Award-winning translator Tess Lewis was first drawn to the Swiss author Monique Schwitter by two “quirky and rather dark” short story collections. Schwitter’s first full novel, One Another, is now an Asymptote Book Club selection, and Tess Lewis tells Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power why she couldn’t wait for a chance to translate it to English.
In the latest edition of our monthly Book Club interview series, we also discover the roles Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill played (indirectly!) in translating One Another and learn why a particular type of coffee nearly led to the English edition of the book being published with extensive endnotes.
Chris Power (CP): How did you end up translating One Another?
Tess Lewis (TL): Monique’s quirky and rather dark short stories in Goldfish Memory and If it Snows at the Crocodile Pen won me over when I read them years ago. So when I had the opportunity in 2014 and ’15 to curate Festival Neue Literatur, the New York City literary festival that showcases fiction from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, she was at the top of my list of writers. In 2015, the Festival’s theme was “Love and Money,” and because so many of her stories are about the different forms intimacy can take, about connections made and abysses that open up between friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers, she was a perfect fit for the “love” side. In fact, her participation in the festival was a great preview of how deftly she plays with readers’ expectations on a topic as well-trodden as love, sometimes meeting these expectations, sometimes subverting them, and sometimes going off on a tangent.
I couldn’t wait for her to finish her first novel—which turned out to be One Another—and am delighted that I was able to translate it.
Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori, introduction by Joshua Cohen, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, Joachim Neugroschel, and Marshall Yarbrough, New York Review Books, 2019
Gregor von Rezzori published Der Tod meines Bruders Abel in 1976, and the book was translated by Joachim Neugroschel into English in 1985. What the back of the book describes as a “prequel” (the term doesn’t quite fit) was published posthumously in German in 2001 as Kain. Das Letzte Manuskript and appears for the first time in English in this edition. The book is structured by four folders that lie in front of the narrator after he enjoys an evening with a prostitute: “Pneuma,” “A,” “B,” and “C.” The contents of the first three folders compose the first book (“Abel”), while “Cain” unveils the last folder (“C”).
What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.
Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshop—led by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampson—as an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.
A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.
A few weeks ago, I sat down to write up a few thoughts I had been having regarding a twelfth century South Indian encyclopedia called the Mānasollāsa. I’ve been reading from this encyclopedia with much guidance from Dr. M.A. Jayashree, who is currently leading up a massive translation and critical edition project. The encyclopedia itself is massive: much of its scholarship gives up halfway, and the translation project still has a long, long way to go.
Somewhere in the translation process, I picked up the rhythms and cadences of king Someśvara III. What was initially supposed to be a short blog post morphed into a bizarre trip down many (partially fictitious) orientalist caverns, eventually reemerging somewhere in what is now known as Karnataka. The editors at Asymptote followed me down the rabbit hole, offering guidance along the way, and together we decided to split up the piece into a series of more digestible fragments. Hang in there! I hope you all stick along for the ride.