Friday, May 8, 2009

Breadcrumbs #1

Occasionally I find myself sucked into a vortex of information, jumping from one interesting link to another, always intending to find my way back and read carefully rather than skimming. It occurred to me last weekend on a particularly strange journey that brought me finally to the Dubai International Poetry Festival, that it would be interesting to keep track of the jumps, the rational and the points of interest during a session like this. Call it electronic anthropology.

So I'm going to begin now with a relatively short but fruitful session. It begins, as it often does, with a google search:
"academic literature jounrals" (and yes, I did mean journals as google helpfully points out) from which I jump to the first result:, with a comprehensive list of literary journals with links and descriptions of what each journal does, from which I jump to
Sirena: an online literary journal in Spanish and English published by Johns Hopkins University Press and edited at Dickinson College - it doesn't look like they have published an issue since 2007, but still I visit their links page and jump to
Fractal: a literary journal from Mexico which I'd come across before in the Harvard Library which has some great Spanish-language poetry, and translations of poetry into Spanish.

Both of these journals deserve closer attention than I had time to give them at the moment, and has some great lists other than this one of literary journals. In fact, I'm headed back there now to see if they can help me with my original quest for scholarly journals in the humanities.

On my next jump from I landed here:
Emily' Page: a collection of links to other sites with humanities resources like:
Voice of the Shuttle: a treasure trove of humanities links and resources, though it seems to be somewhat out of date (at least the calls for papers and conference announcements end in 1998) and some links are broken
EServer: which has a ton of primary sources, though they don't all seem to work
On-Line Literary Research Tools: which hasn't been updated since 2006, but still has some awesome literary theory links.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ALTA on YouTube

I only recently became aware of the LiteraryTranslaion Channel on YouTube, which has several videos from the ALTA Conference in 2008 including interviews with translators about their careers and work.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Summer Translation Study

So I'm compiling news and announcements for the bi-annual ALTA newsletter - a delightful project that I'm thrilled to be helping with. It's amazing how much translation information and conversation is out there once you begin looking around.

Anyways, one of the tasks is paring down the information to the most timely and relevant. This means lots of things are getting left out - in part because deadlines have passed, etc. So because I think they're interesting things to know about/keep in mind for future years, I'm going to put them here.

These are some summer translation programs that I've come across:

The Translation Research Summer School (TRSS), a joint initiative of three British universities and the Centre for Translation at the Hong Kong Baptist University, organizes an annual two-week course in one of the partner institutions in the UK and an annual two-week course at Hong Kong Baptist University, offering intensive research training in translation and intercultural studies for prospective researchers in the field. Collaborating in the UK Summer School are the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester, the Centre for Intercultural Studies at University College London (UCL), and the Translation Studies Graduate Programme, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh.

Nida School for Translation Studies (NSTS) in Misano adriatico (Rimini), Italy.
The NSTS is a program of the E.A.Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society. Its mission is to support advanced training and research into translation studies (understood as inclusive of the history and practice of Bible translation). Supporting institutions include the Translation Center at UMass-Amherst, Istituto San Pellegrino, the Society of Biblical Literature, The United Bible Societies (UBS), and SIL International. The theme of the 2009 session is “Translation and Culture.”

British Center for Literary Translation Summer School

The one week program brings together writers and translators for literary translation workshops, round tables, seminars and readings. Workshops are offered into English from Chinese, French, Portuguese, German and Spanish and from English into Italian. In each workshop participants work with a writer in residence under the guidance of a workshop leader who is an experienced literary translator. Limited funding is available.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Not Lost

A New York Times piece on a Christopher Hampton's play 'The Philanthropist' ends with a wonderful reminder of how important translation is for literature and the arts:
I think translation is very underappreciated and under-rewarded. I feel quite strongly that translation is performing an incredibly valuable service for us all. As often as not, when you read a translated novel, you have to search to find the name of the translator. Of course the translator is the person who is directly mediating the language to you and giving you access to all these worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter.
And of course, the first comment on the story says in a contemptuously backhanded agreement:
poetry is, of course, what is “lost in translation,” and good translators (like every good artist) knows that their work will inevitably fail to convey the full beauty and truth of the original (in the case of the artist, the original being the kernel of an idea for a work that is alway better than whatever gets made). but where would we be without wonderful translators like hampton, who give us worlds that would otherwise remain completely inaccessible? translation is an art — an interpretive art (like acting, directing, dancing, singing, playing an instrument) but an art nonetheless. here’s to translators!
Though the article was posted two weeks ago, I couldn't help but add my disgruntled .02:

