Archive for October 2012

Two Commonplaces: News from ALTA

As we wait for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in NYC (which I won’t write about again), I’m taking advantage of the luxury of having electricity and internet access to catch up with some old business. Here’s a somewhat belated post on the ALTA conference that was written by my friend and colleague Bill Martin, translator from both German and Polish, who publishes under the name W. Martin and teaches at Colgate University. Bill writes: 
W. Martin

It’s hardly news that the relationship between what translators do and what critics and scholars say about it (or not) is fraught. But while it has gained increasing attention recently in discussions of book reviews, how this particular drama of mistranslation plays out in academia is seldom a topic of public discourse. It was useful then to eavesdrop on two of the final panels at ALTA a few weeks back, where the conversations engaged exactly this problem.

A personal aside before I start: when I walked into the first panel, I was reeling from just having run into the Dutch translator Wanda Boeke near the book exhibit. Boeke had been the Translation Coordinator for the International Writing Program in Iowa City in the early nineties, when I was an office assistant there. She had completed her MFA in Translation under Danny Weissbort and was an especially encouraging voice to me then, as I was trying my hand at my first translations. I heard a familiar voice say my name and looked up and immediately had to laugh: the surprise incongruity of seeing someone so familiar after such a long time. There are denizens of ALTA who I suspect have met each other exactly once a year for the past two decades or more; as in many disciplines, there’s something timeless about the culture of the annual conference, the way the same constellation of friends, colleagues, and familiar strangers gets reproduced year after year in Philadelphia, Chicago, Pasadena, Boston, Philadelphia… But this was only the third ALTA conference I’ve attended, and this encounter was an unexpected sign of a continuity.

Taking Back “Translation Studies”

It was standing room only in the Lynne Lovejoy Parlor, with at least 60 people in the audience. At the front, the two moderators, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, first spoke about their co-edited book project, In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means, a collection of essays by translators about translation that is forthcoming with Columbia UP, then introduced the panelists: Peter Bush, who recently translated from Catalan Quim Monzo’s A Thousand Morons and formerly directed the British Center for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia; Sean Cotter, who teaches at UT Dallas and has published translations of Romanian poets Liliana Ursu and Nichita Stănescu; and Polish translator and Indiana University professor Bill Johnston, the winner of this year’s BTBA Award for Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.

Esther Allen opened the discussion with an anecdote about the limits of Translation Studies methodologies. One scholar in particular, who would remain unnamed, had subjected Harriet de Onis’s translation of Fernando Ortiz’s Tobacco and Sugar to a machine lexical analysis and denounced it as an example of imperialist translation because at one point de Onis rendered the comparative modifier “mas potente” — used to refer to white slave traders by contrast with the Africans they were trafficking — as “more advanced” rather than “more powerful.” Allen argued that the scholar’s method, which focused on discrete lexical choices, discounting de Onis’s overall approach to the text, led to an egregious misinterpretation of her work, and was symptomatic of the gap between Translation Studies and the practice of translation.

Recounting some of his own experience in finding a home for translation in British academia, Peter Bush took the critique of the theory/practice divide to the macro-level by describing attempts to establish Translation Studies as a discipline despite the absence of recognition, in government-sponsored Research Assessment Exercises, for published translations as evidence of faculty output. Like Allen, he was especially critical of prevailing, primitive approaches to translation criticism, giving examples of several established Oxbridge literature professors whose “scholarship” involves little more than attacking word choices. He ended with a reminder that translation theory is only one theory out of many, and that a translation, like any text, can and ought to be engaged from a variety of perspectives.

If both Allen and Bush addressed the problems that translators face, focusing on the fraught relationship between Translation Studies and translation practice, Sean Cotter and Bill Johnston proposed two somewhat different solutions. Cotter suggested that the divide between theory and praxis was largely a cultural one and that it might be abrogated by approaches associated with descriptive translation studies. Taking seriously the question implicit in the panel’s title, Cotter suggested ways for translators to “take back” theory for themselves. He made three points: 1) theory is diverse (here he mapped out rather efficiently a range of existing traditions in translation studies); 2) theory is creative (here he pointed out that theorizing involves building not only objects of study, but arguments about them and new concepts as well); and 3) theory is useful (here he asked how one might bring the practice of translation closer to theory, and provided an example of how his own translation of Mircea Cartarescu had been informed by an awareness of specific theoretical concerns).

