[Eulalia Books; 2024]

Since 2015, Jhumpa Lahiri has been publicly committed to writing exclusively in Italian. She joins Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad as some of the best-known examples of writers that begin working in a non-native language, usually associated with a change in the author’s identity or life circumstances. These are the comparisons that spring to mind when first encountering Inna Krasnoper’s poetry collection Over Sight.

Krasnoper is a multimedia artist born in Russia and based in Berlin, a city where Russian and English are widely spoken in addition to German. Her poetry reflects this fact: Over Sight, primarily in English, interpolates Russian, German, Ukrainian, French, and Russian spelled in Latin characters. Poetry is, however, only one of Krasnoper’s chosen media. She trained as a dancer, released sound recordings of her poems as well as video-poems, and has always emphasized performance elements, even in her “poems for the page.” Her multimedia focus explains the unique construction of Over Sight: in addition to white pages with black print, the poet introduces a font that looks like handwriting, different colors of fonts, and pages of different levels of translucence (from cardstock to vellum paper). Simply put, the book is a work of visual art.

Lahiri switched to Italian out of personal interest—she was a well-established English-language novelist already. Nabokov and Conrad began writing in English to reach a wider audience—a function, at least in part, of the global Anglophone hegemony. Moreover, they are known as brilliant stylists in their non-native languages. Though their Englishes are undeniably innovative, their commercial and critical successes were products of their capacity to conform to accepted literary norms. Krasnoper’s turn to English, however, does not seem to be motivated by the promise of a new readership. Rather, her foray into English is an avant-gardist provocation, a deliberate search for difficulty and strangeness, the evasion of conformity. If Krasnoper’s poems can be said to be “about” something, their most common theme would be the emergence of language itself. Her texts play out in the moment right before articulation, with a pre-linguistic expression. Over Sight’s opening poem dramatizes this emergence of speech, specifically addressing the poet’s new choice of language:

did you touch my english

did you break my english

did you detach my english

did you debrief my english

did you english with my english

English becomes a physical object that the poet tosses from hand to hand, something to be “touched,” “broken,” “detached.” Then, she follows the prefix “de-” to a semantic field “debrief,” calling attention to the morphological structure of language itself. And, while “debrief my english” appears to be purposeful nonsense, in both form and content it highlights the negotiation between languages taking place within the poet herself: language needs to be “debriefed,” interrogated, and questioned before it can be let outside. And Krasnoper succinctly encapsulates the pressure to conform to linguistic norms in “did you english with my english”: did the poet make her speech presentable for the world? Is it smoothed out and proper enough? Did it go to Oxford and learn to use its commas?

To call Over Sight Krasnoper’s English-language debut would be imprecise. In “Translingualism: A Poetics of Language Mixing and Estrangement,” Eugene Ostashevsky, a co-translator for two of the texts in Over Sight credited in the book’s acknowledgments and a poet working translingually himself (cf. his recent The Feeling Sonnets, which pun through English, German, and Russian), offers a useful vocabulary for discussing translingual poetry. Using this vocabulary, Over Sight is an English-based text with Russian, German, Ukrainian, and French insets. In his article, Ostashevsky outlines two possible solutions for presenting translingual texts to a monolingual reader: glossing the foreign words or leaving the words in translation (and relying on the reader to Google them). Krasnoper opts for the gloss but still leaves some research up to the reader. And the poet’s glosses are not simply functional: they are part of her play with translatability and the space between languages.

For instance, in “emergency poetry,” the glosses of “behind the textile” and “behind the airstair” may give readers the semantic meaning of its final Russian phrases but the original’s translingual punning requires some extra word to be put in:

                        за тряпкой                              behind the textile

            за трапом                                            behind the airstair


“за тряпкой” literally translates to “behind/beyond the rag” and “за трапом” “behind/beyond the airstair.” The poet slides between these semantically unrelated words via their phonetic similarity (“тряпкой” and “трапом” are only a few sounds and letters off from one another) before landing on the English “trap.” Each subsequent word loses a sound (the “k” drops out between “тряпкой” and “трапом”) before their shared core “trap” remains.

Furthermore, “textile” and “airstair” from the glosses are themselves phonetically complementary (to one another) choices for rendering the Russian (“rag” and “ramp/gangway” would be more “literal”). “Behind” and “textile” are a slant rhyme for one another, and the repetition of the “t” sound binds “textile” and “airstair” together. Additionally, the stressed-unstressed syllable pattern (i.e., a trochee) of “тряпкой” and “трапом” is well mimicked by “textile” and “airstair.” The gloss extends beyond its mere “supportive” role of providing the semantic meaning and becomes almost an independent part of the poem—or at least hints at the sound play present in the “original.” The full effect of Krasnoper’s poetry requires reading it out loud (including the glosses!), not merely knowing what each word “means.” Speech spirals downward between different languages, creating circular motion through the sound play almost outside of what individual words signify.

In her 2021 debut, The Threads are Sticking Out (Нитки торчат), already featuring translingual insets but predominantly Russian-based, Krasnoper begins her exploration of language before it is spoken out loud, while it is still in the body. In this pre-enunciated state, “proper” language, language as we are used to reading and hearing it, breaks down. Elsewhere, the poet has compared her practice to weaving, reflecting the materiality of words as she treats them and the “volume” that they produce. Her primary device is repetition, making words and sentences into loops that move by multiple logics, including phonetic similarity and morphological features, not just literal meaning.

At first, I read the title “Over Sight” without the space in between the two words, as a continuation of the poet’s interest in imperfect (or deliberated unperfected) speech. Krasnoper consciously plays up the tension between the “poem on the page” and the “poem as spoken utterance.” The constant repetitions that form the foundation of her texts, as well as their emphasis on error/variation, are evocative of the patterns of oral speech. Moreover, The Threads are Sticking Out includes a link to the artist’s SoundCloud page, where recordings of her poems can be heard, a vital complement to their lives on the page.

