30 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award.

Negrón lives in Puerto Rico and works as a bookseller, and is also coeditor of an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico. Other than the recently translated Mundo Cruel, his only other work in English is the essay “The Pain of Reading,” which appeared in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, and was also translated by Levine.

The characters in Mundo Cruel constantly face prejudice, heartbreak, poverty, gossip, and death. Is the fictional world in Luis Negrón’s stories cruel? Most certainly. But Mundo Cruel is peopled by resilient, funny, and surprisingly optimistic characters. The book consists of nine tightly constructed stories mostly set in Santurce, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Juan. What’s truly surprising in Mundo Cruel isn’t the queer themes it explores, but the degree of narrative control and skill present in Negrón’s work.

The first story, “The Chosen One,” is about a teenager’s unique relationship with God and the allure he exerts on certain members of his congregation. In “The Vampire of Moca,” a person’s crush gets out of hand, paving the way for jealousy, rage, obsession, and finally forgiveness. Sound heavy? This is actually one of Negrón’s funniest stories. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Santurce. The story’s setting seemed to enhance the protagonist’s feelings of entrapment:

Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework. Fabric stores, arts and crafts stores, no-prescription drugstores, barbershops and hair salons.

“For Goyama” is a terrific rendering of the melodrama found in the telenovelas so prevalent in Hispanic society. With campy humor, Negrón portrays the protagonist’s loss, loneliness, and desperation as he tries to get a hold of a friend who owes him money. This is so he can send his dog, Goyama, to a taxidermist. Here, the entire action takes place through the letters the protagonist sends his friend during the weeks he’s trying to track said friend down.

“La Edwin” and “Junito” are monologues told through a phone call. Negrón’s acute ear for dialogue and urban orality is immediately evident, and Levine’s translation shines. Many Puerto Ricans are in fact bilingual, or understand quite a lot of words in English. So Levine’s decision to keep certain Spanish words in her translation is a nod to the code-switching that occurs in both countries.

Me, I talk polito chicken, you know, Spanglish, but I get by. If they talk to me slow I can follow, but when they start talking fast with all that guachulín, man, that’s when they lose me.

“Botella” shows a hustler who, after having sex with a jon, finds him dead several hours later. I don’t want to give too much away here, but let me just say that after you read this story, you’ll never look at a bottle of bleach the same way again.

The seventh story in the collection, “So Many or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell,” is structured like a dramatic script. Two intolerant mothers discuss the upbringing of a queer boy living in their neighborhood. Under the guise of good Samaritans, they unleash their prejudice, xenophobia, and cruelty on the boy, his family, and all who do not conform to their expectations.

The collection closes with “The Garden” and the title story, “Mundo Cruel.” The former is narrated by Nestito, whose lover, Willie, is dying of AIDS. This is the most somber story in the collection and Negrón establishes himself as a deeply humane writer. “Mundo Cruel” is a satire on a world without homophobia, where the main characters, José A. and Panchi, must confront their biggest fear: tolerance.

Mundo Cruel might be a quick read, yet this is the type of book whose characters will linger in your imagination—it might take some effort to shake them off. Negrón is an incredibly gifted writer whose vivid prose, diverse writing style, and humor makes reading this book a true joy.

30 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Camila Santos on Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón, from Seven Stories Press.

Camila is a Brazilian translator, and has written for Three Percent before—way back in 2010. Here’s a bit of her review:

Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award.

Negrón lives in Puerto Rico and works as a bookseller, and is also coeditor of an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico. Other than the recently translated Mundo Cruel, his only other work in English is the essay “The Pain of Reading,” which appeared in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, and was also translated by Levine.

The characters in Mundo Cruel constantly face prejudice, heartbreak, poverty, gossip, and death. Is the fictional world in Luis Negrón’s stories cruel? Most certainly. But Mundo Cruel is peopled by resilient, funny, and surprisingly optimistic characters. The book consists of nine tightly constructed stories mostly set in Santurce, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Juan. What’s truly surprising in Mundo Cruel isn’t the queer themes it explores, but the degree of narrative control and skill present in Negrón’s work.

For the complete review, go here.

17 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The 2012 winners of the PEN Center USA Literary Awards were announced Wednesday, and I’m extremely glad to see that Suzanne Jill Levine won in the translation category for her work on José Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale, which came out late last year from Northwestern University Press.

