Twenty More

images-1.jpgI received several comments to my first list of twenty authors to add to your reading list, mostly suggesting additional authors I had not mentioned. In one case I responded that I actually had the suggested author on my list but I lost it when I reduced the list to only twenty names.

Since then I have realized that I have more than twenty additional authors who should be recognized and added to all those more traditional reading lists. For now I offer yet another twenty valuable writers I have found stimulating and I highly recommend them to everyone.

You might not recognize some of the authors but several are actually quite well known and often highly rewarded writers. Notice that this list focuses on writers who probably did not write originally in English. Of course translations are generally available but I also want to encourage those who are able to read the original language, even if with great difficulty, to read the original as it was written by the author.

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Translations, Slang and Other Groovy Things

The subject comes up so often I have to apologize in advance if you’ve heard all my views on this subject before. Even so, it’s good to revisit old opinions with new brain cells.

The subject came up in an online reading group which specializes in reading French literature in translation, that a novel using slang or street speech cannot be read in translation without changing the essence of the novel from being French to being British or American or name-your-country. It was furthermore suggested that the era in which the translation was done might result in an inadvertent silliness when read today (highly dependent on the number of times the author writes “groovy”).

I contend that both suppositions are not well thought out. First the question of the argot being the essence of a country’s language and therefore vital to maintaining the, in this case, French-ness of the literary work and not transforming it into an American novel with French locales.

I agree that the slang expressions in any language are often very unique to that language and important to fully understand the specific culture of that country. However, this is becoming less and less important:  many of the slang expressions are just localized versions of the same expressions developed in other countries. But even more significant, there is really no codification of street-speak even in a single country. Take a break-dancer from The Bronx and send him to a rodeo down in Texas. I suspect that Paris has a whole different set of slang expressions than exists in a small Provençal village. Besides, some of the best slang is quick to expire and terms like “faire la nique” or “going to third base at the submarine races” become dated and silly whether they are in English, American, French, or German.

The problem with much of literature is that it takes a snapshot of the culture of a country and doesn’t change. Remember that old photo of Aunt Minnie with the curly hair, and the seam up the back of her stockings? Look at Minnie today:  only the teeth look new. So should we replace the picture of Minnie in the album every few years to keep it up-to-date or should we just enjoy the nostalgia of a time-gone-by? If we insist that idioms and slang should be acceptable to a current reader, why don’t we also insist on updating other things:  the surrey with the fringe on top gets changed into a Chevy with Tuck & Roll (or is that too dated also?). But they didn’t fight at Agincourt using drones and rapid-fire cannons, nor did they consider “friendly fire” or “collateral damage.” I am comfortable reading about longbows, varlets, chastity … all those obscure things from the past.

I took Cervantes at the university from Walter Starkie and his lecture on Don Quixote started out discussing the dilemma whether he should accurately translate a 16th century idiomatic expression or whether it would be best to substitute a well-known modern idiom which is used in English to give the same sense. He chose the English, or in his case probably Irish, expression. The irony is that whether the original Spanish “rashers and eggs” or the more modern English “tripe and trouble” expression was used, how many readers understand the idiom today? Think of it:  it fifty or sixty years, or maybe even centuries, students will stop to read the gloss in their copy of Gravity’s Rainbow to help them identify and relate to some obscure event called World War II … in fact, there is current evidence that this era is fading from memory as we speak (although the War of Northern Aggression is still keenly remembered here in South Carolina).

Here I pause to consider the changes to language thrust at us by the internet. Did you ever say “Laughing out loud and rolling of the floor” in your life under any circumstances? Well, now you find LOLAROTF being an acceptable response to almost anything that even mildly smacks of humor. Imagine when publishing moves totally onto the digital platform and novels use this ephemeral short-form language to conserve download time and conform to the six-second attention span of the reader … I recommend burying a few real books in the backyard so future generations will dig them up a have a groovy experience reading them.

Tomas Transtromer

I was very interested in this piece in the NYT Book Review

Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation

Published: March 9, 2012

If you’re a poet outside the Anglophone world, and you manage to win the Nobel Prize, two things are likely to happen. First, your ascendancy will be questioned by fiction critics in a major English-­language news publication. Second, there will be a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any), as publishers attempt to capitalize on your 15 minutes of free media attention.

And lo, for the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, it has come to pass. The questioning came from, among others, Philip Hensher for The Telegraph (in Britain) and Hephzibah Anderson for Bloomberg News, both of whom implied that real writers — Philip Roth, for instance — had been bypassed to flatter a country largely inhabited by melancholic reindeer. And when Transtromer hasn’t been doubted by fiction critics, he’s been clutched at by publishing houses. Since his Nobel moment in October, three different Transtromer books have been released (or reissued): THE DELETED WORLD: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13), with translations by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson; TOMAS TRANSTROMER: Selected Poems (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Robert Hass; and FOR THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: Poems and a Memoir (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Daniel Halpern. These books join two major collections already in print: “The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer,” from Graywolf Press, translated by Robert Bly, and “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems,” from New Directions, translated by Robin Fulton. So a little complaining, a glut of books: pretty typical.

But what’s unusual about Transtromer is that the most interesting debates over English versions of his work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

To understand this dispute, it’s necessary to have a sense of the poetry itself. …

The topic of translating literature, especially poetry, is one of the oldest war stories in literature. I suspect that both sides are right and on an item by item basis, different approaches to the translation may be required.

In my mind the translation question is whether the author’s words are repeated accurately in a new language or whether the sense of what the author was attempting to convey is transferred to the translation. With longer works, especially prose fiction such as novels, we might expect to discover both techniques in use:  translate the words accurately except when something like an idiom which is meaningless in translation, and then substitute a more meaningful phrase that still reflects the sense of the passage. But with poetry, this is very difficult; poetry has many characteristics that identify it as poetry:  rhyme, rhythm, figurative language, etc. Imagine translating a delicate Japanese Haiku into High German … how’s that work for you? There’s an old joke that the German word for “bra” is “keepsumfrumfloppin;” it’s not funny (and is probably very sexist) but it does illustrate a problem:  “bra” in a Haiku is only one syllable (I would pick Japanese and German). But what about French:  “potato” vs. “pomme de terre” perhaps.

My favorite example of the problems with translation is Georges Perec. Perec, as one of the principal members of OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) wrote a couple of prose pieces (one over 300 pages) following one of the suggested constriction of OULIPO. La disparition is an extended lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e” (and actually a good book). This was followed later by a much shorted novel called Les revenants that used all those “e”s and only those “e”s. Gilbert Adair translated La disparition under the title A Void. Interestingly, since it was longer and used most of the vowels, Adair’s translation comes close to the original, but the translation of Les revenants by Ian Monk was a very different story. Titled, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, Monk essentially wrote his own lipogram, loosely based on the Perec original. And again, it’s darn good. Imagine translating dozens of pages from one language to another and always selecting words which do not contain the letter “e.”

I urge you to read the full article at the New York Times. It gives a good lesson in translating and addresses a problem that captures my concern:  the self-centeredness of the English-speaking people and the myth that if it’s not invented here, then it cannot be that good. Do we blame the western canon or do we acknowledge our inherent stupidity? I’m considering Orr’s book myself.