At this year’s ALTA Conference (which will take place October 3-6 here in Rochester and will be the Best ALTA Ever . . . get more info here and if you come, I promise you a good time), we’re going to have a roundtable organized by Aron Aji to investigate the difficulties of translating a single sentence. Here’s his current description:
Knotty Little Things: One Sentence Translation Roundtable
The collective craft and creativity of a group focusing intently on a translation challenge can often work wonders. This roundtable will focus on a series of sentences that each presents a particularly knotty translation challenge. We will workshop the sentences as a group. Your one sentence should be around 35 words in length. In advance of the conference, please email the moderator (aronaji[at]yahoo.com) a one-page document that includes: the original, the translation, and the brief statement of the translation challenge(s). Since there will be no panel of presenters per se, we will attempt to workshop as many sentences as we can.
I think this is going to be a brilliant event, and coincidentally, this piece in the New Yorker highlights exactly why:
For the modern American reader, few lines in French literature are as famous as the opening of Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Nitty-gritty tense issues aside, the first sentence of “The Stranger” is so elementary that even a schoolboy with a base knowledge of French could adequately translate it. So why do the pros keep getting it wrong?
Within the novel’s first sentence, two subtle and seemingly minor translation decisions have the power to change the way we read everything that follows. What makes these particular choices prickly is that they poke at a long-standing debate among the literary community: whether it is necessary for a translator to have some sort of special affinity with a work’s author in order to produce the best possible text.
Ryan Bloom goes on to explain how the “traditional” translation of this opening line has been “Mother died today.” But that taints our perception of Meursault:
In 1982, both Joseph Laredo and Kate Griffith produced new translations of “L’Étranger,” each opting for Gilbert’s revised title, “The Stranger,” but preserving his first line. “Mother died today” remained, and it wasn’t until 1988 that the line saw a single word changed. It was then that American translator and poet Matthew Ward reverted “Mother” back to Maman. One word? What’s the big deal? A large part of how we view and—alongside the novel’s court—ultimately judge Meursault lies in our perception of his relationship with his mother. We condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits but on our assessment of him as a person. Does he love his mother? Or is he cold toward her, uncaring, even?
First impressions matter, and, for forty-two years, the way that American readers were introduced to Meursault was through the detached formality of his statement: “Mother died today.” There is little warmth, little bond or closeness or love in “Mother,” which is a static, archetypal term, not the sort of thing we use for a living, breathing being with whom we have close relations. To do so would be like calling the family dog “Dog” or a husband “Husband.” The word forces us to see Meursault as distant from the woman who bore him.
That little shift from “mother” to “maman” is fascinating and really gets at the heart of translation decision making. But wait! There’s more:
The linguistic fluency of any good translator tells them that, syntactically, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” is not the most fluid English sentence. So rather than the more literal translation, “Today, Mother has died,” we get, “Mother died today,” which is the smoother, more natural rendering. But the question is: In changing the sentence’s syntax, are we also changing its logic, its “mystical” deeper meaning?
The answer is a resounding oui!
Rendering the line as “Mother died today” completely neglects a specific ordering of ideas that offer insight into Meursault’s inner psyche. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader comes to see that Meursault is a character who, first and foremost, lives for the moment. He does not consciously dwell on the past; he does not worry about the future. What matters is today. The single most important factor of his being is right now.
Highly recommend reading the entire article — it really gets at some of the most interesting aspects of looking at literature in translation.
Over at the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, Macy Halford has a post entitled “Should We Fight to Save Indie Bookstores?” The basis for her post is the petition to Save St. Mark’s Bookshop that’s going round the Internets and is focused on the difficult the store is having paying market rent in the Lower East Side.
This has always been a huge issue—especially in Manhattan—and has helped shutter the doors of many an awesome bookstore. (Lenox Hill, Coliseum, Books & Co., list goes on.) I’ve been reading a lot about the history of independent bookselling (I’m teaching the very informative and interesting Reluctant Capitalists by Laura Miller in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class this fall), and as a result could go on and on about this and related issues . . . But I’ll put that off for a rainy (or slighly less busy) day.
Anyway, here’s part of Halford’s explanation for why indie bookstores are important to keep around:
I was explaining all this over e-mail to a colleague, who replied, “I know bookstores are supposed to be good things, but we don’t have video stores anymore, and maybe we need to get used to the new order instead of lamenting the old.” This is what I’d say to his point: it totally sucks that there are no more video stores. I spent long nights hanging out at Kim’s in college, deliberating for hours over which random German film from the nineteen-seventies to take home with me. I actually watched stuff like that all the way through then, maybe since I’d spent so much time and energy looking for it. I even miss Blockbuster: when I was a kid, the Friday-night trip to the video store to pick out a movie was the most exciting event of the week. How I watch a video now is: I browse on Netflix for a while, start watching something, get about five minutes in, wonder if I’ve made the right decision, and start the process over. It’s ridiculous, and yet I can’t…stop…clicking…
My point is that I wish we had been able to save the video store. I know the young citizens of the new order don’t miss it, but kids don’t miss anything: they’re kids. And since we haven’t entirely killed the bookstore yet, I would like us not to. Going into bookstores to browse, to attend readings, to interact with the staff, to see the selection they’ve curated—all these things excite me and entice me to read. If my book-buying experience becomes simply me sitting alone on the couch click, click, clicking, I don’t know what I’ll become (I’ll probably forget I’m looking for books and jump over to Netflix).
