24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Sara Shuman on Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández, translated (respectively) by Constance Garnett and Esther Allen, and out from New Directions.

Two Crocodiles, as the review also explains, is a short book comprised of two stories—one from Dostoevsky, the other from Hernández—with the same title, but with very different contents.

Sara, in turn, is new to the Three Percent fray, and stands out somewhat for her Ph.D. in Public Health (and is an editor for a public health journal). However, she is a great lover of world literature, and is no stranger to the likes of Daniel Sada, Laurent Binet, and Mia Cuoto, to name a few.

Here’s the beginning of Sara’s review:

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 March 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.

The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.

I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident

Ivan Matveitch and his wife are both ridiculous. In the opening paragraph we learn that Ivan is a cultured man, planning a trip to Europe “not so much for the sake of his health as for the improvement of his mind,” and excited to see a crocodile. Ivan’s wife, upon seeing the crocodile exclaims “Why, I thought it was something different,” clearly disappointed by the lack of a spectacle. The family friend and narrator of the story, Semyon, explains her crocodile-disappointment to the reader: “most probably she thought it was made of diamonds.”

Two pages later Ivan is ingested by the crocodile, where he stays for the remainder of the book, ordering Semyon to do his bidding, making plans for his wife’s social calendar, imaging his future fame, and criticizing the quality of Russian-made clothing. And while Ivan has no trouble causing Semyon to suffer with multiple requests and insults, he is also considers himself a real humanitarian, deciding not to adjust his position inside the crocodile—in order to prevent the creature from suffering.

Ivan to Semyon, from inside the crocodile:

“But I will prove that even lying like a log—nay, that only lying like a log one can revolutionize the lot of mankind. All the great ideas and movements of our newspapers and magazines have evidently been the work of men who were lying like logs; that is why they call them divorced from the realities of life – but what does that matter, their saying that! I am constructing now a complete system of my own, and you wouldn’t believe how easy it is! You have only to creep into a secluded corner or into a crocodile, to shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind. When you went to work this afternoon I set to work at once and have already invented three systems, I am now preparing the fourth. It is true that at first one must refute everything that has gone before, but from the crocodile it is so easy to refute it; besides, it all becomes clearer, seen from the inside of a crocodile . . . There are some drawbacks, though small ones, in my position, however; it is somewhat damp here and covered with a sort of slime; moreover, there is rather a smell of India-rubber exactly like the smell of my old galoshes. That is all, there are no other drawbacks.”

Felisberto Hernández, The Crocodile

In Hernández’s story, a pianist turned women’s hosiery salesmen uses crocodile tears to increase sales during hard times. The tears on demand are likely a reflection of an inner melancholy; New Directions describes the story as a “heartbreaker.” Yes, there is something unsettling about the narrator’s ability to cry on demand, but the recognition that there is something inside of many of us that would prompt us to use the same strategy may be more unnerving than heartbreaking.

“I longed to leave that shop, that city, that life. I thought about my country and about many other things. And suddenly, just as I was beginning to calm down, I had an idea. What would happen if I started crying right in front of all these people? It struck me as a very violent thing to do, but I’d been wanting to do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, for a long time. I also needed to prove to myself that I was capable of great violence. And before I could change my mind I sat down in a little chair backed up against the counter and with all those people around me I put my hands to my face and began emitting sobbing noise. Almost simultaneously, a woman let out a loud cry and said, “A man is weeping.”

While these two stories have little in common beyond their name, they do offer the reader an opportunity to explore two lesser-known works from influential writers.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013. Click here for Part I.

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

Another feature of the text that is present, but kept very much in the background in the original text, is its meditation on translation. The 1998 Encyclopedia concludes with the following line:

Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible) Yo.

The repetition already indicates that this is translation of a sort; in the first iteration, it is a line by Whitman; in the second, the line is claimed by the narrator, recontextualized into his own life experience. The fact that both iterations are in Spanish disguises the element of translation. A translator into Chinese or Russian could do the same, repeating the line twice in its Chinese or Russian version. But the translator into Whitman’s own language doesn’t have that option. What was more, this was a chance to conclude the novel with a final reminder of its Spanishness by offering the narrator’s Spanish version of Whitman as a translation.

Full of life now, compact, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible.) Me.

This solution struck me as perfect, but entrained a whole set of consequences. If the imperative of alphabetical order and the need to re-emphasize the original language was requiring me to position a source text alongside its translation here and in many of the headwords such as Pasarela, (which in my translation is followed by the English Catwalk in parentheses), the tacit theme of translation which those solutions made explicit had to become more explicit throughout—by positioning the source texts of all the Encyclopedia’s myriad citations alongside their translation into English. For if this had to be done with translations between English and Spanish (one of the less important language pairings within the polyglossia of this text), then it had to be done with all the other languages as well. When I first discussed this option with José, he resisted it, and with good reason. He worried that marking the text’s polyglossia so strongly, including citations in seven different languages, would alienate potential Anglophone readers, striking them as off-puttingly pretentious or academic. He was also laudably concerned that the incorporation of so many languages would appear to constitute a claim to fluency in all of them—a claim that neither he nor I could honestly make. He didn’t want to seem like a fraud.

The first of his objections would quite likely have been valid if this translation had been published at the same time or within a year or two of the original 1998 text. However, my sense is that over the course of the past two decades and especially in the past five years, multilingualism has acquired a marked cachet in the Anglophone urban literary sphere that is likely to take interest in this kind of novel. For examples, I’ll point out the increased use of foreign language dialogue with subtitles in Hollywood blockbuster films (of which the recent films by Quentin Tarrantino that include the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz are an instance), the rise of a foodie culture with its highly polyglot vocabulary, the increased popularity of yoga with its constant use of Sanskrit, the surging success of web-based language learning sites such as Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, Babbel. For those readers of the Encyclopedia with some understanding of one or more of its source languages, their incorporation into the translation could only enhance the experience of the novel. And for those who understand only the English, the visible presence of those alien words on the page would constitute a kind of pictorial illustration of the confrontation with a foreign system of meaning that is the book’s fundamental subject matter.

To enhance this sense of “foreign language as illustration” I wanted to include as little transliteration as possible, but use original scripts for all source texts. This meant, first and foremost, offering Russian words and passages in Cyrillic, and including transliteration only when the words’ sound value could add some dimension of meaning or rhythm to the visual impact of the Cyrillic letters. I quickly realized there was an additional feature of the text that motivated my sense that this was necessary. The Encyclopedia includes many reflections on recent innovations in printing technology—recent in the mid-90s—such as the scanner, the e-book, and advances in word-processing technology that were eliminating the distinction between manuscript and published text. In the two decades following that first publication, those advances have made it as easy to include the Cyrillic alphabet in a publication as it is to change a text’s font on a computer screen. Low-tech, old-fashioned transliteration would have belied the novel’s own claim to expertise in the cutting edge of printing technology.

This left me with a big headache. For the logic that dictated the inclusion of the Cyrillic, which José could supply, dictated the inclusion of the original Japanese and Hebrew texts in their respective writing systems as well, and that was a far more daunting challenge in which, fortunately, several friends who speak those languages very generously came to my assistance.

I ultimately persuaded José to go along with this adventure in polyglossia and include all the source texts by reminding him that translations are often published bilingually. Our narrator, I argued, is not claiming to be fluent in seven or more languages. Rather he is fascinated by language and likes to read books in bilingual editions, his eye often straying to the facing page. In other words, for the narrator, too, as for the monolingual Anglophone reader, many of the source languages are little more than pictorial illustrations of the foreign. With José’s permission, I made this explicit in the English version by adding the following phrase, in parenthesis, to a meditation on the unknowable nature of the material world and the closed cycle of cultures that appears under the headword Sea Sirens:

(the unfathomable original, there on the open page, that does not cease to trouble us as we read through its translation)

The English version of the Encyclopedia came out in January, and I must say that so far my the various intentions I’ve mentioned here—to foreground the text’s Spanishness, heighten its polyglossia, and make its meditation on translation more explicit—have been entirely ignored by reviewers and readers. None of the articles I’ve read or the readers I’ve discussed the book with have assessed it in the context of Latin American literature; none have considered what it has to tell us about translation; only one has even alluded (with considerable irritation) to the presence of source texts in various languages and scripts. Instead, the novel has been connected to various contemporary discussions of remix culture and the Internet, it has been compared to Huysmans’s A Rebours, the accuracy of its depiction of Russian life in the 90s has been debated, etc. A translator’s intentions, it turns out, are as limited in their ability to dictate the ways a text will ultimately be read as an author’s are. I have, however, had one satisfying confirmation of certain of them. The most recent issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell and published at almost exactly the same time as the English translation of the Encylopedia, is an astonishing literary romp across a polyglot universe: twelve stories are translated by sixty-one authors into eighteen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew, all published in their own scripts. I had no idea that this issue of McSweeney’s was in the works as I was making my decisions about the Encyclopedia—though I do recall defending my notion to include source languages with a line from a book review by Adam Thirlwell in which he spoke of the new possibility of a “reckless internationalism” in the English language. Now that I do know about this issue of McSweeney’s, I’m happy to take it as confirmation of my intentions. In the end, I may decide that I intended it that way.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013.

Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel about translation at a Brooklyn bookstore. The announcement promised potential audience members they would “Find out what it takes to make sure the meaning of the words that have moved us to laugh, cry and learn new things are delivered the way the author intended.” In the end, the recent blizzard made the event impossible, but even in the absence of heavy snowfall, I would have found it impossible to explain how to translate words “the way the author intended.” For—and note that I say this in the presence of the author himself and have chosen to talk about authorial intent precisely because he is here and can talk back to me—making sure to convey an author’s intentions is not something a translation, any translation, can do.

Authors themselves can tell you that more often than not whatever it was that they intended when they wrote something was ignored by readers or forgotten and replaced by a different and shifting set of intentions even in their own minds once the piece was published or in the years following its composition. (Mónica de la Torre has a lovely article titled “Unreliable self-translation” in Translation Review 81 which describes how difficult it is for the author herself to divine the author’s intentions when she switches into the role of translator.) In the case we’re discussing here, many of the most prominent features of José Manuel Prieto’s work—the extensive use of citations and intertextual references, the recurrent theme of literary production as mash-up, remix and commentary, and the use of constraints such as the encyclopedia format of the novel we’re here to discuss today—seem, well, intended, to mount a direct challenge to the idea that a book consists merely of what its author intended. Words derive much of their meaning from their context, as Prieto superbly demonstrates in the essay on Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin” that we circulated in anticipation of today’s conversation, and the intentions of those who enunciate them form only a small part of that context, particularly as the moment of enunciation recedes into the past. Prieto himself is a translator, and his work is informed by a strong sense of the ambiguous and perennially shifting nature of semantic meaning. But not every writer has that sense. A dispute flared up last year between the playwright Edward Albee and his Catalan translator, Joan Sellent, after Albee demanded that Sellent account, in a five-column grid, for “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.” (For more info on the spat, I refer all of you to this piece from the marvelous blog Translationista where Susan Bernofsky catalogues and comments on the translation news of the moment.)

As I pondered the most challenging problems I confronted when translating Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the intentions of the author, with whom I was in frequent discussion, were only part of a continuum of factors influencing my choices, factors that also included the internal logic of the text itself—which is clearly distinct from an author’s intentions—the transformations wrought upon that logic by the process of translation into another language, the nearly two decades that have elapsed between the book’s original composition and my translation with all the historical, technological and political transformations those two decades have wrought, and my own personal sense of the literary, political and overall cultural context I was translating the text into and which of its features might speak most strongly to that audience.

The particular feature of the Encyclopedia I’ve chosen to discuss today is its polyglossia. I use the term in homage to the great Russian literary historian and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work the discipline of translation studies would do well to rediscover. Bakhtin associates what he calls polyglossia with parody as well as with texts that incorporate multiple languages; polyglossia is the opposite of what Bakhtin calls a “sealed off and impermeable monoglossia.” “Only polyglossia,” he writes, “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.”

Prieto’s Encyclopedia de una vida en Rusia, first published in Mexico in 1998, and reissued by the Spanish publisher Mondadori in 2004, exhibits a marked degree of polyglossia. The headwords of its seventy-seven entries are in Spanish, Russian, English, Latin and German, all transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The novel includes citations of Spanish translations of texts originally written in all of those languages, and in Hebrew, French and Japanese, as well. In this novel, and to a greater degree than most other contemporary literary texts I can think of, with the exception of Vassilis Alexakis’s marvelous Foreign Words, the extent to which the language in which one chooses to speak is a central component of the meaning of what one says is illustrated again and again. When the narrator first addresses the book’s heroine in a St. Petersburg park, the concision of her reply to his query makes him think that she is “ya pensando también en inglés” (“already thinking, too, in English”). Towards the end of the book, when she tells him, in English, “Well, I’m going to New York, Joseph” he begs her to speak Russian and not to go to New York. Elsewhere, Russian housewives are infuriated by the sound of the narrator conversing in a language that is not Russian as he passes by in the street, and the fact of mastery or non-mastery of the Russian language is a continuing theme. In one of my favorite moments, the narrator is watching a video that has no sound because the person who recorded it may have neglected to engage the sound button. In the entry that, in my translation as well, appears under the headword Pasarela, the narrator comments,

My lips pronounced a single word three or four times, a word that, when I first watched the video, I couldn’t decipher. Until it dawned on me that I was speaking in Russian. Then I understood: “Horosho” “Horosho” “Horosho” (“Good! Perfect!”).

The Encyclopedia is a text that insistently reminds us of something so obvious we very often forget it: one of the primary and most significant semantic components of any utterance is the selection of the language in which it is uttered. The heroine’s selection of English for her reply to the narrator’s first advance says much about who she is and what her ambitions are, just as the fluent mastery of Russian the Spanish-speaking narrator boasts of in the volume’s first entry tells us a great deal about him. And therein lay the first challenge of my translation. To render into English a text that explicitly rejects its character’s use of English, to take out of Spanish a text about Russia that is of particular interest for the very fact of its having been written in Spanish, is inevitably to depart in a dramatic way from the intentions that lay behind that original 1998 book.

A strong feature of the 1998 Encyclopedia is the paucity of allusion to the Spanish-speaking world and literature written in Spanish. The narrator’s tropical home country is barely mentioned, and in the book’s dense tissue of literary referents, only two have any explicitly Hispanic component—an allusion to Borges and the citation of a guaracha that compares a sexy girl to a sea siren. In interviews and articles, Prieto has often stated that Russian literature has had more of an influence on his work than Latin American literature, and he describes his first three novels as his “Russian trilogy.”

Click here to read Part II.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The guest post going up in an hour or so—which also happens to be one of the best things we’ve published on Three Percent in quite some time—is by translator extraordinaire, Esther Allen, who, in my opinion and the opinion of many, is one of the most important supporters of literature in translation living today. Esther helped launch the current version of the PEN World Voices Festival, and was responsible for organizing the Michael Henry Heim Translation Fund financially benefiting around a dozen translators every year.

In her spare time from teaching, translating, dancing at Taylor’s during the Best ALTA Ever, and speaking on panels throughout the world, Esther managed to co-edit (with Susan Bernofsky, another giant in the world of literary translation) In Translation, an anthology of writings on translation that professors everywhere should be using in their world literature classes. (See below for a special offer from CUP for this title.)



Featuring essays by Haruki Murakami, Alice Kaplan, Peter Cole, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, Clare Cavanagh, David Bellos, Jason Grunebaum, and José Manuel Prieto, among others, you can expect a bunch more posts and references to this in the future. But for now, I wanted to share this piece that Esther wrote for last week’s PW Tip Sheet. It’s a nice lead in to today’s feature piece, which will post shortly, and which you’re going to love.

Words that don’t seem to have an exact equivalent are often described as untranslatable. But are there really words that simply can’t be understood outside of the language that produced them? An article by Jason Wire on Matador Network offers the word mamihlapinatapei, from the Yagan language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, as an untranslatable term . . . and then proceeds to translate it in a way we can all understand: “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” If ten people who read this article begin using it regularly in conversation—“Is this mamihlapinatapei we’re feeling right now?“—within five years it could be as common as schadenfreude. And what a shame it will be if that doesn’t happen. [. . .]

Translation is an art, not a science, and like all artists (and perhaps all scientists, as well) its practitioners are more likely to be hacks than geniuses. But there aren’t many words, or poems, or books that genuinely cannot be conveyed in another language, and might not even be enriched in the process. The great Japanese translator Motoyuki Shibata claims that Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (an English fiction that purports to be a translation from Japanese) is much improved by its translation into Japanese by Takayoshi Ogawa, who transformed it into something authentic by incorporating the actual traditional vocabulary used by geishas. (Even so, the novel never achieved bestselling status in Japan, where people just weren’t that interested in reading another geisha story.)

What really can’t be translated is the experience of sharing a language—not just a word or two here and there—within the culture of people who speak it. That’s why the Wampanoag are currently engaged in a heroic act of linguistic revitalization, translating their entire language from the written documents left by colonization to bring it back into spoken use in their daily lives. There’s no way anyone else can do that for them, just as no one but you can translate yourself—via study and practice—into the shared space of a new language.

As mentioned above, you can receive a 30% discount on this book via Columbia University Press by clicking here and using the discount code: INTALL. And you should. To appropriate a sports phrase, this book is an instant classic.

31 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. And I’ll kick things off with a post I wrote about Javier Marias’s book.

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias, translated by Esther Allen

Language: Spanish
Country: Spain
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 57

Why It Should Win: Elvis! and a hysterical description of Fun in Acapulco; stars a translator and the plot hinges on translator’s interpretation; it’s Javier Marias, it’s Esther Allen, it’s New Directions

Although it’s only 57-pages long, this novella is packed with awesomeness. The basic story: some years back, a young Spaniard is hired to go to Mexico with Elvis and help him with his Spanish pronunciation. (Elvis wants to speak his ‘c’s like a true Spaniard—not like a Mexican.) While there, a confrontation takes place with locals in a bar—a confrontation that, by linguistic necessity, puts out narrator in the line of fire (literally and figuratively).

Marias is absolutely one of the best, and this book dazzles from its opening line:

No one knows what it’s like to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.

It might be due to the brevity of the text, but there’s a way in which every scene, every description, every event seems absolutely locked together, with each paragraph having to follow from the one previous. That’s not usually how I think of Marias, with his long-winding sentences (see above), constant contemplation, and the way his prose mulls. But Bad Nature really is the very definition of tight.

The fact that this book is about a translator—and the process of translation—might give it an edge with the panelists. This isn’t the first time Marias has written about a translator or used an act of translation as a plot point (see A Heart So White). Regardless, the moment in which the translator chooses his words in conveying Elvis’s insult to the ruffians is thick with tension, and such a perfect example of how translation is interpretation . . .

