16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is SUPER EFFING CREEPY, and is by Phillip Koyoumjian on Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, who god only knows how didn’t need therapy after translating this, and out from New York Review Books, who will be responsible for my nightmares tonight. (I love you all.)

Just from reading the intro paragraph to Phillip’s review I want to both read this book and promptly burn it to, as my grandmother would say, “Get the fusel out.”1 I’m a fan of high literary heebie-jeebies, and a fan of knowing all-things-entomology is the source of 99.9% of movies and books of things that scare the shit out of us—and HOLY HELL does this book sound awesomely horrific—but spiderbugs and evil infestations strike a conflicted cord. Ain’t no amount of Mason jars and notecards going to stop this mess… But oh, how good this book sounds.

Here’s a bit of Phillip’s review:

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

For the rest of the review, go here.

fn.1 While the definition of fusel is this, my grandmother uses it to mean “all things that are bad.” You can get the fusel (as is appropriate) out of wine, out of foods, out of yourself (by taking hot baths), but you cannot—absolutely cannot—get it out of children. That’s locked in there until they grow up.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne —here newly translated by Susan Bernofsky), Jeremias Gotthelf—the pseudonym of Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius—spins a morality tale of evil in a Swiss hamlet. Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider illustrates with terrifying vividness a village tormented by deadly spiders over several generations. This is more than just a story of gratuitous horror: it presents the cause of this terrible affliction and the villagers’ (periodic) deliverance from it as lessons in sin and redemption.

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

The villagers are flat and more or less archetypes (the fallen woman, the good priest, the evil lord), but character development is not essential to experiencing Gotthelf’s horrifying evocation of paranoia and fear. He deftly illustrates the terror the spiders wreak among the villagers, not least when the spider on Christine’s face unleashes its full wrath:

. . . Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as the vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.

This ought to serve as a warning to any arachnophobes: Gotthelf does spares no detail in his description of the hairy, spindly legs of spiders creeping up the necks of the villagers or the spiders’ beady eyes watching them in their sleep.

The Black Spider is a delightfully creepy tale of a town plagued not by some weird monster or flesh-eating plague, but by the very real (albeit not ubiquitous) venomous spider. As an admonition against sin and a call to faithfulness it may be of more interest to some than to others. However, as a horror story, it ought to terrify every reader and make him wonder if the feeling on the back of his neck are hairs standing up in fear, or tiny hairy legs crawling upward toward his head.

16 October 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, a copy of Stig Dagerman’s Sleet (translated by Steven Hartman) arrived at our offices. To be honest, I’d never heard of Dagerman, but the attractive cover (I am a fan of Godine’s new Verba Mundi designs) and a very nice email from the book’s publicist kept this on my desk as a book to look into.

Of course, the planning for and execution of the Frankfurt Book Fair has stymied any attempts to actually read this (or much of anything aside from Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which is awesome), but after hearing about this upcoming PEN event in honor of Dagerman, I’m very intrigued.

[More event info below, but just to get the facts out there: This will take place Tuesday, October 22nd at the Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016) starting at 6:30.]

First off, in terms of Dagerman himself, he was a very productive writer and journalist whose life was cut short when he committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1954. A number of his works have made it into English, including four in recent years: German Autumn (a collection of articles), A Burnt Child, Island of the Doomed (which sounds intense and insane and which I’m ordering right now),1 and the aforementioned Sleet.

Sleet, a collection of twelve stories “unified by a central theme: the death of innocence,” includes an intro by Alice McDermott that gives a good sense of his writing:

I confess that this was not what I expected to find from this tragic Swedish writer when I opened German Autumn, the first of his works that I borrowed from his daughter. I expected darkness. Angst. The void. Hopelessness. But what I found instead was an account of human suffering unbiased by politics or nationalism, hatred or revenge. An account of human suffering given with both a novelist’s eye (“A big bare room with a cement floor and a window that has been almost entirely bricked up. A solitary bulb hangs from the ceiling and shines unmercifully on three air-raid-shelter beds, a stove reeking with sour wood, a small woman with a chalk-white face stirring a pot on the stove, a small boy lying on the bed and staring up apathetically at the light,”) and a moral vision that managed to maintain, “respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion . . . the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”

Going back to the PEN event—the real reason for this post—here’s a bit more info about what’s going to take place next Tuesday:

Novelist Siri Hustvedt, translator Steven Hartman, Professor of English at Mid-Sweden University, and PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky read and discuss Stig Dagerman’s writings with moderator Ann Kjellberg, editor of Little Star.

The author’s daughter, Lo Dagerman, will introduce a short documentary, Our Need for Consolation, based on Dagerman’s classic essay and featuring actor Stellan Skarsgård.

Sounds really interesting, and I want to personally thank Sue Ramin from Godine and Lo Dagerman for bringing Dagerman’s work to my attention. Now, if only I could stop traveling and editing . . .

1 Seriously, check this out:

In the summer of 1946, while secluded in August Strindberg’s small cabin in the Stockholm archipelago, Stig Dagerman wrote Island of the Doomed. This novel was unlike any other yet seen in Sweden and would establish him as the country’s brightest literary star. To this day it is a singular work of fiction—a haunting tale that oscillates around seven castaways as they await their inevitable death on a desert island populated by blind gulls and hordes of iguanas. At the center of the island is a poisonous lagoon, where a strange fish swims in circles and devours anything in its path. As we are taken into the lives of each castaway, it becomes clear that Dagerman’s true subject is the nature of horror itself.

Island of the Doomed is a chilling profile of terror and guilt and a stunning exploration—written under the shadow of the Nuremberg Trials—of the anxieties of a generation in the postwar nuclear age.

5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The guest post going up in an hour or so—which also happens to be one of the best things we’ve published on Three Percent in quite some time—is by translator extraordinaire, Esther Allen, who, in my opinion and the opinion of many, is one of the most important supporters of literature in translation living today. Esther helped launch the current version of the PEN World Voices Festival, and was responsible for organizing the Michael Henry Heim Translation Fund financially benefiting around a dozen translators every year.

In her spare time from teaching, translating, dancing at Taylor’s during the Best ALTA Ever, and speaking on panels throughout the world, Esther managed to co-edit (with Susan Bernofsky, another giant in the world of literary translation) In Translation, an anthology of writings on translation that professors everywhere should be using in their world literature classes. (See below for a special offer from CUP for this title.)



Featuring essays by Haruki Murakami, Alice Kaplan, Peter Cole, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, Clare Cavanagh, David Bellos, Jason Grunebaum, and José Manuel Prieto, among others, you can expect a bunch more posts and references to this in the future. But for now, I wanted to share this piece that Esther wrote for last week’s PW Tip Sheet. It’s a nice lead in to today’s feature piece, which will post shortly, and which you’re going to love.

Words that don’t seem to have an exact equivalent are often described as untranslatable. But are there really words that simply can’t be understood outside of the language that produced them? An article by Jason Wire on Matador Network offers the word mamihlapinatapei, from the Yagan language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, as an untranslatable term . . . and then proceeds to translate it in a way we can all understand: “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” If ten people who read this article begin using it regularly in conversation—“Is this mamihlapinatapei we’re feeling right now?“—within five years it could be as common as schadenfreude. And what a shame it will be if that doesn’t happen. [. . .]

Translation is an art, not a science, and like all artists (and perhaps all scientists, as well) its practitioners are more likely to be hacks than geniuses. But there aren’t many words, or poems, or books that genuinely cannot be conveyed in another language, and might not even be enriched in the process. The great Japanese translator Motoyuki Shibata claims that Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (an English fiction that purports to be a translation from Japanese) is much improved by its translation into Japanese by Takayoshi Ogawa, who transformed it into something authentic by incorporating the actual traditional vocabulary used by geishas. (Even so, the novel never achieved bestselling status in Japan, where people just weren’t that interested in reading another geisha story.)

What really can’t be translated is the experience of sharing a language—not just a word or two here and there—within the culture of people who speak it. That’s why the Wampanoag are currently engaged in a heroic act of linguistic revitalization, translating their entire language from the written documents left by colonization to bring it back into spoken use in their daily lives. There’s no way anyone else can do that for them, just as no one but you can translate yourself—via study and practice—into the shared space of a new language.

As mentioned above, you can receive a 30% discount on this book via Columbia University Press by clicking here and using the discount code: INTALL. And you should. To appropriate a sports phrase, this book is an instant classic.

16 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I think it was two summers ago that I was last in Chicago for the annual Goethe Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize Extravaganza. (I love these gatherings. The award ceremony, the people involved with German literature, the panels, etc. It always seems to be a beautiful couple days weather-wise as well, which makes the whole series of events even cooler. Hopefully I can get invited back sometime . . .)

Anyway, at that last Extravaganza, Susan Bernofsky was telling me that she was translating the creepiest book that she’d ever worked on—something called The Black Spider. I suspect that most everyone reading this (not including Michael Orthofer, because Michael knows about everything) is unfamiliar with this classic of world literature, about which Thomas Mann claimed, “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” That won’t be the case this fall.

Here’s the description from NYRB:

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

And although this has been translated into English in the past, it’s never been translated by Susan Bernofsky. So even if you are familiar with it, I’d still recommend checking out this version, since, Susan Bernofsky.

14 February 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you lucky people living in the great city of New York, here are two fantastic upcoming events that you should try and attend.

First off, next Thursday, February 21st at 7pm at McNally Jackson, Stephen Snyder and Allison Markin Powell (both of whom make me swoon) will be talking about Japanese literature in translation as part of the always excellent Bridge Series.

Here’s a bit about both Stephen and Allison:

Stephen Snyder is Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent translation is Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (Picador, January 2013). He has translated works by Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Kunio Tsuji’s Azuchi Okanki (The Signore) won the 1990 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission translation prize. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s Out was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004. His translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and co-editor of Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan, and he is currently working on a study of publishing practices in Japan and the United States and their effects on the globalization of Japanese literature.

Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator and editor. She has translated works by Motoyuki Shibata, Osamu Dazai (Schoolgirl, published by One Peace Books in 2011), and Hiromi Kawakami, among others, and was the guest editor for Words Without Borders’ first Japan issue. Her translation of Kawakami’s novel The Briefcase (Counterpoint, 2012) has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Prize.

I’ll bet this will be fantastic . . . really bummed that I’m only staying in NY through Wednesday night. And we’ll have a review of The Briefcase soon. I quite liked Hiromi Kawakami’s earlier novel, Manazuru, so I’m psyched to check this out. And Ogawa’s Revenge is top of my to read pile thanks to Will’s review.

*

Also next weekend, the Fourth Annual Festival Neue Literature celebrating German-language literature will be taking place across Manhattan and Brooklyn. This year’s festival is curated by Susan Bernofsky and will feature Clemens Setz (Austria), Cornelia Travnicek (Austria), Leif Randt (Germany), Silke Scheuermann (Germany), Ulrike Ulrich (Switzerland), and Tim Krohn (Switzerland), as well as U.S. authors Joshua Ferris and Justin Taylor.

There are two “signature discussion panels” taking place this year: “Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias” and “Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues.” Here’s all the info about both of those:

Closed Circuits: Shrunken Dystopias
Saturday, February 23rd.
6:30-8:30pm @ powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn

With authors Leif Randt, Silke Scheuermann, Clemens Setz, and Justin Taylor

Dystopias used to be grand affairs, encompassing entire planets, but now you can find one contained in a suburban block on the outskirts of Frankfurt, an uncannily odd resort town in a mysterious locale, or a home for children suffering the world’s strangest disorder. Dysfunction is the new dystopia, and these subtly wry to bitingly ironic commentaries uniquely encapsulate the post-modern condition.

Moderated by Susan Bernofsky

And:

Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues
Sunday, February 24th
6:00pm-8:30pm
McNally Jackson Bookstore
52 Prince Street, Manhattan

With authors Tim Krohn, Cornelia Travnicek, Ulrike Ulrich, Joshua Ferris

Here today, there tomorrow. Old-style travel stories seemed always to be about characters in search of themselves as inscribed in foreign landscapes. But what if the point of the travel is more escapist than exploratory? In these novels of discovery-avoidance – an avoidance not always successful – the journey is both more and less than a destination.

Moderated by Claudia Steinberg

You can find the complete schedule of events here.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Robert Walser’s The Walk, which comes out from New Directions next week, and was translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. (The joint translation set-up is explained in Phil’s review.)

Phil was an intern here way way back, and is now working at the Plutzik Foundation, where one of his tasks is to run the foundation’s blog, A Fistful of Words. If you’re not familiar with Hyam Plutzik, I highly recommend checking out this post that Phil wrote for The Paris Review. And while you’re reading Phil’s writing, be sure and check out his personal blog, Gloomy Grammar, where he recently wrote a post about another New Direction book, Antigonicks, Anne Carson’s rendition of Sophokles’s Antigone. (Since when did we start spelling “Sophocles” as “Sophokles”? This is disorienting. Not sure I approve. Although, “Cyklops” is a pretty rad spelling. Ikarus. Hmm.)

Here’s a bit from Phil’s review:

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Click here to read the entire piece.

29 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:

Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’

Elsewhere in the speech the narrator lays out the argument that walking is his way to observe, experience the world, gather “reports” and scenes which will serve as fodder for his other occupation. The above paragraph is a good example of the rhetorical gusto that is frequent in Walser’s work, usually in the service of irony. In a preface, Bernofsky describes the “straight-faced and earnest” quality of this and other works of the later-period Walser, as a contrast to the “thickly layered ironies of the Berlin period that preceded it;” in The Walk, such bravado is actually part of the narrator’s personal conflict. Early in the story he declares, “On account of this haughty bearing, this domineering attitude, I shall soon, as will be learned, have to take myself to task.” But, despite his verbose and aggrandized tone, the writer and walker narrating The Walk is, the reader feels, sincere in his belief that one cannot write if one does not walk, and that the writing justifies the walking.

Unfortunately, a writer cannot be writing while he is walking, and vice versa. When he wants to take a break, to stop writing, what does he do? “Relax in brief respite,” says the narrator. “Writers who understand their profession at least a little take the same as easily as possible. From time to time they like to lay their pens aside a while.” The novel begins at the start of his walk: “I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.” Writing and walking, however codependent, are to some extent irreconcilable pursuits. And one may have one’s preference: our narrator “loves to walk as well as he loves to write; the latter of course perhaps just a shade less than the former.” (The pun on “shade,” intended or not, seems to wink at the reader by alluding to the “phantoms” of the writing room. Whether or not a similar pun occurs here in the German I cannot say, but that need not matter for my enjoyment of it in the English I am reading. More, again, on this, in a moment.)

It’s time to say a bit more about Bernofsky’s preface, because most of what I focused on in my reading are themes to which she explicitly directs attention. She describes the unusual history of the book: Der Spaziergang was first published in 1917, but Walser revised and published it again a few years later. In 1955, Christopher Middleton translated the first version into English, unaware that a revised version existed. For the present edition, Bernofsky updated Middleton’s translation (“an English text I . . . greatly admire,” she calls it) according to Walser’s own revisions, which were significant at the level of sentence, but minor in terms of plot and theme. Bernofsky’s intention is “to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself.”