Still, my colleague has a point: chaos and destruction are a part of life, and their consequences, impossible to foretell, are not always negative.
Yeah, and on the flip-side, economic, capitalist progress is a part of life, and the consequences of that haven’t always been positive.
Putting aside the occasional frustrations indie bookstores present to me as a publisher of “difficult” books (based on 13 years of working at or with indie stores, I’ve come to believe that 98% of America consists of locations where readers “don’t buy your sort of books”), I’ve come to believe that good bookstores are one of the best things on the planet. It’s been a while since I lived in a town with a solid indie store, and man, do I miss it. Letting my book nerd flag fly here, but there’s something life-affirming about visiting a good bookstore and interacting with other people who really love books and talking about books. There aren’t a lot of places for that sort of interaction in our society (especially not in Rochester, NY—sorry), and it is a great counterweight to the pressure of working hard (and constantly) to make just enough money to be able to make it to the end . . .
So, yeah. Indie bookstores are rad. And I too hope St. Mark’s survives.
This week’s New Yorker includes an excerpt from 1Q84 (pronounced “Q-teen Eighty Four”) the forthcoming (nearly here!!) new novel by Haruki Murakami:
At Koenji Station, Tengo boarded the Chuo Line inbound rapid-service train. The car was empty. He had nothing planned that day. Wherever he went and whatever he did (or didn’t do) was entirely up to him. It was ten o’clock on a windless summer morning, and the sun was beating down. The train passed Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Ochanomizu, and arrived at Tokyo Central Station, the end of the line. Everyone got off, and Tengo followed suit. Then he sat on a bench and gave some thought to where he should go. “I can go anywhere I decide to,” he told himself. “It looks as if it’s going to be a hot day. I could go to the seashore.” He raised his head and studied the platform guide.
At that point, he realized what he had been doing all along.
He tried shaking his head a few times, but the idea that had struck him would not go away. He had probably made up his mind unconsciously the moment he boarded the Chuo Line train in Koenji. He heaved a sigh, stood up from the bench, and asked a station employee for the fastest connection to Chikura. The man flipped through the pages of a thick volume of train schedules. He should take the 11:30 special express train to Tateyama, the man said, and transfer there to a local; he would arrive at Chikura shortly after two o’clock. Tengo bought a Tokyo-Chikura round-trip ticket. Then he went to a restaurant in the station and ordered rice and curry and a salad.
Going to see his father was a depressing prospect. He had never much liked the man, and his father had no special love for him, either. He had retired four years earlier and, soon afterward, entered a sanatorium in Chikura that specialized in patients with cognitive disorders. Tengo had visited him there no more than twice—the first time just after he had entered the facility, when a procedural problem required Tengo, as the only relative, to be there. The second visit had also involved an administrative matter. Two times: that was it.
In my opinion, Murakami is best taken as a whole. Individual sections are generally fine, but the accumulation of strange images is what makes his books so memorable. (My favorite is still Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and not just for the cool title.)
The only person I know who has already had a chance to read 1Q84 is Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books, who gave the novel 5 stars on GoodReads and started his review with this:
Easily one of my favorite Murakami novels. There is a lot here for his fans sink their teeth into. One of the advantages of the novel being so long is that the atmospheric hauntingly lonely never land that you travel to in most Murakami books, sustains for so long here. This book crept into my dreams and popped its head up regularly in my daily routines. On a subtle level I kept expecting to see the world of the book everywhere I looked.
For now, you can read the whole New Yorker excerpt here.
When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)
Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:
For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.
The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)
“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.
A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.
So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .
The new issue of The New Yorker has a really interesting piece by print-advocate Nicholson Baker about the Kindle. It’s worth reading the whole article—I haven’t read a review of the Kindle quite like this one—but here are a few of the highlights:
It came, via UPS, in a big cardboard box. Inside the box were some puffy clear bladders of plastic, a packing slip with “$359” on it, and another cardboard box. This one said, in spare, lowercase type, “kindle.” On the side of the box was a plastic strip inlaid into the cardboard, which you were meant to pull to tear the package cleanly open. On it were the words “Once upon a time.” I pulled and opened.
