I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question...

The key issue here is the sense of what cannot be analyzed or explained. A major act of interpretation gets nearer and nearer to the heart of the work, and it never comes too near. The exciting distance of a great interpretation is the failure, the distance, where it is helpless. But its helplessness is dynamic, is itself suggestive, eloquent and articulate. The best acts of reading are acts of incompletion, acts of fragmentary insight, of that which refuses paraphrase, metaphrase; which finally say, “The most interesting in all this I haven't been able to touch on.” But which makes that inability not a humiliating defeat or a piece of mysticism but a kind of joyous invitation to reread.

George Steiner interviewed in the Paris Review.

Details about the Second Annual Young Translators’ Prize (sponsored by Harvill Secker and Foyles) are available online:

The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize was launched in 2010 as part of Harvill Secker’s centenary celebrations. It is an annual prize, which focuses on a different language each year, with the aim of recognising the achievements of young translators at the start of their careers. For the 2011 prize Harvill Secker has teamed up with Foyles, and the prize is kindly supported by Banipal. This year’s chosen language is Arabic, and the prize will centre on the short story ‘Layl Qouti’ by Mansoura Ez Eldin more...

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Reading Paul Taylor's book Žižek and the Media reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld widely ridiculed comment about "known knowns" – and it reminded me that I never thought it was ridiculous! Don't get me wrong, Rumsfeld is a warmonger, and whatever comes out of his mouth should be treated exactly the same way as anything that comes out of the mouth of any politician, that is with extreme prejudice. But, in and of itself, Rumsfeld's "known knowns" address strikes me as perfectly cogent, if not surprisingly illuminating: we know stuff; we know we don't know other stuff; but there is some stuff that is so outside our ken that it cannot be factored into our thinking. The world surprises us. Plans will always be scuppered by the unforeseen – and that, itself, is worth factoring into one's planning.

Žižek, of course, gives it a further spin:

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the 'unknown knowns' - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.

The danger for Žižek isn't the unforeseen, but the seen yet unacknowledged. Our plans suffer self-sabotage because we don't readily recognise how incoherent our selfhood actually is. It seems to me that here is where both Žižek and Rumsfeld have something unexpected to say about the novel.

Rumsfeld warns us against the limits of planning; Zizek that our planning is always already predicated on what shouldn't be unpredictable but is. It strikes me that these suggestions about the limits of knowledge, one from a realist's point of view and one from a psychoanalytical point of view, can be read as warnings to a writer: you don't know what you know, nor what you don't know, nor hardly even who you are, and it is only in the writing that you might find out.

There is going to be a Translating Celan conference on Tuesday 23rd November, at the Goethe-Institut in London. Tickets: £15 (£8 concesssions):

On the 90th anniversary of his birth, award-winning translators discuss the challenges of translating Paul Celan, as well as Celan as translator. The conference also includes an impromptu workshop on one particular poem. The conference is on Tuesday, 23 November 2010, 10am to 2pm at the Goethe-Institut London. Speakers include Jean Boase-Beier, Ian Fairley, Charlotte Ryland and Wieland Hoban.

Paul Celan, Europe's most compelling postwar poet and author of the Todesfuge (Death Fugue), was a German-speaking, East European Jew. His writing exposes and illuminates the effects that Nazi destructiveness left on language. Celan’s father died in a Ukrainian labour camp; his mother was shot. After this, as Hugo Gryn said, Celan was in the position of being a writer in the language both of his mother and of his mother's murderers. Celan was born on 23 November 1920 in Cern?u?i, Romania, he drowned himself in the Seine on 20 April 1970 in Paris.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Ulrich Blumenbach quotes Wittgenstein as saying in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article to describe the challenges and inducements of the six years he spent translating David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Unendlicher Spass) into German — something he did without input from the author, who refused to speak to him.

Last summer, Blumenbach finally reaped the benefits of his efforts when the novel was released in Germany to great critical and commercial success, and he was awarded the Hieronymusring for Exceptional Achievement in Literary Translation, as well as the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Prize for his work (more...)

From Publishing Perspectives.

Just out is a new translation, by Breon Mitchell, of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum -- to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Via the literary saloon, my attention is brought to Scott Esposito'a Q & A with Breon about the re-translation (over at Two Words).

The most powerful works of literature compel us to reread them—and often more than once. The effect they produce is a combination of linguistic artistry and richness of meaning. The Tin Drum treats universal themes (the father-son conflict, youth and art, sexual awakening, guilt and atonement) against the background of one of the most terrible moments of European history. The result is a stunning work of art—shocking and provocative, complex and innovative, richly rewarding more...

This week's two highlighted RSB Books of the Week are The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl by J.N. Mohanty (Yale University Press) described in the publisher blurb as a "deeply insightful book [that] traces the development of Husserl's thought from his earliest investigations in philosophy... to his publication of Ideas in 1913" and On the Death and Life of Languages by Claude Hagege (again, Yale University Press) which "seeks to make clear the magnitude of the cultural loss represented by the crisis of language death" -- the rate of attrition comes in at the loss of 25 languages each year.

The BBC tells me that "some of the oldest words in the English and other Indo-European languages have been identified":

Reading University researchers say "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the oldest in use and could date back thousands of years.

Using a computer model, the team analysed the rate of change of words and say they can predict which are likely to become extinct.

They believe "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" could become obsolete first (more...)

Haha: Apostrophes in street signs have been banned by a council because its staff spend too much time dealing with complaints about grammar.

I should have linked to this earlier, Three Percent's Best Translated Book of 2008: Fiction Finalists:

  • Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago) (Overview)
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) (Overview)
  • Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions) (Overview)
  • Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories) (Overview)
  • The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Overlook) (Overview)
  • Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago) (Overview)
  • Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions) (Overview)
  • Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books) (Overview)
  • Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House) (Overview)
  • The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books) (Overview)

Oxford University Press has announced its Word of the Year. It's crunch!

The Translators Association of the Society of Authors celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion they have compiled a list of the 50 outstanding literary translations from the last 50 years.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style comes in at the top spot, but there is no room for Edith Grossman's Don Quixote.

Via the New Left Review, Walter Benjamin's 1940 Survey of French Literature:

Paris, 23 March 1940

Dear Monsieur Horkheimer,

It is over a year since I sent you my last résumé of French literature. Unfortunately it is not in literary novelties that the past season has proved most fertile. The noxious seed that has sprouted here obscures the blossoming plant of belles-lettres with a sinister foliage. But I shall attempt in any case to make you a florilegium of it. And since the presentation that I offered you before did not displease, I would like to apologize in advance for the ways in which the form of the following remarks may differ (more...)

Great debate over at Languagehat on how best to translate tu and vous:

In Orlanda, by Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman, one of the characters suddenly switches from the formal “vous” to the informal “tu.” This is a crucial moment in the narrative. The speaker is a prissy, bourgeois woman of thirty-five. She is addressing a young man with whom she entertains a somewhat ambiguous relationship. For the Francophone reader, this unwitting switch from “vous” to “tu” signals an important shift in the woman’s feelings. The problem for the translator is how to convey this to the English-speaking reader ...

Nice: separated by a common language -- "Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK." (I can now spell "separate" correctly each time I type it because Mrs Book, a teacher, told me t'other day that "there is a rat in separate" -- genius!)

Tonight, on BBC Radio 3, a new series called Lingua Franca: "Michael Rosen embarks on the long and winding linguistic road through the roots of European language."

Last night, I read Charles Bernstein foreword to Prepositions + : The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (Wesleyan University Press -- Prepositions is part of The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky).

Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) was one of the Objectivist poets, a group of second-generation, mainly American Modernists (Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker and the British poet Basil Bunting) who emerged in the 1930s heavily influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (the only poet to be published as both an Objectivist and an Imagist poet). Bernstein's essay is only very short, but it’s a useful piece for situating Zukofsky. In it he quotes Zukofsky's famous statement that:

... a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words a and the: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe in this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words."

Zukofsky's provocation made me think, again, about language, poetry and truth: issues far too big to say much of worth about here and now. But the care with which a good poet tends to language, even to the tiniest words, is instructive. Between the definite article and the indefinite article there is an entire universe; infinity lies between a and the.

First shown in January and February 2006, Balderdash and Piffle was a major BBC TV series, shown in the UK, which helped to update the Oxford English Dictionary. To accompany a follow-up programme, shown yesterday, you can freely use OED Online for the next week.

Raymond Queneau's story from Exercises de style translated into Jamaican patois by Ria Bacon (via Ramage):

Now hear dis, mek Ah tell oonu, wa day de bus dem full up wid so much people dem. An ah see dere one dem jump up good fuh nutten boasie maaga jancro wid him winjy neck fit fe choke, ah tell yah bwai! ‘im a fix a ribbon an ‘is ‘at fenky-fenky come een like ‘im Selassie ‘isself, yaah! Smady cut yai an’ ‘im vex an’ bawl some faasty nying’i-nying’i. It oht fi mek one kass-kass, ah’m tellin’ yah. Cho! ‘im nah tallowah doh an’ ‘im jus’ kiss ‘im teet’ an’ a go cotch far dereso quick quick.

Kiss mi nek, nah tree hower layta me see ‘im gen laba-laba wid ‘im breddah oo seh ‘im muss put ‘im button likkle more higher depan ‘im coat so, seen?

Jack Mandora