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How do we judge translations?

Look to the whole, the translator asked.

The line comes from Helen Lowe-Porter’s correspondence, and can be read as an early plea (from a letter to her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, dated 11 November 1943) against the kind of translation review which proceeds by finding and scrutinizing the apparent lapse, the moments of inattention, the local mistake or infelicity—which might always be of the order of a conscious decision on the translator’s part—and making these stand in for the quality of the full translation.

Michelle Woods discusses this very common form of translation-evaluation in the section titled “Gotcha!” of her account of Kafka’s English-language translators and translations. The expression comes from the translator Mark Harman, whose 1998 translation of Kafka’s The Castle was widely reviewed and discussed. In this kind of review, as Woods writes, “reviewers often hone in on perceived ‘mistakes’ in order to justify their own taste preferences and to present their own legitimacy as experts in judging a translation. Rarely glimpsed is a consideration of the translator, or where translation fits into their career and their background. . . and what the nature of their contribution should be.”

Looking to the whole is a call to consider the way the thing is working and reading altogether, the way its many parts work in relation to one another, and the larger ways in which the translation relates to the circumstances and motivations for making it (a call that, as Woods points out, Lawrence Venuti makes repeatedly throughout his work).

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“The tragedy of going back”: Jhumpa Lahiri on her work as a translator

In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.

One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.

Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.

In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary. 

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?

LAHIRI

Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already.

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Lebanese Novelist Emily Nasrallah, 86

The quiet, firm Lebanese feminist author and activist Emily Nasrallah (1931-2018) — celebrated for her debut novel Birds of September — has died.

Born in the summer of 1931, Emily Nasrallah grew up in Al Kfeir, a village in southern Lebanon, before moving to Beirut to study and work as a journalist and teacher. Her debut novel, Birds of Septembercame out in 1962 and was later listed as one of the Arab Writers Union’s 105 best books of the twentieth century. It has been translated into German as Septembervogel by Veronika Theis, but not into English.

Journalist, translator, and author Olivia Snaije, in her brief tribute Wednesday, wrote that Nasrallah was “one of the first to write short stories, to write both about her village in the south and Beirut, during the civil war” and was “a real feminist, gracious, quiet, firm.”

Nasrallah’s other widely known work is Yawmiyyat Hirr (1997), a book for children that was translated into English as What Happened to Zeeko (2001), as well as into Thai, Dutch, and German. It describes everyday life during Civil War-era Beirut from the perspective of a tomcat.

Two other books by Nasrallah have translated to English. The first by Issa Boullata, as  Flight Against Time, and the second a collection of short stories, House Not Her Own, translated by Thuraya Khalil-Khouri.

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8 Contemporary Japanese novelists (who aren’t Haruki Murakami)

When Japanese bookshops opened up at midnight on Feb. 24 for his book launch event, Haruki Murakami was back in the news and back on our shelves. Although no publication date has yet been set for the English translation of Killing Commendatore, if you’re looking for a contemporary J-lit fix already available in translation, here are eight other authors worth exploring.

1. Hiromi Kawakami

One of the big translation events of 2014 was Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This story of two lonely people passing the Tokyo seasons together is an excellent place to begin. Famous for being quirky and sometimes surreal, but far less twee than the more renowned Banana Yoshimoto, Kawakami is a must for readers who love to luxuriate in captivating prose.

2. Fuminori Nakamura

Sampling elements of noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura writes bleak, violent existential thrillers that peel back Tokyo’s scabs and dig around in its wounds. His prose is sparse and haunting, underscored with a black sense of humor. English-language publishers have taken an interest, which has lead to six of his books translated in four years. His latest, The Boy in the Earth, is a vivid, vital story about a man still attempting to deal with the abuse he suffered as a child. A previous novel, The Thief, is guaranteed to make any Tokyoite avoid the darker streets at night.

3. Hitomi Kanehara

Writing in a style that reflects the uneducated “street” voice of her characters, Hitomi Kanehara is notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, she still only has two short novels in English — Autofiction and Snakes and Earrings — as well as a handful of short stories. Both are harsh, cynical books dealing with young women outside mainstream Japanese society. Open and honest about self-destruction, sexual promiscuity and the murky world of Tokyo subcultures; Kanehara’s fiction is a short, sharp shock designed to startle and unsettle. And it’s all the better for it.

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‘We should encourage multiple voices’: Interview with Janice Pariat

A free-wheeling conversation with author Janice Pariat, who was in the city recently, on translation, writing and reading.

I rush into the Rajasthani Sangh on DB Road in a tearing hurry because I’m late for my meeting with Janice Pariat. But the author puts me at ease as I stammer out my apologies. She’s been enjoying herself, she says, listening to the speakers at the two-day literature festival ahead of the Vishnupuram award.

We start with the reason she’s in the city: for the release of the Tamil translation of her book of short stories, Boats on Land. She’s “completely and utterly thrilled” but was “part of the process only in as much as I put Ramkumar in touch with Penguin Random House for the rights.”

Interestingly, each story in the book is being translated by a different person. “If we’re talking about translation as a multiplicity of texts, this is taking it to a whole new level,” she smiles happily.

She believes that there should be more translations from English into regional languages. “If we’re talking about idea of stories existing in many forms, of there being multiple storytellers, then translation is the way to go.” To her, translation is a deep engagement with the text that results in something totally new and the translated book should recognised as such.

“Many of us are so limited linguistically that we can access a text only in one language,” she laments and, in a glancing reference to what is going on across the country, adds, “We should be encouraging multiplicities, multiple voices, and knocking down borders of all sorts.”

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AALITRA Translation Prize 2018

The Australian Association for Literary Translation (AALITRA) now invites entries for the AALITRA Translation Prize.

The AALITRA Translation Prize aims to acknowledge the wealth of literary translation skills present in the Australian community. Prizes are awarded for a translation of a selected prose text and for a translation of a selected poem, with the focus on a different language each time the prize is offered.

In 2018, the focus language is Indonesian. The prose text for translation is by Sapardi Djoko Damono. The poetry text is by Amir Hamzah. Each text is available from our website.

At an Awards Ceremony later in the year, winners will be awarded a cash prize, a book prize, and one year’s membership of AALITRA. Prize-winning entries will be read aloud at the Awards Ceremony, and will be published in AALITRA’s peer-reviewed open-access journal, The AALITRA Review, along with a few words from each of the translators.

Closing date: Friday 11 May 2018

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Han Kang and the complexity of translation

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

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16 Writers on Their Favourite Translated Titles From Across Asia

Earlier this year, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop launched the Transpacific Literary Project, an editorial initiative to publish new and exciting writing from across East and Southeast Asia on The Margins while building a body of work that might help us better understand the importance of the Pacific World to literature. In an increasingly divided world, translated literature brings us closer together. As the year draws to a close, we asked some of our most beloved writers—from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kimiko Hahn to Hari Kunzru and Tash Aw—to tell us about their favorite books in translation out of Asia and the Asian diaspora. Collected below are works that meditate through medieval texts, reimagine the immigrant story, and above all explore selfhood in surroundings.

Red Dust by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

In 1983, Ma Jian, a painter and poet, became the target of a rectification session during China’s 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. A colleague began the denunciation by saying: “I asked why a face in one of [Ma Jian’s] paintings looked like the face of a corpse. He laughed and said everyone puts on a mask but underneath our souls are ugly shameful things. He said we are born in a daze and die in a dream . . . He sees life as a great blackness. I feel he should confront his disturbed psychology.”

Alerted that his arrest is imminent, Ma Jian leaves his home in Beijing. Barred from leaving the country, he instead walks a path through it, traversing thousands of kilometres. His book, Red Dust, documents a movement through levels of containment: the captive mind looking for a doorway out into the world, or deeper into oneself. Red Dust is a book I have read a dozen times. It is a despairing, bawdy, provocative portrait of the artist, a memoir that creates its own form, asking, How can one be free in one’s mind when one’s body lives within an authoritarian state? How to see through the red dust of illusion?

Of his country, Ma Jian has written, “There is a collective fear of truth.” I grieve that the same can be said of all our countries; we are living in a conflicted age of revolution and denunciation, an age in which we abandon one another at our peril. The call to each of us to question ourselves, to think for ourselves, is urgent. “You have about twenty thousand days left before you die,” he writes. “Why are you wasting your life? You must focus your mind and do something.”

—Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of several books including Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Her second novel Dogs at the Perimeter was just published in the United States by W.W. Norton this year.

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Why You Should Know Him

Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely regarded as one of Indonesia ‘s best writers.

At a young age, he joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan during World War II and later enlisted in an army to fight Dutch colonialists .

He was captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. His foray into writing began in prison, at age 24. The Fugitive, his first novel, came out during his two years of incarceration.

Pramoedya or “Pram” – a hero of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and a champion of human rightsand freedom of speech – was born on February 6, 1925, in the poor Javanese town of Blora.

He died in the capital, Jakarta, on April 30, 2006 at age 81.

Pramoedya “dedicated his whole life to this country through his work”, his daughter Tatiana Ananta told The Associated Press at his funeral.

Google Doodle  marked the 92nd birth anniversary of the Indonesian writer and activist who spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments.

“Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight,” Pramoedya was quoted as saying in the book Exile: In Conversation with Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira.

Pramoedya’s father was a schoolteacher and nationalist who inspired him to join Indonesia’s struggle against colonialism. His mother came from a pious Muslim family.

Despite only having a primary school education, he went on to write more than 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

The novelist is best known for the Buru quartet, which traces the birth of nationalism in Indonesia. A Javanese boy named Minke, who rejected the country’s hierarchical society, is the protagonist in the series.

“In fact the books were smuggled out of Indonesia by Pram’s friend, a German priest, to avoid being taken  or destroyed, and have now been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide,” Google Doodle wrote.

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