Guest Post: Vanessa Blakeslee, Why I Read Translations

Less than one-percent of international literature is translated into English every year, an abysmally low number by any account. Occasionally, a translated author breaks through with a bestselling hit, such as Elena Ferrante’s trilogy of Neapolitan novels. But those successes largely depend on media coverage: glowing reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe, features in commercial magazines, Vogue and O. What about the many authors who might be fortunate to have their works translated into English, but who remain relatively unnoticed by the reading public—even by devotees of literary fiction? Even authors who write in English but reside out the United States struggle to obtain mainstream readership and name-recognition stateside as compared to within their home country.

I’m not sure when I decided to devote more of my reading time to discovering international authors. A few years ago I started to review books for literary magazines, and sometimes editors suggested titles or ARCs that had arrived in the office of say, the Kenyon Review, and offered them for assignment. Not only did I delight in discovering stunning masters of fiction—Kevin Barry is one, author of City of Bohane, set in a dystopian future Ireland—but I relished the distance reviewing books by authors abroad gave me. Like it or not, in the U.S., many fiction writers and reviewers belong to the same circle. Knowing that I had less of a chance of running into Barry at a reading or conference made writing an honest critique of his work a more liberating and enlivening endeavor.

Other international titles came to me by way of friends, such as the satirical novel Lovestar by Icelandic writer Andre Magnason; my ex-boyfriend met the author briefly and passed along a copy to me. The more I reviewed and met others who did, the more I received recommendations of international fiction writers to actively seek out. Critic John Domini’s reviews led me to read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, but more importantly, two novels by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days and Visitation. Much acclaimed on the international literary scene, Erpenbeck is lesser known to the mainstream American reading public, certainly less so than the oft-spotlit Ferrante.

Delving into international literature inevitably leads you as a reader to become familiar with the presses bringing such stellar work to an English-speaking audience. Europa, New Directions, New American Press, Dalky Archive, and Restless Press all publish fiction in translation—presses I’ve come to keep my eye on, whose catalogues I eagerly devour as soon as they drop through my mail slot.

Such presses and their translators do a great service by taking risks and bringing much-deserved talent to a North American audience. Some authors, such as Kevin Barry, whose City of Bohane was first published in the U.S. by Graywolf, eventually make the leap to a major publisher and distribution (Barry’s recent Beatlebone was released by Doubleday), and hopefully, a wider audience. But most importantly, these presses, authors, and translators deserve your attention and support whether or not their authors ever get picked up by a Big 5 publisher. By exploring foreign authors you probably haven’t heard of, your literary landscape will grow more colorful and rewarding, treading imaginative terrain you’d never expect.

Guest post, Svetlana Lavochkina: A Tangerine A Year

Bio photo of Svetlana LavochkinaOn a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984 my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar and homemade poems.

The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.

I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”

“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.

While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.

The two remaining hours before the dessert passed unnoticed, and then we were finally gorging ourselves on the delicious Napoleon cake and seeping Krasnodar tea. Our parents, laughing and cursing, were stumbling on the new names that I had printed on paper slips: Myrrn Kyldynysyvj, Minister of Defense; Ryitta Brbukhovva, State Secretary – just to mention the easiest ones. Only for Grandmother, a retired piano teacher, had we made a magnanimous exception. She got an easy, mellow name of Marrám Lalá and the cushy post of the Minister of Culture.

Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and believe me, it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.

Truth to say, the rest of the government didn’t do anything at all besides asking us, from time to time, “And are you still playing that game, what’s its name… Peevia?”

The only goal of Poovian politics was fostering a huge, harmless and humorous cult of the President’s personality – oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.

For Shurik, the main sense of Poovia was its two football teams sponsored by the competing electronic corporations, the Chancellor’s Melon and the President’s Cucumber. Each of the footballers had his own personality: the Melon goalkeeper, for instance, was so slow that a crow made a nest on his head during the final match. Needless to say, the Cucumber won more often.

For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words – verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids – all that at the expense of homework.

With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. We interviewed the President, the Chancellor and, occasionally, the increasingly senile and hence the least microphone-shy Marrám Lalá.

Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.

Children’s life in the Soviet Union was not so awful as to need radical distractions. We had our share of fun: music lessons, table tennis, and we both attended a good school with in-depth English instruction. Eating tangerines once a year in no way meant that we starved. Living in communal flats or tower blocks did not make us claustrophobic. For us, tales about Lenin as a little boy did not sound like brainwashing and a children’s military parade at the primary school was as normal as ABC. In 1984, we did not feel trapped in an anti-utopia.

Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing, in a language not my own.

Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.

Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.

I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine – nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.

It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.

Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.

Guest Post, Margaret Young: Translation

Depending on how you look at it, pursuing the same craft as your very successful parent can be a formula for lifelong frustration, or a natural thing, picked up like an accent or shape of the nose. I spent several years attempting to be something other than a poet not so much because I feared failure or suffered anxiety of influence (well, maybe a little of the latter), but because it seemed too easy, too obvious a thing to do. I’d been making poems since before I could write; where was the challenge, the adventure?

When I began to take writing seriously it was nonfiction that drew me in, made me feel I could have a distinct identity. I went to a master’s program that let me pursue more than one genre, and kept up the poetry, kept hanging around poets. Time passed, I wrote poetry and prose, but one kept getting published more. Two books later, I bought a domain name that matched my dad’s: my name followed by the word “poet.”

I tell people who don’t know him that my father David Young is a poet, mostly because that’s how I think of him first and foremost. But his career encompasses teaching, scholarly work on (mostly) Shakespeare, editing a poetry magazine and book series, and translating. I grew up with a dad who cooked out of Craig Claiborne and Marcella Hazan because there were no good restaurants in town, and who translated Du Fu and Eugenio Montale because he wasn’t satisfied with the versions that were available.

“Wow, your dad knows all those languages?” people ask when I tell them about the Li Po, the Petrarch. No, I answer, just German, just the Rilke. For all the others he gets help from native speakers and multiple translations. Right now he’s working on a Dutch poet, and isn’t there another volume of Celan coming out? His friends joke about how prolific he is, now slowing down ever so slightly at the age of eighty.

So that makes it crazier, an even bigger set of boots to wear, for me to translate poetry. I never bothered, never dared. And then I went to Argentina. My husband’s first sabbatical came up, and a scholar he’d met invited him to work there. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take time off adjuncting and join him for part of the trip.

My first-grade son and I would spend six weeks of wintery spring semester in New England, before flying to Buenos Aires where it was still late summer. I set myself the task of researching the country’s contemporary poetry, with an idea of finding someone I might like to translate. I paged through online journals and blogs, and a lovely official database with hundreds of poets and links. I Facebook friended people and poetry collectives and magazines. The abundance was both delightful and intimidating.

How’s my Spanish? It’s terrible. I took French in high school and some Italian for a trip in my twenties, just enough to mess up my future Spanish. I spent a bunch of time watching Spanish telenovelas and movies, reading poems, and listening to a language CD set when I lived in California, preparing for trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, where I let my future-and-then-husband do all the talking.

But I found my poet. I’d been chatting with this one and that, trying English versions of this or that, when it hit me that some of them lived hundreds of miles from anywhere we’d be going. Then my husband added one more city to our itinerary, when the university there invited him to talk about his research. I began researching Mendoza and came across something unusual: a report on Argentine poetry from a source outside of the country, in this case a magazine based in Madrid. An article profiled four emerging poets based in Mendoza; I started skimming it and slowed down when I reached the work of one poet.

Many have written at eloquent length about the challenges, mysteries, beauties and difficulties of translating poetry. I only have my own small perspective to add, as a writer who traces my lineage as much through work that’s been translated as work originating in English. Poetry translated not just by my dad, but Hass’s and Hirshfield’s Japanese. Bly’s and others’ Lorca, Neruda. They helped me expand my thinking and deepen my attention in graduate school, they and the wise teachers who assigned them to us. When I read Débora Benacot’s poems I had that same feeling of identification, of rightness that transcends language, or rather that works across language barriers. I felt I could imagine them in English, but more importantly I wanted to read them in English. Because I liked her poems, and my Spanish is terrible.

A few weeks later I was walking through the streets of Mendoza with directions printed out from the hotel’s computer. The streets are lined with plane trees and little streams next to the sidewalk, running through concrete or cobblestone channels, water from the Andes mountains. I found the address, just a few blocks beyond our tourist circuit of parks and restaurants. Her apartment was small, her baby cute, her husband’s English better than hers, but both way better than my Spanish. We sat down to tea and sweet bread, exchanged books, and discovered we shared a favorite reader response: our poems are not like others’; or, I don’t usually like poetry, but I like yours.

Now I just needed someone back home to help me with the language. I had some difficulty on that front, until I turned to a colleague who writes poetry in Spanish. I thought he published exclusively in his native Mexico, and had enough of undergraduates mangling his tongue not to need another beginner asking him for assistance. But an editor suggested he publish a bilingual edition of his latest collection of haiku, so…

Margaret Young with Débora and her son.

Margaret Young and Débora.

A book of (still unpublished) haiku later, I’m ready to go back to translating Débora. We just had her first poem published online.  My colleague Sergio and I recently gave a talk in a series for faculty to present their work. It’s usually about scholarly research, so I was pleasantly surprised at how many people showed up to hear a couple of poets talk about haiku. I wanted to brush up on the history of the form and remind myself why I like it so much, why I use it so often as a teaching tool. So I brought my father’s recent Basho translation and reread his introduction.

Pride is considered a sin, and for Midwesterners like my family it is particularly so. But I’m really proud of my dad, and also proud that I made my own tiny contribution to his enormous body of work. I persuaded him to change the title of his Basho translation from Moon Through the Open Window to Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times.

Witness 2015 Print Issue “Trans/lation” is Now Available

Witness - XXVIII.1 - cover front no barcode
The Witness 2015 Print Issue “Trans/lation” is now available.

This issue features an excerpt from “My Struggle:  Book Four” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translations of “Circe Maia” by Jesse Lee Kercheval,fiction by Stephan Eirik Clark and Peter Orner, poetry by Jehanne Dubrow, nonfiction by Michael Martone, and a good deal more.

Order online at witnessmag.org.

witness header-logo

4+1 Conference on Literary Translation

I was given the opportunity to attend a 4+1 traduire/übersetzen/tradurre/translatar in Vevey, Switzerland this past March. When I chose Switzerland as the destination for my study abroad program, I thought I knew a thing or two about the country; I knew I would be housed in the French-speaking region, and that the other region was German-speaking. I knew that my favorite French author, Rousseau, was actually born in Geneva.

I was surprised, however, to find out just how much I didn’t know about the world of Swiss literature and writing. For instance, I had no idea that Switzerland has four official languages and that any Swiss author publishes in one language typically has his or her texts translated into the three languages. Many organizations strongly promote this translation of native authors, and, for that purpose, the 4+1 conference was created. The 4+1 conference is held annually and organized by the Swiss Foundation for the Pro Helvetia culture, along with other organizations of similar interests. This year’s conference was dedicated to the English language – promoting both the translation of texts from English and translation of native authors’ work into English.

Discussion was led by prominent British writers Jonathan Coe and Jon Steele with the help of their translators. Well-known Swiss writers publishing in Italian, German, Romansh, French, and in the Swiss-German dialect and notable American translator, John Taylor, were also present. While, in most cases, translators tend to work outside of the spotlight (their names sometimes don’t even appear on the book jacket) a translated work is just as much the translator’s as it is the author’s.

“More than a translation, the work I do is rewrite another version,” translator Donal McLaughlin said at one keynote. Taylor and McLaughlin shared some of the poems they were in the process of translating—work by Clo Duri Bezzola, Pierre Chapuis, and many more. They discussed the obstacles they faced when translating and the rewarding feeling that came from finding the nearly right word that almost has the same nuance as the original—and how in this way a translated poem becomes a version of the original.

One of the most interesting discussions flouted the French title “L’anglais n’existe pas!” or for those of us who don’t speak French, “English doesn’t exist!” Surprisingly,  the amount of people who spoke English as a second language far surpassed the amount of native English speakers. The debate touched on the validity and plausibility of English as a universal, global language.

Interestingly, questions were often asked in French and then answered in English. Within the same panel, the speakers often would converse in  three or four different  languages to each other and to the audience at any given moment. As technology makes our world feel smaller, the possibilities for growth and community within the literary world becomes greater and greater. We have unlimited access to stories from all over the world, and readers who can read our work from every corner of the globe.

 

Announcing: Terese Svoboda’s New Novel

teresesvoboda_0

In Issue 5, we had the privilege of interviewing Terese Svoboda, and in Issue 7 we were honored to publish her short story “Madonna in the Terminal.” Svoboda has written more than 11 books of poetry, fiction, translations, and short stories, among them Cannibal, Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Tin God, and Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, and she is the recipient of awards such as the Iowa Prize and the O. Henry Award. Now, she has added another item to her list of accomplishments, the novel Bohemian Girl.

Praise for Bohemian Girl:

“Harriet’s observations of the world and her small place in it are insightful and often touching. And Svoboda (Trailer Girl and Other Stories) often displays a poet’s touch with language and imagery.”—Publishers Weekly

“Creating a western world as raucous and unpredictable as any imagined by Larry McMurtry, and teeming with characters as tragically heroic as those created by Willa Cather, Svoboda offers a vividly distinctive tale of the American frontier.”—Carol Haggas, Booklist starred review

For more information on Bohemian Girl: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Bohemian-Girl,674858.aspx

Congratulations, Terese. We look forward to hearing more great things about you and your work.