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.

Christian Hawkey’s Beating Heart

Christian Hawkey has written an extraordinary book about Georg Trakl, the great German Expressionist poet: Ventrakl, recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. All the time Hawkey was working on this project, all I ever heard him say about it was that he had been trying his hand at translating some Trakl poems, and so I was in no way prepared for the book itself when it arrived. Yes, it does contain translations of Trakl’s work, but far more than this it is a compilation of original poems (many of them composed using experimental translation techniques), open letters and short essays resembling prose poems, and each of these documents can be read as a declaration of ambivalent but nonetheless deeply heartfelt love for this most talented and troubled of German poets. Young Trakl, trained as a pharmacist, served in the First World War and found himself left singlehandedly in charge – without benefit of drugs or any other medical aid – of a tent filled with 90 wounded soldiers, many of them dying and some in such pain that they shot themselves to end it. The experience broke him – though it seems he was troubled even before this; his early history included incest, for one thing, and some of the most touching passages in Hawkey’s book are devoted to Trakl’s youngest sister, Greta, Gretl, Margarethe, who like her brother struggled with addiction and took her own life several years after her brother’s suicide by opium at age 27.

In Hawkey’s short essay on a photograph of Trakl as a toddler, we learn that 19th century mothers tried to cheat death of the sons who were said to die more often than daughters by dressing all their infants as girls, producing an early childhood that remained ungendered until the “breeching” of boys at the age of 4 or 5. In another, this time addressing a photograph that shows the poet as a grown man, Hawkey notes a sense “that your [i.e. Trakl’s] feet are not quite touching the floor.” The essays on photographs scattered throughout the volume are some of my favorite parts of the book – they are at once fanciful and informative and display both a depth of research and the ever-changing tactics Hawkey tries out as he approaches his subject, alternating between apparently objective description, questioning, speculation and plea. These ekphrastic pieces are interspersed with Hawkey’s readings of particular poems and lines by Trakl – notably the opening of “Grodek,” one of Trakl’s best-known poems (“In the evening the autumn woods resound / With deadly weapons”) – which Hawkey explicates as standing in for the experience of the moment when the entire pastoral tradition of the nineteenth century was blown apart by the mechanized/dehumanized violence of World War I. We tend to think of Trakl as the sort of Nature-drunk Expressionist whose work shows him to be heir to the late-19th-century French symbolists Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and he was that; but his poems also bear witness, in highly abstract form, to the anguish of the generation that saw modernity roll into the Black Forest on tank tracks. Hawkey shares bits of this background with us throughout the book, so that by the time he presents his own translation of “Grodek” as an epilogue, he has convinced us of the context in which the poem is asking to be read.

Hawkey’s main engagement with Trakl, though, comes in the form of the poems in many different forms scattered throughout the volume. These tend to be much more Hawkey than Trakl. “I am unfolding a moth into a fluttering mouth,” begins one poem entitled “You Bent My Megahertz”; another asserts: “Voles hump under the Holland Tunnel; wonder follows / A white hand down blue holes.” Hawkey has borrowed from Trakl, most obviously, the use of color to define a field containing otherwise dissociated objects, and less obviously the sense of an overarching design knitting together weirdly assembled objects in a list – the strategy that always makes Trakl’s nature poems seem so odd, as there are invariably items on his lists whose inclusion renders an entire scene uncanny, such that we sense the inner jangledness of the point of view assembling these tableaux. Hawkey’s own work has always been about using language to startle the mind out of its habitual patterns of perception, and in this sense, Trakl is his strategic ally. And in fact it becomes apparent over the course of the book, with its many poems that are so clearly Hawkey’s own while also being curiously Trakl-inflected, how deeply Hawkey’s work has perhaps always been indebted to that of the older poet. Trakl’s infatuated symbolism, in which desire always appears to quiver about blue trees and black lakes and red skies, jolts in startling ways oddly akin to the visual inventiveness of Hawkey’s work.