Unfortunately, we have yet to review this (my fault, seeing that our copy is buried in my “to read!” shelf), but I’m planning on including in a new feature that I’m going to start next week. (Seriously, I will. Summer’s basically over—it’s time to get everything going again.) In the meantime, you should check out this Bookforum review by Lisa Fetchko:

Northwestern University Press, in a fine translation by Suzanne Jill Levine, has just released The Lizard’s Tale, an unfinished novel by José Donoso first published in 1997, eleven years after the author’s death. [. . .]

The lizard’s tail (tale) refers to a key theme in the novel: what happens when you turn your back on something that once defined you? Disillusioned with the commercialization of the art world, Antonio Muñoz-Roa, a fifty-year-old painter from Barcelona, publicly breaks with Informalism, the artistic movement he helped to found. Muñoz-Roa, who also stops painting, likens this break to a lizard shedding its tail (although he isn’t sure “if I were the lizard and the informalists . . . were the severed tail, or if on the contrary, I was the tail that would die and they the lizard that would soon grow another tail”). On an ensuing trip to the coast with his ex-lover Luisa, Muñoz-Roa discovers Dors, an unspoiled town in the mountains. He falls in love with the Dors, restores an old house, and lives there for several years. The town is so important to his post-painterly identity that he becomes obsessed with persuading the locals to preserve it from the crass developments springing up along the coast. Critics have drawn a parallel between Muñoz-Roa’s disillusion with Informalism and Donoso’s feelings about the Boom, but I wouldn’t make too much of this. Donoso likes to isolate his protagonists as a way of having them reflect upon their lives, and for Muñoz-Roa, Dors serves this function.

The book itself sounds interesting, and the reviews all heap praise on Jill’s translation:

There’s plenty to applaud in The Lizard’s Tale. For long stretches of the novel, Donoso’s fluid and agoraphobic prose—which Levine does a marvelous job of following—lures us into the tangled web of Muñoz-Roa’s many contradictions. (Bookforum)

Levine is at once the writer and the interpreter of Donoso’s labyrinthine sentences, and her work is masterful. (Words Without Borders)

Congrats to Suzanne Jill Levine, and be sure and check out The Lizard’s Tale (and Donoso’s other works).

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press earlier this year with a new introduction by Francisco Goldman.

Puig’s an all-time favorite of mine, and in my opinion, this is his best book. (Even better than Kiss of the Spider Woman.) (I’m actually flipping through the new Dalkey edition as I type and thinking about rereading this over the weekend . . .) Puig was an amazing writer, and although I wish Open Letter could’ve been the press to reprint his early works, it’s great that Dalkey is making all of these available again.

Larissa Kyzer is a frequent reviewer for us, her most recent review (like two weeks ago recent) was of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. (Larissa knows a lot about Scandinavian lit, which is why she reviews a lot of Nordic books for us.)

Here’s the opening of her review:

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

25 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Built on recollections of his small hometown in the heart of the Argentine pampas, Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango is a dizzy and heartfelt pastiche of seduction, jealousy, daydreams, and spoiled hopes in the lives of a self-indulgent and consumptive Casanova named Juan Carlos, his workingman best friend, and the women who suffer their affections. Blending documentary-style narration with the melodrama of radio plays and the clear-eyed aspirations of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Puig intermixes high and low art—“the avant-garde with popular appeal,” he once wrote—so as to delight and entertain while mercilessly laying bear the hypocrisies and regressiveness of village life.

In her biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, imminent Latin American translator Suzanne Jill Levine (who was also close friends with the author) notes that “Manuel saw Villegas [his hometown] as an ongoing melodrama or, translated to radio, a soap opera like the ones people used to listen to every afternoon . . .” Speaking of his friends and neighbors, Levine explains that, “. . . their feelings were the feelings of characters in a melodrama, and they spoke the language of those old songs, radio plays, and movies to which they were addicted.”

Heartbreak Tango likewise stages itself as a serial drama, and is divided into sixteen “episodes,” comprised of letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, diary entries, and scenes of dialog. Each episode is preceded by one of the myriad advertisements, tag lines, and song lyrics that surround these characters and color their points of view. “As long as you can smile, success can be yours!” claims a toothpaste commercial. “He treated her rough, and she loved it!” winks the tag line for a Jean Harlow film.

These epigraphs offer a bittersweet and ironic counterpoint to the mundane realities of the characters’ lives—days spent laundering rich women’s linens, doing backbreaking construction work, or fending off the advances of would-be suitors. As the book progresses, however, they begin seem less and less farcical, and increasingly reflective of the bubbling tensions at play in these individuals’ world. A “Miss Spring” pageant ignites jealousy and gossip among debutants. Juan Carlos seduces several neighborhood daughters (all friends), while simultaneously conducting a very public affair with a much older widow. A family loses their fortune and social standing when an English investor is snubbed by their daughter. A poor maid murders the father of her illegitimate son after discovering his affair with her employer’s daughter. Life imitates art, with fewer happy endings.

