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

We're Moving!

Posted on April 26, 2011, 01:23:00 PM by Scott Esposito

In case you missed yesterday's blog posting: As of May 1 the Center will have a new home in downtown San Francisco. We'll be moving into the wonderful, historical Hobart Building right at 2nd and Market. Read up about all the details on the full press release right here.

Barbara Epler Talks Translation

Posted on April 26, 2011, 01:17:00 PM by Scott Esposito

The Literary Saloon points me to this interesting interview with New Directions publisher Barbara Epler. There's all kinds of useful information here for people who are translators or would like to be in the translation field.

For instance. how does a publisher finds books to translate?

You have published books by several Hungarian writers: Tibor Déry (Love and Other Stories, 2005), László Krasznahorkai (Melancholy of Resistance, 2002; War and War, 2006; Animalinside, 2011), Dezső Kosztolányi (Anna Édes, 1993; Kornél Esti, 2011). This is a very mixed list. On what basis did you choose them?

It is very hard to find Hungarian readers, so we knew about all the three authors from previous English-language publications. Our first Hungarian author was Dezső Kosztolányi. There used to be this great publisher Quartet that went down – we found their Anna Édes and republished it. Susan Sontag was still alive then and she loved that book; she was the one who mentioned another Quartet author, László Krasznahorkai. She used to mention ten books at a time that you’ve never heard of, and they were all great books. She had already recommended several books that we translated eventually, so I said: ‘who’s László Krasznahorkai?’ And then I got a copy of Melancholy of Resistance and read it, and it was in fact great. Tibor Déry was the obsession of a friend of mine, Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street Magazine. He loved Niki, the Story of a Dog, which has just been republished by New York Review Books Classics. He told us to do the dog, because dogs sell, but we loved the stories of Love more, so we made a selection on the basis of two different British books that were already out of print.

This reminds me of the story that Epler frequently tells about how Francisco Goldman was the one to first get them going on Bolano. That, in my opinion is one of the cool things about translation: opinions matter, as do experts.

And on how to edit a translation from a language you don't read?

Translation is an especially important and also a very problematic issue for a small nation with a peculiar language. How do you ensure that the translations you publish are of good quality?

Unfortunately, at New Directions we are so small and the money is so tight that we cannot hire language editors, since unfortunately – or fortunately – we publish books from so many languages. In any given language, when the translation doesn’t sound right, when it seems that it doesn’t come across, we ask a native speaker for help. But in some cases, like in Szirtes’s translation of Satan’s Tango, one can feel that it is amazing even without knowing the language. You just ask yourself: how does he do it? It feels like you are in the middle of a river that is flowing smoothly, it is beautiful. We had everyone in the office read it and they all said it was one of the most amazing books they had ever read. So with his translation all we had to do were really small things, like changing some of his British English expressions into American English. And there are some translations that turn out to be a massive disaster – luckily, none of our Hungarian books – and then you just go into the trenches and try to fix it. Sometimes you can’t, and then every once in a while we have to give up on a book.

And there's lots more good information. You are all formally urged to give it a look.

TWO VOICES: An Evening with Lydia Davis

Posted on April 25, 2011, 02:53:00 PM

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.

We're proud to present audio of renowned author, translator, and MacArthur "Genuis" Lydia Davis, who discussed her acclaimed new translation of Madame Bovary last week as part of the Center's Two Voices events series in San Francisco.

Whereas so many writers seem to fall neatly into categories, Davis's career has more often than not defied categorization. Ranging from an author of short stories, to what might be called flash ficitons, to single-sentence stories, Davis also is one of our most gifted translators, having previously given us an astonishing new view of Proust's Swann's Way.

For those who love the minutia of translation, this is audio for you. Davis the translator is the one from who we heard at this event, a master writer who brings her entire suite of tools and exactitude to the hard work of translation.

For a little context, this is what Davis said about her work on Bovary in her introduction to a selection of that book that we published in the most recent TWO LINES. She writes, "[in translating Madame Bovary] I tried to depart as little as possible from the way the sentences unfolded in the original, and to add and subtract nothing . . . doing my best to compose a piece of writing that was strong, natural, and effective in English." And then, later in the same introduction, "It is surprising, really, how many translators do not take this approach."

During the event, Davis elaborated on that approach:

I've translated works that haven't been translated before. So coming to the Proust and [Madame Bovary] that have been translated before, that's a completely different experience for me.

She also candidly discussed her use of previous translations, saying she wasn't afraid to do a little borrowing from time to time:

When I had a real problem I would look at all of them, always hoping that someone would either have an insight into what it meant or how it should be translated, or just a nice phrase that I could lift. And I wasn't embarrassed to lift. In the process of looking at them, I would see that they lifted from each other.

And she even discussed geeking out over seeing Nabokov's notes on Bovary and his marginalia on a translation of it:


He was quite helpful, but then I trusted him too much. And I found that he wasn't really always right, so I had to back off a little bit from my utter trust. I went to the fanatical extreme for a while, I discovered that the public library at 42nd St. in New York had his annotated copy of Eleanor Marx' translation of Madame Bovary . . . he got very annoyed with her, and he would write in his own preferences.

One last nice thing about this audio is that you can hear event host and TWO LINES Managing Editor CJ Evans read an entire story of Davis' in his introduction. It's only a page long, but it's an excellent one to read aloud, and it fit in very well with the evening. In part it says:

To translate a travel writing, for example, is to read a travel writing, to write a travel writing, to read a writing, to write a writing, and to travel. But if because you are translating you read, and because writing translate, because traveling write, because traveling read, and because translating travel; . . .

It gets even crazier and should be heard aloud.

PRESS RELEASE: Center for the Art of Translation the Newest Tenant in SF’s Historic Hobart Building

Posted on April 25, 2011, 03:13:00 AM by Center for the Art of Translation

The Center for the Art of Translation, a San Francisco non-profit promoting international literature and translation through publishing, teaching, and public events, is vacating the SoMa location it has occupied since 1998 and will move to the city’s historic Hobart Building on May 1.

Completed in 1914, the Hobart Building is registered as a national landmark and was designed by Willis Polk, known for his grand residences on Nob Hill. From the sculpted terra cotta exterior to the handcrafted brass and Italian marble interior, the building is a stunning example of classical revival architecture.

The Center’s new offices provide an additional 800 square feet of workspace with a large common area, and can even host small groups for training and events. The building is immediately adjacent to public transportation and is only a block and a half from 111 Minna Gallery, where the Center hosts its monthly Lit&Lunch readings spotlighting international writers and translators.

“We were looking for space with character that would also accommodate growth, and we are very excited to have found a location that is even more convenient for our members and staff,” says Brent Sverdloff, the Center’s Executive Director. “We were motivated by a need for more space and improved flow, and we have found that in this beautiful new setting.”

“We’re thrilled to have the Center for the Art of Translation join us at the Hobart Building,” says Dena Acosta of Fisher Hill Properties, which has managed the building since 1998. “They are a perfect fit with the wide range of small businesses and the growing field of non-profit organizations that have chosen to make this historic structure their home.”

The new address as of May 1 is 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104.

The New Role of Translation in International Publishing

Posted on April 20, 2011, 10:21:00 AM by Scott Esposito

The current TLS has a very interesting article by Tim Parks on the increasing role of translation in international publishing. The whole essay needs to be read, but essentially his argument is that for writers from smaller countries to become known as writers, they are reliant on crafting a product that will sell on the international markets, a product that ipso facto requires translation to exist.

It's a well-considered ake, and I like this part where Parks chides those who zealously follow the Nobel Prize proceedings and ignore the fact that without translation a prize like the Nobel would be impossible.

At one level it is generally agreed that literary prizes are largely a lottery, and international prizes even more so. It will be evident that what happens when judges get together to discuss a winner is infinitely less complex and interesting than what happens when a creative translator sets to work on the text of a fine writer, at once deconstructing it and reformulating it in the entirely different context of his own tongue and culture. But it is the prizes that get talked about. Indeed, the larger and more improbable the prize, the more the talk and the more the credit extended to them.

Parks' remarks on what a writer needs to do to be an international success are also interesting (though a little overstated, in my opinion):

Today’s international space, then, as Casanova sees it, is created on the one hand through a rivalry between the growing number of nations eager to establish a literary prestige, promoting their poets and novelists internationally with the help of government institutions: literature here is understood as expressing the genius of a people – one thinks of the magical realist novels from South America, or indeed a book such as Midnight’s Children – but its productions are only properly consecrated when translated worldwide, or, paradoxically in the case of Rushdie, when written in English. This literature is not, that is, addressed to the people whose genius it supposedly expresses and celebrates. If such a phenomenon can be traced back to Herder, it is hardly what Herder would have wanted.

I agree that market forces tend to promote this kind of a literature, but I don't quite agree that htings are quite as blatant as Parks says. Certainly the last few Nobel laureates (Vargas Llosa, Müller, Le Clezio) give the lie to the idea of internationally recognized authors who did not write primarily for a national audience. And I can think of plenty of authors being promoted by government subsidies like the French voices series that essentially write for a national audience.

Lastly, I completely disagree with Parks' pessimistic attitude about what is lost in translation, or what simply can't (or won't) be translated to begin with. Certainly the amazing people translating books into English in the U.S. right now prove such an attitude wrong:

Imagine: a writer, strongly identified with a particular country precisely because he or she is in conflict with its repressive authorities, produces a colourful, non-realist account of life there. The daringly deviant language of early modernism, its aggressive subversion of received values, so difficult to translate, is substituted by the lingua franca of literary special effects: intellectual tropes and extravagant extended metaphors, a foregrounded literariness, oneiric elements of fantasy and fable, a shift of the narrative into the threatening future or the mysterious past: these strategies allow the now magically rather than realistically national to be available internationally. Above all, anything that would require a profound, insider’s cultural knowledge to be understood is avoided, or shifted away from the centre of the book. The spark of social recognition that animates the language of a Jane Austen or a Barbara Pym is gone.

Still, though, I think he does have a definite point, and the whole essay is well worth thinking about.

The Center Presents Cyrus Cassells on Out in the Bay

Posted on April 19, 2011, 01:26:00 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.

In conjuction with his appearance in San Francisco for the Center's Two Voices literary events series, Cyrus Cassells also appeared on the public radio show Out in the Bay to discuss translation, Catalan poet Francesc Parcerisas, and why San Francisco is his favorite U.S. city (plus, which city is is favorite international one).

The Center now presents this audio for your listening pleasure. If you like what you hear, you can get even more of Cassells on Parcerisas--including bilingual readings of numerous poems--by listening to the audio of our Two Voices event with Cassells. You can also read an exclusive translation of Parcerisas that Cassells made for the Center on TWO LINES Online, our online journal of new literary translation.

Cassells is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and translator who teaches poetry and translation in Texas. He is currently at work on a forthcoming book of new translations of Parcerisas called Still Life with Children. In addition to being renowned as the leading Catalan poet of his generation, Parcerisas is also a prolific translator, bringing Conrad, Fitzgerald, Poe, Pound, Rimbaud, and even The Lord of the Rings to Catalonia.

Nigerian Writers' Village

Posted on April 18, 2011, 10:52:00 AM by Scott Esposito

One of the nice things about working with literary translation is that you constantly have the chance to see how other nations do books. Case in point, Nigeria, in which ambitious plans are underway to realize a "writers' village" for the benefit of Nigeria as an international literary destination:

No other country in the world has a writers' village of the magnitude we envisage. With the writers' village, Nigeria will become the de-facto capital and destination of African writers and regain her place as prime mover of literary culture on the continent. The village will have a library of African and World Literature that will have a copy of every work published in Africa . . .

The Writers' Village will become the single most potent symbol of Africa creative and intellectual independence. Nigerian authors will be able to organise residency programmes for qualified writers on a basis comparable to the best residency programmes anywhere in the world. The Writers' Village will correct the break in the symbiotic relationship between literature and film, a break, which has subsisted for far too long.

That all sounds great, although this, not so great:

Ododo emphasised the fact that among the buildings planned for the project are models of the Egyptian Pyramids, Roman Columns, the Taj Mahal in India, Chinese Pagodas, the Zimbabwean columns, Nigerian palace architectures, and the ubiquitous African Hut.

So essentially is will be a cross between Yaddo and Las Vegas. I'm thinking they should axe the kitsch and expand the library.

TWO VOICES: Author Yiyun Li on Legendary Chinese Author Shen Congwen

Posted on April 14, 2011, 11:13:00 AM 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.

"I'm going to tell you a lot of love stories today," Yiyun Li said to begin her Two Voices event on the masterful Chinese writer Shen Congwen. Although little-known in the U.S., Congwen has been a hugely influential author on Li--as she declared during the event, Congwen's letters were one of the three books she brought with her when she emigrated from China to the United States in 1996.

In the enclosed audio you can hear Li discuss her translation of just those letters. Although Congwen was both a prolific and a successful author from the 1920s to the '40s, he became remarkably troubled when the Communists began their bid for power in 1949. After two failed suicide attempts he suffered a breakdown in 1949, and he never again wrote another word of fiction.

He did, however, write very many letters. As Li explained in an introductory note accompanying her translation of some of the letters in the journal A Public Space, she has undertaken a translation of Congwen’s letters for deeply personal reasons: she admits to an "obsession" with Congwen's letters and life story, as well as an "agony" at his "truncated career." As Li puts it, "his letters offer the only available glimpse of those stories he might have written."

In the audio Li reads from her translations. She starts with the love letters from Congwen's years-long courtship of his wife, who started out as his student of 18: "I have crossed many bridges, I have seen so many different kinds of clouds, I have drank all sorts of wine, but I have only loved one person at her best age."

Li also talks about her discovery of Congwen as a college student. She in fact discovered Congwen in an English translation of his masterpiece Border Down. After telling the audience that she read it in a single night, she explained, "I remember thinking, 'What a loss. I've never known this person for 18 years!'"

