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

TWO LINES ONLINE: Danuta Borchardt on Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz

Posted on May 31, 2011, 12:13:00 PM by Danuta Borchardt

(We've just published an extract from Danuta Borchardt's translation of Witold Gombrowicz's novel Trans-Atlantyk in the June 2011 installment of TWO LINES Online. To help contextualize this work, today we have a post from Borchardt.)

Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) was a Polish writer on the forefront of the existential movement of Western literature. His first novel, Ferdydurke was, in a funny and iconoclastic way, an exposition of that movement, and it antedated Sartre’s Nausea by one year. Gombrowicz maintained that immaturity is our creative force, and while adherence to form shackles us, chaos does not liberate us.

He wrote four other novels: The Possessed (this one anonymously as an attempt to write a bad novel well!), Trans-Atlantyk, Pornografia, and Cosmos (for which he won the prestigious International Editors Award), as well as several plays and short stories. His most important nonfiction work is his three-volume Diary, a collection of essays on philosophy, art, psychology, politics. In 1967 he was a runner-up for the Nobel Prize. His works were translated into many languages. Unfortunately his novels Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and Cosmos were translated into English not directly from the Polish but from Spanish, French, and German, and thus did not gain as wide a readership in this language as they did in other languages. These novels are now available translated directly from the Polish, through the work that I have pursued since 1990s.

Trans-Atlantyk was written in Buenos Aires, where Gombrowicz was stranded during World War II. He wrote it as a satire on the Polish émigré community there, but his ideas are universal and can be applied to any community. It is a clarion call to Poles to abandon that aspect of their Polishness that has rendered them impotent in the face of ever present political adversities. The novel is uproariously funny, but, because the plot takes place during the war, there are tragic rumblings throughout.

Gombrowicz wrote the novel in historical variants of the Polish language, from baroque to the 19th century, as well as in the peasant and present-day vernacular. The style is that of a gawęda, an old-style chat, which is also known as a contemporary fireside chat. It is meant to be told, not written.

The previous translation by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov was directly from the Polish. It is a valiant attempt at dealing with this most difficult text. But, contrary to Gombrowicz’s journey through various centuries, these translators mostly worked in the English baroque. The language skips and bumps in a way that is often arduous to read and thus loses the speed and fluidity of a spoken tale. It also lacks enough contrast in the shifts between comedy and tragedy.

The first translation of Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk was published seventeen years ago (in 1994) by Yale University Press. I have decided that the novel, considered by some to be Gombrowicz’s best, deserves another try at translation. This is fitting, for in their Translators’ Note, French and Karsov graciously express the hope that "ours will not be the last translation of this unique and important work."

Where Are the Libraries Going?

Posted on May 18, 2011, 11:44:00 AM by Scott Esposito

This blog is most commonly about translated literature and the art and business of being a translator, but every now and then it's important to take a look at the larger literary culture that translated literature fits in to. I was surprised to see this piece by Charles Simic at The New York Review, where he denounces what have become of our nation's libraries as a result of cutbacks occasioned by the bad economy:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire.

Simic goes on to make a passionate and very personal case for libraries, which, to me, is somewhat amazing--that a case for the existence of libraries even needs to be made. Here in the Bay Area we've been fortunate to retain most of our local libraries, though there have been attempts to cut back service here, attempts that have been met with vicious outcry that has generally won the day.

It's well worth reading and well worth pondering Simic's piece. Literary translation is very often considered a cause in itself--and it should be--but oftentimes it feels like literary culture, or at least important parts of it, has also become a cause.

I'm going to conclude this with an image I saw online yesterday that speaks to how much people might value books:

Stephen Snyder, Japanese Literature, and Banana Yoshimoto

Posted on May 16, 2011, 11:26:00 AM by Scott Esposito

It's a bit of a slow day for news in the world of international literature, so I thought I'd revisit last week's Two Voices guest, Stephen Snyder. Via Google Book, I happened to discover this study of Japanese literature he co-wrote with Haruki Murakami translator J. Philip Gabriel called Ōe and beyond: fiction in contemporary Japan.

