Chad Post on Creative Constraints

Australians in Italy coverAt the 3% blog Chad Post writes his take on some of the issues discussed in Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship, the collection of academic essays on the topic edited by Rita Wilson and Leah Gerber. Like most translators, I find this topic endlessly fascinating (I may end up writing a book on it at some point), and related to what I wrote in my introduction to Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: “I am motivated by a belief that the reader not only wants to know but can know both what Xi Chuan says and how he says it.”

Chad focuses on the issue of translations being edited for style. He writes:

At some level, this isn’t just about eliminating terms that American readers aren’t familiar with, but working from the assumption that readers are stupid and have to have everything explained to them. For example, there’s a lot of offensive stuff in the edits of Mima Simic’s story but the thing that bothers me is the sort of flattening out of the prose to make sure that everyone understands. For example, this:

She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.

She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.

As far as that goes I agree, and I don’t endorse dumbing-down challenging writing for the sake of an underestimated American audience. Still, I’m less compelled by the following example, from volume contributor Peter Bush:

libradas de sus mazmorras y grillos, las palabras al fin, las traidoras, esquivas palabras, vibren, dancen, copulen, se encueren y cobren cuerpo (Juan Goytisolo original)

released from their chains and dungeons, words, treacherous elusive words, at last quiver dance copulate strip off and flesh out (Peter Bush)

released from their chains, their dungeons, those words, those treacherous elusive words, quiver at last and dance and copulate, removing their rags and clothing themselves in flesh (edited version)

I don’t know Spanish, but I’m not convinced that either Bush’s version or the edit is better at reproducing and representing Goytisolo’s style: to me, the repeated commas in the Spanish convey something neither version quite captures in English. That said, I don’t see anything so wrong with Bush’s first version that the edit definitely fixes.

Chad’s piece–one of the longer 3% blog posts I’ve read in a while–is well worth reading, and I look forward to seeing Creative Constraints. I should mention, though, that I was very happy with my editing process with New Directions: they made very helpful suggestions, and I had the freedom to accept or make counter-edits as I saw fit.

On the Tyranny of Big Languages

Publishing Perspectives has published a perspective on a panel in which three European writers–Bulgaria’s Kalin Terziiski, Romania’s Răzvan Rădulescu, and the Czech Republic’s Tomáš Zmeškal–discussed the state of literature and literary publishing around the world. The whole piece is worth a read, but to me, the most interesting question is whether, for writers in lesser-spoken languages, translators are more important than literary agents. The point is put this way:

Zmeškal went on to say that unless a writer is translated into one of the big languages – English, French, German, Spanish – then it becomes very hard to get translated into the smaller languages because those publishers are waiting for the kind of validation that comes with being published in a big market.

It’s not hard to see why. Since so-called “smaller languages” are actually languages of fewer speakers, there’s both a higher pressure on speakers of those languages to master the “big languages,” especially English, as well as a lower likelihood that enough speakers of those languages will master other languages–such as Chinese, say–at the level required to produce good translations. This has resulted in some interesting outcomes: in Romanian, one translator has been responsible for both contemporary fiction and medieval literary theory; the first translation of Cien años de soledad into Chinese was done from Russian and English, not Spanish; and then of course there’s Croatian poet Miroslav Kirin‘s translations of my translations of Xi Chuan… But fundamentally this is a big problem: we know that translations only account for a measly 3% of books published in the US each year–and according to Chad Post, “in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.” This means that not only are Americans exposed to appallingly little from the rest of the world, but American ignorance ends up enforcing itself upon the rest of the world’s literary cultures, as well. Of course, this is a phenomenon not limited to the world of literary publishing.

If literature from smaller languages needs the help of translation into English before it can be translated into other smaller languages, then I’m afraid that literature from smaller languages isn’t getting much help.

Review of Jonathan Stalling’s Yingelishi

The translation-centered webside 3% (run by Chad Post of Open Letter Books) has published my review of Jonathan Stalling‘s Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics. Here’s how it begins:

If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.

Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.

Best Translated Book Awards 2012 Fiction Longlist

Over at the 3% blog Chad Post has announced this year’s fiction longlist for the Best Translated Book Awards. From the press release:

February 28, 2012—The 25-title fiction longlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards was announced this afternoon. This is the fifth year for the BTBA, which launched in 2007 as a way of highlighting the best works of international literature published in the U.S. in the previous year.

