Sunday, April 29, 2012

Oh, My Aching Back

Translators, writers, editors, academics, and teachers spend a lot of time sitting at our desks, often hunched over a computer. This leads to bad posture, tight muscles, and aching limbs. How do you cope with all this?

I know you’re supposed to get up every hour and have a stretch and a quick walk, but I frequently am so into my work that I forget. I end up sitting by my computer for hours on end, so focused that I don’t realize how much my body is hurting. One thing I try to do to combat this is to keep a glass of water next to me. I drink water constantly, so I am forced to get up pretty often, both to go to the bathroom and also to refill my glass.

I also try to sit on one of those large fitness balls when I am doing some reading that doesn’t require me to sit at the computer. Fitness balls make you sit properly, even if it’s hard to sit on them for too many minutes at a time.

But despite my best efforts and despite the various tools at my disposal (a foot rest, a raised screen, etc), I still end up with a huge amount of pain. I go to the gym and for swims regularly, because keeping active makes a big difference. Also, I finally found a good massage therapist and I try to indulge when I can, though it isn’t cheap. It’s better to spend some money and not have so much pain, even if part of me struggles with the idea of enjoying such luxuries.

What do you do to prevent or handle work-related aches and pains?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Swedish Poetry Program

I heard about this and thought it sounded interesting. I’ll be listening.

On April 6, the Center for Translation Studies at Barnard College hosted "Swedish Poetry Today," a program of readings and discussion with Anna Hallberg, Jörgen Gassilewski, and Johannes Görannson.

Center director Peter Connor recently sat down with moderator Elizabeth Clark Wessel to preview the upcoming event and to discuss her work as English-language translator of Hallberg's poetry.

This is the first of a series of audio-interviews on translation to be conducted at the Center.

Listen to it on YouTube at:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Translating Expressive Language in Children’s Literature

In a post that is shameless self-promotion, I’d like to mention that the book based on my PhD dissertation is now out. You can find more information here.

I had a wonderful experience as a PhD student, partially due to my fantastic supervisors, Professor Duncan Large and Professor Andy Rothwell. Hearing other people’s horror stories about the lack of support and consideration they got from their supervisors only reinforces my sense of gratitude at how thoughtful, helpful, and kind Duncan and Andy always were. It’s thanks to them that I have gotten this far.

I’m quite pleased the book is out, because I do think the work is actually pretty useful, for both translators and academics, because it looks at a topic that hasn’t been researched much in the past and offers concrete, pragmatic suggestions. I hope some of you will find it beneficial.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Chapbook Contest

Some of you might be interested in this contest.


March 15 – May 15

$500 prize plus publication!

Finalist manuscripts will also be considered for publication, and all submissions will be considered for publication in the journal.

$15 fee.

We will publish the winning manuscript in each of the following categories:

* Translations. Specifically innovative translations, translations that draw attention to themselves, hybrid translations, translations that defy convention, translations that prey on, magnify, distort, and bring greatness to source texts.
* Poetry. Original poetry.

Christian Hawkey will judge the translation category.

Christian Hawkey is the author of Petitions for an Alien Relative (a chapbook by hand held editions, 2010), Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), Citizen Of (Wave Books, 2007), Hour, Hour, a chapbook which includes drawings by the artist Ryan Mrowzowski (Delirium Press, 2006), and The Book of Funnels (Verse Press, 2004), winner of the 2006 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. In 2006 he was given a Creative Capital Innovative Literature Award and he has also received awards from the Poetry Fund and the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

Poetry judge will be announced soon!

Electronic submissions only. Full guidelines available at

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Archaeology and Language by Colin Renfrew

Archaeology and Language by Colin Renfrew is a dated but still relevant book that serves as a good introduction to the idea of using archaeology as a way of tracing the history of language. As he states at the beginning of the book, we need not look at just economic developments to explore the history of humanity because national, ethnic and linguistic identities are important too. Thus, people study ruins, documents, pottery, language, and more as a way of understanding the development of languages.

Renfrew admits how “extraordinary” it is that languages in Europe and Asia (India and Iran, for example) are related, and then asks “But what is the historical reality underlying this relationship? Where did these languages come from? Did they derive from a single group of people who migrated? Or is there an entirely different explanation? This is the Indo-European problem, and the enigma which has still not found a satisfactory answer.” (11) Many scholars have attempted to understand this by a) trying to construct a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language that is the parent of all the other languages and b) by trying to figure out where the so-called Urheimat, or homeland, of PIE was.

Renfrew feels we must question “the extent to which it is legitimate to construct a Proto-Indo-European language, drawing upon the cognate forms of the words in the various Indo-European languages that are known.” (18) As an example of how far wrong we can go with this method, he uses the example of Latin. He quotes Ernst Pulgram, who tried to reconstruct Latin based on the Romance languages and to thereby make sense out of “Latin” culture, without actually looking at Latin that we know, and he found that what we would construct is actually different in many ways from actual Latin and what we know of ancient Roman culture (85). Hence it is argued that we cannot reconstruct languages in this way.

As for the Urheimat, Renfrew runs through the various theories, such as that the people who spoke PIE came from north-central Europe, or that they came from eastern Europe and the steppes, and some scholars have even suggested northern Europe, such as Lithuania. But he argues that this idea of a homeland is problematic and that many who have suggested it have fallen into “dangerous traps. They have placed too much faith in the idea of some reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary, from which some kind of word-picture of the original homeland might be put together. They have too readily assumed that a given pottery form, or an assemblage of items of material equipment can be equated directly with a group of people and hence supposedly with a particular language or language group. And they have not adequately explained why all these languages, or the speakers of all these languages, should be wandering around Europe and western Asia so tirelessly, in a series of migrations, thus setting up the pattern of different languages which we see today.” (75)

Renfrew discusses the idea that the similarities in the Indo-European languages came from contact, not common ancestors with one homeland, and he offers the various models that might work for this idea (replacement models, colonization, or continuous development).
In sum, this book is an interesting exploration of the history of the Indo-European languages, with some sections that read almost like mystery novels, because of the excitement (for example, when he discusses the discovery of Hittite or explores the history of the Celts). It’s not the most recent book on the subject, but it’s an important one.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Next Generation of Translators

I teach in an MA program in literary translation. Every year, students come in, expecting that once they have their MAs, they will be able to work full-time as translators of poetry or plays or whatever else. Every year, a number of students come in, sneering at people who translate users’ manuals or cookbooks or financial reports and vowing never to be one of them.

I suppose I see part of my job as informing students about the market for literary translation and about being realistic with them. An MA in literary translation will help them, of course, but it will not automatically enable them to support themselves by translating novels. Very few people – even well established, highly talented translators – can live off their literary translation work.

I also point out to my students that many people combine literary translation with other kinds of translation or with teaching or editing or research or work in the charity sector or work at banks and so on. I tell them how stimulating I personally find it to combine different types of translation and how it helps improve my language skills and my translation skills and also teaches me about new topics.

Most of the time, the students are definitely not convinced. Maybe it’s because they’re young (for the most part) and idealistic and think that everything can and will just be handed to them. Maybe they genuinely think they are too good for anything but translating song lyrics and memoirs. Maybe they don’t want to think about the fact that they will have to work hard in order to have a career in translation. Maybe they don’t have any money worries and have relatives who will support them as they translate short stories. Maybe there’s something else going on.

Of course I feel a bit hurt and shocked at the way they mock anything other than literary translation (one student actually said, “I would never lower myself to translate cookbooks!” even after I had mentioned how many cookbooks I have translated). But more importantly, I worry about what will happen when these students go out into the “real world”, armed with their MAs in literary translation, expecting to be able to support themselves on such work. I try to give them hints about how to improve their chances, and I organize talks with the Careers Centre on campus, and I talk to the students about practical matters such as writing a CV, networking, building a website, signing up with agencies, getting mentoring, and so on. So I try to do the best I can as a teacher and fellow translator.

But some students are resistant and only want to talk about translation theory. Some yawn as I suggest book fairs they might want to attend and how they can exchange business cards with editors and publishers. Some even criticize me, saying that I am negative and make them worry about what will happen next. So it’s a matter of trying to gently be realistic with them, to the best of my ability, hoping something that will sink in, while also continuing to encourage them.

What tips do you have for working with the next generation of translators?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Is That a Fish In Your Ear? by David Bellos

I read quite a few books on translation and I can say that in my opinion the best book on translation came out in 2011 was Is That a Fish In Your Ear? by David Bellos. Bellos is professor of literature at Princeton and he translates from French to English.
Bellos’ book is not complicated and it is not about theory. Much of what he writes about has been written about in other books already, and often one can find much more information in other books than in his book. But what I like here is that he writes short, fairly simple mini-essays on many different aspects of translation. You can read a chapter here and a chapter there and learn something new and interesting without having to read the whole book if you do not want it. He writes, for example, about what translation is and is not, and what people say and think about translation, and how to use dictionaries, and on interpretation, and the European Union and language, and what the news has to do with translation, and automatic translation (he writes that it is not possible right now because “what you can say by means of translation is what the word means in the context in which it occurs” (p. 83), and a computer does not understand context), and dialects, and how we must rely on the translator or interpreter, and about poetry, and much more. It is clear that with so many topics, Bellos’ does not into much depth with them; in other words, in this book he discusses a little bit about a lot, and not much about just a little, as some readers would probably prefer. Personally, I like being able to dip in, but I understand that such a book is not for everyone.

What would we do without translation? Bellos writes, “Instead of using translation, we could learn the languages of all the communities we wish to engage with; or we could decide to speak the same language; or else adopt a single common language for communicating with other communities.” (p. 7) With 7000 or more different languages in the world it sounds unlikely. So we need translators, but why then do we have phrases such as traduttore traditore? Why are people suspicious of translators and translation in general? You can read about this in Bellos’ book.

Another thing that you can read about is how many non-translators believe that there is a right or good translation and a wrong or bad one. Bellos writes, “A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek or miss out the grey hairs in the sideburns – and still give us a good likeness.” (p. 331) A translation is an interpretation and everyone interprets differently.

Sometimes a reader might wish that Bellos had written a whole book instead of just a short chapter on something, but as a whole, his book is very interesting and worth reading. His book is “en portrait in oils” – you or I might have added some jewelry or removed some hair, but it is still a beautiful painting.