10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Jacques Reda’s Europes, which was translated from the French by Aaron Prevots and published by Host Publications.

Daniela Hurezanu—a translator and author who wrote a great review for us of Memory Glyphs—makes this book sound incredibly interesting. There’s a bigger sample below, but I love this line from her review: “Reda’s style is an homage to the long sentence made of complex clauses with subordinates that intricately follow each other—a perfect mastery of grammar as logic-machine.”

Anyway, the one gripe I have is about Host Publication’s website (surprise!). I really like what Host has done over the past few years, and they have quietly become one of the most consistently interesting presses publishing today. Especially in terms of poetry in translation. But for whatever reason, it looks like their website hasn’t been updated in months. At least. In fact, unless I suddenly became incapable of reading and/or using the Internets, Europes isn’t even listed on Host’s site. Not that I can actually “search” the site, seeing as that there is no seach function . . . (Sorry, everyone at Host. This kind of thing is a pet peeve of mine. And trust me, you are light years ahead of clusterfuck sites like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s, which I’ve decided is either a joke or some devious experiment.)

Back to the subject at hand—Reda’s Europes and Daniela’s review:

After having published Return to Calm, Host Publications now offers us another book by Jacques Réda, also bilingual and also in Aaron Prevots’s translation—Europes. If in an “official” way Europes could be called a “travel essay,” the book’s fluid character undermines this characterization. Recording the fleeting instants of the narrator’s peregrinations, Europes includes essays on Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and France—one or two essays followed by one or more poems for each country. The poems are “poèmes de circonstance,” that is, topical poems, in this case, poems on the countries described in the preceding essays, written in the tradition of Raymond Queneau: playful, silly, ironically rhymed.

Réda is what the French call a flâneur, a roamer who enjoys his anonymous status in a city’s labyrinth. When a flâneur crosses a border into a new territory he becomes a tourist. The difference between a flâneur and a tourist is that a tourist usually has a destination and certain goals—“Today is Paris Disneyland, tomorrow Auschwitz.” Réda is that rare species of tourist-flâneur; more a traveler than a tourist, he doesn’t entirely belong to the first category either, since as early as the eighteenth century it was common for travelers to have a project: that of letting themselves be formed by the experience of travel. Réda wants to be neither formed nor informed by his travels, he simply has “la bougeotte,” as the French would say, i.e., he can’t stay put.

Although Réda’s style is very literary, he is no snob, and he probably wouldn’t mind being called a tourist. With complete lack of snobbery, he declares that he loves supermarkets “for themselves,” a love only natural for someone who has grown up in poverty (after all, to despise richness is a luxury only the rich can afford). But this confession is immediately followed by an unexpected critical reflection: supermarkets are “counter-museums” or “museums of the instant,” Réda says, “whose instants are accessible, consumable, nearly straightaway consumed but indefinitely renewable . . .”

Click here for the full review.

10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After having published Return to Calm, Host Publications now offers us another book by Jacques Réda, also bilingual and also in Aaron Prevots’s translation—Europes. If in an “official” way Europes could be called a “travel essay,” the book’s fluid character undermines this characterization. Recording the fleeting instants of the narrator’s peregrinations, Europes includes essays on Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and France—one or two essays followed by one or more poems for each country. The poems are “poèmes de circonstance,” that is, topical poems, in this case, poems on the countries described in the preceding essays, written in the tradition of Raymond Queneau: playful, silly, ironically rhymed.

Réda is what the French call a flâneur, a roamer who enjoys his anonymous status in a city’s labyrinth. When a flâneur crosses a border into a new territory he becomes a tourist. The difference between a flâneur and a tourist is that a tourist usually has a destination and certain goals—“Today is Paris Disneyland, tomorrow Auschwitz.” Réda is that rare species of tourist-flâneur; more a traveler than a tourist, he doesn’t entirely belong to the first category either, since as early as the eighteenth century it was common for travelers to have a project: that of letting themselves be formed by the experience of travel. Réda wants to be neither formed nor informed by his travels, he simply has “la bougeotte,” as the French would say, i.e., he can’t stay put.

Although Réda’s style is very literary, he is no snob, and he probably wouldn’t mind being called a tourist. With complete lack of snobbery, he declares that he loves supermarkets “for themselves,” a love only natural for someone who has grown up in poverty (after all, to despise richness is a luxury only the rich can afford). But this confession is immediately followed by an unexpected critical reflection: supermarkets are “counter-museums” or “museums of the instant,” Réda says, “whose instants are accessible, consumable, nearly straightaway consumed but indefinitely renewable . . .”

