I couldn’t make it to Illinois for the New Spaces of Translation conference that Elizabeth Lowe put on together with Antoine Cazé of the Université Denis Diderot, Paris. This was the third of the annual conferences at the Center for Translation Studies of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Anyhow, I heard that Ezra Fitz was going, so I asked him for a reportback. Here’s what he had to say:
What do the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Université Diderot in Paris, and the Illinois Fire Service Institute have in common? They all got together to host the Third International Conference on Translation and Related Disciplines. The schools provided the framework, the firehouse provided the facilities, and the participants enjoyed a long weekend of doing what we love: talking shop.
The weekend kicked off with a keynote by one of my favorite former professors, David Bellos. I still have a thickly-annotated copy of Life A User’s Manual (no colon!) in my office library from a class I took with him many moons ago. This time, though, he was talking about Les Misérables. The title, actually. Why was it never translated into English? It has remained, throughout history, Les Misérables, or Les Mis, if you’re into the whole brevity thing. Listening to Bellos break it down, I realized, first, why I had never thought to ask that question before, and second, why the answer is not as easy as one might think. Of course, as any translator worth his or her salt knows, it never is.
The other keynote was, shall I say, performed by professor Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University. He presented a very short poem – just 20 syllables long! – written some 1300 years ago in classical Chinese by the poet, painter, and politician Wang Wei. Then he shared a sampler of renderings of this same poem in English by a variety of translators, some of which were taken from the provocative little volume Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger. He finished up with his own “rather extreme version” (his words) that he concocted many years ago, inspired by his puzzlement at the fact that, to him, none of these translations “felt Chinese” (again, his words). Doug nailed the translation, and his explanation of the choices he made was as serious as it was entertaining. Perhaps the twentieth time was the charm.
Another highlight was UCLA professor and translator from the Japanese Michael Emmerich, who took the opportunity to “fight the power,” as Chuck D said, and shared with us a cringe-worthy contract he had to negotiate before translating a novel by Banana Yoshimoto. We translators are only too familiar with the Oulipoian constraints under which we are so often bound to work, and every time someone like Michael speaks up on our behalf, it’s a small yet significant victory.
Finally, there was the panel of which Your Humble Narrator was a member. Elizabeth Lowe, who miraculously organized and orchestrated this wondrous shebang under the very literal threat of tornadoes, and Earl Fitz, both translators from the Portuguese, reminisced over their experiences learning from one of the G.O.A.T.s, Gregory Rabassa, when they were students of his at the CUNY Graduate Center in the 1970s. My father shared a story about walking into Rabassa’s office for the first time. “You’re from Iowa, right?” Rabassa asked him. “Do you say ‘creek’ or ‘crick’?” “Both,” my dad replied, “depending on whether you’re talking about a stream or a pain in your neck.” He and Elizabeth talked about what his classes were like: the way he always put national literature in the larger context of world literature, and how he reminded his students that it’s not about how fast you read, but how well you read. To that point, he would often drop by the library and check to see which of his students had actually gone to the reserve desk and signed out the books he had assigned for his classes… very apropos of the former OSS cryptographer! For my part, I reflected on what it was like to have been one of Robert Fagles’ last few students, back when he was my adviser at Princeton. The last time I saw him was in 2002, a couple of years after I graduated. He flashed a wry grin when he saw me. “Nice manifesto!” he said, remembering my thesis.
On the drive back to Nashville, I called Rabassa to let him know how the panel went. There’s something generational about all of this, I thought. Something familiar. A translation is not unlike the younger sibling of an older text. A fraternal twin, perhaps. And when translators get together at conferences such as this one, we remind ourselves once again of why it all matters. We do it for what came before us, and for what has yet to come. We do it for our literary family. We do it for the love.
Thanks so much for the report, Ezra!