Category: Translation

What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?

Arundhati Roy for Literary Hub
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Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?’ – originally given as her W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation, delivered at the British Library on June 5, 2018 – considers the politics of language and translation in India:

At a book reading in Kolkata, about a week after my first novel, The God of Small Things, was published, a member of the audience stood up and asked, in a tone that was distinctly hostile: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.

“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

The night of that reading in Kolkata, city of my estranged father and of Kali, Mother Goddess with the long red tongue and many arms, I fell to wondering what my mother tongue actually was. What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write? It occurred to me that my mother was actually an alien, with fewer arms than Kali perhaps but many more tongues. English is certainly one of them. My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues. (I say alien because there’s not much that is organic about her. Her nation-shaped body was first violently assimilated and then violently dismembered by an imperial British quill. I also say alien because of the violence unleashed in her name on those who do not wish to belong to her (Kashmiris, for example), as well as on those who do (Indian Muslims and Dalits, for example), makes her an extremely un-motherly mother.

How many tongues does she have? Officially, approximately 780, only twenty-two of which are formally recognized by the Indian Constitution, while another thirty-eight are waiting to be accorded that status. Each has its own history of colonizing or being colonized. There are few pure victims and pure perpetrators. There is no national language. Not yet. Hindi and English are designated “official languages.” According to the Constitution of India (which, we must note, was written in English), the use of English by the state for official purposes was supposed to cease by 26 January 1965, fifteen years after the constitution came into effect. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, was to take its place. However, any serious move toward making Hindi the national language has been met with riots in non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. (Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe.) So, English has continued, guiltily, unofficially, and by default, to consolidate its base.

Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment. India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire, as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest to me, it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it. Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole. If India had broken up into language republics, like countries in Europe, then perhaps English could be done away with. But even still, not really, not any time soon. As things stand, English, although it is spoken by a small minority (which still numbers in the tens of millions), is the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion.

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An excerpt: Scenes from a Childhood by Jon Fosse

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An excerpt from our latest fiction title, Scenes from a Childhood by Jon Fosse, translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls.

IT’S MAYBE FOUR O’CLOCK

It’s maybe four o’clock when Trygve and I go out to the old barn. My grandfather built this barn but now it’s fall- ing apart, the unpainted planks in the walls are rotting away, there are holes in the wall you can see through in some places and a couple of roof tiles lying in the net- tles, three more sticking out of a puddle of mud. A rusty hook is hanging from the door-frame. The door is hang- ing from the door-frame too, attached with hay-baling cord, swinging crookedly. A warm summer day, after- noon. Trygve and I sit on a large round stone a few yards from the barn. There are plastic bags under our legs with our lunches inside, slices of bread with brown cheese, we each have a soft drink. It’s hot. We’re both sweating. Mosquitoes are buzzing round our heads.

 

I JUST CAN’T GET THE GUITAR TUNED

I just can’t get the guitar tuned and the dance is about to start. There’s already a big crowd in the room, most of them people involved with the event and their friends and girlfriends, but still a lot of people, when I look up from the shelter of the long hair hanging down over my eyes I see them moving around the room. I’m bent over my guitar, turning and turning a tuning knob, I turn it all the way down and the string almost dangles off the fretboard, all forlorn, and then I strum on it while I turn the knob up, up, I hear the tone slide higher, I strum on two strings, now is this right? no, it always sounds a little off, doesn’t it, and I turn it more, I turn and turn, up and down, I turn it and turn it and the drummer is pound- ing for all he’s worth and hitting the cymbals and the bassist is thumping too and the other guy on guitar is standing there strumming chord after chord and I just can’t get this damn guitar in tune. I turn the knob more, and the string breaks. I push my hair back and shout that the string broke. The others just keep the noise going. I unplug the guitar and go backstage, I have spare strings in my guitar case. I find a new third string. I change the string, turn the knob until the string is on. I walk back onstage. I plug the guitar in again and start tuning it. I can’t hear anything. I shout for the others to stop play- ing. They stop. I try to tune the guitar. I can’t do it. I ask the other guitarist to give me the note, he plays a G on his third string. I turn the knob.

Little more, he says.

