7 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Iowa Review is up to a lot of cool things . . . First off, as you can see in the ad below, they’re sponsoring a writing contest for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, with the winners each receiving $1,500 and the first runners-up getting $750. That’s pretty solid.

But more to the point of this website, they’ve also launched a more digital component to the Review—the “TIR Forum on Literature and Translation.”:

Translations have played an important part in the history of The Iowa Review, especially through the magazine’s various affiliations with writers from around the globe who have visited Iowa City over the years, to read at Prairie Lights Bookstore, study or teach in the Writers’ Workshop, participate in seminars and conferences, or in the International Writing Program or Summer Writing Festival, or because we’ve published their work and they have an inkling to meet us in person. Iowa is also the home of the oldest MFA program devoted to literary translation in the United States, a spin-off of the Workshop from the 1960s, guided for many years by Daniel Weissbort, long-time editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and translator of Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and Claude Simon, among many others.

Here we are proud to publish a new forum on literature and translation, with an inaugural essay by translator and scholar Lawrence Venuti. This essay originated as a plenary lecture delivered to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association in October of 2010, where, to put it mildly, it caused a bit of a stir.

Yes, yes it did. You can read Venuti’s piece in full by clicking here, but as a gloss, here’s a few key paragraphs:

This state of affairs, however, is not only to be recorded and lamented. It must also be interrogated. What, I want to ask, can a translator learn from rejections? I will present two recent instances from my own experience, although I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of the editors in question. What follows is not a personal attack on these particular editors, but a critique of current editorial methods and their assumptions about translation. My account, therefore, should not be dismissively reduced to sheer sour grapes. What happened to me can and does happen to many other translators. I have decided to go public in an effort to engage issues that urgently need to be discussed by both translators and readers of translations alike. [. . .]

After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there. [. . .]

The experiences I have been describing reflect the continuing dominance of a belletristic approach to translation among literary translators, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or work independently, whether their writing also includes poetry and fiction or focuses on translation, and whether or not they also write about translation in the form of reviews and commentary. The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition. [. . .]

Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.

I call this approach belletristic because it emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the translated text itself. It is also impressionistic in the sense that it is vague or ill-defined. Pound’s essay is filled with intriguing ideas, but it is the statement of a practitioner, not a theoretical formulation, and he does not make explicit exactly what the standards might be. They could be inferred from his practice, it might be argued, although any inference would constitute an interpretation, dependent on and varying with the theoretical assumptions that different readers bring to the interpretive act. [. . .]

During the 1960s the belletristic approach was decisive in improving the cultural status of translators because it characterized translation as a writing practice. As Edmund Keeley has observed, “translators began to be accepted as legitimate creative artists during the mid-1960s and, eventually, as legitimate teachers of translation in the various university workshops that came into existence as part of the rapidly expanding field of study called Creative Writing.” In 1963 Paul Engle, then director of the Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa, invited Keeley to teach what was the first translation workshop in the United States. The pedagogy was belletristic, emphasizing the translation as an independent literary text. When in September of 2010 I interviewed Keeley about his work at Iowa, he recalled that Engle instructed him to “treat [the translation workshop] like a poetry or fiction workshop” and to “focus on the product in English.” The students were master’s candidates in poetry or fiction who translated from a variety of foreign languages. They were asked to present their translations to the workshop by explaining why they chose the foreign text, what rival translations they might have worked with or against, and what specific problems the text posed for translation into English. The content of the course consisted solely of the students’ translations. Keeley saw no need for readings in translation theory and commentary. In the interview, in fact, he described himself “as ardently against the idea of translation theory. You don’t read the theory of poetry to learn how to write a poem or to teach the writing of one.”

What recommends the very different hermeneutic model is both its explanatory power and its practical application. The interpretive activity begins with the choice of a source text and continues in the development of a strategy to translate it. These stages in the translation process are determined not merely by the source text and culture but by values, beliefs, and representations in the receiving culture. Translators should be able to give an account of their work that is cognizant of these cultural conditions. They should be able to show how, given these conditions, their translation aims to fix the form and meaning of the source text so as to inscribe a particular interpretation. The inscription can never be more than provisional, one interpretation among several different possibilities, and it is always subject to further interpretation by the range of cultural constituencies in the receiving situation. Nonetheless, translators should be capable of articulating the interpretants that make possible their translations. By “interpretants” I mean the various factors that every translator applies to transform the source text into a translation. Interpretants can be formal, including a concept of equivalence, such as a semantic correspondence based on dictionary definitions, or a concept of style, a set of linguistic features linked to a particular genre (as when a foreign crime novel might require a suitably hard-boiled prose in the translating language). Interpretants can also be thematic, meanings or codes. Examples include an interpretation of the source text that was presented elsewhere in commentary (such as scholarly research) or an ideological standpoint affiliated with a specific social group (as when a feminist or queer translator encodes a foreign text with a political agenda).

