10/29/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Publishing Poetry in Translation: A Conversation With Lawrence Schimel

Lawrence Schimel is the editor and publisher of A Midsummer Night's Press, an influential publisher of poetry. Founded by Schimel in New Haven, CT in 1991, A Midsummer Night's Press first published broadsides of poems by Nancy Willard, Joe Haldeman, and Jane Yolen, among others, in signed, limited editions of 126 copies, numbered 1-100 and lettered A-Z. In 1993, Schimel moved to New York and the press went on hiatus until 2007, when it began publishing perfect-bound, commercially-printed books. The first two imprints of A Midsummer Night's Press were Fabula Rasa, devoted to works inspired by mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, and Body Language, devoted to texts exploring questions of gender and sexual identity.

The newest imprint of A Midsummer Night's Press is Periscope, devoted to works of poetry in translation. Recently, I talked with Lawrence about this new imprint and his work as a publisher.


Julie: What prompted you to start the Periscope imprint?

Lawrence: We had published one previous book in translation, as part of our Body Language imprint, so I was familiar with the difficulties of publishing a book in translation in the US without having the poet available to help with promotion, through readings, participation in events, etc. At the same time, as a translator myself, I was aware of how little gets translated into English from other languages, especially poetry, and also of how difficult it is for works by women writers to be translated. Alison Anderson did some VIDA-like number crunching of translations published in the US, and found that only 26% (of works from all languages and in all genres, fiction, poetry and nonfiction combined) are by women writers.

So I decided that by creating an imprint devoted wholly to poetry-in-translation, and with a specific focus on women writers, I hopefully could create enough momentum and attention for these poets and their work--differently than just publishing isolated books in translation here and there, where it is too easy for them to get lost or otherwise be overlooked.

I decided that our criteria would be women writers who had published at least two books in their own country (so they are already established to some level, not just starting out) but had not yet been published with a book in English. So our mission would be to try and help introduce these writers to an English-speaking audience. (One of the first authors, Care Santos, has published over 40 books, but this poetry collection is her first to be published in English.)

A Midsummer Night's Press has always striven to create a space for voices that might otherwise be marginalized, and has also published many first collections of poetry. (Our VIDA numbers are also quite good, with a majority of women writers across all our imprints.)

One of the advantages of being such a small press is that, as long as we can stay afloat, we don't need individual titles to earn back their investment within X period of time, the way commercial presses do. So if it takes multiple years for a book to earn back, and hopefully contribute something toward publishing future titles, so be it. Meanwhile, we can be quite nimble, given our low overhead and also the small trim size of our books and their appealing (even if I do say so myself) design, allowing us to try and get more poetry into the hands of readers.

Julie: What do you see as the value of poetry in translation?

Lawrence: Just look at the value of poetry in one's own language, and then imagine all the richness that exists in the poetries of all the other languages of the world. It is thanks to translation that we can have access to and be enriched by those verses.

José Saramago once said: "Writers create national literatures, translators create universal literature." In general, translation is one of the greatest forms of empathy, I think, of showing how we are alike instead of highlighting our differences.

As the Barbadian author Karen Lord said recently: "A diet of single-worldview literature is at best boring, at worst propaganda. Without diverse books, the mind is stunted."

Julie: What is the function of poetry in translation in Europe, where the first three Periscope poets hail from, as opposed to the United States?

Lawrence: Two of the three poets are themselves translators of poetry into their languages, and all of them are polyglots. Speaking multiple languages, reading in multiple languages, can only increase and expand our own thinking and ways of expressing things. For instance, when I took part in a poetry translation workshop in Slovenia some years ago, I was fascinated to discover that Slovenian has a "dual" grammatical form, in between the first person singular and the plural. Neither of the languages I think in (English and Spanish) have that "you and I" we separate from the more-generic plural we, but ever since I've learned of the existence of this "dual" in Slovenian I am aware of it when I look at the world, even if the languages I use to think in and express myself in don't have a specific way of expressing it.

This applies not just to grammar, of course, but to how we each see the world; unquestionably language influences this worldview, but one of the things translation does is to build bridges to help others share in those experiences.

