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


Fady Joudah on the Evolution of Darwish's Long Poem

Posted on January 28, 2010, 06:39:40 PM

UCLA has made available audio from a lecture given by Fady Joudah late last year at UCLA's Asia Institute. You can listen to it here. The lecture deals with Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose work Joudah has translated a great deal of, and the lecture specifically deals with his use of the long poem.
For more on Joudah and Darwish, check out our audio of his Lit&Lunch event, where he read from his translations of Darwish. Also have a look at Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, where Joudah offers a never-before-translated long poem of Darwish's called Rita's Winter. Wherever also includes a nice introduction by Joudah, where he puts the poem into context:

Rita is a pseudonym for Darwish's Jewish Israeli lover when he was in his twenties and he had written five or six poems to her throughout the 1960s and 70s before writing this one, his final one for her, in 1992. Rita was made an icon of contemporary Arabic culture through the Lebanese composer and musician, Marcel Khalife, who sang Darwish's poem Rita and the Rifle (where love is broken because of the Israeli military service). I can say that Rita signifies an essence of Darwish’s poetry, its humanizing of the other, a daring from which Darwish never shied. I can say Rita's Winter is a brilliant poem because it exhibits, among many other things, Darwish's use of dialogue, an art he developed until he turned his later poems into plays, without calling them plays.


IT (For 66 Voices)

Posted on January 26, 2010, 09:57:37 PM

This is a very cool audio performance of part of It, poem by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. The six performers here are reading 11 six-line stanzas.

In addition to writing poetry, Christensen also wrote a metafictional novel called Azorno, which we excerpted in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. And see below for more info on Christensen and Azorno.


Worries Are the Best Teachers

Posted on January 26, 2010, 07:12:30 PM

We've been talking a lot about Swiss novelist Robert Walser this month as we count down toward Walser-translator Susan Bernofsky's appearance at Lit&Lunch on Feb. 9. (RSVP now to save a spot!) You might have noticed in my interview with Bernofsky last week that she mentioned one Carl Seelig, a guardian of Walser when he was in the mental asylum:

SE: Since you're working on a biography of Walser, I'd like to ask what you think of his decision to quit writing, which he made in 1933 when he had a full 23 years yet to live. Do you have any theories as to why he chose this, or if he would have been able to produce anything worth reading during that period of his life?
SB: It's far from certain that Walser ever stopped writing. His guardian Carl Seelig says that when he asked Walser about returning to the literary life, Walser brushed off the idea . . .

Seeling, in fact, regularly conversed with Walser for over 20 years, and you can read a number of these conversations right now. He collected the them into a book called Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (Wandering with Robert Walser), published in German, French, and Spanish editions. Though there is currently no published English translation, Walser-fanatic Sam Jones, and some collaborators, have been translating a publishing a free version online.
For instance, here's a bit from the meeting that occurred on April 15, 1943, which happened to be Walser's 65th birthday:
I bring Robert some birthday presents, which he coldly puts aside. We have hardly left the sanitarium grounds when he asks me what I was doing so long with Dr. Pfister. I tell him that we were talking about common friends among the Zurich doctors. This explanation appears to calm him, but even so the morning walk to Degersheim and Mogelsberg, in the low Toggenburg, is rather monosyllabic. He doesn't answer my cautious question about the operation, so I immediately change the subject so as not to irritate him any further. After lunch we go up in elevation in the Herisau suburbs and sit in the sun with three bottles of beer on a terrace, where he is more comfortable and chat with the almost mechanically clattering innkeeper. To finish up we go to a tea house, where he devours eight little tortes with gusto. When we part, he says, most likely in reference to his sickness:
There have to be unpleasant things in life, so that the beautiful things stand out better. Worries are the best teachers.

These conversations between Seeling and the notably romantic, unpredictable Walser make interesting reads for anyone, and they're absolute necessities for the Walser fans out there.


Edith Grossman Wins Queen Sofia Spanish Institute Translation Prize

Posted on January 25, 2010, 07:30:39 PM


The Prospects for Translation

Posted on January 22, 2010, 07:24:54 PM

Following up on the recent MLA focusing on translation, The Chronicle of Higher Education has a look at the prospects of making it as a translator these days in higher ed:

Translation is having a moment, or a series of moments. But its champions say the fight is far from over to have translation?not the theory of it but the hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-out-your-lexicons variety?recognized as a legitimate scholarly activity. In the United States, it's nearly impossible to make a living as an independent literary translator. It's almost as hard to get an academic job as one.

