Over at the Center for the Art of Translation’s web site, they’ve posted several audio clips of discussions with Cuban writer (and former literary translator from Russian) José Manuel Prieto and translation dynamo Esther Allen, whose English translation of Prieto’s Rex was published earlier this year. In addition to some specific conversation about Rex and readings from the original and translation, the clips also include more general discussion of world literature and the role of translation in that literature. Fascinating material. I particularly loved Allen’s tangential anecdote about a panel of five translators of Don Quixote into five different languages.

It’s just so interesting because every translator’s experience is completely different because the experience is affected by the translator they’re translating into, not the language they’re translating out of. And Susanne Lange [translator from German] gave a presentation about Don Quixote that was so extraordinary that at the end of it, the correspondent from El País went up to her and said, “I’m going to learn German so I can read your translation of Don Quixote.”

(Via Three Percent.)

I was curious about the German translation so I went poking around and found an interesting article (in Spanish) on Deutsche Welle. Lange has apparently been much lauded for her Quixote, and was awarded the Johann-Heinrich-Voss Prize by the German Academy of Language and Poetry in May. She says of the novel,

Above all it has taught me a lot not just about Don Quixote and his era — a universal myth, a book that has almost everything in it and remains very modern to this day — but also about my own language, since in order to translate the Quixote I’ve had to look at all the sources of the German language, look from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries for the words that would work in my translation.

Take a look, if you read Spanish. I can’t in good conscience recommend Google Translate — union issues!



Brooklyn Rail has posted a fantastic interview with Susan Bernofsky, translator from German (oh, yeah, and she writes fiction, too). It’s a very thoughtful discussion of translation and of Robert Walser in particular. New Directions will publish Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners next month.

Rail: I’m curious as to whether sharing a sensibility with an author makes it easier to translate their work. Salman Rushdie, for example, compliments Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by saying their rambunctious personalities were ideally matched. Meaning, I guess, that being like Cervantes helped Smollett convey his style.

Bernofsky: I’ve wondered about this too. All my authors are very different from me and write differently than I do, but with certain authors I do have the feeling that I can summon up “their” voices fairly readily in English—and this certainly applies to the writers I’ve translated repeatedly: Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada as well as Walser. I like trying to hear other authors’ voices as well, which is why I like it when publishers ask me for sample translations from different books—it’s like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise.


It took me a while to find time to read the whole thing, but the roundtable discussion that went up a week ago over at the Observer Translation Project is really excellent. Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Open Letter and Three Percent), novelist Norman Manea, and translator Susan Bernofsky offer thoughtful exchanges on topics such as marketing and editing translated literature, team translations, issues of domestication in translation, and the appeal and value of international literature. For example, here’s Susan Bernofsky on editing translations:

The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.

The whole thing is highly recommended.


Al-Ahram has published a lengthy interview with Roger Allen, translator from Arabic. There is some hyperventilation throughout the article at the shocking idea of introducing any change to the original in a translation, as if the text’s recreation in an entirely different language weren’t in itself a pretty major alteration, but it’s an interesting overview of the field of Arabic translation and of Allen’s career.

Via Pierre Joris.

Saša Stanišić, who participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2007, has an interesting interview in The Australian today about his novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, published last year in English translation from the original German. Stanišić is from a town that is now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but his family fled to Germany during the Balkans War in 1992. His novel, he says, reflects his own life in the basic trajectory of the protagonist’s life — Aleksandar flees Bosnia to Germany during the war and then looks back on his past — but Stanišić also notes, “I wanted to tell a universal story of loss, of the absurdity of war, of childhood and of growing up under these radical circumstances, a story which can happen, which does happen, everywhere in the world right now.”


Interview with Tom Stoppard

February 7, 2009

In the Barnes & Noble Review a few days ago, a wonderful interview with Tom Stoppard on his adaptations of a number of Chekhov play:

James Mustich: You’ve said about your own plays that the motivating impulse in composition is the next line — to find out what it is, to be surprised by it, to take what you’ve done to the next step. In a translation, you know what the next line is. So while there’s the consolation of Chekhov having done the heavy lifting, so to speak, is there a fundamental difference for you in the experience of writing when you’re working on an adaptation?

Tom Stoppard: That’s a good point. You do know what’s coming up when you’re translating. I suppose the concentration then is on finding a formulation which is speakable and in character — and economical as well, actually. And in that task perhaps it’s actually quite helpful to know what the comeback is going to be, what the next line is going to be. Because you’re dealing in rhythms, really. When I’m looking at a speech, parts of it I find immediately — I think half the time I get there in one. But as to the rest, it seems as if you don’t get it in one, you feel you never get it — you’re into your seventh or eighth try, and then you’re into your ninth, which you discover to your surprise is the same as your first. It’s a strangely maddening process, but essentially an enjoyable one for me, because it’s a pleasant challenge each time. It goes wrong if you work too many hours at a stretch. What happens is that some kind of reverb sets in between your natural sense of the language and your translator’s brain-load, and you lose touch with some fundamental level of English discourse. Quite often, one might go to bed thinking, “That bit’s OK, probably,” and the next day it reads much more stilted in some way, because you’d been made un-grounded by the loop between the literal and your own sense of the language.