Coals to Newcastle: A (biased?) Slovak overview of a century in American literature

The ambition of the “American” issue of RSL was to resist preconceptions and cross boundaries.

Small cultures import disproportionately more texts—both translated and original—than they export. However, literatures using a language with a limited number of speakers are not just markets for globalised goods. Translations quite naturally also help them develop and sometimes even exist, as cases of small languages that ceased to be the target languages for translations show. Revue svetovej literatúry (Review of world literature) is a Slovak magazine founded in the “golden” 1960s that brought an abundance of new impulses to Slovak literature from all over the world for the past fifty years. Late last year, writer and translator (and Asymptote past contributor) Peter Macsovszky and literature and translation scholar Ivana Hostová edited and co-translated (with the help of a team of translators) an issue of the magazine with a focus on contemporary and twentieth-century Anglophone literature from the US.

In her Buying into English (2008), Catherine Prendergast analyses the semantics and economics linked to the ability of speakers of a minor language—in this case Slovak—to use the language of global communication. She compares the perceived value of English in Slovakia immediately after the fall of state socialism and then in almost two decades in the post-communist Slovakia. The strict restriction of the flow of information between socialist Czechoslovakia and the Western world gave rise to an idealised notion of the Anglophone (and, more specifically, American and capitalist) world. It came to signify freedom and prosperity and was—in the minds of many Slovaks—expected to embrace and accept with curiosity and eagerness the cultures and peoples freed from the socialist regime. Prendergast suggests that the notion was only abandoned after it slowly became clear that “the lingua franca is language-as-battlefield; it is the terrain upon which players in the global information economy grapple for property, respectability, and political voice.” Now it has become obvious that it takes more than pureness of heart and an admiration for the American culture and way of life to extract any interest from what Michael Cronin in his Eco-Translation (2017) has called the crowded Anglophone attentionscape.

The proportion of imported versus exported goods including cultural products can be very well illustrated by the amount of translations produced in the Anglophone countries as opposed to cultural spaces[i] like Slovakia. Therefore, wanting to import even more texts from the dominant to small culture might seem like carrying coals to Newcastle. However, if we try to differentiate between a piece of writing as a commodity that primarily generates economic profit and institutional legitimation and look at the autonomous sections of the literary field—at those works that were not created to make the author famous or rich, but which came into being in order to exist for themselves and in their own right—it may come as a surprise that not much American writing can really be found in Slovak translation. In this context, an issue of a Slovak literary magazine bringing translations of Anglophone writing from the United States seems redundant only at first glance. Most of the literature written in the US that gets translated into Slovak nowadays can best be described as a commodity—currently, the best-selling book in the biggest Slovak bookshops is the translation of Dan Brown’s Origin (2017)—it is the kind of writing that, although undeniably culturally domineering and shaping the receiving context, does not inspire in the sense of creating resistance to the existing (cultural) preconceptions or fluent strategies of reading.

Fluency and domestication are also mantras for translations which, as Lawrence Venuti has argued most notably in his The Translators Invisibility (1995) and elsewhere, often result in cultural dominance of the receiving culture and annihilation of the difference the source text possessed. Fluent strategies of translation certainly have different significance in a target context of a small literature where, it could be argued, translation is also a tool for conserving and reproducing “proper” language and style. However, when it comes to less mainstream writing, this role can be abandoned and violations of the flat, inoffensive style—obstacles to reading—can become bearers of messages that cannot be communicated in a different way. By abandoning traditional narratives and verse as well as the fluent translation strategies, the translator can also escape the trap of the discourse which condemns translation to an inferior position and equalises it with falsification which can never match the “sacred” original.

Following the tradition Revue svetovej literatúry (RSL) has built over the decades, our aim in compiling the issue was to sidestep the logic of the book market and introduce a lineage of American literature that, although in some cases classical, is not so widely read or translated. What was perhaps not in accordance with translation norms that currently prevail in translating fiction and poetry in Slovakia is a certain roughness that can be observed in some of the translations. This roughness is the result of our inclination as editors and translators towards analytical, innovative, non-traditional, non-conventional writing, the kind of writing that we see as belonging to the autonomous part of the literary field and which in most cases predetermined the choice of texts and translation procedures. The ambition of the “American” issue of RSL was not to add to the prevalent contemporary understanding of American literature and culture, but to resist preconceptions and cross boundaries—in short, to adhere to the notion of literature as the disquieting agent that discovers, creates, develops, and shatters worlds and languages. By providing space for American writing viewed not as a globally distributed consumer commodity but as a cluster of autonomous literary currents and endeavours, the issue attempts to disturb the perceived monolingual, monocultural, and reductionist models of identity, including American identity. The translations we as editors did and commissioned for the issue hopefully also succeeded in eroding the frontiers between literature and visual arts, poetry and prose, the language of literature and the language of science, and in questioning originality and derivativeness as such.

