Talking Translation at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival: Bloggers and the Slam

This was such a productive PEN World Voices Festival in terms of translation that I wound up blog-exhausting myself yesterday on just the one panel, but there were two more events I attended that I’d like to share some information about. The first was the bloggers’ panel directly following the Women’s Voices in Translation one – both were organized by the PEN Translation Committee and held on Saturday IMG_4884in the gorgeous ballroom/event space across the hall from Albertine, the prettiest little bookstore you’ll ever see, featuring only French-language literature – both in French and in English translation – tucked away in a Fifth Ave. mansion designed by Stanford White that now houses the cultural services division of the French consulate. The bloggers assembled here were all translated-book bloggers focusing largely on reviews (Three Percent’s Chad Post and I watched from the sidelines). Most of them have been at it longer than I have (2010):

Moderator Sal Robinson proposed the thesis that for the reception of translated literature bloggers have been more important in recent years than conventional print publications. It’s definitely an interesting claim, and goes along with what I always say about the proliferation of small publishers specializing in translation: without the Internet in general and social media in particular they’d have trouble getting the word out about the authors they publish. In general, I think Sal is right: the blockbuster works in translation (think, this year, Knausgaard and Ferrante) get plenty of attention in the usual book review organs, but books by less famous authors published by smaller presses can easily get overlooked by, say, the NYTBR (especially if they’re written by women, as it turns out).

So we heard lots of good stories about the genesis and development of these blogs. Tara Cheesman-Olmsted started out writing about books in general, then decided in 2011 to make the works in translation – which she found were being neglected elsewhere – the sole focus of her blog. Scott Esposito was attuned to literature in translation early on thanks to his long-time association with the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. Michael Orthofer started using The Complete Review just as a place to aggregate what was being written about the books elsewhere, then started adding his own reviews as well (he still aggregates, which is extremely useful). (By the way, readers of German might be interested in Perlentaucher, an excellent aggregator of book reviews [in German] that’s been around since 2007. I wonder if they got the idea from Orthofer’s site.) He too, started out reviewing mostly books written in English and then gravitated towards works in translation.

The “youngest” of these blogs, Afridiaspora, got started because Nana-Ama Kyerematen found that many of the books by African writers she was finding and loving weren’t getting the attention they merited in other outlets. Her blog isn’t actually translation-oriented (most of the writers she features write in English), but it certainly brings attention to African writers you might not otherwise hear about; she also manages to put on an impressive number of events in connection with the blog, including a one-day mini-festival at the Brooklyn Public Library in 2013.

Internet-specific topics that came up in the course of the discussion: the rise of “shadow juries” around some of the major prizes (when book bloggers band together to pick their own favorites for, e.g. the Man Booker Prize); coordinated efforts among bloggers, such as when a few key players decide to spend the month talking about books from a certain region or language, e.g. declaring it Spanish Literature month. There’s even a #WomenInTranslation Month (started by Meytal Radzinski /@Biblibio on her own blog).

Do book bloggers who review books in translation also review (or even discuss) the translation? A quick peek at Esposito’s and Cheesman-Olmstead’s blogs reveal that they often do comment on the translation at least briefly as part of their reviews (Thank you!). Orthofer said he often doesn’t though he knows he probably should; he does, though, sometimes review books in multiple translations, with the translations themselves then forming a central focus of the review. I’m always glad to see bloggers and book reviewers talking about translation even if they aren’t translators themselves – I mean, no one worries about reviewers writing about novels without being novelists!

The panel ended with a lightning round of book recommendations:

Robinson: Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated by Humphrey Davies

Orthofer: Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan

Esposito: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen
Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas by Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari (but she recommends you start with a novel by Mabanckou first and read this one second)
Pretty much anything by César Aira


The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (“best novel I’ve read in five years”)

Orthofer also mentioned he’s been enjoying books in the Modern Library of Indonesia series. Cheesman also made me happy by mentioning that she’s started to follow the work of translators whose work she especially enjoys and will read whatever they translate (the faves she listed include Jordan Stump, Chris Andrews, and Heather Cleary).

IMG_4859The last PEN World Voices Festival event I want to write about was the Translation Slam, a perennial favorite, held this year for the first time in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which proved to be a perfect venue for the slam, with the same gritty charm (unfinished brick walls) we knew and loved from the pre-renovation Bowery Poetry Club, and an excellent big screen up front for displaying work. Readers of this blog should already know what the slam is about. In case you don’t: the short version is that two competing translations are commissioned of a short text; writer and translators read; and then all the versions are put on the screen for the writers/translators/audience members to discuss. Michael Moore is the slam’s traditional (and excellent) M.C.

The featured writers at this year’s slam were Boubacar Boris Diop (a novelist writing mostly in French) and Mariposa (A.K.A. Maria Teresa Fernández), a slam poet from the Bronx with Puerto Rican roots. Diop was translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager and Allison M. Charette; Mariposa was translated into Spanish by Eva Gasteazoro, Urayoán Noel, and Ezequiel Zaidenwerg. And as usual, it was really interesting to see the different approaches the translators took. With Diop’s short story, an atmospheric piece that strategically featured either a “wasteland” or a “vacant lot,” depending which translator you asked, there were enormous differences in tone and style, with de IMG_4875Jager’s translation reading as more melancholy, Charette’s as angrier and more colloquial (with more cursing, too). Diop seemed convinced by both approaches. And then he started talking about his own work as a self-translator (he writes sometimes in French, sometimes in Wolof – a language from which it’s much harder to get translated). After a disappointing experience of seeing an early work of his translated (“the translator was too respectful to the text,” he lamented), he decided to self-translate the next one, and wound up turning a 250-page Wolof original into 500 pages of French. He describes his modus operandi as “J’ai traduit sans traduire tout en traduisant.” He wound up expanding a lot and adding context because, as he explained, so many of the things he wrote about fairly compactly in Wolof required lengthier explanations to be comprehensible to readers of French outside his native Senegal. I’m guessing he enjoyed the chance to expand on certain themes as well. When asked whether he would approve of some other translator approaching his text in such a way, he responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” I’m not sure every author would see it the same way, but it was refreshing to hear.

IMG_4880Mariposa’s poem “Ay please por favor … God Bless America” (which she half recited, half sang) was stunning in her performance, and her three translators (one of whom came dressed as a priest though he is not a priest) did really interesting things with it that I can’t do justice here because my Spanish skills are crummy. Zaidenwerg (who’s Argentine), translated “war-mongers” into “milicos,” which resonates with Argentina’s “dirty war” in the late 70s and early 80s. (The others used “sedientos de guerra” [Gasteazoro] and “mercaderes de guerra” [Noel]). There was also some discussion about how to translate the term “Native Americans” in the context of the poem: “aborigines”? “nativos de América”? “Nativos Americanos”? Mariposa also provided some background about the poem’s context: just before 9/11, she’d been in Durban, South Africa for an international conference on racism that included the discussion of reparations for the transatlantic slave trade. It was a tense moment in terms of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and the news media, she said, focused on that and downplayed the conference even though it was quite high profile. Colin Powell showed up for it, but then Bush made him leave. After she got home, 9/11 happened, the NY Post printed full-page flags that everyone hung in their windows, and her experience of being confronted with this intense, even enforced patriotism while still feeling like an “other” was what prompted the poem.

As for the translations, I had the impression that they were largely of a sort that would have made Boris Diop proud.

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