I turn it a little more. I look at the other guitarist and he shakes his head a little. I turn it a little more, strum the string. He looks up, stops, listens.

Little higher, he says.

I turn it a little higher and strum.

Little more, he says.

And now it starts to sound right.

Almost there, he says. Maybe a little more. I turn it a little higher and strum.

Little lower, he says.

I turn it down slightly and strum.

Damn it, he says. Take it all the way down, we’ll try it

again, he says.

I turn the knob all the way down. He plays the open

third string on his guitar. I start to turn the knob up. I hear it getting closer. It’s getting closer. I see the other guitarist nod. I turn it a little more. And now it sounds right, almost perfect.

Almost, the other guitarist says.

I turn it a little more and now it’s off, I turn it more and I hear it getting closer again. A little more.

Careful now, the other guitarist says.

I turn it a little bit more. And I hear the string break. Fuck, I say.

Go get another one, the other guitarist says.

I go backstage again and go to the guitar case to get

another string. But I don’t have any more third strings. I shout and say I don’t have any more third strings, I say I need to borrow one, and the other guitarist goes to his guitar case and looks for a string. I see him put one knee on the floor and dig around in his guitar case and look for a string. He looks at me.

I don’t think I have one, he says.

He digs around in his guitar case some more. He gets up and shakes his head.

Nope, he says. No G string.

Then I guess I’ll have to play with five strings, I say. That’ll probably work, he says.

People are already here, I say.

That’ll work, he says.

 

THE AXE

One day Father yells at him and he goes out to the wood- shed, he gets the biggest axe, he carries it into the living room and puts it down next to his father’s chair and asks his father to kill him. As one might expect, this only makes his father angrier.

 

IT HAS STOPPED SNOWING

It has stopped snowing. Geir and Kjell are out in the new snow but they’re not going skiing, no they’re busy with their snow shovels, pushing the snow around and beating it down flat and hard. I’m standing at my win- dow spying on what they’re doing out there. I ask my mother if I can go outside and she says OK. I bundle up, gloves and everything, and go outside. I run over to Geir and Kjell and ask them what they’re doing and they say they’re going to play car and make streets and a tun- nel and everything in the snow. I run home and get two cars. I come back and Geir and Kjell have finished with the snow shovels and they’ve already started working on the construction. And then Geir and Kjell and I build a tunnel, and a garage, and a house. This is going to be great. Geir loads snow onto the truck with an excavator. Kjell drives the snow in the truck, then dumps it out. I build a road. We are working and building. We don’t know what will happen next but we crawl around in the snow, humming and whistling, driving and dumping. Snow is falling steadily on us, light and white, so that the road has to be cleared again and again. We work and build and clear the road. Time passes, but we don’t notice. We plough the road and gravel it with the light- est new snow. We don’t notice that some slightly bigger boys, boys we barely know even though they live only a few houses away, have come walking up to us through the yard. The boys don’t live far away but we don’t know them. They stand and look at us. They ask what we’re doing, and we say we’re playing car. They ask if they can play too, and we hand them our cars, our excava- tor. Then we stand and watch the other boys play. They yell louder and push the wheels down into the road, they laugh and shout.

Crappy road, they say.

You can’t fucking drive on a road like this, they say. They have to repair the road, it’s a bad road, Geir

says.

You can’t fucking repair a road like this, they say. These road workers are useless, they say. Making such a crap road, they say.

I want my car back, Kjell says.

Your crappy car, they say.

That car’s useless too, they say.

It’s all a bunch of shit, they say.

What’s that? they say.

A car park, Geir says.

Huh, a car park, they say.

You can’t park there, they say.

 

No Punctuation and Noisy Neighbours – Translating Proust’s Letters

Lydia Davis in The Guardian
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Lydia Davis on the experience of translating Marcel Proust’s letters for The Guardian:

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André Gide describes, in his journal, Proust’s style of talking: “His conversation, ceaselessly cut by parenthetical clauses, runs on …” This style, so natural to him in conversation, pours out also in his letters – letters, as his friend Robert Dreyfus put it, “in which he always wanted to say everything, as in his books, and in which he succeeded by means of an infinity of parentheses, sinuosities, and reversals”. It is the same style that is evident, though more controlled, in the extended sentences of his finished, published work (or, perhaps one should say, never quite finished, but brought to a certain point and then ended).

