Two Words: The Blog of the Center for the Art of Translation

The Beirut39

Posted on October 27, 2009, 02:58:55 AM

The Beirut39 was recently announced--it's a group of Arab authors that will be promoted and (hopefully) translated beyond the Arab world.
Interestingly, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed already translates two of the Beirut39: they are poets Najwan Darwish and Samer Abou Hawwash.
You can read those, as well as a number of the (largely untranslated) next generation of Arab poets, in the special section on Palestinian poetry in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. It's edited by National Book Award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker and largely translated by legendary Arabic translator Fady Joudah.

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse: Breon Mitchell on Retranslating The Tin Drum

Posted on October 22, 2009,

(Here we offer an interview with Breon Mitchell on his retranslation of Gunter Grass's classic novel The Tin Drum. Mitchell will be in the Bay Area for two events in November with the Center for the Art of Translation. On Tuesday, November 10, he'll expand on his remarks here at our Lit&Lunch event at 111 Minna Gallery. And on Monday, November 9, Mitchell will be reading and mingling—along with numerous other translators—at our book release party for Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, which includes an excerpt from his new translation, as well as Mitchell's translator's introduction to the piece. Full event info here. And to stay on top of all our events, news, interviews, and translator articles, join our Facebook group.)
Scott Esposito: How did you get involved in doing the retranslation of The Tin Drum? Was this a text you'd long wanted to work on?
Breon Breon Mitchell: I had just finished translating Marcel Beyer's Spies for Harcourt and they asked me if I would be willing to retranslate The Tin Drum for its 50th anniversary. At first I said no, because I was having eye problems at the time and wasn't sure I could take on a new project. But I loved the novel, and was offered the chance to join Grass in Gdansk for one of his famous translator's gatherings—an offer I couldn't refuse!
SE: Was this your first retranslation? How would you differentiate between doing a book that has never before been translated and doing a retranslation?
I had already retranslated Franz Kafka's The Trial for Schocken Books in 1998—a task of at least equal magnitude. That was my only prior experience with retranslating a work I knew well (and had taught for many years). In both cases, the existing translations were themselves classics (Edwin and Willa Muir's translation of Kafka, and Ralph Manheim's translation of The Tin Drum). Translating an author for the first time has its own special rewards, but creating a new version of a classic text puts the translator in touch with literary tradition in a unique way.
SE: In his review of your translation, Michael Dirda notes that in your afterword to The Tin Drum you write that The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once. What makes The Tin Drum a book that we should read more than once?
BM: The most powerful works of literature compel us to reread them—and often more than once. The effect they produce is a combination of linguistic artistry and richness of meaning. The Tin Drum treats universal themes (the father-son conflict, youth and art, sexual awakening, guilt and atonement) against the background of one of the most terrible moments of European history. The result is a stunning work of art—shocking and provocative, complex and innovative, richly rewarding.
SE: Dirda also quotes you as saying the new version I offer is meant for our present age, one that is increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language. What is it about our present age (or perhaps about the status Grass and The Tin Drum have attained as contemporary classics) that makes you think now is the time for a more foreign and syntactically complex Tin Drum?
BM: In the fifty years that have passed since The Tin Drum first appeared, literary translation itself has undergone a transformation—one which has consciously foregrounded translation itself. We no longer feel the need to domesticate translations for the English-language reader. Our culture is increasingly global, and the audience for foreign literature seems to enjoy translations that reflect more closely the tone and substance of the original.
SE: How familiar are you with Ralph Manheim's original translation of The Tin Drum, and did you consult it (or try to avoid it) while making your own translation?
BM: I knew Ralph Manheim in his later years, and I knew his translation well. It was the translation I myself read before I could read Grass in the original. Encountering his Tin Drum was one of the crucial moments of my literary life. Later, as a professor, I used Ralph's version in comparative literature classes on many occasions. It is a beautiful translation by a master of the craft. When I sat down to do my own version, I put Ralph's completely aside. Once I was finished, I checked every sentence against his to see if we agreed on the basic meaning. Over the course of revision and editing Drenka Willen and I often referred back to see what Ralph had done in a difficult passage. But inevitably my translation reflected my own reading of the text, and my own sense of loyalty to it.
SE: It's been widely noted that you spent a week in Danzig with Grass and numerous other translators, who were simultaneously translating The Tin Drum into languages other than English. Did you have any conversation with those translators, any linguistic cross-fertilization that you found helpful in your English-language translation?
BM: Our week in Gdansk was very special for all of us—translators and author alike. Each day Grass sat down with us, read aloud from the text, pointed out difficult passages on practically every page, and allowed us to ask any questions we wished. Even though all sessions were conducted in German, the variety of questions, given the range of ten European languages, was fascinating. The issues raised were ones we all shared, regardless of our language. But there was seldom a case in which solutions proposed in one language were of any real help in another. What helped, in light of the normal isolation of literary translators, was to feel part of something larger than ourselves.
SE: And finally, do you think Grass's other novels should also be retranslated? Are there any in particular that you think would benefit from a retranslation?
BM: I've always felt than any great work of literature should be constantly retranslated, since every translation, no matter how successful, is only one reading of the original text. Grass, however, was blessed with wonderful translators: Ralph Manheim, John E. Woods, Krishna Winston, and Michael Henry Heim have all produced fine versions of his prose. If any of his other novels are eventually retranslated, it will not be because of failings in the earlier translators, but simply from a desire to hear Grass's voice in yet another tone.

Homme-Banian: René Depestre's Many Roots

Posted on October 21, 2009, 05:27:58 PM

(In this post, Anita Sagástegui, Poetry Inside Out Instructor & Curriculum Specialist, discusses the work of Haitian writer René Depestre. Although much of Depestre's work is not available in English translation, Anita's translation of his poem The Singer Machine is available in our current anthology of translated literature, Wherever I Lie is Your Bed. Anita will be reading her translations of Depestre at our book release party on November 9, and will also be in attendance to discuss translation and world literature.)
ReneHaitian exile René Depestre is a renowned author, known throughout the world for his poetry, prose, and social commentaries, as well as for having lived on almost every continent, working side by side with prominent contemporaries such as Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén and Pablo Neruda. Depestre has been vastly translated in many languages, Western and non-Western, but not so much in English. This is particularly baffling because his sumptuous poetry and prose reflect the sensibilities of an itinerant man who blends nature, vaudou, surrealism and the sensual in a way no other writer ever has. He has fallen in out of love with communism, Marxism, the Negritude movement and chronicled it all; and he calls himself a poet and storyteller above all else, refusing to return to his native Haiti because in his opinion, Haiti has become a zombie, (a violent contrast of the Haiti he knew and loved while growing up in the port town of Jacmel) and prefers to keep the Haiti of his youth in his heart.
Depestre had his first book of poetry published in 1945, at the age of 19. His early work mostly reflected his beliefs, perception, struggles and experience with political activism and ideology, revolution and reform. He wrote fearlessly of his disillusion and hard breaks from so many things he once had written so passionately in favor of—never afraid of those he would offend as his soul evolved away from them.
It's his work of the last twenty or thirty years that is most interesting to me. At this point his writing—in poetry and prose—cradles new muses: Haiti, Vaudou, sexual and sensual celebration, and the merging of the francophone world with the afro-Caribbean world. 1988 saw the release of his most celebrated novel, Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, (Hadriana in All My Dreams) for which he received several prestigious awards. This book is like nothing ever written about Haiti, before or since. The narrator of the story, Patrick, begins by describing his godmother's postmortem ride, a death-bed request. Splendidly coiffed and her eyes adorned with a jewel-toned butterfly mask, she is driven along the colorful streets of Jacmel, inspiring terror, amazement, and gossip among the locals.
From one moment of surrealist fantasy to another, we are invited to witness the wedding of the sublime 19 year-old Hadriana, who barely utters her yes before collapsing, dead at the altar. This event, which nourishes the rest of the story, is cataclysmic for Jacmel. Though of French descent, Hadriana was raised (and much loved) by Haitians of both African and European descent. Indeed, Hadriana delighted much more in the spiritual Afro-Caribbean beliefs, stories and celebrations particular to Haiti than that of her Catholic upbringing. With her death erupts an all-out, orgasmically ecstatic, all-night celebration of her life by the whole town while rumors of zombification swirl—these rumors include some of her closest kin insisting that she be deflowered before burial to spurn the greedy sorcerer who zombified her. And then, closely following the celebration come natural and human-made disasters that incite Haiti's decomposition. The narrator traverses a lonely road of exile and nostalgia, while one woman discovers sexual and personal freedom. And that's about two-thirds of the book!
A poet above all else, Depestre's prose is suffused with glorious figurative language and sensuality, while balancing comedy with wistful sadness.
I wish I could tell you to go read the book (and, actually, you can if you read French, German, Spanish, Italian or Japanese). Sadly, though, Hadriana dans tous mes rêves isn't yet (or at least no longer) available in English, an injustice to our bookshelves I sometimes tease—though I am hard at work on fixing this.

