Posts filed under 'Translation'

Blog Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2017

Our blog editors have curated their favorite pieces from the Fall 2017 issue.

Each issue, the blog editors pull some of their favorite pieces to showcase. The Fall 2017 issue is extra special for us, since we get to introduce two new blog editors: Sarah Booker, who translates from Spanish, and David Smith, who works with Norwegian. Together with Stefan Kielbasiewicz, they make up the Asymptote blog team. Enjoy these highlights! 

Ricardo Piglia’s piece, “On the Threshold,” is a philosophical, melancholic meditation on the art of reading and the construction of the autobiography. Composed of a series of diary entries in which the narrator muses on his grandfather’s life and on the practice of writing, this text poses fundamental questions about the practice of writing: How do you write an autobiography? What moments really matter when considering a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to write? The realization that experience “is a microscopic profusion of events that repeat and expand, disjointed, disparate, in flight” is what finally allows the narrative to unfold and the pieces of these two men’s lives to come together.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpts from Mediterranean Suite by Florin Caragiu

Not far away, the frescoes catch in their fishing nets The memory and the wind. Closely following behind us, the dolphins.

Today’s Translation Tuesday is brought to you by MARGENTO, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova, and poet and translator Marius Surleac. As you immerse yourself in these lines, it is worth keeping in mind Florin’s unique profile and approach to creation as he combines poetry, mathematics, and Eastern Orthodox theology. There is a specific emphasis on mystical practice, particularly the kind that involves “iconic Hesychasm.” These excerpts from Florin Caragiu’s work, Mediterranean Suiteexplore a sense of nostalgia, loss, and change.

Excerpts from Mediterranean Suite

It was only after long that we found the poet’s grave

In the graveyard by the sea. We barely made out

His name on the burial stone. We had passed

The spot several times

Without noticing it. Just as day after day people keep reaching

Your sight and you have no idea what they’re holding back.

Just as the blotchy calligraphic lettering

Overshadows a voice and its sharp beams

Coming out of a cloud of sea gulls, out of the lighted beacon

Piercing the sea’s costa and its coastal heart,

The wave amphitheater, and the city’s watery arteries.

 

Not far away, the frescoes catch in their fishing nets

The memory and the wind. Closely following behind us, the dolphins.

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Asymptote Blog Wants YOU to Lead the Conversation!

Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality.

Fran Leibowitz once said: “Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent as the heavy petting of literature.” In that spirit, the Asymptote blog is looking for more book-lovers like yourself to contribute to the global conversation on literature and the arts in translation.  

Showcasing new translations and daily writings on world literature and culture, Asymptote blog is on the constant lookout for individual voices, probing analysis, and topicality in our postings. We have published pieces on topics ranging from pop music and children’s books to political calls-to-action. Apart from essays, we run dispatches from international literary events, interviews, weekly new translations, book reviews, and more. Like our journal, we are looking for creative, original, and highly engaging work that considers the role of translation in literature, the arts, and the fabric of everyday life.

We encourage writers of all stripes and colours to engage with global issues as well as particular interests. At Asymptote, we’re all about breaking borders and boundaries, and are looking for writing that does the same.

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Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Formaldehyde by Carla Faesler

​"There is a human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar."

This glimpse into a new work by Carla Faesler offers an intriguing portrait of a married couple’s life and the spectre of their daughter, memories of a deceased mother, and a heart preserved in a jar. This excerpt seems to almost represent a cross-section of the story, focusing on one particular, seemingly normal day, yet with flickers of the past as well as into the future. The ending leaves us unsettled, but wanting more—we’ve become witness to a family’s mysterious secret, and we won’t be let go just yet. 

Excerpt from Formaldehyde

“The heart, if it could think, would stop.”

—Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

Febe, Larca’s mother, swallows her pills in the morning. Her circulatory system pumps the pharmaceuticals in minutes. Only then can she cook breakfast. When the effect peaks, she’s finishing her second cup of coffee. Larca walks to school hand in hand with Celso, her father, while Febe, engrossed like a hen, perches in her armchair, purveying a section of foliage out the window, a bit of sky, the fraction of a lamp post, to wonder how her husband, after dropping off their daughter, can walk to the hardware store and hoist the storefront’s heavy curtain under the constant watch of the guards. The physical force flushes red Celso’s face, supplied with blood by a network of fine veins. Then Febe, pallid, stands to fix her hair and slip something on in time for her husband to come home. Once he’s climbed the stairs, they greet one another with the warmth of a hand resting on a shoulder or the idle motion of clothes settling. Immediately then, two mannequins long out of fashion go down the white wood stairs. They drive to the market to buy food, and they check up on grandma’s house, which is really the house of Cristina, Celso’s dead mother, where everything remains unchanged thanks to Aurora who, despite her ponderous age, has held to her thrifty ways. They leave behind some groceries and the daily request that she resist the cloisters that have her walled in, consumed. It’s not that there are ghosts, with the family legend there would be enough dead to populate a country, it’s Aurora who frightens herself, the terrible appearance of her varicose veins, her wearied insides burdening her with the notion that she won’t ever disappear.

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice.

Here is another installment of our long running Translator’s Diary by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. Today’s column is a beautiful meditation on how words hold memories, nostalgia, and traditions hidden within them. Kling ponders the difficulty of translating the cultural weight of the untranslatable. 

How many international airports have a distinct look or layout of their own? What upscale shopping street lacks a Gucci or a Prada store, a Cartier or Bulgari, no matter the city? It’s easy—and largely accurate—to deplore increasing sameness everywhere, including the false belief that everybody speaks English. Yet consumerism still hasn’t quite flattened everything. Take food, for example: American childhood is unthinkable without peanut butter, as much an emotional as a physical nourishment; most Europeans find it seriously disgusting. My Australian friends are crazy for Vegemite; elsewhere, the taste for it is baffling. Or sports: try even explaining baseball to Europeans, let alone inducing them to watch a game. Have any of Goodreads’ list of the 103 Best Baseball Novels of All Time been successful in translation? An American colleague taught a course in the baseball novel as a guest professor in Germany at the students’ request; the students dutifully acquired some technical knowledge of the rules, he told me, but they never began to grasp the emotional weight, the quality of ritual, the glory and the heartbreak, the sense of pastoral innocence.

Naturally, these cultural differences plague translators, who are sometimes confronted with the lack of a word for a thing because the thing itself doesn’t exist in their target language, at least not in any recognized form. The Wikipedia glossary of baseball terms would stagger the inventiveness of even a Georges Perec or a Harry Rowohlt. Never mind explaining the suicide squeeze­­—even finding a name for it would defeat most efforts.

Holiday customs might seem to present a lower barrier from country to country where Christmas is celebrated, but one of my colleagues from our workshop at Ledig House last June (see my earlier post) has found out differently. Yes, we all share sleigh bells and Christmas trees and mangers and a festive meal and some version of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus bringing presents. In fact, Santa Claus is rapidly catching up with the Christ Child in the German-speaking world as the bringer of gifts. The process may have started in 1947, when, as a small sign of Germany’s alleged vulgarization through Americanization, Erich Kästner translated Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” as “Als der Nikolaus kam,” complete with reindeer and all of Santa’s trappings, making no adaptation to German traditions.

Even with increasing overlap, however, Regina Rawlinson told our group at Ledig House about notable cultural differences when translating Jeanette Winterson’s delightful collection titled Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. Think of the great overlap between English and American Christmas traditions: we Americans have holly, but not ivy, the latter familiar only from knowing the carol. Our fruitcake is a cousin, at least, of plum pudding. Many of our Christmas carols that are not German (“Silent Night”) are English. Yet how many of us Americans associate Christmas with robins, ubiquitous in English celebrations? We may have read about Christmas crackers, but we don’t have them here. Boxing Day is a concept, but not a practice in the United States.

Now, compound the unfamiliarity by transposing robins and crackers and holly and ivy and many other Christmas items and objects to the Continent, and you will be met with blankness. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to find equivalents or explanations without resorting to footnotes—often the bane of translators—the stories in Winterson’s collection are interspersed with recipes for delicious British Christmas specialties mostly unknown on the Continent. Mince pies? You can find them in gourmet grocery stores, but you’d have to know what they are in the first place. Custard? No real equivalent. Sherry trifle? Practically no correspondence; tiramisu isn’t the same thing. Of course it’s a fairly mechanical operation to translate a recipe by changing ounces to grams and so on—Regina’s translation will surely yield just as yummy a mince pie—but how to explain all the associations, the nostalgia, the memories, the comfort of just-like-grandma-used-to-make? And from the other end, how could someone not from Central Europe experience the impact of tasting a Vanillekipferl, those crumbly crescent-shaped cookies with vanilla powdered sugar? Or Kletzenbrot, the dark country sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts is as powerful a stimulant as Proust’s madeleine. Recipes for all these are easy to download, but the cultural weight, the ethos and the pathos, the tropes of memory aren’t in the recipes. Good luck, Regina.

