Translator, Meet Thy Author!

Much of my career as a translator has revolved around the work of the incredible Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, who has been dead since 1956, but I’ve also had the good fortune to work with lots of authors who are alive and kicking. Usually it’s good fortune, anyhow. Occasionally, living authors can be unspeakably annoying, especially if they know a little English and want to “check” your work. “Why did you translate Haus as building when English contains the perfectly good word house?” (Um, because your Haus has thirty-seven stories, for one thing.) I won’t tell you which author said that; it isn’t someone I’ve done an entire book by. But working with a living author can make so many things so much easier. What if you aren’t certain you’ve understood how a certain phrase is meant? What if there’s a reference so obscure none of the native speakers in your circle of friends can explain it to you? What if something the author wrote is absolutely not going to work in English and has to be replaced by something completely different? That last one happens all the time. So I was very happy when my beloved author Jenny Erpenbeck, who happens to be in town this week, dropped by my apartment this morning just as I was revising her story “Aus der Haut fahren” (which will be published in Habitus Magazine this spring). The title phrase sounds quite a lot like the English expression “to jump out of one’s skin,” but it signifies anger rather than surprise (it’s more like “to fly off the handle”). The exact meaning of the phrase aside, in the context of the story the title works because the most common sense of the word fahren is “to travel.” This is a story about a woman who sheds her official identity and leaves Germany with forged documents at a time when remaining there would have meant certain death. So the English word “jump” just wouldn’t have the thematic resonance to make it a good title for this story. This is where the author consultation comes in. “So, Jenny, how about I call your story Paper Skin?” “Hey, wait a minute, that’s in my story.” “Precisely.” “Great, I like it.” Problem solved. Try getting that to work with an author who’s reposing in the grave.
Oh, so you’re wondering how you’re going to get to experience the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck while she’s in New York? Easy! Just come to the Skylight Room (9100) at the CUNY Graduate Center this Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Jenny and I will be reading from her novel Visitation and talking about working together, as part of the New Literature from Europe Festival. There’ll be a second translator/author pair on the program as well, John Cullen and French author Philippe Claudel. I’ll tell you a secret: Cullen and Claudel have never met before. Should be interesting.

Presenting the American Literary Translators Association

The American Literary Translators Association, affectionately known as ALTA, is the main professional organization for translators of literature in the United States. Joining it comes with perks, especially for translators new to the field. ALTA hosts a yearly conference where you can meet more experienced translators working in your language area and learn what is on the minds of translation professionals in a given year. I attended my first ALTA conference as a high school student in 1983, when it happened to be held in New Orleans; a teacher who knew one of the organizers deposited me in the German workshop right between master translators Krishna Winston and Breon Mitchell, who were no doubt hashing out some high-level translation problem I can no longer recall. I do remember being taken aback when someone in the room dropped the phrase “Sex mit einem Teenager haben” – which I realized only years later had been intended as an illustration of how English vocabulary was beginning to infiltrate colloquial German (a trend that has continued). There used to be at least half-a-dozen language-specific workshops routinely offered every year as part of the conference; now their inclusion has become sporadic. But there are many other ways to join in. All conference participants are asked to speak from notes in their panel presentations rather than reading written papers, and so there is a strong emphasis on conversation in all the conference sessions, making it easy for newcomers to join in the dialogue. Becoming an ALTA member, which costs as little as $20/year for student memberships, also lets you join the ALTAlk online discussion forum, where everything from translation theory to the vicissitudes of publishing to calls for submissions and fellowship opportunities gets discussed. ALTA also awards prizes each year for the best published translations in several categories, and offers competitive travel fellowships to help younger translators attend the conference. I was delighted to be able to bring a posse of graduate students from the MFA program at Queens College to the conference this year. Definitely worth checking out.

Why You Should Apply for a PEN Translation Fund Award

Getting one’s first book published can seem all but impossible whether one is a poet, a fiction writer or a translator. Winning a prize can help with that, and one excellent prize for young translators to apply for is the PEN Translation Fund. The Fund was established in 2003 by an anonymous donor eager to support young translators and encourage young writers to try their hand at translation. You don’t have to be young to apply, but this is a youth-friendly prize in that each project is judged on its own individual merits and potential, regardless of whether or not the applicant has a nice plump CV. The prize comes with some cash (the amount fluctuates along with the stock market but tends to be roughly $2,500 to $3,000 for each of the approximately ten or so recipients selected each year). Just as importantly, the winning projects receive some serious visibility. The jury consists of established translators, publishers and editors, and the publishing community tends to keep an eye out for the list of winners announced each spring. It’s quite often happened that previously unknown translators have been offered book contracts soon after winning the award. Applying is relatively straightforward: one submits a 10-12 page sample along with a CV, a brief statement describing the project and a letter from the holder of the copyright for the original work stating that the translation rights are available. (Translation rights are always sold to publishers, never to translators, but if the rights are not available for purchase, there’s no point undertaking a project in the first place. I’ll have to blog about this in more detail some other time.)

The deadline for the receipt of entries for this year’s competition is Feb. 3, 2011 (though early submissions are encouraged). For an application form and details, consult the PEN website.

Peter Cole on Translation and Silence

Poet and translator Peter Cole—an American who’s lived in Jerusalem for decades but is spending the 2010-2011 academic year at Yale—visited Columbia University last night for a reading and talk. Cole is the author of three books of poems and numerous translations from the Hebrew and Arabic, most recently War & Love, Love & War: New and Selected Poems by Aharon Shabtai. He is known above all for the fluid lyricism of his translations, in many of which he rhymes, as he often does in his own work. Speaking with Columbia MFA student Julia Guez, who interviewed him at the podium, he spoke of being inspired in his use of rhyme by Middle English poets, and of being interested (in both his own poems and his translations) in rhymes that “sneak up” on the reader. In his poem “And So the Skin…,” for example, the beautiful and startling rhyme “faucet”/”the black swan glides across it” is set up with a line ending with the word “inadequate” in the stanza before. Cole often tries, he told Guez, to separate rhyme words as far apart from one another as he can in the poem, but “not so much so that they won’t please.” Speaking of his work as a translator, he remarked that one of the most crucial parts of translating is developing the ability to really listen to what’s being said, which involves being silent. For him this is a meditative state: stopping all the mental chatter long enough to really hear the poem and feel the way it moves across his body as he reads it. I think I know just what he means. When you translate, there’s a point in the reading of the original in which you hold the lines in your head in a form that is strangely unembodied by language. There is something there in your head, but it is not made up of words exactly, or rather: any specific words—it’s just a vague flutter of meaning held together by sound and rhythm, and the trick is to hold this weightless, vibrating thing in your mind long and quietly enough that the right words can cluster about it, and then you write them down. Which doesn’t mean that the translation is then finished—this might be just the beginning of a long revision process. But listening to the original in just the right active/passive way that allows the translation to find a voice inside you—that part does indeed feel a bit mystical.

PEN Online Translation Slam

I really wasn’t going to blog anymore today, but word has just reached me that the latest PEN online translation slam has been posted. I’ve been curating the slam for the past couple of years. It’s an online approximation of the live slam we put on during the PEN World Voices Festival every spring, traditionally at the Bowery Poetry Club, a suitable slammy place. The point of the slam is to highlight the art of translation by juxtaposing two “competing” (i.e. different) translations of the same poem. Guess what, they always differ quite a bit from one another! And that’s the space of translation: that difference between the two. I’d love to post even more different translations, but it would be hard to fit more than two comfortably on the projection screen at the BPC or on the PEN.org website. But now Telephone Journal is taking up the slack, publishing issues that feature a single poet in a large number of different translations. I’ll have to devote a post just to them some time. But not today. I have already procrastinated sufficiently for one day. Oh, but I should let you know that the new PEN slam features Turkish poet Bejan Matur, translated by Kristin Dickinson and David Gramling. Note that an essential feature of the slam is the comments page—that’s where readers like you can weigh in on what you think of the translations and the differences between them. Please speak up!

Susan Sontag Translation Prize Seminar

Susan Sontag loved foreign literature and was very interested in literary translation, and so it is a fitting tribute that her son David Rieff established a translation prize in her honor three years ago.
The point of the prize is to support and encourage young translators, and perhaps even to coax young lovers of literature to try their hands at translation for the first time. The prize goes to a translator under the age of thirty translating from one particular language or group of languages. This year the competition was open to translations from the Swedish, Norwegian, Danish or Icelandic, and the winner is Benjamin Mier-Cruz (congratulations!). As every year, the Susan Sontag Foundation is hosting a symposium to celebrate. This year’s symposium takes place tomorrow at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue at E. 38th St. I’ll be on a panel at 3:30 along with David Rieff, Judith Thurman and Chad Post. See you there?

MFA Programs in Creative Writing and Literary Translation

Those of you who have known me from the days before this little translation blog was born know that I have been teaching in the wonderful MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, which is part of the City University of New York system. I recently blogged about it elsewhere. And since I’m in the middle of writing an article about the teaching of literary translation in this country, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about where and how translation should best be taught. If you ask me, it’s in the context of creative writing programs, since translation is actually, when it comes right down to it, just a very specialized form of writing that happens to involve thorough knowledge of a foreign language. When you teach translation, what you are actually teaching is how to write well while translating. Anyhow, it’s strange that to this day there are still only three MFA programs in literary translation in the United States, and only two of them are part of creative writing programs. One of these is at Queens, the other at the University of Arkansas. I just had a fascinating talk with poet and translator Geoffrey Brock, who teaches there. It sounds like an excellent program. As at Queens, MFA students at Arkansas can choose the “translation track” within creative writing or submit a “mixed” thesis that contains both translations and their own original writing. Whichever option they pursue, they are required to enroll in at least one writing workshop in addition to their translation coursework. Arkansas students have four years to complete the degree program—during which time they can support themselves on teaching fellowships. The program at Queens, on the other hand, is designed to last two years, though students can opt for a three-year plan. I can certainly see the appeal of a longer program—it gives students longer to mature, and ideally, time enough to produce a publishable manuscript.