This video of Gunter Grass talking about how “Facebook is shit” is amazing. Granted, it’s weird that I found out about this from a friend who found it on Facebook and that I’m probably going to share it on Facebook as well . . .
But, I do totally agree with his sentiments and wish I could smash my iEverything and live in a farmhouse like that researching information in actual books.
The think Grass seems to not get though is that today’s cultural world isn’t really about quality, it’s about quick production and being a good enough operator to leverage social media in order to shift units. (I just punched myself in the face for writing that.)
Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)
Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)
In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)
This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:
On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.
Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)
It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:
Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.
Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.
Maya Jaggi from The Guardian has a really interesting long piece on Gunter Grass’s The Box, which comes out next week (both in the UK and U.S.). (And which sounds fantastic . . . Hopefully HMH will send a copy to us for review . . .):
The second volume of his fictive autobiography, The Box, is published by Harvill Secker next week, in an English translation by Krishna Winston. It forms part of a trilogy that took him seven years. Its third part, Grimms’ Words, which combines memoir with the story of the Grimms’ dictionary, came out in Germany in August.
While Peeling the Onion covered his youth – up to publication of The Tin Drum, aged 23 – The Box, he says, is the “familial part: how my children experienced this father, whose head was always floating in his fiction.”
Each volume has an “autobiographical bent” but a “fictional form”. He changed the names of the children he has with “four strong women” – four from his first marriage, two daughters with two women he lived with between his marriages, and two stepsons with Ute – and now has 17 grandchildren. “I’ve always been surrounded by children – never bothered by their noise.” Women, he chuckles, may have been more disturbing to his work, yet for 30 years he has lived with “an independent woman who accepts this form of loneliness I need, and who would actually mind if I stopped writing.”
The “box” is an Agfa camera with magical properties, which survived wartime firestorms to capture not only memories but things to come. Like the diminutive Oskar’s tin drum, it is a metaphor for his art. Grass sees it as a “fairytale to explain to children how fiction works in my mind. Our minds aren’t bound by a chronological corset. When thinking and dreaming, past, present and future are mixed up. That’s also possible for a writer.” His children witness how, later in life, he had to work through the stuff he’d experienced when he was “a boy in shorts”. Grass feels a renewed urgency to sift the rubble of what happened, “slowly, deliberately and in broad daylight”, as the generations who lived it dwindle. “It’s an endless story,” he says. “The inordinate crime of the ‘final solution’ still can’t be explained.”
OK, so longtime readers of Three Percent have probably noticed that I make fun of HMH a lot. Mainly because their website is a total pile of shit, and also because of how they treated Drenka Willen. (Seriously, even though the situation was rectified—thanks to the support of Saramago, Grass, etc.—someone’s going to burn in hell for that little move.) And to be honest, there’s a lot more to poke fun at, like the way Moody’s withdrew their credit rating, etc., etc.
But! There are awesome people who work at HMH—Drenka, Andrea Schultz, Sal Robinson, Ron Hogan, Jenna Johnson, others I’m sure I’m forgetting—and I just got their new catalog, which has way more international works that I ever would’ve expected. Granted, a lot of these are big-name, long-time HMH authors, but still, to lead off the catalog with two translations back-to-back is pretty bold for a press that’s also publishing Perfect One-Dish Dinners and Philip Roth’s new novel.
Maybe I’m just easily impressed, or maybe it’s because I’m (surprisingly) in a really cheery mood this morning, but, well, I just want to make up for (some) of the (occasionally) unfair criticisms I’ve lobbed at HMH.1 Y’all are doing good work. And as a way of trying to make up for this, here’s a list of all of HMH’s forthcoming international works:
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).
Here by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.
A new book of poems by Wislawa Szymborska is a rare and exciting event. When Here was published in Poland, reviewers marveled, “How is it that she keeps getting better?” These twenty-seven poems, as rendered by prize-winning translators Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, are among her greatest ever. Whether writing about her teenage self, microscopic creatures, or the upsides to living on Earth, she remains a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.
The Box by Gunter Grass, translated from the German by Krishna Winston.
(This is the book I’m most excited about.)
In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives. Memories contradictory, critical, loving, accusatory—they piece together an intimate picture of this most public of men. To say nothing of Marie, Grass’s assistant, a family friend of many years, perhaps even a lover, whose snapshots taken with an old-fashioned Agfa box camera provide the author with ideas for his work. But her images offer much more. They reveal a truth beyond the ordinary detail of life, depict the future, tell what might have been, grant the wishes in visual form of those photographed. The children speculate on the nature of this magic: was the enchanted camera a source of inspiration for their father? Did it represent the power of art itself? Was it the eye of God?
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder.
Carsten Jensen’s debut novel has taken the world by storm. Already hailed in Europe as an instant classic, We, the Drowned is the story of the port town of Marstal, whose inhabitants have sailed the world’s oceans aboard freight ships for centuries. Spanning over a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, and from the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, the Drowned spins a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure, a tale of the men who go to sea and the women they leave behind.
Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.
Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s. A lament for the fate of a certain kind of man and a certain kind of manhood, it is ultimately a searing study of the long and insidious effects of dividing a nation in two.
Solo by Rana Dasgupta.
(Not a translation, but international in scope and background, and it sounds interesting. Although I have to say that I’m not entirely buying David Mitchell + Alexander Hemon, but if that’s accurate, well then, this must be awesome.)
With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Alexander Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.
In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.
1 Apologies aside, your website still sucks.
December isn’t all about gift getting, crowded shopping malls, uncomfortable family gatherings, and cookies—it’s also about year-end donations to worthy non-profit organizations such as the Center for the Art of Translation.
As an added incentive, if you donate more than $5 to CAT, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win books from translators featured in the Lit&Lunch series. Specifically, here are the prizes:
First prize is a three-book package featuring two of this year’s most exciting translators: Natasha Wimmer and Breon Mitchell. The winner receives translator-signed copies of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, plus a copy of the newest Two Lines anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Two runners-up will each receive a translator-signed copy of The Tin Drum and a copy of Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Every donation really counts, which is why we brought the threshold for this giveaway to just $5. Those who pledge $20 or more will get 3 chances to win, and those who sign up for a recurring donation totaling $50 or more over the course of next year will have 5 chances to win these excellent books.
Click here for all the details, links to donate, etc.
One of the biggest international literature publishing events of this fall has to be the release of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of Gunter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This is an event in the grand sense of the word, and definitely worth checking out.
We wrote about this back over the summer, quoting extensively from Breon’s afterword about the reasons for the new translation, but rather than read that post, you can simply listen to this podcast of Breon’s recent appearance in the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit&Lunch series.
Breon’s a great speaker, and Grass’s technique of bringing together his translators to go through the book page-by-page with tips and whatnot is absolutely fascinating.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.
(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.
Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:
The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.
We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.
More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:
In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.
And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:
I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)
And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)
Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”
This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.
And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .
I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.
Andreas Huyssen reviews Gunter Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion in The Nation, and really gets into the onion metaphor.
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. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .