Archive for September 2012

Saying Goodbye to Michael Henry Heim (1943 – 2012)

The last thing I wanted to be writing on International Translation Day was the obituary of a friend. When I included Mike Heim’s recent translation of Death in Venice first among the list of translations I posted earlier today, it was as a conscious tribute: I knew that he had just begun hospice care because of the brain cancer that had been struggling to make inroads into his prodigious brain for the past two years. Suddenly the battle had tipped in its favor. It is a tribute to Mike’s incredible life force that he had been able to hold it at bay for so long. But this afternoon his wife Priscilla sent word that he had passed away last night. And it is a profound loss, not only for those of us who knew and loved him, but for all the readers of the books he translated from a good dozen languages. He really made his mark all over this planet. It was Mike who got the call when the Czech and Slovak halves of Czechoslovakia were in the middle of their divorce; the Czech government wanted to know what words to use in English to name their new country – the one we now know as the Czech Republic.

A good dozen years ago I found myself traveling across Germany with a band of American translators including Mike, on a study tour sponsored by the Goethe Institut, and can report that Mike spent a certain amount of time every day without fail studying Chinese, surely his 13th or 14th language at that point. I think he had at least some proficiency in all, or nearly all, the languages of both Eastern and Western Europe. He translated from several. And was always the most stalwart supporter of younger translators coming up, whether or not they had passed through his classroom (I envy those who did). A couple of years after that translators’ outing, I got a call from New Directions asking if I wanted to translate Jenny Erpenbeck’s book The Story of the Old Child; Mike, they said, had recommended me. Which I knew could only mean that he himself had been offered the contract and had remembered that I loved the book – I’d been given a copy when we visited Erpenbeck’s German publisher in Frankfurt and had devoured it on the train to Munich, unable to stop talking about how much I liked it. Mike had decided to make me a gift of this book, perhaps sensing that Jenny and I would be a good fit (a hunch borne out by the fact that I will soon be translating my fourth book by her). For this act of generosity, I will be forever grateful to him.

There is so much more to say about Michael Henry Heim’s accomplishments, his good citizenship in the community of translators and international literature (he was always striving to foster greater recognition for translators and better understanding of what we do), his kindness, and the hugeness of the gap he will leave behind. I will write more about him soon, and I am sure many others will as well. For now: Thank you, Mike, for all your gifts and acts of kindness. You were much loved, and are already missed.

Happy International Translation Day

Saint Jerome in His Study, Jan van Eyck (1442)

You may never have heard of it, but translation has had its own holiday since 1953, held on September 30, the feast day of the patron saint of translation, St. Jerome. Since there is no Nobel Prize for translation, the top award currently available for translators is sainthood, which apparently has its perks in terms of posthumous glory, but I am here to tell you that if you crave recognition in your lifetime, this might not be the metier for you. On the other hand, who would want to deny that translation is a fruitful, worthwhile, helpful and even life-shaping activity? And what’s not to like about Jerome, who sat down and did due diligence with the Latin translations of the Bible available during his lifetime, one-upping the Septuagint and going back to the Hebrew or at least the Greek. He is said to have spent years in the Syrian desert, where he quite possibly kept company with lions. Lions require no translation, though they can translate you if you get too close. In any case, today’s the designated day for celebrating translators and translation; and while, for some of us, celebrating translation is an activity to be performed ceaselessly, day after day, others may

St. Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Dürer (1514)

find it a useful reminder of the folks whose work makes it possible for those of us who have yet to master all the languages of the world to enjoy not only the Bible but also Death in Venice (translated by Michael Henry Heim, multilingual virtuoso and beloved mentor to generations of translators), The Odyssey (with whose translator, Robert Fagles, I studied at Princeton), Madame Bovary (now also by Lydia Davis, a magnificent writer in her own right), Les Miserables (courtesy of Lee Fahnestock, past president of the  American Literary Translators Association), War and Peace (whose translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky got us talking all over again about what we want translation to be), and the blockbuster The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (whose translator, Steven T. Murray, took his name off the book in protest after his publisher mucked too much with his work). Every one of these English-language books has a story behind its making, and some of these are riveting tales. I’ll do my best to keep telling them on this blog; thank you for reading. And to all my fellow translators: May this day find you lavished with flowers, chocolates, theater tickets, bubbly, and back rubs.

