I have to thank GoodReads reviewer extraordinaire/B&N Union Square employee (who makes the best book displays ever) Karen Brissette for pointing me to this interview. She was searching for information on Iren Nigg (who is apparently awesome and totally not translated1) and came across this Stefan Sprenger interview that was done as part of the promotions for this year’s Best European Fiction anthology.
I didn’t realize this until Karen pointed it out, but Dalkey has a ton of interviews with BEF contributing authors available on their website. Looks like all of these ask the same six questions—all of which are interesting and worth asking, but lead to some pretty entertaining comments when applied to writing from Liechtenstein. Witness:
Do you see your work as fitting into the traditions of European fiction—or indeed any national or regional tradition?
I’m not part of a Liechtenstein tradition of literature, because there is no Liechtenstein literature, and never has been. There are a handful of authors in Liechtenstein, but they are individuals and solitary; there are no groups and no common ground. [. . .]
Are there any exciting trends, movement, or schools in contemporary Liechtenstein fiction? Who do you feel are the overlooked contemporary authors writing in Liechtenstein who should be more widely read and translated?
How could there be one? Literature and publishing need a critical mass in order to function. The Nanoprincipality of Liechtenstein isn’t even remotely close to this size. There’s also the fact that for the past century our national sport has been banking secrecy, keeping absolutely silent and discreet. [. . .]
Are there enough publishing outlets in Liechtenstein for contemporary fiction? Is there a market for literary fiction in Liechtenstein?
No. There isn’t a publishing house that would bring out the professional, long-term, and programmatic literature that comes out in and around Liechtenstein. That would presume a small national market: let’s say, to be generous, that such books would sell 500 to 800 copies. Those numbers are all the reason that there isn’t a publishing house here. It would only be possible if the government decided to use state funds for such an endeavor. Since literature is always a betrayal—especially considering Liechtenstein’s banking secrecy—we’re far more likely to have a Royal Liechtenstein Space Station on Titan than to finance a publisher of Liechtenstein’s literature.
Do you want your work to be translated? Why or why not?
No, of course not. I never would have taken part in BEF 2011 if the Archbishop hadn’t ordered it and if the royal service hadn’t threatened me with confiscation of my state-subsidized electric bike.
Brilliant! Dead serious that this makes me want to read Sprenger’s story . . . He sounds so entertaining.
On a sidenote, I’m really not sure how you’re supposed to answer the “do you want your work to be translated” question. If anyone says no, it’s for reasons that are likely pretentious and irritating. And the most common answer to yes has to be that translation helps you reach a larger audience, and, in this context, reinforces the belief that you’re only a “real author” if your work is available in English. But I’m maybe reading too much into this . . .
Regardless, I wish all interviews were this entertaining.
1 Anyone know more about Nigg? Very interested, but there’s next to no info online . . .
The following was written by Mima Simić regarding her recent experiences in publishing “My Girlfriend” in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology. Enjoy!
Best European Fiction for 2011 has hit the bookstores and review sections of your favorite cultural papers, but there’s some pretty bad non-fiction behind the best fiction Dalkey offers.
Sometime in April of 2010 I was informed that my story (“My Girlfriend”) was to be included in the 2011 Best European Fiction edition (as the Croatian representative, yay!). This was, naturally, quite a delightful piece of news for me; an opportunity to reach the vast English speaking market, as writing in so-called small languages can be quite a limitation to one’s literary ambitions. Dalkey received my story not in Croatian, but in English; it was I who translated it. As a conscientious author, and not wanting to be misread nor derided for my command of the lingua franca of the universe, before I’d sent it in, I had it (proof) read by a few native speakers, including my American professor of creative writing (American as in born, raised, writing and teaching in the U.S.).
All seemed well; no one from Dalkey contacted me except to sign a contract that allowed the publisher to use the story, or parts of it, for their advertising and other purposes. There was nothing in the contract about the text of the story itself, nothing about editorial interventions, proofreading etc. And why should there be? Even in “uncivilized” non-EU and non-U.S. countries (such as mine) we know that a publisher/editor ought to consult the author should they think it necessary to change their text. And one would expect this to be doubly true of Dalkey who are hailed as the trailblazer of translated fiction in the English-speaking world, are producing a report on best practices in publishing translations and have in fact published a guide to editing translations (!)
As no one contacted me about any edits, I presumed everything was fine with the story. Imagine then my astonishment when the Anthology arrived at my doorstep (in December 2010) and I realized that a diligent Dalkey editor not only made quite a few interventions in the text, but they also inserted (!) a piece of text that changed/determined sex of my narrator! As this gender/sex ambiguity is one of the thematic pillars of my story, this benevolent editorial intervention (which made the narrator a man and the relationship heterosexual!) completely changed my story, its aims and effects. To be sure, the author is not, nor can they be, the owner of the interpretation, but surely they should be the owner of their text? The copy editor’s job is not to rewrite or retell the story in their own words—but rather to intervene as little as possible and if they do change something, to check with the author before the text goes to print. Is this too much to ask of Dalkey? And is it unfair to ask this: Would this have happened to me if I had been an American author?
Needless to say, I was utterly shocked, appalled and flabbergasted by this act—especially as Dalkey (and this ambitious publication) was the last publisher I expected to get this kind of treatment from (I had my stories published in the UK before; in Chroma Journal and on Pulp.net, and both editors communicated with me about any/every edit). Also, this editorial gender-(re)assignment surgery was to me not only an artistic but also an ideological insult. I’m a lesbian writer, or rather—a writer who happens to be a lesbian—and I also happen to be a gender theorist—so whenever I write I’m absolutely conscious of the factor of identity and how important it is to play with it, subvert it. I would have thought that a reputable American publisher would be aware of such issues and of how language constructs reality and vice versa.
I don’t write straight stories; and I don’t want anyone to be straightening my stories, in any way, sexual or textual—and certainly not without my consent. I wrote to Dalkey to say I was sorry my story was ever published in the anthology under my name because their “editing” turned it into somebody else’s. It’s a piece of fiction I would never produce. This didn’t impress them much. The editorial director, John O’Brien said he didn’t know why these changed were made and offered to have a conversation (between myself and Dalkey) published in their magazine CONTEXT in which we would, in a civilized manner, discuss the matter (and presumably allow them to call the shots again). A barbaric creature from the Balkans, I never replied to his email.
Finally, I’d like to share with you the concrete details of editorial/proofreading interventions, so you can judge whether they were needed. To be sure, even if they had been, the mere fact no one ever contacted me to confirm I was OK with them (and they had at least half a year to do so, for the meager 5 pages of my story), they never asked for my authorization. If you have a look at the list of the “edits,” you’ll notice that not only did they change the rhythm of the story, the syntax and the sound but they went so far as to (re)interpret the story for the reader. How patronizing—both on myself and the readers.
Here are some of the more problematic edits (the first one is horrific, but the other ones weren’t pretty to look at either):
Although she is blind, when we go out my girlfriend likes to make herself up. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting, but I suppose I’m just being paranoid.
Although she can’t see herself (why change this?), my girlfriend likes to make herself up when we go out. Sometimes I get a feeling she is flirting WITH OTHER MEN (nb: nowhere in the story do I suggest the narrator is a man!) etc.
Some will say it’s as good as cheating, but those are the dull people always ready to explain to you the difference between love and fiction.
Some might say this is cheating, but only the same sort of dull people who’re always happy to explain the difference between love and make believe to you.
There is a big difference between the word FICTION and “make believe.” FICTION also refers to WRITING. why they had to change this one is BEYOND ME.
Maybe some of the girls were boys, too.
Maybe some of the girls were actually boys anyway.
Why change this sentence?
And now, after four years, it’s sort of passé, a matter too inappropriate to discuss
And now, after four years, it’s sort of too late – it would be too delicate to bring it up.
PASSE is not the same as too late. It has its own register, meaning and TONE. If I used it, that’s because I WANTED to use it. There was NOTHING wrong with the original, so why change it?
She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.
She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.
Why change this sentence? why, why, why?!
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best part – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.
When they hear my girlfriend is blind, most often people will first remember the downsides of dating a blind person, like missing out on the best partS OF BEING IN A RELATIONSHIP – the exchange of meaningful looks, the foreplay of signals, the silent innuendos.
WHY ADD THAT BIT? Those are NOT the best parts of being in a relationship, actually.
They’re part of the DATING.
I hope this letter will be a valuable lesson to the reading/writing/translating community and the publishers of the world. I know editor’s job is stressful one, but this fact by no means should relieve them of the responsibility for the mistakes they make. If I had a dentist pull out a wrong tooth or plumber flood my bathroom instead of fixing the pipe, I’d do my all to make them face to the consequences of the crappy job they’d done. As I’m sure Dalkey editors would do, too. Because no one likes walking the world toothless; and this is how things are done in the civilized world.
Really interesting article called “America First?” in the new issues of the New York Review of Books. In this piece, Tim Parks looks at four recent books: Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman, The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore, and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.
Thanks primarily to the first two books listed (although obviously Steve Moore’s book also includes heaps of translation references), there’s a lot in here about literature in translation, which Parks approaches in rather interesting ways.
He starts by taking a few slight jabs at the Best European Fiction anthology, not necessarily at the stories themselves (which he seems to have enjoyed), but at some of the claims of representation and uniqueness:
All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that
“if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?”
Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.
