Cantos: A New Directions Blog

Some Thanksgiving Treats from New Directions

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Thanksgiving heralds a change in season and commences a period of relative hibernation. It confronts the ambiental recession we commonly experience through slower breathing, lower body temperature, and possible metabolic depression. We feel it coming, so we cook all we can reap. We sit together, we eat, and then we eat some more. For our culture with its expansive appetite for consumption, Thanksgiving returns each year with an ironic bend of surplus.

While the economic recession this year may have induced many into hunger unusual, this merry-making season will certainly not be short of gifts for which to be grateful. At New Directions, we have prepared a literary harvest ripe for the picking, including works by William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Bernadette Mayer and Tennessee Williams. To satisfy your desire to feel full and warm this this fall, compliment your cranberry and celebrate your stuffing with some great American poetry.

In In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams “sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in a chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid.” He  has “recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.” From old records—letters, journals, reports of happenings, Williams preserves the original flavor and peculiarity while creating wholey unique recounts of American History. Since the earliest attested Thanksgiving celebration was on September 8, 1565 in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida, our excerpt begins with a newly-appelled rendition of De Soto’s arrival in the Americas. Against the passionate forebearers, WCW juxtaposes the puritans, and we visit Sir Walter Raleigh, the said founder of the colonies. Our selection concludes with The Voyage of the Mayflower the traditional “first Thanksgiving” is venerated as having occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in 1621. This Thanksgiving, taste anew the tales and personages of The New World, and the “grain of the landscape in which they flowered.”

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Midwinter Day, an epic poem about daily routine, written on December 22, 1978 in the Northeast, takes us from morning dream to night again with rich, linguistic flavor. Called “consummate” by Robert Creeley and “ a poet of extraordinary inveniveness, erotic energy and challenge, and ironic intellgience” by Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer might just provide the extra heat you crave in this bluster. Four morsels from Midwinter Day, a poem in six parts, will whet your poetry-prose palette.

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Such a pre-determined day of reflection and gratitude can run the risk of religiousness; luckily, it is impossible during this holiday to overlook the nourishing break from daily tedium, and treat of partaking with kin in taste and creation, in indulgence and rest, in stirring and smelling together.  But, perhaps this sensuousness is not so far from a practice of giving thanks. Denise Levertov, a poet often recognized for themes of politics and war, understands well the implicit blessing in all things. Her poetry touches upon family, relgion, taste and the outdoors, in addition to its activist edge. To remain present in  ‘the times’, both in an urgency for peaceful actions and in gratitude for the light of the hour, we recommend excerpts these from Oblique Prayers

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Tennessee Williams, a household name for those at home for the holidays. But who of you awaits seemless chemistry when thrust back into habitual family roles? Certainly Tennessee’s home life was not without strife, as the pained beauty in his drama seems to suggest. Instead of entertaining bitterness or speaking on behalf of an old role during these few cherished days of vacation,  find something fresh in an otherwise familiar voice. Not many people know that Tennessee Williams published two volumes of poetry published during his life: In the Winter of Cities and Androgyne, Mon Amour (now available at New Directions in single collection with a cd of the author reading).This holiday you will have the opportunity to  redefine and experience anew (whether with your family or alone)  America’s great dramatic poet.

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We hope you have enjoyed our a stimulating, euthermic medley. We worked hard to get the recipe just right.  But if what we have chosen doesn’t quite make your stomach growl, it is, as the saying goes “if you don’t like pumpkin pie, there’s some turkey on the table.”

Posted by Leonora Zoninsein


Written by New Directions

November 25, 2009 at 7:45 pm

A Visit to the Studio of Rodrigo Corral, ND’s Creative Director at Large

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The walls in Rodrigo Corral’s office are covered with movie posters, four Alvin Lustig designs we’ve also hung in our office (including the original cover for Amerika by Franz Kafka), the photo of a sprinkle-covered hand featured on the cover of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, large paintings, and posters for art exhibitions. On the top of the bookcase just after the entrance is a display of one of the studio’s recent designs–-Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy by Mary Tomer. Beneath, the shelves are packed with books, including some New Directions titles Corral has designed (in the quick glance I got, I saw Kenneth Patchen, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and Tennessee Williams).