In his revisions, Bernofsky suggests, Walser “minimiz[ed] the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” But the divide remains, at least at the beginning, and throughout the novel, though the two personalities merge, a metaphysical struggle persists between them. The two roles are introduced separately in the opening pages, as the narrator refers to himself in the third person as first one—“With a kind face, a bicycling town chemist cycles close by the walker”; and then the other—“The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses.” (Happily, as the latter example shows, Walser didn’t leave all of his thickly layered ironies behind when he left Berlin. The Walk might be read, I think, as a tragicomedy of the tension between irony and sincerity as played out by the contenders, walker and writer.)

The walker and writer, being phases of the one narrator, exist in separate narrative times: the writer is presumably recording the experience of the walk only after having completed it. Gradually, the two activities become indistinguishable, occurring simultaneously: when he declares “I have two or three important commissions to execute, as well as several utterly insuperable arrangements to make,” is he referring to the errands of the walk, or the writing tasks presently before his pen? At another point, “with a bound I enter the charming situation in question,” it is not clear whether the bound is literally an energetic step or metaphorically setting out to describe the scene.

Would I have noticed and paid so much attention to these distinctions had I skipped the preface? Perhaps not. A preface or introduction offers context for the work about to be presented, which may or may not be helpful. My enjoyment of the book was no less for having read Bernofsky’s preface, my grasp of the philosophical and emotional complexity of the narrator no more certain (The Walk is, to be sure, a difficult book, for all of its 90 pages). But—less enjoyable, more certain, than what? I only read the novel and its preface in the one order. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not to save the preface till afterwards. But I will also warn the reader that in detailing some of Walser’s revisions, Bernofksy spoils the ending of the book, the power of which is partly (not entirely) thanks to a delayed reveal. The spoiler doesn’t ruin the experience—I still read the book twice in one weekend, to my increasing pleasure and puzzlement—but it might have been omitted, or the Preface relocated to an Afterword.

There’s more to be said about this book as a translation and as a novel. Concerning the latter, Walser’s humor is unrelenting, which makes the inward-turning ending all the more poignantly sad. Among the narrator’s hilarious apostrophes to dogs, or to no one in particular concerning the heavenliness of children, there’s a weird scene in which the narrator is threatened with force-feeding by a matronly Frau Aebi. That this turns out to be Frau Aebi’s joke is, to me, actually more disturbing than the forcefeeding itself would have been, which reinforces my sense that Walser is deliberately experimenting with irony and sincerity.

As a translation, this may become an important book for the unusual case which the text presents. Depending on its reception by critics better qualified than I, perhaps it will help to advance or complicate the ongoing debate concerning reading and review practices for translated works. On May 3, Bernofsky contributed to a panel discussion on the very subject in the PEN World Voices Festival, in which she expressed her opinion that translations ought to be judged according to their success as a piece of writing in the target language, to an extent independent of the original. Her respect for Middleton’s text of The Walk, without which one imagines she would have retranslated the work entirely on her own, further demonstrates her position.

Lorin Stein, a translator and editor of the Paris Review, was also on the panel at PEN. He took the very different view that translators ought to be less visible and “minimize the damage” to the original which all translation must necessarily cause, perhaps in that it strips from the work its original sound. Stein also posited that translation adds an apparatus to a work, which publishers, editors, and translators ought to minimize (for instance, Stein insists on not printing his own name on the jacket of his published translations) in order to deliver the work and its author unadorned to the reader. Bernofsky’s preface, including the revision and translation history of The Walk, is an elaborate and complicated apparatus to be sure. But, to reiterate, the jury is out as to whether I think it enriched or detracted from my experience of the book. I’ve had one experience of The Walk for which I am very glad. Other readers will, I hope, have theirs.

1 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German

Country: Germany
Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Why This Book Should Win: Ugly Duckling is one of the most consistently interesting presses (or “presseses”?) in the world, and Susan Bernofsky one of the greatest translators ever.

Today’s post is from Erica Mena and is actually a chunk of the review she wrote of this for the Iowa Review. Click here to support the Iowa Review and read her full piece.

False Friends by Uljana Wolf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is a delightful foray into language and poetry. Even for someone who has no knowledge of German, the playful shifts between the English translation and the German hinted at behind it are enlightening: both Bernofsky and Wolf clearly delight in the slipperiness of language and sound.

Cognates and homonyms suffuse the poem, toying with seemingly straightforward sentences and twisting them around against themselves. Bernofsky sustains this density of sound against the lightness of the tone, a balance she creates through deft rhythmic and rhyming patterns. The rhythmic quality of the prose poems is striking. In much of the book, Bernofsky hits regular iambic meter, and the poems are stuffed with internal rhyme with equally surprising (because non-lineated) sentence-end rhymes. The bouncy rhythm and dense sounds drive the reader forward through sometimes nonsensical phrases, foregrounding the absurdity of language.

Many of these prose poems read as though they could be nursery rhymes for precocious, hyper-literate children:

he who has a hat has what? i ask. broad-brimmed, you say, a roof above one’s head, cornered, crushed, and most likely of felt—so you’ll feel sheltered till a gust comes blustering by.

But there is exquisite darkness in the images:

still, it would be sinful, you say, not to speak of swans: six is silence, seven love, and in the end there’s a one-wing surplus. seems silly perhaps, but fairy tales save us many a swan song. so i say: consider the woodpecker’s third eyelid sliding supportively across its pupil. with its help, you can strike home any point without eyes popping from sockets. and after that first flutter of hard knocks, the silence cannot hurt you at all.

This book moves deceptively quickly, thanks to all its brilliant poetics and puns. It’s worth a second, third, even a fourth read. It demands to be read out loud, in the way that good poetry does. The book is organized alphabetically (“a DICHTonary of false friends true cognates and other cousins” reads the text on the title page). Each letter gets a short, 6­–12 line block of prose full of alliteration and punning. The alphabet runs the gamut in English, then the second section of the book begins (on noticeably different paper, and printed differently, to accentuate the shift) in German. The original German poems have one obvious difference from the English: they are titled with words rather than listed under the letter of the alphabet. So “A” is, in German, “art / apart.” What especially stands out is that almost all the words in the German section that function as a title are English words—or at least, cognates to English words.

There are English quotes and phrases peppered throughout the German section as well. In “bad / bald / bet-t / brief” Wolf writes, “stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad).” The corresponding line in Bernofsky’s English reads, “standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad).” Bernofsky takes the English embedded in the German and re-appropriates it to fit the rhythmic and sonic requirements of her line. “Fake a bet” is similar enough to “take a bet” at least in terms of sound, but it means something stranger, more open-ended. The same goes for “at night out of hand” rather than “out of bed.” The English that Wolf originally used would have made clear sense as a phrase in Bernofsky’s translation (though to a German reader in the original may have been somewhat more unclear). Bernofsky tweaks the phrases with inspiration to unsettle the poems. The project of the book is to toy with language and meaning, with things that sound similar and even the same across languages but mean strange, funny, unusual, and odd things. This is the joy of cognates, as any language learner will tell you—the surprise they can bring to the familiar. By defamiliarizing these phrases, Bernofsky brilliantly constructs an unfamiliar reading experience in English.

24 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The lovely and energetic Riky Stock just sent me a ton of information about this year’s Festival Neue Literatur, which will take place in NYC from February 10th-12th and is curated by the also lovely and energetic Susan Bernofsky.

Here’s all the info you need:

The Festival of New Literature (February 10-12, 2012) will take place for the third time at various locations throughout New York City. This year’s festival will feature American authors Chris Adrian and Francisco Goldman, alongside six featured German-language authors. Susan Bernofsky, curator of the 2012 Festival of New Literature, is delighted to have Adrian and Goldman take part: “We were very fortunate to be able to secure these two wonderful writers for our festival. They will enrich our panels by their participation, and I am very much looking forward to hearing them in conversation with our German writers, Larissa Boehning and Inka Parei, our Austrian authors Linda Stift and Erwin Uhrmann and with Monica Cantieni and Catalin Dorian Florescu from Switzerland.” In addition, celebrated author Daniel Kehlmann and literary critic Liesl Schillinger will moderate the panel discussions hosted at powerHouse SoHo, Brooklyn, and at McNally Jackson Books, SoHo, respectively.

Festival Neue Literatur is a joint project of the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York, Deutsches Haus at NYU, Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, the German Book Office NY, the German Consulate General in New York, the Goethe-Institut New York and Pro Helvetia.
All of the following events will be in English and are free and open to the public:

How German Is It? Literary Voices from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. A Workshop in Collaboration with Columbia Students

February 10, 2012
1-5pm at Columbia University
Deutsches Haus, Columbia University
420 W. 116th St. (Between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive)

Six young novelists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland will present their latest work in a discussion with Columbia graduate students from the Department of Germanic Languages and the Writing Program.

Reinventing the Past: Chris Adrian, Catalin Dorian Florescu, Inka Parei and Linda Stift in conversation with Daniel Kehlmann

February 11, 2012
6pm at powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn

Literature is often a delving into the past, made all but involuntary because the past has returned to haunt the present. Whether the history in question is familial, political or ancient, traces of old trauma can cast the present in a new light. This panel explores the different ways in which the past can be put to work in the name of storytelling.

Frühschoppen Literary Brunch

February 12, 2012
12pm at Deutsches Haus, NYU
42 Washington Mews

The six German-language authors of Festival Neue Literatur: Larissa Boehning, Monica Cantieni, Catalin Dorian Florescu, Inka Parei, Linda Stift and Erwin Uhrmann, give a sampling from their work, providing a taste of new writing from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Enjoy traditional German fare. RSVP to: deutscheshaus.rsvp@nyu.edu.

Writing on the Margins: Literature between Cultures: Francisco Goldman, Monica Cantieni, Larissa Boehning and Erwin Uhrmann in conversation with Liesl Schillinger

February 12, 2012
6pm at McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street, SoHo

As in the United States, the literary scene in Europe is currently abuzz with hybridity and border crossings that explore the lives of characters who move between different cultural and ethnic worlds. There as here questions of power and authenticity are not far behind as these authors explore the sometimes explosive conditions that arise when cultures intersect and, yes, sometimes clash.

All the events are free, and all sound really interesting, so if you’re going to be in the area, you should definitely check these all out.

28 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Marketplace of Ideas features an hour-long interview with super-translator Susan Bernofsky about Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Kobo Abe, and “the uses of literary hybridity.”

Definitely worth listening to (and subscribing to on iTunes—this is a consistently good podcast), and Susan’s write up of the experience is interesting as well.

*

Digressing here for a minute, but Kobo Abe doesn’t get near the attention that he deserves. The Box Man is nothing short of fucking brilliant and absolutely deserves to be included in conversations about Beckett or other Beckett-esque authors. Vintage reissued The Ark Sakura, a more straightforward, but incredibly fun novel a couple years back, but unfortunately I don’t think many people noticed . . . It’s true that some of his books are less than amazing, but I still think he’s an author ripe for rediscovery by the fans of Bolano and Aira and Sebald and that set. Just saying.

5 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last month we mentioned the first Bridge event (Steve Dolph and Edith Grossman) at the very last minute, so this month I thought I’d give everyone a heads up 22 hours ahead of time . . .

Tomorrow at 1pm at the Swiss Institute (495 Broadway, 3rd Floor, NYC), Edwin Frank will be moderating a discussion with Susan Bernofsky and Christopher Middleton about their translations of Robert Walser’s work.

I would LOVE to be at this . . . Never met Christopher Middleton, but his translation of Jakob von Gunten is spectacular. And Edwin and Susan are both always brilliant . . .

Anyway, check out the new Bridge website for all the details.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Susan Bernofsky’s very interesting post about David Bellos’s very interesting comments about this very interesting sounding book is yet one more reason to rush out and start reading (and rereading) Perec:

David Bellos spoke at NYU’s Maison Française last night, presenting his new translation of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This book is a variation of what Bellos explains is now generally called matrix literature, stories based on allowing readers to select certain plot strands and ignore others à la choose your own adventure books. But in this case, rather than excluding the rejected possibilities, Perec includes all of them, detailing the various choices the book’s protagonist (addressed in the second person passim) might make and then describing what will happen in each case. Where Raymond Queneau’s approach to the matrix story in “Conte a votre façon” (A Story As You Like It) might be described as “intellectual” (says Bellos, and I agree), Perec’s is “obsessive” and “exhaustive.”

[. . .]

Bellos also passed on an interesting bit of insider gossip for readers of Perec’s masterpiece La vie: mode d’emploi, which appears in his translation as Life: A User’s Manual: the answers to many of the mysteries in this book are contained only in the index, and the index of the English-language book contains several more answers than the French original. Bellos felt that certain of the clues Perec included elsewhere in the book became so much more obscure in English translation that the reader deserved a second chance to find them.

And just a reminder (and another reason to get on this Perec thing): The Conversational Reading Spring 2011 Group Read of Life: A User’s Manual kicks off on Sunday. Click here for the schedule and other details

17 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

7 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

All posts in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is from Katy Derbyshire, translator from German and curator of Love German Books. And the book she loves is Visitation.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Germany
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 150

Why It Should Win: Susan Bernofsky; in a sense, the main character is a house; Susan Bernofsky; the translation of the title (Heimsuchung).

Visitation, quite plainly, should win the BTBA because it’s a babe of a book, written by a thinking reader’s babe of an author and put into English by thinking reader’s babe of a translator. I’m allowed to say that; I’m a woman.

That may not be enough for you—although lord knows it should be, because it’s not just that men get much more review coverage, it also just happens to be more often men who win these literary and translation prizes, so my facetious argument is actually striking a blow for feminism. But in the interest of fairness, I shall provide a few more details.

Jenny Erpenbeck is an opera director who writes stunning novels. You might want to read that sentence twice because it’s so awesome. She once pretended to be 17 and went back to high school to research a book. Her mother was a highly respected translator from Arabic. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous.

Susan Bernofsky is a translator, scholar, writer and blogger. She teaches translation and creative writing and has written a biography of Robert Walser, who she also happens to translate. She’s co-curating the Festival Neues Literatur in NYC as we speak. And I’ve met her and she’s gorgeous. I was totally intimidated at first but then realized she’s not only one of the most impressive translator babes ever (and believe me, there’s a lot of tough competition on that front), she’s also actually really nice.

Just a quick recap here: we have two women both utterly devoted to and excellent at what they do. If that’s not worth a prize I don’t know what is. But you may be one of those people who thinks it’s books and not people that deserve prizes. In that case, you’ll want to know something about the book these two über-babes have been generous enough to give us, I suppose.

