Archive for July 2011

Translationista Action Figure

I was recently given a wonderful surprise gift by my playwright friend Gary Winter: a comic of Translationista portrayed as a superhero. The drawing was commissioned from comic artist/designer Jeremy Arambulo, whose work I recommend you check out. He sketched Translationista busting out the books, each of which, if you look closely, is adorned by a quite-good likeness of the author in question. I’ll even prove it with some photographic evidence. Unfortunately the image of the comic I’m posting is itself not of the highest quality; the drawing came nicely framed, and I didn’t want to disassemble it just for the sake of getting a better photograph.

Looking at this comic reminds me of my childhood obsession with Wonder Woman. I always chose to be her in role-playing games with the other kids on the block when I was six or seven – I loved how strong and beautiful she always seemed, and also brave, because unlike some of the other superheroes of comic lore, Wonder Woman did not possess actual superhuman powers that could have protected her from attack. All she had was a trio of magical tools: a set of bracelets (good for deflecting bullets and such), a tiara that could work like a boomerang, and a lasso that could compel people to tell the truth, but she was nonetheless vulnerable to attack and capture and did often enough wind up in a pickle. Let me not think too hard about the marketing decision that dictated that the one female member of the original Super Friends clan should regularly find herself in princess-style distress and require rescuing. But maybe having friends who could help her out in a pinch was in itself one of her superpowers.

Wonder Woman is an avatar of the Amazon queen Diana. Of course, in the United States her image had to be cleaned up a bit; for one thing, the actual Amazons of legend cut off their right breasts so as to be able to hunt and fight better with their weapon of choice: the bow and arrow. For the most stunning story about an Amazon ever written, check out Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthesilea (its heroine is an Amazon queen at her most vulnerable), which was written in German but exists in a gorgeous English translation by Joel Agee.

Last PEN Online Translation Slam = Korean!

For the last few years I have been curating the online translation slam on the PEN American Center website. This has meant selecting a foreign-language poet and a pair of younger translators to produce competing translations of a single work by that poet to be posted side-by-side. This feature was inspired by the live translation slam event, traditionally held at the Bowery Poetry Club, that has become a yearly staple of the PEN World Voices Festival. I know all about what it’s like to be part of that one, since I was was one of the participants the first year the event was held at the festival. It’s a lot of fun and tends to get a bit raucous. The online slam is somewhat more decorous. Since it’s online, the discussion is not shouted but written. But online discussions can be great too, and the more people participate in discussing the translations, the more interesting the slam becomes. I would encourage you to check out the latest slam, based on a lovely work by Korean poet Jeong Kkeut-byeol that has been translated twice, by Sora Kim-Russell and Jae Won Chung. See what you think of the translations, and if you’re so moved, post a comment about one or both of them.

Those of you who’ve been following the slam for a while now will immediately see when you click through to the text that change is in the air. The Korean slam is the first to be posted on PEN’s new blog, which is soon to be home to lots of other new content as well. This new content is the explanation for why this Korean slam is going to be the Last One Ever. It’s going to be replaced with something even more exciting. But I can’t tell you what it is yet. Keep watching this space, and expect an announcement in early September. Meanwhile, do enjoy the last of our translation slams in their current form. I’ve really enjoyed curating them.

2012 NEA Translation Fellowships Announced

Yesterday the National Endowment for the Arts announced it was awarding 16 fellowships to literary translators for 2012, totaling $200,000. The NEA has been an important supporter of literary translation ever since it began awarding translation fellowships in 1981. This year’s awards are valued at $12,500 pending Congressional approval of the NEA’s 2012 budget.

My work on Robert Walser was supported twice by the NEA over the years, so I am personally very grateful for the existence of this program. In particular in the case of the first Walser novel I ever translated – his 1925 posthumously published book The Robber, written during the same period as the stories collected in Microscripts – the translation would never have come about without the NEA’s support. I had been unsuccessful in my attempts to find a publisher for the book, and the prestige of the grant, combined with the fact that I had already been paid something for the translation, encouraged Nebraska University Press to take on the project. The novel was published in 2000 and is still in print.

Here’s the list of the 2012 NEA Literature Translation Fellows:

• Eric Abrahamsen (Chinese) for Running Through Zhongguancun by the contemporary novelist Xu Zechen

• Ross Benjamin (German) for The Frequencies by Clemens J. Setz

• Lisa Rose Bradford (Spanish) for Oxen Rage by Argentine poet Juan Gelman

• Geoffrey Brock (Italian) for the selected poems of Giovanni Pascoli

• Peter Constantine (Russian) for the stories and vignettes from Anton Chekhov’s early period (1880-85)

• Kristin Dykstra (Spanish) for Catch and Release by Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez

• Michelle Gil-Montero (Spanish) for The Annunciation by Argentinian novelist María Negroni

• David Hinton (Chinese) for the selected poems of Mei Yao-ch’en

• William Maynard Hutchins (Arabic) for the novel New Waw by Ibrahim al-Koni

• Pierre Joris (German) for The Complete Later Poetry of Paul Celan

• Karen Kovacik (Polish) for In What World: Selected Poems by Agnieszka Kuciak

• Brandon Lussier (Estonian) for a collection of new and selected poems by Estonian poet Hasso Krull

• Pedro Enrique Rodriguez Jr. (French) for travelogues and novels by George Groslier, a Cambodian-born French writer

• Jake Schneider (German) for poet Ron Winkler’s Fragmented Water

• Archana Venkatesan (Tamil) for the ninth-century poem “Sacred Speech” by Satakōpan (popularly known as Nammālvār)

• Alex Zucker (Czech) for Markéta Lazarová by novelist Vladislav Vančura

For more detailed descriptions of the projects, see the NEA’s website. The deadline for next year’s competition is Jan. 6, 2012; application information can be found here.

Guest blogging at Women and Hollywood

Film Forum is celebrating my birthday today by screening an absolutely gorgeous movie about a translator. OK, they don’t actually know it’s my birthday, but I’m delighted that The Woman with the 5 Elephants is opening today, since it’s a movie I dearly love for several reasons. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot and edited. For another, it’s about a translator. For a third, it weaves a multigenerational story all around the life of a single woman (which I guess is possible when you get to be in your mid-80s). I blogged this film last week to announce it was on its way, and today you’ll find me blogging about it again – not just here on Translationista but also as a guest blogger on the Women and Hollywood website, which is devoted to tracking the role of women in the movies on both sides of the camera.

Given the focus and point of view of the Women and Hollywood site, I didn’t want to let my guest post get too nerdy on the subject of translation. But listening to Svetlana Geier speak so beautifully about translation when I rewatched the film yesterday was truly inspiring. She says that when she was first learning to translate, a teacher who was influential in her development liked to say “Nase hoch beim Übersetzen” (Keep your nose up while translating). This meant, Geier explains, that the translator should not just creep her way through a sentence from left to right but rather should take in a sentence as a whole and then think about how to utter the sentence, as a whole, in its new language. In the film, we see her putting this instruction into practice. It’s not clear whether or not this was always her work method (I doubt it), but in the film we see her translating with the help of two skilled assistants: a woman who types up each sentence of the translation as Geier dictates it, and a male friend (a musician, no less) who reads her finished translation back to her so she can hear what it sounds like in order to edit it. I’m just writing an essay about revising translations in which I discuss, among other things, the importance of reading your work aloud. Having someone else read it aloud to you is even better.

The film’s most striking leitmotif is that of woven fabric. Geier shows the camera a beautiful, ornate tablecloth whose lace edging was embroidered by her mother. Talking about the needlework, Geier emphasizes the artistry and meticulous attention to detail necessary to create such a piece. It’s crucial, she says, that each stitch be counted; one thread too many or too few and the pattern won’t work out. To create this lace edging, she explains, you have to destroy the weave of the linen fabric and then fill it out again, a process she describes as “very human.” And in fact this is just the process we see when she picks apart a sentence by Dostoevsky, destroying its weave in order to “fill it out again.” The film ends on a scene in which she and her musician friend tease apart a sentence to determine whether or not horses described in the sentence as having riders are the very same horses hitched to a small carriage that is also mentioned; it would be strange for a horse in harness to also be wearing a saddle, and the two decide that there must be yet other horses on the scene. The impetus for this discussion? The number of horses will determine whether or not the sentence should have a comma at a crucial juncture. A comma, it seems, can make all the difference.

Early in the film, while showing the camera how she does her ironing, Geier explicitly draws a connection between text and textile, and she often uses the word “Gewebe” (weave) when she talks about writing. The film’s attention to the physical materiality of her surroundings shows us that director Vadim Jendreyko believes there is a weave to images as well.

Svetlana Geier died in November 2010. I’m so glad that Jendreyko was able to shoot this film about her when she was still alive. It’ll be playing at Film Forum for one week starting today. See it if you can.

Mónica de la Torre Translating Herself

Last week I caught an excellent triple reading in the Blue Letter series at Watty & Meg in Brooklyn, and in between wonderful poetry by Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Alan Gilbert, the translating poet Mónica de la Torre presented a fascinating excursus on self-translation. Her comments were taken from an essay on translating her own poetry that will be forthcoming this fall in Translation Review, the official journal of the American Literary Translators Association, but I wanted to give you a foretaste.

For one thing, it isn’t hard to imagine the sorts of dilemmas a self-translating poet must face, especially if the poems being translated were written a long time ago. It has to be tempting to just rewrite the poems in the new language with one’s more mature voice. Adding to the complexity in de la Torre’s case is the fact that she used to be primarily a Spanish-language poet but now writes primarily in English – so the change of language has no doubt influenced her approach to writing as well. But for purposes of her talk, she set herself the task of translating a poem from her first book of poems, Acúfenos, published in Mexico City in 2006 (but written mostly during the 1990s). She decided to use her old diaries and writing notes from the time to help her reconstruct, almost archeologically, what had been on her mind when she wrote the poems, so as to uncover the intention behind them. Now, authorial intention is a notion with a storied and often controversial past – how can we know what an author was thinking, and doesn’t what s/he actually wrote take precedence over what s/he may have intended by it? But of course, when the author is the same person as the interpreting translator, one degree of separation is removed from the critical operation.

De la Torre reports that she has used self-translation as a writing exercise with her students, as a way of focussing their attention on the materiality of language itself and freeing them from “the burden of self-expression.” I, too, have found in my teaching that students produce the most exciting work when they can be persuaded or tricked (usually via some logistically complicated exercise) into not trying to express themselves. Because of course the most profound acts of self-expression come from the part of the brain that is not consciously thinking about what it wishes to say. But in delving into her own ancient poem from the point of view of intentional fidelity, de la Torre – being the fine poet she is – arrived at some beautiful responses to the original poem, e.g. using the word “flame” to stand in for “llamarada” or “sudden blaze.” “Flame” shares the original word’s richness of resonance, since it also has emotional/erotic connotations.

As an parallel exercise in non-intentionality, de la Torre called on GoogleTranslate to help her with the poem, and she discovered (along with the usual mishmash you’d expect), occasional flashes of accidental genius, as for example when the computer mistakes the verbs “taste” and “know” (both “saber” in Spanish) to produce the line “A sip of coffee before I knew bitter.” This is translation without preconceived notions of the text and its interpretation, and as such it can work like an automatic exercise meant to overrule cognition. But of course it’s only on occasion that GoogleTranslate actually produces a line that might strike human beings as beautiful.

And of course the experience of translating her old poem does to de la Torre what one might expect: It prompts her to write a poem, a new one all her own.

2011 PEN Translation Fund Winners Announced

Earlier today, the PEN American Center announced the winners of the 2011 PEN Translation Fund competition. Out of a field of 130 applicants, 11 projects were selected for funding; each translator will receive a $3000 grant to support his/her work. The Fund was established in 2003 by an anonymous donor eager to support young translators and encourage young writers to try their hand at translation. For the past two years, the Fund has been supplemented by an additional grant from

As a member of the Advisory Board of the Fund (along with David Bellos, Edwin Frank, Michael F. Moore, Michael Reynolds, Natasha Wimmer, and Jeffrey Yang), I can report that there was a very strong showing of applications this year, in terms not only of numbers but also of quality. I wish we could have funded many more of these projects, but am pleased with the final list, which contains an impressive range of projects. One of these books already has a publisher, and the other ten are still up for grabs. Publishers and editors who wish to express an interest in any of these projects are invited to contact Alena Graedon, Manager of Membership and Literary Awards ( or Advisory Board Chair Michael Moore (

Here is the list of this year’s winners along with Michael Moore’s comments on the projects:

Amiri Ayanna for The St. Katharinental Sister Book: Lives of the Sisters of the Dominican Convent at Diessenhofen. A rare glimpse inside a holy community, The St. Katharinental Sister Book offers an intimate blend of biography, mystical poetry, and visionary literature. This masterful translation from Northeastern Swiss dialects of Middle High German is a rich compilation of pious testimonials that illuminate the lives of a medieval sisterhood. (Available for publication.)

Neil Blackadder for The Test (Good Simon Korach), a play by renowned Swiss dramatist and novelist Lukas Bärfus. The shocking results of a paternity test and its moral implications force an agonizing examination into what defines a family. Supple and incisive, The Test is one of Bärfus’ most successful plays, and has been staged at major theaters across Germany. (Available for publication.)

Clarissa Bosford for Sworn Virgin, a novel written in Italian by Albanian writer and filmmaker Elvira Dones. At once sweeping and immediate, Sworn Virgin engages with timely issues of identity, nationality, and sexuality. By rejecting an arranged marriage, Hana, the protagonist, is condemned to life in a double-bind: in the isolation of northern Albania and disguised as a man. Her decision to abandon her homeland for the U.S. coincides with a return to living as a woman that proves anything but simple. (Available for publication.)

Steve Bradbury for Salsa, a collection of poems by the internationally-recognized Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü. Composed during the eight years Hsia lived in France, and regarded by many as her most important work to date, Salsa showcases Hsia’s fascination with sound, movement, and “the erotics of reading.” Bradbury’s translation captures Hsia’s distinct musicality, preserving the liveliness and ingenuity of her verse. (Available for publication.)

Annmarie S. Drury for a collection of poems by Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi, an acclaimed Swahili writer whose work is only now becoming more widely available to other readers. Saturated with vivid imagery, Kezilahabi’s poems reinvigorate traditional forms by introducing everyday language and free verse. An active promoter of accessibility, Kezilahabi’s work also offers a subtle social critique of the way language is used by those in power. (Available for publication.)

Diane Nemec Ignashev for Paranoia, a novel by groundbreaking Belarusian author Viktor Martinovich, about a tragic love affair between an idealistic young writer and the captivating mistress of the chief state security officer. Banned in Martinovich’s home country, Paranoia is a wry, dystopian examination of the ruptures between fiction and reality. (To be published by Northwestern University Press.)

Chenxin Jiang for Memories of the Cowshed, a memoir by celebrated Chinese author Ji Xianlin. A rare personal history from China’s devastating Cultural Revolution, Ji’s memoir recounts the painful and deeply disenchanting period he spent in “the cowshed,” an improvised prison for intellectuals and other alleged enemies of the Chinese state. A bestseller in China, Memories of the Cowshed offers an essential window onto this tumultuous moment in history. (Available for publication.)

Hilary B. Kaplan for Rilke Shake by the inventive Brazilian writer Angélica Freitas. Rilke Shake is a milkshake of incisive poetic wordplay and irreverent culture-crossing slang, expertly conveyed by Kaplan’s sharp translation. In this collection, Freitas explores poetic and personal identity formation, influencing a new generation of writers and artists who blend cultures and nationalities. (Available for publication.)

Catherine Schelbert for Flametti, or the Dandyism of the Poor a novel by visionary German writer Hugo Ball. This romp through early 20th-century Swiss low society offers an acerbic picture of class tensions and debasing social conditions. Ball, one of the leading Dadaists, said of Flametti, “It contains my whole philosophy.” Shelbert’s compelling translation—the first into English—is long overdue, and offers readers an essential work in the Ball oeuvre. (Available for publication.)

Joel Streicker for Birds in the Mouth, a collection of short stories by up-and-coming Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, who was named one of Granta’s 2010 Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. With Birds in the Mouth, Schweblin stakes a claim on the dark frontier between realism and the fantastic, reanimating everyday experiences often taken for granted. Streicker’s outstanding translation makes this stunning collection—already translated into many other languages—available to English readers for the first time. (Available for publication.)

Sarah L. Thomas for Turnaround, a literary thriller by pioneering Spanish writer Mar Goméz Glez. Published to great acclaim in Spain, Turnaround is set during the environmental crisis following a 2002 oil spill off the Cantabrian coast of Spain. Glez’s suspenseful story tracks the erratic fortunes of Pablo, who is trying to untangle his memories of a traumatic event while searching for his missing girlfriend. Thomas’ translation brings to life a story of how individual and collective destiny can converge and diverge in unexpected ways. (Available for publication.)

Brief excerpts from the prize-winning translations are online here.

Congratulations to this year’s winners!

The Elephant Woman

Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the 5 Elephants is quite possibly the most beautiful movie ever made about a translator. The film’s protagonist, Svetlana Geier, who died last year at the age of 87, is famous for her translations into German of Dostoevsky’s five huge novels (the “elephants” of the title). But this film is no mere biopic – it is a gorgeous essay on the art of translation and the complex and often fraught ways in which the life’s work of this talented woman resonates with the self-transformations she herself underwent, having been born in Kiev, where her world was turned upside-down first by Stalin’s purges, then by the German occupation.As a filmmaker, Jendreyko is obsessed with the materiality of the world and the way its details (a comma that might be preserved or deleted, the lacework of a tablecloth) provide context and texture that define experience. We see Geier working on her translations, often with the help of a typist or with a scholar-friend who debates with her about every word. We see her cooking and arranging things in her apartment, all the while talking about her life and art, and filmed in a way that makes her world look magical. The way she speaks is extraordinary. “A translation,” she tells us in the film’s trailer, “is not a caterpillar crawling from left to right.” “Why do people translate? It is a yearning for something that keeps escaping, for the unrivaled original.”

I fell in love with the film when I saw it at its Zurich premiere in December 2009 and have been impatient to see it subtitled and brought to the States so all my friends could see it too. Now it will be opening at Film Forum for a one-week run, from July 20 – July 26. I urge you to go see it right away. This is one film you’ll want to catch on the big screen.


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