Archive for May, 2010

[tk] Reviews on Blue Has No South, “the complexity and beauty [and] dry humor of Epstein’s miniature narratives”

Monday, May 31st, 2010

A review of Blue Has No South is up in the June edition of the new online venue [tk] reviews:

Epstein’s work grapples with overarching themes of geography and time, love and history, and the question of how art… is produced and what effect it has on its creator and the world.

There is no judgment in any of the stories, only… some emotional tone, most often of longing, sadness, the sense of distance between heart and home, the idea of loss and the passing of time.

“Karapanou today remains a unique writer”—new review in Rain Taxi

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

In Rain Taxi‘s spring online edition, check out the review of Margarita Karapanou‘s Kassandra and the Wolf and Rien ne va plus.

… [R]eaders will also be delighted by what grounds Kassandra and the Wolf: Karapanou’s language. The word-pictures kaleidoscope—at times literally, as dinner becomes after-dinner games becomes Kassandra running down the stairs to demand of the housekeeper stories from the Greek Civil War—and at other times metaphorically (“A word like a snake stares at me: there’s a pot like Grandmother’s chamber pot, a mouth in the middle, and next to a nail scissors. . . . At the tail there’s a ladder. I count the scribbles, examine them closely. I like this word.”) In still more places, Karapanou pulls off being both literal and metaphorical at once: “I’m alone again. I stick my tongue out vaguely at Miss Benbridge because she’s driven away my friends and lovely pictures. I act the ape at her, the Chinaman, and then the frog. In a picture, I cover her in dung, turn her into a horsefly and a cockroach, and, finally, I turn her into a water glass, which I throw out of the window.”

Read in full here

A new issue of eXchanges, with Emily Toder

Friday, May 21st, 2010

This fall Clockroot will release the first work in English by Argentine poet (& playwright, director, translator, essayist) Edgar Bayley, the fantastic The Life and Memoirs of Doctor Pi & Other Stories, translated from the Spanish by Emily Toder. In the meantime check out Emily’s translations of Felipe Benitez Reyes’ “From the Errant Astrologer” in the new eXchanges.  There’s also an essay by Lawrence Venuti to inspire discussion (made me shift in my chair a little as I thought about incidents in my own editing of translations; someday perhaps I’ll gather myself to write a little note about that).  This is also a good time to point out the excellent work that happens over at eXchanges, a place to keep a close eye on.

Blue Has No South: Interview with Alex Epstein

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

As a continuation of yesterday‘s post: today an interview with Alex Epstein, author of Blue Has No South, conducted by A’Dora Phillips.

A’DORA: Is Hebrew your mother tongue?

ALEX: I was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel with my family when I was eight, without knowing a word in Hebrew. So, I don’t really have a mother tongue—in order to write in Hebrew I had during the years, in a way, to forget my Russian.  I guess that Hebrew “adopted” me—I write in Hebrew, I “live” in Hebrew, I dream in Hebrew, but since it’s not my first language, it’s more an adoptive tongue than a mother tongue.

Your stories are wonderfully complex—in their wide range of reference, their tone, their blend of genres and mix of registers.  I imagine that for both you as writer and Becka as translator this must have raised even more concern than usual about what might be lost in translation?

This is exactly why I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Becka: she always tried to find the best solution possible to keep the “lost in translation” effect to a minimum. She is a poet, and consequently has a sharp eye for the single word, for the meaning of a single word in a very short prose piece.

It was important to me and to Becka to try to maintain the same poetics that my stories have in Hebrew: for example, the relationship between the story and the margins surrounding it, the white page.

Can you say a little about your involvement in the translation process?

I read all the translations, and provided some comments during the process. But the most important thing to say here is that eventually I was just a reader, and writers are not the best readers of their work, of course: the final decision is always made by the translator. On a few occasions Becka asked me to make alterations to the original, so that the story would work in English in the same way it does in Hebrew.

Becka mentioned that the English version of Blue Has No South is not an exact representation of the original.  Why did you make the decision not to include some stories and to add others?

We decided to make the book a better representation of my short work, and so a few of the longer stories were left out and replaced by newer short-short ones. But even with these changes, more than one hundred stories appear in both the Hebrew and English versions of the text, so ultimately they are very much alike.

Beyond the changes you made to the collection, how does the English translation of Blue Has No South “feel” to you?  Some writers, for instance, say they have no relationship to their work when it appears in another language and others say that it gives them a fresh perspective on their writing.  Any thoughts about this?

I do feel that it’s definitely my book, and part of what makes it feel that way is the process, seeing one version of the translation of a single story, and then seeing a new version, and yet again: that is exactly how I write, draft after draft after draft, so the shortest story can take months to write (and now, to translate).

Do you live full-time in Israel?  And, big question—one that ultimately may not be answerable—how would you characterize the current climate of Hebrew-language literature?