It’s a structure you may be familiar with: the house as the element uniting a series of narratives, as in Alaa-al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building, Elif Shafak’s Flea Palace, and Nicole Krauss’s latest. Only Erpenbeck takes a very thorough chronological approach, going right back to the formation of the land itself, the previous owners of the plot, the house’s architect, and so on to its demolition some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because the house is not far outside of Berlin, and so a witness to all that twentieth-century German history.

What I particularly adore about the novel is that it doesn’t focus solely on the Nazi era. But that’s a personal thing; I can only assume everyone else in the English-speaking world is utterly fascinated by Nazis, judging by the number of books dealing with them, either written in English or translated. So don’t worry, there are some Nazis and some murdered Jews and some collaborators in amongst all the other beautifully sketched characters. And to get to Susan Bernofsky’s excellent work, each section is written in a different style, gorgeously rendered in English as in German.

In other words, this is a novel with brains, brawn and beauty—it’s basically a babe of a book. If the BTBA were Miss World, Visitation would win the swimsuit competition and then turn down the main prize because she had to work on actually forging world peace once she’d completed her Ph.D.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Witte on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky and published earlier this year by New Directions.

Phillip Witte was an intern for Open Letter way back in the day, and also had a summer internship at New Directions. He’s a great reader, was a fantastic intern, and is one of those young people who gives me hope about the future of literary publishing. (Honestly.) Last I heard he was working at The Strand, although he may be looking for another publishing gig . . .

Anyway, Susan Bernofsky is awesome, and we’ve sang her praises any number of times on this blog. She’s told me repetitively about just how good this particular book is, and I feel like a horrible reader for not having found time to read it yet. (But soon! I can see this making the BTBA longlist, which is the perfect opportunity to set aside a few days to enjoy this.)

This is Jenny Erpenbeck’s third book to be published in translation by New Directions, the others being The Book of Words and The Old Child & Other Stories. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard great things about her books—in particular Visitation.

Anyway, on to Phil’s review:

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

Click here to read the full piece.

7 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation (New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky), which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.

The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.

Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.

The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.

The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.

The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”

Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:

Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.

This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:

This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .

The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.

23 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Putting together the introduction for Susan Bernofsky is kind of intense . . . She’s accomplished so much and has so many things going on, including her involvement with the MFA program in Literary Translation at Queens College—a unique translation program that some of you (potential students? others?) might be interested in.

The program has only been around for four years, but with Susan and Roger Sederat teaching there, it’s a pretty impressive beginning. And a very cool program that’s rooted in the creative aspect to translating.

Here’s a page listing all the requirements, where you can also find the Required Reading list. I’m a total nerd for syllabi and book lists from professors and others, so to indulge my inner dork, here’s the list of required books related to translation (some of which I know, most of which I’d like to read at some point when time stops and I can finally get to ALL of the books I want to get to):

William Arrowsmith & Roger Shattuck, The Craft, and Context of Translation

Mona Baker, In Other Words: A Course Book on Translation

John Felstiner, Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu

David Halpern, Dante’s Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets

Edwin Honig, The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation

Donald Keene, Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western readers

Clifford E. Landers, Literary Translation, A Practical Guide

Peter H. Lee, The Silence of Love: Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry

Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett, Translation, History, and Culture

James J.U. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry

Earl Miner, Japanese Poetic Diaries

Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

Manuela Perteghella and Eugenia Loffredo, Translation and Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Writing and Translation Studies

Gregory Rabassa, The World of Translation, PEN American Center
—- If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Discontents (A Memoir)

Douglas Robinson, Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation

Hiroaki Sato, String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi

Rainer Schulte and Biguenet, The Craft of Translation
—- Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida

Edward G.Seidensticker, Genji Days

George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation

Leslie Marmon Silko, Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit

Issues of Translation Review and Circumference: a bi-annual journal of poetry translation

Anyway. For those of you looking for a translation program in New York, this is another interesting option. (And of course, there’s always our M.A. program here at the University of Rochester . . . But we have a bit of a different focus. And the more the better when it comes to literary translation programs and training young translators. Go Queens for starting something innovative and necessary!)

23 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you within driving distances of Rochester, you really should come out tonight for our first Reading the World Conversation Series Event of the season. Barbara Epler (publisher of New Directions) will be talking with Susan Bernofsky (translator of a number of German authors) about Robert Walser’s Microscripts, which recently came out from ND in Susan’s stellar (as always, as expected) translation.

Here’s a bit of background about Walser and the event:

Robert Walser was one of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century. His exacting, hilarious prose (see Jakob von Gunten, The Tanners, Selected Stores, etc.) has influenced a host of writers and acquired a large following.

Walser’s life story is also very intriguing, especially the fact that he was institutionalized for the last third of his life, during which time he wrote a series of “microscripts”—short stories written on scraps of paper in a script about a millimeter high. After extensive research these pieces have finally been deciphered and have recently been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky—Walser’s primary translator and one of the most prestigious German translators working today—and published by the admirable New Directions. New Directions’ publisher, Barbara Epler, will be here to talk with Susan Bernofsky about Walser, the literary passion he inspires, and his microscripts.

There’s even going to be a PowerPoint with images of the actual microscripts . . . Knowing Barbara and Susan, this is going to be an amazing and fascinating evening . . . (Followed by good food, wine, and salsa, but that’s a different sort of post.) And for those of you who can’t make it, we’ll be recording this and posting it online as soon as possible. (The event that is, not the salsa dancing. That’s an embarrassment that need not be saved for posterity’s sake.)

15 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Brooklyn Book Festival took place this past Saturday, and as always, I wish I could’ve been there. I was able to attend a few years back, and was really impressed by how many people were out browsing the stands, attending panels and readings, and generally getting excited about books. And from what I’ve heard the festival has grown every year since.

As covered in The Mantle, this year’s BKBF included a “Reading the World” panel featuring some of my favorite publishers and translators including Karen Emmerich, Susan Bernofsky, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr. Here’s a clip from Shaun Randol’s write-up:

Great stuff all around, an excellently curated panel. Every single one of the works presented is worth purchasing (skip the library and give these people some money!). (Note to participants: correct me if you see a mistake! There were no Cliffs Notes for what we were listening to on stage.) Karen Emmerich (representing Team Archipelago) read the poetry and prose from the Greek writer Miltos Sachtouris, skipping us across Aegean waters from Greek isles to ancient Greece. And then . . . Ms. Emmerich read an outstanding piece of poetry on the life of plant, by the poet/author Helenē Vakalo. The Mantle audience pleads for an answer—what is this poem and where can we find it? This vegetative poetic genius!?!? Ms. Emmerich, if you are reading this, please put the information in the comments section below!

Next up, Susan Bernofksy (Team New Directions), reading from German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I have nothing written down in my notebook here. This is what happens when the story is too absorbing—you neglect your reporter duties. A complete blank because my eyes were closed and I just listened to the pitter-patter of her voice as she conveyed one of a dozen stories taking place in a single house over generations in what must be an exceptionally intricate novel penned by Erpenbeck. The house is/was real (it belonged to Erpenbeck’s family), so how much of the story is as well? Ahhhh . . . German intrigue . . .

Sounds like a fun panel—one of many that took place. Ah well. Next year . . . There’s always next year . . .

Aside from bringing some attention to this fair/panel, it’s worth spending some time looking around The Mantle. Embarrassed to say that this is the first time I’ve come across the site, which is dedicated to providing “a forum for the next generation of leaders to be heard—a space for opinions that are different from those found in traditional, established outlets.” It’s an interesting publication, with a very international focus, and an intriguing book review section. Definitely worth checking out.

