Congratulations to Baron Wormser! His essay “Legend: Willem de Kooning,” which first appeared in Grist Issue 6, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2014. We couldn’t be more thrilled!
Congratulations to our Best of the Net 2014 anthology nominees from our Online Companion to Issue 7! Poetry nominees are Anne Barngrover, Monica Berlin, and Beth Marzoni; fiction nominees are Jennifer Christie and Rob Roensch; and our nonfiction nominee is Daryl Farmer. Best of luck to them all! You can read their amazing work here.
“It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” —John Steinbeck in a letter to a writer seeking his advice, circa 1963
If I could go back and sit down with the younger version of myself—say, the me who was flitting up and down the sidewalks of the Rollins College campus at nineteen or twenty, having just discovered that writing was not something one was left to struggle with alone at a keyboard but could be discussed with other like-minded souls around a long oak table—what might I say? What aspects of improving one’s writing most eluded me at the time, and if I had to boil down the most transformative implementations of craft or habit to a few key pieces of advice, what would they be?
Over the past several weeks I’ve flipped through dozens of tattered notebooks and files in my office, the sort of spring-cleaning that ought to happen every six months, but doesn’t (at least not very thoroughly); I get down to a serious purge in those years when there’s a dip in the compulsion to write, when my brain demands de-cluttering so it can imagine clearly, free from all those tired story-starts trapped beneath rusting paper clips. I came across drafts from the two years spent attending workshops at conferences and residences, studying for the MFA, and before that—frightening—drafts from my tenure as an undergrad. As a seasoned writer and college instructor, one can make the mistake of believing our own writing must have been superior to the drafts our wide-eyed students turn in. Certainly ours would have ranked among the best. Alas, a cursory glance or three over my papers on Modernism, early story attempts, and professors’ comments—spot-on, by the way—shattered this illusion for good.
For my whole career as a student and throughout college, I had always been told my writing was good. And it was, if by good one means competent with an occasional flash of style. But now, from my lofty perch as a creative writing instructor at that same college, I see that I wasn’t the best, in no way could have been. Like many, I had been a competent writer with more talent in the well than on the page; probably I hadn’t been the most innately talented in the Writing minor program, either. How does one transform from average “But-you’re-such-a-good-writer!” English major to something more—literary excellence. Not that I’m in the ranking of Alice Munro and George Saunders, mind you. But once you see how far you’ve come, it becomes easier to believe you might one day get there.
What I wish now, at thirty-four with my first story collection coming out, is that I had read more widely but also closely. For most of my life, I gobbled books up; not until I entered the MFA program at Vermont College did I earnestly learn how to slow down and see what writers were up to as architects of literature. Only after I saw their techniques could I grapple with implementing them (i.e. steal) in my own writing. That’s when my pages took a big leap forward. As for reading widely, I’d always thought I had—but again, not really. I hadn’t read comic books or plays or famous foreign writers, didn’t take literary magazines seriously until I wanted my work featured in them. So if I were to sit down for a straight-up talk with my younger writer self, I’d say: get on this, daylight’s burning. Practice the patience to read closely, to take more time agonizing over drafts, to honestly compare your writing to the best if your heart’s desire is for your work to rank among theirs. Because who are you, really, but another average English major?
This may sound stern. I don’t mean for the words to come across that way. But I’m one of those writers who ardently believed that she’d have at least one book out by thirty, and the fact that I’m having my first come out now, four years later, has inevitably unearthed insights both uneasy and reaffirming. I’m sure I’m not alone.
What’s been reaffirming? The observable truth that, while sifting through those bulging binders and faded drafts, that if one possesses a certain dollop of talent and keeps stubbornly working at improving one’s craft, keeps an open mind to criticism and hones his or her intuition on what to apply and what to ignore, that the average-good-writer-English-major can break through to something more—that beauty and truth which lives inside all of us, that is both of us and beyond us. Bullheadedness may work in one’s favor here, if one has the stuff (“it’s about 40% talent,” the writer Caroline Adderson admitted to me recently). So check your ego at the door, and be quick.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, is now available from Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. She has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
My friends often ask me “why translate?” with varying reasons for why not. My favorite is that Google can do it much more quickly, entailing as it does the criticism, “what use are you?” One friend, an architect, argues that Google performs at about 90 percent accuracy and that is good enough. And for his purposes, it is. There are basically two approaches to translation: what I will call here the literal and the expressive. Machines are capable only of the literal approach, which is sufficient for most tasks. However, I contend that literary translation is a special category, one for which the literal approach may not be sufficient.
Take the first two paragraphs of Rimbaud’s prose poem, “A Season in Hell,”
for example. The syntax is straightforward and it lacks any effects such as rhyme or meter:
Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s’ouvraient tous les cœurs, où tous les vins coulaient.
Un soir, j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux. —Et je l’ai trouvée amère. —Et je l’ai injuriée.
Translated by Google, it becomes:
Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast or opened all hearts, or vines all flowed.
One evening, I sat Beauty on my knees. —And I found her bitter. —And I cursed.
That seems to meet my friend’s 90 percent assessment, and more of the rhythm has survived than I would’ve expected. Compare that to Louise Varèse’s classic 1945 translation:
Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed.
One evening I seated Beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I cursed her.
The similarity demonstrates a shared approach with an emphasis on the literal level of language. Unlike Google, Varèse’s translation maintains the coherence of the original voice as well as its suggestive power simply by rendering the direct objects that Google leaves out. Bertrand Mathieu’s more recent work (1991) presents another approach:
A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.
One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.
Mathieu makes Rimbaud new again for an audience whose use of language had changed enough for Varèse’s voicing to seem old-fashioned (as Mathieu’s “galling” does now). I would also point out that Mathieu’s choice of “roughed up” for “injuriée” might take too much license, changing the gesture from insult to assault.
What if we test a traditional sample—something in rhymed, metrical lines with more complex syntax and other effects. For this experiment, I’ve chosen the first stanza of Paul Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin”:
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencee
O récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux!
Translated by Google, it becomes:
This quiet roof, where doves walk,
Between the pines throbs between the graves;
Just composes the afternoon lights
The sea, the sea, constantly renewed
O reward after a thought
A long look at the calm of the gods!
Suddenly Google’s performance drops below that 90 percent mark—in this case, I’d say closer to 50 percent accuracy, and I’m not addressing any of those features, such as sound patterns, that account for much of the beauty in the original language.
C. Day Lewis’s 1932 translation demonstrates the literal approach to translation again, yet here we can see the difference between human and machine more clearly than in the Rimbaud examples:
This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame –
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
The difference between Lewis’s work and Google’s is striking. Ironically, this 80 year old translation defies one of my contentions regarding the role of translation: that each generation recasts a work in its own linguistic light. For fun, let’s compare this to a contemporary rendering—Tony Brinkley’s translation, published in the Summer 2011 issue of Cerise Press:
This tranquil roof, this quiet ceiling where doves
march among the graves, among fluttering pines —
midday, the just moment, writes in fires —
sea, the sea always — once again beginning —
recompense after thinking — the prolonged
regard across the quiet of the gods!
Brinkley’s approach might be described as expressive as opposed to literal as he attempts to recreate the same experience in a different language with different sounds and associations. While some things are inevitably “lost in translation,” focusing on the losses obscures the work of good translation, which is to find another way to produce the original effect for the reader in a new language. In “Reading Valéry in English,” Brinkley’s essay accompanying his translation, he discusses the inability of English to produce the same homonym of toit for toi, roof for you (or “thou” as he says), and describes his reasoning for the liberty he takes with with the poem’s first line: “For me the repetition is a kind of notice, a way of noticing, that the English is only a translation because repetition (as Wordsworth said) can be a way of indicating as an excess what the words themselves cannot say.” Negotiations like this require making the kinds of choices a machine cannot make and demonstrate why literary translation will remain essential work.
Darren Jackson’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Circumference, The Pinch, The Laurel Review, The Offending Adam, Bluestem, and other journals. He has translated Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux (Wakefield Press, forthcoming Fall 2014); “The White Globe,” an essay by Bertrand Westphal, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in The Planetary Turn: Art, Dialogue, and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century; and A Free Air by Albane Gellé. He also collaborated with Marilyn Kallet and J. Bradford Anderson on the translation of Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City (Black Widow Press, September 2014).