I do live in Israel, in Tel Aviv. Israeli contemporary literature is very hard to characterize—one thing that’s obvious, though, is that we have a lot of exciting voices, in different styles, exploring different themes. As everywhere, in the last years we have seen a shift from the short form towards the novel. But it seems that I am going in the opposite direction.

Blue Has No South: Interview with translator Becka Mara McKay

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Today and tomorrow we’ll be posting intern A’Dora Phillips’ interviews with Becka Mara McKay and Alex Epstein on Blue Has No South. Read on!—Hilary

Thirty-eight year old Alex Epstein is a well-known writer in Israel. He began publishing his work when in his early twenties and now has three novels and several short-story collections to his name. He was invited to participate in PEN’s 2010 World Voices Festival, attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2007, and presently Schusterman Visiting-Artist-in-Residence at the University of Denver. But despite his reputation, only now, with the publication of Blue Has No South, is his work available to English-language readers.

Epstein’s stories in Blue Has No South are short—some as brief as a single line or a paragraph, none more than a handful of pages. But beyond their brevity, it is hard to tidily sum up or summarily to characterize his work, which is both funny and poignant; which draws its references from classical mythology, history, religion, even science fiction; which is sometimes realistic and sometimes more fantastical or allegorical. The potent compression of the pieces make one think of poetry, but in an interview, Epstein maintains that his are stories, fictions, not poems or essays: “I call it fiction because when I write I am always concerned with the combination of narrative, characters and idea… I always try to relate not only to the story I am telling but also to the story that is not written, that exists only on the margins surrounding the page.”

Interview with translator Becka McKay

A’DORA: How did you come across Alex Epstein’s work?

BECKA: I met Alex through his participation the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—I was in my last semester of coursework for my PhD in comparative literature at Iowa.

Why were you drawn to translate Blue Has No South?

Alex’s voice is a unique mixture of playful and poignant—his stories make the reader think, offering no easy answers. Upon reading a few of the stories in original Hebrew of Blue Has No South I really wanted to know what they would sound like in English. And practically speaking, I was beginning to write my dissertation at the time and I was drawn to the fact that the stories were so short that I could find a way to balance my progress on both projects.

Do you translate solely from Hebrew into English?

I do.

What are the qualities of Hebrew and English, respectively, that presented challenges to you, particularly as regards this work?

Alex’s work presents a challenging mix of registers—a single story can range from an everyday Hebrew to a high, almost Biblical language. Hebrew also expands by about 30 percent when it moves into English—by, for example, using contractions—and it was very important to me to try to preserve the compactness of the language as much as possible—succinctness is clearly an important element of many of these stories. In general I also tried to be true to a “sentence count” rather than (as is often tempting) cutting a very long and tangled sentence in two.

Did you find that you had to privilege one or two qualities of Alex’s work over others as you worked? If so, what did you feel was most important to preserve?

I wanted to preserve Alex’s voice above all else, but that is probably not a satisfactory answer to the question, since his “voice” is composed of different qualities depending on the story. In some stories it could be that the register-mixing makes it a uniquely “Alex Epstein” story, while in another it could be the subject matter, the length, the plot…

What makes Hebrew so much more compact than English?

In part it’s because Hebrew uses prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. For example, the words “the” and “and” are never standalone words—they are always a single letter prefixed to a word. Personal pronouns, such as “you” and “I” are often merely a letter or two attached to the end of a word. The following five-word phrase in English, “everything is because of you,” can be rendered in only two words in Hebrew.

How about the challenges presented by more ephemeral issues involved in the act of translation? For instance, Epstein’s work is steeped in (among other things) Eastern European and Jewish issues of heritage and culture. Are some of the references in his work more generally familiar to the Israeli reader than the American reader?

This, of course, is the key issue: how to translate those things beyond language—cultural references, literary allusions, etc. I find that in Alex’s work, a sense of displacement or unfamiliarity is already part of the original, meaning that the extra-textual references often seem to come (in a good way) out of nowhere, and this seems to work to my advantage in translation. I also feel that when something is very, very well written, no matter how “local” it may seem in the original, it manages to transcend that aspect of itself in translation. I think Alex’s work falls into that category.

I was struck by the punctuation in Blue Has No South. In a number of stories, we see an abundance of punctuation not frequently used in English.  Is punctuation generally used more abundantly and expressively in Hebrew? Or do Alex’s punctuation choices stand out as being uniquely his?

I think that Alex uses punctuation uniquely, and I don’t think of this as Hebrew/English issue as much as an Alex issue.

Can you say a little about your working process during the course of your translation?

Alex and I work pretty closely—he reads my drafts and comments on them and answers my questions. I feel very lucky in that he trusts my judgment and my ear—we’ve never had an argument or a disagreement about a translation that I can remember.

There is obviously a fairly wide variation in the length of the pieces, and I’m wondering if it was harder to translate the shorter pieces than the longer ones, or vice versa?

The English version of Blue Has No South is not an exact representation of the original—Alex chose not to include some stories from the original that he no longer likes or that he felt wouldn’t work in English, and he also included some new stories.

