Thoughts on Translation with Margaret Jull Costa

Jull Cosa

I read Margaret Jull Costa’s translations of two books forthcoming from Other Press this fall, and I was struck by the coincidence of how similar their titles are: Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall and Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall.

Laub’s novel asks what Jewishness means in Brazil today, and how the past can shape us in times to come. His narrator meditates on his relationship to his father and grandfather, and also on the cruelty that any majority feels it can visit on a minority. On the other hand, Mainardi’s memoir weaves together history, art, science, personal reminiscences, and images to chart his relationship to his son and to his son’s disability.

Both books have a strong first-person voice leading us through their stories, as well, and I became curious about what drew Costa to these stories of fathers and sons, especially since, until recently, she has almost exclusively translated European Lusophone and Spanish books. I interviewed her about this and other subjects over email earlier this summer.

Marthine Satris, Two Lines: I noticed that Mainardi’s memoir and Laub’s novel both poke at their unsettled relationship to their origins. Laub rejects his father’s story of his grandfather’s trauma, yet the effect of The Fall is to make the narrator aware of his minority status and difference from those around him. Mainardi hilariously claims that his particular talent is leaving Brazil, yet he almost blames his adoration of Venice for his son’s disability, appreciates Ipanema Beach for providing a safe space for his son to develop mobility, and stays in Brazil for almost a decade. Was this sense of mobility (and seemingly resultant distance from a feeling of belonging in Brazil) something that was attractive to you about these texts?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMJC: Since I am not really a Brazilianist, that sense of a European past and (in Mainardi’s case) that sense of preferring Europe to Brazil, made it easier for me as a translator with strongly European roots. I would be more cautious about translating Brazilian authors such as Guimarães Rosa or Graciliano Ramos, whose work is deeply rooted in rural Brazil, a world I know nothing about. As for the sense of identity expressed by other writers I’ve translated, I would say perhaps a sense of alienation from their own country and culture was almost necessary. I’m thinking of Javier Marías, Eça de Queiroz, and José Saramago in particular, all of whom have been accused of being un-Spanish or un-Portuguese. Javier is often accused of being an anglicised Spaniard; Eça lived much of his adult life abroad and wrote biting satires about life in Portugal; Saramago moved to Lanzarote when the government vetoed his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ as Portugal’s candidate for a European prize. And yet all three are intensely Spanish or intensely Portuguese, just as Laub and Mainardi are intensely Brazilian. Distance (whether geographical or emotional) lends not enchantment perhaps but a particular sharpness of vision so essential to a writer.

Marthine Satris: The structures of the books seemed to echo this dislocation, as the reader is abruptly moved through time and space in both of them. How do you think the stringing together of pieces drawn from history, science, and personal experience (in Mainardi’s book) or scenes from childhood, adulthood, and the grandfather’s falsified memories affect the reader’s experience of the stories each author is telling? Was it at all a new challenge for you?

MJC: This was not really a problem in Mainardi’s book, where the narrator’s voice is consistent throughout, and in Laub’s book, I really enjoyed translating the perversely optimistic entries in the grandfather’s “diary,” with its gloriously stilted bureaucratic language.

Marthine Satris: As someone who has been so known for translations of European authors, what has now drawn you to begin translating Brazilian authors?

MJC: There was no real decision involved, one of my publishers asked me if I would like to translate the two novels—Diary of the Fall and The Fall—and I said, “Yes.” There is a lot of interest in Brazilian literature at the moment, which has to do with Brazil being in the news—up-and-coming economy, World Cup, Olympics—but also with the fact that the Brazilian government is offering translation grants.

Marthine Satris: With regard to your comment that the authors you’ve translated have had a common sense of alienation from their countries and cultures, you said that alienation was “almost necessary.” Can you explain that intriguing insight a bit more? Is it necessary in order for them to be successful in translation, that their work to be able to look critically at their origins and context?

MJC: I think a lot of writers do write from outside their own culture, even if they remain living in the country or region. Think of those great writers from the Deep South—Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner—they were both outsiders intellectually, even though they lived in the South most of their lives, and Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic living in the Bible Belt. Perhaps it has to do with what Graham Greene called the splinter of ice in the heart of every writer. Perhaps, too, that is what makes great writers universal. Don Quixote is possibly the most universal of books and it was written in seventeenth-century Spain! And Cervantes was another outsider, dismissed by his contemporaries and despite the success of Don Quixote, he died in relative poverty. It’s a theory anyway!

Diary-of-the-Fall_06-242x390Marthine Satris: Like many of the authors you have translated, Laub and Mainardi are men. In their two books, both particularly address their life experiences as men—becoming a father, or a visit to a brothel as a sign of entrance into manhood. When you have translated male authors, have you noticed any particular gendered nature to the language choices they make?

MJC: Since most of the authors I translate are male, this isn’t really something I worry about, except, as you say, in speech, where, for example, a man might not say “lovely” or “how sweet,” but otherwise, the original is usually telling you what kind of language to use.

Marthine Satris: Has translating Brazilian writers changed or broadened your understanding of Portuguese as a language?

MJC: Every book I translate teaches me new things about the languages I work from. Learning a language, one’s own included, is a never-ending adventure. The Brazilian authors I’ve translated tend to use a very standard Portuguese. It would be quite different were I to attempt, say, Grande Sertão: Veredas by Guimarães Rosa, who is often referred to as the Brazilian Joyce, and, like Joyce, used a mixture of very colloquial language and a vocabulary of his own invention. The book is also set in the Northeast of Brazil, among country people (farmers and bandits); now that really would be a stretch for my largely urban, European Portuguese.

Marthine Satris: You mentioned having fun translating the sanitized, official grandfather’s voice in Laub’s book. Has part of your dedication to translation been a pursuit of writing in many different voices? For instance, in contrast to the almost dashed off, note-style of Mainardi’s sentences, another writer you translate, Marías, is known for his exceedingly long sentences. Can you talk a bit about the pleasure for you of getting to slip into these varied voices?

MJC: The main pleasure of translating does lie in (a) writing in one’s own language, and (b) writing in many different styles and voices. My principal authors have been Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago and Javier Marías, all of whom are very different. Eça is a brilliant stylist and also very funny, in a dry, absurdist, strangely English way. Saramago has those long, serpentine sentences full of tangents, as does Marías, although he is perhaps more cerebral. All can be very funny, and I do enjoy translating humor. Translating is often compared with acting, and there is that same pleasure, I suspect, of being simultaneously another person and oneself. Just as every Hamlet will be different—and some may convince more than others—every translation of Don Quixote or War and Peace will be different too—and, again, some may convince more than others, although quite why can be very hard to pin down.

Two Lines Issue 21

issue-21-cover-700-webThis is to announce that we’ve just published Issue 21 of our twice-yearly journal of translation, Two Lines. You’ll find the full table of contents here, plus all 11 of the online-only offerings.

Instead of summarizing some of the work in this new issue (if you want to know about that, just click over to the TOC), I’m going to post the first few paragraphs of a really interesting essay we’re publishing by Johannes Goranssön called “‘Awash in Mimicry’: On the Deformation Zone of Translation.”

If you’re familiar with Johannes at all, you know that he has a very particular approach to translation. I don’t want to try and summarize it here, since I won’t really do justice to the nuances of his stance, but suffice to say it’s a very playful approach that would probably scandalize a lot of people in the translation community. (I don’t mean to judge either side—I’m just stating a fact.)

Anyway, Johannes’s essay deals pretty frankly with his—and others’—ideas about translation, and I think it’s a very compelling part of a great issue. Have a look at its first two sections, and if you’re intrigued, for the low low price of just $10 (plus shipping) you can read the whole thing.
 

1.

Poetry is what gets lost in translation.

I’m fond of pointing out that one of the most canonical definitions of poetry in America relies on translation. This suggests that translation—even if through negation—is essential to the American concept of poetry. We define poetry through translation, its opposite.

It might be strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know—thanks to the work of critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi, and Lucas Klein—that the translator and her translations are “invisible”: marginal, debased. But somehow the translator and translation are simultaneously marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible—if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.

If we want to find out why translation is in such fundamental opposition to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What is this something that’s “lost” in translation?

The short answer: the singular poem, the singular author writing within a single, patriarchal lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect, well-wrought urn of a text that can’t be paraphrased—or rather that isn’t paraphrased—written by one original author who expresses his or her views with absolute control of language.

But in translation we lose the illusion of a single lineage, and the supposed objectivity of that lineage. What if we don’t actually know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her—can she really be influenced “correctly”? Is she misreading? The threat of translation to poetry is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, gets lost in a noisy, violent excess.

2.

Over the past two hundred years, many Western (not just American, if I’m perfectly honest) theorists have discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alienness within the text itself:

If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.

In this metaphor the act of translation surrounds the skin with foreign clothes—an excess that makes the text no longer organic or in balance with itself. Translation seems not to be a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation—an infection by the alien. An alienness that is violent in part because it is alien, like a disease.

October 9: Two Voices Salon with Ottilie Mulzet [EVENT]

Ottillie-MulzetA lot of you are probably familiar with the Two Voices events series that Two Line Press curates for the Center for the Art of Translation (if not, you can see more about that right here).

This fall we’re starting a new initiative in the Two Voices series called Two Voices Salons. These are going to be intimate group discussions that we hold right here in the Two Lines Press offices. For these conversations we’ll be Skyping in fabulous translators who are working on amazing projects. (And for those of you who can’t be here, we’ll be posting the audio to this website once the event is complete.)

Each Salon will have three components: first off, we’ll begin with a short discussion about new and interesting things in the world of translation. This may be a great book you’re reading, a project you’re working on, an upcoming contest or event that you want to share with everyone. This part of the Salon will last about 10 minutes, and it’s designed to be an open forum where we can all share information as to the latest and coolest in the world of translation.

The second part of the Salon will last 45 minutes or so, and it will be our conversation. Your host (me, Scott Esposito) will start out by briefly introducing that evening’s guest and getting the conversation started with some opening Q & A. From there, things will move on to an open conversation, where everyone in the group will have a chance to interact with our guest, and each other.

And then finally, we’ll make some time after the discussion for general socializing. You can get to know one another better, have a look at the latest publications from Two Lines Press, find out more about us and the Center, or just enjoy some of the free booze and food. (Yes, that’s right, these Salons will be alcohol-fueled.)

I hope that sounds amazing to you and that you want to come!

seiobo_there_below_300_462And so, with no further ado, I announce the guest of our first Salon, Skyping in all the way from Prague—Ottilie Mulzet, winner of last year’s Best Translated Book Award for her translation of Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Ottilie will be talking about the amazing work she did with Krasznahorkai’s über-intricate sentences, as well as talking about just what is going on in this astonishing book. She will also be talking about projects of Krasznahorkai’s that she is currently working on, and which will be published in upcoming years.

It all happens at our offices at 582 Market St. Suite 700, at 6:00 pm on Thursday, October 9. This event is open to anybody who can make it to our office at that time on that evening. Bring your copies of Seiobo, and your questions and observations about Krasznahorkai and Ottilie’s work with his prose.

October 15: Dark and Stormy: A Night of Contemporary Swedish Poetry [EVENT]

sbmh-newestJoin us on October 15 at the new Green Apple Books as we present poet and translator Malena Mörling in conjunction with Litquake.

She’ll be reading from The Star By My Head, her striking new anthology of eight contemporary poets from Sweden, including Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer (co-edited with Jonas Ellerström). Published by Milkweed Editions in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, The Star By My Head is a fully bilingual guidebook to one of the richest and mostly starkly compelling poetic traditions. According to Ilya Kamisky it “will help us to see ourselves in a new way.”

As if all that were not quite enough, Mörling will be interviewed on-stage by poet, translator, UC Berkeley professor, and National Book Award– and Pulitzer Prize—winner Robert Hass. Hass, no stranger to European poetry, having translated several volumes by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, promises to make this event an even more memorable occasion.

robert-hass-2It all takes place at Green Apple Books’ brand new location at 1231 9th Avenue, sandwiched between Golden Gate Park and Irving St. Come check out the latest developments in one of San Francisco’s greatest indie bookstores, and see an amazing night of Sweedish poetry. Copies of the anthology will be on hand for sale and signing.

