30 October 2008

Toni Morrison reading

Toni Morrison read from A Mercy--the section on Florens' arrival to the farmhouse...and how she leaves.

On being asked about the preoccupation with the past in her work: "It's infinite. There's more of it. And it's rich." She said we must recast history in order to move forward into the future and accommodate ourselves to the present. She compared individual memory to a nation's past and said that she's always been after the truth.

But in the United States, there seems to have always been a "deliberate, sustained erasure of the past." A nation of immigrants who were "newborn" when they arrived. "But what were they running from?" Were they frightened of what they left behind? She is interested in the "deliberate blindess" of the nation and the "gaps in history."

Slavery existed everywhere--in virtually every era. It was not unusual. She examined the situation of the indentured servants and said that their condition wasn't really that different from that of slaves (their contracts could be prolonged indefinitely, they could be included in wills just like property). The biggest difference was that they were white and so if they escaped, they could blend in and had a much better chance of surviving.

She wanted to know what it must have been like for the slaves at a time in history before racism was experienced as such and the subsequent system: if poor whites had what poor blacks didn't, it benefitted those who exploited both.

She talked about how unlikely the framing of the nation was--its "ad hoc" nature. It seemed that everyone had a vested interest in the land and what could be gained from it.

"Religious bloodletting" was also something she examined in her research. The violence inflicted on people in Europe for various religious reasons and why the writers of the Constitution found it extremely important that the president of the nation not have to pass any sort of religious "test."

In being asked about a specific character in her new novel, she talked about the slow rationalization of slavery in a good man who abhorrs the cruelty, but not the fruits of slave labor. How something irremediable happens when this principled man suddenly becomes the owner of another human being.

The portion she had read was in the first person, but she was asked to clarify why the entire novel isn't written that way. She heard Florens' voice first and considered her journey to be important. And she speaks only in the present tense. The stories of the other characters help to move hers forward.

Her mother has given her away. Asked about the difference between love and mercy, Morrison said that love tends to be beneficial both to the self and the beloved. But mercy is something that is directed outside of the self.

In the Q&A session, she was asked if she relies on the intelligence of her readers. She said she is "completely reliant on our exchange as readers." She hopes that they will be willing to step into her work, although it may seem disorienting at first. There must be a level of trust established and wishes to say, "Don't be afraid. It will be scary, but don't be afraid. I'll be holding your hand all the way." And for those who don't get it--"They can do what I always do: read it again." She acknowledged that she is very dependent on their generosity and intelligence.

Someone else asked if she was ever afraid when she wrote. "Once"--in trying to "imagine the unimaginable" with Beloved. But she thought, "If they can live it, I can write it."

Resolving problems through language is "curious" and "exciting." The hard part is being between projects.

Another person asked her about something she had said when Jazz was published--that it was "a private thing for public consumption." Has she achieved this?

She related an experience she had at a book signing. A woman came to tell her how much the novels have meant to her. When Morrison reached out her hand to take her copy, the woman said, "I don't want anyone to sign my book."

"It wasn't mine anymore." She was deeply pleased...and compares the experience she wants to create in readers to listeners of music. "It's yours." It is deeply personal, although it's also shared by thousands.

She read the last two and a half pages of A Mercy before we all quietly filed out into the cold.

The words are still tumbling in my head.

Listen to her read and watch an interview on NPR. (A second interview is here.)

29 October 2008

New Dillard

I just saw this: a new Annie Dillard book is coming out next March!--a 50 page illustrated volume on writing. The title is obviously from The Writing Life (one of my favorite quotes, in fact):
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Lessing letters

Doris Lessing donates letters to UEA:
Christopher Bigsby, Dean of Advancement and Professor of American Studies, has been responsible for bringing many renowned writers to UEA as part of the annual international literary festivals and has known Lessing for more than 25 years. “The whole collection offers an insight into Doris Lessing's career and the literary world,” he said.

“These letters are not just about her personal relationships, they are about her career, her writing, the first book she would publish, her political views and activities. They are also about her sense of what was going on in Rhodesia and the world at that time, so for anyone who is interested in any aspect of her career these are like gold. They are wonderful.”

Lessing herself said those to Mr Whitehorn were from an “old love affair from the war” and that she had not re-read them.

Signed ‘Tigger’, the letters comment on everything from the social situations and relationships Lessing experiences in Rhodesia and the latest book she has read, to pregnancy and motherhood and, towards the end, her move to England.

27 October 2008

The miracle of reading

There have been petty complaints that David Markson has written the same book one too many times, but The Last Novel is a revelation. He could do this sort of thing forever and each time it would be new again. There are hundreds of worlds within this collection of carefully chosen lines. I always come away from his work with a vibrant sense of the endless possibilities of life and literature.

Turning from the last page back to the first launched me adrift in silent contemplation...because it's not only clever, but probing and compassionate as well.

Here are a few bits from the many on various aspects of reading:
     The imagination will not perform until it has been flooded by a vast torrent of reading.
     Announced Petronius.

     You have to read fifteen hundred books in order to write one.
     Flaubert put it.

     The report that to keep him from sitting with a book for sixteen hours a day, Edmund Wilson's parents bought him a baseball uniform. Which he happily put on--and sat in with a book for sixteen hours a day.

     Anyone who would employ the word diarrheic to describe a book as exactingly crafted in every line as Ulysses has either never read eleven consecutive words or possesses the literary perception of a rutabaga.
     Ulysses. Diarrheic, unquote. Dale Peck.

     Somewhat similarly, Roddy Doyle. A complete waste of time--Finnegans Wake.
     Though in his instance at least acknowledging that he had read only three pages.

     Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
     The last one that Borges asked to hear before his death.

     I must ever have some Dulcinea in my head--it harmonises the soul.
     Said Laurence Sterne.

26 October 2008

Infinite richness

I've been trying to work out what I think of Ilan Stavans' claim that "There are more Quixote possibilities in English" and Michael Orthofer's questioning of the way in which the former presents his case (regarding English translations of the classics in general). Happily, the reading that I've been doing this morning has helped me understand things a little better.

In researching the translation theory essay I'm (supposedly) writing, I've discovered the work of Wolfgang Iser. His essay "The reading process: a phenomenological approach" (anthologized in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, edited by David Lodge and Nigel Wood) is giving me some insights into the nature of translation:
The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the 'reality' of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written. The literary text activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality. This virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination.
This may sound a bit obvious, but the distinctions he makes have very interesting implications. As David Albertson says in this profile,
For Iser, the reader does not mine out an objective meaning hidden within the text. Rather, literature generates effects of meaning for the reader in a virtual space created between reader and text. Although reader and text assume similar conventions from reality, texts leave great portions unexplained to the reader, whether as gaps in the narrative or as structural limits of the text’s representation of the world. This basic indeterminacy "implies" the reader and begs her participation in synthesizing, and indeed living, events of meaning throughout the process of reading.

Such a theory of aesthetic response denies the simple dichotomy of fiction and reality. According to Iser, fiction proposes alternate worlds created within the virtual reality of the text’s meaning. In other words, in literature the actual and the possible can exist simultaneously. Literature thus takes on a greater human function of imagining beyond the given constraints of experience.
If (as Charlotte Mandell says) translation is "the truest form of reading," one can replace "reader" with "translator" in this passage of Iser's:
For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. In this very act the dynamics of reading are revealed. By making his decision he implicitly acknowledges the inexhustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decision.
This can help explain what Ilan Stavans was talking about in the article on the multitude of translations of Don Quixote:
All this is to say that, while it might seem preposterous to suggest that the fanciful adventures of Don Quixote are far richer in English than in Spanish, the proof is in the pudding. By rich, I mean abundant and comprehensive. There are more Quixote possibilities in English.
(via The Literary Saloon)

I think this goes along with what Jacques Delille meant (back in the 18th century) when he wrote, "I have always thought of translation as a way to enrich a language. If you write an original work in a particular language you are likely to exhaust that language's own resources, if I may say so. If you translate, you import the riches contained in foreign languages into your own, by means of a felicitous commerce."

But multiple translations do not only "enrich" a target language. As Lawrence Venuti writes in The Scandals of Translation,
Foreign texts that are stylistically innovative invite the English-language translator to create sociolects striated with various dialects, registers and styles, inventing a collective assemblage that questions the seeming unity of standard English.
So (although it may sound paradoxical) the act of translating a work into English can also help to undermine the hegemony of English.

This means that Stavans could've (should've?) taken it one step further. As Iser writes,
With all literary texts, then, we may say that the reading process is selective, and the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations. This is borne out by the fact that a second reading of a piece of literature often produces a different impression from the first. The reasons for this may lie in the reader's own change of circumstances; still, the text must be such as to allow this variation.
In this light, one can begin to see that eighteen translations of Don Quixote consitute eighteen different readings--and many more are possible.

So in reality, it isn't simply that "the fanciful adventures of Don Quixote are far richer in English than in Spanish"--but that the various translations help to reflect the infinite richness of Don Quixote itself.

25 October 2008


Your result for What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test...

Balanced, Secure, and Realistic.

19 Impressionist, 13 Islamic, -1 Ukiyo-e, -14 Cubist, -17 Abstract and -1 Renaissance!

Impressionism is a movement in French painting, sometimes called optical realism because of its almost scientific interest in the actual visual experience and effect of light and movement on appearance of objects. Impressionist paintings are balanced, use colored shadows, use pure color, broken brushstrokes, thick paint, and scenes from everyday life or nature.

People that like Impressionist paintings may not alway be what is deemed socially acceptable. They tend to move on their own path without always worrying that it may be offensive to others. They value friendships but because they also value honesty tend to have a few really good friends. They do not, however, like people that are rude and do not appreciate the ideas of others. They are secure enough in themselves that they can listen to the ideas of other people without it affecting their own final decisions. The world for them is not black and white but more in shades of grey and muted colors. They like things to be aestically pleasing, not stark and sharp. There are many ways to view things, and the impresssionist personality views the world from many different aspects. They enjoy life and try to keep a realistic viewpoint of things, but are not very open to new experiences. If they are content in their live they will be more than likely pleased to keep things just the way they are.

Take What Your Taste in Art Says About You Test at HelloQuizzy

(via Shaken & Stirred)

22 October 2008

Call her "Em'ly" at your own risk

[This is my first contribution to the Emily of New Moon discussion over at Blogging Anne of Green Gables]

I first read the Emily books as a teenager living in Colombia and was struck by the subtle sense of danger that's threaded through them. I've mentioned that although I've always considered Anne a friend, I personally identify more with Emily--not because she seems more "human" or has more faults (which certainly is an argument that could be made), but because the world in which she lives is more hazardous; hence, real. We never really fear for Anne in the various environments and "scrapes" in which she finds herself, but Emily's situation is much more precarious. The physical setting of New Moon and the fragile condition of her internal state deepen the reader's concern. Plus, Emily's world is simply darker... By the time you hit Emily's Quest, you wonder whether Montgomery was influenced by Villette in evoking the novel's tone. (In her journals, she mentions not being able to forgive Charlotte for the ending--but it would be interesting to compare the dates to see if this was before or after the last Emily book was published.)

I'm reading this one more slowly and am only at Chapter 7 (it's hard for me to slow down once I start rereading these books!). I don't think I'll list the literary allusions in the same way I did with Anne, but I do plan on mentioning them. Aside from the clear references to The Pilgrim's Progress and the Song of Solomon (her comments about the former always make me smile because they're so true!), I also suspect that George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind may have inspired the "Wind Woman." (I easily imagine Emily flying away with her like Diamond did.)

I was also reminded of Jane Eyre (which I am almost positive influenced these novels). It begins with this exchange with Ellen Greene:
"I don't think I want Aunt Ruth to take me," said Emily deliberately, after a moment's reflection.

"Well, you won't have the choosing likely. You ought to be thankful to get a home anywhere. Remember you're not of much importance."

"I am important to myself," cried Emily proudly.
I was immediately reminded of one of Jane's famous lines to Rochester:
"I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself."
I have some thoughts about "the flash" as well, but I'll save them for another post. I look forward to reading other thoughts on this brilliant little book.

Thomas Gray's window

The story goes that Thomas Gray had mortal fear of fire and installed a metal bar outside his window at Peterhouse in case he would one day have to climb out. He was said to be a lazy professor while at Cambridge and would often not show up to his classes. To get even, some of his students decided to play a practical joke on him. One night, they stood outside his window with a tub of water and began shouting "Fire!!" Gray panicked, tied his sheets to the bar, and let himself down. But the sheets weren't long enough for him to reach the ground, and so he had to let himself drop...drenching himself in the process. I don't know if this actually improved his attendance, though.

19 October 2008


Just as the order of numbers in a sum makes no difference, just as there is no special sequence to towns on a map, the mind and the masterpiece may pass back and forth between thoughts as often and as easily as trains between Detroit, Duluth, and Denver, and chapter headings are, in fact, only the names of places. Oral literature had to be sequential (like music before tape), but type made possible a reading which began at the rear, which repeated preferred passages, which skipped. As in an atlas, the order was one of convenience, and everything was flat. A geographical history rolls time out like that. Of course, there are stories still; an evening's entertainment, that's all human nature asks for; but masterpieces have to bear repeating and repeating. There are no surprises, no suspense, no tears, no worries in them. We know what will happen to Ahab. Duncan's dead, and Anna's under her train. I can tell you the page. The Wings of the Dove lies spread before us now as openly as Iowa. Literature in the eyes of the human mind is like land seen from a plane. And so is Gertrude Stein when we find her. Macbeth shall murder sleep again, Tom Jones receive a beating, Heathcliff . . . ah, well . . . "Oblige me," she says, "by not beginning." Netherfield Park is let at last. Mr. Gradgrind is still proceeding on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over. Bloom is carrying a piece of soap about. The next century is approaching like a distant train. John Barth has just written Chimera, Beckett has brought out The Lost Ones, Nabokov a book called Transparent Things. And they are reissuing The Geographical History of America almost a hundred years from the author's birthday. Oblige me, she says, "Also by not ending."
~ William Gass, "Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence," The World Within the Word

18 October 2008

Constraint, creativity, and Nabokov

Reading notes on The Practices of Literary Translation: Constraints and Creativity, ed. by Jean Boase-Beier and Michael Holman

~ p. 3: MH & JBB: "If the original is seen as something whose authority is in doubt, then equivalence to the original needs to be examined from the point of view of multiple potential equivalences."

~ p. 3: "Both Chaucer and Shakespeare, as Hughes remarks, borrowed freely from Ovid, often translating, transforming or adapting what Ovid had earlier adapted. Hughes himself produced a translation of the Metamophorses so compellingly Hughes-like that it won the Whitbread Award, not normally given for translations. Nevertheless, we tend to view Hughes' version of Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe as a translation, but not Shakespeare's in A Midsummer Night's Dream. We might well ask who were the translators here and what is the distinction between translation and writing?"

~ p. 10: "There will always be compromise between faithfulness and freedom, between the need to be true to one's own and the author's voice."

~ p. 13: "In a purely additive sense, therefore, it is quite clear that the burden of constraint is bound to be greater in translation than in original writing. Yet just as constraint moulded and gave rise to the creative impulse in the original, so in translation this added burden of constraint can force a translator into new ways of overcoming it and thus into new creativity."

~ p. 14: "A translator, therefore, is a rewriter who determines the implied meanings of the TL text, and who also, in the act of rewriting, redetermines the meaning of the original (Álvarez and Vidal 1996:4). Translation as radical rewriting can thus be seen as a way of rescuing the original from unwanted constraint."

~ pp. 16-17: "Translation, then, can act as an agent for change, altering and stretching perceptions, knowledge and language in the target culture, and threatening the status quo (see Hewson 1997:49), as it presents a challenge to the indigenous culture. What the papers in this book show is that it is the very fact that translation is so highly constrained which gives it the power to effect such change."

~ p. 24: Emily Salines examines how Baudelaire combined lines from Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" and Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" to create a completely new poem ("Le Guignon") that altered the initial meanings of the originals.

~ p. 96: Jenefer Coates on Nabokov's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin:
Behind this approach lay his belief in the specificity of experience and its transmutation into art. His withdrawal from advocating conventionally domesticated translation was prompted by realization that the specificity of the original would thus be represented by an alien imitation, and that the smooth and elegant Anglo-American versions encouraged by publishers and critics preferred the false voice of an "impersonator" to the original artist's, whose authenticity had got lost. Translation thus became a form of resistance to cultural appropriation.
~ p. 97: "Nabokov showed, he did not tell. Constructing complex narratives that only make sense at the deepest level, for example, he urges the careless or confused reader, through ludic and adversarial asides (such as addressing "the re-reader of this passage" in Ada), to follow the convolutions of text, mis-trust appearances, be wary of deception or observe the minutiae of details--all borrowings from the detective genre so frequently parodied, and all ideal prescriptions for the reading of a difficult translation."

~ p. 98: Coates again referring to Nabokov's Onegin:
It was also continuous with his own style, which similarly eschewed smoothness in favour of defamiliarization, inviting the reader to participate by decoding an intricately wrought text. Many of his stylistic effects compare with strategies that translators regularly deploy: paraphrasing particulars, reinventing proper nouns, prising open cliches, rendering the familiar strange, and the strange familiar, employing archaic and non-standard terms that strain towards their source, or leaving traces of source languages visible. Not only was Nabokov a resistant translator, he was probably the most resistant English prose stylist of this century.
(I realize again all of the reasons I love him.)

~ p. 105: "As his trust in conventional translation waned, belief in another kind of cultural proliferation gained strength: the idea of spirality and synthesis, which Nabokov began to embody in his novels by means of intertextual references and verbal mirroring and patterning."

17 October 2008

Going concerns

There are many things I should probably be writing about here, having attended readings by David Lodge and Geraldine Brooks, a literary translation workshop by Nick Caistor, and a literature faculty seminar on the aforementioned Falling Man. (The latter was quite a surreal experience: I found myself in the same room as a professor whose students have expressed derision for blogs, e-books, and other aspects of modern reality, and an internationally known author who has been interviewed by Bat Segundo, appeared on Daniel Menaker's show, and praised by various and sundry litblogs. Quite a disconnect.)

And then, of course, there's the window Thomas Gray practically fell out of.

I've taken notes on everything, but with my current (very wonderful and very satisfying) coursework, I spend most of my free time reading (surprise!). Lots of fun with B.S. Johnson, Paul Auster, Stieg Larsson, Agatha Christie, J.M. Coetzee, Per Petterson, Anne Carson, and David Leavitt. I have a lengthy (mushrooming) list of books I want to get to and have researched their locations in either the university's library or the one downtown. So there's that too.

Perhaps some things will slip out during Christmas vacation? Possibly. I fully admit to being a bad blogger and correspondent, but take comfort in the print of Picasso's Don Quixote tacked up over my desk. Onward without regrets!

