Archive for 2011 – Page 2

Three Four Great Translation Events in NYC

I’m on the road (currently in Kraków for the Conrad Festival) and not in a position to blog in as much detail as I would prefer, but I wanted to be sure to draw your attention to three excellent translation events coming up in New York over the next week in the Bridge Series (or in collaboration with it). The first one is tonight! I really wish I could attend all of these, but I won’t get back from Europe in time.

1. Wednesday Nov. 2, 7:00 p.m:
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Jason Grunebaum, both respected translators from the Hindi, will read from their work and speak at McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street). Jason has a smart, thoughtful article on translating Uday Prakash in a volume on translation I’m co-editing with Esther Allen for Columbia UP, and Mehrotra is a distinguished translator of many works. This should be a great conversation. More info here.

2. Thursday Nov. 3, 7:00 p.m:
Did you know that William Carlos Williams translated from the Spanish? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen has just edited By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams, 1916-1959 for New Directions and will be at the Americas Society (680 Park Avenue) on Thursday to present the book. He will be joined by poet and critic Julio Marzan and ND editor Declan Spring. Admission is free, but reservations are required. More info here.

3. Friday, Nov. 4, 7:00 p.m.:
Three of the most illustrious editors of translations in NYC – Drenka Willen, Barbara Epler and John Siciliano – will be coming together to speak about the process of acquiring, editing and promoting translations. I’ve spoken at length with all three about translation and worked several times with the brilliant Barbara Epler (whose editorial touch verges on the miraculous), and if there’s anything about the topic these three don’t know, it’s probably not worth knowing. This event will be held at The Center for Fiction at 17 East 47th St. (between Fifth and Madison). More info here.

4. Wednesday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.:
The Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco is having its NYC launch event for the forthcoming TWO LINES volume entitled Counterfeits. Luc Sante (a co-editor on the volume) will be MC’ing, with translators Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters, and Adam Giannelli, plus author Magdaléna Platzová reading – a great line-up! This night of literature from Egypt, the Czech Republic, Argentina, and more is being co-produced at McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street) by the Bridge Series. Wine reception to follow. Sure wish I could be there. More info here.

Berlin’s Multilingual Occupy

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Occupy Berlin, an Occupy that’s been growing since October 15. Among other things, I learned that the Berliners have made it a priority to provide simultaneous interpretation at their General Assemblies (which they have dubbed Asambleas in tribute to the Spanish protesters who inspired many of the new European Occupy movements). At yesterday’s Asamblea, a young Frenchman (to judge by the accent) got up and asked for all the translators present to come see him right away, and three minutes later he had set up areas of the assembly where people could sit to enjoy simultaneous translation into Spanish, French or English. Now, most of the translators who reported for duty said they had no experience with interpreting, so I think they were no doubt faced with quite a challenge (interpreting with the human mike blaring all around); but nonetheless I think the Berlin Occupy is right to make simultaneous interpretation a priority, since so many of the people in attendance were clearly not speakers of German. In fact, I heard a lot of English around me, including at the “Occupy Snack Bar” (where at least one American was serving lunch) and earlier at the “meditation flash mob” run by an American yogini.
At Occupy Wall Street in New York, Spanish-language assemblies are now regularly held, and it is worth returning to the question of whether we should be doing more to accommodate foreign-language visitors to OWS than just – as is currently planned for some time in the near future – making available written materials in multiple languages. The idea is to create an on-site printing station where foreign-language versions of e.g. the Declaration of the Occupation and the Occupied Wall Street Journal can be printed on demand, though I assume it’ll be some weeks before this plan becomes a reality.
Meanwhile, if you’re curious about what’s been happening at Occupy Berlin, you can read my report on it here.

The Ball is Rolling

Woe is me, I’m about to leave the country for 12 days, and right now is the most exciting time ever to be right here in New York City. Every day since Occupy Wall Street started up has been an adventure. The learning curve for the Translation Working Group has been steep, but now we’ve learned some things, and our teams of translators are hard at work turning out the documentary literature of the revolution. We’re still getting the kinks worked out with regard to getting all these foreign-language materials posted on the brand-new OWS website, but this will be straightened out soon. I just wrote about our current work for the PEN American Center’s blog – where, among other things, I point out that we could still use more help, so if you’re reading this and can translate well from English into another language, you know what to do: let us sign you up!

Yesterday Judith Butler spoke at the satellite OWS meeting atWashington Square Park, and the General Assembly held there immediately thereafter decided that thrice-weekly GAs would be held at the park until further notice, i.e. until a subsequent GA makes a different plan – one of the principles of this movement being that everything is continually in flux.

I should also point out that woe is not exactly me. I’m about to spend some time in my beloved Berlin and then travel on to Kraków for the Conrad Festival, which is giving some particular love to Robert Walser this year. Since they’re flying me over, they’re putting me to work, having me speak three times, which should be exhausting but also stimulating and exciting. I love Poland, and haven’t been since February 1992, when I made a two-week trek through the country with a friend and, among other things, developed an appreciation for the custom of downing a flavored vodka at 11:00 a.m. Poland is pretty cold in February. The vodka doesn’t make it any less cold, but it does make you forget to monitor the progress of your frostbite.

What’s in Dovlatov’s Suitcase

Translationista has been receiving a lot of books for review lately, and since I don’t have time to write all the reviews myself these days, I’m starting to invite a select group of translation-savvy guest reviewers to speak their minds on this blog. Here is the first such review, from the pen of Adam Z. Levy.
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In March 1989, a short story called “The Photo Album” appeared in The New Yorker, written by Russian émigré Sergei Dovlatov. The story was his eighth to appear in the magazine and the second to recount the less-than-romantic circumstances under which he met his wife, Lena. In this version, it is Election Day in Leningrad. The narrator, also a man named Sergei Dovlatov and no enthusiast of the Soviet electoral process, writes, “I was in no hurry. I had skipped voting about three times already. And not out of dissident considerations, either — rather, out of an abhorrence for meaningless acts.”

If a Dovlatovian ethos exists, perhaps this last line summarizes it to a T, for it is meaninglessness, or perhaps an absurdity that Sergei takes for meaninglessness, that defines and enlivens the odd situations into which he constantly finds himself thrown. In the “The Photo Album,” what finally rouses Sergei from his mother’s apartment and his lazy, bathrobed state is the arrival of Lena, a canvasser. “She looked like a school teacher,” he says. “That is, a bit of an old maid.” Instead of voting, he escorts her to the movies, then to the Writers’ House, where Sergei hopes they will run into someone famous enough to impress Lena. But the evening’s selection of literary celebrities is unremarkable. He recognizes and is recognized by no one. Finally, he spots a writer named Danchkovsky: “In a pinch, he could be called famous.” “I lowered my voice and whispered to Elena Borisovna, ‘Look, Danchkovsky himself! Wild success . . . sure to win the Lenin Prize.’ Danchkovsky headed for the corner farthest from the jukebox. As he passed us, he slowed down. I raised my glass familiarly. Danchkovsky, without a greeting, said clearly, ‘I read your humor piece in Aurora. It’s crap.’”

To those familiar with Dovlatov’s stories, the bullet points of his biography should come as no surprise. Born in 1941 in the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria to an Armenian mother and a half-Jewish father, he spent most of his life in Leningrad, where he flunked out of the University, worked as a prison guard for the Soviet Army, and found “hackwork” as a journalist at various newspapers and magazines, until he was expelled some years later by the Union of Journalists. After failing to publish in the Soviet Union and facing intense harassment from the government, he emigrated to New York in 1979, where he published twelve books before his untimely death in 1990, at the age of 48. One month later, his collection The Suitcase appeared in English, containing a revised version of “The Photo Album.”

After languishing for two decades in relative obscurity, The Suitcase was re-released this year by Counterpoint Press, in an expert translation by Antonina W. Bouis. The collection is Dovlatov at his finest. “I looked at the empty suitcase,” he writes in the foreword. “On the bottom was Karl Marx. On the lid was Brodsky. And between them, my lost, precious, only life.” In the stories that follow, each named for the various items in the suitcase that accompanied him across the Atlantic, Dovlatov offers a wonderfully irreverent, comic view of Soviet life with what his friend and poet Joseph Brodsky called the “muted common sense of his work.” But beneath the humorous surface runs a deep empathy and sadness on which his stories often turn.

At the end of “The Photo Album,” after coming across his own photograph among a box of his wife Lena’s things, Sergei says, “I was morbidly agitated. It was hard for me to concentrate, to understand the cause. I saw that everything going on in our lives was for real. If I was feeling that for the first time only now, then how much love had been lost over the long years?” Such moments, perhaps for their very humanity in the face of alienation and absurdity, give the impression that there is more of Babel coursing through Dovlatov’s work than, say, of Gogol.

What then is the task of the translator of Dovlatov? On first glance, it may seem like a simple one. His sentences are short, his diction colloquial and uncomplicated. And yet, it is all too easy for humorous, economical prose like Dovlatov’s to wind up less humorous and economical than in the original. In this regard, Antonina W. Bouis, who is the second translator of Dovlatov’s work after the wonderful Anne Frydman, does an impressive job. She has also translated Dovlatov’s novel A Foreign Woman, as well as countless other books from the Russian.

In The Suitcase, Bouis manages to give each sentence a certain sturdiness that does not weigh down the reading or render the prose clunky. Rather, there is a fluidity to her translation that maintains both Dovlatov’s deliberateness and comic lightness. (“I stared at the file. I felt what a pig might feel in the meat section of a deli.”) If there is anything lost in the translation, it is only Dovlatov’s tendency, as mentioned in an earlier post, not to use two words in the same sentence that begin with the same letter. But Bouis’ decision to discard this quirky feature of his prose along the way seems like a smart one. What we are left with is a sharp, witty book pulled out from the closet, like Dovlatov’s suitcase, and much deserving of its second release.

Adam Z. Levy lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.

Occupy Robert Walser

Translationista apologizes for the long delay since she last posted – she has been running around organizing a large group of translators for Occupy Wall Street, and it’s been a big commitment. Translationista is too tired to write in the first person. No, wait a minute, that sounds all wrong. OK, here I am. Let me try to speak like a person who has two brain cells to rub together. The work for OWS has been inspiring, thrilling, and a continual source of joy. It makes me so happy that a group of us have been able to come together to give voice – LOUDLY – to some of the main things wrong with how our democracy has been working. I’m all for capitalism, but not for plutocracy, and I think the OWS movement has put its finger on the crucial difference between them. The fact that this message is suddenly being picked up in the media and heard, after many years of being marginalized and ignored, feels triumphant.

Meanwhile I’ve been delving away at projects of my own. Last week I turned in the page proofs for my translation of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, which will be out this coming January. Watch this space for announcements regarding the launch party. And just this morning I finished a very curious project: A revision (by me) of a masterful translation (by Christopher Middleton) of Robert Walser’s long story “Der Spaziergang” (The Walk), originally dating from 1917. Back when Middleton translated this story, in 1955 – when he was much younger than I am now – he didn’t realize that Walser had later produced a much-revised version of the same story, published in 1920 in Seeland (Lake Country), a collection of novellas and longer stories. Since it wasn’t until the 1970s that the first scholarly editions of Walser’s work began to appear, it’s quite understandable that Middleton – who was relying on first editions he found at antiquarian bookshops in Zurich, where he was living at the time – didn’t know about the revision.

