Monday, April 21, 2014

Dalkey’s Certificate in Applied Literary Translation

Some of you may be interested in learning about Dalkey’s Certificate in Applied Literary Translation. Here is the information I received:

“The Dalkey Archive Press and the University of Illinois are offering a summer session of its Certificate in Applied Literary Translation from 9 June to 5 September in Dublin. The program is an intensive training experience that will result in a full-length translation and publication by the Dalkey Archive Press. The program is aimed at translators just starting their careers, and we've already had a successful track record with students in the program.

Recent publications from students include: Brendan Riley, Spanish (Final project: Hypothermia, by Álvaro Enrigue [Mexico], published 2013) Eric Lamb, French (Final project: My Beautiful Bus, by Jacques Jouet [France], published 2013] Lauren Messina, French (Final project: Origin Unknown, by Oliver Rohe [France], published 2013) Darren Koolman, Spanish (Final project: The No Variations, by Luis Chitarroni [Argentina], published 2013) Rhett McNeil, Portuguese (Final project: The Splendor of Portugal by Antonio Lobo Antunes [Portugal], published 2011)”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teaching about Translation/Translated Literature

Last month, I had an article in the wonderful Words Without Borders about how I try to raise awareness of translation and translated literature in my classes.

What about you? How do you think we can educate people about translation?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thinking about Translated Texts

Literary analysis is difficult even for the most confident readers; people sometimes find it hard to get past visceral “I liked it” or “I hated it” reactions when it comes to literature. Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems even more challenging for some to think critically about translated literature.

So I’ve developed a set of reading guidelines/discussion questions, which I use in reader workshops and reading groups. I’ve included a section specifically on translation. Here are the questions I have so far:

Who is the translator?
Where is s/he from? Does that influence the translation?
What is his/her background? What education does s/he have? What languages does s/he work with? What other texts/authors has s/he translated?
What is the context s/he is translating in and what role does that play?
Is the translator also a writer? How do those two roles influence one another?
Has the translator written about the art of translation? What are his/her views on it?
How has his/her translation work been reviewed/judged/critiqued?
Can you detect the translator’s voice in the text?
Are you aware that you are reading a translation? Why do you think you notice the “translationness” of the text?
How do you think this translator has managed to maintain the author’s voice, style, rhythm, positioning of the words, relationship of words to each other, and all the other factors that make up a creative work?
Is this a “good” translation? What would that mean and how could you tell?
What makes this text international and in what ways does its “internationalness” matter? Also consider whether and how the text enhances (or, alternatively, diminishes) your understanding of the author’s or book’s cultural background.

What other points for analysis/discussion would you add?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Common Grammar Mistakes

Okay, this video is really silly, but it does helpfully explain some common spelling/grammar mistakes, so it’s worth checking out.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Name the Translator

Lucas Klein, a translator and academic (who, coincidentally, attended the same high school in Chicago I did), wrote a great piece on naming translators in reviews.

This is such an important issue. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve written to editors or journalists to ask them to acknowledge the translator (and no, they usually don’t respond).

What can we do? We need to keep educating people, but are there other practical steps we can take?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Story of English in 100 Words

The Story of English in 100 Words by British linguist David Crystal is a fascinating and well-written book in an easy-to-read format. Each chapter deals with only one English word that Crystal thinks is very important and that explains something about the history of English and/or English-speaking countries. Crystal explores words in detail, in an almost archaeological manner.

Some of the words he discusses are roe, riddle, bone-house, pork, grammar, undeaf, bloody, billion, polite, trek, dude, schmooze, doublespeak, blurb, sudoku and chillax. As this list shows, the words come from different time periods (the 6th century up until today), different languages (Old Norse, Latin, Yiddish, Japanese, etc.) and different aspects of life (food, politics, science, slang, etc.). The history of English is broad and interesting.

Crystals book is different from other language books because he talks about the history of the language through individual words. Most language books either just tell the story of the language through the people (i.e. the Vikings came in this year and they changed the language like this…) or through just describing the important words; Crystal does both here, at the same time. He explains, among other things, that after 1066 in England, when the Normans came, “Anglo-Saxon words could not cope with the unfamiliar domains of expression introduced by the Normans, such as law, architecture, music and literature. People had no choice but to develop new varieties of expression, adopting continental models and adapting traditional genres to cope with the French way of doing things.” (p. xv) New words included chattels and dame.

Another good example of an interesting history is the word “hello”. Crystal writes, “It’s such a natural expression, used every day as a greeting. Surely this is one of those words which has been in the language for ever? In fact, its first recorded use is less than 200 years old.” (p. 163) During the 14th century, people said hal/hail, which meant be healthy. Then they started to say hallo, hella, hillo, hollo and hullo, but now it’s most often hello and sometimes hallo. But why? “The word was around in the early 1800s, but used very informally, often as part of street slang. The more formal usage seems to have emerged when the telephone was invented. People had to have a way of starting a conversation or letting the other person know they were there, especially if they were using a line where the connection was always open…Thomas Edison, the inventor of the telephone, evidently preferred Hello. This was the word he shouted into the mouthpiece of his device when he discovered a way of recording sound in 1877.” (p. 165) Technology has influenced the development of language in many ways.

Crystal has written many books on language, including about texting language, the Bible and language, Shakespeare’s language, and dialects, and his books are always fun and interesting. You can dip into The Story of English in 100 Words as you like and learn something new about English. It’s an enjoyable read.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Translating Dialects (Yet Again)

Dialect has long been one of my special interests. I still think it’s one of the most difficult parts of a text to translate. Not long ago, someone sent me a this link, which features a summary of a talk I gave on translating dialects.

That article also talks more generally about translating accents and notes, “Because accents and dialects are so often used as a way of portraying the character’s social standing, using the standardised form of the target language in a translation can remove much of the texture of that character. Yet, when you’re worried about misleading or even offending the reader this can seem like the only option.”

It can seem like the only option, that’s true, but I’d argue that often that’s not the option that best serves a text or the audience. What do others think? What tips do you have for translating dialects and accents?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


This website is dedicated to international literature. It has news, reviews, and events, and might be useful if you’re looking for something new to read.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Market Research

This journal is based here in Norwich, England, and the editors are open to literary translation. Check them out.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Young Adult Lit

Young adult literature is a fairly new field, and many people look down upon it or don’t understand it. Here are a couple of recent articles that explore it.

The first article is from CNN.

The second piece is by an adult who appreciates YA lit.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Working for Free?

Following on from my “How’s the Pay?” post a few days ago, I thought I’d mention working for free. 

Recently, someone asked on Facebook about doing work for free and that reminded me of this great list from Katy Derbyshire. (Her whole blog is worth looking at, incidentally.)

Someone on Facebook also posted this website in response to the question about working for free.

Both links are helpful, I think.

In my opinion, when you’re starting out, yes, do some stuff for free or for discounted prices, but be careful about what you do and who you do it for. Later in your career, you might want to do work for free for a charity or because of the connections it might lead to or for some other reasons. But just like in any industry, translators are highly skilled professionals and there’s no need to do high quality work without getting paid. It’s not fair or right.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How’s the Pay?

One of the questions I’m asked most often, both by email and in person, is how much translators get paid. “How much do you actually make?” folks ask. I sometimes wonder how polite of a question that is and whether they’d ask that of, say, a teacher or a doctor or a salesperson.

Well, anyway, the pay depends. How long have you been a translator? What type of work do you do? Where do you live?

The Translators’ Association here in the UK writes on their website: “The negotiation of fees is a matter for the individual translator and client to resolve. In the Society's experience of reviewing contracts, we have found that UK publishers are prepared to pay in the region of £88.50 per 1,000 words.” That’s a sensible starting place. Obviously, some really complicated jobs will require you to ask for a higher fee, while a simpler job that allows you to use translation tools and includes a lot of repetition of words will earn you less. Likewise, if live in a country with a really high cost of living, your prices should be higher. A small job may make you want to ask for a flat fee, rather than a per word rate. But start from the assumption that you want to earn around £0.08 per word.

“Can you actually make a living as a translator?” people also ask me.

The answer to that question is yes, and no.

It too depends. It depends on what type of translation work you do, how good you are at both translation and networking, how able you are to work alone for long hours and to chase down work, and how long you’ve been at it for. If you’re just starting out and you only translate poetry, you most likely won’t be able to work full-time as a translator. If you have a medical degree and you want to specialize in pharmaceutical texts, then you might have a better shot. If you’re an award-winning translator of thrillers, you’ll probably end up having to turn down work.

I recognize that this isn’t necessarily very helpful of a response. But it does reflect reality for translators. As you broaden your customer base and get more experience, you’ll get more work and be able to raise your rates. But it’s unrealistic to expect that as soon as you print business cards, you’ll suddenly be very busy with work.

That’s why many translators have “portfolio careers” or “parallel careers”, developing their freelance translation careers while also doing other work, such as working for a translation agency or publishing company, teaching, painting houses, practicing law, doing admin work, etc. It’s also quite stimulating to have different aspects to your career and to have the opportunity to move from one task to another. Personally, I feel it makes me a better translator.

Friday, February 21, 2014

“Afterword: The Death of the Translator”

The poet and Hungarian-to-English translator George Szirtes, who was a colleague of mine at the University of East Anglia until he retired recently, wrote this great piece entitled “Afterword: The Death of the Translator”.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Sounds

Here are a few interesting articles that are all about language and sound.

Listen to what our ancestors’ language sounded like 6,000 years ago here.

This may be helpful for translators. It’s about how animals sound in different languages.

The final link is about how Shakespeare’s work would have sounded at the time he wrote his plays.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Translation

Can translators be superstars? A very few do seem to have celebrity status, at least in the world of literature. One thinks of people such as Maureen Freely, Eliot Weinberger, David Bellos, Clare Cavanagh, and Lawrence Venuti, among a few others.

And it is these people who have contributed short articles to a collection edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, In Translation. To read how great translators think about their work is enough reason to get the book. But it’s also an interesting and thought-provoking collection of essays, mostly about translating into English.

In their introduction, Allen and Bernofsky talk about the importance of translation, especially into English. They write, “translators into English can be said to labor in the service of monolingualism, as translation consolidates the global domination of English by increasing the degree to which the culture of the entire globe is available through English. At the same time, translation works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native languages.” (p. xv)

They also note that a “paradigm shift in the translator’s role is under way…[t]here is a generational move toward an image of the translator as an intellectual figure empowered with agency and sensibility who produces knowledge by curating cultural encounters.” (p. xix) This helps to explain why we see books such as In Translation now.

There is a good range of topics explored here. For example, Peter Cole, a poet and translator from Hebrew and Arabic to English, writes about ethical issues and about what is required of a translator. He implies that translation can be an uncomfortable job, and that making decisions isn’t easy. “To remain in bilingual or even polyglot mysteries is to enjoy the full resonance of literary possibility—to be tortured by its pleasures, if not always to be pleased by the torture; to decide is to find oneself—for a while—blessedly free of those doubts, but also hemmed in by one’s choices, possibly forever.” (p. 4) Cole feels that translation is “a matter of life and death—of reprieve (extended life for the work and possible its translator) or of execution (Again, of the work and possibly its translator). And when that work is from an earlier era, it leads to either profanation or resurrection of the dead.” (p. 13) One can add that it’s about the author’s life or death too.

Meanwhile, Catherine Porter, a professor emerita of French and translator of academic texts from French, makes a case for translation being taken seriously as a scholarly activity. She writes, “If we agree that our institutions should meet the demand for educated translators and interpreters, we must make room for translation studies in our curricula and develop a more capacious understanding of translation as a scholarly pursuit. It is my belief that scholarly and literary translations should be accepted and evaluated on the same basis as scholarly monographs in decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure.” (p. 58) That is an idea that will surely challenge many people within academia.

In other pieces, Maureen Freely talks about Turkish and translating Orhan Pamuk; Jose Manuel Prieto writes about translating Osip Mandelstam from Russian to Spanish (and Prieto’s essay is translated to English from Spanish by Esther Allen); Christi A. Merrill offers a riddle and the idea that translators and authors should be called “storywriters”; and Ted Goossen suggests that for English readers “books need to be dubbed, not subtitled” (p. 186) because of the audience and publishers’ demands for invisibility.

In short, the essays in this book are varied and fascinating, and the superstar authors/translators included raise many points to consider.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

European Languages

This is a great graphic that shows the lexical distance among European languages. The picture makes it very easy to understand how close some languages are.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Translation: Art and Word

This event at UCL in a few days sounds intriguing, as it explores the connections between the visual and verbal.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Another Round-Up of Articles

Here’s another round-up of interesting, relevant articles!

I don’t often post on interpreting, so here’s an interview with someone who works as an interpreter.

Here’s an article from my alma mater, Bryn Mawr. It’s about a BA-level class that does good and it involves translation. It sounds fantastic!

Next up is a piece about publishing literary translations.

This article about what you look for in a translation. Thank you to Erika Dreifus for sending me this article! 

What are some words or expressions you might want to be using? Check out some here.

This BBC article looks at all the writers in Iceland.

Finally, a depressing tale of how a translator was treated. Read about it here or here or here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Market Research

Here’s another market research post, but with a bonus extra market. These publications appear to be interested in translated literature.

The first magazine is called Upstreet.

The second second is The Capilano Review, and while it has a Canadian focus (so perhaps French Canadian works would fit particularly well), it is also welcoming to international work.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Round-Up of Articles

It’s time for a round-up of interesting language/translation/writing-related articles! I have so many that I’ll divide them up into a couple of posts over the next couple of weeks!

First, here’s a piece from the BBC on slang.

“Literally” literally annoys me. My students often say (and write) things such as, “I literally died laughing.” No, you literally did not. Read about it here. Then laugh at this poster, which I own and use in class!

What is the coolest word in the English language? Do you think it’s “discombobulate”? Check out this post.

I used to live in Wales and still love going there, so this article on translating from Welsh intrigued me.

Learn English in the Philippines, which is apparently the world’s budget teacher.

My mother sent me this from Car Talk.

Finally, is it harder for women writers to get published? This article discusses that.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sci-Fi in Translation

Science fiction is not an area I know much about, so I was grateful when Cheryl Morgan sent me this list of translated science fiction works.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker

In late October, the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker gave a talk at the university where I work on adaptation and translation.

It was a tour-de-force of a talk, exploring what we mean by a “source” or “original” (connecting this to the concept of the source of a body of water), and discussing some of her own experiences translating/adapting. She questioned whether there is a true source and if it should always be the authority. She felt that just like a river, a source is always changing.

She also noted that a good translation should reveal, and that people might need to read multiple translations in order to get these revelations about a text (and its context).

Wertenbaker herself has adapted many different texts and she said adaptation is essential because it keeps stories alive. Today, media can play this role, perhaps more than plays and novels. She said, “We need film and TV because they may be the only way that stories survive.”

These were just a few of the ideas she raised during her talk, which was generally quite thought-provoking.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Translation Goals

I always think it’s a great idea to set translation goals for the year ahead.

As usual, I want to improve as a translator, and this means working on different texts, working with authors/editors, improving my linguistic knowledge, and going to conferences. That’s quite a lot to do, of course, so I’ll see what I can accomplish during 2014.

Another major goal is to continue read translations and to think about the work of translators.

What about you?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Spolia Magazine

Spolia Magazine is a lovely literary magazine that publishes a variety of texts, including translations.

I’m pleased to have a couple of translations in the most recent issue. These are two short works by Swedish author Mats Kempe. You can read an excerpt here and an interview with Mats Kempe here.

Check out Spolia for other interesting texts in the future!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Charitable Giving

I believe in charitable giving, and I think we become especially aware of giving to others during the holiday season (which can be quite commercial and crass in a variety of ways).

Whether we donate our time and expertise (such as doing translations for free for charities or helping someone learn to read) or we give money, I think it’s essential to help others. This is something my parents instilled in me as a child, through their words and actions.

A year or two ago, I learned about Donors Choose, a website where you can pick projects at schools and support them. Personally, I’m most interested in literacy and literature, so I like to choose projects where I can buy books or other relevant materials for schools, but there is a large variety (science, arts, music, field trips, etc.). While I wish these schools had enough funding to do what they want/need as it is, they don’t, and so for now I try to help as much as I can.

This holiday season, I hope you also find a way to help people to the best of your ability.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Are the Kids All Right?

In October, my new book was published. It’s on LGBTQ literature for children and young adults and I hope the book reads like a popular, accessible text supported by academic research.

I’ve been working on this topic for a number of years now, so I’m really pleased it’s now out there in the world, and I look forward to getting feedback.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Call for Papers

If you know Swedish and work on the translation of children’s literature, you might be interested in this call for papers.

Översättning för en ny generation

4-6 december 2014

Välkomna till Översättning för en ny generation, vid Högskolan Dalarna!

Workshoppen är ett samarbete mellan ämnena Franska, Litteraturvetenskap, Svenska, forskningsprofilen Kultur, Identitet och Gestaltning vid Högkolan Dalarna och Översättarprogrammet vid Uppsala universitet.

Svensk barn- och ungdomslitteratur har ett gott rykte internationellt och många titlar översätts varje år över hela världen. Även om antalet översättningar har varierat volymmässigt de senaste decennierna har svensk barn- och ungdomslitteratur varit en återkommande favorit i förlagsmiljö utomlands. 2013 var Sverige dessutom hedersgäst på Bolognas Barnlitteraturmässa. Svenska språkets relativt marginella ställning i världen leder dock till att det inte finns ett obegränsat antal översättare som kan ta sig an uppdraget att översätta en barnbok från svenska. Tillgången på översättare, liksom generationsskiften bland dessa, är alltså en viktig faktor som inte skall förbises i sammanhanget.

Syftet med symposiet är att särskilt fokusera urvalskriterier inom olika marknader samt att belysa de översättningsmarknader där det sker ett generationsskifte bland översättarna vad gäller barn- och ungdomslitteratur. Huvudfokus ligger på översättning från svenska till världens olika språk. Eftersom det finns en mycket nära kulturell och språklig skandinavisk samhörighet (samma översättare arbetar till exempel ofta från mer än ett skandinaviskt språk), kommer också symposiet att behandla översättningen av norska och danska barn- och ungdomsböcker. Symposiet kommer även att belysa översättningen av barn och ungdomsböcker utifrån vidare översättningsvetenskapliga frågeställningar. En första reflektion kan skissas från frågorna nedan. Denna förteckning är inte uttömmande och ytterligare förslag på frågor tas gärna emot för övervägande:

vilka böcker översätts?

hur relaterar översättningarna till den inhemska produktionen och översättningar från andra språk?

finns det kulturella faktorer som försvårar översättningen?

är det möjligt att särskilja olika strategier vid översättning till olika språk?

hur påverkas översättningarna av den nya generationens läsare?

finns det ett gap mellan det som accepteras av barn- och ungdomslitteratur i Sverige och i övriga världen?

Symposiet utgör ett unikt tillfälle för forskare, översättarstudenter, översättare, och andra intresserade av svensk barn- och ungdomslitteratur att diskutera dess spridning i en globaliserad värld. Språket vid workshopen kommer att vara svenska, men vi välkomnar också sessionsföredrag på norska och/eller danska.

Som plenarföreläsare kommer B.J.Epstein, lektor i litteratur och public engagement vid University of East Anglia i England, att medverka. Hon är författare till många publikationer, inklusive tre böcker, varav Translating Expressive Language in Children’s Literature, som bygger på hennes forskning om översättningen av barnböcker. Hon har också redigerat, korrekturläst eller översatt många böcker från svenska till engelska och var redaktör för Northern Lights: Translation in the Nordic Countries, som handlar om översättning av de nordiska språken.

Vi kommer även att ha förmånen att lyssna på Åsa Warnqvist, från Svenska Barnboksinstitutet, som bl.a. kommer att presentera den samtida svenska marknaden för barn- och ungdomsböcker, och Masako Hayakawa Thor från Högskolan Dalarna, som kommer att berätta om sitt arbete som redaktör/förläggare på ett barnboksförlag i Japan och som översättare av några svenska bilderböcker till japanska.

För den som vill delta i workshoppen med föredrag gäller följande:

Sista dag för inskickande av abstract: 2014.03.24

Svar till författarna efter granskning av kommittén: ca 2014.06.19

Format för abstract: En sammanställning av cirka 20 rader på svenska. I dokumentet ska också finnas uppgift om namn, institution, titel, författarens kontaktuppgifter (e-postadress) och föredragets titel. Tre nyckelord bör också nämnas.

Presentationen kommer att vara 20 minuter.

Förslagen ska skickas till:

För mer information, se

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist

I’ve often enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s writing and I admire some of the creative things he does with fiction. I especially enjoyed The Anthologist because of the way it talked about poetry (the main character is writing an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry but is finding it difficult to do). But I was disappointed by Baker’s apparent views on translation (or maybe they were just his protagonist’s views).

For example, the main character, Paul Chowder, talks about opening a magazine and looking at a poem. He notes that you look at the title and the name of the author, and he adds, “if it says “translated from the Czech by Bigelow Jones,” forget it, you instantly move on, because translations are never good. Well, wait—that’s not fair. That’s ridiculously unfair. I’ve read some wonderful translations. Translations of Tranströmer, for instance. But my heart does droop when I see that it’s a translation. But let’s say this poem is one hundred percent original…” (p. 69)

So he thinks a translation isn’t “one hundred percent original” (what’s original?) and he also seems to suggest that you move on rather than read a translation.

On the other hand, Chowder later says how Ezra Pound told W.S. Merwin to “sharpen your mind with translations”, and Merwin did, although Chowder says “I don’t know if it was good for him or not to translate so much” (p. 94). I think most of us who translate would say that it is good, because it forces you to think about language in a different way.

Finally, translation comes up again because Chowder is a big fan of rhyme and he feels that translation destroyed rhyme, because Jules Laforgue “exoticized” Walt Whitman’s poetry in translation and removed the rhymes, and this then had an effect on what people wrote. “The death of rhyme is really about translation. Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet-voiced balladeer from a faraway land. Everybody read the prose in their own language, and then they imagined the glorious versificational paradise that they didn’t inhabit but that was glimmering greenly there in the distant original. The imagined rhyme-world was actually better and more lyrical than if they had the original poem in the original language with the actual rhyme scheme in it in front of them.” (pp. 131-2) I don’t know if I follow all this, but he basically blames translation for people no longer writing in rhyme as often.

I definitely recommend Baker’s work and this novel in particular, but I wish he didn’t have such a negative view of translation. Without translation, how would Chowder be able to appreciate some the poets he admires and learns from? How would he know anything about another culture or its literature?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Translator Nina Salaman

While at the Jewish Museum in London in August, I happened to see a mention of Nina Salaman.

I’d never heard of her before, but I learned that she was a well-regarded translator from medieval Hebrew to English and that she was active in the women’s rights movement. You can read more about her here.

It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into translators’ lives!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Video on Translators and Their Rates

You might want to laugh, or possibly cry, at this video on how not to talk to translators about their rates. We probably have all had such experiences!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Monsieur le Commandant

This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

Monsieur le Commandant
by Romain Slocombe, translated by Jesse Browner
190 pp., London: Gallic, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

We’ve surely all read many World War 2 novels. So one might be forgiven for asking what yet another such book could possibly add to the already existent heaps. But it is worth reading Monsieur le Commandant anyway, because it tells the reader about the war from a rather different perspective, and the ending, though what is to come is hinted at, is still shocking. This novel is horrifying and yet it is nonetheless hard to put down.

Monsieur le Commandant is about Paul-Jean Husson, a veteran of World War 1, novelist, and member of the French Academy. He writes a letter – which is the length of the book – to the Nazi officer in charge of his hometown in France, telling him about his life, discussing his political views (all in favour of Nazi policies), and making a special request.

The letter initially lulls the reader. Yes, Husson is clearly a Nazi sympathiser who would like to rid his homeland of unworthy, foreign elements, and yes, he regularly writes extremely anti-Semitic articles, but he is also a successful author with a creative mind, and he is a family man, devoted to his wife, although he cheats on her regularly, and to his two children. But Husson then becomes obsessed with his son’s wife, and it is this unhealthy obsession that drives the plot into more terrifying, and also ironic, territory.

As Husson points out, “I have never indulged in the romantic delusion that writers ought to be saints or heroes to be worshipped at the altar; on the contrary, I Believe that the cultivation of such subversive faculties as the imagination and sensibility carries a clear moral risk. That is why so few writers have led exemplary lives.” (p. 10) Indeed, Husson does not lead an exemplary life.

The protagonist has no fondness for Jews: “Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilisation of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome. Social, because the Jewish mind is critical and subversive to the highest degree; its seditious tendencies, being in no way mitigated by patriotic loyalty, lead it to criticise the institutions of the country to which it has attached itself, sometimes undermining and even destroying them.” (p. 43, italics original)

Beyond his proudly anti-Semitic views, Husson is apparently nothing less than honest in his letter to the Nazi officer (openly discussing his masturbatory fantasies about his daughter-in-law, for example (p. 50), or his attempt to protect a Jew (p. 98)). Nevertheless, this honesty about who he is, what he believes, and how he behaves does not prepare the reader for the choice he makes at the end.

