A few months ago, Jeremiah Chamberlain invited me to participate in an indie-press roundtable on publishing translations with Barbara Epler from New Directions, Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions, Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Press, and CJ Evans of Two Lines. This ended up being a long, sprawling email conversation, that just was included in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers.
It’s a really long piece, I know, I know, but one that’s loaded with great information from the other people on the panel. Here are a few samples:
What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Michael Reynolds (Europa): In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers. [. . .]
Barbara Epler (New Directions): I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers.
Jill Schoolman (Archipelago): I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating. [. . .]
Michael Reynolds (Europa): I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.
Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Michael Reynolds (Europa): I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.
You’ll have to go to the full article to find those morsels . . .
For all of you within driving distances of Rochester, you really should come out tonight for our first Reading the World Conversation Series Event of the season. Barbara Epler (publisher of New Directions) will be talking with Susan Bernofsky (translator of a number of German authors) about Robert Walser’s Microscripts, which recently came out from ND in Susan’s stellar (as always, as expected) translation.
Here’s a bit of background about Walser and the event:
Robert Walser was one of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century. His exacting, hilarious prose (see Jakob von Gunten, The Tanners, Selected Stores, etc.) has influenced a host of writers and acquired a large following.
Walser’s life story is also very intriguing, especially the fact that he was institutionalized for the last third of his life, during which time he wrote a series of “microscripts”—short stories written on scraps of paper in a script about a millimeter high. After extensive research these pieces have finally been deciphered and have recently been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky—Walser’s primary translator and one of the most prestigious German translators working today—and published by the admirable New Directions. New Directions’ publisher, Barbara Epler, will be here to talk with Susan Bernofsky about Walser, the literary passion he inspires, and his microscripts.
There’s even going to be a PowerPoint with images of the actual microscripts . . . Knowing Barbara and Susan, this is going to be an amazing and fascinating evening . . . (Followed by good food, wine, and salsa, but that’s a different sort of post.) And for those of you who can’t make it, we’ll be recording this and posting it online as soon as possible. (The event that is, not the salsa dancing. That’s an embarrassment that need not be saved for posterity’s sake.)
Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:
Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.
Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.
And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:
KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?
SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.
KD: What are you working on right now?
I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.
Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.
Just so happened that a copy of Walser’s Microscripts arrived in the mail this morning from the wonderful people at New Directions, so I thought I’d follow up on the last post with a bit more info about the first event in the fall RTWCS.
On September 23rd, Barbara Epler of New Directions will talk with Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, and others) about Walser, his “microscripts,” and the art and practice of translation.
I suspect that most everyone reading this site is familiar with Robert Walser (we’ve written about his work enough times, and here’s an interesting piece by J. M. Coetzee from the New York Review Books), but in case not, he was one of the most important and interesting writers of the twentieth century, author of The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten, The Robber, and tons of short stories. He also worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant—all jobs that greatly informed his writing. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Walser was hospitalized in 1933 and was institutionalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, during which time he wrote tons of “microscripts,” which were considered “undecipherable” until rather recently.
Here’s some info from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction:
Robert Walser, one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers, wrote many of his manuscripts in a shrunken-down form that remains enigmatic even a century later. These narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging from one to two millimeters, came to light only after their author’s death in 1956. At first his literary executor, Carl Seelig, assumed that Walser had been writing secret code, a corollary of the schizophrenia with which he’d been diagnosed in 1929. Unsure what to make of these tiny texts, Seelig published a handful of them as enlarged facsimiles int he magazine Du with a note describing them as “undecipherable,” and then put them away for safekeeping.
Naturally, these turned out to be decipherable, and Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte spent a decade analyzing the texts, using a technique more like guesswork than reading:
It isn’t possible to just sit down and read a microscript. Morlang and Echte report that one doesn’t so much read these tiny words as guess at what they might psay and then verify the accuracy of the hypothesis.
Part of this is based on the size of the script, but there’s also the interesting nature of the script itself:
The writing that looked like secret code in Carl Seelig’s eyes turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English. Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity—an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash—means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.
All of this is fascinating, making me anxious to dive into the writings themselves. And to speed up time so that it can suddenly be September 23rd . . . Barbara and Susan are both absolutely amazing, and it will be a real treat to see them on stage together.
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