Archive for March 2011

How to Review Translations

Lord knows it isn’t easy to review books – there’s so much to be taken into account, often in cripplingly limited space and on deadline. And when the book is a translation, this circumstance adds an entire new level of complexity to the enterprise. The result: many reviews of translated books acknowledge the translation only in passing, with a minimalistic epithet like “ably translated by [translator’s name here].” And while this is slightly better than ignoring outright the fact that a work of literature is a translation – as, regrettably, still happens all too often – it is woefully inadequate considering the gigantic impact the translator’s skill and aesthetic decisions have on the reader’s experience of a book. Every translation is written twice: first by its author, then by its translator.

Recently I was bemoaning this state of affairs in conversation with my illustrious colleagues Jonathan Cohen and Edith Grossman, and we decided to sit down and write up some guidelines for reviewers. This is our contribution to the project of improving the overall quality of reviews of books in translation. And since Words Without Borders recently started running a new series of essays on reviewing translations, we thought this would be the ideal place to publish our little missive.

You can read our guidelines here. Hope you find them helpful!

Visitation is a 2011 BTBA Finalist!

Well, I was certainly excited in January to find myself (twice!) on the fiction longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award, and now the shortlist has just come out, and I’m on it with Jenny Erpenbeck’s wonderful novel Visitation, which I love so much I’ve already blogged about it repeatedly, so I won’t start with that again, though I’m tempted. It’s such an honor to appear on this 10-title shortlist, which is filled with wonderful books that all deserve to win a prize. The two publishers I’ve been working for recently (New Directions and New York Review Books) are each represented with two titles; my Columbia University colleagues Idra Novey and Anna Moschovakis are on the list as well; as is the illustrious David Bellos, recently featured on this blog; as well as several friends. It’s going to be hard for me not to feel celebratory if any of them wins the prize this year. Looking at this list, I am above all feeling gratified and delighted to see what excellent translated books came out in 2010. There’s a lot of good reading here. And what would the point of the BTBA be if not to draw our attention to all the wonderful books in translation published every year for our reading pleasure? All you have to do is visit a bookstore or library, and the prize is yours.

I am reproducing below the lists of 2011 BTBA Fiction and Poetry Finalists as they appear on Three Percent:

The 2011 BTBA Fiction Finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

The 2011 BTBA Poetry Finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

Geometries by Eugene Guillevic, translated from the French by Richard Sieburth (Ugly Ducking)

Flash Cards by Yu Jian, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett (Zephyr Press)

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu (Litmus Press)

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi (New Directions)

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry (BOA Editions)

J. Hillis Miller on Benjamin on Translation (cont’d)

Last week I posted an announcement of a presentation on Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” by star deconstructionist critic J. Hillis Miller, and since I loved hearing him talk, I’m posting a brief report. Miller is a remarkably lucid speaker, capable of expressing even the most complex concepts with clarity and communicable understanding. Unfortunately, he spent most of this presentation speaking not about his own views on Benjamin but those of his late colleague Paul de Man. De Man famously lectured on Benjamin at Cornell in 1983, and a transcript of this lecture appears in the posthumous collection of de Man’s writings The Resistance to Theory. This lecture contains de Man’s famous suggestion that we read the “Aufgabe” (task) of the title in the sense of “aufgeben” (to give up) – an idea de Man borrowed from Benjamin scholar Carol Jacobs’s 1975 essay “The Monstrosity of Tranlsation.”
De Man lectured on Benjamin at Yale the same year as his Cornell talk, and the two presentations apparently differ significantly enough that Miller is now planning to publish de Man’s notes for the Yale lecture. Miller had been so taken with this lecture when he first heard it that he asked de Man for a copy he could read, whereupon de Man handed him the spiral notebook containing his notes for the talk – which is still in Miller’s possession. These lecture notes will obviously be a must-read for de Man fans everywhere when they come out next year. I personally, though, would rather listen to J. Hillis Miller’s ideas about Walter Benjamin than Paul de Man’s; in fact, a few pages of my book Foreign Words are devoted to debunking him. Miller, too, pointed out various weaknesses in de Man’s argument – for instance, he sets up the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Geoffrey Hartman in such a way that he can easily tear them down in the course of his lecture, making them “fall guys” (Miller’s term) for all humanistic/messianic/phenomenological readings of Benjamin. Well, sorry, deconstructionists, but these are exactly the sorts of terms in which Benjamin himself was thinking, so why not read his work that way?
I did ask Miller in the Q&A what he himself would focus on if he were teaching Benjamin’s essay, and he replied that for him the most interesting part is Benjamin’s discussion of “pure language” (die reine Sprache). I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge topic, since there’s so much confusion as to what Benjamin actually means by the term. Miller’s understanding of it is based on thinking about Benjamin’s use of the word “meinen” in the essay to mean “mean” in the sense of “point to.” Miller didn’t call this “intentionality,” but that’s the term I’d use for it (borrowing from G.E.M. Anscombe’s writings on Wittgenstein, whom she translated). In fact, in the universe of Benjamin’s essay, the mode of intentionality is what defines and differentiates languages from one another. Each language has its own individual characteristics, but all languages point to the world of things and ideas, which lies outside them. This mediation (it’s still me talking, not Miller) takes the form of pointing. Pure language, on the other hand, no longer entails mediation of any sort. What is said is what is.
So you might think this pure language sounds pretty handy. I bet you’d like to have some of it around the house for your own use. Well, you’re out of luck, because at this point it exists only as potentiality. For Benjamin, pure language is a form, not an actual active language: it is the intersection of all the world’s individual, human languages – making it, in a sense, post-human. It doesn’t exist yet in actuality, but it will some day, eventually, in the messianically distant future (pace de Man) when the borders separating all the languages of the world from one another have become so blurry that they all merge into one. Translators are the ones doing the blurring, in case you were wondering.
Critical theorist Emily Apter, who was sitting in the audience at Miller’s talk, asked a question about translations from this pure language, but I think the very question misses the point: pure language exists in a post-translation sphere; once it exists, translation will no longer be either necessary or possible. Gayatri Spivak was in the audience as well, but unfortunately she didn’t participate in the discussion, though I’d have loved to know what she was thinking. Apparently a podcast of the talk itself will be made available in the coming days, and I promise to post a link here. Don’t expect to be able to hear the Q&A though: Miller rambled around the auditorium while answering questions, so much of what he said may well not have found its way into the microphone.

