blake seminar?
It’s a little off-beat, but in essence I meant that William Blake perfected the art of longing and yearning for flight to the stars – all his drawings of figures reaching upwards, or flying through the air, so the astronauts’ town of Korolyev felt like the perfect location for a seminar devoted to translations of his poetry.
How do you choose your writers?
Because I mainly translate poets I have translated only those I feel affinity for! I’m quite slow as well…
You published Stepanova translations in the middle of a pandemic. How different was your experience of preparing to release a new book in this current climate?
I think Stepanova’s book worked well in the conditions of quarantine and lockdown. It’s a slow book, a considered excavation of thought and image, and it seemed to me that it suited the slowness of life and the new reflections many of us had: the desire to make connections and build little networks of memory, to explore the past, our collective and individual pasts. So in some senses it didn’t suffer unduly from its lockdown release. However I miss terribly all the live events – those resplendent moments when we get together to read from and discuss books.
For many years, you were the editor of MPT. You also co-edited a book Centres of Cataclysm that celebrates the fifty-year history of MPT. How did your work at MPT intersect with and affect your own work?
I didn’t manage much of my own work when I was editing MPT because I was so consumed by the process of bringing out the magazine and making it the best it could be. I am not sure it is possible to write and edit simultaneously – the processes seem to cancel each other out: one is about considering the outer shell of the poem, and the other is inhabiting its dark insides!
I spent those years reading and absorbing work from around the world and I believe that reading enriched my subsequent work and renewed my feelings about poetry and what it can do in different circumstances. So in a sense the work I produced after MPT and the work I am considering now is the real intersection with MPT.
What’s a good piece of creative advice you’ve heard?
I don’t really agree with creative advice as every writer and artist has to find their own way. Sometimes the “advice” from established writers can be oppressive as you try to reconfigure your own natural patterns to suit their recommendations.
But this I think is a pretty good advice that a writer or artist can use.
Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. Her most recent collection Deformations (Carcanet, 2020) was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and the Derek Walcott Prize. Her translation of Maria Stepanova’s novel In Memory of Memory was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, and her translation of Maria’s poetry The War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe, 2021) won a PEN Translates Award and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Sasha is writer-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.
Anita Gopalan is the recipient of a Fellowship in English literature from the Ministry of Culture and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. She is the translator of Geet Chaturvedi’s The Memory of Now (Anomalous Press, 2019). Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, PEN America, Poetry International Web, World Literature Today, Words without Borders, Chicago Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere.