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

Bernardo Atxaga's California Novel

Posted on May 27, 2010, 05:46:13 PM

By now readers of this blog should be pretty clear on two things: we're doing two events with Bernardo Atxaga early next month, and Atxaga is widely acclaimed as Basque's leading author.
Turns out the latter fact didn't stop him from starting and ending his latest novel, The Accordionist's Son, in California. Here's Michael Eaude reviewing it in The Independent:

The Accordionist's Son, first published in the Basque language in 2003, is his most accomplished novel (the wonderful Obabakoak is more a collection of linked stories). It is also his most ambitious, as it embraces the history of the Basque Country from 1936 to 1999.
The novel works on at least three levels: as an adventure; as a public story about the history and politics of the Basque Country; and a personal dissection of shifting mood and feeling, with Atxaga's customary precision. It opens with the death of the protagonist, David, on his ranch in California.

Eaude goes on to describe The Accordionist's Son as an ambitious, sweeping history of the emergence of ETA, the Basque armed guerrilla movement still active nearly 50 years after its foundation.
The Guardian also fleshes out this California theme:
On his horse ranch in California, David Imaz whiles away the time until his vital heart operation by looking back at his upbringing in the Basque country of the 1960s and 1970s. The bombing of Guernica and the Spanish Civil War reverberate through his memories as he tries to uncover whether the despotic father he detests has blood on his hands.

This is some bracing stuff, and I'll be interested to hear Atxaga talk more about it during our events on June 8 and 9. He'll also be talking about his fictional village of Obaba, as well as--poetry.

Translation Has Never Been Higher-Profile

Posted on May 25, 2010, 05:31:01 PM

That's the verdict from the London Book Fair per this article in The National--which does a great job of covering international lit.

The hushed chatter around the unusually quiet London Book Fair is that foreign fiction translated into English has never been so high-profile. Undeniably, this is thanks to the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (which began with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), currently standing at over 21 million copies sold worldwide. Roberto Bolano's 2666 has also been a huge success. And prizes such as The IFFP and events like April's Free The Word festival in London have thrust more and more books and authors from the non-English speaking world into the spotlight. As Hahn runs his finger down the shortlist, he mentions novels from Bengal, Germany, Congo, Italy and France.

In this article we also learn what translators do when they don't like what they're reading:
There's just one final intriguing question though: what does he do when there's a passage of a book he's translating which he really doesn't like?
Oh, it happens all the time, he laughs. E-mail has made it very easy to say to a writer, for example: ‘This joke at the end of chapter two is very funny, but it's not funny in English.' And in that case I would always suggest changing it in a specific way rather than leaving it out. Because the original author has two choices: either I persevere with the original, in which case no one will laugh, or we change the joke and keep the laugh.
The job, essentially, is to recreate the experience of reading the book, not the specific sentences of the original. One of the advantages of working with most of the authors is that you get the permission to do just that – they trust you. And it's genuinely a lovely job: you're getting your head completely inside a book, and if that's a place it's exciting to be, that's a fantastic feeling. You're getting to write a great book even if you're not a great writer yourself.

Bernardo Atxaga on Linguistic Diversity

Posted on May 24, 2010, 09:59:22 PM

We'll be hosting Bernardo Atxaga for two events in just two weeks. On June 8, we bring the 2009-10 Lit&Lunch season to a close with Atxaga @ 111 Minna in San Francisco. (RSVP on Facebook) And then, for everyone in the East Bay, on June 9 we're co-sponsoring an Atxaga reading at Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley, near the intersection of College and Ashby. (RSVP on Facebook)
So to help introduce Atxaga, I dug up this piece he published in The Threepenny Review in the winter of 2007. One of the interesting parts about Atxaga's writing is that he writes in Euskara, a language native to the Basque region of Spain and which was suppressed when Atxaga began writing in the 1970s.
Here he is on the benefits of linguistic diversity:

So, by 1960, in a small village in the Basque Country, we were more or less familiar with five languages: euskara, Castilian, Latin, French, and English.
I don't know how much influence this fact had on our lives, on mine and on that of many Basques, but it clearly gave us a special linguistic awareness, a knowledge that, however amateurish or naive, we are all of us linguists.
This is not a very common situation. I remember, for example, something that happened to me once in Scotland. I had gone to a supper given by my neighbor and was having some difficulty following the conversation of my fellow guests, which centered on a new film about Mozart. They asked me my opinion, and I replied as best I could, substituting any English words I didn't know with words that seemed to me universal. At one moment, I can't remember why, I used the word hypocrisy. The other guests gazed at me in amazement: Hypocrisy! exclaimed my host. My, your English is coming on! said the others in the same admiring tone.

And then he begins to talk about the suppression of his language under Franco:
Shortly afterwards, I went off to study at a school in the city, and I discovered that both the young man and my mother were right. One of my teachers could never speak of the Basque Country without describing it as treacherous because it had refused to collaborate with General Franco's crusade; on the other hand, the students from good families considered that some of their classmates from the provinces were too Basque and heaped upon them all the many insults that have ever been invented for country folk.
My second lesson had begun. Euskara was not like the other languages I knew. There was a battle going on around it, and a violent one. Those who had been in favor of the bombing of Guernica rebuked those Basques who used their language in public with hable usted en cristiano?speak Christian; the newspapers, for their part, referred to it as a rustic language, useless when it came to discussing culture, modern culture anyway.

Atxaga comes across both as an interesting individual--for being placed between Basque and Spanish cultures and languages--and an interesting author for the books he's written. If you can make it out to one of our events, he'll certainly be an interesting guy to see in person.

Susan Bernofsky on The Microscripts

Posted on May 24, 2010, 05:47:20 PM

The Nation interviews translator Susan Bernofsky on her just-published translation of Robert Walser's Microscripts. Here's a nice quote about the complexity of Walser's sentences:

I always need to read Walser twice. Do your translations try to replicate that feeling of bewilderment?
German readers also have that experience. I was at Stanford giving a lecture on the microscripts, and I read the first sentence of A Sort of Cleopatra in German. The native Germans in the audience couldn't follow it. The whole sentence is one big interconnected Chinese box, and you can't get it. I read it to the Germans, saying, All right, this is the subject of this sentence, here comes the main verb. It's not as if you could recombine the parts to make them totally clear. They are transmitted with a great level of complexity, with lots of clauses that are all logically interdependent. Walser is not trying to make it hard willfully. He has said it as efficiently as possible, this big thought. But the thought itself is this many-tentacled thing.

For more on these incredible works, listen to our Lit&Lunch audio with Bernofsky. Therein she discusses Walser and the Microscripts and even reads the entirely of Cleopatra, in her English translation.


Posted on May 20, 2010, 06:57:27 PM

(Today's post comes from David R. Slavitt, whose translation of Dante's La Vita Nuova will be forthcoming from Harvard University Press in August. Per Harvard's website, the book is a sequence of thirty-one poems, the author recounts his love of Beatrice from his first sight of her (when he was nine and she eight), through unrequited love and chance encounters, to his profound grief sixteen years later at her sudden and unexpected death.
Here, Slavitt talks about his approach to translating this work.)

title=la-vita-nuova There is a poem on the page. In English, which is your native language. You read the poem. No problem. But then suppose that there is someone else in the room and he or she reads the poem. Now there is a problem, because your understanding of it, the associations it triggers in your head, and the degree of your approval or disapproval are different from his. It is like the time that your watch shows. Yours says 2:45. But if there is someone else wearing a watch, and his says 2:47, neither one of you knows exactly what time it is.
Each reading of a poem is unique. Even readings by the same person, separated by months or years, will be slightly different. It stands to reason then that translations from another language--or renditions, with the violence that lies embedded in that word--will be inexact, some of them closer to the French or Italian or Latin text, others taking liberties and yet coming closer in the way they suggest the experience a reader might have had had he been adept in the source language.
I took liberties in my translation of Dante's La Vita Nuova (to be published in August by Harvard University Press) because I wanted to make it clear that the poems in it were poems, that they rhymed, and that they were virtuoso pieces of linguistic dexterity. What they say is . . . not so important, after all. They are love poems, mostly, and all love poems have a similar gist. But to make a statement that seems naturally to form a sonnet or a canzone is to defy the difficulties and constraints of the language and appear to be uttering inspired speech. (Indeed, because English rhyming is more difficult than Italian, the effect in English is all the greater.)
I have been criticized from time to time (or, more accurately, most of the time) for departing from my source with such insouciance. How do I have the temerity to fiddle with Dante? The answer is simple . . . For those who insist on fidelity, the poems are still available in Italian. Go, learn Italian. Or at least learn enough Italian so you can, with a trot and a dictionary beside you, read it a word at a time, a line at a time. That's a perfectly good way to approach a poem in an accessible language. (Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, Finnish, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and others require more effort.) Nabokov's version of Eugene Onegin pretends to be a translation but is, in fact, a course in Russian. It requires great effort on the part of the reader but is greatly rewarding.
I am aiming at a version that is not so strenuously demanding. I have in mind intelligent dilettantes. That has come somehow to be an insulting word (like amateur) but it is cognate with delight (as the other denotes a lover). And what else, after all, is the point of literature.

TWO VOICES: Marlon Hom on Angel Island Detention Poems and Chinatown Songs

Posted on May 18, 2010, 11:19:00 PM 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.

MarlonOver the course of 30 years--from 1910 to 1940--the Angel Island Immigration Station processed over 200,000 immigrants, most of them Chinese. Confined to a small cell and awaiting their fate, Chinese immigrants found various ways to assuage their anxiety: one of them was poetry, which they carved into the station's wooden walls. These poems speak of anger, frustration, uncertainty, and hope, and they contradict the myth that Chinese immigrants were illiterate laborers.

Here Marlon Hom discusses these poems, as well as their impact on the Chinese-American community, China, and the literature written in the years and decades afterward. He discusses how these poems reference well-known classical Chinese literature, adopt motifs from Chinese history and mythology, and in fact even reference each other.

Michael Hofmann on Why Translation Matters

Posted on May 18, 2010, 04:53:35 PM

At The Telegraph, Michael Hoffmann has penned a lengthy response to Edith Grossman's recent book, Why Translation Matters. Lots of good food for thought there, including:

Translators ask for terribly little – just to be read, just to be included, just to be understood – and don't get it. I don't think anyone reading a foreign book in English has ever been able to supply the name of the person who translated it. And yet everyone says it's a global age. The signs are auspicious. We eat in Ethiopian restaurants and cook Thai recipes ourselves, we listen to Senegalese music, we go on holiday to Peru or the Barrier Reef, we are truly exercised about Haiti and the Uighurs and Kyrgyzstan. And yet we can't find it in us to make a few harmless drudges (pace Dr Johnson) feel valued.

Hoffmann also isn't afraid to critique Grossman where he finds it appropriate. Ultimately, the more conversation about these kinds of things, the better:
Tricks from the lecturer's bag let down the writer: rhetorical questions, bits of academic jargon and waffle, too many quotations from too many authorities, sterile listings of the attributes of words, the qualities of style, the glories of authors.
Edith Grossman keeps a resolutely medium-range focus, when I think either a more minute scrutiny or a broader perspective would have been more rewarding, certainly for the reader. (Rabassa's book, by a minor miracle, manages both.) I found her passionate defence of literature stodgy and perplexing and uncalled-for: the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient cultural inferences and conclusions, and so on. This is like a bland description of the rainbow, and about as useful.

Help Bring Poetry Inside Out to 250 Students

Posted on May 17, 2010, 07:06:30 PM

title=simon-sutroThis week, we're starting a campaign to raise $15,000 to bring Poetry Inside out to 250 new students this fall. We'd like to ask all the translators, publishers, writers, and readers out there to help us. If you love world lit, this is your chance to help bring that literature to young readers.
This is what we do: since 2000 PIO has worked with more than 5,000 students through residencies that place poet-translators in Bay Area classrooms. Our program inspires children from the inside out. They learn to take risks, be creative, and use imagination and critical thinking skills as they read, write, and translate poems by the world's great poets. Our curriculum includes poems in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Latvian, Italian, and Japanese--children are introduced to writing from all around the world, and hopefully they go on to love translated literature for the rest of their lives!
Over the past decade we've forged strong partnerships with schools, but these ties are being threatened. Like many other states, California is out of money. When these cuts take effect, arts-enrichment programs--even ones as rigorous and clearly beneficial as Poetry Inside Out--are often the first things that are eliminated.
title=sutro-parkThat's why we're reaching out to the community to offset these budget cuts and continue to offer Poetry Inside Out residencies in Bay Area classrooms. School program fees cover only one third of the cost of the program, and even that is uncertain for the fall.
The $15,000 we're hoping to raise before June 18 will support 10 in-school residencies--that's teachers for more than 250 Bay Area kids, who will learn to love translations, world literature, and creative writing.
If you can help, click the link to make a donation. All donations--no matter the size--will help us reach our goal and bring poetry and translation to students.
Click here to see an example of some of the great work these students do. And you can find even more with posts by the PIO instructors right here on this blog.

PIO Students Translate Chinese into Concrete Poetry

Posted on May 13, 2010,

(Here PIO instructor Andrea Lingenfelter recounts her experiences teaching Bay Area children to translate from Chinese and do concrete poetry—at the same time!)
Poetry Inside Out has been offering Spanish-English poetry translation workshops to students in the Bay Area and beyond. The Center for the Art of Translation had long wanted to add Chinese poetry to its in-school programming, and that goal was finally realized last summer when I came on board and began designing a Chinese poetry curriculum for PIO.
While building the curriculum poem by poem, I have also guest taught at a few schools, where I have introduced modern Chinese poetry into another new PIO program, the World Poetry Curriculum. This has been a perfect fit to test my hunches about what Chinese poems would with resonate with elementary students. My first students were 4th and 5th graders at Sutro Elementary in San Francisco's Richmond district. They were an ideal group to try out a couple of Chinese poems, as many—but not all—of the children spoke Chinese at home and had reading knowledge as well.
The first Chinese poem I gave the class was a concrete poem by the experimental Hong Kong poet, Xi Xi, Striped Tiger in a Clump of Green Grass. After guiding the students through the translation of the title (some of them could read almost every character and understand the meaning of the title), I asked the class to find the tiger. Can you find it?
Here's the poem:


If you guessed the bold face character in the second row from the bottom, the one that looks like stripes, you would be right. But there's a catch.
This poem highlights the visual qualities of Chinese characters in ways that are accessible both to readers of Chinese and to those who are new to the language. It also contains a visual joke. Readers of Chinese hunt in vain for the characters for tiger in the body of the poem and are surprised when they find the tiger the poet intended. Students who don't read much or any Chinese are surprised that the tiger they spot (often very quickly) isn't actually a tiger, although it looks like one. The tiger is actually a king. Students were forced to consider questions like, Why does Xi Xi use this character for king instead of that for tiger? What are the implications of that choice?
This poem further invites students to explore a dense woodland filled with grasses, different kinds of trees and a variety of insects. With a glossary at hand, students hunt first for all of the insects and then for all of the trees, using radicals as their guides. To find all the insects, I ask them to look for all the characters with the worm radical, what my colleague, John Oliver Simon, refers to as the creepy crawly radical. Characters with the worm radical in them are generally related to insects, reptiles, and shellfish. Next, I asked them to find all of the trees. The tree radical (derived from the image of a tree and used as a semantic classifier for words relating to trees or wood) appears in all of the characters for the many kinds of trees in this poem.
After students have spent some time poring over the text and getting to know its details, it is time for them to translate the poem. But how do you translate a visual poem?
These examples show different possible approaches:
—Translated by Kelly L., 4th grade

