Archive for November 2010

Queens College MFA Program Open House Dec. 7

Interested in studying literary translation at the graduate level? Queens College, which belongs to the City University of New York system, is one of only two Creative Writing MFA programs in the country to include literary translation as one of the “tracks” in which students can enroll (the other program’s at the University of Arkansas). I recently blogged about the advantages of combining translation and writing in the same graduate program. Apropos of the upcoming Feb. 15 application deadline for the Fall 2011 semester, Queens is hosting an open house for prospective students on Tuesday, Dec. 7 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., 710 Klapper Hall. This is your opportunity to meet the faculty and learn more about the program. Light refreshments will be provided.

For more information contact MFA Director Nicole Cooley at

New Translation Prize for Japanese, Dec. 1 Deadline

I’m late in getting the word out on this one, so if you don’t have a manuscript already polished up and ready to go, you might have to wait until next year to apply, but just in case, here’s the information, which I quote from the University of Chicago’s website:

William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies

To honor their late colleague William F. Sibley, The Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations and the Committee on Japanese Studies of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago have established the William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies. In keeping with William Sibley’s lifelong devotion to translation and to the place of literature in the classroom, we will offer up to three awards of $2500 each for the translation from Japanese into English of a work of fiction, poetry, or drama (including screenplays), or scholarship in literary studies, broadly understood. To encourage classroom use and comparative research, we will publish the winning entries on the Center for East Asian Studies website. 

Submissions should be on the scale of short story rather than novel, on the one hand, but a body of poetry rather than single poems, on the other. Essays, reportage, and criticism are all genres for consideration. Retranslations of works previously translated, especially of premodern literature, may also be submitted. Each entry should be accompanied by an introduction of no more than 1000 words presenting the significance of the work in Japan and its potential life in English. The rationale for retranslation should be separately addressed. The translation should be submitted along with the original in triplicate to Chair, Selection Committee, Sibley Memorial Translation Prize, Committee on Japanese Studies, 302 Judd Hall, 5835 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.

Please note that it is the responsibility of applicants to secure permission from copyright holders for any works not in the public domain.

The competition will be held annually and judged by members of the Committee on Japanese Studies.

The deadline for the first competition is December 1, 2010.

Paris, Ho!

One place I never expected to get invited to speak about Robert Walser’s microscripts is Paris. After all, they speak French there, what interest do they have in English-language translations from the German? But it turns out that a lot of people there do speak English, and the Palais de Tokyo, a wonderful little museum of contemporary art, is hosting a lecture series in conjunction with their current show, Fresh Hell, curated by Adam McEwen, a British artist who lives in New York. He makes paintings out of chewing gum. And it turns out that he’s a Walser fan. The original plan was to invite both me and German poet/publisher Michael Krüger, but after a scheduling mishap, I was asked to suggest a second person for the program and wound up recommending Jochen Greven, who has been Walser’s main editor in German for nearly half a century now. Greven edited all those various collected works editions of Walser for the Suhrkamp publishing house and knows more about Walser than anyone else on the planet. He also happens to be the first person ever to recognize that Walser’s microscripts could be read, after Walser’s guardian Carl Seelig published a snippet of one in the literary magazine Du after Walser’s death (along with a note explaining that this was an example of the indecipherable texts Walser wrote in secret code in the years of his madness – wrong, wrong and wrong). Greven was only a grad student at the time, and no one listened to him, but they’re listening now. I’m very excited about this event. Greven and I will be speaking about Walser’s miniature manuscripts (with images!) and their discovery, and I’ll be talking about the challenges and pleasures of translating Walser’s work. If you find yourself in that part of the world, please come hear us on Thursday evening, Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m. at the Palais de Tokyo. The talk will be in English, with simultaneous interpretation into French.

Inventory – A New Journal of Translation

Well, we’ve all missed the launch now, but the new Inventory is in the house, and it sure looks purty. This is the sort of magazine you get when an excellent design team is given enough of a budget to buy nice thick paper and indulge in the sort of spacious layout that actually makes the texts look beautiful on the page. Nice minimalist binding, too. According to the masthead, which in this elegant journal is referred to as the “colophon,” Inventory was designed by Philip Tidwell and printed in Iceland. Kudos. And the editing is impressive as well. The editorial team—which as I understand it is made up exclusively of Princeton University graduate students spearheaded by Liesl Yamaguchi and Elise Wang—has put together a lovely issue featuring well-chosen work by up-and-coming translators along with translation luminaries like Suzanne Jill Levine and Lydia Davis. There is also a small translation by moi, of Matthias Göritz’s poem “Empty Plastic Bag Tumbling in the Wind”; and in the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess that I also serve on the journal’s advisory board. But I wasn’t involved in any way in the editorial process, so feel entitled to express delight at the outcome thereof. Between the covers of issue No. 1 you will find work translated from the Hungarian (the most excellent Dezső Kosztolányi), the Russian (Sergei Dovlatov, Evgeny Saburov), the Vietnamese (Ngo Tu Lap) and many other languages, including both classic authors like Donoso, Celan, Chaucer, Eco and Flaubert, and many I’d never heard of before. Dipping into the volume, I find that the overall quality of the translations is high, which reflects well on the editors. I am particularly taken with some of the poems: Daniel Picus’s translated Psalms, Miklavž Komelj’s “Hippodrome” translated by Dan Rosenberg and Boris Gregorič, and Michael Schlie’s translations of Celan. Congratulations to all involved. I look forward to seeing future issues of this lovely magazine. One suggestion for next time: alphabetize the list of contributing translators at the back—randomizing the list doesn’t work.* And it might be nice to include a little note by the principal editors describing the magazine’s intention and goals, perhaps similar to what is stated on the website. Slipping in the quote from Rosalind Krauss’s Perpetual Inventory that apparently gave the magazine its title is a nice touch though. On the other hand, I personally cannot hear the word “inventory” without thinking of Günter Eich.

Oh, and whoever it was who talked to me after the translation panel at the CUNY Graduate Center last week (Nov. 17) about his new translations of François Villon—this journal would be a good place to send them. Their excellent column “Backorders” at the back of the volume, featuring translation wish-lists compiled by a number of writers and thinkers—what a good idea!—includes CUNY’s own Tom Sleigh wishing for better translations of Pasternak and Villon. You’ll find the guidelines for submission posted here, and here’s the link to purchase a copy.

*Aha, realized only later that the list is actually in reverse alphabetical order. In my humble opinion, that qualifies as trying too hard to be fancy.

A Dialogue about Translation (in German)

This past spring, the new online magazine TRANSIT published by the German department at UC Berkeley asked me to engage in a written exchange with Bernard Banoun, the French translator of Yoko Tawada (whom I translate into English). The idea was to conduct, in e-mail form, a sort of dialogue about translation that would touch on both our experience with Tawada’s work and our individual histories as translators. I found it quite interesting to write the letters to Bernard and see what he would answer back—the format created the space for an enjoyable sort of storytelling about our shared profession. And now the results of our conversation have been posted, i.e. published, and can be read by anyone who so wishes—anyone, that is, who reads German, since this is the language we were asked to converse in. Tut mir leid! But if you follow the link you can also admire one of Yoko’s earliest experiments with typing out her own manuscripts for the digital age: “Wer schreibt schöner,” she asks, “ich oder mein Computer?” (Who writes prettier, me or my computer?)

Rave Reviews for Visitation

It’s always a bit unpredictable which books are going to capture the imagination of the reading public. Sometimes a book I was confident would make a big splash (such as Yoko Tawada’s multi-layered cinematic parable of East-West multiculturalism The Naked Eye) winds up getting shockingly little exposure. And other times, a breathtaking flurry of positive reviews blows in, with praise for a book coming so thick and fast it’s difficult to remember who said what where. That’s just what’s been happening this month with Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation, which appeared in my translation this past September from New Directions in New York and Portobello in London. I was expecting people to like this book, and apparently they do. I was expecting this book to get some good press, and it has
. . . in England. For some reason, most of the major book reviewing organs in the United States have yet to notice the book was ever published,* but in England it’s been a veritable love fest. Just this morning, The Independent published their second review of the novel; an earlier one appeared one month ago. After The Guardian published their rave review at the end of October, the novel spent two weeks fluttering between positions 2 and 4 on their bestseller list. And James Copnall, writing in today’s TLS—which is unfortunately not available for internet perusal but I just cheated—calls the book “an important work by a novelist of great talent” and praises the translation as well. Visitation was also recently picked up in the Daily Mail, PRI’s The World (BBC) and the Financial Times. That’s a lot of attention for one little novel; on the other hand, Visitation is clearly the most ambitious and successful book to date by one of Germany’s foremost younger novelists, so I am thrilled to see it getting its due.

*My publisher just reminded me that I somehow forgot all about the interview with Jenny in Vogue (!), and that Visitation was featured in Time Out Chicago, Publishers Weekly, Bookmark Magazine and The Daily Beast, as well as in the Canadian journals Border Crossing and The Edmonton Journal. Three Percent also picked up the interview Katy Derbyshire did with me on translating the novel for Love German Books. I’m still waiting for The New York Times to ante up, but I do stand corrected. Talk about ingratitude—shame on me!

Ammiel Alcalay Recommends Translating Responsibly

My CUNY colleague Ammiel Alcalay recently came back to Queens College from his current home base at the CUNY Graduate Center to read in tandem with the glorious poet (and now novelist) Eileen Myles. Ammiel translates from both the Hebrew and the Bosnian as well as being a poet, essayist and scholar. In the Q&A after the reading, Ammiel made some points in reference to his translations of Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović—author of Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias—that are worth recording here. For one thing, he spoke of Mehmedinović’s poetry as being singularly translatable because it’s so solidly image-based and relies on a straightforward vocabulary, such that translating it, in Ammiel’s words, is “like pouring water from one glass to another.” Actually I suspect that a lot of work went into Ammiel’s translations of these poems, but the simile is still pretty enough to share.

But here’s the main thing Ammiel got me thinking about: In the United States, we’ve gotten into the habit of talking about translators not having much power. From an international standpoint, however, this is not always true, particularly in the case of translations into English. Those who create and publish English-language translations can sometimes become unwitting kingmakers in other parts of the world. You can pluck a poet out of relative obscurity in his home context and give him an international platform. Might you be doing so at the expense of his perhaps more accomplished peers? You should at least know who his peers are. As Ammiel says, it is crucial to make sure you truly understand the original literary scene and context—including the political context where relevant—of the works you’re translating. Ammiel is absolutely right about this, particularly in terms of the politics (which is what he was mainly talking about). The mainstream culture of the United States is more likely to think of literature as divorced from politics than is the case in most other parts of the world (which I believe has a lot to do with the fact that it’s been a century and a half since we experienced a war fought on our home turf). It’s good to be reminded that literature is not always neutral.

Even in purely aesthetic terms, translations into English are sometimes surprisingly potent when it comes to shaping the literary careers of foreign authors. Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader was dismissed in Germany as a not particularly well-written book about the Holocaust—a judgment I agree with—until Carol Brown Janeway’s translation of it was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, whereupon it became a bestseller in Germany as well as here. And Sylvia Molloy has written insightfully on how the American obsession with magical realism in the 1960s created the misconception that this was the main thrust of all important Latin American writing—promoting the careers of some authors internationally while marginalizing others. With hegemony comes responsibility. Know that.


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