Peter Constantine Talks to Judy Sternlight
From the latest Scandinavian thriller to Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, fiction in translation has seen an upsurge in interest from the reading public. Here translator, editor, and director of the Literary Translation Program at the University of Connecticut, Peter Constantine talks to editor Judy Sternlight about this burgeoning art form. The two of them worked together on several projects for The Modern Library including The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, a finalist for the PEN Translation Prize.
Don't miss Peter Constantine on December 8th at the Center. He'll be moderating a panel for the New Literature from Europe Festival, Writing to Change Hearts and Minds. And Judy Sternlight will lead a writing workshop for us this spring (stay tuned for details)!
Hi Peter, thanks for talking with me about the current literary translation scene and your upcoming event. As part of the New Literature from Europe Festival 2016, you’re moderating a panel here at the Center for Fiction with Mihkel Mutt and Szczepan Twardoch. Can you tell us about their writing?
Throughout Europe there has been a lot of excitement about Szczepan Twardoch’s breakthrough novel Morphine; it has been published in Germany, France, Romania, last year in Hungary as well. Morphine paints a surprising picture of the glittering demimonde of Warsaw in 1939. Mihkel Mutt’s novel, The Cavemen Chronicles, gives us an equally surprising picture of Tallinn and Estonia and the marked changes over the last few decades.
What makes these novels surprising?
Both writers offer unexpected insights into Europe; both are masters of redefining iconic periods of great change. Morphine’s protagonist is an interesting, tortured figure. He is stylish, a roguish young man, addicted to morphine. He is half German, half Polish at the moment when Nazi Germany has invaded Poland, and World War II is about to break out. As for Mutt’s The Cavemen Chronicles the focus is on a group of characters and their Soviet and post-Soviet era lives in Estonia. At the CFF panel, we will also be joined by Alta Price, whose translations from Italian and German have covered many literary and artistic fields.
Ann Goldstein, who translates Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi, and Edith Grossman, who has translated writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel de Cervantes, have both described serendipitous paths into literary translation: A magazine editor asked them to translate a short piece, and it went so well that they were quickly asked to do more and more. How did you start translating, and did you know right away that it would dominate your accomplished literary career?
I too started translating almost by mistake. When I was in my 20s a Dutch friend had just published his first short story collection in the Netherlands. I had just written a book on Japanese slang, which perhaps was not the most obvious credential for becoming a Dutch translator; but I knew right away as I started translating his story that translation was going to be my vocation. I then translated a number of short stories by other young Dutch writers, and published them in literary magazines. That’s how it all began.
Hang on. How did you end up writing a book on Japanese slang?
Japanese Street Slang was my first book. It was the 1980s and Japan was experiencing a miraculous boom. There was worldwide interest in all things Japanese, especially the language, but the grammar books were very conventional and staid. Japanese Street Slang was conceived as an antidote to that, throwing open a window onto the wild creativity of Japan’s street speech— from teen slang, to the language of drug circles and the red light districts.
So you started with Japanese slang and Dutch short stories, and you went on to win prizes for translating literary classics. What role do translators play, in bringing novels from around the world into the English-language marketplace?
I think Mihkel Mutt’s translator, Adam Cullen, is an excellent example of how a translator can enrich the American literary scene. He is a specialist in Estonian literature, a great advocate, and has brought fascinating works into English. Without translators such as Cullen, the English-language marketplace would be poorer.
What’s your general impression of the state of literary translation in America? For years, I’ve been hearing that only three percent of the books published in the U.S. are translations, but this figure may be inching up, thanks to writers like Elena Ferrante, Fredrik Backman, Muriel Barbery, Haruki Murakami, Herman Koch, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Han Kang. Is the future brighter?
In a piece that the translator Marguerite Feitlowitz wrote for Words Without Borders—“Teaching in Translation: Bennington Translates”—she quotes one of her new undergraduates as saying: “All of a sudden, I’m seeing translation everywhere! Gracias! Merci! Toda raba!” I believe the student was saying this about Bennington College and the strong part that translation plays in its curriculum, but I have been feeling this way, too, as I look at the new books on the bookstore shelves.
When you‘re wandering down the bookstore aisle, what stands out to you?
There is Ann Goldstein’s translation of Alessandro Baricco’s The Young Bride that Europa Editions has just brought out, and Adriana Hunter’s The Gardens of Consolation by the Iranian writer Parisa Reza. Adam Cullen and the Estonian poet Doris Kareva have co-edited a book of Estonian poetry. And W. W. Norton has brought out Brecht’s Love Poems.
So the future looks bright for literary fiction in translation?
There is a lot happening, but unfortunately I believe that translated books are still only around 3% of published books—and the 3% covers all genres, from business management to self-help books to manuals of nano-chemistry to fiction and poetry. Books of literature in translation, in fact, only make up a fraction of the 3% of translated books published in America every year.
I’m a big fan of international crime fiction. And translated crime writers, like Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, for example, appeal to a lot of readers. AmazonCrossing is bringing out genre fiction from around the world. But what about small American publishers who may not focus on commercial fiction? Chad Post, who runs Open Letter Books and the website Three Percent, has praised the recent rise of small presses that specialize in translated literary works. Which of these do you find especially exciting?
I very much like Open Letter Books: it is a gathering of wonderful works of literature, and authors such as Mikhail Shishkin, Ilya Ilf, Evgeny Petrov, and the Icelandic Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is both a remarkable poet and prose writer. Another great favorite of mine is Archipelago Books. I agree with Chad Post. Today, much of the cutting edge fiction and poetry in translation is coming from the small presses.
Europa Editions has a couple of 2017 titles that caught my eye: Andrea Camilleri’s historical novel The Revolution of the Moon, and Nicola Lagioia’s suspense novel Ferocity which won the Strega Prize. Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories just came out from Yale University Press. And in February 2017, Penguin is publishing a memoir by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya called The Girl From the Metropol Hotel. I love her dark, funny stories so I’m curious about this new memoir about growing up in communist Russia.
I read an advanced copy of Sholeh Wolpe’s translation of the twelfth-century Persian masterpiece The Conference of Birds, which W.W. Norton is bring out next March. It is a beautiful work and a beautiful translation. One of Sholeh Wolpe’s strengths as a translator is that she is also a poet with a fine ear for English and she brings her feeling for language into her translations. Also, from Archipelago Books, there are several books I look forward to reading in the spring, particularly Karen Emmerich’s translation of All Good Things Will Come From The Sea by the Greek writer Christos Ikonomou, and Elixabeth Harris’s three new Antonio Tabucchi books.
So where should fans of international literature look, to find new and exciting prose and poetry? Annual events like the New Literature From Europe and PEN World Voices festivals are good sources, along with organizations like Words Without Borders. But what am I leaving out?
There is lyrikline.org, published online in Germany, that is a vast collection of poetry and poetry in translation from all over the world. There are also the print and online versions of World Literature Today, as well as Poetry International Rotterdam. The Internet is opening up ever more windows onto the world of international literature.
It feels like there’s been an explosion of dedicated translation programs around the country at various colleges and universities. Do you agree that this field is expanding? And what’s it like, working at the University of Connecticut with the next generation of translators?
The University of Iowa, Bennington College, and The University of Indiana Bloomington, among others, have solid and diverse translation programs. This gives me hope that there is a growing interest in translation in the United States. At the University of Connecticut we are launching a new Literary Translation Program this spring, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. This January, we are also starting a literary magazine, New Poetry in Translation. We are publishing new translations by some of America’s foremost translators—Pierre Joris, Rika Lesser, Burton Pike, Catherine Hammond—but also translations by younger poet-translators such as Kit Schluter and Margaret Ross. Our idea is to publish new translations of international poetry through the ages. We are also starting our own press: World Poetry Books, here at UConn, specializing in international poetry. The fact that The University of Connecticut is not only launching this new program in literary translation which I will be directing, but is also energetically supporting our new magazine and book series, is a sign that translation is growing and that we can expect a steady rise in the percentage of books that are translated into English every year.
That sounds fantastic. What are your students working on?
Both my undergraduate students and the graduates are producing strong translations from a number of world languages. One of my graduate students, Brian Sneeden, translates from the Modern Greek; he is publishing a book of Phoebe Giannisi’s poetry, Homerica, with World Poetry Books. Catherine Kedala is working on a book-length translation of the remarkable Italian poet Elisa Biagini. Other students are publishing translated works in literary magazines. One of our graduate students, Adriana Alcina Gomez, who translates from Modern Greek into Spanish, has some translations of the Greek Chechen poet Jazra Khaleed appearing in Lyrikline. There is a whole new generation of translators doing fascinating work.
Thanks Peter! I look forward to your event at the Center for Fiction on December 8th.
Peter Constantine is a literary translator and editor, and the director of the Literary Translation Program at the University of Connecticut. His recent translations, published by Random House (Modern Library), include The Essential Writings of Rousseau, The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, and works by Tolstoy, Gogol, and Voltaire. His translation of the complete works of Isaac Babel received the Koret Jewish Literature Award and a National Jewish Book Award citation. He co-edited A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000, and the anthology The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, which W.W. Norton published in 2010. A Guggenheim Fellow, he was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov. Peter Constantine has been a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library and a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.
Judy Sternlight is the founder of Judy Sternlight Literary Services and a co-founder of 5E, the independent editors' collective. Prior to her adventures in publishing, she enjoyed a long career in theater and communications, which included performing improvisational theater in NYC with Some Assembly Required, touring to comedy clubs, theaters, colleges and resorts, and teaching improv-based workshops. Judy was an editor at Random House, Ballantine, and The Modern Library. She has edited a number of acclaimed writers including Elliot Ackerman, Marie-Helene Bertino, Rita Mae Brown, Gwen Florio, Bret Anthony Johnston, Peter Matthiessen, and Daniel Menaker. She edited The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill (Simon and Schuster, 2014), featuring Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Meg Wolitzer, and many more.