Friday, November 25, 2011

Wave on Wave

Installation of George Washington statue (1909) / Image courtesy of UW University Libraries

Within the past few weeks, I visited two superbly organized translation gatherings: Wave Books’ “3 Days of Poetry” in Seattle, and the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Kansas City. In both places, I met a lot of talented people and heard a lot of great ideas, and I want to be sure I get everything down before I lose my notes or forget key details. I’ll start with the Wave festival in this post, and then I’ll move on to ALTA in the next one.

Wave’s weekend-long festival was held at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, located just off Red Square (seriously!) and right next to the hulking statue of General Washington himself. The venue certainly gave the festival a welcome aura of artistic inspiration, but I did have a hard time hearing some of the speakers inside the high-ceilinged galleries. Nevertheless, one of the highlights of the weekend took place in those echo chambers: Matthew Zapruder’s conversation with Sarah Valentine about Russian poet Gennady Aygi.

Wave Books has just published Valentine’s translation of Aygi’s Into the Snow, and I’ve been leisurely making my way through the copy I picked up at the festival. (First impression: outstanding.) In Seattle, Valentine described Aygi as an avant-garde writer well outside the mainstream of Russian poetry. While the majority of Russian poets write formal verse with strict rhymes and meter — most often, tetrameter-quatrain blocks — Aygi composed in free verse and used disrupted syntax and baroque Russian grammar. Zapruder, however, kept insisting that Aygi’s experimentalism would not seem at all challenging for American readers accustomed to more radical poetic models. (Incidentally, Valentine explained that Aygi employed traditional forms only in one case: when he was translating into Russian from his native Chuvash.)

During the Q&A period, I asked Valentine to discuss the differences between translating free and formal verse, but she instead opted to identify what she thought they both must have in common: a sense of play. She said that translators of poetry need to “jiggle things around” in their drafts, always seeking that feeling they got when they first read the original. I’m not sure if “jiggling” is quite how I would describe my own translation process, but her advice has definitely got me thinking.

On both of the mornings I visited the Wave festival, Annie Janusch, the translation editor for The Quarterly Conversation, ran sessions on practical aspects of the translation business: first on reviewing translated works, and then on editing translations. During the first session, Janusch noted that some progress has been made in recent years when it comes to book reviews of translated works; for example, most reviewers no longer make the mistake of entirely overlooking the translator’s role in creating the English text, even if they only acknowledge the translator with what she calls an “adverbial nod” (“ably translated by X”). But she cautioned reviewers not to “praise the author for the translator’s work”: if a sentence comes off particularly well in the English translation, one should remember that it was the translator who wrote that sentence, not the author.

Janusch also warned reviewers not to be too quick to accuse translators of “clunkiness”; rather, one should consider what purpose any perceived awkwardness or infelicity serves within the work. If the translator chose to use a “clunky” phrase, why might he or she have done so? It is all too easy to use the unseen original as an excuse not to think hard enough about the nuances of the translation. At the same time, reviewers familiar with the source text sometimes tend to resort to a tedious enumeration of the “inaccuracies” of the translation. Janusch argued that by the time a translator’s work reaches publication, it has been vetted by enough editors’ eyes that reviewers can safely set aside any skepticism about the translator’s linguistic skills. She challenged us to think about what makes the difference between a good translation and a brilliant one. Whatever it is, it’s not accuracy.

For the session on editing translations, Janusch teamed up with Kevin Craft, the editor of Poetry Northwest, who said that his magazine wants “translation to be a regular feature of what we do.” Although the session was listed as “How to Edit Translations,” it probably should have been called “How to Prepare Translations for Submission to Literary Journals.” Essentially, Janusch and Craft pulled back the curtain to give us some idea of how journal editors approach translations, as well as how editors might think differently about translations from other submissions. They both believe that translators should write a paragraph that frames their translations for the editor. Janusch recommended that translators try to describe “the reading of the poem” that their translation carries out. Craft wants to see poems that convince him they have fully made the leap from the source language into English. Whenever he is considering submissions for Poetry Northwest, whether translations or not, he looks for things that express “the dignity of the human voice.”

The session culminated in a friendly debate about facing-page translations. Should the original be reproduced alongside the translation? Matthew Zapruder, who came to the session as an audience member, said that Wave Books doesn’t do bilingual editions because they invite nitpicky critiques from pedantic readers; he would rather present the translation — Valentine’s Aygi, for instance — as a unique work in English. Some in the room thought that facing-page editions were most appropriate for language students, while English-only editions like those put out by Wave emphasize the artistry of the translator’s work. Another translator I spoke with later thought quite the opposite: he claimed that a facing-page edition frees him from the tyranny of the source text and allows him to make bolder moves in English. As the session came to a close, Craft dismissed someone’s objection that providing the original with the translation (as his magazine does) treats it as a “special-needs poem”; he argued instead that translators and editors should be advocates for the original language — particularly in monoglot America.

The festival wrapped up on Sunday night with “Translators on Translation,” an event co-sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures, who brought in an audience exponentially bigger than all the other sessions. The event began with the three translators — Nikolai Popov, Red Pine, and Peter Cole — each presenting a few thoughts about translation and reading from texts they had translated. Then, the ubiquitous Zapruder sat down with them and led a discussion of translation issues.

Popov, who has translated Joyce and Celan, began by saying that he finds the task of the translator appealing because “unlike poetry … translation makes things happen”—that is to say, it bridges cultures. He finds it an “eminently practical activity,” since translators are quite simply “doing something to something” when they tinker with the language. Translation is therefore immediately satisfying. Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter), the translator of Chinese poetry, said that when he translates a poem, he imagines himself as the author’s dance partner (“I want to be able to dance with that poet on the dance floor”), and if he is going to pull together a successful English version, he has to ask himself, “What’s motivating that dance?” Finally, Peter Cole, who translates from Hebrew and Arabic, tackled the question of sound. Is the sound of the poem what gets lost in translation? Cole says no. In fact, he believes that translators are “ethically obliged to seek and embody” a poem’s sonic qualities. (Otherwise, what would the translation be? Not a poem.) Still, he acknowledges that not every element of a poem can be translated at once, so he asks his students, “What is the one thing that you want to get across?” Then he tells them, “In getting that one thing, almost genetically other things will come through as well.”

As the Wave festival proved, when translators of poetry get together to talk about translation, they can go on for days. And things get complicated quickly. But Red Pine offered a bit of wisdom that Sunday night which I hope I won’t soon forget: “When you translate a poem, you have to make a poem. That’s all.”


  1. Thank you, Jamie, for this post -- there's lots of great advice in here. I like the phrase "jiggle things around" very much, and I'm glad to hear someone mentioned the fact that translations go through so many layers of review and editing before they appear in print!

  2. At the same time, reviewers familiar with the source text sometimes tend to resort to a tedious enumeration of the “inaccuracies” of the translation. Janusch argued that by the time a translator’s work reaches publication, it has been vetted by enough editors’ eyes that reviewers can safely set aside any skepticism about the translator’s linguistic skills.

    This is absurd. I can certainly understand translators' defensiveness about mistakes, which are inevitable, but I have rarely seen a translation of any length that did not have howlers that were clearly never laid eyes on by anyone who knew the source language. Good lord, publishers these days barely bother checking for typos; does anyone seriously believe they check for accuracy of translation?

    That said, I totally agree with the injunction "When you translate a poem, you have to make a poem."

  3. True inaccuracies are one thing, but what Janusch had in mind was the habit some reviewers have of seeking the smallest deviation from the source text, as in, "Horror of horrors, the translator gave this word as 'happy', but really it means 'satisfied'!" Her point was that translators are managing a complex matrix that requires more than a word-for-word crib. Sometimes the sound of a word is just as important as its sense.

  4. Ah, OK, that makes sense. Just to provide a case in point of what I was talking about: I'm reading Marian Schwartz's superb new translation of Andrei Gelasimov's Жажда alongside the original, and I'm continually delighted by her brilliant renderings of conversations filled with slang, something most translators are abysmal at. I'm going to post a rave review when I finish it, in which I will not mention the following, because it would only be relevant if it were part of a pattern, which it's emphatically not: she renders Gelasimov's "А сам шлангом прикидывался" ('And here you were pretending to be a numbskull') as "You calculated the perspective yourself, too." This kind of thing is inevitable for anyone who doesn't have the completely bilingual perspective of a Nabokov (and even he nodded once or twice), and of course nobody at the publisher's is going to catch it.

  5. Marian read from "Thirst" at the ALTA gathering a week and a half ago, and the novel really came alive in her prose. I'll have to add it to my Christmas list. In this instance, I'm surprised that she chose to go for the implied meaning of the sentence instead of finding an idiomatic equivalent (as you did in parentheses). I'm sure she had her reasons... And now I'll be waiting for this passage when I read the book so that I can guess at them!

  6. Dancing with the original strikes the chord with me. When I have danced the work is textually sensual; when I have not it remains mechanical. Accuracy is crucial to good work, but few translators make their texts really live and breathe. You've offered a stimulating conversation here.