Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.
Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stanescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, and published by Archipelago Books.
Russell Valentino is the chair of Slavic Studies at Indiana University, editor of The Iowa Review, founder of Autumn Hill Books, and translator of eight literary works from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. Oh, and he’s also received two Fulbright-Hays research grants and two NEA Fellowships.
A friend of mine once did commentary for a literary death match in the language of wine labels: a fruity blend of blackberry and barnyard; hints of oaky tangerines and smoked chestnuts; and so on. This worked well because no one forgets irony in literary death matches: everyone knows the contest cannot ever really be a contest. Unfortunately not the cast with the things called contests, and O, do we need some irony here!
This is one—though just one—of the reasons that Nichita Stanescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke, in Sean Cotter’s English translations, should win this contest. It knows for irony, as when, in the love lyric, “Beauty-sick,” the lover enjoins, “Do your best not to die, my love / try to not die if you can”; or, in a nod to trans-sense, (“What is the Supreme Power that Drives the Universe and Creates Life?”), it turns out to be “A and E / and I and O / and U.” And once this tone, then everything takes on a tinge, or you at least have to wonder, when he writes words like “consciousness” and “cognition” and “being” and “ah” and most definitely “O.”
It should also win because through the irony the post-War, Cold War, otherwise all-too-depressive seriousness grows deeper, more meaningful, easier to understand and appreciate, brighter, as when he writes, “Because my father and because my mother, / because my older sister and because my younger sister, / because my father’s various brothers and because my mother’s various sisters, / because my sister’s various lovers, / imagined or real,” after which you can’t help but want to know more, read another line and another. And because Cotter has selected, pulled together, found coherent, compelling English form. And because the book itself is beautiful.
And because of poems like “Knot 33. In the Quiet of Evening””:
I thought of a way so sweet
for words to meet
that below, blooms bloomed
and above, grass greened.
I thought of a way so sweet
for words to crash
that perhaps grass would bloom
and blooms would grass.
Finally, it should win because it’s ambitious and humble at the same time. This may smack of the poetry version of wine label verbiage, but I don’t know how else to express it, and I don’t mean it ironically. Though it’s true that such a combination settles with a surprising tingle upon the palate, and leaves one stimulated long after.
Russell Valentino is a superstar in the world of literary translation. Just look at his bio from the University of Iowa:
Russell Scott Valentino is professor of Slavic and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. He has published a monograph on nineteenth-century Russian literature and seven book-length literary translations from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. His essays, translated fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, Two Lines, POROI, Circumference, Asia, Modern Fiction Studies, Slavic Review, and 91st Meridian. He is the recipient of a 2002 NEA Literature Fellowship and a 2004 Howard Foundation fellowship, both for literary translation, as well as two Fulbright research awards to Croatia.
And if that’s not enough, he’s also the founder and publisher of Autumn Hill Books (a few months back we reviewed Becka McKay’s translation of Suzane Adam’s Laundry, which was published by Autumn Hill), and was recently named the editor of the Iowa Review, replacing David Hamilton, who has been editing the journal for the past 2 years. (And yes, Russell has plans for bringing more translation to the pages of the Iowa Review. And launching an online review section that may even cover some books not yet translated into English.)
Unfortunately, we interviewed Russell before coming up with the “favorite word in any language question” (Russell: maybe you could add something in the comments?), but here are the rest of his responses with my comments in italics:
Most Difficult Translation You’ve Ever Done: Persuasion and Rhetoric by Carlo Michelstaedter
As you might have noticed, Russell rephrased our question from “best thing you’ve ever translated” to “most difficult,” pointing out that it took him ten years to complete this book, which was published by Yale University Press in 2004 and is available (in part) via Google Books. I don’t know much about the book itself, but this brief description from Amazon.com sounds intriguing . . . and a bit depressing:
Ostensibly a commentary on Plato’s and Aristotle’s relation to the pre-Socratic philosophers, Michelstaedter’s deeply personal book is an extraordinary rhetorical feat that reflects the author’s struggle to make sense of modern life. This edition includes an introduction discussing his life and work, an extensive bibliography, notes to introduce each chapter, and critical notes illuminating the text.
hours of completing Persuasion and Rhetoric, his doctoral thesis, 23-year-old Michelstaedter shot himself to death. The text he left behind has proved to be one of the most trenchant and influential studies in modern rhetoric, a work that develops Nietzschean themes and anticipates the conclusions of, among others, Martin Heidegger.
Books You Think Need to Be Published in English: La Langue maternelle and Apres J.C. by Vassilis Alexakis
One of the joys of asking a lot of translators what books should be published in English is finding out about authors you’ve never heard of . . . although maybe you should have. Alexakis isn’t exactly unknown, having won the Prix de l´Académie Française in 2007 for Apres J.C. Of course, there’s not much info available on him in English, but according to Wikipedia (World’s Favorite Go To Source for Quick Info), he “is a Greek-French writer of numerous novels in Greek, his mother tongue, and French. His works, drawn from two cultures, are full of tender irony; his style gives the reader an intimate and personal perspective on his stories.” Although neither of these two books are available in English, Autumn Hill published Alyson Waters’s translation of “Foreign Words“http://www.autumnhillbooks.com/foreign_words/foreign_words.htm a few years back. Here’s the AHB description:
Foreign Words is a book that takes us on a journey through time and space with the story teller as he travels from Paris where he lives as the book opens, to Greece where he grew up, and where his father has just died, to the Central African Republic as he undertakes the study of Sango.
Why learn Sango is a question the book’s narrator himself has trouble answering. His ruminations on the surprising decision to study it are both humorous and penetrating.
A couple weeks ago, the National Book Critics Circle hosted a panel at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City entitled “Why Translation Matters?” and featuring Sarah Fay, Christopher Merrill, Cole Swenson, Russell Valentino, (incorrectly identified as Rudolph Valentino on the NBCC info page, which isn’t necessarily the worst person to be mistaken for) and Robin Hemley. (More on all of them below.)
I remember hearing about this panel and hoping that it would be recorded and made available at some point, and thankfully, it now is.
Here’s a bit from the NBCC on all the participants:
Sarah Fay is an advisory editor at The Paris Review. Her work appears regularly in the New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Bookforum, and The American Scholar, among others. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa.
Christopher Merrill has published four collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water and Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages, his journalism appears in many publications, and he is the book critic for the daily radio news program, The World. He now directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa.
Cole Swensen is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Ours (University of California Press, 2008). Her work has been short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award and won the Iowa Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, and the National Poetry Series. A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, she is the co-editor of the Norton Anthology American Hybrid and a professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Russell Scott Valentino is a translator and scholar based in Iowa City, Iowa. He has published eight books and numerous essays and short translations of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. He is the publisher of Autumn Hill Books and Editor of The Iowa Review.He teaches in Iowa’s Translation Workshop.
Robin Hemley is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Do-Over (Little, Brown). His work has been anthologized widely and he is the recipient of numerous awards including a 2008 Guggenheim, The Nelson Algren Award for Fiction, an Editor’s Choice Book Award for Nonfiction from The American Library Association, and two Pushcart Prizes. He currently directs UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program.
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .