As in most of her writings, Inger Christensen's 1967 fiction Azorno, is a highly structured work. In this case, seven characters?Randi, Katarina, Louise, Xenia, Bathsheba (Bet), Sampel and Azorno?each of the women pregnant, are in the process of writing fictions. Each of their narratives?although one who be hard placed to describe any of them as having a plot?contains similar actions, phrases, and events.
Christensen asks as many have before her--but in a highly original manner--what is reality, who of us is real? Several of her figures often have the feeling that somewhere there is a person who exactly at the same moment makes the same notes to be woven into a novel about him or herself.
It is only in the final section of this lyrical work that we sense we may have broken through to a seeming reality.
Here, translator Rika Lesser describes her first experience hearing Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi perform his work. Lesser's translation of Mozart's Third Brain by Sonnevi has just been published by Yale University Press. Sonnevi's work is also available in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, from the Center for the Art of Translation.)
It is now twenty-seven years since I first heard Göran Sonnevi read from his work at an event called Scandinavia Today, a program organized by the Academy of American Poets and the American-Scandinavian Foundation at the Guggenheim Museum, in which a panel of Nordic poets and American poet/translators spoke, and then the foreign poets read. I had been wedged between Finnish and Norwegian guests on the panel. Sonnevi, coming alphabetically last (by country), read last, from Robert Bly's just published The Economy Spinning Faster and Faster (1982), perhaps the final bilingual chapbook in Bill Zavatsky's SUN series, containing just ten poems. Back then, there was a glass booth above the Guggenheim auditorium, in which I was pacing, with the little book in hand, prepped for vetting.
Like many actors and opera singers, Sonnevi stammers when he speaks but not when he performs his poems before an audience. I did not know this. When I had spent a year in Sweden in 1974-75, I could not understand why his poems were all the rage. I have written that I considered them texts that trickled down page after page, hugging the left margin. . . . texts I regarded chiefly as tracts on linguistics, mathematics, politics—subjects about which I preferred to read in other forms.
What can I say? Hearing him read was a turning point in my life as a poet and translator. Sonnevi was born in 1939, I in 1953; we both still call these performances readings. He requires a freestanding microphone but no DJ. But somehow read is not the right word for what he does; neither is incant or intone. His voice is fluent and singing; there is intensity without drama or melodrama in it. For me the sensation of hearing him read that first time was sensual, nearly erotic. Like a knife . . . through water?
Göran Sonnevi and I spent the two days following the event taking long walks all around New York City, discussing Swedish and American poetry, poetics, talking chiefly about rhythm, its overriding importance in translation. We also talked quite a bit about our earlier training in the natural sciences, and our interest in music, especially piano (my training was classical, he played jazz). I did not really start translating his work until some time near the spring equinox of 1984; it would be nine years before A Child Is Not a Knife (1993), the first book-length edition of his poems in English came out in my translation from Princeton University Press. Part of the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, it is still available.
The Harvard Crimson, which hands it to most other papers in terms of covering literature-in-translation, offers a review of the intriguing novel Azorno by Inger Christensen, a perennial Nobel candidate until her death earlier this year:
Whether Azorno is a novelesque prose poem, or a poetic novel written in prose is up for debate?as is much of the nature of its contents. A hall of mirrors, the book was written by acclaimed Danish poet Inger Christensen, who died in early January of this year at 73. Denise Newman's translation of Azorno, released in January, marked the first time since its publication in the late 1960s that the novel has been available in English, and while the book's experimental nature makes its absence rather unsurprising, the arrival of its 105 pages is long overdue . . .
As a writer, Günter Grass has never been averse to political matters, and The Times (London) is now reporting that he's upping his involvement in politics as a citizen, campaigning for the Social Democrats:
Now, with the Social Democrats at risk of imploding in eastern Germany, Mr Grass is back on the road, taking his VW minibus emblazoned with Günter Grass ? en route from Germany to Germany across the country, filling theatres and concert halls. . . .
The main aim, says the novelist, essayist and poet, is to stop a lurch to the Centre Right on election day, September 27. Voter apathy is his main target.
We'll be doing two events with Natasha Wimmer on October 6 and 7. (Wimmer will also be editing an anthology of translated literature for the Center, due out next year.)