Here are all the details:

  • October 15
  • Green Apple Books on the Park
  • 1231 9th Avenue
  • 7:00 PM
  • FREE

And here are the bios:

Malena Mörling is the author of two collections of poems, Ocean Avenue and Astoria. She has received a Rona Jaffe Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Robert Hass is the author of half a dozen collections of poetry, and is also the principle translator of the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, plus by Pablo Neruda. He received the National Book Award in 2007 for his poetry collection Time and Materials and the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the same title.

Translating Bolano’s Resurreccion

Roberto_Bolano-reflectionThis is our second blog post by Two Lines Press’s summer intern, Rachel Pesavento Brownell. (You can see her post last week on independent bookstores here.) In this post, Rachel takes apart Bolaño’s poem “Resurrección” and dives in to how Laura Healy’s translation works.

Rachel is a rising senior at Pomona College in Southern California hoping to pursue creative writing (particularly poetry) in a personal and professional capacity. This summer she’s been enjoying the poems of Tony Hoagland, as well as her late professor Hillary Gravendyk.

Resurrección

La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo en un lago.
La poesía, más valiente que nadie,
entra y cae
a plomo
en un lago infinito como Loch Ness
o turbio e infausto como el lago Balatón.
Contempladla desde el fondo:
un buzo
inocente
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Resurrection (translated by Laura Healy)

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
innocent
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Resurrection (literal translation, google translate)

Poetry enters sleep
as a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
enters and falls
plumb
in an infinite lake Loch Ness
or cloudy and infamous as the Balaton lake.
Contempladla from the bottom:
a diver
innocent
wrapped in feathers
of will.
Poetry enters sleep
like a dead diver
in the eye of God.

“Resurrección” (“Resurrection”) by Roberto Bolaño presents a single image—that of a diver traveling far into the depths of a lake—to illuminate his perspective on the craft of poetry. The poem is short, consisting of fifteen brief lines, so in examining Laura Healy’s translation of it into English I had doubts as to just how much art could really be involved. Visually, the Spanish and English versions on opposing pages in The Romantic Dogs seem identical. After going through word by word, however, I soon realized how in the tight space of this powerful piece the most minute decisions carry a surprising weight.

In fact the entire poem arguably hinges on a single decision in translating the verb in the first line: “La poesía entra en el sueño,” literally “Poetry enters sleep,” becomes Healy’s “Poetry slips into dreams.” While “sueño” can easily mean “dream” as much as “sleep,” it’s Healy’s independent reading of “entra” as “slips into” rather than “enters” that fuels the mood of the poem as a whole. While “enters” would be the most accurate translation of the Spanish in a denotative tradition, the choice to include “slips into” sets up the quiet grace of Bolaño’s poetry-as-diver, with the diction clearly fitting an entrance into water specifically. A similar favoring of connotative significance occurs in the fourth line when Healy turns “cae,” meaning “falls,” into the English “sinks,” again staying within the world of aqueous words.

The most interesting decision Healy makes as a translator comes in the next line, though—the phrase “a plomo,” used to describe the manner in which the diver/poetry becomes submerged in the literal/figurative lake. “Plomo” means “lead” in English, so Healy’s version then is both accurate and in line with the poem’s aesthetic nature. Notably, though, “a plomo” is also an expression signifying “true,” “vertically,” or “just right.” While Healy took the phrase apart to form her simile “like lead,” she very well could have finished the thought as “sinks / true,” “sinks / vertically,” or “sinks / just right.”

All of these possibilities are valid and allow Bolaño’s poem to flow organically, yet it seems Healy thought a simile would be most evocative. While I would have still enjoyed this incredible piece had she chosen any of these options, I see the merit of the translator’s creative jurisdiction here. Favoring the simile and introducing the visceral concreteness of the word “lead” over the clumsier abstractness of words like “true” (or simply more boring words like “vertically”) keeps “Resurrection” alive for English readers much as “Resurrección” breathes in its original Spanish: it is complex, it spans the senses—it is felt.