Puig’s first love was the movies (he originally planned to become a film director), a fact is apparent in much of his work, not least Heartbreak Tango. This is more than just a fondness for referencing movie stars and Hollywood films throughout his novels, though—it’s a way of seeing. Puig is a master of montage, of cross-cutting intimate snapshots of multiple characters to show them in their greater context. For example, in one episode, he follows everyone through their daily routine, while also revealing their greatest fears and desires in that precise moment. It’s a day much like any other day, filled with work and worry, and yet Puig imbues it with such specificity that even the most trifling desires resonate with the reader.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most of their greatest fears are legitimate ones—weighty and insurmountable problems which threaten to overshadow whatever small happinesses they are able to steal for themselves in the form of an air conditioned movie, a cool siesta, or a freshly pressed and polished uniform. Juan Carlos cannot raise the money he needs to go to an expensive sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis. After marrying a well-to-do public auctioneer and moving to Buenos Aires, a neighborhood girl is still can’t afford to send her family money to pay for her father’s medical treatments. An unwed mother struggles to find ways to support herself and still spend time with her infant son.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that these characters take refuge in the romantic dramas of radio plays, the fictional tragedies of their favorite tangos. That well into middle age, they still cherish remembrances of short-lived adolescent passion, even if over time, their memories have edited out fickle lovers and disappointed youthful hopes. Or as two childhood friends realize while sharing a cup of maté years later, “’[O]ne always thinks the past was better. And wasn’t it?’ . . . Both found an answer for that question,” Puig reveals. “The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love.”

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jessica LeTourneur on the reissue of Suzanne Jill Levine’s classic The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

This book has had a huge impact on translators ever since it was first published, and there was even a huge celebration of Jill at the last ALTA conference to honor the republication of her book.

I totally love Jill and am a huge fan of all of her translations, especially the Puig books and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers. And I also love what she’s done for Penguin Classics with the special five-volume Borges set. (Which we will review at some point—I promise.) Additionally, the Reading the World podcast Erica Mena and I did with her was one of the best to date. (You can subscribe to the RTW Podcast via iTunes, or listen to it at the link above.)

Jessica has become one of our regular reviewers. As a bit of background info, she studied literature, history, and journalism at the University of Missouri, and attended New York University’s Publishing Institute in 2005. In the past, Jessica has worked as a journalist, as well as at The Missouri Review and W. W. Norton & Company. Jessica currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is pursuing a Master’s degree in History and Scholarly Publishing at Arizona State University.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

“Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.”

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

Click here to read the full piece.

10 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:

Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.

At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.

The author, Suzanne Jill Levine, is a Spanish professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as a renowned translator of Latin American fiction’s powerhouses such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig. In addition to The Subversive Scribe and several scholarly publications, she’s also published a biography: Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.

When lovingly outlining just how she transferred her passion for the Spanish language into a lifelong odyssey as a translator, specifically of Latin American (male) authors, she says:

Scientists could come up with new inventions; astronauts could set foot on new planets; the only frontier adventure available to the translator seemed to be the crossing of language and cultural barriers, stepping through the Looking Glass to see what a presumably untranslatable Spanish text would look like on the other side, in English. I was challenged thus (and perhaps doomed to the fate of Borges’s pathetic Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s bumbling Bouvard and Pecuchet) by these Latin American fictions.

To most, the word “subversive” has political connotations, and draws readers a mental image along the lines of Solzhenitsyn toiling away in the gulag. Yet in the case of Levine’s narrative, she poetically states that the act of translation is in itself a subversive act:

A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be a version lying dormant and, like Frankenstein (to use an Infantesque metaphor), animated by a mad translator, a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation.

Levine’s illuminating and crisp prose is at its height when describing her philosophical approaches to translation, and when sharing her personal experiences with Latin America’s literary crème de la crème. However, the narrative flow becomes a bit bogged down when the author launches into the more specific nuances of Spanish grammar and linguistics. Organized in four parts, The Subversive Scribe outlines the linguistic trials and tribulations of titles, names, and even specific cultural sexual innuendos for a greater part of the book than I personally would have preferred. Because I’m not fluent in a second language and haven’t translated literature myself (and lack much experience with Latin American literature), much of these sections that were heavy on literary criticism and linguistics were lost on me. The Subversive Scribe sings out when Levine focuses more on her personal relationship with authors and her experiences translating, but merely hums when she delves deep into the grammatical grit. That said, I get the sense that The Subversive Scribe would be perfect for someone who is fluent in a second language, and possesses their own firsthand experience translating literature.

