Archive for January 2012

Book Party for Berlin Stories Feb. 2

My translation of Berlin Stories by Robert Walser was many months in the making, and now it’s out. To my delight, it immediately shot to the #1 spot on Amazon‘s German literature list and lingered there a day or two. I don’t know what its ranking on IndieBound is, since they don’t keep track that way, but of course let me encourage you, as always, to patronize an independent bookstore near you whenever possible. The book has also gotten reviewed in the New York Times already, and it’s a positive review at that, and so all signs are pointing to the crucial importance of throwing a party to celebrate these stories written a full century ago that somehow seem just as entertaining and timely now as they did then, if in different ways. Walser was quite concerned with the speed with which modern life was morphing all around him into something unfamiliar and disorienting, and it turns out that this sort of anxiety likes to loiter around the beginnings of new centuries. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, that the sudden ubiquity of electrical contraptions came as just as much of a shock to him as the sudden omnipresence of the Internet did/does to us. We like the Web, it makes our lives easier and better, but it also comes with the understanding that there is no going back to the relative innocence of pre-Twitter days, much less the days when if you needed to get somewhere the railway did not go, you would either have to impose upon the patience of a horse or walk. But enough of that. It’s time to make merry – there’s a new book to celebrate! And celebrate we shall, with (as I’m told) Riesling and pretzels and lots of fine tales, and all these delights will be simultaneously on offer at 192 Books at 192 10th Avenue at 21st Street. Seating is limited, so reservations are recommended: (212) 255-4022. The curtain rises at or shortly after 7:00 p.m.

Attn. Portuguese Translators: 2012 Susan Sontag Prize

Readers of this blog already know all about the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, which goes to a young (under 30) translator of a particular language every year. The language for this year’s competition is Portuguese. This one comes with a purse of $5000, so it’s well worth taking a look at if you qualify. The deadline is March 9, 2012. For application instructions, consult the website of the Susan Sontag Foundation.

PEN Translation Fund Deadline Feb. 1

Translationista has been remiss this year: I should have reminded you earlier of the upcoming deadline to apply for a PEN Translation Fund grant. The deadline is Feb. 1, so if this is announcement comes as news to you, it’s probably too late to start putting an application together unless you already have a translation project underway; the competition for these grants is too stiff for hastily thrown-together applications to have much of a chance. In any case, the most important part of the application package is definitely the translation sample itself – a well-selected, beautifully translated sample is what makes you a contender. For application instructions see the PEN website. And if you do have something in progress, by all means think about applying, particularly if you are not already widely published as a translator; the jury in recent years has tended to favor projects by translators who are not yet well-established in the field.

Banff Centre Deadline Feb. 15

I miss Banff. It’s got to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and the three-week translation program the Banff Centre offers every summer is a wonderful place to connect with other translators and writers, get feedback on your work, and really sink your teeth into a project in the most idyllic surroundings imaginable. I’ve blogged about the program in more detail before, so for now suffice it to say that if you haven’t been, you are warmly encouraged to apply for the program. Stipends are available. And if you wind up going to Banff, you’ll be able to take some of the most glorious hikes in the world when you step away from your desk for a breath of air. The program is co-directed by Hugh Hazelton and Katherine Silver, and this year’s faculty will include Roberto Frías, Russell Scott Valentino, and Lori Saint-Martin.

Young Translators at ALTA

I’ve blogged before about the generous ($1000) travel fellowships that the American Literary Translators Association provides to enable “unpublished or minimally published” translators (no specific age requirement) to attend the yearly ALTA conference. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll reiterate that ALTA is the main professional organization for literary translators in this country, and attending the conference is a great way to learn about getting established as a translator and network with potential mentors.

I was especially proud this year because two of my students from Columbia University were selected for fellowships and by all reports had a wonderful time at the conference. If you’re interested in learning more about applying for a fellowship to attend next year’s conference – which will be held Oct. 3 – 6 in Rochester, NY – see the application guidelines on the ALTA website. The deadline is May 15.

Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure, here’s the report on the conference written by Yardenne Greenspan, a student in the MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts:

* * *

When I opened Maria Suarez’s email, congratulating me on receiving the ALTA fellowship, the first thought that went through my mind was, “finally, something is happening.” Things were moving forward, evolving, and I could feel myself emerging from obscurity with a bang. In my mind, a glamorously professional picture was forming – shaking hands, signing book deals – complete with straight hair and stylish, yet professional, attire.

I was lucky enough to travel from New York to Kansas City with my friends Tara (who had also received the fellowship) and Rachel (a translator of Portuguese poetry). We all attend the MFA program at Columbia University, and we had prepared together for the conference, sharing our hopes and fears. We were each other’s little support system.

