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!
Congratulations to our hero, Drenka Willen, who was just given the 2009 London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award in International Publishing.
Check this out from the LBF site:
Drenka Willen joined Harcourt as a translator and freelance editor in the nineteen-sixties. She took over day-to-day duties for the Helen & Kurt Wolff imprint in 1981. She is currently a Senior Editor. Among the authors and translators she has worked with are Günter Grass, Italo Calvino, Octavio Paz, Wisława Szymborska, José Saramago, Umberto Eco, Irving Howe, Charles Simic, Ryszard Kapuściński, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yehuda Amichai, William Weaver, Ralph Manheim, Edward Gorey, Ralph Steadman, Harold Bloom, Wendy Wasserstein, George Konrád, Bohumil Hrabal, James Kelman, Edith Grossman, Margaret Jull Costa, Krishna Winston, Cees Nooteboom, Stanislaw Lem, Hugo Claus, Milovan Djilas, Breyten Breytenbach, Tomaž Šalamun, Danilo Kiš, Max Frisch, Margaret Drabble, Paweł Huelle, Jurek Becker, Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak, Boris Pahor, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Andrzej Stasiuk, Marcel Beyer, Carsten Jensen, Lídia Jorge, Aleksandar Tišma, Julio Llamazares, Akira Yoshimura, Karin Fossum, Brigitte Hamann, André Brink, Stefan Chwin, Luis Sepúlveda, Paul Klebnikov, Pedro Rosa Mendes, Vladimir Voinovich, Jens Christian Grondahl, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Andrew Miller, Claire Messud, Robin Robertson, Michael Krüger, Mark Ford, Andrew O’Hagan, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Philip Schultz, and David Albahari.
From the New York Observer:
Drenka Willen was just one of many individuals—including one woman seven months pregnant and another on maternity leave—to be hastily laid off last month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt amid budget cuts. She is, however, the only one among them whom the severely troubled company’s CEO, Tony Lucki, has since asked to please come back. [. . .]
Ms. Willen, now 79, edited an improbable number of Nobel Prize winners over the course of her career, and accumulated a startling list of foreign luminaries that included Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, José Saramago, Amos Oz and Wislawa Szymborska.
Mr. Grass was apparently moved to tell Mr. Lucki exactly what a big mistake he had made by asking Ms. Willen to leave. According to several sources, Mr. Grass drafted a letter asking for an explanation, and had something like eight of the authors in Ms. Willen’s stable—Mr. Eco, Mr. Saramago and Ms. Szymborska among them—sign it in solidarity.
Though it’s unclear what role Mr. Grass’s letter had in Mr. Lucki’s decision to offer Ms. Willen her job back—Mr. Lucki did not respond to requests for an interview, and HMH publicity director Lori Glazer would not comment beyond confirming that Ms. Willen had returned to work—it is said to have been delivered about a week after Becky Saletan, who had just announced her resignation as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publisher, visited her at home in Soho on the day now known as “Black Wednesday” to inform her of her firing.
I have to say that this is pretty amazing. I’ve never heard of something like this happening, and although Lucki won’t speak about it, I’m willing to bet that Grass’s letter had a wee bit of an impact on his “rethinking” of the situation . . . (Or maybe thinking for the first time about the situation and the impending loss of some of the greatest writers of the past century.)
I also like the fact that Drenka will “spend the next several months working from her home to tie up loose ends in preparation for a proper retirement.” Yeah, HMH fired a legend who was about to retire. Glad someone developed a conscience there and are letting Drenka leave on her own terms, after seeing her books (especially the retranslation of Grass’s Tin Drum) through to completion.
On the same day that we try and celebrate literature in translation, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (still trying to bring their website into the 1990s) fired Drenka Willen one of the most influential editors of international literature of the past half-century. She’s responsible for Harcourt’s string of great foreign authors, like Gunter Grass and Jose Saramago and Italo Calvino and on and on.
Sure, I haven’t finished my MBA and don’t understand “business,” but I think this is a blindly stupid decision. I can’t imagine many of Drenka’s living authors—Umberto Eco, Saramago, etc.—will be all that thrilled to publish their future works with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And why did Houghton Mifflin buy Harcourt in the first place? One would hope that the world-class caliber of authors Drenka had acquired and cultivated was one of the reasons . . .
It’s clear that HMH is in turmoil, and based on these recent decisions (freezing acquisitions, firing top editors, complete fail on digital initiatives) I feel pretty safe in saying that HMH is not a publisher I’ll be paying any attention to in the future.
On a happier note, here’s a nice profile that PW did back in 2002.
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. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .