You & me. Playground. Recess. It’s a BookFight!

This is a pop-in post, fellow lovers of all things bookish!  In my constant search for the next great literary podcast I recently discovered Book Fight! hosted by Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister – who I swear must be twins separated at birth. Take a look at the evidence: both men are from Philadelphia (a welcome change from the NYC-centric world of lit we’ve all become accustomed to); both are editors at Barrelhouse magazine and professors at Temple University.  They’re also both writers.  It’s like they were destined to host a podcast together.  Which brings us to the premise of the show:

The Book Fight podcast is, in a nutshell, writers talking about books. Books we love. Books we hate. Books that inspire us, baffle us, infuriate us. These are the conversations writers have at the bar, which is to say they’re both unflinchiningly honest and open to tangents, misdirection, general silliness.

Each episode starts with a particular book, chosen either by one of us (Tom or Mike) or by our guest, though you don’t need to read the books to enjoy the show. We promise not to spoil anything too serious, plot-wise, and the books themselves generally serve as jumping-off points for larger discussions about writing and reading: craft issues, the ins and outs of publishing, the contemporary lit scene, such as it is.

Episode 18 featured a discussion with author Stewart O’Nan about Theodore Weesner’s disturbing 1980’s novel The True Detective.  I won’t give anything away about the book itself, but the show was a great mix of honest criticism, goofy stories and advice on writing.  A look through past episodes shows more of the same.  The two hosts have a strong commitment to good writing.  Which means BookFight! features a lot of discussions on older books.  I’ve been downloading past shows and find they’re fresh and topical and everything I want to listen to on my morning commute.  So I recommend checking BookFight! out.

On a less violent note – ALTA, The American Literary Translators Association had their annual conference in Rochester, NY last weekend.  I couldn’t attend, but the Translationista has a great write-up of the panel sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee and  about a project they’ve been putting together to make life easier for reviewers and bloggers who aren’t feeling qualified to discuss the translator’s contribution to a translated text.  It’s interesting stuff.

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An Interview with Margaret Carson

Margaret Carson is a fixture in the NYC translation community.  Most readers probably know her from her gorgeous translation of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds but (to quote her Words Without Borders biography) she’s also translated fiction by  “José Manuel Prieto, and Matilde Daviu, plays by Virgilio Piñera and Griselda Gambaro, and poetry by Mercedes Roffé and Nancy Morejón”.  She’s a member of the PEN Translation Committee and a fierce advocate for translators and translated literature .

BSR:  Margaret, thank you so much for offering to answer some questions.  We keep bumping into each other at NYC literary events – always to do with translations.  It seems to me that there is a very active community of translators in Manhattan.  I wonder if you might talk about that?

MC:  Yes, there’s a lot going on in New York! And lots of the action in international literature is happening at small independent bookstores, which are run and staffed by book lovers whose enthusiasms happily extend to works in translation.

There’s at least one reading series in New York that specializes in translations (the Bridge Series, run by Bill Martin and Sal Robinson at McNally Jackson Bookstore), frequent readings and presentations by foreign authors all over town, events sponsored by universities, book festivals featuring international literature, and plenty more. Hardly a week goes by when there’s not some event that touches on literature in translation.

BSR:  Do you think translators should be involved in the promotion of translated/international literature?

MC:  Literary translators have a lot to add to the mix. Some of us are already active on the literary scene, helping to promote books in translation, and we’re wondering what else we can do. How do we get more recognition for our work and build a reputation? It’s still sadly true that many times the names of translators don’t appear on book covers, and book reviewers often fail to mention the translator or to comment on his or her work in the body of the review. Translation is basically taking apart and rewriting a book in another language, and many of us wish that reviewers would engage more with that.

BSR:  We first met after the ‘Walker in the City’ panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, – which you and Sergio Chejfec were a part of.  It’s my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that not all translators have the type of access or personal relationship that you’ve had with Sergio Chejfec.   Do you think knowing the author as a person – in addition to knowing his work – influenced your translations (particularly since a auto-biographic component seems to inform Chejfec’s writing)?