“Now listen to me,” I told myself on the taxi ride from the Kansas City airport to the Intercontinental Hotel, adjusting one of the few nice-looking button-down shirts I own, “This is going to be awkward for you. You’re going to meet a bunch of new people, and you’ll want to stick close to your friends the whole time. But don’t – just don’t. This is not about fun, it’s about business.”

Indeed, I came to the ALTA conference ready for some serious business. As a writer and a translator, this was not necessarily my forte. I was much better at sitting at home or at a quiet café alone or with a friend or two than in a conference room full of opportunities. I prepared a fancy folder with my resume and some samples to hand out to what I suspected would be dozens of interested parties (or at least a dozen, according to the number of copies I made). I got my very first business cards. I was ready to hit the big time.

What I discovered differed quite a bit from my expectations. The conference had a much warmer, more intimate air to it than the commodity market I’d pictured. At a reception on the night of our arrival, Stephen Kessler, who was in charge of us clueless fellows and showed us the ropes in his kind and gentle manner, began introducing us to translators, editors and readers, specializing in different languages and genres. That’s when joy and affection began revealing its surprising presence. From that point on, I noticed how ALTA members gathered in every corner of the hotel, doing the thing that until that point I perceived as “bad business” – they were having fun. They were sharing experiences and anecdotes and drinks and sometimes simply being translators together – enjoying the closeness of others who share their passion for words, their desire to make local words known internationally and to be part of a creation greater than themselves.

This atmosphere of camaraderie reached its peak during “Declamación,” in my eyes the most important event of the entire conference. The reason I found this event to be of such significance wasn’t the lovely recitations (though they were, indeed, lovely), nor the participants’ impressive memory and performance. It wasn’t even the fun of the multi-lingual sing-along or the American-Idol-type insanity that followed. Declamación was important because it exemplified what this annual conference is all about – lasting connections, long-forming close ties. A relationship.

Our reading was scheduled on the last day of the conference. I went on stage, thanked everyone and presented my excerpt. The room wasn’t full like I’d hoped, but the many who did show up were completely focused on the readers. I could make eye-contact with every person in the audience, and could identify the origins of each smile of appreciation and burst of laughter. When it was all over, we received comments, compliments and criticism, made plans to get in touch with a few publishers, and shook the hands of many supportive colleagues. While no one wanted to take my neatly-prepared packet of materials, every single person encouraged me to get in touch, send over my excerpts and ask for assistance. They were all willing to contribute important information and tips, ideas for ways to continue my progress in the translation industry, and warm words of support.

On my way back to the airport, early on Sunday morning, I remembered Stephen’s stories about translators, editors and publishers getting in touch and working together after meeting at the conference. What stood out in his stories was the fact that these collaborations formed throughout years of meeting at conferences, discussing their respective projects, hearing each other read their work out loud, and spending nights at restaurants and bars, getting to know one another. I was happy that I did stick close to my friends after all.

I realized then that I expected the ALTA conference to be a quick leap to fame, a storm of glory, but that what it turned out to be was something much more valuable. It was a gateway to a deep and intimate knowledge of the world of translation, a place in which to find lasting bonds and begin building for the future. For me, the ALTA conference signifies the commencement of a journey through a special, gentle and difficult industry – it is a start.

(reprinted from ALTAlk)

Thinking about Berlin Stories

It’s the practice of New York Review Books Classics to ask each of their authors and translators to write a letter about a forthcoming book for distribution to the NYRB mailing list and publication on their website. Here’s what I wrote about Berlin Stories by Robert Walser:

In 1905 Robert Walser packed his bags and left behind his native Switzerland for the bustling metropolis of Berlin. The fledgling author, twenty-seven years of age, had just published his first book of fiction, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher’s Essays), and moving to Berlin was the obvious next step for him to take in the pursuit of a proper literary career. Just a year before he had been supporting himself as an on-again-off-again bank clerk and copyist, but now he was looking to become a proper novelist, an endeavor that would require all his strength. When he arrived in the German capital, he moved into the apartment of his brother Karl, a painter, who had made the pilgrimage to Berlin the year before and quickly established himself as the foremost stage set designer of the age.

Walser soon discovered, however, that his brother’s high-society lifestyle was not to his liking. The fancy soirées they attended made him feel like a bumpkin, and he soon developed a reputation for uncouth conduct. Karl would receive invitations to dinner specifying he could bring Robert “only if he wasn’t too hungry.” It may well have been this gentrified arts scene in which artists and their patrons socialized together that made Walser decide to enroll, only a few months after his arrival, in Berlin’s Aristocratic Servants School. Here he studied the art of waiting on table, polishing shoes, and shaking out carpets. When he graduated, he took a job as an assistant butler at a count’s castle in Silesia, where he spent the better part of the winter. His publisher was instructed to send him letters only in unmarked envelopes, since he didn’t want his employers to know he was a writer.

He was a writer, though, and remained true to his craft. Over the next three years he would write and publish three novels: The Tanners, The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten, as well as producing scores of short pieces for publication in magazines and newspapers. Berlin Stories collects all the short work Walser wrote in Berlin about Berlin, as well as a selection of later pieces in which he looks back on his life in the metropolis. These stories are the record of a city in the throes of modernity. Berlin was already a vast metropolis, one of the great cities of Europe. It got its first subway in 1902; thirty-five different streetcar lines converged at Potsdamer Platz; and automobiles zipped in and out among hackney carriages on its crowded streets.

If the city was on the move, so was Walser. He walked the streets collecting impressions. He was a fast writer, and liked to write about things in rapid motion. In “Aschinger” he describes a Berlin-style fast-food restaurant, and his walk stories—like “Good morning, Giantess!”—show us the city as a blur of glimpses. “In the Electric Tram” talks about learning how to sit when riding in this newfangled vehicle, and “Full” features a monologue by a disgruntled omnibus conductor.

“A metropolis,” Walser writes, “is a giant spiderweb of squares, streets, bridges, buildings, gardens, and wide, long avenues […], a wave-filled ocean that for the most part is still largely unknown to its own inhabitants, an impenetrable forest, an opulent, overgrown, huge, forgotten, or half-forgotten park, a thing that has been built up too extensively for it to ever again be oriented within itself.” A fire breaking out in the city produces a “thick, seemingly incessant rain of small, light sparks and embers [that] flies out of the dark air and down into the crowded street, sowing a crop of glowing snow.” The wonder that the city and its life inspired in him is evident in the vibrancy of his sentences, and I have taken pains to let the vividness of his impressions enliven the prose of my translation as well.

Finally, Berlin was also a city of the theater for Walser, something he experienced both as an audience member and through his brother’s work and friends. The young author had started out dreaming of becoming an actor, even auditioning once for the celebrated Josef Kainz (who pronounced the teenage enthusiast devoid of thespian talent). Throughout his life Walser maintained his love of the stage and wrote a great deal about performances in Berlin, including both high art (“On the Russian Ballet”) and low (“Cowshed”). My favorite of his theater texts here is the one entitled “An Actor,” devoted to a lion in Berlin’s Zoological Garden; this actor is a cousin to Rilke’s famous panther.

Walser left Berlin in 1912, never to come back. His Berlin Stories offer a wonderful kaleidoscopic portrait of this city that both entranced and overwhelmed him, a mixed response that made its way into these stories—at times he describes the advent of modernism’s technologies as almost hostile. For him, city life is best perceived not from the back seat of an automobile but by walking the streets, whether first thing in the morning or late at night. These stories are records of a quite particular time and place, but also of a very unusual sensibility, one whose quizzical shaping gaze presents the city as a terra incognita of intoxicating possibility.

Michael Henry Heim in Boston

Those of you who follow German literature in English surely know of Michael Henry Heim’s translations (e.g. of Günter Grass, Thomas Mann, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger), but you might as easily know his work if you follow Russian literature, or Hungarian, Dutch, or Czech. The enviably multilingual Heim was Milan Kundera’s translator until Kundera started writing directly in French, and when the Czech Republic split off from what was once the other half of Czechoslovakia, they got in touch with him to ask what they should call themselves in English. True story. I personally am grateful for him for suggesting me as the translator for Jenny Erpenbeck‘s first book to be translated into English, The Old Child and Other Stories. He knew I loved her book, and when he was offered the job of translating it, he told New Directions to call me up instead. Maybe it was that he didn’t have time for the book just then, but I wouldn’t count on it. He’s just that supportive. Once, on a visit to Los Angeles, I got to sit in on his graduate translation workshop at UCLA, a truly splendid class. I envy anyone who has the good fortune to study with him. And now anyone who happens to be in Boston this coming Friday will have the opportunity to hear him speak as part of the Boston University Lecture Series in Literary Translation. It’s a great lecture series, masterminded by Rosanna Warren, herself a wonderful poet and translator, and stellar speakers (David Bellos, David Ferry, Rachel Hadas et al) will be appearing all spring. I spoke about Walser in the series a few years ago and loved the experience. If you’re in or near Boson, check it out.

This talk will be held from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m on Friday, Jan. 27, in Room 625 (sixth floor) of 745 Commonwealth Ave on the Boston University campus.
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