The letters also address Congwen's very personal crisis when the Communists take power in China. As he stoically writes to his wife of 15 years,

It's my own problem, it has nothing to do with you. No one else is responsible for my pain, I have learned it myself. We live in the world where it is inevitable this day would arrive, with bigger calamities coming. . . . I have to accept my fate.

The even deal with Congwen's pastoral perception of the China of his day:

Before daybreak you could hear the peasants' representatives talking, low and unintelligible off-stage. Later, when it was daylight, you could hear the knocking of the sieves in the flour mills, and then you knew the town was up. The ironsmiths at the streetcorner must have a big fire burning by now. The sound of metal hitting is crisp and clear.

Although a major writer in China who was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize during his lifetime, Congwen is little-known in the United States, with a translation of Border Town only appearing here in 2009. Li here gives us access a very personal side of a great author frequently compared to Chekhov. One hopes that Li's championship of this author will lead to more translations of his fiction in the future.

Congrats to the Northern California Book Award Winners!

Posted on April 11, 2011, 12:06:00 PM by Scott Esposito

On Sunday the winners of the 30th annual Northern California Book Awards were announced in San Francisco. In addition to winners in Fiction, General Nonfiction, Creative Nonfiction, and numerous other categories the winners in the two Translation categorizes were also announced.

Here are the winners:

Translated Fiction: Translator David Frick, for A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish and published by Open Letter Books

Translated Poetry: Translators John Sakkis and Angelos Sakkis, for Maribor by Demosthenes Agrafiotis, translated from the Greek and published by The Post-Apollo Press

Translator Catherine Hammond on Olvido García Valdés

Posted on April 7, 2011, 11:30:00 AM by Catherine Hammond

(We've just published the April 2011 edition of TWO LINES Online, our online version of our TWO LINES series of translation anthologies. To recognize the work we've gathered for TWO LINES Online, we've asked the translators to provide short introductions to the works. This one comes from Catherine Hammond, who has translated an untitled poem by the Spanish poet Olvido García Valdés.)

In 2007, Olvido García Valdés won Spain’s highest award in poetry, the Premio Nacional for Y todos estábamos vivos / And We Are All Alive. García Valdés published seven prior books of poetry, several of which also won important prizes in Spain. These translations are primarily from a section of that book called “Sombra a sombra” / “Shadow to Shadow.” These are shadows that come from viewing life as if already dead, a recurring theme. In one of these poems she writes “como si todos /hubiéramos ya muerto, /vestidos o acolchados para un film, /vistos de lejos” in translation “as if we all /were dead right now, /dressed or padded up for a film, /seen from a distance.” Many of the poems in this section have a noir feeling, the city at night, often enough in the rain; details are difficult to discern. [Editor’s note: García Valdés does not use titles, but does indicate the beginning of a poem by using a bold font.]

Sparse, yet incisive use of detail works at the core of this poetry. García Valdés speaks of a supresión de elipsis. This suppression of ellipsis or intentional exclusion of an element, often grammatical, works in such a way we cannot directly ascertain basic narrative elements in her work. Her poetry gains much of its power from what she leaves out. Personal details are nearly nonexistent. We rarely know anything about the viewpoint character of a poem. Gender, age, physical appearance, none of those seems to be available to the reader. The entire book begins in the middle of a sentence with no implied subject beyond a verb in the third person singular. The exclusionary nature of content and context are central, according to the poet, to the work. She was very firm in our conversations by email and later when we met in Madrid that even gendered pronouns such as he or she would expose too much information to the reader.

To understand this suppression of ellipsis, perhaps it is helpful to look at the poet’s background a little. García Valdés was born in Asturias in 1950 and grew up in Franco-era Spain. This region had sided with the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. When Fernando Franco gained control of the government, he punished Asturias economically and politically. He downgraded the area from an autonomous region to the "Province of Oviedo" in 1936, which it remained until 1977 when, after Franco’s death and the return to democracy, it regained its former name and status. At any rate, García Valdés came from this region. She grew up in a time when there was danger in speaking out. Even after Franco’s death, there seemed to be a consensus of silence, that is, people did not speak much about the restraints previously imposed by the Fascist government. While I know it is impossible to make generalizations about the effects of growing up under a dictatorship, I think one possibility could be that a person might come to speak between the lines, as it were, and if a poet, find profound expression in the white spaces of the poem. This whiteness, its light, and its constant reference to what it means to be human, constantly interplay with the dark, with shadow, and with death in these stark, minimalist poems.

Introduction to "In Conversation with Myself" by Julia Gjika

Posted on April 5, 2011, 10:23:00 AM by Ani Gjika

(We've just published the April 2011 edition of TWO LINES Online, our online version of our TWO LINES series of translation anthologies. To recognize the work we've gathered for TWO LINES Online, we've asked the translators to provide short introductions to the works. This first one comes from Ani G... [more]