8 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Love German Books is rocking my world today . . . In addition to the German Book Prize roundup we wrote about earlier, Katy also has an interview with Susan Bernofsky about her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a novel that sounds really curious . . . Here’s the description from the New Directions website:

A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who over the decades seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.

Katy’s interview is really interesting (in part because she’s a translator and asks good questions, in part because Susan is great at giving interviews), such as this story about translating Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words:

Jenny is wonderful to work with. She’s very generous about answering questions and giving feedback when I’m not sure how to handle one of her many untranslatables – for example in The Book of Words I wound up having to make up a whole little passage about lilies and lilies-of-the-valley to replace her play on Näglein (little nails) in the dialect sense of Nelken (carnations), and it was very helpful to be able to talk it through with her.

Actually we had a little incident in that same book – she didn’t think to tell me that she had cobbled together an entire word-collage page based on her own translations of lines from American pop songs circa 1978 – thank goodness I noticed one of them, and then my editor Declan Spring noticed a lot more, and then Jenny sent me a list of all the songs she’d used. It would have been nuts if all those titles had wound up as back-translations from her (sometimes rather idiosyncratic) German renderings. But now she’s taken to compiling, for each book, a list of all the questions her translators ask her – then she sends the list around to the other translators, just as a FYI. Now that’s an exemplary author.

And for those interested in Susan’s upcoming projects:

KD: Do you follow contemporary German writing? Is there a writer or a book you’d love to translate but haven’t yet had the chance?

SB: Yes, I do, in part by reading your blog! And there are a lot of really interesting writers who haven’t been translated yet. Right now I’m rooting for Wolfgang Herrndorf (I love his stories in Jenseits des Van Allen-Gürtels). And I really wanted to translate Gerhard Falkner’s short novel Bruno, but I couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to commit to the project.

KD: What are you working on right now?

I’ve been translating a beautiful book of poems by Uljana Wolf, Falsche Freunde/False Friends (they’re prose poems that play with letters of the alphabet). We just found out that Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn is going to publish it, which is wonderful news. Next after that will be a 19th century horror story for New York Review Books: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. I can’t wait! It’s one of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, and also one of the most beautiful.

Finally, for those of you in the Rochester area, Susan is going to be here on September 23rd to talk with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions. They’ll be primarily talking about Robert Walser, though I’m sure the conversation will spill over into other translations, including the Erpenbeck books Susan’s done for ND.

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Center for the Art of Translation recently redesigned its website, which provides a perfect opportunity to reiterate just how awesome CAT is. Lots of amazing stuff on here, including a killer list of upcoming events, an interview with Susan Bernofsky about translating Robert Walser, and information about Two Lines.

So if you haven’t been to the CAT site—or haven’t been in a while—I highly recommend checking it out . . . Especially since the new layout is really pretty . . .

18 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just so happened that a copy of Walser’s Microscripts arrived in the mail this morning from the wonderful people at New Directions, so I thought I’d follow up on the last post with a bit more info about the first event in the fall RTWCS.

On September 23rd, Barbara Epler of New Directions will talk with Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, and others) about Walser, his “microscripts,” and the art and practice of translation.

I suspect that most everyone reading this site is familiar with Robert Walser (we’ve written about his work enough times, and here’s an interesting piece by J. M. Coetzee from the New York Review Books), but in case not, he was one of the most important and interesting writers of the twentieth century, author of The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten, The Robber, and tons of short stories. He also worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant—all jobs that greatly informed his writing. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Walser was hospitalized in 1933 and was institutionalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, during which time he wrote tons of “microscripts,” which were considered “undecipherable” until rather recently.

Here’s some info from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction:

Robert Walser, one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers, wrote many of his manuscripts in a shrunken-down form that remains enigmatic even a century later. These narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging from one to two millimeters, came to light only after their author’s death in 1956. At first his literary executor, Carl Seelig, assumed that Walser had been writing secret code, a corollary of the schizophrenia with which he’d been diagnosed in 1929. Unsure what to make of these tiny texts, Seelig published a handful of them as enlarged facsimiles int he magazine Du with a note describing them as “undecipherable,” and then put them away for safekeeping.

Naturally, these turned out to be decipherable, and Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte spent a decade analyzing the texts, using a technique more like guesswork than reading:

It isn’t possible to just sit down and read a microscript. Morlang and Echte report that one doesn’t so much read these tiny words as guess at what they might psay and then verify the accuracy of the hypothesis.

Part of this is based on the size of the script, but there’s also the interesting nature of the script itself:

The writing that looked like secret code in Carl Seelig’s eyes turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English. Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity—an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash—means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.

All of this is fascinating, making me anxious to dive into the writings themselves. And to speed up time so that it can suddenly be September 23rd . . . Barbara and Susan are both absolutely amazing, and it will be a real treat to see them on stage together.

15 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Following up on last week’s post about the various summer/fall 2010 previews that came out from The Millions and elsewhere, I thought that over the next few days, we’d highlight some forthcoming titles that sound pretty interesting to me. Sure I’m missing things and whatnot, so feel free to overload the comments section with recommendations. And click here to see all translation preview posts.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, New Directions)

From an interview with superstar translator Susan Bernofsky:

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

Sold!

Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (France, Wakefield Press)

Wakefield Press doesn’t receive nearly as much play as it deserves. Marc Lowenthal (translator, publisher, etc.) is producing some fascinatingly strange books in absolutely gorgeous editions. (I highly recommend The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners which is one of the raunchiest, funniest books I’ve ever read. And by raunchy I mean there’s some really sick shit in there.) And Perec! One of the all time bests. And this small book is perfectly Perec-ian: for three days he records everything he sees as part of a “quest of the ‘infraordinary’: the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as he put it, ‘when nothing happens.’”

Sleepwalker by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Clockroot)

No matter what, I’d include this book on the list simply because I think Karen Emmerich is amazing and Clockroot extremely daring and interesting. But check this quote:

“God was tired . . . He looked down at his earth and what it had become . . . His people had betrayed him . . . Thus it was that he decided to send a new god to earth, a god people would recognize and worship from the start—a god made in their image, a god they deserved . . . He clutched his stomach, leaned over the earth, and vomited.”

Yep. And here’s an excerpt from Clockroot, and one from Words Without Borders.

The Woman with the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (France, Europa Editions)

This is the second Schmitt book to come out from Europa — the other being The Most Beautiful Book in the World — and both story collections sound pretty intriguing. But the real reason I wanted to mention this book is because it is fourth translation of Alison Anderson’s coming out this year. She’s like the C.C. Sebathia of literary translation!

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (Morocco, New Directions)

This sounds very cool. It’s described as a “sweet, Borgesian mix of bildungsroman memoir, family history, short-story collection, fable, and literary criticism.” It also has a great cover, a brilliant quote from Elias Khoury (“We normally speak of writing as an adventure, but Kilito dares his reader to travel with him, on a quest to override the boundaries between reality and fiction, between literary criticism and storytelling”), and Creswell won a PEN Translation Award for this.

The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Portugal, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

With Saramago passing away just a few weeks ago, it’s a good time to look over his career. I haven’t read many of the recent titles, but back in the day, I really liked Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, Blindness, and Balthasar and Blimunda, which is the book The Elephant’s Journey most calls to mind.

In 1551, King Joao III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked upon by scholars, historians, and ordinary people. Out of this material, José Saramago has spun a novel already heralded as “a triumph of language, imagination, and humor” (El País).

