NATIVE LANGUAGE VERSUS THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY – A CITY OF ASYLUM SEMINAR

On May 17, 2021, the City of Asylum hosted an online seminar entitled “Native Language vs the Publishing Industry.” The presentation was part of the first Pittsburgh International Literary Festive (LitFest), a ten day event designed to  brings together writers, translators and other artists to discuss the craft of translation as well as important social justice issues.

For those not acquainted with Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, it is an organization  dedicated to advancing free expression worldwide and to providing sanctuary  to endangered literary writers. It offers short and long term residencies to persecuted writers while also contributing to the  revitalization of the community by transforming neglected housing into homes for its programs. It offers a wide variety of free programs in the areas of literature, the arts and the humanities.

The May 17th event featured three prominent young poets, writers and translators: Frank Báez, Adalber Salas Hernandez and Rajiv Mohabir. The discussion  was moderated by poet Sony Ton-Aime, Literary Director of the Chautauqua Institution, which partnered with City of Asylum for the event. Mr. Ton-Aime is a distinguished Haitian born author, teacher, editor and translator.

Frank Báez is one of the Dominican Republic’s most important young poets and writers. A translator of English and American poetry, he has also published his own poetry and short stories and edits the online poetry review Ping Pong which publishes the work of poets from Latin America, North America and Europe. Venezuelan author and translator Adalber Salas Hernandez  was born in Caracas and is the author of seven collections of poetry, two collections of essays and numerous translations from English and French. The Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir was born in London but has lived in Canada, New York City and Hawaii, where he completed his translation of Holi Songs of Demerara, a 1916 text  published in India and the only known literary work written by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Mr. Ton-Aime began the discussion by asking the panelists what literature means to them. A theme that emerged from the discussion was the difficulty that writers from smaller nations have in seeing their work published in their native countries. Frank Báez mentioned that his first book of poetry was published in Madrid only with the financial assistance of a family member. He was also faced with the problem of the lack of a broad audience for poetry in the DR. As a result, he decided to create an audience himself. He and fellow poet Homero Pumarol organized poetry readings in non-academic environments such as bars and were surprised by the size and enthusiasm of the audience. Mr. Báez and Mr. Pumarol formed a “spoken word band” called El Hombrecito where poetry is read accompanied by music.  The group has come out with three CDs of their words and music.

Rajiv mentioned that while there is a flourishing Caribbean literature scene, local writers are pushed into publishing abroad largely in non-local languages due to the lack of publishing infrastructure in their home countries. This phenomenon works against the preservation of the region’s native languages, many of which, like Caribbean Hindustani, are largely disappearing.  He suggested that perhaps a local University Press might take up the mantle of local writers to encourage publishing in the local patois.

Salas Hernández spoke of the impact that Venezuela’s economic distress has had on its literature as millions of Venezuelans emigrate to more stable countries. Prior to the mass emigration, Venezuelan literature was inward looking. Now it has opened itself up to new linguistic phenomena and influences.  He considers Spanish to be a treasure trove of accents and dialects and in his own writing tries to showcase the vocabulary, syntax and unique rhythm of his country’s language. The writer/translator thus becomes a guardian of the local language and its modes of expression. Nonetheless, he pointed out that literary success in his country is still largely defined as being published in Spain and other important cultural centers such as Mexico City and Buenos Aires.

When asked about what is gained and lost when the literature of a small country is published abroad, Frank mentioned how a Madrid publisher was engaged in producing an audio book version of one of his works. When he heard the audio version for the first time, he realized that the reading had been done with a madrileño accent. This changed the character of the book to a large extent. The publisher’s rationale for doing this was their desire to reach a wider audience.

Mr. Ton-Aime asked the panelists to explain what publishers expect of their writers. Frank mentioned how publishers tend to expect Dominican writers to write about issues like Trujillo, sex, drugs and racism, themes which are somehow associated with his country. Limiting authors/translators to an approved list of topics facilitates the publishers’ marketing efforts but may also constrain the voices of artists who write about more intensely personal themes.

The three poets then read short selections of some of their works in the original language and in translation. The readings served to underscore the commitment of these young translators and writers to preserving their unique linguistic heritages and sharing it with a broader audience.  Despite the strong  headwinds working against them, their struggle is a brave one and one which undoubtedly continues to enrich the canon of world literature.

NEW MEMBER INTERVIEW – PROFESSOR RONALD MEYER

The Gotham is pleased to introduce to the Circle one of our new members, Professor Ronald Meyer of Columbia University and the Harriman Institute. Ron is a teacher, editor and translator, specializing in Russian and Polish literature.

Ron’s interest in Russian began with a Russian course in high school, continued into his undergraduate and graduate years and culminated in his receiving a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Bloomington. His major field of study was Russian literature with minors in English and Polish literature.

In 1995, Ron joined the Department of Slavic  Languages at Columbia, where he has taught required survey courses on nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature in English Translation. He serves as Director of the M.A. Program in Russian Literary Translation. In addition, he is the Communications Manager of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, the umbrella group for all the university’s programs on Russia, Eurasia and East Central Europe. The Institute produces an alumni magazine, organizes conferences and cultural exchanges and offers events of interest to  specialists in the region including book presentations, art exhibitions and film screenings.

Before joining Columbia, Ron was Senior Editor at Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor Michigan, which at the time was the largest publisher outside of the USSR of Russian literature in translation as well as in original Russian. While at Ardis, he had the opportunity to travel to Russia every year where he developed close contacts with prominent poets and writers in Leningrad and Moscow. One of those writers was the poet Inna Lisnyanskaya, whose work at the time was censored in the USSR. Ron was able to send two of her unpublished books in the original Russian out of Moscow using the diplomatic pouch. Her book On the Verge of Sleep was subsequently published by Ardis and her Rains and Mirrors by a press in Paris. The attached article which Ron wrote for PEN AMERICA  describes his close relationship with the poet and how she was ultimately recognized as one of Russia’s major poets.

Ron’s edited and translated works are numerous. They include works by  Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekov, an anthology of Russian Literature of the 1920’s, and  Anna Akhmatova’s volume My Half-Century: Selected Prose, which was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by the American Library Association in 1993.  Anna Akhmatova, considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, was shortlisted for the Nobel prize in 1966.  His shorter translated works include scripts/texts for subtitles for several documentary films as well as a translation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard  which was commissioned by the Atlantic Theatre Company.

Ron is currently looking forward to the a collection of articles in The Polish Revew that he edited about the work of Polish poet Anna Frajlich. The issue will be published in March of 2022 to coincide with Ms. Frajlich’s eightieth birthday. He is also working on a book about translating and adapting the works of Dostoevsky for the theatre, opera and the visual arts.

Given his impressive career, I asked Ron if he could provide some advice to less experienced literary translators. He stated that it is important to  remember that translation is a form of writing, not just a mechanical process. He also advises translators into English to read widely, not only in the source language but also in English. He believes it is important for translators to act professionally, i.e., to require payment if the circumstances warrant it and a contract or at least a letter of understanding before starting the work (even if the work is to be unpaid). And, of course, when hired, adhere to the established timeline.

Fledgling literary translators might consider submitting a short piece or a chapter of a work that they translated to a journal but should make sure that it represents the best work of which they are capable. Sample translations shouldn’t be too long; probably somewhere between fifteen and thirty pages. It should ideally include both descriptive passages and dialogue, if dialogue is part of the book. Also, before embarking on a project, find out if the translation rights are available. (The ALTA website has a guide on preparing a book proposal.)

It is important to increase one’s name recognition within the profession. Facebook groups and participation in professional organizations can  be useful in that regard. Networking with established translators can also be a good source of work for new translators.

Thank you, Ron, for sharing your advice and your impressive career with us. We hope to see you at future Circle events.

COLD WAR DRESS CODE: REMEMBERING INNA LISNYANSKAYA

BY: RONALD MEYER

3/31/2016

In her letter to me, dated 11 May 1985, the Russian poet Inna Lisnyanskaya (1928– 2014) writes: “My friends and I like your dress more than the Paris one—it’s a complete whole.” Thirty years have passed since I received this letter. Will future readers of this correspondence realize that “dress” is code for books? The preferred dress refers to the original Russian-language text of her book Poems. On the Verge of Sleep, published not in Moscow but in Ann Arbor by Ardis in 1985; the French dress is the Russian Rains and Mirrors, published in Paris two years earlier. I had sent out both publications from Moscow through the diplomatic pouch. Lisnyanskaya was persona non grata in the Soviet Union and could not publish.

The succès de scandale of the literary almanac Metropole (Russian edition, Ardis, 1979; published in English by W. W. Norton in 1982), which presented the work of 23 Russian authors who dared to request permission from the literary bureaucracy to publish an anthology of their work without first submitting it to the organs of state censorship literally decided Lisnyanskaya’s fate. When the request was denied, Metropole was published by Ardis in Ann Arbor, as had been arranged with the editors. Two of the junior contributors were expelled from the Writers’ Union. Lisnyanskaya, along with her husband, Semyon Lipkin (b. 1913), the elder statesman of the group, and Vasily Aksyonov, the writer among them best known in the USSR and the West, resigned from the Writers’ Union in solidarity. Union membership in the Soviet Union meant not only the right to earn a living from writing, but came with superior medical care, writers’ residencies, housing, and special food provisions (I was treated to the weekly chicken every Sunday at Inna Varlamova’s, a neighbor and friend of Lisnyanskaya’s, during the winter and spring of 1980–81, and caviar at New Year’s).

Paradoxically, the Metropole affair both silenced Lisnyanskaya as a poet in the USSR and liberated her from the restrictions imposed by publishing (self-censorship being an obligatory tool in the Soviet writer’s kit), ultimately affording an inner freedom that shaped her poetry and biography. As Lisnyanskaya stated in a 1990 interview, “The period connected with the Metropole scandal and my leaving the Writers’ Union with Aksyonv and Lipkin, of course, was difficult and filled with various forms of persecution. Despite the difficulties, I personally consider this period in my life to be a blessing. I had never experienced such inner freedom.”

The Metropole affair both silenced Lisnyanskaya as a poet in the USSR and liberated her from the restrictions imposed by publishing.

At the time of the Metropole affair, Lisnyanskaya had been publishing for more than 30 years. Yet, like Lipkin, outside of a small circle of friends she was known primarily as a translator, often the fallback for writers who could not publish. Her most recent book, in her words, had been “stripped and plucked bare by several stages of editing.” Now, post-Metropole, she was free to publish two books abroad that would never have passed the censor. But she paid a price for that freedom. In her Ardis book the date on the copyright page is given as 1984 and a notice on the last page states that it was printed in Ann Arbor in November 1984. The book, however, was printed in 1985. The reason behind this harmless obfuscation was simple: Lisnyanskaya had endured several run-ins with Soviet authorities. Exhausted by threats and intimidations, she agreed to halt publications abroad, but informed the authorities that she could not stop the 1984 publication of her Ardis book, which was due out any day. She asked me to do this for her during my visit in December 1984.

When Lisnyanskaya re-entered the literary scene in Moscow in 1987, she did so as a major poet of her generation. A dozen publications in leading journals lead to the 1991 publication of her volume Poems, which she inscribed for me: “For dear Ron, who knows almost all the poems here. With love and gratitude.” I know the poems because the majority comes from the two volumes published abroad, and I typeset the second one.

She went on to become a major poet, winner of the Solzhenitsyn Prize and Russia’s Poet Prize, among many others. Her poetry in the new century is nothing short of remarkable, in particular the volume Without You (2004), written on the death of her husband. At our last meeting in Peredelkino in 2007, at her dacha in the writer’s colony outside of Moscow, made famous by Pasternak, she read to me poems from Without You and her brand new book Dreams of an Old Eve, which she presented to me with the inscription: “Dear Ron! How happy I am that we meet again after so many years. With love, IL.”

 

LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Happy 2021 to one and all! I hope you enjoy the new issue of the Gotham.

If you’ve ever wondered where your translation career might eventually lead you, make sure to check out the article by our newly elected Vice President, Marcel Votlucka. In it he describes how his Japanese language skills led him to the study of Buddhism, to the editing of Chinese Buddhist texts translated into English and eventually to a new language pairing of Chinese and English. It is a truly colorful and inspiring story. In addition, you will find my write-ups of the Circle’s very enjoyable virtual holiday party in December 2020 and an interesting Literary Translation event I attended in January sponsored by the Center of Fiction.

Remember that the Gotham is always looking for original content so feel free to send me any ideas you might have about future articles, even if English is not your native tongue. It’s a chance to showcase  the incredible diversity and expertise of our membership.

With best regards,

Patricia Stumpp

MAKING CONNECTIONS AND GIVING BACK BY TRANSLATING THE BUDDHA DHARMA

BY: MARCEL VOTLUCKA

Days in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, are like living in an eternal spring and summer, and the people are as warm and sunny as the weather. Ancient shrines jostle for space alongside modern malls, and elderly locals practice tai chi in the parks while their grandchildren play around them. Nights are abuzz with motorbikes zipping past night market vendors and bubble tea shops, and some of their drivers pause their homebound commutes to say a brief prayer at one of the many colorful shrines in the city.

In the middle of it all is a small converted garage serving as a makeshift classroom. There’s about seven of us tonight, staring at a Word file projected onto a large screen, pondering how best to translate the words on it. Master Benkong, our teacher, starts to read the next line of the text, but is interrupted by the crashing sound of gongs and bells outside. There’s a festival this week honoring the patron spirit of a neighborhood temple, and people outside are parading around a statue depicting said spirit. Benkong smiles and jokes, “Oops, gotta pause for a sec – we’ve got God coming down the street now.”

Life can take us on many wonderful and fulfilling paths, if only we say “yes”. That’s how I, a white guy in a Protestant family from Queens, ended up connecting with a Chinese Buddhist translation group in Taiwan.

As a legal and medical translator, I work from Spanish and Japanese into English. Japanese language and cultural studies were my introduction to Buddhism, and embracing Buddhism was my bridge to a local Buddhist Meetup group here in New York, and the meetup group was how I met Master Benkong. Our Meetup group leader took us on a walking tour of temples in Chinatown on a cold winter day several years ago. At one of them, Grace Gratitude Temple on East Broadway, we were greeted and given a brief introduction to the temple by Benkong, who was its vice abbot. The temple was home to a couple dozen monks and nuns, mostly from Fujian province in China, but Benkong was a tall white man with a wry sense of humor to match his New Jersey accent. He had come to Taiwan fifty years ago to study Chinese in college (one of the first American students to do so), then  worked and translated for various NGOs around the world for many years, and eventually joined the monkhood in Taiwan later in life.

After he gave us a tour of the temple, Benkong mentioned that he was a translator before donning his monk’s robes, that he translated Buddhist texts with a group of friends and colleagues, and that we were welcome to join his group if we were interested. Intrigued, I immediately introduced myself to him, and passed him my business card. That was the start of a years-long collaboration and friendship. He and his team would translate a wide variety of Chinese Buddhist lectures and sutras and commentaries into English, send them out to the rest of us on their mailing list, and I would read through the translation and make suggestions and comments for the team. They are all native Chinese speakers who are practicing Buddhists and/or interested in learning English. Meanwhile, with my Japanese abilities I could sometimes read and understand bits and pieces of the original Chinese.

Those who are native English speakers and aren’t translators or language teachers may find it hard to appreciate just how difficult English is, what with its crazy spelling, grammatical complexities, and slang. So when I edited the team’s work I would do my best to explain things clearly and offer helpful suggestions so they could learn and improve upon their good work, even as I deepened my knowledge of Buddhist concepts by reading their translations. After two or three years of doing this editing, at Benkong’s suggestion (“three years of indoctrination”, as he jokingly calls it) I decided to formally study Chinese through a combination of in-person and remote classes and self-study using textbooks, podcasts and videos. I’m now studying to eventually take the HSK qualification exam and add Chinese as a working language pair.

This has culminated in two long-term visits to Taiwan, where I got the chance to meet his translation team in person and get to know them, explore their charming home city of Tainan with them, and actually put my budding Chinese skills to use in daily travel throughout the rest of the country. I still have a ways to go before achieving fluency and the ability to translate proficiently, but the more I learn, the better and more useful my editing collaboration becomes for the team. Besides sessions with his team in Tainan City, Benkong also leads discussion groups about their translated texts with friends of his in New York and Taiwan via Skype, connecting us with the Buddha Dharma over time zones and space. Here too, we can all offer our own translation suggestions to each other in English and Chinese on the spot, as we ponder the ideas in the materials we study.

There’s a saying in Chinese: 教学相长 (jiào xué xiāng zhǎng), which means “when you teach someone, both teacher and student will benefit”. I’ve been helped by many people and had many teachers in my life and career, and I enjoy taking chances to give back to others and mentor up-and-coming translators, whether it’s through Master Benkong’s Buddha Dharma translation team or NYCT’s or the ATA’s Mentorship Program. No one is an island onto themselves, so saying “yes” to such opportunities lets us all learn from each other, make connections we never expected before – such an important thing in a world of increasing tension and strife.

DECEMBER 2020 MEMBER HOLIDAY PARTY

BY: PATRICIA STUMPP

On December 17, 2020, the Circle celebrated its annual holiday get together which this year was held virtually. Hosted by Serene Su, Program Director, the event gathered together about 35 members of the Circle. Despite the limitations of the online format, the event was extremely enjoyable and collegial.

The event began with the announcement of the results of the recently held elections.  Milena Savova, our current president, was reelected and will continue to serve for an additional two years. Milena mentioned how much she has enjoyed working with the current board members Matt Goldstein, Sepideh Moussavi and Natalia Postrigan as well as yours truly, the Gotham Translator editor. Milena also acknowledged with thanks the major contribution made by outgoing vice president Kate Deimling,  one of the most proactive and successful VP’s in the history of the Circle.

Marcel Votlucka, the newly elected Vice President, then gave the members an overview of his very strong and diversified background which includes working as a project manager for LSP’s for 10 years before transitioning to full time translator. Marcel translates from both Japanese and Spanish into English and soon hopes to add Chinese as a third working language pairing. He is a past participant in the Circle’s mentoring program which was spearheaded by Kate Deimling. Marcel looks forward to developing new initiatives in 2021.

Milena announced that 2021 will see the introduction of the Circle’s re-designed website which is about one to two months away. The new website will include an integrated payment function, something that the current website lacks. In 2021 the Circle will move to a calendar year membership formula which will begin on January 1, 2021. The new website will have the membership renewal functionality built into it.

Serene then led a very enjoyable networking event which gave the attendees the opportunity to introduce themselves to the group.  Serene suggested that the members give the attendees clues about their language pairings or their cultural backgrounds as a means of introduction. Some of the members did provide clues but others found different ways of introducing themselves, such as Maria Teresa Acosta Jacobs who sang a beautiful Venezuelan song while playing a traditional Venezuelan instrument.

The general introductory session was followed by three breakout sessions led by Milena, Marcel and Serene. The breakout sessions provided the members with the opportunity to get to know each other better and to share the challenges and achievements of  2020. It was very encouraging to hear that the general consensus was that our members continued to work and develop their careers in 2020 and that they maintain a generally positive outlook about the future.

Serene is to be congratulated on her mastery of the webex funtionalities which enabled her to provide our members with such an enjoyable and upbeat start to 2021.

CENTER FOR FICTION JANUARY 2021 LITERARY TRANSLATION CLINIC

BY: PATRICIA STUMPP

The Center for Fiction is a not for profit organization founded in 1820 that is devoted to celebrating the art of fiction. The Center recently announced a monthly series of Literary Translation Clinics for literary translators of all experience levels and others who are interested in translated works. The clinics are being held on the third Thursday of each month at 7pm and are co-sponsored by Cedilla & Co., a translator collective which provides literary translations and market intelligence in support of literary works from around the globe.

The first online clinic was held on January 21, 2021 and featured Thierry Kehou, writing programs manager at the Center. Mr. Kehou is a writer and translator with roots in Cameroon, the US and France. A lifelong reader of translated works, he taught in the New York City public school system where he realized the importance of giving the City’s diverse student body access to books which reflect their own lives and experiences. His other teaching experience includes teaching high school in Cameroon and teaching English in France as a Fulbright scholar.  The moderator of the event was Allison Markin Powell, a member of Cedilla and the 2020 recipient of the PEN America Translation Prize for The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami.

The event took the form of a question and answer session. The first question directed to Mr. Kehou was about how he got started in literary translation. He explained that one day when he was leaving the Cameroonian school where he was teaching,  he happened to stop at a vendor’s stall that sold school supplies outside the school. There he came upon a first edition copy of the Cameroonian writer and acclaimed composer Francis Bebey’s short novel Trois petit cireurs (translated in English as Three Little Shoeshiners). He immediately fell in love with the book and was inspired to start translating it into English. Fortuitously, several years later he was introduced to Mr. Bebey’s daughter and learned that the family owned the translation rights to the book. He is currently seeking a publisher for the eventual publication of his translation.

When asked about the relationship between translation and the writer’s craft, Mr. Kehou mentioned that translating has slowed down his own approach to writing fiction. It has helped him to recognize the benefit of taking more time with word choices and other editing requirements. He believes that by doing translations writers can see the process of writing more clearly and may better understand how a writer builds a story.

Mr. Kehou’s advice to budding literary translators includes the following:

-find a text that you love and just start translating it, although it is preferable to find out whether the translation rights for the work are available before devoting a lot of time to a project.

-consider starting small with a short story or poem and submitting your work to magazines and journals specializing in translated works.

-college students can seek out professors who translate and try to do an independent study with them.

-attend translation-related events such as the Center’s upcoming April 20th panel on Izumi Suzuki and the widening body of Japanese-to-English translations (see Center for Fiction.org website for registration information).

-check out organizations such as the British Center for Literary Translation and ALTA which can be of  great help to new literary translators.

-keep in mind that fluency in the source language is not a requirement for literary translation and a lack of fluency should not deter native English speakers from pursuing this discipline.

Based on the enthusiasm of the online attendees, the future of literary translation looks bright.   Members of the Circle may want to check out the Center’s next three literary clinics which are scheduled for February 18, March 18 and April 15th. The Center’s Brooklyn headquarters also houses an independent bookstore and an extensive library with many translated works. Other Center offerings include author panels, lectures and conversations on the craft of writing, reading groups, and grants and workshops to support emerging writers.