Using William Weaver’s passing as a launching point, Italian translator Antony Shugaar wrote a really informative, interesting op-ed on translation issues for Monday’s New York Times.
There are a lot of great bits I could quote—like the description of FMR magazine, its espresso and prosciutto orders, the celebrities that visited the magazine’s offices—but I think the main thrust of Shugaar’s piece starts with his bit about Gadda’s masterpiece, That Awful Mess of Via Merulana:
I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.
“What did you do about the dialect?” I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, “Oh, I just left it out!”
At first glance, it’s a little like translating “Moby-Dick” and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” In other words, supply the boats yourself. [. . .]
The dialect problem is the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.
But the translator is. And though I remember Weaver’s good-humored resignation every time I have to do it, it’s bitter: a little like losing a patient. Translators don’t bury their mistakes, but they do get to sort of white-out their shortcomings.
God rest his soul and all that, but I have to say that Weaver’s translation of this book isn’t one of my favorite translations.1 But the point he made is true—you can’t map dialects from one country onto those of another without making the characters sound like total assholes. A hillbilly accent for a rural Frenchman? Just, no.2
But the point is bigger than this, as Shugaar points out—it’s not just about translating words, or dialects, but translating a whole world view.
People talk about untranslatable words, but in a way, there’s no such thing. It may take three words, or an entire sentence, or even an interpolated paragraph, but any word can be translated. Short of swelling a book into an encyclopedia, however, there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Bill said something very fine: he explained that as a professor at Bard, he was sometimes asked what other departments his classes could be cross-referenced to, and he suggested performing arts. After all, a translation is a performance (whether in another medium or another language) of a written text. And that is what Bill, who died a few weeks ago at age 95 and is greatly missed, did so well: he conjured up worlds and made you see them.
The metaphor of translation as performance has been bandied about for years, but it’s one of the ones that I prefer: it gives the translator the proper credit as an artist, as the one in the spotlight while also emphasizing that their performance is one possible rendition of a work; the original work is the driving force, the thing that you come to witness, but you can’t witness it without the translator bringing it to life.
Anyway, go back to Shugaar’s essay for some really illuminating examples of the difficulties of translating culture. (I particularly like the one about not parking on the sidewalk.)
1 Since I have it right in front of me, here’s a bit of the opening of Gadda’s book in Weaver’s translation:
Everybody called him Don Ciccio by now. He was Officer Francesco Ingravallo, assigned to homicide; one of the youngest and, God knows why, most envied officials of the detective section: ubiquitous as the occasion required, omnipresent in all tenebrous matters. Of medium height, rather rotund as to physique, or perhaps a bit squat, with black hair, thick and curly, which sprang forth from his forehead at the halfway point, as if to shelter his two metaphysical knobs from the fine Italian sun, he had a somnolent look, a heavy, lumbering walk, a slightly dull manner, like a person fighting a laborious digestion; [. . .]
Weaver was one of the best Italian translators of the past century (see his translations of Eco and Morante and Svevo and Calvino and many others), which to me indicates that this Gadda novel is a beast. For a bit of insight into the difficulties of translating Gadda, here’s an essay Weaver once wrote on the subject. And here’s a sample of that paper that illuminates the crazy-making of translation:
Here, in Italian, is the Gadda paragraph:
“Un’idea, un’idea non sovviene, alla fatica de’ cantieri, mentre i sibilanti congegni degli atti trasformano in cose le cose e il lavoro è pieno di sudore e di polvere. Poi ori lontanissimi e uno zaffiro, nel cielo: come cigli, a tremare sopra misericorde sguardo. Quello che, se poseremo, ancora vigilerà. I battiti della vita sembra che uno sgomento li travolga come in una corsa precípite. Ci ha detersi la carità della sera: e dove alcuno aspetta moviamo: perché nostra ventura abbia corso, e nessuno la impedirà. Perché poi avremo a riposare.”
And here (without any subsequent cosmesis) is the absolutely first draft of the translation, complete with doubts, alternative solutions, puzzlements. This is the raw material:
“An idea, an idea does not (recall/sustain/aid/repair), in the labor of the building sites, as the hissing devices/machinery of actions transform things into things and the labor/toil is full of sweat and dust. Then distant gold(s) and a sapphire, in the sky: like lashes, trembling above compassionate/merciful/charitable gaze. Which, if we cast it, will still keep watch/be wakeful/alert. The pulses/throbbing of life, it seems, can be overwhelmed/swept away by an alarm, as if in a (precipitous race/dash. The charity of the evening has cleansed us (We are cleansed by the…: and where someone is waiting, we move: so that our fate/lot may proceed, and no one will block/impede/hinder it. Because then/afterwards/later we will rest/be able to rest/have our rest./”
First thoughts: the passage contains several words I hate.
2 Michael Henry Heim’s advice was to create a unique dialect through a combination of contractions, grammatical mistakes and the like. That by creating a sort of speech pattern that’s not distinctly southern or whatever, you could still get across the core information that would be contained in that dialect in the original, such as whether the character is poor, overly snooty, a farmer, etc.
From the New York Times Arts Blog:
James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult novel “Finnegans Wake” has been called many things since it first began appearing in portions in 1924, including “the most colossal leg-pull in literature,” “the work of a psychopath,” and “the chief ironic epic of our time.”
Now, it can add another designation: best seller in China.
A new translation of the novel has sold out its initial print run of 8,000 since it appeared on Dec. 25, thanks in part to an unusual billboard campaign in major Chinese cities, The Associated Press reported. In Shanghai, where the book was advertised on 16 billboards, sales were second only to a new biography of Deng Xiaoping in the “good books” category, according to the Shanghai News and Publishing Bureau.
The book’s surprise success has drawn some clucking from Chinese observers (how do you say “coffee table trophy” in Mandarin?). But at a panel on Tuesday, the translator, Dai Congrong of Fudan University, who spent nearly 10 years wrestling with Joyce’s runaway sentences and knotty coinages, confessed that even she didn’t fully understand the book. “I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” she said.
Way back at the start of the year, I promised that this year’s ALTA would be “THE GREATEST CONFERENCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE OF CONFERENCES.” Now, I’m not sure that was the case—although it was the most interesting ALTA I’ve ever attended—but it was awesome enough to get mentioned in the New York Times.
[A]mong the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.
“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”
(During the conference, Alex Zucker actually came up with a joke using that opening: “A pair of translators walk into a bar . . . (It was better in the original.)”)
The humor panels we had at the conference were pretty spectacular, especially one moderated by Open Letter editor (and U of R translation grad) Kaija Straumanis and featuring Emily Davis (fellow U of R translation grad), Matt Rowe, and Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich, translators of The Golden Calf. One of the reasons this panel worked so well was because of Kaija’s introduction, which centered around the different ways George Saunders’s “Pastoralia” is funny in English and in the German translation.
Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.
“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”
The whole article is worth reading—and thanks to Jascha Hoffman for writing such an informative piece about such an interesting topic.
Hardcore Three Percent fans may remember some of my issues and troubles with the hack writer, John Locke (in comparison to the talented philosopher John Locke and the John Locke who featured prominently on Lost), who is the author of hundreds1 of Donovan Creed mystery novels, which feature midgets, pseudo-thriller plot-lines, and misogyny.
Last summer, I wrote a long piece for Publishing Perspectives with the inflammatory title “Why Selling Ebooks at 99 cents Destroys Minds.” I don’t actually think a 99 cent price tag is making the world a dumber place (American culture already has this locked down and doesn’t really need much help), but I think the surplus of self-published books by authors who rely on cheap pricing to attract readers clogs up the marketplace and puts an undue focus on ebooks as “cheap entertainment” instead of a more worthwhile (and valued) investment of time and attention and money.
If you’re interested in hearing more about all this, check out this podcast. The main point of this post isn’t to rehash that old argument, but to gloat over the egg on John Locke’s face as a result of this New York Times article about self-published authors who paid for favorable reviews.
Let me make one other prefatory remark to expose my anti-John Locke bias. If you click on that Publishing Perspectives article above, you’ll see that there are 103 comments—the vast majority of which are from John Locketards2 telling me that I “suck,” that I’m an “elitist,” that I’m an “idiot,” a “bad publisher,” an “ignoramus,” a “cretin,” and generally a “bad person.” This hurt my feelings. :( Which is why this NY Times article made me so jolly yesterday . . .
Just to summarize: This uber-capitalist Jason Rutherford, founded a company by which self-published authors could buy positive 5-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, which helps boost sales to the masses who care about things like that.
In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.
There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month. [. . .]
Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.
But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.
Of course, the vast majority of the reviewers who wrote these “enthusiastically ecstatic” reviews never read the books in question, because why? It’s all one big scam anyway . . .
Mr. Rutherford’s busiest reviewer was Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, a freelancer who had just returned to the United States from a stint in South Africa. She had recently married a former professional wrestler, and the newlyweds had run out of money and were living in a hotel in Las Vegas when she saw the job posting.
Ms. Walters-Bearden had the energy of youth and an upbeat attitude. “A lot of the books were trying to prove creationism,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know where I stand, but they make a solid case.”
For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.
“There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said. “But I had to produce 70 pieces of content a week to pay my bills.”
Of course, when this article came out over the weekend, Twitter exploded with writers, reviewers, and all other book people appalled by this process, which devalues the review process, customer ratings, and basically everything. Personally, I figured everyone already assumed this was happening—WE LIVE IN AMERICA THE LAND OF SCAMMING OPPORTUNITY!
I was half-bored reading the article—c’mon, shock me! give me some outrage!—but then found the John Locke part and starting giggling like a fricking schoolgirl:
John Locke started as a door-to-door insurance salesman, was successful enough to buy his own insurance company, and then became a real estate investor. In 2009, he turned to writing fiction. By the middle of 2011, his nine novels, most of them suspense tales starring a former C.I.A. agent, Donovan Creed, had sold more than a million e-books through Amazon, making him the first self-published author to achieve that distinction.
Mr. Locke, now 61, has also published a nonfiction book, “How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.” One reason for his success was that he priced his novels at 99 cents, which encouraged readers to take a chance on someone they didn’t know. Another was his willingness to try to capture readers one at a time through blogging, Twitter posts and personalized e-mail, an approach that was effective but labor-intensive.
“My first marketing goal was to get five five-star reviews,” he writes. “That’s it. But you know what? It took me almost two months!” In the first nine months of his publishing career, he sold only a few thousand e-books. Then, in December 2010, he suddenly caught on and sold 15,000 e-books.
One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”
Of course he didn’t mention it! How embarrassing that you’d have to pay to get fake five-star reviews! But that’s not even the worst part. I think this little caveat is the most offensive and ridiculous detail in the whole article:
[Locke] also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.
Oh, John Locke, you tricky little man! So not only did you pay for positive reviews, but you paid for people to buy your books! That’s both dishonest, and a bit desperate seeming. Granted, you’re still a millionaire, and I’m sitting in a library trying to convince freshman to take translation classes, but well, I have my dignity. And when the Locketards invade the comments section below to tell me how much of an asshole I am, I’lll just smile and wonder how much you might have paid them for their allegiance.
1 This figure is exaggerated to approximate John Locke’s view of himself.
2 My term for fans of his drivel.
Over at the New York Times, there’s a neat interactive feature showing a bunch of Western products and what their names are when transliterated into Chinese. This kind of thing is always a fun diversion . . . Here are my personal favorites:
Citibank = Star-spangled banner bank
This makes total sense, especially since Citibank really is all-American in their support of unequal wealth distribution and screwing the masses in favor of the 1%.
Heineken = Happiness power
This really lends itself to bad pick-up lines: “Hey baby, I’m totally full of happiness power, you know what I’m saying?”
Snickers = Honorary powerful support
I never thought a candy bar could sound so “of the Party.”
Tide = Gets rid of dirt
Somehow this is a bit too direct for comfort.
This past weekend, in advance of today’s drop date for 1Q84, Sam Anderson wrote a long, very well-textured profile of Murakami entitled The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami.
To be honest, I’m not the biggest Murakami fan in the world. I really like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and to a lesser extent The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but could do without Kafka on the Shore, and was rather disappointed when I recently read A Wild Sheep Chase. That said, everything I read about 1Q84 makes me more and more excited about this book. (Which I wish Random House would send us. We’ve been asking for months, and I will happily publish a review of it here if they’d just send us a copy . . . Grrr.)
First off, this book is the very definition of massive. According to Anderson, it is “932 pages long and nearly a foot tall — the size of an extremely serious piece of legislation.” In other words, perfect for the Rochester winter.
Secondly, there’s a religious cult involved. I’m a sucker for reading, hearing, or watching about religious cults. I love them. (In an intellectual, curious way, you know?) And that’s just the beginning of the weirdness this book contains:
1Q84 is not, actually, a simple story. Its plot may not even be fully summarizable — at least not in the space of a magazine article, written in human language, on this astral plane. It begins at a dead stop: a young woman named Aomame (it means “green peas”) is stuck in a taxi, in a traffic jam, on one of the elevated highways that circle the outskirts of Tokyo. A song comes over the taxi’s radio: a classical piece called the “Sinfonietta,” by the Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek — “probably not the ideal music,” Murakami writes, “to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” And yet it resonates with her on some mysterious level. As the “Sinfonietta” plays and the taxi idles, the driver finally suggests to Aomame an unusual escape route. The elevated highways, he tells her, are studded with emergency pullouts; in fact, there happens to be one just ahead. These pullouts, he says, have secret stairways to the street that most people aren’t aware of. If she is truly desperate she could probably manage to climb down one of these. As Aomame considers this, the driver suddenly issues a very Murakami warning. “Please remember,” he says, “things are not what they seem.” If she goes down, he warns, her world might suddenly change forever.
She does, and it does. The world Aomame descends into has a subtly different history, and there are also — less subtly — two moons. (The appointment she’s late for, by the way, turns out to be an assassination.) There is also a tribe of magical beings called the Little People who emerge, one evening, from the mouth of a dead, blind goat (long story), expand themselves from the size of a tadpole to the size of a prairie dog and then, while chanting “ho ho” in unison, start plucking white translucent threads out of the air in order to weave a big peanut-shaped orb called an “air chrysalis.” This is pretty much the baseline of craziness in “1Q84.” About halfway through, the book launches itself to such rarefied supernatural heights (a levitating clock, mystical sex-paralysis) that I found myself drawing exclamation points all over the margins.
For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel” — something on the scale of The Brothers Karamazov, one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84”: a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it — a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.
That last paragraph is another reason I want to read this: it’s a blatant display of writerly ambition. Granted, short novels can be much more fulfilling and tight and readable in a relatively normal amount of time, but there’s something compelling about a wooly, extravagant, discursive, life-consuming novel. Like Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest or Cryptonomicon. I think it’s a boy thing.
Another part of Anderson’s piece that is really interesting (and relates nicely to this blog) is about translation in relation to Murakami’s influences, and the way that his books have a tendency seep into parts of your life:
Murakami’s fiction has a special way of leaking into reality. During my five days in Japan, I found that I was less comfortable in actual Tokyo than I was in Murakami’s Tokyo — the real city filtered through the imaginative lens of his books. [. . .] I became hyperaware, as I wandered around, of the things Murakami novels are hyperaware of: incidental music, ascents and descents, the shapes of people’s ears.
In doing all of this I was joining a long line of Murakami pilgrims. People have published cookbooks based on the meals described in his novels and assembled endless online playlists of the music his characters listen to. Murakami told me, with obvious delight, that a company in Korea has organized “Kafka on the Shore” tour groups in Western Japan, and that his Polish translator is putting together a 1Q84-themed travel guide to Tokyo.
Sometimes the tourism even crosses metaphysical boundaries. Murakami often hears from readers who have “discovered” his inventions in the real world: a restaurant or a shop that he thought he made up, they report, actually exists in Tokyo. In Sapporo, there are now apparently multiple Dolphin Hotels — an establishment Murakami invented in A Wild Sheep Chase. After publishing 1Q84, Murakami received a letter from a family with the surname “Aomame,” a name so improbable (remember: “green peas”) he thought he invented it. He sent them a signed copy of the book. The kicker is that all of this — fiction leaking into reality, reality leaking into fiction — is what most of Murakami’s fiction (including, especially, 1Q84) is all about. He is always shuttling us back and forth between worlds.
This calls to mind the act of translation — shuttling from one world to another — which is in many ways the key to understanding Murakami’s work. He has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life — Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English.
You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.
This past weekend, the NY Times Book Review included this interesting essay by Rachel Donadio about reading Alberto Moravia:
In its culture as in its politics, Italy lives under the shadow of Silvio Berlusconi. With his endless legal entanglements and sexual imbroglios and his colorful manner of governing (or not governing), it often feels as if the prime minister has taken all the oxygen out of the room, the airwaves, the entire republic. “How did we get here?” is the dominant — indeed often the only — topic of conversation in Italy today.
The novelist Alberto Moravia, a 20th-century giant whose work is generally overlooked today, offers one key to unlocking the mystery. Born in 1907, Moravia came of age under Fascism — he belonged to a generation of writers, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Elsa Morante (Moravia’s first wife), who found global audiences after the Second World War. In his most important novel, “The Conformist” (1951), Moravia explored the complicated links between sex and politics in a nation of cynical opportunists. The formative moment in the life of the protagonist, Marcello Clerici, comes at age 13, when he shoots a defrocked priest who has tried to seduce him. True to the novel’s title, Clerici, whose name means “clergy,” later joins the Fascist Party more out of boredom than conviction. In addition to exploring the homoeroticism of power (a theme that later captivated Pasolini), Moravia’s novel also delved into a careerism and even nihilism that he identified just below the surface of Italian society, reaching far deeper than any ideology.
Moravia died in 1990, a many-laureled man of letters. Several years later, three unpublished novellas were found by chance in a suitcase in his Rome residence. The manuscripts, which offer variations on a love story set during World War II, were most likely written in the early 1950s, between “The Conformist” and “Contempt,” a brutal 1954 account of a disintegrating marriage. Now they have been published under the title Two Friends (Other Press, $18.95), in an excellent translation by Marina Harss, offering a fascinating glimpse of how Moravia’s writing evolved. In one particularly revealing moment, the mother of a middle-class Roman family cries, “For all I care, the English can win, or the Germans. . . . I just want someone to win so we can forget all this!” Reading this today, in the long twilight of the Berlusconi era, the line is almost haunting.
Moravia (and his first wife, Elsa Morante) are both fantastic writers, and it’s great the Other Press has brought out this recently discovered series of novellas. For those interested in taking a closer look, Two Friends was one of the first books included in Read This Next, so you check out a preview by clicking here, or you can read an interview with Marina Harss. We also have a full review of the book by Acacia O’Connor.
Last year around this time, Larry Rohter wrote this amazing piece about the mission of Open Letter and the need for literature in translation. Which did wonders for our reputation and subscription program, and was one of the coolest pieces of publicity we’ve ever received.
Well, as the holidays roll back around, Larry has another piece on international literature, this one looking at “translation as literary ambassador.” It’s a nice, lengthy article, and one that hits on a number of issues, from funding for literature in translation, to Amazon’s involvement in international literature:
Among foreign cultural institutes and publishers, the traditional American aversion to literature in translation is known as “the 3 percent problem.” But now, hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market — about 3 percent — foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States.
Increasingly, that campaign is no longer limited to widely spoken languages like French and German. From Romania to Catalonia to Iceland, cultural institutes and agencies are subsidizing publication of books in English, underwriting the training of translators, encouraging their writers to tour in the United States, submitting to American marketing and promotional techniques they may have previously shunned and exploiting existing niches in the publishing industry.
“We have established this as a strategic objective, a long-term commitment to break through the American market,” said Corina Suteu, who leads the New York branch of the European Union National Institutes for Culture and directs the Romanian Cultural Institute. “For nations in Europe, be they small or large, literature will always be one of the keys of their cultural existence, and we recognize that this is the only way we are going to be able to make that literature present in the United States.”
And in addition to talking about various Dalkey series, we even get a mention:
With limited budgets and even more limited access to mainstream media, foreign cultural agencies have also come to look upon the Web as an ally in promoting their products. They spread the word not only through sites of their own, Catalonia and Romania being typical examples, but also by using American sites established specifically to champion literature in translation.
One such site, with the tongue-in-cheek name Three Percent, was founded by Open Letter, the University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, and specializes in literature in translation. It has become a lively forum to discuss and review not just that subject but also the craft of translation. Another site, Words Without Borders, founded in 2003, publishes books in translation online and also provides an outlet where translators can offer samples of their work in hopes of interesting commercial publishers.
Overall, it’s an interesting piece that does a great job laying out the issues and bringing attention to the various groups working to increase access and appreciation for literature in translation.
Below is a guest post from intern/translation grad student Acacia O’Connor, who also used to work at the Association of American Publishers.
Over the weekend the New York Times published a really great editorial about writing as an act of translation by Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel The Hours. (A warm review of Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall was also featured in the NYT Book Review yesterday.)
Cunningham offers an ode to translation and the difficulties it presents: musicality is an issue, fidelity, approximation of force, and so on ad nauseum until we translators are asking ourselves why on earth we would do this do ourselves, putting down our pencils and reaching for a drink instead.
He shares his observation that each attempt by a writer to write a piece of literature is an act of translation. Cunningham basically admits that the writer is attempting to approximate on paper the great work that he or she feels welling up inside of them, something I think few writers are willing to come out and say.
