Monday, November 27, 2006

Center for Art in Translation San Francisco Reading Nov 29th

From the Center for Art in Translation:
The Center for the Art of Translation will be cosponsoring, Enemy Nations, Emerging Voices, a reading at the SF Main Library.

This provocative reading features works from two new Words Without Borders anthologies: Literature from the Axis of Evil and Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora. These works celebrate the literature and humanity from so-called "enemy" nations and cultures. The event includes an appearance by special guest Alice Walker. We are proud to co-sponsor this event with Words Without Borders.

Wednesday November 29, 2006 6-8 pm (free)
San Francisco Main Library Auditorium
100 Larkin Street, San Francisco

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Bandits from Rio Frio: A Naturalistic and Humorous novel of Customs, Crimes and Horrors

Manuel Payno's 19th century classic, The Bandits from Rio Frio: A Naturalistic and Humorous novel of Customs, Crimes and Horrors, has been translated for the first time into English by Alan Flukey (Heliographica Press, 2005). It would be fair to call Payno Mexico's Dickens. The Bandits from Rio Frio is a major work-- and the translation is superb. Read a review over at River Walk Journal Blog, and another at Eco Latino. This translation should have gotten a lot more attention than it has.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation on the Art of Translation

Last night, I attended the closing event of the Festival of Contemporary Japanese Women Poets, a series of talks and readings presented by belladonna*, Poets House, and the Bowery Poetry Club. The conversation began as an exchange of ideas and questions between Alcalá, Sekiguchi and Swensen and continued with the audience Q&A. I was introduced to Sekiguchi's work on Wednesday but last night she elaborated further on her experiences in and thoughts on self-translation. Swensen, also a well-regarded poet, translated into English Sekiguchi's Japanese to English self-translations and has translated a number of French works, focusing in particular on cross-genres. She currently teaches at the University of Iowa. Her comments addressed the role and influence of translation on a poet's "original writing." ALTA veteran Rosa Alcalá, who teaches in a bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas, El Paso, opened the conversation with an observation on the creative potential of borders and boundaries: "While some boundaries are an invention, others are real. Placing ourselves on those boundaries can be productive." Ultimately, the poets seemed to agree that in writing and translation, one does not necessarily "blur boundaries" but rather acknowledge, embrace and inhabit them as sites of creativity and meaning.

You can read my notes of the discussion on my website (they were far too long to reproduce here!).

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Kommandant -- A Trilingual Reading of Les Bienveillantes

Right after the ALTA conference, two things happened. A big thick plop on my front porch from Amazon France containing Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littel, which has been the most discussed book of the summer in Western Europe it appears, and I, now the former host committee chair, got sick. The fact that I had to spend two weeks more or less resting up made opening Les Bienviellantes possible (894 pages is intimidating in any language), and once I started, I was hooked. The novel is unsettling, and extremely disturbing, but I was also disturbed in a linguistic way.
Now the Trilingual Reading languages: First, Jonathan Littel is an American writing in French. Not only does he write in French, he does it very well, and has won the 2006 Prix Goncourt (the French Pulitzer, so to speak). Second, the book is about a German, albeit with a French mother, which means that the world of the main character is already a "translation" from the German language and thought world into the French. And third, of course, is that the author and I share the same mother tongue, American English. There is a kind of perverse pride that one of "those Americans" has the ability to write a novel that can stand next to Victor Hugo without shame.
Now the story is jarring enough, even if one has read a great deal of Holocaust literature. Most of my reading in the field has been in German, and seeing events through the medium of the French language made the telling almost a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, distancing me as the reader from the experiences in which I already have extensive German vocabulary and knowledge. But this Verfremdungseffekt made the story even more ghastly, except for one little, little problem (no pun intended, actually. No really!).
German is a language of case, and English and French, with some exceptions in the pronoun arena, are not. Littel has chosen to use many German words and expressions in this work, der Kommandant being one of many, and I almost would have preferred to have the French. Why? Each time a German word was used with its nominative "the", in a place where the sentence has the word in what would be a direct or an indirect object, I was jerked right out of the story and into German 101 teaching assistent mode. Quite frankly, this is not my favorite persona. Nothing is misspelled nor are the words in the wrong context -- the use of the German vocabulary is flawless in all ways except for the case system problem. If I did not know German, I am sure that I would be captured by Littel's use of German for good effect, but the effect is lost when the case is wrong and the reader knows it. This could have been avoided entirely by using "le Kommandant" for example, which would make the case system discussion irrelevant. But "der" where "den" or "dem" should be used? If I were a cat, my fur is being rubbed the wrong way each and every time it happens. I wonder if this is my emotional way of distancing myself from the Arendtian "banality of evil" in the text itself, by letting myself be distracted by improper use of case. But I am distracted, in a red-pennish sort of way, and that makes me irritated, and then I wonder what the editor knew of German, or if Littel was aware of the case system but decided to ignore it, and then I am off into the kinds of tangents that sociolinguists tend to wander. What does the use of German mean? Why is Littel using this German expression here, but a French translation here? How many doctoral dissertations are going to be written on this?
Well, I did get better, and I am nearing the end of "Les Bienviellantes" (the title proposal for English is "The Kindly Ones" though I think that "Men of Good Will" would make a beautifully ironic title, though the title refers to the Furies in French.) If you know French, do try and read it, but I would put a disclaimer here as well, because at times you will find yourself in a position of voyeur to sadism and murder, and this reader often felt like a minor character found in the first hundred pages, who, when faced with the initial cruelty of the German invasion of the Ukraine, went completely insane. Under the circumstances, of course, perhaps he was the sanest of them all. As the protagonist keeps going through this "docu-roman", the horrors (and perversions) become a bit much, and this reader was glad to have been born far far away from the countries of my maternal ancestors.

Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women

As a follow-up to Liz's post on Wednesday's event at Poet's House, I wanted to share my first thoughts on the anthology Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women, which I have been rereading since that night. I am cross-posting this entry from my website, Stingy Kids. I also took some notes on the panel discussion but they are nowhere near as comprehensive as Liz's!

My post begins:

Belladonna*, Poets House, and the Bowery Poetry Club have organized a three-day festival on "contemporary and innovative" Japanese womens poetry. The impetus for this event is the recent publication of the anthology Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women (Litmus/Belladonna), which features the work of Kiriu Minashita, Kyon-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Takako Arai in English translation (most of the translations are by Sawako Nakayasu, editor of Factorial). I purchased a copy last night, the first night of the festival, and devoured most of it on my subway ride home. The translations are spectacular and I admire the decision to include the Japanese originals, even if doing so meant that fewer poems could be included. An essay by each poet follows the selection of poems and these provide a further glimpse into the different ways in which issues of idenitity, language, and representation have affected and shaped their individual work. These essays do some of the work that readers have come to expect from an introduction, but rather than have the translator and/or editor speak for the poets and "group" their work in collective terms, the anthology insists on a multiplicity of voices moving in and out of private and public positions.

I was interested in the decision to present the poems first in translation and follow these with the original Japanese text. I often prefer original and translation to face each other, but letting the translation "speak" first, as it were, is very provocative. I began my reading of these texts in a language that is known to me, even the language tricks and contortions they perform are familiar, so for a moment they belong to me: I can domesticate them, incorporate them, ingest them. I turn the page and, suddenly, I am facing another language and my grasp on these texts begins to slip away. But what also intrigued me is how the translations continued to shadow these originals so that they too could be "read" in a way but without the illusion of fluidity that facing translations encourage. Though this is a spare work, its reach is expansive and aspires "to seep [the work of these poets] out further into a universal poetic" while keeping their individual contexts in view. The prose texts, I would argue, are a defense against the risk of over generalizing and globalizing these works. They give us a glimpse into the influences and experiences that have shaped these authors and further elaborate their individual poetic interests and concerns.

Full volumes of translations of the individual poets are in order and I hope this collection inspires this future work, but last night's dialogue at Poets House also underscored the importance of gathering different voices together. As the conversation progressed it became clear that there were no easy categories in which to collectively position these writers. Even the category "women" found itself challenged and placed under scrutiny.

End of original post.

Since writing this, I've had the chance to read more attentively the poems and prose, particularly Kyong-Mi Park's essay "My Asian Bones are Ringing," which begins on a winter day in New York. The following passage is just stunning:
There's no such thing as your "own" language. Words that we call words all belong to others. To speak and write, and to learn and comprehend words--it is all a matter of giving yourself over to the process of other people's words as they come and go freely within you, and placing your own self atop the words of someone else. What I discovered through my own personal experience of translating Stein, the mother of modernism, was the spell-like quality of words, that language was in fact a medium--a spiritual medium as well as an intermediary--and that the act of using words is that of being possessed by the words of someone else.

(In this sense, it really makes no sense to speak of a "native" language. There is no language we are born with. Children are possessed, like a medium, by the language of whoever they first meet in their lives, and then copy and repeat this process, placing themselves atop it.)
During the panel discussion, Ryoko Sekiguchi told us that she is often asked, "why are you writing in French, Japan wasn't a colony of France?" Her reply: "The question becomes: what is wrong with engaging in a language to which you have no historical connection?" This brought up for me the issues surrounding the argument that translators should only translate into and out of languages they know intimately or to which they are legitimately bound by history. But history becomes a tricky prescription for writing and translation when you think of all of the unwritten contacts and encounters that have occurred between people and languages over time. Not to mention how much would be left untranslated if we only dealt in recent historical connections or with languages we know. Arguably, the act of translation creates these connections and this knowing.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Four From Japan: discussion and reading at Poets House

Last night I went to an excellent panel and reading at Poets House in New York City: "Crossing Currents, Panel Discussion on Contemporary Poetry in Japan". In this panel, four women from Japan and their translator, Sawako Nakayasu, talked about poetry, gender, innovation, translation, and the history of the Japanese language.

I will be posting a full transcript of the panel on Composite within the next few days, but for now, here's a short version.

Throughout the panel and readings, Sawako provided excellent near-simultaneous translation! It was quite impressive.

Takako Arai talked about her identity as someone with deep ties to a textile manufacturing town near Tokyo. Kiriu Minashita explained the etymology of her pseudonym: "air current" or "jet stream". After the reading she gave me further detail; also, she has many, many pseudonyms and is a very bloggity internetty person with multiple identities. I can relate! Kyong-Mi Park talked about being of Korean/Japanese heritage and living in Tokyo being a 21st century woman poet. Ryoko Sekiguchi gave a brief introduction to her own identity as a Japanese poet writing in French, living in France, and translating French to Japanese and vice versa. The 5th panel participant lives in NYC and unfortunately I didn't catch her name; she was helping with translation and she's also a poet.

The panelists discussed gender, feminism, identity, sexuality, and concepts of women's language. Ryoko maintained that her identity changes and shifts with each new project. Kyong-Mi pointed out the problems with how, from the minute she began to write, other people told her to write from her position as Korean/Japanese. So that condition, that view, was imposed on her from outside. The process of dealing with that breaks down her identity in a way that leads to poetry. Takao described the history of her hometown and its disappearing economic base and how that affects her writing; her "home" in the process of disappearance. Kiriu talked about changing immigration laws in Japan, and Japan's history of attitudes towards "minorities" and the global history of monoculture and minority in a consumer society.

Rachel, the panel moderator, asked if resistance to monoculture drove poetic innovation and if the monoculture attitude made it difficult to be innovative or resistant as a woman?

In a word: Yes...

Kiriu and Takako talked at length about the history of Japan, and the ideal of monocultural, unified Japan and the Japanese language. Linguistic expections to that. Between the 17th century isolationism and around 100 years ago there were regional differences in Japanese. Takako uses those differences and digs up old words. Ryoko continued to describe the parts of her identity that don't change with different projects; that unchanging part is in resistance. One way to resist a monocultural language is to go backwards in time. Another is to focus on regional differences. Another is to be engaged with foreign languages.

Kyong-Mi then brought up the Pillow Book and the Tale of Genji, the Heiian era and women's language, women writers. For men to express particular poetic concepts they had to write in women's language and write as women. Japanese also has the richness of Rykyu (Okinawa) and Ainu heritages.

Ryoko said that breaking down and resisting monoculture was not always directed at a Japanese audience. People wonder why she writes in French when Japan was not a colony of France. She is deliberate in her choice to commit to an ahistorical connection to the language and the country. It is possible to work with a language without a personal or historical context of connection to it.

Kiriu brought up the "Beautiful Japanese Language" boom and the ways it's disturbing. Older poets, especially men, disapprove of poetic innovation and of changes in language. Women's universities are cutting gender studies classes and substituting "Beautiful Language" courses instead to teach "proper" Japaese, which she describes as teaching young women to speak like flight attendants on Japan Air; to cater to and please older men. Young people's use of language is a point of resistance to an attempt to close the doors to globalization. Japan has no military; when the economic situation deteriorates, those in power target the weak inside the country.

Rachel asked about "female language" or women's language and inhabiting different subject positions.

Ryoko and Kyong-Mi brought up Gertrude Stein and then Chika Sagawa and junzaburo Nishiwaki's descriptions of Sagawa. Kyong-Mi is a translator of Stein. All the panelists contributed to further discussion of shifting identities and the breakdown of language in relation to identity. "I am me because my reader knows me." [A re-work of Stein's "I am me because my little dog knows me." ) Taking that suspended state of being and language, often treated as a pretty or optimistic place, yet it is a dangerous, tenuous place. [Then, I think it was Ryoko who said that now their work in English in this context opens that place to a new set of readers, which changes the poetic identity of the authors and influences them. And this is part of being a 21st century poet, open to other poetries. ]

Kiriu made three points: "Instinct" and her experience of 9/11.To people in Japan, New York City is the city always demolished in Hollywood movies, just as in the U.S. people think of Tokyo as the city demolished by Godzilla. So the actual destruction of the WTC was a shock of reality overtaking the imaginary. 2nd: Her identity growing up in a stereotypical affluent suburb. "I feel like I'm a mass produced product, a part made in a Toyota factory. When I see Agent Smith in The Matrix, it reminds me of myself. The fact that I don't have a locality is my identity". 3rd: Further explanations of her pen names. Her identities in other genres, where people have no idea she is also a poet. The pleasure of disguise.

Then each poet read from the book, which has poems in Japanese, translations, and some very interesting essays on poetry. (Though I'm sad that the book doesn't have Kyong-Mi Park's amazing poem "The cat comes with a baby cat in its mouth" with its memorable images of the disturbing brocaded caterpillar, fat-veined leaf, sound of peeing, and muslin nightgowns.) I highly recommend this books, even if you don't know Japanese (as I don't): Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women -- available from Small Press Distribution.

I also recommend anyone who's in NYC try to catch the readings and book release party tonight, Thursday Nov. 16, at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, 7pm, or the reading and discussion tomorrow night, Friday Nov. 17 at 7pm at Poets House: "Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation on the Art of Translation with Rosa Alcalá, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Cole Swenson. I'll be at the Friday event but not Thursday: Thursday I'm going to Words Without Borders "Axis of Evil" reading at Labyrinth Books!

Thanks to Poets House and Belladonna for this amazing discussion and reading!

My "summary" is very long! I hope it's interesting to you all.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Literature from the "Axis of Evil"

Words Without Borders has a first print anthology, Literature from the "Axis of Evil." Check out these launch events:

--> ­in New York on November 16 at 7 p.m., at Labyrinth Books, 36 West 112th Street. Readers for the evening include Francisco Goldman, Esther Allen, Diana Alvarez-Amell, and Suji Kwock Kim.

--­> in San Francisco on November 29 from 6-8 p.m., at the San Francisco Main Library Auditorium, 100 Larkin St. at Grove St., Civic Center. Alice Walker, Persis Karim, Lea Aschkenas, Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Li Miao Lovett will read and discuss work from the anthology.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Oulipo, catachresis, right and wrong

Phyllis Aronoff sent me this interesting article for the ALTA blog, a talk entitled "Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese," by Harry Mathews. It's about "sound translations", like Marcel Benabou's transformation of "A thing of beauty is a joy forever":

Ah, singe débotté,
Hisse un jouet fort et vert
"O unshod monkey,
raise a stout green toy!"

Phyllis further quotes Mathews: "The Oulipo certainly can't help [translators] in an obvious way. Unless he wanted to sabotage his employer, an editor would be mad to employ an Oulipian as a translator." And then he shows how Oulipo might help a translator in less-obvious ways.

This all reminds me (Liz) of Frankfurt's famous essay "On Bullshit". I do like the accidents that engender new accidents, and catachrestic eruptions, but I don't think I would call them translations. I was near fatally annoyed in a class a couple of years ago by a person who claimed that, since she only had a small inadequate dictionary and didn't know Greek, she could just "pick the word that came before or after the word she was looking up" and use it for a "valid" translation. And that was okay, because that was her level of understanding, her creative filter, and made perfectly good art. While I love the idea of multiple truths, multiple translations, Oulipian game-playing, and a bit of out-of-control chaos; the idea that there might be no RIGHT translation --- I do believe there are WRONG translations.