Russia's Best-Kept Secret and Zapotec Poetry: TWO LINES People in the News

Posted on January 10, 2012 by Scott Esposito

One of the cool things about publishing TWO LINES is getting to see the people we publish in there then pop up in other places as their work gains momentum in English. As far as TWO LINES alumni appearing elsewhere goes, it's been a pretty good week.

First off, Mikhail Shishkin, whom we published in Marian Schwartz's translation in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal (TWO LINES 17) has an article dedicated to him as Russia's "best-kept literary secret." That article starts: Mikhail Shishkin has won all of Russia’s major literary awards, but his work is only just now being translated into English." And then it says

Shishkin’s own novels transcend the narrowly political, exploring instead the underlying human narratives of history. His works are in every sense long overdue for translation, and the time is finally here: Shishkin is the only novelist to have won the Russian Booker, Big Book and National Bestseller awards, as well as a legion of other prestigious prizes, and yet his work remains almost unknown in the English-speaking world.

Shishkin has been compared to numerous great writers, including Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. He laughs at critics’ need to find literary similarities, but admits that Chekhov has been influential, along with Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Bunin, from whom Shishkin said he learned not to compromise as an author. “If you say to yourself ‘I will write for such-and-such a readership’ – you immediately stop being a writer and become a servant,” Shishkin said in explanation.

Adding to the Shishkin excitement is that Open Letter will be publishing his Maidenhair in 2013, but if you can't wait you can order a copy of Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, which, incidentally, also has stuff from Roberto Bolaño, Inger Christensen, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and tons more.

Our second piece of the week comes from Claire Sullivan, who translated some Zapotec poetry for Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. She has just published a piece on Zapotec poetry for World Literature Today titled, "The State of Zapotec Poetry: Can Poetry Save an Endangered Culture?" You can get an idea of the challenge of translating the poetry:

One of the complications that arises when sharing Zapotec poetry with the rest of the world originates in the complexity of its sound. Like classical Greek and Latin, Isthmus Zapotec has both long and short vowels. Importantly for poetry, this means that syllables will vary in length. And, unlike Spanish or English, Zapotec is a tonal language with three pitches: low, high, and ascendant (the movement from a low to a high tone). In spoken language and in poetry, however, the stress does not necessarily correspond to a high or ascendant tone, nor does it always take place on a long syllable. Therefore, sound becomes much more complicated than in Spanish or English where the poet only needs to match consonant and vowel patterns.

By way of comparison, in a Shakespearean sonnet, sound is governed by the rhythm of iambic pentameter and by alternate end rhyme. In Zapotec poetry, such patterns must also be accompanied by the repetition of syllabic duration and tone. Carlos Montemayor offered a single verse from the poem "Beeu" (Moon) by Víctor Terán as an example: "gucagasi, nanda." This verse has six syllables of equal length (short), but the sound gets interesting when one compares the accented syllables to their tones. The stress falls on the first, third, and fifth syllables, while the tones are as follows: low (l) on the first syllable; high (h) on the second, third, and fifth; and ascendant (a) on the fourth and sixth.