Economy of Means: On Translating Gemma Gorga
Sharon Dolin is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Catalan poet Gemma Gorga’s collection of prose poems, Book of Minutes. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
I first encountered several of Gemma Gorga’s prose poems in Six Catalan Poets (2013), translated by Anna Crowe, during an artist residency at Jiwar: Barcelona International Residence for Artists in December 2013. I was so captivated by them that I immediately went in search of the volume Llibre dels minuts (2006), which contained the entire sequence of sixty poems. I had tried my hand at translating from Italian, Spanish, and French, but I never stuck to the project. Perhaps, as a poet, I always felt the tidal pull to return to my own work. With Gorga’s prose poems, I felt differently.
First, women are still an under-represented group within poetry-in-translation. A case in point is the anthology where I initially read her work: the five other poets are men. So I very much liked the idea of translating a contemporary woman’s poetry into English. I also thought, the poems are short and my work will go quickly. I was wrong, having labored many hours over a few lines, but by then I was hooked. While Anna Crowe does a good job of translating a handful of these prose poems into a British demotic, I wanted to share with other American readers the joy of reading the entire collection of Gorga’s Book of Minutes in an American idiom. I also have the good fortune of being able to confer with the poet, in case the translation of a word or phrase hinges on a Catalan custom or idiomatic expression with which I am unfamiliar.
In conversation, Gorga confessed that, in all modesty, she felt daunted by the prospect of writing a book of hours, and so she settled on a book of minutes. It’s not surprising, then, to find a devotional quality to the poems, but they display an equal devotion to spirit, to words, to art, to the fairy tale, as well as to metaphysics. They are connected to the aphoristic tradition as much as they are to prayer, and like all good poems, gesture to the place beyond language.
There is a tradition of—and a great charm to—a small collection of prose poems. Charles Baudelaire’s Twenty Prose Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger, from Cape Editions, has been in my possession since 1970. I prize it the way I prize the little book of Franz Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms, translated by Michael Hofmann (2006), which first started me on the path to writing my own aphorisms. Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes has the feel of a contemporary classic: diminutive prose poems consisting mostly of one paragraph that are deceptively simple. The project of this collection is to achieve the impossible with an economy of means, as in the words of William Blake, to “hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.” These prose poems contain worlds within worlds: Each one is “[l]ike a magic box lined with mirrors” as Gorga writes in one poem. “You open it and from inside, out comes another.”
Gemma Gorga is a Catalan poet and professor of philology at the University of Barcelona. She has published five volumes of poetry, including Book of Minutes (Barcelona, 2006), and her awards include the Critics Prize for Catalan Poetry, in 2016, and the Premi Cavall Verd, in 2013.
Sharon Dolin is the author of four chapbooks and three book-length volumes of poetry. With her husband, she founded The Center for Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Chapbook Competition, which she still directs, along with a Broadsides Reading Series at The Center in New York City. She has taught at The New School and Poets House.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema ([email protected]) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore ([email protected]) for the translator’s contact information.