Featuring authors from 14 countries writing in 12 languages, this year’s fiction longlist illustrates the prize’s dedication to literary diversity, ranging from works by established and classic authors, such as Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards and Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco, to works by emerging voices, like Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, and Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman.

Also, if you’re in Chicago for the AWP, check out the Open Letter books booth.

Steve Bradbury report on ALTA

On the 17th I posted a link & video about the American Literary Translators Association’s annual convention in Kansas City. I got a letter from my friend Steve Bradbury, translator of Shang Qin 商琴 and Hsia Yu 夏宇 and editor of Full Tilt, about what I missed:

Hey Lucas

Sorry you couldn’t make the ALTA conference this year. It was a good one. I’d never been to Kansas City before and was pleased to find that it’s quite the tourist-friendly town; the accommodations were affordable and just a short walk from both the Nelson Atkins Museum and more bars and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Silvia Kofler was the conference organizer this year. Paul Vangelisti and Douglas Hofstadter were the plenary speakers. Lisa Rose Bradford, who flew in from Mar del Plata, was this year’s NTA winner, for her stellar version of Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter.  Lisa also gave readings with sound poet Glenn North at the Jazz Museum and with me at the Writer’s Place, where I read some of my Shang Qin and Hsia Yu translations. The panel she put together on “Re/Creations and ‘Afterpoems,’” with Christian Hawkey, who talked about his Ventrakl volume, and Paul Legault, who gave us a trailer to his forthcoming collected After-Emily Dickenson “translations,” was the most interesting panel I’ve attended in years.

Chinese-language translators were a little thin on the ground this year, but the two besides me who made it did their mothers’ proud.  Your old friend and ALTA first-timer Jonathan Stalling, who drove up from Oklahoma U with his family, gave a marvelous recitation of some personal favorites in his recent collection, Winter Sun: The Poetry of Shi Zhi.  Charles Egan, who was also a first-timer, flew in from San Fran to accept the Lucien Stryk Prize for his Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown: Poems by Zen Monks of China. Although Charles read his acceptance speech instead of speaking off the cuff per ALTA practice, he won the crowd from pretty much the get-go with the disarming admission that the prize was “a wonderful vindication for all the years I struggled in obscurity—I believe I saw many of you there…”

We talked for hours over martinis at the hotel bar. It was such a pleasure to run into a Chinese translator at ALTA who knows his books down to the ground and works by-and-large in fixed rhyme and meter; most of the ALTA regulars who translate Chinese classical verse are free-verse poets who can barely read a word of the language.  That was the subject of my talk on Erica Mena’s “Translating Blind: Working from a Language You Don’t Read” panel. I spoke on Amy Lowell’s and Florence Ayscough’s now largely forgotten 1921 anthology Fir-Flower Tablets, but it was Becka McKay who took the palm, for a fascinating presentation on teaching translation to monolingual students as a way of inspiring interest in literature.  Some of the student projects she showed us, which included a video game based on the Inferno and graphic adaptations of Don Quixote and The Tale of Genji, were amazing.  If Florida Atlantic U, where she teaches, wasn’t 12,000 miles away, I would sign up for her class.

Good news for those who live in or have ties to the Northeast and Great Lakes region: next year’s ALTA conference will be held in early October in Rochester, New York, “John Ashbery country.”  I’m hoping Open Letter editor Chad Post, who will be organizing the conference on behalf of the Translation Studies Program at the University of Rochester and Three Percent, will pursue my suggestion to invite Ashbery to give the keynote address. The poet’s getting on in years, but they say he still has his wits about him and gives a good talk. And he’s certainly got something to talk about: his new version of Rimbaud’s Illuminations is one of those must-read translations that make you want to throw in the towel.

                                                                                                —Steve Bradbury, Taipei

ALTA Conference 2011

The annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association is going on now, in Kansas City, MO. Here’s a video from incoming president and translator of Spanish poetry, Gary Racz:

The ALTA conference is reliably one of the best annual conferences there is, and I’m sad that distance and time have conspired to keep me away. This year’s panels, lectures, and readings look as enticing as ever (as I wrote about the ’08 conference in St. Paul, “People actually want to go to panels at ALTA”), so if you’re near KC, I recommend stopping by. And if you’re a literary translator who’s not a member, I recommend joining.

For updates of this year’s conference, keep an eye on Chad Post’s posts on Three Percent, which is also re-running the Making the Translator Visible series of pictures and Q&As from ’09.