ALTA 2013 Part 1: Cole Swensen

This year’s conference had two keynotes, and unfortunately I arrived too late to hear the first one, by Maureen Freely, whom I know to be a brilliant speaker. But I did hear Cole Swensen speak, and that was lovely. She began her talk with a discussion of her translation-in-progress of Amitier by Gilles A. Tiberghien (2002), a book whose title (along with many passages) is so tricky because Tiberghien invents a new verb based on French “amitié” (friendship), which has no equivalent in most other languages, including French. When she first started thinking about the project, she was thinking of just calling it “To Friend,” but that was before Facebook came along and squarely occupied that particular verb. Her working title for now is “Friendling,” but based on her talk I suspect she won’t stick with it. But how interesting to hear her account of her explorations into the etymology of all the Latin-influenced words for friendship, which appear in English as “amity,” “amicable” etc., all from the Latin “amicus” (friend). The English “friend,” on the other hand, has a hugely complex derivation, going back to ancient Saxon and Germanic roots that closely intersect with the roots of the adjective “free,” which finally explains to me why the antiquated German verb “freien” (to free) means “to take as a wife,” which in turn explains the noun “Freier” (literally: freer), which once met suitor and now means a prostitute’s john. Far back in the past is the Sanskrit “pri” (to love) from a root meaning “one’s own” and “dear.” The words for friendship in many other languages have very different implications (e.g. Arabic has two words for “friend” that might translate as “traveling companion” and “truth-teller”). And there is a distinct paucity of verbs in all these languages for “to be or to have a friend” – though most languages seem to have a word for “befriend,” which is different.

The friend project is one Swensen is working on in conversation with an author with whom she herself can maintain a friendship, and she explained that with only a few exceptions she always works on contemporary authors. The point of this, she says, is to pursue what she calls “translation in the conversational mode,” which implies translating works with a year or less of their appearance in the original language, to minimize the time lag. Ideally, the translator is helping writers around the world participate in a global literary conversation in which all their works become part of one huge communicative exchange. This means thinking “cartographically,” contextualizing the works one translates both horizontally and vertically, creating a map to help readers situate a writer both in a particular tradition and in his/her place in the global conversation. At the same time, translation is inevitably an intervention in the conversation: “When texts have to change to go into another language,” Swensen says, “that kind of secretly pleases me.”

Near the end of her presentation, she surprised and delighted me by suddenly projecting an image of Robert Walser on the big screen behind the podium: Her current project, forthcoming from Omnidawn Press, is a translation of Jean Frémon’s La vie posthume de R.W., a work that responds to Walser’s life and work by/while making him the subject of this fictional work. I can’t wait to read it in her translation.

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