We are told that Proust wrote very fast. This, too, is apparent in the letters, in the sprawling handwriting, in the tendency to abbreviate, in the occasional missing word, and perhaps, though not necessarily, in the missing punctuation. Yet, at the same time, his syntactical agility is always in evidence, as in a letter in which he includes in one fairly short sentence a rather elaborate, and in this case indignant, parenthetical remark (“as I have been accused”) that manages to enclose within it yet another clause (“it seems”): “I have been so ill these days (in my bed which I have not left and without having noisily opened or closed the carriage entrance as I have it seems been accused of doing) that I have not been able to write.” Here he exemplifies, in a rougher, more urgent way, his declaration concerning his published writing that a sentence contains a complete thought, and that no matter how complex it may be, this thought should remain intact. The shape of the sentence is the shape of the thought, and every word is necessary.

Perhaps the most extreme example, in Letters to the Lady Upstairs, of his complex syntax and lack of punctuation, as well as his colourful and fertile imagination, comes in a letter which is mainly devoted to the cathedral of Reims, which was heavily damaged by bombardment in the first autumn of the war. It approaches the precision, rhetorical heights and luscious imagery of In Search of Lost Time (and with a reference to a Ruskin title covertly slipped in): “But I who insofar as my health permits make to the stones of Reims pilgrimages as piously awestruck as to the stones of Venice believe I am justified in speaking of the diminution to humanity that will be consummated on the day when the arches that are already half burnt away collapse forever on those angels who without troubling themselves about the danger still gather marvellous fruits from the lush stylised foliage of the forest of stones.”

(…)

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica
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Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:

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Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.

(…)

Absenting the Self: Charlotte Mandell on Translating Mathias Enard

Rob Vollmar interviews for World Literature Today
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Charlotte Mandell, Mathias Enard’s English translator, is interviewed by Rob Vollmar for World Literature Today on how she came to be a translator, and on the process of rendering Enard’s work into English:

 

Mathias Énard’s Compass (New Directions, 2017) is not only a love letter to the field of orientalism but, more broadly, to the power of the written word itself, especially in translation. I became fascinated by the panoply of creative decisions that must have gone into translating it from French into English, while navigating all the other languages (Persian, Arabic, German) that fill its nooks and crannies. In order to satisfy some of that curiosity, after reviewing the book, I reached out to Énard’s traductrice attitrée, Charlotte Mandell, to find out more about her training and work as a translator as well as the eccentricities of bringing this particular book to anglophone readers.

Rob Vollmar: Could you tell us a little about how you got interested in translation and your training in preparation to be a literary translator?

Charlotte Mandell: It’s something of a long story. My parents were both university professors, so we had summers off, and since my father was interested in all things French (he wrote his master’s thesis on a little-known playwright named Henri-René Lenormand), starting when I was ten, we would spend every other summer in either the Swiss or the French Alps. So that’s how I got interested in French.

Later on, I attended Boston Latin High School—the oldest high school in America, founded in 1635—where studying Latin for five years is mandatory. Weirdly, I developed a liking for Latin, and for ancient Greek; in my advanced placement class in junior year we translated Virgil’s Aeneid, and I was hooked.

As a student at Bard College I majored in French (and minored in film theory, since my father used to bring films home to show them on a sheet on the wall—by the time I was a teenager I had seen Bergman’s Seventh Seal at least fifteen times) and continued to translate; my senior project (a book-length volume every senior has to write) was a translation of a book by the contemporary French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. During my junior year at Bard, I studied semiotics and film theory at the Université de Paris III. Derrida was lecturing then (this was in 1988–89), along with Julia Kristeva.

RV: Many of your early translations were nonfiction and/or French classics. Does your process for approaching older or nonfiction texts differ from contemporary fiction?

CM: Actually, my approach is almost always the same, regardless of whether or not the original is a classic: I always approach a book as if it had just been written, and as if it had never been translated before, or read in English. Translating for me is a living, breathing thing—Kate Briggs talks about this in her forthcoming essay on translation, This Little Art—and I need to act as if the book I’m translating is brand-new, fresh off the press. That way I become more invested in the act of translating it and more involved in the process. Translating for me is a very exciting process, regardless of whether the book is old or new.

RVCompass is your third Énard novel in translation. How did you become aware of his work, and what attracted you to it as a potential object of translation?

CM: A long time ago—in 2008, I think—I read an excerpt from Zone in a digest published by the French Publishers’ Agency. I knew right away that I had to translate the book, and when I heard that Chad Post’s Open Letter Press was interested in publishing it, I wrote to him and basically begged him to allow me to translate it. Open Letter published both Zone and Street of Thieves, and I’m grateful to them for that.

For Compass, my publishers are Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US; working with Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo and Tynan Kogane at New Directions has been enlightening and enjoyable.

RV: Your first Énard translation, Zone (Open Letter, 2010), has been described as a “novel of essentially one endless sentence.” What were the challenges associated with translating a text without the normal sentence breaks one expects in a narrative?

CM: For me the main challenge in translating Zone was finding a good place to stop for the day—often I would lose track of time and would find I’d been sitting for far too long, and hadn’t eaten in hours. I don’t read ahead when I translate, so I’m always eager to find out what comes next in the book—so Zone turned out to be addictive in its stream-of-consciousness narrative and very hard to put down.

I like long sentences—that must be part of my Latin upbringing—they don’t intimidate me. On the contrary, they pull me in—it’s almost like a literary jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out where a sentence is going, and trying to keep its rhythm and breath intact. Latin is famous for its endless, complex sentences; often the verb will come at the very end, which makes French sentences easy by comparison!

(…)

Lessons in Slowness

Susanna Basso for Asymptote
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Susanna Basso writes for Asymptote on how her translation process has developed over the course of her career. Translated from the Italian by Matilda Colarossi.

Translating is beautiful in autumn, when the days are short and I need to turn my desk lamp on earlier. Natural light distracts me a little; it lights up the room, all of the other books, the furniture, the curtains . . . Here, in this circle of white light that isolates me, we are truly alone, the sentences and I. For every book I have translated, I could tell you what was happening inside this room and in the outside world. This would, I imagine, be anything but interesting, and yet my life has accompanied the life of the words I have looked up, and it has, for me, not been easy to keep them in check. 

As a young woman I translated while in a little white room with no wardrobe, on a bare table, and near a phone that kept interrupting me, that kept dragging me outside to the thousands of things that I had asked others to expect of me. I had yet to come to terms with the slowness translation imposes; I remember trying to invent ways to go faster. I was convinced that experience would make me faster. I would often get frustrated. I would find almost every text repetitive, almost every author a little bit wordy. 

Then I discovered that experience does not, in any way, make translation faster, but it does heal impatience and our need for the phone to ring. 

At the time, I remember, I was fresh out of university and full of literary enthusiasm, and I swathed the words of the Brontë sisters in my own voice. I experienced the difficulty of having to combine the spontaneity of the simple letters between the sisters and their friends, and the intense richness of those extraordinarily captive and yet free women.

(…)

Kalisto Tanzi by Jana Beňová

Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, for Asymptote
Seeing People Off

An extract from award-winning Slovakian writer Jana Beňová’s new novel, Seeing People Off. Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, appearing in the April 2017 issue of Aysmptote.

Elza. Together we ate grapes and washed them down with rosé. The next day I discovered a moist grape stem in my pocket. It looked like an undecorated Christmas tree. 

Kalisto Tanzi vanished from the city, which had been hit by a heat wave. The heat radiated from the houses and streets burning people’s faces, and the scorching town seared its brand onto their foreheads. 

I stopped in front of the theater window so I could read Kalisto’s name on the posters and confirm to myself that he did actually exist. I enjoy pronouncing his name, which tormented him throughout childhood and puberty and only stopped annoying him after my arrival. I walk slowly to the other end of the city, the muscles in my legs shake slightly in the hot air. It’s noon. The only things on the planet that are really moving are drops of sweat. They run down to the base of the nose and then spurt out again under my hair. 

I’m going to buy poison. 

Ian saw a rat in the crapper last night. 

The rat-catcher has a wine cellar underneath his store. Underground we escape the unbearable heat and drink. He’s telling me how intelligent the rats are. 

“They have a taster, who tastes food first. When it dies, the others won’t even touch the bait. So we now offer the next generation of rat bait. The rat only begins to die four days after consuming the poison. It dies from internal bleeding. Even Seneca confirmed that this sort of death is painless. The other rats think their compatriot has died a natural death. But even so, if several of them die in a short time, they’ll evaluate the place as unacceptable because of the high mortality rate and move elsewhere. This gift of judgment is completely missing in some people, or even whole nations.” 

(…)

From Im Stein to Bricks and Mortar

Katy Derbyshire on translating Clemens Meyer
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Translating a book title is rarely an easy feat. Think of Die Verwandlung, rendered as either Metamorphosis or The Metamorphosis – do we need that definite article or not? The first two translations into German of Crime and Punishment were entitled Raskolnikow, followed by many called Schuld und Sühne (meaning something like “guilt and atonement”), then in the 1920s a couple of Verbrechen und Strafe (“crime and punishment”), then a spate of either Raskolnikow or Schuld und Sühne or variations on the two, and back to Verbrechen und Strafe in Svetlana Geier’s most recent iteration from 1994. The shorter and more meaningful a statement, the more difficult it can become to capture it faithfully in another language. And there are few short statements that hold more meaning than book titles.

Clemens Meyer’s Im Stein is one of those conundrums. It’s a long novel, 654 pages in English, with a short title. Two words, two strong beats, not a common phrase but immediately clear. The literal meaning is easily rendered: in the stone. But to my mind, the obvious choices rock and stone are tainted words in English, hackneyed and dulled by overuse in popular culture:

The Sword in the Stone

The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stone

Like a Rolling Stone

Stone cold sober

Sticks and stones

A stone’s throw

Between a rock and a hard place

Rock ‘n’ roll

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Rock around the Clock

Punk rock

Dad rock

Brighton Rock

Crocodile Rock

Jingle Bell Rock

And so on, very possibly ad infinitum.

I knew I didn’t want either of those words to anchor my translation, to drag it down from vaguely mystical to banal. But what to do? The novel plays on different kinds of stone – the bedrock of the city in which it’s set, gemstones, brick walls – all of which can be called “stein” in German, at least in the elastic way that Meyer uses language. For a while, the working title was Hearts Like Diamonds, a phrase used frequently in the book to sum up women working in prostitution. I liked that it brought those women into sharp focus, but it had the distinct disadvantage of sounding like a romance novel. Which the book is not, by a long shot.

One of the less literal meanings with which Meyer imbues the word Stein is that of real estate. If the novel has a main character other than the city itself and the rock being drilled into beneath it, then it’s AK, a football hooligan turned property magnate who lets apartments to prostitutes. It’s his move into “bricks and mortar” that takes him from providing security services for the sex trade – muscle – to providing shelter and infrastructure – stone, if you like. And that was the mental leap I needed. Once I hit on it, I went back through the translation to sow seeds for my title, adding flourishes to the prose where I felt it could take it. This is the kind of writing that can take it, so we now have sentences like this:

The music echoes across the bricks and mortar, through the rock and stones.

Or like this:

And if you think back to those years between time and stream, between bricks and mortar, between rock and hard place, there’s no way back and that’s a good thing too, even though things are hotting up again now; there weren’t any apartments or luxury girls back then, or as good as none.

Or like this:

The markets and marketplaces are becoming more and more linked, steel and concrete town halls, the meat markets expanding, the bricks and mortar, sticks and stones, the rock growing, in a red-lit circle where everything’s linked, the rubbish truck, the fat woman, the Coke, the Viagras, the blockers, uppers and downers, lost cats, the right to sexual self-determination, scraps of memory like old police badges, the Angels on their motorbikes, peat mosses, flyovers, sixty-six municipal brothels in 1865, trade chronicles, he burrows in the old files, real estate on silver strings leading all the way to Italy, and the fall of the real-estate boss Silvio Lübbke, three bullets, boom, boom, Dead Peepers Alley, houses for pocket money, clues, clues, the country air so clean and pure, soon they’ll be building here but we’ll stop the diggers, the question is, who brings three bodies out to this mire, this swamped puddle, where everyone knows they won’t decompose, when you can dig holes in the sandy ground of the heath or drive out to forest lakes like the ‘Blue Eye’, and there must be anglers there who discover the remotest of lakes, the woods arching around the north-eastern belt of the suburbs and incorporated villages to the south, all of it flat as a pancake.

