Sunday, November 23, 2014

Wind-Blown in Milwaukee: The 2014 ALTA Conference

The most exciting item to report from the 2014 American Literary Translators Association conference is that a translation from the Russian—Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, and published by New York Review Books—won the National Translation Award (NTA). Yankelevich accepted the award, saying he and Ostashevsky were “grateful on our authors’ behalf.” Yankelevich read several poems from the book as well as a statement from Ostashevsky, who selected poems for the collection and wrote its introduction but couldn’t come to Milwaukee. NYRB sent me a copy of An Invitation for Me to Think when the book was released last year, I’ve heard Yankelevich read from it twice now, and I’ve picked up the book several times to read poems, Ostashevsky’s introduction, and even the notes in the back. But I seem to lack the vocabulary to write about my thoughts and/or feelings about the poems—not surprising, perhaps, since the topics of бессмыслица (meaninglessness/absurdity/nonsense to borrow from Ostashevsky’s introduction) and “How do you write in a language that is false?” came up in Yankelevich and Ostashevsky’s comments at ALTA—so will simply recommend them (the poems, that is, not my thoughts and/or feelings) and, of course, this compactly complete book, by saying that these translations are starkly and strangely beautiful and moving. “Rug Hydrangea,” which Yankelevich translated, particularly gets me. The Lucien Stryk Prize, which recognizes translations of Asian poetry or Zen Buddhism into English, went to Jonathan Chaves for Every Rock a Universe—The Yellow Mountains and Chinese Travel Writing, (Floating World Editions, 2013), which features works by Wang Hongdu.

One of my favorite aspects of ALTA is hearing other translators speak about techniques for solving stubborn problems. I’ve heard Bill Johnston speak two or three times now about his translations from the Polish. This year, in a panel on translating point of view, Johnston offered examples from his translation of Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, another NTA finalist. Johnston’s introduction on his hand-out describes the book as “a first-person narrative with a concrete yet mysterious addressee/imagined interlocutor.” (Variations on this point of view seem to be surprisingly common.) Many of the (translated) sentences Johnston bolded in his examples involved, in some way, “you,” and his comments on little things—like translating the Polish “pan” as “sir” in the beginning of the book, to establish a sense of the second person plural/formal “you” that exists in Polish but not in English—offer great models for Russian, too. Johnston’s reading from the book, during a lunchtime event, was equally instructive: he’s a master at creating and maintaining voices.

A panel called “Translation in Particular Genres” focused solely on translation to and from Russian and English: Boris Dralyuk, Sibelan Forrester, and Olga Bukhina spoke about specific challenges of specific works. Dralyuk discussed his translation of Dmitry Usov’s Переводчик (“The Translator”), a poem discovered by Mikhail Gasparov that offers a translation within a translation. Forrester talked about her work on poet Maria Stepanova’s prose, “Conversations in the Realm of the Dead,” noting the challenge of translating a poet’s prose; Forrester mentioned her use of Marina Tsvetaeva and Susan Sontag as models, too. It was also fun to hear from Olga Bukhina, who translates from English to Russian, about the difficulties she faced with Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, a book set in nineteenth-century Texas that features a cotton gin and lots of vetch, neither of which translates easily into Russian. Bukhina also looked at issues of noun gender that apparently (and logically!) vex the English-to-Russian translator as much as the Russian-to-English translator.

There was, as usual, a good Russian presence at the conference so lots of translators read from their Russian-to-English translations during Bilingual Reading sessions. There were so many fun and beautiful readings that it’s not fair to pick out highlights but, well, I’ll pick a few anyway: Danuta Borchardt’s soft voice and soft humor in her reading from her translation of Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk; Tanya Paperny’s rendition of the bull’s speech from Nikolai Kostomarov’s story “Скотский бунт,” thought by some to have been appropriated by George Orwell for Animal Farm (FMI: John Reed on the subject; Paperny’s translation will be included in an e-book Reed is working on); Marian Schwartz’s crystalline new beginning to Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; and Jane Bugaeva’s delightful (no other word will do!) translations of poems by Oleg Grigoriev. I read from my translation of Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Laurus. I’ll also use this opportunity to mention that one of my favorite performances during the ¡Declamacion! readings, which must be memorized, was Sibelan Forrester and Christina Kramer’s rendition of Pushkin’s Я вас любил,” sung to the tune of “Danny Boy.” I have no idea how that worked out so perfectly but it was lovely. I recited two poems: Vyacheslav Kupriyanov’s Русский вопрос (“A/The Russian Question”), which consists solely of lines with two names, Kalashnikov and Baryshnikov, and a poem by Grigorii Petukhov that begins by referencing “The Internationale.”

I could go on and on, listing more readings and fun(ny) comments and useful ideas from panels and roundtables—editing, translation as betrayal, and marketing were especially lively topics—but I’ll stop there. I should add that we Russian translators are already talking about having a Russian translation workshop next year: this wouldn’t be a workshop in the traditional sense but more a forum for sharing ways we’ve (re)solved sticky translation problems. If you’re a Russian translator who missed ALTA this year but want to come next year or didn’t talk with me in Milwaukee about this potential workshop, please send me a note. The 2015 conference will be in Tucson, which ought to be a bit warmer than ear-freezing but (otherwise) hospitable Milwaukee.
The Annunciation, c. 1490-95
Sandro Botticelli (with assistance?)

Also, on a cultural note: I spent part of my last day in Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where I thoroughly enjoyed a real coffee and “Of Heaven and Earth,” a visiting exhibit of Italian painting from Glasgow museums. I went specifically to see the pieces from the Middle Ages…

P.S. I hope I didn’t spell any names incorrectly... there are so many in this post and I’m still so tired!

P.P.S. I spent this afternoon at my local library for a screening of the documentary Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin, with the film’s co-directors, Sarah Wallis and Paul Mitchell. You can watch it, too, on YouTube. Even if you won’t be able to ask the directors questions, you’ll still get Stephen Fry’s readings of excerpts from several novels—set to wonderful animated segments—as well as interviews with writers including Zakhar Prilepin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. The very last minute or two, with Vladimir Sorokin, jolted me yet again, even on my third or fourth viewing.
Up Next: Big Book Award winners on Tuesday. And then books galore, probably starting with Viktor Remizov’s Ashes and Dust, a very worthy Big Book finalist about poachers and corruption in the taiga.

Disclaimers: The usual. I collaborated on a story that will appear in an upcoming NYRB book.


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