All that’s great, Marias is great, Esther’s translation is great, but the real reason this should win? These two passages. First, a description of the film:

I don’t really know what the plot of the film was supposed to be, and not because it was too complicated; on the contrary, it’s hard to follow a plot when there is no story line and no style to substitute for one or distract you; even later, after seeing the film—before the premiere there was a private screening—I can’t tell you what its excuse for a plot was. All I know is that Elvis Presley, the tortured former trapeze artist, as I said—but he’s only tortured sometimes, he also spends a lot of time going swimming, perfectly at ease, and uninhibitedly romancing women—wanders around Acapulco, I don’t remember why, let’s say he’s trying to shake off his dark past or he’s on the run from the FBI, perhaps some thought the fratricide was deliberate (I’m not at all clear on that and I could be mixing up my movies, thirty-three years have gone by). As is logical and necessary, Elvis sings and dances in various places: a cantina, a hotel, a terrace facing the daunting cliff. From time to time he stares, with envy and some kind of complex, at the swimmers—or rather, divers—who plunge into the pool with tremendous smugness from a diving board of only average height.

And from this description of the ridiculousness of Elvis:

Since he was a hard and serious and even enthusiastic worker, he couldn’t see how his roles looked from the outside or make fun of them. I imagine it was in the same disciplined and pliant frame of mind that he allowed himself to grow drooping sideburns in the seventies and agreed to appear on stage tricked out like a circus side show, wearing suits bedecked with copious sequins and fringes, bell bottoms slit up the side, belts as wide as a novice whore’s, high-heeled goblin boots, and a short cape—a cape—that made him look more like Super Rat than whatever he was probably trying for, Superman, I would imagine.

Super Rat FTW!

4 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This past weekend, the University of Western Sydney hosted a Symposium on Literary Translation featuring a ton of great speakers and interesting panels. Since I couldn’t be there—not only wasn’t I invited (sigh), but I was in Scranton for the very fun Pages & Places Festival—I asked Joel Scott to write this up for us. He graciously put together a couple posts for us. The first one is below—the second will go up tomorrow.

And by way of introduction: Joel Scott is a Sydney based writer and translator, whose poetry and critical writing has been published variously, in Australia and beyond. He is currently completing a PhD at Macquarie University, which looks at how translation might redeem a truly contemporary writing practice. He blogs at hedgingyourbets.wordpress.com.

As a researcher into translation and its relation to contemporary writing practice, I was extremely pleased to hear about The University of Western Sydney’s ‘Symposium on Literary Translation’. Only a few months earlier I had received funding to attend a conference on translation in the UK on the basis of the argument that there is no translation studies in Australia, and that there are even less in the way of conferences and symposia. Yet here we are. With keynotes provided by Esther Allen and Marcelo Cohen, as well as a spread of Australia’s most eminent translators and thinkers on translation. And with a full-scale conference on literary translation to be held next July in Melbourne, perhaps the landscape is finally shifting.

My first impression looking through the program and at the audience around me, was that thankfully, this does look pretty much how an Australian symposium on translation should look. The conference I attended recently focused on the European literary tradition. And while all conferences need boundaries, I was struck by how problematic that concept was. Not so much because it excludes scholarship from other regions, but because it tends to exclude ‘non-European’ Europeans. This symposium has a satisfying ‘Southern Hemisphere feel’. It is only a small symposium, so this is not exhaustive. But the presence of translators of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Indigenous Australian languages, gestures towards what an Australian translation studies might look like.

Esther Allen.

Esther Allen’s opening Keynote lecture managed to be both erudite and entertaining, analysing some ‘lost texts’ of Flaubert’s which raised some interesting questions about translation’s relation to modernist realism. The texts were actually a kind of anti-writing, written upon the deaths of people close to Flaubert, and in contrast to his usually precise and finessed writing, these were ungrammatical, fragmentary, artless. Through extensive research Allen was able to reveal these pieces as a kind of mental exercise seemingly extrinsic to his writing practice. They were tucked away in a drawer, and he never looked at them again. Allen articulated a complex and conflicting sense of time in relation to language and translation. These pieces were described as an exercise in the slipperiness of language, the way that content seems to drain from language over time, leaving a dried husk in the back of the draw, while Flaubert saw the distance which time puts between our present and past events as somehow giving grandeur to what is past. As if he turned around the lens through which we look at the distant past, enlarging the image to engulf the present. This idea of history was also linked to Flaubert’s conception of the people around him, like his sister, who seemed taller and more beautiful in death, and his friend Alfred Le Poittevin, who became irreproachable in death, though he frustrated Flaubert in life by being happily married. These ideas of the live and the dead lead to ideas of death masks, of sculptures made by ‘un moulage sur nature’ (casts). This form of sculpture was highly problematic in a time in which the wax museum was gaining attention from the public, and scorn from the artistic community. The links here to back to translation become visible. We see in the derision of sculpture made from casts the denigration of translation by a broader literary culture. The reproduction of whole texts or individual words as if by mould or tracing (calques). Yet there is a clear relation, as Allen suggests, to realism here. Allen’s themes of casts and death masks immediately reminded me of Giorgio Agamben’s introduction to Language and History, in which he claims that every written work has its own death mask that is destined to remain unwritten. I think this is where translation steps in.

Marcelo Cohen

Marcelo Cohen gave a highly compelling and insightful narration of his transitions between his native Argentina and his exiled home of Barcelona, and the battles for the ‘propriety’ or ‘appropriation’ of language that movement has created for him as a writer and translator. Anyone familiar with the linguistic and literary culture of the Spanish-speaking world is aware of the sometimes heated clashes for propriety over the use of the ‘Spanish’ language. They are questions not just of vernacular and argot, but also of notions centres and periphery, cultural hegemony and cultural exclusion. And this is just to focus on the relation between Spain and its former colonies, not to mention the intranational linguistic conflicts between the Castillian and Catalan, Euskara, Gallego, etc. For Cohen the experience went much deeper than merely having his grammar ‘corrected’. In the early years it also for him spoke of the lack of an ‘unconscious’ in the Spanish he was surrounded by. Argentinians, says Cohen, had a healthy distrust of language. The Spanish (or Catalans) around him seemed to think that they could actually say what they meant. His initial response to this was one of defence. Returning to Buenos Aires some twenty years later seems to have been influential in his reframing of the problems of linguistic difference. Realising that Argentinian Spanish was also not what it was twenty years earlier, Cohen has become aware of the dangers of receding from a repressive linguistic culture into a besieged self, a self which is nationalistic, patriotic, and has a tendency to become a mirror of the repression it resists. Taking to task a publishing culture which, like the popular culture it reflects and shapes, tends to promote a monophonic voice, both in translation and creative writing. His way out has been to cultivate a distinguished hybridity, creating a language in which the self dissipates into a variety of possibilities.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week, the NEA announced the recipients of this year’s Literature Translation Fellowships. To provide more info about the stellar group of people and projects the NEA is supporting, they’re going to be interviewing at least some of the authors for Art Works, their relatively new, and quite impressive blog.

First up is the stellar Esther Allen whose project sounds interesting and long-overdue:

NEA: Please briefly describe the project this grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?

EA: I’m translating Zama, a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, considered a great masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world but never before translated into English. The project grew out of a trip to Argentina I made in 2005 at the invitation of the Fundación TyPA, which brings editors and translators from across the world to Buenos Aires for a whirlwind week-long literary boot camp each year. There I discovered that the Argentine writers who are known internationally are quite a different set of names from the ones everyone in Argentina is talking about. Antonio di Benedetto came up frequently in meetings with critics, writers, and editors, but I’d never heard of him before. I came home with a couple of his books and found them simultaneously intriguing and off-putting—I couldn’t quite enter into what he was doing. Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books Classics, went on the same trip a couple of years later, and he’s the one who brought Zama back. He asked me to have a look at it and see if it was worth doing—and I decided it was.

Quickly want to point out that the TyPA Editors’ Week is effing fantastic. I participated a few years ago—before we published Saer, before we published Macedonio—and absolutely loved it. (You can read all about it in excruciating personal detail by clicking here.) Came back with more knowledge of the Argentine literary scene—and tango, oh, yes, the beautiful tango—than I ever would’ve imagined. And yes, trips like these are one of the ways that publishers find titles to translate. And yes, I am now even more obsessed with Argentine literature . . . and the tango. In fact, I may well write a Publishing Perspectives piece about learning the tango at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but more on that project later . . .

Back to Esther and how much she totally rocks:

NEA: You’ve spoken of your work as “a kind of activism in defense of translation”—what do you mean by that?

EA: When I first started out as a translator in the early 1990s, it often felt as if it was the last thing in the world anyone should be idiotic enough to devote time to. There was a prevailing sense that translation, any translation, was some sort of shameful, lowbrow thing. Most publishers resisted doing translations—many were so out of practice they wouldn’t have been sure how to publish a translation even if they’d wanted to. Some academics were bringing out their translations under pseudonyms, to avoid the stigma of being a translator. It’s a wonder people kept doing it at all. There were a number of us at that point who started thinking about how to surmount those barriers and keep the conversation between literature written in English and the literature of the rest of the world going. I’ve been a reader of Borges from a very young age, and for Borges translation is the central literary activity; it was painful to see how belittled it had become in the English-speaking world. Now, twenty years later, our culture has certainly become far more receptive to translation. But it seems to be a cycle; American culture had previously been very receptive in the 60s and early 70s, and then moved back toward monolingual insularity. Eliot Weinberger has suggested that Americans become more interested in reading works from other languages when they are disenchanted with their own country—so perhaps these moments of increased attention to translation weren’t due to the work of “translation activists” but to misguided wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq. In any case, it’s clear that translation in the English-speaking world will continue to need defenders.

Esther is an amazing translation activist who accomplishes more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Anyway, read the complete interview for more insights into the process of translation, the balancing of the author’s voice and that of the translator’s, and the importance of what the NEA does. And I’ll re-post more of these interviews as they become available . . .

13 May 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

This month features a discussion between Esther Allen, Erica Mena, and Chad Post on all sorts of translation things, mainly related to Esther’s translation of Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex.

Read More...

22 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

After reading a bunch of glowing reviews for the third volume of Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (including this one from the Independent in which the trilogy is referred to as “one of the most thoughtful and inspiring fictional works of the last decade”) I tentatively decided that I would spend the last few months of 2010 reading all 1,500 pages, so that I could fully experience the hype.

I love Marias’s other books—especially the twinned All Souls and Dark Back of Time, the latter of which actually references Normal, Illinois of all places—and back years ago, like literally years ago, when Volume I of the YFT trilogy came out, I read about half of it on a plane to somewhere and remember greatly enjoying it. Actually, all I really remember is that the sentences were labyrinthine in that Marias way, and that the book was all about reading, about learning how to read, how to interpret. At the time it seemed like vintage Marias: pensive, thoughtful, detailed and methodical to a point of near-overkill. But in contrast to some of his other books, which are often about secrets, human relations, and women’s legs, the mental meanderings of the YTF trilogy are strung onto a spy-thriller plot. It’s like Proust meets Ian Fleming. (Or some other reviewer platitude.)

Anyway, as compelling and mentally exhilarating the idea of reading one of the great twenty-first-century works (so far) might be, I still need a little motivation . . . It’s not like I’m not already inundated with fascinating samples, readings for the Best Translated Book Award 2011, or Open Letter books that need to be proofed. But still . . .

Which is why I’m thrilled that Scott Esposito put together a Your Face Tomorrow Reading Group. Kicking off this week (I believe—more info TK), this should be pretty interesting. Scott does shit right. (Check recent issues of The Quarterly Conversation if you doubt.) And I know he already has a number of great features lined up.

Hopefully we’ll be able to do some cross-posting, etc., etc., between Conversational Reading and Three Percent, and regardless, I’ll definitely keep everyone updated as things progress.

Now, if you’re not up for 1,500 pages of European intellectual spy games (of however you want to categorize this), you might be more interested in Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a very, very short Marias book that just came our from New Directions. I know little about this novel (except that Esther Allen translated it, so it must be awesome), although I do know that ND absolutely nailed the jacket copy: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.” Sold!

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove Press)

I’m about to give away the game in relation to this novel . . . So if you’re an anti-spoiler sort of person, I recommend skipping this post and simply buying the book and enjoying all the literary games packed within.

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

It startled, even frightening him when I spoke that way about the Book, this being without fixed age—at first I’d thought that was me, that the Writer might be referring to me, but on an instant’s further reflection I realized the phrase applied rather to the man who had greeted me, Batyk. A man bearing a perfect resemblance to a peon, someone fetched from the depths of the darkest, sootiest oil painting.

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. Didn’t you list the classes you were to give him on my behalf? Spanish, mathematics, geography in Spanish? Hadn’t you also mentioned physics? Didn’t you assure me you were well grounded in physics, extremely (sarcastic here) well grounded in physics, didn’t you agree to cover the entire sixth-grade curriculum and the seventh, as well?

