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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Reading the World

Posted by Maximum Fun on 24th April 2011

Vital stats:
Format: interviews with literary translators, mostly about poetry
Episode duration: 25-50m
Frequency: monthly

Hot tip for aspiring interview podcasters: literary translators make solid guests. They have ideas. They have observations. They show up on time. They, as you’d hope, communicate quite well… using language and stuff. I’d actually hoped those sterling communicative abilities would’ve rubbed off on me, since I’ve interviewed a few of ’em on my own show, but I guess they haven’t. Still, talking to translators on the radio has given me a jones to talk to more of them. Until I do that, I’ve found a little something to tide me over: Reading the World [iTunes], a podcast featuring nothing but literary translator interviews. One of the episodes even offers a conversation with Suzanne Jill Levine, translator of such writing luminaries as Manuel Puig, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Jorge Luis Borges, so it’s got good taste, too. Hey, I also interviewed Suzanne Jill Levine — so it’s got great taste!

I should probably fear for my soon-to-be-eaten lunch, given that, as a production of the University of Rochester’s translation-dedicated Three Percent — so named for the percentage of translations among all books published in the U.S. — Reading the World commands the power of specialization over my decidedly unlaserlike generalization. But I breathe easier knowing two things: first, that this podcast only releases interviews at a leisurely monthly pace, and second, that it tends to focus on more translators and translations of poetry than of novels. Perhaps that makes the show less immediately accessible — talking about poetry already puts up a bit of a wall, let alone talking about foreign poetry — but such a degree of specificity interests me.

The Japanese Germanophone author Yoko Tawada once remarked that “the interesting lies in the in-between.” I’ve come not only to believe that notion but to try, with occasional success, to convince friends of it as well. Content can make a thing interesting, sure, and form can make it much more so, but I find myself much more jazzed by the thing’s position on the countless overlaid maps of geography, culture, nationality, language, etc. At their best, these positions fall into liminal, between-the-cracks, neither-here-nor-there spaces belonging to no single country or tradition. Sure, maybe I like novels, movies, albums, and podcasts. Maybe I don’t read much poetry. But if a piece of poetry emerges from the in-between, I’m down.

Or I’ll get on board if a translator of poetry emerges from the in-between, for that matter. If someone has, like Bill Johnston, come from the U.K. to make a career out of recreating Polish poetry in American English, you’re pretty much guaranteed that you want to hear that person talk about their life and career in a way that you aren’t guaranteed by, say, the systems analyst you meet at your roommate’s office party. Same goes for someone like Forrest Gander, who, assuming I heard this right, translates from Spanish and Japanese. Here we have people who, safe to assume, made some strong choices along the way.

Regrettably, Reading the World doesn’t quite escape its origins as the product of an academic institution. Despite the excitement of these translators’ literary adventures in Mexico, Eastern Europe, Argentina, the Middle East, Russia, and beyond, these conversations still produce tooth-grinding phrases like “this work deals with the historical and its problematics” and “translation is an inherently political act” with dispiriting frequency. As contradictory as it seems, in this show I hear both the bumper-bowling academization that drains literature — poetry, novels, stories, what have you — of some vital essence and the aggressive engagement with the wider world that could counterbalance it.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]