Ultimately, The Subversive Scribe “is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translation as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals . . . to dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers and writing that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal . . .Readers also need to understand how Latin American writing is transmitted to them, and how differences and similarities between cultures and languages affect what is finally transmitted. Knowing the other and how we receive or hear the other is a fundamental step toward knowing ourselves.” Indeed it is.

2 April 10 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [2]

This month we talk with Suzanne Jill Levine, famed translator and author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.

Read More...

10 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of my favorite parts of this job (aside from seeing our own books in print and on bookstore shelves) is opening the mail and seeing all the new books coming out. Especially when I receive things like the first two volumes of the new Borges series that Penguin Classics is bringing out next April.

These first two volumes—Poems of the Night and The Sonnets, pictured above and below—are coming out just in time for National Poetry Month, and by themselves are pretty amazing collections. Quoting from the jacket copy, Poems of the Night is “a moving collection of the great literary visionary’s poetic meditations on nighttime, darkness, and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams, themes that speak implicitly to the blindness that overtook him late in life.”

And The Sonnets contains, well, all of Borges’s sonnets, many of which are appearing in English for the first time.

Beyond the contents though, check this list of translators included in these volumes: Willis Barnstone, Robert Fitzgerald, Edith Grossman, Kenneth Krabbenhoft, Anthony Kerrigan, Stephen Kessler, John King, Suzanne Jill Levine (who is also the series editor, more below), Eric McHenry, Christopher Maurer, W. S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Hoyt Rogers, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, Alan S. Trueblood, and John Updike.

Now, about the series: I’d heard about this from John Siciliano and Jill Levine back some time ago, and thanks to the wonderful people at Penguin, I just got some additional info about all five volumes. These are based on the Collected Fiction, Selected Poetry, and Selected Nonfiction volumes that came out a few years ago, but each new volume includes new material as well. Kristen Scharold sent me this info about the next three volumes, which will come out in June of next year:

On Writing constitutes a guide to writing by one of the twentieth century’s most revered writers and literary thinkers. On Argentina constitutes a guide to Borges’s beloved Argentina and Buenos Aires—perfect for the literary traveler. On Mysticism, which is edited and introduced by Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama, is a collection of Borges’ essays, fiction, and poetry that explores the role of the mysterious and spiritual in Borges’ life and writing.

It’s always a good time to read Borges, and I have a feeling I’ll end up reading all five of these volumes over the next year . . . And speaking of Suzanne Jill Levine, here’s an interesting interview with her that recently appeared in Words Without Borders.

17 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

OK, so I may have cocked up the title of yesterday’s ALTA post—my typing/hearing skills are pretty suspect . . . It should’ve read “Short Stop Only While Getting It Off,” although “short drop” might be a bit more, um, dirty—but I’m positive I have today’s right.

It actually came from John Nathan’s plenary lecture “Translating Style,” which was an extremely interesting and engaging presentation about the difficulties of capturing the author’s voice when translating Japanese literature. Anyway, the title of the first Mishima book that Nathan translated can be literally translated as “Tugging in the Afternoon,” but the Japanese word for “glory” is homonym for “tugging,” a bit of word play that would totally be lost in English. So instead, Nathan suggested “Glory Is a Drag,” which didn’t go over too well . . . Eventually—thanks to Mishima’s ability to come up with dozens of great titles—the book came to be known as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.

Anyone who reads this blog or thinks about/is involved with literary translation knows that this sort of bold departure is rather common. Translators are always faced with difficult choices—whether to cling to the original or cut and compensate in the target language, how to translate dialects, etc.—and it’s the way that great translators solve these questions through their great skill, imagination, and understanding of the literary art that makes them Great Translators in the first place.

Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe is dedicated to exactly this. The first event I attended at ALTA was a special session in honor of Dalkey Archive’s recent reissue of this collection. (Unfortunately, none of the editors from Dalkey attended ALTA, although I did have a chance to meet the very cool Jamie Richards, who is one of the current translation fellows.) A lot of interesting things came up on this panel that sort of highlight what it is that I really love about translators and ALTA as a whole.

A lot of the discussion revolved around the idea that the translator is responsible for “recreating the reader’s relationship with the text.” In contrast to more academic activities and papers in which the professor tries to enact a fake sort of “critical distance” from the text they’re discussing, Jill (and translators as a whole) are much more personally engaged with the book. Aside from those instances in which loaded independent publishers use our enormous wealth to convince a translator to take on a project they’re not interested in (something that happens, well, like, never), translators work on books that they love. And they translate because they want to share that love with others who can’t experience the pleasure of reading the book in its original language.

