The Fragmented Brain of a Writer, or why I need a personal assistant

I don’t think I’ve met any writerly type whose brain wasn’t being pulled in several directions at once. It comes with the territory. As someone who has chosen to taken this insane path in life, I constantly find myself working on multiple projects and due dates at once. I don’t have a 9 to 5, so I am more or less responsible for making my days structured.

As of late, my brain feels broken. I do freelance work and had three articles due in the same week recently (as well as the going back and forth with the editors for each piece). For the past two years, I have been working on a novel and besides the actual writing of the book, it requires me to do research.  For the month of December, I was tied down with an annoying cough that finally was remedy by a trip to the doctor and a course of anti-biotics.

And the real kicker came this past week.

Right before I left for a week-long vacation in the Hudson Valley, I received an email saying that the 15 January due date of a translation I’ve been working on has been moved up a week to 9 January. I had lucked out in regards to receiving the email before I left, giving me enough time to grab my work, but I had to scramble and work on something I had planned to take the week off from especially since it’s holiday season. I had no intention of even taking the slightest glance at a German-English dictionary, allowing myself to veg and work on the occasional bit of the novel project (and squeezing in some much needed daytime television viewing).

Alas, my plans were slightly altered leaving me with a broken brain.

I try to keep myself organized with a calendar on my phone, virtual sticky-notes of lists on my computer desktop and other such tried and true methods. But then I started to think back to two of my years in graduate school…

I worked as a research assistant to a historian who was writing a new book. The research was interesting and the job itself did not take much of my time. I really only had one big project a semester and the rest of my time was relegated to picking up and dropping off library books and to the occasional annoyance of looking through databases for specific articles. I always wondered: “Couldn’t he do this himself instead of waiting for me to get around to it?” Of course, he wasn’t paying my wages–the university was–so it didn’t much matter to him.

I look back on this moment with a different opinion now: What a great idea! I should have an assistant also! But I suppose my wish will have to wait for the day when I’m no longer a poor and unimportant writer. Perhaps, I can even call myself an author and command my assistant to trek to the library during a freakish snowstorm in October to retrieve a most important book for me. Until then, however, I’ll just have to pull my snow boots on, one foot at a time, and bury my face deeper and deeper into my scarf as I walk through a Nor’easter before finally reaching the heated stacks of the library.

Now that I have finished complaining, I have decided to let my mind rest for the remainder of the year (maybe even go see a movie!) and resume the fragmentary life of a writer of no importance on 1 January. Fingers crossed that my brain won’t explode before I submit my translation to the powers that be.


Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

courtesy of NPR

With the subtitle, Translation and the Meaning of Everything, this book felt like just that. I found David Bellos’s new book about translation an incredibly fascinating read not only as a newbie to literary translation but also as an etymological nerd. Any lover of words and languages would enjoy this book.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? was easily accessible for even the layman.  This book is so well-thought out and information is presented about translations and words and languages that I had not even thought of before (think: UN interpreters, etc.). On a basic level, after finishing Bellos’s book, I feel more confident in departing from the word-to-word translation that the German writer of the story I’m translating wants and make it more fluid, natural, and well, literary. A bad translation is verbatim is what I’ve heard from a couple of professional translators working in all different languages. I mean, I’m the native English speaker; I know when the prose sounds stilted and awkward in English! If you feel in the mood to jump through some syntactical hoops, just take a gander at some German sentence structure.

Chapter 23 of the book (“The Adventure of Automated Language-Translation Machines”) reminded me of one of the first posts I wrote for this blog: One Brief Defense of Literary Translation. The verdict is yes to the necessity of literary translators.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about Bellos’s book was the little anecdotes throughout about translating some of George Perec’s works. Perec wrote with constraints and was a member of Oulipo.  I can’t even imagine undertaking such a task. I’ve only read one thing by Perec, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris but after reading Bellos’s book and because of the recent death of the great writer and translator, Gilbert Adair,  I feel motivated to finally pick up A Void. The original title of the book is La Disparition  and is written in its entirety without the letter e. Adair took up the task and produced an English translation without the letter e as well.

But now I’m starting to get sidetracked. What I’m trying to get at is read this book! It was a real page turner. For more info, check out this author interview at NPR’s website.

Creating Characters

Let me be more specific–creating character names. In an earlier post, Contemplating Scrivener-software which I had only recently discovered-I wrote about my find. So far it seems like Scrivener and I could work out (albeit, I’m still only halfway through the tutorial). In part of the aforementioned post, I listed name generator as one of Scrivener’s features. To each his own, but making up character names has always been a chore for me. I am very finicky and quite often over think the whole situation. On the particular project I am working on now, many of the characters are Germans or of German extraction. So of course they need over the top yet authentic names! I contemplate: should the names mean something, should they foreshadow the plot? Get it together! Be like Kafka; he was an expert at character names.

I was curious to try the name generator feature of Scrivener even though I have yet to come across it in the tutorial. You are able to put various restrictions on your generated list but I just put in female | both First and Last name of German origin | 10 names. There are other options like whether the name should start or end with a certain letter, but I kept it simple. Here’s my generated list:

Rillie Eberhard
Etta Schwarzauer
Idetta Schola
Didrika Regensperger
Sente Wüthrich
Amelia Saloman
Engelbertina Trostdorff
Adelina Köbner
Halifrid Rosemann
Idaia Halinburg

Fantastic, right!? However, I know many others find pleasure in creating names the old fashion way. Any tricks of the trade?

Also, below I have listed some related websites (not specific to name creation but they lean more towards creating characters in general).

An Evening at Goethe Institut with Milo Rau & John Wray

Apparently Goethe Institut-NYC, has had an interesting series that they didn’t advertise. It is called Articulate and part of its mission is to introduce “new tendencies in contemporary German literature.” Because they don’t adequately advertise their series, this talk was an intimate affair (read: handful of attendees).

The guest of honor was Milo Rau. Author and series host, John Wray, spoke about how Rau has his hand in many different mediums–fiction, journalism, theatre, film, etc. What the talk really focused on were these two interesting film pieces. To label them as historical reenactments would be doing them a disservice. Die Reenactment was used in place of a better term. The conversation was conducted in both English and German with Wray asking his questions in English while Rau answered in German (he claimed his English was no good but it was perfectly fine). At the beginning, Rau discussed what his distinction was between historical reenactments (i.e., Civil War) and die Reenactments. It really came down to the artistic merit and purpose of his productions.

The conversation became quite interesting during the middle when they began to speak about the International Institute of Political Murder (website is in German). We watched a six minute film clip from Rau’s film called, Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus (The Last Days of Ceausescus). Part of Rau’s process was to collect transcripts and video footage surrounding the trial in 1989. He staged it in a theatre with an audience (which included the general who had arrested Ceausescus) and filmed the stage production. It was intermingled with shots of the audience. Rau also processed his footage to appear like the washed out appearance of the original 1989 footage. After the panel, Rau and Wray chatted with the small audience. I asked Rau how long this piece took to put together and he replied that it was a year and a half. Below is the trailer from Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus. The subtitles are in German but the images are both haunting and beautiful that anyone can take something away from it.

A Sunny Afternoon in Translation

Last weekend, I had to reschedule a meeting with the German writer  whom I’m translating (I was a bit under the weather and couldn’t keep my eyes open). This put me really behind with the amount of translating I wanted done before I spoke with her. [Just as a brief catch up, besides being a writer and book reviewer, I also work on literary translations from German to English. I’m a novice at this, so translating is sort of a slow process for me at times and like most writers, I obsess over every little sentence.]

It was a lovely day in both New York and Germany, and once we got all of the kinks out of Skype, it was wonderful to see and speak with her again (I met her in Germany at the beginning of October).  I had a few questions for her. For example, in her text she had created her own word. For those who are unfamiliar with the language, German is notorious for its extremely long words; they are 1) able to make up their own words and 2) these made up words are just a bunch of words strung together. So to say the least, for a translator, this can pose a problem. I understand what she is saying with her words, but in English we don’t just make up phrases that equal a single word. So I made notes and we thought of ideas for these strange German nuances.

On the flip-side, she is working on a German translation of a short story of mine (a collection is being published in Spring 2012–more info to come).  Certain “products” are mentioned throughout and are important to the narrative. It was so interesting to have a twenty minute conversation about Ajax, non-dairy creamer, and Oh Henry! chocolate bars.

Besides the actual words and discussing the differences in language, I always get a great pleasure about our translation of different cultural points and our individual approaches to translation.

Distractions : German Hangman

Earlier this afternoon, I had a Skype meeting with the lovely woman whom I am translating from German to English (publication forthcoming in Spring 2012). I will post more about that interesting translation experience soon but in the mean time, here are some writerly distractions inspired by my German translation meeting today.


One Brief Defense of Literary Translation

After a really interesting discussion in the comments section of the post, An Evening of Translation, I remembered a short note I recently read about the translation of Kafka’s The Judgement (Das Urteil: Ein Geschichte). It can be found in various places on the internet but here is a brief mention of it: The sentence can be translated as: “At that moment an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge.”What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of ‘Verkehr’ is Kafka’s confession to Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of “a violent ejaculation”. Franz Kafka Writing

The last word of the story in its original German is Verkehr. In true Kafka form, he has a chosen a word with multiple meanings leading to its ambiguity. Below is an excerpt from Kafka: a short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005):

So my verdict is: Yes! We need literary translators!

An Evening of Translation

I have come to literary translation recently in my writing career. Even though it is a lot of work and can eat up any free time I have, I find the whole process fascinating and perversely fun. I think I will do a separate post(s) about my views on translations and my personal experience, but for now, I’ll stick to the facts.

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a most enlightening and encouraging panel on literary translation. Besides the panel leader, there were four guests who were either translators, publishers, or both. The four came from American Literary Translators Association, PEN American Center, A Public Space, and Argos Books.

They provided information that I either was not aware of or would not have even thought of. We discussed securing rights, organizations (specifically, ALTA and PEN) that are established to support literary translation and translators, as well as technical aspects of translating. Two things that I found encouraging were: the enthusiasm for young translators and translators who have not been published previously and secondly, it sounded like many people translated from Spanish. As someone who does not translate from Spanish, the pool of potential competitors is much narrower. Michael Moore (PEN), a translator of Italian texts, also spoke about the differences between a good translator and a bad one.

The panel was even more helpful than I could have imagined. Maybe next paycheck, I’ll get a membership to ALTA!