Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)
Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)
In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)
This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:
On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.
Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)
It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:
Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.
Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.
December isn’t all about gift getting, crowded shopping malls, uncomfortable family gatherings, and cookies—it’s also about year-end donations to worthy non-profit organizations such as the Center for the Art of Translation.
As an added incentive, if you donate more than $5 to CAT, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win books from translators featured in the Lit&Lunch series. Specifically, here are the prizes:
First prize is a three-book package featuring two of this year’s most exciting translators: Natasha Wimmer and Breon Mitchell. The winner receives translator-signed copies of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, plus a copy of the newest Two Lines anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Two runners-up will each receive a translator-signed copy of The Tin Drum and a copy of Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.
Every donation really counts, which is why we brought the threshold for this giveaway to just $5. Those who pledge $20 or more will get 3 chances to win, and those who sign up for a recurring donation totaling $50 or more over the course of next year will have 5 chances to win these excellent books.
Click here for all the details, links to donate, etc.
One of the biggest international literature publishing events of this fall has to be the release of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of Gunter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This is an event in the grand sense of the word, and definitely worth checking out.
We wrote about this back over the summer, quoting extensively from Breon’s afterword about the reasons for the new translation, but rather than read that post, you can simply listen to this podcast of Breon’s recent appearance in the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit&Lunch series.
Breon’s a great speaker, and Grass’s technique of bringing together his translators to go through the book page-by-page with tips and whatnot is absolutely fascinating.
Sticking with PW for another post, Lynn Andriani has a great piece about three “iconic 20th-century novels being released in new translations” this fall: Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (translated by Harry T. Willetts, and which restores nine chapters missing from the “lightened version” that’s currently available), Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (translated by Danuta Borchardt—the first version to be translated directly from the Polish), and Grass’s The Tin Drum (translated by Breon Mitchell, and which also restores a lot of missing material—here’s more complete info on Breon’s new translation).
All three of these are excellent novels, all deserving of retranslation and a featuring in PW, but here are three more books from 2009 worthy of mention:
The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson): NYRB brought out this retranslation in April—the only version of The Foundation Pit to be based on the definitive edition that was published by Pushkin House in Moscow.
A true classic, here’s the description of the book from NYRB’s website:
In Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a team of workers has been given the job of digging the foundation of an immense edifice, a palatial home for the perfect future that, they are convinced, is at hand. But the harder the team works, the deeper they dig, the more things go wrong, and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation but an immense grave.
The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most overtly political book, written in direct response to the staggering brutalities of Stalin’s collectivization of Russian agriculture. It is also a literary masterpiece. Seeking to evoke unspeakable realities, Platonov deforms and transforms language in pages that echo both with the alienating doublespeak of power and the stark simplicity of prayer.
For more information, I highly recommend reading Bill Marx’s article on this book and listening to his interview with Robert Chandler.
The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov (translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson): We’re bringing this book out in December. By far one of the funniest Russian works of the twentieth century—even funnier than The Twelve Chairs. The Golden Calf has been translated a few times in the past (but poorly! Just check this chapter title from a previous translation: “Permit a Hireling of Capital to Enter,” which becomes “May a Capitalist Lackey Come In?” in ours), but never in full. Not only did the other translators work off the censored version, they dropped tons of sections, jokes, etc.
The Golden Calf relates the adventures of Ostap Bender and his merry crew of two-bit thieves as they try and out con a more successful con—one who has managed to become an “undercover millionaire” during the New Economic Period of the Soviet Union, when no citizen was allowed to accumulate so much wealth, and inflation devalued everything anyway.
The book is truly, gut-bustingly funny, as can be gleaned from this opening (or from this note “From the Authors”):
You have to be nice to pedestrians.
Pedestrians comprise the greater part of humanity. Moreover, its better part. Pedestrians created the world. They build cities, erected tall buildings, laid out sewers and waterlines, paved the streets and lit them with electricity. They spread civilization throughout the world, invented the printing press and gunpowder, flung bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, introduced the safety razor, abolished the slave trade and established that no less than 114 tasty, nutritious dishes can be made from soybeans.
And just when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.
It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, the motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets—laid out by pedestrians—were taken over by the motorists. The roads became twice as wide, while the sidewalks shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The frightened pedestrians were pushed up against the walls of the buildings.
The story of seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman’s misadventures in America was left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, which is one reason for the various versions. Here’s a bit of background info from the Publisher’s Note:
Along with the growing international recognition of Franz Kafka as one of the great modern writers, scholars began to raise doubts about the editorial decisions made by Max Brod. Although the manuscript of Der Verschollene (The Missing Person) lacks chapter headings and often even chapter breaks, Kafka did jot down on a sheet of paper headings for the first six chapters (complete with page numbers). He left no such instructions for the remainder of the text. After Kafka’s premature death in 1924 of tuberculosis, Brod did everything he could to achieve for his friend the recognition that had largely eluded him during his lifetime. As a result, in editing the manuscript of this novel for its original German publication in 1927, Brod was, as he explained in his afterword, “primarily concerned with the broad line of the story, not with philological work.” [. . .]
Since 1978 an international team of Kafka experts ahs been working on German critical editions of all of Kafka’s writings, which are being published by S. Fischer Verlag with financial support from German government. [. . .] Harman’s translation is based on the restored text in the first volume, which corrected numerous transcription errors in the earlier editions and removed Brod’s editorial and stylistic interventions. In the restored text, for example, Schillemeit employs only the chapter headings mentioned by Kafka and inserts chapter or section breaks based on evidence gleaned from the manuscript.
Not sure how I feel about these sorts of “restorations” that eliminate an editor’s work, but I’m still interested in reading this new translation and comparing it to Hofmann’s.
Actually, to be honest, I’m interested in reading all six of these books . . .
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.
(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.
Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:
The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.
We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.
More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:
In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.
And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:
I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)
And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)
Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”
This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.
And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .
I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.
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