One of the more fruitful metaphors to apply to the process of translation is to talk about it as a performance. That the original text is like a musical score and the translator the musician who jazzily reproduces the original in a new form. Obviously, there are many valid ways to “play” a text, and the art of the translator is being able to nail those verbal runs and bring the new set of readers into the author’s amazing world.

Which means that a translator has to be pretty damn creative. (Not to mention extremely talented. That’s why I’m just as in awe of great translators as I am of great authors.) And that’s sort of what Jill was getting at with her use of the word “subversive.” It’s not that she was sowing the seeds of revolution (although why not?) but pointing to the fact that translation is a creative process. That subversion = creativity. (Leading to an awesome quote about her relationship with the person who translated The Subversive Scribe into Spanish: “I was subverting him while he was subverting me.”)

(Sidenote for all who were there: I totally agree with the very awesome Erica Mena who objected to the comment that young translators have to spend a couple decades—couple decades?—practicing before they perform in this way. It’s always good to try these things with a partner, but it’s important for young translators to approach this as an enjoyable, playful, creative act. And that they should mature in the tradition of translation as jazz performance—it’ll only pay of bigger dividends in the long run.)

One of the more disheartening stories of ALTA revolved around Jose Lezama Lima’s Oppiano Licario. On a panel about Cuba, Pam Carmell—who received a NEA Translation Fellowship for her work on this translation—talked about why she translated Lezama Lima’s baroque masterpiece in the way that she did. That she made very conscious decisions to retain the baroque, stuffed, labyrinthine sentence structure of the original, instead of simplifying and boiling the book down to its basic plot structure. What I’ve seen of her translation is beautiful, and as a fan of Paradiso, I’d LOVE to read this . . . but, alas, the publisher didn’t quite agree with Pam’s approach and apparently this book is either never coming out, or is being retranslated into something that’s “easier” to understand. . . . And yes, I do know more about this particular situation, but I honestly can’t write about it here . . .

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll write a bit about Ilan Stavan’s plenary speech, which irritated me in the way that Malcolm Gladwell irritates me . . .

16 March 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments [1]

Next Monday (March 23), we’re hosting a roundtable discussion at the University of Rochester with several highly distinguished guests—and, also, Chad will be there. Here are the basics:

“The Politics of Translation: What Gets Translated and Why”
March 23, 5:00 P.M.
Plutzik Library
(in Special Collections at Rush Rhees Library)
University of Rochester

It’s sure to be a lively discussion on the forces and fortuities that bring (or stop) literary books into English translation. The panel will feature:
-Amanda Hopkinson, British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, translator of Diamela Eltit and others.
-Suzanne Jill Levine, University of California-Santa Barbara, author of The Subversive Scribe, translator of Manuel Puig and others.
-Kathleen McNerney, West Virginia University, editor of “Garden across the Border: Merce Rodoreda’s Fiction.”

And will be moderated by:
-Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s publishing imprint specializing in literary translations.

This event is free and open to the public. Sponsored by the Humanities Project, University of Rochester Arts & Sciences, and Open Letter Books.

Click below for the PDF poster/invite.

4 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A couple weeks ago, the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination (one of the best names I’ve ever come across), hosted an interesting event on translation:

Borges once noted that nothing was more central to the “modest mystery” of literature than translation. Across centuries and language barriers, culture survives through translation, and it’s an essential consideration in the art of reading. This panel will explore translation’s role in literary culture, as well as the figure of the translator. Topics for discussion include the nature of the relationship between translation and original writing; the influence of editors and publishers; translators’ aesthetic, political, and psychological concerns; and the role of translation in contemporary global culture.

And what a lineup or panelists! Peter Cole, Peter Constantine, Jonathan Galassi, Edith Grossman, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Qiu Xiaolong . . . And you don’t have to just read about this event—a video of the full 2-hour event is available on the website. (I wish more venues would do this. Sure, this video is really well cut, edited, and produced, but even a down-and-dirty single-shot recording would be interesting to a lot of people.)

The format of this event is really interesting as well. A true roundtable, the guests all sit facing each other, with the audience outside of the circle. Seems much more conducive to interaction than your typical all-in-a-straight-line panel . . .

[Addendum: I’ll second Edie Grossman’s assertion that Macedonio Fernandez was “the most eccentric man who ever lived in the northern or southern hemispheres.” And it’s really cool that one of our authors—Macedonio’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel comes out next January—was the first thing Edie ever translated.]

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