Rodrigo Corral, New Directions’ Creative Director at Large, welcomed five ND interns––Katie, Cathy, Leonora, Georgie, and me–and assistant editor Michael into his office on Thursday. While we sat around a ping-pong table discussing design and New Directions and world domination, a designer to the side worked in Photoshop on a potential cover for ND’s new Pearls series.

Since he began designing for New Directions more than three years ago, Corral’s designs have become a distinctive part of the catalog. Among many others, his portfolio for ND includes the eerie gray cover for Ghosts by César Aira; the red-speckled cover for The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales, featuring a stenciled man with his head stuck in a house, and a thought-bubble surrounding the title; the cover for My Unwritten Books by George Steiner which made use of empty-space between two metal bookends; the pink and metallic Love Poems by Pablo Neruda with romantically curled type.

Corral says he hasn’t been designing ND books with continuity in mind — he focuses on each text as its own entity. His covers stand out as visually appealing and do seem to have an overall idea, even if its nothing definite or intentional. There is an organic, natural feel to the designs, even when the design is a minimalistic photo, as in the case of My Unwritten Books.

The book as a physical object is important to Corral. “One of the first things I did when I started designing there was to make sure the paper quality of the books improved.” The covers for the books he designs are often matte and pleasant to hold; the labyrinthine cover for Borges’ Labyrinths was printed on metallic paper, making the mirrors in the image physically glint.

Many of the covers he has done for us are redesigns, including Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Labyrinths by Borges. As Leonora told Corral, the copies of Siddhartha with its new textless cover quickly disappeared off our table at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September – even if the buyers already had a copy.

Corral said that for his designs he tries to find an overall symbol or idea to represent the text. For the cover of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he built off of Junot Diaz’s descriptions of Oscar, Oscar’s obsessions with comic books and his incredible imagination, and the violence of the book. “How do you depict violence like that?” So Corral chose the now infamous paint-splattered side-silhouette of Oscar – a whimsical but unsettling depiction.

Often, Corral will have an idea for a cover and need an artist to execute it. When he first started designing, at FSG, he would run around to the art departments at local colleges and grab as many cards as he could. He’d tell artists he wasn’t able to pay, but was able to offer a potentially great opportunity, to have a piece of their artwork featured on the cover of a book.

Since then, Corral’s pool of artists has grown. While conceptualizing the cover for Nausea, he went to Leanne Shapton. “That’s watercolor. I couldn’t do that. I knew I wanted something that was hard to read but that I could read, and she did great.”

Corral is careful to ask for help from the correct artist for the job – “If I know a photographer who’s great with people, I’m not going to go to him for a still-life. It requires a different eye to get the light exactly right on a pile of gumballs.” Here he pointed to a glass of gumballs in the middle of the ping-pong table as an example.

Our conversation also touched on his work with Mary-Kate and Ashley for their recent release, Influence, a book full of photos and interviews, all to show a glimpse into the lives of the famous twins;  relations with authors – he thinks it important to keep a middleman between author and designer; and the future of book design.

His answer to the question of publishing’s future is much more optimistic than some.

“I think it’ll go back to where it should be,” he said, mentioning how only a few years ago design offices were bloated. “They’d have five people on mechanical. You don’t need five people on mechanical.” Corral strongly believes the quality of books will go up, production won’t be rushed, and they’ll become much more luxury and quality items dedicated to representing the integrity of the text, as it should be.

Just before we left, Corral pulled out a copy of Coupe Magazine and flipped open to a page featuring his redesign for The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He lent Michael a copy to bring back to the ND office.

A gallery of some of Corral’s designs for New Directions can be found here and more images from our visit here.

Corral also helped design The Way it Wasn’t by James Laughlin – which we are serializing in parts at this blog.

– posted by Kelsey Ford

A preview of the upcoming spring season

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There’s a lot to look forward to in our upcoming spring and summer seasons – Bolaño’s Big Bang, a book-in-a-box, Beat poetry, pigeons and chat rooms, a man with a sexy body and face of a village idiot, Walser’s microscripts, household servants and accidental guests….

Antwerp by Roberto Bolano April
As Bolaño’s friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, once suggested, Antwerp can be viewed as the Big Bang of Roberto Bolaño’s fictional universe. From this springboard – which Bolaño chose to publish in 2002, twenty years after he’d written in – as if testing out a high dive, he would plunge into the unexplored depths of the modern novel. Antwerp‘s fractured narration in 54 sections – voices from a dream, from a nightmare, from passers-by, from an omniscient narrator, from “Roberto Bolaño” all speak – moves in multiple directions and cuts to the bone.
If you can’t wait, an excerpt can be found in Conjunctions:53. In July, Antwerp will be followed by another Bolaño title, The Return.

Bird Lovers, Backyard by Thalia Field April
Field’s illuminating essays, or stories, in poetic form, place scientists, philosophers, animals, even the military, in real and imagined events. Her open questioning brings in subjects as diverse as pigeons, chat rooms, nuclear testing, the building of the Kennedy Space Center, the development of seaside beaches… Throughout, she intermingles fact and fiction, probing the porous boundaries between human and animal, calling into question “what we are willing to do with words,” and spinning a world where life is haunted by echoes.

Nox by Anne Carson April

Carson’s first book of poetry in five years comes as an accordion-fold-out “book in a box”, a facsimile of a handmade book Anne Carson wrote and created after the death of her brother. The poem describes coming to terms with his loss through the lens of her translation of Poem 101 by Catallus “for his brother who died in the Troad.” Carson pasted old letters, family photos, collages, and sketches on pages.

The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams April
The Rose Tattoo is larger than life–a fable, a Greek tragedy, a comedy, a melodrama–it is a love letter from Tennessee Williams to anyone who has ever been in love or ever will be. Professional widow and dressmaker Serafina delle Rosa has withdrawn from the world, locking away her heart and her sixteen-year-old daughter Rosa. Then one day a man with the sexy body of her late Sicilian husband and the face of a village idiot stumbles into her life and clumsily unlocks Serafina’s fiery anger, sense of betrayal, pride, wit, passions, and eventually her capacious love.

The Literary Conference by César Aira and Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges May
These two new titles will be released as part of our new ‘Pearl’ series. The Literary Conference focuses on César, a translator fallen on hard times who is also an author and a mad scientist hell-bent on world domination. On a visit to the beach he intuitively solves an ancient riddle, finds a pirate’s treasure, and becomes a very wealthy man. And yet, his bid for world domination comes first and so he attends a literary conference to be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes…. Everything and Nothing collects Borges’ highly influential work – written in the 1930s and ’40s – that forsaw the internet, quantum mechanics, and cloning. In one essay, he discusses the relationship between blindness and poetry. As Roberto Bolaño succinctly said: “I could live under a table reading Borges.”

The Microscripts by Robert Walser May
Robert Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper (many of them written during his hospitalization in the Waldau sanatorium) covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card. Selected from the six-volume German transcriptions from the original microscripts, these 25 short pieces are gathered in this gorgeously illustrated co-publication with the Christine Burgin Gallery. each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark May
A winter’s night; a luxurious mansion near Geneva; a lucrative scandal. The first to arrive is the secretary dressed in furs with a bundle of cash, then the Baron, and finally the Baroness. They lock themselves in the library with specific instructions not to be disturbed for any reason. Soon, shouts and screams emerge from the library; the Baron’s lunatic brother starts madly howling in the attic; two of the secretary’s friends are left waiting in a car; a reverend’s services are needed for an impromptu wedding–and despite all that the servants obey their orders as they pass the time playing records, preparing dinner, and documenting false testimonies while a twisted murder plot unfolds upstairs.

Other great titles to look forward to:
Mysteriosos and Other Poems by Michael McClure — April
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas by Dylan Thomas — April
A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery — May
William Carlos Williams: An American Dad by William Eric Williams — May
The Three Fates by Linda Lê — June
The King of Trees by Ah Cheng — June
From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1-3 by Nathaniel Mackey — July
The Return by Roberto Bolaño — July

View the upcoming covers in full-size at our Flickr account here.

How to tell a ghost story

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1. Find a haunted ravine or mystical evil eye.. Investigate.

In Gustaw Herling’s collection, The Noonday Cemetery, the narrators stumble upon unexplainable phenomena. In “Don Ildebrando,” the iettatura–the evil charm or eye–haunts a retired surgeon determined to master its power and discover its history. The story is gothic and abandoned, and involves a painting come-to-life. In the title story, the narrator stumbles upon a neglected cemetery with a haunted ravine and boarded-up cemetery keeper’s home. He’s determined to discover the story behind this, as well as the events from years before, but the townspeople, afraid of retribution, refuse to discuss it.

“The Noonday Cemetery” is available to read in its entirety below.

2. Start hanging out with ghosts

In Ghosts by César Aira, a slim gray book, an immigrant worker’s family shares an unfinished apartment building with a group of ghosts. At first, the ghosts slip in and out of the narration as they slip in and out of their lives – barely noticeable, nearly transparent, hanging out in the background.

The ghosts are catalysts. They promise something more, an existence beyond and better than the one lived out on the roof of the building, at the edge of an unfilled pool.

The more daughter Patrí lingers around the ghosts, the less interest she feels in her family, their drinking, and their toasts.

3. Die at the hand of a friend or lover…

…and then “live” to tell the tale. The narrator of “When I was Mortal,” the title story in Javier Marias’ collection, returns as a ghost with a renewed consciousness: “I not only remember what I saw and heard and knew when I was mortal, but I remember it in its entirety, that is, including what I did not see or know or hear, even things that were beyond my grasp, but which affected me or those who were important to me, and which possibly had a hand in shaping me.” The life he thought he knew and understood is broken when he is able to see the details in full relief.

Another murdered ghost returns in Muriel Spark’s “The Portobello Road,” the final story in her collection, Ghost Stories.

“I did not altogether depart this world. There are those odd things still to be done which one’s executors can never do properly. Papers to be looked over, even after the executors have torn them up. Lots of business.”

Even in the afterlife, the ghost is just as spry and witty and noncommittal as she was alive. She doesn’t much care about the man who killed her…but she still enjoys bothering him.

“The Portobello Road” and “When I Was Mortal” are available to read in their entirety below.

The Noonday Cemetery by Gustaw Herling

The Portobello Road by Muriel Spark

When I Was Mortal by Javier Marias

–posted by Kelsey Ford

Written by New Directions

October 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

In-house interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya

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Moya author photo

The hair-raising novels of El Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) can leave one clutching for their throat and yet laughing wildly out loud. He has recently moved from his residency at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh to Tokyo, and has just completed a trip to Sweden where he celebrated the publication of the Swedish edition of Senselessness. New Directions intern Kelsey Ford interviewed the notoriously peripatetic author to find out more about how his own writing affects him and what it is like to be on the move so often.

Kelsey Ford: Do you have a guiding idea as you write your novels? If so, is it different with each new book? If someone were to look at your published works, what overall idea would you like them to see?

Horacio Castellanos Moya: I have a guiding idea as I write most of my novels. But in a couple of them there was no guide, just a kind of explosion. The process is different in each book, of course. Firstly, this process depends on the material conditions I’m living in: it is not the same when you are writing in a hurry, not knowing where you are going to sleep next month and from where you are going to get money for surviving, than when you have a place for staying and working with economic certainty for the future to come. The planning and the writing are affected by these material conditions. Secondly, it depends on the nature of the novel: there are plots that allow a lot of improvisation, but there are others that require very precise planning. And regarding the overall idea, I don’t know what to say: I don’t like to pontificate on my own work.

KF: In “Notes about the Political in the Latin American Novel,” you called your subjects of political and social rife a “genetic burden.” To what extent does this haunt your writing?

HCM: It haunts me a lot. Sometimes I try to get rid of it, but the more I try the more it haunts my writing. So I better get quiet and accept the situation, that is to say, the fact that the Political is going to be the landscape of my stories. Even now that I’m in Tokyo, far away from Latin American and Salvadoran politics, this curse follows me and I’m trying to write a novel that still takes place during the Salvadoran civil war.

KF: Do the stories you choose come from recent experiences, or do they build up over time until finally you sit down to write them?

HCM: I think they build up over time until finally I sit down to write them. The experiences must be distilled in order to become fiction. Of course there are some exceptions, when something that recently happened suddenly implodes inside me and I sit down to write it. That was the case with Revulsion.

KF: What compelled you to write The She-Devil in the Mirror?

HCM: The voice of that lady started to sound in my mind and I couldn’t shut her up. I didn’t do any research or planning to build that voice, it just came to my mind and started to bother me a lot, insistently. I think that’s what compelled me to write the story, to get rid of her.

KF: How was your experience writing The She-Devil different from your experience writing Senselessness?

HCM: I started to write The She-Devil in Mexico City in December 1995, but I wrote most of the book in San Salvador in 1996 and the last part in Madrid in 1997. I wrote the first half of Senselessness in Mexico City at the end of 2002 and the first weeks of 2003; I finished it in Guatemala in 2004. When I wrote both books I was living in similar conditions, close to the edge, on the border line, not knowing how I was going to survive next month or where I had to move.

KF: There are strong similarities between the narrators of The She-Devil in the Mirror and Senselessness; neither seems “complete in the mind.” As a writer, how do you embody the voices of your narrators?

HCM: Octavio Paz wrote that the writer emerges from an interior fracture. I like that. It seems that I deepen that fracture in my characters. But you want to dig in the mystery of creation. That’s not good for a writer. I don’t know why some voices come to me and others don’t. I don’t think on that: it happens. I just write what I need to write. In this kind of book, if I do a lot of thinking I get blocked. There is a hidden friction, then a spark in a very dry prairie, and I just have to dance with the fire.

KF: You’ve lived abroad so much: recently in Germany, and Pittsburgh, and, right now, in Japan: how do you experience these sojourns? Are they dislocating in both negative (disruptive or lonely or making you feel deracinated) and positive (fresh insights and perspectives and beneficial, creativity-inducing change) ways?

HCM: That is a nice word, “deracinated.” I like it. I’m uprooted. I’m not a plant, I’m not a tree. I have a mind and feet. I belong to the planet, to this tiny little piece of nothing in the universe. And of course the fact of dislocating affects me. Everytime it is more difficult for me to write the stories that are kept in my wounded memory. But that is good too, because it means that I’m also getting rid of my wounded memory. Roque Dalton, a great poet, wrote: “Oblivion is the only source of perfection.”

Written by New Directions

October 6, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Interview with New Directions translator Susan Bernofsky

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Susan B

From Robert Walser (The Assistant, The Tanners) , to Yoko Tawada (Where Europe Begins, The Naked Eye) to Jenny Erpenbeck (The Old Child, The Book of Words), Susan Bernofsky’s translations from the German have been met with great acclaim and praise. New Directions intern Georgie Devereux interviewed Ms. Bernofsky on her various projects and her approach to translation.

Georgie Devereux: As a reader, I have found the experience of first opening one of your many translations not unlike landing in a foreign city. This is in part because of the language of your authors—beautiful and unsettling at once––and in part because the characters themselves are often experiencing a sense of displacement (the heroine of The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, or Joseph in Robert Walser’s The Assistant, for example). In reading translation, notions of displacement become somehow more poignant.

Susan Bernofsky: I’m so glad you have that impression! I think all books are like that to a certain extent—creating new landscapes we can wander around in—and it’s especially true of books that were written in other languages, since the structures and sounds of each language influence what gets written in them, so that adding foreign literature to our reading diet just increases the range of different sorts of literary environments available to us.

GD: How might a work initially written for a German audience impact an American one? How does our own cultural background inevitably enrich and/or hinder our reading of a text?

SB: Sometimes it’s quite unpredictable what books from one country will capture the imagination of readers in another one. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha has had such a major impact on generations of young people in the United States, and in Germany the book was never nearly as popular. The theme of searching for one’s own life path really struck a chord with young Americans in the 1960s, 40 years after the book was written. On the other hand, there are so many great works of literature written in German that are largely inaccessible to Americans because appreciating or even just enjoying them depends on local references. I recently loved a short novel called Folgendes (The Following) by a youngish German author named Thomas Weiss, a darkly comic account of the problems devastating an extended family in southern Germany, all of which, as gradually becomes clear, can be traced back to the family’s WWII heritage. The book features such jolly topics as displaced persons and incest, and its gallows humor—which is often roll-on-the-floor-funny in German—is completely dependent on the use of passing references to slogans, situations and figures only the German reader would recognize. One character pronounces the word “Krieg” (war) as “Kriech” every time she says it, which is often, and this dialect pronunciation has connotations of crawling on the ground and sycophantism. We have plenty of books like this in English too. Sometimes you can figure out how to translate them in a way that works. Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words is full of lines taken from German nursery rhymes that are crucial for the book, and I think it works in English nonetheless.

