Blog now closed

October 28, 2009

Hey all,

As anyone who’s been following this blog has no doubt noticed, we’ve stopped posting to it. When we publish the next issue of eXchanges we’ll remove the link from our magazine to this blog.

However, we’re not removing this blog so that old links don’t go dead.

We had to discontinue the blog because of the universally-experienced lack of time that grad students, and perhaps especially grad student-editors, experience at some point.

Thanks for reading!



Susan Bernofsky has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal in which she describes Donald Duck’s runaway popularity in Germany (including a group called the German Organization for Non-Commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism, or D.O.N.A.L.D.), and attributes it largely to the translator, Erika Fuchs, and her reworking — some might even say shameless improving — of the comic books. Whereas in English the language is straightforward and even plain, Fuchs made Donald a literary, philosophical duck, “a bird of art and letters,” as Bernofsky puts it, who quotes Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin.

Dr. Fuchs raised the diction level of Donald and his wealthy Uncle Scrooge (alias Dagobert Duck), who in German tend to speak in lofty tones using complex grammatical structures with a faintly archaic air, while Huey, Louie and Dewey (now called Tick, Trick and Track), sound slangier and much more youthful.

Fuchs applied alliteration liberally, as, for example, in Donald’s bored lament on the beach in “Lifeguard Daze.” In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

Fuchs also inserted political and ethical issues into the comics that were mostly absent in the original. Bernofsky describes, for example, what happened to The Golden Helmet, a childhood favorite of mine, which is about a treasure hunt for a legendary Viking helmet that conveys possession of the United States upon its owner. While the human (or duckly) lust for wealth and power certainly drive the plot of the English original — I recall Donald fantasizing about charging for breathing (“a sigh, a nickel; a gasp, a dime!”) — Fuchs makes the tale a metaphor for German nationalism:

In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.


A Translation Golden Age

March 23, 2009

John Timpane has an article on translation in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and even says we’re in a translation golden age. Wowza. Ties in with what Sara was saying below about translating the classics, and my overly lengthy response to that post. Ties in because this Inquirer article is focused pretty much completely on new translations of classics.

It’s great to see the author’s enthusiasm for translation. Really great. Really, really great. I would though have liked to see some attention given to translations of recent authors who are not named Bolaño, or to translations of classic works that break with our own literature’s traditional understanding of the genre “translation.”

For instance, the article focuses quite a bit on Anne Carson’s Oresteia, which we talked about below (1, 2). I’ve read a little more of it since then (in the current Tin House – I’m not sure that this is the same version that’s getting performed), and I mean, hey, it’s good. It’s Anne Carson. And the idea of taking plays by three different authors and translating them as a coherent trilogy (!), that’s a pretty radical idea. I like it. A whole lot actually. But that’s not what gets talked about. What gets talked about is Carson’s translation on the level of the line (of poetry, of dialogue), which is, as far as I can tell not having read the whole thing yet, the most boring level of Anne Carson’s Oresteia. If you want to see Anne Carson really taking the translation of a classic to a new place on the level of the line, read her translations of Catullus in Men in the Off Hours.

But hey. Did I mention there was a nice article about translation in the Inquirer?

Mike S

Cri de coeur

March 11, 2009

Can everybody please shut up about Hillary and the red button now?

A less cheery take on the relationship between multiculturalism and translation than our previous post can be found in Aviya Kushner’s essay in The Wilson Quarterly, “McCulture.” With Barack Obama as an icon of a new era, Kushner claims, “a new kind of translator is moving to the forefront of American culture. It is now cool to be ­half.” Unfortunately, she continues, American readers tend to prefer getting mediated contact with the unknown through multilingual and multicultural writers to the perhaps more arduous task of immersing themselves in a truly foreign [translated] text. My brain kept wanting to construct a metaphor using Hawaiian pizza, so I’m glad Kushner provides her own food analogy:

And so we read ethnic literature the way we down an ethnic meal. We can get a burrito almost anywhere, but it’s often mildly spiced, adjusted just for us, and wrapped for those in a rush. So we’re eating a translated burrito, and we’re reading a world prepared especially for us. But we don’t believe anything is missing. After all, we eat “ethnic” food, and ­often.

I think the problem may be more this perception that ethnic=foreign, that an American text tinged with a hint of the exotic is an interaction with another culture, this conviction that there’s no need to look outside our own borders because we have it all, basically, right here — a Little Italy, a Chinatown, a Little Pakistan . . . — than that American readers find it too exhausting or unsettling to immerse themselves in foreign cultures and would rather others do it for them. There may even be a kind of unconscious imperialism — we find ourselves more persuaded by voices that are more similar to our own, trust them to be more objective, can relate to them better. (Even Jesus, it turns out, spoke English.) It is true that we are more likely to lap up accounts of Rory Stewart, educated white Scotsman, walking across Afghanistan, or read fictional accounts of the country written by a man who left when he was 15, than seek out a contemporary Afghani perspective. There is not anything inherently wrong with those sorts of portrayals, but they certainly are not complete.

Still, I wonder if it is precisely the contact of cultures that interests Americans most, the sometimes awkward and sometimes fruitful exchange between them, rather than foreign cultures themselves. With the countless memoirs of expat Brits and Yanks purchasing crumbling country villas in Europe that were coming out 10-15 years ago, certainly part of the appeal was the dream of living a life of ease that tasted like freshly gathered porcinis, but some of it was also the stories of negotiating byzantine land-title processes, trying to get the local carpenters to show up, of making contact with characters eccentric not just in their individual characteristics but also in their entire cultural makeup. But I like Kushner’s idea that the work of translators provides an equivalent cultural exchange — sometimes awkward and sometimes fruitful — in which two languages, two histories, two belief systems come into contact, even if we aren’t trained to notice the effects of that contact in the translated text. “A good translator,” she says, “must create and inhabit a place that does not fully exist—a land between languages,” just as the Provence of Peter Mayle, or Frances Mayes’s Tuscany, are neither France/Italy nor England/the U.S.

I am frustrated by what feels like an endless feedback system in which publishers are convinced Americans are at best indifferent to and most likely afraid of translated texts, and adjust their offerings accordingly, thus leaving American readers deeper and deeper mired in their own insularity. If evidence of translationness — such as a translator’s name prominently displayed on the cover — really does make potential readers run away screaming, I wonder how much that is due to real wariness (and weariness!) of a foreign culture and how much to a widespread, if not entirely conscious, idea of a translation as inevitably doing some kind of violence to a foreign text. (If I come across another article entitled “Lost in Translation” or a cutesy pun on that tired phrase, I may do some violence of my own.)  Perhaps there is more awareness of the awkward than of the fruitful outcomes of translation.

Link via (as usual) Three Percent, who also have an interesting post on the essay.


American Hybrid

February 6, 2009

Translator and Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member Cole Swensen has co-edited a new poetry anthology called American Hybrid, which is due out in March from Norton. In her introduction (to read, click here) she argues against the traditional binaries of language and lyric in contemporary poetry and for a new hybrid poetics which incorporates elements of both. Of particular interest to this blog is the role that multilingualism/multiculturalism and translation play in this new poetic landscape:

Just as the shift in gender balance played an important role, increased internationalism and multiculturalism have also had a hand in broadening the aesthetic field, dispersing critical attention, and decentralizing power. Though the first word in our anthology’s title is “American,” it’s increasingly difficult to say just what the “American” in American poetry is. More and more poets writing and publishing in the United States were born and raised in other countries, and various poets in this volume come from China, England, Lebanon, Germany, Jamaica, Canada, Korea, and elsewhere—it’s a truly wide range of cultures that filters into this work. In addition, many of the poets presented here routinely spend part of each year out of the country, and though they all write in English, for some it is not their native language, and many write in other languages as well. These factors position a linguistic differential at the center of the work that keeps the English language questioning its parameters.

For many of these writers, translation is also an essential aspect of their writing practice, and, as it’s a discipline that constantly folds difference into the core of personal linguistic landscapes, it imports these differences—of form, sound, syntax, perspective, etc.—into American poetics as a whole.

Translation is also a literary practice that casts creation out, away from the creating “I” into a more public realm, and that same gesture is made by the many poets represented here who work editing, publishing, and producing the poetry of others through reading series and other modes of public access. By thus creating literature on the most concrete, material, and social level, these writers extend the Rimbaudian “I is an other” beyond the estrangement inherent in committing the first person singular to paper and into a socially creative act—it literally creates the society in which it can thrive.

–Cole Swensen, from her Introduction to American Hybrid

I admire Cole’s formulation of translation as a socially committed act, and as one that is mirrored and utilized in the expanding conversation that surrounds poetry, or at least the poets that she’s promoting with this anthology. Anthologizing is a tricky game, how can one ever pinpoint the poetry landscape in america, etc., but I like the framework Cole has presented here. I’ll look forward to reading the anthology.


Slashed arts funding in NY

February 5, 2009

Chad Post at Three Percent has written several times recently about the precarious position of arts funding during a time of deep financial crisis, and today he announces sad news about state funding for the arts in New York.  As we’ve discovered here at Iowa of late, as well, it is always likely to be the smallest and most vulnerable programs that are hit hardest in an economic crunch, whatever the intentions of the people making funding decisions, as there’s nothing to cushion the blow. I hope that what has seemed to be increased interest in translation will help counteract some of the crippling effects of drastically reduced funding.