TEDSummit 2019 interview series: TED Translator Kazunori Akashi

TEDSummit 2019 is just a month away, so what better time than now to get to know several of the TED Translators who will attend the annual gathering? We kick off the series with Kazunori Akashi, who hails from Asahikawa, Japan. He was generous enough to answer our questions and provide us with an insightful look at his experience as a TED Translator in the Japanese translation community. Read on below!


How long have you been a TED Translator? What initially drew you to TED Translators, and what about the enterprise inspires you nowadays?

I joined the TED Translators community in 2012, when it was still called the Open Translation Project. I teach English in a public school, and at that time I was looking for a way to put my English skills to good use outside of the classroom; when I discovered TED Translators, I knew I’d found an excellent venue for doing so. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of sharing so many amazing ideas with Japanese audiences who don’t speak or aren’t fluent in English. This, along with being part of a thriving global community of fellow translators, is what continually inspires me in my work as a TED Translator.

What was the first TED Talk you translated? Why this particular talk?

Taryn Simon’s “The stories behind the bloodlines” was the first TED Talk I ever translated. I’m extremely interested in modern art and photography, so Taryn’s talk instantly resonated with me. I believe that much of the beauty of modern art stems from its power to reveal things we can’t or don’t see in our everyday lives, and to me, Taryn’s talk is a prime example of such beauty.

Of all the talks you’ve translated, which has been your favorite so far? Why?

A talk titled “You have no idea where camels really come from”, by Latif Nasser. When I was a kid, the world always evoked a strong sense of wonder in me. I loved to read books about ghosts, physics, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs. As I got older, however, this curiosity seemed to steadily evaporate and I grew into a skeptic. But Latif’s talk reminded me how much about our world we still don’t know yet, and that the world is essentially filled with infinite wonders; it was the reminder I needed to reinvigorate my long-dormant curiosity.

Let’s get a bit more granular. The Japanese Language Coordinator community is a very organized and diplomatic system of collaboration. Can you tell us a little about that and how it works?

We LCs usually keep in contact with each other through our Facebook group. When one of us has an idea, we post it, discuss its pros and cons, refine the idea and then execute it. We also make it a point to organize LC meetups whenever our language community hosts workshops and TEDx events; face-to-face communication is integral to our productivity and success. What’s more, every Japanese LC is highly talented and motivated, so it’s always an inspiring community to be a part of for everybody involved.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy translating?

I’m constantly reading books. My wife seems to have something to say about this obsession, but I can’t help it.

Lastly, any advice you’d like to give to new TED Translators?

Yes. It’s what I call my mantra:

Be patient and think it over.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Welcome constructive criticism.


Meet TED Translator Cissy Yun: an interview

Cissy Yun
(Photograph courtesy of Cissy Yun.)

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Cissy Yun has been a TED Translator for five years now. She took on her first translation way back in 2013, and she’s since become one of TED’s Simplified Chinese Language Coordinators (LCs). Cissy moved to New York in 2016, where she currently studies media and communications at NYU. Given all of this, we thought it would make for an interesting and enlightening conversation to interview Cissy about her work with TED Translators and the Chinese translation community. Read on below!

What inspired you to join TED Translators?

I should start with my discovery of TED, when I was in seventh grade. The first TED Talk I ever watched was Marco Tempest’s “The magic of truth and lies (and iPods)”, which he delivered at TEDGlobal 2011. I was mesmerized by his use of then-contemporary technology to explain a number of visual illusions we occasionally experience, and from that point on I was hooked on TED Talks. Around the same time, I realized that my fluency in English could enable me to translate and share insightful talks with friends, family and colleagues who aren’t English speakers. And because I believe language should never be a barrier to the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, it was a no-brainer for me to join TED Translators and put my language skills to work translating TED Talks.

Since then, I must say, volunteering as a TED Translator has given me a tremendous amount of joy. I studied Spanish in high school, and when I watched and translated a talk called “Poetry, music and identity”, which Uruguayan musician and poet Jorge Drexler delivered at TED2017, I was brought to tears (it’s my favorite TED Talk by far). Needless to say, I was thrilled to contribute to spreading Drexler’s brilliance with my translation. I’ve had many other similar experiences in my five years as a TED Translator, and they’re what keep me going and why TED Translators has become an inextricable part of my life.

How do you put yourself in the shoes of a TED Speaker in order to best translate a talk?

First, I try to select talks on subjects about which I’m knowledgeable; I’d rather not butcher talks whose topics I’m unfamiliar with. That said, if I’m assigned a translation with a subject that’s out of my bailiwick, I don’t shy away from the research required to translate the talk. Next, I always watch each talk in its entirety before I begin translating it. I think it’s essential to study both a talk’s topic and its speaker in order to home in on the most accurate context for translation.

One of the most challenging translations I’ve completed offers a detailed picture of my process. I translated a five-minute talk about tornado tracking that, despite its brief duration, is packed with distinct nouns and tornado jargon. As a result, I researched the basic science of the storms, including reading several Chinese science journals to find the accurate argot, for seven hours before I started translating the talk; I basically became a mini-expert on tornadoes. It was quite a surreal (in a good way) experience for me, and the satisfaction I felt after I’d completed my translation was beyond words!

What are some of the benefits you’ve derived from being a TED Translator? You’ll be attending TEDSummit 2019 in July?

Having lived in the U.S. for a number of years now, I “breathe” English every day, so my work with TED Translators has increasingly allowed me to keep my Chinese polished. It’s also encouraged me to stay current with the ever-changing language culture back in China so I can make sure I’m using the most accurate, up-to-date vernacular in my translations.

In addition, I was invited to attend “We the Future” last September—an annual collaborative gathering put on by TED, the Skoll Foundation and the UN Foundation, and which takes place during each year’s UN General Assembly and Global Goals Week. “We the Future” was held at TED’s New York headquarters, and its primary focus was how we can build a sustainable future for humanity in the face of global warming and climate change. I had the amazing opportunity to both talk with some of the top experts in this field and connect with LCs and TED Translators from a variety of other language communities. What’s more, after “We the Future” wrapped up, I translated a few of the talks delivered at the event and got to relive a bunch of the day’s highlights.

And yes, I will attend TEDSummit 2019 this July. I’m really looking forward to what’s sure to be an incredible gathering in beautiful Edinburgh, and to meeting new and old friends alike!

Can you share with us some powerful ideas coming out of China? Which kinds of TED Talks have you noticed are popular in China?

I’ve recently seen a lot of TED Talks that deal in environmental issues circulating on Chinese social media—talks about green energy and preserving endangered animals, for example. Also, many teachers in China incorporate TED-Ed videos into their lesson plans; and new university graduates entering the workforce, I’ve noticed, are extremely interested in TED Talks that explore workplace relationships, social etiquette and identity formation.

As for powerful ideas emerging from China, the country has a vibrant TEDx—especially TEDxYouth—community. Tons of middle- and high-schoolers are engaged with TED and regularly delivering very thought-provoking talks that are tailored not just to Chinese audiences, but their respective local cultures and social structures as well. And these talks span a wide array of subjects, from public health to urbanization to gentrification to art and food (to name a few!).  

Lastly, what advice do you have for new TED Translators?

To me, the most magical aspect of being a TED Translator is that you don’t necessarily have to take on difficult tasks alone; the TED Translators community is always within reach if you need help with a translation. So, my advice to new TED Translators would be: Don’t shy away from asking a fellow translator or an LC for a helping hand, if need be. And one more thing: Always remember that translating for TED is so much more than completing a task; it’s a continual learning experience and “therapeutic” craft and a one-of-a-kind opportunity to connect with other people all over the world who share your passion for translation.

TED Translators at TED2019

t19
(Photo credit: Dian Lofton / TED)

TED2019 got underway last week, and a contingent of 15 TED Translators was on the ground from the start to represent and promote TED’s international translation community. In addition to attending talks by an impressive lineup of speakers who presented their innovative ideas and visions under the conference’s theme of “Bigger Than Us”, the TED Translators were busy with a schedule full of workshops and team-building events. Stay tuned for more in-depth updates on TED Translators’ activities at TED2019.

TED Translators’ Bogotá Meetup

TED Translators dinner Bogotá


A few days after the TED Translators meetup in Mexico City, Jenny and Helena made their way over to Bogotá, Colombia, to attend TEDxBogotá: Resiliencia and to once more connect local TED Translators to TEDx initiatives in their city. TEDxBogotá brought together a stunning number of attendees—over 10,000!—at Bogotá’s famous Movistar Arena. The audience was treated to 10 speakers whose talks tackled some of Colombia’s most urgent challenges while also highlighting potential brighter futures for both the country and the region in general. What’s more, the TEDxBogotá team, headed by organizer Mauricio Salazar and co-organizer Katherin Gómez, warmly welcomed and embraced TED Translators; in fact, the TEDxBogotá team screened our most recent promo video for the crowd and invited attendees to volunteer with our global project. We hope you’re as excited as we are to see lots of new translations coming out of Bogotá soon!