As a flâneur, Réda is an heir to Baudelaire. As a true Frenchman, he doesn’t simply record what he sees, as American writers usually do, but also analyzes it; yet I wouldn’t say that he writes in the tradition of, say, Sartre, or de Beauvoir (I am thinking of their writings on their travels to the States), whose critical impulse is to seize the unknown in the Other and freeze it through their aphoristic pronouncements. Neither a lover of exotic experiences—Réda prefers to stay in his European milieu rather than look for spicy otherness through some eco-tourist agency—nor a nostalgic ruminator for the good old days, Réda is a lover of trains—that is, of rhythmic movement and chance encounters—of temporary estrangement, and strangely familiar places. The only contemporary writer I can think of who belongs to the same family is John Taylor, an American who lives in France, whose Some Sort of Joy has recently come out in a French translation.

Réda’s style is an homage to the long sentence made of complex clauses with subordinates that intricately follow each other—a perfect mastery of grammar as a logic-machine. At the end of the sentence you experience the climactic joy of a detective who has discovered the criminal. The long, complex sentence is, alas, an endangered species, at least in this country, where “economy” of style or so-called “minimalism” is synonymous with “good writing,” when in fact it is often simply laziness of thinking.

Reading Réda, the bilingual reader is also struck by something else: Réda is a very ironic writer, but you have to read him in French in order to realize that. This is not because Prevots’s translation is not good enough—it is a perfectly good translation—but because what we call irony is different in every language. The irony of French writers is more artificial than that of their American counterparts because, as in Réda’s case, it represents the tone of a persona or a mask the author has put on, and the authorial masks we use are generally grounded in voices that have preceded us. In other words: our irony is never entirely “authentic”—rather it is a mimesis of the irony of other authors that have written in our language, and the reader can experience that irony because he can recognize the tone in his cultural repertoire. Contemporary American writers practice an irony that is more colloquial and more nihilistic in the sense that the authorial voice situates itself somewhere above good and evil, and is rarely self-ironic. Réda is self-ironic, which, of course, makes him funny.

The last piece in the book, “A Paris Crossing” includes some metatextual commentary on the story’s source, namely the fact that it had been initially commissioned by a so-called geographic tourism magazine, which, having asked for a piece in ten thousand characters, ends up rejecting it because it failed to comply with the magazine’s editorial policy. We find this out both in the first paragraph and in a footnote at the end of the story. In the first paragraph, Réda lets the reader know that the magazine suggested to him to “cross Paris in ten thousand characters,” and he compares this editorial practice with the ethos of athletic competitiveness, adding: “Moreover, I’ve just squandered three or four hundred characters complaining about my fate.” I am the kind of reader who gets a lot of pleasure out of these disclosures, all the more so when I imagine the editor of said tourism magazine reading the piece that makes fun his policies.

I hate to sound didactic, but this a book that anyone who teaches French culture and literature should have.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The most recent addition to our review section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu on Memory Glyphs: 3 Prose Poets from Romania, which was recently released in the U.S. by Twisted Spoon Press and is translated from the Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin with Radu Andriescu, Mircea Ivanescu, and Bogdan Stefanescu. Like all TSP books, the book itself is really elegant, and the contents aesthetically interesting.

In his preface, translator Adam Sorkin explains a bit about the collection:

First of all, the title of this anthology was lifted from the Radu Andriescu prose poem that closes the book, “The Aswan High Dam.”’ To me, the image suggests a major preoccupation of the prose poem, an esthetic amalgam as it were carved of blocks of words (as in the root of “glyph,” from the idea of cut or incised grooves or sacred symbols or script). In contrast to verse, the prose poem is a formless form, oxymoronic, with both lightness and heft, a chiseled, lapidary, elliptical poetry I have long admired. Not surprisingly then, the impetus for this anthology was my own, as was the choice of poets.

Daniela Hurezanu—who herself is a translator from both French and Romanian, and has even translated W.S. Merwin into French—wrote a fantastic review of this book that opens:

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Click here for the complete review.

12 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Of the three authors featured in the prose poem collection Memory Glyphs, beautifully translated from the Romanian by Adam Sorkin with Mircea Ivanescu, Bogdan Stefanescu and one of the poets (Radu Andriescu), only the latter is still alive. From the translator’s preface we find out that Cristian Popescu died when he was not even thirty-six “from a heart attack that was induced by his medication for schizophrenia and depression in potent mixture with vodka drinking.” Iustin Panta (pronounced Pantza) died at the same age as Popescu, in a car accident.

In Cristian Popescu’s prose poems, the author himself becomes a character—or so we assume, since we are dealing with someone called Cristi or Popescu. But he isn’t just any character; he is a figure in a family myth based on his own transfigured biography, in which the idyllic and the grotesque mingle in unexpected ways. I would say that, of the three authors, Popescu is the most untranslatable, not because of his language, but because of a certain Romanian sensibility, which is much harder to “translate” into English than words. For example, in “Advice from my mother,” he describes his mother who, after giving birth, felt crippled, and prepared to suckle her baby by powdering and rouging her breasts. She takes comfort, she says, “thinking that one day, someone will curse him [i.e., the baby] and tell him to stick himself back into his mother.” This is a slightly awkward translation of the most vulgar Romanian curse (“Go back into your mother’s c___!” or, in a more polite version, “Go back into your mother’s thing!”). In other words, Popescu’s image of his sentimental mother is done via the most obscene expression in the Romanian language. This union of some very contrary states—the sentimental and the utterly grotesque—which is natural for a Romanian, may not be for a native English-speaker.

Popescu’s self-mythologizing creates a sort of urban mythology grounded in self-mockery, a paradoxical world of antiheroes and sad clowns. Thus, “Anti-Portrait: A Psalm by Popescu” starts like this: “No, Lord. Neither more nor less, neither too much nor too little. And not quite Popescu.” Or, “Poetry”: “The earliest literary efforts of the poet Popescu date from the tender age of seven.” In the same poem we are told that Popescu wept so much in his youth that “they had to install a miniature urinal to collect the precious stones” that developed at the corners of his eyes.

Iustin Panta’s pieces are structurally unusual in that they combine verse poetry and prose within the space of the same poem. In the literal sense, the space of his poems is often enclosed—a room in which various objects come into focus—though several poems are about waiting for the train or the bus (one could write a treatise about Romanian poems revolving around the thorny topic of “public transportation”). Many of his poems refer to a “she” and are dialogues between “she” and the narrator. Of the three authors, Panta is probably the most cerebral, as his pieces are sometimes paradoxes or conundrums.

In “A Feminine Thought. A Feminine Thought?” pondering the difference between the breasts of a woman suckling a baby and her breasts laid bare otherwise, he concludes that the baby “continues” the breast and thus nullifies its voluptuousness. The woman is thus nullified too, proving to be “a fraud, a plagiarism,” like a fake painting one would examine under a magnifying glass. The infant is compared here to a magnifying glass revealing the breast’s “true nature,” so to speak, or rather the fact that its voluptuousness is really an illusion. But Panta goes on to challenge the true nature of this very thought by saying that this feminine thought, “seen through the magnifying glass! (itself, in turn, fake)” is also a falsehood.

Radu Andriescu’s prose poems are probably the most “poetic” in this collection in the sense that his style is more focused on its literariness and on artifice. Places and household objects are often the subject of his writings—a terrace, a stove, the wrought-iron winding stairs of his house, his neighborhood, whose depiction rivals that of a Turkish bazaar: the streets are crowded

with cardboard Poles and manic writers, with plumbers cloaked in a miasma of mercury vapors, with starched paunchy senators, with mutant garages turned into candy shops or fruit markets, their plaster hanging on spiderwebs . . . with decrepit geezers only thirty years old . . . apartment buildings nearly hidden by weeds and university dorms as dreary as a comb caked with dandruff . . . with stores soaked in cheap draft beer and artificially colored syrup masquerading as wine, both red and white, with Turkish delight and stale pretzels to bite, with nonfat yogurt, cellophane, bottles, foil, paper, with the flight of clouds, heaps of vacant days, whole wastelands of lost hours, a mixture of tar and cola, books and dust . . .

The sentence goes on for two and a half pages, a dazzling stylistic feat against what Andrei Codrescu once called “tight-ass minimalism.” Like Popescu, Andriescu too builds a mythologized universe replicating the real world in which he lives, and appears as a character in one of his poems. As I happened to read at the same time with this collection Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul (Archipelago Books, 2005, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman), I realized that this objectification of the author is not infrequent in Eastern Europe. Altenberg too is a character in his own pieces: he is called Peter, he is a writer, and many of his scenes—often entirely in the form of dialogues—are sketches of everyday life.

Altenberg (1859-1919), a Viennese-Jewish writer whose admirers include Kafka, Musil and Mann, calls his pieces—which in this country are referred to as “prose poems”—“sketches.” His sources of inspiration are said to be the “feuilleton,” a lyrical form of journalistic prose that was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and Baudelaire’s prose poems. “Sketch” was also a term used by Romanian writers (let’s not forget that until 1918, Transylvania, the Western part of Romania, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) in the early twentieth century. The master of the sketch was Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) whose pieces were mostly dialogues (incidentally, Caragiale is the most famous Romanian playwright) written in a mood that would fall into the category of the absurd from a Western perspective (It is no accident that the French playwright of Romanian origin, Eugène Ionesco, was strongly influenced by Caragiale).

Paradoxically, although Romania is a very Francophile culture, and Romanian is the only Romance language in that part of the world, what we could call the “Romanian prose poem” is less influenced by the French tradition of the prose poem, its beginnings being closer to various forms of journalism (lyrical or satirical)—still practiced in Romania, where the most common profession among writers is that of journalist.

