What I Learned at ALTA 2015, Pt. 1


Matvei Yankelevich discusses the art of the mistake

This year’s ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference in Tucson, AZ was one of the best-attended in recent history, with initial estimates of around 370 attendees. Unfortunately I didn’t arrive until Thursday evening, so missed the ALTA Fellows‘ reading (and indeed all the Thursday programming that preceded it), but did manage to catch the announcement of the 2015 ALTA awards. In the two days following, I attended a few really interesting panels (which I report on below), and missed others I’d have loved to see because of schedule conflicts. There were other sorts of conflict as well – I witnessed several exchanges that made me aware of the generational divide among translators in interesting ways.

The first panel I attended was The History of Translating Contemporary Arabic Literature put together by Asmahan Sassah. The panel began with an excellent generation-bridging presentation by freshly crowned NTA winner William Hutchins in which he provocatively announced that 9/11 didn’t really change anything in the reception of Arabic literature in the United States. Instead, he described what he sees as a series of five significant developments/paradigm shifts:

  1. The transition from Orientalist studies to Centers for Middle Eastern Studies beginning in the 1950s, shifting sensibilities from universities outward;
  2. The Nobel Prize to Naguib Mahfouz, massively increasing international awareness of and interest in writing in Arabic.
  3. The advent of the Internet, suddenly making it easy for authors and translators to communicate directly. Hutchins told some entertaining pre-Internet stories about sending friends to hand-deliver messages when he needed to reach an Egyptian author he was translating.
  4. The disintegration of the Middle East – meaning that many authors now live in exile or are endangered within their own countries. He said he works with three Yemeni authors whom he avoids contacting directly for fear of worsening their situations.
  5. As a sort of corollary to #4: With some of Hutchins’s translations getting on shortlists, longlists and winning prizes in the English-speaking world, it sometimes happens that the works he translates get much more attention and readership in English than they did in the Arabic originals, an odd imbalance.

Another panelist, Matthew Chovanec, studied the contenders for and winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (often referred to – erroneously – as the Arabic Booker Prize). He expected to find books that had been politically and/or culturally vetted for acceptability, and found few signs of this, though he noted that the winning books tend to have a high “readability” quotient. He did, however, find that in general most reviewers of these books seemed oddly hesitant to criticize anything about them at all (even in the case of the 2014 winner, Frankenstein in Baghdad, a work apparently not without its flaws).

In the second half of the panel, Reemah al-Urfali issued an impassioned plea for translations to stop pandering to Western feminism by presenting Arab women as victimized and oppressed, in a manner emphasizing erotics and violence. She concentrated on the 2005 Feminist Press edition of Alia Mamdouh’s novel Naphtalene, set in 1940s/1950s Baghdad, which appeared with a foreword by Hélène Cixous and was presented as precisely the sort of storytelling al-Urfali is objecting to. She said she much preferred the original title (Mothballs) under which the book appeared as part of the Arab Women Writers series put out by Garnet in the U.K. (Naphtalene, the chemical name, makes for a too-easy association with the chemical warfare readers might have with present-day Iraq.) Al-Urfali didn’t mention the translator of either edition, and I was surprised when I looked the books up and saw that both were in fact by same translator, Peter Theroux; her argument was more about the book’s packaging and selection than how it was translated. Overall, I found that she made good and strong points, though it’s an odd lapse not to discuss a book’s actual translation at a translators’ conference.

Her contribution had an interesting aftermath as well, when an older translator – without acknowledging anything al-Urfali had said – spoke about his own translations in unapologetically orientalist terms, saying for example that he was drawn to translate the work of both contemporary Palestinian writers and Chinese poets during and just after the Cultural Revolution because “Good literature happens when people are under stress.” Now, just because someone says things like this doesn’t mean that his engagement with/knowledge of these literatures is not extensive. It’s just that it would be really unlikely for someone who’s paid attention to the impassioned debates in recent decades about colonialism and all its accompanying ills to draw a direct connection like this between aesthetic pleasure and accounts of suffering in the context of armed conflict. My takeaway: It’s really important to pay attention to the issues that intelligent people 20 or even 40 years one’s junior are exercised about.

Leading me to the next terrific panel I attended: Wrong Turns: On Making Mistakes in Translation. The topic was apparently of enormous interest – there were 90-100 people already crammed into the room when I arrived. And the panel was indeed highly entertaining and productive. As moderator Karen Emmerich put it, the concept of the “mistake” is so interesting because it gets used to “police the borders” between different approaches to and attitudes toward translation. After all, a mistake can be “either funny and generative, or devastating,” depending whether we’re looking at “correctness” from the point of view of responsibility or play. Heather Cleary reported on why the Buenos Aires Review, of which she is a founding editor, decided to present the texts it publishes bilingually in such a way that you have to toggle between the English and Spanish versions, to discourage the sort of back-and-forth reading that tempts one to constantly “check” the translator’s work rather than engage fully in the text as a reader. Because let’s face it, we do have a tendency to become translation fact-checkers when we read, and it definitely affects our engagement with the text. She also mentioned in passing an interesting website with a quite different aim: www.doppeltext.com, which provides (for a fee) stories in French, German, Russian, or Spanish with English translations programmed to appear one phrase at a time when you click on a line; Kafka’s Metamorphosis (in the Ian Johnston translation) is offered as a free sample. On the same panel, Matvei Yankelevich spoke about the different ways correctness gets parsed in different context with a really interesting discussion of why he decided to translate the text formerly known as The Cloud in Trousers by Mayakovsky as The Cloud in Pants. We’re drawn to the alliteration of cloud/trousers, he explains, because it’s lyrical, and so we identify it as “literary.” But in fact Mayakovsky wasn’t at all interested in sounding literary (there’s no alliteration in Oblako v shtanakh, for one thing), in fact he was all about dismantling lyricism, so “correcting” his work to make it sound more poetic is wrong. Right. The rightness of “mistakes” was most powerfully illustrated on this panel in the presentation by David Shook, who provided various examples of intentional and inadvertent mistranslations that wound up revealing previously hidden truths about a literary work (as when “eau de cologne” in his translation of “Cook Boat” by Joaquín Pasos became “colonial waters”). In another project, “Writing Lessons for the Dead and Blind,” he translated a work by Mario Bellatin (with whom he had previously collaborated) that didn’t yet exist in the original. That’s a great way to avoid translation errors. (And let me not fail to remind Marian Schwartz of her suggestion in the Q&A that someone organize an ALTA panel next year on which languages and cultures are most hospitable to, and which most resistant to errors. She noted that some poets like their translators’ mistakes and insist on keeping them.)

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Translators hypnotized by punctuation

Next it was on to The Perils of Punctuation, at which I was a presenter, filling in for the originally-scheduled Jeffrey Buntrock. Lisa Bradford started the panel off with a lovely presentation on her just-out translation of Juan Gelman’s Oxen Rage that ends on an interrupted question mark (a question mark having ¿two parts? in Spanish). Aviya Kushner spoke about the history of punctuation in translations of the Bible (noting that the Hebrew Bible uses none). It turns out that quite a few declarative sentences e.g. in the Psalms get turned into questions in translation – that’s rhetorically really interesting. Aron Aji talked about the transformations of the Turkish language and is punctuation, noting that modern Turkish is only around 90 years old, before which it used the Arabic system and no punctuation at all, such that Turkish punctuation remains unstable to this day, with e.g. different newspapers using slightly different systems. Marian Schwartz taught us all the different things a colon can do in Russian that it cannot in English (there are lots of them, e.g. it can substitute for a period in English, or for a pair of m-dashes, or to introduce a subordinate clause, or to introduce a direct quote in response to a reported question, or for “because”). My own presentation also talked about the slippage between words and punctuation (with regard to the German word “denn,” a weak-causality form of “because” that’s often best translated into English as a punctuation mark). I talked about German usages (the run-on sentence and heavy use of exclamation points in particular) that require retooling in English. Like Marian, I emphasized the helpfulness of the dash as a sentence-saving translator’s tool in English. And I very much admire the point Marian made that we should always remember, when translating, that we are translating whatever it is that is special in the prose of each author and not the stylistic peculiarities that are universal to the language in which the author writes. Yes, important point.

There’s lots more I learned at ALTA this year – much more than will fit in a single blog post, so I’ll truncate here and resume my report in a second post to follow soon.

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  1. Tony says:

    “There were other sorts of conflict as well – I witnessed several exchanges that made me aware of the generational divide among translators in interesting ways.”

    Now that’s got me interested…

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