TEDxBogotá audience shot


TED Translators’ Mexico City Meetup

TED Translators dinner Mexico City


Earlier this month, TED Translators director Jenny Zurawell and deputy director Helena Batt traveled to Mexico City to link up with several TED Translators from the region and connect them to local TEDx initiatives. The translators who attended were thrilled to meet each other in person and had the chance to speak with Marcela Garcia, a TEDx organizer based in Mexico City. Their discussion focused on building and strengthening the culturally dynamic city’s TED Translators community, as well as identifying the challenges and opportunities posed by this effort. All in all, the gathering was yet another productive step in growing TED Translators’ footprint in Latin America.

Meet the TED Translators attending TED2019

Since TED2019 is right around the corner, we’d like to introduce you to the TED Translators who will attend this year’s flagship conference. “Bigger Than Us” is TED2019’s theme, and we’ve invited some fantastic TED Translators from around the world to represent us at the gathering in Vancouver, BC. Read on to learn more about these extraordinary folks!


Seongjae Hwang (South Korea)

Software engineer

Seoul, South Korea, is where Seongjae makes his home and where he works as a software engineer. After studying computer engineering at university, he began his career as a fintech developer and, propelled by his fascination with cutting-edge technologies, utilized TED Talks to school himself on such advancements. At the same time, Seongjae also cultivated a deep interest in TED Talks which address sociocultural issues. He joined the TED Translator community in order to share far and wide the talks that inspire him, as well as to discover talks that animate his fellow translators.

Karin Valles (Mexico)

Freelance translator

Karin was born and raised in Ensenada, Mexico. Her passion for languages led her to study translation at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), where she developed a keen interest in multimedia translation. After discovering TED Translators, she decided to join the community to polish her skills as a translator and to help others around the world gain access to one of humanity’s strongest tools: knowledge.

Tatiana Lebedeva (Russia)

English teacher + freelance translator

Born in Ekaterinburg, Russia, Tatiana now lives in Prague, where she studies English literature and linguistics, teaches English as a foreign language and works as a freelance translator. When not busy with these pursuits, she enjoys reading (especially experimental fiction and philosophy), as well as occasionally writing and drawing. Tatiana joined TED Translators in order to contribute to a global community that encourages and propels engaging dialogue across numerous disciplines and languages.

Talia Breuer (Israel)

Team manager

Talia was born and raised in Haifa, Israel, and she currently manages a team at a startup enterprise that’s working to implement a sharing economy in the country. In addition to volunteering with TED Translators, Talia has mentored at-risk youth, and she recently participated in a seminar organized by Tech2Peace, “an independent initiative, created and conducted by a young staff of students and volunteers” who put on “IT and peace-building seminars, focused on creating a lasting positive relationship between young Israelis and Palestinians.” Since Tech2Peace, Talia has been studying 3D animation; she aims to use the technology to help improve her community.

Bianca-Ioanidia Mirea (Romania)

Incoming PhD student

Originally from Romania, Bianca has spent much of the last decade living, studying and working in various parts of the world, including China, India and the U.K. She credits her time in these three countries especially for introducing her to an array of new ways of thinking and living. In a similar vein, Bianca credits TED and TED Translators for revealing “a whole new world of ideas” to her—ideas she’s committed to making widely accessible to Romanian speakers who are not familiar with English. “What I also love about TED Translators,” she says, “is getting ‘lost in translation’—or perhaps ‘lost in reviews and approvals’ is more appropriate—particularly with management- and psychology-related TED Talks.” Bianca recently completed her master’s degree in HR management from Leeds University Business School, and she is about to begin pursuing her PhD in the study of the emergence of new forms of work in the digital economy.

Carolina Aguirre (Brazil)

Translator + subtitler

Carolina makes her home in São Paulo, Brazil, along with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter. She’s had an intense interest in languages—particularly English—from an early age, but it wasn’t until she discovered TED and TED Translators that Carolina realized her passion for translating and subtitling too. This discovery also inspired her to switch her profession from law to full-time translation, and Carolina says she’s much more satisfied by her current work; she especially loves helping to spread the incredible ideas put forth in TED Talks around the world. When she’s not translating, Carolina enjoys the company of her family and friends, reading, watching TV, and traveling.

Ly Nguyễn (Vietnam)

Architect

Ly was born and raised in Vietnam, and she’s currently finishing her studies in architecture at Hanoi Architectural University. In addition to her fascination for the aesthetics of words in both the design and calligraphy mediums, Ly “loves languages and translation”; hence her work with TED Translators. What’s more, she was so motivated by the reach and influence of TED Talks that she co-founded the Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality (VOGE), a project that “aims at spreading the ‘Gender is not a limit’ spirit [and] helping to build a human, equitable and civilized community in terms of gender.”

Jinchuan Ge (China)

Student, economics + commerce

Hailing from eastern China, Jinchuan is now a student in economics and commerce at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He’s been both a TED Translator and involved with various TED and TEDx conferences for five years and counting. Jinchuan has also studied abroad in the U.S., at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Urjoshi Sinha (India)

PhD student + graduate teaching assistant

By way of India, Urjoshi is currently a PhD student in computer science and a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa State University. Her research is based in software engineering and focuses on testing highly configurable systems. Before beginning her post-graduate studies, Urjoshi worked for nearly four years as a systems engineer at Tata Consultancy Services. She cites her dedication to minimizing impediments to the free dissemination of knowledge as one of the key factors that inspired her to join TED Translators. Outside of studying, teaching and translating, Urjoshi practices yoga and can’t get enough of hiking and reading.

Frank Zegarra (Peru)

Electronic engineer

Frank was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and holds a degree in oil and gas engineering from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. He is currently a process safety manager for pipeline transportation for an oil and gas company in both Peru and Mexico. Frank’s TED Translators epiphany occurred after he watched his first TED Talk, Pranav Mistry’s “The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”: “It was then when I realized how amazing it is to have free access to such stimulating information, as well as the importance of transmitting these ideas to as large of an audience as possible, regardless of borders, customs or beliefs,” he says. “And so I began volunteering with TED Translators.” Frank also loves to travel and interact with new people and cultures, and he finds that this dovetails nicely with his translation work for TED.

Moe Shoji (Japan)

PhD student

Originally from Japan, Moe has lived in Sheffield, England, for the last seven years while she’s pursued her PhD in theatre and performance studies. She also holds a master’s degree in the same field, in addition to degrees in both French and English literature. Moe’s PhD thesis centers on paratexts—which she describes as “those peripheral elements that lie at the thresholds of interpretation but give texts a unity, such as prefaces, intertitles, notes and appendices”—and their significance in terms of making meaning in contemporary performance work. Regarding TED Translators, Moe says that translating is “very much intertwined with my PhD studies—so much so that my first submitted thesis contains this acknowledgment: ‘I would also like to say thanks to TED Translators, which has been a productive procrastination for me to engage with whenever I find myself in a writing cul-de-sac.’” Thus her prolificness as a TED Translator. Aside from studying and translating, Moe teaches Japanese, is an aspiring literary translator, and writes tanka.

Tanja Daub (Germany)

PhD student

After finishing school in her home country of Germany, Tanja relocated to Argentina for a year to teach German. She then moved to Edinburgh and earned her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science. Tanja now lives in London, where she’s pursuing her PhD in computer science. She joined TED Translators in 2012 to, in her words, “help make TED content more widely accessible, and to have a productive way of procrastinating.” In her free time, Tanja enjoys writing and playing music, reading, films and running.

Jules Daunay (France)

Technology developer

Jules was born and raised in France’s Brittany region, but he currently resides in Paris and works as a technology developer for a startup enterprise focused on creating innovative open-source development tools. Jules has also lived in Moscow, where he attended Moscow State University. In addition, he earned master’s degrees from both Sciences Po and Sorbonne University, two of France’s most prestigious universities. Jules’ passion for technology is matched by his deep interest in other cultures, and he attributes this combination to his decision to join TED Translators. “I love being part of a global community in which I can introduce extraordinary new ideas to French speakers around the world,” he says. When not working and translating, Jules can be found skiing or swimming.

Silvia Allone (Italy)

Sales manager + translator

Milan, Italy, is where Silvia makes her home, and it’s also where she earned her master’s degree in foreign languages and literatures (English and French) from the University of Milan. She is currently a sales manager for several Italian and multinational companies, and also works as a freelance translator. About her experience with TED Translators, Silvia says: “TED Translators has made me realize how amazing and rewarding it is to help spread powerful and inspiring ideas to people all across the world who don’t speak a second language—particularly since I strongly believe that communication brings people together more than anything else.” In her free time, Silvia enjoys baking cakes, reading, traveling, and live theatre (especially Shakespeare).

Saba Rezaie (Iran)

Data analyst

By way of Tehran, Iran, where she obtained her bachelor of sciences degree in Physics from the University of Tehran, Saba now resides in New York City. She initially moved to New York to earn her master’s degrees in both economics and business administration; afterward, Saba began her current job as a data analyst at a financial institution. As a bilingual speaker and a fervent believer in education and the free exchange of knowledge, she’s found a natural home at TED Translators. Saba’s hobbies include hiking and music, and she cites human communications, society improvement, and data and technology (including how they affect our daily lives) as her primary areas of interest.


Editor’s note: The three TED Translators below were invited to TED2019, but—we’re sorry to have to report—they will not be able to attend because their travel visas were denied by the Canadian government.

Sameeha Atout (Palestine)

Embryologist

Sameeha hails from Nablus, Palestine, holds a bachelor’s degree in medical analysis, and currently works as an embryologist. She also plans to pursue a degree in the field of genetics research. Sameeha is a staunch believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s maxim “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, and she credits these words for her decision to join TED Translators. “I always try to take any opportunity I can to change our world for the better,” Sameeha says. “When I discovered TED Translators, I realized I’d found an excellent way to put Gandhi’s words into action: I could help spread important ideas and knowledge across languages and borders, while at the same time increasing the amount Arabic content available online.” In her free time, Sameeha enjoys hiking and reading.

Masoud Motamedifar (Iran)

Translator + coordinator

Masoud hails from the historic Iranian city of Bam, which is known for its ancient mud-wall citadel. He holds master’s degrees in both translation studies and business management, and he currently works as a translator and an office coordinator at a holding company in Iran. Masoud’s passion for learning and sharing insightful knowledge and content is what led him to join TED Translators. “I wholeheartedly believe that translating and spreading powerful ideas as far and wide as possible can effect substantive change in the world,” he says. When not busy working and translating, Masoud enjoys traveling and immersing himself in different cultures.

Grigor Janikyan (Armenia)

Founder, Youth for Change + United Youth Union

Born and raised in Armenia, Grigor is a graduate of the French University in Armenia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in management. In 2015, he founded United Youth Union, an Armenia-based “non-profit organization committed to youth development and empowerment.” Grigor led UYU for two years before going on to found and lead another NGO in his home country called Youth for Change, which focuses on civil society development. (He now serves as UYU’s chairman.) He’s currently a Youth Program Officer at OxYGen as well. Grigor has also been prolific in his involvement with TED: In addition to his work as a TED Translator, he has been a member of TEDxYerevan’s organizing team since 2016, and he was previously the lead organizer of TEDxUFAR.

“Living within and beside the large questions of a life”: a conversation with poet Carl Phillips (part two)

img_6545
Carl Phillips. (Photograph by Reston Allen.)

As promised, here’s the second installment of my conversation with Carl Phillips. We discuss music, emerging poets, prose poems, translation and a host of other subjects.

(Editor’s note: One topic we don’t cover [because it was announced just yesterday]: Carl is the recipient of The Sewanee Review’s 2019 Aiken Taylor Award! Congrats, Carl!)


So, I have a few follow-up questions to your last answer, but I was just hit out of nowhere (or maybe not: I’m listening to music through my earbuds at a bar as I write this) with a different question to ask first. Here goes…

It’s clear from reading your whole body of poetry—and individual collections like “Speak Low”, “Double Shadow” and “Wild Is the Wind”, for example—that music influences and is braided into your poems to varying degrees. Whom have you been listening to lately who’s possibly seeping into your current writing?

Also, here’s a song I’ve had on repeat for a little while now; to my mind it could be part of a soundtrack to “Wild Is the Wind”—especially those poems that seem to prize the wilderness over restraint. I’m curious what this song evokes for you.

A music question—I love it! Yeah, I listen to music all the time, it’s been a huge part of my life, and I sometimes think I came to poetry through music first, being a longtime fan of the singer-songwriter tradition—Carole King, James Taylor, etc. Though I listen to a pretty wide range of things these days: Currently in rotation are The Charlatans, Robyn, Janelle Monáe, The Innocence Mission. I’ve been returning to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” a lot, as well as Sarah Vaughan’s album that she did with Clifford Brown. I’m not sure to what extent music seeps into the writing, but I do find myself sometimes wanting to write a poem that gets at the emotional gesture of a certain song that’s in my head; this happened recently with a Charlatans song, an instrumental piece called “Honesty”.