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. [. . .]
Even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
Then Cunningham talks about writing for the reader: writing for normal people who haven’t necessarily gone to Stanford or heard of Dostoyevsky, who will translate “the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension” Ideal readers don’t exist, and it’s silly to think about them snuggling up with Your Epically Great Franzenian Work of Literature. Because all literary acts, including translation, are attempts at understanding and communication. And according to Cunningham “attempt” doesn’t necessarily mean failure or, as he puts it, “a mass exercise in disappointment.” Whew, that’s a relief.
Jennifer Schuessler has a really fun and interesting article in this week’s New York Times Book Review about Bob Brown, the Godfather of the E-Reader:
Brown is perhaps best remembered for The Readies, a 1930 manifesto blending the fervor of the Futurists with the playfulness of Jules Verne. “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” Brown declared in the first line. “The movies have outmaneuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies.” Enough with the tyranny of paper and ink! “Writing has been bottled up in books since the start,” Brown wrote. “It is time to pull out the stopper” and begin “a bloody revolution of the word.”
Brown’s weapon of choice was not ideological but mechanical. “To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine,” he wrote. “A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.” The machine he described, in which a ribbon of miniaturized text would scroll behind a magnifying glass at a speed controlled by the reader, sounds a lot like microfilm, then in development. But its truest inspirations, Saper argues, lay in the ticker-tape machine and in modernist experiments like Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” which Brown first read as a young man while working as a stock trader and hanging out with poets. In 1931, after word of his machine spread, he published “Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine,” an anthology of experimental texts sent to him by Stein, Marinetti, Pound and others.
There’s actually an online demonstration of the machine, which is, not surprisingly, a bit difficult to use. (Or maybe it just takes some getting used to. Maybe.)
Her whole piece is really interesting, and I love these old-school mechanical reading devices. Reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s contraption for reading Hopscotch which features a dentist’s chair (or maybe a shrink’s couch) and an intricate series of little card catalog boxes containing each of the chapters from the novel. The mechanistic trick being that as you close one drawer, the next chapter to read pops out for you. (For anyone unfamiliar with Hopscotch quit reading this pointless blog and go buy a copy. Take a week off work. Whatever. And you’ll quickly find out how this book skips from chapter to chapter is a semi-achronological way . . .)
As we all know, on Saturday our understanding of the modern world was irreversibly altered when
Butler upended MSU to represent the Horizon League (Horizon League?!?) in tonight’s National Championship Apple released the iPad. To mark this occasion, the Times ran an interesting op-ed from nonfiction author Marc Aronson about paying for permissions in a digital age:
In order for electronic books to live up to their billing, we have to fix a system that is broken: getting permission to use copyrighted material in new work. Either we change the way we deal with copyrights — or works of nonfiction in a multimedia world will become ever more dull and disappointing.
The hope of nonfiction is to connect readers to something outside the book: the past, a discovery, a social issue. To do this, authors need to draw on pre-existing words and images.
Unless we nonfiction writers are lucky and hit a public-domain mother lode, we have to pay for the right to use just about anything — from a single line of a song to any part of a poem; from the vast archives of the world’s art (now managed by gimlet-eyed venture capitalists) to the historical images that serve as profit centers for museums and academic libraries.
Copyright issues and permissions are an age-old problem, but what makes Aronson’s piece interesting to me is his suggestion of how to fix this:
For e-books, the new model would look something like this: Instead of paying permission fees upfront based on estimated print runs, book creators would pay based on a periodic accounting of downloads. Right now, fees are laid out on a set schedule whose minimum rates are often higher than a modest book can support. The costs may be fine for textbooks or advertisers, but they punish individual authors. Since publishers can’t afford to fully cover permissions fees for print books, and cannot yet predict what they will earn from e-books, the writer has to choose between taking a loss on permissions fees or short-changing readers on content.
Putting aside piracy issues for a minute (or, heaven bless us, forever), this idea does represent one of the promises for an e-book world. I know from negotiating permission in the past that the current system is pretty much bullshit. I would always claim that we were going to sell something in the range of 75 copies of a particular title, the rights holder would still insist on a multi-thousand dollar fee that would exceed some author advances, and the whole process was fairly disturbing. Anything on a pay-per-piece model is appealing to me, since it actually ties expenses to sales and makes a book’s budget a little more logical. (Just a little bit, but still, in this industry, a little logic could go a long way.)
The other week, the New York Times ran a piece on advances in Google’s translation tools, focusing on the way Google essentially crowdsources its mechanical translations by searching its mammoth database of web pages, books, etc.
Creating a translation machine has long been seen as one of the toughest challenges in artificial intelligence. For decades, computer scientists tried using a rules-based approach — teaching the computer the linguistic rules of two languages and giving it the necessary dictionaries.
But in the mid-1990s, researchers began favoring a so-called statistical approach. They found that if they fed the computer thousands or millions of passages and their human-generated translations, it could learn to make accurate guesses about how to translate new texts.
It turns out that this technique, which requires huge amounts of data and lots of computing horsepower, is right up Google’s alley. [. . .]
“This technology can make the language barrier go away,” said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google who leads the company’s machine translation team. “It would allow anyone to communicate with anyone else.”
Statements like that fired up a number of translators, sparking at least one letter to the editor, and several snarky email exchanges. What really pissed everyone off though was this chart, which compares Google’s translation to published ones, never once mentioning the living, breathing translator’s name at all (instead referring to the “human translation”), nor acknowledging that, yes, Google can seemingly perform translation wonders when it’s searching the web for some of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature. Only a dummy would be surprised to see Google nail the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, since Gregory Rabassa’s brilliant rendition is available virtually everywhere.
Fast forward a couple weeks, and welcome renowned translator David Bellos for the smackdown.
Bellos’s op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times is the perfect example of how to write something like this. The piece is brilliant from opening to finishing flourish. In a very balanced, smart way, he starts by describing the history of (and potential need for) machine translation, and building from there to explain the paradigm shift from thinking as language as a “code” made up of a lexicon and a grammar, to the statistical approach, which functions because people tend to say the same things over and over again in all languages.
All that’s fine and good—machine translation can help interpret when people are calling for help, when they’re making basic statements. But the implication beneath the original article (and especially that damned chart) is that machine translation can translate anything from menus to distress calls to works of high-literature. And it’s that last category which caused everyone to spit out their morning coffee. For a few reasons:
Can Google Translate ever be of any use for the creation of new literary translations into English or another language? The first thing to say is that there really is no need for it to do that: would-be translators of foreign literature are not in short supply — they are screaming for more opportunities to publish their work.
But even if the need were there, Google Translate could not do anything useful in this domain. It is not conceived or programmed to take into account the purpose, real-world context or style of any utterance. (Any system able to do that would be a truly epochal achievement, but such a miracle is not on the agenda of even the most advanced machine translation developers.)
However, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, if you were to take a decidedly jaundiced view of some genre of contemporary foreign fiction (say, French novels of adultery and inheritance), you could surmise that since such works have nothing new to say and employ only repeated formulas, then after a sufficient number of translated novels of that kind and their originals had been scanned and put up on the Web, Google Translate should be able to do a pretty good simulation of translating other regurgitations of the same ilk.