Clemens himself still isn’t keen because there are other books with the same title, so this piece is partly a defence of my choice. But I stand by it, for several reasons. Firstly, the stone is still there under the surface, even though it’s now clearly manmade, one meaning standing in for all the others. The phrase is something I can imagine all of the book’s characters using, something earthy and real. More important though is the sound: it still has two beats, Bricks and Mortar. Still short and sharp – a trochaic rhythm, I’m told. And when I pronounce my title – and it feels like my title, because I had to fight for it a little bit – it comes out in my accent, which is from London, and I hear a secret echo of rhyming slang concealing one woman, at least. There’s a daughter gone missing in the book, too, and so my title is for her.

Papa the Investor

Andrea di Robilant for the Paris Review
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How Hemingway became a major shareholder in a venerable Italian publishing house.

Ernest Hemingway had a rough time with his Italian publisher, Einaudi, the venerable Turin-based house that still prints a good portion of his titles today. The issue, as is so often the case, was money: Einaudi, Hemingway complained, were communists looking for any excuse to withhold his overdue royalties. After 1947, he’d grown so exasperated that he refused to publish another book with them. So it’s all the more startling to discover that in the spring of 1955, he quietly agreed to convert a large part of his growing credit with the house into company stock, becoming a major shareholder overnight. Hemingway was usually very prudent with his money—and the chronically mismanaged Einaudi was hardly a safe investment. But having a stake in the publication of his own books, he hoped, would make it easier to get his hands on his growing pile of Italian cash.

As an author, Hemingway had gotten a late start in Italy. During the twenties and thirties, when the Anglophone world consecrated him as one of its brightest talents, he was persona non grata in the country. His blacklisting started as early as 1923, when Hemingway, still a young reporter for the Toronto Star, described Mussolini as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” In 1927, he wrote a few sardonic sketches on Fascist Italy for the New Republic. But it was the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, with its antimilitarism and its powerful description of the rout of the Italian Army after Caporetto, that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Mussolini regime—a reputation further sealed by his support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. 

Thus Hemingway’s books were banned in Fascist Italy even as the works of other American writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, were brought into translation with success and acclaim. But as soon as Mussolini fell, in 1943, publishers scrambled to buy up the translation rights to his novels. The first Italian edition of The Sun Also Rises was published by a little-known company, Jandi Sapi, in the early summer of 1944, only weeks after General Mark Clark’s troops liberated Rome. A Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Have and Have Not came out in quick succession with different houses the following year, immediately after the liberation of Northern Italy. The translations were hurried and the first editions sloppy; it was unclear which house owned which rights, if it owned any at all.

(…)

Foreign to Oneself

Amanda DeMarco for Asymptote
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Writing for Asymptote, Amanda DeMarco explores the value and limitations of translation.

Introduction

This essay about foreignness and translation is strictly composed of quotations. However, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.” 

It is one of a series of texts I have made that use various collage techniques to create a voice—one that could not possibly be my own. Others can be found in Hotel and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The collage approach has been useful to me in examining various experiences of voicelessness and alienation, but also reveling in the downright Dionysian profusion of voices that can be summoned from the books I love. 

Dionysus, if you’ll recall, was a foreigner too. 

Foreign to Oneself 

One of the great experts on history, culture, and the art in Berlin—Walter Benjamin—once wanted to compose a description of the city using only old descriptions, with all of the monuments described by close contemporaries from the time of their creation. The result would be rather like seeing one’s backyard reproduced with extreme fidelity, but in such a perspective that it becomes a place which one has never seen or visited, which never has existed, which never can exist. This is just like translation. Both are limited, as legends are limited, by being—literally—unlivable, and by referring to the past. Every legend, however, contains its residuum of truth, just as all magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds. 

Travel is a substitute for life. So is translation. Both mean getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story so tightly to your chest; the bigness of the world is a redemption. In translation, you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. After all, literature is the ideal form of possessing the world for a wanderer, or a refugee; to miniaturize is to make portable. 

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