Similarly, single words often require glosses or paraphrases in Die Strudlhofstiege. More than one scene takes place in a Heuriger. If you go with your children, you can order them a Kracherl as a special treat. No Austrian or South German would ever have to be told what a Heuriger is, and to say it’s a semi-rustic inn on the outskirts of the city that serves wine grown from grapes on the property doesn’t begin to capture the flood of happy associations, images of cool air and arbors and relaxation. A Kracherl is a very sweet lemon- or raspberry-flavored carbonated soft drink, but until you’ve seen a kid’s face when one is served, you can’t know what it means to a delighted youngster. Several characters in the novel eat at their favorite Beisel, a kind of unpretentious, no-frills restaurant serving good, plain food that’s also a tavern but might be likened to an American diner (my Austrian friends find this comparison blasphemous).

A term for something unfamiliar cannot evoke its connotations, a feat that lies beyond the translator’s task; still, the simple terms themselves require explanation. But imagine a reader of Doderer’s novel having to consult three footnotes or endnotes. However conveniently placed, they slow the pace. One expedient is to embed clarification within the text; when Doctor Negria is planning to take Mary K. to a Heuriger, the single word suffices in the original, but I added an in-text explanation and referred to “one of those secluded little coun­try taverns called Heurige.” Out near the Stangelers’ country house lives a miller who hobbles and can’t walk easily. For comic contrast, the narrator quotes the first line of a famous (though not all that famous) Schubert song cycle—but only the one line, knowing that any German-language reader would immediately make the connection, whereas only lovers of the Lied would probably recognize the source. That led me to another in-text expansion: “forget about Schuber­t’s Die schöne Müllerin and its first line, ‘Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust’; ‘Roaming is the miller’s joy’!—because this miller walks all crooked; his left leg is shorter, so he hobbles.”

I haven’t yet found out how Regina proposes to transmit similar cultural information. Footnotes or endnotes are often considered preferable, since what I’m calling “in-text” expansions aren’t in-text at all. They could be judged as clumsy intrusions, in fact, efforts on the part of an ancillary person, the translator, to set himself equal to the author. Purism admittedly isn’t best served by this sort of hidden expansion, but purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice. Translating has little in common with the meticulous art of establishing a definitive text, such as A. E. Housman did for Juvenal or Manilius. I haven’t yet seen actual fisticuffs in the debate over footnotes versus “in-text” expansions, but accusations of pedantry on one side (the “footnoters”) and brazen intrusion on the other (the “in-texters”) are always being traded. (Readers from the general public: did you know it could get this acrimonious?)

Familiar quotations from classic literature also require some context in English they never need in the original. One of Schiller’s most famous ballads, “Der Handschuh” (“The Glove”) tells the story of a knight treated so contemptuously by a lady that he rejects her sneering thanks for a deed of gallantry. Every German-speaking school child in Doderer’s time would have known the relevant line (“Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht”) from memory with no context needed. The narrator of Strudlhofstiege puts that line to ironic use, aware that it could function as a quick, free-standing “zinger,” whereas I needed to set up a whole framework: “He could have quoted in reply that line from a ballad by Schiller, ‘Such thanks, fair one, I do not crave’ (‘Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht’), but with the accent on the word ‘such,’ meaning ‘Don’t do me any favors.’” I’m not about to suggest that I “improved” the original, which would be preposterous, but I hope to have given enough surrounding information to make the passage intelligible. I sigh in agreement with Klaus Reichert, however, who says he’s always astonished at how much gets lost—odd that a loss results in this case from my adding.

The most formidable cultural challenges of all come from Doderer’s witty practice of using an idiom in its most literal meaning, extending it through whole paragraphs of character analysis. Picture taking English idioms about dogs—dog in the manger, raining cats and dogs, the Southernisms like “that dog won’t hunt” or “I be dog if . . . ”—and holding on to their literal meanings so that they have to be rendered as is in German, even if the language can’t accommodate them.