From The Temptation of St. Anthony
by Hieronymus Bosch (1505)

By the way, Hieronymus is a namesake of Jerome. I’ll leave you with that thought.

German Book Office Contest for Aspiring Translators

The German Book Office, which promotes German-language literature in New York and around the world, has teamed up with the Goethe-Institut to offer a competition for aspiring translators of all ages. “Aspiring” is defined as not having published more than one translated book (so it’s all right to have published nothing at all to date). Applicants will be invited to translate a 700-word sample from the novel Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung by 30-year-old German author Nora Bossong. All translations must be submitted by Oct. 15, at which point they will be sent to a jury comprised of GBO staff as well as a handful of younger American editors who will come up with a short list. Translations on the short list will be sent to a panel of accomplished translators who will inspect the translations and select three finalists. The work of all three finalists will be discussed at an evening panel at which the winner will be announced. All participating translators will be invited to attend, and small travel stipends will be made available to the three finalists if needed. The winning translator translator will receive a $600 honorarium to translate the first 15 pages of Bossong’s novel.

This competition is exciting for several reasons. It’s a great chance for the top contenders to get feedback on their work and meet editors and experienced translators. Since no publishing experience is required to apply, it’s a chance for talented translators with no publishing credentials to be “discovered” based on the quality of their work. And it sounds as if the final evening will be an interesting discussion of the art of translation, with both translators and editors weighing in.

Translators must be U.S.-based and should not have more than one translated book published in English. No age restrictions apply.

How to apply:
Write to Grace Moss (click here for e-mail) to be sent the German excerpt; the sooner you do this, the longer you’ll have to work on your translation, which must be received by October 15. The award ceremony/panel discussion will be held on December 12, location TBA, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

PEN Translation Committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival

This year the PEN Translation Committee has begun a new partnership with the Brooklyn Book Festival and will be presenting a panel about translating the literature of North Africa.  The BBF is always a fun bookish day out, with lots of indoor and outdoor presentations by authors, editors, publishers and, with ever-increasing visibility, translators as well. This year’s Festival will take place all day on Sunday, Sept. 23 in and around the Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza.

Here’s the panel description:

North African Writing in the Wake of the Arab Spring Noted translators, editors and poets Pierre Joris (Exile Is My Trade: a Habib Tengour Reader), Deborah Kapchan (Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition) and Peter Thompson (A Passenger from the West by Nabile Farès) explore the effects of the Arab uprisings in North Africa on poetry and narratives and discuss their recent works in translation. Moderated by Nathalie Handal (Language of a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond).

The new collaboration was initiated by Translation Committee member Margaret Carson. Hope it leads to a yearly tradition! The panel will be held in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street) at 5:00 p.m. For the full schedule of events, see the Festival Website.

Book Party for PEN Translation Fund Recipient Nathanaël

Readers of this blog know all about the PEN Translation Fund awards. This program is a great way for younger/just-starting-out translators to get some much needed recognition for their work, and the grants are competitive enough that you have to be quite good to get one. This Saturday one of this year’s winners is presenting his work in a public reading at a prestigious location: Poets House! Here’s the info:

Please join A Bolha Editora and Nightboat Books to celebrate the publication of

The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst
Translated by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo
Introduction by John Keene

The first English-language translation by the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst (1930-2004).

Reading and panel discussion with Rachel Gontijo Araújo, Bruno Carvalho, John Keene, and Nathanaël.

To be followed by reception and book signing.

Poets House, 10 River Terrace, New York City
Saturday, September 22, 6:00pm

Friday: Translation Night Out

As so often happens in this town, it never rains but it pours. So there’ll be two great translation events taking place this Friday, Sept. 14, in different parts of New York:

1. The wonderful publishing house Archipelago Books is hosting a celebration of its fall books, featuring several wonderful translators reading from their latest books.

