J. Hillis Miller on Benjamin on Translation

Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (The Task of the Translator) is no doubt the most widely read theoretical essay on literary translation of all time. Benjamin published it in 1921 as the foreword to a collection of his own translations of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens (part of Les fleurs du mal), a circumstance all the odder for the apparent disconnect between the theoretical views on translation expressed in the essay and the way he went about translating the poems. I should write a blog post about Benjamin’s intriguing and often obscure essay one of these days, since I do have some thoughts on it and its usefulness to translators even today, but I am supposed to be on vacation right now, so I will confine myself to announcing that the august literary critic and scholar J. Hillis Miller will be speaking about Benjamin’s essay in conversation with Kyoo Lee next week. The event is entitled “What’s Left to Translate? Re-reading Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator'” and will be held on Monday, March 21 at 6:30 p.m. in Room 9204 at the Center for the Humanities at the The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue.

P.S. I’ve been getting queries as to whether there’ll be an audio recording of this event for those who are unable to attend, and it seems there will be. I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Translators Love Libraries

Think about it: You can always drop by a friend’s house to borrow something to read, but what if your friend’s collection of great books in translation is no match for your current cravings? You’ve got a much better chance of getting your itch scratched at your local public library. And did you know that New York’s public library system is so well networked that you can request to have any book from any of its branches shipped, free of charge, to the branch nearest you, where you can pick it up at your convenience? Really, what’s not to love? Oh yes, the fact that the budget of the NYPL keeps getting slashed as the city’s finances go from bad to worse. The library’s book-buying budget was reduced by a staggering 26% this year. That cuts down significantly on the number of new books the library can purchase. But right now there’s a way you can help out a great deal with even the most modest contribution. One of the library’s trustees, Timothy Barakett, along with his wife Michele, has just announced that they will triple every dollar donated to the Friends of the New York Public Library’s book fund this week. That makes it possible for a relatively small donation to have a major impact. Please consider contributing now, even if you can’t afford to give much. And please remember that the library is here for you. For those of us who can’t afford to buy every book we want to read, having a well-stocked library is a true blessing.

Lush Breezes

The incomparable John Ashbery read last night at Dia Beacon along with Queens poet laureate Paolo Javier, of whom I am also a big fan. Paolo, who writes really interesting work, is one of the initiators of the exciting new QUILL Translation Prize. And John Ashbery, besides being one of the foremost poets of the English language, also translates from the French. His latest translation project, the entirety of Rimbaud’s cycle of prose poems Illuminations, is forthcoming later this spring from Norton. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can see one of the poems entitled “Cities” on their website, a reverie apparently based loosely on London, though one of the students in my translation workshop remarked yesterday that the fanciful descriptions (“copper footbridges, […] stairways that wind around covered markets and pillars”) reminded him of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The translation is elegant and also marked by effective shifts in tone (one sentence begins, journalistically, “For today’s tourist”) that remind me of Ashbery’s own poems. At its most lyrical, the writing here is breathtaking. Listen to this: “The upper zone has inexplicable parts: an arm of the sea, with no boats, unrolls its layer of blue sleet between quays weighted with giant candelabra.” I love the rhythms of the phrases, the opulently interwoven assonance of parts/arm, sea/sleet/between, zone/no/boats/unrolls and layer/quays/weighted, as well as the handling of the image “unrolls its layer of blue sleet,” inviting us to think of the sleet as somehow resembling a bolt of cloth. Can’t wait to see the book itself when it comes out. Meanwhile I was struck by the phrase “lush breezes” in one of the other Rimbaud poems Ashbery read. I myself would have written “luxurious breezes,” feeling that “lush” and “breeze” don’t quite go together. But Ashbery has built an entire oeuvre around putting together words that don’t quite seem to fit … until that moment when he juxtaposes them in such a way that the combination is instantly convincing. Come to think of it, I really do like my breezes lush.

Do You Speak Tranglish?

David Bellos spoke at NYU’s Maison Française last night, presenting his new translation of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This book is a variation on what Bellos explained is now generally called matrix literature, stories based on allowing readers to select certain plot strands and ignore others à la choose your own adventure books. But in this case, rather than excluding the rejected possibilities, Perec includes all of them, detailing the various choices the book’s protagonist (addressed in the second person passim) might make and then describing what will happen in each case. Where Raymond Queneau’s approach to the matrix story in “Conte a votre façon” (A Story As You Like It) might be described as “intellectual” (says Bellos, and I agree), Perec’s is “obsessive” and “exhaustive.”

In the course of discussing Perec, Bellos said some interesting things about language in translation, quipping that “English isn’t a language, it’s a big mess” – because there are so many versions of the English language spoken all over the globe. So in what language does he, a U.K. native living in the U.S., write his translations? Well, he writes them in British English, and then an American editor “de-Brits” them, removing all the expressions that are likely to be either misunderstood or flat-out incomprehensible to an American reader. The result is what Bellos has dubbed “Tranglish” – an “almost invisible” language that “offends nobody.” There are certain pairs of words that simply are what they are, either American or British (e.g. elevator/lift, sidewalk/pavement, trunk/boot), but in many cases, Bellos says, it is possible to avoid using the actual vocabulary items that attach the work to a particular continent. I too try to achieve something like this in my translations, which are often co-published in London at the same time as they appear in New York: I look up the words I use in the Oxford English Dictionary and eliminate any that are marked “U.S. usage only.” Many words that first appeared in the U.S. do eventually come into regular use in the U.K., though, and words of this sort are fine for translation purposes, in my opinion. Bellos does use one word not found in any dictionary, however, though he is convinced it does exist, since his Latin teacher liked to use it: “circumperambulate,” appearing here as a translation of “faire la tour de.” I like it.

Bellos also passed on an interesting bit of insider gossip for readers of Perec’s masterpiece La vie: mode d’emploi, which appears in his translation as Life: A User’s Manual: the answers to many of the mysteries in this book are contained only in the index, and the index of the English-language book contains several more answers than the French original. Bellos felt that certain of the clues Perec included elsewhere in the book became so much more obscure in English translation that the reader deserved a second chance to find them.

Would you like to play the Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise game? If the answer is yes, click here.

So What Is ‘Voice’ Anyhow?

Yesterday I heard Francine Prose speak about writing apropos of her forthcoming novel My New American Life, and among the many other insightful things she said was this: “One of the things people are always talking about in writing is ‘finding one’s voice,’ and I have to say I have no idea what they’re talking about.” Since I too am guilty of invoking the concept “voice” quite a lot in my discussions of translation, her remark gave me pause, because it made me realize I wasn’t quite certain I knew what I meant by it either. As Prose went on to elaborate, one of the pleasures of fiction writing for her is that it allows the writer to inhabit other minds (fictional ones, admittedly) for a while, letting the writer “out of the prison of the self for a brief period of time.” Different characters and narrative personas written by a single author can sound quite different from one another, so what does it mean to speak of the author’s voice? More importantly, perhaps, what does it mean to tell young writers in fiction workshops that they’d better find their voices if they want to succeed?

I think the first thing to note is that there are a lot of writers who do pretty much always sound distinctively like themselves. Think Kafka, think Borges, think Hemingway or Stein. You can hear a random passage from one of their books and quickly know it’s them, just as you can hear a snatch of music on the radio and think “sounds like Hayden” or “hm, I bet that’s Copeland.” But does the same hold true of more recent writing? I suspect that our notion of authorial “voice” is inherited from a generation of writers (and writing teachers) who cut their teeth on modernism, which was all about shifting the focus of the reader’s attention from the subject matter to the manner of the telling, i.e. inventing the notion of the stylistically distinctive narrative voice that serves as a plausible stand-in for the author’s own way of speaking and represents the author’s views and sensibility. Nowadays, I would submit, the book – as opposed to the oeuvre as a whole – has become a more important unit of measure in our understanding of literature. We don’t expect a writer’s books to all necessarily sound alike. Sure, they’ll probably all have certain features in common, because they were written by more or less the same person (pace Borges), but I’d say this commonality is likely to be less marked and explicit now than in books written 80 or 90 years ago.

At the same time, I do think it makes sense to talk about voice in a particular book with its particular narrative context. Someone in the audience at Prose’s lecture yesterday suggested that “voice” was perhaps just a more appealing word for “style” (a word, he said, we might now think of as “too French”). I wonder whether “tone” isn’t an even better approximation. For me, the easiest way to get a fix on voice is in a negative sense, when for example we are reading something and find a sentence that sticks out because it doesn’t quite seem to fit with everything else around it. We must have some idea of what the voice of the text is to think that in a particular sentence the author (or translator) “got the voice wrong.” So in that case, “voice” names the narrative’s consistency of tone and style that makes us know we’re reading one particular work and not just a collage of sentences culled from various other books. And it’s certainly important for a particular text to sound like itself, even if a writer’s oeuvre as a whole doesn’t.

In short, I’d say we tend to use the word “voice” in two different senses without quite being aware we are doing so, which can lead to confusion. Voice can name either the distinctive style and vision of a particular writer who happens to write in such a way that her/his books are readily recognizable as works by that author. Or it may name the consistency of style and tone within one particular work that makes it feel of a piece in and of itself. The translator should be attentive to voices of both sorts.

What I Learned at Bridge #1

I was gratified to see a huge turnout for the launch of the Bridge Series last night. The nice folks at McNally Jackson had to keep setting up more and more rows of chairs. And it was great to hear two excellent translators read from their work: the justifiably celebrated Edith Grossman from her translation of A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina, and the much younger translator Steve Dolph, a founding editor of Calque, from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan José Saer, recently published by Open Letter Books. And I was doubly gratified by the fact that when the time for the question and answer period came, it turned out that pretty much everyone in the room was actually eager to talk about translation – it was a lively discussion. Here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom that I managed to jot down in my notes despite the head cold fogging my skull:
When asked whether great writers are more difficult to translate than lesser ones, Edith Grossman remarked that it often happens that the greatest writers manage to preserve an essential clarity even while writing in a complex style, and that this can make their work actually easier to translate than that of writers whose sentences are in some way murky or fuzzy (I’m afraid I’ve fleshed out this quote with adjectives based on my own experience). She also shared an anecdote about working with author Julián Rios, himself the translator of James Joyce into Spanish; Rios kindly offers to look over her translations of his pun-happy, knotty prose before she turns them in, and in one case he discovered a funny lapse: she had blithely translated a sentence about a “quiet Sunday,” missing the fact that Rios was punning on the name Placido Domingo. (I’m sure she managed a prodigious number of even trickier puns though.)
Asked about the specific challenges of translating from Spanish in particular, Grossman noted that writers in Spanish are often enamored of the semi-colon, a bit of punctuation that quickly gets annoying in English (if I may quote Donald Barthelme: ugly as a tick on dog’s belly), while Steve Dolph pointed out that subordination works differently in Spanish and English, such that a translated sentence can easily wind up trying to contain more clauses than fit comfortably in an English-language sentence (a problem I know all too well from my adventures with German).
At one point Grossman remarked that the English language has changed more quickly over time than Spanish, which is why Spanish readers today can read Cervantes with relative ease, while the language of his contemporary William Shakespeare seems so difficult now. In large part for this reason, she makes a point of reading as many books as she can by younger English-language writers – it’s important, she says, to keep being reminded of what is possible in English (a phrase I applaud with all my heart). She says she wants always to be aware of what younger writers are doing to make the language more supple and flexible. That’s a very Schleiermachian desire, and I couldn’t agree more.
Of course, in Schleiermacher’s universe, it’s the translators who keep the language “supple and flexible” for the benefit of other writers, but I think Grossman is quite right to frame this venture in a more communal spirit.

2011 PEN World Voices Festival, New York

The PEN American Center has just announced the dates for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival: April 25 – May 1, 2011. The festival is now in its seventh year, and has grown quite a bit since it was founded by Esther Allen and Michael Roberts back in 2005, working together with then-PEN President Salman Rushdie. This year’s festival will be taking place largely downtown, with many events on and near the wonderful High Line park and the Standard Hotel, though you can also expect to see events at other regular PWV venues like the 92nd St. Y on the Upper East Side. This year’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture will be delivered by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who is a riveting speaker – it should be fantastic. Some of the other big-name writers who will be appearing in this year’s festival include Deborah Eisenberg, Wallace Shawn, Hanif Kureishi, Harold Bloom, Malcolm Gladwell, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Cynthia Ozick, Edmund White and Vladimir Sorokin. There will also be a large number of foreignwriters you may never have heard of before but will love – a major goal of the festival is to introduce local audiences to the best of the new writing being produced internationally. Last year, for example, I heard a reading by Sofi Oksanen, a young Finnish writer I’d never heard of, and I liked what she read so much that I went out and got her novel Purge and then wound up reviewing it for German radio. You can catch a glimpse of her in the video above at minute 1:01.

Literary translation has always been a major focus of the festival as well, and this year’s PWV will feature the now-traditional Translation Slam at the Bowery Poetry Club – always a raucous, standing-room-only affair – as well as two other events that are still in the planning stages: a panel on translator rights that is to feature a lawyer who specializes in contract and copyright law in conversation with several well-known translators (I’ll be moderating this one), and one on America as seen from abroad, featuring foreign authors who also translate American literature into their own languages. Should be interesting. For updates on the festival over the next two months, check the website of the PEN American Center, where tickets for the ticketed events should go on sale soon, or join the mailing list. Many of the events, as always, will be free.


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