Women in Translation Stats – it ain’t pretty

Over at Biblibio: Life in Letters, Meytal Radzinski has been analyzing the (dismal) stats of the percentage of translated works by women writers published each year in the U.S.

I knew the odds weren’t good, but didn’t know they were THIS bad. Two publishers, Pushkin Press and Archipelago, managed ZERO books by women last year. Yale, Knopf, Penguin – they all came in at about 10%.

One of her graphs is below – follow the link to read the whole story.


Poetry’s task

Poetry’s task is to increase the available stock of reality, R.P. Blackmur said. It does this by reflecting for us our many human faces, our animal faces, our face of insect wings, our face of ocean and cliff. The world is large and, like Caiban’s island, full of noises; a true poem reflects this, whether in the original or in translation. To try to encompass such knowledge, to be willing to fail, to prepare as fully as possible for the work of poetry, to make the attempt in the recognition that any understanding is one among many – this is all we can do, as translators or as readers.


Jane Hirshfield, from “The World is Large and Full of Noises”



some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word

Even the physical embodiment of a sacred text is numinous: it is wrapped in leather or silk, stored in a cupboard used for no other purpose, copied over only by special scribes. It may be raised in both hands as an offering before being opened; it may itself be offered fragrant incense and sweet milk. All written work retains some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word: the inhabiting Logos and the breath of inspiration are the same, each bringing new life into the empty places of earth. It is no wonder, then that many different cultural traditions share an ancient prohibition against translation. As George Steiner has pointed out in After Babel, if a sacred text has been given to us directly by its divine source, surely it must remain exactly as it first appeared, each word preserved intact for the meaning it may hold. Whether in a sacred text or a contemporary poem, any alteration risks unwittingly discarding some mystery not yet penetrated.

Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”

What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking

from “The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield

Knowledge is erotic. We see this not only in the Bible’s dual use of the term “to know,” but also, as classicist Anne Carson has pointed out, in the Homeric verb mnaomai, which means both “to hold in attention” and “to woo.” What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking. A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible. We memorize it, recite it over and over, reawaken it with tongue and mind and heart. Many translators describe their first encounter with their chosen authors as a helpless falling in love: a glimpse of a few translated fragments can lead to years of language study in order to hear directly the work’s own voice. And in matters of art, it seems, Eros is generous rather than possessive: the translator wants to reciprocate this gift received, to pass the new love on to others—and thus the work of translation begins.

On Translating “Bluetooth” from an essay by Art Beck

Want to understand the mysteries of translating cultural idioms? A friend sent me this wonderful essay from the journal Rattle, “The Deep Pulse of Idiom.” Go mark the page and read the whole thing when you have time, but for now read about how some future translator will try to deal with the image of Bluetooth device in a 21st Century Poem:

IV: King Harald’s Blue Tooth

In our world everything is accelerated, and the blurring process can happen quickly. Most everyone knows—at least in passing—what “Bluetooth” does. It allows wireless connection of various electronic devices.

As a bit of background, the electronic protocol was negotiated by a consortium of major manufacturers to enable any Bluetooth device to “talk to” any other without regard to different individual software or competitive formats.
But why the name Bluetooth? Because the consortium of competitors named it after the tenth-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who “united warring factions.” Even knowing this, who thinks of King Harald when they use a Bluetooth device? Not even the most nerdish among us, I’d guess.

In the nature of things, Bluetooth, like VHS and Beta will, sooner probably than later, pass into the graveyard of old technology. But let’s say that before that happens, one of us became inspired to use Bluetooth in a poem. Maybe a love poem entitled, say, “Electricity”:

… our fingers didn’t need to touch,
when we glanced, our eyelashes were already entangled.
Your whisper was Bluetooth tickling my tongue.

Well, I pulled those lines out of my butt, but say they were better and that something came of the poem, that it got good enough to be anthologized, and some fifty or a hundred years from now someone wanted to translate it into German or Chinese. Let’s say five hundred years from now, long after the minutiae of today’s high tech is as obscure as the highly engineered parts of ancient racing chariots. Think what fun a 26th century translator might have with “Bluetooth.”

Think how impossible it would be for someone in another culture and separated by five hundred years to get it right. In the context of accelerating change, the average educated reader knows more about the minutiae of the Classical world than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mainly because up until that time our ancestors had longer cultural memories and wrote all this stuff down. If change keeps accelerating, how could someone five hundred years from now hope to research a technology that probably will last less than ten years?

So think how many ways there might be in 2610 to get the Bluetooth whisper wrong. Was Bluetooth a drink? Obviously. Some sort of vodka, no doubt. No, a type of oyster, ergo a late twentieth century euphemism for a forbidden sexual practice.

An intuitive poet-translator might simply finally choose to ignore “Bluetooth” and, taking a cue from the title, emend the line to “your whisper was electricity tickling my tongue.”

In fact, saying that, I’m thinking that “Bluetooth” might make a better title for the poem than “Electricity,” and electricity is better than Bluetooth in the line. But then translators could argue about the title. Is “Bluetooth” a woman’s name, perchance? A disease? Some sort of dental tattoo?

But what if, five hundred years from now, a translator did stumble on not only the definition but the etymology of Bluetooth? And what if that translator decided to utilize the image implicit in Bluetooth: King Harald uniting the warring factions.

Then, we’d have something like: “your whisper was a truce tickling my tongue.” On the one hand, maybe a more interesting, more complex poem—and a better poem? But if so, isn’t the translator mining something that wasn’t really there? Adding an embellishment that wouldn’t have occurred to any twentieth century reader.

But why not, if it adds to the 25th century translation? If it produces a real poem that resonates with 25th century readers, what harm’s done to the long since worm-eaten original poet? To the competitors who coined the word, Bluetooth was, above all, a productive detente. A format that avoided expensive, needless product wars. To its users, Bluetooth, with its strange alliterative name, evokes a sort of magic, an electronic ESP. A glowing tooth of sorts. Cool electricity. But these are the kind of resonances that will be hopelessly lost five hundred years from now. If the hypothetical Bluetooth poem is somehow resurrected in that hypothetical future, other—as yet unimagined—resonances will have to replace them.

You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

January 28, 2013, 9:00 pm
The Treachery of Translators

The fact is, there were always going to be a lot of fish in “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers.” When a publishing house commissioned me to produce a new translation of Jules Verne’s 19th-century underwater epic, I was confident of bringing a degree of joyous panache to the story of Captain Nemo, his submarine, the Nautilus and that giant killer squid. But I had forgotten about its systematic taxonomy of all the inhabitants of the seven seas.

Somewhere around page 3 of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” I got this feeling that I was starting to drown in fish. There are an awful lot of fish down there, and there were possibly even more in the middle of the 19th century. Whereas my ichthyological vocabulary, whether in French or English or indeed any other language, was severely limited. The fish (and assorted oceanic mammals), in other words, far outnumbered my linguistic resources. I now know I should just have boned up on fish, the way any decent, respectable translator would have done.

(Note to the decent, respectable translator: I teach a college class on translation but I accept your critique that I am long on theory and short on practice.)

Instead I started counting how many pages there were and calculating how much I was getting paid per fish. It didn’t add up. I realize now that I should have switched to “Around the World in Eighty Days” – there are far fewer fish in that one.

My brilliant translating career hit another high when a French publisher invited me to translate Brigitte Bardot’s memoirs, “Initiales BB.” I had written a memoir about my childhood obsession with Bardot, so I said O.K. and suggested some modest revisions. It would have to be completely re-written from top to bottom and I would definitely take out all those exclamation marks. And I would put back in that affair with the English guy after she married Gunter Sachs – she should never have left that out! They took that as a “non.” Tant pis. All translators rewrite and rectify. Some even feel that they can do a better job of writing Bardot’s life than Bardot.

The law of karma is as unforgiving in the realm of translation as in any other and I was overdue for a taste of my own punishment. I had written a book about surfing in Hawaii called “Walking on Water,” which was eventually translated into Dutch. I had nothing to do with the translation and was simply presented with a fait accompli. My command of Dutch is negligible, but I thought I would test out “Lopen over water” by reference to a metaphor that was, if not my greatest contribution to literature, at least distinctively my own. There was a passage where I was drowning, but not feeling too put out about it, and I had written: “Death was warm and embracing like porridge.” I zeroed in on the sentence, but I couldn’t find anything even closely related to porridge. So I checked with a Dutch-speaking friend – could she tell me how the translator had done it?

