Meaning and Sound: A Conversation with Nancy Naomi Carlson

NEA Fellow and translator of Abdourahman Waberi’s Les Nomades, mes frères, vont boire à la Grande Ourse

Interview by Clint Ruhlman, Co-Editor-in-Chief


This past spring, Ozone Park Journal had the opportunity to sit down with acclaimed translator and poet, Nancy Naomi Carlson, to discuss her recent translation project, Abdourahman Waberi’s Les Nomades, mes frères, vont boire à la Grande Ourse (The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper), his only collection of poetry. Carlson wants to familiarize her audience with this poet, author and academic. Waberi is an active, prize-winning writer from Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Waberi is also Muslim by birth and his work resonates the nomadic life, colonial and postcolonial hardship, exile, social justice, and an opposition to religious extremism.

In her translation, Nancy Naomi Carlson is not a newcomer. Known for prizing the music of the original language, she navigates between the original and the target language within the linguistic flux of translation. She makes this navigation a specific formula in her Waberi translation: “One of the challenges I face when translating Waberi is to honor the music infused in his poems. I map the sounds of the original text (assonance and alliteration), and try to replicate patterns (but not always exact sounds, nor placement in the stanza) in my translation.”


Ozone Park Journal: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and discuss your new translation progest and translation in general. I enjoyed reading about your background and history as an award winning poet. As both a poet and a translator of poetry, what specific or different do you bring that separates your work from other translators of Waberi, Char, and Dracius?

Nancy Naomi Carlson: I come from a counseling background, so when I translate, I tend to focus on who these poets are and what they bring to the poetry. Also, as a poet, I follow a golden rule for each individual poetic translation: it has to read as a contemporary English poem. Without this, the translation is flat. Plus, I’m also a musician and have a strong musical base. This is key because the sound pattern of the French language is so musical, as well as the specific musical modality of French poetry. I also choose musical French language writers and texts, as with my choice of Waberi, Char, and Dracius. I become obsessive about the sound and assonance pattern in the original so that my translations emphasize music and sound mapping.


OPJ: Do you look at or work through other English translations of your writers?

NNC: Never at first, but after my struggles with the original text are through, I look and compare.


OPJ: As a poet and translator, are there any particular theories, models, or forms that influence your translations?

NNC: When I started translation, I just went for it. My love of the French language inspired it. Then American poet, essayist, journalist and translator, Christopher Merrill, introduced me to The Craft of Translation, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, where I explored the potential even further. I was also greatly impressed with Robert Bly’s selected translations, The Winged Energy of Delight. His Rumi, Vallejo, and Lorca in this publication greatly resonated…they were really good and they made me consider my own possibilities.

And again, music is essential to my translation. And as a musician, I’m influenced by David Smith and his contemporaries. This too finds its way into my writing.


OPJ: In translating from both living and deceased poets and writers, how would you describe your translation process in relation to these two as far as craft and artistic presentation?

NNC: For both the living and the dead, the problem and the advantage is that you have them to talk to or you don’t…

For those deceased writers, it may be easier to navigate through the composition because they’re not around to critique the work. It also may be of help if there are other translations to consult depending on the age and popularity of the original. It can also be a problem if they’re not available to answer your questions or to describe the particulars of the work in translation.

For the living, the opposite is true. At times, working with a living writer can be frustrating, especially if the critique is word by word or line by line. The best way to counter this is to earn the trust of the original writer. If this writer doesn’t trust what you do, conflicts of craft and artistry can easily arise. It can also be a matter of the original writer’s attitude about their work in translation. Some can be more easygoing, some more critical.

I prefer having a living poet. I’d rather not be guilty with dead poets in case I’m missing something.


OPJ: Do you think that translation is more necessary for living poets?

NNC: That’s a very political issue…depends who the voice is and what they have to say.


OPJ: You have impressive academic credentials. You were a French major and a Spanish minor in your undergraduate days at Queens College, you have a Masters degree in French Language and Literature, and two doctoral degrees, one in Foreign Language Methodology and one in Counselor Education. Has your education shaped or informed your role as a poet and translator?

NNC: Yes. Because I’m an academic, my approach is academic. It’s where I’ve been schooled and trained, and most of my publications are academic or academically affiliated. Also, my early studies influenced what I would pursue. I studied French poetry before becoming a poet.


OPJ: Do you think the act of literary translation can be an artistic process of its own, or is it always bound to some form of language interpretation?

NNC: The artistic process and language interpretation are, for the most part, mutually exclusive in literary translation. Both require intelligence, creativity, and higher order thinking. Scientific and artistic elements come together through research, the writing experience, and creativity.


OPJ: How did you end up meeting Abdourahman Waberi? Why do you think his work is important to translate into English?

NNC: I first met Waberi’s poems in a francophone anthology, then on Facebook and began a conversation with him. Soon after, we met for coffee in DC. I think Waberi is important to translate because he actively represents valuable ideals in his country: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He’s a Muslim and he’s influenced by other cultural perspectives. He represents a global understanding.


OPJ: How did the creation of this project unfold with Waberi? Did he take an active role in evaluating your work, or were you more artistically on your own? Are there any further plans for this project?

NNC: I worked very closely with him, and he looked over all of the works, but he wasn’t obsessive about a line by line critique. He was such a great pleasure to work with! The only problem was in obtaining the correct publication, as the poetry was re-issued with more poetry in the original French. We still continue to work together, and we’re both interested in the possibility of dual language readings.


OPJ: What would you describe as impressive or innovative in Waberi’s poetry from this forthcoming translation project? Do you think that this poetry captures Ezra Pound’s notion of literature as “news that stays news”?

NNC: Waberi’s poetry, often just two lines, is so sparse that the poetry resonates through this sparseness. In many ways, this represents his country and his time…the music, the humor and the playfulness.


OPJ: How would you describe Waberi’s poetic tradition, and Waberi’s place in this tradition to newcomers or less informed readers of his poetry and your translation?

NNC: Well he’s a nomad, and that’s unusual. Yet the work is very academic, following a long tradition of French poetry and French classical literature. Yet Waberi isn’t disconnected. He’s more involved and activist, which gives his work a distinguished contemporary twist.


OPJ: What do you think was most difficult to grapple with in this particular translation of Waberi’s poetry? How did you deal with this as a poet and translator?

NNC: Because the music of the original was subtle, it took some doing to not make it more musical in translation. Also, words from outside the French tradition, rooted in Muslim experience, were a challenge to work through. Waberi’s wordplay was also a challenge! But the translation process was enjoyable. In the beginning, it was more difficult to connect with the text and its unfamiliar (to me) cultural context, but once we got going, it was a wonderful experience.


OPJ: I appreciate the way you approach translating Waberi’s poetry in terms of maintaining the original musicality. Do you think anything was “lost” in this emphasis? Do you prize musicality over exact meaning or term relation?

NNC: No, I don’t prize musicality over meaning but over literal meaning. Transgression must occur, but you need to ask what and how much you are giving up. The most harsh result is when you translate a work and it’s lost its soul. Here, meaning and sound come together.


OPJ: I also appreciate the similar line length and general poetic structure you maintain in your translation. Is this a specific effort on your part? Do you ever sacrifice anything in the translation process to retain the shape, or the opposite: do you ever sacrifice the shape for something else? If so, what do you sacrifice?

NNC: Shape. I’m more likely to sacrifice one of the things I worry about the least. I stay fairly true to the poem’s form yet the music is more important. But I try to stay away from making it look like some strange poem in comparison to the original.


OPJ: Should your English language readers become more familiar with Waberi’s culture or poetic tradition before they read your translations? Or could the translation lead to further cultural/political insight?

NNC: The Glossary in the back of the book can help, but hopefully this translation will give way into the poetry and culture.


OPJ: How did the NEA literature translation fellowship come together for you?

NNC: I had applied before and was given critical feedback on my submission. This gave me useful information about the application process, as well as the different personalities and aesthetics of panel members year to year.


OPJ: Do you think the NEA helps strengthen professional regard for the field of literary translation in this country?

NNC: Yes! They want to bring new voices to an American public for appreciation. They were open to the idea that great literature is not necessarily written in English. They wish to stress the unheard and unknown voice.


OPJ: Do you think there are any works that shouldn’t be translated? What detriment might be involved in the act of literary translation? Would this ever stop you from translating anything?

NNC: A difficult question to answer. Yes, if the original is not up to par…unless it has some cultural value. Yet there’s so much brilliant work out there waiting for translation.

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