Though another commenter quips Frost's famous derision of translating poetry, that it is what is lost in translation, I think this view is often misunderstood. I think he means is that great translation requires a great artist, a poet, to re-form the poetry in the new language. Those who think that translations are always and inescapably inferior and derivative tend to be rather limited in their view of what a translation can achieve. It's no surprise to anyone that there are losses in the translation of literature - sounds, rhymes, meters that simply have no equivalent in the target language. But most people who have not thought overmuch about the practice don't realize there are equal gains - in sound, rhyme, meter, and even, sometimes, in allusion and elsewhere.

This history of this inferior and derivative idea of translation actually comes from translating religious texts - that the original was sacred and divine and that any transference of it was necessarily inferior. We recognize now the crippling absurdity of that idea - especially since it came to bear when the Christian Bible was already in Latin, having been translated already.

Many of the greatest poets in recent history, Pablo Neruda for one, believed that translation could actually improve upon the original. And I think he was right - a great line from his most famous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, reads: "El amor es tan corto, el olvido es tan largo." It is much tighter in English: "Love is so short, forgetting is so long." The anaphora is clearer, the symmetry of phrasing emphasized by the loss of the articles, unnecessary in English.

The myopic view that a translation is necessarily inferior to an original work is what prevents translators from being recognized as artists, necessary for the success of global literature. It is what prevents translators from being fairly compensated for their work, and what prevents acknowledgment that without them we would have a very limited and sad reading world indeed.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Translator, Trader?

There is a fantastic new review of an essay on translating literature over at The Complete Review today. Not only am I constantly impressed by the number of foreign-language books reviewed (either in translation or untranslated) over there, but the insight with which he addresses not only the merits of the work but the translation as well. This review deals with a new translation of That Mad Ache by Françoise Sagan, translated by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

What is especially interesting is that the book on has two covers - a front and back. The front is for the text, the back, when turned upside down, is the cover of the long essay on translation by Hofstadter included with the text. I haven't read it, but having read the review I think it's safe to say that I will likely disagree with his discussion of translation in major parts, I would not translate Bonjour tristesse as Howdy, Blues, and don't feel the need to elucidate texts as a translator - that is the job of the critic, teacher or student. In any case, having not read it I was still struck by the magnitude of giving the translator not only so much page space in the book, but his own cover. And, according to The Complete Review, listing him on the front not as a translator but co-author.

Which immediately made me think of Russel Valentino's excellent post at Words Without Borders a week or so ago. He discusses the debate over the National Translation Award's new eligibility requirements that the translator of a literary work be listed on the cover. This, he seems to say, and I agree, needlessly punishes translators who have little to no control over what a publisher may decide. Not only that, it is, he says, a misguided attempt at educating a reading public about the necessity and pervasiveness of translation. I agree with his conclusion that this kind of education should be happening in universities and schools - where it is most effective and appropriate.

The issue from the publisher's side is that translation is scary to the reading public, and being aware that a book is translated will make readers choose not to read the book. As Valentino says, this is merely heresay, with no real data to back up this claim. You can also posit readers like me, who have several 'favorite' translators and regularly search for books translated by them not only because of their skill in the art of translation, but because of their execellent tastes in literature. If Margaret Sayers Peden translates a book, chances are I'm going to like it, because I share her taste in literature. In any case, there is no current way to determine what effect the prominent display of a translator's name on the cover of a book has on its sales.

Which makes it more interesting then that Hofstadter is credited as being a co-author. His approach to translation, on the freer side of the spectrum, certainly allows for the possibility of crediting in this manner. The idea, frankly, turns me off. It would be one thing if he worked with the original author on the translation, which doesn't appear to be the case here. But even then, I would be skeptical of a claim of co-authorship. There is an analogy here in music, perhaps. A contemporary conductor re-interpreting a Mozart symphony does not then claim to have co-composed it. Conducting itself is an art of interpretation, of translating written notes to sound, and is respected as such. Great conductors are acknowledged as masters of an art form that is seperate from the act of composing (though of course one does not preclude the other, just as being a translator does not preclude one from also writing). Even in arranging music for new combinations of instruments one does not claim authorship of the original music. It is an adaption, seperate from but indebted to the genius of the original author.

