The Mark Twain Special (The Bat Segundo Show #552)

This special program devoted to Mark Twain features an interview with editor Benjamin Griffin, who is part of the Mark Twain Project and discusses Twain’s legacy and his work on the three volume Autobiography published by UC Press, a conversation with historian Ben Tarnoff (The Bohemians), and a discussion with filmmaker Adam Nee and actor Kyle Gallner about Band of Robbers, the Nee Brothers’s very loose adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other Twain writings.

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Music used in this program is licensed through Creative Commons and includes the following:

Lost Radio, “Mnemonic Presence”
The Raymon Lazer Trio, “Lola”
Kevin MacLeod, “Dances and Dames”
Sakee Sed, “Mrs. Tennessee”
Adrianna Krikl, “Say Goodbye”

The Bat Segundo Show #552: The Mark Twain Special (Download MP3)

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BEA 2013: The Editor and the Translator

On Friday afternoon, mere minutes after the frazzled feline star of a viral video had been flown in from Morristown, Arizona and dragged against its will onto the Javits floor to receive the kind of superstar adulation that literary geniuses toiling for decades would die for a tiny piece of, three dozen people met in the rank underbelly of a cold corporate convention center to contend with issues of translated literature.

This was the clearest indication I have ever seen of what Chad Post has identified as the “three percent problem” — whereby a mere 3% of all published books in the United States are works in translation. The underattended panel made me hang my head in shame.

I had not known that Grumpy Cat was at BEA, nor did I care to meet the animal or wait in line upon learning of this intelligence. There were more meaningful ways to fritter away two hours of my life. Indeed, I had encountered Open Letter‘s Chad Post on the loud floor just before the panel and personally apologized for not doing enough for translated literature. He then told me about an insane man in Italy and secured my attendance.

There were several translators and foreign language enthusiasts in the crowd, including Michael A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito (both tireless proponents for literature in translation), but the panelists pointed out the paucity of editors in the audience and seized upon this absenteeism to talk freely.

“In the long view,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation for Columbia’s School of the Arts, “we want to find an English language voice for our foreign language author. In the short run, editors want very different things. Editors want books that will read well in English and that sell. The translator wants to represent what the language said.”

Bernofsky pointed to FSG’s Elisabeth Sifton as an editorial paragon. Sifton gave Bernofsky carte blanche to translate Gregor von Rezzori however she wanted. He wasn’t especially edited in German. So he had wanted his English translation to be well edited, even if it meant obliterating whole pages and paragraphs.

I was not as well-versed on translated literature as the assembled crowd, but I was surprised by how liberal the editing process was. Post described going much further on a memoir that had a plodding section set in the 1980s. The ten page section began with the sentence, “I remember nothing good from those years.” Post felt that cutting everything that followed that sentence was an improvement.

Translator Mary Ann Caws pointed out to several fraught experiences she had encountered in her years. She described working on an anthology, where her translation was taken out of her hands and given to someone else who dumbed everything down. She described battles translating André Breton’s most famous poem, “Free Union.” The first two words of the original poem is “Mon amour.” One translation of the poem’s first line reads “My wife whose hair is a brush fire.” Another reads “My woman with her forest-fire hair.” The difference between “My wife” and “My woman” is substantial because of the connotation of the relationship. But Caws pointed out that “there’s a way of doing it without her or she” with phrases like “My dear one has gone into the streets of the city.”

Caws had also suggested publishing several translations around a sonnet to demonstrate the impossibility of a perfect translation. The editor replied, “How will they know which is the right translation?”

Victoria Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for forty years. And she insisted that cutting text has little to do with saleability, but how the book reads. “A book is going to sell if it’s 150 pages shorter,” said Wilson, who was also careful to note that she had published William Gass for twenty years.

“People ascribe motives to the publisher,” continued Wilson. “We’re all just people. I bought the book. I fought for the book.”

This was all constructive chatter, but the panel’s fireworks really started when Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski began speaking with gusto through a translator.

“In my mind,” said an animated Krajewski through his translator, “the editors who work with people who have huge egos really can’t adjust and are narcissistic. These kinds of editors treat their authors as total failures. There are editors, on the other hand, who tend to do work just for the sake of doing it. To justify their presence there.” Krajewski bemoaned editors who didn’t understand his work, including one who was “basically taking out the F words.”

“Some of them tend to be shy and don’t ask that any questions,” said Krajewski of his translators. He pointed to one who couldn’t be bothered to flesh out an abbreviation. “I had the full information. And I do know she knows how to do it. Well, sometimes, it happens that the editor is very detail-oriented.”

One of Krajewski’s books concerned multiculturalism, which turned out to be a problem for the editor and the translator. “It’s not only translating language,” said Krajewski. “It’s translating cultures.”

Bernofsky noted that she had just done a new translation of Jeremias Gottheif’s The Black Spider for NYRB Classics. Because Gottheif’s work was a horror story, the editing was much different from what she had usually experienced.

“The prose is not that amazing,” said Bernofsky. “Edwin Frank did a very heavy edit on some of the prose. He was editing both me and Gottheif. He rearranged the sentences.” Bernofsky signed off on the translation, even though the reviewer comparing the original with the translation will find it inaccurate. But for prose stylists like Robert Walser, Bernofsky said that she would “fight for keeping the complexity of the sentences.”

There was a question concerning changes in publishing over the past 40 years, in which the publishers were blamed for the drop of translated fiction in bookstores. “You can’t just look at the publishers,” noted Wilson. “The chains changed everything in terms of their ordering.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether a corporate behemoth owns a big publisher or not. The fate of translated literature in the States is entirely dependent on what the bookstores order. And while the recent health of independent booksellers has suggested new prospects for translated fiction, without massive orders from chains, it is often difficult for these books to be published.

This reality was simply too much for Chad Post, who began talking fast and angry.

“Every book out there is shitty,” boomed Post into the mike. “Mitch Albom? What the hell? We do not need him.”

There were some faint suggestions that Post was prepared to overturn the table, fire a pistol into the air, and demand the rightful liberation of the book industry.

“Malcolm Fucking Gladwell,” shrieked Post. “I’ve never been quite disturbed by the book business than I have been in the last few days.”

I squinted to see if the veins on Chad Post’s neck had popped out. I waited for Post’s instructions to don the balaclava carefully folded in my left inner pocket. I waited for Post to announce the Occupy Javits movement.

“I would shoot myself if I had to publish most of the books out there.”

With this suicidal statement in full swing, Post’s phone began to ring on stage. Mitch Albom’s people were coming to shut the wild-eyed revolutionary from Rochester down. Post was referred to as “that angry young man” by the next questioner.

To be clear, Post was not all froth and spittle. I could relate very much to his fury. We live in strange times when Amazon Crossing is the number one American publisher for translated fiction. As Post pointed out, it isn’t easy to secure advocates for translated work when the pitch is “Here’s a great book about a woman in Latvia who is depressed.” But perhaps with more passion, we’ll work out the kinks and expand the egregious percentage.

The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #420. He is most recently the author of Uncanny Valley.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling 95% himself, wondering why he recoils at his mirror image.

Author: Lawrence Weschler

Subjects Discussed: Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley,” Zeno’s paradox, the difficulties of animating the face, getting past the uncanny valley in our lifetime, Quidditch matches, the human face as the welter of emotions, Paul Ekman’s Action Units, how humans are attuned to the slightest variation, human and robotic faces, engineers and college experiments, Nicholas of Cusa and his arguments with Aquinas, circles and polygons, the beginnings of the “leap of faith,” narrative, Peter Paul, and Mary’s “The Great Mandala,” “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” Avatar, the human brain secreting stories, the Capgras delusion theory, the Oakes twins, reconfiguring perspective onto a convex plane, Stephen Wiltshire, Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars, tracing the world purely through the eyes, the difficulties in confining thoughts to footnotes, Kepler and how to observe comets, Cinerama, curved projection and straight perception, David Hockney, the illusory nature of “straight” streets, architects who cannot compensate for bowing, natural bowed perception and digital rectilinear recreation, Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, teaching a class with 50% poets and 50% reporters, analog vs. digital editing, the Apocalypse Now Valkyrie sequence reconfigured in Jarhead, crazy remarks uttered by John Milius, whether or not war films inevitably transform into war pornography, Anthony Swofford, authentic war movies, Samuel Fuller, contemplating the idea of a film capable of killing an audience through its authenticity, confusing moths for motes within the twin lights of the 9/11 WTC memorial, Decasia, trusting visual associations when our ocular proof is so unreliable, Everything That Rises, apophenia, confronting paradoxical forms of art, Freud’s unheimlich, a 1982 anti-nuclear protest at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, responding to David Ulin’s knee-jerk hostility to anarchism, Occupy Wall Street, whether protest is nullified if the activists aren’t aware of the symbolism, Bill Zimmerman, comparisons between the Occupy movement and Polish resistance in the 1960s, politics as theater, “No Drama” Obama, Tahrir Square, the generational conditions of protest, comparisons between Ugandan corruption and American corruption, the lack of an “enoughness” concept, and the acquisition of wealth and the uncanny valley.


Correspondent: Let’s start off with the basis of this book. The uncanny valley. Masahiro Mori’s notion where at a certain point in the evolution of robots — maybe 90 or 95% — suddenly humans tend to recoil if the look or the feel is just not human. The opening essay in this book, which appeared in Wired nearly a decade ago, juxtaposes this issue against Zeno’s paradox, where you’re forever trying to travel the half distance, then the half distance after that, and you’ll never actually reach the end point. You declare “Close Enough for All Practical Purposes” to be the engineer’s ultimate response — this essay, of course, being one in regard to animating the face. But I’m wondering if there’s any legitimate way to reconcile Mori and Zeno. And also, based off of recent developments, is getting past the uncanny valley possible in our lifetimes on the robotics front? What of this? Let’s start off here.

Weschler: (laughs) Well, lots of stuff there. The piece is indeed a piece that I was doing about digital animation of the face. The first of the many pieces in the book. But it sets up a whole set of themes in the book, as you say. At the time, ten years ago, the digital animators had gotten to the point where they could do a hand. They could do a body. They could do a war. They could do a Quidditch match. They could do all kinds of things. But they seem to have hit this wall with the face. And they were getting to the point where it’s interesting — because the face on the one hand is possibly the welter of emotion and things that happen on the face may be the most complicated thing we know. Much the way that it is emphatically the case that the human brain is the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in the world. The human face may be the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in nature in the sense of — it’s a thing where 42 muscles, many of them not attaching on their own, but to other muscles with incredible subtlety and so forth.

Correspondent: Ekman and his Action Units. Unfortunately reduced by Gladwell.

Weschler: Right. Well, there you go. But the point is that, on the one hand, the face itself is complicated. On the other hand, and parallel to that, humans are incredibly attuned to the slightest variation. You could look across the street and see what somebody is looking at. Think about that for a second. Basically, what you’re doing is you’re zoning in on where the whites of the eyes are compared to the pupils and how much squint is happening. There’s tons of stuff going on in the brow. But that allows you to triangulate from — if you think about how tiny a part of your visual field that is, you get all that information. So we are incredibly attuned to that! We’re not particularly attuned to bellies or to kneecaps. But faces we’re attuned to. So indeed you get this problem that it’s both the most complicated thing and we have the most complicated response to it. And the question that was beginning to arise with these people was whether it was ever going to be possible at all to do it. And they indeed talked about the uncanny valley. Now interestingly, Mashairo Mori’s idea was about robots. And he would say that if you got 95%, great. That was fantastic. But 96%, suddenly it was revolting. It was a kind of revulsion. And one way of thinking about that is that, at 95%, it’s a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. And 96%, it’s a human being with something that’s wrong. You can’t figure out what. Now the interesting thing about robots. Forget the face for a second. But robots — the valley you go into, where it’s revolting, maybe only goes up to about 98% and then it comes out of it again. The whole thing is that you do get out of the uncanny valley. The questions with faces is whether you ever get out of the uncanny valley. Whether if you made it 99.999999% perfect, it would still be icky. In fact, we’d get ickier and ickier. In some vague way that we can’t quite identify.

Correspondent: And even if you could, perhaps there would be a new uncanny valley with which to mimic.

Weschler: Well, and that brings us to Zeno’s paradox. The paradox of: you can get halfway there and halfway to halfway. The whole point was that if you shoot an arrow, and the arrow gets halfway to its target, and gets halfway to its target again, before it gets halfway to its target in that remaining distance, therefore it could never get to its target.

Correspondent: There’s also a Cal Poly variation of that. Where they have these students gradually move half the distance, half the distance, with a very attractive woman at the other end.

Weschler: And that’a a variation on the old joke about the Oxford dons. They’re talking with each other. One of them’s an engineer. The other’s a mathematician. I think you referred to that in your opening question. And they’re talking about Zeno’s paradox. And at that moment, a beautiful woman walks by. And the mathematician despairs of ever being able to attain her, but the engineer knows that he can get Close Enough for All Practical Purposes.

The Bat Segundo Show #420: Lawrence Weschler (Download MP3)

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