The seminal author, who in one way or another determined the composition of the whole volume, was Gertrude Stein, notoriously labelled as one of the most well-known, but least read American authors. While her name was also part of the secondary school curriculum in Slovakia for several decades, the only text that can be found in the catalogue of Slovak libraries in the Slovak translation is “The Gentle Lena” from Three Lives, translated by Zdenka Buntová and published in the feminist periodical Aspekt in 2002. The issue of RSL we edited contains translations of two of her essays (“Composition as Explanation” and “The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans”), the play Mexico, and extracts from two of her book-length works, The Making of Americans (1925) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). We tried to present her work from different angles and perspectives—not only by choosing different genres and topics, but also by selecting four different translators. Introducing the edition with this analytical-philosophical-psychological experimenting modernist author who, nevertheless, also draws on autobiographical moments and often addresses the problem of identity, helped create two, sometimes intertwining lineages to follow in the presentation of American literature we set out to outline—one that concentrates on non-traditional writing crossing the borders of well-defined categories and conventions and another that addresses the issue of individual and collective identity.

The language-centred, border-crossing lineage chronologically continues in the issue with the texts of the minimalist poet Robert Lax. A very important author for us in this respect is Charles Bernstein, whose stylistically and thematically highly unsettling and magnetising writing connects Stein’s literary experiments with the more contemporary conceptual and post-conceptual endeavours. Although Bernstein undoubtedly is “the foremost poet-critic of our time,” as Craig Dworkin put it in reference to Bernstein’s Pitch of Poetry (2016), the selection of the texts included in this RSL is the very first translation of his poetry into Slovak. To at least slightly reduce the absence of Slovak translations of his work, we chose poems spanning from the 1970s to this day (the last of the texts in the selection was published in 2016). We included poems from his Asylums (1975), Shade (1978), Senses of Responsibility (1979), Poetic Justice (1979), My Way: Speeches and Poems (1999), Girly Man (2006), and Recalculating (2013) as well as two texts that have only been published in periodicals so far. This experimenting line continues with the translation of Craig Dworkin’s latest poetry pamphlet Twelve Erroneous Displacements and a Fact (2016) which appears in the issue in its entirety. Dworkin is not a stranger to the Slovak context—in 2014, an excerpt from his Parse (2008) and an interview between him and Peter Macsovszky was published in the magazine of experimental and non-conventional writing Kloaka and since then a few more of his texts have appeared in Slovak translation. Dworkin was also kind enough to help us select and contact some of the young authors so that the issue ends with a kind of mini-anthology of contemporary post-conceptual American writing by Steven Zultanski, Diana Hamilton, Holly Melgard, Brandon Brown, and Trisha Low.

The other path—one that does not radically divert from the prototypical understanding of fiction and poetry—a reader can take is the one that continues with Delmore Schwartz’s short stories (including “America! America!”), letters, and poems, Susan Sontag’s “Project for a Trip to China,” “The Dummy,” and “Unguided Tour,” and Louise Glück’s poems. However, the whole issue can and should also be viewed as a unity—a collection of translations that question boundaries, mix identity with otherness, and linguistic experimentation with politics, that subvert expectations and provoke the reader to dive deeper. We tried to accentuate this project and its inner tensions and concords visually—not only by selecting texts that strongly work with typography, repetition, layout, and shapes and lines, but also by including images by Paul Forte and Michael Klauke whose artwork erodes boundaries between text, picture, and materiality. Finally, it need not be stressed that it would have been impossible to produce a quality issue of a magazine like this without the great work of the translators—both experienced and young—who participated in the project and who deserve, at the very least, to be mentioned here. They were, in alphabetical order, Lenka Cinková, Mirka Eftekhari, Danica Hollá, Jana Kantorová-Báliková, Michal Komžík, Martin Kubuš, Emília Perez, Ľubica Pliešovská, Lenka Poľaková, Jaroslava Šafranková, Zuzana Vilikovská, and Ján Živčák.

It is tempting to finish these notes and musings on a positive note—to express hope that the edition not only reaches and inspires its readers, but also gives rise to other projects, including, culturally and linguistically speaking, reciprocal ones. However, making Slovak readers interested in non-conventional, experimental writing and also exporting Slovak literature into the Anglophone world is pretty much walking against the wind. But like with many other issues we face today—and by far not only those concerning cultural diversity and literature—if we stop trying, we might as well end up smashed against a very concrete wall.

Ivana Hostová writes about translation and poetry and translates (mainly) unconventional writing. She has authored two books and numerous reviews and papers on poetry and translation and edited and co-edited several volumes on literature and translation, the most recent one being Identity and Translation Trouble (2017; an excerpt is available here).

Peter Macsovszky is a bilingual Slovak and Hungarian writer and translator, currently based in Australia. He is the author of three novels, several short story collections, and ten volumes of poetry in Slovak, as well as five col­lections of poetry in Hungarian and, best known for his novel Mykať kostlivcami (2010, Making Skeletons Dance); his novel Tantalopolis (2015) won Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera in 2016. His most recent novel is Povrch vašej planéty (2017, The Surface of Your Planet).

[i] In general, I avoid using states/countries/national literatures because the situation is more varied, especially when it comes to Slovak/Slovakia where not only various languages have always coexisted in one space, but which also really politically exists only for the past quarter of a century.

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  • jana sheehan

    I never thought of literature as commodity. Ugh, makes so much sense! Small cultures need Revue Svetovej Literatury. And an effective foreign language education for everybody.