By Shaun Randol
By the time this panel comes to life I’m on my fourth session in a row at the same international stage. I’m beginning to wonder what else is going on at Brooklyn Book Festival 2010 that I might be missing. A glance at the schedule: somewhere Paul Auster is yukking it up with the harebrained poet John Ashbery, Roseanne Cash holds court a couple hundred feet to my right, and nine other events are scattered here and there. The rain has paused, for the moment, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
For this event, Reading the World, the stage groans under the weight of all the participants. BKBF is sneaky with this panel, getting in a two-fer: not only are we about to be treated to translated work from Old Europe (Greece, Germany), New Europe (Poland), and Near Europe (Russia), but the participants read from books published solely by small presses, introduced by publishers from Archipelago, New Directions, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr. And if I weren’t welded to my seat, I would give them all a standing ovation.
Estimates vary wildly. Some claim a paltry 3% of the books published in the U.S. every year are translated works. Fringe activists counter, claiming that only 2% are translations. Can you sense the sarcasm? Here’s a non-sarcastic point: the utter lack of work being translated into English from countries near (Mexico) and far (China) and everywhere in between (Iran) is a travesty. An absolute travesty. I’m here to report on the readers of this necessary panel, not to report on the embarrassing lack of literature from around the world finding an American audience, so I’ll save my preaching and ranting for another day. (It is not an easy topic to parse—all kinds of things come into play, from cultural bias to economics to media competition). But the fact that the four tiny publishing houses present on stage represent at least 1.5% of that teeny tiny 2-3% just makes my blood boil. Do I see Random House or Knopf or any other giant of the publishing world up there? No. I don’t.
Kudos, then, to BKBF for bringing these four presses to one panel. And a thousand kudos to each of the publishers for doing what they do—without you, the book world would be a very small place indeed. To show my appreciation, I have included a bit of audio with this post. Scroll down to the bottom and press play for your reward. (And while I’m at it, check out these other three outstanding places to find international literature: Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and Three Percent).
Back to the panel…
Almost. Before I note the actual meat of the panel, let me just say one thing to book reviewers out there: when you’re reviewing a book translated from another language into your home language, it is not enough to just review the story at hand. It is your obligation to comment on the translator’s work as well. Give the same Spanish language book to two different Spanish-to-English translators and I guarantee you will end up with two distinct translations, and thus reading experiences. Translators are in the difficult, undervalued position of bringing a unique culture, story, and voice to an entirely different culture and reader. This is no simple, straightforward task. Sometimes translators hit (here), sometimes they miss (here), but they must be acknowledged, one way or another. Do not ignore the translator as if they are a stranger passing on the street. The translator is crucial to your reading experience. Give him or her props, or admonish him or her accordingly.
Now, back to the panel…
Great stuff all around, an excellently curated panel. Every single one of the works presented is worth purchasing (skip the library and give these people some money!). (Note to participants: correct me if you see a mistake! There were no Cliffs Notes for what we were listening to on stage.) Karen Emmerich (representing Team Archipelago) read the poetry and prose from the Greek writer Miltos Sachtouris, skipping us across Aegean waters from Greek isles to ancient Greece. And then… Ms. Emmerich read an outstanding piece of poetry on the life of plant, by the poet/author Helenē Vakalo. The Mantle audience pleads for an answer—what is this poem and where can we find it? This vegetative poetic genius!?!? Ms. Emmerich, if you are reading this, please put the information in the comments section below!
Next up, Susan Bernofsky (Team New Directions), reading from German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I have nothing written down in my notebook here. This is what happens when the story is too absorbing—you neglect your reporter duties. A complete blank because my eyes were closed and I just listened to the pitter-patter of her voice as she conveyed one of a dozen stories taking place in a single house over generations in what must be an exceptionally intricate novel penned by Erpenbeck. The house is/was real (it belonged to Erpenbeck’s family), so how much of the story is as well? Ahhhh… German intrigue…
And then came Milosz Biedrzycki (Team Zephyr), Polish, reading his Polish poetry. Booming into the microphone. If you’re going to purchase one book of poetry this year, make it his latest collection, 69. Biedrzycki read a few poems in English from this collection (after spouting a poem in Polish that could have been about anything from Communism to breakfast cereals, I have no clue…). His poetry was precise, brimming with confidence and certitude. Each word was chosen with the same care one might use in a fight with a lover—use the wrong word and the whole argument takes a different, unexpected, unwanted path. Add to his poetic salad a dash of comical pepper delivered in a hesitating English accent, and you have a reading worth remembering. I wish him luck as he begins his tenure with the Iowa International Writers Program, where our very own blogger Vicente Garcia Groyon spent some time recently.
Last but not least, the devilishly ironic Russian poet Marina Temkina (Team Ugly Duckling) who stood up and delivered her poem, “International Poetry.” “I’m going to read in Russian,” she said. And she did. Here are some choice phrases from her litany of one-liners (said—and spelled—with a Russian accent as thick as vodka molasses): Sputnik, Gulag, Koran, limonad, terrorism, kapitalism, metatext, da da, niet niet. Her recital drew giggles from the crowd and panel alike, a perfect ending to a stimulating session.
Up next: Some real serious stuff on reporting from the Middle East. The first—but not the last—tears to be shed this day.
For the Translators
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