Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)
Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)
In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)
This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:
On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.
Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)
It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:
Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.
Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.
I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.
Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)
I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .
If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .
First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.
(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)
Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?
And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .
Finally, we wrapped up with a
contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:
Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”
Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”
This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!
December isn’t all about gift getting, crowded shopping malls, uncomfortable family gatherings, and cookies—it’s also about year-end donations to worthy non-profit organizations such as the Center for the Art of Translation.
As an added incentive, if you donate more than $5 to CAT, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win books from translators featured in the Lit&Lunch series. Specifically, here are the prizes:
First prize is a three-book package featuring two of this year’s most exciting translators: Natasha Wimmer and Breon Mitchell. The winner receives translator-signed copies of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, plus a copy of the newest Two Lines anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Two runners-up will each receive a translator-signed copy of The Tin Drum and a copy of Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Every donation really counts, which is why we brought the threshold for this giveaway to just $5. Those who pledge $20 or more will get 3 chances to win, and those who sign up for a recurring donation totaling $50 or more over the course of next year will have 5 chances to win these excellent books.
Click here for all the details, links to donate, etc.
One of the biggest international literature publishing events of this fall has to be the release of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of Gunter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This is an event in the grand sense of the word, and definitely worth checking out.
We wrote about this back over the summer, quoting extensively from Breon’s afterword about the reasons for the new translation, but rather than read that post, you can simply listen to this podcast of Breon’s recent appearance in the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit&Lunch series.
Breon’s a great speaker, and Grass’s technique of bringing together his translators to go through the book page-by-page with tips and whatnot is absolutely fascinating.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.
(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.
Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:
The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.
We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.
More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:
In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.
And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:
I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)
And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)
Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”
This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.
And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .
I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.
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