Archive for November 2013

Remembering William Weaver (1923 – 2013)

William Weaver, one of the greatest translators of all time – and also my teacher, mentor and friend – died this week at the age of 90. It was a privilege and also a pleasure to know him. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, both with his students – on whom he lavished seemingly infinite quantities of attention – and with his friends. He liked to sit with his guests on the broad front porch of his house on the Bard College campus, enjoying the pre-dinner hour, very much the Southern gentleman with his seersucker jackets, his exuberant hospitality and his love of storytelling. He liked to reminisce about his childhood in Virginia, often including the anecdote of how, when his Princeton classmates teased him for not knowing how to ride a bicycle, since he hadn’t had one growing up, he had responded (using a mock-sad voice for the first bit): “It’s true I didn’t have a bicycle. But I had a pony!”

William Weaver, photographed
in 1984 © Mariana Cook

It was always a treat to be invited for supper at Bill’s house – usually an Italian-style repast – whether it was for one of the big dinner parties he loved to throw or just family dinner, which he referred to as “just us chickens.” Both he and his long-time partner, Japanese architect Kazuo Nakajima, were excellent cooks. Neither one of them seemed to drive, though, and so sometimes I would pick them up for a trip to the grocery store or the movies. Only later did it occur to me to wonder about Bill’s lack of a driver’s license, given that he had spent World War II driving an ambulance around Africa and then Italy for the British Army. I guess his driving skills had gotten rusty during the many post-war years he spent in Rome, and then in New York and Rome, and then in Annandale-on-Hudson, where he lived in a house whose previous occupant had been his dear friend Mary McCarthy, and taught courses on translation, literature and (perhaps his greatest love) opera.

If you have read any of Bill Weaver’s translations, you don’t need me to tell you what a virtuoso he was, a master of English in all its most playful and most somber registers. I grew up reading volume after volume of his translations of Italo Calvino. Bill then hit the translation jackpot with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which became an international bestseller and then a blockbuster movie. He liked to quip that the success of that book made it possible for him to add on a room to the country house he owned outside Arezzo. His translation of Italo Svevo’s classic masterpiece about quitting smoking boldly recasts the title as Zeno’s Conscience. Bill also translated works by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, Roberto Calasso, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Primo Levi and many others. I think it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that for a period of several decades pretty much every novelist in Italy wanted to be translated by him. And he turned out a staggering quantity of books, which I find particularly astonishing given the fact that I never saw him working, nor displaying even the faintest hint of stress over an impending deadline. He would just disappear into his basement office for a given number of hours each day and, with genteel savoir-faire (or so I imagine it), work through knotty passage after knotty passage until they flowed as smoothly as a length of silk.

If you’d like to hear Bill’s own account of how he became a translator (an excellent story), I recommend the interview Willard Spiegelman did with him for The Paris Review in Spring 2002. If you’d like to know how he worked, I recommend his essay “The Process of Translation” (published in the anthology The Craft of Translation edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet), in which he walks the reader through several drafts of a translation of a particularly thorny paragraph by Gadda, who is notoriously difficult to translate. Bill makes it look – not easy, perhaps, but at least possible, and that’s somehow reassuring. He was reassuring with his students too. He taught the only translation workshop I ever took, at Princeton University, where I enrolled in his undergraduate translation workshop as a grad student because the chance to study with such a master was too great an opportunity to pass up. He taught us patience and to revise our work with meticulous attention to detail. He was a brilliant, incisive editor. I hope that somewhere in my papers I still have these early translations of mine with his penciled corrections.

In the summer of 2002, near the end of a sabbatical year spent in Berlin, I received a distressing phone call from the dean at Bard College asking if I would step in and teach Bill’s translation workshop that fall because he was too ill to return to the classroom. It turned out he had suffered a stroke while summering in Italy, and it had done terrible damage. His right side was paralyzed, he was able to speak only with extreme difficulty, and his brain had lost the ability to retain new memories, such that he remembered only the most recent 20 minutes – along with everything from before his stroke. At first the various therapists who came to the house every day (I was one of two friends involved with arranging his care when he first came home from the hospital, and met most of them) were optimistic about his chances of making at least a partial recovery. But then he spent months doing physical, speech and occupational therapy without his condition improving. It was so hard to see Bill – who had an incredibly rich vocabulary – struggling to speak. He obviously knew exactly what he meant to say, but somehow half the words couldn’t find their way from his brain to his lips. And since reading and writing are more or less impossible without a functioning short-term memory, this was the end of his translating, writing and teaching career.

Bill hung on for more than eleven years after the stroke. I think his maimed memory must have helped him. He was always cruelly aware of his physical limitations, but I believe he didn’t always understand – I hope not, in any case – how long he had been in this impaired state. Without a memory, he couldn’t make new friends (or even learn to recognize the nurses who cared for him during his final years), and about a year ago I realized that my visits were becoming confusing to him because I no longer looked the way he remembered me looking eleven years before. I took to beginning each visit by asking what he thought of my new glasses and claiming to have run into someone on the way over who hadn’t recognized me because of them. That seemed to help. Still, I must have seemed uncanny to him, a visitor from the future.

Here’s Bill as a visitor from the past, singing the praises of a colleague:

He leaves behind a rich legacy: dozens of truly glorious books and crowds of grateful former students. I don’t know who his opera friends were, but I’m sure he was as loved in that world as in the translation community. He will be sorely missed.

Translation Events Coming Your Way in NYC

Here’s what’s on tap this week and next:

• Thursday Nov. 14 – Saturday, Nov. 16: New Literature from Europe Festival. Not really a translation event strictly speaking, since the authors are appearing without their translators this year, but a good chance to hear the work of nine outstanding writers representing nine European countries, and the two main events will at least be moderated by a translator (Michael F. Moore). Oh, and representing Germany will be Ilja Trojanow, a really splendid writer whose life got more complicated last month after he wrote an article criticizing the NSA and as a result was refused permission to board an airplane to the U.S.; apparently his travel ban has now been lifted, at least for the time being (I wouldn’t count on his keeping his mouth shut in the future either). The festival kicks off with a big reading at the Center for Fiction at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, 17 E. 47th St. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

• Friday, Nov. 15: Polish poet Anna Frajlich will join her translator Ross Ufberg for a trilingual reading (Polish, Russian, English) and discussion about the translation of poetry.  This one’s an afternoon event, starting at 4:00 p.m. on the Columbia University campus: International Affairs Building, Room 1219 (Marshall D. Shulman Seminar Room).

• Also Friday, Nov. 15: Brooklyn Rail Fiction editor Donald Breckenridge (a long-time lover and supporter of literature in translation) hosts a “crafted reading” of a translation-in-progress (first ever into English) of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Aline and Valcour by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. To be presented by Allan Graubard and Caroline McGhee featuring music by Cole Porter. Mellow Pages Library, 56 Bogart St. (Morgan stop on the L), 7:00 p.m.

• Wednesday, Nov. 20: The Bridge Series is back, this time in a co-presentation with Two Lines Press of two acclaimed translators from the French, Charlotte Mandell and Jordan Stump, presenting The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell (Mandell) and All My Friends by Marie NDiaye (Stump). This reading/discussion will be held at the Bridge’s usual venue, McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street, but with a later start time than usual: 8:00 p.m. More details here.

• Saturday, Nov. 23: In connection with a thrilling new exhibition of manuscripts by Robert Walser and Emily Dickinson at the Drawing Center in Soho, I’ll be speaking about translating Walser’s microscripts as part of a little celebratory symposium around the launch of The Gorgeous Nothings, a facsimile edition of Dickinson’s “envelope poems” co-edited by poet Jen Bervin and Marta Werner and with an essay by Susan Howe, all of whom will be participating as well. I’m part of this party because Microscripts was the catalog for the Walser portion of this exhibition three years avant la [handwritten] lettre. 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street.

• Also on Saturday, Nov. 23 is a symposium at Poet’s House on Occitan poetry entitled Trobadors – featuring readings, discussions, a musical-poetical performance and a “Gascon Dinner” – that unhappily does not contain the word “translation” anywhere in its write-up, but several of the participants (Pierre Joris, Deborah Kapchan, Richard Sieburth) are well-known translators, so my guess is that translation and the discussion thereof will play a role. Reservations required, especially if you’d like to stay for dinner. See the Poet’s House website for the full program, reservation instructions and other details. 2:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., 10 River Terrace at Murray St.

On Tap in Translation This Week

Today is election day in New York City, and I hope you’ve made it to the polls! Besides the obvious candidates to vote for (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, city council member) there are six ballot proposals as well, some of which are confusing enough that you will probably want to read up on them in advance, which you can do here. The New York Times has published what seem to me sound analyses of the most complicated of the lot, props four and six. The polls will be open tonight until 9:00 p.m.

And once you’re done voting, here are two great translation events to check out this week:

• On Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, Vondel Translation Prize Winner David Colmer will present his  translations of Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus in a bilingual reading at Flanders House in the New York Times Building (he’ll be joined by Frank Ligtvoet for the bilingual part). This is the launch event for this book, published by Archipelago. Colmer has received major awards for his translations of Gerbrand Bakker, and now, in Claus, he’s translating one of the most revered writers of recent Dutch literature. Flanders House is on the 44th floor at 620 8th Ave. The event starts at 7:00 p.m. More details here.

• On Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, McNally Jackson Books will be presenting a double launch party for two books by translators who are both recent graduates of the Columbia MFA Writing Program and both recent ALTA Fellows. The book’s authors will be present as well for a joint reading and Q&A, making this an excellent chance to be introduced simultaneously to two exciting new writers and two gifted translators. The two projects are: The Sequoia Children by Gon Ben Ari, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, and A Brave Pilot from the New China by Ernesto Semán, translated by Tara FitzGerald. McNally Jackson is at 52 Prince Street, where the event will start at 8:00 p.m. More info here. Hope to see you there!


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