OK, I know that’s a pretty long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile in laying out the basics of Venuti’s argument, his objections to the “belletristic” approach to translation, and his belief in creating a more theoretically informed translation culture. (And, just a reminder: read the entire piece here.

Since the “TIR Forum” is geared towards discussion and argument, yesterday they posted Mysteries of the Meta-Task, Tim Parks’s reaction to Venuti’s piece:

But let us turn to the more interesting area of the paper: the insistence that translation theory be at the fore when we present and publish translations. Venuti doesn’t offer a theory of his own here, so it’s not easy to be entirely sure either what he means by theory in the context of translation, or whether he envisages any number of competing and equally valid theories, or assumes that through a scientific approach one might arrive at a theory superior to all others. [. . .]

Rather, he wants to change the nature of the phenomenon, to change the way people translate and the way readers approach translations (“the new translator I am fashioning,” he says boldly). In particular, he appears to be encouraging translators to be unconcerned that their work seem originally written or effortlessly fluent in the language into which they translate, and encouraging readers to accept the idea that reading a translation is a different experience from reading a text originally written in their language, requiring on the contrary a more “thoughtful” rather than “spontaneous and immediate” response. (Here I have difficulty with the idea that the two responses are mutually exclusive. Many fine works of literature provoke both an immediate and a thoughtful response, the latter being largely prompted by the former.) [. . .]

Such an approach arises from an optimistic and political vision that ascribes to translation not the task of making a product of one culture available for appreciation in another but the meta-task of constantly heightening our awareness of language and the way we use it, regardless and perhaps at the expense of the commercial and maybe even the critical success of the work. This approach is thus in line with aspects of Benjamin’s famous “The Task of the Translator” and Derrida’s famously abstruse commentary upon it. (What remains of Derrida is always a sense of wonder that he should have rendered a quite reasonable line of thought so strenuously obscure and nearly mystical, as if it were important that only a small group of initiates or acolytes subscribe to it.) [. . .]

If we assume that Venuti is proposing that a translated text offer a series of surprises and novelties in our language unlike those of an original text, how are those surprises generated, and how are they linked together to form a coherent whole? How do they stand in relation to the content and style (if we can ever separate the two) of the original text? What if our author had a considerable investment in the conventional forms of languages—was a member, perhaps, of a highly conservative society—and wished to have nothing to with subversive techniques or texts that foregrounded the problematic of translation?

Venuti’s position perplexes me to the point that I feel sure that there is something I haven’t understood, something he could set me right on, and I wish he would spare us his litany of complaints and offer some exciting in-depth analyses of translations that he feels exemplify all he aspires to and admires; or if he has already done this (for I haven’t read all he’s written), then he might refer us to it so we can go away and do our homework. [. . .]

But to get back to my question for Venuti: when a translator works this way, each word he sets down—and of course, above all, the play of words semantically and rhythmically—has to do with what he understands of the original and the pattern of impressions it creates on his mind. I repeat: it is not a question of elegance or “belletrism” (how I hate that word), but of trying to find a way to make a particular text, which the translator has explored in-depth, happen in his or her own language. If I ask one of my students why he chose this word or that syntactical structure, he will show me something in the original that prompted this solution; he will tell me how this fits in with what he thought was going on in the original—it is conventional or unconventional, fluent or awkward, in a way he feels was prompted by the original and appropriate in the present context of Italian letters.

My question is simple: when Venuti’s aware and progressive “new” translator chooses solutions that are provocative and non-standard in his own language, provoking a thoughtful rather than a spontaneous response, heightening awareness and alerting the reader to the translated status of the text, is he doing so in response to the pattern of effects and impressions he believes he has found in the original? Or is he imposing a predetermined strategy that could perfectly well lead to similar effects being generated in translations of quite different originals (the case with Pound), and translating regardless of the impressions those originals created in the translator?