Drawing on his secret life as a professor of applied linguistics and foreign language acquisition education, Bill Johnston began his talk by suggesting that the respect teachers had gained in the past twenty years or so had resulted from their own attempts to reclaim the description and recognition of their work away from its theorization by education scholars. He pulled out a well-worn copy of Donald Schön’s 1983 book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, pointing to its influence in shaping this transformation, and briefly encapsulated Schön’s critique of the technical rationality model of education theory and the divide between the kinds of knowledge rewarded in universities and actual practice, and his proposal of a “reflection-in-action” model that would help teachers and other professionals develop their practice. Like Allen and Bush, Johnston affirmed a resistance to the concept of “application,” arguing that theory is most useful when it emerges out of praxis; and he cited as a strong example of a praxis-driven theory Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own translation of Beowulf.

What became clear during this panel was that “taking back” Translation Studies, however understood, depends squarely on translators themselves being heard, and this means translators need to write: whether it’s translator’s prefaces, book reviews of translations, criticism, or scholarship. One thing I wish had been addressed in greater depth, at least in the North American context (Peter Bush talked about it in his discussion of the limits of educational assessment in the UK), is the role of Translation Studies at universities, particularly in the fragile eco-systems of language departments. Translation Studies is for obvious reasons especially well placed to strengthen ties between English and other modern and classical languages on campuses, particularly in institutions that don’t sustain a separate Comparative Literature program. But it can also facilitate communication between languages and the social sciences, and even the natural sciences. More important, however, is what translation and Translation Studies can offer students in the classroom. This was the topic of the panel that followed — and also of another one at this year’s ALTA, “To MFA or Not to MFA: The Translation Question,” which took place before I arrived, unfortunately, and featured educators, not the students themselves.

The Translation Workshop: A Student Perspective
Maddison Hamil, Micah McCrary, Matthew Cwiklinski, and Dauren Velez are four young graduate students in Columbia College’s Nonfiction Writing MFA Program who spoke about their experience in a translation workshop they took last spring and the ongoing importance of translation for their work. Columbia College does not have a translation workshop on its books, so their professor, Aviya Kushner (who was talking about translators’ prefaces in a room across the hall during the same time slot), designed it under the rubric of a “Form and Theory of Nonfiction” course; and it brought together students with a degree of either fluency or interest in a variety of languages, including French, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Gaelic, among others. The first part of the course involved extensive reading in the history and theory of translation, with special consideration given to the genre of translators’ prefaces. The second part was a writing workshop in which each student provided a “trot” from an original text in a language he or she had access to, and the others each produced a (typically very free) translation based on it, which they all then workshopped as a group. For the third part, the students each prepared a translation manuscript and a preface to it; these prefaces were then workshopped at least once by the group.

The level of insight, intelligence, and sophistication each of these beginning translators brought to the discussion was especially impressive. Maddison Hamil talked about the simultaneous commitment to English and the original language, in her case Italian, and the desire to really know it, to “get the translation right” and to “reproduce the heartbeat, or pulse, of the original text” — translating degree zero, the position every translator necessarily inhabits. Dauren Velez discussed the experience of producing something creative out of the encounter with a language “you don’t have such a complex relationship with” and about the value of translation in developing her own awareness of the capacity of English — this point in particular speaks volumes for the utility of translation workshops for students across disciplines. Micah McCrary anchored his discussion of the translator’s preface in the enjoyment of theory and the question of process, and offered insights into the malleability over time of one’s own theory of translation — an idea that seems quite new and original. And Matt Cwiklinski framed his experience of translation in terms of personal transformation and an increasing awareness of the dialogic nature of the process, with his discussion of translating two papyri of the Book of the Dead culminating in an implicit metaphor of the hermeneutic circle as a return trip to the underworld.