In addition to reading from and discussing 2666, at these events Wimmer will be talking about some new Bolaño projects she currently has ongoing. To give readers an idea of what to expect, I chatted briefly with Wimmer about these books.
Scott Esposito: First I wanted to ask you about these new Bolaño texts they're digging up, particularly El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich) and the supposed sixth book of 2666.
Natasha Wimmer: I've read The Third Reich (and in fact, it looks like I'll be translating it, though I have yet to sign on the dotted line). It's about an elaborate board game called The Third Reich (Bolaño was a great fan of war games), it takes place on the Costa Brava, and it pits a German tourist against an enigmatic South American who rents paddle boats on the beach. I loved it.
I haven't read the purported sixth section of 2666, or even really heard much about it. Maybe it will remain forever ghostly—the spectral answer to all our 2666 questions.
SE: That seems preferable to its publication, in my opinion. You're currently translating Antwerp and Entre parentesis (Between Parentheses) for New Directions, due out in 2010 and 2011, respectively. First I wanted to ask you about Antwerp, which is a novel but actually predates Bolaño's first novel (The Skating Rink, just published in English translation) by a good 13 years.
NW: Antwerp is Bolaño intensified and condensed—the Big Bang, as Bolaño's friend and literary executor Ignacio Echevarria referred to it. It was written in 1980, which makes it his first novel, though it wasn't published until 2002. It's a very short book, with short chapters, each of them like a prose poem, but there is a semblance of a crime plot, and the action (such as it is) takes place on the Costa Brava.
SE: And then Entre parentesis is Bolaño's nonfiction?
NW: Entre parentesis (translation of the title still to be decided) is a collection of nonfiction, almost all of it written during the last five years of Bolaño's life. In effect, it's a kind of literary autobiography—intense, funny, scathing, moving. Bolaño isn't bound by many conventions in writing about himself or about other writers, and he's in full oblique-lyrical sail in lots of these pieces. It's the kind of book that actually makes you gasp in places—at Bolaño's daring, at his honesty, and at his skill.
SE: And lastly, I wanted you to weigh in on talk of Bolaño being the next great thing in Latin American letters, in the lineage of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
NW: It's hard for me to be objective on the subject—I'm too close to the books to get the proper perspective on them. And it's probably too early for anyone else to judge definitively, either. All I can say is that Bolaño's voice echoes in a very persuasive way.
(In addition to publishing the Two Lines series of literary anthologies and conducting events, the Center for the Art of Translation promotes literature and translation through an in-school program called Poetry Inside Out. Anita Sagástegui, Poetry Inside Out Instructor & Curriculum Specialist, writes here about some of what PIO does.)
I work with Poetry Inside Out, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation that teaches students the craft of poetry and literary translation. During the last nine years, over 6,000 elementary and middle students have participated in PIO, where they've read a variety of Spanish-language poets who enliven their naturally playful imaginations. The students translate from some of the great authors of the Spanish language, letting them get firsthand knowledge of the various devices and forms the poets have used, as well as begin to imagine themselves as poets, as translators and as participants in a global literary community.
People have asked us, why translation? Some see translation as cheating—at best unnecessary, at worst detrimental to studying English. What does a ten year-old child translating a poem by Pablo Neruda really get out of the experience? For a start, translation builds literacy, interpretive, and investigative skills. It enhances conceptual understanding and critical thinking, and it builds vocabulary. We at PIO like to think of translation as Jorge Luis Borges once put it when he suggested that translation is another way of reading—and in turn reading is a way of interpreting and reconstructing a text.
We've also found that literary translation in the classroom isn't just limited to bilingual students. Monolingual students are particularly amazed to discover that, given supportive scaffolding, they can translate. Students of multiple ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds contribute and collaborate with those outside their normal social circle. Students get to see ways of working with words they might not have otherwise encountered, and they have fun! They feel like detectives, piecing together the clues they find in the individual words, ideas, context, rhythm, and tone of a poem.
In the process of collaboration, students discover that there is more than one correct translation: in small groups they play with word order and word choice, debating between their various constructions. They learn that not every word must be translated, but every idea should be. As they learn the craft of translation, Poetry Inside Out students no longer think of translation as copying the poem into another language. They come to see it as creative writing—the re-imagining and re-creation of the poem in another language. They transform the prejudiced phrase, it doesn't sound as good as the original, into it sounds really cool in translation!
To illustrate this point, I'd like to leave you with four different translations of Colombian poet Aurelio Arturo's Madrigales made by students in the Poetry Inside Out Program. Enjoy!
Llámame en la hondonada de tus sueños más dulces,
llámame con tus cielos, con tus nocturnos
llámame con tus noches desgarradas al fondo
por esa ala inmensa de imposible blancura.
Llámame en el collado, llámame en la llanura,
y en el viento y la nieve, la aurora y el poniente,
llámame con tu voz, que es esa flor que sube
mientras a tierra caen llorándola sus pétalos.
—Aurelio Arturo, Colombia
Call me from the depths of your sweetest dreams,
call me with your skies, and your nocturnal heavens,
call me in your nights broken on the horizon
by that huge wing of impossible white.
Call me on the hill, call me in the valley
and in the wind and snow, the dawn and sunset,
call me with your voice, that is the flower that goes
while to the earth fall crying its petals.
—Jazmine Paniagua, 5th grade
Call me in the depth with your sourest dreams,
call me with your sky, and your black heavens,
call me in your nights broken into the horizon
by that gigantic wing of impossible whiteness.
Call me when you are shooting out of a volcano,
call me in the valley and in the swooshing wind and
snow, the dawn and the falling sun,
call me with your vowels, that is the daisy that rises
while the earth's gravity will fall with crying petals.
—Translated by Moesha Escamilla, 6th grade
Call me in the ravine of your sweetest dreams,
call me with your skies, with your nocturnal
call me with your nights clawed to the bone
by that immense wing of impossible whiteness.
Call me along the hills, call me within the valleys,
and in the wind and snow, the dawn and sunset,
call me with your voice, that is this flower that rises
while her petals, sobbing for her, fall to earth.
—Translated by Audrey Larkin, 7th grade
Call me in the deep side of your sweetest sour
call me with your big emotional skies and your
call me in your broken dream by that
huge storm of impossible whiteness.
Call me on the hill, call me in the valley,
and in the enormous winds and the white snow, the dawn and the beautiful sunset,
call me with your voice, that is the flower that opens
while falling to the earth, crying for its petals.
—Translated by Nataly Garibay, 8th grade
(Christian Bobin is a literary phenomenon in France, where his numerous short works can sell as many as 100,000 copies. His books are hard to categorize—Alison Anderson, his English language translator characterizes them as neither fact nor fiction, neither prose nor poetry, but a combination of all four.
Her translation of Bobin's book A Little White Dress is publishing this December. In Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed we'll be publishing an excerpt from his book The Lady In White, devoted to Emily Dickinson.
Here Anderson writes about how she first discovered this author.)
In 1994 I went to the huge book trade fair in Los Angeles, I think it was still called the ABA Convention in those days (now it's Book Expo America). Thousands of stands, millions of books; I was a beginning translator and totally overwhelmed. So it was with some sense of relief and homecoming that I found the stand of the French Publishers' Agency; they were smoking, surreptitiously, and while I waited for them to finish their clopes and condescend to talk to me, I browsed their books: prominently displayed was a small volume, with Gallimard's plain white collection cover, by an author I'd never heard of called Christian Bobin, and who was, it seemed, all the rage. I didn't get the book, but the name stuck.
Some months later I was in France I found a paperback by the same Monsieur Bobin at the Maison de la Presse in a provincial town. The cover was more alluring, but perhaps deceiving: a black and white photograph by Edouard Boubat. I was disappointed when I couldn't get into the book (after all, that promising cover . . .); it seemed odd, neither a short story nor a novel, and yet it was prose: what was the writer getting at? Where were the characters, the plot? Who was this strange narrator?
Fortunately I kept it, and went back to it a few years later, and suddenly it clicked, as things tend to do with experience. Bobin makes no pretence of trying to write like a novelist, or storyteller, or journalist, or memoirist, or anyone else; you have to read him as he is, opening your mind. He is in a category on his own. His writing is closest to poetry, perhaps, in the lyricism, the choice of subject matter, the almost Romantic emphasis on the nobility of solitude, reflection, love. He teaches you to read all over again, to love words.
On every subsequent trip to France I bought up each new book; Bobin's works are short, rarely more than a hundred pages, and he sometimes publishes several a year. I decided I would try to translate some of his short pieces. I sent them out; they came back; people didn't get it. He's not edgy, or trendy, or experimental; he's deeply reflective, almost religious. Maybe people aren't used to thinking about life in a philosophical way, at least not through literature. But while I may not have been doing a good job marketing or pitching Bobin to potential publishers and journals (something which Bobin would abhor, anyway, the whole commercial side of literature), I must have been doing something right in my translation, because in 2004 I was awarded an NEA translation grant for three short volumes, two of which, A Little Party Dress and I Never Dared Hope You Would Come, have finally found a home at Autumn Hill Press and will be published at the end of this year.
La Dame Blanche, an excerpt of which will appear in the upcoming edition of Two Lines, is Bobin's most recent publication in France as of this writing, an imagined biography of Emily Dickinson. They are kindred souls, both living reclusive lives enriched by their ability to focus on the everyday, in a familiar landscape that is, in fact, never the same from one day to the next. Reading Bobin opens one's eyes onto a new way of seeing the world—in fact it may be an old way, a forgotten way, but it becomes fresh beneath his pen, through his words. Something he must share, after all, with the Lady in White from Amherst. Like all his other texts, La Dame Blanche is short, poetic, inventive. He does not so much tell her story as suggest a way of understanding who she was, of seeing her subliminally, intuitively.
Moral of this story for me, at least: let the Frenchman finish smoking his cigarette; you never know what treasure you might discover in the meantime, even if it is only a name, with a certain resonance.
Join us for a feast of world literature: 3 authors, 3 countries! Sofi Oksanen was named Estonia's Person of the Year in 2009 and is the author of the award-winning novel Purge, soon to be published in 25 languages. Tommy Wieringa is the author of Joe Speedboat--a sparkling coming-of-age novel that recalls The World According to Garp (NRC Handelsblad) and has sold over 300,000 copies in Holland. And Christos Tsilolkas's The Slap--told from 8 different perspectives--has sold over 100,000 copies in 11 countries. They'll be in conversation with book critic and writer Oscar Villalon, the former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Co-sponsored by the Center for the Art of Translation. Join us for the 29th Annual Northern California Book Awards. The awards honor the work of Northern California authors in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translation and Children's Literature. The featured speaker is Cody Award winner Nancy J. Peters, co-owner and former publisher of City Lights Books. A book sale by Book Bay follows the event.
(Translator Susan Bernofsky's newest translation is The Tanners by Robert Walser, published by New Directions. Here we discuss The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, published earlier this year, also by New Directions. An excerpt from The Naked Eye appears in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.)
Scott Esposito: Yoko Tawada is an author that you've translated repeatedly. What for you are the pleasures of translating Tawada, the things that pull you back in to do more of her work?
Susan Bernofsky: Yoko's work is always filled with surprises; she has a way of looking at things that's so idiosyncratic. I love the way she writes characters in confusing situations (an example of a confusing situation might be glancing in the mirror and discovering you're growing scales) and she always somehow manages to convey the delight inherent in being surprised, even when the changes are scary. Characters in her work tend to find everything around them extremely interesting, and reading her makes me feel that way too. It all feels so obvious and simple when you read her, and when you translate her it quickly becomes clear what a precise way she has of saying things and how difficult it is to achieve a tone that conveys wonder without just seeming kitschy or banal.
SE: The Naked Eye is in part about how language filters identity—Tawada wrote parts in Japanese and parts in German, depending on which seemed more appropriate to the particular thing she wanted to express. This is the first book in which she has experimented with two languages at once (though she has previously written books in both languages). As you were translating, did you notice any particular differences between this one and others that were originally written entirely in German?
SB: You know, I didn't, and that surprised me in retrospect when I found out how she'd written the book—she didn't fess up to me until afterward. In a sense, though, she's written so much in German now in between writing books in Japanese (it's about 50-50 as I understand it), that this switching back and forth between languages must be second nature for her now. I suspect it didn't feel nearly as odd to her to be writing a book this way as it seems to us when we hear about it. And I would guess that the Japanese manuscript of the book differs a great deal from the German version. Wish I could read it!
SE: The narrator is obsessed with the films of actress Catherine Deneuve (which are in French, a language she doesn't speak). It seemed to me that in addition to Japanese and German this was another kind of language, that of cinematography, which conditions its own kinds of thoughts. This kind of intertextuality reminded me of the novel Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, just published in English translation by Esther Allen. Allen says that in this particular novel Prieto writes as a translator, to expose the way in which all meaning is temporary and provisional, dependent upon its immediate context, subject to infinite and unpredictable shifts. Would you say that in The Naked Eye Tawada is after similar goals?
SB: Absolutely. I love how Esther puts that. Yoko's work plays a great deal with the parallels between the way in which being literally foreign in a context defines your culturally inflected understanding of it and the way being foreign in all the figurative senses of that term creates a subjectivity that inflects understanding just as much. In effect, there's no way to escape from the estrangements of subjectivity even within a single language and culture. That's why (or one reason why) Yoko's work is so dominated by fragmented narrative forms, stories filled with gaps—because straightforward linear narration creates the illusion of a continuity she doesn't believe in.
SE: In TWO LINES you wrote that perhaps the greatest challenge of translating this novel was maintaining the slight feeling of alienation in the language, which on the one hand is literary, rich and lyrical, and on the other, possessed of a slight halting quality that seems intended to remind us that the narrator is speaking a language not native to her. How was this challenge different from, say, the challenge of simply rendering lyrical prose?
SB: I was always having to watch my diction and sentence constructions, making sure that my language use didn't get too fancy. The book's narrator is educated and cultured, but she speaks plainly because she's using a new language. In a sense I prefer thinking of the book as having been written in German than in Japanese because we see the narrator being caught up in, subsumed by this European world—and history is written by the victors, she's speaking the language that swallowed her up.
SE: Lastly, in a previous interview, you called the process of translation a writing exercise with maximal constraints. You also said it was like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise. Is this something you enjoy about translation, this very rigorous attempt at mimesis?
SB: What could be more fun than walking around pretending to be another person (in this case: speak in another voice) and convince people to believe you! Nothing makes me happier as a translator than when people talk about the different authors I translate sounding different from one another. Sure, I have my own voice, and inevitably it will come through somewhat in the translations, but what I'm really hoping to accomplish when I translate a book is to write someone else's voice so convincingly that everyone instantly believes it's her or him doing the talking.
(We're kicking off a new feature at Two Words that'll collect together a list of resources for translators: The Translator's Toolkit. Our first offering comes from Two Lines translator C.M. Mayo. In addition to translating for Two Lines, C.M. has done work for numerous journals and presses, as well ... [more]Posted on September 8, 2009, 04:56:56 PM
Those who have been holding out for a 1-volume, paperback edition of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 can now purchase just that from Picador. The book has just been released, totaling 912 pages and costing $18.00.
Bay Area residents who have waited till now to give Bolaño's enormous opus a s... [more]
Yesterday, translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid discussed his work on Cities Without Palms by Sudanese writer Tarek Eltayeb. We're publishing an excerpt from Cities in our forthcoming anthology.
Although Eltayeb is little-known in the U.S., he is a major author in other parts of the world. He has li... [more]
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The stories and poems within TWO LINES open the reader up to a world that would otherwise be closed entirely, and to conne... [more]
Return to our press room
Download as PDF
Contact: Scott Esposito, Marketing Coordinator
Tel: (415) 512-8812
The seventeenth volume of the TWO LINES World Writing in Translation series—the premiere anthology of literature-in-trans... [more]
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(Here, Kareem James Abu-Zeid discusses his translation of Cities without Palms by Sudanese author Tarek Eltayeb. An excerpt from this book is available in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, where Abu-Zeid writes that Tarek's early experiences in Europe greatly inform his writing, much of which deals with ... [more]Posted on September 1, 2009, 05:21:56 PM
Lawrence Venuti's introduction to the special Catalan lit section in World Literature Today should be required reading for anyone concerned they're missing out on good literature that's not being translated.
Unfortunately, WLT has put it online in a format that makes it impossible to quote from,... [more]