Archive for April 2012

Translation Matters at the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival

PEN World Voices is a festival of international literature, so translation plays a role in nearly every panel, since the work of most of these writers from around the world is accessible to most of us only via the words provided by these authors’ skilled translators. Every year, the Festival devotes several panels explicitly to the art of translation. This year’s translation panels have been collected under the heading “Translation Matters,” and three of them will be held back-to-back on Thursday, May 3, for those desiring a translation triple-header. I’ll be co-moderating one of them: “Reviewing Translations,” a collaboration between the PEN Translation Committee and the National Book Critics Circle, whose president, Eric Banks, will be my co-moderator. This panel comes out of longstanding discussions we’ve had within the translation committee about why it is that so many reviews of translated books make only perfunctory mention of the translation (“ably translated,” “elegantly translated,” etc.) or none at all. I know that many critics feel uncomfortable reviewing translations if they don’t read the original language in which the book was written, allowing them to confirm the translation’s accuracy. But accuracy – while important – is just one of many criteria a critic can take into account when judging a translation, and the translation’s strategies and style can and should be assessed much as one would with a book written originally in English. I recently read a review that criticized a translation for slips of register and jarring anachronisms. This, to me, is a much more useful sort of observation about a translation than when a reviewer who knows the original language hunts for and finds the odd semantic error in a translation she is otherwise praising. The most important things for the reader of the review to know, in my view, are 1) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the book itself, and 2) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the translation as a whole. I’ve written about this before.

Here’s another way to put it: In a novel by Jenny Erpenbeck I translated, I caught Jenny out having a character brush her hair with a comb or comb her hair with a brush (I forget which); I mentioned this “error” to Jenny, who asked me to please make sure that in my translation all combing was done with combs and all brushing with brushes. That insignificant little glitch in the writing would be utterly uninteresting to mention in a review of the book; it tells us nothing about (and takes away nothing from) Jenny’s immense accomplishment as a writer (she is a meticulous stylist whose work is in fact detail-oriented to an almost obsessive degree). But slips of equivalent weight are all too often given pride of place in “gotcha” reviews of translations, even if they are not characteristic of the translation’s overall quality. As you can see, I’m warming up for the festival by thinking about the sorts of reviewing I’d like to see less of as well as the sorts I’d like to see more of. It’s a huge topic. In fact, a subcommittee of the PEN Translation Committee is currently preparing a “Q & A” feature about reviewing translations, for the PEN American Center website. If you would like to submit a question for the feature (with or without an answer), you can e-mail the subcommittee here. And I hope that you will come out for our panel next week and join in the discussion. We’ll be presenting two illustrious locals, Ruth Franklin and Lorin Stein, as well as Austrian playwright and novelist Julya Rabinowich, who will be reporting on the state of translation reviewing in the German-speaking world.

From this panel, you can go directly to the “Translation Slam,” which will be held this year in its usual venue: The Bowery Poetry Club, which has recently undergone extensive renovations. I’m looking forward to checking out the new and improved BPC. The Slam is always one of the most raucous and enjoyable events of the Festival, with two competing translators assigned to each of two poems. The M.C., as usual, will be the ever-entertaining Michael Moore. This year’s Slam will feature Naief Yehya being translated from Spanish by Rosalie Knecht and Michelle Gil-Montero, and Laurie Scheck being translated into Spanish by Román Antopolsky and Mariela B. Dreyfus. And those wishing to get their Spanish on in a more serious way can front-load earlier in the afternoon with “Translating Poets Alive,” at which a group of star poets – Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Simic, Tracy K. Smith and Anne Waldman — will share the stage with their Spanish-language translators, Valerie Mejer,Claudira Mora, Edgardo Núñez Caballero, Florencia San Martín and Kadiri Vaquer, all students in NYU’s MFA in Spanish program.

Finally, on Friday, May 4, the Festival is presenting a panel inspired by the book Go the F**k to Sleep that will feature, among others, PEN Translation Committee members Cobina Gillitt and Murat Nemet-Nejat talking about the difficulties of translating imprecations (out of Indonesian and Turkish, for example). The book’s author Adam Mansbach and illustrator Ricardo Cortés are also on board. Moderated by Dale Peck, who I think will have his hands full with this one.

So here’s the complete Translation Matters schedule:

Thursday, May 3

4:00 p.m. Translating Poets Alive King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, 53 Washington Sq. South (between Thompson and Sullivan)

6:00 p.m. Reviewing Translations The School of Writing at The New School, Wollman Hall, 65 W. 11th St.

8:00 p.m. Translation Slam Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery

Friday, May 4

6:00 p.m. Go the F**k to Sleep Cooper Union, Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, 41 Cooper Square

And don’t forget to check out all the other wonderful events being presented as part of the Festival this year.

My Mother, the Translator

I taught myself to type – using a book titled, approximately, Teach Yourself to Type – the summer after my junior year of high school, which is when it became clear to me that asking my mother to type my school assignments was intolerable. I was studying writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and turning in handwritten work was disallowed, in part because we were to learn to view our own work with the critical distance necessary for effective revising via the helpful anonymity of pica and elite, and in part as an early lesson in discipline and professionalism that in retrospect I appreciate. I could have typed my own stories if I’d gotten them written early enough in advance of each deadline to allow for my own hunt-and-peck technique that sent my fingers questing helplessly around the keyboard; but then one day I reached an impasse: I didn’t get my story finished until an already fairly advanced hour of the night before it was due, and I had no choice but to beg Mom for help. And help she did, her fingers flying across the keys, because she was, among other things, an expert typist. She had even learned shorthand as a girl – Pitman rather than Gregg, I think – something I tried my hand at too because it was such a strange new language, with many commonly used words represented by a single curved or slanting stroke. She was good at typing, but she was my mother, and she had opinions, and her commentary on my work grated on my delicate adolescent nerves. I’m far from adolescent now, but I know that even now I would not want my mother typing my work for me. Even though I love her lots. It’s just how it is. Now imagine that instead of typing your story, your mother is translating it into her native tongue that was originally yours as well before you emigrated and became a writer in English. And that she is good at it but also has opinions about the work strong enough to make her want to become a co-writer at crucial points. That’s Jaspreet Singh’s story, and he tells it beautifully in Granta. You can read it here.

Best Translated Book Award 2012 Shortlists

So obviously if you’re interested in the Best Translated Book Award, you’ll be excited to hear the award and the judging process described on television by its founder, Chad Post, along with Jeff Waxman, who’s serving as a judge this year. Voila.
And now that you’ve enjoyed that interlude, it’s time to find out which books have been selected for this year’s poetry and fiction shortlists. Both lists were announced last night at a ceremony in Rochester, NY, home to Three Percent, which organizes and hosts the awards. The winners in each category will be announced on Friday, May 4 at 6:00 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

Fiction Finalists (in alphabetical order):

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

Poetry Finalists (in alphabetical order):

Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation by Amal al-Jubouri
Translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi
(Alice James Books)

Last Verses by Jules Laforgue
Translated from the French by Donald Revell

Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura
Translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander

A Fireproof Box by Gleb Shulpyakov
Translated from the Russian by Christopher Mattison
(Canarium Books)

engulf—enkindle by Anja Utler
Translation from the German by Kurt Beals
(Burning Deck)

False Friends by Uljana Wolf
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
(Ugly Duckling Presse)

As you can imagine, I’m especially happy about the inclusion of the last book on the list, my collaboration with the indomitable Uljana Wolf. But it looks like there’s stiff competition this year, so wish us luck! For more information about the awards and the finalists, visit the Three Percent website.

Poetry and Globalization at NYU

So next week the Liberal Studies Program at NYU will be presenting a panel on Poetry and Globalization that sounds like a don’t-miss-it event for translation enthusiasts in the NYC area. It’s been put together by poet and translator Eugene Ostashevsky, who’ll be moderating. Here’s the official description:

A panel discussion with poets and publishers on the making and spreading of poetry in a global world. Some of the issues to be discussed are: How do new technologies and new economies affect theproduction of poetry? What is the role of translation and of multinational audiences in determining what poets say, and how they say it? How is poetry disseminated in an environment that is both multilingual and diasporic? Is there a politics of poetry and, if so, how does it relate to nationalisms?

When I asked Eugene if he could tell me more about what he was thinking when he put the panel together, he said:

Translation is what makes a global poetry scene. If we are talking “global,” we can’t expect people to read the overwhelming majority of work in the original – there are too many languages involved. As a consequence, you need translation to make the foreign present; you also need the rare kind of translation that lets you perceive the foreign as both meaningful and foreign, i.e. that shows us the terms and values of the foreign. This is all the more difficult since languages aren’t just different as sets of rules and words but they are also spoken differently – the speech acts that are likely within different languages form different configurations, if that makes sense. Perhaps I am confusing culture and language here, but I don’t think the border is very clear-cut in literature, and of course culture at times explicitly becomes the subject of translation. For example, how do you translate Moroccan oral poetry? If you just put the phrases into English and introduce line breaks, have you translated enough? Or have you overtranslated? You’ve turned it into an American print-culture poem – is that the only possible result?

Are you convinced yet? If not, check out the list of participants:

Ram Devineni is a filmmaker and publisher of Rattapallax Press, a truly global, interdisciplinary outfit based in New York City. Ram’s most recent poetry video is On the Road with Bob Holman, a three-part LinkTV special on African and Middle Eastern poetries. He is also one of the founding partners of Academia Internacional de Cinema, the first independent film school in Brazil.

Elizabeth Hodges is the founder and publisher of The Saint-Petersburg Review, an English-language literary magazine with a strong translation component.

Dmitry Kuzmin, the founder of, ARGO-RISK publishing house, and Vozdukh magazine, is arguably the most visionary and innovative poetry impresario in today’s Russia. He is also an award-winning poet and translator.

Uche Nduka, Nigerian writer and musician, is the author of seven books of poetry and recipient of the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize. His most recent work, eel on reef, was published by Akashic Books.

Murat Nemet-Nejat is a prominent American translator of Turkish poetry, and editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, as well as the selected works of Orhan Veli, Ece Ayhan, and Seyhan Erozçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds. His most recent book of poetry is The Spiritual Life of Replicants, published by Talisman House; his essay The Peripheral Space of Photography came out from Green Integer.

Elizabeth Zuba is an American poet and translator of Spanish-language poetry from Spain and the Americas. She has recently co-edited La familia americana. Antología de nueva poesía de Estados Unidos for a publishing house in Madrid.

Thursday, April 19th, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m., 19 University Place, Great Room (first floor). The event is free and open to the public, but get there early for prime seating.

The photo of Eugene Ostashevsky appears courtesty of the PEN American Center.

In Memoriam Jochen Greven

I have been indebted to Jochen Greven my entire professional life. His name first entered my consciousness when I was seventeen: I had requested as a birthday gift Das Gesamtwerk by Robert Walser, which turned out to be a softcover boxed set published by Suhrkamp Verlag, each of its twelve volumes beautifully wrapped in linen, in a shade of forest-green I have associated with Walser and German literature ever since. Jochen Greven was the editor of those twelve meticulously annotated volumes, and of the fourteen-volume Kossodo Verlag edition that had proceeded it (published starting the year of my birth), along with many other editions of Walser’s work in the years and decades to follow. He was the first scholar of Walser’s work, and the first to write a dissertation on Walser, begun several months before Walser’s death in 1956 – Greven was 23 – and finished several years after. He was also the first to recognize that Walser’s tiny microscript manuscripts were written in an actual legible (or at least decipherable) script. After Walser’s death, Walser’s guardian Carl Seelig had published a few microscript samples in the magazine Du, including one magnified image, and Greven, peering more closely at this text than Seelig must ever have done, realized that he could make out individual words. He wrote to Seelig with his discovery, and received no response. Seelig was possessive, wanted to maintain his own position as the sole repository of Walserian knowledge, and he must have seen the eager young scholar as a threat. Greven never laid eyes on an actual microscript until the year after Seelig’s death in 1962, when the executor of Seelig’s will, lawyer Elio Fröhlich, summoned Greven to Zurich to help him sort through Walser’s literary estate. Those tiny red numbers on the microscripts are in his handwriting (a circumstance he later felt sheepish about – at the time, he explained to me, it wasn’t clear what significance these miniature manuscripts would have). In short, Jochen Greven established himself early on – through a deep love of Walser’s work and a sense of scholarly responsibility – as the foremost expert on all things Walser. He was a walking Robert Walser encyclopedia: He seemed to have read everything Walser ever wrote and everything ever written about him, and apparently he never forgot anything he had read. Asking him a question was like opening the pages of a huge, friendly book filled with the most wonderful Walser lore. I so loved being able to ask him things. He was always so generous with his knowledge, always eager to share information, to educate the next generation of Walserians. I hate that I am now using the past tense to talk about him. Jochen Greven passed away in the early-morning hours of March 29.

I last saw Jochen in December 2010, in Paris, where both of us had been invited to speak about Walser at the Palais de Tokyo. It was thrilling to interview him on stage for an English-speaking Parisian audience, thrilling to sit down with him for a long conversation about the microscripts and Walser’s last years (I took copious notes), and thrilling that after years of acquaintance he suddenly started calling me du (i.e. using the informal/intimate mode of address, like tu in French) – very much an honor given his habitual formality. It was a privilege to be able to spend time with him, to be able to send him countless e-mail queries as I worked on this or the other Walser project over the years, and to receive – often startlingly fast – his erudite responses.

Berlin Stories – the most recent of my Walser translations to appear in print – is a translation of Berlin gibt immer den Ton an [Berlin always sets the tone], one of the last collections of Walser’s prose that Jochen edited in German. The last, to my knowledge, was Im Bureau: Aus dem Leben der Angestellten [In the Office: From the Life of the Employees], which will surely be making its way into English-language print one of these days soon (I’ve had queries), perhaps under the title Office Stories.

Meanwhile, what a loss. The world of Walser scholarship and Walser lore looks very different without Jochen. I miss having him here.


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