Thursday, January 02, 2014

The New Year + Great Early News About Hilst Translation

It feels both strange and exciting to note here that we are now in 2014; this past year seemed to unfold glacially, with ample amounts of time cocooning everything (MLA, AWP, the spring semester, writing this summer, etc.). Perhaps time felt this way because I was still in the midst of transitioning to new--or returning to prior--life rhythms and, like everyone around me, also  recovering from the psychic effects of the fall 2012 hurricane. Time at various points seemed to stand still. This past fall, however, accelerated much more quickly than last year (again, perhaps because we avoided nature's violent, watery intermission), and December in particular raced by so fast it was over before I knew it.

The year brought good news, some of which I'll talk about soon, but very sad news closer to home as well. Three friends, all under 50, passed away: Donald Agarrat, whom I memorialized several months ago, and more recently, my former colleague José Estéban Múñoz, with whom I served on the board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) in the late 1990s, and Gerard Fergerson, for many years one of my dearest friends, and among the smartest and most dynamic people I have ever known in life, who incidentally, among the many wonderful things he did for me, introduced me to CLAGS. I will post tributes to both of them very soon. Another person that I knew from the time I was in my early 20s, the activist, writer, editor, journalist, and bookstore founder, John Mitzel, also passed away after a long illness in Boston.

As of the second week of December, classes concluded, and as of January 1, I relinquish my post as Acting Chair of AAAS to my predecessor. The fall undergraduate English course, "Introduction to Literary Studies," provoked my usual pangs of apprehension when I learned I'd be teaching it, but it turned out quite well in the end, if my students' coursework, responses and comments are any indication. As far as the Acting Chair stint went, it turned out to be a lot more work than I'd envisioned (though isn't that always the case?), but it was also an excellent introduction to the university system's innards, and I had the opportunity to tackle a few important projects, which I resolved successfully, as well as initiate some exciting events for this upcoming semester.

Somehow or other I completed not just the translation but multiple revisions of the Hilda Hilst novel, Letters from a Seducer (Cartas de um sedutor), jointly published by Nightboat Books and A Bolha Editora, and it has not only been repeatedly proofed, blurbed (by Dodie Bellamy, Samuel R. Delany, and Ronaldo V. Wilson!), but has gone to the printer and should be out very soon (the schedule date is now February 4, 2014). (You can even order it from distributor University Presses of New England/UPNEBarnes & Noble or that other behemoth site that I will pass on naming. You know which one I mean.) I have said publicly that it probably was a bit insane to have agreed to translate that book, which even in the Portuguese is no two-step, during a period when I had two sizable classes and lots of other pending duties, but looking back I'm glad I did, and am even happier about the resulting text.

I do wonder how readers who have been enthusiastic about the first Hilst novel that appeared in English, The Obscene Madame D (A obscena senhora D), beautifully and collaboratively translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo, will respond to this one, especially given that it is far more sexually transgressive and explicit, the language thornier--there are moments in the text that look wrong even in Portuguese, à la Clarice Lispector, though they are exactly what Hilst intended--and the structure of the novel far more experimental.

In fact, in Letters from a Seducer Hilst produces an anti-novel . I was trying to think of a musical comparison, and instantly and interestingly enough, at least to me, the post-modern work of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke came immediately to mind; he is best known for combining an conventional styles (for example, preexisting or pastiche versions of baroque compositions) with one or more very different, disparate styles, holding them all together via a compelling associative vision, profound craft and wit, and, to a huge degree, the willingness of the listener to accept, if not fully grasp, what he's up to and go along. That's what Hilst does in and with this novel, though in it she attempts and achieves many other things as well. In fact the book feels like it could serve as a source text for a course I taught years at at Northwestern on contemporary aesthetics and what I called "danger zones"; in it she treats in various ways aspects of conventional aesthetic theory, as well as those touchier areas I specifically focused on, including pornography, sentimentality, horror, conceptualism, and, to a lesser degree, the posthuman.

Although the translation is not yet on bookshelves it has received some early praise in draft form. Translator, editor, program director, and scholar Daniel Medin wrote the following in the December 17, 2013 edition of Three Percent: a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester:

Occasionally, a work of brilliance will make it possible for a virtuosic translator to outdo, line for line, a great deal of what’s recently appeared in her target language. In 2012, the English of George Szirtes for Satantango’s Hungarian struck me as superior to the sentences of most novels written that year in English. The same’s true of John Keene’s version of Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst. Scheduled to appear this month, it was perhaps my most unforgettable reading experience of 2013. I’m terribly eager to read more Hilst now—and impatient to get my hands on Keene’sAnnotations too.

Medin and Scott Esposito also discuss the translation in their podcast at Two Lines Press. A snippet of the translation will appear in an upcoming edition (No. 10, I believe) of the The White Review.

I am looking forward to discussing and possibly reading from it at an upcoming panel on translation that will take place in Chicago, on January 10th, during the Modern Language Association's annual convention. The event, New Writing in Translation, a roundtable, will take place at 7:30 PM in the Sharp Building of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 37 S. Wabash Avenue. As the organizer describes it, "this roundtable event will consist in a self-guided survey of recent translation projects by leading contemporaries in the field. Rather than being led by generalizable themes in the theory and practice of translation, each participant will read a brief excerpt from a recent translation project and then discuss the vicissitudes of working on it." The Writing (MFAW) Program of SAIC will host the event, and other participants include Daniel Borzutzky, Jen Scappettone, Anna Deeny, and Joshua Clover.

Lastly, I will be reading with Vincent Czyz at Word-Jersey City on January 15, 2014. I believe we both will read a little poetry and I'll be reading from the Hilst as well, so if you are in Jersey City, please join us.

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