Translation and Intimacy

After the Robert Walser event on Christmas Day, I wound up having a conversation with poet Dara Wier about translating and reading. People are always talking about how translating is a form of reading, and I suppose that’s true, but its actual relationship to reading is more complicated than the simple assertion of the relationship implies. Everyone reads a bit differently than everyone else. We all have our own private histories and associations and reading and listening backgrounds, so certain words (all words?) will resonate differently for each of us than they do for other people. In any case, any given word can have a range of meanings, and usually when you translate you are selecting one (or if you’re lucky, two) and excluding all the others. This means that any given translation provides a permanent record of the way the translator read the original text. “But reading is such a private thing,” Dara said, “and you’re letting everyone see you doing it.” Which raises the question: Are translators exhibitionists, constantly reading, and constantly showing off the fact that we’ve been reading and what we saw? It’s certainly the case that reading a translation puts you at the mercy of the translator’s subjectivity. As a translator, I’ll pretend to be showing you the text as objectively as I can—and in fact that’s just what I’m trying to do—but nonetheless you have no choice but to read as I read the original when you read my translation. How you read the translation itself, however, is entirely up to you.

Christmas Rebus

The world is full of things that bear some resemblance to translation between languages while being different in certain ways. The question recently came up at the PEN American Center of whether someone who has translated (into English) poetry composed originally in American Sign Language should be eligible to apply for a PEN Translation Fund grant. I argued that he should be, a position influenced by my experience this past semester of working with a student whose participation in my class (a translation workshop, no less) was facilitated by a pair of ASL signers who translated back and forth everything that was said. Signers always work in pairs because the work is so demanding that they must spell each other every 20 minutes, much like simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations. At one point I had asked a student to read aloud a long list of synonyms from the thesaurus, and I noticed that the signer seemed to be having no trouble keeping up. “Really,” I asked, “you can sign all those different synonyms?” “You have no idea,” she replied, “I’m just getting started.” Sign language does not have written characters, but it is definitely a language, and so I don’t see why a translation from ASL into written English shouldn’t count as a translation. Sure, ASL is a very different sort of linguistic system, but I think the similarities outweigh the differences. On the other hand, a translation into ASL would not be eligible for a PEN grant, because the grants are for translation into written English as opposed to a visual/physical medium. There must be people who translate between ASL and the sign languages associated with other spoken and written languages, but I don’t know anything about that. Yet. But I have recently been re-introduced to a very different sort of visual translation – the rebus, which I had not encountered since childhood – by my friend Mike Gonnella, who among other things is the owner (and baker) of Tivoli Bread and Baking in Tivoli, New York. He also happens to be an accomplished designer of rebi rebuses, puzzles that represent words pictorially, using images whose names homophonically resemble the words. A successful rebus is not only accurate but visually interesting. If you haven’t had the opportunity to try your hand at solving a rebus recently, here’s your chance. I am appending below a series of rebuses Mikee composed this winter based on the lines of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. He drew one a day on the chalkboard hanging in the bakery. If I presented them sequentially, that would make things too easy, so instead you’ll find them in random order below. But to help you get started, I’ll point out that the first rebus is based on the line “Five gold rings.” Click on any image to see it larger. Happy puzzling!

P.S. I should point out that one of the rebuses contains a Tivoli insider joke: it presupposes knowledge of this local bar.

Robert Walser Died on Christmas Day

In 1956, the great Swiss author Robert Walser went out for a walk in the snow after eating Christmas lunch at the sanatorium in Herisau where he had been a resident patient for 23 years. He apparently suffered a fatal heart attack while ascending a hill, and he was found there some time later by two children out walking their dog. I won’t reproduce the photograph of his body lying in the snow, since I wish that distressingly ubiquitous image had never been made public. Every time I look at it, I feel I am participating in a shameful violation of privacy, of the right to be dead unscrutinized, unobserved. But I will share an image created by the great artist and Walser-lover Maira Kalman which beautifully captures the sad mystery of the death in that snow-covered landscape, the sense that the image of the great writer in death conceals more than we can ever know.

I would also like to invite you to participate in a celebration of Walser’s life and work on the anniversary of his death, an event that will be held in various locations in and around Amherst and Hadley, Massachussets on Christmas day and will include readings by various hands and, yes, a walk in the snow.

P.S. We got written up in the local paper!

Guest-blogging at Words Without Borders

Back in September, the foreign-literature-and-translation website Words Without Borders invited me to write a guest blog for their “Dispatches” column about teaching in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, which is part of the City University of New York system. I had just arrived at Queens and was filled with excitement about their program – one of only two in the country where students can apply to study literary translation within the context of an MFA in creative writing program. Not surprisingly, I had a wonderful semester teaching there, and you can read all about how proud I am of my students and why in the follow-up guest blog that just went live this morning. A big thank-you to Words Without Borders for its support of the art and teaching of literary translation!

Two Three More “Best-of-2010” Listings

I was so excited to see that John Ashbery had selected my translation of Robert Walser’s Microscripts as one of his top picks of 2010 in the Times Literary Supplement that it didn’t even occur to me that any further mention of the book might have been included in the TLS‘s Dec. 1 print edition – it turns out the on-line version I saw contains only some of the content from the print edition. And in fact Microscripts was selected by a second writer as well, the extraordinary Paul Griffiths, who recently composed, oulipo-style, an entire novel from the point of view of Ophelia using only the 481-word vocabulary Shakespeare allots her in Hamlet. Griffiths praises Walser’s “sense of the strange, moving beneath a wry, ingenuous surface.”

Meanwhile Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation showed up on the Seminary Co-op Bookstores’ (Chicago) Best-of-2010 list, where a staff member writes, “In this dense little translation, we move through time but we never move in space. We are spectators to the grand passage of Germany’s twentieth century in this one spot: a wood that lines the shore of a small lake. The physicality of experience weighs on Erpenbeck’s words, tying human action to land, to rooms, to objects and to views. With no explanation of outside forces or political changes, “history” becomes nothing more than the vicissitudes of productivity and ruin.”

I’m so grateful for all the attention these two books have been receiving.

Breaking news on Dec. 21: Microscripts has just made one more “best-of” list, courtesy of The Devil’s Accountant.

2010 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize Goes to Breon Mitchell

Last week the Modern Language Association announced that this year’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for an Outstanding Translation of a Literary Work would go to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Nobel laureate Günter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This hefty tome (nearly 600 pages of quite dense prose) includes a Translator’s Afterword in which Breon discusses particular problems he faced in reworking the earlier translation by Ralph Manheim. Günter Grass is famous among translators for his revolutionary practice of convening an Übersetzertreffen or “translators’ summit” whenever he has a new book out. He invites all the translators working on the book to come spend several days discussing the book’s most difficult passages with each other and with him. If only all authors did this! But think of the expense – it’s probably really true that only an international bestseller like Grass could pull off such a utopian project. Still, it’s heartening to see an author so aware of and interested in the translation of his books.
An amusing story about Grass and his translators used to circulate at the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium (which deserves its own blog entry), a translator’s colony in Germany near the Dutch border where I spent a lot of time in the early 1990s. At one of the early translators’ summits that was held there, translators reported having difficulty with Grass’s description of a man mounting a bicycle in an idiosyncratic way. “Not possible,” the translators protested. “But I see it clearly in my mind’s eye,” Grass reportedly responded, “that’s how he gets on the bicycle.” Whereupon the translators wheeled a bike in from the courtyard (I did say this was near Holland) and challenged the master to show them how it was done. And, yes, the great Günter Grass fell on his tuchus, not once but twice, after which – or so the story goes – he gave his translators carte blanche to alter the passage as they saw fit.
Congratulations, Breon!

Banff International Literary Translation Centre Now Accepting Applications

Having spent three weeks on the faculty of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre in June 2009, I can report that Banff is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, surrounded by dazzling snow-capped peaks, mountain meadows, eerily blue lakes, glaciers and strange totem-pole-shaped rock formations called hoodoos, it offers spectacular hiking possibilities. And the Banff Centre, situated on a hillside just above town, is an ideal place to spend a residency working on one’s music, dance, painting or writing. As of 2003, the Centre has welcomed literary translators as well.
Every June, the Banff International Literary Translation Center invites 15 translators to participate in a three-week residency program that gives them time to work on their projects-in-progress while also participating in regular seminar meetings with the other residents to discuss their work. Several experienced translators serve as “advisors” each year and are available to read and critique work or consult in other ways, as are the program’s co-directors, Katherine Silver and Hugh Hazelton. In some cases the Centre is even able to invite some of the authors being translated by current participants to come spend a week at the Centre and meet with their translators. In 2011, star poet and translator Anne Carson will be in residence for the final week of the program. Financial aid to cover the entire cost of the program is available for all accepted participants. Detailed program and application information is available on the Banff Centre website. The deadline for the June 2011 session is Feb. 15, 2011.