Friday, December 30, 2005

Waukegan, There I Come From

Ray Bradbury, science fiction master and native of my hometown (immortalized as Green Town in his classic Dandelion Wine) once wrote a poem, a hymn rather, an homage to Waukegan, Illinois. The line, lodged forever in my brain at seventeen, "Waukegan, There I come from, and not, my friends, Byzantium" has become a dizzy undercurrent of my daily thought pattern. I will admit that the poem itself causes me to shudder, even this line which I can no more erase from my thought waves, but it has become a part of me, and so has Waukegan and so has Ray. (All right, I've never met Ray, but his nephew did play tuba in the high school orchestra at the same time as I did.)
Decades later, I am sitting in the Swedish equivalent of a bistro, located just off Odengatan (the old gods were big with the Stockholm city planners a hundred-odd years ago). Swedish author Niklas Rådström is sitting across the table and we are talking literature, translation, and my recent translations of his poems. It was the first time we had met face-to-face, and it felt a bit odd for me, as I was a total newcomer to the translation scene and Rådström's reputation was well-established in Sweden. Then I asked about the writer who had influenced him most when he was starting out, and he said, to my surprise, "Ray Bradbury."
"Ray Bradbury? He's from my hometown."
"Really? I don't believe it. My translator comes from Bradbury's hometown! Bradbury should win the Nobel Prize. His prose is beautiful, so poetic."
"Though his poetry, well..." I said, and then quoted the quote that rattles my brain.
We went back and forth on Bradbury's novels, returning to Dandelion Wine.
"That one, I think, influenced my writing the most in the beginning," said Niklas. "When I was a teenager."
"Your trilogy does remind me of his work," I said. "The poetic and the scientific combined in a memoir, minus some of the more science-fictiony aspects."
As I left the bisto, I wondered. Did Rådström like my translations of his poetry because Ray and I spoke the same Waukegani dialect, and this way of thinking, this way of writing words in a string until the prose becomes poetry is as much a part of my molecular system as the water of Lake Michigan? Or was I drawn to translate Rådström's work because he had created a Swedish way of writing Waukegani-style?
I know one thing: Bradbury loved Waukegan with a passion that he would not hide, and Rådström also loves Stockholm, loves its bistros, its neon, its building facades, its birds and trees and the people who inhabit its cinemas and restaurants.
It's the love, the thing that matters most in art. Without it, style be damned.
Waukegan, there I come from....

Mural, San Francisco

This mural is at 24th and Valencia in the Mission District of San Francisco... the photo is of a detail from it.

It's by Marta Ayala, and is called "Roots and frequencies basic to our education".

Friday, December 23, 2005

Imaginary translations

I'm curious to take a look at "Imaginary Poets", an anthology of translations of made-up poets. It's 20 well-known poets, each asked to make up a poet, translate the poem to English, and write an essay about the poet and their work.

It's a fun and playful idea. I tend to like that sort of thing. I liked that book that was a fake translation of an imaginary ancient Greek poet. I love things like "Songs of Bilitis" by Pierre Louys - I even love Ossian and that whole strange cult of Ossian. Flat-out parodies charm me immensely...

And yet I find that the idea of project at this particular moment in our country's history makes me sad and angry. If I felt that people in this country knew anything substantial about non-US cultures, history, or other languages, maybe I'd be less pissed off. I think of all the excellent poets, dead or alive, who are NOT translated or well-known even in literary communities in the U.S. Great - we're so ignorant about other cultures and languages and poets, we think we get to invent them and make them up. I'd be embarrassed to make up a fake Latin American poet. If I were going to do that kind of project, I'd do it in the context of science fiction or speculative fiction, and would make up a completely alien culture, and I'd do it to make some interesting political point; this distancing allows for a lot of play and exploration... Science fiction writers use alien races to explore ideas of race, class, gender, and utopia - all the time in the U.S. today.

There is at least room for some thought and questioning, some room to be conflicted about art, poetics, humor, and politics.

I'm sure many of the people who contributed to Imaginary Poets considered issues of cultural imperialism and cultural appropriation. There's some excellent and thoughtful translators in the table of contents. I'm very curious to see the book and see what they did with the idea. Will I be so charmed by the book's witty cosmopolitan sophistication that I won't care about the cultural politics? Or will I just be more embarrassed than I am now? I'll read it and report back.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Slavic women's translation registry

The Association for Women in Slavic Studies has announced that the expanded and updated AWSS Translation Registry is now online at:

The Registry includes both published translations of work by women authors and translations in progress from a wide variety of Slavic and East European languages. The data base can be searched in a variety of ways, making it a valuable resource for teaching, research, and planning future translations or anthologies.

You may direct questions, suggestions or updates to Sibelan Forrester <>) or Diana Greene <>.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A link to Langwich Sandwich

Langwich Sandwich

Wow! This page is a dynamic aggregator of many language and translation blogs.

The titles of recent posts from a blog, for example Languagehat, show up here as links. If you mouseover the link, you'll see the first few lines of its content. Very handy. It's a great starting point to see the best of the language and translation blogs!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Baudelaire & Rimbaud

What a lovely surprise I got today in the mail from Eric Greinke: two beautiful chapbooks from Presa Press: The Rebel: Poems by Charles Baudelaire / American Versions by Leslie H. Whitten Jr, and The Drunken Boat & Other Poems from the French of Arthur Rimbaud / American Versions by Eric Greinke.

For fun, here's a random line from the latter:
A white ray tumbles above the clouds & brings an abrupt
end to this merciless comedy

Saturday, December 17, 2005

update on Nadia Anjuman

Nadia Anjuman died earlier this year, and the international attention to her story created some demand for translations of her work. I still dont' know if anyone is working on translating her book into English or other languages. Someone passed on this page about her, from Bukhara: Review of Arts, Culture, and Humanities.

Here's an update from the writer Ren Powell:

The Norwegian PEN center together with Centre Culturel Francais plan to support a PEN Writer's House Publishing in Kabul. It will be a cooperative venture with the existing publishing house Maiwand .

The three groups will finance printing, distribution and a royal for writers, while an Afghan PEN subcommittee will choose the manuscripts. The first book is expected in January next year (I'm not sure if this is 06 or 07). According to the report on Norwegian PEN's website, the first book will most likely be a collection by Anjuman. This will be in Farsi, of course.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Dangers of Double Translation

I believe there's a standard term for translating through an intermediate language, a practice necessitated by the dearth of qualified translators from Chinese, Arabic, and other minor languages, but for the time being I'll call it double translation.

Case in point, The Girl Who Played Go, by Shan Sa, and translated into English from the French. (I'll leave the French translator unnamed.) An episode in the book involves Japanese soldiers fighting in Manchuria on the border with Russia. I don't mind them calling the city "Ha Rebin" (what we know as Harbin), but the very long river that separates the two countries is referred to repeatedly as "River Love."

There's never a good copy editor in the house when you need one.

Friday, December 09, 2005

It's like, la lengua de Cervantes

Spanish at school translates to suspension

The tension in Kansas City over a teenager's suspension from school for speaking Spanish on campus reflects a broader national debate over the language Americans should speak amid a wave of Hispanic immigration.

In today's Washington Post

Catalog of Copyright Entries

Jeffrey S. Ankrom, an ALTA member and copyright attorney, passed us this excellent, useful link to a site on the Catalog of Copyright Entries. I especially recommend this section on how to determine if a copyright has been renewed.

Ankrom sent us a detailed "short version" of his process in figuring out the copyright status of All Quiet on the Western Front.

International copyright is very confusing. At least this CCE might give a starting point to some people!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Recent reading: Native Tongue

Translators are key in Suzette Haden Elgin's dystopian classic from 1983, Native Tongue. It's 2182. Earth's economy depends on fluency in alien languages, and the only way to be fluent is to be born a Linguist, and grow up from infancy with an Alien In Residence. The Linguists are a class apart, living in austerity, working terribly long hours, the target of human resentment because they can't have babies and train them fast enough to be interpreters.

Part of the result of this situation is a patriarchal dystopia similar to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) in which women have very few rights. The book's central premise is the women's invention of a secret language, their attempt to reshape reality through language.

Alien literary translation enters into the story briefly, when Nazareth, a brilliant young linguist, has offended alien trade negotiators for the umpteenth time. In order to understand just how she has transgressed the bounds of politeness, she tells a long rambling story gently introducing the offensive ideas (in this case, color) to gauge the alien reaction without triggering their hostile withdrawal.

Haden Elgin has a fascinating blog. She talks about linguistics, teaching, poetry, science fiction, feminism; lately she's told some autobiographical stories that have a bearing on translation. In her early life she went to Europe to life with her husband's family, and she writes eloquently of the cultural and gender boundaries she transgressed and how difficult it was to figure out through interpretation of social and nonverbal cues what she was doing "wrong".

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I decided to be ALTA 2006 Host Chair

Lately, I've found myself considering translators and their role in transfering and promoting the literature of the language that they translate. One reason for this is that I am the host chair for ALTA's 2006 annual meeting, and, although the official invitation in the newsletter has not yet been published, the first proposals have started to cross my desk. I am amazed by the creativity of these early proposals and am eagerly looking forward to the rush prior to the deadline cutoff of April 3rd. And I also realize how grateful I am to other translators, and the way that they have brought the rest of the world to me through their difficult, creative work.
We all know that translation cannot be the source text, no matter how hard we try. And yet, in the hope of showing our fellow English-speaking members of Planet Earth that our language has much to offer humanity, we work on with our dreams and dictionaries, hoping to bring forth an artistic creation worthy of the text that we have in our hands. And much as we wish that we could read everything in the original, this is just not humanly possible short of brain implants. I can read fluent Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and German, and prefer to read works in those languages and not in translation. In Montreal, I picked up a number of novels in Quebecois, since I do read (though would never dare to translate) French. But in spite of the rise of Hispanic culture and language in the USA, I have never learned to speak or read Spanish, and must trust my translator to convey the text to me. I certainly don't speak Vietnamese, and now that I have an exchange student living in my house from Vietnam, I turned to Vietnamese literature in translated into English to find out about my guest student's culture and background. I was saddened to see how little of Vietnamese literature was presently available, and treasured every work I got my hands on. And how many of us in North America speak Mandarin Chinese? I've been working on learning Chinese, but assume that it will be a good five years before I can read a simple text. Again, my collection of Chinese literature is all in translation.
The events in the Middle East have brought a renewed interest in fiction and memoirs from the countries of the region, and, if you are like me and do not speak Arabic, Persian or Hebrew, it is the work of translators which allows us to experience these works and to inform our understanding of that corner of our planet. But how important that we do read these texts and understand as much as possible about the world they describe!
Literary translators have a hard lot. No matter how much they have polished their translations, no matter how many years they have devoted to the text, they are rewarded by criticism at best, dismissal or invisibility most of the time, and let's not even mention the abysmal financial renumeration in these United States. The legal or medical translator may be anonymous, but at least that person is well-paid, relatively speaking, for his/her work. We literary translators are also contributing to society. I am looking forward to planning (with the quite able and vocal help of the rest of the committee) ALTA 2006 in order to give my fellow literary translators that place to be heard and appreciated. My time is my gift to you and your hard, and (so neccessary in this world) chosen profession.
And now, let's see what the day's e-mail has brought in for 2006!