Moving Targets…

October 31, 2008

Translator and poet Stephen Kessler has a new book (the title alone is compelling enough!) called Moving Targets: On Poets, Poetry & Translation, a collection of essays on topics ranging from poetry to translation to war, and a wide range of American and foreign poets.

For anyone in the Bay Area, he’s doing a reading at City Lights on Nov. 6.


The Delighted States

October 28, 2008

I don’t know how I missed Adam Thirlwell’s book, “The Delighted States,” which came out this summer with FSG (“Ms. Herbert” in the UK). It has the precious subtitle:

A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

It has been described as “monumentally annoying” (The Guardian) and “the most dazzlingly tedious book of the summer” (Washington Post). However, others disagree (New York Times, Bookforum). The book also includes Thirwell’s translation of a Nabokov short story “Mademoiselle O,” which gets considerably less attention in the reviews. Regardless I’d like to think that mere existence of this book, in all of its hybrid, translated glory, in mainstream publishing is something to be excited about. Wyatt Mason, who I happen to love, interviews Thirlwell in Harpers. (the interview interests me for its specific talk on the practice of translation. It also includes Thirlwell’s proposal for a translation of Macedonio Fernandez, which our very own Margaret Schwartz has published in eXchanges and has an edition forthcoming with Open Letter Press). If you’d like a sampling of Thirlwell’s prose, the New York Times link has a sample chapter, and the October issue of the Believer (which is where I saw all of this in the first place) has an essay adapted from the book and delivered at Princeton this May (for their “translation program” it says…)

from the Believer: “Every theory of translation is a theory of style.” Thirlwell looks at Nabokov, Pavese, Kafka (their invented americas, their roles as translators), Borges, Pushkin, and Flaubert but also draws parallels to pretty much anything you can imagine, and has a weird obsession here with music of the 20th century in as much as it relates to aesthetic statements and theories of style: Adorno’s takes on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and Berio’s lectures at Harvard (points taken). Thirlwell ends with the gorgeous statement: “The history of translation, like the history of the novel and the history of the world, is the history of mistakes. It has to do with imprecision, and imperfection. Even if the aim is always the perfect work: invulnerable, and incorruptible.” Turn the page and you’ll see a wonderful map entitled: “an approximate time line of twisted translations” showing, for instance, how baudelaire and mallarme each translated “the raven” into french, and how machado de assis translated Baudelaire’s french translation of the Raven into Portuguese.

I’m hoping that Thirlwell’s Tristam Shandyesque prose won’t turn too many people off from the fascinating subject matter, which, judging from his assessment of Pavese and translation, something I’ve studied pretty thoroughly, is interesting and nuanced. Regardless, I’m still pleased that the words “the history of translation” are on the cover of the Believer this month in all caps.


Quixotes, not Quixote

October 25, 2008

The excellent piece One Master, Many Cervantes offers the following, rarely found praise of literary translation:

“While Russian readers have only one Tolstoy, we in English have a plethora. Which of the two languages is richer in its Tolstoyan tradition? On one hand, the original words are set forever. On the other, all of the translations are guesses. But, in the modern world, translation is a necessary, unavoidable task, and, when in the dark, most people are fine with a guess.

After all, we live in the age of relativism. There are no absolute truths. And while an original text has the advantage of being the source, the endless copies it generates are forms of interpretation, which is, in the end, what literature is about.”

Herein lies, I think, one of the best selling points of postmodern relativism – the way in which pluralization contributes to our rethinking about concepts, texts, languages, as both inherently and potentially multiple. Stavans’s discussion of the Quixote brings out, in Borgesian fashion, the performative aspect of translation.

I suppose we weren’t really in Dinkytown for the bulk of the conference, but still the neighborhood’s name is so excellent I find myself making excuses to insert it into every possible context. The fine and fearless crew of eXchanges traveled to Minneapolis, MN for the 31st annual ALTA conference this weekend. (For complete schedule of the conference, click here). eXchanges was represented in nearly every element of the conference: panels were moderated by former eXchanges editors Diana Thow, Becka McKay, Cris Mattison and Emily Goedde gave a paper on using translation as an ESL teaching tool. Current editor Andrea Rosenberg read her work as an ALTA fellow, and eXchanges translators read their work as part of bilingual readings and as participants in other panels. In fact, the only element of the conference where eXchanges was sorely lacking was the Declamacion (we’ll have to work on that for next year, everyone! we could do a choral version of “o solo mio” with Russell Valentino as our soloist)… All in all, ALTA did serve as a creative crossroads and it was fantastic to finally put faces to so many wonderful names.

One of the highlights of the conference for this humble (and highly erratic) blogger was the “book exhibit”– which gathered something like 300 books recently published in translation for review and purchase. Not only were the books stunning visually, often with gorgeous attention paid to the material aesthetic of the book itself, but the sheer quantity of them was also impressive and encouraging. True, it was no Barnes and Noble, but the ratio of books that I wanted to read vs. books I did not want to read was really astounding; there were a ton of really desirable books crammed onto a few tables. I ended up with Graywolf’s “New European Poets” anthology (out of curiosity) and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Collected poems, “Darkness Spoken,” translated by Peter Filkins and published by Zephyr press. I wished I could have bought many more than I did. A lasting image: Natasa Durovicova walking to her car, followed by the “book exhibit”s sole employee who struggled with a cardboard box filled to the brim with Natasa’s purchases.

Other highlights: Astrid Cabral‘s poetry (made accessible to my non-Portuguese-speaking self courtesy of Alexis Levitin and Two Lines), fruitful discussion surrounding mistranslations of feminist (though the sign on the door said feministy) text and the role of the editor (lead by our own Leah Leone); heated debate about the function of anthologies of translated literature (does it help or hurt to provide the reader with such “representations” of the literature of a certain culture?) &etc.

Truly, it was an honor and a blast to attend. See y’all in Pasadena next year…

Translation Unawareness

October 18, 2008

Upon the occasion of the Frankfurt Book Fair and on the heels of the American-unknown French Nobel winner JMG Le Clézio, the New York Times reports that Translation Is Foreign to U.S. Publishers. While this is, unfortunately, just the most recent of many similar articles, here the focus is on the publishers’ perspective, like David R. Godine, who adds some interesting points:
“When you look at how much is paid for a mediocre midlist author” in the United States, he said, “and how much you have to pay to get a world-class author who has been translated into 18 languages, it is ridiculous that more people don’t invest in buying great literature.” Mr. Godine said he had purchased the rights to a foreign book for as little as $2,000.