The presentation was exceptionally well constructed and anchored in robust reflective work by the participants (as if they had long before anticipated the suggestions about reflection in action and combining theory and practice from the previous panel). The fact that these were students of creative nonfiction and relative newcomers to the field points to the value of translation and translation workshops for other writing practices (particularly if one considers Dauren Velez’s insight about the capacity of English). And their presentation was especially fresh in a conference populated largely by old hands. One of the best things about the panel, however, was that some truly exceptional old hands were in the audience, including Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Sean Cotter, Elizabeth Harris, and Russell Valentino, who engaged the students in conversation during the Q&A. Moments like these show the real value of ALTA, that the conference provides a place for the exchange of thinking not only among translators who’ve known each other for years, but between established and emerging translators.

The students’ experiences in Aviya Kushner’s workshop, and Kushner’s introduction of her course into a creative nonfiction program, show not only the value of translation for other genres of writing but that another means of bridging the translation-criticism divide, at least in the academy, lies in curriculum. This is hardly news, of course: it goes almost without saying that the culture of translation is closely tied to education: to exposing readers to translated literature even at a very young age and to training future generations, and that perhaps the best way of taking back Translation Studies is by making sure it arrives in the first place.

Please Support Words Without Borders

I remember first hearing about Words Without Borders back when I was teaching at Bard College, because one of its original organizers (working from memory, I come up with Alane Mason, Dedi Felman and Samantha Schnee) had a connection to someone at Bard who was able to arrange for the start-up magazine to use the college’s computer servers for storage, and as a result there was a lot of early talk about WWoB on campus, and I think Susan Gillespie had the editors up for a talk or fundraiser. We’re talking about the very early years of the 21st century, when online magazines were only just barely starting to be a “thing,” and usually were published in close association with established print media, and it wasn’t yet clear how much of a readership an online-only journal would have.

Cut to a decade later, when Words Without Borders is solidly established as one of the premier online sources for information about international literature. Crack editor Susan Harris (who serves as WWoB’s editorial director) and executive director Joshua Mandelbaum now head up an entire team of editors, reviewers, web designers, and no doubt hundreds of translators. WWoB has published so many translations of works from so many countries that you can use it as a reference site, looking up a country to get a sampling of its literature and, in many cases, essays about its literature. WWoB has also participated significantly in discussions of literary translation – what it’s for, how it should work, how we should talk about it – and it would be a huge impoverishment of our literary culture if it were somehow one day no longer to be around.

There’s no charge to use the WWoB website; in that sense it’s like public radio: expensive to produce, great to have, dependent on donations. Every year or so the team puts on a benefit in New York to raise funds. This year’s benefit – a celebration of Chinese literature featuring a reading by Wenguang Huang, author of the memoir The Little Red Guard – just happens to be scheduled for Tuesday, October 30, the very day when Hurricane Sandy is expected to strike the East Coast. I tend to have a lot to say about hurricanes. It may well be that between now and then the hurricane’s path and the forecast will change and the event will go off without rain boots and umbrellas or worse. And maybe you weren’t planning to go in any case, because attending benefits is not in everyone’s budget. But note the humble little donations link at the bottom of the benefit website. I know that WWoB is always grateful for contributions of every denomination, and they are sure to be especially grateful now, because planning a benefit involves a certain outlay of funds – you have to plan a party to attract donors, and even parties that get rained out have to be paid for. So if you can pony up $20 or $50 or $100 to support a truly great organization that does so much to promote international writing and translation, this would be a very excellent time to do so.

Translation On Tap in NYC Next Week

This coming week there will be several great-sounding translation events taking place in NYC. Here’s the rundown:

Tuesday, Oct. 23

Brian Zumhagen (whose voice many New Yorkers know from the weekend newscast on WNYC) will be presenting his translation debut at Deutsches Haus at NYU: The Canvas by Benjamin Stein, who will be joining him for the event. The Canvas is inspired by the story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who published a Holocaust memoir in the 1990s that was later debunked as a fake. The book has two halves with two different narrators that the reader is invited to alternate between reading – you flip the book upside down to switch. Free and open to the public, but reservations are recommended (write to 6:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, two dozen blocks uptown, I will be presenting some of the translation awards at the 2012 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony at the CUNY Graduate Center. This one turns out to be invitation-only, so if you haven’t been invited, that conveniently frees you up to go to the book launch at NYU, which should be a great show.