The article quotes several translators who have worked on the Center's publications--among them, Lawrence Venuti and Esther Allen. The later has an interesting remark on what translating does to a candidate's tenure chances:

Just as publishers have had an unfortunate tendency not to bother putting translators' names on book jackets?the idea being that translations are harder to sell?so hiring and tenure-and-promotion committees have preferred not to hear about the translation activities of the candidates whose dossiers they review. It's almost as though translation is a bad habit, like gambling, that candidates should conceal rather than advertise.
It actively works against you, which is amazing if you consider that for 3,000 years translation has been at the heart of literary scholarship, says Esther Allen, an assistant professor in the department of modern languages and comparative literature at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

You can hear more of Allen's thoughts on translation by listening to the audio of our Lit&Lunch event featuring her and Cuban novelist Jose Manuel Prieto.


Each sentence is its own little journey, and I try to keep the itinerary intact: Susan Bernofsky on Translating Robert Walser

Posted on January 19, 2010, by Scott Esposito

(As we gear up for Susan Bernofsky's Lit&Lunch appearance on February 9 we'll be sharing various information about her and Robert Walser, whom she'll be talking about. Today we have an interview with Bernofsky covering some of the more intriguing aspects of his career--among other things, the tiny, nearly unreadable Walser-writings known as the microscripts and his decision to quit writing when he had 23 years left to live.)
title=SusanScott Esposito: You've translated a number of books by Walser, with more to come plus a biography of him of that you're working on. As a translator, what is it that has kept you coming back to him?
Susan Bernofsky: Every time I read Walser I find myself nearly jumping out of my chair with delight and disbelief that he has pulled off yet another unprecedented weird strange beautiful literary stunt. He has a way of describing the universe that walks a fine line between the maudlin and the trivially playful--and somehow he always manages to stay right in the middle, in that sweet spot where he achieves a sort of guileless profundity that takes the reader by surprise again and again. His literary fireworks are so controlled, so sly, so knowing, and all the while he's got such an innocent look on his face. I just love watching him play on his tightrope, and of course it's a very tempting challenge to see which of his feats can be mimicked in English.
SE: Although Walser was admired by the likes of Kafka, Musil, and Walter Benjamin, it's only recently that he's become popular in the U.S. Do you know if it has always been the case in the U.S. that he was overlooked? And did he ever fall into the category of neglected genius in Europe?
SB: Walser died in obscurity in Switzerland in 1956, his work known to only a very few. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that his novels and stories began to be rediscovered in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. He was translated into lots of languages soon thereafter (and everyone in Europe knows he's a major modernist author), but English lagged behind, even though English was the first language into which he was translated in the first place! Christopher Middleton discovered his work as a young professor living in Zurich and translated the novella The Walk while Walser was still alive.
SE: Since you're working on a biography of Walser, I'd like to ask what you think of his decision to quit writing, which he made in 1933 when he had a full 23 years yet to live. Do you have any theories as to why he chose this, or if he would have been able to produce anything worth reading during that period of his life?
SB: It's far from certain that Walser ever stopped writing. His guardian Carl Seelig says that when he asked Walser about returning to the literary life, Walser brushed off the idea. The quote I'm not here to write but to be mad that gets bandied about a lot may be apocryphal. In my opinion, Walser did not trust Seelig and may or may not have been honest with him. There's one witness, a former attendant from the Herisau asylum, who says that he saw Walser writing all the time during his years there, standing up at a windowsill and writing on tiny slips of paper (like the microscripts we have). But some Walser scholars have challenged this claim, saying the man made it up to get attention.
SE: The book you'll most be talking about at Lit&Lunch is The Tanners (excerpt at the link), which was Walser's first novel and was published in your translation by New Directions last summer. What were the challenges and the pleasures of translating this book?
SB: Unlike The Assistant, The Tanners is not thickly plotted--the story tends to meander about, taking lots of surprise detours--so the book gets most of its narrative energy and tension from the storytelling itself. I was very conscious of keeping a sense of forward momentum in the individual sentences and paragraphs.
SE: As I read The Tanners I was struck by the lightness of the prose, how it seemed to maintain a fundamentally joyful feel despite communicating a great deal of weight and existential angst. In the translation, did you try to stay close to the shape and the cadences of the German sentences (as Breon Mitchell told the Center he did in his recent translation of The Tin Drum), or did you go with something a little more Englished?
SB: Thank you, I'm so glad you felt the prose as buoyant! I agree absolutely with Breon--it is crucial to preserve the cadence of the original sentences, which often means nudging the English syntax around a bit. It's crucial that the information contained in a sentence arrive in the proper order, because to recast sentences entirely, or to break long sentences into parts, makes the universe feel very different to the English-language reader. Each sentence is its own little journey, and I try to keep the itinerary intact. And even though it's something the reader probably won't be explicitly conscious of while reading, the paths followed by the individual sentences play a major role in determining what the world of the story feels like.
title=Robert SE: I'd also like to ask you about a work of Walser's called The Microscripts that is forthcoming from New Directions in your translation. As I understand it, these were writings that Walser made in such a tiny script that for a long time people simply couldn't decipher them and thought they were some personal language that Walser had invented. (And I should add that Walser's novella The Robber, which you've previously translated, is also a microscript.) When translating these, did you ever work directly from the microscripts, or did you rely more on a fair copy that was easier to read?
SB: We decided to reproduce full-size facsimiles of the microscripts in this collection, and when you see them, you'll understand why there are no more than half a dozen people in the world who can read them at all (and after many months of study). It took two devoted scholars twelve years to transcribe the six volumes of these texts. That's two years per volume! In the late '80s I watched them at work, peering through tiny magnifying lenses and discussing each word at length. These published transcriptions are what I based the translations on. I think of Walser's miniature writing as a sort of shorthand he developed for his rough drafts, and he wrote like this for many years. There's been a lot of speculation about why and when he developed this technique. The writing is an enormously reduced Kurrent script--that's an old form of German handwriting people stopped using around WWII. By the way, I'll be giving a talk and slide show on the microscripts at Stanford on Feb. 10, at 12:00 p.m. (Dept. of German Studies, Building 260, Room 216).
SE: And lastly, what do you think the future holds for Walser? Do you think this flurry of notoriety means that Walser is with us English-language readers to stay?
SB: We saw a flurry of Walser enthusiasm in the early 1980s thanks to Christopher Middleton's beautiful collection Selected Stories with an introduction by Susan Sontag, and that set the stage for the renewed interest we're seeing now. I do think that Walser is now here to stay because the interest in his work is now so widespread and coming from such different quarters. There are entire blogs devoted to his work and I'm constantly getting e-mails from people who love his books, including lots of visual artists. All of a sudden he's attracting a young audience, too, and I think that means he's got a fan base that will continue to look out for new books of his in English. Maybe we'll get to test Hermann Hesse's famous prediction after all: If Robert Walser had 100,000 readers, the world would be better.


The Translation MLA Presidential Address

Posted on January 14, 2010, 06:37:50 PM

Last week I pointed out an article by the Dalkey Archive Press's Martin Riker on some of the happenings at the latest meeting of the MLA, which has an unprecedented focus on translation this year.
Now you can listen online to the Presidential Address by Catherine Porter from this year's MLA. Definitely worth checking out.


Fady Joudah at Words Without Borders

Posted on January 12, 2010, 06:44:40 PM

MahmoudWords Without Borders, which recently underwent an excellent site redesign, has just published a lengthy excerpt from Fady Joudah's recent volume of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, If I Were Another (published by FSG).
Like Roberto Bolano, Darwish is one of those international writers that seems to be making some headway in the U.S. market these days. Several translations of his collections have been published in the past few years, with more scheduled to appear. And Darwish has been making some inroads into the mainstream U.S. book media (e.g., this recent piece at The Washington Post).
The Center has been among those publishing Darwish recently, as our newest anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bedstyle=border:none, includes a lengthy, never-before-translated poem done by Joudah himself. Wherever I Lie also features an introduction to the poem by Joudah, who offers some interesting context and insight on the piece.
For more on Darwish, have a listen to our audio of Joudah reading from his translations of Darwish from last spring's Lit&Lunch event. In my opinion, Joudah is a remarkable reader, and his stentorian tone perfectly matches up with the subject matter of the poetry he's reading.