More on The Tin Drum Retranslation

Posted on October 20, 2009, 06:46:57 PM

We'll be running our own interview with Gunter Grass translator Breon Mitchell up on Two Words shortly, but for now I wanted to pass along some more coverage of Tin Drum retranslation.
Don't forget, we'll have Mitchell live and in person for two events in November. He'll be at Lit&Lunch talking about the process of retranslation, and he'll also be at our book release party for Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed with scads of food, wine, and other translators.
And now here's James Leigh in the San Diego Union-Tribune's culture blog:

On its appearance in Germany, The Tin Drum was called at first both heretical and pornographic, and Manheim skipped or softened some passages. Mitchell not only gets whatever raunchiness was missing, he finds English equivalents to Grass' playful and ingenious rhythms. Mitchell's end-note suggests that Manheim's version aimed to serve the English reader, while his own more closely echoes the author.
Certainly the new version does full justice to the contradictory, sardonic anger of its central character, Oskar Matzerath, and his narrative voice. Forever switching back and forth between first and third person, between a dry pity and a barely contained fury, the tin drummer provides a unique commentary on prewar, wartime and postwar Germany and its history.

Argentina: The Nation that Publishes

Posted on October 20, 2009, 04:53:05 PM

Anyone interested in the international literary publishing scene should head over to Three Percent and have a look at what Chad Post is has written up on the recent Frankfurt Book Fair.
I was particularly intrigued by what he writes about Argentina, one of Latin America's great literary nation and one that accounts for 27% of all Spanish-language books published in Latin America.
Certainly the sheer amount of presses is a large part of this:

The prevalence of micropresses is one intriguing aspect of the Argentine book scene. As Octavio Kulesz of Teseo touched on this in his presentation, these micropresses came into existence in the wake of the financial collapse of 2002. And there sure are a lot of them: according to Trini Vergara of V&R Editoras, more than 80% of the publishing houses operating in Argentina fall into this category, whereas only 3% are big publishers, 2% are mid-sized, and 12% are small. Granted, when you look at overall production, this breakdown shifts considerably (micropresses account for 5% of all titles published, whereas big houses do 42%), but this diversity of voices and editorial vision make up what Constanza Brunet of Marea Editorial termed bibliodiversity.

Jeffrey Yang Is Wrestling with Translation

Posted on October 19, 2009, 06:08:48 PM

Over on Granta's website, poet, translator, and Two Lines-editor Jeffrey Yang discusses the art of translating from Chinese:

As I embarked on my adventure I immediately started to feel that old hatred for simplified Chinese characters. I had never properly learned them and usually faked my way through when reading, skimpy vocabulary and all. My various dictionaries were beginning to crack. In a panic, I phoned my mother and calmly talked through a few paragraphs with her. I started to feel more at ease, found a slow rhythm, the characters began to bend their syntax into English. Gradually I even enjoyed flowing along with Bei Dao's telegraphic phrasings, peeking into his life in a narrative way that is entirely absent in his crystalline poetry while trying to carry over his balance of playfulness and seriousness. His prose is that of a master poet – clear and subtle, few wasted breaths, fewer wasted words, clauses clipping along like puka shells on a string.