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

Rex is constructed out of a series of “Commentaries” from the narrator to the young boy. Most of these sections focus on telling the story of the boy’s parents and of the narrator’s attempt to figure out what the hell is really going on. (More on that in a second.) Littered throughout these commentaries are references to other books—sometimes Proust, sometimes others. Sometimes these phrases are bolded, sometimes they’re not. In translating the book, Esther Allen created a list of references that she worked from, and Jose Manuel Prieto did the same, resulting in an invaluable “author’s note” at the end that provides an amazing set of references.

It’s through this intricate set of references that the reader has to figure out what’s “going on” with the family that has employed our narrator. Initially he thinks they’re one of the wealthiest families he’s ever met. Although how they got their money is a bit suspicious and unnerving . . . Because they are Russian and living in a mob-heavy community—and because of the enormous diamonds that are just around—he’s initially convinced that he’s working for a couple major players in the mafia . . . But that’s not actually right. It’s actually a bit more complicated and involves fake diamonds (like in Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which may be more of an ur-text for the novel than In Search of Lost Time), a dangerous scam, and some members of the mob that have recently been released from prison . . .

Rex is one of those novels that benefits from multiple readings. And it really doesn’t matter if you know the “plot” or not. The joy is in all the literary games . . .

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m just going to let this speak for itself . . . It’s a letter to the New York Times from esteemed translator Esther Allen who is also the executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia and the author of To Be Translated or Not To Be, a recent PEN/Ramon Llull Report on translation and globalization. She writes:

There is a problem with the coverage of Herta Muller’s Nobel in today’s Times.

The Times articles consistently mention the fact that Muller writes in German, and even bemoan the problem of the paucity of literary translation published in English. But never once is any of Muller’s translators named or alluded to, not even when those translators’ words are excerpted extensively.

In last year’s coverage of LeClezio’s Nobel, translators were credited; their omission this year becomes all the more inexplicable.

Herta Muller is not really so obscure — she’s one of the lucky ones, with at least four books published in English. That has happened because a number of literary translators have championed her work and brought it to an English-speaking public. Their names are Michael Hofmann, Martin Chalmers, Philip Boehm, Michael Hulse, Valetina Glajar and André Lefevere.

These are not clerks or copyists — these are dedicated, skilled performers whose insight and erudition make it possible for literature to move from one cultural medium into another. They should not be condemned to operate in total obscurity, especially not at a moment like this one.

Muller herself, like Imre Kertesz and a number of Nobel winners in previous years, has been a translator — her writing involves movements between cultures and languages. Translation is integral to this story, not an incidental inconvenience or annoyance to be suppressed or overlooked.

As a daily reader and supporter of the New York Times, I would hope that in the Times‘s ongoing coverage, translation and the work of translators can be given their rightful place in this story.

UPDATE: Esther heard back from Dwight Garner of the Times, who agreed with her point and said, “it’s a situation I hope we can rectify in future writing about Herta Muller.”

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex is one of my favorite books so far from 2009, and Esther Allen is one of my favorite translation people. Which is why I’m thrilled that CAT just made available this series of audio clips from a discussion between Prieto and Allen from earlier this year.

27 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The recipients of this year’s PEN Translation Fund Awards were announced last week, and once again, a number of really interesting projects are highlighted—including a number that are still looking for a publishers . . .

For those unfamiliar with the prize, this was established in 2003 thanks to an anonymous gift of some $730,000 and every year ten or so translators receive $2,000-$5,000 for a project they are working on. These projects don’t need to have a publisher already, and since translators apply directly, the Fund receives approx. 130 applications each year. (Almost half as many applications as the number of translations published in the U.S. . . .)

Anyway, here are this year’s winners:

Eric Abrahamsen for My Spiritual Homeland by Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), a collection of penetrating, funny and breathtakingly frank essays written fifteen years after the Cultural Revolution by one of China’s most insightful and controversial writers. (No publisher)

Mee Chang for Garden of Youth (1981) by Oh Junghee, a series of powerful stories that center on the struggles of domestic life during the Korean War, by a writer widely recognized as the master of the Korean short story. (No publisher)

Robyn Creswell for The Clash of Images (1995) by Abdelfattah Kilito, a hybrid bildungsroman, written in French, set in the medina of an unnamed Moroccan city. Growing up in a traditional world where the image is taboo, the protagonist is seduced by new American technologies of the image. (No publisher)

Brett Foster for Elemental Rebel: The Rime of Cecco Angiolieri (1260-1310?), a selection of impudent sonnets by a Sienese rival of Dante with a penchant for parodic wordplay. (Forthcoming from Princeton University Press)

Geoffrey Michael Goshgarian for The Remnants by Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948), a historical novel widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Armenian literature, written in the early 1930s “to save what remained of our people.” (No publisher)

Tess Lewis for That Didn’t Reassure the Children (2006) by Alois Hotschnig, a collection of disquieting stories about the mystery, fluidity and perils of intimacy, by a prize-winning Austrian writer renowned for his stylistic virtuosity. (No publisher)

Fayre Makeig for Mourning (2006), a selection of free verse poems by H.E. Sayeh, an eminent contemporary Iranian poet whose life and work span many of Iran’s political, cultural and literary upheavals. “Tell us, heaven, why the rain / pours from your eyes…” (No publisher)

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for Poems of Kabir, a selection of 60 Hindi padas (songs) by India’s legendary mystic poet saint (1398?-1448?) who opposed all religious and social orthodoxies and oppositions. “But I’m wasting my time, / Says Kabir, / Even death’s bludgeon / About to crush your head / Won’t wake you up.” (No publisher)

Frederika Randall for Deliver Us from Evil by Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007), a darkly original memoir, ordered by theme rather than chronology, set in rural Italy when the Church and Il Duce ruled. The savage immediacy of childhood perception combines with amused and astutely ironic insights in an unsentimental human comedy. (No publisher)

Daniel Shapiro for Missing Persons, Animals and Artists (1999) by Roberto Ransom, a short story collection by an acclaimed young Mexican writer which explores the enigmas of art and the creative process with gentle irony and whimsical, at times fantastical, premises. (No publisher)

Chantal Wright for A Handful of Water (2008), poems written in German by Tzveta Sofronieva, a young Bulgarian-born poet, trained as a physicist and science historian, who also writes in Bulgarian and English. Joseph Brodsky said of her, “Listen carefully… She has something to say.” (No publisher)

Congratulations to all the winners, and I’m especially pleased to see Tess Lewis, Eric Abrahamsen of Paper-Republic) and Daniel Shapiro of the Americas Society. The unsigned books on this list usually find a publisher within days, so it’s possible this is already out of date . . . Which is great for the translators and authors, and means that I really have to get moving on contacting the right people about the projects that sound most interesting to me . . .

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen and published this month by Grove. This is the second book of Prieto’s that Grove has published—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire came out a few years ago—and hopefully isn’t the last.

As you can probably tell from my review, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

“I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.”

Click here for the full review.

Rex
20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)

As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:

I’ve been reading it for year, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer.

Proust’s masterpiece is more than just a book (or even “Book”) to J., the young Cuban narrator of this novel. He’s recently been hired by a somewhat mysterious Russian couple living in southern Spain to tutor their son, Petya, and to teach him Spanish. Having bluffed his way into the cushy position (which is desirable if for no other reason than to be close to the boy’s seductive mother), J.‘s plan is to use the Book as the sole teaching instrument, for what isn’t contained in this book?

I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. [. . .]

And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.

And if nothing else, J. does seem to draw the young boy closer. Rex is a series of twelve “commentaries,” in which J. is speaking to Petya, telling the story of what’s happened to his parents, what’s really been going on. Not that J. explains what’s really been going on in a straightforward fashion, instead this thoroughly unreliable narrator who is always going on and on about the Book and the Commentator (Jorge Luis Borges), the Writer (who is different people throughout the novel) in a way that can be both pedantic and naive all at once. Or, as Prieto explains in his “Author’s Note”:

It is not by chance, either, that Petya is the listener and sole recipient of the story; the whole tone of the book derives from that fact. Rex returns to the free fabulations of childhood, and the tales of Psellus, the tutor, are an amalgamation of all the books he read as a youth or a child, out of which he improvises for Petya a highly adorned story of his parents’ life, a story that otherwise, told in some other way, might have been sordid and terrible.

Plot-wise, things get interesting in this book when J. comes home from a night of dancing and finds a couple blue diamonds in the front lawn. He pockets and hides these for the time being, later finding out that these are a couple of the fake diamonds manufactured by the young boy’s father Vasily, who supposedly ripped off the Russian mafia with these fakes.

At first glance this might seem a bit far-fetched, but translator Esther Allen—who did a marvelous job with this novel, which must’ve presented innumerable difficulties—directed me to an article entitled The New Diamond Age that appeared in Wired magazine a half-dozen years ago and is all about a couple diamond producers who were perfecting a technique to create diamonds and preparing to chip away at De Beers’s stranglehold on the diamond market.

And if this sounds a bit familiar, it might be thanks to The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, a pastiche about Lemoine, a real Frenchman who, in the early 1900s, conned De Beers out of a lot of money by convincing them he had discovered a cheap and easy way to create diamonds from coal.

In Rex, this diamond con leads to a paranoid existence, in which Vasily and his gorgeous wife struggle to figure out a way to be safe—to escape permanently from the threat of the Russian mafia, many of whom vacation in this same Spanish town.

Due to his attraction to Nelly—which presents one of the odder aspects of this book, since J. has no issue with telling her son about how sexually appealing she is to him, how he wants to run away with her, etc., all of which adds to J.‘s peculiar voice and instability—J. gets involved in a grand scheme to pull one big scam and link Vasily to the Russian czars.

Returning to the original point, this wild plot is embedded within a heap of literary references and touchpoints, at times obfuscating what’s going on, but also elevating this work into a sort of game, which, to be honest, left me feeling like I had missed something, a special clue that would eliminate some of the uncertainties in J.‘s story (is he crazy? dangerous? a pawn?), that would make this all make sense.

Not that this is a criticism—far from it. Rex is one of the more stunning achievements from a contemporary author that I’ve read in the past couple years. The novel revels in its literary web of references, in a way that brings to mind the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Prieto isn’t quite as smooth or cocksure as Nabokov was (at least not yet—Prieto has a lot of books ahead of him), but he is working within that same vein, which is rather unusual in today’s commercially obsessed world.

What’s also interesting is that this novel is the last volume in a trilogy that includes Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (not translated into English) and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (published by Grove in 2000). In his author’s note Prieto sets forth a bit of what he’s up to with these books:

With all three novels, I’ve tried to go beyond the realism commonly associated with the autobiographical novel (which all three are), yet not toward magic or magical realism, but rather toward science and a kind of magico-scientific realism, if such a thing is possible.

Prieto is successful in this regard, and hopefully his first book will make it into English in the near future—this trilogy looks like a great start to a long career.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:

I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words, when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul cafes. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.

It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If only teleporting was cheap, and, you know, possible . . .

Friday, January 23, 2009
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Housing Works Bookstore Café
126 Crosby Street
New York, NY

Panelists Esther Allen, translator, former co-director of PEN World Voices, author of International PEN report on Translation and Globalization; Yvette Chrisianse, South African poet, novelist, professor; Elizabeth Macklin, poet, translator from Basque of Uribe; Jill Schoolman, Director of Archipelago Books; Karen Emmerich, translator of NBCC award finalist Miltos Sachtouris, among other Greek writers.

Moderator: NBCC board member and poet Kevin Prufer (National Anthem), editor of Pleiades and coeditor of “New European Poets” (Graywolf).

You can find out more (and RSVP) on the Facebook event page.

31 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday, I had the somewhat surreal experience of being on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Here on Earth with Esther Allen (brilliant translator, director of the Center for Literary Translation, and all around amazing champion of literature in translation) and host Jean Feraca while waiting to catch my flight out of O’Hare.

The show was about the Best Translated Books of the Year list, and, in my opinion, went really, really well: Esther was excellent as always, Jean had a lot of thoughtful questions and comments for us, the people who called (or Twittered) in were very interesting, and we had a chance to touch on a lot of issues from the performative aspect of translation to the great influence international literature has had on many readers to the difficulties some people have with reading books filled with “unpronounceable” character and place names.

You can listen to the entire broadcast either by clicking the “Listen” button on this page, or by clicking on this mp3 version that can be found here

Unfortunately, you can’t hear this on the recording of the broadcast, but when I first got on the air and was describing Three Percent, a woman in the gate area who was laying across a row of chairs sat up, glared at me and said “Hey, I’m trying to sleep here!”

28 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Slice is a relatively new magazine that focuses on new voices—this issue contains pieces by a number of seventh graders—while also containing some more established writers and a number of interviews.

I first came across Slice over the summer and thought that it had a lot of potential. In terms of design (and to some degree, editorial voice) it’s informed by The Believer and A Public Space, two of my favorite lit mags.

So I was pretty impressed to get the new issue yesterday and find out that it’s all about translation:

If you stop to think about it, our lives are constantly in translation. Whether it’s the literal translation of a story, a clash of cultures, or the experience of seeing something from a fresh perspective, translation hides in the nuances of each of our days.

This Issue’s pages capture worlds of translation through fiction, nonfiction, art, and poetry, from places as far-reaching as Australia, Japan, and Puerto Rico, to our own Brooklyn streets. Dozens of new voices share their visions of translation, and they pop up in the most unexpected places, whether it is merging cultures through marriage, breaking the rules of traditional Japanese calligraphy, or the evolution of a child’s view of the devil, just to name a few.

The editors are using “translation” in its broadest sense, with pretty interesting results. There’s a list of “Titles in Translation”—book titles inspired by the final lines of poems—an interesting look at calligraphy artist Yoshiko Komatsu, and interviews with both Esther Allen and Natasha Wimmer, two of my favorite translators.

Neither of these pieces are available online, so you’ll have to pick up a copy to read them in their entirety. I will say that Esther’s story about translating Rosario Castellanos is a perfect example of the frustrations and rewards of translation.

Esther tried for years to find a publisher for The Book of Lamentations, but despite Carlos Fuentes calling it “one of the great classics of Mexican literature,” she was told over and again by U.S. publishers that “well, the author is dead, we can’t promote it, and the ending is a real downer.” It wasn’t until there was an uprising in Mexico that people were interested. (The novel is about an indigenous uprising.) Now it’s in print as a Penguin Classic . . .

Another interesting piece of Esther’s interview is a reference to a Center for Literary Translation project to:

. . . have Columbia University professors and other people with expertise tell us which books in their area, either contemporary or classic, are the most important books that have not been translated. There’s a whole universe out there that hasn’t been translated into English.

20 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Esther Allen—traductrice extraordinaire and Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—has a piece in The Guardian on reader’s reports.

The reader’s report struggles to swim against this current but also has to take it into account. It’s a bit like being an admissions officer at the world’s most selective institution: even the Nobel prize for literature is no guarantee you’ll get in. The bar has to be set terribly high because every translation into English that fails to sell makes its publisher that much less likely to do another one. Worse, the power of a reader’s report is almost entirely negative. Barbara Epler of New Directions famously decided to publish the great WG Sebald on the strength of a negative reader’s report, but in general a bad report guarantees that a book won’t be published. A good report, however, is likely to be ignored. Worst of all, even when a good report does lead to publication—and the publisher finds a translator who’s up to the task—the translated book will probably be left to its own devices in the marketplace, with little or no publicity, and will therefore ultimately be deemed a failure. All of which leaves those of us who write reader’s reports in a rather ambiguous position.

Reader’s reports are something we rely on too. Analyzing them, and making decisions based on them, is far more art than science. I suppose it’s like any kind of review that you’d read of a movie or a CD: it isn’t necessarily what they say that interests you or pushes you away, or even the way they say what they say, but, like Barbara Epler and Sebald, a good reader’s report will allow you to see how you will relate to the book. And, sad as it is to say, a reader’s report is sometimes the only thing we have to go on.

19 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Esther Allen—brilliant translator, champion of international literature, director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia, and advisory board member of Open Letter—has an interesting article in the International Herald Tribune about Frankfurt and the To Be Translated of Not To Be report she edited.

But when you come to Hall 8, you have to line up for a metal detector. And once in, you hear and see only one language – this is the English-language hall. I never got over to Hall 8 this year, but during last year’s fair I wandered by to say hello to some American publisher friends and was struck by how lavish the stands are. The stands in Halls 5 and 6 are spiffy, but in Hall 8 it’s immediately clear that a great deal more money has been spent. This is where the sellers are.

The English-speaking world buys so little at the fair and pays so little attention in general to writing in other languages that it doesn’t even keep statistics about the percentage of books published in English that are translations. The figure of 3 percent, often bandied about, is almost certainly high.

When I was in Iowa for the 40th Anniversary celebration of the International Writing Program, Eliot Weinberger insisted that this 3% figure was grossly exaggerated and that the real number is closer to .3%. (And that we should change the name of the blog.) He said that the 3% figure includes any book with an ISBN, and that if you only look at nationally distributed titles (which I think is a fair criteria), there’s probably only 300 works of translated literary fiction published every year. (I have a feeling he’s right about this.)

All of this—in combination with finding out that I missed some awesome salsa dancing with the Catalans—is awful depressing, so I’m done blogging for today.

18 June 07 | Chad W. Post |

I’m still sorting through the piles of catalogs, galleys, and other promotional material I picked up at BookExpo America a couple of weeks ago, and in so doing I came across the Spring issue of The Literary Review, which happens to be devoted to the recently launched French Voices program.

As Esther Allen explains in her introduction:

French Voices [. . .] was founded two years ago by Fabrice Rozie, the Literary Attache at the French Cultural Services in New York, to ensure that the most important books written in French since 2000 would successfully make the increasingly difficult journey from French into English.

Titles in the program are selected by a very distinguished committee who, over the next three years, will identify 30 books to include in the program. Any translator, publisher, author, or critic interested in recommending a book can do so via the French Book News website.

To make this program work, publishers doing these books will receive $6,000 in support to partially offset the costs associated with publishing translations. (From a business perspective, this could be higher, and it would be great if some foundation would match this grant and provide an additional $6,000 just to cover marketing costs.)

The Spring issue of TLR includes excerpts of the first 7 books selected for the program:

Ravel by Jean Echenoz (The New Press)

Dark Heart of the Night by Leonora Miano (University of Nebraska Press)

Kick the Animal Out by Veronique Ovalde (MacAdam/Cage)

In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi (University of Nebraska Press)

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville (Penguin)

Origins by Amin Maalouf (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

by Malika Zeghal (Mark Weiner Publishers)

Excerpts of Ravel and Kick the Animal Out are available on the TLR website.

....
The Antiquarian
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Reviewed by P.T. Smith

Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .

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Elsewhere
Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

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Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

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Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

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Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

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Two Crocodiles
Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky; Felisberto Hernández
Reviewed by Sara Shuman

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .

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