A Responsibility to be Unpalatable

This post comes to us from Two Lines Press’s CJ Evans, who edited The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. This title will be released on November 11, 2013.

Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books went off to the printers a few weeks ago and will be hitting store shelves in just a few days (if not already!). Editing this project was a very intense experience—I love the artistry of this book, but in some ways, in the ways I think Jonathan wants all of his readers to, I hate it.

Let me back up here and give a little context: Littell’s Prix-Goncourt winning debut novel The Kindly Ones was lambasted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times as “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellant.” She was not alone in this harsh judgment.

I won’t argue with that assessment, but I will argue with the premise that literature has any responsibility to be, well, responsible. Littell certainly takes his characters, his stylistic tics, and certainly his subject matter to the extreme, frankly depicting graphic sex, violence, debauchery, drugs, and all kinds of other things. That may seem irresponsible to some but, in my opinion, the less responsible mode is to make the reprehensible seem palatable. For instance, we celebrate Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis despite the excesses of their books. We even overlook or rationalize those dark parts of Cormac McCarthy’s literature that he (in my estimation) seems to most want us to dwell on. But in Littell’s work you just can’t do that: you’re not simply rubbernecking the horrible car wreck, able to turn away whenever you get a little queasy. You’re the driver who’s at fault, and you’ve killed and maimed a lot of people. That makes for tough literature, but it also makes for incredibly interesting literature.

A large part of what made editing this book so intense, but also so fun, is Littell’s devotion to and exactness in the smallest details—I sent him the final proofs after midnight his time and he got back to me a couple hours later with final approval, even vetting things down to the kerning of the em-dashes in one of the stories. Littell speaks English fluently, so it was an ongoing conversation between him, Charlotte, and me about the subtle inferences of words in French versus English, and in each detail Jonathan was aware of what was used five pages previously and five pages after, and has already considered the effect of ambiguity versus precision versus tone. Jonathan isn’t casually entertaining sodomy or violence in his work, he’s taking us by the hand and leading us down the darkest hole he can find, to see what’s really there.

Here’s an interesting example of that precision in language: we all had a long discussion over whether the word sex in this passage is used accurately or not:

With my hand behind me, my heart beating, I guided the member slippery with saliva to my anus, it pressed in and widened me and entered, filling my entire back with joy, unfurling it beneath the cloth of the dress. I was no longer hard at all, my parts beat limply against the lace of my lowered panties, my thighs sheathed in silk pushed against the muscular thighs of the girl burrowing powerfully into me, I collapsed onto one shoulder, twisting a little to the side, thus I could again see framed in the mirrors parts of our bodies, a mobile mound of pale flesh and pieces of disparate clothing piled on the verdant expanse of cloth, with at the summit the rounded ass of the girl, quivering at each thrust, then beneath that my thigh and the curve of my buttock, outlined by the grey of the stockings and the bunched-up dress. Her hands were pressing with all their weight on my neck and head and this is how, split in two by her magnificent sex, my body tore away from itself, projecting itself like a shade over those surrounding it, the one dominating it and the others all around, blurred and dismembered by the pleasure bearing them up like a vast swell.

To me, the term sex as a noun in this instance seemed overly vague, since here the thing described is a penis. While I think the whole of the genitals can accurately be called someone’s “sex” just the penis seems too specific to have that shy term. It’s even more complicated here, since the speaker is a man (who may at some point morph into a woman, or slips back and forth between the two genders) is being penetrated by a character that is very specifically referred to, and described as, a woman throughout. But then she has a penis that she penetrates him with . . .

I’ve started a couple of conversations here that we’re hopefully going to be able to continue on this blog. Because while The Fata Morgana Books is a title we’re proud to have published, it will be a very difficult book (in the sense of strange, grotesque, and overly frank) for many readers. We all were certainly challenged by it, and my colleague Scott Esposito and I have had a number of conversations about why The Kindly Ones didn’t work for us, but The Fata Morgana Books did. So here’s to the beginning of a conversation about our fall title. And of course please do pick up a copy of your own and join in . . .

Naja Marie Aidt Chapbooks!

We are slowly but surely filling up the Two Lines offices with these chapbooks bearing a story from one of our 2014 titles, Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt. In a few days these will be signed by Aidt herself, and then they will be in the hands of our fearless subscribers, who have so bravely accompanied us on this first year of our publishing existence. It’s just one of the many ways we will be endeavoring to than subscribers for supporting the press. (And for a list of reasons why subscribers are so important to what we do, go here.)

If you have not yet taken the plunge on a Two Lines subscription, there is still time for you to get our acclaimed first four titles, plus our thank-you-gift chapbook. Just subscribe right now for the low, low, loooow rate of $9 per book (plus a free back issue of the TWO LINES journal).

And we do hope that whether or not you subscribed in 2014, you will be joining us in 2014. We are currently putting the finishing touches on our lineup, and they will be some awesome books! For a quick preview, you can find out more about our first 2014 title, Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen, right here.

Does Literature Get “Un-Censored” When Translating From Chinese?

The New York Times has an interesting article on how books being translated into Chinese are becoming censored as they get published in that country. So, for instance, this biography of Deng Xiaoping has apparently had all sorts of cuts made in order to be palatable to Chinese bureaucrats:

Chinese readers of Ezra F. Vogel’s sprawling biography of China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping may have missed a few details that appeared in the original English edition.

The Chinese version did not mention that Chinese newspapers had been ordered to ignore the Communist implosion across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Nor that General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, purged during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, wept when he was placed under house arrest. Gone was the tense state dinner with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev when Deng, preoccupied by the throngs of students then occupying the square, let a dumpling tumble from his chopsticks.

So if works being translated into Chinese are getting more censored, does that mean books being translated from Chinese are getting less censored? That’s kind of the case with our spring title, Running Through Beijing. This is a very racy, transgressive title; as our inimitable catalog copy has it,

In Running Through Beijing, leading young Chinese author Xu Zechen draws on his actual experiences and real-life friends to guide us through an underworld of constant thievery, hard-core porn, cops (both real and impostors), prison, bribery, crazy landladies, rampant drinking, and the smothering, bone-dry dust storms that blanket one of the world’s largest cities in thick layers of grime.

As you can imagine, some of this stuff didn’t play well with the censors when originally published in China, and some of the book’s more transgressive aspects were quite clearly toned down. It’s also clear that other aspects were downplayed to suit Chinese cultural norms. In our translation, we’ve taken care to meter the language as appropriate for an American audience, not only to achieve the right effect but also to ensure that the translation reads well. Let us be quick to add that we are doing this with the approval of the translator and the author.

So does this mean that Two Lines Press is un-censoring a book that was originally censored? And, if one fine day this book is published in China as Xu Zechen originally intended it to be, does this mean that our English edition will be the foundation of a more authentic text?

Join Us to Celebrate Clarice Lispector on October 15

A reminder to join us this coming Tuesday as we collaborate with Litquake to celebrate that rare literary genius that was Clarice Lispector. Tickets are available right here for just $10, which gets you a free copy of Passageways with admission.

You’ll have a chance to pick up those beautiful new New Directions paperbacks to the left over there, and translator Idra Novey will be on hand, just in case you want to get your copy of The Passion According to G.H. signed. (I’m sure the other guests will oblige with signatures as well, should you be so inclined to commemorate the night in that fashion).

Our star-studded panel will also include translator Katrina Dodson, who is currently translating The Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector, forthcoming from New Directions in 2014. This will be the first-ever English publication of Lispector’s collected stories, and I’m guessing Katrina will have some intriguing points to make about her work on it.

Our panel is rounded out with the award-winning novelists Hector Tobar and Micheline Marcom, who, between them, have a couple of PEN Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Here are the full details:

  • October 15
  • Hotel Rex
  • Doors 6:00pm, events 6:30
  • Tickets $10 (free copy of Two Lines Press’s book Passageways with each paid ticket)

Get your tickets here.