It happens to have an interestion section on Banana Yoshimoto, much of which is available for free online at the link. I bring this up since she's an author with more than a few similarities to Yoko Ogawa, whom Snyder discussed last week, plus because she has a new book available in English, the first in years, called The Lake.

Here's the opening to their section on Yoshimoto:

See Chana Bloch!

Posted on May 12, 2011, 04:43:00 PM by Scott Esposito

If you're in Berkeley tomorrow, see friends of the Center Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

The Eighth Annual
Judith Lee Stronach Memorial Lecture
on the Teaching of Poetry

Learning from Translation

Chana Bloch, Poet
Professor Emerita of English Literature,
Mills College

Chana Kronfeld
Professor, Departments of Near Eastern Studies
and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Morrison Library,
North Entrance, Doe Library,
University of California, Berkeley

Lecture Seating 6:30 pm
Reception Following Lecture

TWO VOICES: Stephen Snyder on Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami, and the Business of International Literature

Posted on May 12, 2011, 11:39:00 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.

Early in this Two Voices event, translator Stephen Snyder made a bold pronouncement: Haruki Murakami would win a Nobel prize, and 1Q84, his blockbuster novel that many are comparing to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, would be the book to do it.

Snyder wasn't wholly going out on a limb. As he told the audience, he correctly predicted Kenzaburo Oe's Nobel prize in 1994. But more to the point of his presentation, Snyder has seen the intricacies of the publishing industry close up, and he has a strong sense of how tastes are made with regard to inernational authors.

Snyder comes by this knowledge in his role as the English-language intermediary to a Japanese phenomenon-in-translation that is currently sweeping the English langauge: Yoko Ogawa. As Snyder noted in his fascinating presentation, Ogawa has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her three books that are available in English, and she has appeared in The New Yorker more than once. Snyder stressed the great importance of the latter to a writer's success in English, calling Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker's fiction editor, "the most powerful person in publishing."

During this Two Voices event, Snyder related a very interesting anecdote with regard to his "awkward" role as a go-between for Ogawa and Treisman. Ogawa's first piece to appear in The New Yorker was a novella called "The Diving Pool." However, being a novella, it was much too long to appear as a story in The New Yorker, and Treisman X'ed out entire portions of Snyder's translation. (You can see slides of that on Snyder's attached PowerPoint--available soon--which he presented to the Two Voices audience.)

The publication of "The Diving Pool" in The New Yorker led to Ogawa--at that point a complete unknown in the English-reading world--being picked up and sold by Picador, paving the way for her huge success in this market. But later, when Ogawa was poised to place another story in The New Yorker, Treisman went so far as to ask her to replace her story's more enigmatic, Japanese ending with a clearer, more cheerful one, which she felt would play better to an American audience. Ogawa declined and the story was never published.

Because of experiences like these, Snyder feels very strongly that the Japanese authors he translates--and to a certain extent, most international authors--are being very consciously packaged and presented as a commodity on the international market. His best example of this is Haruki Murakami, who, has had hundreds of pages cut from his books and his language changed dramatically in the translation and packaging process.

This Two Voices audio offers an interesting opportunity to hear a publishing insider talk about how international authors are made, and how this affects the translation process. Snyder demonstrates himself as a dedicated translator in command of the facts, and he presents a forceful case. Give the audio a listen and decide for yourself what you think of Snyder's arguments.

Susan Bernofsky's Translation Copyright and Contract Panel

Posted on May 9, 2011, 10:49:00 AM by Scott Esposito

One of the subjects that causes the most confusion and questions that we get at the Center is the world of copyrights and contracts surrounding translations.

That makes perfect sense, since it's a very bewildering, contradictory world. To help translators everywhere better understand these questions that are fundamental to their work, I wanted to pass along this panel that Susan Bernofksy hosted at the PEN World Voices festival.

There is a ton of information here on both copyright and contracts (including the sad reality that many publishers will try to pay you as little as possible--and how to stand up for your rights!)

CS Lewis as Translator

Posted on May 9, 2011, 10:33:00 AM by Scott Esposito

Apparently, Yale University Press has just published CS Lewis's fragmentary translations of Vergil's Aeneid. Books and Culture has a review of it.

Per the review, Lewis was working on this translation during the early stages of his career, making him one join the ranks of the many authors (e.g. Javier Marias, Paul Auster, etc) to have developed a literary voice in conjunction with translating a great work.

However, at least in the opinion of the translator who reviews it, Lewis was overpowered by Vergil. She also, in the process, makes the case for the importance of editors to a translation project:

This rendering buries me. The words are sonorous and beautiful; their unnatural order, giving a primordially poetic (and Vergilian) feel, doesn't fret me overmuch. But they're also massively unclear, and that starts only a little way in. Trying to leave aside the question of correspondence to the Latin (which happens to be poor) and approach on its own the sequence of thought in English, I'm honestly stymied. I can barely get through the conditional statement. The paradox (?) at the end is rather flat at best. Peeking to the opposite page where a Latin text is provided, as throughout—though, oddly, it's not the text Lewis used but a better-emended one—I see no cleverness at all, only Palinurus' pathetic wish to rest "at least" in death.

I wonder whether Lewis would have been happy, at the copyediting stage, to go through with ignoring, or actually turning upside down, a part of ancient religion that helps drive the story, not only here but at several other junctures: the belief that the unburied dead have no peace. But I can hardly be smug in this stricture: similar ones could hit every passage of my own work if belligerent manuscript readers and editors hadn't come to its rescue.


Philip Metres on Russian Poet Arseny Tarkovsky

Posted on May 5, 2011, 11:27:00 AM by Philip Metres

(We've just published Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev's translation of " I learned the grass as I began to write . . ." by Arseny Tarkovsky in the May 2011 installment of TWO LINES Online. To help contextualize this work, introduce the major poet who made it, and give some sense of the translation challenge it posed, today we have a post from Metres.)

Speaking of Soviet poetry during an interview toward the end of her life, Anna Akhmatova called Arseny Tarkovsky the one “real poet.” In her words, in 1965, “of all contemporary poets Tarkovsky alone is completely his own self, completely independent. He possesses the most important feature of a poet, which I’d call the birthright . . .”

In a time when Russian poetry was anything but independent, Tarkovsky’s verse maintained its resolute allegiance to his own poetic vision. Tarkovsky lived from 1907 until 1989, and spent most of his life as a translator of Turkmen, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and other Asian poets, only publishing his first book of his own poems during the post-Stalinist "thaw" (1962). Of a younger generation than Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva, he both absorbed their Silver Age tradition and hearkened back to the simple primordial music of Pushkin. He was wounded in World War II, lost a leg to gangrene, and wrote some of the most powerful poems about the Second World War. Later, his son Andrei became an internationally celebrated filmmaker; in a number of his great films, Andrei features his father’s poems—not simply as homage but as demonstrating the aesthetic continuation between the poetics of language and film.

Though "I learned the grass as I began to write . . ." comes from the third book-length project of translation on which I’ve embarked, the challenges of translating Tarkovsky’s poetry has led me more than once to pronounce the translation impossible. Though it was true of Gandlevsky’s and Rubinstein’s, Tarkovsky’s is finally a poetry that moves and lives through its music, through its complex meters and rich sounds; Tarkovsky’s poems include dactylic, iambic, amphibrach, free verse, and other meters—each of them employed to effects deeply embedded in the Russian poetic tradition and ear, echoing previous poems and moods, and resisting what occasionally seems to be dark or hopeless subject matter. Any simple literal translation demonstrates the fatality of the enterprise.

To take one example from his early work, “If I were as prideful” is written in dactylic trimeter (plus a final beat). To translate the power of that rhythm to the troubled love poem, I found an amphibrach meter emerging, which is a playful, almost youthful sound to go with the poetry of desire. “Valya’s Willow” relies on the musical play in Russian between “Iva” (willow) and “Ivan”. Ideally, one might translate this poem as “Will’s Willow,” which suggests the shared destiny of soldier and the tree of mourning. Each of the poems, then, presented its own challenges; however, to register Tarkovsky’s stylistic shifts over the course of a life of poems, has become the ultimate challenge.

Kurt Beals' Introduction to "The Mouse" by Regina Ullmann

Posted on May 3, 2011, 10:21:00 AM by Kurt Beals

(We've just published Kurt Beal's translation of "The Mouse" by Regina Ullmann in the May 2011 installment of TWO LINES Online. The story is a haunting tale from the same middle Europe that nourished talents like Robert Walser and Thomas Mann, and those who enjoy it will be plesed to know that Beals is currently translating and entire volume of Ullmann's stories for New Directions. Here Beals introduces Ullmann and "The Mouse.")

Although Regina Ullmann (1884-1961) was admired by many of her contemporaries—including Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and particularly Rainer Maria Rilke, who secured a publisher for her works and a stipend to support her—she has long been consigned to literary obscurity. Hesse’s lament that Ullmann’s “gift and achievement have indeed found the greatest recognition among a small elite, but never that of the world” remains true to the present day.

Born to Jewish parents in St. Gallen, Switzerland, as a child Ullmann was considered a “zurückgebliebenes Kind”: a slow learner, one who has “stayed behind.” During years spent in Munich, she became acquainted with bohemian circles and conceived two daughters out of wedlock, the first with the economist Hanns Dorn, the second with Otto Gross, the rebellious Freud protégé. (Gross declined to support Ullmann and provided her with poison, urging her to commit suicide; she demurred.) Even among these circles, she hardly fit in: the painter Lou Albert-Lasard described her as seeming to come “from another time, another world. She sat there stiffly, with her hands folded like a peasant.” Ullmann later left Munich and spent much of her life in rural locales, at times earning supplemental income by raising bees for honey, weaving baskets, and making wax figurines. It was here that she found her literary subject.

Ullmann’s work is remarkable for its portrayals of rural life. Yet her stories are a far cry from Heimatliteratur, the naïve, nostalgic depictions of traditional ways long popular in Switzerland. Although there are scenes of idyllic beauty in her writing, these moments are undercut by an awareness of nature’s cruelty. Her small towns are peopled with characters who are impoverished, abnormal, or cast out of the inner circle of society. Often disturbing and grotesque, these figures and events exist on the margins of the modern world.

Like her contemporary Robert Walser, to whom she has been compared, Ullmann took long walks through the Swiss countryside. But in contrast to Walser’s ironic humor, Ullmann’s work is more often harsh and austere. Her conversion to Catholicism leaves its mark in her writing, both in its themes, and in a tone that is at once severely unforgiving and sincerely pious. Her narrative voice is often colloquial, but rises at times into an oracular register, as in the apostrophe to God in “The Mouse.”

Regina Ullmann’s continued obscurity owes in part to the fact that she was a Swiss woman writer of stories set in the countryside, at a time when the major (male) writers in the German language were producing their novels of the city. Yet Ullmann’s stories are no less a part of literary modernity than the novels of her contemporaries. As with Walser, who languished in obscurity for decades before gaining posthumous recognition, Regina Ullmann is ripe for rediscovery.

image credit: sean dreilinger

May 2011 TWO LINES Online

Posted on May 2, 2011, 12:36:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We've just published TWO LINES Online for May 2011. You can see our two featured translation at this link.

Or you can just click-through right here. The two pieces are "The Mouse," a short story by the notable German modernist Regina Ullmann, translated wonderfully by Kurt Beals (New Directions will publish an entire book of his Ullmann translations in 2012).

The second is "I learned the grass as I began to write . . ." by the major Russian poet Arseny Tarkovsky, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev.

We will have some introductory remarks from the translators on both authors later this week.