The readers include:

Alyson Waters, translator of Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard

Ross Benjamin, Job (Joseph Roth) and Hyperion (Hölderlin)

Sinan Antoon, In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish

Peter Wortsman, Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm (forthcoming from Archipelago Books, April 2013), Travel Pictures (Heine), Telegrams of the Soul (Altenberg), Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (Musil)

Richard Sieburth, Stroke by Stroke (Michaux), The Salt Smugglers (Nerval), Emblems of Desire (Scève), Lenz (Büchner) There’ll be wine and cheese and assuredly good company.

The celebration will take place at Book Court in Brooklyn, 163 Court St. between Dean and Pacific St., beginning at 7:00 p.m.

2. Meanwhile at Deutsches Haus at NYU, my erstwhile dissertation advisor Stanley Corngold will be presenting his new translation of The Sufferings of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, though the book was written when Goethe was young, before was invited to add the “von” to his name. Goethe’s subsequent ennoblement is ironic, given that most of the protagonist’s sufferings are directly related to the fact that he is excluded from the social circles of the nobility. Meanwhile young men around the world were empathizing with Werther’s plight so drastically that they ended their own lives in imitation of him. That’s one sort of literary success I hope never to achieve. Corngold’s new translation of the novel was recently praised lavishly by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books; I wish Coetzee had also chosen to compare this translation with the other recent one by Burton Pike, whose work I also admire, but so it goes.

Corngold will be joined by Christoph Bartmann, director of the Goethe Institut New York and North America. Deutsches Haus is at 42 Washington Mews, just north of Washington Square Park. 6:30 p.m. Rsvp recommended:

Viva Rabassa

I’m feeling all fangirl today because The Rumpus just asked me to do an interview with Gregory Rabassa, the great translator from the Spanish and Portuguese responsible for bringing us the game-changing One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez in 1970, along with work by Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis and many others, including Jorge Amado, who would have been 100 this year, which oddly makes him only a decade older than the man who has been indefatigably translating the Latin American classics for our benefit since well before I was born. As a translator, Rabassa has had an enormous influence not only on generations of young writers in the U.S. – for whom magic realism opened new doors that they were eager to dash through – but also, indirectly, on the literature of Latin America, since the huge success of magic realism in the U.S. (and then in other countries that followed the trend here) helped fuel the huge literary blossoming generally known as El Boom. Sylvia Molloy has written fascinatingly about this inadvertent leveraging of literary power; magic realism, she notes, wasn’t at all a dominant trend in Latin American literature until American publishers started throwing money at it. But that’s a whole other story.

Meanwhile, I remember reading my worn second-hand softcover copy of One Hundred Years (also a favorite of Bill Clinton, by the way) when I was in high school, the perfect age to have one’s mind blown by a mode of storytelling that changed my idea of how you could go about describing the world. I think lots and lots of young writers had a similar experience. I wonder if the book is similarly important to young writers now.

In any case, Rabassa has exercised a decisive effect on the development of American letters ever since he won the National Book Award for his translation of Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch (a book that can be read in more than one sequence) in 1967. He went on to win a great many more prizes for his influential work, including the PEN Translation Prize in 1977, the 1982 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation and a 2006 National Medal of Arts.

Despite his advanced years, Rabassa has remained faithful to his art. His latest translations are a pair of short novels by the great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado: The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, and The Discovery of America by the Turks. Both of them have just been published by Penguin, and both will be presented tomorrow evening in a program in honor of Amado’s centennial. Rabassa will be reading from his translations and speaking about his work. He will be joined by Rivka Galchen, a novelist, short-fiction author and essayist whose work I admire very much, along with the engagement with which she promotes the reading of foreign-language literature in this country, a cause very much after my own heart.

The Rabassa/Galchen Amado summit will take place at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute (which is hosting the event on behalf of the Americas Society), 684 Park Ave at 68th St., at 7:00 p.m. For more information, see the Americas Society website.


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