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

Another Source of Translation

Posted on July 27, 2011, 10:37:00 AM by Scott Esposito

The Three Percent blog brings good news of another new source of literature in translation. In this case it grows right out of the University of Rochester's great translation studies program, which Chad Post heads up:

Back in the tumultuous summer of 2009, Timothy Nassau was an intern here at Open Letter. He read some manuscripts, he packed some orders, he listened to a variety of rants, wrote a few blog posts and reviews, and returned to Brown University a bit wiser and with ambition in his heart.

Fast-forward two years, and young little Tim has helped launch Aldus, Brown University’s Undergraduate Journal of Translation.

The first issue is available via the link above, and is pretty damn star-studded: Red Riding Hood by BTBA 2011 winner Ales Steger, translated by fellow BTBA winner Brian Henry; excerpts from A Stroll through Literature by Roberto Bolano, translated by Laura Healy; Etchings by Paul Verlaine, translated by Keith Waldrop; excerpts from Triste Tristan by Paol Keineg, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop; The Voice by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Erik-Dardan Ymeraga; The Philosophy Teacher by the Marquis de Sade, translated by Timothy Nassau; and Since Nine by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Peter Kenros and Emily Oglesby, with assistance from Daniel Mendelsohn, among many others. (And I heard from Tim that Susan Bernofsky has something the new Walser collection in the next issue . . .)

Mozart's Third Brain

Posted on July 25, 2011, 04:03:00 PM by Scott Esposito

Today, the Yale Press blog writes about the book Mozart's Third Brain, which we've excerpted three times in TWO LINES (before it was a book-in-translation). The posting helps explain why this text was interesting enough for us to excerpt in three different volumes of TWO LINES:

In a word, Mozart’s Third Brain explores—everything. Everything includes, of course, the struggle between good and evil, but also science, mathematics, music, humanity, history, current events, and art. Then it goes further into every particular imaginable from every subject, from the genocides of the Holocaust and Rwanda, Dionysus, Gershwin, the Virgin Mary—even the Maastricht Treaty is in there somewhere. In effect, the poem contains any concept that your own brain could remember and understand. It is no wonder that, in 1999 when Sonnevi and Lesser began working together on the poem, the translator demanded that the poet buy a computer and create an e-mail address if they were to continue the project.

If you click through to the post on the Yale Press blog, you'll see a video of Lesser reading from her translation.

Lesser also wrote about her interest in the book's author, Göran Sonnevi, and how she translated the book twice for Two Words: Like a knife through water and Wordplay with Sonnevi, Before Email.

On Merde, Scheisse, and Other Foreign Words

Posted on July 18, 2011, 10:29:00 AM by Scott Esposito

The Guardian has an interesting article on when words in English-language books should be printed in foreign languages and when they shouldn't. Though the article includes both English-native books and translations, it's obviously the latter part of the question that will appeal more to readers of this site:

In even rarer instances there are cases when perhaps a word should be left un-translated but this ultimately causes more problems than it solves. Robert Chandler is probably the finest translator from Russian into English alive today, but I could not follow him down his chosen path when he left the Russian word tosca intact in an anthology of Andrei Platonov's writings a few years back. Oh, certainly I knew why he was doing it – there is no term in English to convey the rich, multiple level sadness of toska. The problem is that as Chandler explained why he was leaving this mysterious combination of profound grief but also (possibly) light melancholy that comes from nowhere intact in its Russian form, I developed a complex about ever using the term in conversation. Then when I got to Russia I discovered it was regularly used in entirely banal and even ironic contexts (which is how, not being possessed of a profound Russian soul, I only ever used toska myself).

Chandler's insistence on rendering toska as toska was a noble if quixotic effort to enrich the English language. On the whole though the practice of leaving foreign words untranslated in a text is symptomatic of poor writing- shoddy; lazy; it's a cheap bus ticket to bogus exoticism. It signals to the reader that the author does not know the culture he is describing very well, or otherwise completely ordinary words would not rattle around in his consciousness demanding to be inscribed in italics so they really stand out. "Look, look at me! Look at me now! I know the German word for attention is achtung! See how profound my grip of German culture is?"

It makes me wonder, translators out there, what are your rules for when to leave something in a foreign language and when to translate it into English? If you've got an answer, send it to sesposito AT

Apartment-Based Bookstore

Posted on July 14, 2011, 10:02:00 AM by Scott Esposito

This has nothing to do with translation but is too awesome not to share. Via The Paris Review:

Watch this beautiful video about Brazenhead Books, a secret bookstore that’s been tucked away in Michael Seidenberg’s apartment on the Upper East Side ever since the rent for his original retail space in Brooklyn was quadrupled. (Jonathan Lethem used to work there.) “This would have not been my ideal,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought I want to have a bookshop in a location no one knows about.” But Brazen says it’s a continuation of being the kind of bookseller he wants to be—not on the street, not at book fairs, but inside, the shelves lined with first editions, knickknacks, and, one hopes, a cat.

There's No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books from Etsy on Vimeo.

And here's a video showing how much work it takes to open a bookstore.

Two Impressions of Africa

Posted on July 11, 2011, 03:51:00 PM by Scott Esposito

We've recently gotten copies of the next TWO LINES--titled Counterfeits--in the office, and I took the opportunity to have a look at co-editor Luc Sante's introductory notes. He briefly talks about his first experiences with translation, which weren't particularly nice:

Although I've been bilingual for most of my life, I only came ot translation pretty recently. In part this is because the late Kenneth Koch, among my greatest teachers, threw me into the deep end when I was a college freshman. Just because French is my native language and I was a poet at the time, he assigned me to translate Raymond Roussel's New Impressions of Africa, a plainly impossible task. Since it was an assignment, though I thought I was incompetent.

As luck would have it, there are currently new translations of both Roussel's New Impressions of Africa and his Impressions of Africa. Have a look at these reviews of each book to see how the translators accomplished what was certainly a daunting task.

Let me begin with a story from my own experience, one that came to mind when I read Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa. A group of young poets, mostly students, met weekly at a Borders in downtown Boston to discuss one another’s work and offer feedback. One week, a poem up for discussion described a bucolic riverside setting and the doings of villagers who lived nearby. “Children wade, women chide,” read one line.

The all-too-familiar motif of incessantly-nagging women raised a few questions with me: Why are they chiding? Who are they chiding? Is their disapproval warranted, or are they scolding simply because they are women and it is to be expected? The poem presupposed that we would accept this image without further elaboration, dismissing the women’s actual complaints.

When I called attention to this, someone else in the group countered that to change this line would be to sacrifice the alliteration of the initial consonants and the chiasmus suggesting a contradiction or parallel between the children wading and the women chiding. As a woman poet, I felt my presence in the group somehow diminished by the intrusion of the stock figure into our midst, as if I, too, were being reduced to a cliché. What good is aesthetic beauty in a poem if it fails to tell the truth about human beings? And yet, it was undeniable that the sound play was skillful, and that the poem would lose something without it. I put the quandary out of my mind, taking comfort in the fact that in any case, the poem would never make it beyond the confines of our modest circle — in spite of one well-wrought line, it was a mediocre poem, written by an unknown poet, that in all likelihood would never see the light of day.

But upon reading New Impressions of Africa, lo and behold, the same question resurfaced, with vastly more at stake. Raymond Roussel is widely read and acclaimed, admired by the likes of Michel Leiris, Marcel Duchamp, and John Ashbery. Questions of aesthetics and ethics become more problematic when reading poets of Roussel’s fame and caliber. How do we weigh the benefits that can be reaped when reading a master of the form against the great damage that can be done through his images that fail to tell the whole truth — about human beings on the whole; about certain groups in particular?

TWO LINES ONLINE: Goro Takano on "An Odd Owner" by Kono Taeko

Posted on July 5, 2011, 11:56:00 AM by Goro Takano

(We've just published "An Odd Owner" by Kono Taeko in Goro Takano's translation in the July 2011 installment of TWO LINES Online. To help contextualize this work, today we have a post from Takano.)

Kono Taeko, one of the most important female novelists in modern Japan, was born April 30, 1926, in Osaka. After World War II she finished her economics degree at a women’s university in Osaka, graduating in 1947. There she joined literary groups, eventually moving to Tokyo. In 1961 her debut work, “Toddler Hunting,” was published and awarded the Shincho-sha Prize. In 1963 she was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her short story “Crabs.” In 1966 she received the Women’s Literary Prize for The Final Hours and subsequently the Yomiuri Prize for A Sudden Voice in 1968, as well as the Tanizaki Jun-ichiro prize in 1980 for A Year-long Pastoral. She also received a literary prize from the Japanese Art Academy in 1984 and the Noma Literary Prize in 1991 for her 1990 novel Mummy-Hunting for the Bizarre . In 1996 Kono received critical attention in America after the publication of an English translation of Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories.

Kono’s main literary concern is often said to be sadomasochism, which she tends to describe, in her novels and short stories, as an ultimate form of love. She is also well-known as an avid admirer of Tanizaki Jun-ichiro.

Kono published the short story “An Odd Owner” in 2001 and received the Kawabata Yasunari Literary Prize in 2002. In this work, she probes, through necrophilia, the ambiguity of the border between love’s sanity and abnormality, as well as between the male sex and female one.

The translation process required special work to tackle the following problems:

(1) The original Japanese text is narrated in the past tense. But I felt that, in English, the past-tense narration might not sufficiently illuminate the story’s unique otherworldliness. Thus, I took the risk of translating it in the present tense.

(2) I had trouble with translating several culturally specific terms on Japanese-style funerals and furniture. In each case, in order to maintain the story’s readability for non-Japanese audiences, I inserted additional information into its original context.

(3) This short story’s charm lies partly in its narration’s weird logic. Yet, several sentences in the original text (the ones in the Japanese-civil-law-related section, particularly) seemed too illogical to me to follow. Thus, without damaging the original’s haunting weirdness, I sorted out a few excessive irregularities in the narrator’s line of thought.