And here’s the talent:

Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series and named a Best Book of 2012 by Coldfront and The Volta. She is also the author of The Next Country, a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry and a forthcoming collection Clarice: The Visitor in 2014. Her most recent translations include Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H.

Hector Tobar is the author of three books, most recently the novel The Barbarian Nurseries published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and named a New York Times Notable Book. For two decades he’s worked for the Los Angeles Times: as a city reporter, national and foreign correspondent (on assignments from from East Los Angeles to Iraq), and was part of the reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots. He is also the author of Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States and The Tattooed Soldier, a novel, which was a finalist for the PEN USA West award for fiction.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom has published five novels, including a trilogy of books about the Armenian genocide and its aftermath in the 20th century. She has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the US Artists’ Foundation. Her first novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, was a New York Times Notable Book and Runner-Up for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. Her second novel, The Daydreaming Boy, won the PEN/USA Award for Fiction.

Katrina Dodson is currently translating The Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector, forthcoming from New Directions in 2014. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, Two Lines, and McSweeney’s. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is writing a dissertation on Elizabeth Bishop, Clarice Lispector, and questions of geographical imagination.

(MODERATOR) CJ Evans is the editor of Two Line Press and the Literary Programs Manager for the Center for the Art of Translation. He is the author of the poetry collection A Penance and a chapbook, The Category of Outcast. He is the recipient of the 2013 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship and a contributing editor for Tin House.

We Want YOU To Translate! [Event]

Calling all Bay Area lovers of translation (and speakers/readers of Spanish): we want YOU for a special event on November 13.

Two Lines Press has posted three short texts by the Cuban master gameplayer and writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. We are inviting anyone who can show up to read in San Francisco on November 13 to translate them and submit them to us! You can translate as many as you like, but you need only translate one of these texts to enter.

These are devilishly smart, intriguing, sometimes pornographic works, sure to stretch every last one of your translation muscles!

It’s all part of an event we are doing with the SF literary nonprofit Quiet Lightning. Here’s the deal: translate the 3 Cabrera Infante texts by October 28 and send them to us. Just for that, you’ll get a copy of Passageways (sorry, limited only to area residents). Then we’ll pick our favorites, and they will be read by their translators at a great, alcohol-fueled event with Quiet Lightning on November 13. Those who read on the 14th will get $50 plus all four Two Lines Press books (and maybe another goodie or 2 if we can find some cool stuff hanging around our offices . . .)

That’s all. Full details and submission information at the link. On your mark, get set . . . GO!!!!!!

How New Translation Presses Succeed [Subscriptions]

Being a youngish translation press finding its way in the rough world of publishing, we here at Two Lines Press are always interested to see how other new translation presses are doing their work. This was part of our motivation for interviewing Will Evans of new translation press Deep Vellum for our That Other Word podcast (our other motivation was to help out anyone who, like Will, has decided to just start his or her own press).

Today I see that Stefan Tobler, the man behind the incredible new translation press And Other Stories (and a great translator in his own right), has a post up at English PEN about how he has managed to make it to his press’s third birthday. Not surprisingly, grants and non-profit status play a large role in his business model. He also highlights another aspect of the business that may not get quite as much attention but sure is important:

With funding and sales uncertain, an area of support that has been invaluable to us from the start is subscriptions. We now have around 700 people subscribing in advance to each of our books. I had seen some American publishers like Open Letter Books and Ugly Duckling Presse offer subscriptions of their books and remembered subscribers’ names at the back of some very, very old library books and it seemed like something we could do and link to a community of readers, writers and translators. To show our genuine gratitude for their up-front support, we thank subscribers by name in the back of the books; send them their books in advance of the retail publication date; invite them to special social and literary events for subscribers; give them free tickets to public events (such as Villalobos’ Rich Mix event) and extra goodies now and then (for example, postcards designed by our authors). It is a club of like-minded people whose broad support allows us to take creative risks and not be reliant on investors’ agendas.