Inside was another box, fancier than the first. Black cardboard was printed with a swarm of glossy black letters, and in the middle was, again, the word “kindle.” There was another pull strip on the side, which again said, “Once upon a time.” I’d entered some nesting Italo Calvino folktale world of packaging. (Calvino’s Italian folktales aren’t yet available at the Kindle Store, by the way.) I pulled again and opened. [. . .]
The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.
Baker’s bit about the graphics—both in terms of illustrated books (like cook books) and papers is particularly relevant . . . and funny:
One more expensive example. The Kindle edition of “Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering Systems,” an e-book for people who design nuclear power plants, sells for more than eight thousand dollars. Figure 2 is an elaborate chart of a reaction scheme, with many call-outs and chemical equations. It’s totally illegible. “You Save: $1,607.80 (20%),” the Kindle page says. “I’m not going to buy this book until the price comes down,” one stern Amazoner wrote.
And the information about Vizplex (“the trade name of the layered substance that makes up the Kindle’s display) is very interesting as well.
I haven’t tried reading a book on a Kindle or iPhone, but Baker seems to prefer the latter, even though it is a high resolution, backlit reading experience (compared to the “reflective” eInk, which apparently has some issues when you read it outside in the sun):
In print, “The Lincoln Lawyer” swept me up. At night, I switched over to the e-book version on the iPod ($7.99 from the Kindle Store), so that I could carry on in the dark. I began swiping the tiny iPod pages faster and faster.
Then, out of a sense of duty, I forced myself to read the book on the physical Kindle 2. It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.
Although at that point the text itself takes over:
But never mind: at that point, I was locked into the plot and it didn’t matter. Poof, the Kindle disappeared, just as Jeff Bezos had promised it would. I began walking up and down the driveway, reading in the sun. Three distant lawnmowers were going. Someone wearing a salmon-colored shirt was spraying a hose across the street. But I was in the courtroom, listening to the murderer testify. I felt the primitive clawing pressure of wanting to know how things turned out.
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.
This week’s New Yorker has a short story by Andrei Platonov, author of the fantastically bleak The Foundation Pit.
In the gloom of nature, a man with a hunting rifle was walking through sparse forest. The hunter’s face was a little pockmarked, but he was handsome and, for the time being, still young. At this time of year, a whiff of mist hung in the forest—from the warmth and moisture of the air, the breath of developing plants, and the decay of leaves that had perished long ago. It was difficult to see anything, but it was good to walk alone, to think without meaning, or to do the opposite—to stop thinking altogether and just droop. The forest grew on the slope of a low hill; large boulders lay between the small thin birches, and the soil was infertile and poor—clay here, gray earth there—but the trees and grass had got used to these conditions, and they lived in this land as best they could.
That’s the opening paragraph to the story, and it’s very representative of Platonov’s tone.
Roberto Bolano’s short story The Insufferable Gaucho is in this week’s New Yorker. And available online.
It’s translated by Chris Andrews, and putting this fact together with the title leads me to believe that it’s from Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is forthcoming from New Directions.
Now if they’d only get rid of the lame cartoons, I’d really like the New Yorker. Anyway, on top of the Kunkel review of Robert Walser, this week’s New Yorker includes some pieces from the OBERIU-founding, grand-absurdist Daniil Kharms.
Any Kharms books, stories, excerpts you can get your hands on are definitely worthwhile, and this November, Overlook is releasing Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who also runs the very interesting Ugly Duckling Presse. UDP may be the best source for European poetry—especially of the more avant-garde variety.
It’s a very interesting piece, from someone who obviously knows a lot about Walser’s life and writing. Great to see this book getting such good attention, especially in a place like the New Yorker. And Kunkel’s dead-on with his comment about Walser, providing one of the most compelling reasons to read his works:
[He] is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
Kids these days. They think they’ve invented everything. The McOndo writers and Crack Generation, who so proudly buck the Magic Realist tendencies of García Márquez, who seek to find a place within Latin American letters sans spirits . . .. . .
When I was about two-thirds of the way through Neuman’s very ambitious, very engrossing novel, Bromance Will Evans asked me what I thought the purpose the rapist had in this book. Not who the rapist was—something that’s held in suspense. . .
“At night Amarâq is coated with a darkness as viscous as unmixed colors, neither the fjord nor the mountains, valleys, lakes, or the river exist, there is only a black mass, a void that spreads across the landscape sporadically, pressing. . .
If you’ve been following any of the recent Antoine Volodine talk going around Three Percent—both on the blog or on the podcasts—and have heard his fans wax obsessive over all his alter author-egos, you’re probably starting to feel some Volodine. . .
Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres is a stunning and engaging collection of eleven Russian gothic tales written by various authors during the early Soviet Era, all but two stories of which are featured in English for the first time ever. These. . .
“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy.. . .
This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are. . .