—Translated by Crystal H., 4th grade

—Translated by Gordon K., 5th grade

—Translated by Jason Z., 4th grade

Some students translated each character into an individual drawing, with some characters meticulously detailed and others full of vigorous movement. Others interpreted the poem in terms of the big picture and made drawings that integrated the parts into a whole.

—Translated by Wendy L., 5th grade

Others still translated the characters into their English equivalents, word for word.
—Translated by Andrea C., 5th grade

There were as many interpretations as there were kids!
This playful poem is the first introduction to Chinese for some of the students, and because it's a like a game of Where's Waldo and doesn't require any knowledge of Chinese grammar (except for in the title), it's a good point of entry. On the other hand, it offers those who already read Chinese a new way to look at the Chinese language.
Striped Tiger in the Green Grass asks a serious question in a lighthearted way: what is a poem, and what are the limits of poetry? Where does the written word end and the picture begin? These are some of the questions our PIO students at Sutro Elementary explored.

Some Literary Links

Posted on May 11, 2010, 06:02:29 PM

A new award encourages translation between Turkey and Germany:

The governments of Germany and Turkey are preparing to set to bestow the first awards for the translation of German literary works to Turkish and vice versa.
A common declaration on the issue was signed Tuesday by Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry official Onur Bilge Kula and German Ambassador to Ankara, Eckart Cuntz.
The envoy said it was an important cultural collaboration between the two countries. Cultural exchange programs between Turkish and German students and journalists were previously realized, and also various art events were held. Now high quality literary works will be brought in both languages thanks to this award.

The Poetry Foundation announces some significant changes to its (formerly) active blog, Harriet:
The poetry foundation announced on Monday that it was reconfiguring its social-media engagement, scaling back its blog in favor of Twitter and Facebook. It will turn its blog, Harriet, into a an intermittent, multimedia, poetry-focused online venue, with no comments -- in other words, not quite a blog anymore.

Review of The Subversive Scribe by Suzanne Jill Levine

Posted on May 10, 2010, 06:14:50 PM

For a while now, one of my favorite working translators has been Suzanne Jill Levine. That's partly because she's a great translator and thinker, and partly because she has translated some of the greats of Latin American literature, and thus some of my favorite authors (the list is huge, but some ar... [more]

New Series of Mitteleuropa Classics From Penguin

Posted on May 6, 2010, 06:23:10 PM

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post spreads the news that Penguin is launching a new translation series. Here's the info from the man behind it, Simon Winder:
This series originates in a visit I made to Krakow last summer where I was talking to a Polish publisher who had known Czes?aw Mi?osz and wh... [more]

Maxine Hong Kingston on Angel Island Poems, + More

Posted on May 4, 2010, 05:34:39 PM

We're all looking forward to hearing Marlon Hom's Lit&Lunch on the Angel Island immigrant poetry in just one week. As always, if you can make it, RSVP with us on Facebook.
The more I've been learning about Angel Island in anticipation of this Lit&Lunch, the more intrigued I've become by these wo... [more]

Translation Recommendations From the Center's Facebook Friends

Posted on May 3, 2010, 04:52:16 PM

Last week on the Center's Facebook fan page we did a giveaway of Olga Slavnikova's 2017, the new Russian novel translated by Marian Schwartz.
We'll be doing more giveaways in the future--so if you're interested in free copies of the newest novels in translation, friend us!
For this particula... [more]