Archive for September 2011

The Revolution Will Be Translated

Those of you who rely on corporate-sponsored media for your news may not realize that a non-violent occupation of Wall Street has been in progress since Sept. 17, 2011. The occupiers, whose number quickly grew from several dozen to several hundred present at any given time, are protesting on a broad platform of interrelated issues. Most (but not all) have to do with the privilege and power enjoyed by large corporations in our current economic and political landscape: corporate welfare (bailouts, enormous tax breaks), disproportionate political representation and the many forms of social, political and economic injustice that result. The General Assembly (as the occupation calls itself, though the handle “Occupy Wall Street” is also often heard), is devoted to the principle of direct democracy and rejects top-down leadership. And so the group’s self-definition – as represented by such things as a statement of purpose and a list of demands – is a work-in-progress being collectively composed at twice-daily meetings called GAs or general assemblies.

As the official website of the NYC GA (itself a work-in-progress) explains, “New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.” The assemblies, along with the ever-growing number of Working Groups whose preparatory work feeds into them, are open to the public – in fact the public is encouraged to attend and become part of the process. The easiest way to get involved is just to show up for a GA – they’re held daily at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. near the northeast corner of Liberty Plaza (a.k.a. Zuccotti Park), a square bordered by Broadway just a few blocks north of Wall Street. You will be astonished by the effectiveness of the “people’s mike” (human voices substituting for electrically amplified sound, which would require a police permit) and by the seriousness of the occupation’s goals and participants. Many have traveled across the country to take part. And many smart and influential people are taking the occupation very seriously. When I showed up this afternoon, both David Patterson and Cornel West were there. Last night I heard Russell Simmons when he dropped by to visit the General Assembly, and Michael Moore was in attendance as well, filming a program about the occupation for Lawrence O’Donnell’s show on MSNBC. The police have taken the movement seriously too, resulting in several horrifying incidents of obvious abuse and brutality last Saturday afternoon (slamming a press photographer’s head against the bumper of a car, blasting pepper-spray in the faces of young women standing peacefully on the sidewalk) – abuses carried out largely if not exclusively by high-ranking officers. There is a protest march from Liberty Plaza to One Police Plaza planned for 4:00 p.m. tomorrow. But protesting police brutality is only a small part of the occupation’s work.

And now a Working Group for Translation has been created, with the mission of organizing the translation of key GA materials into as many of the languages spoken in the greater NYC area as possible. These materials will then be available both for local use and, via the GA’s website, to people around the world interested in what we are doing. I am proud to be a member of this Working Group, which has no leader but, like the rest of the GA, works by consensus. Several of us met today and decided that our most urgent task was preparing documents for the big solidarity march planned for this coming Saturday; it will begin at Liberty Plaza at 3:00 p.m. and end with a donated picnic on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, with special guests including Amiri Baraka. A flyer is in preparation for that event, and when it’s released we’re hoping we can get it translated into at least Spanish and Mandarin in time to be printed up beforehand. But for the longer range we are hoping to assemble a large pool of translators, representing as many different languages as possible, who are interested enough in the work of the occupation to be willing to donate their time and skills to translate at least some of the GA’s most important documents as they are released. This is where YOU come in. If you would like to volunteer your services to help the occupation, please e-mail me your contact information as well as the language(s) you can translate. At this point we are looking primarily for translators who can translate out of English into other languages, not the other way around. A web page that will allow for easy downloading and uploading of these documents is in the works.

We would also like – for Saturday’s march, i.e. ASAP – to assemble a handbill containing the slogan for the march (“Join the 99% of us who want to take back our country from the 1% who stole it”) in as many different languages as possible. If you are able and willing to translate this sentence, please do so in the Comments section below this blog entry (and please specify the name of the language, in case it’s one I might not recognize). Your participation is much appreciated. Power to the people!

G.J. Racz at Americas Society Tonight

Gregary J. Racz, vice-president of the American Literary Translators Association and professor at Long Island University, will be appearing tonight at the Americas Society along with internationally acclaimed Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos to mark the publication of Reasons for Writing Poetry (Salt Publishing), the first collection of Chirinos’s poems to appear in English. The book includes poems drawn from nearly 30 years of poetic production. Chirinos is the author of sixteen books of poetry in addition to volumes of academic criticism, essays, translations, and children’s books. Racz’s previous translations from the Spanish include, most recently, Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, published by Penguin Classics.

The Americas Society is located at 680 Park Avenue. The book presentation will take place at 7:00 p.m., followed by a reception. And it’ll end in plenty of time for you to get down to Wall Street to join the occupation for an hour or two.

Generation Telephone?

These days every time I turn around it seems there’s a new literary magazine popping up with a strong translation angle, for the most part run by folks at least half a generation younger than I am. This is so good to see. I’m particularly taken with Telephone, which commissions half a dozen competing translations of poems by a single author for each issue, highlighting the artistry of the translators as well as the poet, but many other new journals are also worthy of note, and I should blog about them soon. Meanwhile, though, I’d like to share a few remarks on the new generation of translators that I just published on The Daily PEN American, the new blog of the PEN American Center. Among other things, I brag on two of my students from Columbia University. To read my thoughts on Generation T (T for Translation, of course), click here.

Onesies and Twosies at the Brooklyn Book Festival

What a beautiful day it was for a festival. It felt celebratory to walk around in the sunshine among the outdoor tables and booths, a sort of street fair of books. Lots of book swag too. The best item I spotted was the One Story onesie. Get it? Onesie! Like the way each issue of One Story contains only a single story. One Story is one of my favorite magazines these days – I discover a lot of new writers to love by reading it. My recent favorite is Nalini Jones’s story “Tiger,” which I liked so much I’m having my students read it.

And I learned by hearing Sergei Dovlatov’s translator Antonina Bouis speak on a panel at Borough Hall that Dovlatov never used two words starting with the same letter in a single sentence, at least in the books of his she translated. This turns out, she said, to be impossible to replicate in translation, though I wonder what Gilbert Adair, the translator of Georges Perec’s lipogram novel A Void, would say to that. But Perec’s work is so much more overtly experimental in form than Dovlatov’s that perhaps the syntactic contortions necessary to pull off such a feat would change the tenor of the books too much. I wonder if this avoidance of alliteration makes Dovlatov stylistically the opposite of Dostoevsky; historian Solomon Volkov, who was also on the panel, remarked on the preponderance of sibilant consonants in Dostoevsky’s work and quipped that translating him is like translating the wind.

Moderator Alla Makeeva-Roylance (filling in for Eugene Ostashevsky) asked Bouis how she went about capturing the cultural, historical, and political context in sentences such as “He was wearing blue jeans made in Poland, just like me.” After all, it’s hard for an American reader to decode all the connotations, in a Soviet context, of Polish denim. Bouis replied quite reasonably that you can decide to make your translation a scholarly edition of the text, providing copious footnotes for every reference, but that she prefers to do without, even though this means that certain nuances will be lost. “You can’t explain everything,” she added, but then also pointed out that readers of old books in their own language might run into the same sorts of problems with not understanding the context for certain images and ideas. “If you keep explaining things, they stop being funny.” And so every translation is a compromise.

This panel on Dovlatov was the only one of the BBF translation-themed panels I was able to attend, but I was very glad I went. Dovlatov’s widow said a few words, and Brooklyn-based Russian-American writer Anya Ulinich spoke beautifully about what Dovlatov’s work had meant to her growing up and as a young writer.

And the best news of the afternoon? Antonina Bouis is at work on a new translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s short novel A Dog’s Heart. I can’t wait.

Translators at the Brooklyn Book Festival

The 2011 Brooklyn Book Festival will take place all day tomorrow (Sunday, Sept. 18), and it promises to be a beautiful early-autumn day. Pack a sweater and go out to see and hear some wonderful writers reading from and speaking about their work, signing their books, and mingling with the crowd. You can also hear some wonderful translators. Unfortunately the translators’ contingent is marginalized in this year’s Festival program, so here’s your Insider’s Guide to Translation at the BBF:

1:00 p.m. Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
“Walker in the City”
Sergio Chejfec (author of My Two Worlds) will be appearing together with his translator Margaret B. Carson (whose name appears in red here because she was omitted from the BBF program) as well as Teju Cole and Geoff Nicholson. Chejfec and Carson read together this past week as part of the Bridge Series, so this is your second chance to catch their pas de deux if you missed them the first time. Moderated by Edmund White.

2:00 p.m. Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
“Words and Music”
Israeli poet Shimon Adaf will be appearing together with Alina Simone, Julian Gough, and Kevin Young. It is unclear whether or not he will be joined by his (uncredited) translator. Moderated by David Kaufman.

3:00 p.m. Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
“Remembering Sergei Dovlatov”
I hope it isn’t only because Dovlatov (1941 – 1990) is no longer with us that his translator Antonina Bouis features prominently in the description of this panel. I hope the panel will also pay tribute to Dovlatov’s previous translator Anne Frydman, who died in 2009. I met Frydman in the mid-1980s when I was studying with her husband, Stephen Dixon, and found her very lovely and inspiring. She was just beginning to suffer from the multiple sclerosis that would eventually take her life. Bouis will be joined on the program by Anya Ulinich, Solomon Volkov (another of Bouis’s translatees), and Eugene Ostashevsky, a wonderful poet who is himself a splendid translator from the Russian.

I would add two others to the list as well:

11:00 a.m. St. Francis Volpe Library (180 Remsen Street)
“Arab Spring and the Seasons Ahead”
Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born writer who teaches at NYU, is also one of the English-language translators of Mahmoud Darwish. He will be appearing together with Hisham Matar and Yasmine El Rashidi. Moderated by Adam Shatz.

2:00 p.m. Borough Hall Courtroom (209 Joralemon Street)
“Drawn from History”
Esmerelda Santiago, a Puerto Rican author who writes in English and translates her own books into Spanish, will be appearing together with John Sayles and Terese Svoboda. Moderated by Marlon James.

Complete program here. Enjoy the beautiful day of books in beautiful Booklyn!

The Three Percent Problem

So Three Percent, the great website and blog devoted to literature in translation and the travails of publishing it, is now four. Happy birthday! As readers of this blog probably already know, 3% is the estimated average percentage of books sold in the U.S. that are works in translation (as opposed to the 30% – 60% typical in Europe, for example). Three Percent is the brainchild of Chad Post (founder and publisher of Open Letter Books), who used to write all the content on the site himself; but now an entire host of bloggers and reviewers have added their voices, making it one of the best single sources of information about publishing literature in translation in this country. Chad is also the mastermind of the Best Translated Book Award, which honors two translated books each year – poetry and fiction – with cash prizes to both translator and author.

Today marks the release of the Big Book of Three Percent (my title), an e-book which is officially being sold under the title The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading. This volume collects the best of Chad’s posts arranged so as to provide, in the words of the official press release, “an introduction to the contemporary publishing world. Ranging from pieces about the economics of publishing literature in translation, to explanation of the very different publishing scenes found in different countries, to profiles of translators, to mini-rants about book marketing, technology, and 99 cent ebooks, The Three Percent Problem is kind of like Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books, but with more swearing (and jokes).”
That sounded good to me, as did the $2.99 price tag. I don’t own an e-book reader, so I downloaded Amazon’s free “Kindle for Mac” software to be able to read (browse, dip into) the book on my computer. They offer this softwarefor PCs and several other devices as well, for what it’s worth.
Today is an especially good day to buy this book, since Chad is hoping that a quick rush of sales will bump the book’s Amazon ratings up to the point where it will get noticed by people who aren’t already interested in translation – meaning, I would say, people who don’t yet realize they are interested in translation. In my experience, most people do tend to find the subject at least mildly mind-blowing once they start thinking about it.
Chad notes that, as an added bonus, 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this book “will go directly to paying translators.” Now, I can’t help finding this a tricky way of putting things, particularly as the subject line of the promotional e-mail he sent around reads “Help Support Translators.” It’s not as if the money from the sale of this e-book is going into a special welfare fund for downtrodden multilinguals; rather, the proceeds will no doubt go toward paying honoraria to translators employed by Open Letter Books, which would be contractually obliged to pay them for their work in any case. In other words, the money is in fact going to the publisher. But of course this claim about where the money is going does implicitly make the quite valid point that literature can’t get translated unless publishers can pay translators, and to do this they need to sell books. Such as this one. Which I would say, based on my long-time enjoyment of Chad’s informative posts on Three Percent, will be an important reference work to have kicking around your garret, for whenever you need the inside scoop on how this or that part of the publishing world works. Above all the translation publishing world. Including the dirt. And at $2.99 it’s cheaper than a latte. I just bought one. Would you do the same?

Blogging for PEN

The PEN American Center has just launched its new blog feature – The Daily PEN American – which will offer posts by a number of hands on a range of topics having to do with international literature. I’ve been asked to contribute entries pertaining, not surprisingly, to translation. I started out with a post about an article from the linguistic journal Language that was recently written up in TIME Magazine. The article describes a study at the Université de Lyon that quantified the speed at which people speak. And something that many of us always impressionistically believed turns out to be empirically true: Certain languages tend to be spoken faster than others. To learn more about why and how, visit my blog on the PEN website, and while you’re there, check out all the other interesting things the PEN bloggers are writing about.