A reader might hope that someone who holds such prejudiced views would change by the end of the book, but perhaps that is not too realistic a wish, given what we know about what actually happened during the Holocaust. The ending will not be given away here, however.

Gallic Press has been publishing “the best of French in English” for six years, and the company is a wonderful resource for anyone who appreciates French literature and/or literature in translation. Monsieur le Commandant was translated by Jesse Browner, an American novelist, food historian, and translator.

And Monsieur le Commandant is a great read that angers and educates in turns, letting readers have access to the perspective of collaborators during World War 2, which is not often depicted in literature.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Market Research

Check out this new publishing company, New Vessel, which clearly is devoted to translated texts. It might be an interesting place to submit work or simply a publisher whose books you want to look for.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

edited by Adam Thirlwell
378 pp., London: Portobello, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

The list of contributors to Multiples reads like a veritable who’s who of contemporary literary superstars (well, as close to superstars as literature ever gets, anyway): Colm Tóibín, Nathan Englander, David Mitchell, Cees Nooteboom, J.M. Coetzee, Aleksander Hemon, Sjón, A.S. Byatt (one of the few women involved), and Jeffrey Eugenides, among around 50 others. Important note, though: they’re all writers and, except for Lydia Davis, few are translators, or appear to have even thought much about translation. Some scarcely know more than their native language.

And yet Multiples is a collection of translations. Odd, isn’t it? So what’s the story?

Editor Adam Thirlwell speaks (as at the recent British Centre for Literary Translation summer school, where I heard him) and writes (as in the introduction to this book) engagingly about why he chose to edit a book of translations by non-translators and what he was hoping to achieve. His hypothesis, he writes, is: “The art of the novel is an international art. Its history is international, and the mechanics of this history is translation—which means that the art of fiction, having survived this history must be tougher than it looks.” (p. 2) He then turned this rather obvious idea into an experiment: “What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working only from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?” (p. 3)

Already the experiment seems rather strange – why would novelists be better able to preserve style than practising, experienced translators? At least that seems to be Thirlwell’s implication, as though translators couldn’t possibly preserve or comment on style.

So how does it all work in Multiples? As an example, Clancy Martin translated Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard’s story “Skrift-Prøver” to English. This is then translated to Dutch by Cees Nooteboom, and that is translated back to English by J.M. Coetzee. Jean-Christophe Valtat translated Coetzee’s work to French, Sheila Heti (who mentions that she barely knows French though her skills are good enough to “arrange a threesome” (p. 51)) translated his to English, and finally Jonas Hassen Khemiri translated Heti’s text to Swedish. And what did we learn from it? Well, the final product ended up rather different from the original and yet had some things in common with it. Hmm.

Many of the writers add a few notes about their experience of translation. Some are more interesting than others, while many comment on their desperate need to “customize”, as Jean-Christophe Valtat put it (p. 51), the text they were working on. Jonas Hassen Khemiri too describes the text as a “straitjacket” (p. 52) and indeed, this is a common feeling. In other words, writers want to make stuff up and change things around, not translate the texts they are given. Okay. Let the translators at the texts then.

So what is actually to be gained from this intricate game of “Operator” (or “Chinese Whispers”, as the less politically correct call it)?

It seems to be, in part, to suggest that style crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries, and also that there is no one style, so writers should feel free to use whatever suits their topics, needs, and abilities. Again, this isn’t news. Thirlwell also adds that “Maybe in some hypothetical future, literature will become the pure international—oblivious to the problems of time and space—and somehow the language in which you write or read your literature will be less important than the singular, multiple structures those languages happen to form…” (p. 14) One might ask how trapped readers and writers actually are by time and space anyway. Readers are arguably more trapped, by not knowing all the languages of the world, but that’s what translators are for, of course.

Yes, well, I suppose this is all interesting enough. For me, it sounds and reads like postmodern shtick:  clever writers trying to show off their cleverness. I’m not sure if they’ve proven anything with this book other than that good translators are great craftspeople and should be valued higher. Writers might want to stick to their writing, while translators can stick to theirs.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Phrases from Falconry

This summer, I went to the wonderful Suffolk Owl Sanctuary. I learned a lot about birds of prey there and really enjoyed my visit. One thing that was particularly interesting from a linguistics point of view is the influence of falconry on the English language.

You can read more about terms we have derived from falconry, such as “hoodwink” or “haggard”, on this website and this one.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Song of King Gesar

This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

The Song of King Gesar
by Alai, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin
436 pp., Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

What’s in your heart? Is it a demon? Or a treasure? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Tibetan writer Alai’s novel The Song of Gesar, translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin, explores what’s in the hearts of both humans and deities. It’s an epic story from Tibet, told by generations of bards, and now in written format by Alai, the author of a number of novels and collections of poetry and short stories (besides Gesar, only his novel Red Poppies seems available in English).

The novel starts off quite gently, lulling the reader into believing this might be an easy read about the far-off land of Tibet. But soon the reader is hit with paragraphs such as this: “Meanwhile, the demons howled with laughter as they feasted at a banquet of human flesh. First to be eaten were those who had spread rumours. Their tongues were cut out, then their blood was poured into jars and placed on the altar as an offering to evil deities. The demons consumed some of these poor souls, but there were more than they could eat, so the rest were left without their tongues, weeping in remorse and pain. Their wailing streamed past people’s hearts, like a dark river of grief.” (p. 11)

Such passages make the reader (and the characters) wonder whether the gods actually care about humans. Will they help humans or do they expect humans to sort things out on their own? What actually would be best for people? And what are the deities up to anyway? As this might show, The Song of Gesar is part of Canongate’s brilliant Myths series (which also includes work by Ali Smith, Klas Östergren, and Margaret Atwood, among many other important writers), and it’s a vital addition, as this is the first time the Tibetan story has appeared in English.

Alai considers these questions of gods and humans, good and evil, in beautifully written (and beautifully translated) turns of phrases: “The next day the sky shone bright and clear, when the old steward stood on a dais in front of the fortress. The snowdrifts were silently collapsing under the heat of the sun, with water gurgling beneath the white blanket. It was nearly noon, but not a single person could be seen on the roads that led to the tribal lands. The old steward sent soldiers to find them, while he sat on the top tier of the fortress, neither drinking tea nor touching the cheese that was brought to him. Eyes closed, he could hear the snow melting, and when he opened his eyes, he saw steam rising in the sun’s rays. Still no one came. The heat from the sun weakened and, battered by an icy western wind, the steamy vapours turned to grey mist and fog. He sank into gloom. Perhaps he had outlived his usefulness; perhaps he deserved to be abandoned by the people.” (p. 89)

Gesar, the cultural hero of Tibet, the lord of Gling, has fascinating experiences, and at last anglopone readers have access to his story.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I’ve recently been told about an interesting website. Belletrista celebrates the work of women writers from around the world, including in translation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

Café Conversations

As it’s a new academic year, it’s once again time for a new series of café conversations. Here is the series I’ve organized for this year; every session is free and open to anyone.

Humanities Café Conversations
October 2013 to May 2014
Run by staff and students in LDC, AMS, PSI, and LCS at UEA

All cafés take place at 3 pm in the White Lion Café at 19-21 White Lion Street in Norwich. All conversations are free and open to everyone.

25 October
Hearing Voices
Dr David Nowell-Smith
How did Beethoven compose when he was deaf? How did the phonograph and the telephone transform how people heard one another’s voices—and their own? What is the voice we hear when we read silently, and why does it sound so different from the voice we hear when we read aloud? And how do works of art—poems, but also films, song, sound art—make use of, and intensify, these daily experience of voice?

15 November
Chekhov’s Seagull – a play and its problems
Dr Nola Merckel and Stephen Picton
When Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull premiered in 1896 it was a resounding failure in the opinion of its audience, critics and the writer himself. How, and why, did a play once so  condemned come to be regarded as one of the most important developments in modern theatre, and what makes Chekhov’s plays so radical, fascinating and open to reinvention? What can they say to us now? And how far can you go in taking creative liberties with ‘the classics’? To tie in with a current production of The Seagull at Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre, director Stephen Picton and Dr Nola Merckel will talk about the appeals, challenges and dangers of staging this play.

22 November
What Makes a Great Political Speech?
Professor Alan Finlayson  
Politics involves a lot of talking, arguing and debating. Whether it is Cameron and Miliband addressing their party conferences, activists at Hyde Park or local residents speaking against a planning decision people use their words to persuade others to see things one way rather than another. How do they do this? What ways of communicating make a speech not just good but great? This café conversation will address these questions and establish whether or not politics can ever be poetic.

6 December
Two Countries Divided by a Common Language? Translating from English to English
Dr B.J. Epstein
Translation isn’t just from one language to another; it can also be from one dialect/version of a language to another dialect/version. Harry Potter can be translated from British to American. Shakespeare can be bowdlerised. Emily Dickinson can have her poems shortened. Robert Burns can be translated from Scots English to standard BBC English. Why do such translations occur? And how? In this café conversation, we’ll discuss such translations and try our own.

13 December
The Curious Case of the Dog that Said ‘Ouah’
Alex Valente
Animals in comics are peculiar creatures. A French dog will go ‘ouah ouah’, an Italian rooster ‘chicchirichì’, a Dutch cow ‘booe’. But even heart beats, burps, yawns, phones ringing, engines, punches and fires make different sounds in different languages - or do they? This talk will look at the phenomenon of onomatopeia (soundwords) in comics, and how written words sound in our minds, without sounding like the written word!

10 January
Film Subtitling – Myths and Riches
Dr Marie-Noëlle Guillot
In reviews of foreign films, subtitles are generally only ever mentioned to be berated as inaccurate or approximate representations of the dialogues acted out in the original, sniggered at for losses or other such misdemeanours. For (some) film subtitlers, the greatest reward is apparently that audiences should experience foreign films as though they were watching them in their own language. In other quarters, aspiring to this kind of ‘invisibility’ is described as corrupt. Amateur subtitlers are increasingly taking things into their own hands and with their novel practices bringing into the public eye these largely unspoken debates about audiovisual translation. This café conversation will go behind the scenes of subtitling and explore the positions reflected in the ongoing controversy and what they mean for our encounters with the foreign, linguistically and culturally.

17 January
Poetry and the Possibility of Speaking about the Unspeakable
Dr Cecilia Rossi
In The Echo of My Mother / El eco de mi madre (Waterloo Press, 2012) the Argentine poet Tamara Kamenszain explores some difficult questions: what happens when a parent develops Alzheimer's? How do we deal with Alzheimer's? How, if at all, can we talk about this condition? Is it important that we do? Why? Poetry offers the possibility of finding the words to talk about the most difficult questions facing us. The café conversation will be partly a discussion of these questions and partly a reading of the beautifully moving poems in this collection.

31 January
The Difference Satire Makes
Dr Jo Poppleton  
From Juvenal to Private Eye, satire has always been thought capable of changing things in the world. The satirist attacks those in power, in order to expose their corruption: it rips off the skin to show the truth behind the illusion; it reveals what’s going on underneath the façade. But what sort of power does satire really have? How sure is the satirist about their ability to effect change, and how far can satire be considered as politically and socially subversive?

14 February
Communicating Ethically
Dr Jo Drugan
Communicating with others involves ethical challenges, particularly when we try to cross language or cultural barriers. This cafe explains why communicating ethically can be difficult, drawing on recent research in philosophy and translation. We will identify some useful strategies to cope with such challenges by examining real-life practical examples, drawn from the work of professional communicators (translators and interpreters).

28 February
Knowing Poetry
Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod
What do we need to know when we read a poem? Many people find the unfamiliar quality of much modern poetry daunting. But the poet T.S. Eliot believed that poetry could 'communicate before it is understood': if so, what is it that a poem communicates? We will look at a range of modern poems that ask us to follow them into new ways of knowing the world, and consider the kinds of knowledge that we can bring to them as readers.

14 March
A Room of Our Own
Dr Claire Hynes
Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own has been described as a landmark of feminist thought. The essay published in 1929 explores the disadvantages faced by the woman writer and concludes that a private room and money are necessary if she is to progress. How relevant are Woolf’s views to women today? And what should we make of her ideas that men established literary traditions through the centuries and women must therefore develop their own writing styles?

21 March
“The Nearer Home, the Deeper”
Joanne Mildenhall
What makes a place home? Is a sense of belonging in a place dependent on familiarity with the local landscape; on having social networks; on knowing a particular language? Are we bound to represent and defend the places we call home, and if so, how? This cafe will explore notions of home and belonging via the work of Henry David Thoreau. In the postcolonial United States, nineteenth century writers were tasked with providing representative models of American personhood for the nation’s reading public. Thoreau took this role seriously, requiring us as readers to reassess what it means to be ‘at home’.

28 March
Writers, Interviews and Journalism, with Henry James
Dr Kate Campbell
It’s easy to take interviews for granted although they are central to modern life. Most of us will have had job interviews and we will at times have read interviews with famous writers and other celebrities. The kind of interviews that we know in journalism have been around for considerably less than two hundred years. After glancing at their history, this conversation explores some of the issues that interviews by writers and with writers raise, with discussion of two or three interviews, including the response of a famous writer, Henry James, in a rare interview that might have been a hoax.

11 April
But is it Literature?
Dr Clare Connors
The word ‘literature’ seems relatively uncontroversial. We talk of reading literature, of studying literature, of literary prizes and of literary fiction. But what, exactly, do we mean by this? What makes certain kinds of writing ‘literary’ and others not? In this café conversation we’ll do a ‘blind tasting’ of a number of different bits of writing, to see whether – without any other clues – we can separate literary from non-literary writing. And we’ll use this experiment as the basis from which to explore our own and other people’s definitions of literature, to see whether it is possible, or helpful, to arrive at any consensus as to the meaning of this word.

25 April
Paradoxes of the Visible and Other Ways of Seeing.
Dr Jake Huntley
When the King admires Alice for being able to see nobody coming along the road towards them it highlights a paradox of visibility within written representation (just as ‘highlighting’ this suggests how language frequently turns to the specular as part of that representation). This conversation will look at examples of ekphrasis  and also writing that engages with such paradoxes of the visible as Alice finds in Through the Looking Glass, along with considering other ways of seeing that can be represented in other media.

5 May
“Resting in Peace, Not in Pieces”: Collecting and Displaying Human Bodies
Dr Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Dr Rebecca Tillett
Should human bodies, or parts of them, be placed on public display? For which groups or peoples does society most often condone this practice? What are the historical, moral and aesthetic implications for us, as viewers? How should contemporary descendants respond to their recent relatives being stored and exhibited? Should human remains in public and private collections be returned home?  Does death represent the cessation of human rights?

16 May
Anne Frank and Justin Bieber: Discussing the Holocaust in the 21st Century
Dr Rachael Mclennan

In April 2013, Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and caused international controversy with comments he made in the museum's guestbook. This cafe conversation takes this episode as a case study and starting point for examination of a number of wide-ranging issues. Why did Bieber's comments matter? What might this incident, and the attention it received, reveal about attitudes towards discussion of the Holocaust in the twenty-first century?    

Thursday, October 10, 2013

2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Alice Munro. Is this what you expected? What do you think?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

ProZ Community Choice Awards

This blog was nominated on for “Best overall blog related to translation”. Please vote for me here.