GD: I am intrigued by a quote highlighted on your website from your article “Disorienting Language”: “It is not simply that our perceptions change when we travel abroad; those who never leave their familiar surroundings condemn themselves to blindness.” I was wondering if you could describe your own experience of living abroad. How has it influenced your vision as a translator?

SB: Particularly when I was a young student living abroad for the first time—in Münster, Germany at age 19, and then Zurich at age 21—I felt as though the experience was noticeably changing who I was as a person. Even just experiencing different social conventions, such as learning to navigate the distinction between the informal and formal forms of address, “du” and “Sie,” not just on paper but in real life, forced me to think in a completely different way about the sorts of social hierarchies we establish and respond to here in at home often without even thinking about it. At first I had so little grasp of the German system that I asked my host professor, a kind and welcoming person, to call me “du” and was surprised to see how shocked he was.
It also made quite an impression on me to see how physically present the legacy of WWII was in Germany and how much more strongly this legacy made itself felt in everyday life than I was expecting. The last war fought on American soil was a century and a half ago, and so the way we think about war is very different.
In general, experiencing how people in other countries live their lives—what they eat, how they socialize, the role politics plays in everyday interactions, how minority groups are incorporated into or excluded from society as a whole, the different sorts of rituals surrounding shopping, eating and drinking and the pace of it all—is a good way to stop taking our own lifestyles and attitudes for granted and thinking about them as choices. As a translator you mediate more than just linguistic expression.

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

GD: In your translator’s note to The Naked Eye, you write how Yoko Tawada ended up composing two separate manuscripts––one in German and one in Japanese––simultaneously as parts of the novel came to her in either one or the other language. How do you think the two texts work together? What were some of the translation issues that arose from such a unique project?

SB: I would love to know which passages were originally written in which language, but the version I read was all in German, and the transitions are pretty seamless. This is interesting because in Tawada’s earlier work it sometimes has seemed to me that her Japanese-language prose is more dense and more densely punning than in German (though she loves German-language puns as well). I suspect that she developed her own transitional style to negotiate between the two languages in the course of preparing the twin manuscripts (fraternal twins!). I hear that a Japanese doctoral student is working on a dissertation on the difference between the Japanese and German-language manuscripts of the novel—that should be interesting!

GD: What is the difference between working with texts by living authors, as with Tawada and Erpenbeck, and working with Walser, for example?

SB: It’s so helpful to work with living authors who take an interest in the work of their translators, particularly in the case of Tawada and Erpenbeck, both of whom play a lot of with language in ways that don’t always translate well. The Tawada story “Where Europe Begins,” for example, ends with a catalogue of elements from the story whose names spell out the word “Moscow.” I had to find images that began with the right letters. And in Erpenbeck’s novel The Book of Words there’s an entire passage based on the fact that a German dialect word for carnations means “little nails.” In this case too I had to find a suitable image. In both cases (as in many others), the authors were enthusiastic about my desire to write equivalent passages that could be knitted into their stories without disrupting the reading experience in the way that would had happened if I had stuck to a literal translation and added footnotes, for example. This has made me bolder about taking similar liberties when I translate Walser. It’s always a very serious judgment call as to which sorts of changes are permissible or even desirable. Walser’s story “New Year’s Page,” for example, begins with a rhyme in German, “Wende reimt sich auf Hände, Wände.” Literally that would read “Turn [as in “turn of the century,” but here referring to the “turn” of the new year] rhymes with hands, walls.” All three nouns rhyme in German, and the next sentence goes on to relate how a visitor arrives and knocks on the door. I decided that my highest priority would be translating the “rhymedness” of the sentence and the sense that the rhyme was serving as a launching pad for the next sentence, so my translation reads: “Year rhymes with near, appear.” I would have liked to ask Walser’s permission to transform his sentence in this way, but he doesn’t respond to e-mails.

GD: Would you be able to narrate how you came to be a translator?

SB: I started translating at a very young age—I was still a high-school student—because I was already planning to be a novelist when I grew up, and a teacher recommended translation as a writing exercise, even though my grasp of the German language at that point was pretty sketchy. Translation turned out to be so much fun that I kept doing it on the side over years in which I was doing lots of other things (writing fiction, pursuing a doctorate, teaching). I still think it’s fun, even though it’s much harder than I thought it was when I was just starting out.

GD: Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?

I’m just finishing up a new Jenny Erpenbeck novel for New Directions, Visitation, a book whose main character is a house. It’s a fascinating story, a sort of concise chronicle or saga that takes us through all the various upheavals of twentieth-century German history—but rather than being different generations of a single family, the characters in the book come from various families that overlap with and replace one another—sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. It’s a compelling, mysterious book, and I’m stunned by how skillfully Erpenbeck weaves the strands of the various stories together. There’s one passage in which she writes about children playing in a garden, and after a certain point you realize that some of these children are literally in the garden of the house while others are many thousands of miles away, in exile after their families were forced to flee—in the storytelling she turns the narration of a historical moment into a sort of outward explosion in space.

I’ve also been working on writing two quite different books, one a biography of Walser (we really need one in English!) and a novel that is in large part a response to the destruction of New Orleans, the city where I first tried my hand at translating.

Written by New Directions

October 1, 2009 at 8:23 pm

New Directions at the Brooklyn Book Festival

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Here is what our permissions editor Quinn Marshall had to say:

“For my part, I would say that the event was a very positive experience. Everyone was exhausted by the end of the day, but getting the chance to meet new ND fans and nerd out with all the other bookworms that visited the festival definitely carried us through the day. Of course we also had lots of help from our wonderful interns. Throughout the day they helped to keep things running relatively smoothly. It was a beautiful day and many Brooklynites flocked to Borough Hall (along with others from all over the city I’m sure) to take advantage of a day full of wonderful speakers (including Anne Carson (who I heard was marvelous), Paul Auster, and Michael Palmer (who stopped by just as someone was asking us questions about his books, which, of course, Michael was happy to answer and sign)). We were in great company; the New York Review of Books, Ugly Duckling Press, Akashic, Soft Skull, Archipelago; and many literary magazines, including Granta, Paris Review, Bookforum, etc. all had booths. It was literally astounding to look at the schedule of events and vendor attendees.

Our books definitely rose to the occasion. There was a steady stream of people visiting the ND booth. Throughout the day the table was chock-full of visitors standing shoulder-to-shoulder (often times with another row of people waiting behind them. It was great to see the wide variety of people visiting us: older people, younger people, and people of all nationalities (including a couple Brazilians who were thrilled that Clarice Lispector was enjoying such a renewal of interest due to the recent biography). One elderly gentleman stopped by and asked, “Is this the New Directions founded by Laughlin?” He then started rattling off all our books that he had read, including newer books like the Bolaños (By Night in Chile he said was “basically perfect”) and of course the older classics. I think that guy probably sold 3 books all by himself just among the other people around him listening. It was inspiring to see how much our books meant to people, and how excited they were about what they had yet to read. Everyone’s eyes lit up when they saw Robert Walser’s Microtexts proofs and the Anne Carson’s artbook Nox mock-up.

We sold out of a lot of the books we brought. Big sellers were The Halfway House, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Rings of Saturn, The Tanners, Emigrants, She-Devil in the Mirror, Skating Rink, Melancholy of Resistance, The Armies, By Night in Chile, and Ghosts. The good thing was that even if we had sold out of what someone wanted, they most always found something else to pick up. Everyone was asking for Clarice Lispector in the morning, prompting me to run back to the office to scrounge up what I could. I brought back about a dozen copies of her various books and they all sold out within a few hours. One thing we might consider: we had no bags for people to carry home their purchases (possibly an opportunity to sell tote bags?)

So on the whole, it was a tremendous amount of fun for us, and a fantastic event for ND to participate. It seemed like it meant a lot to people who stopped by. I would definitely put my vote in for participating again next year.”

Written by New Directions

September 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm