This Tuesday evening marked one of the most important nights for international literature in New York (which are few and far between), and what a star-studded, city-lit affair it was. The annual Words Without Borders Gala at the spacious TriBeCa Three Sixty kicked off with a cocktail hour featuring surround views of the Manhattan skyline, reunions of old friends and co-translators, and plenty of champagne-fueled gossip. I was feeling a bit out of place (unpublished, fluent enough in just one foreign language) and wary of the champagne (knowing I might need to form complete sentences in front of Edith Grossman later).
But the atmosphere overall was decidedly celebratory. When I chatted with Words Without Borders’s founding chairperson, the retired newspaper man Jim Ottaway, we noted that perhaps this air of goodwill reflects how literature in translation is motivated more by passion than profit—there was no business to be done, no egos in the room. Translators and the community that supports them are all rooting for a common cause. “I suppose it is a nonprofit,” I said of the organization. “Very nonprofit-y,” Mr. Ottaway agreed, surveying the room.
The gala is known for being a who’s who of writers, translators, and publishing bigwigs. Everyone mingled in the rare, low-pressure environment to celebrate the online magazine that put literature from elsewhere on the United States’ map for the first time, at least in a consistent and visible way. As acclaimed translator Susan Bernofsky put it to me, “Words Without Borders has been the pioneer of this kind of publishing—it sort of gave rise to all these other great journals and now there’s a whole fantastic landscape, which I’m really happy about.”
WWB translators reading poetry both in the original language and in English for the guests
Throughout the cocktail portion, groups of guests taking advantage of the unusually formal occasion, by publishing standards, to dress in understated black ensembles and sensible heels posed for photos in front of a red-carpet-style, Words Without Borders backdrop. Calls of “how have you been?” bounced off the floor-to-ceiling windows as familiar faces caught sight of more familiar faces, reinforcing the completely true notion that everyone in publishing—especially of translated literature—knows each other. Refined cheek pecks were quickly followed by earnest probes of “what are you working on now?” in keeping with the crowd. We all wanted to know what we had to look forward to next season or next year. María José Jiménez told WWB Communications Coordinator Savannah Whiting about translating a novel by Uruguayan writer Rafael Courtoisie with Anna Rosenwong. Ms. Bernofsky had just turned in a new Jenny Erpenbeck translation the day before. Natasha Wimmer and agent Cristóbal Pera chattered in Spanish about the Wimmer’s current project—translating El Comensal by Grabriela Ybarra, which is also in development for a film, according to Pera. I felt very excited and also as if I were just assigned a lot of homework—a feeling familiar to any avid reader.
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In this episode, we crack a window into the creative impulses behind the multilingual writing in our Summer issue. There, Spanish and German, French and Arabic, Romanian, Sanskrit and Afrikaans all find their way woven in with English in poems and a story you don’t want to miss. Here, in this latest installment of the podcast, Omar Berrada and Klara du Plessis allow us a deeper understanding of how their linguistic backgrounds and travels shaped their current writing; while Greg Nissan uncovers other origins for his multilingual creations. So how does a translator go about translating a text already leaping across languages? And what does it take to write in the multilingual mode; does it create its own form, its own genre? What makes a writer feel driven and compelled to step outside the bounds of one language without leaving it entirely? To help us continue down this rabbit hole, Asymptote editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova, MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu), uncovers more about his process of translating Șerban Foarță’s poem “Buttérflyçion” for the Summer issue. We’ll explore radical nomadism, emotional chunks of language and more. This is the Asymptote podcast.
Podcast Editor and Host: Layla Benitez-James
Audio Editor: Mirza Puric
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
In a forest painted by Diaz, a little motherkin and her child stood still. They were now a good hour from the village. Gnarled trunks spoke a primeval tongue. The mother said to her child: “In my opinion, you shouldn’t cling to my apron strings like that. As if I were here only for you. Benighted creature, what could you be thinking? You’re just a small child, yet want to make grownups dependent on you. How ill-considered. A certain amount of thinking must enter your slumbering head, and to make that happen, I shall now leave you here, alone. Stop clutching at me with those little hands this instant, you uncouth, importunate thing! I have every reason to be angry with you—and I believe I am. It’s time you were told the unadorned truth, otherwise you’ll stay a helpless child all your life, forever reliant on your mother. To teach you what it means to love me, you must be left to your own resources, you’ll have to seek out strangers and serve them, hearing nothing but harsh words from them for a year, two years, perhaps longer. Then you’ll know what I was to you. But always at your side, I am unknown to you. That’s right, child, you make no effort at all, you don’t even know what effort is, let alone tenderness, you uncompassionate creature. Always having me at your side makes you mentally indolent. Not for a minute do you stop to think—that’s what indolence is. You must go to work, my child, you’ll manage it if you want to—and you’ll have no choice but to want to. I swear to you, as truthfully as I am standing here with you in this forest painted by Diaz, you must earn your livelihood with bitter toil so that you will not go to ruin inwardly. Many children grow coarse when they are coddled, because they never learn to be thoughtful, thankful. Later, they all turn into ladies and gentlemen who are beautiful and elegant on the outside but self-absorbed nonetheless. To save you from becoming cruel and succumbing to foolishnesses, I am treating you roughly, because overly solicitous treatment produces people free from conscience and care.” READ MORE…
Susan Bernofsky directs the literary translation program in the School of the Arts MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University. She has translated over twenty books, including seven by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Hesse’s Siddhartha and, most recently, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Her many prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the Hermann Hesse Translation Prize. She blogs about translation at www.translationista.net.