It’s hard for me to imagine the Conor Oberst song as part of a soundtrack for “Wild Is the Wind”, if only because I find his voice is too close to Dylan’s, which always makes me want to leave the room! But I take your point about wilderness and restraint; that song definitely gets at the idea that people aren’t easily tameable into what another person expects or wants; and toward the end, it gets at the idea of self-loathing and raises the question, for me, as to whether wilderness is its own thing, or is a manifestation of something else, inside, that may not be known or even knowable to ourselves.

It’s true: Oberst’s voice is quite similar to Dylan’s, and some people do find it too abrasive or his lyrics too heart-on-sleeve. But for me, Oberst’s music, particularly songs like “No One Changes”, brings to mind what the poet Michael S. Harper said in an interview about writing poetry (though I think his advice applies to the creation of most, if not all, art): “[D]on’t fear being too personal, too idiosyncratic, too bizarre, too (Monk) ‘straight, no chaser…’” And this in turn reminds me of your “Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet” (which, I must tell you, has continued to be invaluable guidance for me since I first read it roughly five years ago). So, as both a university professor and the Yale series judge, what are some fundamental “lessons” that you try to impart to the emerging poets you work with? Does any of your teaching or judging involve the negotiation between wilderness and restraint that we talked about earlier?

I had forgotten all about that postcard! I think what I say there pretty much answers your first question. The fundamental lesson I try to impart is that you should write what you have to write, regardless of outside expectations. The one unique thing we can bring to a poem is our own sensibility; to compromise that makes for inauthentic poetry. As for wilderness versus restraint, I believe what’s important is a careful calibration between the two, when it comes to making a poem that is athletic, physical, visceral. Too many poets are afraid of wilderness, and tend to make poems that are polite, give no real offense, but ultimately also fail to yield much personality. That’s my biggest challenge as a judge of poetry: manuscripts that do no harm, that merely behave. As with people, that makes for an uninteresting manuscript.

postcard
“Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet”. (Courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.)

Who are some young or emerging poets you’ve been reading lately whose poems you think achieve that careful calibration between wilderness and restraint?

Well, it would be easiest to point to Yanyi, whose manuscript I selected for the Yale series last year; that book, “The Year of Blue Water”, will be out this spring. I also loved a book called “Three Poems”, by Hannah Sullivan, a book that dares to consist of three long poems, that’s it! (Editor’s note: “Three Poems” was awarded the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize on January 15 of this year.) Catherine Barnett’s “Human Hours” and Diane Seuss“Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl” are two books from 2018 that I am continuing to learn so much from. I note that these last two poets aren’t what some people would call young or emerging, since they are over 30 and they have previous books. But I was just today saying on Twitter how the poets I most admire are the ones who never stop emerging; they keep surprising themselves, and their readers, by evolving in unexpected directions. I think that the older we get, the more experiences we accumulate, and experience is what gives us something new to wrestle with. I have gotten this sense that many younger poets are not interested in keeping up with writers who have been writing for what amounts to a long career. But Bob Hass, to give one example, is writing poems that are vastly different from where he began, and for me it’s thrilling to see how a poet keeps changing on the page even into old age. He is still writing work that we can all learn from.

I’ve also gotten the sense that younger poets aren’t interested in keeping up with writers who’ve had long careers, and I think it’s an attitude, if you will, that younger poets (myself included) should resist. There’s so much one can learn from reading, say, Chase Twichell’s body of work right up to her new collection—lessons in form, economy of language, risk, evolution—that to take the opposite stance seems to me a kind of self-deprivation in terms of evolving as a poet.

That said, Catherine Barnett is wonderful—as both a poet and person! She taught one of my craft courses in grad school and, funny enough, she had my class read Robert Hass’s collection “Time and Materials”. And Yanyi: I’m really looking forward to reading “The Year of Blue Water”; these three poems from the book are lacerating in so many ways. They also bring to mind your prose poems, which to me are more so prose poems with deliberate line breaks (in “Wild Is the Wind”, poems like “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”, for example; or, one of my personal favorites, “The Jetty”, from “Silverchest”). What attracts you to this prose form? Why do you often break the lines in these poems as you do? And, when writing a poem, what might signal to you that a prose structure best suits the piece?

