Translation Challenge of the Day: Eiweiß

It’s the strangest thing, but it turns out that authors like to play with language. And more often than not this playfulness translates directly into translator migraines. Today I’m working on a fun little food-themed essay-story by Yoko Tawada entitled “Okonomiyaki,” and she leads off with an exchange about protein – which in German is most commonly referred to as Eiweiß or “egg white.” There’s a historical explanation for this: albumin from egg whites (which themselves are also called albumen – both from “albus,” the Latin word for “white”) was among the first proteins discovered back in the 18th century. In the Tawada piece, she describes an exchange in which her narrator informs a German interlocutor that, gram for gram, tofu contains more protein than chicken. That’s impossible, he responds: Soybeans don’t lay eggs. Where’s the Eiweiß supposed to come from?
So the question for me is: Where’s the humor supposed to come from? Explaining a joke is a surefire way to kill it, but without explanation this joke would be stillborn anyhow. The easiest way around the problem would be to add an explanatory footnote, but no one likes footnotes in translations, particularly when the thing being footnoted is the punch-line of a joke. My strategy in cases like this is generally to smuggle into the translation just as much additional information as is needed to allow the reader to follow; ideally, the interpolation will be seamless, elegant and unobtrusive. In this particular case, I am considering two different lines of approach, one that is more historical, and one that is more linguistic. The latter is more obviously justified here, since other forms of linguistic playfulness show up elsewhere in the essay. For example, there’s a bit where Tawada describes a “Kammmuschel” (queen scallop) in such a way that it soon becomes clear she’s describing the word itself: it “has two pillars and three ms in its shell.” In my version, that bit now reads: “The scallop has two pillars in the middle of its shell.” It doesn’t really matter that my scallop loses the “queen” in its name – it’s not a queen in German anyhow, it’s a comb – since the only reason Tawada chose that particular form of scallop was the unpronounceable three ms in the middle of its name. It’s only fairly recently that one finds triple consonants in German words: only since the national spelling reform of 1996 (which served primarily to make the written language uglier, if you ask me). Before this, whenever the creation of compound nouns produced triplets, one would always be pleasantly elided, so that e.g. the word “bedsheet” (Bett + Tuch) would be written Bettuch and not – as it is now – Betttuch, which to me looks like something that belongs in a cemetery. Because these triple consonants are relatively new in German, you really notice them when they turn up, which is why I think Tawada was inspired to riff on the structure of this word. But I digress. Here are my two just-now-brainstormed options for handling the Eiweiß passage:

Human life is a coming and going of proteins. Once I remarked to an acquaintance in Frankfurt that 100 grams of tofu contain more protein than 100 grams of chicken.

He shook his head in denial and said: That’s impossible. Soybeans don’t lay eggs. The most important proteins are albumins. Albumins come from albumen, the white of the egg. Where is this albumin supposed to come from?

Human life is a coming and going of proteins. Once I remarked to an acquaintance in Frankfurt that 100 grams of tofu contain more protein than 100 grams of chicken.

Since Germans use the word Eiweiß (egg white) to mean “protein,” he shook his head in denial and said: That’s impossible. Soybeans don’t lay eggs. Where is the egg white supposed to come from?

I’m leaning toward the second option. What do you think?

Reading at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, Thursday Dec. 9

Again and again I find myself crossing the East River to visit that mecca of literature that is Brooklyn. It does seem that this is now the borough with the highest concentration of writers, particularly younger writers, and thus also of readings. One apparently also finds independent bookstores galore on NYC’s rive gauche. One of them is called Unnameable Books, and I’ll be reading there tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. along with Idra Novey, a talented young translator from the Spanish and Portuguese. If you’re in the neighborhood (Prospect Heights, to be precise), please stop by to hear us! The address is 600 Vanderbilt Ave., between Prospect and St. Marks.

The FT Picks Visitation

After all the kind reviews my translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation received in England this fall, I am not so surprised (but nonetheless thrilled) to see it appear in the Financial Times‘s end-of-year fiction round-up. FT critic Ángel Gurría-Quintana calls the book a “minimalist masterpiece.” Also delightful is the fact that the FT‘s “best-of” lists include an entire column of books in translation. Maureen Freely’s translation of The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk also made the list, as did To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.

Paris: A Translator’s-Eye View

The moment I arrived at Charles de Gaulle yesterday afternoon, I heard a Frenchman’s iPhone ringing with the sound effect of a vintage American telephone—something no French landline ever sounded like. Shortly afterward, my Algerian cab driver was explaining to me why Arabic was superior as a language to French or English: It contains six consonants that are spoken in the throat rather than the mouth (he performed each of them for me, pointing to his beard), and one that even involves the solar plexus. Arabic, said he, is a language you speak with your entire body; and so using these other languages—he also has some German and Italian—always makes him feel he isn’t truly speaking. I like that way of looking at language, tracing its path through the body, the shape it makes. This morning I visited the Théâtre La Bruyère to hear the staged reading of a play by Canadian dramatist Morris Panych that my friend Blandine Pélissier had translated into French. This reading of La fille dans le bocal à poisson rouge—featuring five excellent French actors including Blandine herself—turned out to be a sort of audition. The play’s would-be director, Jean Bouchaud, had arranged this reading at the theater in the hope of convincing La Bruyère’s management to engage the show for a run. This was the sixth staged reading of this play at La Bruyère, a case of apparently quite exceptional indecisiveness. This particular play has been falling through the cracks between the large, publicly subsidized Parisian theaters like the Comédie-Française and the smaller independent ones. The former, Blandine explained, favor overtly intellectual fare (like the comedy by Nikolai Gogol I saw at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier this evening), while the smaller theaters depend on audience-luring comedies more guffaw-inducing than Panych’s play—though the small audience at the staged reading was giggling throughout. In short, French theater translators like Blandine find themselves doing large amounts of work on spec, translating plays in the hope of finding theaters willing to put them on (and retroactively pay for the translations). This isn’t easy, given the resources that must be invested to make a theatrical production possible, even for a translator of Blandine’s standing—she just did a new translation of Romeo and Juliet for the Théâtre Jean-Arp. Translating Panych’s play itself was not without its difficulties, particularly with regards to the slang Panych puts in his characters’ mouths. The term “fish,” for example, is apparently used in Canada for a freshly incarcerated convict, and so when the term came up in the play, Blandine had the character explain instead “je suis plongé,” since “to dive for something” in French is a way to speak of serving time. Apropos: why do the French think that goldfish are red? Well, I guess they’re almost as red as most American redheads or my red mackerel tabby. By the way, both the posters and the program for Gogol’s Le mariage prominently feature the name of the translator, André Markowitz, which I was very glad to see. The production was directed by Lilo Baur, who collaborates with Peter Brook as well as being a founding member of the excellent company Théâtre de Complicité—based, of all places, in London. I found the vehement realism of the stage sets a bit too much, but the farcical acting and choreography were superb, particularly in a long slow-motion rebuffing-of-the-suitors sequence that reminded me of a motif from Théâtre de Complicité’s masterwork Mnemonic.

Thank you John Ashbery

It’s always exciting and gratifying to hear that a writer you revere likes your work, or, in this case Robert Walser’s work. The ever astonishing John Ashbery has just selected Walser’s Microscripts as one of his favorite books of 2010, as reported in the Times Literary Supplement. I’m blushing. I’m also very honored to be mentioned along with Margaret Jull Costa, a truly extraordinary translator whose translation of The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós was one of my own favorites this year.

And in late-breaking news, I just learned that Ruth Franklin also included Microscripts in her end-of-year roundup in The New Republic. The Walser love is flowing!

Queens College MFA Program Open House Dec. 7

Interested in studying literary translation at the graduate level? Queens College, which belongs to the City University of New York system, is one of only two Creative Writing MFA programs in the country to include literary translation as one of the “tracks” in which students can enroll (the other program’s at the University of Arkansas). I recently blogged about the advantages of combining translation and writing in the same graduate program. Apropos of the upcoming Feb. 15 application deadline for the Fall 2011 semester, Queens is hosting an open house for prospective students on Tuesday, Dec. 7 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., 710 Klapper Hall. This is your opportunity to meet the faculty and learn more about the program. Light refreshments will be provided.

For more information contact MFA Director Nicole Cooley at

New Translation Prize for Japanese, Dec. 1 Deadline

I’m late in getting the word out on this one, so if you don’t have a manuscript already polished up and ready to go, you might have to wait until next year to apply, but just in case, here’s the information, which I quote from the University of Chicago’s website:

William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies

To honor their late colleague William F. Sibley, The Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations and the Committee on Japanese Studies of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago have established the William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature and Literary Studies. In keeping with William Sibley’s lifelong devotion to translation and to the place of literature in the classroom, we will offer up to three awards of $2500 each for the translation from Japanese into English of a work of fiction, poetry, or drama (including screenplays), or scholarship in literary studies, broadly understood. To encourage classroom use and comparative research, we will publish the winning entries on the Center for East Asian Studies website. 

Submissions should be on the scale of short story rather than novel, on the one hand, but a body of poetry rather than single poems, on the other. Essays, reportage, and criticism are all genres for consideration. Retranslations of works previously translated, especially of premodern literature, may also be submitted. Each entry should be accompanied by an introduction of no more than 1000 words presenting the significance of the work in Japan and its potential life in English. The rationale for retranslation should be separately addressed. The translation should be submitted along with the original in triplicate to Chair, Selection Committee, Sibley Memorial Translation Prize, Committee on Japanese Studies, 302 Judd Hall, 5835 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.

Please note that it is the responsibility of applicants to secure permission from copyright holders for any works not in the public domain.

The competition will be held annually and judged by members of the Committee on Japanese Studies.

The deadline for the first competition is December 1, 2010.