PEN Draws Droves, Caruso in Siberia, Sie ist ein Berliner
Who says Americans don’t love literature in translation? The jam-packed events surrounding the PEN World Voices Festival last month suggest that editors will be scrambling to find the next José Manuel Prieto or Adam Zagajewski faster than one can say cross-cultural-post-national-poly-lingual-extravaganza. Billed as “a confluence of remarkable writers from more than 45 countries,” the campaign was created as part of an effort to raise American awareness of the “breadth of literary talent available beyond our national and linguistic borders.” According to PEN, translations account for less than three percent of all literary books published annually in the United States. Depressed yet? The week’s events addressed the “combination of historical circumstances and market forces that keep most of the world’s literatures from being published in English,” despite the fact that an estimated 80% of the world’s population does not speak English.
One of the many highlights of the festival was a literary “variety show” presented by the monthly books and culture magazine The Believer, which kicked off with Jonathan Ames’ (Wake Up, Sir!) madcap demonstration of a Chewbacca-like language he and his friends invented in their youth. Not to be outdone, Salvador Plascencia, a budding author from Guadalajara, Mexico, sent the crowd into snickers with a presentation of a series of illustrations depicting “endangered L.A. gang signs” with deadpan explanations of the origins of each hand gesture. A host of authors hailing from Nigeria to Japan to Germany took part in a discussion on the rules of “cross-cultural appropriation,” moderated by Rick Moody. While Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) and Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions) – from Nigeria and Zimbabwe respectively – cautioned about the need for sensitivity when adopting the voice of another nation or gender in one’s writing, Minae Mizumura (A Real Novel) addressed the practical matter of considering whether or not one’s work will be accepted at home and abroad while engaging in the creative process. There are choices to be made, Salman Rushdie pointed out. Is it “ghee” or “clarified butter?” German author Katja Lange-Müller, who has not yet been published in English (see below), concluded that, at a table with so many intelligent people, everyone is right on some level.
Call Him “The Postman”
So joked Rushdie when he addressed his categorization as a post-national and, basically, post-everything-under-the-sun author at another reading dedicated to writers who “test the limits of nationalist definitions of literature.” Rushdie shared the stage with seven other authors, including Yoko Tawada (The Bridegroom was a Dog) – born and raised in Tokyo and educated at the University of Hamburg – who switched between Japanese and German with the speed and finesse of a bullet train. Mouths watered as Viennese writer Lilian Faschinger read an ode to Austrian pastries as a metaphor for national sentimentality. Francisco Goldman, who drew much applause for his reading from his latest novel, The Divine Husband, written in English, (Atlantic Monthly Press), threw an extra wrench into the issue of identity and nationalism when he introduced himself as having been born in Miami International Airport. Siberian author Yuri Rytkheu shared his writing about the Chukotka of Siberia from his recently-translated-into-English novel A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago) and stole the show with the following (paraphrased) joke about the problem of translation:
Two Jews are standing on a corner and the first one says, “You know, I don’t know what’s so great about that Caruso guy. I’ve heard him sing and, to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed.” The second one says, “But he’s Caruso, world-renowned tenor, how could you not like him? Did you hear him in a concert?” To which the first guy replies, “No, but my friend Shapiro did and he sang the whole thing back to me.”
Still Lost In Translation?
Throughout the week, Words Without Borders hosted live on-line discussions focusing on translation matters. Though it’s difficult to deny that the dearth of good translators is a major hindrance to the acquisition of foreign titles, Esther Allen, chair of the PEN Translation Committee and co-director of the festival, asked rhetorically, “How many multimillion dollar advances are paid out each year for a book that exists only as a two-page proposal or a paragraph scribbled on the back of a napkin?” She added, “Publishers are constantly paying money for books they haven’t read, so to claim that this is a major obstacle to publishing translations strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.” Alane Mason, Norton Senior Editor and founding editor of WWB, has a fine solution to the problem: “What we need is for every author who gets a big advance to make a big donation to WWB, to support translation and promotion of wonderful foreign writers!”
From the “banned voices” celebrated at KGB Bar to Eliot Weinberger’s riveting sociopolitical commentary to Hanif Kureishi’s comments on eroticism and organized religion to German author Uwe Timm’s revealing words about his brother – who served and died as a member of the feared SS Death’s Head group during World War II in his latest book, In My Brother’s Shadow (FSG) – the inaugural festival encompased the serious to the sublime and will surely be back in some reincarnation or another next year.
While many of the authors in attendance are already published in English or at least well-known in the US, East Berlin-born Katja Lange-Müller, praised for her “extraordinary precision of language and wild sense of humor,” has yet to make the leap across the Atlantic. Her latest collection of short stories, The Ducks, The Women, and The Truth, “takes the reader into the excitement and flamboyance of the details of our lives” running the gamut from zoo animals to baseball, and from South American beaches to the streets of Berlin. But in all of her stories, the people who live in these places play the leading role. Lange-Müller worked as a typesetter and as a nurse’s aid in psychiatric institutions before 1984, when she escaped to West Berlin where she was able to pursue her writing. Winner of the Ingeborg Bachmann Award, and the Alfred Döblin Award among other prizes, she is also known for her earlier novel, The Last Ones, which is the story of a woman and three men on the fringes of society in 1970s East Berlin. The quartet works for a private printer, and, through them, she tells the story of endings: the end of a professional group, of an old technology, and of a social class against the backdrop of a “fantastic subversive operation” in this “masterpiece of laconic humor and linguistic precision.” Rights to her books have been sold to Wereldbibliotheek (Holland) and to Amphora (Russia). Contact Iris Brandt at Kiepenheuer & Witsch (Germany).