Translating for Writing

I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.

But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.

Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.

As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.

I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.


Rummelplatz in English translation!

I mean this may be old news for you, but I had somehow missed it! Rummelplatz, a messy but exciting novel, has been translated into English and published by, who else? Seagull Books. Here is my review which dates all the way back to 2011. YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK, trust me. I cannot speak to the quality of the translation, but here is my summary of the book from my review:

My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig may not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been, and that is not an overstatement. This book brims with talent. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book.

Translated by Samuel P. Willcocks
544 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015
The German List

Jam in Translation

So I know it is Women In Translation Month and yet I may not get round to reading/reviewing a woman in translation. So instead I offer a translation. This is the first section/chapter of an untranslated but very interesting little novel about Jewishness, the Shoah, addiction and other light topics. It’s called Die radioaktive Marmelade meiner Großmutter (~ My Grandmother’s radioactive marmalade), and its author is novelist, poet and journalist Ramona Ambs.

Some people are born as junkies. They’ve always been addicted – to life and love. Addicted to home or at least addicted to a sense of security. Maybe addicted to a pink rabbit…a pink rabbit that feels like being alive…or something like it.

When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I hadn’t yet existed. And me, personally, I didn’t actually have a pink rabbit. I once had a green hippopotamus. To be more exact: I still have it. I never lost it. It is a very pretty green hippopotamus, if you must know.

Nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been cheated of a pink rabbit. And that’s not the only thing I was deprived of: a whole large room full of toys.

A room full of wooden toy trains, books, a colorful carpet and a rocking horse. It would have been a room, in which people would have laughed a lot, simply because there were so many toys and in a room like that it’s easy to be loving and gentle to one another.

But that room has never existed, because when you fled Hitler, there was no way to squeeze a whole kid’s bedroom into hurriedly packed suitcases. And where there were no bedrooms, there would of course later also be no memories of them. And where there are no memories you can draw on, everything has to be invented from scratch.

That’s why my grandmother spends a lot of time in my bedroom. She looks at my toys and caresses them like a wonderful new treasure. I am not allowed to really play with my toys.

“They’ll break if you’re not careful!” she says, giving me a look of reproach with her big sad eyes which make you feel like a big ol’ heartless oaf.

Look, I’m sure if she’d had her own bedroom with toys, and if she’d been allowed a childhood in that bedroom, she would have let me to properly play with my own toys, but as it turned out, Hitler’s theft has mucked up my own childhood as well. At least my grandmother loved me, despite my occasional heartless oaf tendencies.