So what? That’s not what literary translation is about. For works that are truly original — and therefore worth translating — statistical machine translation hasn’t got a hope. Google Translate can provide stupendous services in many domains, but it is not set up to interpret or make readable work that is not routine — and it is unfair to ask it to try. After all, when it comes to the real challenges of literary translation, human beings have a hard time of it, too.
Well played, David.
On the surface, the op-ed piece that FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi wrote for the Tiimes this past weekend seems pretty mundane. His main point seems to be that good editors at good publishing houses make good books better. Or more directly: publishers do more than simply print and sell books. They have special knowledge about book-world things that not many other people have.
All that is true. Absolutely. And I don’t think anyone would really argue with that. (We all know the value of a great editor, right? And although authors will bitch—they always bitch—about the amount of publicity their publicist is getting them, I doubt more than a handful of authors would really enjoy all the legwork that goes into pitching a book to reviewers, arranging a tour, etc.)
Even Galassi’s conclusion feels a bit tautological:
In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.
(Although I must admit, I’m a bit confused by the closing line. Is “man’s greatest invention” an imperishable book as produced by the publisher or simply an imperishable book? Is this some chicken-and-egg zen thing? Like there is no book that presupposes a publisher?)
To the general reader, this op-ed piece might not sound like much. But this is actually a pretty well-crafted statement about a couple of touchy e-book/future of publishing issues.
First off, in the very first paragraph, Galassi brings up the situation regarding the e-book version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In case you’re not familiar with the behind-the-scenes positioning related to this, the basic story is that although Random House is the publisher of the print version of Sophie’s Choice, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media (and formerly of HarperCollins), bought up the e-rights and this will be one of the first e-books she publishes.
In response, Random House issued a blanket statement claiming that the “book and volume publishing rights” in their standard pre-e-everything contracts actually included e-book rights, thereby preventing estates from selling off e-book rights to some other publishers. Er, in Galassi lingo, “e-book distributor.”
Rather than jump into this legal fray and try and make a claim that, like the constitution, these old-school contracts are totally open to interpretation and subtle time-adjustments, Galassi instead appeals to the logic that without a great editor (and publicist and sales force and and and), Styron wouldn’t have been known for shit, and thus Random House should be the one to benefit from his success—in whatever form that takes. Remember, there would be no e-book if there weren’t first a print publisher.
This argument is definitely appealing. No one likes to think that they could do all the ground work on something only to have a third-party come along and profit off of your hard work and expertise. And the subtle move of making Open Road a e-distributor is kind of brilliant. In the court of public opinion, Galassi’s scoring some major points here.
And although it may not be as explicit, I also think you could read this piece as the beginnings of an argument about how e-books should cost the same as a print version. After all, the amount of editorial expertise and work that goes into producing an e-book is the same as what goes into the print version . . .
E-book pricing and rights issues are the 2010 battlegrounds, and this is a great foundation-laying piece for one side of the argument. Galassi is one of the best publishers in the business (and I say that not just because of his on-going commitment to literature in translation), and a pretty brilliant guy. And I know that I would be seriously pissed if someone came along and bought the e-rights to some of our books right out from under us and managed to make
thousands hundreds tens of dollars off of Kindle sales.
That said, the business world is the business world, and where there’s an opportunity to make money, someone is going to step in and exploit it. It’s the American Way. Right? And as sick as pure capitalism makes me, it only seems fair that authors have the right to benefit through new sales of their work that have opened up due to technological advances. Maybe if Random House, FSG, and the like offer their authors an incentive (a new advance just for the e-book sales?), the estates wouldn’t be tempted to sell the rights to an e-book distributor . . . Simply laying down a claim to these rights—solid argument and all—feels just a bit totalitarian and creepy.
Then again, that’s why/how these companies are making millions of dollars in profit every year . . .
A few weeks ago, Larry Rohter of the New York Times came up to interview just about everyone involved in Open Letter and the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation programs. The piece he was working on appeared in the paper over the weekend.
So, if you’re curious what we’re doing up here, and if you’re reading this I assume you have to be at least a little curious, the article will give you a good overview of our program and vision.
In celebration of our thirteen-month anniversary, we’re offering a special on all twelve of the titles we’ve published so far: from now until November can buy any 2 Open Letter books for $22. And when you do (and hopefully you will—this is a killer bargain!), you’ll automatically be entered into a drawing to win a free one-year subscription.
(So, if you’re one of those lucky people, you could end up with 12 books for $22 . . . )
And if I might make a suggestion: I would highly recommend getting a copy of Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer. The book just came out and is going to be reviewed in the October 25th issue of the New York Times Book Review. (Our first Times review!) And as a sneak preview, next week we’ll be serializing a chunk of the novel on the website . . .
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.”
Earlier in the month we posted a piece by Chinese translator—and amazingly nice guy—Wen Huang about Xianhui Yang’s collection of “stories” Woman from Shanghai. And no, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—these pieces are based on real-life events, with added fictional/literary aspects in order to skirt censorship issues. Which only makes the book more disturbing and calls to mind Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl.
I’m hoping to have a review of this up in the next couple weeks (although I keep promising reviews and not delivering, so we’ll see . . .), but in the meantime, it’s great to see the New York Times covering this in such a solid way:
Xianhui Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp,” a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls “fact-based fiction,” is about what might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China. Reading it, one begins to appreciate why travelers to North Korea are so reluctant to reflect on human suffering: the reality of North Korea today is too painfully close to a situation endured by the Chinese well within living memory. As the circumstances of the publication of “Woman From Shanghai” help us understand, these are memories that the Chinese state still works hard to suppress.
Mr. Yang’s stories, which he painstakingly collected over a three-year period a decade ago, are those of people branded by the Chinese state as “rightists” in the late 1950s and sent to Jiabiangou, a notorious camp for “re-education through labor” in the northwestern desert wastelands of Gansu Province. In his introduction the translator, Wen Huang, explains that the camp, which was originally built to hold 40 or 50 criminals, came to hold roughly 3,000 political prisoners between 1957 and 1961. All but 500 of them would perish there, mostly of starvation.
When word of the soaring death toll reached the capital, Beijing began an investigation. In October 1961 the government ordered Jiabiangou closed and then mounted an exhaustive cover-up. After it was shuttered, a doctor who was assigned to the camp spent six months fabricating the medical records of every inmate. In letters to family members, the cause of death was attributed to all manner of illness except starvation, a word that was never mentioned. [. . .]
Readers of Mr. Yang’s book should not be put off by the frequent recurrence of common elements in these stories: the exposure to bitter cold; hunger so intense as to cause inmates to eat human flesh; the familiar sequence of symptoms, beginning with edema, that lead down the path to death; the toolbox of common survivor techniques, from toadyism to betrayal, from stealthy theft to making use of the vestiges of privilege, which survived even incarceration in this era of radical egalitarianism. It is through the accumulation and indeed repetition of such things that this utterly convincing portrait of a society driven far off the rails is drawn.
And Howard French even mentions Wen in his review, praising him for all he’s done to bring this book—along with The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu—to the attention of English readers.
Speaking of Wen, I believe he’s writing a few things for Publishing Perspectives about China. Should be really interesting.
