Queens in Love with Literature (QUILL)

That would be Queens, the borough of New York City. On last year’s census forms the residents of Queens reported speaking 138 different languages, and experts say the number of languages spoken there is actually much higher. Apropos of this statistic, Queens in Love with Literature (QUILL, a literary initiative of the Queens Council on the Arts) will be concentrating this year on literature written in languages other than English and on the art of translation. QUILL was founded to create a greater sense of literary community among writers and translators based in Queens, and to this end, QUILL will be hosting a series of readings/mixers and other events all year, as well as (drum roll) offering a new translation prize, the QUILL Translation Award. Details of the award will be made public tomorrow at the first event in the series: Love Queens Style, a Poetry Fair & Mixer, co-hosted in Long Island City by QUILL and Queens Art Express (QAX). The event will feature Queens Poet Laureate Paolo Javier as MC, along with love-themed readings by Richard Jeffrey Newman, Roger Sedarat and myself. There’ll be raffle prizes, too, including a signed copy of my translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s BTBA-nominated novel Visitation. To check it out, come to Bread Box Cafe, located near the first Queens stops on either the 7 or E trains. The address: 47-11-11th St., Long Island City, Queens. The time: 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
I’ll be reading both from Visitation and from my novel-in-progress The Year We Drowned.
Queens in Love with Literature (QUILL) is funded by the New York State Council on the Arts.
Hope to see you there!

Queens College MFA Deadline Now March 1

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I have close ties to the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College of the City University of New York. I taught there this past fall and am hoping to return in the 2011-2012 academic year. One of the things that make this program so special is the fact that the translation MFA is seamlessly incorporated into the creative writing program. Only two MFA programs in the entire country are structured in this way, the other being at the University of Arkansas. You can read about my adventures at Queens in the two guest blog reports I wrote for Words Without Borders last September and December. I’m away from Queens this spring, teaching instead in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, but I just heard from my Queens colleagues that they have been receiving so many queries from students who learned about the program at the AWP conference last week that they have decided to extend the deadline for applications until March 1, 2011 (even though the MFA website still lists the Feb. 15 deadline). If you find yourself in the market for a good MFA program in literary translation, check it out!

Festival Neue Literatur This Weekend!

I am delighted to announce that the Festival Neue Literatur launched last night with an industry-only reception introducing our just-off-the-plane Austrian, Swiss and German writers, who were selected because my co-curator Paul North and I decided that they represent the most exciting work being produced by younger German-language writers at the moment. These writers, it turns out, are a convivial bunch. If you live in the New Haven or Greater New York areas, you will be able to see them present their work live over the next three days, reading English translations and chatting with moderators, and then standing around at wine receptions chatting with you.
So who are these writers?
•Swiss author Dorothee Elmiger, the youngest of the bunch at 25, was just honored with the Kelag Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt, Austria (this is a very big deal in German-language literary circles). Her debut novel, Invitation to the Bold of Heart, is the story of two sisters scoping out a post-apocalyptic landscape and trying to learn something about the history of their village that was destroyed by subterranean fires that continue to burn.
Peter Weber is one of the most important voices in Swiss literature. We’re featuring his fourth novel, The Years without Melody, which is both a travel story (his protagonist hits the road after the death of his father) and a beautifully written declaration of love to the electronic music of the 1990s. Gorgeous descriptions of everything, and one of the chapters is entitled “Electrosaurus Rex.”
Andrea Winkler of Austria has written four books to date as well, and the one we’ve selected for the festival, Hanna and I, is a lyrical meditation on storytelling with characters and themes drifting in and out of this elegant portrait of a lady.
Andrea Grill, also of Austria, has written the funniest book on our list, The Beautiful and the Necessary (her third novel), about two down-on-their-luck Austrian dudes who hit on the brilliant idea of making their fortune by kidnapping a civet cat from the zoo – because coffee beans that have traveled through the digestive tracts of civet cats produce the most expensive coffee in the world. Smart, hilarious writing, at times mildly surrealistic. The author also happens to be a biologist and wrote her dissertation on butterflies.
•German writer Julia Schoch, a past holder of the Kelag Prize (back when it was called the Jury Prize of the Ingeborg Bachmann competition, in 2005), will be presenting her fourth book, With the Speed of Summer, the haunting story of a sister trying to reconstruct the last months in the life of her sister (dead by suicide in the book’s first sentence), an attempt that brings her back to the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the GDR in 1989.
Antje Rávic Strubel’s book also has to do with GDR history – she loosely based her novel Tupolew 134 (one of her seven books to date) on a real-life incident from 1977 in which two East Germans haphazardly, almost accidentally wind up hijacking a Polish airplane in Gdansk, forcing it to land in West Berlin. Strubel, holder of the Ernst Willner Prize from the Ingeborg Bachmann competition, writes a sharp, clear, beautifully perceived style that reminds me of Uwe Johnson, one of my favorite German authors of all time.
These six wonderful writers will be joined by the inimitable Rivka Galchen and the wise and brilliant Francine Prose on panels all weekend. Please come check out their work! They will be on the Yale University campus all day Friday, as well as at PowerHouse Arena in DUMBO Saturday night and Idlewild Books in Manhattan Sunday night. For a full schedule and biographical information, along with links to English-language samples from each of their books, see the festival website. All events are free.
The Festival Neue Literatur is a co-production of the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Swiss Consulate and Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the Goethe Institut, the German Book Office, the German Consulate and Deutsches Haus at NYU. In short, a class operation, and I am proud to be associated with it.

When Translators Do Math

There are so many different forms of literary experimentation, and sometimes translating the works that result from them can force the translator to walk the tightrope right behind the author. Just think of all those Oulipoian texts written around the use of constraints, the more constraining the better. The genesis of such a text might look like this: “Write a novel without once using the letter e, in French!” Well, we already know that such a lipogram cannot include the directive that produced it, since “write,” “novel,” “once,” “letter” and even “the” are all verboten. Instead we might read: “Script a book not containing this off-limits sign.” The constraint limits comprehensibility, and when practiced with skill can result in texts whose underlying strangeness lends interest to the narrative, as in the famous example of George Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void (since the word “disappear” had to disappear, along with “disappearing”).

And what about when authors do math? Translator Gregary Racz was recently interviewed about his translation of the poem “Profecia alfabético-numeral” (“Alphabetical-Numerical Prophecy”) by 19th century Uruguayan poet Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, for which Racz was awarded the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation by the American Translators Association. Acuña de Figueroa’s rhymed poem assigns each letter a numerical value and tallies them up to arrive at the grand sum of 1847, a significant date in the poem.

Here are the first lines in Spanish:

12. 1. 21. 12. 5. 22. 20. 1. 21. 4. 5. 5. 21.
L a s l e t r a s d e e s

22. 5. 1. 12. 6. 1. 2. 5. 22. 17.
t e a l f a b e t o…………….243

And in Racz’s English:

12. 15. 20. 8. 5. 1. 12. 16. 8. 1.
L o t h e a l p h a

2. 5. 20. 19. 12. 5. 20. 20. 5. 18. 19.
b e t’ s l e t t e r s………243

The underlying line “Las letras de este alfabeto” becomes, cleverly, “Lo, the alphabet’s letters.”

It looks simple enough if you ignore the constraint. But constraints are interesting: they force the brain to apply its cognitive powers to something other than narrative and “meaning” – which turns out to be a good strategy for the production of literature. If you don’t believe me, just think about the success of all those crazy artificial verse forms poets are always forcing their imaginations to conform to: the sonnet, the terza rima, the villanelle and – my personal favorite – the sestina.

Russian Poetry and Self-Translation

It seems to me that translating one’s own poems must be twice as difficult as translating someone else’s, and so I’m always delighted when I see an example of this that results in poetry that is truly beautiful in English. And this is just what I witnessed yesterday evening when I went to a standing-room-only reading of Russian poetry by several hands at St. Mark’s Bookshop to celebrate the appearance of the wonderful Polina Barskova’s new book The Zoo in Winter, translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg. I picked up this new volume and am eager to read it, but meanwhile my attention was caught by the self-translations by one of the other readers on the program, poet Irina Mashinski. I found her English versions of her own poems muscular and fresh, with sharp images and surprising vocabulary choices, as in “the world outside cambers and curves / towards the East” and “Late April trembles on the wallpaper” in a poem about the birth of Adolf Hitler. She said something really lovely about the Russian and English languages, too, describing them as resembling the willow and the birch. I was groaning inside, since it’s such a cliche to think of birch trees as somehow expressing the soul of Mother Russia, but no, she had something completely different in mind: The willow, she said, was like the Russian language, with all its prefixes and endings that make it supple and soft; while the birch was like English because of its many verb tenses, which are layered like the bark of this tree. I was reminded of Nabokov’s lamenting, in his afterword to Lolita, the loss of his “natural idiom,” his “untrammeled, rich, infinitely docile Russian tongue” – a description that implies a language pliable as willow twigs. But whereas Nabokov morosely claims, inaccurately and no doubt fishing for compliments, that circumstances forced him to resort to a “second-rate brand of English,” Mashinski speaks instead of the possibilities her new language opens up to her as a poet. I do love her description of the verb tenses in English as resembling layers of birch bark; that’s a gorgeous way to think about language.

(Photograph @Jean-Pol Grandmont.)

Friedrich Schleiermacher

I sometimes get asked what I consider the most important theoretical text ever written about translation, and I invariably reply: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “On The Different Methods of Translating.” This treatise, composed in German (“Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens”), was first presented as a series of lectures at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1813 and then published in 1815. In it, Schleiermacher says all sorts of brilliant things about translation that are pretty much as relevant now and here as they were there and then. Here is the main choice that, in his view, every translator is faced with: “Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him.” This spatial relationship he is describing has to do with cultural and linguistic context and the fact that most translations into German during most of the 18th century tended to be what we would now call domesticating paraphrases, texts that communicated plot line and story but paid little attention to the stylistic characteristics of the original text and tended to erase all sense of cultural difference. Schleiermacher sees the translator not merely as a conduit for works of foreign literature but as a sort of cultural ambassador who will help educate his readership in not only the customs of those who live in a particular foreign country but also their particular way of expressing themselves, their sensibility, even their humanity; to translate in this mode is to promote xenophilia.

Schleiermacher envisions a utopian project in which so many translators will be translating into German in this way that they will eventually expand the language itself. What’s more, along with the language they will be expanding the hearts and minds of their readers since, as Schleiermacher believes, “Every human being is, on the one hand, in the power of the language he speaks; he and all his thought are its products. He cannot think with complete certainty anything that lies outside its boundaries; the form of his ideas, the manner in which he combines them, and the limits of these combinations are all preordained by the language in which he was born and raised: both his intellect and his imagination are bound by it. On the other hand, every free-thinking, intellectually independent individual shapes the language in his turn.” These are radical thoughts on the subject of the interrelation between language and personal identity.

Schleiermacher’s essay is a crucial building block in the work of leading translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, whose seminal study The Translator’s Invisibility (1995) deals at length, both theoretically and in facts and figures, with the resistance to Schleiermachian “foreignizing” translation traditionally found above all in the English- and French-language publishing worlds. I was honored when Venuti asked me to do a new translation of Schleiermacher’s essay for The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004). A third edition of the Reader is currently in the works, apropos of which I just did a bit of minor tweaking of certain parts of the translation, nothing major. Looking back over the translation reminded me of the importance of Schleiermacher’s thought. There’s quite a bit to be said about the translation as well, but I’ll save that for another post.

Translation at the AWP

For those intrepid souls who will be traveling to attend the 2011 Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference in Washington D.C. tomorrow despite all the winter weather, here’s a helpful summary of the translation-themed panels and events, compiled by the staff of Literary Translation at Columbia. Such a great line-up. Enjoy, and don’t forget to tell me how it was!

Thursday
R155. Curating Literature: Five Editors of Literary Anthologies Discuss their Process. (Ravi Shankar, Cole Swensen, Pireeni Sundaralingam, Jeffrey Thomson, Jen Hofer) Anthologizing, derived from the Greek word for flower-gathering, has become a verb of great import in literary communities. Whether in an attempt to create a canon, to shape a pedagogical tool, or to form a compendium that preserves something essential while opening new space for critical inquiry, the reasons behind anthologizing are manifold. Join five editors of important anthologies, from the international in scope to ones that include audio and translation, as they discuss their processes. 12:00-1:15 pm
Virginia A Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R171. Rebuilding Babel: Writers Teaching Translation. (Carrie Messenger, James Shea, Monica Mody, Johannes Göransson)This panel will examine how writers teach translation: both the art of translation and texts in translation. What is the translator’s responsibility to the original text? To what extent should the study of a translated text focus on the fact of its translation? What might such engagements with foreign languages and literature teach us? This panel will explore these questions and the mechanics of teaching translation and texts in translation, including the use of trots for poetry and prose, working with multiple languages in the classroom, and the evaluation of student work. 1:30-2:45 pm
Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R181. A Tribute to Marilyn Hacker. (David Groff, Annie Finch, Suzanne Gardinier, Marilyn Hacker, Khaled Mattawa, Alicia Ostriker) As poet, translator, activist, editor, teacher, and mentor, Marilyn Hacker has proved herself a profound and enduring presence in contemporary poetry, letters, and public life in America and internationally. In this celebration of her poems, her translations, her activism, her advocacy for global literature, and her efforts to foster the verse and values of several generations of writers, her colleagues explore the power and influence of her work—after which the poet herself will read. 1:30-2:45 pm
Ambassador Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

R220. Spanish American Poetry in Translation: from Post-Avant-garde to Postmodernism. (Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, Forrest Gander, Katherine Hedeen, Gary Racz, Michelle Gil-Montero) In Spanish America, the terms Avant-garde and Modernism connote approaches to poetry remarkably distinct from what those terms generally mean to North Americans. And yet these approaches define the major literary works of a continent. This panel highlights the shift from Post-Avant-garde to Postmodernism, celebrating the last 60 years of Spanish American poetry and introducing some of the region’s best poets, read and commented on by their translators. 4:30-5:45 pm
Thurgood Marshall West Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

Friday
F120. Doubled Voice: Poems and Translations. (Kristin Dykstra, Lila Zemborain, Mariela Méndez, Daniel Coudriet, Eduardo Espina) This reading features short bilingual presentations by two teams: poets speaking alongside the translators who have recently created new versions of their writing. Poetry translation plays a special role in the history of literary translation: it is regularly described as the most difficult, even explicitly “impossible” form of translation. Our presenters have been engaged in recent projects in spite of this characterization (or because of it) and will share the results and challenges of their collaborations. 9:00-10:15 am
Palladian Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F127. The Experimental and the International. (Hilary Plum, Karen Emmerich, Scott Esposito, Steve Dolph, Anna Moschovakis, Jill Schoolman) This panel considers why literature in translation is often described as experimental: What issues arise as foreign literary traditions enter the U.S. milieu? How does the phenomenon of literature in translation shed light on American conceptions of experimental vs. mainstream? What can happen when highly language-focused (thus experimental?) work moves between languages? A discussion among translators, writers, and book & magazine editors and publishers in the field of international literature. 10:30-11:45 am
Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F206. Paul Celan in Translation. (Stanley Moss, John Felstiner, Norman Manea, Ian Fairley, Susan H. Gillespie) Paul Celan, whom George Steiner has called almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945, created a significant body of work that has long resisted easy translation. This panel of preeminent Celan translators, writers, and scholars will read from and discuss the poetry and translation of the greatest German language poet since Rilke.3:00-4:15 pm
Hampton Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, East Lobby

Saturday
S109. Innovations, Migrations, and Translations: Contemporary Poetry in Tokyo. (Judy Halebsky, Kyong Mi Park, Yuka Tsukagoshi, Sawako Nakayasu, Holly Thompson, Mariko Nagai) Hear voices of innovation from the Tokyo poetry scene. This reading presents poetry, collaborations, and translations, from Tokyo based poets: Sawako Nakayasu, Kyong Mi Park, YU.K.a TsU.K.agoshi, Holly Thompson, Mariko Nagai, and Judy Halebsky. In different ways, these poets connect poetry in Japan with writers and readers transnationally. The reading is intended for an English speaking audience and includes two-voice bilingual poems and short readings in Japanese followed by English language translations. 9:00-10:15 am
Thurgood Marshall East Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

S110. In the Interest of Language: The Poet as Translator. (Olivia Sears, Wayne Miller, Valzhyna Mort, Idra Novey, Sidney Wade) To translate, one must engage with the original language, but also fully inhabit and interpret the mood, culture, and the voice of the writer. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that translation is the closest of close readings, and that such attention to the nuances of each word gives a poet new insight into the intricacies of language. The Center for the Art of Translation invites four premier poet/translators to explore how translation has informed their relationship with their own words. 9:00-10:15 am
Thurgood Marshall North Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

S119. A Zephyr Press Poetry Reading with Bakhyt Kenjeev and Ouyang Jianghe. (Leora Zeitlin, Bakhyt Kenjeev, Jianghe Ouyang, J. Kates, Austin Woerner) To commemorate our 30th anniversary, Zephyr Press presents one of Russia’s foremost poets, and one of China’s, in a trilingual reading that will allow the audience to hear a broad sampling of their work. Kazakh-born Kenjeev has published twelve books; Ouyang is the author of numerous books and belongs to the group called Five Masters from Sichuan. Their literary translators will read the English versions, and briefly discuss the challenges of rendering the poems from Russian and Chinese. 9:00-10:15 am
Empire Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S141. Translation/Trans-Latino: Writing Across the Borders.(Daniel Borzutzky, Mónica de la Torre, Valerie Martinez, Urayoán Noel, Lila Zemborain) For many reasons, it has become common to place Spanish-language writing from Latin America in a separate category from English-language U.S. Latino writing. While we recognize the context and importance of this split, this panel seeks to start a new dialogue about writers who skillfully navigate both categories. In the process, we will discuss how a multi-lingual, multi-national “Trans-Latino” vision has shaped our writing, translating, editing, and teaching in productive and challenging ways. 10:30-11:45 am
Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S202. Translating Poets Alive. (Mariela Dreyfus, Yusef Komunyakaa, Raúl Zurita, Valerie Mejer, Anna Deeny) This session aims to discuss the advantages and particulars of translating a poet alive. It includes a translation from English into Spanish (Valerie Mejer translating Yusef Koumanyakaa) and another one from Spanish into English (Anna Deeny translating Raúl Zurita). Topics covered include author’s input in translating his own work, literal and literary choices when translating, and bridging North and South through translation. A bilingual poetry reading will follow. 3:00-4:15 pm
Empire Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S217. In the Clefts of the Rock: Translating Erotic-Religious Poetry. (Sheri Allen, Betty De Shong Meador, Willis Barnstone, Sholeh Wolpé, Hélène Cardona, Tony Barnstone) Sexuality and religion are generally regarded as separate and antagonistic realms in the Anglo-American cultural landscape. But they can be intimately engaged in poetry that emerges from other cultures around the world. What strategies do contemporary translators use to bring about the balance between the spiritual and the sexual in religious-erotic poetry? We will hear and discuss recent English-language translations from an eclectic range of poetries, from ancient Sumer to modern Iran. 4:30-545 pm
Virginia C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

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