Archive for October, 2010

Writing as uncertainty & teaching writing as teaching uncertainty

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Sonya Chung has a nicely straightforward and—I want to say “warm and sane,” can I say that? Often sanity seems cold and bitter these days, or at least my attempts at it—essay over at the Millions on teaching writing:

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer” – I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing – “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

I’m teaching my first undergraduate creative writing class this semester, and this week was thinking much about something like this issue, instead of “uncertainty” thinking of “curiosity & humility.” These virtues that perhaps describe all of our, and our students’, better instincts as students, as writers—when are we humble, curious, thrilled and inspired to discover ourselves uncertain; when are we merely defensive or worse, only seeking affirmation.  I thought of this as I taught Kassandra and the Wolf a few weeks ago, and considered that book again, and how I never feel I’m done coming to terms with it.  That novel is a gorgeous, all-in affair with uncertainty—its mysteries varied and many: like the dark breath in the back of the monster’s cave; like your mother’s locked jewelry box, where you know she keeps her letters.  When we discussed the novel in class, I found what I most wanted to discuss was its power to create uncertainty in us, to keep shifting, suggesting conflicting and multiple and difficult readings, even as it can feel in us that we want to just know.  What a brave book, to live so fully amid uncertainty for 140 pages, and bring so much back.  To uncertainty, then—


The new Massachusetts Review brings a taste of Pi

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Massachusetts ReviewThe Autumn 2010 issue of the Massachusetts Review is out, and in it three stories from The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi—alongside poetry by Ko Un, Donald Revell, an essay on colonialism & the poetry of rebellion by Martin Espada, and translations translations translations… I will hunt down a copy this weekend! For all you translators out there, note that the MR is also offering a new prize for work in translation: details here.

I also neglected to note that this fall Dr. Pi made an appearance at Route 9, the new online literary magazine of the UMass MFA program. The first issue features poetry, prose, criticism, interviews, art etc. by Matthew Zapruder, Heather Christle, Zach Savich, Leni Zumas, I would keep listing but you could also just click over and have a look…

At Granta: Uzma Aslam Khan on literature in Urdu

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

To further mark the publication of Granta‘s new issue on Pakistan, Ollie Brock interviews Uzma Aslam Khan and Aamer Hussein on Urdu literature (and, as Uzma adds, on literature in the many other languages of Pakistan). Here’s a little bit from Uzma, on one of her favorite Urdu writers:

[Saadat Hasan Manto‘s] short story “Toba Tek Singh” was my closest glimpse of the scars of Partition that my father never shared with us. His family came to Lahore in 1947 from a tiny village near Amritsar; his grandparents were beheaded before his mother’s eyes. I think he let his children see his past through reading “Toba Tek Singh,” a satirical account of the inmates of a mental asylum who have nowhere to go at Partition, but are forever left in limbo, between Pakistan and India.

The story made me deeply suspicious of easy categorization, particularly along ethnic and religious lines. It also made me understand that I come from a country that wasn’t shaped by those who migrated to it, like my parents, nor by the many indigenous tribes who’d lived there long before any one presumed to scratch lines across their land. Mine is the first generation of writers to be born in Pakistan, so, like my parents, I also carry the weight of beginning. The need to look in Pakistan’s looking-glass and know the slippery ghosts of my history has been imperative for me as a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hungering to know my place in these chaotic layers. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said. It’s the terror of being left as voiceless as the inmates of the asylum.

Read in full here

The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi: Interview with Emily Toder

Monday, October 11th, 2010

emilytoderweb1Emily Toder is a poet, translator and student of library science. She attended the UMass Program for Poets and Writers and the University of East Anglia’s Masters in Literary Translation. Her translation of the Argentine poet Edgar Bayley’s The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi has just been released by Clockroot Books. Clockroot intern Leora Fridman sat down with Emily to discuss her process of translation and Bayley.

LEORA: When did you start translating and how did your interest in it develop?

EMILY: I’ve been translating for about six years out of my own drive. After college I was living in Spain and, quite simply, I had favorite poems and literature that I wanted to show to my friends who didn’t speak English, so I started translating James Tate, and it went from there. I took Spanish in middle school, but didn’t take it seriously until my twenties. I’d studied abroad in Alicante, a small seaside city in Spain, and when I graduated from Oberlin I knew I wanted to go back to a big Spanish city. I went to Barcelona and enrolled in a TESOL certification, but ended up doing all kinds of odd jobs and taking a class in literary translation. At the time I was writing 2-3 poems a day – you know, you just couldn’t stop me! It seemed inevitable to go into translation if I was obsessed with language and living somewhere where I was moving between languages all the time. In 2004 I got a job doing technical translation, and I’ve been doing it since.

