The Experts Weigh In

Leo Butnaru | July 01, 2009
Critic: Jean Harris, interviewer

 

World-famous novelist Norman Manea, two premier experts in the realm of literature in translation—Susan Harris of Words Without Borders and Chad Post of Three Percent and Open Letter—and award-winning translator from German Susan Bernofsky address a literary zone in permanent crisis: the world of literature in translation.
 
JH: Let’s start with this: whom are you addressing, as writer, publisher, editor or translator?
 
NM: Speaking as a writer, as regards a literary “message,” it’s always a matter of throwing a bottle into the sea and seeking the unknown interlocutor, the potential reader.
 
SH: At Words Without Borders (www.wordswithoutborders.org), our audience includes readers of international fiction, educated general readers, readers with particular interest in specific cultures or languages, educators, travelers, editors, publishers, students, translators, writers, critics—anyone interested in contemporary literature and the world outside the English-language territories.
 
CP: As a publisher, I think we’re addressing readers who are curious about what’s going on—culturally and artistically—in the rest of the world. At Open Letter (www.openletterbooks.org), we do try and find books that are unique in some way, or maybe a better way to put it is that they’re specific to their culture. Nothing bugs me more than going on an editorial trip to Country X and having a rights person insist that we should publish Author Y, because his writing is “just like Jonathan Franzen’s.” I’m interesting in international literature because it’s different, and I think our readers feel the same way
Writing for Three Percent (http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent), which covers more of the publishing world, is a bit different. The audience is larger and I consciously try to do a number of things with the site for the field as a whole. Aside from linking to interesting sites and stories (of which there are many, many to link to), we try and really highlight translated books that have fallen through the media cracks, try and present some hard data on how many books are published in translation, and try to give people some insight into how the book business functions. I could be wrong, but I think the site has a broader reach, and hopefully is contributing something of value to all the readers, translators, authors, critics, and booksellers out there who are interested in literature from beyond our borders.
 
JH: Susan Bernofsky, who do you translate for?
 
SB: Everyone who likes stories. Everyone who’s interested in learning about the sorts of storytelling practiced in other parts of the world.
 
 
JH: What drives you to write, translate or publish literature in translation, or to translate (Susan Bernofsky), or to write what must be translated (Norman).
 
NM: Writing what must inevitably be translated is my way of surviving in exile. But I don't write "what must be translated." I write what I write. Then I'm glad if it happens that the text also goes into other languages. 
 
SB: I’m bowled over by how many wonderful things there are to read in German. (The same no doubt holds true for most other languages.) It makes me happy to share some of these wonderful stories and writers with people who happen not to be able to read German. Translating is also a literary challenge that I enjoy from a writerly point of view.
 
SH: Understanding, or at least having some insight into, foreign cultures is crucial, and we want to make the very best world literature, translated by the finest translators, available to readers for whom it would otherwise be inaccessible. Limiting one’s experience to one’s native country and language is terribly parochial and ultimately impoverishing. It’s not that foreign literature is inherently elevatated, but the best literature, in any language, serves as a portal to culture and society.
 
CP: This sounds really bad, but in a roundabout way, I’m motivated by my monolingualism. After college I fell in love with Latin American literature—especially Cortazar—and started trying to revive my Spanish so that I could read the dozens of books I’d heard about, but which had yet to be translated. By the time I got serious about this though, I was off and reading a ton of French Oulipo books. Then titles from Eastern Europe. I’ll never be able to speak a dozen languages (like translator Michael Henry Heim does), so I have to rely on English publishers to make available all the great books being written around the world. Probably just an ADD thing, but by not specializing in one language/literature, I feel like I can indulge my roaming interests, and look for books to publish from Asia, then Latin America, then France, then the Nordic Countries, etc., etc.
 
SH: Chad and I have something in common here. When I arrived at college, I discovered to my dismay that majoring in English meant focusing not on international literature, but on American and British writing. Well, I thought, I’ll be a comparative literature major. But that required multiple languages, for which I was not equipped (twelve years of Catholic school left me fluent in Latin, but not much else). I took all the lit in translation courses available and began to realize how crucial translation was to the understanding of world literary tradition and culture.
 
JH: We live in an age of globalization, and of course none of us can read all the world’s languages, so we can all say, we have to read many things in translation if we are to read them at all. What else is there that drives the passion for foreign literatures in this English speaking group? I expect a very special answer from Norman who grew up speaking several languages and who has English as the language of exile, and who may have ideas about what he thinks we all are looking for. Nevertheless, I want to ask all of you, what need of yours does literature in translation fill?
 
NM: For me translation fulfills a very personal need. I came to the US in 1988, and my first books were published here in 1992, relatively soon after that. When I arrived, I had already had books published in German, French, Italian, and Dutch. This helped. If I had arrived with only Romanian publications, my chances of being published in the US would have been delayed or worse. It helped that Eastern Europe was already boiling at the time, and the political interest in the region was growing. This is how it happened that a writer of not very “popular” books—which is to say of books that were considered too "literary" and not very saleable—came to be accepted. Surprisingly, my good luck continued. The books received universally wonderful reviews, and the author was awarded important American prizes. Needless to say, all these things became essential steps in making my new home in the States and in easing my contact with the new culture.
 
SH: For me, reading in translation fulfills two desire: to learn about other countries and cultures, and to read so much writing that would otherwise be unavailable due to language barriers.
 
CP: Difference plays a large role in defining the sort of art that I like. I like books that are unusual in some way—that use a unique form for telling a story or that are set in a locale that I’m not familiar with—whether they’re originally written in English or in another language. Literature (well, all art forms) has the possibility of presenting the world in a way that can shake up the way you usually see the world. Sure, there’s the argument that there are only 12 basic stories (or is it 7?), but there are millions of ways in which those stories can be presented, both in terms of the form of the novel and the style of the writing. For whatever reason—the rise in MFA programs? the negative influence of corporate publishing and its unrelenting focus on the bottom line? the lack of diversity in works covered by the media?—most (but not all) American fiction has become pretty predictable and not all that adventurous. But the books I’m reading from other countries are much more aesthetically interesting. People like Tom McCarthy from Britain, Gamal al-Ghitani from Egypt, Attila Bartis from Hungary, or in the case of the books we publish, Dubravka Ugresic, Bragi Olafsson, Jan Kjaerstad—all of these writers are trying to do something special, and all of them also seem to take literature seriously as an art form. It’s not just a commercial endeavor like it is for some (but not all) American writers. Writing meanssomething more to international authors. At least in my opinion.
 
SB: Thank goodness for translators – I can’t imagine my literary world without writers like Kafka, Borges and Queneau in it. Once you catch the foreign-literature bug, it’s hard to stop wanting to read stories that were written and set elsewhere. Maybe the most exciting thing I read last year was a vast family novel called The Maias written in the late 19th century by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
 
JH: That having been said, what needs to be translated?
 
NM: Who can be sure? The better the text, the more important the text…The enterprise is so convoluted. The only think we do know is that translation is necessary, communication between people and cultures and nations is necessary. More books mean more chances although nobody can predict the end result, not even a pessimist like myself.
CP: Norman is right. That’s always a trick question to answer, since the books that I feel need to be translated, but aren’t yet, are often the ones I’m trying to acquire . . . But I’m willing to guarantee that there are a few dozen masterpieces from China, Japan, India. It’s crazy that despite the popularity of so many English-speaking Indian authors, almost no Indian novels are translated from the 20-some odd other officially recognized languages, and any number of African countries. Two of the best books I’ve read recently, by the way, are by Abdourahman Waberi of Djibouti and Alain Mabanckou from the Congo.
SB:Only a small percentage of new works of high-caliber literature published in Germany, Switzerland and Austria are translated each year, and each country has classic works that have never been translated. Publishers are wary of publishing too many translations because there isn’t a larger readership for them, and there isn’t a larger readership because too few translations are published. We ought to be creating a readership for translated literature by publishing more of it and promoting it more aggressively from the perspective of “Gained in Translation.”
 
JH: As we promote literature in translation, are we creating a market or following a star?
 
NM: I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
 
CP: We’re doing a little of both, I’d say, and it depends on the “we” doing the promotion. There’s a terrible tendency in American culture that I think of as the “one representative” problem—for any country/language/ethic group, there tends to be one representative that is beloved, critically praised, etc., and becomes the gold standard that allows readers and reviewers to ignore the rest of the writers from that group. For instance, Saramago is thePortuguese writer who gets read and reviewed; Antunes is hardly even known in the States. This sort of “star-making” is a bit dangerous, I think. It’s as if by reading one author, we now know all we need to know about that country’s literature and can get back to our homegrown authors. At the same time, there are a lot of people, publications, bookstores, and websites that go against this trend, and by introducing a range of authors and books, they are managing to create a genuine interest in international literature as a whole.
 
SH: The clearest way I can say this is, we are expanding a market.
 
 
JH: To the extent that we are sensitive to the realities of the marketplace, what does the market seem to want? Do we have any ways to know what “it” wants?
 
SH: At Words Without Borders we are not precisely about the market, but we want readers to seek us out not so much for news as for the context and background for current events: to come to us for a sense of daily life in Tehran, for example, after the terrible events in Iran. We publish work by writers from countries that, in the USA, are primarily known in political contexts. Without being naïve, we do want to present these cultures in an artistic light.
 
SB: Historically, I’d say that the reading public seen as a single entity tends to buy what it is told everyone is buying. The silly claim that people don’t like reading books in translation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It certainly didn’t stop people from reading and enjoying Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Spanish), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Italian) or Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (German) or any number of other foreign-language bestsellers. People in this country like reading wonderful stories that are wonderfully written—but in the case of a foreign author they may never have heard of before, the book needs to be marketed properly to get on people’s radar in the first place.
 
NM: There’s another point that needs to be made here. Any good and experienced publisher will tell you he doesn't really know, even after many years in this profession, why some books succeed and other fail. We are always in an odd, fluid territory and so we try. Again and again.
For instance, when I first came to the States I tried to propose several Romanian contemporary authors whom I liked to American publishers. No dice. It wasn’t only a matter of Romanian writers. Some years ago I suggested an excellent book by Claudio Magris, Far From Where? Nobody wanted it. The pretext (or perhaps the real reason) was that Magris’s Danube book, which was otherwise published around the world, didn't have a US market. When I finally found a publisher ready to consider the book, I was asked if the Italian or Austrian government would financially support the publication.
With regard to the “demand” for Romanian writers: Romanian authors are more available in the United States, possibly because of the success of the current Romanian cinema, perhaps on account of Romania’s spate of bad international press, which may have enhanced interest in this "exotic" country with all its oddities. Or perhaps the new availability is due to the persistent effort of Romanian publishers, official institutions, personal contacts. 
I do hope this opening will continue but I'm not very optimistic about a drastic change in the level of American indifference to and ignorance of foreign literatures. On the other hand, I'm not very optimistic about the future of good literature in general either.
We're not dealing with cars or food or computers that are essential for daily life. Books are not absolutely necessary for everyone.
 
CP: I love pointing out to my interns just how shitty and self-involved the publishing world is when it comes to understanding the market. There’s no such thing as market research in publishing, but if you ask an editor he/she won’t hesitate to claim that “there is no market” for certain books in translation. And then along comes Bolano, or Muriel Barbery . . . I think there is a craving for genuinely good literature. With so many entertainment options available, books have to be something special to compete for someone’s time, attention, and money. My feeling is that editors and big publishing houses are overly sensitive to what they think the market wants (although most publishers despise readers and would never want to talk to them about books or what they want from fiction), and have gotten away from acquiring and publishing books based on a belief that they know what makes a great work of literature. It’s an old joke, but really, who would publish something like Ulyssestoday? “Too hard to follow, way too long, probably won’t get a review in the Times.
 
JH Do we agree that a specific upper layer of the market craves literature in translation? Can you create a composite portrait of translation readers? Is it even possible to speak of translation readers a composite group?
 
SH: We did a survey when we first started publishing, and it turned out that the majority of our readers identified themselves as being in the media, with educators a close second, and travelers third. I think literature in translation appeals to readers of literary fiction in English, and readers who may not be regular readers of fiction but are interested in foreign countries and cultures; and I would agree that it appeals to a cosmopolitan, intellectual population.
 
NM: To put it another way, this composite group exists but is not very big.
 
CP: Right. This is a tricky question as well, because I think it’s as much about what gets published in translation as who buys literature in translation. And in a way, “literature” might be the operative word. True literary fiction doesn’t really sell that well in America, and never really has. I’ve heard that James Laughlin (the founder of New Directions) once said that there are only 10,000 readers of literature in the States—they might not all read the same books, but that’s the basic pool of readers that might be interested in reading a high quality work of literature. Genre fiction in translation—especially Scandinavian thrillers—doappeal to a wide audience. But the typical work of fiction in translation tends to be more on the “high literature” end of the spectrum—there’s so little of it that’s published, that what actually makes its way into English tends to be pretty damn good. And keep in mind that 80+% of the works in translation published in the States are from independent and university presses—places like Archipelago, NYRB, Dalkey Archive, New Directions that all have strong editorial visions and publish truly literary works. I think there’s maybe a composite group of readers who read literature because they love literature; which is different from people who read solely to be entertained.
 
SB: Look at it this way: the subset of readers who reads translations overlaps to a large extent with the subset of readers interested in books by “difficult” or “literary” writers in English. Someone who likes Charles Dickens probably also likes Thomas Mann. Then there are readers who are just plain curious about life in other countries, and that curiosity extends to foreign literature. Buying a book is a much easier (and cheaper) way to spend a few hours immersed in another country than boarding an airplane. Of course, every fictional universe is already a foreign country, and there’s no guarantee that the landscapes and customs we find in books will correspond so exactly with actual life in the places where they are set, but it’s a start.
 
JH: Let me turn the question around. Are there readers in the United States who would enjoy supermarket literature from “exotic locals” or literatures of small circulation? In Romania, where 80 per cent of the country’s reading matter appears in translation, there is a very cosmopolitan market for a wide spectrum of sophisticated writing that appeals to an intellectual class—necessarily small, as in any society—and there is also a relatively substantial market for middlebrow and sub-middlebrow writing, in translation as it happens. I have assumed that this middlebrow consumption can be subsumed under the heading “aspiring minds want to know,” but I wonder if you perceive a reverse phenomenon—an English speaking middle market that seeks middle market writing from abroad?
 
NM: Probably such a demand may exist. Again, I'm not sure how big such interest may be. It also depends on advertisement, for sure. The situation of a small country (and an isolated language) is very different from that of a big one. What a reader in English is offered is already overwhelming. English is now the Lingua Franca of the world, yet many cultures are ignored in its import.  It's a pity, certainly, this provincialism of the metropolis, its imperialist cultural power, but that's it, and it will not change. The appeal of exoticism always exists, of course, but exoticism itself is responding daily to what the market already offers.
 
CP: Interesting. I think in America there’s a large audience for middlebrow fiction from ethnic minorities. Readers buy more books by their Mexican-American writers who write about life in the U.S. through an ethnic lens than buy of books by Mexicans writing about life in Mexico.
 
SH: I think that this market exists, so long as the books can be sneaked by as “set in another place,” rather than as written in another language. For much of the US reading public, the idea of translation is still daunting: difficult, depressing, and foreign, rather than appealingly exotic. (Though there would seem to be more than enough domestic production of this product to obviate the need for imports.)
 
SB: We are probably all “on the same page.” On the one hand, I haven’t noticed particular “middlebrow” interest in foreign literature in the United States—it seems to be a more “highbrow” phenomenon, with the notable exception of international bestsellers like The Name of the Rose and Perfume — which leads me, on the other hand, to suspect that “middlebrow” readers would be happy to read such books if only they were properly marketed to them. But in fact the publishing world here seems to be resigned to the fact that literature in translation is an elite, niche market. I think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone has a spare couple of million dollars and feels like experimenting, it might be interesting to see what would happen if a literary book in translation were marketed as heavily as a bestseller. Would it sell? I think it might.
 
JH: I think so too.
 
JH: With regard to what we publish, can we lead or must we follow? Our policy at The Observer Translation Project is to lead, to the extent that we can, by offering quality and variety. Is there leading or following in this domain?
 
SB: Please, by all means: lead, lead, lead!
 
NM: Agreed. Offering quality and variety is the best option in my opinion too. Not without risk, of course, but offering trash also implies risk, especially when we speak about translation and foreign markets. The end result is uncertain in both cases. So, it's better to go with quality and variety. So it's good to lead but it probably also helps to sensitively follow what is out there, simultaneously.
 
CP: Independent and university presses can and must lead. We have the right model—smaller, more flexible, not based on the (failing) blockbuster gambit—to be able to take more risks and cultivate a particular audience. Although most people buy books without paying attention to the publisher, indie presses do build loyal fan bases. These presses tend to have a specific vision, and readers come to trust that what’s published by Archipelago or NYRB is sure to be of high quality. This is getting a bit off track, but as the sales/distribution model continues to evolve (or, um, fall apart), indie presses have a real opportunity to connect with their audiences in a meaningful, mutually beneficial way. And if they’re leaders in terms of deciding what should be published—and readers do respect the fact that an editor/publisher has a sense of what they think needs to be published—these presses will help shape the future of book culture. And look around at today’s book market—the crap that’s sold by the carton load at Costco, or whatever—it’s pretty important that there are presses that are concerned with literature as literature, instead of books as commercial product.
 
JH: This leads to the question of classics. Here, I am not talking about Aeschylus. Limiting ourselves to the zone of Romanian novels and short stories and setting folk materials aside, Romanian prose fiction is relatively new. Classic Romanian novels date back to the nineteenth century, and it can be argued that “modern classics” were written well into the twentieth century. Is there a market for translated fiction from this extended period? Or, to look at the matter another way, does period count at all? Are quality in the source text and in the translation the only desiderata, or are there other factors that govern choice of acquisition?
 
NM: Period counts.  In the case of small, almost unknown cultures, the greater interest is provided by contemporary books, I think. The classic are mainly for bibliography, universities and research.
 
SB: Are you talking about American publishers deciding what books to acquire? I think there are two categories deemed interesting: the current cutting edge, and the great modern classics (which can certainly extend into at least the first half of the 20th century, in isolated cases even further).
 
SH: We tend to publish contemporary work only, but we will make the occasional exception for work we find particularly valuable.
 
CP: Most commercial publishers tend to focus on only the new, which I think is a bit of a mistake. Some of the best-selling titles I’ve worked on both for Open Letter and Dalkey Archive were these “modern classics.” Frequently, these books are still read in their home country today because they are great books—classics. And to a general reader, a book in translation is always new . . .
 
JH: Every translation is the result of a battle between “domestication” and “respecting the foreign.” One needs to create compellingly readable sentences in the target language while leaving intact cultural values inherent in the original text. Granted. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking: do US/UK readers need to have cultural differences ironed out at the linguistic level, or are they/we willing to read non-Anglo-American statements? To give an example from a Romanian short story: a minor church official says devil take them for fools in a moment of stress. He is using a turn-of-the-century Romanian expression that lacks blasphemous ramifications in the context of Orthodox Christianity. Smoothness might tempt us to translate his phrase as God damn them. The problem with the smoother, more familiar expression is that we cause the character to utter an Anglo-Americanism with serious, Protestant notions of damnation attached. Is smoothness and familiarity worth the perversion? To what extent is foreignness acceptable, given that we go to literature in translation for “otherness?”
 
NM: "Otherness" is not easy to reach through an overly bizarre otherness. I think that smoothness should prevail but not overwhelm and kill the specificity of the text. Here and there, we should allow the transport of some oddities, originality, local flavor.
 
CP My feeling about this—and I know that it sounds like a bit of a cop-out—is that it’s situational and book-by-book. What’s most important is that a book works as a whole, artistic object. In some novels, “devil take them for fools” will stand out and seem very off-putting, but in other instances, if handled correctly it will be perfectly logical and get out of all the Anglo-American baggage that comes with “God damn them.” Nevertheless, a lot of the nuances—that this is an old Romanian expression that carries a certain amount of weight—will probably be lost, although for a reader unfamiliar with Romania and Romanian literature, a context will be created for this phrase in the process of reading the work, and a very good translator can actually recapture some of those nuances in the way he/she translates the rest of the book.
 
SH: I am of two minds, like Norman and Chad. Referring to his renderings of Pushkin, Nabokov argued for “footnotes like skyscrapers”: towers of commentary that would cover the page and restore the context and allusions leached out in his literal translations. Most of us would reject this approach, yet we all acknowledge that not all of the layers of meaning embedded in a text survive translation. Do we look for equivalents that correspond to the social and other signifiers in the original? Do we retain the foreignness and trust the reader to absorb it? Do we serve the reader or the writer? It’s not that binary, of course.
 
SB: To tackle this one from personal experience, I wrote a book about the history of this question in the German 18th century. I’m a strong believer in asking target-language readers to cope with unfamiliar language use at times, and I don’t really think this poses such a problem for readers. After all, lots of writers who write English use the language in idiosyncratic ways, and we just chalk it up to style. Many publishers are Nervous Nellies in this regard, but I think their fears are exaggerated.
 
JH: This leads us to the vexed question of editing translation. Who edits translation into English today? Are good English skills enough to qualify for the post of translations’ editor? If good English skills are sufficient, under what circumstances are they sufficient? Since no editor can speak or have reading familiarity with every language that crosses her desk, what makes an editor able to assist in the realization of the text in the new language?
 
SH: I would argue that good English skills are paramount for editing translations: above all, the text must work in English. One develops an ear (and eye), and much of the work of editing translations is not appreciably different from editing pieces written in English. I know I’ve become sensitive to the sorts of odd or awkward phrasing that can indicate a mistranslation or a flawed word choice.
 
NM: Speaking personally, I went through hell with my first translations here: some eight translators for one book, none very good, but each of them knowing better English than I did. I worked for three months almost daily with the editor who, fortunately, knew French and Italian. She used the French and Italian translations— rewriting almost every sentence. Still, I was lucky. This happened twenty years ago. Now nobody will allow an editor to do such work. Especially for an unknown writer, as I was at that time.
For my last book in English, I paid, from my own pocket, a retired editor with whom I worked many months in not a very cordial atmosphere to redo every sentence. The publisher didn't agree to pay even a part of the cost or to mention the name of this collaborator in the book.
In the meantime, some new, better translators have appeared, but translation is badly paid, not really praised. Many editors don’t know many languages and don’t have time to do a good job. SoThe Observer Translation Project is a very good idea, and I imagine something like it must exist in other countries.
 
JH: Chad, you work as an independent publisher, which is to say in the very small zone where editing still exists. What do you have to say about this?
 
CP: A good editor may not know the source language, but will be able to see the translation as a whole, and have a sense of how the book should read in the end. This editor will be able to help craft the translation not just to “smooth it out in English,” but to make the novel work as a whole. This can mean making certain parts more “foreign,” and others a bit less so although the most important skill I think an English editor working on a translation needs is the ability to know which knotty lines he/she should ask the translator about. Every book has a few of these bits where the translator wasn’t exactly sure how best to express something, or it’s simply just not coming across—being able to call attention to those and to then hash out the best way to render them in English is extremely important. A good editor doesn’t work on an island, but works with the translator (and author when appropriate) to create the best possible English version of the book.
 
SB: I have to agree. The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.
 
JH: Another tough question: what do you have to say about the open secret of “non-translation?” I’m tempted to call this “rendition.” Writing from languages of small circulation often faces “non-translation.” The process involves two or more individuals—(a) a person or persons who speak the language of the text and who also speak some English, and (b) a person who has no ability to read the source language but who has—hopefully—good English skills. The native speaker/s (sometimes the author, sometimes a collection of others) tell the “translator” about the item to be turned into English. The non-translator then comes up with a more-or-less skillful rendition that has every chance of missing the essence of the original. Are you aware of this process? What do you have to say about it?
 
SB: “Non-translation” is clearly not preferable to translation, but the reality of our world includes the sad fact that appropriate translators do not exist for every single language pair out there, so it’s inevitable that publishers must sometimes resort to this method. To my mind, it is a method of last resort. Sometimes it produces interesting and valuable results, particularly—and this is odd—in the case of poetry, which I think must be because a translated poem that is a poem in its own right in the language of the translation is often so greatly transformed in the process that space exists in the gap between the languages for the negotiation with the “native speaker informant” to take place.
 
CP: I’ve seen examples of this sort of collaboration that work really well (usually when both parties know both languages—they just know one of the two much better than the other), but in general, these translations are pretty clunky and read like translations. What’s interesting about this though is that the translation is salvageable with the help of a perceptive, talented editor. I recently came across an example of this: a couple translating from Chinese did one book that was pretty much unedited, and it read like a mediocre first draft. They did a second book that was carefully edited and actually reads really, really well. I don’t think their skills improved much between the two projects—but the editorial effort definitely did. I think it’s also an open secret that editors don’t do much editing these days . . . Or do what Boyd Tonkin calls “zen editing.”
 
SH: We’ve been discussing this recently in compiling our forthcoming anthology of international poetry in translation—not so much the team model as a non-translator producing a “version” of the original. For poetry in particular, “renditions” or “versions” can be as effective as more literal translations. As for team translation, we’ve published a number of examples of it; when done well, it can produce marvelous results. I suppose the ideal translator would have native fluency in both source and target language and culture, so I prefer to work with teams where the native English speaker also has the source language.
 
JH: If this is not redundant, what do you think about the short to medium term future of literature in translation—as we speak?
 
SH: It’s endangered, as is everything else involving funding, literature, arts—but there will always be a market for international writing.
 
NM: The last prophets died thousand of years ago and even they were often mistaken.
 

About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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Translated by: Ileana Orlich

How I Learned to Read (from Tache de Catifea / The Velvet Man)

The bearded man was the owner of an apothecary shop where he worked with two apprentices. Nobody paid me any mind, so I spent all day in what was supposed to be the shop. I say this because it was a large, dark room full of odors—a mix of smells from everywhere. The room hadn’t been cleaned ...

Translator’s Note
Re: Learning to Read, from Tache de catifea / The Velvet Man
Author: Gabriela Adameşteanu
Translated by: Patrick Camiller

Wasted Morning - Napoleon in Bucharest

“What you’ve got here is heaven on earth,” Vica says as she drops onto the kitchen chair. “But where’s your mother?” “At work,” Gelu lazily replies, leaning sideways against the door. “She’s doing mornings this week, didn’t you know?” He is tall and thin, with unset ...

Author: Petre Ispirescu
Translated by: Jean Harris

Youth Without Age and Life Without Death

It happened once as never before-y, ‘cause if it couldn’t be true, it wouldn’t make a story about the time when the poplar tree made berries and the willow tree broke out in cherries, when bears began to brawl with their tails, and wolf and lamb, unfurling their sails, threw arms around each ...

Translator’s Note
On Petre Ispirescu
Exquisite Corpse

Planned events in Cultural Agenda see All Planned Events

17 December
Tardes de Cinema Romeno
As tardes de cinema romeno do ICR Lisboa continuam no dia 17 de Dezembro de 2009, às 19h00, na ...
14 December
Omaggio a Gheorghe Dinica Proiezione del film "Filantropica" (regia Nae Caranfil, 2002)
“Filantropica” è uno dei film che più rendono giustizia al ...
12 December
Årets Nobelpristagare i litteratur Herta Müller gästar Dramaten
Foto: Cato Lein 12.12.2009, Dramaten, Nybroplan, Stockholm I samband med Nobelveckan kommer ...
10 December
Romanian Festival @ Peninsula Arts - University of Plymouth
13 & 14 November 2009. Films until 18 December. Twenty of Romania's most influential and ...
10 December
Lesung und Gespräch mit Ioana Nicolaie
Donnerstag, 10. Dezember, um 19.30 Uhr Ort: Szimpla Café Gärtnerstrs.15, ...
 
 

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