Yang will be one of our two guest editors for the next volume of Two Lines, to publish in the fall of next year. If you're a translator or know one, we're still accepting submissions up through the 25th of November. Details here.

First Review of The Tin Drum Retranslation

Posted on October 13, 2009, 09:58:16 PM

In his review of the new Tin Drum re-translation, Michael Dirda gets into some of the issues surrounding this re-translation:

The Tin Drum has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. In English its success was helped along by an excellent translation by the late Ralph Manheim, to whom the young Grass was rightly grateful, despite a few reservations. In recent years, however, Grass has grown increasingly involved in the foreign versions of his work, going so far as to organize Übersetzertreffen -- short convocations of his translators -- at which he fields questions about his various books. From his experience of these meetings, Grass persuaded his publishers to commission a new English version of The Tin Drum from the distinguished Germanist Breon Mitchell.
In his afterword Mitchell explains that great books demand new versions because translations, no matter how fine, eventually grow dated. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once. In this instance, he underscores his deep admiration for Manheim, who was something of a mentor, while making clear that this new version has benefited from the inestimable help of the author and that it aims to reflect as closely as possible the rhythms and intricacy of Grass's German. Each sentence in the new 'Tin Drum,' notes Mitchell, now faithfully replicates the length of the sentence in Grass's original text, and no sentences are broken up or deliberately shortened. As Mitchell concludes, The new version I offer is meant for our present age, one that is increasingly open to the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language.

Bay Area readers will have two chances to see Breon Mitchell in person talk about just this stuff. We're bringing him in for Lit&Lunch on Tuesday, Nov 10. And he'll also be at our book release party the day before on Monday the 9th, where he'll be reading from his re-translation, which is excerpted in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
If you're planning on attending, drop by our Facebook events page and let us know.

TWO VOICES: Natasha Wimmer on Roberto Bolano

Posted on October 10, 2009, 12:06:00 AM by Scott Esposito

A copy of this podcast can be downloaded here. You can also subscribe to all of the Center's audio on iTunes, or in RSS.


Hear Natasha Wimmer, translator of the blockbuster novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, discuss Roberto Bolano and his two major novels. She also reads her translation-in-progress of Bolano's unpublished essay collection Entre parentesis (Between Parentheses) and discusses Bolano's unpublished manuscripts.

Bolaño’s work appeared on the English-language scene in 2003—the year of his death at 50—and in the six years since his rise has been nothing short of remarkable, especially when one considers the typical reception of an author-in-translation in U.S. markets. Bolaño’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, his novels have been almost universally praised in the nation’s most esteemed reviews of books, and recently talk has focused on adding him to the Latin American canon of essential authors.

It was only late in his life that Bolaño became a major writer. Born in 1953 in Chile, he was living abroad in Mexico City when Pinochet toppled Chile’s government in the coup of 1973. Bolaño quickly returned to Chile to fight with the resistance, but almost immediately he found himself in a jail cell facing death. He escaped back to Mexico by the unlikeliest of coincidences (his jailer happened to be a friend from school), where he lived the life of a vagabond for years before settling permanently in Spain in the 1980s.

Bolaño’s first novel was only published in 1993, when he had just 10 years left to live, although it brought him sufficient recognition to allow him to continue publishing his work. After that Bolaño would write prolifically, publishing 10 novels before his death and one after: the thousand-page magnum opus, 2666, which was published in English in 2008 and brought Bolaño his most widespread fame in the English-reading world yet.

In 2004, Natasha Wimmer was offered the translation job of a lifetime when FSG editor Loren Stein asked her to translate Roberto Bolaño’s 500-page epic novel, The Savage Detectives. When it become apparent that The Savage Detectives would likely be a major success upon publication, 2666 was added to Wimmer’s work. The publication of both books has brought Ms. Wimmer widespread recognition and success as a translator of Spanish-language literature.

During her translation of both novels Wimmer lived in Mexico City, familiarizing herself with the far-flung locales and the distinctive Mexican dialect found throughout both of these works. In addition to the challenges of geography and grammar, Bolaño’s precise, labyrinthine prose and his intricate plots confronted Wimmer with immense obstacles—obstacles that virtually every critic has agreed she has overcome in spectacular fashion.

See Natasha Wimmer This Week!

Posted on October 5, 2009, 05:21:54 PM

2666Remember Bay Area residents: this week is your chance to see Roberto Bolano's translator, Natasha Wimmer, at two events courtesy of the Center.
On Tuesday (tomorrow!) we'll be hosting Wimmer at Lit&Lunch, 12:30 @ 111 Minna in downtown SF. If you'll be coming, let us know by RSVPing on our Facebook page.
And then on Wednesday, Wimmer will be in conversation with local literary celeb Daniel Alarcon at Lone Palm bar in the Mission (22nd & Guerrero). Doors open at 6:00. If you're coming, RSVP here.
If you can't make these, don't fret. We'll be doing two events in November with Breon Mitchell, whose re-translation of The Tin Drum will be hitting store shelves any day now.
The easiest way to stay on top of all our events is to sign up for our Facebook page. There you'll find regular updates from the Center, the translators we work with, and more.

Wordplay with Sonnevi, Before Email

Posted on October 5, 2009, 05:07:38 PM

(This is the second in a series of posts with translator Rika Lesser discussing Swedish poet Göran Sonnevi. Lesser's translation of Mozart's Third Brain by Sonnevi has just been published by Yale University Press, and Lesser has translated previous work by the poet. Sonnevi's work is also available in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, from the Center for the Art of Translation.)
Following my conversion experience at the Guggenheim, and our walks around the city and in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, before his departure for Sweden, in the SAS lounge at JFK, I had Göran record a couple of poems for me onto a cassette. How else could I retain the sound of that reading voice? When we began to correspond (typewriters, pens and pencils of various colors), I began by translating lines of his poems into English in the way the Mother Goose Rhymes or Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames in the d'Antin manuscript are translated into French, which is to say, by sound alone.
The poems I selected for A Child Is Not a Knife (1993) came from four of his books published between 1975 and 1991, the majority published after 1983. Reading through the Acknowledgments to that first book-length selection of his work, I look back on better times for social democracies, when I could thank various Swedish cultural institutions that enabled me repeatedly to consult with the poet in person . . . the Swedish Information Service and the Swedish Institute. The former was absorbed into the office of the Swedish Consulate in New York years ago, which now, like the Swedish Consulate in Los Angeles, is slated soon to be a tabula rasa. . . . (We translators of Swedish belles-lettres worldwide did help preserve funding for translation through Kulturrådet, the Arts Council, but that's another long story.)
Remember that in the 1980s international phone calls were prohibitively expensive, and we were not yet using e-mail. So for years I typed and he inked colorful letters, which we sometimes photocopied or cut and pasted, and sketched on. Occasionally I would use the consular fax and Göran would use the one at Bonniers (his publisher). And perhaps once a year, we would meet, usually in Sweden. In any case, we went over just about every word in every poem that appears in A Child, along with some other poems that were not included. And we did this in both languages. Well, maybe not every if and and but. But almost. And we still do. Even if I have become quicker and surer of what I do. I did not used to think this was fun; now I find it funny, sometimes hilarious.
On 15 April 1991, when I began the preface to A Child, Sonnevi: A Translator's Retrospective Montage, there were some fourteen hundred pages of Sonnevi's work in book form. His next four books of poems—The Tree (Nov. 1991), Mozart's Third Brain (1996), The Book of Sounds (1998), and The Ocean (2005)—in their Swedish editions add about 1050 more pages to his single long poem that is oändlig—unending/infinite—and continues from book to book. The title poem from The Tree was seventy-five pages long and I had balked at translating it. Instead I signed on later for the two hundred pages of Mozart's Third Brain.