More on Nature Writing

I found another, quite different, book that has added to my writing options, Where the Sea Breaks its Back, by Corey Ford. This is a much older book (first published in 1966), and though the prose has a somewhat dated quality at times, it uses some techniques that I am attracted to. The subtitle, “The Epic Story of a Pioneer Naturalist and the Discovery of Alaska,” gives the basic premise, but I would say this is just where it begins.

Instead, I would call it an ostensible premise, and while it is something like a biography of Georg Steller, who was indeed remarkable and deserving of a biography, this book isn’t really that. Instead, it uses Steller to explore with him and document, partially through his eyes, Bering’s second journey to discover whether Eurasia and North America were linked or not. But even here it is much more about natural history than the history of the voyage itself, though one gets both. The human ordeal is told well, mostly on the basis of Steller’s notes and those of Lieutenant Sven Waxell, who took over command of the party after Bering’s death on the island that bears his name.

The writing is quite effective. It is not a scholarly book, and there are no footnotes to the many quotations. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to get away with quite so little in terms of references.

The remarkable thing is that the book has something of a narrative arc that is different from the story of Bering’s voyage or Steller’s life. Somewhere around page 140 out of a little over 200, the sea otter makes its appearance through Steller’s observations. After that, it never really leaves the book, and Steller almost seems to take a second place to it. In fact I found myself beginning to be more interested in the fate of the sea otter as a species, which was almost completely wiped out over the next 150 years of plunder, than I was in Steller, whose role grows less important as he departs the scene and becomes weaker in spirit, until he finally fades out in a blur of alcohol.

But the otter endures, and the book’s final pages are devoted to it, a strong move on the part of the author, it seems to me, moving from the naturalist to nature.

Publishing Kin

It looks like Archipelago Books will publish Kin in the first half of 2021. In the meantime, we are working together on some first serial publication excerpts. I have taken three and contacted two editors I know at lit mags to start, while the folks at Archipelago are working on a handful of others. This ability to excerpt is probably a major publishing virtue of the book, and indeed Miljenko Jergović published many short segments in a variety of venues in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, leading up to the book’s full publication in Croatia in 2013.

If those two editors pass on the excerpts I’ve got, I’ll go to two others, and so on. Depending on how well Jill Schoolman and her people do with theirs, I might take more to send out. All this really ought to happen in the first half of this year since the better lit mags generally are a good year out in terms of the publication schedule (though you can sometimes squeeze something in later if they have space and are interested).

Revisiting excerpts also allows me to revise again, which can of course go on forever until you’re just removing and replacing commas. When I’m at that point, I’ll be very happy.

Happy 2020!

Breathing and Stretching

I turned in the manuscript. I TURNED IN THE MANUSCRIPT!!! It clocked in at a bit over 400,000 words. I’m not sure what that will mean in terms of pages. Probably more than a thousand. This will depend on the editing process. But the main part is done.

I got a haircut on Saturday, and Ally asked me if I had done anything to celebrate. The question was natural but also a little unexpected. Well, no, nothing at all. Nor do I think any single thing–a dinner? a weekend vacation?–would adequately mark having completed the work. Turning it in feels good of course, but it doesn’t feel like the end at all. There’s editing and promotion work to do, the latter being the sort of thing that really never ends, and there are so many projects that have been simmering while this one was on the front burner. I am anxious to get back to them.

First up is breathing and stretching, which feels right at the moment. But while I breathe and stretch, I’m also thinking about the next two presentations I’ll be doing, in about a month at the annual AWP conference in Tampa, Florida. One panel is on word play in translation, and I’ll likely use examples from the just completed thing I worked on, for which examples are ready. The other is on the theme of translation and exile, and there I’m considering a brief exploration of the sort of self-othering, internal travel, ethno-linguistic exile from one’s “own” language that takes place when one translates, especially when one translates a lot, many short works, fewer long ones, or one big monster of a book. I suspect this is something that happens to people who learn to love a foreign culture and begin to feel estranged from their “own.” Non-translators must also know it, so figuring out what is specific to translation in this scenario will be a question to answer.

Playing with words is part of this, too, of course, so the two topics are likely to be connected in my presentations. I plan to practice them here in a few preparatory posts, so anyone who ends up being there may end up knowing what I will say before I actually say it. The AWP format does not really allow much room for expansion, and while the entire conference is focused on writing and writers, actually writing one’s comments and thoughts down and reading them to the audience is discouraged. Maybe this is ironic.

First, however, I’ll be trying to catch up on the many things I’ve let myself get behind on. And stretching and breathing of course. I invite you to join me.

A Truth about Dogs

From the last long story in Kin, “Sarajevo Dogs”:

The basic sensation of a dog, canine melancholy, the foundation of canine lyricism, is a feeling of extended abandonment. It follows the dog from the moment of birth, is repeated in an array of variations through life, and not once has a single dog ever escaped it. Even those rare ones that are loved and protected are left with it at the entrance to the supermarket when we go inside, or experience it when we go have a shower or wash our hands, when we go out to open the door for guests or shut ourselves up on our offices. This sense of abandonment is equally as horrible as that experienced by dogs on the street. Perhaps it’s even worse since it repeats every day. Dogs don’t experience time as people do. To dogs time lasts endlessly long, the canine second is a human minute, the human hour an entire canine day, a day a year, a year centuries…. Ten human years is a thousand canine ones. A dog’s life is cut through with a thousand-year sense of abandonment. In a thousand human years an entire civilization can be created, mature, and die, with its music, art, poetry, myths and folk traditions, novels and a whole history of film, and with each civilization, the consolation of people before death is born, lasts for a time, and disappears. After a thousand years, everything normally disappears. A thousand years of canine abandonment, which every happy dog lives through, is a whole human civilization.

Words, Speed, Time, Money

At the October 2017 ALTA conference in Minneapolis, Tim Parks began his keynote address by providing a counterpoint to Lydia Davis’s 19 pleasures of translating theme of the night before by enumerating 19 torments of translating. But when he got to number 19, he was on a roll so he just kept going. It was delivered as a litany with plenty of comic effect. It got a lot of laughs, too, and buried in the middle was one that I had not really realized was true of my Kin, and it went, “This page has no dialog on it!” Exactly. Most of these thousand pages do not have any dialog, and when there is dialogue, it is often buried inside a paragraph, rather than set off as its own blocked and quoted text. There are almost no quotations marks in the book in fact, an effect I have tried to maintain.

So as I worked my way through, I noticed that each page felt rather long. I tended to measure my progress by the page, especially in longer segments of the book that did not have breaks (which is about half of the total), so there were times when I could not figure out why the work was progressing so slowly. Some of that was just my being very careful, on the one hand, and not being familiar with the vocabulary of whatever the domain was that my author was using as a structuring principle, on the other, bees, for instance, or book binding, or dog breeds. But it was also this straight prose narration, which can be quite hypnotic in its consistency at times.

So I’m making a note here, at least to myself so that I remember and can pace myself appropriately in the future, with regard to words, speed, and time. I have in mind the number of words on each page (when translated into English), the speed at which I have been working at various moments during the translation of the book, and the time it has taken to complete. Each page of the source appears to become a little over 450 words on average in the English version. This is pretty consistent throughout, so the total is likely to be a book of about 450,000 words. Where there are no breaks, my pace has tended to be about five pages in a day, though I have pushed it up to eight on some days. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I have barely managed half of a single page, but that was largely because I could not divest myself from other responsibilities, not because of the work itself. A better average, for when I had the time to work on it, has been between 2000 and 3200 words per day.

What this would amount to in terms of pay were I making the per-word rate one of my colleagues mentioned she was making the other day, for prose translations from the same language, is something for another post perhaps. To contradict myself slightly from a previous post in this thread, I don’t do this for the money.

Impossible Historical Ideological Neologism Used in Passing

I’m in the revisions stage now, and going back through an earlier section, I found a parenthetical note to myself that says: “no way, samovoz,” and then the page number in the hard copy.

The English passage in question is this:

No one saw him as he was leaving, and no one knew when did so. But he left in time, when it was still possible to take one’s own car to Zagreb and onward, to who knows where.

The time in question is approximately 1944. The “he” in question is a high ranking Home Guard officer from Croatia, stationed in Sarajevo, which means he was watching the political landscape carefully to figure out when he would need to escape, as the Independent State of Croatia began to collapse. The word samovoz is where I’ve got “one’s own car,” which is not much of an attempt, I realize, to convey all the nuance of the Croatian word. The problem is that it was a neologism for car under that particular regime, created probably around 1941, as the Independent State of Croatia itself came into being.

I have toyed with three or four different possible ways of sneaking more of the ideological content in somehow. While it was probably a German car, calling it a “fascist car” seems odd and might create more confusion than it’s worth. Creating some sort of Orwellian neologism in English might be fun, but that too would likely put too much emphasis on what is, in effect, a subtle passing comment by the narrator-author, which serves to situate the text historically. It could also imply a bit of the officer’s own viewpoint through the use of the word he might have used.

This is one I think I may have to let go.

Translation as Job, Vocation, Calling

I was once accused by a translator colleague of bringing down the going rate for translation by doing it when I had another job. This person had no idea what I charged or did not charge for doing the work, and perhaps she was angry about something else, but I remember distinctly that her comment had come after I made a statement in some online forumthis was over a decade ago and I no longer remember what the forum might have beenabout my being able to choose the work I wanted to do and generally take my time in doing it. What she apparently intimated from this was that I was somehow taking the work away from someone else by agreeing to do it for less because I had a steady job as a university professor.

This is rather a sore spot among translators, more so, I think, than among fiction writers or poets, who generally understand that it is not really possible for emerging authors in those genres to make a living on the basis of the writing alone. Even after fiction writers have published a couple of books, unless they magically begin to sell many many copies, which is impossible to predict and also rare, they will almost always still need to keep their teaching job or whatever other job they’ve got to pay the bills. Translators tend to think about this differently, however.

There are actually two parts to this sort of criticism from freelance translators towards those of us who have academic jobs. Translation for us, so the criticism goes, can be part of our academic dossiers, our promotion files, our curricula (plural) vitae. We can engage in it without caring about the money we get paid for it because it is part of this other domain and we’re being compensated on a very different basis, not for the work itself but for having done the work, a bit like the future anterior tense, which skips over the present and time travels to some future moment for accomplishments that have yet to be attained, all without ever leaving the present. “When I will have completed all these things, I will be a successful academic,” and so on.

This sort of imagined reward for translations performed in the academy may or may not be true in all cases. Much depends on the institution and the nature of the dossier, but it is true that in some institutions and for some faculty members, artistic translation can form a part of such a dossier and be counted somehow, whether as scholarly or as creative work, or perhaps as something in between. And so, in our protected and self-serving manner, to go back to the criticism, we are expanding our research profile all while taking work away from those who really need it and are devoted to it. This is the criticism, not always stated in such a bald form, but implied or merely suspected, for the most part politely (translators are nice).

I suspect that this quiet criticism, which has lurked in the back of my mind ever since it was directed so uncharacteristically directly at me many years ago, has tended to make me shy away from projects that might in fact be appealing to and needed by freelance translators. My personal rule has tended to be only to take on work that I thought was unlikely to be translated if I didn’t do it. This has meant, for the most part, non-commissioned projects that I needed to research and then pitch to publishers. And that has meant probably not genre fiction (though I suspect I would enjoy translating some pf those genres), also not popular or well-known authors, and mostly works on the experimental side, unusual somehow, highly literary, sometimes quirky or idiosyncratic. Luckily, I also enjoy such works.

There are big advantages to this way of translating from a scheduling standpoint. For one thing, generally no one is waiting for you to finish besides your own internal critic. And that means that you can spend a lot of time and energy on the project at hand without worrying about the dreaded deadline. You can also only work on projects you find attractive and worthwhile from an aesthetic standpoint or a political or theoretical one. You can also stop working on something if it begins to ring hollow somehow, or if your views about it or about life change. These are enormous freedoms, and I don’t think I ever took them lightly.

My current project has not been like this, of course. It was commissioned. It could have been translated by someone else. It has a deadline (had a deadline, then another, now it has what I hope will be the final onenext month) from a publisher with a strong list and an eye for high quality works. The exception has both proven the rule and reinforced it. I plan to go back to the rule after this, with a clearer sense of the privileges and freedoms I enjoy in approaching translation the way I generally have approached it, without rushing too much, thinking about the work carefully, selecting on the basis of quality and what I suspect I can do well, if not to say what I will have done well afterward.

Let this serve as a new year’s resolution then, and a sincere wish for anyone else who might see the work, the vocation, the calling to translate as the privilege that I do.