Translation Matters at the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival

PEN World Voices is a festival of international literature, so translation plays a role in nearly every panel, since the work of most of these writers from around the world is accessible to most of us only via the words provided by these authors’ skilled translators. Every year, the Festival devotes several panels explicitly to the art of translation. This year’s translation panels have been collected under the heading “Translation Matters,” and three of them will be held back-to-back on Thursday, May 3, for those desiring a translation triple-header. I’ll be co-moderating one of them: “Reviewing Translations,” a collaboration between the PEN Translation Committee and the National Book Critics Circle, whose president, Eric Banks, will be my co-moderator. This panel comes out of longstanding discussions we’ve had within the translation committee about why it is that so many reviews of translated books make only perfunctory mention of the translation (“ably translated,” “elegantly translated,” etc.) or none at all. I know that many critics feel uncomfortable reviewing translations if they don’t read the original language in which the book was written, allowing them to confirm the translation’s accuracy. But accuracy – while important – is just one of many criteria a critic can take into account when judging a translation, and the translation’s strategies and style can and should be assessed much as one would with a book written originally in English. I recently read a review that criticized a translation for slips of register and jarring anachronisms. This, to me, is a much more useful sort of observation about a translation than when a reviewer who knows the original language hunts for and finds the odd semantic error in a translation she is otherwise praising. The most important things for the reader of the review to know, in my view, are 1) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the book itself, and 2) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the translation as a whole. I’ve written about this before.

Here’s another way to put it: In a novel by Jenny Erpenbeck I translated, I caught Jenny out having a character brush her hair with a comb or comb her hair with a brush (I forget which); I mentioned this “error” to Jenny, who asked me to please make sure that in my translation all combing was done with combs and all brushing with brushes. That insignificant little glitch in the writing would be utterly uninteresting to mention in a review of the book; it tells us nothing about (and takes away nothing from) Jenny’s immense accomplishment as a writer (she is a meticulous stylist whose work is in fact detail-oriented to an almost obsessive degree). But slips of equivalent weight are all too often given pride of place in “gotcha” reviews of translations, even if they are not characteristic of the translation’s overall quality. As you can see, I’m warming up for the festival by thinking about the sorts of reviewing I’d like to see less of as well as the sorts I’d like to see more of. It’s a huge topic. In fact, a subcommittee of the PEN Translation Committee is currently preparing a “Q & A” feature about reviewing translations, for the PEN American Center website. If you would like to submit a question for the feature (with or without an answer), you can e-mail the subcommittee here. And I hope that you will come out for our panel next week and join in the discussion. We’ll be presenting two illustrious locals, Ruth Franklin and Lorin Stein, as well as Austrian playwright and novelist Julya Rabinowich, who will be reporting on the state of translation reviewing in the German-speaking world.

From this panel, you can go directly to the “Translation Slam,” which will be held this year in its usual venue: The Bowery Poetry Club, which has recently undergone extensive renovations. I’m looking forward to checking out the new and improved BPC. The Slam is always one of the most raucous and enjoyable events of the Festival, with two competing translators assigned to each of two poems. The M.C., as usual, will be the ever-entertaining Michael Moore. This year’s Slam will feature Naief Yehya being translated from Spanish by Rosalie Knecht and Michelle Gil-Montero, and Laurie Scheck being translated into Spanish by Román Antopolsky and Mariela B. Dreyfus. And those wishing to get their Spanish on in a more serious way can front-load earlier in the afternoon with “Translating Poets Alive,” at which a group of star poets – Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Simic, Tracy K. Smith and Anne Waldman — will share the stage with their Spanish-language translators, Valerie Mejer,Claudira Mora, Edgardo Núñez Caballero, Florencia San Martín and Kadiri Vaquer, all students in NYU’s MFA in Spanish program.

Finally, on Friday, May 4, the Festival is presenting a panel inspired by the book Go the F**k to Sleep that will feature, among others, PEN Translation Committee members Cobina Gillitt and Murat Nemet-Nejat talking about the difficulties of translating imprecations (out of Indonesian and Turkish, for example). The book’s author Adam Mansbach and illustrator Ricardo Cortés are also on board. Moderated by Dale Peck, who I think will have his hands full with this one.

So here’s the complete Translation Matters schedule:

Thursday, May 3

4:00 p.m. Translating Poets Alive King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, 53 Washington Sq. South (between Thompson and Sullivan)

6:00 p.m. Reviewing Translations The School of Writing at The New School, Wollman Hall, 65 W. 11th St.

8:00 p.m. Translation Slam Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery

Friday, May 4

6:00 p.m. Go the F**k to Sleep Cooper Union, Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, 41 Cooper Square

And don’t forget to check out all the other wonderful events being presented as part of the Festival this year.

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