I think that in Europe there is a greater interest in this exchange of ideas and cultures; of actively trying to not just extend those bridges but to then cross over them, bearing cultural gifts, and then to return home enriched with the cultural souvenirs of the visit.

The United States is, on the other hand, quite myopic--both in how it views the world (and its relationship within the world) and especially in what it imports from the rest of the world, culturally especially. Many people are shocked to discover that there is no "official" language of the United States, even though in reality one needs to speak English, no matter how multilingual the populace actually is. And this resistance is especially strong in literature, unfortunately; as Junot Díaz famously quipped when he received criticisms for the Spanish included in one of his short stories, "Motherfuckers will read a book that's one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we're taking over."

Julie: Why these three poets? What work do you see each of these books doing in the world?

Lawrence: I've been fortunate to be invited, as a poet, to various poetry festivals and workshops around Europe, where I have met many of these writers. Jana Putrle had a collection appear in Argentina, so I was able to read her work in Spanish, and I took part in a translation workshop with Kätlin Kaldmaa, where we used draft translations into English as the lingua franca of the workshop (in that workshop, I was translating into Spanish). Care Santos is a writer I know personally, whose poetry I had already been translating and placing in various literary journals in the US like Manor House Quarterly or So to Speak.

I had ideally wanted to launch with five titles, but that was more ambitious than we could handle in many regards. Since the press is entirely self-supported by what we earn from sales, augmented from whatever I can throw in from what I earn as a freelance author and translator, we normally publish only 2 or 3 titles per year. We received support from both Estonia and Slovenia to help with the translations, but not from Spain, so in some ways, it was a practical decision for me to decide publish the Santos collection, since I didn't need to pay a translator. These are the kinds of sacrifices one makes in order to get poetry out into the world...

Julie: How has working as a translator influenced your work as a poet?

Lawrence: As poets and writers we are also readers, and I think that translation is one of the most intimate forms of reading possible-and also of writing, or better yet re-writing, because the translator is not some passive participant when translating, like a machine that inputs words in one language and spits them out in another in some automatic process of substitution.

So translation is another kind of writing, and one of the things I really enjoy about translation is that every text is a new project, with new voices, new subject matters, new vocabularies, etc. It forces you to stretch and exercise muscles quite differently from when you work on your own writing, but that literary "muscle tone" and strength and flexibility is not lost when you do go back to your own work, of course.

I think that working as a translator so much has also made me more aware of things that are "untranslatable" in my own work. Especially since I write in both English and Spanish, I am actually perversely very pleased when I write something (especially in Spanish, which is not my mothertongue) that is not translatable into English-it is satisfying because I know then that I am creating something authentic in Spanish, and not just translating in my head from English almost before the thought has finished formalizing itself.

I definitely think I write differently in each language, English and Spanish, even when I can then translate my own work into the other. And I think that translating other poets encourages me to experiment or try different things in my own work as well.

But mostly, reading and translating poetry from other languages helps me see the world in different ways, and that is bound to influence my own attempts to express the world in my verse.

Julie: What do you expect the Periscope imprint to do over the next three to five years?

Lawrence: I hope that we will have a cumulative effect, not just in helping bring more women's voices into English in poetry but to build up an audience of readers of works in translation, who will trust our taste and be interested in the poets we are publishing and be willing to risk sampling them and their work even if they were previously unknown to the readers or hailed from countries from which they had never before read anything.

We've thought about offering a subscription model, but at the same time we don't want to be locked in to having to publish X number of titles per year with all that that might entail (we prefer to stay small, which lets us focus on the poetry itself, instead of growing to the point where we'd need to spend more time fundraising and handling administrative tasks than anything else). We do offer a special deal on the first three Periscope titles for just $25 with US shipping included.

One of the other things we hope to do is to provide a home for individual books of poetry. Very often, when poets are published in English translation, it is via anthologies drawn from various of their books. While this is true of two of our launch titles, as well, in the case of Dissection by Care Santos, this is the entire collection, which won the Carmen Conde Prize in Spain for a book of poems by a woman writer, and I hope that we'll be able to publish more individual titles in future.