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.

A New Prize for Young Translators from the German

So this is exciting: The Goethe-Institut in New York has received a donation in memory of Frederick and Grace Gutekunst (FG taught at CUNY’s Hunter College for many years) to establish a new prize for young translators from the German, the Gutekunst Prize. “Young” is defined as under 35 years of age as of April 30, 2011, and the competition is limited to those who have not yet published a book in translation. “Competition” is the right word, too, because unlike most prizes, competing for this one means translating a text provided by the Goethe Institut rather than submitting a sample of your own choosing. In other words, it isn’t a grant to support a project of your own, it’s a prize for demonstrating translation chops that can be applied to a work other than what you might be naturally drawn to. Really an interesting concept, and I’m very curious to see what text has been chosen for the competition and what the winning translation will look like. Note that the way this competition is set up, people who have never tried their hand at translation before are invited to apply. Bring on the competition! I think the point of the exercise is seduction: Translation is a beautiful, enjoyable, frustrating, maddening activity, and once you get hooked, you might well stay hooked for life. So why not try to get others hooked as well? Hey, it works for vampires, doesn’t it?

To request application materials, write to: GutekunstPrize@newyork.goethe.org.

P.S. I completely forgot to mention that the winner will receive a $2500 prize.

A blog about translation

So I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a translation blog for some time now. The main reason I haven’t done so before now is that I am already so overloaded with other projects that I’m just not sure I can find the time to keep it up. Even my beloved Berlin Blog that I have been writing for a while now has been languishing recently. In other words, Translationista is likely to be one of the world’s most minimal blogs. And besides, there are various other quite excellent translation-oriented blogs out there. In particular, I’m a fan of Chad Post’s Three Percent, and for aficionados of German literature, Katy Derbyshire’s Love German Books, which does tend to include a fair number of translation-related posts. But one is run by a publisher rather than a translator; and one is focussed on the German/British scene rather than the North American universe – so maybe there’s room for one more?

Here goes: I’m launching this little blog into the world. Let’s see where it wanders.