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On Translation

Franzen on Kraus: Footnote 18

September 4, 2013 | by

Oskar Kokoschka's 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Oil on canvas, 65 x 100 cm, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

Oskar Kokoschka’s 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!

People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest.18

(p. 196)

18 This sentence is very funny in German. I can’t translate it any better, and so I have to resort, dismally, to trying to explain the humor. Kraus is again going after easiness—here, the ease with which foreign travel lends spice to writing. The joke is, approximately, that the jungle is fascinating to us non-jungle-dwellers, and that we mistake this fascination for talent on the writer’s part. Thus: people are very talented in the jungle. Kraus ridicules this phenomenon by way of contrasting himself with Heine, whose best-known prose was his travel writing and his dispatches from Paris. Although Kraus vacationed abroad and spent parts of the First World War in Switzerland, his life’s work was focused exclusively on Vienna, and it obviously galled him to hear foreign-traveling writers praised for their “talent.” Here I think his venom is directed more at admirers of jungle writing than at its producers. The former are perpetrating bad literary values, the latter merely making the most of such talent as they have. There is, after all, a long tradition of writers venturing overseas for material. The funniest fictional example may be the young man Otto, who, in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, goes to Central America in quest of the character he natively lacks, but the inverse relationship between travel and character is found in real life, too. I’m thinking of Hemingway, whose style was as strong as his range of theme was narrow (would he actually have had anything to say if he’d been forced to stay home?), and of Faulkner, a writer of real character whose best work began after he gave up his soldier dreams and his New Orleans flaneurship and returned to Mississippi. You can’t really fault Hemingway for being aware of his own limitations, but you can (and Kraus would) fault the culture for making him the face of twentieth-century American literature.

Hemingway’s star seems to have faded a little, so a takedown of him now wouldn’t be as incendiary as Kraus’s takedown of Heine, but he’s an interestingly parallel case, not only in the general outlines (both he and Heine were expats in Paris, obsessed with their literary reputations, and famously nasty to writers they perceived as rivals) but in their literary methods. Kraus’s critique of Heine’s writing—that it was fundamentally hack journalism, dressed up in an innovative and easily copied style—could apply to a lot of Hemingway’s work as well.

 

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Franzen on Kraus: Footnote 3

September 3, 2013 | by

Oskar Kokoschka's 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Oil on canvas, 65 x 100 cm, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

Oskar Kokoschka's 1925 portrait of Karl Kraus. Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!

Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.3  

(p. 189)

3 You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the blogosphere and the billion (or is it two billion now?) “individualized” Facebook pages may make you want to say them. Kraus was known, in his day, to his many enemies, as the Great Hater. By most accounts, he was a tender and generous man in his private life, with many loyal friends. But once he starts winding the stem of his polemical rhetoric, it carries him into extremely harsh registers.

(“Harsh,” incidentally, is a fun word to say with a slacker inflection. To be harsh is to be uncool; and in the world of coolness and uncoolness—the high-school-cafeteria social scene of Gawker takedowns and Twitter popularity contests—the highest register that cultural criticism can safely reach is snark. Snark, indeed, is cool’s twin sibling.) 

As Kraus will make clear, the individualized “blockheads” that he has in mind aren’t hoi polloi. Although Kraus could sound like an elitist, and although he considered the right-wing antisemites idiotic, he wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture; the calculated difficulty of his writing wasn’t a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality—people Kraus believed ought to have known better.

It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds. But I confess to feeling some version of his disappointment when a novelist who ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, n+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the Internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the Internet’s accelerating pauperization of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation—who criticized capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way—start calling the corporatized Internet “revolutionary,” happily embrace Apple computers, and persist in gushing about their virtues.

 

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Meet Me on the Bridge

June 25, 2013 | by

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One afternoon I decided to read Groucho Marx in French, because, well, why not? I had temporarily switched Boston for New York on the larkiest of larks, had accidentally been charged $9,000 for a pulled pork sandwich (where my saying “It’s that much because it comes with a little waiter who grows when you pour water on him, right?” fell unbelievably flat), and—with nothing in the immediate particular to do on that May afternoon—felt the moment was right for a book.

Groucho and Me was translated into French in 1981 as Mémoire capitales, and it begins so: “L’ennui avec une autobiographie, c’est que l’on ne peut pas s’ecarter de la verite. Quand on ecrit sur un autre, on peut se permettre des retouches, voire carrement de la broderie anglaise.” (The trouble with an autobiography is that we cannot depart from the truth. When one writes of another, one is permitted alterations, even downright English embroidery.)

Groucho wrote it like this: “The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland.” Read More »

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Document: Nabokov’s Notes

February 29, 2012 | by

When Vladimir Nabokov started teaching Russian literature at Wellesley College in 1944, he was frustrated by the lack of an adequate literal translation of Eugene Onegin, which he referred to as “the first and fundamental Russian novel.” He prepared his own extracts for class use and invited Edmund Wilson to work with him on a full translation.

Wilson had nurtured Nabokov’s early career in the States, and Nabokov had reciprocated with many generous hours of patient tutorial—often via letter—on the finer points of Russian literature, history, politics, and scansion. The two had grown to be great friends but never collaborated on a full-length work. The 1964 publication of Nabokov’s solo translation of Onegin effectively ended their friendship and sparked one of the best-known intellectual debates of the last century.

The project began promisingly enough for Nabokov, though Wilson had misgivings from the get-go. When Nabokov first decided to prepare a prose translation of Onegin, “with notes giving associations and other explanations for every line,” Wilson and Nabokov had been exchanging letters about Russian poetics for a decade, often with barely masked stridency on both sides. In 1950 Wilson expressed fatigue: “I am getting rather tired of all these topics and think we ought to start something new.” When he learned that Nabokov has decided to devote his Guggenheim Fellowship—achieved, in part, through Wilson’s recommendation—to the Onegin project, he complained: “I wish you had given them some other project—it seems to me a pity for you to spend a lot of time on Onegin when you ought to be writing your own books.” Nabokov, however, wasn’t worried: in his application he wrote that it would take “a year or so,” and told Wilson the work could be “quite smoothly combined with other pleasures.”

A year later he wrote how much more arduous a project it had turned out to be: “I was … on the verge of a breakdown and not fit for company. For two months in Cambridge I did nothing (from 9 A.M. to 2 A.M.) but work on my commentaries to EO.” Still later, it seemed he had met his whale. He wrote to Katharine White, his friend and New Yorker editor, that the “monster” had “grown far beyond whatever I planned originally.” He told Wilson, “I have at last discovered the right way to translate Onegin. This is the fifth or sixth complete version I have made.” At the end of the summer of 1957 he admitted more confidentially to his sister, “I hope that I can finally, finally finish my monstrous Pushkin … I am tired of this ‘bookish exploit’.” Read More »

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Some Kind of Beautiful Signal

October 14, 2010 | by

Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation publishes an anthology series called Two Lines that focuses on literary translation. This year’s anthology is titled Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, and it was edited by the translator Natasha Wimmer and the poet Jeffrey Yang. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with Wimmer’s work on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, though Wimmer has also garnered praise for her translations of the novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. Last week, Wimmer was part of a collective response to Lydia Davis’s musings on translating Madame Bovary. But this week, Wimmer has been blogging on the Center for the Art of Translation’s Web site, where she describes discovering the writing of Bioy Casares and his novel The Invention of Morel:

Not only had I not read it, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of it. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Argentinian literature will tell you, this was a travesty. Once you’ve read Borges, you read his great friend and collaborator, Bioy. The cult classic The Invention of Morel is perhaps the defining work of fantastic literature in Spanish, and as Rodrigo would say, fantastic literature may be the Argentinian literature par excellence.

She also discusses an essay by Roberto Bolaño that appears in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal:

Scott Esposito: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the piece you translated for this volume, Roberto Bolaño’s essay “La traduccion en un yunque,” which you translated as “Translation Is a Testing Ground.” It’s an interesting piece about the limits of translation, which it illustrates by talking about those authors who will and can be translated versus those who can’t or won’t. What was the thought-process that got you from “yunque” to “testing ground”? And did your own extensive experience with translation inform your decision to go for this interpretation of “yunque”? Read More »

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Responding to Lydia Davis: Exercises in Style

October 8, 2010 | by

For the last three weeks, Lydia Davis has shared her thoughts and experiences in translating Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She writes, “I did not study the other translations during my first draft because I had to establish my own style and my own understanding of what I was reading before I could risk the rhythms and eccentricities of the others striking my ear and possibly creeping into my prose.” We asked others to weigh in on the matter from their own work in the field. Here is what they had to say.

Edith Grossman, translator:

I admire Lydia Davis’s writing, and it is always extremely interesting to learn how another translator works, especially one as eloquent as Davis. I don’t often have the opportunity to read about another translator’s methods and attitudes toward the work, and I was intrigued by her essay.

The one point on which I disagree with her absolutely concerns reading other people’s translations. Although most of my translations, like hers, have been of texts not previously brought over into English, in the past few years I’ve had occasion to translate classic Spanish works, each of which has had countless versions in English. But it always seemed crucially important to me not to consult them or study them—to what end, I asked myself, when the point of a new translation is to be a new translation, with a fresh voice and a different point of view.

On the other hand, I agree with her absolutely regarding the importance of the translator’s ability to write the second language. Hearing the first text, and finding appropriate phrasing that recreates its tonalities and intention in the second, is the fundamental translating skill. Nothing else compares.

I’m curious about her not reading the entire text before beginning the translation. Even though she states her reasons, I still don’t quite understand why she doesn't. We are the translators, after all, not ordinary readers, and we have a different kind of obligation to the text.

I assume there are seven translating sins to match the seven mortal ones. I’ve never thought about this in terms of sins, deadly or otherwise, but I imagine the first—right up there with pride—is having a tin ear in English.

Wyatt Mason, translator and critic:

Every translation is an interpretation. As with all acts of literary criticism of which translation is only the most thoroughgoing, there are richer and poorer specimens. Not unreasonably, when a translation doesn't seem to cohere, when its parts do not quite cleave together, we look at its string of choices and worry its beads one by one. This is not heavy work. Any state trooper with a bilingual dictionary can ticket any translation for the betrayal of its original. A more complicated undertaking is to divine why, when a translation does cohere, it does cohere. The same trooper with the same bilingual dictionary will, as often as not, discover that the coherent translation is no less a word by word betrayal of its original than its incoherent demon twin. To succeed, then, a translation depends as much upon deliberate choices as upon indiscriminate magic. A steady accretion of dutiful particulars cannot alone compound into something finer than the merely finely wrought: Fine writing is not made by magic, only industry. The magic of the achieved work of literary art, whether borrowed or made, is always nested deeper than its visible pieces. The magic of the achieved translation, like its maker, and no less inexplicably, is that it is a thing that possesses a living soul, or does not.
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