Archive for December 2011

My Year in Translation

2011 has been an amazing year. It took me to my grandmother’s birthplace in Poland, to memories of Hurricane Katrina, and to classrooms at Columbia University and Queens College of the City University of New York. It saw my translation of a book by Robert Walser go into production, and another one follow close behind. It found me publishing my first book of translated poems and studying the language of the 19th century so as to find the words to tell a Swiss horror story about a spider.

Because of my involvement with Occupy Wall Street beginning in late September, I have spent less time writing Translationista than used to be my habit; meanwhile I’ve been writing about OWS for the PEN American Center and the blog Occupy | Decolonize | Liberate.

As readers of Translationista know, I helped found the Occupy Wall Street Translation Working Group, which participates in OWS outreach, providing translations into many different languages of OWS documents on the official website. We are always looking for new members; you can find more information about us here. We also translate articles for the foreign-language editions of the Occupied Wall Street Journal – individual articles are posted on the OWSJ website.

My work with OWS has been inspiring, heartening, thrilling. I have seen so many people from so many different backgrounds and points of view come together at our General Assemblies to talk about some of the largest problems facing our society – the things that keep so many in this wealthy country from prospering. Whether the issue is education, housing, healthcare, jobs, you name it – most of the answers can be found by following the money trail; and the laws of the United States are currently set up in such a way as to disproportionately favor the wealthy and allow large corporations to exert undue influence over our political process, causing these inequities to persist. Change is desperately needed, and despite all his lovely campaign promises, Barack Obama has not been doing much of anything to end the plutocracy and bring us back to democracy again. He turns out to be just as indebted to the big banks and corporations as the Republicans we voted out of office when we elected him. In fact, a study by the Sunlight Foundation published this October revealed that Obama has received more contributions from Wall Street than any other president in the last 20 years, including George W. Bush. It is time for the people to stand up and demand government accountability; and this is just what has been happening all fall across the country. Don’t believe the media reports declaring the Occupy movement dead. The newspapers making these claims are governed by the very corporate interests our movement threatens. In fact, Occupy is alive and well, and our work continues, despite the attacks – including, here in New York, the violent and illegal eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in November.

In the words of Robert Walser, “When a year stops, another instantly commences, as if one were turning the page.” Thanks and hugs to all of you who read their way through 2011 along with me. I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

A Robert Walser Christmas

I’ve fallen behind with blogging on Translationista this fall because of my involvement with Occupy Wall Street (about which you can find me guest-blogging these days at Occupy | Decolonize | Liberate), but I did want to drop in and say a few things this Christmas Day, on the 55th anniversary of Robert Walser’s death. This time last year I was celebrating Walser’s work with the Robert Walser Society of Western Massachusetts, a Walser fan club made up largely of young poets associated with Flying Object, a store, press and literature think tank in Hadley, Massachusetts. The Society commemorates Walser’s death each year with a series of readings and a walk through the woods – a lovely ritual. This year I am celebrating more quietly, by feeling happy and excited about the latest of my posthumous collaborations with Walser, Berlin Stories, which will officially be published in late January. My advance author’s copy just arrived, and it is beautiful. This slim collection of stories (the selection was made by Jochen Greven, Walser’s long-time German editor) consists primarily of work Walser wrote in Berlin about Berlin, along with a handful of stories written later in which Walser looks back on the seven years he spent in the German capital early in his career. He moved to Berlin to become a writer, just as young American writers still move to New York (or at least Brooklyn), and these stories are vibrant with the youthful enthusiasm with which he wrote his first three novels and participated in the life of the metropolis.

Berlin Stories also reprints two stories translated by Christopher Middleton and one by Harriet Watts, as well as several translated by someone I hesitate to call me since I was still in my early 20s when Masquerade and Other Stories first appeared. I couldn’t resist revising my own work, so anyone who’s curious to know what sorts of translation decisions I made then and regret now will find various examples thereof.

For those in NYC, a launch party for the book will be held in early February, and I am hoping to have a prominent cultural historian with special expertise in the culture of technology join me in presenting Walser’s book, since so many of these stories are devoted to technological advances at the turn of the twentieth century and the mark they made on daily life. Watch this space for details.

And I’m feeling grateful to Francine Prose – whose most recent novel, My New American Life, I really loved when I read it last year. In the New York Times earlier this week, she cited my translation of Robert Walser’s Microscripts as her favorite book to give as a gift. It’s true that this volume – which contains art-quality full-size facsimiles of some of the tiny manuscripts on which Walser composed his late work – is a beautiful object as well as containing some of his strangest and most challenging work. Berlin Stories and Microscripts bookend Walser’s literary career, making them a great pair of collections to have on your bookshelf. Of course, I’m not exactly impartial…

Anna Moschovakis on the Allure of the Adjective

Friday night’s Bridge was a particularly rich one, with challenging, in-depth exchanges between writer/translators Lydia Davis and Anna Moschovakis on questions of style, tone, revision, voice, and even teaching (both said, in effect, that when you teach students to translate, what you’re basically doing is helping them hone their skills as writers – which is also how I see it). Davis spoke in detail about her revision process, which sometimes continues even after a book sees print if her editors allow her to make changes for subsequent editions, as happened with her most recent book, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In particular, she toned down her use of “would” to render Flaubert’s characteristic use of the verb form imparfait/imperfect (as in: “In the morning, she would do this, and then she would do that”); in the most recent edition, Davis uses the “would” forms only once or twice to set the context, and then shifts to the less obtrusive simple past form (“then she did that”). Davis finds – and in this I agree with her – that it’s easier to experience a book when it’s in print, as opposed to in manuscript form; I too invariably wind up making changes to all my translations at the page proof stage, for the same reason.

I was eager to write about this Bridge, but when I sat down to do so, I saw I had an e-mail from Anna Moschovakis, who’d been thinking more about the discussions meanwhile, and voila: a beautiful guest blog. Here’s what Anna had to say:

Last night, I told a lie from a panel stage, and I’m here to set it right.

That’s not exactly true, either. Here’s what actually happened:

It was at the Bridge translation reading series, and I was paired with Lydia Davis for the evening, which caused a certain amount of intimidation even though I’ve known Lydia for over a decade and she is not the sort to set out to intimidate.

I read from my translation of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, and then Lydia read from—and eloquently spoke about—her translation of Madame Bovary. At the Q&A, the first question posed to me was about Cossery’s ample, exaggerated use of adjectives and adverbs, and whether I felt the need to tone it down for the English version.

I should have been expecting this question, since it is the one specifically translation-related issue brought up in reviews of Cossery’s work and in James Buchan’s introduction to The Jokers, in which he writes: “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives, as in the description here of the terrace of the Globe Café. That is not the very best style in English, which likes verbs and nouns, and presents a challenge to his translator.”

So I should have been expecting the question, but I had nothing prepared to say. I stumbled a bit, and then I recalled that my book editor and I went through several drafts of the manuscript, during which it reduced itself in word-count by something like 10%. This was true. Then I found and read an example of one of Cossery’s sentences that included a small pile-up of “outlandish” adjectives and adverbs, and suggested that during the revision process I had reduced them in number in order to achieve the desired effect in English, explaining the choice with the idea that the translation needed to walk the same fine line between exaggerated ebullience and straight-up farce as did the original. But my explanation misrepresented what I’d actually done, and I’ll get to why in a minute.

The Q&A continued, and I only wish I could have peppered Lydia with questions myself; here was the country’s foremost translator of French—also my former teacher and the closest thing I have had to a translation mentor, although we hardly talked about translation when I studied writing with her for three summers at Bard—and I had a flood of questions that I didn’t have time to ask. But the audience asked good ones: about the influence of translation on writing and vice versa, about whether and when we consult prior translations of the text we’re working on, about how we handle any temptation to “correct” grammatical or other mistakes or perceived weaknesses in the original. Lydia shared specific examples from Madame Bovary to speak to many of these questions, and her responses were enlightening.

One audience member mentioned the forthcoming edition of Murakami’s complete works in English and the fact that the two volumes will be translated by two different hands, which she found disturbing. Lydia then got to talk about the recent edition of Proust, in which each of the seven volumes was given to a different translator, and she agreed that this may not be ideal, admitting that she’d heard from some sensitive readers that they found the subtle shifts in voice to be disturbing. I tend to support reading multiple translations of any one author, to triangulate as it were, and to be reminded that the translation is not identical to the original or its replacement, so I had found the idea of the multiply translated Proust to be brilliant. But that said, I have only read Lydia’s first volume, so my sensitivities as a reader have not had the chance to be affected by the transitions.

This question related to an earlier question, in which we were both asked whether we recognized our “voice” in our translations, and how we felt about that. Lydia and I seemed to agree that were we to recognize our own writer’s voice in a translation, we’d find it disturbing, but the idea that each translator brings his or her vocabulary to a translation, which can give it a certain relationship to the writer’s own work, seemed more accurate. I made a note to myself to be more vigilant about knowing my own vocabulary and how it affects my translations.

And that brings me back to Cossery’s adjectives.

Here is the short section I picked out on the fly as an example (I’ve bolded the adjectives and adverbs):

“Karim gave himself up to a feeling of delicious languor, while enjoying the voluptuous vision of his mistress from the night before getting dressed in the middle of the room. From the patronizing smile that played on his lips you would have thought he was observing a procession of dancers, lasciviously swaying their hips for his pleasure alone, instead of a poor creature (picked up on the street) whose modest charms no longer held a single secret for him. Karim’s languorous pose was meant to suggest an atmosphere of luxury and decadence, but in fact it hid the state of nervous tension that had been racking him since he woke up.”

I suggested that I had removed four or five additional “languorous”- type adjectives from this scene, in order to bring it down to a proportionally purple prose in English. What I was trying to address, I think, was the importance for me of getting the tone right in a translation, of making it sound right. What I probably should have said was that I didn’t particularly think about adjectives while I was translating—I just tried to get the translation right, nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and all. I didn’t approach the challenge of translating Cossery as a challenge about adjectives, but a challenge about tone.

So when a few people came up to me after the panel to ask me how it felt to remove Cossery’s own adjectives from the book, I was surprised. Had I said that? Had I done that? First of all, on the translation-theory continuum between domestication (making the original sound more English) and foreignization (bringing a sense of foreignness to the English translation), I lean heavily toward the latter position. Second of all, I really didn’t remember if I’d removed a single adjective in The Jokers. I just remember that my second draft was shorter than my first; that my perspicuous editor suggested a leaner sentence on many occasions, and on many occasions I agreed; and that I struggled most of all to reproduce Cossery’s nimbly ironic tone.

So this morning, l’esprit de l’escalier sent me back to the original to see if, in fact, I had removed any adjectives from that passage I quoted. Here it is in the French:

“Tout en s’abandonnant à cette molle langueur, il semblait goûter un plaisir voluptueux à observer sa mâitresse d’une nuit, en train de s’habiller, debout au milieu de la chambre. Au sourire condescendant qui apparaissait par instants sur ses lèvres, on eût dit qu’une procession de bayadères, aux hanches ondoyantes et lascives, défilait devant ses yeux pour son délassement intime, et non une pauvre créature (ramassé la veille dans la rue) dont les charmes modestes n’avaient plus pour lui aucun secret. Cette ambiance de haut luxe, qu’il essayait de créer par son attitude alanguie et précieuse, cachait, à vrai dire, un état d’extrême tension, auquel il était soumis depuis son réveil.”

The French passage has 110 words; the English 111. So I actually added a word. I did drop some adjectives/adverbs (from 12 down to 8), but that was because I converted them to other parts of speech (“aux haunches ondoyantes et lascives” became “lasciviously swaying their hips”). And this discovery, more than a year after the book was published, finally made me understand what James Buchan and other commentators mean when they talk about Cossery’s adjectives. I’d been reading Buchan’s claim with the wrong emphasis: where I read “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives,” I should have read “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives.” The challenge he’s referring to isn’t about properly reproducing the effect of the outlandish adjectives. It’s about dealing with sentences in which so much of what happens is happening in that part of speech. My first draft left all the adjectives as adjectives, and what changed in the second draft, and with my editor’s notes, was that some of those adjectives were converted to nouns and verbs. Which, as Buchan points out, English likes. As my junior-high-school self might say: Duh.

And what of that reduction in word count from draft to draft? It’s actually something that happens with most translations I do from the French, but usually I work it out one or two drafts earlier than I did this time. And it’s not about adjectives, it’s about syntax: I often start by reproducing the French syntax while preserving the meaning in English, which adds words (and makes for some terrible English sentences). Then I go back and rewrite everything, and it takes as many drafts as it takes.

In hindsight, it’s tempting to wish I had retained just a few more of Cossery’s adjectival pile-ups, even at the expense of extra awkwardness in the English (I do like awkwardness), even if I’d had to find a way to defend them to those who favor “smooth” translations. And that brings me to the last point of the panel, the question of what advice we would give to students and beginning translators. What I’m doing here is what translators do, sometimes obsessively. It isn’t that I’ve turned on my own translation, or that I’m worried about having made mistakes or “wrong” choices. It’s just that translation is an endless process. It’s always best, if you can manage it, to build in a long waiting time between the first “final” draft and its publication, since the longer you sit with something, the more you’ll find to change (and in contrast to what can happen with one’s own work, these changes are often improvements). But once a translation is published, go back and look closely only at your own risk. Unless, of course, there’s going to be a second edition.

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Thank you, Anna, for sharing these reflections!

Meanwhile in the World of Translation

It’s been difficult to concentrate on work these days with all the developments surrounding Occupy Wall Street and the issues connected with the NYPD’s destruction of the original encampment on Nov. 15. Now that the dust is clearing, the issues of free speech and public space are appearing in greater focus, as are the infringements of civil rights on the part of various public officials. Even the New York Times finally got around to deploring in print Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s violations of press freedoms in connection with the raid on Zuccotti Park, though they attribute them only to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly (who is answerable to Bloomberg), as though Kelly had been acting independently. The press have been bullied and intimidated, and unfortunately most news organs have knuckled under and reported only the City’s official version of events. The National Lawyers Guild is working on this and related issues.

Having an encampment was important to OWS because the town square at Zuccotti Park was where protesters shared ideas and made plans, and it is also where others came to check out the movement and learn about the issues. I met a lot of out-of-town tourists wandering around down there. Now Zuccotti Park is fenced off and heavily policed, with private security guards performing illegal bag checks and refusing entry to a large number of people – including many who were regular participants in the movement from the start. All those who carry backpacks containing their possessions are denied entry to the park, and so occupiers who have been spending the night in the sleeping spaces generously provided by several local churches are now shut out of the regular planning meetings held at the park. It is also difficult for occupiers to locate the (now itinerant) stations where the Kitchen Working Group serves donated food to protesters. And so questions of logistics and bureaucracy take up energies once reserved only for the occupation’s real work of speaking truth to power. Bloomberg has been quite canny in attacking OWS’s infrastructure while pretending not to take issue with its principal tenets (ha). In fact he is fighting a war against the Occupy movement. He clearly thinks he can win via attrition warfare; I am hoping to see him proven wrong. There is a great deal of popular support for the movement, and as long as this support continues, OWS will be able to go on bringing its message to the people.

Meanwhile this has also been an eventful fall in the world of literary translation. I would like to draw your attention to three events in particular that will be taking place over the next week here in New York:

1. Tonight, the wonderful translation publishing house Archipelago Books will be hosting a party and benefit auction at Gasser Grunert Gallery, 524 West 19th Street. Archipelago has, quite incredibly, survived as a not-for-profit publisher for eight years now, during which time they have published over seventy translations from more than twenty languages. It’s a classy and simpatico operation. So why not attend their party and show some love? Food, wine and music, plus the chance to bid on an assortment of interesting donated items like rare books and art. Tix are $25 at the door, starting at 6:30 p.m. And when you’re done bidding on art, you can head up to Lincoln Center, where star composer Philip Glass will be joining Occupy Museums for a protest at 10:30 p.m. in solidarity with OWS. (In fact, I just got word in that Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed will be in attendance as well.)

2. Friday, Dec. 2: The amazing translation journal Telephone (which specializes in commissioning translations by many interesting hands of poems by a single author) will team up with the gallery EFA Project Space to host a launch event for their collaborative show: Telefone Sem Fio: Word-Things of Augusto de Campos Revisited. There will be a walk-through with artists speaking about their contributions to this unique project, and about the experience of approaching the works of Augusto de Campos. With Bibi Calderaro, Macgregor Card, Deric Carner, Brendan Fernandes, Rossana Martinez, Jennifer Schmidt, Dannielle Tegeder. EFA Project Space, 323 W. 39 St., 2nd Floor, 6:30pm.

3. Friday, Dec. 9: The Bridge Series is back, in one of its most stunning incarnations to date. Lydia Davis and Anna Moschovakis – both incredible writers as well as accomplished translators – will team up to read and speak about their translations from the French. This Bridge will be held at The Center for Fiction at the Mercantile Library. The space is sure to fill up fast, so I recommend you get there early to stake out a seat. The Center for Fiction, 17 East 47th Street (between Fifth & Madison), 6:00 p.m.