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Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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Remembering Mike Nichols, and Other News

November 20, 2014 | by

Still_portrait_Mike_Nichols

A publicity shot of a young Mike Nichols, ca. 1970.

  • Last night there was a modest ceremony for a little-known prize called the National Book Award. Congratulations to its winners this year: Evan Osnos in nonfiction, for The Age of Ambition; Phil Klay in fiction, for his collection Redeployment; Louise Glück in poetry, for Faithful and Virtuous Night; and Jacqueline Woodson in young people’s literature, for Brown Girl Dreaming. The Daily interviewed Klay earlier this year, and The Paris Review published five of Glück’s poems in our Winter 2007 issue—read one here.
  • While we’re at it, why won’t the National Book Foundation bring back its award for translation, which was eliminated in the eighties? “The prize was a model of award-as-activism … Its administrators leveraged the National Book Awards’s clout in service of a category of literature that desperately needed popular attention and validation.”
  • Mike Nichols has died at eighty-three. (Not to diminish his incredible accomplishments as a director, but NB: his “Mother and Son” skit with Elaine May is still funny more than half a century later.)
  • A new game, Ether One, brings us closer to the experience of dementia: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories … The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.”
  • How does one write a mouse-washing scene? There aren’t a lot of examples in literature, and in any event I didn’t want my mouse-washing scene to be contaminated by the work of other fiction writers.”

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Counterpunch

October 21, 2014 | by

On a sentence by Robert Walser.

Plantin_letterpress

Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »

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W. S. Merwin on Sir Thomas Wyatt

September 30, 2014 | by

Sir_Thomas_Wyatt,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Since it’s both International Translation Day and W. S. Merwin’s eighty-seventh birthday (many happy returns!), today’s a fitting occasion to excerpt this interview from our Spring 2002 issue, in which Merwin discusses his translation of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso list to hunt,” from the sixteenth century. His interlocutor is the poet Jason Shinder.

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
   But as for me, helas, I may no more:
   The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
   I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
   Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
   Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
   As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
   And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
   Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame;
   And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.

W. S. MERWIN: I think this is probably the greatest sonnet Wyatt wrote, and I think it’s one of the greatest sonnets in English. I’ve known it for so many years, but it always startles me with the real strength of passion in it—and irony and freshness of language and the mixture of sensual feeling and bitterness that runs through the best of Wyatt. Take that first line—the whole courtly feeling about the opposite sex, which angers, quite rightly, the feminists—the pursuit of women becomes a kind of predacious pursuit: if hunting is what you want to do, I know a deer who’ll keep you busy. The speculation is that it’s about Anne Boleyn, and it may well be; it's certainly about a very elusive and uncatchable person. [...]

JASON SHINDER: To the modern ear, the language is also unfamiliar and difficult to access. As someone who reads Wyatt in public, how do you approach the poems?

MERWIN: We don't really know what Wyatt's language sounded like, and I’m not an expert on late Middle English and Tudor English. I don’t try to imitate what I think would be exact Tudor English. I don't try to put him into the modern American either. For example, the line “Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde.” I think the e in meanes was still slightly pronounced for Wyatt, so I keep it there. When I read these poems, they run through my mind like a piece of music.

Wyatt’s meter baffled Victorian editors—they tinkered with it until they got it into nice iambic pentameter and made it scan right. But iambic pentameter had little to do with it. My theory is that Wyatt’s meter was influenced by the lute—Wyatt was a great composer of lute songs, and I think he composed verse the way a lutanist would. His work is something in between metrical and syllabic verse. Read More »

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Translation and Virginity

September 30, 2014 | by

Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.

giovannibellini_stjeromereadinginthecountryside

Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, ca. 1480–5.

Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.

He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.” Read More »

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Austenites Resplendent, and Other News

September 17, 2014 | by

Jane Austen festival 2014 - Regency costume world record

Photo: Jane Austen Festival

  • “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” is all well and good as a witty rejoinder—but in all honesty, which of the women in Flaubert’s life was the real Madame Bovary?
  • At a Jane Austen festival in Bath, 550 people claimed the world record for “the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume.”
  • On “reading insecurity,” the newest existential disease: “the subjective experience of thinking that you’re not getting as much from reading as you used to. It is setting aside an hour for that new book … and spending it instead on Facebook.”
  • Among Stephen King’s “most hated expressions”: many people, some people say, and YOLO. (I agree with the first two, but I’ll go to the mat for YOLO any day of the week.)
  • What’s it like to translate a compendium of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s sadistic fantasies? Haunting, but, you know, in a good way: “As translator, I am a filter for material: it travels through me. As such, there’s a residue, but it is difficult to qualify. At best, you might compare the book’s effect on me to its effect on any reader: certain images—many, in fact—remain in you, and surge forth unbidden, superimposing themselves in your mind’s eye on perfectly anodyne and serene scenes of everyday life.”

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