So now I’ve combed through every page of this sixty-page novella (there are changes to nearly every sentence – tiny ones, for the most part), and have tweaked and adjusted line after line of Middleton’s gorgeous translation to make it correspond to the revised version of the story. It was a lot of work, and also fascinating. Middleton is a very different translator from me, but I think his work is stupendously good, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to “occupy” it, i.e. to study it so closely.

I just turned the manuscript in to my editor at New Directions, along with a preface (or possibly afterword) I wrote about the story and my revision of it. Look for it a few months from now in ND’s lovely Pearl Series.

And meanwhile: Power to the People!

David Bellos to Speak at Bridge Series

Translation aficionados of NYC, you are hereby informed that the illustrious and ever-entertaining translator and translation scholar David Bellos will be appearing in the Bridge Series this coming Thursday to talk about his just-out book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.I just got my copy and can’t wait to dive into it, though given the way this week is looking, I probably won’t have read much of it before Bridge on Thursday. This week is all about getting a Walser manuscript and a set of page proofs turned in, along with teaching and keeping up with various Occupy Wall Street projects via the Translation Working Group of the General Assembly. But seeing Bellos speak is high priority. As I just heard Esther Allen say of him, “David’s on the side of the angels.” He knows a huge amount about translation and translation history, and I always learn surprisingly relevant arcane facts from him. He’s also just plain fun to listen to. I’ve discussed this here before. If you still don’t believe me, here’s some evidence.
So I hope to see you there. There, in this case, being McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince St., Thursday, Oct. 13, 7:00 p.m.

Translationista Needs an OWS Intern!

What a week it’s been. On Tuesday afternoon a call came in from the editor of the Occupied Wall Street Journal asking whether it would be possible to publish a Spanish-language edition of the Journal over the weekend; to do this, every last sentence contained in the issue would have to exist in edited Spanish translation by Thursday – i.e. today. I wasn’t sure it could be done, but I started talking to all the kind and generous Spanish-language translators from all over the world who had volunteered to help out, and, unbelievably, the complete text of the newspaper was ready to go to press a mere 36 hours later. The translators collaborated, checking over and editing each others’ work, and the texts prepared by a handful of very dedicated translators from Spain (a country that’s seen its own share of economic woes and protests lately) were vetted for Latin American audiences by translators from that part of the world. The product of this miraculous cooperation is scheduled to hit the Occupied Wall Street newsstand on Monday morning. And if you haven’t yet seen a copy of the original English-language Journal (with articles by Chris Hedges and other outstanding volunteer journalists), check it out online. Issue #2 should be arriving any day now.
Meanwhile you won’t be surprised to hear that organizing a large group of translators is a lot of work, and I wound up doing it pretty much on my own this week because there just wasn’t time to arrange to delegate any of the labor. But now that the OWS Spanish Translation Working Group is up and running, it’s time to set up the French Translation Working Group, the Arabic Translation Working Group, etc. And to tackle that huge organizational task, I could really use an intern or two. These should be patient, detail-oriented, web-savvy individuals in the NYC area who care deeply enough about the work of Occupy Wall Street to feel good about donating their time to the cause. If you’re interested in helping out, drop me a note and introduce yourself.

And if you are interested in joining our ever-growing ranks of volunteer translators able to translate out of English into all the languages of the world, please get in touch! You don’t have to be in NYC or even in the country to participate. The more of us there are, the less work there will be for any one person. The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone from tiny to enormous in three short weeks, and the reason it has grown so quickly is that it represents a sort of truth-telling that has been marginalized by the corporate mass media in the United States. For the first two weeks, the mainstream media refused to report on OWS, or did so only dismissively. Now the movement has grown to the point where it cannot be ignored, and it has touched a lot of chords both here and abroad. We are translating its messages both for the sake of foreign-language communities here at home and for our friends around the world. We would love to have you join us.

P.S. Update Oct. 10: I now have an intern helping out with general operations (whew), but still need someone Internet-savvy (preferably with basic website programming skills) to liaison with the Internet Working Group on behalf of the Translation Working Group.