MC:  The response to My Two Worlds has been terrific. Lots of credit goes to Open Letter for getting the book out there and for building up a readership base for Sergio Chejfec. The fact that Sergio lives in New York and is willing to get involved in the translation and promotion of his books has also helped. Of course, it’s a great novel and deserves the attention, but you never know what path a book will take after it’s published, especially a translation.

Most of the authors I’ve worked with have been extremely generous about answering questions. In the case of Sergio, I was new to his work and that added to the challenge. Sometimes my queries were not so much linguistic (“what does this word or phrase mean?”) as they were about how a sentence was developing, what the thought was behind it. It’s often reassuring when you’re translating to feel that something is clicking into place, that you “got it” in English. But on the other hand you realize that when something clicks it may be because it’s a predictable solution, something commonplace in English, and you ask yourself: would a writer whose subject matter includes the experience of language itself want this to be so neat? Answer: no, so you have to go back and make your English do more, even going beyond what seems “correct.”

About the autobiographical elements: I was careful to put a distance between the first-person narrator of My Two Worlds and Sergio Chejfec, the author. Maybe they’re similar in some ways, and it was helpful, for example, to see and handle the Art Deco cigarette lighter that’s described at one point in the novel, but I enjoy the fictional artifice. With his essays, though, it’s different. Recently I’ve been working on an essay in which Sergio tells the story of his last name and talks about his father. It’s clearly a non-fictional space with another kind of exploration, nothing like the fiction.

BSR:  Do you have an opinion as to why Argentina seems to be such a hotbed of authors?  It seems that everywhere you look a new Argentine author (or a new edition of an old book) is being published.   Of course there is Borges & Cortázar… but there’s also César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Saer… just to name a few.

MC:  There’s great literature all over Latin America, but yes, Argentina has an extraordinary literary tradition. I’m not sure what factors explain it, but at least when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago, there were plenty of bookstores, large and small, as well as cafés where people can read, write and talk about books, all signs of a healthy book culture, along with a remarkable number of individuals who seem to have read everything. That doesn’t explain why there’s been great literature in Argentina, but it seems like a necessary condition. And keep in mind that we’ve only seen a small part of that literature—the part that gets translated into English.

BSR:  How do you feel about the future of translation and translated literature in the U.S.?  To me it appears like translations and international books are showing up in more bookshops and getting more attention every year.  I have no hard evidence to back that up, though.

MC:  Neither do I, but your question made me take a look in four bookstores within walking distance of each other in the Village — St. Mark’s Bookstore, McNally Jackson, Three Lives, and NYU’s bookstores. I admit, not a very representative sample of bookstores across the U.S., but I was heartened to see that a good number of translations were on the front table or equivalent. We still need some hard evidence, but I think your impression is correct.

My question to you: do you think bookstores should group translations together, or should they be part of the general mix of books?

BSR:  Hey I thought I was supposed to ask the questions! 🙂  But, since you asked – I think translations need to be shelved with the general mix of books.  We both attended that panel at the PEN World Lit Festival this past April on Reviewing Translations – and I think we’re in agreement that the translators name should be right on the cover with the author’s.  After that, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate translated books out of the general population.  Most readers are just looking for a good book, maybe in a specific genre, but I believe there are very few readers who browse for books by specific languages.  Though that would be kinda’ awesome.  I’d love to walk into a bookshop and say “I’m in the mood for something… I don’t know…. Japanese.  What do you recommend?”  I might just try that next time I’m in McNally Jackson.

Now, back to my questions.  As a member of the PEN Translation Committee have you seen a greater appreciation, demand for translations and/or skilled translators?

MC:  I think there’s an increased demand for great translations, though there’s no consensus on what that means. And also an increased demand for re-translations. But those are general observations, not really related to my being on the PEN Translation Committee. Our central concerns there are to advocate for the translator, to increase his or her visibility, and to raise awareness of literary translation on the whole.

BSR:  How do you accomplish that?  Are there any events planned that readers can attend or participate in?

MC:  And here I’d like to mention two panels coming up this fall the PEN Translation Committee has organized to help carry out these aims:

The first will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 23, and will highlight recent translations into English of poetry and fiction from North Africa (exact time to be announced).

The second will be on Thursday, October 4 during the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference at the University of Rochester. We’re assembling a panel made up of people from the world of publishing, book reviewing and book selling, to discuss how translators can best navigate the literary landscape and collaborate in the marketing of their translations.

BSR:  Thank you again for answering my questions!  I guess we’ll be seeing each other at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

MC:  Thanks so much for this chance to talk to you!

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The Review: PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature

The 2012 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature began today and I’m ridiculously excited!    What’s that… don’t know about the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature (the name doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?)? Queue up the official description –

April 30–May 6, 2012

100 Writers from 25 Countries
Writers from around the world convene in New York City to celebrate the power of the written word in action. Engage with literature in bold and unexpected ways and discover how words can be amplified through music, theater, puppetry, film, and much more. Marking PEN American Center’s 90th anniversary, this year’s festival features performances, discussions, one-on-one conversations, and readings. The Standard, New York and The Standard, East Village along with the High Line are the Festival hubs, with venues crisscrossing the city, from Harlem to Wall Street, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA.

I’ve spent months planning and refining our itinerary…  that’s right, there’s an itinerary! All done up in Google Calendar, complete with directions & reminders – synced to the cell phone. Lori @TNBBC will be my faithful & ever patient partner in crime.  Here are the events we’re looking forward to.

Thursday, 5/3

(12:30-1:30PM) – Lunch Lit Conversation: Noëlle Revaz – OK, to be honest I just picked this one because it filled in some time. All I know about Noëlle Revaz I learned from the description of this event:  she’s a Swiss author and her novel With the Animals is being released in English this month by Dalkey Archive Press.

(3-5PM) – Herta Müller on Silence – The 2009 Nobel Laureate has two events at the festival, probably due to the release of The Hunger Angel (her first novel since winning the prize) in English.  This one is being held at the Deutsches Haus.  She’ll be reading her 2001 Lecture to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm in German with an English translator.   The description recommended calling ahead to reserve seating as there is limited room, so my hope is that this will be a smaller and more intimate crowd.

(6-7:30PM) The first scheduling conflict – and it’s breaking my heart.  There are two fantastic events being held in the same time slot:  the Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, whose AMAZING novel The Colonel (Melville House) I am currently devouring, will be reading at the Bowery Poetry Club.  At the same time there will be an amazing panel discussing Reviewing Translations (which definitely would come in handy!)

(8PM) – Understanding Egypt is probably past our curfew, but it looks likes a fascinating exploration of the recent revolution and what it means.  This event, along with Marjane Satrapi talk & screening at MOMA, are the  2 events I’m disappointed at possibly having to miss.

Friday, 5/4

(5-6PM) The Best Translated Book Award winner is being announced at McNally Jackson Bookshop (preceded by an authors meet & greet).  Immediately afterwards is A Literary Safari:  a visit to NYC’s oldest artist community where you get to wander in and out of the artists’ studios.  Authors will be giving readings and there will be a closing party at the Westbeth Artist Gallery.

Since these events don’t start until the evening I’m hoping to take in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, & Later South Asia.  And maybe even squeeze in a trip to the Melville House Bookstore in Brooklyn.

Saturday, 5/5

(1-3PM) The Best European Fiction panel will have three International authors reading and discussing their work:  Noëlle Revaz (Switzerland), Patrick Boltshauser (Liechtenstein), & Róbert Gál (Slovakia).

(6-7:30PM) The Liar Show – Lori @TNBBC found this event and it looks like a lot of fun.  It takes place at the Cornelia Street Cafe, and is described as 4 Storytellers. 3 True Stories. 1 Pack of Lies.

Sunday, 5/6

This day turned into a bit of a bust.  I bought tickets when they were first posted for A Conversation with Stéphane Hessel and Edgar Morin.  But that was cancelled due to “their participation in the May 6th election in France”.  It was replaced with a more interactive, audience participation event centering around the Occupy Movement.  While I support the Occupy Movement, I’m not sure this one is for me.  I may skip it and check out the Weegee exhibit at the International Center of Photography – Murder is My Business.  Weegee was a photojournalist who specialized in crime scenes and news stories in the 30’s & 40’s.  This show screams hard-boiled detective fiction and crime noir.  It’s one I’m absolutely dying to see.

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