Archive for October 2013

This Week in Translation Starts Tonight!

I’ve been traveling and am hideously late about posting this week, but here’s what’s on tap in translation in NYC this week:

• Tuesday, Oct. 29 (I): The Americas Society presents a celebration of Clarice Lispector at the Americas Society featuring Lispector translators Idra Novey and Johnny Lorenz, Paulo Gurgel Valente, the author’s son (in absentia, which I assume means Skyping in), Barbara Epler, president and publisher of New Directions (which just printed five new Lispector translations), and special guest renowned translator Gregory Rabassa. This is a ticketed event, details here.

• Tuesday, Oct. 29 (II): Words without Borders, the best-known and biggest online journal for literature in translation, is putting on a fundraising gala in honor of the journal’s 10th anniversary. This one is obviously very ticketed. Details here.

• Wednesday, Oct. 30: The book launch party for my translation of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. I blogged about this one in more detail over the weekend.

• Friday, Nov. 1: The Americas Society presents Peruvian novelist, journalist, and one of Granta magazine’s best young novelists in Spanish, Santiago Roncagliolo, and his acclaimed translator Edith Grossman. This is a ticketed event. Details here.

Who’s Afraid of Spiders?

You may not know what Devil’s Night is unless you’re from Detroit, where arson-flavored rampages were traditional on the night before Halloween from the early 1970s until 1994, when a particularly determined mayor put his foot down. But long before the first car ever rolled off an assembly line, there were devilish nights aplenty back in the German-speaking forests and valleys of the 19th century, where Romanticism and its aftermath gave us countless uncanny tales. And of course the Devil is the ultimate Bad Boy: seductive, destructive, what’s not to like?

In 1842 a Swiss preacher named Albert Bitzius published my favorite friend-of-the-Devil story of all time, The Black Spider, under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf. The story is definitely pedagogical in its intent: it aims to scare you into keeping the faith. Just as in all the most terrifying horror movies the monster is somehow always also the protagonist’s sinister double, the spider here is not only the Devil’s spawn, it has a human mother and can be held in check only by the God-fearing, those who are pure of heart.

I first read this story under unfortunate circumstances: all alone in my basement apartment in Baltimore one evening, with black linoleum floors and bars on the windows, completely surrounded by things that go bump in the night. I don’t know what I was thinking. Or, yes I do – I was thinking: Come on, how scary can it be? And I am here to tell you: It’s a great idea to read this story in a clean, well-lighted place, so that when it scares the bejeezus out of you there’ll be someone nearby to give you a hug. Trust me, you’ll want one.

Still, there’s more to Gotthelf than the fright. He’s a superb prose stylist, especially in the novel’s opening descriptive passages that are reminiscent of Stifter (as Isabella Kratynski of Magnificent Octopus also notes). Bolaño speaks highly of Gotthelf (Isabella quotes him too), and Thomas Mann writes in The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus that Gotthelf often “touches on the Homeric,” adding (with specific reference to The Black Spider): “There is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” Kafka surely liked it too. Oh, and here’s a bit of vocabulary trivia for you: At one point Gotthelf refers to his unholy beast as an “Ungeziefer,” the same word that appears in the opening sentence of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” as generations of translators have hand-wringingly observed. My translation of Kafka’s “bug story” comes out in January.

The Black Spider, on the other hand, just came out this week, and to my delight it’s already been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, where Terrence Rafferty pronounced it “dire, bonefreezing” and “scary as hell.” So if you want to have your bones frozen in nice, safe company, why not come out for the book’s launch party on Devil’s Night, Oct. 30, 7:00 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books. Artist Martha Friedman, who knows a thing or two about spiders and visual discomfort, will be joining me to show some pictures and talk about images that scare us, and I’ll be reading from the story. The McNally Jackson announcement promises front-row seats to anyone who shows up in a spider costume. I hope I’m not too frightened to read. As luck would have it, I’m terrified of spiders.

When Translators Get Shafted

Surely it happens in every business, but I keep hearing about translators getting screwed over by publishers they work for. Many of them don’t want to talk about it publicly, sensing – probably rightly – that their speaking out too loudly would likely have a chilling effect on their future employability. But today the translation blogosphere is all a-buzz with news of a shafting so egregious and so obviously illegal that the translator in question decided to go public with his complaint. Jonathan Wright, who’s by no means new at this business (he’s translated nine books to date) was put under contract by Knopf Doubleday to translate The Automobile Club of Egypt, the new popular novel by Egyptian author Alaa el-Aswany. We know Wright was sent a contract because he’s posted a copy of it on his blog along with a detailed account of his correspondence with Knopf Doubleday as well as Aswany, Aswany’s agent Andrew Wylie, and Aswany’s Arabic publisher, the American University of Cairo Press (AUC), which hired Wright to produce a sample translation from the novel that ultimately resulted in his being asked to translate the entire thing.

