Archive for May 2013


This past week marked the appearance of the new anthology In Translation: Translators On Their Work And What It Means that Esther Allen and I co-edited. We were delighted to see Publisher’s Weekly include it on its list of the top eight books published last week. And now PW has just published a little essay that Esther wrote about things that can be said in some languages but not others, and what translators can do about it. In fact, one might say that nothing offers a greater opportunity to practice the art of translation than encountering one of these so-called “untranslatables.” Here’s what Esther has to say on the subject:

Part of the allure of learning a new language is discovering words for things you wouldn’t have known existed or thought of in the same way before. When I lived in Paris, I learned that a vinaigrette is something very different from the “salad dressing” I grew up with (and not something you’d ever buy in a bottle at the supermarket, despite the now-ubiquitous availability of a product masquerading under that name on our supermarket shelves). The perpetual fascination of attempting to translate between two languages lies in the gap that always exists, even between very closely related words. The Spanish olvido describes something we don’t quite have a word for: not an act of forgetting or moment of forgetfulness or total oblivion, but a mental compartment that sits opposite memory, just as blindness is the opposite of sight. You can’t hold or put something in your forgetting in English, but in Spanish you can tener or poner algo en olvido.

For the rest of her essay, click over to the PW website, and for a link to order the book with a 30% discount, see my initial post on the book from last week. Oh, and here’s a little live interview I did this week on the radio show The Monocle Daily, which featured the book and pitched me a quick handful of questions about all things translation; you’ll find the brief segment at the 25 minute mark.

How Are You at Close Approximations?

I trust you’ve been keeping up with your reading of the literary journal Asymptote, which specializes in international literature in translation. Well, now you can do more than just read and submit to the journal – you can enter their all-new translation contest entitled “Close Approximations.” The competition will be judged by star translators Eliot Weinberger (poetry) and Howard Goldblatt (fiction), and I note that the competition guidelines specify “Preference will be given to translators who are early in their careers,” which is defined here as having published no more than one book-length work. I’m delighted to see a new contest for emerging translators, especially one that comes with an actual purse ($1000 for each winner). So check out the contest guidelines, and check out Asymptote, and get your submissions in by the Sept. 1, 2013 deadline. Watch this space for the announcement of the winners come fall.

P.S. A reader wrote to me this afternoon to ask whether Asymptote is now paying contributors to the magazine after their Indiegogo campaign this spring. According to the submission guidelines published on their website, they still do not pay contributors, but I put in a query to one of the editors and will let you know if I hear any different.

Walser Worldwide

How many Robert Walser translators have you ever seen in one place at the same time? Two? Three? Well, I just saw 18 of them (i.e. 19 counting me), and even spent an entire week tooling around Switzerland with them in a big Walserian herd thanks to the generosity of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern, and the University of Lausanne, which has a well-established translation studies program. The idea was to let all the Walserites, who usually labor in isolation in their various countries, know what all the others are up to, and in fact it was a pretty fascinating week. Part of our time was spent on Walser tourism: the group traveled to various locales where Walser lived and worked, and learned something about the places and Walser’s life there. At every stop, there was a tour led by an often overqualified expert. Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte, for example: the two gentlemen who spent 12 years crouching over little magnifying glasses on feet known as thread counters to produce the six volume edition of microscripts Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet. Echte showed us around Biel, where Walser was born, escorting us from location to location so we could see what it meant in geographical terms for Walser’s father to come down in the world (clearly visible even now). Echte has published a book about Walser’s childhood and youth in Biel, so he knows these locations inside out. He also showed us the beautiful old theater where Walser saw his first play, at age 15 (it was The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller), and the fountain he describes in his prose piece “The Old Fountain” that I translated once but never published, if memory serves. I should get on that.

Karl Walser: Kabuki-Theaterszene, 1908

We also visited the Museum Schwab in Biel to see an exhibit of works by both Robert Walser (first editions galore!) and his brother Karl, who in his day was a celebrated stage set designer, book illustrator and painter. We saw another of Karl’s paintings in the museum at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern, which was showing a special exhibition on the influence of Japanese art in Europe (Karl Walser traveled to Japan and did a lot of painting and drawing there).