Next month, how “wo der Hund begraben ist” and “Sie kommen mir spanisch vor” kept me awake at night.

*****

Read More Columns by Vincent Kling:

Translation Tuesday: To a Girl Sleeping in the Street by Nazik al-Mala’ika

"people are a mask, artificial and fake, their sweet, gentle exteriors hide burning hate"

Though best known as the pioneer of “free verse” in Arabic, Nazik al-Mala’ika was in fact a fervent defender of Arabic meter, both in her poetry and in her criticism. Indeed, her theory of free verse was not very “free” at all, but rather took the undulating metrical feet of classical Arabic verse as the basis for a new prosodic system. Where classical poetry is governed by fixed line lengths and strict monorhyme, al-Mala’ika’s prosody allowed modern poets to vary the number of feet in each line and weave their rhymes as they saw fit. “Meter is the soul that electrifies literary material and transforms it into poetry,” she wrote in the critical text Issues in Contemporary Poetry. “Indeed, images and feelings do not become poetic, in the true sense, until they are touched by the fingers of music and the pulse of meter beats in their veins.”

To honor al-Mala’ika’s belief in meter’s vitality—the way it can anchor meaning in the body, transforming ordinary speech into a form of incantation—I have rendered her metered, rhymed Arabic verse into English metrical forms that reproduce, in some form, the music of the Arabic. Where al-Mala’ika uses the mutadarik or “continuous” meter in Arabic, for example, I use anapestic hexameter, English’s answer to Arabic’s most galloping verse form. Al-Mala’ika’s poetry, with its balance between tradition and innovation, ultimately teaches us not to deal so violently with the past, but rather to tread lightly in poetry’s ancient footsteps. My hope is that my English renderings of her verse might begin to do precisely this.   

— Emily Drumsta

To A Girl Sleeping In The Street

In Karrada at night, wind and rain before dawn,
when the dark is a roof or a drape never drawn,

when the night’s at its peak and the dark’s full of rain,
and the wet silence roils like a fierce hurricane,

the lament of the wind fills the deserted street,
the arcades groan in pain, and the lamps softly weep.

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The Good Bad Translator: Celina Wieniewska And Her Bruno Schulz

"Wieniewska was correct in her intuition about ‘how much Schulz' the reader was prepared to handle."

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is one of the relatively few Polish authors of fiction who enjoy international recognition. Originally published in the 1930s, since the early 1960s the Polish-Jewish writer and visual artist’s oneiric short stories have been translated and retranslated into almost forty languages, despite their seemingly untranslatable style: an exquisitely rich poetic prose, comprised of meandering syntax and multi-tiered metaphors. In English-speaking countries, Schulz’s name was made in the late 1970s, when his Street of Crocodiles, first published in English in 1963 in both the UK and the US (the British edition was titled Cinnamon Shops, following closely the original Polish Sklepy cynamonowe), was reissued in Philip Roth’s influential Penguin series Writers from the Other Europe (1977), alongside Milan Kundera and other authors from behind the Iron Curtain whom the West had yet to discover. Schulz’s second story collection, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (Polish: Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą), followed shortly (1978), and ever since then both volumes have been regularly republished and reprinted, as well as in series such as Picador Classics (1988), Penguin 20th Century Classics (1992), and Penguin Classics (2008).

This summer, the Northwestern University Press announced that “an authoritative new translation of the complete fiction of Bruno Schulz” by Madeline Levine, Professor Emerita of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina, is forthcoming in March 2018. Commissioned by the Polish Book Institute and publicized already since 2012, this retranslation has been impatiently awaited, especially by Schulz scholars dissatisfied with the old translation by Celina Wieniewska. Indeed, it’s great that Levine’s version is finally going to see the light of day—it is certainly going to yet strengthen Schulz’s already strong position. Unfortunately, the preferred (and easiest) way of promoting retranslations is to criticize and ridicule previous translations and, more often than not, translators. Even though the retranslator herself has spoken of her predecessor with much respect, showing understanding of Wieniewska’s goals, strategies, and the historical context in which she was working, I doubt that journalists, critics, and bloggers are going to show as much consideration.