The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (Spain, Other Press)

A couple months back, I met with some of the editors at Other Press, and they all raved about this book. Manuel de Lope has a solid reputation in Spain, and this is his first book to be published in English. All I’ve been able to read so far is the opening sentence, but this (along with the jacket copy and Katie’s recommendation) has me pretty intrigued:

It was the month of May, or the month of June, in any case summer was near, and within only a few weeks the war would break out, although nobody knew this at the time, and those who had premonitions couldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what the intuition accepts, and they wouldn’t have been able to convince anybody anyway.

9 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I posted about the Wolff Symposium 2010 podcasts from BEZ.

Anyway, the one recording that was missing is now available, so you can check out The Art of Literary Translation with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Ross Benjamin, Krishna Winston, and Breon Mitchell.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.

Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)

I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .

If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .

So:

First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.

(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)

Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?

And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .

Finally, we wrapped up with a contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:

Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”

Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”

This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know E.J. posted Jennifer Howard’s article on translation in the academy last Monday, but because it’s such an interesting—and charged—topic, and because it’s just one of a few cool translation-related articles that came out in the past week.

The recent MLA convention—where the focus was translation—is the starting point for Jen’s article, with the main thrust being about how translation is shunned in the academy. For people outside of academia, it seems to come as a surprise that translation doesn’t play well at tenure meetings. But seriously, I’ve heard some awful stories, especially from young professors.

One of the most famously shocking tenure denials is that of Susan Bernofsky. Granted, I don’t know all the details, and everyone knows how fraught university politics are, but for Susan not to be tenured somewhere? That’s effing unthinkable. Just for her translations of Walser . . . A university would gain so much in terms of expertise, knowledge, and nationwide attention. (Can’t find it now, but I believe there was even a feature on Susan in the New Yorker some time back.)

But there are other stories, such as this one:

Mark Anderson, who is on leave from the Germanic-languages department at Columbia University, has experienced the vicissitudes that beset academic translators. In graduate school, he did a translation of poetry by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. Princeton University Press published the book, which won a prize from the American Academy of Poets.

After Mr. Anderson, a Kafka scholar, got a job as an assistant professor at Columbia, he recalls in an e-mail message, “I was offered the chance to translate Kafka’s The Trial and was about to submit a sample when my chair got word of it and advised me, rightly, I think, not to do this until I finished my book and got tenure. Which I did.” He published a translation of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser­ while still untenured—but under a pseudonym (“Jack Dawson,” which according to Mr. Anderson is a pun on Kafka’s Czech name and means “son of Kafka”). “We had a celebratory lunch after I got tenure at Columbia, and I told the story and got a good laugh,” Mr. Anderson says. “But it’s a real issue, and I think my chair gave me excellent advice.”

So, just to get this straight, universities—which exist to educate and enlighten the world—are indirectly (or occasionally directly) for preventing certain great works of literature (Kafka! Bernhard!) from being accessible to the monolingual, English reader? That’s brilliant.

It seems that the main problem is in getting people to accept the idea of translation as scholarship. Which is weird to anyone actually involved in the production or promotion of literature in translation. (And by “weird” I mean “fucking incomprehensible.”) But I’ve heard from a number of people about how hard it is to justify this activity in a system that favors the production of slender monographs that are read by a couple hundred scholars. Not that readers of this blog need any justification, but here’s Catherine Porter’s explanation of the scholarly activity inherent in translation:

Ms. Porter talked on the subject of “Translation as Scholarship” at a seminar organized at Brown University last summer by the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. In the talk, which will be published as an essay in a forthcoming ADFL Bulletin, she discussed the complex analyses and decisions that a serious translator must go through to bring a text from its native language into the target language. It sounds at least as rigorous as much of the critical work recognized as scholarship.

For instance, Ms. Porter notes, a translator must ask, “In what contexts—literary, rhetorical, social, historical, political, economic, religious, cultural—was the source text embedded, and what adjustments will have to be made to transmit those contexts or produce comparable ones in the translation?” Complicated questions of genre, literary tradition, and target audience must be dealt with. “Once these initial determinations are made—subject to revision and refinement as the translation progresses—the translator can begin to engage with the text itself: word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.”

Or, as translation superstar Edith Grossman puts it:

In a forthcoming book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, to be released this March), Edith Grossman describes the process this way: “What we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism.” The celebrated translator of Cervantes and many Latin American authors, she calls translation “a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.”

I’m often overly optimistic when it comes to the possibility of world change, but I do get the sense that things are evolving . . . Just look at the number of translation and translation studies programs that are starting up (like, well, the one here at the University of Rochester) or becoming more and more prominent. Attitudes are changing . . . I hope. Nevertheless, I like Michael Henry Heim’s idea:

“It’s not only the deans that need to have their consciousness raised,” Mr. Heim says, remembering a call from a fellow professor who had to do a bit of translation and was surprised to discover how hard it was. “It is something that we’re still battling with, not only on the administrative level but also on the level of our own colleagues.”

He describes himself as a “silent partner” in a plan to put the official weight of the MLA behind translation as scholarship. He’s working to help draft an MLA-approved letter, to be signed by Ms. Porter, Ms. Perloff, and Mr. Holquist, that could be sent to administrators and evaluators. “It’s not a matter of a few translators speaking in their own interest, it’s a matter of the MLA, a national organization, coming up with a position paper,” Mr. Heim explains. “What we hope is that people—like deans who may be microbiologists, say, and have really little idea of what translation is—will accept what the MLA says.”

And although ALTA isn’t necessarily focused on the academic side of a life in translation, they could should probably help with this as well. If we’re going to have a vibrant book culture that incorporates works and voices from other cultures, we’re going to need a system by which all players—publishers and translators—can exist. And teaching at a university (or, yeah, having a press located at a university) is one fantastic option . . . Especially considering the normal terms of translation contracts and the general sales level of books in translation . . .

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)

What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)

In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.

Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:

The incredible shrinking writer 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.

In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.

A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.

Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.

One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.

Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.

I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:

“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”

7 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New Directions blog there’s a fascinating interview with translator Susan Bernofsky (one of my favorite translators) on Robert Walser (one of my favorite authors). Number of interesting comments on the process and art of translation, but this bit about Walser’s Microscripts was what caught my eye:

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

After running a review of The Tanners last week, I started reading the book myself and instantly re-fell in love with Walser’s style and quirky sense of humor. I can’t repeat enough how everyone should read this book, and as an attempt to sway any doubters out there, here’s the opening paragraph in all its hilarious glory:

One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted. The bookseller, an old man of quite venerable appearance, gave a sharp glance at the one standing rather shyly before him and instructed him to speak. “I want to become a bookseller,” said the youthful novice, “I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined the trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest—and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. Although I’m still young, I believe myself in possession of a certain knowledge of human nature—besides which, I love people, of every variety, so I would never employ my insight into their characters in the service of swindling—and I am equally determined never to harm your esteemed business through any exaggerated solicitousness toward certain underfinanced poor devils. In a word: My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality on the scales of salesmanship, a rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love: I shall practice a most lovely moderation, please be assured of this in advance—”

And it just keeps getting better, as Simon dismisses the request for personal references (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose could it serve?”) and quits just a few pages later (“During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . .”).

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

“You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:

You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.

And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:

No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.

Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.

He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2

24 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all its noise, Facebook can still be a great way of keeping up with what your friends are working on. For instance, over the weekend, Susan Bernofsky posted about a Yoko Tawada she recently translated for the “Japan Focus” issue of the“Asian-Pacific Journal.”:http://japanfocus.org/ The article — The Letter as Literature’s Political and Poetic Body — is a fascinating piece on reading habits and ideograms. Especially this bit about why the new Japanese translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has been so wildly successful:

In November 2006 a new translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov appeared that soon had sold 500,000 copies. I knew the translator, Kameyama Ikuo, as the author of a fascinating book on Stalin and the artists of his time.

Just as in other countries, people in Japan have been lamenting since the 1980s (if not much longer) that young people no longer read the classics of world literature. First it was the culture of manga and television that was seen as the culprit; later it was the internet, computer games and obsessive text messaging. The number of books sold each year has actually been rising, because manga, the autobiographies of TV stars, internet literature and even text-message literature have come out in book form—but nonetheless people have been complaining that the old canon of world literature is no longer being taken seriously. And so this new Karamazov boom was a pleasant surprise. But I asked how this new translation of the novel could be so different that suddenly hundreds of thousands of Japanese readers were in such a hurry to buy it and were reading it with such enthusiasm. Even in times when literature supposedly had many more readers than today, Dostoevsky was never a bestseller. [. . .]

Can the novel The Brothers Karamazov be translated in such a way that it reads smoothly and fluidly like a bestseller? I bought the new translation, read the first hundred pages, and concluded that each phrase used in it appeared easily accessible and had a good rhythm. In this book, the odors and dust of a foreign society are suppressed. The characters are readily distinguishable from one another despite their inconsistencies. Regardless of whether one values these attributes of the new translation, the difference between the new and old translations seemed to me insufficient to explain this explosive boom.

Several months later I happened to have a chance to chat with a young editor from a Japanese publishing house about this new translation. He said that readers today have developed a manga or text message way of seeing, meaning that their eyes grasp one entire section of text as an image and then go on to the next. For this reason, the sections cannot be too long: ideally, no longer than would fit on the screen of a cell phone or in a single manga picture. [. . .]

The editor told me that in his opinion the secret of this new translation was that an unusually large number of paragraph breaks had been added to the novel. Manga readers can read the novel by passing from paragraph to paragraph as if from one manga image to the next. They are no less intelligent than their grandparents, but they have a different organ of vision, or a different cable connecting their retinas to their brains.

A Japanese translator I spoke with several weeks later confirmed the editor’s theory. She was just translating a book for the world literature series in which the new Brothers Karamazov had also appeared, and her editor kept repeating the same sentence: Give me more paragraphs! [. . .]

I don’t know whether I myself have manga eyes or not. Sometimes at a manga café in Tokyo I see young men flipping through a manga incredibly quickly. I could never read so fast. At home I secretly measured the amount of time it took me to read a page of Tezuka’s manga. Ten seconds per page. Then I measured how long it took me to read the new edition of Karamazov: twenty seconds a page. The old translation, on the other hand, took me nearly sixty seconds. The difference between the manga and the new Karamazov was much smaller than the difference between the new and old Brothers.

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very interesting interview with Susan Bernofsky (“widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today,” who has translated Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada, among others) in The Brooklyn Rail.

Theoretically, this interview is supposed to be about her forthcoming translation of The Tanners (releasing from New Directions this fall, and yes, another BTB2010 nominee), but it gets really interesting (it’s always interesting, but you know) when she starts talking more generally about translation, language, and culture:

Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?

Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.

Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?

Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.

And for all Walser fans out there who are waiting for a solid biography:

Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?

Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.

1 July 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

The Observer Translation Project, which we’ve mentioned here before, posted a really cool translation roundtable/interview that they conducted recently:

World-famous novelist Norman Manea, two premier experts in the realm of literature in translation—Susan Harris of Words Without Borders and Chad Post of Three Percent and Open Letter—and award-winning translator from German Susan Bernofsky address a literary zone in permanent crisis: the world of literature in translation.

They manage to cover a lot of ground pretty quickly—from editing translations, to the market for translations, to why the panelists read translations—and it’s interesting to see how they approach all of the issues from slightly different angles. Definitely worth a read.

16 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is a couple weeks old now, but star translator Susan Bernofsky wrote an excellent article for the Wall Street Journal about the immense popularity of the German version of the Donald Duck comic book:

Comics featuring Donald are available at most German newsstands and the national weekly “Micky Maus”—which features the titular mouse, Goofy and, most prominently, Donald Duck—sells an average of 250,000 copies each week, outselling even “Superman.” A lavish 8,000-page German Donald Duck collector’s edition has just come out, and despite the nearly $1,900 price tag, the publisher, Egmont Horizont, says the edition of 3,333 copies is almost completely sold out. Last month the fan group D.O.N.A.L.D (the German acronym stands for “German Organization for Non-commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism”), hosted its 32nd annual congress at the Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, with trivia and trinkets galore, along with lectures devoted to “nephew studies” and Duckburg’s solar system.

“Donald is so popular because almost everyone can identify with him,” says Christian Pfeiler, president of D.O.N.A.L.D. “He has strengths and weaknesses, he lacks polish but is also very cultured and well-read.” But much of the appeal of the hapless, happy-go-lucky duck lies in the translations. Donald quotes from German literature, speaks in grammatically complex sentences and is prone to philosophical musings, while the stories often take a more political tone than their American counterparts.

Disney—not necessarily known for allowing much creative freedom with its properties—actually did something right for once, allowing translator Dr. Erika Fuchs to create a version of Donald Duck that’s a bit more complex than the American one, and that has truly become a cult figure in Germany.

Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell”; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, “The Bell,” in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Hölderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, “Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.”

Bernofsky points out two different ways in which Fuchs has created a radically different version of Donald Ducks: through altered speech patterns (especially alliteration), and by adding more political depth to the stories.

In terms of alliteration, she uses this example from “Lifeguard Daze”:

In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

What’s really interesting though is the difference between the German version of “The Golden Helmet” and the American one:

Take, for example, the classic Duck tale “The Golden Helmet,” a story about the search for a lost Viking helmet that entitles its wearer to claim ownership of America. In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.

This is one of the most direct examples of how much power a translator can have in presenting a text to a new readership. And in this particular case, the effects have been long lasting and dramatic. Right from the start, Donald Duck went from being a comic for kids to something more:

Micky Maus became popular entertainment among a newly politicized generation who saw the comics as illustrations of the classic Marxist class struggle. A nationally distributed newsletter put out by left-leaning high school students in 1969 described Dagobert (Scrooge) as the “prototype of the monocapitalist,” Donald as a member of the proletariat, and Tick, Trick and Track as “socialist youth” well on their way to becoming “proper Communists.” Even Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer admitted to enjoying reading Donald Duck comics before bed.

Susan Bernofsky was also on the BBC’s World Update the other day to talk about this, but unfortunately the link is no longer working today and I can’t find an archive . . .

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I believe that The Naked Eye (translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German and published by New Directions) is the fourth of Yoko Tawada’s works to make their way into English. Kodandsha did The Bridegroom Was a Dog back in 1998 (this was translated just from the Japanese), and New Directions did Where Europe Begins in 2002 (originally written in both German and Japanese) and also brought out Facing the Bridge in 2007.

Monica Carter—curator of Salonica World Lit and the literary journal E.Lire, and bookseller at Skylight Books in L.A.—wrote this review of her latest book, which is centered around the movies of Catherine Deneuve, and doesn’t sound quite as good as Tawada’s earlier works.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

For the complete review, click here.

18 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.

This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.

All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.

She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:

Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.

Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.

Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:

“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.

Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.

One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.

I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.

I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”

....
The Madmen of Benghazi
The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .

Read More >

The Four Corners of Palermo
The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza
Reviewed by Patience Haggin

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .

Read More >

Writers
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

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?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

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. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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. . .

Read More >