Posts by tag: translation

The Ghost Translator

I picked up from my desk The Order of Things by Michel Foucault to consult a favorite passage, the edition in question being the Vintage Books, 1994 edition. (Original French title: Les mots et les choses, 1966. Literally, Words and Things.) This is a book I have never been very interested in finishing, since I initially abandoned it way back in… college? It was hard going then and it’s not so tough anymore but now I don’t care to read it through.

Quickly locating the marked page, I read it while saying to myself yes yes very true indeed and considered posting an excerpt here. (Another day, perhaps.) I went to see who did the English translation and was quite bewildered to learn that the party responsible for the translation is neither named on the book’s title page, nor on the copyright page, nor the front nor the back cover, nor in the library record for the original 1970 edition, published by Pantheon. Nowhere that I can see.

This is almost unheard of in the contemporary era. I’m sure that with some targeted keyword searching I could ferret out the desired information, but now I’m more interested in this anomaly than learning who did the deed. There are surely some other instances where the translator resides in anonymity, especially in past centuries, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Let me know if you’re aware of any such anomalies, I would be most interested…

A Major Refutation

The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.


Cover art by Sergio Aquindo.

The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.

The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…


It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.

Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.

The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.

Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot

Fly on over to Quebec Reads for a short translation from Julie Mazzieri’s Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot that I did. It’s a bizarre and unsettling book, that’s for sure. Thanks to Peter McCambridge at Quebec Reads for publishing it and to Editions José Corti and the author, Julie Mazzieri, for granting permission to do so.

In the Racket

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It’s been going on two years since I first inveigled myself into the business (sic) of literary translation. This I achieved mainly by cunning and deception: the truth being that, if you want to be a literary translator, you have to present yourself as one, credentials or no. Credentials? The classic conundrum: to be a literary translator you need to have published literary translations; but to publish literary translations — well, to get the permission to do so — you need to be a literary translator, who has published… literary translations. Round and round we go round the mulberry bush. — I was not, however, entirely uncredentialed; I had a university degree in French literature, I had taught French in a high school, I had studied contemporary French literature in graduate school, I had lived in France and achieved fluency, and I had even taken 3 credit hours of a translation course, way back in… 2005? (a disheartening experience, truth be told). But experience?

A little rancor, a little bile now, but without getting too carried away; hmm, let’s say I happen to be a literary translator who wants to do literary translations and publish literary translations. I need to find some texts I want to translate, I need to determine whether a) they are in the public domain (fantastic; but wait, does anyone want or need another translation of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Louise Labé? etc.) or b) under copyright, in which case let’s find out who owns the copyright and ask for rights. Let’s just say things there go swimmingly, permissions are granted with the wave of a wand, to translate! What could be easier? Nothing! I make a rough draft, I correct it, I revise it twice, thrice, then some more and some more and then I go back and second-guess every single choice I’ve made and now let’s say it’s perfect. Merveilleux. Now, to send out this thing I parasited myself onto. At whose august feet shall I depose my monstruous offering? Let’s see, there’s Journal Hoobastank, a leader in publishing literature in translation, one of whose editors once queried me to ask if I would like to review for them a title of my choice “on a trial basis,” after which, if all goes great, I would be eligible to receive US $25 for my second review. (Scratch that, they don’t take open submissions.) OK, my pride is still smarting a little from that underhanded query, I’m not going to submit there and apparently I can’t anyways, who’d a thunk… — but fear not! there are many other great editors eager to read my monstruous thing. Like Granta… or not. Granta has had one of my submissions for about five months without yet even opening the file. OK, Granta is the establishment, they are miles above scrappy, up-and-coming translators and writers like me, I’ll go cold-calling again. But wait! what are my criteria? How am I going to determine whether or not it’s more desirable to publish in Journal Zibbazazza or Hubbahubba Mag? Lists! A spreadsheet! — (Alright, I’m not actually going to reveal my spreadsheet and all the sensitive information it contains.) And I’m running low on vitriol.

Let’s put it this way: I am interested in the tacit (often unspoken) motivations that lead writers and translators to view publication in one journal as more desirable than another. Let me advance some hasty generalizations, my own:

  1. The prestige or desirability of a given publication is socially determined; if I see that a lot of people whose viewpoints and tastes align with my own are saying good things about Rub-da-Dub Journal, I’m going to tentatively look into it, and unless I see anything that clashes with my sense of quality or my own ideas of what a good journal or magazine is, I’m probably going to tentatively agree.
  2. However, if I read an article (or two!) in a journal, and I find said article totally repellent, my interest in having my own work in said journal is probably going to diminish. Equally so, if the author of said stinker of an article/essay/story is the co-editor of Zoobabang Publication for the Avant-Garde Arts, I’m going to make a special note of it so that I don’t forget.
  3. If I discover a relatively new journal or publication that looks promising, I may be more excited to submit there than to one that’s been around and is already part of the so-called establishment. The older, more well-established journals that seem to connote prestige are swamped with unsolicited submissions and they have a slush pile out the door. I might even feel a little antipathy towards them, since they are so loath to pay me any notice.
  4. Publications edited by university students: Could go either way; on the one hand, it’s a little humbling to think about people who are probably much younger and less experienced than I am, both in life and in books, rejecting my offerings; but on the other hand there happen to be some very good publications run by undergrads (or so I’m told — I’m a little on the fence about what I think of, say, Ribbit Ribbit Mag).
  5. Submittable: as I mentioned elsewhere online, I was a little stunned to realize recently how few of my accepted translations have gone through Submittable. That ultrasleek look and rapid loading time just about had me fooled! Well, I’m batting something like 3 for 20 there, which probably isn’t bad if you compared it to other writers’ and translators’ acceptance rates. But the greater part of my accepted translations have been through email submissions. The explanation? publications that can afford to use Submittable are swamped with submissions and said submissions are more likely to get lost in the melee. Other reasons too.
  6. While I’m on the topic of submissions, I would like to say a word of thanks to the publications that have accepted and published my translations in the past year or so: Black Sun Lit (Vestiges), Numéro Cinq Magazine, Gorse Journal, CB Editions (Sonofabook), The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation Series, The Collagist, The White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Ambos, and Contra Mundum Press (Hyperion). AUX ARMES, CITOYENS.
  7. Lastly, if you are a translator or writer, or not, I would invite you to leave a comment about your own criteria for selecting journals to submit to. I am well aware that there are many websites that keep lists of translation journals or places accepting general submissions (Entropy, ALTA, PEN, I believe), but I would be most curious about more personal criteria that govern your decision to submit to Ribbit Ribbit Magazine and its peer publications.


But did we really need another translation of that typographically radical turn-of-the-century experiment in verse? Pourquoi pas, right? For now, check out CRAPSHOOT, Mark Amerika’s “generative remix that mimics the form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1897 poem,” which recently went live at the website of the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art (coded by Will Luers). It’s radical, alright. If you’re an absolute maniac like myself, also obtain a copy of Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Dés (trans. Robin Mackay, from Urbanomic, 2011). Don’t forget to sleep, every now and then.