Do You Like Your Translations Plain Or Vitamin-Rich?

At the Free Word Centre, translators Canan Marasligil and Nicky Harman debate what has to be one of the most difficult questions in literary translation: how much “apparatus”—footnotes, introductions, afterwords, etc—do you include in a translation? I find this question really interesting because it implicates a lot of your beliefs about what exactly a translation is and how you prefer to experience a book—for instance, if you take the view that the translation is its own creation, equal to the original text, then you will most likely be against footnotes or contextualizing introductions.

For what it’s worth, I completely agree with Marasligil when she cones out against having footnotes in a text. If we consider translation to be an “art,” then surely using a footnote is cheating, an inelegant solution to a problem that the text has posed to you. Marasligil also makes a fine point about how it is not necessary to know the exact definition of every single word we read:

The primary role of a translator should be to render voice, not vocabulary, customs or habits. I recently read a novel written in British English, set in the UK, in which the author used the verb “to blutack”. I am sure many non-native English speakers like myself, who read English at a pretty good level, would have never heard of such a verb, but this didn’t push the author to explain what blutack was and why it could be used as a verb. And it didn’t stop me from understanding it. Because I’m one of those curious and slow readers, I Googled it, and learned a new verb built on cultural knowledge. Does this mean that when translating this novel into another language we should use blutack and explain it in a footnote? Of course not: it’s unimportant. We will use the appropriate vocabulary that means “stick it to the wall” in all languages.

As to the question of introductions, Harman offers a good argument for including them (even if, as a publisher and as a reader, I find them bulky):

Let me illustrate with a further question: Why do teachers consider it necessary to explain the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear? Because the modern meaning of the word doesn’t communicate the dramatic and social importance of the role. Granted, the reader will get some idea by the time they’ve finished the play. But why expect them to run barefoot through King Lear when we could give them a pair of running shoes, by way of an introductory note? Fundamentally, I think that expecting the reader to appreciate a book without understanding the context in which the writer was writing and, even more importantly, what he or she was trying to do, is to do the writer an injustice. This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience. For example, in a collection of Hong Kong stories I translated recently, by the writer Dorothy Tse, I felt it was very important to explain her surrealism by quoting her own words: “Contrary to mainland literature that tried to borrow languages from the working class as well as the farmers in the 50s as a way to reach the public, Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one. In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.”

The crucial words here are “Contrary to mainland literature”. I hope that these words will pique the interest of the reader, flagging up the fact that Hong Kong literature is a world away from the heavily politicized tradition of contemporary mainland Chinese literature. They will also alert readers to aspects of Dorothy’s writing such as her resolute refusal to reference Hong Kong products and places, giving us instead fantastic, imagined names, which are nonetheless tantalizingly close to reality.

This is a good case, and I find it partially persuasive, but I don’t agree fully with Harman. I can’t imagine too many readers reading a introduction in a bookstore, and probably only those with a specific interest in Chinese literature will be piqued by the description of the language. Likewise, it’s nice to have the author’s use of invented product names foregrounded, but isn’t this something an attentive reader would pick up on? I would prefer to err on the side of less than more.

Interestingly, the question of forewords was one that Two Lines Press recently had to deal with for our forthcoming Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. In support of the publication of that book we received a French Voices grant from the French government (joining a list of very nice authors, translators, and publishers), but one of the conditions of the grant was that the book had to include an introduction by an American author.

This was something that Littell was resolutely against (he’s very much a purist and prefers his books to be released without any kind of apparatus at all). In this case we definitely agreed with Littell’s opinion—as the author of The Kindly Ones, a widely discussed debut novel that was released in English just a few years ago, Littell is an author whose name will be familiar to the American reader. He is really in no need of an introduction, and if readers want to know more about him there are plenty of articles available. (Plus, to go to the effort of tracking down an author and paying him/her to write an intro would have been a sizable expenditure of resources for a small press like ours.)

Moreover, the four novellas presented in The Fata Morgana Books are such strange, ethereal, sui generis works that I do not know exactly how much good an introduction could do. You could surely slate Littell into certain movements or compare him to certain authors, but those comparisons won’t do a huge amount of good when it comes to reading the texts. Nor can I think of a whole lot of historical/regional context that I would give a reader of these novellas. Essentially, there’s not much to do to “prepare” a reader to read The Fata Morgana Books—they just need to be experienced.

Fortunately, in the end the good people behind French Voices agreed to waive the introduction requirement, to our and Jonathan’s great relief. And we are pleased to say that in just over a month you too will be able to experience these texts and make what you will of them for yourself.

Two Translators, One Fantastic Conversation

The Rumpus has published a fantastic conversation between two of translation’s best—Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, and, now Kafka) and Gregory Rabassa, translator of Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Mario Vargas Llosa, Machado de Assis, and so, so many more.

They cover just about everything in here. The time Rabassa got cheated out of his royalties from the runaway bestseller One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Rabassa: I got screwed—you wouldn’t believe—the one where I got the big screwing is Cien Años.

Rumpus: I read that in your book.

Rabassa: I got a few hundred dollars, something like that. The Americas Society, which was then the Center for Inter-American Relations, was hosting Guillermo Castillo, a sculptor who ran the artistic division. He was one of the pioneers in getting publishers to do Latin American literature by paying for the translation. And what the translator got was, before royalties and all that, not that much. But it cost the Center quite a lot. They paid for Cien años de soledad. They gave half of the money to pay me. And then the book came out and ran away. Not a penny went to the Center. And Guillermo Castillo was very angry about that. But he kept on supporting translations. Alfred Knopf was very good because he saw to it the translator’s name was on the jacket.

Rumpus: Did you ever live only off translation? Would that have been possible for you?

Rabassa: No. I don’t think so. If you want to call it living. I would’ve had to grub for something outside. Or else I would have had to fight for it. And I’m not that type. I’m a subversive fighter.

Rumpus: When did you start being able to get royalties on your translations?

Rabassa: I really don’t remember. The sad thing is, I’ve been getting them ever since a certain date, but it hasn’t made much difference—it’s meant an extra cup of coffee. The one I like is Machado de Assis. Because he’s dead, I am Machado de Assis! I get all the royalties on that one. It’s a small check these days, but nice to have.


Rabassa: Borges told his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni: “No traducir lo que digo, sino lo que quiero decir.” And quiero decir in Spanish has that beautiful double meaning, which is where it means “I want to say” and “I’m trying to say.” “I’m trying to do something” means “I want to do something.” And of course, Borges is always trying to say something and never gets to say it.

The quality of translations today:

Rumpus: Do you think that the quality of translations, overall, has gotten better? I mean, on average. Have our translations gotten better? Stayed the same? Gotten worse?

Rabassa: I think they’ve stayed the same. Maybe they’ve gotten worse because I think writing has gotten worse. But I don’t think there’ve been any great advances—except with the classics. I’m thinking of Bob Fagles, who turned out the three great epics. He’d been at it a long time.

And so much more . . . make sure to check it out.

THAT OTHER WORD | Episode 11 | September 2013 | Will Evans

Hosts Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito return after a summer of reading full of praise for a characteristically broad range of texts. First, they delight over Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, a newly-translated collection which features several original illustrations by Walser’s brother, and a long-awaited selected poems in English from an under-appreciated Italian poet, Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World, translated by “a host of luminaries.” Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop provides a dose of clever Eastern European gallows humor, and Giocomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone proves, at over 2500 pages, to be a brilliant addition to one’s nightstand. Finally, the hosts express their deep admiration and gratitude for a house favorite, László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, which represents a culmination of thirty years of the author’s work.

In the second half of the episode, Scott Esposito speaks to Will Evans, publisher and founder of Deep Vellum Press in Dallas, Texas. Their lively conversation opens with the story of how Deep Vellum got its “cheeky and irreverent” name and a discussion of Texas’ thriving literary and cultural scene. Evans speaks in detail about his decision to found a press, his close collaboration with Chad Post of Open Letter Books, and the historical, financial, and intellectual considerations in becoming a publisher of literature in translation. After waxing enthusiastic about his favorite presses and authors, Evans lays out Deep Vellum’s inaugural catalogue. Reflecting his profound commitment to equal gender representation among his authors, Evans introduces Anne Garréta, the politically radical Oulipian whose novel Sphinx is a genderless love story; Sergio Pitol, the great Mexican novelist whose Trilogy of Memory Deep Vellum will bring into English; Mikhail Shishkin, who is of particular interest to Evans due to his background in Russian, and whose short stories should appeal to anyone who loved Maidenhair; and Carmen Boullosa, another Mexican writer whose novel Texas supports Evan’s abiding wish to explore Texas’ relationship with its southern neighbor.


INTRO: Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito

00:55 Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories
2:32 Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: Selected Poems
3:40 Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop
6:47 Giocomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone
9:27 László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below

FEATURE: Scott Esposito interviews Will Evans

12:47 How Deep Vellum got its name; the Texas literary scene
19:52 Founding Deep Vellum
34:24 Will Evans’ favorite presses and authors
40:10 Anne Garétta and Sphinx
45:58 Sergio Pitol and The Trilogy of Memory
51:10 Mikhail Shishkin and his short stories
56:38 Carmen Boullosa and Texas

TWO LINES 20 Table of Contents

(purchase Landmarks here)

The Fear
By Scholastique Mukasonga
Translated by Lara Vergnaud

By Liliana Colanzi
Translated by Sandra Kingery

Hands and Planets (excerpt)
By Juan Jose Saer
Translated by Roanne Kantor

The House
By Paigham Afaqui
Translated by Matt Reeck

The Bottles in the Cellar
By Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

Andrejs’s Religion (excerpt)
By Inga Abele
Translated by Kaija Straumanis

What Happened to You?
By Pierre Mertens
Translated by Edward Gauvin

The Dark (excerpt)
By Sergio Chejfec
Translated by Heather Cleary

It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time)
By Pavol Rankov
Translated by Magdalena Mullek

Three Poems
“All the Generations Before Me”
“The Time Has Come to Collect Evidence”
“Bitter and Quick”
By Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Block and Chana Kronfeld

Two Poems
“The Present”
“Senhor de Bonfim”
By Andres Navarro
Translated by Curtis Bauer

Two Poems
“One Million”
By Daniil Kharms
Translated by Melinda Noack

Two Poems
By Ana Martins Marques
Translated by Julia Sanches

Two Poems
“Laurel Forest”
“Forgetting is for the Birds”
By Melih Cevdet Anday
Translated by Sidney Wade

By Juan Gelman
Translated by Lisa Rose Bradford

Dwelling in the Warmth of Other Moons
By Ahmatjan Osman
Translated by Jeffery Yang

Two Poems
“I Am a Drowning Victim”
“To My Sister”
By Celia Dropkin
Translated by Jennifer Kronovet

Two Poems
“Eurydice—to Orpheus”
By Marina Tsvetaeva
translated by Ariel Ross

By Pavel Srut
Translated by Deborah Garfinkle


Dayplaces: Showdowns Concerning the Beauty of The World and its Depression
By Naseer Hassan
Translated by the author and Jon Davis

Five Songs for Something Forgotten
By Ahmed Abdel Mu’ti Hijazi
Translated by Omnia Amin and Rick London

By Ronny Someck
Translated by Robert Manaster

God After Ten O’clock
By Ali Al Jallawi
Translated by Ayesha Saldanha

The Quilt
By Mona Elnamoury
Translated by Mona Khedr

The Mehlis Report (excerpt)
By Rabee Jaber
Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

With Your Hands
By Ahmed Kalouaz
Translated by Simon Pare

Tales of the First Love
By Ammar Ali Hassan
Translated by Mona Elnamoury
Edited by Marcia Lynx Qualey

Petty Thefts
By Taleb Alrefai
Translated by Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti

Orange Lies I and II
By Gulala Nouri
Translated by Hodna Nuernberg

October 28: Oscar Villalon in Conversation with Santiago Roncagliolo [Event]

We are very excited to say that we’re pairing San Francisco literary superstar—and current ZYZZYVA managing editor—Oscar Villalon with Two Lines Press’s own Santiago Roncagliolo at The Booksmith this October. Among other things, they’ll be discussing Roncagliolo’s new book Hi, This Is Conchita, published earlier this year by Two Lines Press and blurbed by Mr. Daniel Alarcón as follows: “Santiago Roncagliolo is one of the writers of my generation I most admire. He is rigorous, fearless, and funny, with a keen eye for absurdity embedded within the everyday. A new book by Roncagliolo is a cause for celebration.”