Wednesday, Oct. 24

The most excellent Bridge Series is back with its first event of the Fall 2012 season: the launch of the Two Lines volume Passageways, the 19th edition of this biyearly anthology published by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. Passageways features the usual Two Lines spread of beautiful translations from a number of languages and hands, with a special section devoted to Brazilian writing. One of the authors featured in that section, Naja Marie Aidt, will be reading from her story “Blackcurrant” at the launch, where she will be joined by translators Erica Mena (reading her translations of the politically inflected Puerto Rican poet Rafael Acevedo) and Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren (presenting the lyrical master Flávio de Araújo, whose fishing village she visited on the Brazilian coast). It should be a very special evening. McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St., 7:00 p.m.

That same night there will be a presentation of Best European Fiction 2013, the annual Dalkey Archive series edited by the wonderful Aleksandar Hemon, at Columbia University. As of this writing, it has not yet been announced which contributors to the anthology will be present for this event (it sounds as if Hemon himself will not be there), so watch the events page of the Dalkey website for updates. Butler Library, Room 523, 5:00pm – 8:00pm.

Thursday, Oct. 25

Today you’ll have a second chance to hear Benjamin Stein and Brian Zumhagen read from The Canvas, this time at the Columbia University Bookstore, 6:00 p.m.

After the reading, you can head down to Chinatown to attend a benefit for Triple Canopy, a forward-thinking online magazine that has historically been translation-friendly. I’ve attended several Triple Canopy events in recent years, and can testify that the team of young writers and editors putting together its projects are working at the cutting edge of collaborative media and writing; they always put on a good show. This one’s on the pricey side, but it’s a fundraiser after all and features amazing-sounding performances and a sit-down dinner, so do check out the program.

Translationista wishes you a wonderful, inspiring week in translation.

On Publishers Boycotting Translation Prizes

Back when I first started my graduate work at Princeton, the town had a coffee shop problem. We desperately needed one, and coffee shops kept opening up and then going right out of business a few months later. They tended to be all the wrong kind – a bit too elegant for the university crowd, trying to appeal to townies as well as students, and, well, they all quickly went under. Meanwhile we seemed to be the only town in the nation without a Starbucks. Then one day in late 1993 a different sort of coffee shop opened up. It was low-key and had a great vibe. It was big enough that you could usually find a table, but only barely, and it was a great place to study and write as well as imbibe. The coffee was excellent, too, and soon the place was packed round the clock. And just a few weeks after it became clear that this new coffee shop was not going to go bankrupt, Starbucks moved to town and opened up a franchise a quarter of a block closer to campus. And I vowed never to set foot in the place: I saw this Starbucks as not only déclassé and corporate but repulsively opportunistic if not predatory. Enough people agreed with me that Princeton’s own local coffee shop, Small World, continues to thrive.

Just the same way I will still patronize a Starbucks only if there really is no other alternative for blocks around, I will buy a book from Amazon only if I am unable to procure it locally. Amazon has transformed the book industry in ways that are bad for readers and publishers alike. It has driven much of its competition out of business. I was never a big fan of Borders, but still was sad to see it fold, along with who-knows-how-many actually independent bookstores across the country that have bit the dust since the advent of the behemoth. Basically Amazon has done what any big corporation does: its mission is to make money as best it can, sometimes pushing existing laws to the breaking point in the process. I’ve read highly plausible accounts of Amazon bullying publishers into giving it a larger discount than the industry standard given across the board to other booksellers – sometimes with the extra rebate dressed up as “advertising fees.” This helps subsidize Amazon’s underselling of other bookstores. I’ve also heard that Amazon sometimes sells books below actual cost as part of its grand project of cornering the market. When some day there’s no competition left at all, they’ll be able to charge anything they like for a book. Just one more reason to practice solidarity with a brick-and-mortar bookstore near you, or to patronize the IndieBound website.

Like most other big corporations, Amazon has a corporate giving wing, and some of the giving they’ve been doing over the past few years has been in support of literary translation. On the list of beneficiaries are many organizations I know and love. No doubt part of the idea behind this artfully curated patronage is to “clean up” Amazon’s image in the book world. That’s fine, but keep in mind that Amazon is like any other large corporate entity that makes charitable donations: philanthropic giving is part of what corporations do, if only for the tax write-off. And I’m very glad Amazon is supporting these great organizations. Of course, giving to underdoggy parts of an industry that has suffered as a result of Amazon’s corporate practices is also a brilliant public-relations move. But these are two separate transactions: harming the industry and helping it. I’d really really like to see all the corporations in this country better regulated (not just Amazon), but that’s a failure of our government, which is a direct result of the failure of our campaign finance law, which is why we Occupy, and also why you should all be donating to Common Cause and/or Move to Amend right now. Meanwhile, it makes sense that Amazon and all the other big profit machines around us will continue to do what they were designed to do: turn a profit, a big one.

Two years ago when it was announced that Amazon would be underwriting the Best Translated Book Award (giving $5000 each for the author and translator of each winning book), the indie press Melville House, which publishes a lot of translations, announced that it would stop submitting its books for the award.  The reasons were clear: Melville House had long been feuding with Amazon about the discounts Amazon was demanding from publishers (see a follow-up post on the Melville House blog here). I completely understand and agree with Melville House’s position on Amazon’s business practices. On the other hand, by pulling out of the prize, Melville House hurt the translators who work for Melville, probably for not much pay, depriving them of the chance to take home a $5000 bonus if they won the prize, but also of the career boost it would mean for some of them if they wound up shortlisted. As far as I know, Melville House still does not submit its books for the prize (if I’m wrong about that, someone let me know and I’ll add a correction), and I think that is a damn shame. Just for the record, by the way, I have never heard anything even remotely suggesting that Amazon has ever attempted to influence the BTBA jury’s decisions in any way.

A few days ago, BTBA founder Chad Post noted on his blog, Three Percent, that an additional publisher specializing in translations has now pulled out of the prize. What he writes is relatively discreet, but based on contextual clues, I am going to hazard a guess that the press in question is Dalkey Archive. (If I’m wrong, someone let me know and I’ll add a correction.) Assuming my guess is right, I am disgusted and horrified, considering that the vast majority of the books published by Dalkey are works in translation, many of which are heavily subsidized by cultural agencies such as, for example, Pro Helvetia, which is underwriting the entire series of Swiss books that Dalkey has been publishing over the last couple of years. I am particularly displeased that the reason given for pulling out of the award is that it supposedly costs the press too much to submit copies of the books for the jury. Don’t publishing houses routinely send around dozens of copies of each book they publish as part of a normal marketing campaign? If they don’t, the books don’t get reviewed and no one knows they exist, which means publishing a book into a vacuum. I wouldn’t want my books to be published like that. And I also wouldn’t want a publisher I translated my heart out for (probably for not much pay) to refuse to help get me a chance to receive recognition and proper remuneration for my work.

The press-I-think-must-be-Dalkey also mentions, as additional justification for pulling out of the award, that they “haven’t won yet.” Neither have I. But at least I, unlike the poor souls translating for the two presses named above, still have a chance to.

Michael Henry Heim in the Classroom

At the ALTA conference earlier this month I ran into Brent Sverdloff, now the executive director of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, and formerly a student of Michael Henry Heim‘s at UCLA. I know that Mike Heim was incredible in the classroom because I once had the opportunity to sit in on his graduate translation workshop when I was on campus interviewing for a job in the German department I wasn’t offered in the end. My two vivid memories of that day are being asked during the interview luncheon why people kept insisting on teaching that “overrated” writer Franz Kafka; and sitting in Mike’s workshop, observing in awe as he went over one brilliant exercise after the other with his students. I didn’t take notes, since it was obvious that I would never forget any of his brilliant classroom gambits. But of course the stresses of the day took their toll, and one week later I discovered a blank spot in my brain when I tried to remember what exactly it was that Mike had done with his students before my admiring eyes. So I was delighted to hear that Brent Sverdloff still had copious notes documenting his studies with Mike and was willing to guest-blog about them. Here is what he writes:

“Plump” is a word that I will always associate with Michael Henry Heim. Not because it had anything to do with his tall, lanky physicality, but because it was one of the first examples he gave us about context. Michael reminded us that in certain countries and time periods, heaviness could be considered a sign of robust health and not a negative trait. “Plump,” not “fat.” “Stout,” not “overweight.” It’s a simple point, but one with vast ramifications, and one that sticks with me 25 years after taking his workshop as a grad student at UCLA.