At the same time, the engagement with Trakl also forces the younger/older poet into territory not previously charted in his work. The last thing anyone would think to call Christian Hawkey is a confessional poet; he generally appears in his poems wearing not so much a mask as a full-body wetsuit. In Ventrakl, however, he shows a new side of himself as a poet, because it soon becomes clear that his study of Trakl is profoundly, passionately, even tormentedly personal. In passage after passage he speaks to Trakl directly, in the second person, in what eventually starts to seem a desperate effort to connect with this poet who lived a century ago and died when he was far younger than Hawkey is now. Beyond all notion of tribute and homage, I sense a hidden undercurrent of anxiety trembling in the interstices of this book: What does it mean, Hawkey appears to be asking between the lines of every page, to discover oneself to be the kindred spirit of a man whose life appears to have been bracketed by eternally insatiable hungers, violence and despair? Trakl is an odd bedfellow indeed. And yet his life and work have exerted a hypnotic fascination on so many writers. Hawkey’s memorable book shows us why.

Two Translation Awards from the Academy of American Poets

The New York-based Academy of American Poets – which provides one-stop-shopping for everything poetry: readings, festivals, prizes as well as on-line poems, essays and interviews via their website – has just announced two translation prizes for 2011:

The Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship for the translation of modern Italian poetry is awarded every other year to an American translator for a work-in-progress. It comes with an award of $25,000 and a six-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. This year’s judges will be Thomas Harrison, Jane Tylus and Paolo Valesio.

The Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, given for a book of translated poetry published during the previous year, comes with a $1000 award. This year’s judge will be David Hinton.

Postmark deadline for both awards is Jan. 31, 2011.

If you’re competing this year, good luck!

Oh, and I’ll leave you with a fun fact about the Academy of American Poets: Their website was originally designed by my friend Bruno.

Translation and Memory

The other night I was talking with a translator friend, Bill Martin, about the similarities between translating and groping for submerged memories. The conversation went something like this: Bill started telling me about the experience of translating the transcript of an RAF terrorism case aloud for a filmmaker wanting to get a quick overview of its contents, and he said that any time the words weren’t coming quickly enough, he found himself physically acting out whatever gesture was being described. I do this too when I’m translating (or writing, for that matter) – it’s as if the muscle memory you call on when you perform the physical gesture can help summon up the words. I told Bill this reminded me of the moment when you’ve just woken up from a dream you can’t quite remember but feel as though you’re on the verge of remembering: you don’t know what happened in it, but the shape of the feeling its mood created is somehow there as a sort of abstract solid, something vaguely physical. This in turn reminded him of the way long-submerged memories sometimes make their way back to the surface, as he had experienced not long before when he ran into someone who remembered having met him at a dinner party in Paris a dozen years before. Bill couldn’t remember the evening in question, but then the man e-mailed him a photograph taken at that long-ago party, and even though the man himself wasn’t in the photo (he was holding the camera), looking at the picture brought back Bill’s memory of the evening and the stories of the other people who had been present at the dinner. He described this “coming back” of the lost memories as feeling like a physical return. And I, too, had experienced something similar just the night before when I met a man from Minneapolis – a town I visited many times in early childhood when my family was living in Rochester, MN. Minneapolis exists in my memory primarily in the form of a daycare center containing an indoor slide shaped like an enormous gray or light blue elephant housed in a large department store called Dayton’s (you climbed up stairs set into its back, and the slide was in its trunk). Well, if you went to Dayton’s, this man now said to me, you must also have seen the glass box of monkey musicians in the toy department – Dayton’s was famous for them. And as he described them, the memory of these mechanical musicians dressed in little red suits began coming back to me. I remember the feeling of looking up at them in their box and watching them perform, and am utterly convinced that I did see them as a child, though I cannot quite remember what they looked like. Composing this sentence, I find myself making the hand gesture that accompanies this memory, clapping my two fists together with their imaginary cymbals.

P.S. Bill just reminded me that the link between the two parts of our conversation was that we were talking about the search for the right word in the translation process in terms of embodiment. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

(Photograph of Bill and me © Beowulf Sheehan but cropped by me)

Two New Reviews of Visitation

I was delighted to read Phillip Witte’s thoughtfully detailed review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel on Three Percent this week; it’s one of those reviews that really show the reviewer took the time to get inside the book and process his thoughts about it before sitting down to write. Witte even cites the recent interview with Jenny in Vogue. And then, just as I was about to blog it, a second new review came in, done by Ron Slate on his blog On the Seawall. Slate, who also goes into a wonderful amount of detail, quotes quite a lot from the novel, so if you’re interested in a preview, this is a good place to get one.