Essays on Translation

In this section we publish short essays on the art and craft of literary translation, on translation theory, on reading literature in translation, or reports from events on literary translation. Our goal is to introduce new ideas or reflect on old ones, to create a dialogue around issues in literary translation, and to keep you informed about happenings in the world of literary translation.

Toward a Speculative Poetics of Translation: Janine Beichman’s Translation from Japanese of Ishigaki Rin’s “This Overflowing Light”

By James Garza

Over a career spanning decades, Ishigaki Rin (1920-2004) forged a poetry of keen moral discernment and wry self-discovery. On the one hand, her work was democratic in its language and outlook, premised on the possibility of liberation from the strictures of poverty and repressive social institutions. But it was also grounded in the absurdities of the everyday and the domestic, with a propensity for sharp turns into darkness. While this picture is not wrong, Janine Beichman argues in This Overflowing Light: Selected Poems (Isobar Press, 2022), it needs an update to recover several vital aspects of her poetics. In the volume’s artful and engaging introduction, Beichman calls our attention to several correspondences with contemporary poetics: first, there is the speculative orientation of Ishigaki’s work, capable of uncanny leaps in spatial and temporal perspective. Then there is its under-explored connection to eco-critical thought. And finally there is its playful but intense awareness of the agentive role of fantasy and imagination in constructing ‘real life.’  

Always Against: On Translating the Punk Rock Lyrics of Egor Letov

By Katie Frevert

During the second half of the 1980s, the liberalizing reforms of perestroika ushered in a renaissance period for the Soviet Union’s nascent rock scene. Bands that had gotten their start in underground apartment concerts could court mainstream success at rock clubs in the western Russian centers of Leningrad, Moscow, and Sverdlovsk under the watchful eye of state security. If the music of the degenerate West could not be eradicated, they reasoned, the KGB could curtail its harmful influence by supervising concerts, ensuring that politically dubious or stylistically unorthodox groups remained in the margins.

Yet in the western Siberian cities of Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Tiumen’, where no such officially sanctioned venues existed, young rockers captivated by Western punk bypassed the censors by remaining underground and creating music openly critical of the Soviet system. The most well-known figure in this emerging punk counterculture was Igor Fёdorovich (“Egor”) Letov (1964-2008), who in 1984 founded the band Grazhdanskaia oborona (Civil Defense)

Julia Kornberg’s “Atomizado Berlín”: Creating a New Reader Across Translation

By Nora Méndez

In this essay, I investigate how Julia Kornberg writes a novel that challenges and subverts this ‘lazy’ reader with stylistic, formal, and thematic innovations, and think about how a translation of her text, though difficult or precisely because of that, has the ability to support and communicate across another language her careful mediation of the demands of the global literary market.

In what follows I pay specific attention to how Kornberg utilizes the novel’s topic-choice, ambiguity of context, and inclusion of words in English, French, and other languages, to challenge the reader that the global literary market caters to reclaim their agency and individuality as able and active readers.

Stumbling Through the “Foreign”: A Look at Poupeh Missaghi’s Poetics of Translation

By Anna Learn

Poupeh Missaghi wants you, the reader, to stumble. 

In her genre-twisting 2020 novel trans(re)lating house one, the writer and translator declares, “I want you to be disrupted when you arrive here, feel some discomfort, feel out of place” (35). 

Although trans(re)lating house one is presented to us in English, Missaghi insists that Persian is the true language of its characters and city. The book was ‘translated’ from Persian to English, then, before it was ever written. 

For this reason, throughout her novel, Missaghi seeks to “acknowledge the Otherness of both the territory and the language to you, make them visible, and celebrate them” (35).

Erasing the Dividing Line: On Christian Bancroft’s “Queering Modernist Translation”

By Conor Bracken

“Translation is having a queer moment,” Christian Bancroft writes in the introduction to his monograph, Queering Modernist Translation (Routledge, 2020). The moment has been a long time coming: both fields, translation and queer studies, were thriving by the turn of the 21st century, but only over the past ten years have special issues and edited essay collections begun to emerge with some frequency to consider their intersection, and the resulting “expansive ways of imagining the relationships among languages as they relate to the identities, cultures, and societies that produce them” (1). The uninitiated may wonder, what can queer theory offer translation, as a study and practice, aside from ways of uncovering or confronting the gender biases and heteronormativity in and between languages? Much more than that, I can enthusiastically report.

Reading Elena Ferrante in Bulgaria(n)

By Stiliana Milkova

Last year I read Elena Ferrante’s new novel The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) in Bulgarian, in Ivo Yonkov’s translation. It was September 2020, it had just been released by Ferrante’s Bulgarian publisher, Colibri, and I was in Bulgaria myself. I went to Helikon, the largest bookshop in my home town Burgas, and asked for Ferrante’s new novel. The saleswoman quickly showed it to me on the shelf and recommended, since I was interested in Ferrante, that I also buy Nora Roberts’s (or was it Danielle Steel’s?) latest novel. I didn’t argue with her – I just picked up The Lying Life of Adults, paid for it and left. I refrained from telling her that Ferrante’s book was not a romance novel and the bookstore should reconsider its classification. I didn’t tell her that I was a Ferrante expert, that my book Elena Ferrante as World Literature was coming out in a few months, that it was the first scholarly monograph on Ferrante written in English, and by a Bulgarian at that.

Always to Seek: On Reading Russian Literature in Translation

By Brandy Harrison

It all began with youthful audacity. When someone asked me one day, “What are you reading?,” the answer was War and Peace. There was a pause, a faint flicker of confusion in the face hovering above my own, and then a slower, more tentative second question: “Why . . . are you reading that?

I, at seventeen, sitting propped up against my locker in the hallway, didn’t really have an answer. The plain grey hardcover teetering against my knees looked as thick and heavy as a brick (he said), and why would anyone want to read some novel about the . . . Russians . . . during the – what was it, again? The Napoleonic Wars? What was the point?

I shrugged with adolescent nonchalance. “I don’t know. It’s interesting.”

Neither Here and There: The Misery and Splendor of (Reverse) Translation*

by Ekaterina Petrova

Photo: Ekaterina Petrova

Translation is a gnarly business. Even more so when you’re doing it the wrong way around.

In Bulgarian, which I translate from, translating into a language that’s not your native tongue is colloquially known as obraten prevod, which literally means “reverse translation.” As an adjective, obraten carries the negative connotation of something abnormal or backward, something that goes against the grain, or something that simply isn’t right. 

A Materialist Approach to Translation

By Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

The translator’s sin is that of breaching the mythology which surrounds the individual authorial voice. The literary world erases the translator in order to preserve the liberal ideal of individual genius. And yet this erasure is not a distinctive problem of translation, but rather an expression of the worker’s alienation from the product of their labor. It is in fact the narrative of authorship which is unusual, in that literature is one of the few commodities which, rather than being conceptually distanced from the workers who produce it, is viewed as an extension of that worker’s self. By arguing that translation is art, translation theory abandons the possibility of fighting alienation writ large, and instead pursues for translators the unusual forms of acknowledgement which writers receive.

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