September was National Translation Month and long ago Monique, the local organizer, asked me to read for it. I don’t read much anymore. When I was younger and writing poetry, I read often. After people yelled for a beer in the midst of my poem a few times, I swore off reading in bars. Then someone read a poem he’d written on a roll of toilet paper. It took the entire roll and a really long time. So I swore off open mics. Later, teaching at Denver School of the Arts, I did readings with the kids and didn’t have the energy for anything else.
Since retiring from teaching, I’ve been writing translations with some success and was being asked to read my translations, so I said yes. I didn’t know where the reading was. A bookstore I assumed. It was months away.
The week of the reading arrived, the way such things tiptoe up behind you and scare the stuffing out of you. Monique posted photos of three featured readers, our bios, date and place. I looked at the website. A café, maybe? Not a bookstore? Neither. It was a bar full of rambunctious clientele on a Monday night. The reading was in a room joined to the bar by two wide doorways.
I was reading translations in a bar. “I can do this,” I muttered grimly, blinking to adjust to the dimness. There was a stage, lights, a mic. Maybe it would be O.K. I was doing this for Mónica Lavín, Agustín Cadena and Rafael Courtoisie, contemporary writers whose flash fiction I had translated. For this, they would owe me.
A few people wandered in, obviously participants: they were carrying books. It turned out that besides the translators, four others were reading their favorite writers in translation. Kudos to Monique: nice idea. My old habit of counting the house kicked in. All but three of the ten people in the room were on the program. One of the three was Monique and another the husband of a reader. Still, I was proud of myself. Not for a moment did I consider finding a back door, professing to have a sudden emergency, or exclaiming, “Wait, this is a translation reading?”
There was a Chinese translation of the “To be or not to be” monologue by a Mr. Zhu, being read by Yanmin Huang; translations of a contemporary French poet by Julie Carr; and me. After us, four poets read translated work. Karen Douglass compared two translations of Greek poet George Seferis, which would have been interesting, if I’d been able to hear it.
I’d have liked to hear all of it, but the bar crowd cranked up its volume and during my reading the mic failed. “I heard the first half of your second piece and then zip,” one of the attendees told me. For the rest of the readings—we soldiered on admirably—I cupped my hands behind my ears, leaned forward in my chair, caught every fourth word. It was easier to hear the bar conversation. Tall young dudes in beards and boots, those guys projected.
I’m told the poetry readings there in the spring filled the room and the bar denizens were quiet as church mice. I’m told the sound system worked fine. Credit where due: Monique had done all she could to ensure a good reading, and was dismayed by the situation. Not to worry, Monique. I’m pretty sure it’s my karma—the mic went out while I was reading, didn’t it? Your next event will be fine.
We abandoned the dead mic and stage, huddled together as if we were the temperance committee meeting while the cowboys whooped it up in the saloon. When the cowboys left, the bar quieted for the final reading, and in our corral of chairs, we at last could hear clearly.
It was “One of These Days” from No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, the story about the dentist. García Márquez said it was his best book, but he had to write One Hundred Years of Solitude to get anyone to read it. It was a joy to hear J. S. Bernstein’s fine work again: we were listening to his words, after all.
The great translator Gregory Rabassa got the job of translating One Hundred Years. Someone asked if he had enough Spanish to do that and Rabassa replied that the issue would be whether he had enough English. Ken Greenley read the dentist story and did it well. Thus the evening ended on a satisfying note, with García Márquez’ delicious, economical story so ably told for us by Bernstein. But no one mentioned the translator’s name.