Asymptote: Describe your current/most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it?
Susan Bernofsky: I’m working on a gorgeous and bizarre novel about polar bears by Yoko Tawada called ETUDES IN SNOW. It’s a three-generation story inspired by the short, tragic life of Knut, the baby polar bear born in the Berlin zoo in 2006, but that’s just the jumping-off point for her novel. It’s really a book about identity (national, species, etc.) All the main characters in the book are polar bears, and are described in their physicality as polar bears, but at the same time they move in human society, without any acknowledgment that there might be a contradiction here. The grandmother character, born in the Soviet Union, becomes a writer. As an author of polar bear extraction, she’s an ethnic minority. She later emigrates to Canada, from where her daughter returns to Europe, landing in East Germany, where she takes a job at a circus and experiences the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a funny, sad, moving book.
First, I did it for the money. I used to work as a freelance journalist, and to support myself on the side I translated tv-shows, computer games, websites, you name it. It paid well. So when I came to Columbia University to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, I thought: hey, I’ll just do a double-concentration in fiction and literary translation so I can support myself as a translator of books while trying to make it as a writer. Ha! Ha.
I remember the writing program hosted a mingle with drinks on the first evening of our intro week, and halfway through the event I was already drunk on a) wine, b) nerves, and c) an incredibly long conversation with poet Timothy Donnelly about the great Danish poet Inger Christensen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. READ MORE…
Susan Bernofsky, Translationista + director of literary translation at Columbia University
Translating well is pretty difficult, so it stands to reason that a certain number of the translations you find out in the world are going to stink. And lousy translations can be of as many different types as Tolstoy’s unhappy families—or at least it might seem so at first blush. But when it really comes down to it, most translations that fail to live up to their potential sin in one of two fundamental ways. In the first case, the translator just doesn’t know what he’s doing. This can mean that he fails to master the original language he’s translating from to the point of being able to understand everything the author is up to, whether it’s stylistically, tonally or even on the basic level of plot (of stories, of sentences). Let’s face it: if you don’t know a language well enough to unpack a syntactically knotty sentence or recognize slang expressions and figures of speech, it’s pretty hopeless. If you read in a translation from the English about someone refusing to donate the posterior of a rodent when it’s really just a rat’s ass he’s not giving, well, that’s a nifty example of lost in translation. Or maybe the translator knows the language pretty well, but the writer has set the work in a milieu where the translator doesn’t know his way around enough to decipher the signposts that show whether a bit of dialogue is to be read as sarcastic or heartfelt, aggressive or shy. Or he’s never eaten that particular sort of food and doesn’t know how to find the words for it. Or he’s lazy and hasn’t bothered to study the work he’s translating carefully enough to really see how it ticks. Or or or. That’s the first set of things that can go wrong. These are all eminently fixable. The translator can do research, or ask for help, or get a work ethic, or plot to spend time in a place that will provide him with the cultural literacy he lacks. This mediocre translator might still be on his way to becoming a good one. The second category of ills is more dire. These are problems that arise when the translator just isn’t a good writer in English. And that’s a hard one to remedy. Why should translators be any less prone to Tin Ear than writers of other sorts? We’ve all encountered sentences that sound like something large and heavy being dragged downstairs. Occasionally a writer does this on purpose, for effect, but usually not. And the dirty secret of translation is that the very activity of translating tends to turn elegant writers into awkward ones. It’s because when you’re translating (especially if you’re fairly new to the activity), you’re likely to spend too much time hanging out in the part of your brain that learns foreign languages, makes rational decisions and does math. Look, I’m not a neuroscientist. But remember all those exercises your creative writing teachers used to throw at you? (Here’s six words, make a sestina right now, go!) They were mostly designed to trick you into switching off the rational part of your brain long enough for you to be able to write something. Good writing is most likely to come into being not by force of will but by relaxing into a sort of loose focus that lets the wiser part of your brain (the part where flashes of insight strike) take control. And it’s really hard to make simultaneous use of the writerly and rational parts of your brain, as brilliant translation requires. This is my private explanation for why so many translations fall short of delightfulness. Ideally, a translation of a literary work should be a work of literature in its own right, displaying a sense of style, tone, rhythm, voice and language succulent enough to make you want to read it all over again. And if the translator can’t really write well, that’s not going to happen. Still, there’s a bit of hope left. Like other sorts of writers, translators can get better at what they do by reading a lot of well-written books and thinking and talking about what they read. I’m not convinced that taste and a sense of style can be taught, but I’m pretty sure they can be learned. READ MORE…
Let’s take a look at what some of our past contributors have been up to, in this our first contributors’ news roundup for 2014.