24 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Today on the Calque blog, there’s a fascinating exchange between translators Daniela Hurezanu and Michael Emmerich regarding the editing of Matsuura Rieko’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which Emmerich translated and is forthcoming from Seven Stories.

In the last issue of Calque—one of, if not the, finest journals of literary translation being published—there appeared an interview with Michael Emmerich followed by two versions of the opening paragraphs of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, an unedited version, and the one that’s actually going to be published.

The huge differences between the two versions—and Emmerich’s explanation of why certain changes were made—really set off Daniela Hurezanu, who wrote a substantial letter to Calque, asking them to publish it. They did so online along with Emmerich’s response.

Both letters are way too long to accurately summarize, but needless to say, the issues that come up are at the crux of literary translation, the editing of literary translations, and the nature of fitting a book to a particular country’s aesthetic and commercial desires—all of which are really fascinating and well presented in the two letters.

From Hurezanu:

In comparing the unedited translation with the edited version, one can see that the changes have been made according to a certain pattern, which obviously reflects the esthetic view of the editor(s). The first two long sentences have been chopped into much shorter sentences, and what is conveyed indirectly in the first version is expressed telegraphically in the second one, as if the narrator was answering a police questionnaire and was summoned to give the most unambiguous, direct answers possible. But the narrator is not answering a police questionnaire. She is telling a story about a woman whom she doesn’t recall very well. The first version has two paragraphs about the narrator’s difficulty in remembering who this woman who showed up at her door was, and the style parallels her mental hesitations. The sentences in these paragraphs have the oral feeling of an inner monologue, and contain words expressing hesitation that have been deleted in the edited version. All the nuances, the words that don’t convey specific information have been deleted, and only the bare bones of the text—its “message” has been kept. Why? Do the editors believe that we read fiction in order to get some “information,” and the shorter and more clearly it’s conveyed, the better? Do we really read in order to find out that the narrator didn’t remember Mazo Kazumi? So what? I can’t speak for all readers, but when I read a book it is to be transported not only into another physical universe—which, in the case of Japan, some might equate with a desire for exoticism (and I understand Emmerich’s frustration regarding such expectations)—but to be transported into another universe of thinking. It is not a book’s “message”—whether the narrator remembers or not Mazo Kazumi—that represents another view of the world, but the way a writer’s thinking is articulated through the flow of the words, that is, his/her structure of thinking. When a paragraph begins, as some do in Emmerich’s unedited version, with a subordinate clause or a sentence that draws us slowly into the story’s atmosphere, the text has an entirely different rhythm than when these sentences are either deleted or replaced by short sentences starting with “I.” There is a huge difference between a structure of thinking that places the I and its “actions” at the center of the world and a structure of thinking in which the I is less important than the background on which it is placed. If one alters a text’s syntax, it is this very structure that is altered.

And a bit from Emmerich:

When I proposed printing the two texts together, I assumed that this might make some readers uncomfortable—indeed, that was the point. I decided to present the most drastically edited section of the entire book, the opening paragraphs, because I have the sense that few readers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes before a translated novel, or any novel, is published in the United States, and I hoped that putting these two texts on display might give Calque’s readers some insight into this process. At the same time, I expected that translators who believe, as I do, that it is important to consider the political, ethical, and economic choices we make when we engage, not only in the nearly impossible task of translation, but also in the all-too-frequently flat-out-one-hundred-percent impossible task of finding publishers willing to assume the daunting financial risks involved in paying for and publishing our work, might also be made uncomfortable by some of the points I made. My aim was not, after all, to repeat comfortable truths: it is true that editors often do things to translations that many of us find deeply objectionable, not infrequently without allowing translators the option of undoing their edits; it is true that English prose in the United States has been deeply influenced by the “shorter is better” aesthetic, and this has had an effect on the editing of translations, even in cases where strong arguments might be made in favor of preserving the prolixity and complexity of the original text; it is true that this imposition of a local aesthetic on translated foreign writing seems contrary to the purposes of translation as they are understood by many translators active in the United States today. While fully aware of these truths, I wanted instead to consider in discomfiting detail the fact that practical, real-world benefits can accrue from compromises that we might, in an ideal world, prefer not to make.

The whole exchange is fascinating and definitely worth reading, and hopefully we’ll be able to discuss this in more depth when Michael Emmerich comes to Rochester for a Translators Roundtable on October 1st. (An event that will be recorded and posted here.)

There’s such an interesting web of concerns related to how a translator relates to the original text, what liberties he/she takes when translated it, and what the American editor then does to the translation to make it “more appealing” to American readers. Personally, I’m very much against the idea of American editors altering the style of a book to make it more like crappy American neo-realism, but there are a number of people I respect who would probably disagree with this. To me, it’s the differences in the style and the structure of international books that is so intriguing . . .

....
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