Indeed, subscriptions are an awesome thing for a young press, for so many reasons: first and foremost, it’s incredibly gratifying and inspiring to know that there are people out there who trust our literary judgment enough that they’ll read whatever we decide to publish. That endorsement is a big thing, and it certainly makes us want to publish the best books possible.

From a more business-minded perspective, it’s also incredibly important to know that X number of books have, in effect, already been sold before we publish them. That gives so much more latitude to a press that wants to do a difficult-to-sell title, simply knowing that we’ll have to sell that many books less to break even, so that we can live to publish for another year.

But perhaps the coolest thing about subscriptions is how they let us establish relationships with our core fan-base—and find interesting new ways to say “thank you” whenever we can. One thing that we at Two Lines Press are working on right now is a special bonus for our 2013 subscribers, those brave souls who have been good enough to take a chance on us in our first year of operations (hint, hint, you can still get in on this really cool item if you choose to take out a subscription). I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but it will be good, and it will be in the mail before too, too much longer . . .

On Translation, Commas, and Run-On Sentences in The Fata Morgana Books

Charlotte Mandell, translator of our November title The Fata Morgana Books, has a great piece up at Necessary Fiction on her work with this title and its author, the French/English bilingual Jonathan Littell. The whole thing is definitely worth a read, as Charlotte is one of the best translators out there right now (short list of her work: Proust, Blanchot, Littell, Énard, Rancierre . . .), but the part that really caught my eye was where she talks about her and Littell’s competing versions of the “Fait Accompli,” which is part of the book’s first (of four) novella, “Etudes.”

I think it’s interesting that Charlotte chose to highlight the use of commas and run-on sentences here because she’s probably the world authority on that topic, having translated Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, which is nothing but one enormous run-on sentence, with, of course, lots of commas. “Fait Accompli” isn’t quite that, but it is a strange story (break-up as a mathematical equation is what we’ve been calling it around the office), and I’m guessing it required some serious translation ingenuity to pull off.

Anyway, you should have a look at Charlotte’s piece to see a comparison of her translation and Littell’s. I’ll post hers right here and let you click on over to compare.

In the case of the Fata Morgana books, I seem to recall the changes as being for the most part quite minor — matters of punctuation and sentence structure, mostly. There’s a story in Etudes, called “Fait Accompli,” which has a lot of commas — it’s a series of run-on sentences, basically — and Jonathan wanted to use more commas and fewer periods. Here are our two versions, mine first:

“Talking, then, a conversation in short, like many others. But whoever says ‘conversation’ says ‘scene,’ it’s a convention of the genre. So the conversation takes place in a park, by the side of a grey pond, in the racket of cars and trams going by them, between two rows of trees including chestnuts, recognizable from their eggplant-shaped leaves and especially from the chestnuts strewing the ground. It’s fall and the already yellow leaves on the trees including chestnut trees are falling and strewing the ground and floating on the grey water of the pool and often raised in heaps by the cars and trams passing right next to them, and their sad footsteps tread on the yellow and brown leaves and a few rare chestnuts and many husks, the green ones freshly fallen and the brown ones yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s, shaken from the chestnut branches by filthy kids who have gathered the chestnuts for their slingshots, hence their rarity, but they left the husks, hence their ubiquity. No that won’t work. Let’s say rather a subway station, by for instance the Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow subway, chosen at random, with all along its vaulted ceiling its pretty oval mosaics, planes, aircraft, parachutists, young Soviet athletic types bursting with health and joy, all the way to the end of the long hall with at the end the bust of the poet, the filthy bust, the filthy poet. They are walking, she with her ashamed and suffering eyes fixed on the concrete of the platform, he with his face raised to the mosaics, the fragments of colors stuck between the arches, this imaginary innocence. No that won’t work either. In fact they’re sitting down since thinking about it has tired them too much to walk.”