5 January 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog (and podcast) a million times, but every spring I teach a class on “World Literature and Translation” that features somewhere between eight and ten recently published translations. Although the individual arrangement of ideas and books shifts every year, the overall structure and goals of the class remain the same: to explore what we mean by calling something a “good translation,” and how to we evaluate works of world literature.

As a mechanism for getting students to participate in class discussions, I force them to act as if they were a jury for a major literary award: the “Best Translation of LTS 206/406 Award,” I guess. This process opens up a wide array of topics, such as how to evaluate books from a literary culture you know nothing about, whether it’s better to focus on the quality of the book itself or the translation, and what politics of award giving should be considered, among many others.

Schedule permitting, I try and spend one class day discussing each title, providing a literary and historical background, discussing how the work is put together, looking for gaps (or the lack of them) between the way the book functions and the presence of the translation, and then follow that up with a Skype conversation with the translator. It’s a really fun class—especially since I tend to include books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.

I like posting the books I chose here, partially because I want to show off what titles I’m able to include in this class, but also because these books tend to end up influencing what I write about on the blog during this time. This year, I’m hoping to make that more specific, and write a post a week about the book under discussion. In fact, starting next Tuesday (in an insanely long essay that I’ve already written), I’m going to post about the books that I’ve been reading in preparation for the class. Things like Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino, Translating Style by Tim Parks, and Literature Class by Julio Cortazar.

I’ve never conceived of it in this way, but teaching this class creates a sort of feedback loop about how I read. It’s pretty self-indulgent, but I’m curious to see how my thoughts about literature morph as I work my way through these books, reading (or rereading) them with an eye to trying to convey something interesting about them to a group of undergrad students. If I were using books that I’ve read a million times—or better, written articles about—I don’t think this project would be very interesting at all. But given that there’s next to no critical material available about the majority of these books, there’s a sort of precariousness to every class. And for me, personally, I think about books the best when I’m trying to write about them.

Inevitably, I’ll get too busy with garbage work to keep up with this, but for now, I’m going to try. And if you want to play along at home, listed below are all of the works of international fiction we’ll be reading for class.

The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Moonstone by Sjón
Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov
The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai
Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon
Frontier by Can Xue

If you’re really interested and want to see my syllabus, let me know—happy to email it along!

15 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’ve been a bit checked out the past few weeks with event upon event, travels to London and L.A. and New York (twice), final papers to grade, illnesses to overcome, soccer to geek out about, etc., etc. But now that it’s summertime (I only have one grade left to enter), it’s about time to get back into talking up interesting books (HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE TRAVELER OF THE CENTURY), commenting on the book publishing industry (like the fact that I’m so glad the number of publishers’ branded readers communities is about to explode . . . and inevitably implode, since most publishers make dumb things), and ranting about stuff, like, I don’t know, particular agents who have recently pissed me off.

We’re going to have a ton of interns again this summer, which should free up a bit of time to let loose on this blog, which I plan to do in grand style . . . But before getting into those fun and games, I thought it would be best to ease back into the Three Percent world by highlighting some exciting new ventures, starting with The Buenos Aires Review, brought to you by one of Open Letter’s favorite translators, Heather Cleary.1

The BAR launched last week to great acclaim (including mentions by Bookforum, Granta, New Directions, and the like), and for good reason. This bilingual internet magazine “presents the best and latest work by emerging and established writers from the Americas, in both Spanish and English. We value translation and conversation. We publish poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, visual art, and interviews.”

And the inaugural issue is, to slang it up a bit, pretty baller.

There’s a discussion between Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem:

Javier Calvo: The other day I saw a book by Alejandro Zambra on a list of the most anticipated books of 2013 in the United States, and I wanted to ask you this: what do you think of this phenomenon, which to me is one of the most important things that have happened in American publishing in a long time? I’m talking about the attention Spanish-language fiction has been getting since Bolaño. How have you experienced this change as a translator, reader, scout, etc?

Mara Faye Lethem: Do you see it as so distinct from the Boom? Because I don’t.

Javier Calvo: I do see significant differences from the Boom. To begin with, I think the boom was much more a strategy, and as such it had a center. And when I say strategy, I say it almost in the sense of the British Invasion: we’re going to take over North America. Here, I don’t see too much strategy, and as a matter of fact I don’t see how an editor could hope to get rich on the books of Aira or Zambra. Secondly, the Boom in America was a much more asymmetrical phenomenon, the rich neighbor’s consumption of a series of consumer elements related to exoticism and magic.

Look, for example, at the resounding failure as strategies of all the “commercial brands” of exportation of Latin American literature: McOndo, the Crack Movement . . .

In the current case it’s true that Bolaño has been sanctioned by the American world of culture as the “Chosen One” to replace GGM [Gabriel García Márquez] as the Great Novelist in Spanish, but I also see differences: it seems to me that the acceptance of the new literature in Spanish already lacks that aspect of consumption of the poor, the exotic, and the distinct. I believe that now, strangely, it already has a certain aspect of normalcy, acceptance of the two-directional cultural tides that exist between Spanish and English. Although this may perhaps be overly optimistic.

Mara Faye Lethem: Well, when they talk about Aira as the new Bolaño, yes, that implies a certain strategy of marketing. I think that the case of Bolaño has been an astounding example of the unpredictability of the editorial world, and the strategy of buying books in other people’s styles is ridiculous, but shows no signs of waning. I suppose people’s lack of vision, as well as their fear, just get bigger and bigger than their risk-taking . . .

There’s an interview with Junot Diaz featuring the intriguing pull-quote, “We exist in a constant state of translation. We just don’t like it.”