Bern is now the international focal point of Robert Walser research. The Walser-Archiv was once located in Zurich, but it moved to Bern several years ago, and its collections are now split between the research center in the Robert Walser Zentrum and the Swiss National Library (which houses the manuscripts). In the RWZ, director Reto Sorg talked to us about recent developments in Walser research, in particular the new in-progress edition of Walser’s complete works, Berner Ausgabe, which is to include extensive commentary, updating the annotations done by Jochen Greven on his wonderful edition Sämtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben. We also met with Wolfgang Groddeck, who is heading up a team working on a more academic Kritische Ausgabe, several volumes of which have already appeared. Currently the Robert Walser-Zentrum is also showing a beautiful little exhibit of work by Robert Frank, a Swiss-born photographer who lives in New York and is inspired by Walser’s writing. In the Swiss National Library, Peter Stocker showed us a number of Walser manuscripts, including several recently discovered letters Walser wrote to his maybe/maybe-not-fiancée Frieda Mermet. Stocker coached us through reading Walser’s full-sized handwriting (in the old German script called Kurrentschrift) before inviting us to try our hands at deciphering a microscript.

Psychiatric Clinic, Herisau

Back outside on the streets of Bern, we were given a tour of some of Walser’s many addresses by Werner Morlang, who wrote a book about Walser’s life in Bern. Walser spent the last active phase of his professional life here before checking himself in to the Waldau psychiatric clinic in 1929. After that, Walser was transferred to Herisau, where he spent his last twenty-three years as a patient in the clinic there. And so the busload of Walserites traveled to Herisau as well (an idyllic little town in the middle of Appenzell in eastern Switzerland). The head of clinical services showed us around and talked to us about what life in the asylum was like in those days.

Villa zum Abendstern, Wädenswil

The clinic grounds are gorgeous, with views of the Säntis (the one Appenzell Alp), and we visited the cemetery where Walser was buried. On our way back to our home base in Bern, we visited Echte again in the house in Wädenswil on the shores of Lake Zurich where Walser’s second novel The Assistant was set. Then we traveled to Lausanne and spent the day talking about a prose piece, “Die leichte Hochachtung,” that each of us had translated into his/her respective language (16 languages in total). Our hosts were the inimitable Peter Utz and Irene Weber Henking.

All in all, it was a pretty fascinating week. And it ended with a weekend at the Solothurn Literary Festival (Solothurner Literaturtage), where a number of the translators from the group took turns playing “glass translator” (i.e. translating in front of an audience for an hour, typing on a computer screen projected on the wall in real time while narrating one’s thought process), and four of us appeared on a panel to talk about translating Walser and other Swiss authors. For anyone who’s interested, there’s a podcast posted on the website of the Literaturtage, a report on the panel broadcast by the Swiss radio station SRF2 (starting at minute 3:30), and brief praise in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. When it was time for the panel to start, I was shocked to find something like 250 people crammed into the room, which appeared to be designed to hold 100 or so. But then every single event at Solothurn was packed to the gills, and the big readings may have had audiences of up to 1000. This is the one big yearly festival of literature held in Switzerland, and clearly a lot of people look forward to it and come. I kept hearing people saying they were traveling to other cities to sleep because there wasn’t a single hotel room left in all of Solothurn. I heard readings by Matthias Zschokke, Erica Pedretti, Urs Widmer, Klaus Hoffer, Jenny Erpenbeck and Mikhail Shishkin (author of the great Maidenhair – he lives in Switzerland), plus a number of younger writers like Arno Camenisch, and my encounters with Swiss writing continued into the evenings, when the bars (esp. the Kreuz) were packed with successful writers rubbing elbows with newcomers. My last night there, I met Michael Hunziker, a young writer who’d just published his first novel, Vom Rand der Tropen, which looks interesting. In short, more literature than you can shake a stick at.

So that’s my report on Walserweltweit. Now it’s time to continue my travels.

You Can’t Go Back (to Thun) Again

I’ve been traveling around Switzerland for the past two weeks, and haven’t managed to blog about it yet, mostly because I’ve been traveling around at too lively a clip to find the time. The first week was spent as part of a band of 19 Robert Walser translators from 16 languages temporarily imported by the Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia, the Robert Walser-Zentrum in Bern and the Universität Lausanne, which has a vibrant translation studies program. I’ll blog about the week’s adventures soon, but first I want to say something about Thun, because that is where I am right now. Once the official group program ended last weekend, I set off on my own to do some research for my biography-in-progress of Walser. In particular, I’ve been traveling to various places where he lived and checking them out, so that the book won’t be lamentably short on local color. And for the most part I’ve been able to find spiritus loci galore. But in Thun, not so much.

Robert Walser lived in Thun for a few months in spring 1899, working in the brewery here, if we can believe the narrator of his 1907 story “Kleist in Thun,” who makes this claim. The claim is made more plausible by the fact that Thun did indeed have a brewery back then, though it doesn’t now. All that remains of the brewery is a bus stop (“Brauerei”), now in the middle of a neighborhood of 1950s-looking apartment buildings that adjoin an admittedly lovely hayfield with a view of the Alps. Much of Thun has a view of the Alps, and this is one thing about Thun that will probably never change, though as I learned today, one of the grandest of the Alps visible from Thun has now had two holes for electric lights bored into its knobby tip so that it can be lit up on special occasions for the amusement of tourists.

I first visited Thun 25 years ago (in July 1988, I think it was), and found the town sleepy, quiet, idyllic, though it was probably a bustling metropole compared to the Thun Walser had found not quite a century before. Now it’s kind of like Banff: Just look at those mountains! Who cares about the town. People come here to practice various sports. Thun does still have an old village center that’s still more or less authentic-looking, and the building where Walser rented a furnished room (at Obere Haupstrasse [Upper Main Street] 39) is still standing. That street is interesting too: it features raised sidewalks, so passers-by have the choice of

walking down in the street (lined with ground-floor shops) or one story above them, where the ground-floor shops are actually on the second floor. In “Kleist in Thun,” Walser describes the street-level spaces being used to display market goods. (Walser’s house is the yellow-orange one at the far left in this picture.)

The most striking thing about Thun is its castle. Construction began around 1190, so it’s been around for a while. Its characteristic four symmetrical towers are visible far off in every direction, and that’s kind of the point. This castle was never meant to serve as a residence; it was to be a symbol of Duke Berchtold V’s power and easily defensible, which it clearly was, perched up on its hill. The only real room built into it was an enormous Knights’ Hall (39 x 62 feet) that was anything but cosy. But there are lots of great slot windows for pouring boiling oil down on your enemies, if they make it that far. The moment I got to town I scampered up the hill to visit the towers, from which you have amazing views of the entire countryside. Then I noticed the crane next door. When I came down the dozen flights of steps, the nice lady at the entryway told me that the city had sold off this public property (castle outbuildings which used to house municipal offices) to a private investor who was raising the roof and adding one story to the building. She said no one in Thun understood what had made the city council sell off the building.

The house where Kleist stayed in 1802 and 1803, on a little island in the Aare River, is no longer standing, though it was still here when Robert Walser passed through. Some rich person later bought the island, tore down the old villa and built a new one. There’s a sign posted in the little park outside, suggesting that visitors instead enjoy the Kleist statue (hideous) that was originally meant to mark his gravesite at Wannsee outside Berlin, but the Berliners rejected it (probably because it’s so ugly), and so it wound up in Thun. The sign points out that it was free. In “Kleist in Thun,” Walser describes a marble plaque on the house that visitors to the island can admire, be they Jews, Christians or swallows, suggesting that the island used to be open to the public.

Maybe I feel so disheartened by Thun because the beautiful old hotel Zunfthaus zu Metzgern (Butcher’s Guild, though the name actually sounds nice in German) where I blissfully stayed 25 years ago – big rooms, big fluffy beds, big breakfasts with pots of hot tea and milk – has been hideously renovated, basically turned into a big student dormitory. I am writing this in a tiny little room that might be described as monastic if that were one of the furniture themes available at IKEA. The innkeeper made me pay in advance, explaining that she’s had trouble with people taking off without paying their bills, possibly because no one is on duty until 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., apparently, which I take to mean that no breakfast will be served. There’s WiFi, but only downstairs in the cornily-decorated restaurant, four flights down (I counted them as I was lugging my suitcase up the stairs – no elevator either).

Ah, whining about bad hotels, a classic blog gambit. The best way to forget about trifles like having to

use a bathroom down the hall is to take a walk along the shoreline promenade to Lake Thun, which is completely lined with mountains on its southern edge, truly a spectacular sight. I’m sure Robert Walser enjoyed it too, even though he wasn’t inclined toward Alpinism (he liked to look at mountains but didn’t climb them – the ones he did climb were actually hills). Walser didn’t write his story set in Thun until seven years after he left the place, giving his memories time to develop the golden sheen visible about the edges of this story, which is really one of his best, though untypical for his work. He really does set out to write a voice for Kleist that diverges from his own, with a lot of uncharacteristically short sentences (like: “Nice idea that. Easy enough to think up in Potsdam,” when Kleist is just remembering he’d wanted to become a farmer when it occurred to him to come to Switzerland). In short: go read Walser’s story, and read Kleist as well, and then maybe just skip the trip to Thun. Next up: Bern, Biel, Bellelay, Täuffelen, or who knows what else.

Announcing the Publication of In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means

Those of you who teach probably know what it’s like to have assembled – over the course of years if not decades – all your favorite essays and articles to read with your students, and if you’re nothing at all like me, these documents might be collected, neatly labeled, in a series of file folders numbered with the weeks of the semester. Or maybe you’re like me, and they’re around here somewhere, didn’t I just see one of them in one of these piles? It’s helpful for people who share my talent for chaos to have all our work tools in one place, and the best place for articles and essays one might want to lay one’s hands on with minimal stress is between the covers of a book. With this in mind, I am delighted to announce the publication of an anthology of essays on translation that Esther Allen and I have been working on for the last couple of years: In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means. The book will be coming out officially from Columbia University Press on May 24, but I’ve been hearing rumors that copies have already been sighted in bookstores around the country, so it’s probably already possible to pick one up locally. Or else you can get yours online: the Press is offering to sell the anthology at a 30% discount to readers of this blog if you order via the CUP website using the code INTALL. If you’re closer to England and would like to order the book from the U.K. distributor, Wiley, send in your order by e-mail mentioning the code INTALL to receive the discount.

Did I say yet that this book contains most of my favorite essays about literary translation, all of them written by actual translators who are also scholars, writers, thinkers and teachers of various sorts? Clare Cavanagh, Richard Sieburth, Alice Kaplan, Haruki Murakami, Lawrence Venuti, Forrest Gander, Eliot Weinberger, Jason Grunebaum, José Manuel Prieto, Christi A. Merrill, Catherine Porter, Maureen Freely, Ted Goossen, Michael Emmerich, David Bellos and Peter Cole, in no particular order. It’s a really good book, and designed to be pleasurably readable by anyone with an interest in international literature and its journey into English (or Japanese, Spanish, etc.), not just students enrolled in translation-themed seminars. It’s got an essay by me too, about revising translations, and one by Esther about the history of Spanish-language translation in NYC. You’ll find a complete table of contents on the CUP website. I hope you’ll have a look.

Oh, and mark your calendars for Thursday, June 6, when we’ll be holding an official launch for the book as part of the ceremony for the 2013 Gutekunst Prize. If you’re in town, please come raise a glass with us at the Goethe-Institut at 72 Spring St., 11th Floor, starting at 6:00 p.m.

2013 Best Translated Book Award Winners Announced

I know you’ve been waiting impatiently to hear the outcome of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards, so here’s the scoop:

The fiction prize goes to George Szirtes for his translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which I very much enjoyed reading (and also to Krasznahorkai himself for writing the book), and the poetry prize goes to Sean Cotter for his translation of Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, which I’m looking forward to reading, and to Stanescu himself. So the winning languages this year are Hungarian and Romanian, which I’m glad to see. Those are two languages whose literature deserves more attention anyhow, and seeing two fine translators honored for challenging projects is always satisfying.

The presentations were made during an event at the PEN World Voices Festival that seemed not to have made its way into the official program. Maybe next year. And meanwhile congratulations to the winning translators, their authors, and their publishing houses, New Directions and Archipelago.


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