This is a few days old now, but it was great to see Larry Rohter of the New York Times do a special feature on Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. Bellatin—and his books—are really interesting. Even the opening story in the piece is awesome:
A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.
Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”
And if this sort of intellectual game-playing wasn’t already intriguing enough, he also fools around with his body:
Mr. Bellatin himself is missing much of his right arm, the result of a birth defect that he says he “plays with, takes advantage of and acknowledges” in his work by “writing with my whole body.” He jokes about “my left hand knoweth not what my right hand doeth,” and depending on his mood, he sometimes appears in public wearing a prosthesis with an attachment, chosen from his collection of more than a dozen, that gives him the appearance of Captain Hook.
“People often say, with a lot of truth to it, that all good fiction writing comes from some wound, out of some distance that needs to be breached between a writer and normalcy,” said the novelist and critic Francisco Goldman, a friend of Mr. Bellatin. “In Mario’s sense, the wound is literal and comes with all kinds of psychological nuance and pain, and seems related to sexuality and desire, the desire for a whole body. One of my favorite aspects of him is this sense that he is writing for all the freaks — either literally freaks or privately and metaphorically, that he really touches us.”
Beauty Salon came out from City Lights this week (see “our review”: by Larissa Kyzer) and has been nominated for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Definitely worth checking out, and hopefully City Lights will be bringing out more of Bellatin’s works in the near future.
From the NY Times article after he was confirmed:
But in his first sit-down interview since his nomination by President Obama, Mr. Landesman’s comments suggested that he may nevertheless raise hackles on Capitol Hill after he is sworn in in the next few days. Speaking recently in his office above the St. James Theater on West 44th Street, where Tony Awards abut baseball trophies — testament to his prowess as a producer and as a pitcher in the Broadway Show League — Mr. Landesman, 62, made clear that he has little patience for the disdain with which some politicians still seem to view the endowment, more than a decade after the culture wars that nearly destroyed it.
He was particularly angered, he said, by parts of the debate over whether to include $50 million for the agency in the federal stimulus bill, citing the comment by Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in February, that arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”
In American politics generally, he added: “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”
And while he praised the way recent endowment chairmen have carefully rebuilt the agency’s political standing, Mr. Landesman — who is known more as an independent entrepreneur than as a diplomatic company man — said he was not planning to follow too closely in their footsteps. While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.
“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”
“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”
Oh, Peoria. Poor, poor Peoria. First you can’t even get a heartless corporate giant to name your minor league stadium and then you get picked on in the New York Times. The world is not just.
But seriously, this guy sounds like he’s going to screw with the status quo, which will make a lot of people nervous, may well backfire, or could help out the organizations that most need it. (cough Open Letter produces high quality art cough) Regardless, sounds like arts orgs are going to be in for a bit of a ride . . . and arts reporters should have some good material for the next few years.
Here are some of the other salient points from the article:
Mr. Landesman does believe that the agency should be “perceived as being everywhere,” he said. “But I don’t know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography.”
On the subject of the endowment’s budget, too, Mr. Landesman did not hold back. Though he would not put a dollar figure on his own fiscal goals, he called the current appropriation of $155 million “pathetic” and “embarrassing.” And he seemed to imply dissatisfaction with increases proposed by Congress and by the president, which both fall short of the agency’s 1992 budget of $176 million.
I can think of a few other four-letter words for the size of the NEA budget, most of which end with “Republican.”
As for grants to individual artists — which were eliminated in 1996 after years of complaints from conservative legislators about the financing of controversial art — Mr. Landesman said he would reinstate them “tomorrow” if it were up to him. (It’s up to Congress.)
And most interesting:
He was less clear about the details of this ambitious agenda, though he talked about starting a program that he called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas.
“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.”
As someone about to move to a decayed downtown, I’m all for this. Maybe he can find some funding (I think a million or so will do it) to buy all of downtown Detroit and make it into a artist utopia . . .
Hard to say that the New York Times doesn’t review translations after this week . . . In addition to Kakutani’s
possibly insane review of The Kindly Ones, this weekend’s Book Review includes articles on four works of literature in translation.
A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred, but if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years. This event is the belated appearance in English of the novel Every Man Dies Alone, the story of a working-class Berlin couple who took on the Third Reich with a postcard campaign intended to foment rebellion against Hitler’s Germany. Published in 1947, the book was written in 24 days by a prolific but psychologically disturbed German writer named Rudolf Ditzen, who spent a significant portion of his life in asylums (for killing a friend in a duel, for threatening his wife with a gun), in prison (for embezzling to finance his morphine habit) and in rehab. In spite of his precarious emotional state, he wrote more than two dozen books under the pen name Hans Fallada, which he took from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Then there’s Dennis Overbye’s positive review of Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which was translated by Stephen Snyder, another Salzburg Seminar participant. Ogawa’s earlier book — The Diving Pool — was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and despite my rather tepid review, is worth checking out. I’m sure we’ll review this one sometime in the near future as well. And according to Stephen, the next book of Ogawa’s that Picador is publishing is the best of the bunch . . .
Yet Doghead is a very different book from The World According to Garp, say, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. For all their eccentric habits and physical peculiarities, Irving’s characters are essentially realistic, capable of making a profound emotional connection with the reader. Ramsland’s are larger-than-life creations who go by a roll call of nicknames, among them Jug Ears, the Bath Plug and the Little Bitch. In the world of the Erikssons, life is shocking and childhood brutal. No one is to be trusted, family least of all. Rambunctious, often imaginative, invariably cruel, the stories rattle through a catalog of adultery, duplicity and casual violence. A father sells his son’s precious coin collection to buy booze. A mother hides the letters sent to her son by his distant love. A brother tapes his sister making out with her boyfriend in the room next door and shares the cassettes with his friends. None of these characters learn from their mistakes. Instead they run away from them. And those who stay make more.
Despite its earthy comedy, then, Doghead is ultimately a bleak book.
And last but not least is Floyd Skloot’s review of Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Fat Man and Infinity and Other Writings. I wrote a very positive review of this for Quarterly Conversation (coming soon) and really hope that this book gets even more attention than What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? did. It’s more accessible, and a great intro to Antunes’s world. Skloot’s review isn’t entirely positive, but he does sum up the sundry nature of the book pretty well:
Now, in The Fat Man and Infinity, he turns his attention inward, onto his own life and mind, his own experience of place and community. Neither traditional memoir nor in-depth analysis, it collects 107 brief chronicles from the weekly or biweekly columns Lobo Antunes has written for various publications, particularly the Portuguese newspaper O Público. The Fat Man and Infinity is a genuine miscellany, roughly half reminiscence or reflection and half very short fiction, that struggles to cohere. Detailed and often lyrical, it is best at offering moments of nostalgic charm.
I’m sure people will still jump on Tanenhaus for something, but this is a pretty solid issue . . . now, hopefully one of these weeks an Open Letter title will slip in there . . .
I think I read the Rabbit books at too young an age to ever fully appreciate John Updike’s work. But once I started working at Dalkey, the thing I did appreciate was his amazing literary taste. Over and again we would be reprinting a somewhat obscure author, like Robert Pinget, and in searching for reviews and quotes about the book, we’d turn up a lengthy New Yorker essay by Updike about this great literary find. (It’s cool that there was a time when critics could write long glowing pieces about international authors virtually unknown to the American public. But that’s a subject for a different post.)
If for nothing else, Updike will be missed for his stature as a true “man of letters.” There are many people like that left in the world.
The New York Times has a great overview of his life and work.
One of the legends of publishing, Richard Seaver died from a heart attack on Tuesday. The New York Times has a very nice obituary that highlights his stint at Grove Press, and a bit about what he did at Arcade over the past twenty years.
For the past 20 years, Mr. Seaver and his wife ran Arcade Publishing, which has endured to become one of the most prominent independent publishers left in the United States, specializing in works by far-flung and underexposed authors from all over the world. But the mission of Arcade, to publish new voices that seemingly flout the wisdom of the marketplace, was one that Mr. Seaver began pursuing decades earlier. [. . .]
During Mr. Seaver’s dozen years at Grove — he eventually became its editor in chief — it mounted many similar challenges to decency statutes, publishing literary but taboo-challenging works like Henry Miller’s autobiographical sex odysseys, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; Burroughs’s semi-surreal travelogue of a homosexual junkie, Naked Lunch; and Hubert Selby’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which dealt unflinchingly with drugs, homosexuality and rape. In 1965 Grove published a translation of The Story of O, a 1954 French novel about a woman who gives away her body in slavery to a man.
He also translated more than 50 books from the French, including works by Marguerite Duras.
The Times also included this nice bit from Seaver’s recently complete memoir:
In a recently completed memoir, Mr. Seaver recalled the great literary moment of his youth. It was 1952, he was 25 and he had just finished reading two novels, Molloy and Malone Dies, which he deemed to be masterpieces. He wanted to say so.
“How do you write a meaningful comment on such rich, complex, still undiscovered work, without making a critical fool of yourself?” he wrote. “So make a fool of yourself.”
“Out, damned modesty,” he added. “If conviction means anything, then write from the heart. Slightly less tentatively, I wrote: ‘Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer long established in France, has recently published two novels which, although they defy all commentary, merit the attention of anyone interested in this century’s literature.’ ”
Motoko Rich’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times points out the crazy extremes of the book business in these times, comparing Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “temporary” acquisitions freeze with the situation at Hachette:
As first reported by Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter, Hachette is giving bonuses equal to one week’s salary to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible.
Why is this possible?
On the surface these twin pieces of news would seem to suggest that success in the book industry, as with other forms of entertainment, is increasingly dependent on the production of major hits, works that are so successful that they can support a family of less successful siblings. David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said that the company had racked up 104 New York Times best sellers this year.
Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.
Sounds somewhat like the essay I’ve been serializing . . . The best quote in the article—well, if you’re a bit self-deprecating and ironic—is this one:
“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”
Uh, shit. At least the foreign authors we’re publishing are household names, you know? Like Ricardas Gavelis . . . Or, um, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, both of whom are destined to be Oprah Book Club pics. (Did I mention how an Open Letter subscription makes a great holiday gift?)
Actually, Motoko loaded this piece with great quotes:
“I cannot conceive of ever saying, ‘We’re not buying more books,’ ” said David Shanks, chief executive of Penguin Group USA, another publisher that has had a decent year with successful titles like Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual guide A New Earth and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which has continued its best-seller status on the paperback list. “You might as well put up a sign saying, ‘We’re out of business.’ ”
Yesterday, Sign and Sight ran a brand-new essay by Dubravka Ugresic called “Radovan Karadzic and His Grandchildren” and which opens in typical Ugresic fashion:
One hundred and forty-one old men
Over the weekend of the 19th and 20th of July 2008, the town of Key West in Florida played host to one hundred and forty-one — Ernest Hemingways. Hemingways from all over America gathered in Key West in a competition for the greatest degree of physical resemblance between the famous writer and his surrogates. This year the winner was Tom Grizzard, in what is said to have been a very stiff competition. The photograph that went round the world shows a collection of merry granddads, looking like Father Christmases who have escaped from their winter duties, that is to say like Ernest Hemingway. The old men, who meet every year in Key West on Hemingway’s birthday, took part in fishing and short story writing competitions.
Another old man . . .
The following day newspapers in Croatia carried a photograph of an old man who has no connection at all with the hundred and forty-one old men from the previous article. In Croatia on 21st July 2008, Dinko Sakic died, at the age of eighty-six. Who was Dinko Sakic? Sakic was the commandant of the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac, where Jews, Serbs, Gyspies and communist-oriented Croats were systematically annihilated. After the war he managed to escape to Argentina, and it was not until 1999 that the Argentinian authorities handed him over to Croatia, where he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
It’s a really interesting piece—as are all of her essays—and would have fit in nicely with the essays in Nobody’s Home, which started shipping to stores earlier this week . . .
And it’s fitting that this morning’s New York Times has this report on Karadzic refusing to enter pleas on the 11 charges brought against him by the United Nations war crimes tribunal, claiming that he is “deeply convinced that this court is representing itself falsely as an international court, whereas it is a court of NATO, which wishes to liquidate me.”
From Literary Saloon:
We missed their announcement from a few weeks ago, but Jennifer Schuessler recently mentioned it at their Paper Cuts weblog: The New York Times Book Review is now available in Romanian, the only international edition of the NYTBR, licensed to Editura Univers and with a print run of 40,000 to start off with.
And from Shelf Awareness:
Anthony Frost, a new English-language bookshop in Bucharest, Romania, “has become popular among students, academics and expats, especially for its fair pricing system—which sees English-language books on sale for the same cost as in the West,” the Diplomat Bucharest reported.
As to the name?
Why “Anthony Frost?” Co-owner Vlad Niculescu said it’s the name of a friend who helped foster the three owners’ collective passion for English. “He doesn’t know we’ve named the bookshop after him yet. It may be a surprise.”
Both of these things are kind of cool, although I wish this was more of an equal flow and a Romanian book review was being translated into English along with more Romanian lit. (Well, we’ve got our eye on a major, major Romanian work for Open Letter, but I’ve got to keep that under wraps for now . . . )
Regardless, maybe Sara from NYRB is wrong about 2008 being the “Year of Hungary” . . . it just might be the “Year of Romania,” thanks in no small part to the awesome job the people at the Romanian Cultural Institute are doing to promote Romanian art.
The NY Times just posted their Top 10 list for 2007, and the five fiction selections are actually pretty solid:
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic)
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Translated by Anne Born. (Graywolf Press)
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. (Little, Brown & Company)
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
For those of you who are counting, translations make up 40% of this list . . .
Over the past few weeks, there’s been an ongoing discussion of the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace in the NY Times Reading Room.
According to Karl Pohrt at Shaman Drum, this has greatly helped increase the interest in the new edition of W&P, which is great, and demonstrates the power of these type of online reading groups.
In a recent overview post called The Art of Translation, Sam Tanenhaus praised the P&V translation for being both musical and spare, and then asked what others thought—especially in comparison to previous translations.
Well, the comments section is much too long to recount here, but it’s definitely worth checking out. There have always been detractors of P&V, especially since Pevear isn’t fluent in Russia and instead rewrites Volokhonsky’s more literal translations.
When this came up in the comments section, Pevear jumped in with a somewhat testy—and very, very long—response.
