The 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation

Congratulations to the winners and finalists of the 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation!

From the judge, Ilya Kaminsky:

I am grateful to Gulf Coast for the opportunity to read the work by these twenty-four finalists and to dive into the various different voices, tonalities, perspectives. Each poem I have read taught me something new. When these submissions arrived to my mailbox, I quickly realized that each translation offered something unique. So I can't resist sharing the few impressions about each single entry I have read for this competition. I do so with gratitude.

2018 Co-Winners

“Air Raid” by Polina Barskova, translated by Valzhyna Mort

"Air Raid" is a tour de force. It is not just a powerfully imagined and realized long-poem translated from another language. It is a poem that lives in English, doing something new and beautiful, painful to our own language. In the original, the poet breaks speech, makes it new again.  In English, this happens as well; in fact, this work "air-raids" English. What a powerful achievement. —Ilya Kaminsky

Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears and Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press). She is a recipient of the Lannan Foundation Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, the Amy Clampitt fellowship, and a number of European fellowships. Her translations from Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she teaches at Cornell University and writes in English and Belarusian.

"Colonies of Paradise" by Matthias Göritz, translated by Mary Jo Bang

I was most impressed by the quality of this translation. The translator is able to make the work sound as if it was written originally in English. At the same time, the work seems to retain its strangeness, its originality. Disarming and beautiful: "You are—a real human being / A crow in the airspace; / You, little man / ...are a man who disbands / by means of black coffee / or salt / or sunshine." —
Ilya Kaminsky

Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight books of poems—including A Doll For Throwing, Louise in Love, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award—and a translation of Dante's Inferno, illustrated by Henrik Drescher. She has received a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. (Photo by Matt Valentine)

2018 Honorable Mention

"Nobility" by Álvaro Lasso, translated by Kelsi Vanada

The imagination and sense of rhythm of this poem is thrilling. There is a real surprise here, as one discovers that "great ideologies can fit into a refrigerator." There is also a knowledge here that is suspenseful: "That's why a poem isn't a poem if it doesn't know how to suspend death. That's why the axe never makes it to the neck, but it's there, at the point of dismembering it." But in the end it is the music of these prose poems that really sways me. 
—Ilya Kaminsky

Kelsi Vanada's translation of The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet was published in 2018 by Song Bridge Press. She writes poems and translates from Spanish and Swedish, and has recent and forthcoming work in The Iowa Review, The Bennington Review, The Literary Review, and Anomaly. She holds MFAs in Poetry (Iowa Writers' Workshop) and Literary Translation (The University of Iowa). Kelsi is the Program Manager of the American Literary Translators Association.

2018 Finalists

Poems by Mariela Dreyfus, translated by Gabriel Amor

Some poems make a narrative of pain. Other poems make of it a song. Others deny it a language. Others make its silence shimmer. Here is a voice that says we should "carry it to bed / brush its teeth sit the pain down on / your skirts and give it a hug a hug afraid of nothing". I admire the bravery of this imagination, its verve. 

Poems by Silvina López Medin, translated by Jasmine Bailey

There is something epical to this work's world view, however much it might deny it: "I'll tell it backwards and leave out the repeats / Between the events, I'll only pay attention to the first step / To the first backwards step". The invocations here, and the music, seem connected to the ages-old tradition, to the elements. Beautiful work. Yes, sorrowful and beautiful: "Sea dog sounds soften / Than shark / In the depths it's the same / To the slit / That thing they call a gill / Is a wound / It closes, it opens". 

Poems by Julia de Souza, translated by Eric M. B. Becker

There is curious music in "Poem for Going Through the House," the kind of music that is full of detail, the kind that invites parable: "It's impossible to make a fossil of the house / to maintain a healthy smile / to count the teeth in your mouth one by one". 

Selections from "Effulgence" by José Ángel Valente, translated by Rachel Cualedare

"What do you know, body, you of me" this poet asks. And, advises: "to enter, make oneself a hollow". As a reader, I am instantly interested in these lyric fragments, these unpredictable whispers, spells. I am interested in "this benediction, falling on dead birds, / on the days of August in the place / I find myself: paris, / poem, favorable, nothing". Strange, beautiful work.

"Retro" by Johanna Domokos, translated by Peter V. Czipott

I found this work to be very original, unlike anything else I have seen in this particular submission pool. Very grounded in detail, it nevertheless constantly rose to song: "The morning light already has the sparkle / To make seeds sprout and stab the eye / And then one of my selves smiles at the other / The way true children can, and we sing our song / 'we've awakened again to a beautiful day' / 'we have awakened again to a beautiful day'".

"Hills Named 'Should-Have-Asked'" by Maija Devine

I loved the attentiveness to detail in this work, the sensual, language, the soundwork. For instance, the moving piece entitled "A Comfort Woman's Seaweed-Green Hand" circles and echoes heart-breaking images, ending on these musical but compellingly matter-of-fact lines: "'Heart medicine. But I'm alive, aren't I?' She slights my appalled look. / Before a CNN show, I slip her dentures she forgot. Did more good than my translation. / A seaweed patch shimmers under her once peachy skin. She was 16."

"Is this How it is going to end for me?" by Alex Galper, with the help of Stella Padnos

I find the energetic, muscular voice of these poems very appealing. I was moved, for instance, by the urgency of surprising, tonally-rich lines such as these: "America loves her guns like children. / A madman runs into a kindergarden / every baby gotta have a bulletproof vest / and know how to manhandle a colt / ...why should they uselessly spin windup toys / when they can pierce the terrorist before being potty-trained".

Poems by Agnes Gerner, translated by Danielle Hanson

Musical echoes in this work made the whole one long sequence. I was impressed by the overall orchestration, by tonal surprises. and also by the seriousness of purpose: "An endpoint exists, a place / where the world begins to grow, where all /grunts / are born and die."

The Poetry of Ling Yu, translated by Samuel Irving

This poet is asking all the right question. Asking, for instance, what precisely makes a hometown. I love how the diction shapes these poems, how the direct answers, when they arise, arise subtly, and yet in a way that's always fresh: "I do not want to talk about these things I'd rather / pull out a knife and see how / its core is / shaped".

"Missed Opportunities" by Michael Krüger, translated by Karen Leeder

This poet possesses a unique gift of developing a narrative that is both straightforward and clear and yet utterly mysterious: "A beggar held out his hand towards her and she / Rummages in the pockets of her coat for a long time / Looking for a coin that she handed over so clumpsily / That it fell to the ground. Then she disappeared." I love the diction here; love how the poet doesn't seem to hurry from image to image, but instead dwells in the action, in the setting: "Too many times. That night I saw a TV report / About the demonstration, and did not understand / What it was about. but I saw myself in the crowd / And behind me, mouth wide open, her." This slowness, this ability to take time to unwrap depth of character is very impressive: "The last words must be spoken by the eyes, / The slow alas, as if dipped in honey. / We will meet in some place that is nowhere to be found, / She said, where our voices are waiting for us."

Poems by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by J. Bret Maney

There is a marvelous duality here: a sense of play and a sense of urgency. When the two are musically orchestrated, the result can be arresting: "A church took a rocket full in the face / The rebels, they thought, were holed up inside / The priest came out without his flock / They made inquiries, offered apologies for the mistake / Blew their noses, washed their hands / Sipped a vodka and swore it wouldn't happen again... / A week later, another church / The priest didn't make it out this time, his flock neither / They made inquiries, offered apologies for the mistake / Blew their noses, washed their hands / Sipped a vodka and swore it wouldn't happen again". And, when I thought I knew what this poet was up to, I was surprised by a simple, but powerful lyric fragment, such as this one: "I die / Each / Day at the thought / Of ending up / In / A / European / Cemetery".

Poems by Karla Reimert, translated by Patty Nash

I was moved—in different ways—by every finalist I have read for this contest. But some also proved to be sui generis. In part because of their unpredictable turns and spins. But in part also because of the ways in which the inventive multivocal approach shaped the work: "Mechthild eats the tablecloth. Her wedding dress. / Inflates her cheeks into a balloon. / Squeezes with both hands, blowing / Through the chimney into space. / Dieses Buch ist dreifaltig und bezeichnet alleine mich. / Mechthild transforms asbestos to fibers and weaves it to library. Acts to the letters. Minnen das Nicht, fliehen das Icht. / So she becomes her personal Mary."

Excerpts from "Little Round Thing" by Romina Fresci, translated by Jeannine Pitas

In this very original work, coming at us all in capital letters, the form and contend seem to go hand in hand, creating a kind of folklore all its own. But what I found most striking was the combination of tenderness and irony in this work, of public declaration and private whisper: "THE HERO OF THIS WAR IS CALLED THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. / EVERYONE CALLS HIM SOLDI. / ...THE NAME IS ABBREVIATED UNSOLD. / HIS GIRLFRIEND CALLS HIM SOL. / HIS MOTHER SOLDOUT. / IN SPANISH HE'S SOLDADO DESCONOCIDO. / ...THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER CALLS HIMSELF I".

Poems by Blanca Varela, translated by Sara Daniele Rivera

"Verbs do not nourish," this poet writes. And yet, there is a rich world of detail: "a dog a drop of rain a family on a stroll" and there is longing, a wooing of a voice: "to you ghost of every hour". How can these two co-exist? "Tell me, / will this astonishment last?" the poet asks. It does last in these beautiful translations, because of their attention to detail. Because even "when nothing is left of you and me / there will be water and sun".

Selected poems from "Tribar" by Andra Rotaru, translated by Anca Roncea

This work contains much strange unpredictable knowledge: "When we can't hear each other, only objects still hold organs," says one poem, and then admits: "beautiful things are not urgent in this world". How so? Perhaps because there is a kind of foreknowledge, an echo of that old idea that "the souls of the dead personify the old spirits of the winter." Perhaps. Or, perhaps because this poet finds the mystery in the clarity: "When she stretched out on the bed, without her glasses, her eyes seem clear again". Or, perhaps because there is tenderness of details throughout: "Sometimes I took care of a mouse. I had too feed him and wash him. For the latter I used the tub." What a wonderful, unpredictable work.

Six Poems by Alfonsina Storni, translated by Mark Smith-Soto

Here is a poet who can use the same form and musical strategy to both impact the reader with violent imagery ("I tore open your gut like some rag doll) and give much food for thought: "How cynical God is, not to build / anything that lasts." This is memorable, unexpected work. Poems by Phoebe Giannisi, translated by Brian Sneeden I was really moved by the imaginative verve of this voice. For instance, here is a poem: "Oars: / boat's wings". I love, too, how this imagination always allows the room for mystery: "You saw the ferryman / alone / slicing silently / the sea / leaving behind as he slices / that which always remains open".

From Yannis Ritsos's "Exercises 1950-60," translated by Spring Ulmer

This is the work of a master poet, beautifully translated. I love the blend of the realism and strangeness in this voice. "There is a red color, alive as laughter, / on this roof among the trees. / ...A woman / made an airy gesture, as she buttoned her dress / with the voice of a bird. I was intrigued". And, I love the delicacy of distance between self and the world: "Backstage, the technicians unbuttoned their shirts. / Even the spectators sweated. The sun was not at all / Artificial. It was simply the sun, / Even for those who did not know it wasn't summer."

Poems by Tomas Venclova, translated by Rimas Uzgiris

Here is a master poet whose lyric gift is unmistakable—the voice that knows that "the eyelid's motion" and "rhythm's creep connects this year to those that have passed." It is a kind of voice that doesn't need bold proclamations; it dwells in speechlessness. But this speechlessness, perhaps, is consciousness itself, which "lives not once, but twice, like us." This is a wise voice; one that writes for the future.

Six Poems by Chen Li, translated by Elaine Wong

Here is a voice that gives us a sense of perspective, a sense of time. The distance here is both temporal and tonal: "We lay down ourselves sand the entire dynasty / like a caldron, and wait for the archeologists, / auction houses, and poets to run their business." The irony in this work is more than a literary device; it is grounded in a deep sense of history. When this happens, mere irony attains wisdom. This is a masterful sequence of poems.

Thank you to everyone who entered the 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation. Details and judge for the 2019 prize will be announced in the coming months.