“You’d better sit down,” she said.

The translator had not given my immortal metaphor the time of day. He had the same kind of hang-up about porridge that I had about fish. He took a shortcut right round it, passing seamlessly from the previous sentence to the one following. The porridge had not been lost in translation; it had been quite deliberately eradicated.

My first thought was to get on the next plane to Amsterdam and go and knock on his door. Maybe I could find some porridge and fling it in his face. My own transgressions, over the years, have taught me to be more tolerant and understanding. On the other hand, Herman, if you would like to put on gloves and shorts, we can resolve this matter in the ring, anytime.

It may have been this experience that caused me to write an article for a British newspaper titled, “Translation Is Impossible.” I was supposed to be reviewing a bunch of English-French dictionaries, but I happened to cite the classic Groucho Marx joke, which goes (in one of its variants), “You’re only as old as the woman you feel,” as an instance of the untranslatable. At least as far as French is concerned. You need a verb, “feel,” that functions both transitively and intransitively, and means something like “caress” and “my current emotional status” all at once. It doesn’t (so far as I know) exist in French. A couple of months later – inevitably – some friend in Paris sent me “La Traduction Est Impossible,” the French translation of my original article, which had been published in a Paris magazine.

Naturally the first thing I looked for was the translation of the Marxian pun. I was genuinely interested – I really wanted to know how the translator had pulled it off. And to think I had claimed it was impossible – I was about to be proved wrong! But translation is always an interpretation. In this case, the translator had written something like this, updating New York ’50s sexist humor into ’90s Parisian political correctness: “Here is an example of a sentence that is manifestly impossible to translate: ‘A man is only as old as the woman he can feel inside of him trying to express herself.'” So, in some sense, I felt vindicated, but also – as usual – betrayed by a graduate from the school of translation.

In my opinion, you don’t have to be mad to translate, but it probably helps. Take, for instance, the case of the late, great Gilbert Adair. He was translating into English the brilliant novel by Georges Perec, “La Disparition” – a lipogram written entirely without the letter “e.” (I had had a tentative go at eliminating the most frequently occurring letter in both English and French and failed utterly.) Adair even succeeded, for a while, in deleting “e” from his vocabulary. I met him for tea in London, while he was in the midst of it, at the Savoy hotel (it had to be the Savoy, not Claridge’s or the Grosvenor, obviously). When a waitress came around and asked if he would like “tea or coffee,” he frowned, gritted his teeth, and replied, “Lapsang souchong.”

Even his title is genius: “A Void” (think about it: He not only avoided the “e’s” in “The Disappearance,” but he also slipped in a dash of metaphysical angst and a cool play on words). The lesson I learned from Adair, a really serious translator, is this: You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

Andy Martin is the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus.” He teaches at Cambridge University.

Why Translate?

from a presentation I did at a panel at the Drew University MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation.

Why Translate?
Elliott batTzedek

Translate, because it will make you have to learn everything possible about your own language. Grammar suddenly matters—tracking the difference between reflexive, transitive, intransitive will determine meaning. Knowing how articles function suddenly makes all the difference. This will make you a better poet.

Translator Kenneth Rexroth writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator:” The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.

Translate, because it will make you think harder about poetry than anything else you’ve ever done. You know those close reading essays we’ve all been assigned to write? Imagine doing the equivalent amount of thinking for each and every poem you translate. This will hone your editing and revising skills more than you thought possible, for all that thinking and analysis goes directly into the writing task in front of you at that exact moment.

Translate poetry, because doing so will force you to understand what makes an arrangement of words a poem, as opposed to a prose sentence, a pop song lyric, or a technical essay. As a poet, I’ve tended towards the too-wordy, too-explanatory, the over-thought. After a year of translating poetry, my own writing is going through huge changes, letting go of all that extra, becoming unafraid of being open to multiple meanings, confusion, uncertainty.

Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’ It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation.

Octavio Paz says:
After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings….With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes….of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.

Translation is good for the ego—your hard work, the hair you’ll tear out, the obsessing over syntax, the search for exactly the right sound, right word, right line—these are all in service of someone else’s poetic vision. I’ve found that this makes revising so much easier—separated from the original power of the creative urge, and the ways we cling to word choices, the goal of revision becomes very clear: making the best line and best poem possible. The poem is not a child I’ve birthed and am afraid to change or challenge too much, but a creative task I set myself to perfecting. This experience has made me a much better reviser of my own poems, because it is truly the poem that matters.

Translation is good for the ego—promoting the work, selling the work, become so much easier. Maybe some of you have no problems promoting your own work, but it is, for me, a special kind of hell. But promoting the translations is so easy, since what I feel like I’m saying is, “Hey, here’s the amazing poet you don’t know yet and you’ll love her!” While this hasn’t (yet) made it this easy for me to talk up my own poetry, it has greatly increased my confidence in talking about poetry in general.

Translating is intimate. Taking up residence in someone else’s vision, words, beating heart, feels like friendship, love, even sex, for there is kind of breathing together, moving together, a patterned, ritual courtship dance. Understanding the original poem, its form and its duende, takes a combination of intellect and heart, but creating that poem anew must grow out of the wise animal that is your own body.

Translating is a moral obligation, is what we with access to social, economic, educational, and verbal privilege owe to those without. I know that much of what is currently translated is work that is also of relatively high verbal privilege, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Audre Lorde repeatedly challenged us throughout her life, “You must use whatever privilege you have in the service of what you say you believe.”

Translating is fun. It’s exhilarating, it’s winning the chess match AND finishing the marathon AND dancing the tango.

Translating is the opposite of war. It is the open mind, the outspread hand, the risk of going outside your comfort zone, of aiming above your skill level. Translating takes a village. A village with a shelf of really good dictionaries, and people willing to help for the sake of the writing. I’ve walked around all year with questions saved up in my head to fling anyone I met who might have answers. I was very lucky to meet Mai Schwartz, my primary informant, who is bilingual and bi-cultural, but even then there were moments, passages, that remained obscure. I’d go to dictionaries, struggle with using Google Translate to find websites in Hebrew about Hebrew idioms, and Mai would call her mother and between all of that we’d come, collectively, to some kind of resolution. And Ellen was a much bigger part of the process than mentors helping me with MY writing. She kept the same thick files of revisions I kept, was engaged with these poems as if they were translations she was doing herself. The voice that comes through in English is a combination of her sensibility and mine, and they are the better for it.

Translating is magic. Serious, real, transformation of energy. Words that were unknown, unknowable, open up. Original, outside-of-our-ken ways of understanding the world come in through our front doors, as welcome strangers, long-lost cousins. Writing poetry is the work we do to make our human experience part of a collective story; translating is the work we do to actively enlarge that collective.

understanding my connection to Shez’s poetry

As I’ve been doing final (for now) edits on my translations of Shez’s poems, I keep feeling a kind of haunting—some of her words could be my own; I could definitely interweave the translations and my poems into a single, unified text. Sometimes I even dream about having my work translated into Hebrew and then doing a combined work in both languages, of letting our voices flow together like that.

The project, after all, is definitely the same—to replace the silence of the terrified girl with words that are strong, forceful, even violent enough to break the choke hold that sexual terrorism imposed on her. Which is why, even as I struggle with most of the subtleties of her Hebrew, I understand the poems, feel them deeply inside of myself, and know how to give them new voice in English.

With this always in my thoughts these days, I started reading Edith Grossman’s why translation matters, and came upon this quotation from a letter William Carlos Williams wrote to Nicolas Calas:

If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?

There is a silence that must be ended. At the end of my long sequence of poems called “Wanting a Gun” I declare: “I am writing, writing, writing.” In a poem addressed to her father, Shez declares, “You will not erase me off the page.”

The difference that is made is that now I know Shez. And soon all of you can know her, too. And hey, my hard work has made that difference. Rare enough that I let myself celebrate my own work, but today, after a couple of weeks of being trapped in some dank and musty emotional cave, I’m feeling celebratory.