Looser translation tactics should also be seen in this light. And so while it is imperative that translation become more acceptable to engage academically, as Valentino suggests, and that translators are given credit and respect for the practice of their art, there are limits to how much ownership one can claim of the original text.

I'm delighted that the translator's afterward in this book is so substantial - I think this is something that publishers, should they choose to, could add to the reading and understanding of a text. But I'm wary of the heavy-handed claims being made. A sure way to lose respect for the art of translating is to infringe into the art of authoring without warrent.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry as a Political Indicator

There are times when, in the often overwhelming inundation of information that I chose to subject myself to daily, threads almost miraculously make themselves clear to me. (I won't contemplate the wealth of connections that I'm sure slide by in the deluge). Last week I discovered the Poetry Foundation's wonderful podcasts, and have been listening in chronological order to the Poetry Magazine podcast. When I finally reached the discussion from October 2008 on the November 2008 issue I was not only interested in the conversation about Bolaño's poetry, but about Robert Archambeau's discussion on poetry and politics. Actually, it seemed as though he had a book forthcoming on the subject, though I haven't been able to find out anything about it.

Archambeau talks about something that most U.S. writers will smile knowingly about: poets who claim to speak truth to power, when power isn't listening. I think, though, the problem isn't really that the power isn't listing, it's that people aren't listing. In many wealthy industrialized nations, people are more or less capable of speaking for themselves, and so don't turn to literature to represent communities. The exception to this, of course, are subaltern communities (for example racial and religious minorities, gay and lesbian communities, and until very recently, women). But for the most part in wealthy industrialized nations the common recourse for writers who want to 'speak truth to power' is relying on language that can't be exploited, that stands outside of the logic of the marketplace as resistance to capital. This, of course, doesn't usually create direct connections or solutions to real problems, but offers instead an alternative sense of valuation - that there is more to life than subsistence. The problem is that when poetry offers abstractions in the face of real problems, it removes itself from directly addressing these problems. The more esoteric and apart from worldly issues it becomes, the fewer people rely on it to speak for their concerns, and the more removed it has to become in order to fulfill its sense of purpose. (These are my thoughts, though drawn from Archambeau's discussion).

So, does poetry accomplish anything? Archambeau says that in some circumstances, it does - especially in subjugated cultures and societies. Literature thrives, he says, in situations where vast percentages of populations are disenfranchised, because it offers an alternative means of expressing something that isn't being represented. In this way (and I hear a note of Neruda here) poetry speaks for an otherwise unrepresented community, it is a "voice for the voiceless." Not a community of poetry readers, but an identity group. They read poetry not for it's pure aesthetic enrichment of their lives, or for a search for morality, truth, beauty and the sublime, but because it is perhaps the only place in which their voices are heard, and in which their values are expressed. Archambeau even quotes a colleague as saying that "When you look at a country in which poetry is highly valued outside of a literary community, it's generally a sign of underdevelopment."

With these thoughts about poetry as a means of identity politics for disenfranchised communities whirling in my mind, I came across today an article in the online magazine Guernica in which Joel Peckham writes:
A nation does need its poets and poetry. However much people claim to dislike it, poetry—those articulated symbols and metaphors, those stories that resonate with a community and are therefore essential to human aspiration—responds to the basic need of individuals to reach beyond their small existence and connect with something meaningful. At its worst, poetry simply records the longings of an isolated individual but, at its best, when one poem or poet tunes into the longings of a people, poetry provides us with an articulated affirmation of our purpose as a culture—and indeed, culture cannot exist without it. This relates to why rhetoric is such an important part of the political sphere. A political speech attempts to give a vision in keeping with a nation’s core values while also trying to expand, adapt, and reaffirm those values for successive generations.
(Emphasis mine).
Guernica, April 2009

There is something here that strikes exactly at the heart of it: great, powerful and political poetry is for communities. And not communities of poetry readers and writers, but a larger sense of community, one not restricted by geography or language. Poetry can't convert (usually), but it can speak, it can galvanize and it can be the spark of ignition for communities to take shape and become heard around.

Poetry has power only when looking outside the individual, or the specialized literary community, to address and take part in the world around it. And it is not only powerful, but necessary.