Since I had read Krasnoper’s debut, I was excited to see two translations of poems featured in Threads in this new collection: “in the beginning was a word, and the word was cette-word . . .” and “sometimes it’s fly, sometimes it blows.” The Threads are Sticking Out was specifically attuned to the morphology of the Russian language, taking full advantage of prefixes, endings, and suffixes that carry great semantic and grammatical weight. In Over Sight, “have you seen a noun?” gives monolingual English readers a sense of the kinds of grammatical play that defines her Russophone-based work:

it’s a-noun-ing every side of the town

it’s a-town-ing — announcing the town

it’s pronouncing a town to be a town

Color-coding (reproduced as in the original) guides the reader toward the repetitions of root words and their rhymes in this sonically dense text. Krasnoper leans on the word-forming prefixes and suffixes “a-” and “-ing” to create a deliberately musical theme and variations on the basis of a single morpheme, activating associations between words that at first seem to be semantically distant from one another.

Translating this kind of morphologically rich poetry into English, a language that lacks the kinds of inflections that Russian has, would be daunting, to say the least. Krasnoper’s texts, even those without translingual insets, can easily serve as examples for translation pessimists of “untranslatability.” These pessimists generally assume that the “point” of a translation is give a reader of the target language “perfect access” to the original, that any “failure” of a translation to just that is inherent to translation as an endeavor—“You can really only get Homer if you read him in the original.” These pessimistic views shape and are shaped by how society sees translation in general. The work of translators has been historically undervalued and, as Lori Chamberlain writes, often in a way that conforms to stereotypes about feminine-coded labor: translation should be invisible, silent, and supportive of the masculine-coded “original creativity.”

In the translations featured in Over Sight, however, translation is anything but invisible. “in the beginning was a word” is formatted like a bilingual edition of translated poetry: “the original” on the left, the “translation” on the right:

в начале было слово, и слово было слов-це

и слово у-пало

потом было я-це, я-це ходило по я-це, за я-це

и я-це укрывалось

in the beginning was a word, and the word was cette-word

and the word has fall-en

then there was cette-i, cette-i walked over cette-ei and after cette-egg

and was hid

The beginning of the translation is relatively “faithful,” evoking the opening of the Book of John, “In the beginning was the word,” an allusion present in the Russian as well. The choice of the indefinite article “a” does, however, pare down the pomp of the Biblical reference—Krasnoper’s word is always one of many, irreducible to a single divine logos. Like in her other texts this “word” (“слово” in Russian) is the poem’s “protagonist.” 

Things get a little trickier when we get to the “word’s” derivate “словце.” The Russian diminutive suffix “-це” (like the English “-ling”) is rendered in the “translation” through reference to the French demonstrative pronoun “cette” (“this”). This choice, while deviating semantically, reproduces the sound of “це” (tseh). The following stanza recreates the original’s pun of “я-це” (lit. “I-ling”) and “яйцо,” Russian for “egg,” becomes the French-German “cette-ei” (“Ei” is “egg” in German) and then, finally, the French-English “cette-egg.” The play of “ei” (which is a homophone of the English “I”) and “egg” between English and German adds a translingual layer absent from the original, creating an even denser net of linguistic entanglement. Indeed, the translation starts feeling less like an “explanation” of the text for an Anglophone reader and more like a remix of it.

“sometimes it’s fly, sometimes it blows” (“иногда весело, а иногда хуево” in the original) takes things a step further. First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that “it blows” is the perfect translation for “хуево,” given that the latter is a Russian obscenity literally referring to the phallus. However, much like “in the beginning was a word,” the text deviates from this one-to-one correspondence by including various possible ways of translating a single line within the page(s). As Krasnoper writes in the afterword, “you can see additional lines in italics in black. They are traces of the process, of previous versions that I let hang for just a little longer, before setting on a single translated text.”

For instance, the line “иногда катя на коте катит, а иногда на черепахе” (lit. “sometimes katya rides/skates on a cat, but sometimes on a turtle”) gets rendered “sometimes cathy is skating with a cat, sometimes she rides by turtle,” a translation more focused on the semantic meaning of the “original,” and “sometimes cathy mounts a cat, sometimes a catheter,” a translation following the sound play of “cat” and “catheter.” Translation becomes yet another game in Krasnoper’s play with languages, their accidental intersections, and how they can exist within one body.

In addition to bringing her experiments with language to an Anglophone audience (the intended reader is most likely an English monolingual one), Over Sight further challenges the boundaries of the “finished” text, the “completed” poem. These boundaries are often created by a text’s publication in a book. But Krasnoper’s texts cannot be contained by a sharp identity, be it linguistic, the visual divisions of texts, the boundaries between “translation” and “original,” between inner speech and outer expression. In its challenge to the limited idea of the “text on the page,” the collection gives an alternative meaning to its title “Over Sight”—the visual with its emphasis on well-defined lines and borders is disrupted in favor of the iterative and musical that is nonetheless, paradoxically, created through the visual. While the presence of multiple languages as well as Cyrillic could be intimidating, my recommendation would be to Google any foreign words (usually signaled by a gloss) and attempt to sound them out. Over Sight is not content to be poetry only for the eyes: it must be pronounced to be fully experienced.

Venya Gushchin is a poet, literary translator, and PhD Candidate studying Russian poetry at Columbia University. His writings have appeared in Cardinal Points, KinoKultura, Jacket2, and elsewhere. Most recently, his translation of Yevsey Tseytlin’s Rereading Silence was published by Bagriy & Company.

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