Are there any translators or thoughts about translation that are especially relevant to you as you work—in general as a translator as well as more particularly on Alex’s piece?

I really wish I had some kind of brilliant answer for this question. But in the end I have to take on every story as its own set of problems and challenges, and hope that I can render something that works in English while still being a kind of lens through which the reader can glimpse the original.

I know that you yourself are an author. Can you say a little about how being a writer and being a translator intersect?

As a poet, I find that being able to set aside my own work and use the same tools—for example, making choices, ransacking my own vocabulary, listening for the music in the language—in service of someone else’s work to be a kind of wonderful escape. I also think that being a translator has taught me to be a better reader in general, and that includes being a better reader of my own work.

Help the Center for the Art of Translation bring Poetry Inside Out to 250 students

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

The Center for the Art of Translation has sent out a plea for donations to their Poetry Inside Out program. The CAT does a lot of wonderful programming, and this is another example—read more (from Scott Esposito at Two Words):

This week, we’re starting a campaign to raise $15,000 to bring Poetry Inside out to 250 new students this fall. We’d like to ask all the translators, publishers, writers, and readers out there to help us. If you love world lit, this is your chance to help bring that literature to young readers.

This is what we do: since 2000 PIO has worked with more than 5,000 students through residencies that place poet-translators in Bay Area classrooms. Our program inspires children from the inside out. They learn to take risks, be creative, and use imagination and critical thinking skills as they read, write, and translate poems by the world’s great poets. Our curriculum includes poems in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Latvian, Italian, and Japanese–children are introduced to writing from all around the world, and hopefully they go on to love translated literature for the rest of their lives!

Over the past decade we’ve forged strong partnerships with schools, but these ties are being threatened. Like many other states, California is out of money. When these cuts take effect, arts-enrichment programs–even ones as rigorous and clearly beneficial as Poetry Inside Out–are often the first things that are eliminated.

That’s why we’re reaching out to the community to offset these budget cuts and continue to offer Poetry Inside Out residencies in Bay Area classrooms. School program fees cover only one third of the cost of the program, and even that is uncertain for the fall.

The $15,000 we’re hoping to raise before June 18 will support 10 in-school residencies–that’s teachers for more than 250 Bay Area kids, who will learn to love translations, world literature, and creative writing.

If you can help, click the link to make a donation. All donations–no matter the size–will help us reach our goal and bring poetry and translation to students.

Click here to see an example of some of the great work these students do. And you can find even more with posts by the PIO instructors right here on this blog.

“An exquisite, powerful novella”: two new reviews of Touch

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

This week brings a starred Publishers Weekly review of Adania Shibli’s Touch:

Adania Shibli, trans. from the Arabic by Paula Haydar, Interlink/Clockroot, $13 paper (72p) ISBN 9781566568074
Celebrated young Palestinian writer Shibli—a playwright, author and essayist now located in the UK—makes her American debut with an exquisite, powerful novella that transports readers to her West Bank homeland. In spare prose, Shibli follows an unnamed little girl, the youngest in a large Palestinian family, as she examines her world and tries to understand her place in it. Though focused on the finest details—flakes of rust against skin, the softness of grass—Shibli takes readers to the center of a family and a culture, using the same careful, dispassionate observation to report everyday events like the father’s shaving as she does to depict the death of a sibling in area violence. Like a great volume of poetry, Shibli’s first novel (her second is forthcoming from Clockroot) has rhythm and unexpected momentum, and cries for re-reading.

… And a wonderful review at the Electronic Intifada (in full here):

Whatever it is—a dream, memory fragments, poems folded into sun and grass—Touch is both remarkable and difficult, beautifully lucid and yet also mysterious. The book is divided into sections entitled “Colors,” “Silence,” “Movement,” “Language” and “The Wall” …. Within this framework the little girl comes of age, her ordinary experiences of first love, school mishaps and sibling rivalries rendered extraordinary by the sensuous prose, and intensified by the heartbreaking backdrop against which they occur, a death whose impact tears apart the fabric of her family’s life. …

This is not a book to be shelved once finished. It calls to you softly, insistently, until you pick it up again and allow yourself to be tugged back in… [P]erhaps this is what Touch can be called, a question, rather than a novel — that place from where all searches begin.

“To me all literature is Arabic literature because I read it in Arabic”

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Adania Shibli, whose wonderful Touch Clockroot released in March, seems often to have such pithy, precise thoughts on translation (see here)—its limits, its futility, its urgency.  We regret not being able to head to London ourselves to see Adania at the Free the Word/International PEN festival, but you can find a write-up of one of her events here—a co-event with Ala Hlehel, who as we noted the other week, was the other honoree of the Beirut 39 unable to attend the festival in Beirut.

… what could be more uplifting than Adania’s answer to the final question about what Arabic literature influenced her. ‘To me, all literature is Arabic literature, because I read it in Arabic and therefore I feel it is Arabic. Tolstoy and Shakespeare – they are Palestinians!’