Translation Night at the AAWW

Surely you already know all about the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, which organizes various publishing initiatives and public programs in support of Asian American writers and writing. They also throw great parties, as I found out a couple of years ago when someone took me along to their legendary Sexy Nerd party at the gallery Chambers Fine Arts, where we were all encouraged to put on big black plastic glasses (not so unlike the ones I wear for everyday) and where I met kimchi blackbelt Nami Mun, whose first novel Miles from Nowhere I LOVED. Nami Mun just won the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, by the way. Go, Nami! And go, me, too, because the AAWW has invited me to read this coming Wednesday as part of their Translation Night, and in splendiferous company at that: my fellow readers include Ghassan Zaqtan, Fady Joudah, Jeffrey Yang and Sinan Antoon. Joudah, the 2007 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition (which AAWW Executive Director Ken Chen won in 2009, by the way), has translated the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as well as Like a Straw It Follows Me by Zaqtan, who is a highly respected and prolific Palestinian poet in his own right. They will be joined by poet and translator Sinan Antoon, who just last week, at the ALTA convention, accepted the National Translation Award for his gorgeous translation of Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, a haunting self-eulogy written not long before the author’s death in 2008. Poet and translator Jeffrey Yang will also be reading his translations of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies: Poems, inspired by the Tiananmen Square protests and their violent suppression. And I will be reading from my translation of Yoko Tawada’s novel The Naked Eye, which was edited by Yang for New Directions. Yoko Tawada is Japanese but lives in Berlin and often writes in her adopted language, German. She wrote this particular book half in German, half in Japanese (a new procedure for her), producing two original manuscripts by translating the various pieces back and forth. Tricky. I hear there’s a Japanese grad student at work on a dissertation comparing the two versions. So which one of these two manuscripts should have been translated into English, the German or the Japanese version? In the end, New Directions decided to hire me to translate the German version. I’m very happy with this choice, not only because I wanted to translate this strange and wonderful book, but also because I think the choice of language makes thematic sense in this case. The novel’s protagonist is a young Vietnamese girl who winds up getting blown by the winds of history through East Germany to West Germany to Paris, where she develops an obsession with Catherine Deneuve. And it seems that pieces of her keep getting lost as she gets subsumed into one new culture after another – this subsuming is definitely presented in terms of gradual impoverishment, despite her delight over the fantasy world her obsessive moviegoing helps her develop. That the German language “wins out” in her life and becomes the vehicle in which she tells her story (and I’m skipping over a number of plot points so as not to give away too much) reminds me of the final page of Chinua Achebe’s brilliant novel Things Fall Apart, when the book’s perspective suddenly shifts to that of the colonial victors who are destroying the protagonist’s world. The protagonist of The Naked Eye watches and reports as the dominant culture gradually swallows her up, leaving her only her world of fantasies and dreams as a space of resistance. It is a sad, funny, beautiful novel, and I very much look forward to sharing it with you. I am grateful to AAWW for inviting me to read.

This event is co-sponsored by Archipelago Books, publisher of Darwish, and will be moderated by Roger Sedarat, a poet who translates from the Persian and was my colleague at Queens College last year. Wednesday, October 17, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 110-112 West 27th St., 7:00pm. There is no cost to attend, but RSVPs are strongly recommended: click here to reserve your place. And yes, there’ll be an afterparty.

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