I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.
Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)
I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .
If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .
First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.
(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)
Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?
And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .
Finally, we wrapped up with a
contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:
Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”
Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”
This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!
Over at the always interesting Front Table, editor Jeremy Davies has a nice piece about the forthcoming release of Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop, (click to pre-order from Seminary Co-op) the second “branch” in his “Great Fire of London cycle.”
At some point I’d become aware that The Great Fire of London is, in fact, the title given to a cycle of interrelated books, not simply to a single novel—as Proust’s is called À la recherche du temps perdu, or Powell’s is A Dance to the Music of Time, or Dorothy Richardson’s is Pilgrimage. The book published as The Great Fire of London is a single volume in this series, and in context is more accurately called by its proper name, “Destruction.” The Loop, which comes out this April in its first English translation, is “branch two” of Great Fire. Where “Destruction” is Roubaud seeking to force an ordering system over his despair as a conscious alternative to putting an end to his life, in the wake of his wife Alix’s death from illness and a brother’s suicide, The Loop is very much about memory itself, its cyclical nature, its untrustworthiness. For all its concern with darkness, it’s a sunnier branch than “Destruction”—spring has arrived!—since it doesn’t take up the same binary as the earlier book (that is, writing or death).
Still, the golden childhood days that Roubaud describes in The Loop were lived out during the German Occupation, with one parent and one grandparent actively participating in the French Resistance—so the basic tenuousness of life, the fragility of happiness, is never far from our narrator’s mind. What is it, then, about these books—haunted by death, failure, loss, recursion—that so appeals to me?
Firstly, they are funny, charming—effortless and overwhelming all at once. They are not quite novels, not quite memoirs (more precisely, to use Roubaud’s own formulation, they are “not-not” novels . . . that is, they are whatever strange animal we’re left with after a double negative [because, using the logic of the books, a double negation doesn’t necessarily give you the same positive you left behind after adding that initial “not” . . .]). Roubaud is, I think, “our” Proust—though their projects are very different—in that they both employ the form of the novel (explicitly in Proust’s case, circumspectly in Roubaud’s) to examine their memories, and draw conclusions about human life and memory in general.
Roubaud’s going to be in New York next week to participate in Oulipo in New York, a series of events highlighting the work of several Oulipo writers, including Ian Monk and Marcel Benabou.
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