A Dialogue about Translation (in German)

This past spring, the new online magazine TRANSIT published by the German department at UC Berkeley asked me to engage in a written exchange with Bernard Banoun, the French translator of Yoko Tawada (whom I translate into English). The idea was to conduct, in e-mail form, a sort of dialogue about translation that would touch on both our experience with Tawada’s work and our individual histories as translators. I found it quite interesting to write the letters to Bernard and see what he would answer back—the format created the space for an enjoyable sort of storytelling about our shared profession. And now the results of our conversation have been posted, i.e. published, and can be read by anyone who so wishes—anyone, that is, who reads German, since this is the language we were asked to converse in. Tut mir leid! But if you follow the link you can also admire one of Yoko’s earliest experiments with typing out her own manuscripts for the digital age: “Wer schreibt schöner,” she asks, “ich oder mein Computer?” (Who writes prettier, me or my computer?)

Rave Reviews for Visitation

It’s always a bit unpredictable which books are going to capture the imagination of the reading public. Sometimes a book I was confident would make a big splash (such as Yoko Tawada’s multi-layered cinematic parable of East-West multiculturalism The Naked Eye) winds up getting shockingly little exposure. And other times, a breathtaking flurry of positive reviews blows in, with praise for a book coming so thick and fast it’s difficult to remember who said what where. That’s just what’s been happening this month with Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation, which appeared in my translation this past September from New Directions in New York and Portobello in London. I was expecting people to like this book, and apparently they do. I was expecting this book to get some good press, and it has
. . . in England. For some reason, most of the major book reviewing organs in the United States have yet to notice the book was ever published,* but in England it’s been a veritable love fest. Just this morning, The Independent published their second review of the novel; an earlier one appeared one month ago. After The Guardian published their rave review at the end of October, the novel spent two weeks fluttering between positions 2 and 4 on their bestseller list. And James Copnall, writing in today’s TLS—which is unfortunately not available for internet perusal but I just cheated—calls the book “an important work by a novelist of great talent” and praises the translation as well. Visitation was also recently picked up in the Daily Mail, PRI’s The World (BBC) and the Financial Times. That’s a lot of attention for one little novel; on the other hand, Visitation is clearly the most ambitious and successful book to date by one of Germany’s foremost younger novelists, so I am thrilled to see it getting its due.

*My publisher just reminded me that I somehow forgot all about the interview with Jenny in Vogue (!), and that Visitation was featured in Time Out Chicago, Publishers Weekly, Bookmark Magazine and The Daily Beast, as well as in the Canadian journals Border Crossing and The Edmonton Journal. Three Percent also picked up the interview Katy Derbyshire did with me on translating the novel for Love German Books. I’m still waiting for The New York Times to ante up, but I do stand corrected. Talk about ingratitude—shame on me!

Ammiel Alcalay Recommends Translating Responsibly

My CUNY colleague Ammiel Alcalay recently came back to Queens College from his current home base at the CUNY Graduate Center to read in tandem with the glorious poet (and now novelist) Eileen Myles. Ammiel translates from both the Hebrew and the Bosnian as well as being a poet, essayist and scholar. In the Q&A after the reading, Ammiel made some points in reference to his translations of Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović—author of Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias—that are worth recording here. For one thing, he spoke of Mehmedinović’s poetry as being singularly translatable because it’s so solidly image-based and relies on a straightforward vocabulary, such that translating it, in Ammiel’s words, is “like pouring water from one glass to another.” Actually I suspect that a lot of work went into Ammiel’s translations of these poems, but the simile is still pretty enough to share.

But here’s the main thing Ammiel got me thinking about: In the United States, we’ve gotten into the habit of talking about translators not having much power. From an international standpoint, however, this is not always true, particularly in the case of translations into English. Those who create and publish English-language translations can sometimes become unwitting kingmakers in other parts of the world. You can pluck a poet out of relative obscurity in his home context and give him an international platform. Might you be doing so at the expense of his perhaps more accomplished peers? You should at least know who his peers are. As Ammiel says, it is crucial to make sure you truly understand the original literary scene and context—including the political context where relevant—of the works you’re translating. Ammiel is absolutely right about this, particularly in terms of the politics (which is what he was mainly talking about). The mainstream culture of the United States is more likely to think of literature as divorced from politics than is the case in most other parts of the world (which I believe has a lot to do with the fact that it’s been a century and a half since we experienced a war fought on our home turf). It’s good to be reminded that literature is not always neutral.

Even in purely aesthetic terms, translations into English are sometimes surprisingly potent when it comes to shaping the literary careers of foreign authors. Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader was dismissed in Germany as a not particularly well-written book about the Holocaust—a judgment I agree with—until Carol Brown Janeway’s translation of it was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, whereupon it became a bestseller in Germany as well as here. And Sylvia Molloy has written insightfully on how the American obsession with magical realism in the 1960s created the misconception that this was the main thrust of all important Latin American writing—promoting the careers of some authors internationally while marginalizing others. With hegemony comes responsibility. Know that.

What Do Translators Like to Read?

To be honest, this post isn’t really going to answer the question posed in its title beyond pointing out something that is painfully obvious to begin with: that only someone who truly loves reading and does a lot of it is going to be any good at translating—or any other form of writing, for that matter. I spend so much time reading professionally (books I’m going to review, books I’m going to teach, books someone has asked me to think about translating); this still counts as reading and is enjoyable, but nothing can match the stolen pleasure of reading a book for no other reason than that you feel like it. I’m still in love with that aimless sort of reading—reading done for its own sake, reading you lose yourself in—that most bookish people got addicted to as children. And so when Bookforum invited me to contribute to their end-of-the year feature “2010: A Year of Reading” by telling them what books I most enjoyed this year (regardless of whether they were published in 2010), I was delighted to have occasion to think back over many months’ worth of pleasure reading.

Since my list wound up longer than it was supposed to be, they trimmed it for length so it would fit on the page in their print edition. Translationista, however, is not yet as crowded as a page of Bookforum, and so I have plenty of room here to reproduce my original list in its entirety. All of these are books I recommend with all my heart:

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s book of uncanny fairy tales for a modern-day Russia that have a creepily otherworldly meets just-next-door quality: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in a stunningly vivid translation by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. (Penguin)

Aleksander Hemon’s Love and Obstacles. These devastatingly humorous stories of the Bosnian immigrant experience (black humor, of course) are so sharply observed, so skillfully written I found myself floored and delighted on every page. (Riverhead/Penguin)

The Possessed by Elif Batuman. Until you read this book, you will have no idea how much more you truly needed to know about Dostoevsky, Babel and Tolstoy. Batuman is a gifted comic storyteller. (FSG)

Eça de Queirós, The City and the Mountains: a tale of a man searching for happiness somewhere between the 19th century Portuguese countryside and the luxuries of Paris, luminously described by this classic Portuguese author. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is pitch-perfect. (New Directions)

How: a brilliant poetry debut by Emily Pettit—clearly the most ingenious how-to book ever written. Don’t put all of your octopi in one eye! (Octopus Books)

Translator, Meet Thy Author!

Much of my career as a translator has revolved around the work of the incredible Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, who has been dead since 1956, but I’ve also had the good fortune to work with lots of authors who are alive and kicking. Usually it’s good fortune, anyhow. Occasionally, living authors can be unspeakably annoying, especially if they know a little English and want to “check” your work. “Why did you translate Haus as building when English contains the perfectly good word house?” (Um, because your Haus has thirty-seven stories, for one thing.) I won’t tell you which author said that; it isn’t someone I’ve done an entire book by. But working with a living author can make so many things so much easier. What if you aren’t certain you’ve understood how a certain phrase is meant? What if there’s a reference so obscure none of the native speakers in your circle of friends can explain it to you? What if something the author wrote is absolutely not going to work in English and has to be replaced by something completely different? That last one happens all the time. So I was very happy when my beloved author Jenny Erpenbeck, who happens to be in town this week, dropped by my apartment this morning just as I was revising her story “Aus der Haut fahren” (which will be published in Habitus Magazine this spring). The title phrase sounds quite a lot like the English expression “to jump out of one’s skin,” but it signifies anger rather than surprise (it’s more like “to fly off the handle”). The exact meaning of the phrase aside, in the context of the story the title works because the most common sense of the word fahren is “to travel.” This is a story about a woman who sheds her official identity and leaves Germany with forged documents at a time when remaining there would have meant certain death. So the English word “jump” just wouldn’t have the thematic resonance to make it a good title for this story. This is where the author consultation comes in. “So, Jenny, how about I call your story Paper Skin?” “Hey, wait a minute, that’s in my story.” “Precisely.” “Great, I like it.” Problem solved. Try getting that to work with an author who’s reposing in the grave.
Oh, so you’re wondering how you’re going to get to experience the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck while she’s in New York? Easy! Just come to the Skylight Room (9100) at the CUNY Graduate Center this Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Jenny and I will be reading from her novel Visitation and talking about working together, as part of the New Literature from Europe Festival. There’ll be a second translator/author pair on the program as well, John Cullen and French author Philippe Claudel. I’ll tell you a secret: Cullen and Claudel have never met before. Should be interesting.

Presenting the American Literary Translators Association

The American Literary Translators Association, affectionately known as ALTA, is the main professional organization for translators of literature in the United States. Joining it comes with perks, especially for translators new to the field. ALTA hosts a yearly conference where you can meet more experienced translators working in your language area and learn what is on the minds of translation professionals in a given year. I attended my first ALTA conference as a high school student in 1983, when it happened to be held in New Orleans; a teacher who knew one of the organizers deposited me in the German workshop right between master translators Krishna Winston and Breon Mitchell, who were no doubt hashing out some high-level translation problem I can no longer recall. I do remember being taken aback when someone in the room dropped the phrase “Sex mit einem Teenager haben” – which I realized only years later had been intended as an illustration of how English vocabulary was beginning to infiltrate colloquial German (a trend that has continued). There used to be at least half-a-dozen language-specific workshops routinely offered every year as part of the conference; now their inclusion has become sporadic. But there are many other ways to join in. All conference participants are asked to speak from notes in their panel presentations rather than reading written papers, and so there is a strong emphasis on conversation in all the conference sessions, making it easy for newcomers to join in the dialogue. Becoming an ALTA member, which costs as little as $20/year for student memberships, also lets you join the ALTAlk online discussion forum, where everything from translation theory to the vicissitudes of publishing to calls for submissions and fellowship opportunities gets discussed. ALTA also awards prizes each year for the best published translations in several categories, and offers competitive travel fellowships to help younger translators attend the conference. I was delighted to be able to bring a posse of graduate students from the MFA program at Queens College to the conference this year. Definitely worth checking out.

Why You Should Apply for a PEN Translation Fund Award

Getting one’s first book published can seem all but impossible whether one is a poet, a fiction writer or a translator. Winning a prize can help with that, and one excellent prize for young translators to apply for is the PEN Translation Fund. The Fund was established in 2003 by an anonymous donor eager to support young translators and encourage young writers to try their hand at translation. You don’t have to be young to apply, but this is a youth-friendly prize in that each project is judged on its own individual merits and potential, regardless of whether or not the applicant has a nice plump CV. The prize comes with some cash (the amount fluctuates along with the stock market but tends to be roughly $2,500 to $3,000 for each of the approximately ten or so recipients selected each year). Just as importantly, the winning projects receive some serious visibility. The jury consists of established translators, publishers and editors, and the publishing community tends to keep an eye out for the list of winners announced each spring. It’s quite often happened that previously unknown translators have been offered book contracts soon after winning the award. Applying is relatively straightforward: one submits a 10-12 page sample along with a CV, a brief statement describing the project and a letter from the holder of the copyright for the original work stating that the translation rights are available. (Translation rights are always sold to publishers, never to translators, but if the rights are not available for purchase, there’s no point undertaking a project in the first place. I’ll have to blog about this in more detail some other time.)

The deadline for the receipt of entries for this year’s competition is Feb. 3, 2011 (though early submissions are encouraged). For an application form and details, consult the PEN website.