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Published: Mon Dec 5 2016
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Mural Speaks!

For two years I’ve been on an unusual mission. It involves collecting translations of the famous American poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” (William Carlos Williams) in each of the 140 plus languages currently spoken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The effort is part of the preparation for a duel event in Sioux Falls and in New York City celebrating the often-unpublicized diversity of the urban Midwest.

Translators of all ages and skill levels—located anywhere—are welcome to participate in this public art project designed to build community across boundaries of many sorts—regional, economic, generational. To learn more about the genesis of the project, click here.

The project was inspired by my appreciation for the Meldrum Park mural created in 2013 by artist Dave Loewenstein and the children and staff of nearby Whittier Middle School. Each morning the seamless flow of mural faces and flags stands tall against the day’s Dakota weather—blue sky or storm clouds. It foists forth a bright vision of America as a place of harmony and rich cultural exchange.

Are we defined as a nation by our differences and divisions or by the greatness of our commonalities as human beings? Will we let our lives be debilitated by the poison of paranoia or urged forward by the healthy aspirations of freedom?

Though it might seem otherwise, these are not questions a discordant American election year has minted afresh. These are queries all people, in all epochs, have confronted and then answered. Questions that—whether we know it or not—shape every moment of our every interaction with loved ones, co-workers and anyone else with whom which we share offices, store aisles, sidewalks, roads.

When I think of these questions, I recall September 14, 2001, when I, and my wife, and millions of other New Yorkers, returned to our desks as World Trade Center rubble burned downtown. The quiet of the subway train. Its faces of all colors in pain, and how that hurt did not inspire violence but the opposite—words of gentle kindness as commuters shuffled in and out of doors at stops. “Take care,” we chanted to the strangers on either side of us. “Take it easy.”

We were armed with what? Our humanity alone. And it was somehow enough to carry us forward through that difficult day, and the many to follow.

The current translation count stands at 98.  These translations come from as far away as Kurdistan and Japan and Bangladesh, and from as near as the Black Sheep Coffee House located behind our home on West 10th Street. The youngest translator was a seventh grader at Edison Middle School in Sioux Falls last year.

To this point the project has progressed without a cent of formal funding (although staging the events will require some small measure of financial support). I have gathered the wide gamut of original translations via personal outreach and Internet postings, weaving—poet by poet—a cultural literary tapestry. I am particularly cheered by the fact that often the contributor from afar is a person who was previously oblivious to the existence of South Dakota but now knows otherwise—that there is such a state and in it, a city welcoming of art and artists.

A little over fifty languages still need to be covered before the events can take place in Manhattan and in Sioux Falls.

To participate:

  1. Pick a language from the list below and consult the poem’s English version. (Or send us a translation in any language you like: we accept duplicates in order to give readers alternate versions to choose from.)
  2. Put pen to paper or fingers to keys. Remember: perfection is not the aim here. Let your personal response to the poem’s images, and spirit, guide the work when word choice isn’t obvious.
  3. E-mail results to muralspeaks@gmail.com, along with a three-sentence biography, and the name of your favorite poet in the language you picked. This information will be included in the program to create a global bibliography of poetry that event attendees can take away and spend years exploring.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

LANGUAGES: European: Croatian. African: Acholi, Akan, Avokaya, Bari, Burundi, Erapice, Grego, Gurage, Hiadi, Kabila, Krahn, Kuku, Lango, Lakoka, Lango, Luganda, Mai Mai or Bantu, Mandinka, Mawo, Mondari, Moru, Murule, Ndogo, Nubiar, Nuer, Nyambara, Nyangwana, Oduk, Ogoni, Pojulu, Rafica, Ruel, Shilluk, Sholuk, Tekamah, Toknath, Zande. Asian: Bhutanese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Dari, Gujarati, Hindi, Lergdie, Nepali. Central and South American: Kiche, Mayan. North American: Ojibwe or Chippawa, Dakota, Nakota, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago.

(Translations donated are for community events, and will not be published in any form. The author retains all rights: use is strictly joyful and informal.)

Ben Miller, an essayist and fiction writer, is the author of River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa. After attending Cornell College (Mount Vernon, Iowa) he entered the New York University writing program, studying under E. L. Doctorow, John A. Williams, and Luisa Valenzuela. His prose has appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Yale Review, AGNI, Ecotone, Raritan, One Story, and elsewhere. Six of his essays have been cited as “Notable” in the Best American Essays anthologies, and another, “Bix and Flannery,” was chosen for the 2004 edition by Louis Menand. Miller’s awards include creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. In addition to writing new prose, he is collaborating with Brooklyn painter Dale Williams and coordinating his public art project Mural Speaks! in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he lives with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese. Miller will return to Harvard in 2017 as the recipient of a Schlesinger Library research grant. In 2018 he will become executive editor of the Fritz M. Bauer Library of Remembrance and Human Rights, an international series of print volumes dedicated to “documenting humanity’s extraordinary stories of resistance in order to preserve human dignity and to create a more just and humane world.” (updated 12/2016)

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