AUDIO: Naja Marie Aidt and Denise Newman Speak on Baboon

Baboon-294Last Thursday we had a wonderful event at The Booksmith as part of Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon book tour. The event consisted of Naja reading a story from Baboon, and then her and translator Denise Newman discussing Baboon with Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito.

The conversation occurred before an audience of approximately 30 readers at The Booksmith and delved into a number of areas: questions of translating Naja’s prose; the unique aspects of the working relationship between Naja and Denise; why this book resonated so much with Danish readers (and why it was unusual that it won such major and prestigious awards); the unified aesthetic represented in Baboon; Aidt’s influences as s short story writer; and even a few more things.

If you’re curious to know more about this book, or to hear Aidt read “The Honeymoon” go ahead and give the audio a listen. Here is a list of where you can find all the individual aspects of the conversation:

2:56: Naja Marie Aidt reads “The Honeymoon” from Baboon

27:54: The origins of Aidt’s and Denise Newman’s collaboration on translating Baboon into English, and how they worked together as a translator-and-author team

36:00: The reaction of Danish society to Baboon, and the reasons why a short story collection was given the region’s highest literary honors

44:00: Newman’s experiences trying to recreate Aidt’s aesthetic in English

46:40: The unity of Aidt’s aesthetic in Baboon and her experiences/inspirations as a short story writer

55:20: Q&A: How to get more interest in translations in the U.S.?

1:01:36: Q&A: Newman’s level of interaction with Aidt on Baboon

1:03:33: Q&A: The real-life counterpart of the Greek city in “The Honeymoon”

Michael Henry Heim — The Man Between


I wanted to share some news about a very special book from Open Letter Books that will be publishing in October: The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation.

For those who are unfamiliar with Heim, he was a truly astonishing translator: for starters, he translated from eight different languages. And not only that, he was known for making some of the most beautiful translations possible from some of the most difficult-to-translate writers. We’re talking Thomas Mann, Hugo Claus, Milan Kundera . . .

In addition to that, Heim was a tireless advocate of translation: he educated a new generation of translators as a professor at UCLA, and he also established the PEN Translation Fund out of his own pocket. He was also a mentor to many, a friend, and inspiration . . . This is some truly legendary stuff, and translation would simply not be anywhere near where it is today if not for his efforts.

So it’s really wonderful that Open Letter has put together a tribute to Heim’s life and works. And we at Two Lines Press are extraordinarily proud to be a part of this book.


When our parent organization, the Center for the Art of Translation, moved into its new offices back in 2011, we wanted to host an event to celebrate the occasion, and Heim was exactly the person we wanted to have at the center of this event. Even though he was at the time sick with the stage IV cancer that would eventually end his life, Heim made the journey upstate to San Francisco and gave a very inspiring speech about the “three eras of translation.”

Far from a dry academic lecture, this speech is a concise, engaging overview of the last 50 years of translation in the U.S. (Heim couches it in terms of three eras). It also ends with a call to arms to translators everywhere, with actual concrete ideas and goals that they can work on. It’s exactly the sort of thing that we should hear more of in the translation community.

When Esther Allen later got in touch with us to ask to include the speech in the book, we all immediately agreed that it would be a true honor. (And Esther has done a fantastic job annotating the speech throughout.)

In addition to that, this book is packed with all sorts of other things that will be of interest to translators and the translation-loving (all Heim-related, of course). Here are some images of the table of contents to whet your appetite.



Two Interviews with Naja Marie Aidt

Baboon-294So you may have heard that we’ve got Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon publishing next month, October 14 to be precise. (Although, psssst, if you pre-order the title, we might just send it to you right away.)

Some of the marvelous people who have already read Baboon have seen fit to discuss this subject with Naja. And the results are proving, I think, interesting.

First up is Emily Wilson at SF Weekly. First up, Naja shares some interesting remarks about her interaction with her translator, Denise Newman:

“I’m grateful that Denise wanted to involve me in the process,” she said. “or years we’ve worked to transform the stories into English in a way that felt natural and kept the tone. For example, in Scandinavian it’s very common to have short sentences one after the other. But in English it looks weird. So we had to find a new rhythm for the stories.”

If you read the book, you can definitely see what she means. Short sentences abound, and it creates a very madcap, chaotic feel, as, for instance, in “The Car Trip.”

Naja also talks about her upbringing in Greenland, where she was in fact born:

Aidt says that spending her first eight years in Greenland, before moving to Copenhagen, influenced her writing.

“I grew up with all the fairy tales,” she said. “There’s a strong oral storytelling tradition, and it’s a rough and harsh place. Then going to Copenhagen was like home to me with my grandparents there. I think the landscape and life of a place shapes you somehow. We have these long, dark winters and light, beautiful summers.”

Our second interview with Naja is courtesy of Asymptote. There’s a whole lot to read in this interview, but I’ll just highlight this one section. I’m choosing this because the stories in Baboon are really, really strange, although also quotidian and familiar, and I liked Naja explanation of how she arrived at her own interesting approach to this aesthetic.

One of the subjects I was interested in exploring or scrutinizing when working on Baboon (and something I am always drawn to when writing) is the absurdity and survival instinct that we live our everyday life as if nothing would ever change or threaten it. And when something does happen—your lover leaves you, you get sick, you lose a close relative, you find yourself in a car accident, or someone attacks you, you realize how vulnerable you are, how weak you are and how easily everything you trusted to be forever vanishes within seconds. It fascinates me to dig into those few seconds and to write about characters’ reactions to sudden changes, whether coming from the inside or the outside world.

Baboon was written while the economic boom was at its peak in Denmark, and that exaggerated everything. It made people feel like they didn’t need anyone anymore. You could feel the change in the streets. No politeness, no kindness, no community feeling. A lot of stress and egoistical behavior was activated. A terrible blooming racism. Fear that immigrants would come and take away our privilege. And also a new focus on the body. It was now possible to spend a lot of money to gain the perfect body, to get a pair of new breasts, to work out seven days a week, to make sure not to eat or drink anything that was not “guaranteed” to be healthy and so on. The body was worshipped as a temple. And the fear for diseases and sickness drove people mad.

I wanted to combine the materialism in society with the focus on the body and I spent a long time trying to invent a new kind of writing that not only described this but that in its way was the materialism, the body, the fear, and the intolerance. That’s why you will find very little in the way of psychological portraits, as in classic psychological realism. Instead, there are a lot of bodily reactions and the stories are written in the present tense to catch some of the “now and here” stress to force the reader to experience what the characters experience at the exact same time. The stories are mostly composed as a sequence of scenes with very little information on how the characters feel. Like a clash between person and surrounding. The story “Mosquito Bite” is an example of this method. I wanted to combine a literary poetic prose with a tight Steven King-like horror/suspense feeling in order to get that clash. A clash of the unpleasant, unexpected.

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? In order for them to be successful in translation, must their work 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.


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.


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.