Archive for June 2011

Robert Walser on The Marketplace of Ideas

I was recently interviewed by Colin Marshall for his show The Marketplace of Ideas, which is broadcast on KCSB in Santa Barbara and can also be listened to online or downloaded for free from the iTunes store. Colin specializes in the hour-long interview format, which allows him to explore a topic at length with his guests. In my case, we talked about Robert Walser for the first half-hour of the show and most of the last fifteen minutes, with an interlude in which we discussed Yoko Tawada, Kobo Abe and the uses of literary hybridity. The show’s title, “The Literary In-Between,” actually comes from a Yoko Tawada quote.

One of the great things about being interviewed is that it helps you focus your thoughts on some of the ideas that are most important to you even if you’ve never sat down and consciously formulated them. In conversation with Colin, I found myself speaking about what it is that draws me to the literature I most love, which tends to features authors that can be described in some way as straddling two different worlds. Here’s what I told him:

I think the in-between is a great place to actually open your eyes and see something. When you’re hovering between two spheres of reference, the very geography of your condition forces you to actually see where you are. I think so much of our everyday lives is so unmindful and involves not noticing things and not seeing things and not understanding what’s around us. I love literature that puts me in the position of asking me to actually see what it is I do when I speak, when I understand something, when I hear another person, when I think that I’m communicating with another person and hearing them talking to me. I think being made conscious of these things and how miraculous it is that we have languages we can use to communicate with each other – how great is that! I think there’s so much we take for granted that literature written in these in-between spaces invites us to notice and appreciate. For me there’s a lot of joy there.

Working with Editors of Translations

I recently received a call for papers for a conference entitled “Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation” that will be put on in early November by the Voice in Translation research group based at the University of Oslo. The organizers are Hanne Jansen and Anna Wegener at the University of Copenhagen, which will be hosting the conference. The call for papers touches on some extremely important points that are often overlooked when people speak about translation:

It is not only translators who are involved in translation. This symposium “Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation” seeks to explore the role of other agents – authors, publishers, editors – in the work of translation. Translators will sometimes receive “translation briefs” from authors either offering to assist with, or seeking to interfere in the process of translation. Publishing houses have considerable power in selecting translators and in obliging both parties – authors as well as translators – to acquiesce in their decisions. While it is well-known that translations are often censored in totalitarian regimes, less attention has been paid to the way in which, in ‘free’ societies, commercial interests can be allowed to interfere with the work of translation.

People do generally assume that every decision made about a translation was made by the translator. Maybe this is because so many reviewers of translations are associated with universities and academic presses, where authors (professors) generally do have unfettered artistic license. But in the real world of commercial publishing, editors (and sometimes even publicity departments) also have a substantial role in shaping a work – and the more lucrative the enterprise, the more likely the translator is to be disempowered if it is deemed beneficial to a book’s commercial viability. Almost all Stieg Larsson’s books, for instance, were renamed in their English-language versions and the translation “prettified” so much the translator took his name off the project in protest, adopting the pseudonym Reg Keeland. And Marilyn Booth, translator of Rajaa Alsanea’s novel Girls of Riyadh, had her translation reworked by an editor against her will at the request of an author who wished to see the story presented in more universal terms that would minimize its rootedness in Saudi Arabian culture. Booth writes about the experience in her essay “Translator v. author (2007): Girls of Riyadh go to New York,” published in the July 2008 issue of Translation Studies.

Nothing like this has ever happened to me, I am pleased to report, though I have been asked to sign contracts giving an editor artistic control over my translation (I refused). In fact, I have been fortunate enough to work with editors whose interventions vastly improved my translations, such that I was delighted to accept their editorial suggestions. On one of the first books I ever translated, the memoir Anecdotage by Gregor von Rezzori, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1996, I had the privilege of working with legendary editor Elisabeth Sifton, whose skills were so justifiably celebrated that Rezzori had given her carte blanche to change anything she wanted in his book, and her edits (tightening up a sentence here, a paragraph there) most definitely improved both the book and my translation. Barbara Epler, the publisher and editor-in-chief of New Directions who somehow still finds time to edit my Robert Walser translations, has a downright uncanny sense of how to tweak a sentence, rearranging words and clauses or swapping out a synonym to make the prose live and breathe. And I will be forever grateful to Declan Spring, the senior editor at ND who helps me with Jenny Erpenbeck’s voice, for discovering a slew of 1970s song titles hidden in a freeform bit of prose in a crucial scene in The Book of Words. No one reads a book manuscript more meticulously than a good editor, and so there is no better ally and interlocutor to help a translator tease out the crucial details of an author’s style. Having a smart second set of eyes can be invaluable.
In short, publishing translations inevitably entails close collaboration with editors, a relationship that can be either highly beneficial or highly detrimental to a translation and book, depending on how it is handled. So far I have been blessed always to work with editors who saw their job as helping me be better at what I was trying to do (rather than disputing or even negating my vision of a project). I’m so glad there will be a conference specifically devoted to the interactions between translators and their editors and authors; I very much look forward to hearing what comes out of it.

Letter to a Reviewer of Translations

A friend of mine – an accomplished writer in his own right – recently asked my advice about writing a review of a translated book. He had compared the translation with the original at certain points (how wonderful that he was able to do so!) and had questions about some of the choices the translator had made though he thought the translation was very good overall. He wanted to know if I thought he should discuss these quibbles in his review. Since I think this same question must come up for a lot of reviewers of translations, I’ll share my response:

Hey there, it’s a really good question – I’ve written about this on my translation blog and recently co-authored a page of guidelines for reviewers of translations along with Edith Grossman and Jonathan Cohen.

I would encourage you not to try to compete with the translator in terms of linguistic expertise (let’s assume he knows the original language better than you do) or complain about the “mistranslation” of individual words, because if there’s a more obvious translation for any one of them, he surely knew that and nonetheless made an informed choice to do something different – though you might decide that the results of this informed choice are something you think isn’t effective in English or doesn’t sound like the author as you understand his voice, and these are things that would be really good to write about. If you think the translation is basically good, do these bits stick out like a sore thumb? Or is the translator trying something daring that isn’t quite working? If you like the translation for the most part, what do you like about it? It’s really great that you want to write specifically about the translation when you review the book. That’s so useful, and there are so many things you can say about it without turning into the translation police. I hate reviews in which a critic declares a translation bad because it doesn’t render word X with word Y – believe me, if you think of word Y, the translator probably thought of it too, so the real question is: why did he decide not to use it, and was that a choice that panned out well in the context of what he is doing in the translation as a whole? Think of the translator as someone possessed, like yourself, of a critical and aesthetic intelligence and engage him on that level, and you’re guaranteed to come up with an interesting assessment of his work.

Nineteenth Century Spiders

Back when I was translating Friedrich Schleiermacher‘s great essay on translation, which dates from 1813/15, I spent a lot of time reading around in Samuel Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Coleridge is such a wonderful prose stylist, and I used him as a resource for my translation. In particular, I looked at how he put his sentences together, what sorts of opening gambits he used to introduce ideas, and I borrowed a phrase here, a structure there, just enough to mark my translation of Schleiermacher as belonging to an earlier period. I wasn’t trying to “fake” an older text, but to keep the reader aware that this text belonged to the early 19th century. I was inspired to do this after reading an earlier translation of the same essay by Douglas Robinson that throws around 20th century translation theory terminology like “source language” and “target language,” with the result that Schleiermacher winds up sounding hideously naive. Reading Schleiermacher in this translation, I found myself wondering why he was writing as if he’d never heard of Saussure.

So now I’m just starting work on a wonderful horror story from the 19th century, Jeremias Gotthelf’s «Die schwarze Spinne» (The Black Spider), which will be published next year by New York Review Books Classics. This is one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read. In it, a young woman brings calamity to her community by accidentally – oops – promising a newborn to the Devil. Gotthelf was a minister, and I get the feeling he wrote the story to frighten his congregation into keeping the faith. The spider of the title is like Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies – it’s everywhere at once, it can be as big as a cottage or disintegrate into a swarm of infinitesimally tiny beasties. It is the embodiment of everything in us that is wicked or weak. Did I mention than I am pretty severely arachnophobic? I still remember the giant-spider nightmares I had as a child. So this is the worst possible, i.e. the perfect book for me to translate. I’m hoping that my fear will make the descriptions of the spider particularly graphic. We shall see. Meanwhile, I’m priming myself for the project by reading up on some period literature. I started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which is gothic in all the worst ways but quite nicely written on the sentence level, which makes it a good model for me. And now I am rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and keeping a log of useful phrases that might help me with Gotthelf. Here are some of them: “the want of,” “repair the faults of,” “he is remarkable for,” “made me desirous to,” “unallied to the dross of human nature,” “madly desirous of,” “compassed round by,” “body forth,” “obliged us to the inclemency,” “I might have X but that Y,” “yet he might [=could] not have X, had she not Y.”

It’s astonishing to me how much the English language has changed in the last 200 years. These phrases now seem so quaint by contemporary standards. And I’ll have to be careful not to use too many of them in the translation – just enough to signal to the reader that the story she is reading comes to us from another age.

Who Shapes la langue française?

Last night I attended a group reading at Alwan for the Arts featuring francophone Algerian poet and translator Samira Negrouche, who presented her beautiful poems along with translations mainly by Martin Sorrell but also by Barbara Ungar with Beth DellaRocco and Stuart Bartow. (Negrouche will be reading again this Sunday afternoon at the Bowery Poetry Club, so if you’re free at 2:00 p.m., I highly recommend you stop by.) In the post-reading discussion, the question of translations-by-translators versus translations-by-poets came up. Negrouche drew a strict distinction between the two and was clearly convinced that translators approach texts only “academically and analytically,” whereas translator-poets enjoy writerly freedoms in their approach to their translations. After some confused discussion, poet and translator Anna Moschovakis (who had just read gorgeous work: an essay on difficulties with approaching the foreign and a long poem) was able to sort things out helpfully by pointing out that the activity of translation is professionalized in France to the extent that many (though not all) translators who wind up translating literature are also – and above all – translators of legal, business and other non-literary texts. I was surprised to hear this, since I do know a number of very literary literary translators working in French, but Negrouche confirmed Anna’s point. And this attitude toward translation in the francophone sphere (well, in France in particular) is powerfully backed up by an article just published by Bernard Hoepffner in the May 27 Times Literary Supplement entitled “Proxy Literature.” Hoepffner, a literary translator into French, describes his adventures in the worlds of French and English dictionaries. It turns out that English-language dictionaries, above all the Oxford English Dictionary, quote translations as examples of usage far more liberally than their French counterparts (Grand Robert, Trésor de la Langue Française, etc.) Hoepffner notes, for example, that “The OED cites Rabelais more than 2,000 times in Urquhart’s translation (1693)” and “Montaigne (903 times) enters English only eleven years after his death,” including with the lovely word “abecedarian” coined by his translator John Florio. Even my hero Barbara Wright shows up with some coinages from her pioneering translations of Raymond Queneau. The great French dictionaries, on the other hand, are largely silent on the subject of words and usages contributed by even the greatest French translators unless they also happen to be prominent as authors. This lexicographically enforced invisibility of the translator is particularly ironic given the relative numbers of translations into English and French: in English, only about 3% of books published in a given year are translations, while in French the figure hovers around 30%. What’s more, reviews of translated French books do not mention (much less discuss) the merits of the translation nearly as often as reviews in the English-speaking world, which many of us already find on average woefully inadequate. Hoepffner’s essay is a call both to the French literary world to open its eyes to the contributions of its translators, and also to the translators themselves to remember who they are and what their calling is: as Hoepffner admirably remarks, referencing the Schleiermacher-influenced French translation theorist Antoine Berman, “Translators should never forget that, despite their constitutive invisibility, their task is also to alter the complexion of their language for its own good.”

This Month’s Bridge is il ponte

Just three months after its founding, the Bridge Series seems to have established itself as the premiere translation-themed reading and discussion series in New York. So far, organizers Bill Martin and Sal Robinson have brought us evenings devoted to Spanish and Greek literature as well as an afternoon session on Robert Walser featuring Christopher Middleton and me. Up next is an Italian Bridge with Michael Moore (Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi, The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca, and The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi) and Patrick Barron (Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto and Italian Environmental Literature: An Anthology). It will also serve as a launch event for Chicago Review‘s “New Italian Writing” issue, due out later this month.

The Bridge will be held at its usual venue, McNally Jackson Books, at 52 Prince Street. Wednesday, June 15 at 7:00 p.m..


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