And on more of a stylistic point:
The many different narrative forms used in the collection, though frequently “experimental,” are, again, hardly unfamiliar; stories are fragmented, seen from different angles, in ways that make it interestingly difficult for us to decide how much reality to attach to them or how much emotion to invest. Again this is in line with an eclectic renunciation of any absolute version of events. In personal statements included at the back of the book, writers mention such models as Kafka, Borges, and Barthelme, suggesting that narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.
I hate to overquote this article, but it really is fascinating on a number of fronts . . . When discussing Grossman’s and Hemon’s admiration for the translation cultures of France and Germany, he makes a couple of interesting points:
Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism? Grossman says she is at a loss to understand the American reluctance to translate; the fact is that in Europe there is enormous public interest in America as the world’s first power and the perceived motor of changing mores. American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America. This gives them a celebrity value; readers want to read them. An equally good Polish author talking about Poland is simply not considered interesting and will very likely not be translated. Indeed many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries. [. . .]
It is ironic here to find Grossman quoting a Nobel Prize judge claiming that Europe is still the center of the literary world; this is wishful thinking on the Swede’s part. European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition. If Americans translate little it is partly because all eyes are turned in their direction. That said, a University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?
Most interesting though—maybe because this was a subtopic at the Wolff Symposium last week—is his extended bit about the proper way to review translations. Grossman talks about this in her book, using James Wood’s review of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace as a positive example of how to review a book. Parks takes this down a bit, instead focusing on Grossman’s definition of how the translator’s task is one of deep reading followed by recreation “within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work.”
Parks admires this definition (for good reason! Grossman’s spot on in a beautiful way), but where does that lead in terms of reviewing?
What can I say then, if I wish to comment on the thirty-one translations in Best European Fiction 2010, twenty-two of them from languages I do not know? That on the whole the reader gets a strong impression of a cohesion of style and content that can only be the result of extremely attentive reading, followed by respectful and imaginative rewriting. This cohesion is the hallmark of good translation and the only thing a reviewer with no knowledge of the original can sensibly comment on and elucidate. In each case it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.
Reviewing translations is a really knotty topic, and one that is rather fascinating and worth talking about in much greater detail. Although I am of the belief—also stated last week at the Wolff Symposium—that it’s not necessary for every review in every publication to address the quality of the translation. I believe that all reviews should at least reference the translator and acknowledge the book’s origins, but if the goal of a review is to interest the readers of that particular publication (be it a blog or a weekly magazine) in the books being featured, the very fact that different people read different review sources for different reasons leads to different emphases in different reviews. It would be great (or utopic) to imagine a book culture in which a Scandinavian noir book is reviewed in one place for it’s noirish elements, another for its representation of Scandinavian culture, another for the wonderful job that the particular translator did, etc., etc.
But anyway. This article is definitely worth reading—not just for these parts, but for the section on Moore’s book (which still sounds interesting to me) and on the fascinating Reality Hunger.
I’m a big fan of year-end lists. Especially year-end lists that include Open Letter titles . . . But seriously, the International Reads for the Holidays feature that Bill Marx put together for PRI’s World Books is a very solid, quirky, highly literary collection of great titles from 2009.
Bill is a panelists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, which I believe is why he goes on about “old” books and “new” retranslations in his openind statements. (We’ve had ongoing discussions about which titles qualify for the award, which we set up to honor new voices, new books that had never before been available to English readers. Although point taken re: ham fisted crap translations and the way the media tends to ignore new, complete translations of old books. But still . . .)
Anyway, here’s Bill’s fiction list:
Visit the original article for the complete descriptions and his nonfiction list.
And while I’m writing about World Books, I want to mention (again) how impressive this program is. Over the past month, pieces have appeared on Horacio Castellanos Moya, Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, the passing of Chinese translator Yang Xianyi, Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, and the Best European Fiction anthology that Dalkey put out.
As part of the coverage of the Dalkey anthology, there’s also an interview with the volume’s “editor,” Alexander Hemon. Personally, I have a lot of issues with this book, why it was put together, and the way Dalkey’s marketing materials try and use “European” as a substitute for “World,” but regardless, this interview with Hemon is pretty interesting:
World Books: Are the writers in the anthology examples of authors who shape their fiction to address a global audience? Are there first class writers in Europe whose work resists adequate translation?
Hemon: Dan Brown (a cynical emotional manipulator) shapes his fiction to address a global audience. Great writers have integrity and sovereignty; they write what they write out of some kind of inner need, in pursuit of knowledge that is available only in literature. Rilke (whose work could also be accused of being removed from ordinary experience) believed that great art can only come out of necessity. I’m sure that there are writers in Europe who have yet to be translated or translated adequately–every great writer needs a great translator– but I do not believe that there is untranslatable literature. Robert Frost said that poetry is what is lost in translation, Joseph Brodsky said that poetry is what is gained in translation. I would go with Brodsky.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .