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10 Questions for Bitite Vinklers

—a window opens and shuts;
doors swing open, for a moment wind
dances in, dances
out, and again doorposts, doorposts,
        and hinges unyielding
        as warriors,
        and high doorsills,
        and locks, locks,
        like women
        in armor.
— from (siege) by Baiba Bičole, Translated by Bitite Vinklers, Volume 60, Issue 3 (Fall 2019)

A preface: I was invited to participate in this interview almost a year ago, at the time that my translation of a poem by the contemporary Latvian poet Baiba Bičole appeared in the Fall 2019 issue. Although I intended to do the interview, other projects intervened. The present, however, provides another relevant context.

First, the poem is included in To Taste the River, my translation of selected poems by Bičole, and this collection is now forthcoming in early December 2020, from Plamen Press (in Washington, D.C.), which specializes in translations of Eastern European literature. It will be the first collection of Bičole's poetry in English translation.

Second, August was "Women in Translation" month: To Taste the River is a new book of poems not only written by a woman but translated by a woman.

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.                     
My first published translation was of two Latvian folktales, which I was invited to select and translate for the anthology The Best-loved Folktales of the World, edited by Joanna Cole (published by Doubleday in 1982, but still in print). I don't recall the details, but it was during the time I was doing graduate work in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. The two tales are "The Bul-bul Bird" (a magical bird) and "God and the Devil Share the Harvest" (where God outsmarts the devil).

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I translate Latvian folklore and contemporary literature, mostly poetry, but do not write poetry of my own––though I like to consider my translations as new, individual poems in the English language. As for influences and translation, for me it is the other way around: the poet I happen to be translating influences the poetry I read in parallel, since I look for work that either in content or style is helpful for the translations. 

What other professions have you worked in?
For nearly all of my professional life I have worked as an editor for various publishing houses in New York. I began by working on art books (at Harry N. Abrams), drawing on my academic background in English and in art history (an M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, and an M.A. in art history from Columbia University). Later, over the many years I have worked as a freelance editor for Penguin Random House (earlier Viking Penguin), I have also edited books in other genres, including poetry, drama, biography, and history, as well as Viking's very enjoyable (and exacting) cookbooks. A major, multiyear project was the copyediting and production editing of the complete works of Shakespeare––first as individual paperbacks, then as a single-volume collection: the new Pelican edition of Shakespeare's complete works (Viking, 2004, general eds. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller). This was followed by The Portable Shakespeare (Penguin Classics, 2001, ed. Stephen Orgel).  

What did you want to be when you were young?
A very early but unrealistic idea was being a ballet dancer (I studied ballet from the age of seven through early college). For a time during high school I planned to be a commercial artist (my father was an artist) but, inspired by a good English teacher, I finally chose English as my major in college.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
The author, Baiba Bičole, was born in Latvia, but left as a war refugee during World War II, and since 1950 has lived in the United States. One of the major themes in her poetry is separation, loss, and lack of freedom, reflected in this poem. Also, the poem includes wind, which appears throughout her poetry––it moves, "dances," and suggests freedom.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My ideal of a setting for working: at a desk beside an open window, on a sunny day, looking out at the ocean or an expansive, green landscape. Though I have been able to enjoy both, most of my work is done during everyday city life; there a pleasurable and often productive alternative to the ideal setting is long walks along the Hudson in Brooklyn, which provides both a vista and time for creative thinking.

Somehow, in reflecting on all this, a poem by Emily Dickinson comes to mind: "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee, / And revery. / The revery alone will do, / If bees are few." ­­­­­­

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No rituals, but some patterns of working. While translating a particular poet, I do a lot of parallel reading, trying to find a somewhat similar voice that provides inspiration, ideas, a kind of warm-up. Seamus Heaney writes about this in the introduction to his translation of Beowulf––for him it turned out to be the voice and speech patterns of his grandfather. While translating Baiba Bičole's poetry, for example, I read a lot of Jane Hirshfield, as well as Adam Zagajewski.

I also like to read and study different translations of the same poem––as in the recent Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer (Graywolf Press, 2017), which presents poems translated by three different translators, the originals, and a commentary by a fourth translator.             

I usually do a lot of revising and fine-tuning––which I enjoy, noticing each time around some new detail, fitting pieces into place as in a puzzle. This process takes time; a version needs to sit a while (days or even weeks) before a meaningful rereading. I write the first draft and make revisions by hand on paper, which allows for much more thought than working onscreen.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The first reader of a translation is actually the author, since I do not send out individual poems to journals or the final manuscript to publishers without first showing them to the author. The more familiar with English the poet is, the better of course. What made translating Baiba Bičole particularly enjoyable was that she is completely fluent in English (she has lived in the United States since the age of eighteen), and I could discuss her poetry and the translations  with her in great detail.

What are you working on currently?
I have returned to the translation of traditional Latvian folk poetry, the dainas: short, lyrical verse handed down orally, mostly by women, over many centuries by the Latvian peasantry. First written down and published in 1894-1915, totaling 35,789 texts, the dainas are a cornerstone of Latvian culture, and are now included the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Their extremely laconic style and the profusion of diminutives make their translation a particularly difficult challenge.

What are you reading right now?  
I read mostly poetry, but whether it is poetry, fiction, or literary nonfiction, I like to read slowly––"reading like a writer," to use Francine Prose's phrase, not just for content, but for how something is written and for the language. Current reading includes Jane Hirshfield's latest collection, Ledger, and W. S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs. Among other favorite poets and writers, frequently reread, are Adam Zagajewski, Seamus Heaney, Tom Hennen, William Trevor, Rick Bass, Richard Selzer. Books to be read or reread soon: Cinderbiter: Celtic Poems, versions by Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland; Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills; The Prospector by Le Clézio; Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, and Barabbas by Lagerkvist.


BITITE VINKLERS is a translator of Latvian folklore and contemporary literature. Her translations have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, among them The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, Denver Quarterly, and Two Lines. Recent translation collections include Imants Ziedonis, Each Day Catches Fire: Poems (Red Dragonfly Press, 2015); Knuts Skujenieks, Seed in Snow: Poems (BOA Editions, 2016); and Aleksandrs Čaks, Selected Poems (Riga, Latvia: Jumava Press, 2018). 

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