The Loggernaut Reading Series presents an interview with Ammiel Alcalay, scholar, critic, translator and poet/prose writer and a favorite here at LH (1, 2, 3, 4), in which he has a lot to say about his past [“Boston, Gloucester (where we went for part of the summer and counted amongst family friends Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini), and later Cape Cod (where I lived for several years working in trucking and automotive stuff), did leave some very indelible marks on my sense of place, landscape, light, speech patterns – the textures of everything deeply familiar. Not to mention the Red Sox, which could the subject of a whole other interview”], the value of the local and genuine [“When I was a kid there was a wonderful guy named Mr. Chase who would paint our house. He also worked on the Boston & Maine, I can’t remember whether as a brakeman or an engineer, but I do remember that I would fake any and every possible kind of illness so I could stay home from school and hang around with Mr. Chase, carrying his bucket of spackle, watching him work the walls and listening to him tell stories”], and translation [“I think there’s a lot of mystification in translation. For me, an essential element has to do with the choice of the materials and figuring out ways to somehow insulate or attempt to insulate the fate of the text. In other words, can you figure out ways to build in some of the resistances that the text might have presented to its readers in the original in its new context”], among other things. I’m particularly intrigued by what he says about not translating:

This idea of NOT translating has become increasingly important to me. As I said before, now that we’ve entered a kind of post-NAFTA world, along with the post 9/11 idea that it might not be a bad thing to be informed about other parts of the world, all kinds of people are ready to step in as speculators, in some sense panning for the gold of some unknown potential Nobel Prize winner by suddenly becoming interested in all kinds of previously obscure literatures. I think of Thoreau’s wonderful line that goes something to the effect of, if a man comes to your door trying to help, turn around and run. While there are a lot of good intentions out there now and some very valuable work being done, I remain deeply skeptical and suspicious about how translation continues to be done in this country. We get solitary literary works, removed from any context, and often this only helps to buttress and reconstitute the privileged ideas of art and the literary artifact in our own tradition, removing texts from social, political, economic, historical and spiritual contexts. So we get the one or several great novels of a writer or the book of selected poems without the letters, biographies, literary histories, politics, gossip, and everything else that embeds a text in a particular time and place.

And I’m excited by his description of what he’s up to now:

For many years I found myself questioning this “Americanness” as against some other sense of history or collectivity that I centered around the Mediterranean and that I explored deeply but, in coming back more strongly to myself as a poet rooted in this language, I have come to see these writers with ever more resonant layers from which I feel there is always more to learn. Moreover, because of the ways in which I familiarized myself with layers of the Mediterranean, I’ve come to see these poets as just one recent manifestation of the incredibly complex history of this continent. These are concerns that I’m actively engaged in now – my current project is an attempt to write something akin to After Jews & Arabs but about North America; an in-depth geographical, cultural, intellectual mapping going back to its earliest inhabitants, through the settlers to our present condition, all the while using the poets as a filter for ways we might apprehend or lay knowledge out.

Now, that’s a book I want to read. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Oh, very cool! (For other reasons, I once recommended to AA’s son William Vollmann’s layered — and violent, gritty, and downright peculiar — historical novels about the European colonization of North America.)
    I should drop him a line.

  2. One more time: wonderful friends you have, LH.
    As to me, anybody who pines for never-existed 13 century Andalusia paradise where wolf lies with the lamb (lion is too noble an animal for Saracines (sp?)), who is anti-Israel and for whom Zionism is a curse word, be damned, a thousand times – their Jewish origins making them ever more disgusting.
    He’ll probably bring same principles to his American studies: was here ever a local “Levant”, with “multicultural references” interwoven in poetry? I bet he’ll find them – and organise Poetry Reading with honor guests of W.Churchill sort.
    I think I’ll pass on this reading recommendation, thank you.

  3. Interesting, does he has a nerve to read Hagada at Pesah table, and conclude “Next year in Jerusalem”?
    Probably not – his country of origin is Palestine, not Israel.
    Although, to think of it – why should I care?

  4. Michael Farris says

    “This idea of NOT translating has become increasingly important to me.”
    I’ll have to remember this the next time I’m paid to translate. I’ll won’t do anything for two weeks, explain that “NOT translating” is the hot new thing and double my fees … I like it.

  5. Tatyana, I have to ask: why do you post here? Surely there are other places where you can spew boilerplate bile.
    I’m a free-market natural centrist who likes Israel. _You_ somehow concluded that I’m a Chavezista terrorist sympathizer. In my book, this means you’re hopelessly unable to judge reality. Why should I take your judgments on anything seriously, let alone your bibble-babble about friends of mine?
    Take some Thorazine, lady. And think about your lack of manners.

  6. Carlos, I think she was talking about Alcalay, not you. And her bile is anything but boilerplate!

  7. LH, I’m thinking about the time she went off on a rant about what the US’s national language should be, where she concluded all sorts of odd things about me from my comments. Looked pretty boilerplate Buchananite to me.
    Perhaps I’ve become sensitized to nonsensical national bigotries, what with the Balkan blog and all, but I’ve lost patience with that sort of jackassery, especially to when it comes to people I know personally.
    Anyway, Ammiel is a hell of a nice guy. Amazing library. A real pity he’s become one of the scream machine’s current targets.

  8. Confirmed by this classic; note the date. [sorry, only in Russian. I have no idea if he was ever translated into English].

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