About some specifics and our supposed literalism. Bill Keller finds that the expressions “Why so?” and “What’s with you?” are not colloquial English (they “feel like Russian” to him). That surprises me. I’m a tenth generation Yankee and have been using them all my life. Francine Prose finds that our use of “rare people” in the passage on page 1, “grippe was a new word then, used only by rare people,” is infelicitous. Tolstoy, with strong irony, deliberately says “redkimi,” i.e. “rare people,” and not “the elite,” as Ms. Prose would prefer. She may be one of the rare people who has never heard the expression. “Deceive the expectations” sounds more affected than “disappoint,” but consider the tone of the scene and the social position of the participant! To say “it’s simply not English” implies a rather narrow set of standards. And who sets these standards anyway?
These discussions are always interesting, and it seems to me that P&V translations are occasionally brilliant, sometimes pedestrian, but always get people reading and talking about the “Big Russian Books,” which can’t be all bad . . .
Anyway, following this heated, fascinating discussion, Tanenhaus wrote a defense of P&V, which is also quite interesting, and very polemical, although opening a bit brashly:
O.K, gang. No more Mr. Nice Guy Moderator. Today, the gloves come off, which is to say: In re this translation, many of you are — how to put this? — off your rockers.
But ends with Tanenhaus praising the translation’s difficulty:
The upshot is that the P&V translation forces us now and again to wonder about a turn of phrase or even stop in mid-gallop and cast our eyes down the page for help. Frustrating? Maybe. But don’t those delays have the virtue of approximating the interpretive dislocations of life itself, which seldom unfolds as a smooth narrative but instead taunts us with intervals — often prolonged — of utter incomprehension, through which we must think and rethink and puzzle? It seems to me a translation that seeks to capture Tolstoy’s “voice of truth” (in Figes’s words) shouldn’t be grasped too quickly; in fact, we read most profitably if we’re continually adjusting and adapting as we go so as to immerse ourselves more completely in the experience.
What I most like about this exchange is how passionate people are when it comes to the quality of this translation. These comments—especially from the detractors—open up a lot of interesting topics for discussion. It’s just unfortunate that the Tanehaus and Pevear defenses seem like just that—defenses based in a judgment that P&V are absolutely right, infallible, and beyond debate.
The New York Times has a really interesting article today about “Stalags,” “a series of pornographic pocket books called Stalags, based on Nazi themes,” which were best-sellers in the 1960s.
The books told perverse tales of captured American or British pilots being abused by sadistic female SS officers outfitted with whips and boots. The plot usually ended with the male protagonists taking revenge, by raping and killing their tormentors.
These books probably didn’t have a lot of literary merit (although “I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch” is a pretty great title), but the upcoming release of the documentary “Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel” demonstrates that these books did have a significant impact on the culture and the representation of Nazism.
After decades in dusty back rooms and closets, the Stalags, a peculiar Hebrew concoction of Nazism, sex and violence, are re-emerging in the public eye. And with them comes a rekindled debate on the cultural representation here of Nazism and the Holocaust, and whether they have been unduly mixed in with a kind of sexual perversion and voyeurism that has permeated even the school curriculum.
And although it doesn’t always seem the case, fiction can be quite powerful. According to the film, these books came out of the Eichmann trial and was an extension of K. Tzetnik’s writings, which were the first person to write about Auschwitz in Hebrew.
K. Tzetnik was a pseudonym for Yehiel Feiner De-Nur. The alias, short for the German for concentration camper, was meant to represent all survivors, a kind of Holocaust everyman. One of K. Tzetnik’s biggest literary successes, “Doll’s House,” published in 1953, told the story of a character purporting to be the author’s sister, serving the SS as a sex slave in Block 24, the notorious Pleasure Block in Auschwitz.
Though a Holocaust classic, many scholars now describe it as pornographic and likely made up.
The idea of falsified Holocaust memoirs is one that comes up in Omega Minor, another book we’ve been on about this week.
Michiko Kakutani on Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:
a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.
Really. I probably would’ve went with Sabrina the Teenage Age instead of Star Trek, but whatever. It’s always good to see tried-and-true jacket copy techniques make their way into major book reviews. It’s like journalism meets laziness meets bad metaphor.
From the New York Times
Moved by claims that it will help the metabolism and productivity of his fellow citizens, President Hugo Chávez said clocks would be moved forward by half an hour at the start of 2008. He announced the change on his Sunday television program, accompanied by his highest-ranking science adviser, Héctor Navarro, the minister of science and technology. “This is about the metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight,” Mr. Navarro said in comments reported by Venezuela’s official news agency. Mr. Chávez said he was “certain” that the time change, which would be accompanied by a move to a six-hour workday, would be accepted.
There’s a great fiction chronicle Sunday’s New York Times Book Review by Alison McCulloch. A few international writers are featured, including two of my favorites: Jean Echenoz and Robert Walser.
Ravel by Jean Echenoz has been getting some decent praise, and Ms. McCulloch calls it a “beautifully musical little novel.”
The Assistant by Robert Walser has already gotten some play here at Three Percent, and it’s great to see it get some deserved attention in the Times.
Benjamin Weissman reviewed the Walser for the L.A. Times this past weekend, and has this to say:
The Assistant has, at times, the rambling feel of a journal. Perhaps it could have benefited from a rigorous edit, but Walser fans will appreciate the loose approach. Not since Laurence Sterne has the digression been taken on such lovely excursions, in the form of a mental walkabout that occurs in nearly every scene.
Which makes me even more interested in reading this.
Last week, E.J. posted about poet and novelist Taslima Nasrin, who was attacked at her book launch.
Well, according to today’s Arts, Briefly in the New York Times things have gotten even crazier:
The Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen will face criminal charges for what the authorities called her anti-Islamic views, which prompted an attack against her by Muslims last week in central India, Agence France-Presse reported. A police official in the city of Hyderabad said Ms. Nasreen faced a charge of “hurting Muslim feelings.” [. . . ] Under Indian law, promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will” between religious groups is punishable by up to three years in jail.
From the New York Times
George Tabori, an internationally known Hungarian-born playwright whose work sounded the depths of the refugee experience, a condition with which he was intimately familiar, died on Monday at his home in Berlin. He was 93.
Thankfully, this week’s NY Times Book Review includes a review of Norwegian author—and recent IMPAC award-winner— Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses by Thomas McGuane. (Really, who’s more qualified to write about horse related books than McGuane?)
It’s a solid review that ends with this nearly over-the-top sentiment:
This short yet spacious and powerful book — in such contrast to the well-larded garrulity of the bulbous American novel of today — reminds us of the careful and apropos writing of J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and Uwe Timm. Petterson’s kinship with Knut Hamsun, which he has himself acknowledged, is palpable in Hamsun’s “Pan,” “Victoria” and even the lighthearted “Dreamers.” But nothing should suggest that his superb novel is so embedded in its sources as to be less than a gripping account of such originality as to expand the reader’s own experience of life.
The first chapter of Out Stealing Horses is also available via the Times website.
This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (which can be found here) has exactly 0 reviews of books in translation.
There is a review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin’s new book about Zimbabwe though, and a review of Ondaatje’s latest Divisadero, which Erica Wagner favorably reviews, and which sounds interesting:
Divisadero is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. Ondaatje is a writer who likes to blur form . . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .
While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.
Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .
The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .