October 21, 2011

Translation in the literary journal: an interview with Adrienne Celt of Hayden’s Ferry Review

Before joining the editorial staff here at The Missouri Review, I spent three years in Tempe, AZ, as an editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. Like The Missouri Review, Hayden’s Ferry (HFR) is committed to publishing work by both established and emerging writers. It features sections of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, stunning artwork and photography—and, more recently, an international section that houses literary works in translation.

I spent my last year on staff at HFR as co-editor of the international section. At the time, the section—launched in 2004 by two Arizona State graduated students–had only been around for two years. And part of the challenge of editing the section was its newness: the fact that there was little precedent at HFR for what we were doing and that, as my co-editor and I made editorial decisions, we were constantly having to articulate for ourselves what our vision was for our section and how the works we were considering for publication might or might not fit into that vision.

I’ve been thinking about this again recently, about the role works in translation can have in a literary journal–what dimension they add, how they fit into a journal’s vision. I decided to reconnect with folks at Hayden’s Ferry to see how the International section has evolved since I left in 2008. I spoke with Adrienne Celt, who, along with Eman Hassan, currently edits the international section.

Claire: When I was working at Hayden’s Ferry, I remember that the international editors had to track down and solicit most of our submissions because the section was such a new addition to the journal, and many translators weren’t yet aware of its presence. Is that still the case? Where do the majority of your submissions come from these days?

Adrienne: I’d say we’ve come a long way in terms of submissions – in the last issue I edited (#49, which is in the last stages of being ordered & made into proofs), two out of three pieces I accepted were not solicited. The numbers are still nowhere near what the regular fiction and poetry section editors see – I get maybe 20 submissions throughout the entire reading period. But a lot of those submissions are pretty high-quality. Basically there’s not a lot of middle ground – either a submission is not in a place (in terms of revision, level of English fluency, etc.) where I can really consider it, or it’s good enough that my decision comes down to a matter of taste. When I see a piece with English fluency issues that’s otherwise showing a lot of promise (usually this happens when an author – who probably has decent conversational English skills – submits a translation of their own work) it always hurts my heart a little, because my first inclination is to edit the hell out of it and see if we can make it work. But unfortunately, a lack of time and a conflict of interest (I can’t really be the translator for pieces I’m selecting) makes that impossible.

Of course, I do still put a lot of effort into soliciting pieces – I’d say it makes up at least 50% of my workload. But I think people are starting to get the idea that we’re genuinely interested in translated work, and provide a unique home for it.

C: You mentioned that issue 49 is in its final stages. Could you tell me a little about current or upcoming pieces you’re featuring in the International section? What are you excited about? Is there anything that’s been particularly well-received by your readers of late?

A: I’m still very much in the throes of reading/soliciting submissions for issue #50, but for #49 I’m especially excited about a piece by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. I’ve been a fan of Olga’s ever since reading her novel House of Day, House of Night, and was reminded how much I enjoy her work when I saw her piece in the Best European Fiction 2010 put out by Dalkey Archive Press. I reached out to her translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones (who’s pretty remarkable in her own right – she’s won several international prizes for her work), and was delighted that Antonia managed to fit us into her schedule and prepare a story. Anyone who’s done translation work knows that translating and polishing a story is no small job, so we were quite appreciative. The piece is called “Ariadne auf Naxos” and it’s gorgeous – it was the first thing the editors remarked on when we got together to order the issue.

In terms of public reaction, we’ve heard some great feedback on the novella we published by the Icelandic author Steinar Bragi (translated by Salka Gudmundsdottir), entitled “The Rafflesia Flower.” It was published in two parts, in issues #46 and #47, and is bleakly beautiful – no less than one should expect from Bragi. I can’t take any credit for that publication though – it was solicited by a past International Editor, Mark Armstrong.

C: What special challenges have you faced as an international editor that might be different than the challenges faced by other kinds of editors? Do you find that you approach a work of translation differently when considering it for publication than you would approach a “regular” submission to HFR?

A: I can’t say that my approach differs too much when reading translations vs. Anglophone text (and I do read regular prose submissions as well) – in either case, I’m looking for a story that moves me, an interesting relationship with language, some kind of beautiful hook. Of course, a translated work, by its very nature, has a different resonance with language – its essential relationship with its source language has been disrupted, and only hopefully reproduced in English. So there’s always a layer of strangeness or “otherness” to a translation that comes from the knowledge that it has been wrested from its original form. I don’t think you can help but be aware of that when you’re reading translations, nor should you.

I suppose, also, I’m especially excited to find new voices when I read translated work. English-reading audiences don’t have, by and large, any idea how much work they’re missing out on from the non-Anglophone world, and if I can connect readers to a writer they might not have encountered otherwise, that’s pretty gratifying.