Jonathan Wright

Wright, who’d worked with Aswany before, was first approached about translating this new novel (at that point still a work-in-progress) in August 2012; he submitted his sample translation in February 2013, and was sent a contract by Knopf on May 1. By this time he was already hard at work on the translation, since this 650 page novel was due to the publisher on September 15, 2013, an exceptionally tight deadline for a work that size. He would never have had a chance of fulfilling the contract on time if he hadn’t started working in advance of receiving the actual contract, on the basis of having been assured by AUC in February and by Knopf Senior Editor/VP George Andreou in March that a contract was forthcoming. And indeed Wright was sent a contract as promised.

But then after he had returned the signed contract something happened; Knopf failed to mail back the countersigned contract, and Wright received a letter from Wylie informing him that he was being removed from the project. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure Wright knows either. Everyone who had seen Wright’s sample translation at that point seems to have been happy with it, and the author had apparently not yet seen or asked to see it. But after Wright protested his being axed from the project, saying that he was after all already under contract for the book, Aswany requested a copy of the sample and then pulled an all-nighter with his assistant producing a spreadsheet of “errors” he found in the translation. The list (also linked to on Wright’s blog) is hilarious. Basically, Aswany didn’t find any errors to speak of, but he provides “explanations” of what’s “wrong” with Wright’s translation at various points. Just to give you a quick idea, he complains about Wright’s translating “an attractive woman” instead of “a pretty woman” or “a beautiful woman.” I guess the guy doesn’t really know Arabic, huh?

In any case, and whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations that caused Wylie and Aswany to suddenly prefer a different translator, we are left with the alarming fact that Knopf Doubleday reneged on its contract with Wright. Translators take note!

The Automobile Club

Secondarily disturbing, as Michael Orthofer points out in his blog commentary, is that the contract Wright signed was on the old Work-for-Hire model. The PEN Translation Committee now officially advises translators not to enter into Work-for-Hire contracts, which involve signing away all rights to any future interest in the work. And Chad Post in his response to the story points out that his press Open Letter always includes a clause in its contracts that provides legal protection to a translator if for any reason the press decides not to publish her translation.

Yesterday M. Lynx Qualey wrote up the story on her own blog, reminding us of the excellent 2007 article by Marilyn Booth detailing her own travails after author Rajaa Alsanea decided to take charge of Booth’s translation of her novel Girls of Riyadh. Here too the results were highly unfortunate.

Since Wright’s story is now attracting so much public notice, I am hopeful that Knopf Doubleday will do the right thing and either honor its contract with Wright or, failing that, compensate him fairly for the months of work he has already invested in the project. The translation world will certainly be watching.

Update 1/31/14: Wright sued Random House in England for breach of contract, and the parties settled out of court.

ALTA Translation Prizes 2013

Oh, silly me, I forgot the most important thing I should have reported on after the ALTA conference.

The 2013 Lycien Stryk Prize, which promotes the translation of Asian works into English, was awarded to Lucas Klein for his translation of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems by Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012).

The 2013 National Translation Award, which celebrates a book-length translated work in any genre, was awarded to Philip Boehm for his translation of Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s great novel The Hunger Angel (Picador, 2012).

Congratulations to both the winners!

ALTA 2013 Part 3: Advocacy and Promotion

I wish I could blog every last thing I saw and learned at this year’s ALTA conference, which I think was one of the most interesting to date. But there’s a limit to the time and energy I can muster, so this here is going to be the last of my reports this year (at least I think so). One of the final panels of the conference was devoted to “Advocacy and Promotion,” moderated by Aron Aji and featuring Breon Mitchell, Christina Vezzaro, Chad Post, Russell Scott Valentino and a cast of thousands, i.e. all the other opinionated translators and translation advocates who packed the room. After all, don’t all of us care about finding ways to get more recognition for our work and more readers for the international authors we translate? Here are some of the advocacy projects that got discussed:

  • Breon Mitchell has for many years now been collecting translators’ papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. He reported that he was now collecting the manuscripts of 54 ALTA members (as well as those of many translators who aren’t members), so that years from now scholars interested in learning about how translators did their work will have material to draw on: multiple drafts of books, correspondence with authors and editors, etc. Breon recently retired as direct of the Lilly but reported that his successor is committed to continuing his work.
  • Christine Vezzaro has created a multilingual website entitled Authors and Translators containing brief interviews with authors about working with their translators and with translators about working with their authors. By including profiles of translators side-by-side with profiles of authors she means to help bring the formers’ work out of obscurity. “Authors are my superheroes,” she says, “but the Invisible Man is also a superhero.”
  • Chad Post’s blog Three Percent is one of the best websites out there when it comes to putting literary translation in the spotlight. On today’s panel he spoke about the Translation Database that he’s been assembling yearly since 2008 with the goal of creating an overview of what new works are being published in translation. You can download his spreadsheets to see this information sorted by publisher, language and country of origin.
  • Chad also reported that World Literature Today and Chinese Literature Today are teaming up to provide uploads of multiple drafts of translations by Howard Goldblatt for study and research purposes; perhaps we’ll see other translators’ work being presented in this way as well. Some might not want their drafts made public. I personally don’t think I’d mind, as long as the final version was available in print; maybe I have no shame, but I’m always trying to impress on my students how awful my own first drafts are (true story), to make the point that an actually thorough revision process can move mountains.
  • Words Without Borders will soon be launching an education portal with teaching materials designed around works published on the site.
  • Aron said we all should be putting our ALTA affiliation in our bio notes, to call attention to the organization and its work.
  • Translators seated in the peanut gallery suggested that ALTA should make its newsletter public by way of outreach (the current newsletter is for internal use only, and I agree that it’s been more inwardly turned than is interesting). Also that rapporteurs should attend and report on all the panels at the yearly conference so that others can learn about the information shared there; Translationista couldn’t agree more, she wants someone else to write up all this stuff instead of her so she can instead get to reading the big stack of books she brought home with her. Someone also suggested that ALTA should produce a Report on World Literature, another excellent idea. Aron Aji pointed out that it’s helpful not only to suggest ideas, but to volunteer to help put them into practice. This is correct: an organization like ours is only as strong as its members, and we’re a small enough operation that we really do need help pursuing ambitious projects like these.

The panel ended on a discussion about ways translators can get involved with promoting their own books. One audience member pointed out that many of the smaller independent bookstores in the country get all their stock from the Ingram catalog, making it a good idea for translators to make sure their publishers are getting their books included in it. And in terms of reaching reading groups and other members of the public, both local bookstores and public library branches are powerful allies. There’s no reason translators shouldn’t be approaching their local stores and libraries and offering to help put together an event of interest to the shop’s/library’s client base. Readers tend to produce more readers (via gifts, social media comments etc.), so anything you can do to find more readers is a service to the cause. But keep in mind that no one likes to be approached with a request for favor involving work on the part of the one being approached; think about what sorts of goals your local booksellers and librarians are likely to have and then what you can do to help them meet these goals. The magic words always at your disposal are: “I’d love to help.”

ALTA 2013 Part 2: Publishing and Funding News

Two of the panels I attended at this year’s ALTA specifically addressed one of the central problems of publishing work in translation: finding the funds to pay for it. The PEN Translation Committee-sponsored panel “Translation and Money,” moderated by Jennifer Zoble, brought together representatives from two funding agencies (Jadranka Vrsalovic Carevic of the Institut  Ramon Llull, and Denis Quénelle from the cultural service of the Consulate General of France), two publishers (Russell Scott Valentino of Autumn Hill Books and Gabriella Page-Fort of Amazon Crossing) and two translators (Valentino, wearing one of his other hats, and Jason Grunebaum).

The biggest kicker of the panel came at the end, when Zoble asked the audience how many of them live entirely off their translation work, i.e. don’t have day jobs. Approximately 25% of the 110 people in the room (Translationista estimate™) raised their hands; but when Zoble asked how many of those lived off literary translation, only three hands stayed up, including one belonging to someone who quickly went on to explain that her spouse’s higher salary made her choice of profession feasible.

There are a number of subsidies available to help support translators, and apparently not all of them are being fully taken advantage of. The Institut Ramon Llull has long been known for its support of translations of Catalan literature, and the French government, also a long-time subsidizer of translations, has recently undertaken an initiative to expand its outreach about its funding programs; Quénelle said that approximately 20% of the translations published in the U.S. are of books written in French. Both Vrsalovic Carevic and Quénelle reported that reaching potential beneficiaries was a recurring concern in their line of work. Both agencies offer not only subsidies for the translations themselves but also travel grants for authors and grants to publishers to use for promotion and marketing, since publishing a book isn’t enough to guarantee it will reach its audience. Valentino said he regularly organizes reading tours with authors and/or translators when a book he publishes comes out.

In fact a substantial portion of the discussion centered on the need for marketing. Valentino quoted translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, who’d recently pointed out to him that British publisher Christopher MacLehose pretty much invented the concept “Scandinavian Crime Fiction.” Page-Fort, whose imprint publishes translations of popular fiction as well as well as more literary titles, said that translators approaching publishers should always talk about who the likely audience for the work is. And it clearly can’t hurt to investigate in advance whether any subsidies are available to help with a publisher’s expenses.

Finally the question came up of the fundamental inequalites in the translation of international literature: Obviously books from countries whose governments offer subsidies get translated at a much higher rate than those from countries lacking this assistance. So what does this do to to the landscape of international literature as viewed from, say, Chicago? Valentino pointed out that for this very reason the selection process for NEA Translation Grants tends to favor lesser translated languages, and I have informally observed the same phenomenon while serving on the jury for the PEN/Heim grants. I think it’s important that we all (as translators, publishers and readers of international literature) keep reminding each other of all the wonderful books constantly being written in the languages that happen not to be economic blockbusters. And don’t forget that the arts council of the state you live in might offer grants as well, as does NYSCA for example – it’s not only on the national and international levels that help can be found. ALTA really ought to put together an updated list of grant opportunities, perhaps inspired by the one the French Embassy’s Cultural Services division has put online.

And remember that literary magazines remain a valuable way to get the word out about foreign-language authors whose work excites you. The upshot of the “Literary Magazine Editors Roundtable” I went to (the one concentrating on prose translations) was that magazine editors remain extremely receptive to receiving submissions of work in translation. The most important thing is that it be work you’re passionate about and that the translation display the energy of your enthusiasm – an editor should be able to grasp pretty quickly, reading your translation, why this author’s work has you so excited. Most magazines ask you to accompany submissions with a letter certifying that you have permission to publish the work in translation. This request is based on a misunderstanding, so that’s something I’ll write about in another blog entry soon and link back to it here when I’m done.

ALTA 2013 Part 1: Cole Swensen

This year’s conference had two keynotes, and unfortunately I arrived too late to hear the first one, by Maureen Freely, whom I know to be a brilliant speaker. But I did hear Cole Swensen speak, and that was lovely. She began her talk with a discussion of her translation-in-progress of Amitier by Gilles A. Tiberghien (2002), a book whose title (along with many passages) is so tricky because Tiberghien invents a new verb based on French “amitié” (friendship), which has no equivalent in most other languages, including French. When she first started thinking about the project, she was thinking of just calling it “To Friend,” but that was before Facebook came along and squarely occupied that particular verb. Her working title for now is “Friendling,” but based on her talk I suspect she won’t stick with it. But how interesting to hear her account of her explorations into the etymology of all the Latin-influenced words for friendship, which appear in English as “amity,” “amicable” etc., all from the Latin “amicus” (friend). The English “friend,” on the other hand, has a hugely complex derivation, going back to ancient Saxon and Germanic roots that closely intersect with the roots of the adjective “free,” which finally explains to me why the antiquated German verb “freien” (to free) means “to take as a wife,” which in turn explains the noun “Freier” (literally: freer), which once met suitor and now means a prostitute’s john. Far back in the past is the Sanskrit “pri” (to love) from a root meaning “one’s own” and “dear.” The words for friendship in many other languages have very different implications (e.g. Arabic has two words for “friend” that might translate as “traveling companion” and “truth-teller”). And there is a distinct paucity of verbs in all these languages for “to be or to have a friend” – though most languages seem to have a word for “befriend,” which is different.

The friend project is one Swensen is working on in conversation with an author with whom she herself can maintain a friendship, and she explained that with only a few exceptions she always works on contemporary authors. The point of this, she says, is to pursue what she calls “translation in the conversational mode,” which implies translating works with a year or less of their appearance in the original language, to minimize the time lag. Ideally, the translator is helping writers around the world participate in a global literary conversation in which all their works become part of one huge communicative exchange. This means thinking “cartographically,” contextualizing the works one translates both horizontally and vertically, creating a map to help readers situate a writer both in a particular tradition and in his/her place in the global conversation. At the same time, translation is inevitably an intervention in the conversation: “When texts have to change to go into another language,” Swensen says, “that kind of secretly pleases me.”

Near the end of her presentation, she surprised and delighted me by suddenly projecting an image of Robert Walser on the big screen behind the podium: Her current project, forthcoming from Omnidawn Press, is a translation of Jean Frémon’s La vie posthume de R.W., a work that responds to Walser’s life and work by/while making him the subject of this fictional work. I can’t wait to read it in her translation.


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