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8 Questions for Alex Zucker on Translation Pay, Diversity, Copyright, and More

Last year, the Authors Guild conducted a survey of literary translators in order to get a better sense of the realities of the profession with regard to questions like pay, copyright, demographics, and other questions. The findings, which you can read here, are fascinating and well worth your time. This was the first survey of its kind, and I hope that it becomes a regular thing so that we can get better and better information about how the profession of literary translation looks in America.

I recently interviewed Alex Zucker to find out more about what the survey discovered, as well as to get deeper information on what these findings mean and what they may tell us about the future of translation in the United States. We cover a number of important subjects, including pay rates, diversity in the field, and what “fair” treatment is when considering a variety of factors that go into each individual translation.

I hope that this survey and discussion of it spurs more and more involvement on the part of professionals in the field in these questions. Although literary translation is a great field to work in, there is lots of room for improvement, and the survey certainly shows us a lot of places where we need conversations and changes to be made.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Could you tell us a little about the survey of translators that you conducted and why you did it?

Alex Zucker: To start, I want to make sure that readers understand what this survey was about. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of support for the profession of literary translation in the US. There’s far more attention paid to the art or craft, with little consideration given to how to earn a livelihood. The subject of pay is rarely discussed in concrete terms, and none of the existing organizations in this country that have the word translator or translation in their name protect the rights and advocate for the interests of professional literary translators the way the Translators Association within the Society of Authors does in the UK.

During my term as cochair of PEN America’s Translation Committee, I was privy to a lot of information about working conditions that wouldn’t have reached me otherwise. Among the literary translators I met, there was a general feeling that, in spite of the publishing buzz about translations and the seemingly higher profile of both translations and translators themselves among the public at large, professional literary translators—that is, those who depend on literary translation income for their livelihood—weren’t necessarily seeing any economic benefits from this heightened attention. But no one had data. All the information was purely anecdotal. How then to verify whether conditions for literary translators were getting worse or better?

In the US, the organization analogous to the UK’s Society of Authors is the Authors Guild. In 2014, I needed a contract reviewed for a volume I was editing (not a translation), and a friend who works in publishing suggested I join the Authors Guild, since they provide contract vetting to members free of charge. The advice I received from the Guild’s staff attorney was totally worth the cost of membership. One thing led to another and I began talking with AG staff about developing a model contract for literary translation, analogous to their model contract for authors, as well as about incorporating translators’ concerns into their long-existing advocacy on behalf of professional writers. The idea for the survey, then, was to establish a baseline of data on the issues that affect the ability of literary translators in the US to earn a living. These results could then be used as the starting point for the Guild’s advocacy.

Anyone interested in the survey’s methodology can read more about it on the AG website. Readers should know that the findings you and I discuss here come from the summary, and pertain only to translators of prose.

VSE: What poll results surprised you the most?

AZ: On the positive side, I didn’t expect to see such a high percentage of respondents (47 percent) say their contracts always or usually stipulate royalties—let alone 47 percent saying they had actually received royalty payments. (By the way, the fact that these percentages are the same is sheer coincidence.) This finding is very important, because it refutes the belief that a royalty clause is a purely symbolic gesture. It’s also worth noting that by far the main reason respondents gave for their contracts not providing royalties was that publishers refused.

On the negative side, 41 percent of respondents reported having signed contracts that made payment of their fee contingent on the publisher receiving a grant for the translation. I knew this was going on, but until we did the survey, there was no way to know how widespread the practice was. That’s a high percentage of translators committing to months of difficult work with no guarantee of being paid. I find it disturbing.

VSE: Two-thirds of the translators polled said they always or usually retained copyright to their work. Do you think there’s been a movement toward more translators retaining copyright? And how does this bode for literary translation as a practice?


AZ: Honestly, I don’t think we can talk about a movement, either toward or away, since we don’t have any data from the past to compare to today. This was the main reason I asked the Authors Guild if they would be willing to do a survey of working conditions for literary translators in the US—not just on copyright, but on all the issues that affect literary translation, not as a practice but as a profession. It’s interesting to see where things stand at the moment, but more important from an advocacy perspective is to know which conditions are getting better, which ones are getting worse, and which ones are more or less the same.

That said, even if we don’t have data, we do have some anecdotal evidence we can look to. In 1970, on the occasion of a conference in New York City titled The World of Translation, the Translation Committee of the P.E.N. American Center (now PEN America), under chair Robert Payne, published a Resolution along with a Manifesto on Translation, calling for translations to be copyrighted in the translator’s name. Together, these documents spelled out the tenets of what, in 1981, became the Translation Committee’s first model contract, which exists to this day (you can still find the first one online using the Wayback Machine). To me the fact that we’re still even talking about this issue—nearly 50 years after that conference—suggests that if there is a movement for translators to retain copyright, it’s progressing at a glacial pace.

There should be no question at this point: The copyright to a translation, by law, rests with the translator. Yet 17 percent of the respondents to the Authors Guild survey said they usually did not own the copyright to their work. One in five? That’s far too high. Among those translators who reported that they didn’t always retain copyright, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said the reason was that the publisher had refused—in other words, not because the translator didn’t know any better or because they chose to give up copyright for something in return (such as a higher fee). So clearly this is an area where we still need advocacy.

VSE: 83 percent of the survey participants self-identified as “white.” While the survey population isn’t an exact cross-section of translation, this figure does accord with my own experiences of the field, which I see as having very low diversity. What do you think about diversity in the literary translation field? How can we encourage more diversity?

AZ: Pay more: Jobs requiring high education yet offering low pay are filled mainly by people who have enough wealth or other means of support that income is unimportant. In this country, that’s primarily white people. We see this in the US publishing industry as a whole (I recommend this discussion at PEN America, with a long list of suggested reading and organizations at the end, and Lee & Low’s excellent Diversity Baseline Survey). It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented across all the arts, in fact.

So I’d say pay is the main factor. But not the only one. If the goal is to have more people of color working as literary translators, there are two questions to look at: 1) How does someone decide to become a literary translator? and 2) What kind of support do they get once they’ve become one? (I also feel a need to say that whatever suggestions I make here are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. The question of how to challenge white supremacy in our society is one that everyone needs to answer for themselves, based on who they are and which institutions and communities they’re a part of.)

On 1), people involved in the education and/or training of literary translators need to understand how their personal practices, as well as the structures and policies of the institutions they’re part of, attract people who are white as opposed to people of color, and reproduce and reinforce norms and standards of whiteness. This includes looking at who’s hired and promoted; how much they’re paid; and who holds power and makes decisions.

One other factor in 1), which also leads into 2), is jobs: because role models (and mentors and contacts) matter. When it comes to making US publishing as a whole more inclusive, black writers and editors have made it clear that from their point of view the solution is straightforward: Presses need to hire more black editors and publish more books by black writers. It’s not as if the books don’t sell; the presses will make their money. Now extend this maxim to all people of color. And apply it to translators. In other words, it’s important for people of color who are considering going into literary translation to see editors who aren’t white, editing books written by authors who aren’t white, translated by translators who aren’t white. This not only reinforces the idea that literary translation isn’t just for white people, but it also means people of color who choose to take this path will have people who understand their experience to turn to for support along the way, just as people who are white already do. The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey mentions all these things.

Which takes us to 2): Again, people involved in organizations whose mission includes supporting literary translators, and especially the people who lead or run them, need to be thinking about how what they and their organizations do reinforces whiteness and how they can change that. I would ask questions similar to the ones for people involved in teaching or training: Who leads? Who speaks? Who gets paid? Who makes the decisions? (Mentorships and fellowships for translators of color seem like a good way to start, and there are a few already.)

A final point that I’d really like to emphasize: This isn’t simply a matter of personal intentions, and it isn’t just about people who are white inviting people of color to join them. If my group or organization has no people of color in leadership positions and no people of color making decisions, then going out of my way to “invite” or “welcome” or “encourage” people of color to take part isn’t enough. To illustrate what’s wrong with this, some people use the phrase “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I would go a step further: People of color need to get to plan the party too. As a white person, I have to be willing to give up power. I can’t just say, “Let’s have a party together. We’ll have it at my house. I’ll do the decorations, choose the music, cook the food, and draw up the guest list. You just show up. You can bring any friends you want!” No. I need to be able to say, “What kind of party do you want to throw? How can I help make that happen?”

VSE: The two largest segments in the poll reported as being paid either $0.00–$0.07 per word or $0.14 or $0.15 per word. 7 cents per word would definitely quality as poor pay for literary translation; while 15 cents per word is much more in line with decent pay standards in the field, many would consider this low and not a living wage. For reference, Daniel Hahn, a very sought-after and well-regarded translator, disclosed on his website that he is paid roughly 19 cents per word on average. Is there a need for translators to know pay scales in the field and request higher rates?

AZ: Yes, absolutely. Again, the survey was conducted by the Authors Guild, a professional organization, so I approach this from a professional standpoint. When people are considering a profession, isn’t finding out what it pays one of the first things they do, normally? Every translator is responsible for educating themselves, on all the issues we’re talking about. Because unless you have an agent (and very few literary translators do), you’re negotiating your contracts yourself. At the same time, that’s why it’s important for translators to talk with one another about how much they earn.

Whether or not a given rate constitutes a living wage depends of course on what your living expenses are. The American Translators Association offers a handy tool called the Translator Earnings Calculator to help translators determine how much they should charge. It’s up to each person to decide for themselves. Where this can be a problem is when you have a professional translator (that is, someone who depends on translating for income) losing a job to a translator who is not (i.e., who doesn’t depend on translating for income), because the non-professional translator is willing to work for less. So, actually, by being familiar with going rates, you can help protect the livelihoods of professional translators even if you yourself are not a professional.

In my experience, it’s easier to ask for a higher rate if you consider yourself a professional. Hahn lives in the UK, where the professionalization of literary translation is more advanced than it is in the US. One reason for this is the longer history there of literary translators belonging to a professional organization (the Society of Authors) that protects their rights and advocates for their interests as professionals. The only organization in this country that offers equivalent services—in particular, contract vetting—is the Authors Guild. That’s why I urge every literary translator who considers themselves professional to join the Guild, which has long been open to translators, though for reasons that are unclear to me, relatively few have joined.

VSE: While we are discussing pay, we should also talk about royalties. I was pleasantly surprised to see that 1/3 of respondents reported receiving “more than $1,000” in royalties, although many translators still receive tiny royalties, if any. What do you think is a fair royalty rate that translators should aim for?

AZ: I would hope everyone reading this interview accepts the principle that translators have the right to share in a book’s profits. (For anyone who needs convincing, see this post from Lisa Carter’s excellent blog at Intralingo.) All the more so if they help to publicize the book, as so many translators do nowadays; but even if they don’t. Whether or not to exercise their right to royalties, and if so, what rate to ask for, are things every translator has to decide for themselves when negotiating their contract. Depending on the book, I may prefer to take a higher fee and a lower royalty rate, or the other way around. So, what’s fair? It depends.

Since I realize that’s not a satisfying answer, what I can add is that it’s common nowadays for translators to negotiate a royalty rate of 1 or 2% of retail price on printed books and 5% on e-books. We see this, at least for printed books, in the responses to the Authors Guild survey (the survey didn’t ask specifically about e-books; that question will have to be added next time). Note that that’s a basic rate. Some translators negotiate escalators in their royalty rate as sales of the book increase (for how that works, see this article on author royalties).

Another important detail to take into account is that it is standard for the translator’s royalty payments to begin only after the book has earned out its advance—in other words, once the publisher has earned back what they paid for the translation. This is why negotiating royalties in your contract doesn’t necessarily mean that you will receive royalty payments. (A few presses pay royalties from the first book sold, but the practice isn’t common.) The actual dollar amount will of course depend on the sales of the book.

One thing that can make it tricky for translators is that often the author signs their contract with the publisher before the translator does. A standard author royalty nowadays is 10%. So if the translator asks for 2% and the author has already signed a contract giving them 10%, the publisher may tell the translator that their royalty has to be subtracted from the author’s—i.e., 8% for the author, 2% for the translator. This may or may not be agreeable to the author and their agent, and therefore may require further negotiation. (Again, I strongly recommend this primer on royalties and literary translation by Lisa Carter at Intralingo.)

VSE: The report also noted that translators’ payments were often dependent on publishers receiving grants. Before we proceed, I should note a couple of things: obviously translators should always be paid for their work, although many of the presses doing the work here are very small publishers with barely enough resources to bring the book to market. Also, in very many cases translators receive more money than the author of the book, who generally receives a modest sum to license the work and some small royalties on sales. Considering all of these things, what’s fair when a press truly lacks the ability to pay a translator very much?

AZ: I appreciate what you’re saying. There are different niches within the publishing industry. I would be curious to see if there’s a sort of natural selection going on, with certain presses, because of their lack of money, working mainly with translators who aren’t professional—by which I don’t mean that the translators lack professional standards, but simply that they don’t depend on translating for their livelihood.

To me the principle is the important thing here: If a book is being sold for money, in the market economy, and everyone involved in its production is being paid except the translator, that isn’t fair. If the book is produced within a gift economy, and everyone involved in it is donating their labor, that’s a different story. The problem is when a press tells a translator, “I’m sorry we can’t pay you because we have to pay the printer”—the implication being that the printer’s labor has value but the translator’s does not.

There’s a difference between not paying much and not paying at all. There are small presses that are nonprofit and operate on a funding model that factors in fair fees for translators, so we know that it’s possible. Even a cash-strapped publisher can find creative ways to show goodwill.

I don’t think it’s correct to compare the fee an author is paid for the rights to publish their book in translation with the fee a translator is paid to translate the author’s book, for several reasons. First, the author presumably has already been paid for their work, when they published it in their native language. Second, the author has already expended the labor to produce the book, so they’re being paid to license the rights, whereas the translator is being paid for their labor. Third, in a typical contract, the author’s royalty, at 8%, is four times higher than the translator’s, at 2%, so the author’s earning potential from sales is higher than the translator’s. Fourth, an author can sell, and be paid for, translation rights more than once—for every language their book is translated into, the author receives a fee, whereas the translator is paid for their translation only once. Fifth, the author has potential for further income from the sale of subsidiary rights (such as film or stage adaptions), since even if an adaptation is based on the translation, the author has to be paid for the rights to the underlying work, whereas the translator, depending on their contract, may or may not receive any payment for the subsidiary rights; it isn’t a given.

This is not to say that the author will actually earn all that income, but these differences in potential earnings put them in a different position from the translator. This is the principle that underlies the author’s receiving a smaller payment for the rights to translate their work than the translator receives for translating it. Many translators and translator advocates uphold the literary translator’s art as on a par with the author’s in terms of creativity and skill. Rightfully so. Economically, however, our status is not the same.

VSE: What do you hope is the impact of this survey? Five years from now, what changes would you hope to see in the translation field?

AZ: The first thing I’d hope for is a higher level of awareness about the issues for professional literary translators in the United States. To some degree, we’ve already achieved that, just by conducting the survey and publicizing the results. I’d also like more literary translators to understand the issues, so they feel empowered to negotiate their contracts and ask questions of publishers, rather than feeling they have no choice except to sign or walk away.

I’ve mentioned already that the main reason for doing the survey was to establish benchmarks on the issues that are most critical to the viability of literary translation as a profession. We actually collected much more information than we’ve been able to analyze and publish so far: For instance, there are disaggregations I’d like to do that could reveal important differences in how translators are paid depending on what language they translate, or whether there are certain languages where it’s more likely that the translator’s payment is contingent on the publisher receiving a grant. We usually talk about fees as if there were only one translation market, but in reality, every language is a minimarket of its own. (I translate from Czech. If I turn down a book because the fee is too low, it’s not as if the publisher can offer it to somebody who translates from Korean.) In some languages, there are more translators, and the greater supply of translators may result in rates being driven down.

Also, though the information we got is revealing, it’s just a snapshot in time. The really interesting data will come five years from now, and five years after that, as we continue to run the survey and get some points of comparison.

So, what I’d like to see in five years? In general, a higher level of knowledge about contracts, among translators and publishers alike. Specifically, more translators signing contracts with royalties, fewer translators signing contracts with payment contingent on the publisher receiving a grant, and higher pay for translators. We didn’t include this in our initial findings from the survey, but when asked, “If you could at least match your present total income by translating literature full-time, would you drop your other paid work?” nearly two-thirds of respondents answered “Yes” or “Possibly.” If more of us can earn a living doing what we do best, I think it can only be to the benefit of our work.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 51


What Is a Translator?

What Is a Translator?

Are translators, to borrow a phrase from Paulo Rónai, “modest intermediaries in the relay of someone else’s messages,” or are they, as is increasingly averred, co-authors? Perhaps the encomium Paul Auster has bestowed on translators gets straight to the point: they are “shadow heroes,” a designation which assumes they are destined to see the fruits of their labor overlooked. Perhaps our confusion over what a translator is stems from our collective confusion about what it is a translator does.

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan

A Translator’s Diary: A Year in the Life of Emma Ramadan

I ring in the New Year with a rare feeling: relief. At the end of December I finally receive some long-awaited paychecks and finish off 2017 with money in the bank. I feel like I’m in a good place. I can pay my bills, I can buy a decent bottle of champagne for my friend’s New Year’s party, my fiancé, Tom, has a friend in town and we can go out to dinner with him without tearing our hair out. This lasts about two days.

Who is Junichiro Tanizaki?

Who is Junichiro Tanizaki?

Asking who Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is may seem a little bizarre, especially to those with any kind of interest in Japanese literature. Nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and even shortlisted the year before his death, Tanizaki is one of the more prominent figures in modern Japanese literature, and he is also well-known for his other endeavors, such as his translation of The Tale of Genji from old Japanese into the modern language. But on a more personal level, the question is not quite as strange as it might initially appear. Readers often develop an image of a writer while working through their books, and many of the top Japanese authors seem easily classifiable, from the eccentric Kōbō Abe to the calm, traditionalist aesthete Yasunari Kawabata, the political protests of Kenzaburō Ōe, and, more vivid than most, Yukio Mishima’s unique blend of homoerotic and right-wing tendencies. But who exactly is Tanizaki?

Look East to Find the West

Look East to Find the West

We are lucky to have translations of the French novelist Mathias Énard, whose career suggests the exploratory, variegated template of Faulkner. A translator from Persian, Arabic, and Spanish, Énard has written nine novels in an assortment of styles and on an assortment of subjects. As Faulkner nearly always located his fiction in Mississippi, Énard has focused on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, what he calls in his eponymous novel, the “Zone.” And as the themes of slavery, black-white relations, history, Reconstruction, and the South run through Faulkner’s novels, Énard has his touchstones of music, violence, East-West relations, and literature, all of which appear in his most recent book to be translated by Charlotte Mandell into English, the 2015 Prix Goncourt winner, Compass.

A Memoir By a Writer Who Doesn’t Want One

A Memoir By a Writer Who Doesn’t Want One

Richard Ford, as decorated an American writer as currently exists, has thus far avoided mining his own life for material. But now he has written a memoir. To be sure, it is strange, almost an anti-memoir. The book consists of two halves, a recently written remembrance of his father and a remembrance of his mother, written shortly after her death in the early 1980s. The conceit of the book is that his parents are essentially unknowable and that they had a rich and fulfilling life before he arrived on the scene—that he came “between them.” His view is of the only child who sees the margin where his life ends and theirs continues on without him. The result is a memoir that is empathetic to his parents’ sovereignty as adults.


The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen

The Danish transgender performance artist, has, over the course of her career, presented, masqueraded, invented, and re-invented herself many times, even having her birth-identified self, Claus Beck-Nielsen, declared dead along the way. (He was ultimately revived when the lack of any identity altogether proved too difficult to sustain.) The multi-faceted Madame Nielsen is a novelist, poet, artist, performer, stage director, composer, and singer. With The Endless Summer, newly released from Open Letter Books in a translation by Gaye Kynoch, Nielsen weaves a tale that sidesteps the common expectations of narrative progress and character development. Rather, an odd cast of characters is choreographed through a shifting, dreamlike landscape openly reminiscent of David Lynch, complete with digressions into side stories, tales from the past, and glances into the future.

North Station by Bae Suah

North Station by Bae Suah

Bae Suah seems to know that writing is a kind of time travel, and in each of these stories, brought deftly into English by Deborah Smith, the caroming and hyperlinking movements that characterize this traveling raise such questions as: what does it demand of me when I reach out to you? Where does my memory of you end and your reality begin? Why do I remember only that which I remember? And, as I write all of this, do I move any closer toward the answers?

Fragile Travellers by Jovanka Živanović

Fragile Travellers by Jovanka Živanović

Jovanka Živanović’s Fragile Travellers reads primarily as a metaphysical straddling of the spiritual and corporeal worlds, yet also manages to address practical, everyday concerns. Ema is a high school art teacher. In her mid-thirties, she lives with her lover, Žarko, an intellectually stunted lawyer. The term “lover,” of course, being misleading. The two rarely engage in any love-related activities. Ema is a timid character, trying to get through life unnoticed by others. On the other hand, Petar is a handsome, respectable pillar of the community. He has been married to his wife, Anđelija, for many years. Although unattractive and overly practical, Anđelija provides a stable and comfortable marriage that Petar has never questioned.

7 Questions for Christina MacSweeney on Julian Herbert

Although Mexican author Julián Herbert is well into his forties, has won numerous awards, and has written well over a dozen books in various formats, he is only now making his long overdue debut in English with his 2011 “novel” Tomb Song, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation.

I give the word novel those scare quotes because, in Herbert’s hands, the novel transcends its usual confines of fiction to embrace forms like memoir and essay. He is a writer about whom nothing should be taken for granted, an inveterate and playful line-crosser who has crafted his own unique and variable style. I reached out to Christina, a colleague and friend, to learn more about Herbert and this book with which he is entering the Anglo literary sphere.

Christina’s name should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Spanish literature over the past half-dozen years. She has translated multiple works by Valeria Luiselli, as well as the recently released novel Empty Set by the lauded Mexican author Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and the excellent Among Strange Victims by the very talented Daniel Saldaña París, among many others.

Scott Esposito: This is the English-language debut for Herbert. Who is he, and why is he worthy of translation?

Christina MacSweeney: “Who is Julián Herbert?” sounds like it could be a title for one of his novels. He’s a Mexican poet, novelist, essayist, musician (he is indeed the lead singer for a band called Las Madrastras), he lectures, leads workshops in cultural programs… It would probably be easier to list the things he doesn’t do. He was born into poverty in Acapulco in 1971, and much of his early life was spent travelling around Mexico with his mother, who supported her family by the only relatively steady work open to her: prostitution. But she also seems to have inculcated her son with an intense love of literature, and a very edgy way of looking at life. He is worthy of translation because, in my view, he brings a very different perspective to Mexican writing, one that is both deeply inclusive, deeply generous, but also intensely disrespectful of accepted perceptions of his country, and of what literature and music are. But if that might simply sound anarchic, he is also a very disciplined writer whose work delves into the concept of the self and existence in a truly philosophical way.

SE: Herbert is known for blending genres in his writing, and the publicity materials for Tomb Song describe it as “break[ing] open the genres of fiction, essay, and memoir.” What genre would you describe this book as fitting into, and what was your experience of it like?

CM: The only way I can answer that question is to say that I wouldn’t even start to try to categorize Tomb Song: it would be an exercise doomed to failure. As a reader, you walk a slippery high wire above a chasm of constantly shifting scenes, unfixed realities. I loved that aspect of the work when I first read it, and also the absolute authenticity of the writing, the generosity with which Julián invites you to touch the raw nerves of his life, and then the mischievousness with which he then pulls down his sleeve and tells you none of that was true. Or maybe it was. I adored that sense of never being completely certain where the next sentence would take me. And the musicality that underlines the whole book, the beauty of the writing often dealing with very ugly situations, the disrespect for convention: these were all enormous draws for me.

SE: Toward the beginning of Tomb Song, Herbert remarks “in the majority of cases, a postmodern novel is nothing more than a costumbrismo cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic rhetoric a la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.” First of all, could you give us some idea of what a costumbrismo is. And secondly, this kind of writing that Herbert is railing against here, how does this assertion work itself out in Tomb Song?

CM: Wow, that is a question and a half, Scott. But I do love that sentence, and it gave me a great deal to think about on my first and subsequent readings of Tomb Song. Ummm. To start with, costumbrismo began as a style of painting in 19th century Spain. In terms of literature it could be described as realist, there is usually an omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening and what the characters are thinking, and it emphasizes the description of everyday life and customs. But it also has a moral element that I think favors a notion of social cohesion. In this sense, it is perhaps rather flat, two-dimensional, as readers we are offered a full-face view of the characters and their environment, with little attempt at perspective. A 20th century example of costumbrismo that I think exceeds some of the traditional boundaries of the genre is Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). So my understanding of Julián’s rant is that “the postmodern novel” is at times only laying a cloak (or any other item of clothing you might mention) of intellectualism and form over what ends by being descriptive: a description of postmodernity and its mores. So I think he is saying that there is at times no true search for identity or self-perception involved, or any real questioning of values, of modes of thought (philosophical, political), or apparent reality, none of the transformative impulse of modernity or any real “spleen”, no “ideal”. But it would be really interesting to know how your readers feel about my analysis, Scott, because I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about it.

SE: True, it’s a very open quote in terms of just how one can read it (and congrats to you on a beautiful translation of it). I think among other things Herbert is voicing a little frustration with how postmodernism can become a bit of a pose, particularly where he references Kenneth Goldsmith—whatever you think of Goldsmith’s work, he really does trade very heavily on the idea of postmodernism, as well as the kind of identity of a “postmodern writer.” Herbert by contrast seems much more down to earth, the kind of person who doesn’t want to say in 1,000 words what he could just as well say in a dozen. And I think that comes through in the plain-spoken tone of this book, despite dealing with some rather life-or-death issues, including the death of the narrator’s mother. What would you say is the status of postmodernism in Mexico right now?

CM: I think I’m a bit of a postmodernism agnostic. Rather than an actual phenomenon, it feels to me like a kind of way station from which the stagecoach has already pulled out: destination still uncertain. In Mexico there are other authors and artists who, like Julián, are exploding genre boundaries. One example that immediately comes to my mind is Verónica Gerber Bicecci, who describes herself as an artist who writes and uses imagery in her work as a form of bridging the chasms language often leaves in communication. Another boundary that is being eroded in Mexico is the marginalization of women in the creative world; some of the most exciting writing coming out of the country now is written by woman, and is finally being reviewed seriously instead of being thought of as a “nice hobby for the little woman.” And there are campaigns to address issues of sexual harassment and femininicide that precede MeToo by many years.

As to what Tomb Song can offer the U.S. at this moment, I’d say it could act as an antidote to the lack of authenticity in much public discourse: it’s certainly a lesson in not believing everything you hear/read! And the directness of the writing shatters any idea of euphemism to avoid talking about what really matters.

But there, I already feel pretentious talking about postmodernism, so I’ll stop before making a complete fool of myself.

SE: This is fascinating. Could you tell us a little about a point in the book when you began to feel that you couldn’t trust everything you were reading?

CM: I think that even the opening of the book casts some doubt on the trustworthiness of the content: the narrator/character/author tells us that he had difficulty in believing in the “roundness” of the world when he was nine. And that whole passage seemed to me, or seems to me, to be an invitation to speculate on the nature of the world we inhabit, on truth. In the paragraph that follows, he blames his mother for that inability to accept the explanation given in his textbook, says they lived in a “wickerwork polygon” of railroad tracks, and only then does he tell us that she is in hospital, dying of leukemia. All that, I think, is what Julián calls “technique,” and technique is a form of artifice.

SE: Herbert sounds like a very interesting author, and one that will appeal to a lot of readers of this website. I’m curious if you could tell us what other sorts of books Herbert has in his backlist, and which ones you’d particularly like to see in English translation one day.

CM: Julián has a long backlist that moves through different styles. My favorites among those I have managed to get my hands on are the short stories in Cocaina: Manual de usario (Cocaine: A User’s Guide); Ros Harvey translated an extract for Granta (available online), but otherwise it has not yet been published in English. I’d also recommend Álbum Iscariote (The Iscariot Album), which mixes poetry, poetic prose and images, and explores the situation of, among other things, no longer being a young poet. A treasure that I found on my last trip to Mexico is the small volume of poems Bisel (“Smell of ice in the lightning flash/of vodka on your breath.”), published by the Wonderful Guadalajara house, Impronta.

At the moment I’m working on the edit of The House of the Pain of Others for Graywolf. This is a crónica of the mass killing of the members of the Chinese community in the northern Mexican city of Torreón at the outbreak of the revolution in 1911. It has spine-chilling similarities to the xenophobia that seems to be stalking large parts of the world a hundred years later, and I think is a book everyone should read and reflect on. And last year Julián published another collection of short stories with the brilliant title of Tráiganme la cabeza de Quentin Tarantino (Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino), which brings together stunning pastiches of the work of some of his influences. I’m particularly love the story called “Caries”, which is a homage to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (as I translated that novel into English, translating the story will to some extent a “translator translate thyself” experience!).

SE: Your answer here highlights the fact that you’ve worked with a lot of the more interesting writers to emerge from the Spanish language in the past few years. I think of you as working with a lot of very voice-driven books, books where the narrative voice is very important, and which are largely structured around these peculiar narrators.

CM: Yes, it’s been amazing to work with these authors. But I’m not so sure that I would describe their work as “voice-driven.” For me it would be truer to say that they don’t write plot-bound works; plot, to the extent that it exists in these books, is a sort of framework for supporting ideas, for exploring the very notion of voice, of subjectivity. And that is something that greatly attracts me. What I’m interested in right now is seeing how all this will develop and diffuse into more mainstream literature (because I’m sure it will): I’m interested in what the authors I’ve worked with—and those I haven’t, but admire—will do next, where they will go from here. And all this has implications for translation, for our practices as translators, the type of involvement we have with authors when writing their works in another language. Which in turn will, hopefully, feed back into the literary system and spark its own developments there. Translation has, historically, been a carrier of ideas, of change, but that process was somehow cloaked within the emphasis on “originality” that came along with modernism. I’m meandering a bit here, but what I’m trying to say is that the works I want to see down the line will take these trends and run with them… do exciting things that change our experiences as readers.

I Made The New York Times!

I wanted to share the good news that I have a book review in today’s issue of The New York Times Book Review. It’s of The Endless Summer by the Danish trans author Madame Nielsen—so it’s a work in translation, by a queer, female-identifying author. I don’t think there will be too many more authors that fit that profile in the Times this year.

This is my first ever writing for the Times, and, well, it’s interesting how people look at you differently when you tell them you write for The New York Times. Even with all the changes in book reviewing and literary culture in the past decade or so, this venue is still a huge cultural signifier, and virtually the only place that could grant a writer that kind of universal acknowledgement.

Some other things to share: I’ve got some interviews in the works for Conversational Reading. One of them is with all-star translator Christina MacSweeney, where we’ll be talking her latest translation, Tomb Song by Mexican author Julian Herbert.

I also have an essay upcoming in the first issue of the new journal Egress, from Little Island Press. Little Island is a rather interesting new press, as it launched last year with a title from Gordon Lish, and it has a fascinating (and award-nominated) catalog. David Winters, who is a very smart critic and a long-time friend, is the editor of Egress, and I think it will be quite good.

I’ve already shared the first half of this essay with my Patrons, and I’ll be sharing the whole thing once the issue publishes. If you want to get the essay, you only need to donate $3 per month, and that entitles you to tons of other great downloads, including copies of The Missing Books and other ebooks of mine.

Further down the line: I’ll be embarking on a long-overdue redesign of The Quarterly Conversation this year. (More on that down the line.)

And lastly, I did my first event of 2018, up in Sausalito (that’s in Marin County, a little northwest of Oakland, CA; just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco). It was a reading of The Doubles with the literary reading series Why There Are Words. Here’s a pic of me at the reading with my partner.

Winter Fundraising!

It’s winter, which means it’s one of the two times of year I traditionally ask you to pony up a little cash to support my work. Below, you’ll find a few reasons why you might want to support me, but if you don’t need any persuading and just want to go for it, here are the easiest ways to help:

Subscribe to me at Patreon — you get cool early peeks and exclusives, plus free copies of my ebooks (and a even print title, if you wanna go there . . .)

Paypal me — this is basically a one-time donation, or you can make it recurring, if you want to go that way and don’t feel like using Patreon for recurring donations (although then you’d miss out on all the cool free stuff that you get for subscribing at Patreon).

Buy stuff through my Amazon links — I know, Amazon is pretty widely despised (and if you’re shopping for books, why not go to your local indie and have them special order it? they can usually get it in 1 or 2 working days), but if you’re going to shop there anyway, maybe do it through my links, so you can ruin Jeff Bezos’s profit margin and help me out a bit?

Other stuff — If you’re unable to make a money transaction, I’d still love to have you support things in other ways. I encourage you to try writing for The Quarterly Conversation (email me at editor AT quarterlyconversation DOT com), or to interact with my social media on Twitter, Facebook, or the Gram. Or find some other creative way to be a cool person.

So anyway, why do I feel entitled to a little bit of your money?

I’ve done nearly 20 translator interviews this year, which includes championing the work of a lot of female international authors, not to mention making translators more visible and giving them a chance to shine.

I’ve edited another four issues of The Quarterly Conversation, which covers a ton of great literature that’s ignored elsewhere and that lets me mentor and help build up emerging critics.

I’ve done some cool lists, like this small/indie press gift guide, or this one of 28 female authors to read for Women in Translation Month (or the other 12 months).

Yet another year of my “interesting new books” list, championing (say it with me), lots of small press, marginal, etc, writers that tend to get ignored elsewhere.

And last of all, all year long I’ve been writing a column at Lit Hub—I’m up to #20, which represents nearly a book’s worth of writing. Over there I’ve championed a ton of small press and otherwise not-terribly-capitalist-economy-friendly authors. And maybe I’ve even personally inspired you, like with this piece on Clarice Lispector, this one on Bolaño, this one on my gender identity, or this one on indie bookstores.

Thank you to everyone who chooses to donate or who has already done so this year. It really does mean a lot, and in a practical sense it makes it much, much easier to make the things happen that you want to see me do.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 50


Bakkhai by Euripides and Anne Carson

Bakkhai by Euripides and Anne Carson

The Bakkhai continues to be one of Euripides’s (c. 484-406 b.c.e.) most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even though it was never performed in its author’s lifetime. The ancient Greek playwright and Athenian wrote The Bakkhai in the last few years of his life in Macedonia, where he had fled after becoming disillusioned with his native city-state. The play was found among his papers after his death and produced posthumously by either his nephew or his son at the Dionysia, the festival held annually for the eponymous god in Athens. The drama presents the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult in that city and exact a brutal punishment on his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god. Anne Carson’s unconventional new translation of The Bakkhai is a fitting interpretation of what is arguably Euripides’s most enigmatic tragedy.

The Novels of Jenny Erpenbeck

The Novels of Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck’s three recent novels are about displaced people, their lives swept here and there by mandates of poverty, anti-Semitism, war, and political crusade. Visitation and The End of Days trace the same swath of German history, stretching in both cases from about 1910 to 2000. Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, is also about the precarious lives of outcasts in Germany. They are refugees from Africa, forced out of Libya in 2011 and grouped in a shelter in Berlin three years later. Their lives are as thin and as ruled by seemingly senseless laws as that of the Jews who fled and hid in her earlier novels. The huge difference between this new book and the novels that came before is that the luminous passing of lifetimes has been condensed to a few months in the present day. The fairy flickering that moved her characters through decades has settled down into a gray, newspapery light. Go, Went, Gone is less a transformation of material than a shaping of it, and its luster is low. It pushes us to think about the uses of art, and what kinds of projects the politically committed can pull off in this current moment of explicit racism and unchecked power.

From Johannesburg 2004 to New York 2017: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

From Johannesburg 2004 to New York 2017: The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavić

Whether The Exploded View is a novel in four parts or a collection of four longish stories is a question akin to whether South Africa is a nation of peoples or a collection of nations. The four parts of The Exploded View are indeed linked, through setting and theme, but it doesn’t have the marked through-line of the short story cycles that so often come out of MFA programs here in the U.S. For one thing, the links between stories are underplayed, their fragmentation being essential to the structure as well as the governing visual and epistemological theme. Vladislavić’s reluctance to give a whole and holistic image of post-apartheid South African society has earned him some critics. As the idiom has it, “when Johannesburg catches a cold, South Africa sneezes.” So a representation of the fractured, divided city, with little cause for optimism about those divisions being overcome, has been sometimes read as a sign of Afro-pessimism and willful naysaying of the entire national project. Now, in 2017, not only do these critiques seem quaint and outdated, stemming as they do from a moment of unfounded optimism when the “Rainbow Nation” and the “African Renaissance” seemed plausible projects, but The Exploded View also seems more globally relevant than ever. The world is sneezing, and while Johannesburg’s cold is not the cause, it is certainly one of the clearest presentations of the symptoms.

The Iliac Crest and Its Female Imposters

The Iliac Crest and Its Female Imposters

Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is a novel riddled with holes, disappearances that have the effect of warping and obscuring the world its reader inhabits. If this book were to have a single guiding principle, it might be these words: “Disappearance is contagious. Everyone knows this.” The narrator’s confidence in this fact is a bit alarming, and may come as news to the reader. Is disappearance a physical illness and this book some kind of existential science fiction treatise? Well, yes and no. It’s hard to assert definitively just what this book is, although what is clear is that, in Rivera Garza’s world, disappearances are not unconnected—they propagate through a chain reaction, through physical contact, as the narrator goes on to explain almost scientifically, as if we were dealing with an outbreak of the flu.

Thoreau’s Questions

Thoreau’s Questions

Henry David Thoreau didn’t like questions, or so he sometimes said.“ The wise answer no questions,—nor do they ask them,” he wrote in his Journal in 1841. In 1850 he wrote, “I do not love to entertain doubts and questions.” Yet questions were at the heart of Thoreau’s lifelong journey of self-exploration. His Journal itself, the mine from which nearly all his literary work was quarried, began with a question, thought to be posed to the freshly minted Harvard graduate by his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. “’What do you do now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry today.”

The French Invasion

The French Invasion

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought. To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences. Let us consider what happened during this watershed autumn.


“The Book Upside Down”: A Conversation on Ricardo Piglia

“The Book Upside Down”: A Conversation on Ricardo Piglia

Piglia used to say that everything he wrote—his novels, his short stories, his essays—were a mere excuse in order to one day publish his diaries. So, by the time he finally sat down to transcribe them, they had become mythical. The impressive thing is that they didn’t disappoint at all. On the contrary, they remain perhaps the clearest expression of his conceptual poetic. A shinning exploration of what it could mean both to devote a life to literature, as well as read a life as literature. They provide a wonderful final touch to his life’s work and, despite their absolute singularity, I think they should be read in tradition of the best diary writers, authors that Piglia admired, like Pavese, Kafka, and Gombrowicz.

The Cristina Rivera Garza Interview

The Cristina Rivera Garza Interview

I am prone to write in between genres (remember that, in Spanish, género translates as both gender and genre). I am always interested in what happens there, in that middle ground or limbo. My suspicion is that relevant, interesting operations are met, and at times resolved, in those spaces. It’s a lucha libre of sorts, where the tools usually associated with one genre (verse to poetry, for example, of paragraph to prose) are subverted and diverted. Most contemporary works I read tread on those turbulent waters called cross-genre. The adjective I have used to describe these works is colindante, a term that describes what is both contiguous and colliding.

The Anne Carson Interview

The Anne Carson Interview

As I was interviewing the classicist, poet, and author Anne Carson in June, 2017 via e-mail about her new translation of The Bakkhai, the question-and-answer process felt like a consultation with the ancient Pythia. Much like an ancient Greek attempting to get an answer from the priestess of Apollo, I had to go through a few layers—book publicist and agent—and the answers I received back can best be described as intriguing and esoteric; they varied in length from a few words to a paragraph to no response at all. Every reply was also written in all lower case, including the first-person singular “i,” an idiosyncrasy that seemed almost playful, and is something I usually see in the prose or text messages of a student or a younger person. Like a Greek hearing those ambiguous missives given by the Pythia, I was repeatedly surprised by the puzzling, thought-provoking answers I received.


Third Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Third Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Award-winning poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third Millennium Heart, translated into English by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, is narrated from the point of view of a monstrous, cyborg organ, a heart which is a sprawling, rumbling mega-structure; a cornubation made up of anti-heroic, Archigram-like constructions—fantastical towers and castles. From the heart’s radical connectivity emerges a puissant female voice, who unleashes a torrent of invectives, affirmations and auguries against capitalist market forces, patriarchy, toxic manhood, rape trauma, and the perversion of Western culture. A kind of germinal energy emanates from the fractal asymmetry of the 200-odd poems in this collection, like the vitality of patterns in river systems, tree branches and lightening bolts. In a state of interminable flux, the poems push back against facile interpretation even as they pull the reader closer towards self-knowledge.

The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

No longer than the lead piece in the latest literary quarterly, yet unearthing a teleology for some of humanity’s oldest stories, The Tongue of Adam sets a reader thinking of noble forebears. W.G. Sebald comes to mind, though there’s no meandering involved, and Anne Carson, though there’s no anachronism or toying with form. Jorge Luis Borges, especially, casts his shadow, given the erudite cool with which this text handles Adam and Eve, Eden and Babel, effortlessly switching between Quranic (as spelled by Kilito) sources and Judeo-Christian. Similar material, in the hands of the great Argentine, resulted in amazing aesthetic objects, and to say the latest from Abdelfattah Kilito doesn’t shrivel in comparison—well, that’s high praise. Even more noteworthy, however, may be what the book accomplishes, at this hour of the world, for Arab civilization in general.

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III: Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

March 1917: The Red Wheel: Node III: Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In 1972 an English version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 appeared. It is the first node (then called a “knot”) of a sequential novel with the overall title The Red Wheel. In 1989 an expanded and freshly translated edition came out in English, but it took until 1999 for the second volume, November 1916, to be published. Since then other books by Solzhenitsyn have reached English readers, most recently Apricot Jam: And Other Stories (2011), but we have had to wait until now to start reading the first book of four comprising March 1917, which will be followed by the two books that make up April 1917, thus bringing this mega-novel to a close. The books share common approaches—fictional characters mingling with historical figures, the use of actual telegrams, transcripts of State Duma debates, and newspaper accounts (when applicable, as newspapers weren’t always published), and an impressionistic screenplay treatment of mob movements—and the attempt to recapture for a wide audience (but foremost, one suspects, for Solzhenitsyn’s countrymen) the multitudinous events that culminated in the Revolution. Yet there is never one definitive story, one perspective, or one inevitable outcome.

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be demands to be read and lived with for a few days or weeks—as long as you like, it’s got enough spirit and thought and music and visual interest to hold you. A considerable and openhearted novel, it is at once wild and sophisticated, poetic and prosaic. Although it is Wikswo’s first novel, it shows her to be intrepid storyteller, as she confronts issues of race, sex, gender, religion, and desire with an appreciation toward their complexity and oft-chaotic natures.

My Small/Indie Press Holiday Gift Guide

Each year I tend to do one of those “best reads of the year” lists, but this year I’ve decided to do things a little differently. Those lists tend to feature a lot of the same titles, and if you follow my Internet presence you’ve probably already got a pretty good idea of what books I’ve been really enjoying in 2017.

So instead what I’m going to do this year is do something along the lines of a gift guide to small and indie presses you may want to buy from this holiday season. I think probably everyone knows what the holiday season means to businesses and retailers, and presses are no different—this is make or break time for a lot of the publishers you love, so if you go and buy a few books from them for yourself and others, it’ll make a difference.

So here I’m going to recommend a book from each press that I think you should make an effort to check out this year. Look at them as entry points to presses I hope you get to know and buy a lot of books form in December. These books aren’t limited to things I read in 2017—they’re just great books that I think embody something important about each press. And I’m also going to try hard to get as many female, queer, & writers of color as possible in here.

And lastly, if you want to support this website during the holidays, you can shop through the Amazon links below, or if you detest Amazon then consider subscribing to me at Patreon, where you get a lot of digital downloads for your small monthly donation.

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi) — Action Books

Kim Hyesoon is a very in-your-face kind of poet, a loud poet, a poet with a kind of postmodern plasticity to her work. She talks about crazy pop cultural events like pig massacres, her aesthetics are weird, not-for-everyone, and very transgressive in the culture from which she comes. She’s also a writer who must have been a big challenge to translate, albeit a lot of fun and also one who opened up a lot of space for Don Mee Choi to re-envision this work in English. These are all things that to me make her a consummate Action Books author, as I have come to expect all of these things from this press.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia RankineGraywolf Press

I’m old enough to remember a time when Graywolf wasn’t a massively successful press notching winners and finalists of major prizes and being a fixture of the nation’s major reviews of books. I’m choosing Claudia Rankine’s first book with Graywolf for a couple reasons. First of all, this book emblematizes to me a lot of what has made Graywolf success a vital press in the last 10 years—its embrace of a lot of the lyric/personal/fragmentary essay aesthetics and and identity concerns that are present in this book and a number of its breakout titles of the decade or so since this one was released. of course, Citizen is the big book for Rankine, but I’m also recommending this one because a lot of people think Don’t Let me Be Lonely is the better book (myself included), but it hasn’t sold in nearly the same numbers. So check it out.

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle — Wave Books

This is such a great essay collection, I’m not even going to try to sum up everything wonderful in here. Basically, this book will make you think about art and life in new ways—if that’s something you want, read it. And Wave Books is a really great press who can make a writer like Mary Ruefle a house author, along with a slew of other really remarkable books, mostly of great avant-garde poetry, but also a good deal of prose.

The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol (tr. George Henson)Deep Vellum Publishing

Sergio Pitol is exactly the kind of author to put the translation scene in perspective—this guy is so good, and so legendary in the Spanish-language world, that anyone in their right mind would think that he’d be published by Random House, or FSG, or some other major prestige brand. But no, instead he was one of the first authors of this upstart translated literature press that just kind of came out of nowhere and started bringing him to the English-language world. That, to me, is a lot of the energy that Deep Vellum brings to the publishing community, and Sergio Pitol is exactly the kind of discovery that they would make for us to enjoy.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker)Feminist Press

I could say a lot of the same things for Feminist Press, except in this case Feminist Press has been around for decades—but still, they keep their ears close to the ground and keep finding edgy things that you would expect to come from a press that had only been around for a short time and still had a lot of that naive enthusiasm. The Iliac Crest is, again, exactly the kind of book that in any just world would be a bestseller. Even though it was written 15 years ago, it’s a book that captures a lot of what feminism currently is and where it’s headed, which is exactly what I feel about Feminist Press at any given moment.

My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty GunnNotting Hill Editions

If you like book-length essays, this is your publisher, as this is pretty much all Notting Hill Editions does. It’s full of quirky, remarkable projects that probably would not have found a home anywhere else.

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (tr. Margaret Schwartz)Open Letter Books

This was one of the first titles Open Letter ever did, and it was actually the way I first met Open Letter publisher Chad Post in person, and it was a book that for various reasons I was really, really excited to read, so for me personally it sums up a lot about Open Letter. This is a completely insane title that largely consists of dozens of prologues to a novel, penned by the man esteemed in his native Argentina as “Borges’s mentor,” a general weird genius uncle of Argentine literature, even though he’s basically completely unknown and unappreciated in the English-language world. And that, to me, is a lot of Open Letter—the weirdest most out there, next-level kinds of things that will blow your mind, if only you knew they existed.

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr. Bela Shayevich)Fitzcarraldo Editions

This book perfectly sums up what Fitzcarraldo is to me: who on earth was ever going to publish this book if Fitzcarraldo didn’t step up to do it? This was the very definition of a passion project, an immense and costly labor that would have done modest business and, if very fortunate, have broken even 5 years down the line. Then Alexievich won the Nobel and suddenly Fitzcarraldo owned a hot commodity. God bless. Go see what else they’re doing with that windfall, like, for instance, publishing Olga Tokarczuk.

Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrión (tr. Peter Bush) — Biblioasis

This is such a lovely bookworms’ kind of book, basically a love letter to independent bookstores that is also erudite, entertaining, anecdotal, globe-spanning, passionate, meaningful, ironic . . . It’s a great read that makes you remember why you love the literary world and why it’s your place. And that’s a lot of Biblioasis to me, the passion project of a man who truly loves literature and who somehow turned that love into a rather sizable press that does truly great stuff that will be appreciated by the kind of person who feels completely at home in a great small bookstore.

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju ColeCassava Republic

This one requires a little explanation. Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief is now published by Random House, but it was originally discovered in 2007 by this weird, funky Nigerian press called Cassava Republic, who were the ones the bring Cole to prominence. And since 2007 they have continued to discover equally as good (or better) Nigerian work, to the point that now they are no longer just a press distributed to Nigeria but one whose books now have great distribution to the U.S. and UK. This is a recent development, so to many readers Cassava Republic will be a “new” press, even though they’re quite older than a number of presses on this list, but they are absolutely one you should check out.

Iraq + 100: Stories from Another IraqComma Press

This book is totally, gloriously insane: it’s an anthology of speculative fiction that asked a bunch of Iraqi authors to imagine what their country would look like in 100 years. Like a lot of Comma Press books, it has a definitely political angle, and it mixes up a bunch of genres that you would at first glance think might not go together, but it’s also just completely refreshing, novel fiction that I can’t imagine any other press would have come up with. That to me is Comma Press, a press that consummately does its own thing and somehow ends up finding amazing literature in there.

Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz — Les Figues Press

This is such a weird, uncategorizable little fiction, maybe what you’d call a “poet’s novel.” It’s the kind of beautiful little, entirely unforeseeable book that I’ve come to expect from Les Figues, whose catalog I always expect to provide me with the unexpected. There’s not a whole lot I can say to try and summarize this publisher other than “dive in and take a look!”

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella ColemanVerso Books

I guess now that we’ve had the whole 2016 election and Wikileaks has become something along the lines of a lesser Breitbart, the whole idea of Anonymous somehow seems much more quaint than it did 12 months ago. But still I think this book has aged pretty well and tells you a lot about the world in which we live. And it’s also an extraordinarily fun read—what can I say, I really loved this book, and I learned a lot from it. A lot of Verso’s list can be heavy on the theory and fairly tough going for the non-theory-inclined, but also a lot of the list is pretty general-reader-friendly and pretty up-to-the-minute, this book included. Oh, and I’ve got to give a shot to my friend Juliet Jacques’ excellent transition memoir (and so much more) Trans.

Letters to Memory by Karen Tei YamashitaCoffee House Press

This is one of those books that’s so damn good, and also incredibly essential right now, but a book that I fear is getting lost in the fall publishing cycle, which is always severely impacted and incredibly full of “must-read” titles. Anyway, definitely check it out, and also check out Coffee House, which for over 30 years now has been finding and cultivating necessary talent like Yamashita and bringing it to the book-loving world. Somewhat like Graywolf, they seem to have hit a particular stride of late with authors like Valeria Luiselli who have gotten a major amount of attention. This is of course a wonderful thing, but the top-level successes should not keep you from digging in to the deeper recesses of their catalog, which is great all the way through and is full of a lot of things you really should read.

Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli (tr. Bill Johnston) — Archipelago Books

Archipelago Books has of course attained notoriety for bringing the English-speaking world Karl Ove Knausgaard, which is a major achievement that everyone should recognize, but I like to them of them as the home of authors like Magdalena Tulli, writers who are doing truly out-there, crazy stuff but who are almost mathematically proven to never get the attention they deserve. Tulli is sometimes compared to Calvino, and if that comparison (whatever its actual merits) does anything at all to get you piqued, do check her out, and see what else Archipelago has to offer—they’ve done an amazing diversity of things in their 15+ years.

Torpor by Chris Kraus — Semiotext(e)

This is kind of an “obvious” one, now that Chris Kraus has gotten to the point of having tons of media attention and an Amazon series made out of her book I Love Dick, but all that success should obscure the fact that for a long, long time she was laboring as a largely unknown, underappreciated author—as well as an unknown, underappreciated publisher, as part of the team at Semiotext(e). if you’re someone who digs French theory, or feminist authors like Chris Kraus, you owe a big debt to the press, possibly without realizing it. They are the leading edge of a lot of this kind of writing in America, and even though much of their aesthetics have now become mainstream, they’re still doing leading-edge work that you should check out. And let me also toss in a recommendation for my first-ever Semiotext(e) title, bound direct from the Small Press Distribution warehouse many years ago, The Ecstasy of Communication by Jean Baudrillard.

Trace by Laurent SavoyCounterpoint Press

Counterpoint Press does things like The Guy Davenport Reader—books that are of immense value to the culture but that are just never going to be sexy in that Buzzfeed listicle kind of way. On the Buzzfeed listicle scale of sexiness, Trace probably ranks higher than The Guy Davenport Reader, but not nearly as high as it should. If an author like Rebecca Solnit is your dream-read, then please do yourself a favor and check out this book now.

Little Island Press

Little Island Press is new, so new that I can’t really pick a single book to recommend to you. But I trust that they’re doing good things and will continue to do great things, and I think they’re worthy of your support.

Civil Coping Mechanisms

This is one of my publishers, and I’m friends with a number of their authors, so I’m a little hesitant to go too hard for them lest it look like a conflict of interest, but they are really good books (in my obviously biased opinion) and you should give them a look. If you need a point of entry, try my friend Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue.

NYRB Classics and New Directions Publishing

I can’t believe that anyone who regularly visits this site doesn’t know and love these presses. These catalogs are just so deep, and so ever-growing with incredible stuff, that it’s really hard to recommend just one thing. So I dunno, go read Bakkhai by Anne Carson, or Marina Tsvetaeva’s diaries (seriously? who even comes up with these things?), or Inger Christensen, or Silvina Ocampo.

AnimalInside by László Krasznahorkaithe Cahiers Series

The Cahiers is a series of little chapbook-like pamphlets from many of the best writers on Earth. i seriously mean that—the likes of László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías, Lydia Davis, and Anne Carson have authored Cahiers, not to mention so many others. They tend to have a distinct translation and art angle to them, and each one is beautifully produced—an incredible item to have an hold. I’m choosing Krasznahorkai’s AnimalInside because it was my first, and because its combination of an extraordinary text and absolutely beautiful art, working in sync, is what the Cahiers are all about. And also because this little item did so much for Krasznahorkai’s reputation in the English-speaking world, showing just what kind of an effect the right work can have.

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia — Restless Books

This is an incredibly major book (the first of a trilogy covering Piglia’s whole life) by one of the great Latin American talents of the 20th century. A testament to publisher Ilan Stavans and the rest of the Restless team for making it happen. And they have so many other great books in translation.

Other presses to check out: This list is getting rather lengthy, but there’s still so much more to say. So in lieu of listing any more books and descriptions, I’m just going to point you toward these places, many of which you can find more information about elsewhere on this website. Give them all a try: Tilted Axis Press, And Other Stories Publishing, Transit Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Timeless, Infinite Light, Other Press, Melville House Books, Seagull Books, Tin House Books

6 Questions for Jessica Powell on venture of the infinite man by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda is one of the best-known poets in the Americas—indeed he is a writer who is considered canonical and essential—but his third book, venture of the infinite man, is little-known in the English language. That should change now that City Lights publishes its first-ever English translation in Jessica Powell’s imaginative English, with an introduction by Mark Eisner.

To find out more about this strange and challenging short book, I corresponded with Powell. She very graciously answered my questions in great depth, providing a wealth of insight about this book. In addition to translating Neruda, Powell is the holder of an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award, and she is the translator of (with Suzanne Jill Levine) Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, as well as Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress.

Scott Esposito: venture of the infinite man was Neruda’s third book of poetry, published in 1926 after Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song, which had won Neruda great critical acclaim and a strong reputation, and which eventually went on to be among best-selling Spanish-language poetry books of all time. But venture of the infinite man was not well-regarded when it was released, and it is generally considered neglected. Can you tell us some of the aspects of this book that made it so hard to absorb upon first publication?

Jessica Powell: Neruda was only twenty-one years old when he wrote venture of the infinite man and, despite the tremendous success of his previous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he was struggling emotionally, yearning for new perspectives, a new poetic voice. This inner call toward self-exploration led him to experiment with his style, breaking away from the lyrical realism of the love poems and from more traditional forms of poetry in general. What resulted was venture of the infinite man, in which he discarded rhyme, meter, punctuation and capital letters in order to attempt to capture the voice of the subconscious. The fifteen interrelated cantos that make up the book narrate the dream-like nocturnal voyage of a young, melancholic man on an epic quest through time and space to rediscover and redefine his voice and himself. Readers who were expecting more of what they had adored about the love poems found this experimental, semi-surrealist style disorienting and even incomprehensible. Even critics at the time weren’t sure what to do with it. Today though, readers and critics are in a better position to appreciate what venture does achieve, not the least of which is that it serves as a crucial step in Neruda’s growth as a poet, linking the lyricism of the love poems to the powerful and existential despair of his landmark Residence on Earth (which was Neruda’s next book of poetry after venture). Neruda himself considered venture crucial to his evolution as a poet: “I have always looked upon venture of the infinite man as one of the real nuclei of my poetry,” he said at the age of fifty, “because working on those poems, in those now distant years, I was acquiring a consciousness that I didn’t have before, and if my expressions, their clarity or mystery, are anywhere measured, it is in this extraordinarily personal little book…Within its smallness and minimal expression, more than most of my works…it claimed, it secured, the path that I had to follow.”

SE: Why did you and City Lights feel this was the right time to bring this book to the English-reading public?

JP: This project has been in the works for many years. Mark Eisner, who wrote the beautiful and very useful introduction to the book, began discussing the project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights fame, over five years ago. Ferlinghetti and Elaine Katzenberger, Publisher and Executive Director of City Lights, were both enthusiastic about the project, in part, because it was an opportunity to publish the first-ever English translation of a Pablo Neruda work, and, in part, because our bi-lingual edition would also make the original Spanish available to readers in the form that Neruda intended. Since its publication in 1926, very few editions of the book have been made available, and those that have been published have not respected the original edition, failing to maintain its line and page breaks, and making changes that include “correcting” its lack of punctuation and capital letters as well as the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (because he felt it better captured the voice of the subconscious). In our edition, we have taken pains to respect the 1926 edition in every way possible—even our cover echoes the spare avant-garde aesthetic of the original. In short, City Lights, Mark and I all felt that our edition could fill in a gap for Neruda readers and scholars, making Neruda’s third book of poetry available to readers of Spanish in the way that Neruda intended it to be read, and to readers of English by providing the very first English translation of the entire work. While there was no particular reason that we felt this was the “right” time to bring the book out, we are hoping that readers today will be more open to the experimental, surrealist nature of the work than they were at the time of its initial publication. Also, it does seem that new Neruda is having a bit of a “moment,” as Copper Canyon has recently published two books of never-before translated Neruda as well: Book of Twilight, Neruda’s first book of poetry, translated by William O’Daly and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, a collection of “lost” poems,” translated by Forrest Gander. Together with venture of the infinite man, readers now have access to three books of Neruda’s work that were previously unavailable in English.

SE: Can you tell us about your first experiences reading Neruda and if you have previously translated any of his poetry?

JP: I first read Neruda many years ago in high school when I was studying Spanish and then came across more of his work in college and graduate school literature courses. His love poems and odes are often used in language and college literature classes because they are considered so accessible, which is funny, given that my first book-length translation of a Neruda text is this one —venture of the infinite man— which is considered perhaps his least accessible text. I have translated several other Neruda poems recently, for Mark Eisner’s forthcoming Neruda biography, but venture of the infinite man is my first foray into a book-length Neruda translation. It has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and also rewarding experiences I’ve had as a translator. It is a great honor to get to translate one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and most especially to get to be the first to offer an English translation of this particular work.

SE: In his introduction to this work, Mark Eisner notes that “any attempt to analyze precisely what takes place in the poem will be complicated by the fact that . . . it is likely impossible to understand everything on a purely rational level.” I wonder if the stream of conscious and surrealist qualities of this poem led you to approach this book differently than you might approach other translations you’ve done.

JP: As the translator, when I first began working on venture of the infinite man, I had a few panicked moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Setting aside the issue of the translatability of poetry in general, there was the more personally pressing issue of the translatability of this poem in particular. With its dreamlike, stream of consciousness style, its seemingly disparate and, at times, bizarre combinations of words and images, and with no capital letters or punctuation to guide me, I found myself in what felt like a free fall through another person’s subconscious process. Like I was trying to decipher and ascribe meaning to somebody else’s infinitely personal and exquisitely detailed dream. But the more I worked with the fifteen cantos that, together, make up venture of the infinite man, the more it became clear to me that the work absolutely does have an internal narrative, a cohesiveness, and it’s own logic, but it’s one that must be felt through rather than reasoned with, much like a dream or an intuition, or love. This meant that, at times, I had to sort of half close my eyes and allow words and images and meaning to float to the surface. But at other times it also meant having to be more literal in my translation than I otherwise might have been, because I had to constantly resist the temptation to normalize the text, to try to make it seem more logical, more readily intelligible. I knew that I needed to allow it to be as strange in English as it is in Spanish, even at the risk of disorienting my reader, because the strangeness is an essential part of the work’s aesthetic.

At the onset of this project, Mark, Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights and I had made the decision to respect the original 1926 edition inasmuch as possible, including its lack of punctuation and capi­tal letters, and the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (but didn’t mark, so we’re left guessing which things are actual errata and which are just part of the strange, and at times, agrammatical nature of the text). So, in addition to preserving the dream-like ambiguity of the work’s overall aesthetic, I also had to wrestle with myself to not correct what I felt sure must be those errata, to resist an impulse to “tidy it up” a bit to make it easier and more palatable for the reader. Because ease and palatability are not the point of venture of the infinite man. Its aim is something different, something at once tremendously personal to Neruda and yet also somehow universal. In my translation have I been “faithful” in each word, and each line to what Neruda meant? We have no way of knowing. What I hope is that I have been faithful to how he meant the poem to feel. I like to think that Neruda would have enjoyed watching my creative process and I hope he would be happy with the result—his poem, but also a new poem.

SE: Can you delve into a few of the particular aspects of this text that have made it such a difficult translation, and any particular translation questions that you had to resolve for yourself?

JP: In addition to the larger issues I mentioned above with respect to deciphering and adequately rendering the meaning of the original text in my translation, there were countless more “nuts and bolts” issues that vexed me throughout the translation process. As I have mentioned, Neruda discarded all punctuation in the Spanish original. This meant that I tried, whenever possible, to avoid using punctuation in the English translation as well, which was a particular challenge when it came to using (or not using) apostrophes in contractions or to indicate possession (while common in English, apostrophes don’t exist in Spanish). So, where in another translation, I might have translated a line like “el corazón del mundo se repliega y se estira” as “the world’s heart retracts and stretches,” I chose instead to translate it as “the heart of the world retracts and stretches” so as to avoid the possessive apostrophe.

Another challenge is that Neruda’s “infinite man” refers to himself throughout the poem in the first, second and third person—often switching mid-canto, or even mid-line, from one to the other. He also frequently addresses both the night and an unnamed woman in the second person, and, to complicate matters further, he often personifies the woman as “the night,” making it difficult, at times, to know whom he’s addressing when he uses the subject pronoun “tú” (you)—it could be the “infinite man” addressing himself in the second person, or the woman or the night, or the woman as the night. Usually, there are clues that help us to know to whom that “you” refers, such as gendered adjectival endings, but in this work, these sorts of clues are rarely straightforward as, frequently, an adjective in one line could either be describing the noun that precedes it or a noun that appears in the next line (the flexibility of Spanish syntax makes this possible and the lack of punctuation throughout the work makes it especially challenging for the translator to determine which adjective goes with which noun). Adding to the muddle is the presence of the many errata that Neruda decided to leave in the poem, making it difficult to trust an adjectival ending in the first place. At one point, for example, he writes: “al lado de mi fotografía como la palabra está enfermo” (“beside my photograph like the word ailing”). The problem here is that the adjective “enfermo” (ill) is in the masculine, whereas the two nouns it might describe (“fotografía” (photograph) and “palabra” (word)) are both feminine. So, what does “enfermo” describe? Is this one of the errata and it should actually be “enferma”? If so, does it describe “fotografía” or “palabra”? If not, to what or to whom is it referring? In cases like these when it was impossible to know the answer, I worked hard to come up with a solution that maintained the same level of ambiguity as in the Spanish; hence, I chose “ailing” in English, because it leaves it just as uncertain who or what is ailing in the English as it is in the Spanish.

A similar problem arises with the use of the possessive pronouns “su” and “sus” (his/her/their). At one point, for instance, Neruda writes: “era cuando la noche bailaba entre sus redes” (“that was when the night danced among its nets”). I chose to translate “sus redes” as “its nets,” (because I imagined the night’s nets to be the constellations and I liked the image of the night dancing among the stars), but it could just as easily have been “his nets,” because elsewhere in the poem the narrator refers to “my nets” (when referring to himself in the first person) and “his nets” (when referring to himself in the third person). These sorts of small, but crucial decisions came up over and over as I was translating this work, and I agonized over them. Ultimately though, they were gifts of a sort, because they forced me to listen very carefully to the cantos and to think very deeply about each word, each choice.

SE: I’m curious about the decision to publish the English and Spanish versions separately in this edition, instead of the en face / side-by-side presentation that is more typical of bilingual works published in the U.S. Can you tell us a little about why the decision was made to publish it this way?

JP: This was actually an issue we debated about at some length. As you say, the most usual way of presenting bilingual editions of poetry in the U.S. is en face, that is, with the poem in the original language on one page and the translation on the opposite, or facing, page. This allows the bilingual reader to move easily back and forth between the original and the translation, while also affording the English-only reader at least a sense of the original. Initially, this is how City Lights wanted to present venture of the infinite man as well. However, Mark and I both felt strongly that, in this particular case, an en face presentation would actually do a disservice to the work. As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes our book special is that we have gone to some length to replicate the original 1926 edition of the book, respecting page and line breaks as well as the spacing and location of the text of each canto on the page, which also means preserving the blank spaces that Neruda consciously left within the poems. Several of the cantos, for example, begin in the lower part of the left-hand page, with just a few lines at the bottom and a great deal of blank space above, and then continue in the upper part of the right-hand page, sometimes (depending on the length of the canto) with considerable blank space beneath. The opposing pages are bound together by their layout, meant to be seen in juxtaposition to one another, the open spaces perhaps serving to enhance the geography of the poetic dreamscape. So, if we had presented the English and Spanish en face, the reader would miss out completely on the way the lines and the blank spaces and the cantos actually fit together, how Neruda intended his work to look on the page, to feel, to be read.

Also, personally, I sometimes find the en face presentation distracting, like I flit back and forth between the original and the translation rather than immersing myself in the flow of the work, in either language. Because venture of the infinite man has such a dreamlike, stream of consciousness style and because the fifteen cantos are so clearly linked by an internal narrative and, as such, are meant to be read together rather than as individual poems, I really felt that I wanted the reader to experience the flow of the work as a whole (whether reading it in Spanish or in my English translation) without the constant interruption of one language into the other that happens with the en face presentation. I am so happy that the editors at City Lights ultimately agreed to the idea of presenting the entire work first in English and then in Spanish, sequentially, rather than breaking the work up by presenting each page side by side. We did, however, include two pages at the very end of the book with the first lines of each canto paired together in English and Spanish to aid the reader who might be interested in going back and comparing the original and the translation.

7 Questions for Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Recently I’ve been engrossed by the new translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a spectacular book of poetry that’s perhaps better experienced than described. If you want an attempt at a description, read my recent review with The Believer, which I’ll quote here.

The ecstatic, euphoric, helter-skelter, and self-contradictory movement that currently animates technological humanity at its most optimistic much resembles the churn found in Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s multi-award-winning book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. It is a deceptively calm-looking work of brief poems whose lines feel more like energetic prose sentences than the recondite lyricism generally associated with “experimental poetry.” Yet Olsen makes from these modest implements a work of great compression, precision, ingenuity, force, and provocation—most of all, a work where definitions, bodies, meanings, images, and personalities are ever flowing into each other, striving toward a state of complete universality.

In order to find out a little more about this difficult (and very successful) feat of translation and the book that inspired it, I corresponded with Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who translated it from Danish to English. In addition to the translator of this book, Katrine is the editor of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University, a 2017 poetry judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and a judge for the 2017 National Translation Award.

Scott Esposito: In your translator’s note you mention that “when offered to translate this 214-page collection—Olsen’s first book in English translation—I was both excited and terrified.” What is Olsen’s (or this book’s) reputation in Denmark that would elicit these feelings, and how did it come about that you became the translator of this book?

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Eight years ago, at a café in the Danish city Aarhus, I heard Ursula’s poetry for the first time. A good friend of mine had already attended several of Ursula’s readings, and it was understood that I had no choice but to accompany her to yet another one. The night we went to see Ursula, she was visibly pregnant and had an oracle-like appearance: wild-haired yet elegant, with a gaze that demanded the undivided attention of her audience. She read from her fifth collection of poetry, Havet er en scene (The Sea Is a Stage), which later earned her a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, the biggest literary award of the Nordic countries.

It was the most captivating performance of poetry I had ever witnessed. Olsen’s tone of voice switched effortlessly between cuddly and fuming as she inhabited the many speakers of her unusually rhythmical poems. What intrigued me the most, however, was Olsen’s use of wordplay. Almost every line contained a pun, an invented word, a Danish cultural reference, or a twisted idiom. In other words: a true minefield for a literary translator. Ursula has largely been deemed untranslatable for these very reasons.

So yes, when Ida Bencke at Broken Dimanche Press contacted me about translating Third-Millennium Heart, I was at once excited and terrified. Excited because this particular collection of poetry is considered a major work in Danish literature; terrified because of the puns, the invented words, the many references to Danish idioms and songs, as well as Norse mythology, the Bible, philosophy, and science. I found, however, that the most difficult part of translating Ursula’s poetry has to do with her use of voice. As I wrote in the translator’s note you’re referring to, the speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. I had to pick about ten poems from completely different parts, or should I say temperaments, of the collection, and try to find a sort of middle course in the tone. I went through at least fifteen drafts of those ten initial poems before I found a voice I was satisfied with.

I don’t know why Ida and Ursula decided to reach out to me about translating the book. A small amount of my translations had been published online, and I had had a bit of contact with Ursula via my function as editor-at-large at Asymptote, but I had never done a book-length translation before. Ursula and I recently half-joked about how some cosmic intervention must have brought us together. Apparently, when I heard her read eight years ago, Ursula was working on Third-Millennium Heart, inspired by her pregnancy.

SE: These poems are supported by a number of evocative neologisms that you’ve created to match what I assume are similar neologisms in the Danish. I really like them all, in particular the one “namedrunk,” which to me beautifully gets at this situation of having words for everything yet not being able to communicate effectively about so many crises of our age. Can you tell us about how you arrived at “namedrunk” and what it means for you?

KØJ: Oh man. I could write a twenty-page paper based on this question alone. I guess this also ties into the characterization of Ursula’s work and Third-Millennium Heart in particular: the layers of meaning are infinite.

Namedrunk is an example of one of the many near-words that Ursula likes to invent. The original word, navndrukken, doesn’t really mean anything, but it implies a few things, which opens up to multiple interpretations: that someone is drunk on names, or someone is possibly getting a euphoric power-trip out of naming things (victor), or someone is possibly drowning in the naming of all things (victim), to name a few options. I could also have translated the word as “namedrunken,” but I thought drunken was leaning a bit toward the victim narrative, whereas drunk to me sounded more ambiguous, potentially powerful. I also considered the fact that namedrunk usually appears in Third-Millennium Heart next to the word “nameless,” as its opposite. So I figured namedrunk would have to sound forceful in contrast to the anonymity of nameless. There’s generally a lot at stake in this collection in terms of who gets a name and who doesn’t, and who gets to name or unname things and humans. This operates on the very heartbreaking level of abortion, a child that is named yet never lives to be called by that name, and the naming of blood as RED in order to suppress certain memories of the body (the “distant interior”), but also on a societal level where Mother Market names every thing, names the rules of capitalism (which is ironically called “the feminine’s final victory”), and finally the nomenclature operates on a more universal/cosmic level where all vessels are connected, all genders are one, and everything is named everything.

SE: Let’s talk a little more about Olsen for a second. Could you tell us a little more about how her pregnancy inspired this work? And I’m curious, given how much meaning is packed into this poem and how finely you had to calibrate these words, what is Olsen’s English like, and to what extent did you work with her on fine-tuning the translation?

KØJ: Ursula wrote Third-Millennium Heart during her pregnancy and in the first couple of years after her son was born. The book is considered her most corporeal work in terms of her poetic voice–a voice, which, before Third-Millennium Heart, was more otherworldly, very much outside of the body. To Ursula, pregnancy and giving birth made her hyper-aware of the brutality and complexity of the body as well as the civilization in which the new body arrives. The entire book is built around this notion of things being inside and outside one another.

Despite the fact that Ursula’s English is good, she’s been extremely hands-off about the translation–and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s this running translator joke that goes “a good author is a dead author,” because many living writers don’t like to see their work changed too much in translation. However, I found that Ursula was constantly excited about, and even encouraging of, the changes I made to her poetry in order to make the wordplay and weirdness more apparent in English. It was a stimulating and liberating translation process. When Ursula and I performed together at a Danish poetry festival this summer, she told the audience that she didn’t even consider her own version of Third-Millennium Heart the original work, but rather a translation of an idea that was much bigger than her. According to Ursula, she’s simply the first translator of the work, and I’m the second.

SE: One of the key things about translation is its power to rejuvenate a language with new phrasings and coinages. The list is of course endless, to take just one example: the phrase “the unbearable x of y,” which Sean Cotter has documented came into the English language following Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What words or phrases might you hope that Third Millennium Heart gives to the English language?

KØJ: Earlier this year, Ursula received the Danish Arts Foundation’s Award of Distinction with this statement from the committee: “Few poets, if any, have renewed Danish poetry in the 21st century the way Ursula Andkjær Olsen has done it.” In my translator’s note for the book, I write that Ursula is a poets’ poet and a critics’ darling in Denmark, which means that her fan base mainly consists of other writers and literary scholars who see how genre-bending she truly is. This is to say: I don’t think anyone is expecting or even hoping for Third-Millennium Heart to coin any phrases the same way a novel could. What I can hope for, however, is that Third-Millennium Heart will inspire some English-language poets and writers the way it’s inspired Danish writers, and that teachers of international literature will want to share and discuss it with their students.

SE: As I was reading your responses and looking deeper into the poem, I was getting a Deleuze/Guattari Thousand Plateaus vibe. Not just in terms of the rhizomatic movement of the poem itself but also in terms of the feel of the language. Is this something you’re familiar with?

KØJ: Ursula did read Mille plateaux, although she can’t remember whether she read it before or after writing Third-Millennium Heart—but the part about a breast without beginning or end in the book is very Deleuze. In general, though, Ursula references philosophy and social theory a lot. One of her first writing catalysts was (the also French) Lyotard. Aside from him, Third-Millennium Heart invokes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, Leibniz, Canetti, and—perhaps more than anyone—Marcel Mauss, who wrote the foundation for social theories of reciprocity and gift exchange.

SE: This book-length poem is broken up into several sections (or maybe you could call them “chapters”) with individual titles. I noticed that and the end of each of these sections is a poem that deconstructs a binary; for instance, “Luxury Is Culture and Nature,” or “Life Is Chaos and Order.” And, of course, this practice continues until the end of the work, which concludes with the heading “ALL AND NO VESSELS ARE CONNECTED” but leaves it (I presume?) to the reader to fill in the space below. I’m curious how you, as the translator—that is, as somebody who looks so closely at the exact meaning of words and who is sensitive to all of the webs of implication, sound, cultural construction, relationships, etc that flow through a word—felt about this work that was on the one hand so evocative and precise with language but also on the other hand so open-ended and flexible as to what particular words could mean.

KØJ: In the early stages of translating the book, I thought I had to somehow untangle these spiderwebs of meaning, afraid that readers and reviewers would otherwise accuse my translation of being awkward. English is my second language—I came to America from Denmark just six years ago—so I worried that someone would crack down on my intentional weirdness in translation and assume it was unintentional due to my background. Fortunately, when I started sharing these translations with some of my most trusted friends in poetry, they all told me how much they loved Ursula’s stranger moments. So I decided to preserve the ambiguous syntax, for instance, which is one of my favorite elements in Third-Millennium Heart: the fact that any reading of a line can be disproved with an equally well-documented interpretation of the exact opposite statement.

The sections or chapters that you mention are actually poetic suites. They kind of have their own ecosystems, but they all relate to one another. Everything relates to everything. The entire book is a poetic network, which is very Deleuze, actually, but also—first and foremost—very Bach and classical music in general, which Ursula is particularly inspired by.

SE: To you, what precisely is a “third-millennium heart”?

KØJ: I think the Third-Millennium Heart is, first and foremost, a network. The book is an organ—a heart—and it has this network-like structure which connects every suite, line, and word. Ursula once talked to me about the “six degrees of separation”-idea—the theory that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries—and I think she’s getting at something in that vein when she writes that “all and no vessels are connected.” As if we have these exohearts, like exoplanets, that, while orbiting their own star, are still part of a network containing 3,693 planets in 2,768 systems. And that, to me, is both terrifying and comforting.

Six Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Insane by Rainald Goetz

The mental asylum is of course one of the major institutions explored by modern and postmodern literature, though I can’t say I’ve seen it done quite like Rainald Goetz does it in his debut novel Insane, originally published in German in 1983 and recently released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and the book is composed chiefly of brief (3 pages or less) pieces of stream of conscious narration or largely unattributed dialogue, hopping around among mental patients and their doctors. There is a definite punk feel to the text, elements of poststructuralism, bits of Thomas Bernhard. It is a very compelling exploration of the institution of the asylum and of the question of madness and modernity in general.

To find out more about this book and its author (who, indeed, is punk, see the video below (although maybe not if you’re squeamish)), I corresponded with its translator. Nate is a familiar person to readers of this blog and The Quarterly Conversation, who have seen interviews with him previously, as well as his excellent critical writings on world lit. What can I say other than that he has great taste, I’m finding Insane to be an excellent novel and translation, that his answers to my questions are illuminating and fascinating, and that I hope to see more Goetz appear in English before long. Below you’ll find the full Q&A.

Scott Esposito: This is Goetz’s debut novel, released over 30 years ago in 1983. It won a prize, and since then he has steadily racked up leading German prizes. Why has Goetz not established more of a reputation in English, and what do you think he offers us now that we can read him?

Adrian Nathan West: To begin with, it remains a stimulating piece of writing, funny, horrifying, and shocking by turns. It is also the cornerstone of an unusual body of work that I think should be viewed as of a piece: an attempt to realize the aesthetic principles of pop art, its collapsing of the distinctions between high and low art, its ambiguous relationship with artistic intention, through writings that approximate fiction, theater, or poetry without ever entirely submitting to the demands of genre. It also offers a portrait of a time when the passional nihilism of punk was beginning to crumble against the structures it had striven to oppose, when the hope that inspired various youth movements had gone adrift, when the idealism of ’68, as expressed here through anti-psychiatry, through the Black Panthers, and so on, had entered into terminal decline, so that the energies it once channeled would re-emerge in terrorism and in the mediatization of politics—two phenomena Goetz examines in-depth in later works.

SE: Reading through Goetz’s Wikipedia page, I found this anecdote, which, unfortunately, is sourced to a page on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize website that no longer exists: “During a televised literary tournament in 1983, Goetz slit his own forehead with a razor blade and let the blood run down his face until he finished reading.” What can you tell us about this?

ANW: I recently spoke to a couple of authors who had participated in the Bachmann Prizes and they said it was sheer torture. You read in front of a panel of critics, and then you have to sit there in silence while they pick you apart. In one way, I think Goetz wanted to turn the tables. The piece he read, Subito, elements of which would make it into Insane, takes the prize ceremony as a theme: one of the judges falls asleep during the reading, another scratches his genitals under the table, a character announces: “That must be absolute shit, Klagenfurt, and if it is shit, then logically, you’ve got to go, all the way down into the shit.” Then again, the corporeality of the writer is important in Goetz. “The writer’s body must be capable of representing what he writes,” he says; “you cannot retreat into the safety of writing, in the position of observer.” Over and over there’s a stress in his work on being in the midst of things, on calling into question the possibility of critical distance. Finally, it was self-promotion: he knew it would make a splash, it did, and even after thirty-four years, it remains one of the most infamous episodes in German literary history.

Note: this video is graphic, if you don’t like blood and bodily incisions you may not want to watch.

SE: If you watch the video of Goetz during this infamous reading at the Bachmann Prize, there’s a definite punk vibe to him. He’s wearing a suit, but on his feet are athletic shoes, he’s got what looks to be a studded leather bracelet on, his hair is long and bleached blonde, and he just bobs and fidgets uncontrollably while he reads. What was the milieu that he came out of, and what kind of a presence has he been on the German scene in the years since Insane was released?

ANW: No one’s yet written a comprehensive biography, but the facts run something like this: born in 1953 in Munich, his mother was a photographer, his father a doctor. As a teenager, he spent a year in Flint, Michigan. He studied medicine and history, and briefly practiced psychiatry in a Munich hospital. He was involved in the punk scene in Munich in the late seventies and early eighties; the “subway action” he writes about before the F.S.K. concert actually took place, and you can read about it in contemporary sources. Even the bracelet you mention he writes about in Insane: he knees a punk who’s slashed his bicycle tires in the balls and says: “To celebrate my triumph, the next day I brought myself a big white studded leather band for my left wrist; looks supercool.” Even before Insane, he had published feuilleton-style pieces and reviews; there’s a good one from 1981 on Thomas Bernhard’s Frost that you can still find online. Since Insane came out, he’s been a continuous presence on the German cultural scene, with passionate admirers and detractors. He’s collaborated with DJs and artists—his sketches for Tannhäuser with Albert Oehlen are in the MOMA’s permanent collection—he has done a photograph book, CDs, an internet diary for Vanity Fair, and so on.

SE: Insane is regarded as the book that “made Goetz famous.” Why? What drew you into translating it?

ANW: Think of albums like Raw Power or The Velvet Underground and Nico, or more recently something like Ready to Die. For Germans of a certain generation, Insane is a classic in that sense. Goetz is a writer with very long antennae, and though there is a lot of shock and crassness and nose-tweaking in his writing, he’s thought long about the allurements and frustrations of youth culture, consumerism, drugs, and art. In the third section of the novel, any pretense to straight narrative falls apart and this protean figure emerges who is sometimes Raspe, sometimes Goetz the character, sometimes Goetz the author, and you have a series of skits, some of which mock writers like Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll, some of which vindicate pop culture, some of which are calculated to offend. It says something about Goetz’s acumen that Siegfried Unseld, one of the great editors of the twentieth century, tried to get him to cut that section, and Goetz refused, because it is precisely that part, with its refusal to accept any label, to brook any commitment, that so many of his readers have found inspiring.

The translation came by chance, in a way. When my first Josef Winkler translation was going to press, I was in Berlin and visited the Suhrkamp offices, and Petra Hardt, who was director of foreign rights, asked Nora Mercurio, who has since taken over for her, to bring me copies of Goetz’s books. What drew me into them was his respect for the autonomy of the phenomena he addresses, and his feeling that each must be examined on its own terms. It’s the opposite of what we see in so much American fiction, where with an MFA and a feeling of inspiration you can make these broad-brush statements about the Zeitgeist, and if you’ve got the right agent and publisher, people will take you seriously. The great Swiss writer Hermann Burger says something to the effect that if he opens a book and sees no specialized vocabulary, he can confidently close it, he knows it isn’t true—this doesn’t mean a novel has to read like a scientific treatise, but the fact remains that every sphere of life, whether it’s tending bar, dealing drugs, or managing political campaigns, has its own linguistic world, and writers who overlook that are really just talking about themselves. Goetz, who has one foot in the tradition of Weber and Niklas Luhmann, has more respect than most for what you might call, in sociological terms, the individuation of social spheres.

I have to say a word about the publisher here, too. Insane was not easy work, and it is not something I would have done on spec. I was translating my sample when the ARCs of Fitzcarraldo’s first two books were coming out. Just seeing the breadth of interests covered by Zone and Memory Theatre, I thought, this could be the one. I happened to meet Jacques for a coffee in early 2015 and we talked the book over; it didn’t hurt that Goetz won the Büchner prize in July of that year. An incalculable advantage with Fitzcarraldo is that Jacques can read a lot of the books in French; for a translator, that’s significant, because you don’t have to worry you’re overselling, and it gives you the sense that the book is a project in common rather than your own quixotic fixation destined to drive some unsuspecting publisher into insolvency.

SE: What were some of the things that made Insane such a difficult translation? What is some of the specialized vocabulary Goetz employs?

ANW: The obvious things: there’s a lot of slang, much of it specific to Munich in the eighties. There’s a great deal of technical psychiatric and anatomical vocabulary; again, much of the former is dated—the biochemical approach to mental disturbances, which is the prevailing approach at the hospital where the protagonist, Raspe, works, was in its infancy when Goetz was writing. You want all that vocabulary to carry the stamp of its time, but it shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the reader. There were lots of references that had to be tracked down: in one section, he talks about a film, Blutjunge Masseusen, which you might translate as something like fledgling masseusses; the English title was Swedish Massage Parlor, it’s an exploitation film by Erwin Dietrich, who was a kind of Swiss Russ Meyer. Toward the end, he says something about “Hamburgs schöne Aussichten”; this could be the beautiful views in Hamburg, but it’s actually the name of a café. I did a lot of googling and a lot of bothering native speakers (I’d love to thank Flowerville, Uwe Schütte, Marcel Inhoff, and Sven Meyer for their help). Finally, I don’t like to break up an author’s sentences if it’s not necessary—even if it’s English, something of the style of the original ought to be perceptible through the veil—and many sections, for example, those that discuss Karl Held, the brilliant social critic and leader of the Marxist Group, are extraordinarily knotty.

SE: I have a feeling that Insane is going to prove popular, at least among that sliver of the public who knows how interesting and important translated literature is. Were a publisher to take on more Goetz, where is the next logical place to go?

ANW: We’ve talked that over. A likely next candidate is Rave. Goetz was deep in the electronic music scene in the 1990s with people like DJ Westbam and Sven Väth who are still active today. It’s a lighter book than Insane, it shows an important aspect of Goetz’s work that I think is often overlooked: the question of optimism, of how an optimistic comportment may be maintained amid horror and decadence. I am also a fan of his most recent novel, Johann Holtrop, which is based on the rise and fall of German media mogul Thomas Middelhoff, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2014—after the release of the Panama and Paradise papers, it’s hard to imagine a more germane theme. Then there’s Kontrolliert, about the German Autumn and the Red Army Faction. Our news is consumed with terrorism and the generic reaction is bafflement and commonplaces like “they hate us because we’re free”; we’ve forgotten how widespread terrorism was in Europe in the seventies, and the extent to which intelligent people considered it a reasonable response to political oppression.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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