There’s fiction by Giovanna Rivero:

The pointless memories are the most beautiful ones. I must have been, what, eight years old when this guy with a bird’s name, Piri, came to my grandparents’ house. He’d come to help my grandmother with the little sausage and bakery business she’d set up in her third courtyard. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but the house really did have three courtyards and in the third, as I said, my grandmother had set up a real life steam-powered manufacturing line for chorizo and bread. If you showed up very early in the morning, you could imagine the smoke belched out by the grinders, ovens, crushers, fillers and pots being, logically, the smog that rose in a frenzy from the First World’s last generation of machines.

There’s a piece by Mariano López Seoane on Evita that opens by name-checking JLo and “Jenny from the Block.”

And there is more.

Overall, this is a solid opening issue, and one I’m sure we’ll be featuring time and again. (Oh, and while I’m plugging things that make me happy, Heather’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark is at the printer now. So all your Chejfec/Cleary fans have something fantastic to look forward to reading this fall.

1 Actually, we love all the editors of Buenos Aires Review. Jennifer Croft, Pola Oloixarac, and Maxine Swann all deserve special shout-outs as well.

3 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 12 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.



Today we’re featuring Argentine author Pola Oloixara, whose “Conditions for the Revolution” was translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Mara has translated a number of really interesting books, including Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo and David Trueba’s Learning to Lose. She wrote the piece below about her experience working on this story for Granta.

Translating Pola

There is plenty about Pola to intimidate anyone. Her Facebook fan page proclaims her “The Wonder Woman of the 21st Century”. She is an expert on orchids. Her dimpled smile could launch a thousand ships. Her writing is terrifically brainy and peppered with references. So when I tried to step into her shoes, to channel her spirit to lead my fingers across the keys like a Ouija board, it involved more than the usual leap of faith. Screwing up my courage, I opted for some serious deconstruction and research, then worked to put back together the pieces while maintaining Pola’s ever-present humor.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Argentines. (Or was it Argentinians? Or Argentineans, as my spell check insists?) I’d translated authors from Argentina before. But never an Argentine as Argentine as Pola. The fact that her work is intensely local one of her assets, but for a translator who has never set foot on Argentine soil, it presents some challenges. I enlisted a porteño informant who wouldn’t laugh in my face when I asked such questions as “What do they sell at kiosks in Buenos Aires?” (Thanks, Nacho!) But the real challenge was not in the slightly different conjugations, the unfamiliar foods, the different school system, the slang.

The biggest challenge for me when translating this story had to do with that ineffable sense of place or, perhaps better put, the culture and politics embedded deep in language. There are so many things I take for granted when translating work from Spain or Catalonia, where I have lived for many years, that have to do with the context. Here we have a Secretariat of Linguistic Politics, officially acknowledging something many countries don’t: our choice of words is often a political act, albeit very subtly, or unconsciously.

“Conditions for the Revolution” has as its backdrop the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, and swap clubs and unrest that sprang up around it. Along with certain terms, like caceroleantes, which have no perfect translation, the atmosphere of the story was, for me, swimming in unfamiliar waters. But isn’t that one of the great things about being a translator, that we are transported to other worlds and have to find our way back to our own, leading the English-speaking reader by the hand?

- Mara Faye Lethem

And to give you a taste of Oloixarac’s work in Lethem’s translation, here’s the opening of “Conditions for the Revolution”:

That morning, Mara went by her mother’s house to get some clean clothes. She slid between the armchairs in the living room and the coffee tables overflowing with magazines; she didn’t want to run into her. On the modular shelving in the library, flanked by books by Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, the computer screen showed an unfinished game of solitaire. Mother Cris wasn’t there. She’d been a little depressed because Quique, her current lover, had way too much time on his hands. At first he wandered around Cris’s house, leaving his toothbrush there, and then kindly (suspiciously) offering to cook, until one day she gave him a hard stare and said, look, I think that, these days, the most important thing in a relationship is respecting each other’s space, but if you need to, please let me finish, if you really need to, you can stay here. Quique was of medium height and had brown eyes and a disorientated air about him, but he seemed stripped of everything that makes disorientation an attractive or romantic trait.

‘You don’t recognize me because I let my grey come in and now I have a ponytail.’ He had brought his snout closer.

Cris would have preferred that he didn’t make such direct mention of the ponytail; she was enough of an adult – and alone, not getting any younger – to know she could stand the sight of the ponytail, but not talking about it. Quique wasn’t intimidated by Cris’s sideways glances, the deliberate nature of some of her absent and distracted moments. He read it as a display of parameters, a female logic lubricating its own version of the conquest seconds before launching, insatiable, into mating. The sweetness of desperation was an inalienable asset in middle-aged ladies for whom casual sex would soon be a piece of Grandma’s jewellery that nobody would want to touch. Quique was an optimistic guy. He narrowed his eyes, fulfilling his civic role of mensch playing at seducer:

‘In those days I already had you in my sights, but you were with somebody else.’

Cris pursed her lips, trying mentally to distance herself from the scene: for the moment, being the recipient of Quique’s attentions was far from flattering. But ‘somebody else’ awoke Cris’s interest (vanity disguised as interest) from its lethargy and, overcome with complicity, she used the opportunity to laugh hysterically. And yes, she was always with somebody or other. Quique felt as if the fat men of the Metal Workers’ Union were urging him on, gesturing at him with full arms as if he were in a car and wanted to park; you go ahead, he thought, as he slipped his thumb cautiously through the loop of Cris’s jeans. With a quick glance, Cris detected his hand hanging close to her proud ass, her personal PR agent; unable to renounce her chance at playing the coquette, Cris commented: Hmm . . . dangerous. I’m the type that falls in love, so if I were you, I’d think twice. If Quique had been twenty years younger, he would have made a bet with himself as to how long it would take him to penetrate her anally; now, mature and serene, he stuck out his tongue slightly before touching her lips.

....
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