By David Varno
Word for Word / Wort fur Wort Reading and book reception at Columbia University Deutches Haus, April 12, 2012
In perhaps the best kind of exchange program, three writers from Columbia’s MFA program went to Germany last year to swap their work with students at Das Deutsche Literaturinstitut Leizpig, honing their translation skills and getting the chance to see their own work reflected in a different language. The Word for Word Literary Translation Program has, in its first year, culminated with an attractive anthology produced with Ugly Duckling Presse’s distinctive letterpress covers. The work of two poets, two creative essayists, and two fiction writers is rendered in English and German, each translated by the writer’s counterpart in his or her genre.
Introducing a reading and reception for the program this past Thursday at Columbia’s Deustches Haus, the DLL’s director Josef Haslinger explained that the Leipzig program was inspired by the Gorky Institute—which was established in 1933, just before the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—though the DLL only began in 1995. It’s interesting to consider this parallel history, as writing programs are generally considered an American phenomenon. Binnie Kirshenbaum, chair of the Writing Program at Columbia, quipped that the students involved were “guinea pigs” this time out. Hopefully the experiment will become an annual opportunity, not only because the results will broaden the expectations one might have of a creative writing program, but will give its participants a better chance of being read outside their respective homelands, and to shepherd the work of others.
The book opens with fiction from Ariell Cacciola, a story called “It Would Not Be a Good Week for Oliver Greengrass,” with her English on the left and German on the right. Her language is at times destabilizing all by itself, such as when the story’s title character tells his intern that at a certain overpriced but high-quality deli, “They really make the sandwich.” This is a discrete sentence, and it really hangs there for a moment, perhaps brought further into focus by the experience of accidently reading something like the following (by picking up after the end of an English page with the top of one in German): “Clutching all of these items to his chest like a von Kleingeld, Teebeuteln und Naproxen war.” Even before this happens, it is enough to know that the German is right there, and to look at it now and again to see how the story is rendered spatially and acoustically in German—or moreover, to consider that there may have been some revision going on after she saw the first pass from her translator, Bettina Suleiman, and that this exchange may have informed her own writing. Suleiman’s own work, called “Eine Geistergeschichte,” or “A Ghost Story,” has, in Cacciola’s English, an eerie psychological distance and a cold tone of juvenile naivety, all made fascinating by the subject matter.
Each of the six writers and translators had the chance to read their work on Thursday, as well as the translation of the writer sitting next to them, who then repeated the process vice-versa. The first was poet Joshua Edwin, who opened with “How the World Began,” a dose of American Western swagger shot straight from the hip, but not in the voice you would expect. Edwin is a great reader of his own work, which somehow made me expect him to be a good translator. He is; Dagmara Kraus’s “kummerang” (or “gloomerang”), is an infectious seven-page poem composed in several styles with numerous musical references and was a treat to hear from its author. The clarity and musicality of Edwin’s translation suggested that it must have been either very easy or quite a challenge to remake into English; either way, Edwin proved up to the task.
Next was Katherine Sanders, who, like Cacciola, has contributed to WWB’s Dispatches blog. The essay she read, “A Sentence on Sentences,” which one could call experimental and/or lyrical, is deceptively straightforward and as heavy as it is light. Another essay included in the book, “A Paragraph on Paragraphs,” which exhibits the same power of words and introduces a devastating juxtaposition, further convinced me that she could be the next Eula Biss. The writer she translated, Jörn Dege, has pursued the common and relatively new problem of detachment we have from global disasters, the information about which we can access anytime we want. His piece, “Von Glück reden (“Consider Yourself Lucky”) came at me more like fiction, in that I would be willing to consider why an invented character might feel no guilt after carelessly crashing into a cyclist with his car, then only “awkwardness” upon visiting him in the hospital. Bring back Meursault; I’m always ready for more. But in an essay, this kind of admission—or perhaps mere conceit—sounds almost inhuman. Still, I liked the riffs on Wikipedia’s “list of disasters,” with is organized into categories that are “divided into subpoints, which in turn are broken down.”
The Word for Word / Wort fur Wort anthology was not mass-produced; it is a special edition, not included in the UDP catalog. But I urge you to keep a look out for these writers and translators, and to think about the creative possibilities inherent in translation that they’ve emphasized in this book of nascent wonders.
Photos by Rona Yefman, clockwise from top left: Bettina Suleiman, Ariell Cacciola, Dagmara Kraus, and Joshua Edwin
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