The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Periodicals

Posted on: January 20, 2008

4:38 PM: In The Paris Review No. 155 (summer 2000) one of the main features is Como Conversazione: On Translation, a private, secluded roundtable that took place at a villa belonging to the publisher of the magazine, Drue Heinz. (Yes, those Heinzs.)

The meetings, to which neither the press nor the public is invited, take place over a weekend — interspersed with trips on the lake and visits to the restaurants in the hills.

Well, la di daa! (Maybe I need to apply for a job at Paris Review, eh?)

I prepared to be unimpressed, expecting the usual “well, you can’t get it perfect, Sisyphean task etc.” and there was that along rich exchanges, helped by the fact that more than one language and literary form (novels, poems, stage and radio plays) was represented, they weren’t all American, and one, Richard Stokes, translated librettos.

Adam Czerniawski felt that he was the only one there for whom translating was a political act, because he translates a minority language into a major one — Polish to English — but Seamus Heaney reminded him that Ireland has its own troubles with Gaelic being a second (dwindling) language in its own country. Barbara Bray boldly suggested that not all translations are sacrosanct and should be done with an eye on posterity, presenting her experience with the BBC and its “haute vulgarization” policy of prioritizing accessibility to the masses. And, on the topic of the impossibility of perfect translations, that words were the problem as no one tries to translate paintings or music (!) Czerniawski gently, indirectly remarks on the re-scoring of piano pieces into full orchestra arrangements.

I’m maybe only half way through and there’s other excellent stuff I have not mentioned, including Heaney’s explanation for starting his Beowulf translation with “So”, but I wanted to quote my favourite panel participant, Massimo Bacigalupo. He expresses his opinion with an authority, a whiff of the didactic that gives the (not entirely erroneous?) impression that he’s schooling some younglings.

Italian, of course, is a language that has long words, so if you’re translating poetry, as I have done with The Prelude, you have to choose whether to break up Wordsworth’s pentameters to keep the lines short or, as I do, maintain a roughly line-to-line correspondence.

In Italy (unlike France) it always has been customary, with poetry, to print the original facing the translation. So a translator should modestly seek to perform a service (we call it “traduzione di servizio“), offering a “guide” to the original rather than “poetry.” At least, I find that the more unambitious the approach the better. Quasi-poets should not use translation as a means of expressing their poetic souls. The closer you look into an original the more poetry you find — even in a translation. When I tackled The Prelude, it took me several years to do. I published some of the sections as I went along in little magazines, and it was amazing how readers were fascinated by what was to them a new poem. This is one of the possibilities of translation — you can reveal a great unknown quantity to a readership that was unaware of it. Quite a responsibility.

1:25 PM: Whenever I become interested in a literary magazine I always take a look through their archives in order to get an idea of how its developed through the years; especially if it’s had a supposed distinguished history.

I’ve been doing it with The Paris Review and I began to do the same with Bookforum. I tried the Spring 2001 issue, could not get enough, then went for the Dec/Jan 2007 and was a bit disappointed. They’d changed the dimensions of the magazine and now it fell in with all the other old racehorses. Gone were the gorgeous photographic covers and instead the more expected artistic sketch or what have you. Even the tone of the reviews seemed to have gone more genteel. I couldn’t imagine Nick Tosches brash, slightly insolent voice among the neat and proper, searing white pages.

The fun returned in 2008! And in looking back to its Fall 2003 I see that the art and design staff are committed to change, not just in the cover choices but with the column layouts as well. That creates a more stimulating reading experience for me as I tend to notice such things, being young and of short attention span.

I haven’t finished it yet but one of my favourite articles was James Surowiecki’s review of Where I Was From by Joan Didion. I only knew him for his financial analysis for the New Yorker so it was something of a shock to see him reviewing Icelandic Sagas in the aforementioned spring issue. I thought he did it so well though: he was discerning, engaging, and was able to precisely pull from the literature its most attractive qualities. I went hunting for the book, immediately. The same thing didn’t happen for Didion because I already have one of her books and until then will not join her adoring worshippers, but at the end of the review I marvelled again at how informed and harmonious it was. Michael Dirda, James Wood and Adam Kirsch are the names most often praised in lit crit circles, but as for me, I can never get enough of Surowiecki and Colin Burrow (who writes for LRB).

I don’t like much contemporary art, or more precisely, I don’t like much (if any) of what has been deemed the best of the modern, post-modern, postpost-modern art periods. I get very hostile towards people who dismiss Edward Burne-Jones, for instance with silly, ignorant teenage girls, but can write 23 pages about the socio-cultural realism of a pile of garbage with pieces of a dirty porcelain toilet seat sprinkled on top.

John Rajchman’s article on Francis Bacon via Gilles Deleuze…did not hawk that sort of nonsense. For one thing, from the paintings printed, Bacon did not have much use for rubbish scraps. 😉 No, what I had here was something all together different: visual art criticism of the most high falutin’ sort. My brain leapt across the room and engaged in all sorts of acrobatics as I read

In Nietzsche Deleuze had found a new way of playing the game of thought or of art, in which “no throw of the dice ever abolishes chance,” since each new configuration changes the rules by which the game is played. In the great stochastic universe of statistical probabilities there thus arises a new kind of wild or untamched chance, which Deleuze associates with Bacon’s own uses of chance in his painting. Unlike the still probabilistic role chance plays in heteroclite surrealist juxtaposition or in Duchamp’s “standard stoppages,” Bacon would use it to sketch “possibilities of fact” through which the Figure frees itself from illustrative space and narrative time.

Indeed. I was not used to such a vigorous approach to paintings so it took some getting used to. I think I actually understood what he wrote (most of the time) and Rajchman even helped me appreciate Cézanne a bit more.

There was a Lydia Davis interview done before the release of Swann’s Way. Interestingly enough, at this point Davis had chosen to title in The Way of Swann and went into more detail about her reasons for that along with a book club’s reaction to her “pointless” writing style.


4 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Periodicals"

No one, but no one is allowed to rubbish Edward Burne-Jones in my hearing. We have dozens of his tapestries in our Art Gallery in Birmingham and every now and again the curators dust them off and hang them for all the world to come and see. And all the world has to push past me in order to get anywhere near them. Until you have marvelled at the detail and the vibrancy of those massive works you haven’t lived. Next time they get them out come and visit and see them for yourself.

Hi Imani,

I was led to your site via your comments on ‘dovegreyreader’ and I’m very glad to be here. As yet, I have only read your first few posts, but wanted to say how much I enjoyed your selections from and responses to the pieces on translation.

However, your talk of literary journals prompts a question … how do you get hold of them – or is it that you work in a university? Obviously, for most people it is not possible to subscribe to multiple journals – or even to buy many individual issues from Amazon and elsewhere – but unless you are an academic or a student it is becoming increasingly difficult even to read the ones held in University libraries (or that is the case here in the UK). When I become excited about a new (or new-to-me) writer or work, and once I have formulated my own opinions, I also want to read everything that has been written, from magazine articles to academic papers, yet this latter is becoming impossible.

I am an ex-academic, and currently living far from my old university. Although I belong to my nearest university (50 miles) the lending rights do not permit me to take journals out, while many can only be read online, but associate readers and alumni are only allowed to access online material while on campus (try finding a free terminal!), and not from their homes. I believe this is because journal publishers are increasingly worried about copyright, and university libraries have to obey; however, to me it is intellectual theft.

What do you and your readers think, and how do you all manage? Perhaps the situation is very different in Canada, but I would love to know what the wider opinion is on this.

Sorry for the diatribe … love the site! Carole

Anne I would love to see those tapestries in person! No matter how many times the critics put up their nose and direct us to the latest prize winning poo on a stick the people will still rush for beautiful art.

Carole your post has really pushed me to think more on the subject. My interest in journals started while I was a student (and I still am) so I never spent too much time thinking about how hard it is for the general public to access any of the past or present body of knowledge unless they live by a university and can arrive at the crack of dawn to get a computer.

I’m afraid it is the same here. Journals can only be checked out by current students and the same goes for any off-campus access. I suppose it is true that journals are worried about “copyright” but is it truly such a huge problem that it requires such a level of paranoia? I could probably understand the limit to online access but surely one could allow members to check out? (Especially since, besides special groups, most non-student/staff library members pay an annual fee.)

It is something you have me thinking about and I’m glad you brought it up.

Thanks very much for visiting and commenting; I’m pleased that you enjoy the site.

i too enjoyed the selections about translation. i once had a book project that required me to find translators of many different languages and work with each on stories. it was a new world to me, and fascinating.

i had little money to offer, but even the “biggest names” were nice, and i can’t remember anyone refusing. but more importantly i learned a lot about the wizardry of translation. imagine innuendo, connotation, and, as Bacigalupo says, choices between accuracy and rhythm, for example, in prose as well as poetry.

not to mention slang (finding an appropriate slang-equivalent word or phrase in the new language), historical references or artifacts, including literary ones…

it’s amazing great translation ever happens, but thank goodness it does.

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