The Translator's Toolkit: Margaret Jull Costa's Favorite Dictionaries

Posted on January 11, 2010, 06:01:28 PM

(The Translator's Toolkit is a recurring feature on Two Words wherein we ask translators to tell us about indispensable tools of their art. Here, Margaret Jull Costa talks about her favorite dictionaries. Costa is the fiction editor of the Center's latest anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bedstyle=border:none, and has translated some of the most important writers to have written in Portuguese and Spanish. Her translation of Your Face Tomorrow: Vol 3 by Javier Marías is just out from New Directions.)
Dictionaries are a translator's constant companions. In my house, there are dictionaries in almost every room, and even those I rarely use sit on my shelves possibly harboring the very word or phrase omitted from any other dictionary. I use both bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, although since there is no very reliable or extensive Portuguese-English dictionary, I rely largely on the wonderful Novo Aurélio and my now rather ancient Larousse Dicionário Prático Ilustrado. The best monolingual Spanish dictionary, for my money, is the Diccionario del español actual produced by Manuel Seco, Olimpia Andrés, and Gabino Ramos, although the venerable María Moliner dictionary is another marvel of the lexicographical art. And the Oxford Spanish Dictionary, I think, remains the best bilingual Spanish dictionary. I move between bi- and monolingual, crosschecking that I have found the exact meaning I want. Bilinguals are very handy, and I wouldn't be without them, but they can never be as complete as a monolingual.
I consult bilingual dictionaries, obviously, when I don't know a word or phrase, but also in order to jump-start my reluctant memory or to get a steer in the right direction. I might not necessarily use the translation I find there, but it often acts as a prompt towards finding the word I need. The best dictionaries provide contextualized examples so that you can see where and how the word or phrase is used and the entry itself is there on the page with its companion entries, which, you never can tell, might provide another lead entirely. One reason why I'm not a great fan of online dictionaries is that they tend to give you just one measly entry at a time. On the other hand, I do subscribe to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, which is regularly updated, and has proved invaluable whenever I'm translating 19th-century authors and need to know precisely when a word first came into use. It also lists in the margin the headwords of the neighboring twenty or so entries.
And then there are thesauruses, without which I would be lost. However comprehensive your knowledge of your own language, there are times when the word you want won't necessarily come when called, and there are always words you don't know. For example, in a series of novels set in 17th-century Spain, various thesauruses (on paper and on-line) provided me with an unusually wide variety of words for, say, prostitute or ruffian or knave.
Given the constantly changing nature of language, no dictionary can ever be complete or fully up to date, and that is where the Internet comes in. I can Google a phrase or word or sense that appears in none of my dictionaries, but which I find in dozens of contexts on various websites. I can usually tell from the context what the translation should be, but if still in doubt I turn to one of my faithful human dictionaries, my native-speaker friends.
The translator's life is a rather solitary one—it's just you and the text—and dictionaries are our loyal and silent companions. I worked as a lexicographer myself for a few years and know how much work goes into compiling a dictionary, sifting out meaning from meaning, making painful decisions about what to include or exclude, finding one translation that fits all, when you know that a word can often be translated in a dozen ways depending on context or tone or register. I'm always, therefore, deeply grateful to my dictionaries and to the unsung heroes who labored to produce them.


February Lit&Lunch: Susan Bernofsky

Posted on January 8, 2010, 08:13:34 PM

title=robert-walserThe Center's next Lit&Lunch event will be taking place on Tuesday, February 9, with translator Susan Bernofsky as our guest. Bernofsky's most recent translation is of The Tanners, by the highly acclaimed Swiss writer Robert Walser.
Walser died in 1956 and did most of his writing before the Second World War. Though he was praised highly by the likes of Kafka, Musil, and Walter Benjamin, he's been relatively unknown in the United States until lately when New Directions, NYRB Classics, and the University of Nebraska Press began issuing translations of his novels and stories. Bernofsky has done much of this recent translation work, and she is even working on a biography of Robert Walser. Walser has become one of my favorite writers of late, and I think everyone should at least give his writing a shot.
A great place to start your foray into Walser is Wandering with Robert Walser, a site maintained by Sam Jones. There you'll find links to tons of reviews and articles on Walser's writings, as well as all kinds of ephemera (like Walser graffiti). Jones has also put together a concordance of figures and works of art found throughout the Engilsh translations of Walser's work.
As we draw closer to the Lit&Lunch event, check back here for more on Bernofsky and Walser. If you'll be joining us, be sure to let us know by RSVPing on our Facebook page. And if you can't join us, you'll eventually find audio of the event up on the Center's website. You can catch up on prior Lit&Lunch events right here at our audio archive.


The Translation MLA

Posted on January 7, 2010, 08:09:39 PM

Martin Riker of the Dalkey Archive Press has a great writeup of a panel he hosted at this year's MLA conference. As he writes, the MLA stirred shock and awe in the translation community this year because the presidential focus of the 2009 MLA conference would be on translation. Martin puts the meani... [more]

Enter by Jan. 11 to Win Signed Books

Posted on January 6, 2010, 09:13:17 PM

As a reminder, you have until this Monday, Jan. 11 to win some great books signed by translators Natasha Wimmer and Breon Mitchell!


Donate $5 or more to the Center by Jan 11 we'll enter you a drawing for books featuring Lit&Lunch translators, as well as Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. It j... [more]