Translation at the PEN World Voices Festival

The PEN World Voices Festival was co-founded by a translator (Esther Allen, then Chair of the PEN Translation Committee, in 2005), and since then, literary translation has always been an essential element of this festival devoted to international writing. The 2011 Festival will be held from April 25 through May 1 in New York City and features dozens of writers from all over the world. Many of the festival events are free and open to the public, so do check out the program and get ready to hear some local celebrities share the stage with new discoveries.

One perennial event of the Festival is the celebrated Translation Slam held at the Bowery Poetry Club; this year’s slam will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, April 29. I participated in the first slam, held in 2008, translating a poem by Michael Krüger. At the translation slam, two translators offer competing translations of a single poem (in the presence of the foreign-language poet); typically, hilarity and heated audience discussion ensue. Good times.

This year I’m going to be moderating a discussion at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 1 with a lawyer specializing in intellectual property (think copyright and contracts), who will enlighten us as to the legal status of the translation process and translated texts in this country. We will be joined by two international writer-translators who will fill us in on the situation of translators in Israel, Spain and the Czech Republic, by way of comparison. This event would make a great double-header with one that immediately proceeds it (in a different location, but there’s half an hour to travel from one to the next): a conversation between illustrious German poet-translator Joachim Sartorius and Jonathan Galassi about Leopardi in particular and the role of poets as translators in general. This event will be moderated by poet Rosanna Warren.

This year’s festival also includes a panel about the translation of American literature into other languages and a so-called Global Book Swap, in which panelists discuss the works of translated literature that have meant the most to them for their own writing. Both events will be held April 29 at Scandanavia House, at 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.

Speaking of double-headers, the Translation Slam on April 29 will be immediately followed, at 8:45 p.m., by the presentation of the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards sponsored by Three Percent. I can’t help being especially curious about the outcome this year since I’m one of the finalists. Wish me luck!

Oh, and please note that the printed program for the festival does not contain the final iteration of the festival schedule; several events have shifted places, times and participants, so be sure to check the Festival website to confirm the time and place of events you’d like to attend.

MLA Embraces Translation as Scholarship

Here’s some exciting just-out news from the Modern Language Association (MLA), the main professional organization for North American college and university teachers of language and literature. The MLA has just adopted a new document entitled “Evaluating Translations as Scholarship: Guidelines for Peer Review.” Those of you who have been following the acceptance and non-acceptance of translators in the academy over the past few decades will understand what a revolutionary step this is. It wasn’t so long ago that tenure-track academics were routinely publishing their translations under pseudonyms out of fear that their interest in work of this sort might count as a strike against them in their tenure evaluations. But now the MLA’s new guidelines, co-authored by 2009 MLA President Catherine Porter and UCLA Professor Michael Henry Heim, translators both, not only enunciate a very sound rationale for evaluating translation work as scholarship but also offer practical guidelines for both the candidate under review and her/his evaluators. “Every translation is an interpretation,” the document eloquently states; “each one begins with a critical reading, then expands and ultimately embodies that reading.” The guidelines for reviewers draw attention to the different sorts of scenarios and objectives that might govern a specific translation project. Poems for a reading edition might be translated to preserve characteristic features of the source text (“rhyme, assonance, meter, imagery, and so on”), while a bilingual edition for language-learners might emphasize the semantic content at the expense of the poem’s poetic devices. Translators of lengthy scholarly works, on the other hand, are sometimes asked by publishers to decrease the total word count, requiring the addition of “bridging material and clarifying information” as well as judiciously applied cuts. Most importantly, the MLA statement proposes that a translation in the academic context be understood as a contribution both to the scholarly conversation in a field and to the cultural and intellectual life of a a community.

Guggenheim Forum on Translation

In conjunction with its current show Found in Translation (which will be getting its own blog entry here soon), the Guggenheim museum is currently hosting an online discussion of translation entitled “Word for Word” as its current Guggenheim forum. Robert Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak, is moderating a panel of translation scholars including N. Katherine Hayles, Anthony Pym and Biljana Scott. The choice of panelists shows an interest not so much in the literary side of translation as in its communicative function in the real world of diplomacy and the media, but the central question being explored, “How does translation find its role as an essential tool in a globalized world?” will resonate to many with echoes e.g. of the presidential theme of the 2009 Modern Language Association Conference, “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context.” And in fact the sorts of examples cited by Greene in his opening remarks (e.g. the problematic political consequences of the fact that the etymological root “cross” in the word “crusade” appears more emphatically when this word is translated into other languages) are very much of interest and concern to literary translators as well. The conversations on “Word for Word” will be continuing all this week, with a special live chat taking place on Thursday, April 14, at 2:00 p.m. EDT. This chat will feature Robert Lane Greene with Anthony Pym, who is both a scholar of translation history and theory and actively involved in the training of translators at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Should be interesting, so check it out on the Guggenheim website.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was established in 1990 by the London newspaper The Independent to draw attention to contemporary international fiction in the U.K. After a seven-year hiatus between 1995 and 2002, the prize was revived by the literature-promoting charity Booktrust. Past recipients include many notables of world literature, among them Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, José Saramago and W.G. Sebald, so it is a particular honor to be included on this year’s just-announced shortlist as the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. Jenny’s book also happens to be shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the Indie Bookseller’s Choice Award; in other words, her wonderful novel is having quite the spring.

Here’s the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist in full:

•Santiago Roncagliolo, Red April, translated by Edith Grossman (Atlantic Books), Spanish;
•Marcelo Figueras, Kamchatka, translated by Frank Wynne (Atlantic Books), Spanish;
•Alberto Berrera Tyszka, The Sickness, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Maclehose Press), Spanish;
•Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books), German;
•Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber), Turkish;
•Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson (Harvill Secker), Norwegian.

Such an incredible list. I’m very proud to be on it.

Is Greek Poetry All Greek to You?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about early 20th century Greek poetry, what with the buzz surrounding the new translations of C. P. Cavafy’s Unfinished Poems published this winter by author and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn. So much buzz, in fact, that one might easily forget for a moment that there have been a large number of other fascinating poets writing in Greek in the nearly 80 years since Cavafy’s death in 1933. This week the Bridge Series will be introducing us to a number of these poets with the help of two translators of their work, continuing in the Bridge tradition of pairing an older, well-established translator with an emerging one. Edmund Keeley is the distinguished translator of Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Odysseus Elytis, Angelos Sikelianos and others; and Karen Emmerich, while much younger, has already produced a very impressive body of work and reaped accolades for her translations of Amanda Michalopoulou (which won the NEA’s International Literature Prize), Eleni Vakalo, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Maria Crossan, Miltos Sachtouris, Margarita Karapanou and others. Don’t you want to know about all these wonderful Greek writers you may never have heard of? You’ll have your chance this coming Thursday, April 14, at 7:00 p.m., at the Bridge’s usual home: McNally Jackson Books.

Un/Translatables Conference at U Penn

Following up on the 2009 Modern Language Association Convention, the official theme of which was literary translation, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania is hosting a conference that brings together literary translators and scholars and theorists of translation along with author Yoko Tawada, who was born in Japan but writes in German (as well as Japanese) and has made cultural translation of various sorts a central motif in her work. The conference kicks off tonight with a keynote address by Azade Seyhan, author of Writing Outside the Nation, and will continue on Friday and Saturday with various translation workshops (including one run by me, on translating Yoko Tawada) as well as a second keynote address by theory star Lawrence Venuti, a reading by Tawada, and various panels on topics ranging from translation in the early modern period to the semiotics of cross-cultural representation to the Cold-War Chinese translations of Rilke and Goethe. I’ll be speaking about my translation of Tawada’s novel The Naked Eye on a panel with Bettina Brandt, who has translated Tawada into Dutch, and Leslie Adelson of Cornell University will be presenting a paper appealingly entitled “Rusty Rails and Parallel Worlds: Trans-Latio in Yoko Tawada’s Das nackte Auge.” Translator-poet Charles Bernstein is on the program as well, presenting Shadowtime, an opera libretto he wrote on the subject of Walter Benjamin. This is a particularly rich program for an academic conference, so if you’re in the Philadelphia area, do check it out. The full program with panel descriptions, locations, etc. is available on the conference website.

A Postscript on Independent Publishers

Just as I was posting this morning about the Indie Booksellers Choice Award, the German news site Deutsche Welle was launching a story on independent publishing in the U.S. for which they interviewed me last week. It seems the trend of independent publishers taking the lead on printing literature in translation has now become so pronounced as to attract international notice. Just this afternoon I heard the wonderful Christopher Middleton (about whom I’ll post more soon) pointing out that the first book of translations he ever published, The Walk and Other Stories by Robert Walser, printed in London by John Calder in 1957, would never have seen the light of day if it had not been for a subsidy provided by the Swiss cultural agency Pro Helvetia. And indeed, subsidies from international cultural agencies continue to play a significant role in the promotion of translated literature in this country. In fact, these very subsidies have contributed greatly to the rise of translation-oriented independent publishers, by making it financially feasible for small presses to put out books whose production costs (including translation and copyright fees as well as the costs of editing, printing, distribution and marketing) would otherwise send them directly to bankruptcy court. Meanwhile the rise of social media and the blogosphere has made it easier for smaller firms to spread the word about their books in innovative ways that don’t require huge outlays of cash. This has reduced what used to be – even as recently as ten years ago – an enormous differential in visibility between large and small publishing houses. In this new publishing and marketing landscape, readerships for books by independent publishers can sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, as was the case with the Hans Fallada surprise bestseller Every Man Dies Alone.

With all the talk of book-killing Kindles and mind-numbing reality televsion, it’s good to be reminded of ways in which technology can actually work in the service of literature.

Follow this blog

Get a weekly email of all new posts.

Email address