Translator for a Day: A Workshop for Beginners

Have you always wanted to try your hand at literary translation but didn’t know where to start? Here’s your chance. Next month I’ll be offering a one-session introductory workshop intended for absolute beginners, to be held at McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street in SoHo. Prerequisites are a love of literature and at least a slight knowledge of one of the following languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian. (Definition of “slight knowledge”: you are able to decipher a literary text with the help of a dictionary and patience.) This workshop, which is designed for native speakers of English, is free of charge, and is limited to 25 participants, each of whom will be sent a short text to prepare the week before the workshop. Preregistration is required.

To register, send a brief e-mail stating which language(s) you wish to work in to rsvp {at} susanbernofsky {dot} com with “McNally Jackson” in the subject line. Registration closes at 5:00 p.m. on April 20, or when capacity is reached. The workshop will be held at 7:00 p.m. on April 26.

This workshop is sponsored by the American Literary Translators Association with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lecture: On the Translations of Lorca

There’s something about the work of certain poets that makes later generations of writers want to translate them again and again. Think Rimbaud, think Rilke, think Neruda and Lorca. Often enough it is these most iconic poets whose work is most radically transformed in translation, as generation after generation weighs in on the question of who these poets really were. In 2009, Jonathan Mayhew of the University of Kansas published a book entitled Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, examining the ways in which the English-language translations of Lorca’s poetry turned him into a specifically American poet, adapted to American cultural and ideological concerns. Next week, Mayhew will come to the CUNY Graduate Center to speak about his book with poet David Shapiro and translator-poet Mark Statman. This event will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23 in the Martin E. Segal Theatre and is open to the public.

J. Hillis Miller on Benjamin on Translation

Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (The Task of the Translator) is no doubt the most widely read theoretical essay on literary translation of all time. Benjamin published it in 1921 as the foreword to a collection of his own translations of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens (part of Les fleurs du mal), a circumstance all the odder for the apparent disconnect between the theoretical views on translation expressed in the essay and the way he went about translating the poems. I should write a blog post about Benjamin’s intriguing and often obscure essay one of these days, since I do have some thoughts on it and its usefulness to translators even today, but I am supposed to be on vacation right now, so I will confine myself to announcing that the august literary critic and scholar J. Hillis Miller will be speaking about Benjamin’s essay in conversation with Kyoo Lee next week. The event is entitled “What’s Left to Translate? Re-reading Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator'” and will be held on Monday, March 21 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 9204 at the Center for the Humanities at the The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue.

P.S. I’ve been getting queries as to whether there’ll be an audio recording of this event for those who are unable to attend, and it seems there will be. I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Translators Love Libraries

Think about it: You can always drop by a friend’s house to borrow something to read, but what if your friend’s collection of great books in translation is no match for your current cravings? You’ve got a much better chance of getting your itch scratched at your local public library. And did you know that New York’s public library system is so well networked that you can request to have any book from any of its branches shipped, free of charge, to the branch nearest you, where you can pick it up at your convenience? Really, what’s not to love? Oh yes, the fact that the budget of the NYPL keeps getting slashed as the city’s finances go from bad to worse. The library’s book-buying budget was reduced by a staggering 26% this year. That cuts down significantly on the number of new books the library can purchase. But right now there’s a way you can help out a great deal with even the most modest contribution. One of the library’s trustees, Timothy Barakett, along with his wife Michele, has just announced that they will triple every dollar donated to the Friends of the New York Public Library’s book fund this week. That makes it possible for a relatively small donation to have a major impact. Please consider contributing now, even if you can’t afford to give much. And please remember that the library is here for you. For those of us who can’t afford to buy every book we want to read, having a well-stocked library is a true blessing.


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