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

Jeffrey Yang Interview

Posted on February 28, 2011, 02:57:00 PM by Scott Esposito

The very interesting new publication Molossus has conducted an interview with Some Kind of Beautiful Signal poetry editor Jeffrey Yang. They talk mostly about TWO LINES and the Uyghur folio that Jeffrey edited, although they also touch on a few other matters as well. Check it out.

The TWO LINES portfolio contains a wide range of poetry: from contemporary work to older, traditional poems to fragments unearthed during archeological fieldwork. What unifies them?

The major unifying thread is a continuity of tradition; the transformation of a people and culture through time as embodied in poetry—even if this involves a disruption or resistance to tradition. But there are other threads. As far as the issue as a whole, including the rest of the work outside of the Uyghur portfolio, I wanted the poems to not only have overlapping themes but evoke a sort of diversity within a subversive aesthetic. When Roberto Bolaño meets Enrique Lihn in one of his stories, Lihn is not only already dead but looks younger, more handsome with brighter eyes, than in his author photographs: a Lihn who resembled his poems, who had adopted their age, who lived in a building similar to his poems, and who could disappear, as his poems sometimes did, with a characteristic elegance and poise. A disappearing aesthetic. Whoever uses English today has to contend with its army and navy, but it doesn’t have to be an entirely homogenizing force does it? It can be questioned, interrogated, changed by other languages; subsist in a way for other languages.

Castrated Writing and the Editor From Hell

Posted on February 23, 2011, 01:45:00 PM by Scott Esposito

The Literary Saloon points us to a heck of an essay written by the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun, who is protesting government censorship of his work. Xuecun has some rather withering remarks for his nation's censorial regime, as when he discusses his "editor":

I finished this book some time ago, and the most important reason for the delay in its publication was that I came up against a rather peculiar editor. Over the course of two months, he and I had some very interesting verbal duels. I smashed a cup on the floor, I spoke a few strong words to him. I furiously punched the wall at home, but finally I capitulated. This editor is a cautious person. Whatever the circumstances, the first thing he thinks of is safety. In his view, it would have been preferable not to publish my book at all; this would be the safest way. Even if he was forced to publish it, he told me it was best to avoid talking about anything real, because anything real entails risk. If I couldn't avoid touching on a few truths, then I should be sure not to express any opinions about them. The moment I had opinions, I became a danger. I disagreed with him, but, I know he is not the only one to hold this view.

And then later on he uncorks this breathtaking display of verbiage on "castrated writing":

There are journalists here, and perhaps some others, who may report later that I have delivered an angry speech. Well, I am not angry; I am just describing my situation, because I believe it is certainly not just my situation, but the situation faced by all of China's writers. And the fear I feel is not just the fear felt by one writer, but by all of our writers. Unfortunately, I have dedicated great effort to the task of compiling this 'sensitive words glossary,' and I have mastered my filtering skills. I knew which words and sentences had to be cut, and I accepted the cutting as if that was the way it should be. In fact, I will often take it on myself to save time and cut a few words. I call this 'castrated writing' — I am a proactive eunuch, I have already castrated myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.

The entire speech is well worth reading as a window into one of the world's more difficult places to publish certain books. And in a strange sort of way, Xuecun's struggles remind us of the importance of translated literature--and world literature in general--as it can offer a home to writing that is deemed unpublishable in certain places. China isn't alone in this, of course. It wasn't so long ago that Lolita could only see the light of day in France, to name just one masterpiece of modern literature originally censored in a Western democratic nation.

Yang and Kamberi on Thursday

Posted on February 22, 2011, 03:48:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We hope to see all our Bay Area community at our Uyghur extravaganza this Thursday! You can see all the details on our Facebook page (or our events page), and why not invite a friend while you're at it? And for our community outside the Bay Area--we've got you covered. The audio will be coming up soon after the event.

This is certain to be one of your few chances to learn about Uyghur literature (seriously; try googling "uyghur literature" and see how much substance you get). You'll also get to meet two excellent poets and scholars--Jeffrey Yang and Dolkun Kamberi--and even hear some Uyghur poetry read in the original language.

This event is free to friends of the Center, so be sure to mention that you're part of our community at the door. It's also free to members of the Mechanics' Institute and the Asia Society. Otherwise, you'll have to pay $12.

TWO VOICES: Translator Damion Searls in Conversation with Scott Esposito on Norwegian Author Jon Fosse

Posted on February 17, 2011, 03:48:00 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.

Compared to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, Jon Fosse is one of Europe's most important living writers. Here, the translator of two of his novels, Damion Searls, talks with the Center's Scott Esposito about this intriguing writer.

They discuss the author's short, intense novel Aliss at the Fire. It is an elemental work that uses dramatic shifts in time and perspective to tell a timeless story about marriage set against the harsh Norwegian landscape. As the Independent put it:

In this slim novella, the story is stripped down to its emotional core, making for an intense reading experience. Fosse paints a harsh, unforgiving landscape and conveys with delicate precision Signe's pain and bereavement that the long, lonely years have done little to dispel.

In discussing the translation of this interesting work, Searls talks about his very personal reaction to Fosse's writing and his correspondence with the author. He also discusses how he discovered Fosse and learned Norwegian in the process of translating his novels. Searls also reads from Aliss and talks about the unique challenge of translating the book's title.

Fosse's 2000 novel, Melancholy, won the Melsom Prize, and he was awarded a lifetime stipend from the Norwegian government for his future literary efforts. He is the author of numerous plays and novels, and he has been named one of Europe's geniuses.

Searls has translated from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, and he is an author in English. He has translated many of Europe's greatest writers, including Proust, Rilke, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, Peter Handke, Jon Fosse, and Nescio, and edited a new abridged edition of Thoreau's Journal. His translation of Hans Keilson's novel Comedy in a Minor Key is a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critic Circle's Award for Fiction.

What Gets Translated in Iran?

Posted on February 17, 2011, 11:09:00 AM by Scott Esposito

We talk a lot about translation into English around here because, well, because that's our mission as an organization. But it can also be very interesting to have a look at what other nations are translating into their native tongues.

For instance, Iran. The Literary Saloon picks up a very interesting tidbit showing not only what foreign books go on to be sold in Iran but also which books that market honors. I speak of the 4th Parvin Etesami Biennial Award.

Finalists for the award include Vernon God Little, which was probably the most criticlly denigrated Booker Prize winner ever. (See for instance, Ron Charles of The Washington Post, who writes of the author's second novel, "Ludmila's Broken English is the worst novel I've read since DBC Pierre's debut novel, Vernon God Little.") Perhaps the book's decidedly unflattering portrait of the U.S. was what got it the nod in Iran.

The Literary Saloon goes on to write:

Just a week ago I mentioned how befuddled I was (yet again) by what does and doesn't get published in Iran (as Martin McDonagh's play, The Pillowman -- a play famously set in: "a totalitarian fucking dictatorship" -- has just come out there), and this week brings news that an almost current work -- Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes -- is also being published.

This shortlist is odd and a bit embarrassing (any list with Vernon God Little on it is embarrassing, and Zorro just compounds that), but this isn't a bad mix, and at least gives some insight into what is getting translated and published in Iran (and note how almost all the works are from Western languages, Siddiqi's Urdu novel being the exception).

I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand, it's fantastic that these titles are getting published, and presumably read, in Iran. But on the other hand . . . some censorial consistency, please!

Fact-Checking Poems

Posted on February 16, 2011, 11:46:00 AM by Scott Esposito

If something can be fact-checked, The New Yorker will try to check it. Even a poem. Case in point:

To a literal-minded reader, "Lust for Life," a poem Michael Robbins published last April in The New Yorker, would have raised a few questions. Are elephants ever cannibals? Has the poet ever operated a meth lab? Did that meth lab often explode? Is Mr. Robbins really often compared to Britney Spears? Has John Milton ever jumped out of his birthday cake? Does he really think everyone in Sweden is an idiot? For the magazine's fact-checkers, perhaps the city's foremost partisans of the literal, the issue was, Who invented refrigeration?

"The idiot Swedes do a number on me/ They invent refrigeration and sleep in shifts," ran the offending lines.

"This magazine," New Yorker poetry editor Peter DeVries wrote poet Richard Wilbur in 1948, "is notoriously fastidious about points of fact. And we feel the same way about poetry, rightly or wrongly."

DeVries was asking Mr. Wilbur, who still publishes in the magazine, to change a line at the behest of a fact-checker. The poet refused, and so his poem, the first of his the magazine had warmed to, was refused. Last spring, Mr. Robbins was luckier.

New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon's rationale for letting the "falsehood" (the Swedes did not in fact invent efrigeration) slip by is worth reading.

Yet, I daresay that some poems can't--and shouldn't--be fact-checked. Case in point.

Celebrate Uyghur Literature!

Posted on February 15, 2011, 10:33:00 AM by Scott Esposito

Next Thursday we'll be doing our celebration of Uyghur literature with poets, scholars, and translators Jeffrey Yang and Dolkun Kamberi. We're getting things started off right at 5:30 with a wine and cheese happy hour, then the celebration itself at 6:00, followed by more mingling, wine, and cheese.

This event grew out of the Uyghur folio in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, which Jeffrey and Dolkun translated and edited. Here's some of Jeffrey's own words on why they did this section:

When I was asked to guest edit the poetry content for the new volume of TWO LINES, it is in this context, and during the weeks after the July 2009 violence in Urumqi, that I first thought of putting together a Uyghur poetry focus. Literature has often arisen as spiritual antidote to suffering and political atrocities, however directly ineffective it might be against daily realities or the red-tide of history. At the very least I thought it might be a peaceful means to celebrate the rich literary tradition of a diverse people. Plus I had never read a single Uyghur poem before.

You can also read their introduction to the Uyghur folio, where Jeffrey and Dolkun discuss what makes this poetry so interesting:

The Uyghurs are an ancient people whose forebears are thought to be Turk-Tocharian, and have lived in Central Asia since the first millennium BCE. This area has played an important role since early times because of its favorable geographic location on the ancient trade routes between the East and the West, connecting Greco-Roman civilization with Indian Buddhist culture and Central and East Asian traditions. . . .

Over hundreds of years, the Uyghurs have developed a unique culture and have made significant contributions in the history, literature, sciences, architecture, music, song, dance, crafts, and fine arts of Central Eurasian civilization. Most of the ten million Uyghurs today live in the Uyghur Autonomous Region that comprises roughly one-sixth of China’s territory

As with all civilizations that have depended on a highly developed oral culture to pass down their literature, customs, myths, and beliefs through the generations, the literary art with the longest and richest tradition for the Uyghurs is poetry—a poetry rooted in song and music.

If you're in the Bay Area, drop by next Thursday to find out more about this tradition, hear some of the poetry, and get a chance to meet Jeffrey and Dolkun themselves.

Review of engulf -- enkindle

Posted on February 14, 2011, 01:13:00 PM by Scott Esposito

Over at Three Percent, Erica Mena has a review of engulf — enkindle, a book we originally excerpted in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. The author is German poet Anja Utler, and the translator is Kurt Beals, who you can hear read from the poems in this audio of our book launch event.

Erica seems to have liked the book in no small proportion, as her review begins:

It literally stunned me into absolute submission; it is the book of poetry I’d been wanting to read for years. It’s a small volume, and I read it in one sitting, faster than I normally read poetry, because I couldn’t slow down. The language sunk its hooks into me and pulled me through the book, like rafting down rapids. If some of this sounds violent, that’s no mistake – the book is full of sensual violence, done to the body of language and the body in the poem.

Introducing Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops

Posted on February 10, 2011, 02:32:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We at the Center are proud to present our latest book: Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops. This book come out of our Poetry Inside Out program, which is an in-schools program that teaches children to translate some of the great poets from a variety of languages.

Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops collects the best translations from our last year of Poetry Inside Out and presents them in the form of a 17-week PIO course. So there are introductions explaning everything from abecedarian poems to tankas and sonnets. The "lessons" move from the basics to more compelx forms, and, of couse, all of these are illustrated with actual poems, from ten different languages. Where else can you find poetry from both Ancient Mayan and Latin and Arabic?

It's a very interesting book, and if you're curious about it you can see the full table of contents (and order it) here. I was quite pleased, though not surprised, to see at AWP that many educators of students of all ages picked this book up as a way to get ideas for incorporating both more poetry and more translation in the classroom.

More Bolaño Coming from Natasha Wimmer

Posted on February 10, 2011, 09:49:00 AM by Scott Esposito

Our corner of the literary world is abuzz today with news that Natasha Wimmer's translation of Roberto Bolaño's novel The Third Reich will be serialized in The Paris Review, leading up to its full publication by FSG. (Those with a firm grasp of Spanish can get the Vintage paperback of El Tercer Reich, which has been available in the U.S for quite some time now.)

If only all fans of dead authors could be so lucky. The Paris Review has announced that, over the course of four issues in 2011, it will be publishing Roberto Bolaño's novel The Third Reich, which was discovered among the Chilean writer's papers after his death in 2003. (It will then be published as a hardcover edition by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.)

If this news has gotten you in the mood for a little Bolaño, the Center has a numer of things to offer you. First off, have a listen to our Lit&Lunch event with Wimmer, where she read some currently unpublished Bolaño translation and talked bout various of his writings.

In advance of that event, way back in September 2009, we did a short interview with Wimmer, where she discussed forthcoming Bolaño books, including The Third Reich:

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.

And, of course, Wimmer co-edited the Center's latest book of literary translation, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, which includes her translation of a Bolaño essay.