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

Nobel Speculation and 40,000 Dictionaries

Posted on September 30, 2010, 01:25:00 PM by Scott Esposito

The Nobel Prize in literature is set to be announced sometime between October 7th and the 14th. With the date getting so close, there's a lot of specuation. The Literary Saloon has an extremely thorough discussion of the contenders, with commentary, analysis, and even breakdowns of how various possible winners' odds have changed over the years. (As a reminder, the Nobel doesn't do a longlist or shortlist, so guesses like these are always something of a crapshoot, but nonetheless fun.)

Words Without Borders have their own thoughts, with a very active comment thread with all kinds of speculation. Surprisingly (to me, and probably ohters) the WWB thread has a distinctly Rhilip Rothian air, with many arguing his merits. For instance:


Roth does seem like an obvious candidate in some respects, but—and this is my main point here—I think he would have been much more likely to win say 30 years ago than today. At this point it seems that if they were going to give it to him, they would have already. I wouldn’t say it’s flat out impossible to imagine (unlike some other people who get mentioned), but it does strike me as being somewhat unlikely. He may be the obvious American, but that having been insufficient to date, I’m not sure he’ll live long enough for it to be America’s “turn” again in the current environment.

I would be surprised, but who knows.

In other translation news, it's nice to see translator Alexis Levitin being recognized by academia and awarded a Distinguished Professor position from the SUNY Board of Trustees. Translators tend to gripe (quite legitimately) that translation isn't taken seriously by the powers that be in higher education, so this is a welcome development.

And Levin's travel to a translators' college with 40,000 dictionaries got my attention:

This summer, Levitin spent a month at the European Translators College in Straelen, Germany.

"They have 40,000 dictionaries," he said. "I finished several short stories by contemporary writers — Gastão Cruz and Rosa Alice Branco — which have been accepted by Rosebud. I spent two weeks with her (Branco) in Portugal."

TWO VOICES: Daniel Kehlmann on Fame

Posted on September 28, 2010, 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.

In this podcast from the Center for the Art of Translation, bestselling German author Daniel Kehlmann reads from and talks about his new "novel in stories," Fame.

Kehlmann leapt on the English-language scene with the novel Measuring the World, which received comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson and has sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide. Fame did over 100,000 copies in its first week in Germany, and it's already getting the kind of attention in the U.S. that all but a few translated novels get.

As Kehlmann himself has noted, Fame is very different from the novel that made him "famous." Measuring the World was a postmodern historical novel that told the thematically intertwined stories the mathematician Carl Gauss and the explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Each "measures the world" in his own way.

Kehlmann's new novel tells nine separate stories, each with recurring characters and overlapping themes. Here, Kehlmann explores what technologies like cell phones and Facebook are doing to our sense of identity, as well as our concepts of fame. Characters have their lives turned upside down by cell phones, an actor changes places with his impersonator, a woman discovers she's a character in someone else's book, and a blogger longs to be a character in a novel.

Carolina de Robertis and Bonsai

Posted on September 27, 2010, by Scott Esposito

On October 5 we're welcoming Carolina de Robertis as our first Lit&Lunch guest for the 2010-11 season (full lists of guests here).

Among other things, she'll be discussing Bonsai, a slim Chilean novel that she translated for Melville House in 2008 (and was published in 2009). The book had a huge impact on Chilean literature when it was originally published in Chile (many saw it as a countervailing trend to Roberto Bolano), and it was one of my favorite novels of 2009. Although it's a very short work, it's extremely complex, and it's unlike most of the books I read, translation or otherwise.

De Robertis' translation originally appeared in its entirety in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and you can read an excerpt of that translation here.

Her's what Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books, said about Bonsai and its author, Alejandro Zambra:

In my opinion, Zambra is the best of a generation of Chilean writers that has little or no unifying characteristic, a generation that is starting to experiment more than any other generation has in Chile. Zambra writes of Chilean novelists that “they, we, write from outside in, as if the novel were, really, the long echo of a suppressed poem. ” He makes no claims or attempts to be representative of his country or era, and in that lies the brightness of his writing: the simple endeavor to say something true along with the awareness of the relativity of that truth. Zambra’s “valid images” are delicate portraits are the everyday, and his books some of the most exciting of that recent category, Latin American literature.

And here's what The Nation wrote about the book:

When it was published in Spanish in 2006, Alejandro Zambra's novel Bonsai filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still, each of these volumes should be considered a marvel of book design and production since in interviews the author has let slip that his original text ran only to forty sheets. Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra's text has swelled -- and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, "The publication of Bonsai...marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation's letters."

Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work. A love story that's both wry and melancholy, the novel opens in 1980s Santiago, at a study session turned party, where textbooks give way to vodka and two university students fall casually into bed. "Julio didn't like that Emilia asked so many questions in class," Zambra writes, "and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort."


Free Signed Books for Taking the Survey

Posted on September 23, 2010, by Scott Esposito

We've just decided to enter all the repondents in our Lit&Lunch survey into a drawing for some free signed books.

Remember, we're looking for input for everyone--even if you've never even heard ot Lit&Lunch betfore, we want to hear what you think about literary translation events. So take the survey, and you might win one of these:

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated and signed by Edith Grossman
  • Rex, written and signed by Jose Manuel Prieto, and translated by Esther Allen
  • The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, translated and signed by Susan Bernofsky
  • and a pre-publication copy of Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, the new volume of TWO LINES, featuring work from Lydia Davis, Natasha Wimmer, Katherine Silver, Marian Schwartz, Jeffrey Yang, and many more

Congrats to 2010 PEN Award Recipients

Posted on September 22, 2010, by Scott Esposito

PEN has announced its latest batch of awards, and there are a lot of Center associates up there. In fact, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, which is the current volume of Two Lines for about one more month, is very well represented.

Wherever's co-editor, Marilyn Hacker, picked up the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, good for $5,000. And Jose Manuel Prieto, whose novel Rex was excerpted in Wherever in Esther Allen's translation, was a runner up for the PEN Translation Prize. Last but not least, Rika Lesser was a runner-up for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for her translation of Mozart's Third Brain, another text we excerpted in Wherever.

The full list of award winners can be seen here. Congrats to everyone honored this year by PEN. And translators with books out in 2011--submissions for next year's award are underway.

Get Your Poetry on Saturday, October 2

Posted on September 21, 2010, by Scott Esposito

Berkely's Watershed Poetry Festival is coming up on Saturday, October 2. If you drop by, you'll be able to see products of the Center's own Poetry Inside Out program of in-school translation-based curricula.

The Center's John Oliver Simon, Poetry Inside Out Artistic Director, will be there, along with PIO students, including Audrey Larkin and Caroline María Woods-Mejía, both former Grand Prize winners in River of Words. They'll be reading their translation-inspired poetry during the event.

The rest of the all-star cast includes include former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, renowned translator and Center friend John Felstiner (asking "Can Poetry Save the Earth?"), former California Poet Laureate Al Young, and Camille T. Dungy, poet and editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.

It all takes place on Saturday afternoon, October 2, in Berkeley's beautiful Civic Center Park, at MLK Jr. Way at Center Street. This poetry extravagaznza lasts from noon to 4:30 p.m., with our PIO students scheduled to read at 1:00 p.m. More info here at the Poetry Flash website.

Take Our Lit&Lunch Survey!

Posted on September 19, 2010, by Scott Esposito

If you've looked at our events page, you may have noticed that we've greatly expanded the number and scope of our events for the 2010-11 season at the Center.

We're excited by the changes we're making, and part of these changes is making sure that we're receptive to the wants and needs of our audiences. So we're put together a survey to see what you all want.

Please take the survey! Even if you've never been to a Center event or don't live in the Bay Area, there are questions on there that will pertain to you. The whole thing takes about 5 - 10 minutes, and you will be helping us immensely to make our events series better.

So take the survey!

And plus, as a thanks you get to hear Natasha Wimmer reading an unreleased essay by Roberto Bolano at the end.

The NEA Announces Translation Grants, and Two Lines Is in There

Posted on September 17, 2010, by Sc

For those who haven't yet taken note, the NEA has announced the new batch of literary translation grants, with a lot of worthy and incredibly interesting sounding projects. As usual, there are a lot of TWO LINES alumns, but what might be most exciting is that one of the grants is for a project in the current TWO LINES, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal.

That project would be Clare Sullivan's translation fo Natalia Toledo's Zapotec poems. We've got two of them in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, printed trilingually (Zapotec, Spanish, and English), and they're quite good. Here's what the NEA had to say about this project:

To support the translation of Black Olive Tree and Other Zapotec Poems by Mexican poet Natalia Toledo. Toledo is the first female poet whose work is written in both Zapotec, the language indigenous to the Juchitán region in Mexico, and Spanish. Her direct, visually inspired writing evokes the traditions and mythology of the region. This project is a rare instance of literature translated directly from Zapotec to English, demonstrating the contemporary nature of Isthmus Zapotec writing, unique among indigenous cultures.

Clare Sullivan has a Ph.D. in Spanish from New York University. She received a grant in translation in 2009 from the International Center for Writing and Translation. She teaches Spanish language, translation, and literature at the University of Louisville. Her book reviews and translations have appeared in a number of journals, as well as two book-length translations published by Wings Press.

I'll also mention that Natalia Toledo is the daughter of the famous Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, a particular favorite of mine. His art needs to be seen to be believed.

Lydia Davis on Retranslation

Posted on September 16, 2010, by Scott Esposito

For the next two weeks, Lydia Davis is blogging over at The Paris Review on translation. She starts out by talking about why someone should re-translate a work like Madame Bovary. She should know, as she's done just that--and we've got an excerpt of it in our next anthology of literaty translation, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, publishing next month. (Pre-order yours at Amazon!)

Here's what Davis has to say about re-translation

But in the case of a book that appeared more than 150 years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For example, 1) the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original; 2) the earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. 3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be—let another translator have a try.

For more on that topic have a listen to Breon Mitchell talking about just that--in this audio from last November's Lit&Lunch event, he discusses his retranslation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum.

First Fall Event: Daniel Kehlmann at The Booksmith

Posted on September 15, 2010, by Scott Esposito

Summer seems to have flown right by, but here we are approaching fall, which means it's time for another season of the Center's events. First up, Daniel Kehlmann.

We'll be having Kehlmann next Saturday, September 25, at The Booksmith. If you're coming, let us know by RSVPing on our Facebook page (not required, but it helps us if you do).

The book he'll be reading from is his new novel, Fame, just out in the U.S. and U.K. in Carol Janeway's translation. The book has been making some noise, which isn't surprising for a mega-selling author, as well as one who counts among his fans Jonathan Franzen.

This book is being billed as a "novel in nine stories," and true to that title it's a very fragmented work. This is pretty fitting, since the book is all about what electronic communications technologies are doing to our senses of identity and of fame.

Wrting in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin paired it with Tom McCarthy's new novel, C, which souns about right to me.

Fame (Quercus, £12.99), Kehlmann's new "novel in nine episodes", takes us deeper into that intimate space of contemporary life where networked gadgets reconfigure private souls and public roles. Mobile phones or online avatars allow our identities both to split and to spawn. In these deftly interlinked stories, smart metafictional games coincide with unironic and open-hearted reflections on loneliness, ageing and mortality. And they share with McCarthy an abiding interest in the metaphysics of technology.

This gives a good idea of what the book feels like (and, yes, it is very metafictional, although not in an annoying or cloying sort of way). As Tonkin implies here, the book does cover quite  abit of ground, even though it's only about 200 pages long.

The Irish Times also has a good review, which includes a handy summary of the novel's first story, in which a man gets more than he bargained for when he buys his first cell phone.

In the opening story an unsuspecting technician reluctantly purchases his first cell phone. Ebling is practical. “Why did nobody wonder about whether it was a good idea to clutch a powerful source of radiation to your head?” But as his family needs to be able to contact him he bought one. “And now, without warning, it was ringing.” The calls begin to come, fast and insistent and all for a man named Ralf, a famous actor with a complicated love life. When Ebling complains that he has been given a number that already belongs to someone else he is assured that such an error is impossible. He continues to receive calls for Ralf with such regularity that he realises he would like to know more about Ralf’s life: “After all, it was now, to a small extent, his life too.” The calls continue, and Ebling gets to thinking: “Why did some people get everything and other people almost nothing? Some people achieved so much and other people didn’t, merit had nothing to do with it.” He begins to take notes of the names of the women that, by virtue of them thinking he is Ralf, he is involved with.

Also, don't miss the review at Love German Books, which does an awesome job of coving German literature in general. Here's s nippet:

The book’s strength though, as those who know Measuring the World will guess, is in its characters. All treated with a healthy lack of respect, the author seems to like some of them more than others. There’s the calmly eloquent retired teacher who turns out to be a character in a Leo Richter story and tries to persuade the writer not to make her die in a Swiss euthanasia clinic. There’s the despairing doctor who goes on a tour of Latin America as Richter’s lover, forever fearful that he’ll steal the details of her life for his writing. Or Ralf Tanner, who ends up opting out of his life of luxury in favour of a job as his own lookalike – only he’s not very good at it.