C: Yes, I find that exciting too. Regarding what you refer to as the “otherness” of a translated work, one challenge I remember facing as international editor was knowing how and when to revise my expectations–when to suspend that critical editorial impulse. I found that there were certain tropes that might seem cliché or be otherwise off-putting in a piece by an American writer that wouldn’t necessarily be so in the literature of another culture/language. For instance, we received one submission of a collection of folktales that was beautifully translated but that would have no doubt been criticized in the average writing workshop for certain “overly sentimental” scenes and images. My co-editor and I were fairly divided over the submission. We had to recognize that this particular submission represented a double translation–both of an oral tradition to a written one, as well as the language translation–so the culture it belonged to was quite a bit removed from that of the American literary journal. But we also had to consider what HFR’s readers would respond to. I’m wondering if you’ve had any similar experiences with the work you’ve considered? That is, how do you decide when something you’re reacting to in a work is an issue of cultural difference or of translation or literary merit?

A: The phrase “double translation” is a lovely way to phrase this sentiment. I certainly find that I’ll occasionally need to step outside my expectations as someone raised in the American school of fiction, but I guess I don’t find the mental leap (“translating” my expectations into the needs of the story) are actually all that different from the leap needed to read fiction written in the U.S. that isn’t quite my style. Literature is always playing this tricky game of being deeply personal and inherently communicative – stories want to interact with readers/listeners, but they’re born of the tastes and impulses of their teller.

That said, I do think that some of the “otherness” in a translated piece of writing comes from a sort of subconscious apprehension (on the reader’s part) that this writing is making different assumptions than those you’re used to. And not just in terms of slang or other cultural shorthand, but in terms of a writer’s relationship to language, and how that’s formed in the environment they grew up in. Not to be too much of a theory nerd, but it’s kind of like différance on steroids – différance assumes (in part, to totally bastardize Derrida) that there’s always a gap between a word and the concept or object it signifies. Translators have to deal with that gap, but also the gap between how readers in different cultures intuitively relate to signs and signifiers: for instance, in English writing, there is no sense of gender for everyday objects like tables and chairs, whereas in many languages those are subject to notions of gender (i.e. “table” in English vs. “la table” in French).

So short answer, yes. Sure. But that’s part of what interests me about translation, so I see it as a positive challenge.

C: You mentioned earlier that you find it gratifying to be able to connect readers with writers they might not otherwise encounter. Overall, how do you see the International section fitting into HFR’s creative vision? Why, in your mind, is this section an important addition to the journal? What might readers gain from exposure to international literature?

A: I think the international section helps move HFR into a wider literary community. When you only read or write within a single national cannon, you lose sight of the fact that literature hasn’t just been evolving linearly – what interests American readers and writers isn’t necessarily the dominant preoccupation in France or Japan.

When you sit (intellectually, I mean) for too long within a single framework, it can become stifling – it’s hard to see a way out, hard to know where to go next. Reading literature that comes out of a different framework than your own can be like opening a door. Suddenly you realize that everything is much bigger than you thought, and stranger.

C: What do you like best about your job as international editor?

A: Working with translations keeps a very specific part of my brain active. It reminds me of the basic pleasure of reading, actually: deep engagement between human beings and words. Translations remind me that no story or poem is ever really finished – one version of it may be complete, but it will inevitably change in the eyes of each reader, each interpreter. Translations are a very literal manifestation of that discourse between readers and writers.

I also really enjoy the balance between working with established and emerging authors. Finding a new writer or translator is exciting, because I can relate to them and want to see them succeed, and they tend to be very interested and open to suggestions about how to give their work a final shape. That can result in a very satisfying author/editor relationship (from my perspective, anyway), where we can toss ideas back and forth, and work together to find the most balanced English articulation of a foreign concept.

C: Are there other journals you particularly admire that currently publish literary translation?

A: Oh, this is tricky, because a lot of journals do some translation here and there, with no consistent focus on it – but that doesn’t mean they don’t put out good work. As a result, I skim pretty widely in terms of journals, and also spend some time talking to small presses which focus on translation. So let me just say: I’m probably leaving very worthy publications out by accident, and in no way claim to be the final arbiter of quality!

Just off the top of my head, Cerise Press puts out a lovely journal with a serious focus on translated work, and I think Subtropics out of University of Florida has printed some pretty interesting translations, as has A Public Space. APS is also helping put out an English version of the Japanese journal Monkey Business – New Voices from Japan, which I’ve been turned on to but haven’t gotten to look at yet. That’s pretty exciting, I think.

In terms of presses I like and sometimes talk to: Dalkey Archives Press, Twisted Spoon, Clockroot Books, and Salonica World Lit, just to name a few. And like I said, this is not an encompassing list; people should explore what’s out there, because translated writing is a rich field to mine.

 

Adrienne Celt is in her final year in the MFA program at Arizona State University, where she’s also the Editor of International Prose for Hayden’s Ferry Review. She won first place in the 2010 Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout Prize for Fiction, and her novel-in-progress was shortlisted in the 2011 Faulkner Wisdom Competition. Recently she was selected as a finalist in the Esquire/Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. She lives with her husband and dog in Tempe, AZ, where she is adding to and refining a collection of stories, and continuing work on her first novel. You can see her comic art at loveamongthelampreys.com.

About Claire

Claire McQuerry is the Contest Editor for The Missouri Review and a Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Missouri. Her poetry collection, Lacemakers, was recipient of the 2010 Crab Orchard First Book Award.

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