Both pieces are extremely interesting, and should be read in full. (Again, click here for Venuti’s, and here for Parks’s.) And they should be debated. Expanding this sort of discussion is great for translators, scholars, and all other interested parties. TIR has a great comments section, so if you want to speak your piece you can go to it.

12 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

21 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

The new issue of eXchanges, the University of Iowa’s journal of literature translation, is now available online complete with a rather gruesome front cover. (And I know I mention this every time a new issue comes out, but please for the love of Jacob, drop the capitalized “X” in the journal’s name. Not only is this so 1995, but it reminds me of deodorant. Or other things “Xtreme.”)

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a solid issue, with the key piece being an excellent long essay by Larry Venuti on his career as a translator. Entitled Mémoires of Translation the piece covers Venuti’s entryway into literary translation, some of his thoughts on fidelity, and an awesome bit about his editorial arguments with Grove/Atlantic about his translation of Melissa P.‘s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. (This section is really interesting, but it’s obviously a one-sided account of the story, so before quoting anything, I just want to say that I love&respect all the Grove editors . . . )

But before getting to the controversial sections, here’s an excerpt about how Venuti sees the role of translator:

After translating fifteen books into English, mostly from Italian, after collaborating with many different publishers, large and small, commercial and university, after reviewing a steady stream of translations for newspapers and immersing myself in the growing academic industry of translation studies, certain truths have become self-evident. Translation is transformation. A translation can never reproduce a literary work, even though it is routinely read as if it were precisely that work. A translator offers no more than an interpretation, one possibility among others, which is both less and more than the foreign text. Merely to be readable, a translation must obviously be written in a language with which the reader is familiar. To go beyond readability, however, to enable a powerfully engaging experience, the language must somehow be appealing to the reader, who, it can’t be overemphasized, is not the reader for whom the foreign text was written. How can a translator avoid transforming it?

From this point of view, time-worn yet still unquestioned clichés prove to be utterly false. Take “traduttore traditore,” the Italian slur wherein the very name of “translator” is turned into a pun on “traitor.” Translation can be considered treachery only if one naively assumes that it can and should communicate a foreign text in some direct, untroubled way. Such loyalty is impossible, even if the translator consults a dictionary for every foreign word. That would just widen the spectrum of semantic possibilities, splintering the foreign words into so many scintillating chips of ice that start melting as soon as any interpretive heat is applied to them. Whereas the translator’s task is to freeze meaning in a form that is intelligible and interesting in another language and culture. The inevitable thaw occurs as the translation warms to the touch of different readerships, its charm dissolving with changes in literary taste, ultimately creating a demand for a new version.

For anyone interested in translation and translators, you definitely have to read the entirety of Venuti’s piece. It is really fascinating, and filled with great anecdotes, etc. But, like any stats driven normal journalist knows, controversy sells. So I’m skipping right over all those bits to get to the section on how Grove fucked with Venuti’s translation.

An editor’s approach to a translator’s choices, regardless of how reflective or calculated they may be, can vary widely from unquestioning acceptance to intransigent opposition. Put a page before most editors, of course, and you can expect it to be altered. Still, translations seem to invite the most extensive sort of editing. When my version of Melissa P.’s 2003 memoir, Cento colpi di spazzola prima di andare a dormire, had been copyedited, I received back a manuscript that was heavily marked up, almost every page containing some change. The editor at Grove/Atlantic spelled out her agenda in a cover letter: everything must be made “smooth and natural for the American/English reader.” I was shocked that she would describe her editing in these terms. Her experience with translations was limited, since she had spent most of her time selling foreign rights. Worse, she hadn’t a clue that her approach was now regarded as disreputable.

OK, before going on, I just want to say that I’ve heard (and even witnessed) about this sort of thing happening quite a bit. And from presses both big and small. Certain publishers take the view that by being the publisher, by having decided to invest heavily in a given book, they have every right in the world to massage the text until it resembles what they feel has the best chance to help them make bank on the titles they decide to publish. I’m not saying I agree with this (I pretty much don’t), just want to point out that this is how the business functions, and that Grove is not alone in this criticism. OK, back to the fun stuff:

Why translate this book? I was attracted by its status as a pop-culture phenomenon. With over one million copies sold in Italian, it was saying something about Italy, even if that something was up for interpretation. The controversy aired in reviews, on chat shows, and across internet blogs dredged up a tangle of ideas about youth and sex, women and writing. The most telling refrain: the book couldn’t (read a subliminal shouldn’t) have been written by a girl. Popular literature can offer a revealing glimpse of a foreign culture. Yet until very recently anglophone publishers customarily neglected it in preference for the elite aesthetic. I wanted to confront readers with a current craze that, for Italians at least, was rivaling the value assigned to high-brow works.

Melissa’s writing uniquely suited this task. The shifts in style and genre allowed me to depart from standard English, the most familiar form of the language and the most likely to foster the cherished illusion that the translation isn’t a translation, but the foreign text. Melissa’s Italian ranges from slang and obscenities to purple prose and poeticisms to porno cliché. Mimicking these nonstandard forms promised to frustrate any reader’s expectation for transparency. I aimed to foreground the strangeness of the book, calling attention to its artificiality, although the titillating material guaranteed that my choices would not be unpleasurable.

My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”

Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.

This is all pretty aggressive, and Venuti even points out the NY Times review bashed his translation (“Cringe-inducing euphemisms abound here [. . .] Perhaps these words are more euphonious in Italian than in Lawrence Venuti’s translation.”), which, employing the logic of all that came before, is more the fault of the Grove editor than anyone else.

What’s ironic though? The book has sold more than 100,000 copies when most translations sell about 5,000 3,000 500. So maybe the smooth language did appeal to the masses? Just wondering aloud and remembering a call-in radio show I did a few years ago which ended with a woman calling in to complain about how she can’t read international literature because she can’t stand not being able to pronounce the names. And, not to beat dead a dying horse, but we recently got a postcard from a woman who returned her Open Letter subscription, claiming that nothing in her past could’ve prepared her for the incomprehensibility of cultural references in The Golden Calf. In her own words, “this book isn’t at all like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.“ Great.

Anyway, Venuti’s piece aside, I’d also recommend checking out the Letter from the Editors, Emily Toder’s translation of some poems by Felipe Benítez Reyes, the Translation Manifesto, and the excerpt from Dan Sociu’s Special Needs that Oana Sanziana Marian translated from the Romanian.

3 February 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Recorded in Philadelphia at the recent Modern Language Association convention, Chad Post and Erica Mena meet Lawrence Venuti and discuss his translation of the Catalan poet Ernest Farres’s Edward Hopper: Poems.

Read More...

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erica Mena on Edward Hopper, a poetry collection by Catalan author Ernest Farrés, translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Graywolf Press.

I’ve been interested in this collection for a while—partly because I love Catalan lit, but also because Quim Monzo’s Gasoline (which we’re publishing in April) opens with a Hopper image, which seems like an odd coincidence. (Or maybe not, since it’s not like Hopper’s unknown or anything.)

Anyway, Erica and I interviewed Larry Venuti about this book for our forthcoming Reading the World podcasts, and it was an absolutely amazing conversation. Larry’s explanations of how the project came about, all the theoretical and practical implications, his unpacking of one of the poems . . . very amazing.

That will be online soon (er, relatively speaking), but in the meantime, I want to encourage everyone to check out Alluringly Short, Erica’s new blog about poetry, translation, and poetry in translation (there’s a great post about Chilean Poetry definitely worth reading). And instead of trying to write a one-sentence bio, you can find out more about Erica via her entry in the Making the Translator Visible series.

And here’s the opening of her review:

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

Click here to read the full review.

7 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.

One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.

The ordering of the poems is brilliantly narrative, moving from the self-reflective interior to a railroad station and train that takes Hopper/Farrés from a rural setting to the archetypal city and eventually through middle age to Cape Cod. The bulk of the book is comprised by a sequence of cityscapes, including Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks, 1942” as an existential dialogue between the man and woman in the painting confronting the realization that “nothing in life is irreplaceable.” These insights, sometimes heard in the voice of Hopper, sometimes in a muted Farrés, and sometimes in the voice of the subject of the painting (which is always ultimately the self of the artists) border on the overly philosophical. It is the ironizing context of retrospective engagement with modernity, and the plurality of persona, that pushes these reflective moments into poignancy. Voyeurism and aural intrusion into the painting implicate the reader as well as the poet/painter/translator in these mini-dramas in which every subject is self. “Hotel Room, 1931” exemplifies this, spinning into the dizzying progression of time:

          At the hotel a woman in her underwear
          pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
          in low spirits and bone-tired,
          she’ll start to pace around the room
          leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
          that reeks of mustiness.
          A week later they’ll be no
          tangible results. A year later
          she’ll be the object of caresses.
          Another four and no lullabies.
          Another ten and the delicate balance
          between youth and age will be gone.
          Another twenty and she’ll cling
          to an expansive ethics of listlessness
          and Triumph of the Will.
          Another century and nobody’s
          going to remember a thing about her.
          In two centuries there’ll be
          no polar ice caps. When five
          billion years go by,
          there won’t even be a sun.

The fixed moment in history recorded in the painting expands into present and future—a bleak shared future of oblivion. We intrude on the intimacy of the moment, as Hopper does, and intrude on the intimacy of the moment of Hopper’s painting it, as Farrés does. This woman, privacy violated, becomes the catalyst for an ironic nihilism in which we are “directly implicated” (“The City,” 1927).

The city poems pulse with motion and frenzy, the fears and passions of a young Hopper/Farrés. In “The City, 1927” we along with him are submerged “deep down, in the very marrow, amidst a whorl / of elliptical subjects, colorful scenes.” Here, the careful density and pace of sound and rhythm in the language is evidence of a masterful translation, and Venuti’s Farrés is most powerful in places like “Summer in the City, 1949”:

          The man is looking for trouble,
          thrills, sublime ecstasies, places
          short on folklore, deals,
          calculated approximations, objects
          of desire that grab
          your attention and keep
          your cool, the latest rage
          at your fingertips, binges,
          infatuations, sexual icons,
          irrefutable proofs, joyrides, advice
          within parentheses, green lights, comfy shoes,
          forms of expression that presuppose
          supremacy, free tickets to the game,
          ways of killing time that are reckless and frenzied,
          the upper hand before bellyaching, answers
          as plain as the nose on your face.
          The woman, however, is looking for love.

The building, pulsing momentum of desire, of the city, and of moving through life is enthralling. The places where syntax slips over the enjambment—“grab,” “keep” and “rage” sliding into “advice” and “answers”—brush against the erotic tension of this poem, and the concise unenjambed second sentence of the poem counterpoints the cascading frenetic energy of male desire. Just glancing across the page at the Catalan reveals Venuti’s masterful treatment of the poem, which in the Catalan is one line shorter and doesn’t place the woman on a line of her own. There’s also the surprise of “bellyaching” which glides smoothly in the voice of Hopper, until the startling realization occurs that this is Hopper speaking Catalan and so “bellyaching” is a moment of linguistic impossibility that prevents the reader from becoming too comfortable with the language.

The frenzy of youth and the city thread through the bulk of the book, tempering bit by bit as the feminine (the presence of Nivison, Hopper’s wife and model for many of his female figures) becomes more prominent. The diction becomes mimetic of the journey out of the city to the bucolic Cape Cod setting, expanding into placid, airy and languorous description. The prosaic overtakes the poetic as comfort and familiarity replace the angst and frenzy of youth. Towards the end, as we fall into a comfortable rhythm, we are told:

          You’ve got this down pat. We sketch orbits
          around a highly valued microcosm,
          a landscape composed of organic dust,
          and calmly accept that the march of time
          will make us different from what we were,
          filling with meaning what was empty
          emptying of meaning what contained it.
          (“Sea Watchers,” 1952)

In “Sun in an Empty Room, 1963” (my personal favorite Hopper painting), which is placed near the end of the book, Hopper via Farrés via Venuti tells us:

          I rediscover myself and leave a sign.
          . . .
          All the same, I’m not moving very far.
          No matter where you go, you never find
          the way out of the labyrinth.

The labyrinth of these poems are much more than an homage to Hopper. They are a rediscovery. A new look at the intricate stories that make up the imagined life of one of the most important twentieth century U.S. painters. A poetical-fictional biography that succeeds in its imaginative power to entice the reader into believing it as truth, which of course it is. Like the works of great art they illuminate, these poems reveal a moment (of life, of time, of history) in its fullest dimension. In this book’s ambitious transcendence of the individual, Farrés shines through Hopper as a poet to pay attention to.

3 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I can’t find a listing at the National Poetry Series website, but Lawrence Venuti has been awarded the 2008 Robert Fagles Translation Prize for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farres.

The prize—which was awarded for the first time last year—is given each year to a translation who has “shown exceptional skill in translating a book of contemporary poetry into English.”

Venuti is an incredible force in the world of translation and translation studies. He translated from Italian, French, and Catalan and is also the author of The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. He’s been awarded a number of grants and fellowships, including ones from the NEA, NEH, and PEN, and in 2007 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He currently teaches at Temple University.

I’ve read some of the poems from Edward Hopper in Two Lines, Calque, and Words Without Borders and it promises to be an interesting collection. (It’s coming out next year from Graywolf Press.) Basically, each poem is named after and based on an Edward Hopper painting. Based on that, it’s sort of surprising that Edward Hopper has been “adapted to the stage in both Catalan and Spanish.” In addition to writing poetry, Farres is also an editor for the cultural supplement of La Vanguardia.

18 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago we linked to Lawrence Venuti’s article on Words Without Borders about the business of publishing translations. It’s a very interesting piece that was written for a panel on the To Be Translated or Not To Be report and puts forth a somewhat provocative stance on what should be published in translation:

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture.

Over the weekend, WWB posted an interview between Alane Mason and Venuti that explores some of these issues in depth.

The entire conversation is pretty fascinating and quotable, but this is the section that most stood out to me:

I expect PUBLISHERS, with the help of translators, to be making the publishing decisions, yet those decisions need to be made in a much more informed way than personal taste, even if that can’t be eliminated in any literary judgment. Or why not look at the problem as a matter of a publisher developing his or her taste by learning as much as possible about foreign literary traditions before choosing a foreign work for translation? The ignorance of foreign languages among US publishers is now legendary, but what about their knowledge of foreign cultures (a knowledge that cannot really be separated from language)? If a publisher can find one novel to like in a foreign literature, why not think that same publisher can find another one or three written by different writers at different times? Publishers are currently at the mercy of a selection process that in many cases may well be based on a severely limited or superficial knowledge of foreign cultures. Translations demand that a publisher know more, and translators can help, but they too need to know more about the foreign literatures from which they translate, and that more needs to be figured into their translating.

I pretty much agree with Venuti’s sentiment, although I may be biased by the fact that I have a touch of the OCD and love to research and read about different literary cultures.

One of the most useful activities I’ve engaged in—that plays into Venuti’s general idea—is going on editorial trips to various countries to learn at least a bit about a particular culture and its literary history and to network with international editors, critics, translators, and readers who can help me make informed decisions. Before going to Reykjavik and Barcelona, I knew next to nothing about Icelandic or Catalan literature. But the days spent listening to critics give me a rundown on the literary history of their county, of compiling lists of modern and contemporary authors, of meeting translators, editors, professors and the like who are all willing to share information about literary works and how these works were received was extremely, extremely valuable. (And to be honest, it doesn’t hurt that these two cities are two of the most beautiful on earth.)

I don’t claim to be an expert in either Icelandic or Catalan literature, but after reading tons and tons of information, and talking with various contacts made during these trips, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of where the Icelandic (Bragi Olafsson) and Catalan (Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo) authors fit into their respective traditions, and that we’ve made pretty good choices.

On a practical side, this is just the beginning, and we need to continue to do more works from both countries, and to connect with other publishers (if there are any) doing books from these regions to help create a more well-rounded representation of Icelandic and Catalan literature. But at least we’ve taken some initial steps, both in terms of forethought and research, and making some works from these cultures available to English readers.

Anyway, these sorts of trips (we’re going to both Buenos Aires and Olso this spring on similar editorial research trips), are extremely valuable for anyone engaged in the business of publishing translations, and one example of how some of what Venuti’s calling for is actually taking place.

I can see why some people would criticize Venuti’s argument, or have a knee-jerk reaction against it. It may be both a bit utopic and a bit ivory-tower-ish all at once. On the whole though, I think that his end goal is very much in keeping with what the more admirable presses out there (by admirable, I mean ones with a mission other than to make as much money as possible) that are working together to create an audience for international literature. I only wish he left more space for readerly emotion and had more info on projects that are already going on that actually support his general theory.

In my opinion, making self-conscious, properly weighed decisions is important, but an editor’s passion about a project is equally important. I don’t think he intends it this way, but Venuti makes the acquisition project seem like a dry, boring process, when really, reading and falling in love with a particular book, culture, etc., is exciting and fun, and there’s something to be said for going ahead with a project that an editor is passionate about.

More importantly, there are a lot of publishers, cultural organizations, and translators currently doing things that relate to Venuti’s general premise—activities that deserve to be highlighted. In addition to editorial trips, there are programs like Reading the World, the intent of which is to offer a broader context for literature in translation, and there are a number of top-notch translation preses (like NYRB and New Directions and Archipelago and the like) who do collaborate instead of compete, and work together in trying to promote different literary cultures.

Both of these essays by Venuti are very thought provoking and help advance certain questions and ideas that the publishing industry (at least those devote to international literature) should be considering, debating, and discussing. These pieces are just the beginning though . . . in addition to looking at the responsibility of publishers in their editorial choices, there are issues related to marketing and promotions, how the bookstore marketplace works, etc., all of which feed into creating the appropriate context for reading, appreciating, and coming to understand works in translation.

6 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Literary Saloon pointed this out yesterday, but the new issue of Words Without Borders contains a fantastic article by Lawrence Venuti on the business of publishing translations.

He wrote this essay for the Frankfurt Book Fair panel on To Be Translated or Not To Be (warning, that links to the entire report in pdf form), a fascinating study done by Esther Allen, the Ramon Llull Institute and PEN centers around the world. (I’m actually reviewing this for a scholarly publication, and am planning on spending all next week posting about the different sections.)

Back to Venuti’s essay: His thoughts tie in really well to the economic analysis that we wrote about yesterday.

Early in the twentieth century, a largely unwritten policy came to prevail among Anglophone publishers. Buy the translation rights to a single book by a foreign author. If soon after publication the translation suffers a substantial loss or fails to earn back its production costs or to realize a modest profit, then stop publishing translations of the author’s books. If, however, the first translation manages to break even or to approach a break-even point, then continue to publish translations of that particular author in the hope that more translations will create a readership and add profitable titles to the backlist. [. . .]

Sales in the range of 5,000 copies became a benchmark for a successful translation of a foreign novel. Yet the figure also came to reflect the sad reality of publishing translations in English. In 2002 Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press, observed that “for the most part now the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.”

Over the past hundred years few English-language translations have managed to reach that upper limit. As a result, most foreign authors who have had a book translated into English have not been translated again, either by the initial publisher or by others, who were scared off by the poor market performance of the first translation.

All of this is spot-on true, and fairly well documented. The bigger issue is how to get more translations published, and more people reading them. Venuti’s promotes a more holistic, multi-pronged approach designed to create a better context for readers to approach “strange” or “difficult” books from other countries.

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.

The initiative I am recommending cannot be pursued by one publisher alone without a significant outlay of capital and probably not without the funding and advice of a cultural ministry or institute in a foreign country. But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success.

For the most part, I second this. Publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, literary people in general, can work together to create a better context for receiving a particular book. All true. I’m not sure I quite agree with this “critical detachment” on the publisher’s part. It almost seems like he’s suggesting that publishers should be doing certain books because someone (who exactly?) has decided that these texts are representative of foreign cultures.

That’s all fine and good—but not necessarily the function of a publishing house. Then again, it depends on what house you’re looking at. In terms of a commercial house seeking out chick-lit books from Iran, because “these are the books that sell,” I agree with Venuti. This does very little cultural good, and in fact, may well be harmful to a greater understanding of other cultures.

If Archipelago decides to publish a Basque book though (like they are), I know it’s because Jill Schoolman loves that particular title and wants to get it in the hands of everyone she knows. Granted, it would be awesome if there were critical apparatus to create a better context for approaching this book, however, it’s not her moral imperative to do other titles that more fully sketch out the situation of the Basque in Spain.

That said, more collaboration would benefit everyone. Not sure of the specific form this takes, but linking up Graywolf’s forthcoming Bernardo Atxaga books with Archipelago’s Unai Elorriaga title starts building this context. Who does this though? And how? Seems to me that these are critical questions to the on-going development of a book culture that respects and appreciates world literature.

....
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.. . .

Read More >

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,. . .

Read More >

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. . .

Read More >

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. . .

Read More >

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. . .

Read More >

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. . .

Read More >

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. . .

Read More >