Michael told us of a time early in his career when he’d mistranslated “sun-burned” for “sun-tanned” and was let go from the project. The mistake was regrettable, but he bore no resentment toward the decision-maker. He took this incident as an opportunity to heighten his sensitivity to the subtleties of language. I can honestly say I’d never met anyone before or since with such an exacting yet kind-hearted respect for linguistic nuance.

In our translation workshop, a dozen of us brought a variety of mostly European languages to the table. As a Romance Linguistics major, my primary language was Spanish. I chose a section from Platero y Yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez. In the passage about the eponymous burro in his pastoral habitat was the phrase “las florecillas rosas, celestes y gualdas.” In a misguided effort to render my translation more colorful, I translated “celeste” as “turquoise.” I remember Michael gently placing the tip of his index finger on this handwritten word in my notebook. He touched it as if it were a wounded bird. “You’ve taken a delicate flower,” he said, “and turned it into a hard mineral.”

In September 2011, when the Center for the Art of Translation inaugurated our new offices in a Beaux Arts mid-rise in downtown San Francisco, we invited Michael to be the first speaker at our Two Voices events series. (You can read a summary of his talk about what he terms “the three eras” of translation” and listen to the audio here.)

At this event I asked Michael if he still used what was arguably the most popular exercise in our 1987 workshop: a reverse translation from French of a passage from a novel originally written in English. He and Priscilla enthused that it remained a class favorite year after year. Even though students were bringing wildly more diverse languages to his class—Turkmen, Indonesian, Korean—they were still expected to muddle their way through fairly literal French with the aid of a dictionary and collaboration with their classmates. We were given no context whatsoever—country, region, time period, etc. You can imagine how disparate our results were. Try it yourself and compare your version with the original at the end of this post.

Here’s the text to translate back into English:

Le rosbif avec pommes rôties et haricots verts était excellent ce soir-là, et, après avoir rappelé comme il convenait le temps de la journée, son gain de cinq cents dollars, son déjeuner avec Paul Riesling et le merités prouvés du nouvel allumeur de cigars, il se sentit porté à l’optimisme et dit :

« Je songerais volontiers à acheter une autre voiture. Je ne crois pas que ce soit avant l’année prochaine, pourtant ce ne serait pas impossible.

— Oh! papa, cria Verona, si vous faites ça, pourquoi n’auriez-vous pas une conduite intérieure? C’est ça qui serait chic! Une voiture fermée est tellement plus confortable.

— Oh! ça, je ne sais pas… j’aime assez une voiture découverte, on a plus d’air.

— Pensez-vous! C’est parce que vous n’avez pas essayé une auto fermée. Achetons-en une. Ça vous a bien plus d’allure, dit Ted.

— Une voiture fermée, fit observer madame B., ménage bien plus les vêtements.

— On n’est pas toute décoiffée, ajouta Verona.

— C’est bien plus sportif! lança Ted, et Tinka la plus jeune :

— Oh! oui, une conduit intérieure. Le père de Marie-Helene en a une. »

Et Ted conclut :

« Tout le monde a une voiture fermée maintenant sauf nous. »

And here’s the original:

The roast of beef, roasted potatoes, and string beans were excellent this evening and, after an adequate sketch of the day’s progressive weather-states, his four-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fee, his lunch with Paul Riesling, and the proven merits of the new cigar-lighter, he was moved to a benign, “Sort o’ thinking about buyin’, a new car. Don’t believe we’ll get one till next year, but still we might.”

Verona, the older daughter, cried, “Oh, Dad, if you do, why don’t you get a sedan? That would be perfectly slick! A closed car is so much more comfy than an open one.”

“Well now, I don’t know about that. I kind of like an open car. You get more fresh air that way.”

“Oh, shoot, that’s just because you never tried a sedan. Let’s get one. It’s got a lot more class,” said Ted.

“A closed car does keep the clothes nicer,” from Mrs. Babbitt; “You don’t get your hair blown all to pieces,” from Verona; “It’s a lot sportier,” from Ted; and from Tinka, the youngest, “Oh, let’s have a sedan! Mary Ellen’s father has got one.” Ted wound up, “Oh, everybody’s got a closed car now, except us!”

(Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis, 1922)

Double Translation Night This Wednesday

Of course, soon after I posted about Translation Night at the Asian American Writers Workshop, which I’ll be participating in tomorrow evening, I heard about a second luscious translation event that will be happening that very same evening farther uptown: poet and translator Geoffrey Brock presenting his just-out anthology: The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry. Geoff is a wonderful reader and speaker, and I so wish I wasn’t having to miss this one. He will be joined by Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and a translator in his own right, and Maria Truglio, Professor of Italian Literature at Penn State. The book launch will be held at the Italian Cultural Institute at 686 Park Avenue, 6:00 p.m.  If you go, please let me know how the evening went. Or better yet, put on your seven league boots and come to both!

Translation Night at the AAWW

Surely you already know all about the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which organizes various publishing initiatives and public programs in support of Asian American writers and writing. They also throw great parties, as I found out a couple of years ago when someone took me along to their legendary Sexy Nerd party at the gallery Chambers Fine Arts, where we were all encouraged to put on big black plastic glasses (not so unlike the ones I wear for everyday) and where I met kimchi blackbelt Nami Mun, whose first novel Miles from Nowhere I LOVED. Nami Mun just won the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, by the way. Go, Nami! And go, me, too, because the AAWW has invited me to read this coming Wednesday as part of their Translation Night, and in splendiferous company at that: my fellow readers include Ghassan Zaqtan, Fady Joudah, Jeffrey Yang and Sinan Antoon. Joudah, the 2007 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition (which AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen won in 2009, by the way), has translated the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as well as Like a Straw It Follows Me by Zaqtan, who is a highly respected and prolific Palestinian poet in his own right. They will be joined by poet and translator Sinan Antoon, who just last week, at the ALTA convention, accepted the National Translation Award for his gorgeous translation of Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, a haunting self-eulogy written not long before the author’s death in 2008. Poet and translator Jeffrey Yang will also be reading his translations of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies: Poems, inspired by the Tiananmen Square protests and their violent suppression. And I will be reading from my translation of Yoko Tawada’s novel The Naked Eye, which was edited by Yang for New Directions. Yoko Tawada is Japanese but lives in Berlin and often writes in her adopted language, German. She wrote this particular book half in German, half in Japanese (a new procedure for her), producing two original manuscripts by translating the various pieces back and forth. Tricky. I hear there’s a Japanese grad student at work on a dissertation comparing the two versions. So which one of these two manuscripts should have been translated into English, the German or the Japanese version? In the end, New Directions decided to hire me to translate the German version. I’m very happy with this choice, not only because I wanted to translate this strange and wonderful book, but also because I think the choice of language makes thematic sense in this case. The novel’s protagonist is a young Vietnamese girl who winds up getting blown by the winds of history through East Germany to West Germany to Paris, where she develops an obsession with Catherine Deneuve. And it seems that pieces of her keep getting lost as she gets subsumed into one new culture after another – this subsuming is definitely presented in terms of gradual impoverishment, despite her delight over the fantasy world her obsessive moviegoing helps her develop. That the German language “wins out” in her life and becomes the vehicle in which she tells her story (and I’m skipping over a number of plot points so as not to give away too much) reminds me of the final page of Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart, when the book’s perspective suddenly shifts to that of the colonial victors who are destroying the protagonist’s world. The protagonist of The Naked Eye watches and reports as the dominant culture gradually swallows her up, leaving her only her world of fantasies and dreams as a space of resistance. It is a sad, funny, beautiful novel, and I very much look forward to sharing it with you. I am grateful to AAWW for inviting me to read.

This event is co-sponsored by Archipelago Books, publisher of Darwish, and will be moderated by Roger Sedarat, a poet who translates from the Persian and was my colleague at Queens College last year. Wednesday, October 17, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 110-112 West 27th St., 7:00pm. There is no cost to attend, but RSVPs are strongly recommended: click here to reserve your place. And yes, there’ll be an afterparty.


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