Does commercial translation relate to your literary work?

Commercial translation is just so straightforward after literary translation – the style is dictated in a very basic way and the emphasis is on conveying the meaning. It’s a very simple act of communication – you communicated the idea or you failed. It’s a yes or no thing. It’s not that I don’t worry about how it sounds, but it’s not the same kind dilemma as it is with literary translation.

How did you find Dr Pi and why were you drawn to it?

Writers always lead you to other writers. I found Bayley when I was translating something by another Argentine, Sergio Checjfec. I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table translating this very complex poem with lots of literary allusions, and there was an epigraph with a line from Bayley. So I thought, “I better read this Bayley guy to figure out what’s going on.” So, I took out everything they had of Bayley out of the UMass library. I sat down that night reading Dr Pi, and I was captured. I got started right away.

How did you decide to translate Dr Pi?

When I sat down to read Pi, I completely forgot about not only that poem but the entire world – I could not prevent the translational impulse to see how it would sound in English. I was just very enchanted by Pi and totally mystified. In Pi there’s a sense that the reader doesn’t know at all where he’s going, and that Bayley also doesn’t know. It’s  a really sense of spontaneous absurdity that is absurd and banal at the same time. It really whisks you away. There is also something very inclusive about his style. All literature is based on the cultural reference at some degree but Bayley is certainly not stuffy. He wants you to come along. In that way he’s a very generous author.

In the process of translation, what elements of this book did you think were most important to preserve?

Style is paramount. Style is everything. There’s not a way you could do something and sacrifice style, because style is in every battle. That said this book was not so tricky to translate. I struggled with some small references about the city of Buenos Aires. For example, the reader might not know that two places are far from one another, so I slip in the phrase, “all the way to” to indicate that something is far away. But there were not major cross-cultural obstacles. The book has a universal aspect of the adventure story. It did not need a lot of coaxing to work in English. Pi is appealing to something that is very expressible and experience-able across cultures.

Are there parts of Dr Pi that you think were lost in translation?

Some things are lost that are cultural references. For example, there’s a word morocha for something kind of like mamacita – a brunette sexy chick of sorts, but in its Argentine usage it isn’t derogatory or gross. I used the term “brunette.” It’s a cultural difference in our America that it’s a little bit sensitive to be describing people’s characteristics. Everything referring to skin tone is going to sound bigoted. We don’t have the same machismo culture, so if I used a morocha kind of word, it would just sound disrespectful, which isn’t how it sounds in the Spanish.

That’s interesting, because I as a reader definitely got that sexy, seductive kind of character when you refer to “brunette” in the book, even though it doesn’t necessarily have that connotation in English.

Yes, and that’s because you know Pi – he helps to inform what “brunette” means for him.

What was your working process with this book like?

I’m an impulsive translator. I think like that, I write like that, too.  I’ll translate like touch typing. I’ve got the book behind this plastic polyurethane cookbook holder. I’ll just touch type while reading the book, and if I don’t know a board I’ll leave it bold in the Spanish, then go back later and fill it in. I go through it ten or twenty times to make sure it sounds good to me. I also check it with a native speaker if I have doubts about the context.

Did you complete Pi while you were getting your Masters in Literary Translation this past year?

It was my plan to translate Pi as my thesis, but I ended up actually doing other poems of his because it became clear that Pi wasn’t going to require that much more work by that point.

Given that there are so many different dialects of Spanish, and that you learned your Spanish in Spain, how did you adjust to translating Argentinean Spanish?

When I was learning Spanish in Spain I had many Latin American friends, so I was exposed to their accents and slang. I had a very wonky accent for a long time from all the different exposures I had! I love the sounds of Argentine Spanish – I’m very partial to their double-L sound. Recently I also listen to the public radios of Argentina, Mexico and Spain – the internet makes it really easy to the point where it’s inexcusable not to expose yourself to multiple sounds and sources.

What is the intersection for you of being a poet and a translator?

I believe that they derive from the same thing but they are not the same. They both derive from general interest in language’s capacity to say something. It’s really important for a translator to be kind of smith in that sense, and to have a linguistics competency that is very developed and self aware. I think they go hand in hand.

However, I’m hyper aware of inserting my own partialities into translating. It’s like you try something on and your body is in there but you’re wearing something else. You don’t get confused that the fabric of what you’re wearing is your body – you are just wearing it. Or, you’re babysitting and you know that the child is not your child, but you are just keeping it alive until its mom gets home. You’re kind of a custodian… there are really so many metaphors for translation it is ridiculous!

Do you relate to translating as writing?

It’s inevitable that your own writing will get inserted in translation, which is precisely why you don’t need to make it obvious and purposeful. If someone else translated Bayley it wouldn’t be the same. This is my translation. It’s always an interpretative, subjective, act. When I’m writing my own work, I change voices from poem to poem, anyway. There are certain tendencies in writing that I know I love – like repetition and certain words – but that won’t make me use words in translating Bayley that he doesn’t use.

How do you feel about the book of Dr Pi now that it’s published?

I haven’t looked at it – I’m scared to look at something that is called final and to which nothing can be done! Reading my own translation is also nerve-wracking the way it is to listen to your own voice.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on Bayley’s poetry. He has about ten collections of poetry that are not translated. I did about fifteen of his poems for my master’s thesis. I would like to translate as many of his poems as I can and see where it leads. I’m going exhaust the Bayley supply. Translating also gets to be better when you’re really familiar with the author. There’s a level of familiarity that assists you when you come into a dilemma, a familiarity that is guided by your experience with that particular author. That’s also why I’m compelled to do more of his work.

The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi is now available from Clockroot Books.

Events this weekend! From San Francisco to Turners Falls, Uzma Aslam Khan and Emily Toder

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

For West Coast followers: Uzma Aslam Khan will be launching Granta 112: New Writing from Pakistan this weekend at the Bay Area’s Litquake festival—see her at the “Litcrawl” on October 9, 7:15 at the Modern Times Bookstore.  Go see her for us, we wish we could be there.

And/or: catch Uzma at Revolution Books in Berkeley at 7 pm on October 12, where she might read from The Geometry of God and—maybe this is just a rumor I’m starting—perhaps from her new novel, from which her piece in Granta is excerpted.

If you’re local—head up to the Rendezvous this Sunday, where Emily Toder and James Haug will read as part of Slope Editions‘ reading series. Emily will read her own poetry (I’ve been awaiting her chapbook, Brushes With, just out from Tarpaulin Sky)— and maybe a taste of Doctor Pi, too.  The reading’s at 5 (and stay for karaoke at 8 if you like…).

And to honor the spirit of international collaboration: I’ve somehow neglected to mention Emily’s co-chapbook, I Hear a Boat, which was released this summer with Joan Fleming’s Two Dreams in Which Things Are Taken as part of the Duets series. Duets is a project to pair poets from the US and New Zealand, publishing their work side-by-side in beautifully designed chapbooks—offering not just two servings of great poetry, but international collegiality & conversation.

In which I show my age

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Last week in my undergraduate creative writing class, my friend David Bartone and I co-taught a “translation day” (in preparation for reading Kassandra and the Wolf this week…). It went like this: we selected two poems from the Center for the Art of Translation‘s Two Lines anthology “Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed,” in this case Andrej Glusgold’s “I Love Berlin” and “Elementary Particles,” translated by Donna Stonecipher.  First we distributed only the original German text.  We translated most of the first poem together as a class, using “gut” translations—no dictionaries, just everyone’s own ideas of what was meant, or should be meant, by such words as “Schlaf” and “Herpes,” etc. (success rate with the second was high).  Then we divided the class into small groups, half of which had dictionaries, half of which didn’t.  The half with dictionaries were to translate the second poem creatively, to make the best and most creative poem; the half without dictionaries were to translate it for accuracy.  At the end everyone could vote on each other’s, just to add a little competition.  All in all, it was an excellent day and really I should be able to offer here some of the great lines people came up with.

But also… One student showed me that on his iPhone he could take a picture of the German poem, and Google could read the text out of the image and translate it for him instantly.  I was agog.  And annoyed.  And (in the cliched mode of fiction writers?) was thinking that what I think of as my best ideas may no longer be a match for the world…


Need some computerized Latin translation?

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Google has added a 58th language to its automatic translation service — Latin! “Latin offers a unique advantage: most of the text that will ever be written in Latin has already been written, and a comparatively large part of it has been translated into other languages,” Google said in a statement.

More here.
Perhaps it’s time for Karapanou in Latin?