On Tuesday, April 12, we'll be having a Lit&Lunch event with newly minted MacArthur "Genius" Yiyun Li to talk about her work with the Chinese writer Shen Congwen. (If you're coming, let us know on our Facebook event page!)
Since Congwen is far from a household name (Li aims to change that), here are some resources to find out what he was all about. First of, Li's own introduction to the work of his that she published in A Public Space. Here's a quote:
I first discovered Shen Congwen in college in the early nineties, when his work was just beginning to be reissued in China. The impact of his work was beyond language—I remember reading his masterpiece Border Town and the agony I felt at the thought of his truncated career. It’s those unwritten books that have driven me to read and reread his letters, as if they could offer some small compensation for a loss that I almost took to be personal.
All the while I am aware that my obsession with his letters and his life story is unfair: that Shen himself has been transformed into a character, who, like the people in his stories, was caught between his love (in his case, for writing), and a fate intolerant of that passion.
Shen Congwen was born in 1902, in Phoenix, a small town in western Hunan. After leaving school at fourteen, he joined the army. His work started to appear in magazines in 1925, and over the next twenty years, he published widely—stories, novels, essays, many of them, I believe, among the best work of the twentieth century in China.
And here's a snipped from the Complete Review's review of Congwen's Border Town, published in English in 2009:
Shen's world includes death and destruction, but the causes are external, due to nature and fate. The human actors are almost all exceptionally kind, and even where they show reluctance or avoidance their reasons are entirely understandable. It's a testament to Shen's writing that such an unbelievable idyll is made almost convincing, and though his characters and plot are simple, it is an affecting and agreeable work.
And here is some biographical information from The Asia Society, which gets at some of the drama in Congren's extremely difficult career:
Known by some as the Chinese equivalent to William Faulkner, Shen carefully crafted realistic and complex characters while also exposing the injustices committed by the military and the bourgeoisie. His works include novels such as The Long River, an idyllic story about modernity through the eyes of a young girl and her ferry operating grandfather, and short story collections such as Lamp of Spring and Black Phoenix.
A prolific writer through the '20s to the '40s, the Communist Party's rise to power and restrictions on writing effectively ended his career. Suffering a nervous breakdown in 1949, Shen ceased writing fiction.
Certainly one of the premiere translation events in the U.S., the PEN World Voices festival has just announced its schedule of events for 2011, to begin on April 25.
Chad Post at Three Percent has a roundup of events that appeal to him.
For my own part, some events that look very cool would include
Monday, 4/25, The Public Intellectual: With Manuel de Lope, Peter Godwin, Pierre Guyotat, Thomas Lehr, Linda Polman, and Hervé Le Tellier; moderated by Michael Silverblatt
An event with Pierre Guyotat, author of possibly the smuttiest book in all of French lit (plus praised wildly by Michel Foucault), plus living Oulipioian Hervé Le Tellier? Sounds awesome.
Sunday, 5/1, In Conversation: Jonathan Galassi and Joachim Sartorius with Rosanna Warren
Very cool to see fantastic poet and translator--not to mention poetry editor for the next TWO LINES, to be titled Counterfeits--Rosanna Warren participating in a conversation with FSG's incredible editor Jonathan Galassi.
And there are a ton more events up there.
Words Without Borders has a very interesting interview with Peruvian writer Jorge Eduardo Benavides. At one point they talk about his trilogy, based on political upheaval in the 20th centiry in Peru. It soulds like a great three novels:
JB: You’ve written, while in Spain, what might be considered a trilogy about the Peru of the recent past. Los años inútiles is about the end of the 1980s; El año que rompí contigo turns on the transition of power from Alan García to Alberto Fujimori. And Un millón de soles tells the story of the coup attempt launched by Juan Velasco in 1968. How did the idea for this trilogy arise?
JEB: The idea of the trilogy did not come to me immediately, but rather emerged out of some research that came after writing the first novel, Los años inútiles. Since it was a social and political sort of inquiry that motivated me to write the novel, this interest expanded and occupied much of my thinking; this is how the second novel emerged, which at heart is concerned with the same historical period (the years of the first Alan García government), only it is told from a different perspective and puts its emphasis on the last stage of that period, which is to say, the complete disintegration of García’s APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana) regime and the arrival of Fujimori in power. But these two novels led me to investigate—always from a literary point of view—the origin of this crack in Peruvian society, which, from a novelistic standpoint, was fascinating. How had these things occurred during those terrible years of our society? It wasn’t only a failure of governing and a problem of disorder, but it also suggested that something was truly rotten in our country. Then I wanted to visit, so to say, the period prior to the resumption of democracy in 1980—that is, the eleven years of military dictatorship we had since 1968. The characters of the two novels I had just finished writing had a past: as politicians, journalists, businessmen, influence peddlers, military men. This novel—which I would call Un millón de soles—presented something like the genesis of what happened in Los años inútiles. This is a novel that seeks to understand how the singular and centralized power of a dictatorship functioned from its innermost reaches. And it interested me to organize the novel in such a way that it formed part of what I had discovered in the context of the trilogy: three novels linked by the same need to take up, and novelize, an extended period of our recent history.
The also talk about Benavides' story "The Reckoning," which you can read in Words Without Borders. Just try reading Benavides'description thereof without wanting to read the story itself:
“The Reckoning” is perhaps one of the first stories in which I seek to meld the fantastical with the political. The idea is simple, and it begins with the allegory of a fearful presence that kills or devours those who dare to confront it . . . The allegory of totalitarianism, of the doctrinaire rigidity that destroys the best part of human life and that wipes out especially the intellectuals. Naturally, put that way, the story has more of a political or even philosophical bent, and what I wanted was a story based on that period in which Peru was trapped by the fundamentalist terror of the Shining Path. And the question was: what would happen if this were to come to pass? If we had a government of illuminated Ayatollahs like the Shining Path purported to be . . . what would happen to intellectual life? For that reason, the story is situated temporally in the moments prior to the arrival of that dystopian universe willed into being by the orders of the Shining Path, when a few professors realize that that “presence” that circles them like a tiger or a fierce beast is capable of killing them.
Pulitzer-nominated poet Cyrus Cassells and Franscec Parcerisas first struck up a friendship in 1983, when the former was in Barcelona exploring the charming city that has been home to so many artists and writers. Twenty years later the two men met again in Barcelona, and it was then that Cassells made the snap decision to become Parcerisas’ English-language voice. As Cassells tells it, it was a moment of great serendipity and much drama: "In his living room he recited, movingly, in Catalan, the poem "Objects,' which prompted an almost lightning-quick decision on my part to become his translator."
Cassells read a number of Parcerisas' poems to a rapt Two Voices audience, switching with ease from English to Catalan and back.
As Cassells related in the event, he first became interested in Catalan poetery with the work of Salvador Espriu, a frequent Nobel candidate and a poet whom Harold Bloom called "an extraordinary poet by any international standard" before declaring "The Nobel committee is guilty of many errors, and one of those was not to have given the prize to Salvador Espriu."
Cassells went to Barcelona to translate Espriu and discovered Parcerisas. He now translates both.
In between reading poems by Parcerisas, Cassells explained how the language Parcerisas wrote in was banned by the Fascist government in Spain. He also explained how, somewhat uncommonly, Catalan is not Parcerisas' mother tongue but a language he acquired later in life.
Cassells also discussed Parcerisas' role as a famous translator into Catalan, having translating an extensive list of books and authors, among them Joyce Carol Oates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Sontag, and even The Lord of the Rings. As Cassells explained, so few people translate into Catalan that each translator must work extensively.
Lastly, readers should have a look at this write-up of the event at The Blue Elephant, with photos of Cassells reading and futher information on his translations.
image credit: James McColley Eilers
The Guardian is doing a cool series in which they talk to editors from various countries and ask them about what is making a big splash in their local literary ecosystem. So far they've done France and Germany.
A little sterotypically, the French sound both dour and self-interested:
To understand what literary life in France is like, imagine a pond. A pond that's getting smaller and smaller, with just as many fish in it, so that the water is getting more and more crowded. You can guess what happens: each one has less and less space to evolve, to find food, and even to develop the energy required to discuss ideas. Sales of books continue to be weak in 2011, after a particularly flat year for publishers and bookshops . . .
In the purely literary domain, on the other hand, debate is less lively. The controversies that arose when autobiographical fiction, or "autofiction", began to establish itself, thanks to writers such as Serge Doubrovsky . . . Indeed, "autofiction", which introduces a character sharing the same name as the author, in situations which are more or less fictitious, has an almost incestuous relationship with the real world. As a result, this bold genre, which has given French literature some of its most interesting books in the last few years, is not neutral – and this is undoubtedly one of its strengths. However, autofiction no longer sparks the same passions as it did 10 years ago. In the case of Angot's latest, which has not had the anticipated impact on readers, it has taken a lawsuit to rouse the literary world from its torpor: one brought by the ex-girlfriend of the man Angot shares her life with, and from whom the writer drew inspiration in her book.
I have to say, though, I'm a big fan of the autofiction, and it's good to hear it thriving in French. Now people over here need to translate some more of it!
Interestingly, the Germans also have a kind of autofiction, though, perhaps also stereotypically, they're much more modest about it:
The grand old man of German politics would probably frown on another class of author that has proved popular in Germany in recent years: the self-deprecating egocentric. They write entirely about their own experiences from an ironic perspective, and churn out tongue-in-cheek books about such diverse topics as getting old, snoring and having children. One of the most successful works of the genre is the recent Achtung Baby! ("Look Out Baby!") by the comedian Michael Mittermeier. For his generation, it seems, becoming a father is not so much a normal biological process as a lifestyle choice.
Muslim immigration and East Germany also figure prominently.
The two articles also have some bestseller information and are, overall, very informative. I'm looking forward to seeing more of these, and hopefully this will launch a few translations of these books into English.
The French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation have announced the finalists for their 24th Annual Translation Prizes. Surprise, surprise, Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary is on the list.
Of course it is a great translation. We certainly think so, as we excerpted it in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal and we'll have Davis herself in person at The Verdi Club on April 20 to talk about it (tickets available here).
Here are all the finalists:
--Mitzi Angel for 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
--Alexander Hertich for Dying by René Belletto (Dalkey Archive Press)
--Anna Moschovakis for The Jokers by Albert Cossery (New York Review of Books)
--Lydia Davis for Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Viking/Penguin Group)
--Alison Anderson for A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (Europa Editions)
That's a fine list of books (René Belletto in particular is seriously underappreciated over here), as well as a killer group of translators. It'll be interesting to see if the frontrunner Davis ends up taking the prize or if someone sneaks up and grabs it.
The winner will be announced in May and he or she will receive $10,000. not bad.
The Guardian has an interesting article today about one of the seminal translations of world literature--The 1,001 Arabian Nights. The article notes that the book was a "heavy influence" on writers including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Addison, Johnson, and Goethe, before getting into just what version of the Nights said authors might hve read.
The Euro-language translations run the gamut, from the overly domesticated to, well, something quite different. On the domesticated front, there's the 1730 Dutch edition:
Between 1714 and 1730 a series of pirate editions of Galland's translation were printed in the Hague. Each of the 12 volumes had a frontispiece by David Coster, a Dutch artist. Since Coster had no notion of the medieval Islamic world as something alien and strange, his engravings depicted the characters in the stories in European dress. King Shahriyar looks very comfortable in his western-style four-poster bed as he sits up listening to stories told by Sheherazade. The only concession to the exotic is that he has a loosely tied turban as an item of nightwear. The relatives of Gulanar the Mermaid are welcomed into what looks like a French palace and the genie summoned up by Aladdin is merely a very large man in a tattered robe.
And then for "something else," try the version produced by Richard Burton and Albert Letchford in the late 19th century:
When Richard Burton produced his translation from the Arabic in 10 volumes with six supplementary volumes (1885-8), he went to the opposite extreme and not only kept the sex scenes in but exaggerated them, and he produced extensive notes on such matters as homosexuality, bestiality and castration. The first edition of Burton's translation, which was published for subscribers only so as to lessen the danger of being prosecuted for obscenity, had no pictures, but soon after his death in 1890, a young friend and devoted admirer of Burton, Albert Letchford, produced 70 paintings which served as the basis for the illustrations in a new edition of Burton's translation that was published in 1897. Letchford had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter and he had spent time in Egypt. While hardly a great artist, he did share Burton's taste for the erotic and so nudes feature frequently in the illustrations. Moreover, he had a taste for the fantastic and some of his demons and temples are very weird indeed. He was shy and no businessman and consequently he was usually poorly paid. While still a young man, he contracted a disease in Egypt from which he later died in England.
The article serves as a good reminder thattranslation challenges that readers, writers, and translators are up against today are nothing new. We still battle with over-domestication, over-exoticization, as well as questions of copyright, incompletenes, bastardized versions, etc.The Nights may be a special case in that it is a text that seems to have seen all of these challenges at one point or another, to say nothing of the images that have accompanied the various translations, or the renditions of the book in film.
First Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood was translated into English (and a bunch of other languages).
Now it's been translated into a different medium--film--and just released in the UK. And at least per The Guardian's summary it sounds like the translation has been a faithful one. The Guardian also gives the film high marks:
This movie is gorgeously photographed by Ping Bin Lee, and has a plangent, keening orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood. It rewards attention with a very sensual experience, although there might be some who, understandably, find it indulgent. Having watched it now a second time since its premiere at last year's Venice film festival, I find the film that came into my mind – apart of course from Twilight – was Wong Kar-Wai's romantic classic In the Mood for Love (which Ping Bin Lee also shot), about two people drawn together by their respective partners' infidelities. That has the same tragedy, irony and romance which combine to create a doomy eroticism. Norwegian Wood ignites its own fierce, moth-attracting flame.
As expected, the film is getting massive coverage (see the Literary Saloon's roundup). Murakami has long been a very hit-and-miss author for me, but I'll give Norwegian Wood credit for being one of this better books. It has a tight storyline and only three significant characters, so I could see this one being made into a fairly good film. (Books, in my opinion, tend to be hard to translate into movies; even short ones usually have way too much going on to make a good screenplay.)
I'm guessing this will get a U.S. release date in the not-so-distant future.
The Independint's annual Foreign Fiction Prize is definitely one of the better ones for lovers of translation to watch. They've just released the shortlist for the latest prize, and I can personally vouce for a number of books up there:
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello)
Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras, translated by Frank Wynne (Atlantic)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape)
Fame by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (Quercus)
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter (Peirene Press)
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson (Harvill Secker)
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated by Edith Grossman (Atlantic)
Gargling with Tar by Jachym Topol, translated by David Short (Portobello)
The Sickness by Alberto Berrera Tyszka, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Quercus/Maclehose Press)
The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean (Bloomsbury)
The Journey of Anders Sparrman by Per Wastberg, translated by Tom Geddes (Granta)
Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, translated by W Martin (Portobello Books )
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida, translated by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker)
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh, translated by Christine Lo (Harvill Secker)
Visitation is definitely a good book, as are Toward the End of the Land and I Curse the River of Time.
I've heard some very interesting things about The Secret History of Costaguana, though I don't think it's out in the U.S. yet. Just read this paragraph from The Guardian's review:
The Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez has set off on a mission to reclaim his country's territory from no less a giant than Joseph Conrad who, in the early 1900s, decided to write a novel about a South American republic to which he gave the name Costaguana. Though inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, Conrad's Nostromo, published in 1904, is not a faithful depiction of Vásquez's homeland, any more than Vásquez's Conrad is a faithful depiction of Conrad. Nor are they meant to be. With wonderful panache, Vásquez has reinvented Conrad and his literary geography, just as Conrad himself reinvented Theodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski (the name under which he was born in 1857 in Russian-dominated Ukraine) and the landscapes of South America and Africa which he visited as a youngish sailor. Vásquez reminds us of the famous anecdote of Conrad as a child, pointing to the blank space that is 19th-century Africa on the map, and saying "I shall go there." In just the same way, Vásquez's narrator puts his finger on his own blank map and pronounces, "excited and trembling", his own "I shall go there."
We literary translation people rarely talk about one of the more interesting translation topics--that would be translations for film. It's a hugely complex, but very little discussed, matter.
But Words Without Borders, which has just published its "movie" issue, has a great article on translation vis a vis dubbing.
I don't really like dubbed films. No matter how well it's done, dubbing just feels sort of cheesy to me. I just can't disassociate even the best dubbing from my memories of really, really bad Hong Ku action flicks, where voices emanate from closed mouths and the lips only match the articulated sounds by happenstance.
And it turns out that dubbing is actually quite hard, if this article in Words Without borders is any indication at all:
Essentially the lip movements of the actor on the screen must match the sounds you hear, those that are produced by the actor in the recording studio. To simplify, let’s say we’re mostly concerned here with bilabial consonants, i.e., the consonants that are pronounced with both lips touching. In English, as in French, there are only three, [b] as in “bat,” [m] as in “mat,” and [p] as in “pat.” To complicate things a little further, there are also semi-labials you have to watch for, i.e., consonants pronounced with the lips coming very close but not quite touching, [v] as in “vat,” [f] as in “fat,” [w] as in “what,” and the retroflex [r] as in “rat.” Luckily, you don’t need to match these sounds perfectly. For example, the French translator/adaptor can use a word with an [m] sound to fit over any of the English bilabials or semi-labials. On the screen, the audience will only notice that the lips touch or seem to touch when a French sound is pronounced where the lips should either touch or come close to touching. We’re dealing with film, and film is illusion.
So when the screen actor in the Canadian TV series Cold Squad said, “or even four people, well . . . ” I had the studio actor say “ou quatre hommes dans ma vie.” The audience saw the lips closing on the first and second syllable of “people” and then come close to touching on “well,” they heard “hommes dans ma vie” instead, not realizing that the sound [m] of “hommes” replaced the first [p] of “people,” that the second [p] of “people” was replaced by the [m] of “ma,” and that [w] in “well” had become the sound [v] of “vie” in French. And it worked.
I’m simplifying the process here, because I don’t want to subject you to the forty-five-hour lecture on film translation I give at the university.
From what I understand, translating for subtitles is hard enough, but this just sounds murderous. I think we should do everyone a favor and just end dubbing altogether.
The excellent online literary journal The Critical Flame has just published a new issue, and it includes a very interesting essay by Liza Katz on the ongoing debate surrounding Francophone literature. Over the past few years the concept has become increasingly difficult to define, largely due to so ... [more]Posted on March 3, 2011, 10:30:00 AM by Scott Esposito
The Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has been, and continues to, acquire tons of writers' papers. The latest that I've heard about are some papers of Borges' one of which reveals the author's thoughts on the "desert island reading" game: In the short essay “La bi... [more]Posted on March 2, 2011, 01:28:00 PM by Scott Esposito
There's a very interesting article in Publishing Perspectives on the politics of translating Arabic texts into Hebrew and vice versa. Not only is there a danger to it, there's also a bit of a translation gap: The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently printed an article about a Tunisian publis... [more]Posted on March 1, 2011, 12:37:00 PM by Scott Esposito
The March/April 2011 issue of World Literature Today has hit the newsstands, and some of it has also hit the Internet. You can have al ook at the table of contents here. A lot of interest of the online offerings, including this special feature on the poet Duo Duo.... [more]