15 October 2008

After turning the last page

Paul Auster's Leviathan was published in 1992 and dedicated to Don DeLillo. Its events seem to eerily prefigure Falling Man... I'll be attending a lecture on this latter work today and it will be interesting to see if the subject comes up.

13 October 2008

Le Clézio with the Embera

One of the more interesting articles I've seen in response to Le Clézio's Nobel Prize win recounts his visit to Colombia in the 1970's and the time he spent with the Embera tribe of el Chocó (which he discussed in his book La fête chantée et autres essais de thème amérindien):
De sus experiencias con las culturas indígenas de México, Panamá y Colombia, el Premio Nobel destacó en alguna oportunidad: "Esa experiencia cambió toda mi vida, mis ideas sobre el mundo del arte, mi manera de ser con los otros, de andar, de comer, de dormir, de amar y hasta de soñar".

No en vano, su amor por la naturaleza le ha deparado a Le Clézio ser llamado también "escritor nómada", "indio en la ciudad" o "panteísta magnífico".
Colombian author Édgar Bastidas Urresty was his translator at the time and has also written an interesting account of the experience (published in 2002).

(With thanks to A.)

Elsewhere, The Literary Saloon gives an excellent sense of the international reaction to Le Clézio's win.

Cambridge graffiti

The secrets of the universe revealed:

A process of discovery

I was delighted to read this interview with literary translator Charlotte Mandell--not only because she outs herself as a translator who does not read the entire text before beginning the work (I love her explanation), but because she reminds me of all of the reasons I ventured into this field in the first place:
You’ve also mentioned having "no need to write"—would you think that your loyalty to translation may hinder your own will to write, if you would also contemplate writing, starting from a blank page, without an original text or language as a cross-reference or interpretation? Creation versus re-creation, would you also like to write?

But my point is that translation is also a form of creation. It’s not just recreating what’s already been written—it’s creating the text anew, in my language. That’s why I don’t feel the need to write my own work; I feel fulfilled writing in many different voices, the voices of the authors I translate. It's interesting that classical musicians aren't usually asked if they also compose, but they're a lot like translators, in that they play many different styles of music, and the interpretations can vary hugely from one performer to the next.

I think all writing starts from a blank page, originals and translations alike. For me, all writing is creative. A poet writing about the sunset and the trees is translating his/her thoughts and impressions into words. All writing is translation, in a way.
When I was in fourth grade, I started copying out a Nancy Drew novel by hand on lined binder paper. I knew it didn't make any logical sense to do this, but for some reason it felt immensely satisfying to see those words in my own carefully penciled printing. I stopped after two chapters (having made the mistake of confessing this to my teacher), but a few years after that, I began filling journal after journal with passages, lines, and verses from other things I read. It's really only since I've intentionally set out to explore translation (and complete my own) that I've been able to fully understand the why of these formative habits. As a dear friend pointed out to me recently, I'm more a scribe than a scholar. There was something that was deeply satisfying about copying out the beloved words of others...and now I'm doing it again, but in a whole new creative context.

(via The Literary Saloon)

10 October 2008

Misreading Coetzee

At Matilda, Perry Middlemiss has posted a couple of reactions to J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. In my opinion, the NewsBlaze review completely misses the point and even misidentifies the author with the narrator:
First of all, the desultoriness with which the author hops from one topic to another - thematically unrelated - topic destroys the book's coherence. Few of the topics are developed to a thought-arousing level and the author's person continues to overshadow his views.
"First of all," the reviewer seems to be unaware of the quite obvious Nabokov reference. The character "C" is writing brief mini-essays for a collection entitled Strong Opinions. It's too obvious, but I'll say it anyway: they're "thematically related" in that they are all "strong opinions." Also, the novel's coherence is located in the parallel narratives and the interplay between C's "opinions" and what takes place in the story's action. The plot and the essay portions of the text are inextricably intertwined.
That also holds for the story in which the characters feel like 'voice generators' for communicating the author's mind and not as palpable human figures. There is no climax and the book remains as plain at the end as at the very beginning.
I probably shouldn't even be wasting my time in addressing such an egregious oversight. There is most definitely a "climax" and for the reviewer to have turned such a blind eye to the evolution of the two principal characters makes this "review" completely baseless and causes its writer to come off as sounding callous. On the contrary, the eloquent compassion with which Coetzee writes is quite moving.
Labeling the book as 'fiction' is another point that leaves the book at a loss. There is no 'true' fiction in the book. Of course, a critic should be pointing to the publisher, and not the author, for erroneous categorization of the book.
Aside from the fact that I don't know what "'true' fiction" is supposed to mean, the misidentification of the author with his narrator is unforgivable in a piece of writing that purports to be a literary "review" in a news publication.
Then there is the format of the book - three different modes of speech on the same page - that seriously interferes with the reader's struggle to connect coherently to the content.
But the reader can choose how he or she reads it, which lends strength to Coetzee's structural device. I was delighted at how, for nearly the entire first half of the novel, Coetzee has each segment come to a full stop on each page. This made it easy for me to read it one page at a time. But by the time the central crisis emerges, the sections are no longer self-contained. The text of each section spills over into subsequent pages, prompting a reconsideration of the reading strategy and enabling the reader to confront the shift in the action. It's cleverly done and mirrors the urgent pace at which events occur and the manner in which C begins to lose control of the rigidity of his thoughts and becomes more open to "softer" views.

Reviewers don't have to love the books they write about. But they should (at the very least!) understand what it is the author is attempting and discuss the work on those terms.

The saving grace of the dark and cold

Grateful for Richard Wirick's memorable reflection on Solzhenitsyn:
After his nonfiction forays, and while setting about his Red Wheel cycle of novels, Solzhenitsyn made fair mockery of our expectations of him. If we were going to invite him to give commencement addresses, we were going to be reminded, once again, of the special spiritual advantages of privation. We weren’t going to hear praise of our excesses, our shallowness, our engulfing vacuity. [Appropriately, I read his famous, scolding Harvard commencement address through a newspaper vending box in the Las Vegas bus station, the red lights of slot machines blinking on his face.] His message was no different than the prophet Isaiah’s: without the rudder and keel of discipline, and perhaps faith, freedom leads to its own paradoxical imprisonment: a torpor, a hollowness, a Selbstmord as real as the clang of a prison door. He wanted to put some of the dark and cold back into our brain-dissolving American sunshine.

09 October 2008

Previous pronouncements

Reading notes on Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook, ed. by André Lefevere

~ p. 1: "Let us not forget that translations are made by people who do not need them for people who cannot read the originals."

~ p. 2: "It may be a sobering thought that some of the masterpieces of world literature, such as Cervantes' Don Quixote, profess to be translations of lost originals, i.e. that they refer to non-existent texts in order to derive some kind of legitimacy which, it is felt, would otherwise not be present to the same extent."

~ p. 13: Anne Dacier (from the intro to her translation of the Iliad, pub. 1699):
Bad translations render the letter without the spirit in a low and servile imitation. Good translations keep the spirit without moving away from the letter. They are free and noble imitations that turn the familiar into something new.
~ p. 17: Anne Louise Germaine de Staël:
The most eminent service one can render to literature is to transport the masterpieces of the human spirit from one language into another.
~ p. 25: Goethe:
That is how we should look upon every translator: he is a man who tries to be a mediator in this general spiritual commerce and who has chosen it as his calling to advance the interchange. Whatever you may say about the deficiencies of translation, it is and remains one of the most important and dignified enterprises in the general commerce of the world. The Qur'an says: "God has given every nation a prophet in its own language." Every translator is a prophet among his own poeple.
~ p. 34: Ulrich von Willamowitz-Moellendorff:
True translation is metempsychosis.
~ p. 36: Nicolas Perrot d'Ablancourt (his translations were the first to be called "belles infidèles"):
Consequently, I do not always stick to the author's words, nor even to his thoughts. I keep the effect he wanted to produce in mind, and then I arrange the material after the fashion of our time.
~ p. 37: Jacques Delille:
I have always thought of translation as a way to enrich a language. If you write an original work in a particular language you are likely to exhaust that language's own resources, if I may say so. If you translate, you import the riches contained in foreign languages into your own, by means of a felicitous commerce.
~ p. 56: Shelley (from "A Defence of Poetry"):
Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both beween each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of these relations has always been found connected with a perception of the order of the relations of thought.
~ p. 64: Pope (from the preface to his translation of the Iliad, pub. 1715):
I know no Liberties one ought to take, but those which are necessary for transfusing the Spirit of the Original, and Supporting the Poetical Style of the Translation: and I will venture to say, there have not been more Men misled in former times by a servile dull Adherence to the Letter, than have been deluded in ours by a chimerical insolent Hope of raising and improving their Author.
~ p. 78: Goethe:
There are two maxims in translation: one requires that the author of a foreign nation be brought across to us in such a way that we can look on him as ours. The other requires that we ourselves should cross over into what is foreign and adapt ourselves to its conditions, its peculiarities, and its use of language.
~ p. 79: Schlegel:
Literalness is a long way from fidelity. Fidelity means that the same or similar impressions are produced, for these are the heart of the matter.
~ p. 171: Ulrich von Willamowitz-Moellendorff (from the preface to his translation of Euripides' Hippolytus, pub. 1925):
This is how it is: whoever wants to translate a poem must understand it.

06 October 2008

Navigating the labyrinth

Reading notes on Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth, ed. by Daniel Weissbort

~ p. x: "Yet, as Ezra Pound remarked, translation is also a form of criticism, the highest in his view, since it represents a fusion of the creative and the critical."

~ p. xi: "Translation, as a specialised branch of practical criticism, of concentrated reading, is well worth exploring."

~ p. 10: János Csokits' discussion of how Ted Hughes translated János Pilinszky's work without knowing a word of Hungarian. (Csokits supplied word-for-word translations, plus notes.)

~ p. 18: Ted Hughes:
But even more exciting, for me, was the knack [Csokits] had of projecting a raw, fresh sense of the strange original--the particular and to me alien uniqueness of the original. I know from experience with quite a few translators that this is a very rare ability. Most translators, inevitably, translate the strangeness of the original work into the standard of their own sensibility--and the best one can hope for is that their sensibility can adapt itself interestingly. But again and again János Csokits transmitted the characters of several quite different poets, while introducing me to modern Hungarian poetry.
p. 36: John Felstiner on translating Celan: "A translator, I think, needs to become the reader par excellence--or perhaps I should say par exigence. Here I would borrow from Kafka's Trial, where Joseph K., trying to interpret the parable 'Before the Law', is told by a priest: 'The Scripture is unalterable and its interpretations often merely betray bewilderment at this.'"

~ p. 107: Weissbort interviews Stanley Kunitz on his collaboration with Max Hayward in his translations of Anna Akhmatova's poetry. (A similar procedure to that of Hughes and Csokits.)

~ p. 108: Kunitz: "During our sessions together he would read the poems aloud to me in Russian. This was of the utmost importance, for the soul of a poem, I have always felt, is in its sound. When I read my versions back to him, above all I wanted them to sound right."

~ p. 110: Kunitz: "What is most readily translatable is the matter of a poem, its substantive ground, which there is no excuse for betraying, even in the absence of equivalents. All the rest--its music, its spirit, its complex verbal and psychic tissue--one tries to suggest as best as one can."

~ p. 126: Rika Lesser on translating Sonnevi's poetry: "Perhaps it is because he is alive and still very productive and therefore I cannot devour and digest his works in my usual fashion; his next book may cast more light on an earlier book or books, which could make me read them and translate poems from them in a different way. Perhaps it is simply because there is so much more uncertainty about every aspect of a massive new undertaking, so much more inertia to overcome."

~ p. 139: W.S. Merwin (!): "I continue in the belief, you know, that I don't know how to translate, and that nobody does. It is an impossible but necessary process, there is no perfect way to do it, and much of it must be found for each particular poem, as we go."

~ p. 202: William Jay Smith: "Poets must translate poets; even if they know little of the other's language, something of the fine frenzy of the original will somehow work its way through."

~ p. 220: William Jay Smith: "Translating the poems of Andrei Voznesensky over the past twenty years has brought me closer to him, to his country and to his language. 'Form isn't what counts,' he has said; 'form must be clear, unfathomable, disquieting, like the sky in which only radar can sense the presence of a plane.' In my translations I have tried to keep the form--that clear, unfathomable sky--in which his lines may remain airborne as those of a poet of his talent and courage deserve to be."

~ p. 232: Paul Auster to Richard Wilbur on the latter's translation of Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau": "What strikes most about it is the thickness of the language, a feeling of texture...you've tackled the work as a whole, not just as a series of isolated lines, and the result is something that hangs together."

Sound familiar?

Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about 'a new Silas Weekley' or 'a new Lavinia Fitch' exactly as they talked about 'a new brick' or 'a new hair-brush'. They never said 'a new book by' whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.
from The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, published in 1951

03 October 2008

The wonders of home

I'm in the middle of translating an excerpt from Zanahorias voladoras (Flying Carrots) by Antonio Ungar (one of the Bogotá 39), and happened across an interview that made me a little homesick:
"Creo que el placer más grande del mundo es montarse a un carro o a un bus y salir a cualquier destino lejano en Colombia. Absolutamente cualquier cosa puede pasar. Y esa incertidumbre permanente, ese mundo frágil pero también muy vital y muy creativo que hemos construido en una geografía hermosísima, hacen de Colombia uno de los mejores sitios para vivir del mundo y el mejor para viajar (a pesar de sus miles de muertos y sus injusticias inmensas)", afirma el escritor.
Ay, sí.

["I think that the greatest pleasure in the world is to get in a car or a bus and leave for any far away destination in Colombia. Absolutely anything can happen. And that permanent uncertainty, that fragile yet very vital and very creative world that we've constructed in a gorgeous geography, makes Colombia one of the world's best places to live and the best to travel (in spite of its thousands of deaths and immense injustices)," affirms the writer.]


In the comments to her post on the recent Nobel dust-up, Gwenda Bond used the term "USian"--something I've been saying myself but have never seen anywhere else. Until yesterday, of course:
Still, I want to see fisticuffs! Effete fisticuffs! And I'm (relatively) proud that our USian champions have attempted to bring the affronted heat.
I applaud her for avoiding the rather ethnocentric word "American" when referring to people from the United States. As I mentioned three years ago,
In Spanish the word is estadounidense--literally, "United Statesian." Is there no word like that in English? The word "American" is taken for granted as meaning "a citizen of the U.S.," although it's only third in Merriam-Webster's list of definitions. (Yes, Virginia, people from Central and South America are "Americans" too.)
I know this may sound like PC posturing, but it was great to see someone else making the appropriate distinction. Maybe it will catch on?

The Prayer of Van Gogh

Humbling defeat in the fields.
The air held by invaders.
Birds, the sun, and again birds.
By night what will be left of me?

At night only the row of lamps
the yellow wall of dry mud
and from the bottom of the garden, through trees,
like a row of candles, the windows,

where I too, dwelt and do not dwell,
the house where I lived and do not live,
the roof which tucked me in safely.
Ah God, then you covered me up safely.
~ János Pilinszky, translated by János Csokits and Ted Hughes
from Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth, edited by Daniel Weissbort

01 October 2008

Nuts and bolts

Reading notes on Clifford Landers' Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. (He currently has a Machado de Assis story up at Words Without Borders and his translation of Rubem Fonseca's The Taker and Other Stories will be released by Open Letter next month.)

~ p. 30: He quotes Terrance--"the literary translator believes that 'nothing human is foreign to me.' In its good and its evil, its most elevated flights of beauty and its basest profanities, humanity is both subject and object, and the translator's role is to capture its often contradictory impulses as first given voice in another language."

~ p. 31: Embarrassing to admit, but this was a huge lightbulb moment:
Beginners often ask me, 'Do I have to get permission to translate X?' The surprising answer is that anyone can translate anything. If you decide to do a retranslation of the complete short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, mazel tov.
Of course, "the problem comes in trying to publish it."

~ p. 38: This entire book is supremely helpful and I loved reading his section on "A day in the life of a literary translator." He goes through a typical day and the issues he encounters in translating a work of Rubem Fonseca's.

~ p. 45: The "eight stages" of his translation process are also incredibly useful.

~ p. 50: His "author-translator-reader" triangle (with the author at the top) reminds me of Walker Percy's "Delta factor."

~ p. 53: He tangles with Venuti's concept of "resistance" in practical terms:
Did Pushkin, Baudelaire, or Ibsen sound strange in the original? Lofty, certainly; inspired, absolutely; but not odd. A literal rendering of any world-class writer invariably makes that individual sound tongue-tied, as if he or she were speaking a foreign language, and poorly at that. 'Resistance' of this kind, I contend, often places cultural and academic considerations so far ahead of literary and aesthetic concerns as to distort the TL reader's perception of the author. Why bother with a masterpiece from another language if it reads like a trot?
~ p. 82: After recounting a particularly chilling story of Mordecai Richler's pointed disdain for one of his translators, he shares something a bit more heartwarming:
There are authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who display a commendable awareness of the formidable tasks inherent in literary translation and have only good things to say about those who labor to reproduce their works in other languages. (In fact, he argues, 'Translators should be paid the same royalties as authors.') In Vonnegut's words, 'All I require of a translator is that he or she be a more gifted writer than I am, and in at least two languages, one of them mine.'
~ p. 83: "Writing is a profession tailor-made for engendering self-doubt."

~ p. 100: "Any translation should--make that must--be read aloud for sonority. Sound is paramount to poets, and more than one translator has been told by the SL poet, 'When it's impossible to preserve both meaning and sound, go with the sound.' Although not all poems (both translations and originals) that sound good are good, it's a pretty safe bet that a translation that sounds bad is, well, bad."

~ p. 194: "For those treading the unfamiliar terrain of contracts, I strongly recommend visiting the web site of PEN American Center (www.pen.org) and downloading the translator's Model Contract found there. It addresses many of the doubts facing translators at all levels of experience."

~ p. 196: I'm photocopying this page and pinning it to the wall above my desk: Peter Theroux's flowchart on "One Way of Translating a Book," which points out how the translator can approach the author and publisher of a book worthy of translation.

~ p. 201: The bibliography is also very helpfully broken down by subject matter. There are three titles listed under "Getting Started":
ALTA Guides to Literary Translation. Breaking into Print. American Literary Translators Association, 2000.

Gertrud Graubart Champe, 'Letter to a Young Translator.' ATA Chronicle, August 1996.

Keith Goldsmith, 'How Badly Do You Want to Be a Literary Translator?' ATA Chronicle, January 1994.
Landers has done a fantastic job providing the right balance of practical advice and measured enthusiasm. Now I just need to buy my own copy...