Roncagliolo, who has been named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, and who picked up The Independent Foreign Fiction award (joining such notables as Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, W.G. Sebald, Gerbrand Bakker, and Per Petterson), has received all sorts of international awards for his work, which includes journalism, novels delving into the turbulent history of his native Peru, and experimental fiction based on telenovelas. With Oscar he’ll be addressing his career and, obviously, his most recently translated book, a collection of recent fiction headlined by a lurid, dialogue-only novella about hit-men, phone sex, and impossibly annoying customer service calls.

  • October 28
  • The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St San Francisco, CA 94117
  • 7:30 pm
  • FREE

Here are the people you’ll see:

Santiago Roncagliolo is a Peruvian novelist and investigative journalist. His first novel, Red April, won the Premio Alfaguara in 2006 and The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011. In 2010 Granta named him one of its 22 Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. He contributes to El País and other leading Spanish-language newspapers.

Oscar Villalon is the managing editor of ZYZZYVA. A book critic and essayist, he’s on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and frequently reviews for KQED FM’s The California Report. He lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his wife and son.

Ngũgĩ and Oates [Nobel Speculation]

Nobody (short of the people at Ladbrokes making the odds, and maybe not even them) tracks the likely candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature closer than Michael Orthofer, and as of today he has concluded that there are two authors who are likely to be Nobel finalists: Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, probably best-known for his 2006 mega-novel Wizard of the Crow, and Joyce Carol Oates, probably best known for freaking everyone out by writing thousands of books.

This is interesting. I don’t claim to know precisely how Michael picked up Oates as a Nobel finalist (and to be sure, nobody, except the people on the Nobel committee and possibly the odds-makers at Ladbrokes), but if he says she’s on there, there’s a decent chance she is. Which would be a strange thing, because it’s been quite a while since an American picked up this award—Toni Morrison in 1993—and I’m guessing that many, many readers out there would not put JCO as their top American contender.

Here’s Michael’s explanation as to why JCO is tipped to possibly win:

The one stand-out is Joyce Carol Oates. Last I checked her odds at Ladbrokes last year, a few hours before the winning announcement, she rated only 33/1 — but, as mentioned to me on Twitter, someone did report her odds shooting up to 9/1 just before betting closed — a last-minute surge suggesting some leakage that she was at least one of the finalists. Note also that she was the closing favorite at Betsson last year, too, just ahead of Murakami (4.50 to 4.60).

Oates wouldn’t seem the likeliest of American contenders, but the betting consensus rating her so high suggests there might be something to this — more plausible, too, because of all the authors whose books are hard to hide, she certainly ranks right up there, simply because there are so many of them (in other words: it wouldn’t take much for more than one Swedish Academician to be spied reading one of her books (or lugging around three dozen of them …), enough to attract the gossip-mongers, and bookies’ attention). It’s also worth noting that a lot of her work has been translated into Swedish (not a prerequisite, but it can’t hurt if she is locally widely known and accessible) — and that her name has certainly been floated, seriously, before (even in Swedish papers — recall Magnus Sjöholm’s 2011 article, Nobelpriset: Min favorit är Joyce Carol Oates (okay, that’s only half-serious — but still)).

As usual, most of the top contenders (odds-wise) are writers in translation. Here are the top 10 as per The Complete Review as of a couple of days ago:

Murakami Haruki 3/1
Joyce Carol Oates 6/1
Nádas Péter 7/1
Ko Un 10/1
Alice Munro 12/1
Adonis 14/1
Assia Djebar 14/1
Amos Oz 16/1
Philip Roth 16/1
Thomas Pynchon 20/1

Interestingly, Michael says that Cesar Aira made his first ever appearance on the odds list at 100/1. At those odds he’s little more than the opportunity for a few Aira-lovers to throw away some money on wishful thinking, but it is nonetheless nice to see him up there. Now there’s a ceaselessly prolific novelist I could get behind for this award.

Michael also claims that Spaniard Javier Marías is a good bet at the moment, with odds well below his chances of winning. When you look at all the awards he’s picked up, there are probably few that he’s been eligible for that he hasn’t won yet.