The next few lines contain similar impulses from the translator to project the English version of “Resurección” as an insular, constructed world: “En un lago” becomes “through a lake,” rather than “in a lake” in line six to convey the correct feeling of movement; “turbio e infausto” (“cloudy/muddy” and “unlucky/ill-starred”) become “turbid” and “tragic” in describing Lake Balatón. These adjectives in line seven strikingly appear in the reverse of their presence in the Spanish—“tragic and turbid” instead of “turbid and tragic.” This reordering, as well as Healy selecting “tragic and turbid” rather than “cloudy and unlucky” or “muddy and ill-starred” reveal her focus on sonics in this moment: the specific word choice allows for alliteration while the reversed ordering allows for the hard, strong “tr” sound of “tragic” to introduce the phrase, rather than the concave, already-fallen sound “tur” in “turbid.” The artistic effort is clear, as Healy’s version builds on Bolaño’s original, introducing markedly euphonious additions where there were none to begin with.

Lin eight—“Contempladla desde el fondo”—stands reasonably as “Consider it from below” instead of “Contemplate it from the bottom,” and “un buzo / inocente / envuelto en las plumas / de la voluntad” very literally becomes “a diver / innocent / covered in feathers / of will.” Bolaño’s last sentence, though, stuns the reader and elevates the poem from something beautiful to something moving and deeply thought-provoking: “La poesía entra en el sueño / como un buzo muerto / en el ojo de Dios”—“Poetry slips into dreams / like a diver who’s dead / in the eyes of God.” The diver’s/poetry’s “innocent” journey, so far something long and clean and almost noble, is now suddenly sacrilegious. Healy syntactically ascribes such sacrilege to the last line by saying “like a diver who’s dead / in the eyes of God” rather than “like a dead diver / in the eyes of God” (the literal translation). God is not proudly or even sadly watching the corpse of an idea enter the poet’s mind during sleep. Instead He is reproachful, threatened perhaps by the secular, overly enlightened inspiration poetry introduces to the lake of the human mind, siphoning away some of His authority. Whether this is your reading or not, Healy’s translation suggests a rich, chilling ambiguity in this final sentence that “a dead diver / in the eyes of God” would in no way deliver. As a translator, Healy’s task is to make “Resurrection” exist just as multi-dimensionally as “Resurrección,” and, especially due to the brevity of the work, the slightest of linguistic permutations and transformations are what allow her to accomplish this.

The Naja Marie Aidt Tour [EVENTS]

aidt-head-webTwo Lines Press is very proud to announce that next month we’ll be conducting our first ever author tour! The person we’ll be touring is the woman to the left, the internationally acclaimed author Naja Marie Aidt, who’s book Baboon we are publishing in October. (Even though the tour’s in September, we will have early copies available for sale at each tour stop, and Naja will be signing.)

Baboon has been getting some really cool advance praise. Sarah Gerard, currently with BOMB magainze, previously at McNally Jackson Bookstore, and the author of Binary Star (publishing next year from Two Dollar Radio) says of this book that “Naja Marie Aidt’s stories ask not only what could be hiding beneath the surface of our otherwise calm lives, but what has been hiding there all along. They are odd and surprising, and refreshing in that they offer no conclusions. She is the writer of dark secrets.” The book has also received praise from Inger Christensen–translator Susanna Nied, World Literature Today, and a bunch of European periodicals.

So, without further ado, here are the dates!

9/21: Brooklyn Book Festival

10:00 am | Borough Hall Media Room, 209 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
With Lauren Buekes (The Shining Girls) and Deji Olukotun (Nigerians in Space), moderated by Laura Miller

9/23: Danish American Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

7:00 pm | Danish American Center, 3030 W River Pkwy, Minneapolis, MN 55406
With Dorthe Nors, author of Karate Chop (Graywolf Press, 2013)
Reception to follow

9/24: Diesel, A Bookstore, Oakland, California

7:00 pm | Diesel: A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618
With Denise Newman, translator of Baboon

9/25: The Booksmith, San Francisco, California

7:30 pm | The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St. San Francisco, CA 94117-2816

9/27: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle, Washington

Time to come | Elliott Bay Books, 1521 Tenth Avenue, Seattle WA 98122

9/30: Book Soup, Los Angeles, California

7:00 pm | Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90069

The Local Independent Bookstore 2.0

This post comes to us courtesy of Two Lines Press’s summer intern, Rachel Pesavento Brownell. In it, she returns to her childhood bookstore, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, to see about the big changes that have been occurring there. Rachel is a rising senior at Pomona College in Southern California hoping to pursue creative writing (particularly poetry) in a personal and professional capacity. This summer she’s been enjoying the poems of Tony Hoagland, as well as her late professor Hillary Gravendyk.

Rachel will be back next week with a second post investigating a translation of one of Roberto Bolaño’s poems.

keplers-750

My sister was one of those die-hard Harry Potter fans who wouldn’t eat, sleep, or leave her room until she finished each new book. Accordingly, she made sure to acquire the installments at midnight on the day of their release. I, being the baby sister, was swept up on these late night literary dalliances, half-pleased at getting to stay up so late and half-annoyed as I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was about this series. Every midnight release my family attended was held at our local independent bookstore—Kepler’s, in downtown Menlo Park. The establishment went all-out for these events, encouraging participants to dress in character (I distinctly remember spray-dying my hair red to parade as Ginny Weasly) and hosting various activities leading up to midnight, such as a real-life sorting hat (I was always assigned to Hufflepuff).

To me these memories are the essence of what a small bookstore like Kepler’s provides for the community. In fact, these kinds of quirky traditions, carried out with such endearing enthusiasm, are what give an independent bookstore its “independent” status in my opinion—more than the technical independence from the world of corporate chains.

As I found the presence of Kepler’s in my backyard so charming, I was completely surprised when it briefly closed in 2005. Generous patrons in the surrounding area came to the store’s rescue, allowing them to reopen just a couple of months later. But Kepler’s has never been the same. Today the bookstore occupies half of its former floor space, as well as about half its former inventory, it seems. It’s just a little bit disappointing to walk in there now, to a perfectly good bookstore, and feel like something’s missing in the smallest and yet most important way—in the almost imperceptible downshift in energy the room, its products, its patrons, and its staff carry.

The bigger truth, though, is that Kepler’s has done a laudable job and been very fortunate to continue existing at all. I may wax nostalgic about childhood experiences there that no longer seem possible, for me or anyone else, but in reality Kepler’s is going head to head with a multi-faceted and fearsome Goliath: a tremendous increase in online reading options; online book-shopping sites like Amazon.com; chains like Barnes & Noble (although judging by the fate of Border’s they may be facing a perilous future of their own); and a general lessening of public interest in literature.

In light of these challenges Kepler’s, under the leadership of Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan, has embraced a new program of operation, “Kepler’s 2020,” in which the bookstore joined forces with the non-profit Peninsula Arts & Letters around the time of its reopening. The message I got from Madan is that bookstores are going to have to get creative and rethink basic infrastructure in order to survive: “Kepler’s is the first bookstore in the U.S. to openly acknowledge that the days of for-profit retail bookselling seem to be numbered and begin a pro-active effort to transform itself into a mission-first non-profit community.” And that’s what “Kepler’s 2020” is all about.

Through this restructuring, with Peninsula Arts & Letters in charge of events and community programs, Madan says Kepler’s is hoping to focus on the importance of books beyond the shelf-to-hand profit model: “our mission is to open minds, deepen literacy, and promote critical thinking.” Within the store itself, Peninsula Arts & Letters holds regular readings and talks by successful authors, and the occasional community “BookSwap” as an avenue for book-lovers to socialize and share their favorite works with one another. By taking these steps, as well as planning to extend their programs to in-need schools in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven, Kepler’s seems to be stepping purposefully and proudly into their new “mission-first” philosophy.

But where does that leave the kids who swarmed to Kepler’s past their bedtime, clad in their Hogwarts attire? Where does that leave the adults they’ve become—those who grew up around and came to highly regard such independent bookstores? It seems society, including the bookstores themselves, are encouraging us to look at these places as historical artifacts—the incubators of political and cultural movements (like the Beatniks) that were born in places like Kepler’s, Cody’s, and City Lights—but not as places to count on for the best selection of quality literature, or the best, warmest atmosphere for those who enjoy such quality literature.

“Books are always going to be important,” Praveen Madan insists. “The form (print, electronic, audio) people read is simply a personal choice.” Hopefully he’s right and literature will remain inherently meaningful, despite the unsteady future of the small bookstores that have so hospitably housed it for the longest time.

However, as one of those newly minted “adults” who has grown up during the reign of Amazon and the arrival of ebooks, I still carry memories of what a place like Kepler’s used to mean, and I still feel the form and the venue in which I consume a book is almost as important as the book itself. Comfortably browsing the shelves of my local bookstore, actually holding the new stories or collections of poems in my hands, and then locating my favorite nook in the back of the Fiction section in which to peruse my potential purchases—this routine makes reading so much more exciting to me than pulling out a Kindle and pressing “Buy.”

I remember discovering my favorite author while just sitting in Kepler’s one day during a lazy weekend afternoon, back resting against the end of a wooden stack, eyes poring wondrously over bits of Lolita and Pale Fire. I remember the annual errand in June of stopping at Kepler’s to purchase my summer reading for elementary and middle school—the store would put up giant tables each year of items from the local schools’ lists, helpfully matching each kid to their individual school and then the requisite books in a movingly neighborly spirit I wasn’t even conscious of taking for granted.

So really, while Kepler’s has embraced innovative, practical thinking in navigating the 21st century and is rightfully proud to be standing its ground, there’s also an undeniable undercurrent of loss, an emptiness of impending ends. I think it’s that subtle grief I sense walking in to Kepler’s 2.0 today—the chilling feeling of being somewhere that’s becoming a museum of itself.

Self-Portrait in Green Excerpted at A Public Space

marie_ndiaye-greenWe are publishing Marie NDiaye’s amazing “memoir” Self-Portrait in Green this November. It’s a really strange book, one that, I would say, tackles the memoir genre in a way that few have attempted before. At the least, NDiaye is drawing on her considerable skills as a novelist in creating something that feels a lot more like a surrealist novel than a memoir.

But anyway, A Public Space has excerpted part of this book in its Summer issue. You can read it by picking up a copy of that issue, or yo can have a look at their website, as they’ve also made it available online.

I.

I never met this woman, whose presence in my personal legends eclipses, by its incandescence, some of her more irrefutably real neighbors. I’m not even sure she’s actual. In the end, it makes little difference. She remains a pure emblem. Everything I know of her comes to me from Jenny.

A time came when Jenny found herself at a dead end. She was a little less than fifty years old, and everything that had once been hers, everything at which she’d worked so hard to succeed, everything she’d devotedly loved had all flitted away in the space of a year. Her adopted son was wandering the world and refused to see her, her husband had left her, she’d just been laid off. Everything had vanished. She’s a passive and trusting person, and nothing she’d done was really to blame for this ruination. It had simply happened, beside her, without her realizing it, and when she woke up it was too late to hope she might recover what was lost.

When I met her she was tall and thin. She wore her hair in a loose bun, and that hair was artificially of the palest blonde. Is hair color a reflection of some moral quality, of goodness and innocence, of those virtues’ opposite? Obviously not. The pallor of Jenny’s hair in no way expressed what she was . . .

Baboon in the News

aidt-head-webNaja Marie Aidt’s novel Baboon comes out in October, but you can get an early look at it right here, as World Literature Today has published one of its stories, as well as an interview with translator Denise Newman.

The story in question is titled “The Woman in the Bar,” and it is a haunting, voyeuristic tale with a surprise ending. It starts:

I didn’t see her come in, but suddenly she’s there. She’s walking on the polished floor in her heavy boots. She’s long-legged. That’s the first thing I notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m drinking a cup of coffee, watching people; I had an errand to do in the neighborhood, to pick up some dry cleaning, but then I also bought a bouquet of tulips, some tea cake, and a watermelon. My grandchild is visiting tomorrow. I’ve been walking around the city for a few hours and I’m cold and my legs are tired. It’s pleasant just to sit here as it grows darker outside. I’ve always liked this restaurant. It’s large with tall ceilings, white tablecloths, and terrible acoustics. An enormous dining room. People are lingering over late lunch, others are just drinking wine or cocktails, and behind me a couple of children are playing with a small train under the table. The atmosphere is pleasant. I lean back relaxed and enjoy the view of the young woman. Now she’s standing at the bar. She’s tall and erect; her neck is long and white. It’s the end of November. This morning I was thinking about how long it’s been since the wall fell. I thought about how quickly time passes. Even though so much has happened. Now the streetlights go on. It looks like it’s started to rain.

Here you can see Aidt’s trademark sentences, very terse and sharp, making for stories that generate a lot of momentum and carry you right through. If you like these sorts of sentences, you’ll find them all over Baboon, albeit used to a wide variety of narrative ends.

And here’s Denise talking a bit about this style and how she translated it.

MJ: Was it easy to retain this spare style in translation?

DN: Not always. Sometimes her short sentences sounded flat in English, and occasionally I had to combine sentences in order to keep the rhythm true to her style. I really admire Aidt’s economy of expression, and I found the need to use English just as succinctly to be both challenging and enormously engaging.

MJ: What was one of the thornier translation challenges in this project, and how did you resolve it?

DN: Naja and I went back and forth with certain epithets and obscenities (there are quite a few) trying to get the degree of emphasis and naturalness right. We got some help from her son who went to high school in Brooklyn. A more general challenge was finding the right voice for each narrator—for example, there’s a four-year-old girl, a depressed young man, a mother at the edge of her psychic strength—quite a range. I had to take time getting to know them, their situations and ways of seeing things, before I could find the correct tone.

MJ: Did you face any unique translation difficulties in “The Woman in the Bar”?

DN: The narrator of this story is an older woman who lived through the war, the creation of the GDR, and its dissolution. It helped to have visited Berlin before and after the wall came down to be able to appreciate how profound the changes would be in her life.[1] What was tricky about this narration was holding to the physical expression of what the protagonist is experiencing. The most dramatic piece of information is withheld from the reader, the protagonist knows, but it’s only revealed with one subtle sentence in the final paragraph.

You’ll be hearing lots more about Baboon soon. We’ve got a six-city tour planned for Aidt (details to come soon!), and there will be plenty of reviews.

Cover of Sinéad O'Connor, With Nonsense Lyrics, In Mandarin

So, ever since we published this book Running through Beijing, we’ve been attuned to all the crazy, Western knock-offs coming out of China these days.

But this right here really takes the cake. It’s not even a knock-off. It’s more like a knock-off that’s so original that it becomes its own thing.

So wow. There’s pirating Western goods, and then there’s building simulacra Apple stores in China, and then there’s this: Fatima Al Qadiri’s cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” sung in Mandarin with nonsense lyrics. And it’s an eerie, freaky sound that’s sort of familiar to your Western ears but also very creepy and sinister at the same time.

As Adam Bychawski explains at The Quietus:

‘Shanzhai’, the opening track of Fatima Al Qadiri’s debut album Asiatisch, takes its title from a Chinese term used to describe counterfeit Western goods. Literally it translates to “mountain village”, evoking both the outlaw nature of the industry and the crudeness of its reproductions – copyright-evading spoonerisms of sportswear brands and fast food chains. While such knock-offs are commonplace, there is perhaps more craft and sophistication to some imitations than that definition grants. Electronic giants such as Apple, slow to meet Chinese demand, have had their official stores outnumbered by dozens of simulacra, painstakingly recreated down to the uniform of their employees – to all intents and purposes the real thing. The term has come refer not just to products but lookalikes and parodies more generally, such as the track itself, a cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ sung in Mandarin, only with nonsense lyrics – a joke at our expense. Much like the Apple stores, we might have never known the difference.

This seems to me like a really, really fantastic instance of translation. Cultural exchange, play with language, the creation of a hybrid that’s transcends any one place and is purely astonishing. This is what translation is all about.