Archive for April 2011

2011 Best Translated Book Awards Announced

The fourth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced tonight in a ceremony held at the Bowery Poetry Club as part of the PEN World Voices festival, and the winners are…

In fiction,The True Deceiver by Swedish-Finnish author Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal. I’ve never read anything by Jansson, but I’m looking forward to it. The description of the book on the New York Review Books website makes it sound fanciful but also dark, and Ursula K. Leguin said it was the “most beautiful and satisfying novel” she read all year.

In poetry, the prize went to The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by poet Brian Henry, editor of the journal of international poetry Verse. The publisher of Šteger’s book is BOA Editions, which is based in Rochester, NY and has been in operation as an independent press since 1976.

The author and translator of each book receive cash awards of $5000 provided by The Best Translated Book Award is sponsored by Three Percent at the University of Rochester.

What I Found in Translation at the Guggenheim

I really wish I hadn’t been too busy to write up this blog entry sooner, because the Guggenheim’s current show “Found in Translation” is a truly challenging and compelling collection of works, and now you have only another two days to go see it. If you’re in the NYC area and can squeeze in a visit, do. Curated by Nat Trotman, the show presents works that critically engage the notion of translation on a number of thematic levels. Video works predominate. Here are a few of my favorites.
• “Once Upon a Time” by Steve McQueen (2002) presents images borrowed from the “Golden Record” sent into space in 1977 aboard the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft. The soundtrack spliced together out of samples of glossolalia (babble spoken in a trance-like state of religious fervor) underscores the incomprehensibility-out-of-context of these cultural and scientific artifacts of life on Earth (images depicting everything from the Great Wall of China to the fertilization of an egg cell).
• Patty Chang, “The Product Love” (2009) – This one is so surprising! In the first part of this video, Chang has three different translators spontaneously translating for the camera an essay Walter Benjamin wrote in 1928 about Chinese silent film star Anna May Wong; in the second, we see two actors being made up meticulously to play Benjamin and Wong in a sex scene that we then watch them film. Fascinating and strange. The makeup scenes are unexpectedly riveting. (The competing Benjamin translations produce a sort of translation slam, much as you can experience live at the Bowery Poetry Club tonight, by the way.)
• Brendan Fernandes, “Foe” (2008). I saw this stunning video piece at the EFA Project Space last year and was delighted to see it again. Fernandes, who was born in Nairobi to Goan parents but raised in Toronto, films himself being guided by a speech coach (offscreen) in speaking with African, Indian and Canadian accents as he reads from J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, whose main character is the Friday of Robinson Crusoe fame. We hear Fernandes practicing over and over the phrases “They cut out his tongue” and “That is why he does not speak” as the camera focusses on his teeth and lips. Spooky.
• “Cathay” by Lisa Oppenheim (2010). This is the most overtly beautiful work in the show. Oppenheim uses a pair of syncronized projectors to show filmic “slides” of a poem by Li Bai about moonlight in plum trees that Ezra Pound adapted in his 1915 volume Cathay. Each word or phrase is accompanied by an iconic image that correlates with it either directly or indirectly (images all shot in Chinatown); e.g. the image for “snow falls” is a snowglobe; and that for “appears” is a pile of stirring crabs. As the poem and its images are repeated over and over, Oppenheim gradually replaces the words of Pound’s version with those of a contemporary translation of the Li Bai poem, and adjusts the images accordingly. Eventually the entire poem has been transformed.
• The show’s most disjunctive work is “Godville” by Omer Fast, who radically edited taped interviews with actors who impersonate the original residents of Colonial Williamsburg for the benefit of tourists. This jarring collage of voice and image (using snippets often only a single word long) makes the speakers appear to comment on social issues while their images morph before our eyes, such that e.g. the one woman Fast interviews appears to oscillate between wearing gloves and holding them in her lap.
Some of the works in the show treat overtly political themes more directly (I am thinking of the pieces by Paul Chan, Carlos Motta and Sharon Hayes), but I was most fascinated by the ones that used the theme of translation to conflate language and image with questions of personal identity. The results are often poetic in the best sense.
The show runs through May 1, and the associated Guggenheim Forum feature Word for Word (which I blogged about two weeks ago) should remain accessible online for the foreseeable future.

An Abecedarian

Some of you probably already knew this long before I did, but an abecedarian (sometimes also called an abecedary) is a poem or sequence of poems structured around the letters of the alphabet. In the original sense of the term, words beginning with particular letters would be used to organize individual lines or stanzas. More recently, it’s been more common to see this alphabetical strategy applied to entire cycles of poems, with each individual poem governed by one letter, as was the case with Jeffrey Yang’s debut, An Aquarium, which won the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry in 2009. Another example is Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary.

An abedearian particularly close to my heart is German poet Uljana Wolf’s Falsche Freunde, which in an earlier incarnation was known as DICHTionary, an interlingual pun based on Dichtung, the German word for “poetry.” Each of the alphabetically inspired prose poems in Wolf’s collection is based on words that exist in some form (homonymic, homophonic and/or homographic) in both German and English. Take for example the German word Mist, which translates as “manure.” Or Igel, which is pronounced “eagle” and means “hedgehog.” In her poems, the words flip back and forth between their English and German meanings, always on the cusp of signifying both at once. This approach results in a wonderfully playful book that also tells a hidden tale: there’s a love story secreted between the lines of these poems, which – although written in prose – often slip into an iambic cadence. I liked the book so much that I translated it, even though much of the book’s original bilinguality becomes invisible in English, replaced by wordplay of other sorts.
Anyhow, the main point of this blog entry is to announce that the resulting English-language book is about to be published by the wonderfully adventurous Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn, NY. And since there’s no point launching a book without a launch party, we’re throwing one. If you are reading this, you are most cordially invited to join us. The party will be held on Thursday, April 21, 8:00 p.m., at 380 Broadway, 2M. Hope to see you there!

P.S. The book just got the loveliest write-up on the New Directions Tumblr.

Translation at the PEN World Voices Festival

The PEN World Voices Festival was co-founded by a translator (Esther Allen, then Chair of the PEN Translation Committee, in 2005), and since then, literary translation has always been an essential element of this festival devoted to international writing. The 2011 Festival will be held from April 25 through May 1 in New York City and features dozens of writers from all over the world. Many of the festival events are free and open to the public, so do check out the program and get ready to hear some local celebrities share the stage with new discoveries.

One perennial event of the Festival is the celebrated Translation Slam held at the Bowery Poetry Club; this year’s slam will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, April 29. I participated in the first slam, held in 2008, translating a poem by Michael Krüger. At the translation slam, two translators offer competing translations of a single poem (in the presence of the foreign-language poet); typically, hilarity and heated audience discussion ensue. Good times.

This year I’m going to be moderating a discussion at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 1 with a lawyer specializing in intellectual property (think copyright and contracts), who will enlighten us as to the legal status of the translation process and translated texts in this country. We will be joined by two international writer-translators who will fill us in on the situation of translators in Israel, Spain and the Czech Republic, by way of comparison. This event would make a great double-header with one that immediately proceeds it (in a different location, but there’s half an hour to travel from one to the next): a conversation between illustrious German poet-translator Joachim Sartorius and Jonathan Galassi about Leopardi in particular and the role of poets as translators in general. This event will be moderated by poet Rosanna Warren.

This year’s festival also includes a panel about the translation of American literature into other languages and a so-called Global Book Swap, in which panelists discuss the works of translated literature that have meant the most to them for their own writing. Both events will be held April 29 at Scandanavia House, at 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.

Speaking of double-headers, the Translation Slam on April 29 will be immediately followed, at 8:45 p.m., by the presentation of the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards sponsored by Three Percent. I can’t help being especially curious about the outcome this year since I’m one of the finalists. Wish me luck!

Oh, and please note that the printed program for the festival does not contain the final iteration of the festival schedule; several events have shifted places, times and participants, so be sure to check the Festival website to confirm the time and place of events you’d like to attend.

MLA Embraces Translation as Scholarship

Here’s some exciting just-out news from the Modern Language Association (MLA), the main professional organization for North American college and university teachers of language and literature. The MLA has just adopted a new document entitled “Evaluating Translations as Scholarship: Guidelines for Peer Review.” Those of you who have been following the acceptance and non-acceptance of translators in the academy over the past few decades will understand what a revolutionary step this is. It wasn’t so long ago that tenure-track academics were routinely publishing their translations under pseudonyms out of fear that their interest in work of this sort might count as a strike against them in their tenure evaluations. But now the MLA’s new guidelines, co-authored by 2009 MLA President Catherine Porter and UCLA Professor Michael Henry Heim, translators both, not only enunciate a very sound rationale for evaluating translation work as scholarship but also offer practical guidelines for both the candidate under review and her/his evaluators. “Every translation is an interpretation,” the document eloquently states; “each one begins with a critical reading, then expands and ultimately embodies that reading.” The guidelines for reviewers draw attention to the different sorts of scenarios and objectives that might govern a specific translation project. Poems for a reading edition might be translated to preserve characteristic features of the source text (“rhyme, assonance, meter, imagery, and so on”), while a bilingual edition for language-learners might emphasize the semantic content at the expense of the poem’s poetic devices. Translators of lengthy scholarly works, on the other hand, are sometimes asked by publishers to decrease the total word count, requiring the addition of “bridging material and clarifying information” as well as judiciously applied cuts. Most importantly, the MLA statement proposes that a translation in the academic context be understood as a contribution both to the scholarly conversation in a field and to the cultural and intellectual life of a a community.

Guggenheim Forum on Translation

In conjunction with its current show Found in Translation (which will be getting its own blog entry here soon), the Guggenheim museum is currently hosting an online discussion of translation entitled “Word for Word” as its current Guggenheim forum. Robert Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak, is moderating a panel of translation scholars including N. Katherine Hayles, Anthony Pym and Biljana Scott. The choice of panelists shows an interest not so much in the literary side of translation as in its communicative function in the real world of diplomacy and the media, but the central question being explored, “How does translation find its role as an essential tool in a globalized world?” will resonate to many with echoes e.g. of the presidential theme of the 2009 Modern Language Association Conference, “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context.” And in fact the sorts of examples cited by Greene in his opening remarks (e.g. the problematic political consequences of the fact that the etymological root “cross” in the word “crusade” appears more emphatically when this word is translated into other languages) are very much of interest and concern to literary translators as well. The conversations on “Word for Word” will be continuing all this week, with a special live chat taking place on Thursday, April 14, at 2:00 p.m. EDT. This chat will feature Robert Lane Greene with Anthony Pym, who is both a scholar of translation history and theory and actively involved in the training of translators at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Should be interesting, so check it out on the Guggenheim website.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was established in 1990 by the London newspaper The Independent to draw attention to contemporary international fiction in the U.K. After a seven-year hiatus between 1995 and 2002, the prize was revived by the literature-promoting charity Booktrust. Past recipients include many notables of world literature, among them Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, José Saramago and W.G. Sebald, so it is a particular honor to be included on this year’s just-announced shortlist as the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. Jenny’s book also happens to be shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the Indie Bookseller’s Choice Award; in other words, her wonderful novel is having quite the spring.

Here’s the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist in full:

•Santiago Roncagliolo, Red April, translated by Edith Grossman (Atlantic Books), Spanish;
•Marcelo Figueras, Kamchatka, translated by Frank Wynne (Atlantic Books), Spanish;
•Alberto Berrera Tyszka, The Sickness, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Maclehose Press), Spanish;
•Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books), German;
•Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber), Turkish;
•Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson (Harvill Secker), Norwegian.

Such an incredible list. I’m very proud to be on it.


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