Hmmm… Well, I guess the first thing to make clear is that I have never written a prose poem. As you mention, there are line breaks, and the only absolute thing that can be said about prose poems is that they relinquish the line break and have to figure out how to make up for the absence of that particular tool. You can tell “The Jetty” isn’t a prose poem, for example, because the lines don’t go to the page’s margin; that means they’ve been deliberately broken, which means these are lines of poetry. Same with “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”. These poems have long lines, but there are poems with much longer lines in the book, which shows that the margin goes beyond where it does in these two poems. Another way you can tell is if you compare the left and right margins: The left is flush left; if this were a prose poem, the right-hand margin would also be flush, meaning there would not be an unevenness to where the lines end at the right.

Not that I want to give you a lesson in the prose poem! But I have noticed—again, with younger writers—that there is confusion about the prose poem, so I hope in my small way to clear that up. I do have one poem in a forthcoming book, where one section is a poem, and the other section is a prose poem. That’ll be my first sort-of prose poem, I suppose, but even then it’s a hybrid. If it makes you feel better, a review of an earlier book of mine in The New Yorker went into a whole theory about a so-called prose poem in the book—when it wasn’t and isn’t a prose poem. LOL, as they say!

Ah, the clarification is much appreciated; let’s call it a valuable mini-lesson on the prose poem!

As we wrap up, I’d like to ask about your translation of Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes”. What drew you to translate this particular work? Do you regard translation as an integral part of writing poetry, as something all poets should try their hand at? And for those translators reading this, what do you believe goes into creating a successful translation?

Well, I wasn’t initially drawn to it. It’s part of a series that paired poets with translators (only in my case I already knew Greek, so I did the translating myself); I had wanted to do Euripides“The Bacchae”, but I was told that was taken, and I was assigned “Philoctetes”. As I revisited and really dug into the play, though, I realized that it’s the only all-male Greek tragedy that survives, and that there’s a certain homoerotic claustrophobia to the play. It also is more like a philosophical dialogue, in many ways, than a play: not a lot of actual action or plot, but a lot of invitation to meditate on trust, betrayal and duty—to oneself, to the state… So it ended up having a lot of intersections with my own work.

I don’t know that every poet needs to try translating, no. I think poetry would be a lot better if more poets knew other languages, and had access to other sensibilities than those that English carries with it. But I do think that all poetry is a form of translation, a translating of fleeting experience and perception into something briefly fixed.

As for what I think goes into creating a successful translation, I suppose it’s very important to try, as much as it’s possible, to really get inside the sensibility of the work being translated, and to try to keep one’s own sensibility out of it. None of this is entirely possible, of course. But when people read my translation, I want them to feel they are getting what Sophocles intended, not what Carl Phillips thinks he intended. I do think that my style seeped into my translation—how could it not?—but as it happens, a lot of my style seems to have been shaped by my having studied ancient Greek, so in that sense there was a good fit. What I don’t like to see in translations is contemporization of old texts, even though I know that’s popular with many. But if someone is only going to read, say, one translation of Virgil’s “Georgics”, I don’t want it to take place in contemporary rural Iowa. Having said that, I do think Derek Walcott did something pretty masterful when he translated the “Odyssey” into a Caribbean setting, with “Omeros”.

philoctetes
Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Finally, what project(s) are you currently working on? You mentioned a forthcoming book of poetry; can you tell us about that?

This fall, I have a chapbook—my first ever deliberate chapbook—coming out from Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s called “Star Map with Action Figures”, and consists of 16 poems that I wrote last summer in a kind of flurry. They’re a little different, in that they ghost a more traditional narrative, I suppose, though in the end that narrative isn’t entirely revealed. The poems came out of a little emotional storm that has since passed elsewhere, as storms do. I don’t know if these poems will be in a future book or not.

Meanwhile, I have a regular book of poems, “Pale Colors in a Tall Field”, out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the spring of 2020. It’s always hard for me to say what my books are “about,” but if I have to do so, this book seems to look at how to accept the weight of memory, to resist memory’s ability to harden us to anything new— when it comes to risk—and to take the risk, again, of making a life with another person. Which is to say, the book continues the ongoing, ever-shifting meditation I’ve been involved with, all these years: How do we live? How do we know who we are or should be? How to love another without compromising the self? The usual easy questions that a life comes down to.