Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lost in Translation

My own love affair with literature did not begin with Canadian books. Indeed, I came rather late to Canadian literature, in my 2nd or 3rd year of university, when a creative writing prof put into my hands Clark Blaise's Tribal Justice (pairing this with Ishiguro's Artist of the Floating World). A short period of literary nationalism followed, where I read Canadian writers voraciously, though I'm afraid a little too uncritically: Margaret Atwood, the rest of Blaise, Callaghan, Davies, Findley, Laurence, MacLeod, Munro, Ondaatje, Richler and company. Some of it was excellent (the Blaise, the MacLeod, the Munro, the Richler); some of it was middling (the Atwood, the Davies, the Ondaatje); and some of it was downright bad (the Callaghan, the Findley). Enough of the bad -- which included all of the Canadian historical fiction then in vogue -- cured me of the worst excesses of literary nationalism, and saved me from a career trying to teach it.

No, I became hooked as a more mature reader largely by works in translation. In high school Voltaire and Diderot and Camus; in university Rabelais (whom I was introduced to by Davies in that poor novel The Rebel Angels: enough of a gift that I will always remember Davies fondly by association), Sartre, Nietzsche, Kafka, Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Stendhal (especially Stendhal), Dante, Cervantes, and too many others to name. Most recently, the work of Patrick Chamoiseau, who's Texaco and Solibo Magnificent are two of the most thrilling, unsettling and playful novels I've read in recent memory (especially the latter, available on almost any remainder table in the land for under five bucks).

I've talked to a lot of my friends, writers, publishers, and art policy wonks, about this, and it has been fascinating that the same has often held true for them. The initial hook, locking them in to this literary life of near penury, was the work of a writer in translation. Not english writers, whether they be Canadian, American or British, but French writers, German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Russian. Which raises some interesting questions, but also serves to emphasize the importance of translation to all literatures, that we must come to understand how interconnected world literature is. As Kundera points out in his latest essay, The Curtain, without Rabelais, Sterne would not have penned Tristam Shandy (one of the more interesting paths not taken in the history of the novel: the novel as continuous digression); without Sterne, no Diderot, or at least no Rameau's Nephew; without Cervantes, no Fielding, without Fielding no Stendhal, or at least not the Fielding or stendhal we know today. The list is a long one.

Kundera quotes Goethe: "National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur -- world literature -- and it is up to each of us to hasten this development." Not a plurality of national literatures, then, but one literature. Though now, nearly two hundred years later, we still seem too concerned with the national.

This has certainly been true in Canada, at least insofar as our criticism goes. Whole tentative geneaologies have been created for Canadian literature, pure Canadian patrimonies, that could not be further from the truth. Munro was not influenced by Scott's "Village of Viger," Knister's painful stumblings, Callaghan, the 'touted' father of the Canadian short story, but by Americans, Flannery O'Connor, British writers, others. The same holds true of almost every other Canadian writer I've seen, heard or read interviewed (with the exception of Michael Winter, who cites Norman Levine, though I'm sure there must be others.). If I had the chance to ask Paul Glennon I'm sure he'd mention Borges, Kafka; Jarman Cormac McCarthy, perhaps Celine.

When I began this press, I can't say that I had any intention to begin an extensive translation program. I've not been that organized about it. I've allowed myself to be taken where my enthusiasms would have me. But it is not really surprising that we began to publish translations early. Our 2nd and 3rd titles were translations, Goran Simic's From Sarajevo With Sorrow, and his short fiction collection Yesterday's People. We have a Selected Simic, hopefully for 2008. I've mentioned in an earlier post the Ryszard Kapuscinski poetry collection; and today the contract came in for Ondjaki's Good Morning, Comrades!, a novel about the Angolan civil war as told by a young boy. A bittersweet, poignant, and lyrical short novel, I believe it will be the first book by the Lusophone Ondjaki published in English (though another is in the works by Aflame Press in England). We're hoping to release this title next spring.

Comrades is translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan. We'll also be doing his follow-up to When Words Deny the World in the spring of '08, entitled A Report on the Afterlife of Culture. Though Stephen returns to some of the themes of the first book, this book largely looks at world literatures and languages and the threats they face from a variety of sources. It's a smart, thoughtful book.

Stephen has up to this point donated the translation of Comrades, largely because he believes in the importance of translation, Ondjaki, and this Biblioasis translation series. There's some hope I may be able to pay him a small fee if a Portuguese government grant comes through, but this is by no means certain. This says something about the plight of translators in Canada, as each of the translators we have thus far worked with have largely worked for free. Though they contribute as translators to literature in Canada, if not exactly Canadian literature, they often have no access to the grants and funding that keep everything else afloat. Their work is a form of mission, often. Even with Canadian writers who do not write in english, french or a native language, getting their works translated can prove an almost insurmountable task. Language, not citizenship, seems to be the most important consideration, which I think a problem that needs addressing.

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