In an attempt to counter this trend, I would like to present an overview of the life and work of Celina Wieniewska, since I believe that rather than being representative of a certain kind of invisibility as a translator (her name brought up only in connection with her ‘faults’), she deserves attention as the co-author of Schulz’s international success. Much like Edwin and Willa Muir, whose translations of Kafka have been criticised as dated and error-ridden, but proved successful in their day, Wieniewska’s version was instrumental in introducing Schulz’s writing to English-speaking readers around the world. Before Levine’s retranslation takes over, let’s take a moment to celebrate her predecessor, who was a truly extraordinary figure and has been undeservedly forgotten.

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Translation Tuesday: Poem by Gintaras Grajauskas

"i improve the barricade: sealing cracks with old newsprint and chewing gum"

This week’s poem from renowned Lithuanian poet Gintaras Grajauskas stages a humorous and absurd scenario that hinges on the paradoxical phrase “it’s pointless to resist,” when in fact both sides are resisting each other. Indeed, in these dark and uncertain times, “resistance” is a word on many people’s lips, but Grajauskas knows that to take matters too seriously is self-defeating—after all, humor and satire is a form of resistance itself. In the end, however, what side we align ourselves can often remain a mystery, and all we’re left to do is build up our defences. We’re thrilled to present this translation in English from Rimas Uzgiris, who is the translator of Grajauskas’s book, Then What, forthcoming from Bloodaxe Books in 2018.

Untitled 

i’m building a barricade
around myself

pushing the armoire and bed together,
knocking down the refrigerator

they send a negotiator:
a pizza delivery man

it’s pointless to resist, he says

it’s pointless to resist, i reply

he exits like a victor,
leaving me crabmeat pizza

the postman comes, saying:
this is a registered letter, sign here

i sign, we both smile –
it’s pointless to resist, says the letter

i don’t argue, but politely agree:
there isn’t the slightest hope

then comes the mormon:
do you know god’s plan, he asks

i know, it’s pointless to resist, i say,
and the mormon murmurs down the stairs

so i improve the barricade: sealing cracks
with old newsprint and chewing gum

the doorbell rings and rings

the pizza delivery man, postman
and mormon are at the door

what more, i ask

you were right, they say, it’s pointless
to resist, and there isn’t the slightest hope

which is why we’re on the same side
of the barricade

Translated from the Lithuanian by Rimas Uzgiris

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In Review: Across the China Sea by Gaute Heivoll

"Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined."

Across the China Sea explores an unconventional family in rural Norway coming together during the weakening German occupation of the country. A review by Asymptote Assistant Managing Editor Sam Carter. 

It begins with the discovery of a contract, but Gaute Heivoll’s Across the China Sea, translated by Nadia Christensen, is ultimately the story of a community that generously insists on inclusion over exclusion. First published in Norwegian in 2013 and recently released by Graywolf in Nadia Christensen’s consistently elegant translation, this novel is Heivoll’s second to appear in English after Before I Burn, a partly autobiographical work that explores an incident of arson. In Across the China Sea, however, loss assumes a rather different form—one less concerned with spectacle and more attuned to the small gestures that often make all the difference.

A young family moves from Oslo to a small town near the coast in order to start anew. They’ve come not to flee the city but to build a better version of something they already understand: an asylum. The parents—both of whom are trained nurses—decide their newly-built house can accommodate more than just biological children. Soon afterward, in addition to caring for three grown men, they take in five siblings the state had taken away from mentally unfit parents. At this new home, the children, who are also variously disabled, live in a fully furnished attic, yet they’re hardly out of sight or mind. They begin to interact with other members of this curious collective, including the narrator and his younger sister—the only two members of the household biologically linked to the nurses.

Bonds, in other words, are not limited by blood, and an early tragedy not only puts that belief to the test but also brings into sharper relief the contours of this unusual community nestled into the Norwegian countryside. Any separation between the groups of children is rendered meaningless at a time when comfort cannot be sought selectively. Indeed, the delicate balance proves resilient enough to deal with another loss that, while only temporary, still takes an emotional toll. Patients and patience quickly become intimately intertwined, exhibiting a link that their etymological affinity can only begin to capture. READ MORE…

What’s New in Translation: September 2017

Looking for reading recommendations? Here are three releases—a book-length essay about translation, a German novel, and an experimental anthology.

Summer is drawing to a close and our bookshelves are groaning with the weight of new releases. Asymptote team members review three very different books—a genre-bending meditation on the practice of translation, a German bestseller about African refugees in Berlin, and an anthology of monologues that were once performed on the streets of Quebec City. There is much to delve into. 

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This Little Art by Kate Briggs, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Reviewed by Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, Singapore.

It is in 1977, as he begins lecturing as Professor of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, that Roland Barthes realizes he is no longer young: an “old and untimely body,” on a “new public stage.” But to speak to the students gathered—with their “new concerns, new urgencies, new desires”—he will have to “fling [himself] into the illusion that [he is] contemporary with the young bodies present before [him]”; he must, in Kate Briggs’s memorable words, forget the distances of age and time, and be “carried forward by the force of forgetting, which is the forward-tilting force of all living life.”

Briggs’s new book-length essay on translation, published this month by Fitzcarraldo (who surely must produce some of the most elegant books around) joins the ranks of treatises that ponder how we, as practitioners, should “properly register what’s going on with this—with [our]—work.” It’s an important question, she argues, not only because translation is a little understood (and hence undervalued) enterprise, but also because the process of translation itself sheds light on what it takes to make meaning, and art. Her answer, pursued over seven interlocking chapters, runs parallel to Barthes’s realization. Just as the old professor must “be born again,” translation is the work of making new: of bridging time and language to “make [literature] contemporary with [our] own present moment.” READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Archilochus on the Solar Eclipse, 648 BC

All that we human beings have assumed will be in doubt

In tribute to the total solar eclipse that was visible across the United States on Monday, we’re excited to present a poem written nearly 2500 years ago on April 6, 648 BC by Archilochus, a Greek lyric poet from the island of Paros who was well-known for composing poems based on his emotions and experiences. What remains of the poem Archilochus composed is a fragment that recounts a solar eclipse, where, needless to say, things get very weird very quickly. Translated by Aaron Poochigan. 

Nothing’s unreasonable, nothing too much, nothing stunning,

now that Zeus the Father of the Gods has cloaked the light

to make it night at noontime, even though the sun was shining.

Terrible dread has fallen upon men. From here on out

all that we human beings have assumed will be in doubt,

and no one should be shocked to see, in briny acres, land

animals, walking creatures, having sex with dolphins, when

their four legs come to love the sounding waves more than the sand,

and dolphins with their flippers come to love a mountain glen.

*****

Aaron Poochigan is the author of the thriller in verse Mr. Either/Or (www.mreitheror.com) and the poetry collection Manhattanite (www.aaronpoochigian.com).

*****

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Translation Tuesday: “Suicide of the Fish” by Agustín Cadena

A school of suicidal fish. A lonely poet. A jilted wife.

A desperately unhappy woman pining for her ex-husband visits a solipsistic, lonely poet. In turns funny, intriguing and menacing, today’s story translated by Patricia Dubrava is a surreal love triangle. 

“Forgive the mess. I didn’t know…” Lopez said to his guest after switching on the light.

She observed the room while he closed the door and locked it with his key.

“No worries.”

The living room was full of household objects and cardboard boxes of all sizes, some big file cases. There was a computer, many CDs scattered on the rug, a CD player, a black sofa, an exercise machine and a stationary bike. A large aquarium with a variety of fish commanded the top of one cabinet.

While he took his sport coat and her jacket and purse to the bedroom, she continued looking around: in contrast to the floor, the walls were bare; a bookcase stood beside the sofa; topping a stack of magazines was one about fish.

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Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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The Invisibility of the Translator

We were taught to imagine a sliding scale between “Author,” “Text” and “Reader."

For English literature students, it has almost become cliché to mention Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay, The Death of the Author, which argued for prioritizing the reader’s response in the meaning of a text rather than the supposed intentions of the author. As students, we were encouraged to focus more on texts themselves, their connection to other texts, discourses, and historical contexts. Whatever decisions the author may have consciously made were to be treated with heavy skepticism—authors no longer had a say in the interpretation of their own work as much as readers and critics. Like many other literary theorists, Barthes’s text arrived to me through translation, and whole branches of the degree I finished one year ago gave me the chance to study a variety of literature in translation.

I never seriously questioned how a translation can affect the meaning of a text until we were assigned to read the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found it incomprehensible, along with many of my classmates. The one-hour lecture we had as a kind of introduction essentially came to, “Just keep reading the original text and you’ll understand it,” and I remember telling a friend at the time that the actual, original text was in French; perhaps the translation had something to do with it. Granted, even in French Derrida’s text is notoriously difficult to understand, but there could very well have been issues with Spivak’s translation, as one reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books suggested.

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