NYRB Celebrating 20 Years

I’m always thrilled to talk about the amazing and enduring Natalia Ginzburg. Hope to see you there!

NYRB Ginzubrg event

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Beautiful reading and fascinating discussion of Primo Levi’s story “Quaestio De Centauris” by Jhumpa Lahiri on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

I highly recommend this reading and discussion of Primo Levi’s Quaestio De Centauris, which I translated a few years ago as part of the story collection Natural Histories included in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann GoldsteinWhen you translate something you spend so much time with the text, and on such an initmate level, you can sometimes come to feel that you know the author and the story as deeply as possible. Jhumpa’s reading of this story and her subsequent comments showed me that, of course, with any great work of literature there is always so much more to learn, so much deeper you can go. I am a devotee of podcasts, and I love The New Yorker Fiction Podcast for the wonderful juxtapositions that occur in the pairings of one writer to another writer’s work. This one is especially illuminating and an overall transforming experience.

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Jhumpa Lahiri joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “Quaestio De Centauris,” by Primo Levi, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee, which appeared in a 2015 issue of the magazine. Lahiri is the author of four books of fiction, including the story collection “Interpreter of Maladies,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and the novel “The Lowland.” She is the editor of “The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories,” which was published in September.

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CURZIO MALAPARTE: THE CRUELTY OF LITERATURE BOOK LAUNCH with Franco Baldasso at The Center for Italian Modern Art in Soho


24 SEPTEMBER 2019 / 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM

CIMA is thrilled to host a book launch and conversation with the author of “Curzio Malaparte: The cruelty of Literature,” Franco Baldasso and NYRB translator and novelist Jenny McPhee

Curzio Malaparte is today at the center of an international debate reappraising his work as a key figure of European modernity, rediscovering his books, cinema and theater. The scandals of Malaparte’s biography overshadowed the exceptional versatility of an author famous to architects worldwide for his arresting Casa Malaparte in Capri as well as for his heretic accounts of WWII in bestsellers such as Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949). Beginning with his controversial contribution to fascism and his outstanding reports from the war fronts, Baldasso’s book interprets the cruelty of Malaparte’s literature as a critical response to the collapse of European civilization and the failure of post-WWI revolutionary ideals that ended up fueling totalitarian regimes. In conversation with novelist Jenny McPhee, who translated Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball for NYRB Classics, Baldasso will further discuss the unexplored visual impact of Malaparte’s work: not only his house in Capri created with Adalberto De Libera, but also the rarely screened movie The Forbidden Christ (1951) and his photos as a war correspondent from Ethiopia to Ukraine.

Curzio Malaparte, la letteratura crudele (Carocci, 2019) is the first study on the Italian author to concentrate on his artistic production beyond the scandals of his life as a public intellectual. The book interprets Malaparte’s crucial period 1937-1951 in the context of the tragic failure of totalitarian regimes to establish new political religions. The clash between modern technology and old humanist worldviews takes central stage in Malaparte’s unique testimony of the downfall of European civilization, from literature to cinema.

Franco Baldasso is Assistant Professor and Director of the Italian Program at Bard College, NY. He is the 2019 Rome Prize in Modern Italian Studies from the American Academy in Rome. His main research interests are 20th century literature, art and intellectual history, the complex relations between Fascism and Modernism, and the idea of the Mediterranean in modern aesthetics. He authored a book on Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Il cerchio di gesso. Primo Levi narratore e testimone (Bologna 2007) and the volume Curzio Malaparte, la letteratura crudele. KaputtLa pelle e la caduta della civiltà europea (Carocci, 2019). He is currently revising a new manuscript titled: “Against Redemption: Literary Dissent during the Transition from Fascism to Democracy in Italy.”

Jenny McPhee is the Director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU’s School of Professional Studies where she is a Clinical Assistant Professor teaching in the MS in Translation. She is the author of the novels The Center of Things, No Ordinary Matter, and A Man of No Moon, and she co-authored Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits. Her translations from the Italian include books by the authors Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, Curzio Malaparte, Anna Maria Ortese, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II. She recently taught literary translation at Princeton University as a visiting lecturer.

This event is free and open to the public.


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“Sometimes Women Do Like Women”: On Nancy K. Miller’s “My Brilliant Friends”

My brilliant friends

MY BEST FRIEND died not long ago after a 15-month illness that was relentless in its attack on her body and soul. She and I first met in the eighth grade, and we were soon closer than sisters or lovers. Indeed, we were often mistaken for the former and accused of the latter. We came to feel that we were part of the same self — a complicated, compromising, and often painful stance — but also one of enormous comfort and unparalleled exhilaration. Where did I begin and she end? We never quite knew, but we also recognized our separateness and, as such, could do for each other what the renowned feminist literary scholar and writer Nancy K. Miller, in her powerful new memoir My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism, claims the greatest friendships do: we saw in the other what we could not see in ourselves. My best friend and I also learned, over the years, what Miller calls “[t]he hardest friendship lesson to learn: There will always be something about your friend that remains unknowable, including her deepest feelings about you.” It is one thing to share that unknowable element — part of the pain and exhilaration — but it is another to be left alone with it.

Writing about my dead best friend and our relationship is something I still cannot fully bring myself to do, so it was with great admiration, and trepidation, that I approached Miller’s new book, a portrait of her three closest friends — Carolyn Heilbrun, the feminist scholar, mystery writer, and first woman professor to receive tenure in the Columbia University English Department; Naomi Schor, the feminist literary critic and theorist; and Diane Middlebrook, the biographer and poetry scholar — all of whom are now dead.

There is a long literary tradition of writing about friends, both dead and alive, both in fiction and fact. This tradition, like most traditions, is male dominated. Male friendships, now often referred to as “bromances,” permeate our classic and popular culture and have been written about extensively since Aristotle. Representations of genuine female friendships, however, have been scarce. “Sometimes women do like women,” Virginia Woolf facetiously points out in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …

Despite Jane Austen and seminal works on female friendship by Woolf, Vera Brittain, Simone de Beauvoir, Gail Caldwell, Maxine Kumin, Lyndall Gordon, and Deborah Tannen, to name a few, depictions of women’s friendships have remained so rare in popular culture that in 1985, the cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel invented the “Bechdel test” to ask whether a fictional work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Although some strides in this arena have been made since then, more than 30 years later, the failure rate continues to be astounding.

In Nancy Miller’s group biography, her deep exploration of female friendship, and the role of death in friendship, is a welcome and extraordinary addition to this impoverished genre. As in all of her work, Miller does not flinch from tackling difficult issues, nor is she shy about revealing her darkest sentiments. (I think now may be the moment of full disclosure: Nancy has become over the past decade a “late-life” friend of mine, though I have revered her from afar since first reading her essays on literature and feminism while I was in college in the 1980s.)

In the “prelude” to Miller’s book, she posits that writing about her friends is “keeping them alive, and in keeping them alive, I’m staying alive with them.” This declaration, which is both literal (Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago) and figurative, gets at the heart of the importance of that age-old practice (and buzzword of the moment): storytelling. If our storytelling remains limited to the representation of only a few groups and subjects — which has certainly been true for Western civilization so far — then those whose stories are not told are condemned to a kind of nonexistence, a living death. Stories are as crucial to human life as oxygen — if they do not get told about all people, all experience, they are suffocated. Nancy’s project, then, is to keep her friends and herself alive, but it is also to keep alive the importance of insisting that all voices be heard through the act of putting a pen to page.

Though these four women share an unwavering feminism, an ardent interest in the mind, and a genuine curiosity about the other, the passion that binds them above and beyond everything else is a love of writing, a belief in the written word’s power to create and unite, to reveal and change both the self and the world.

In her portraits of her friendships with these three highly accomplished feminist intellectuals, Miller looks squarely, and from a nuanced and refreshing later-in-life perspective (she’s in her 70s), at the evolving roles of things like envy, anger, ambition, aging, and indeed friendship, in a woman’s life. As one gets older (I am in my late 50s), and the relentlessly debilitating power of the white male gaze wanes, these traditionally unseemly traits in a woman can be embraced and owned, their negative impact transformed into honor and agency. These days, I often feel that one of the best things that ever happened to me was to grow old.

Read the rest of the review here




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The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories Event with Jhumpa Lahiri at The Center for Fiction this Friday


A celebration of the Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories with editor Jhumpa Lahiri and translators Ann Goldstein, Jenny McPhee, and Michael F. Moore.

This will be fun! And fascinating. The stories are each intriguing and surprising and Jhumpa is so passionate about all things Italian, but especially the language and literary tradition. Plus The Center for Fiction is just such a wonderful place to be and hang out. Please come if you can. It will be great to see you there.

More info here.

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Happy Women in Translation Month (And Event)


Women In Translation Month Event 2019 ImageAugust is Women in Translation month (#WiTMonth), an initiative started by Biblibio blogger Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to shine light on writing and translations by women and work toward gender parity in literary publishing. This evening will showcase the work of translators and authors, while highlighting the importance of gender parity for free expression.

Join us for a reading and discussion with women translators of women writers working in Turkish, Italian, and Arabic: Sevinç Türkkan (The Stone Building and Other Places, by Aslı Erdoğan); Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee (Neapolitan Chronicles, by Anna Maria Ortese); and Inea Bushnaq (Pearls on a Branch, by Najla Khoury).

Organized under the aegis of the PEN America Translation Committee, the event will be moderated by Jenny Wang Medina (assistant professor of Korean literature, Emory University) and Alex Zucker (translator of Czech literature).

Sevinç Türkkan teaches modern Turkish literature and intellectual history at the University of Rochester. Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Stories was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Award. She is coeditor (with David Damrosch) of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Orhan Pamuk, and is currently writing a book titled Translation Criticism and the Construction of World Literature.

Ann Goldstein has translated The Neapolitan Novels and other works by Elena Ferrante, as well as writings by Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. She is the former head of the copy department at The New Yorker.

Jenny McPhee has translated works by Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II.

Inea Bushnaq is a Palestinian-American writer and translator born in Jerusalem. After the Partition of Palestine in 1948, the family moved to England, where she received most of her schooling, and a degree in classics from Cambridge University. She now lives in New York City.

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My article in Words Without Borders, Happy July 4th, and Congratulations to the US Women’s Soccer Team!

By Jenny McPhee

I am old enough to remember when creative writing was something you “couldn’t teach” and was considered by the academy to be a less than legitimate area of study. (Journalism didn’t even merit a raised eyebrow.) In my youth, there were only a handful of MFAs in creative writing on offer throughout the US. Now creative writing departments and graduate degrees in writing and journalism are like porcini in a forest after a rainy spell. Although translation is certainly one of the world’s oldest professions, when I was an undergraduate at Williams College,  there were no classes in Italian language, much less in translation. Today, however, academic programs in translation, like the creative writing programs of yore, are on the cusp of mushrooming throughout the world of higher education in the US.

Translation was not something I set out to do, but rather fell into (I owe it all to Pope John Paul II, but that’s another story), and, given the lack of available formal training and the field’s invisibility, most seasoned translators will tell you something similar. And so it is that after a long apprenticeship in the art and craft, I now have the great honor and privilege of teaching translation. I did so this past spring in two contexts: to graduate students at NYU who are enrolled in an online, asynchronous master of science degree in professional translation and to undergraduates at Princeton.

The majority of the NYU students intend to have careers in specializations such as legal, patent, medical, commercial, financial, or government translation, and so on. Literary is not generally part of their wheelhouse for two main reasons: first, because there is little money in it; second, because many of the students find literary translation intimidating. But the tools and skills of literary translation—grammar, syntax, rhythm, word choice, revision, editing, and proofreading—are fundamental to a successful career in translation, no matter what the specialization.

The graduate students in my class quickly overcame their intimidation, and most were intrigued by the discovery that inherent to literary translation is the concept that there is no such thing as a “literal” translation, and that not only is such a thing impossible, it’s undesirable. A literary translator seeks to transcreate the source text into something new, something that is not only culturally and linguistically and rhythmically felicitous in relation to the spirit of the original, but something that is a work of art in its own right. This necessitates risk-taking and confidence in yourself as a writer, the prerequisite for which is a mastery of language and writing skills. In professional translation “faithfulness” to the source text is at a premium, but being “faithful” to the sense of the text can also mean having the courage to abandon “word for word” and to “recreate.”

The students also learned the importance of revising, editing, and proofreading to the success of a translation. These practices they immediately recognized as a real benefit to their translation practice in other areas, and with the rapid rise of machine and neural translation as well as artificial speech technologies, the demand for post-editing is booming. Post-editing is the process of taking machine-generated translations and making them sound grammatically, syntactically, historically, and culturally human in any given context. And extraordinary new humanitarian machine translation initiatives from organizations such as Translators Without Borders are enabling crisis-affected people from marginalized languages to have a voice and get much needed help. They, too, rely on post-editors.

Literary translation skills are essential to post-editing since this is precisely the work a literary translator does, machine or no machine, day in and day out. We are predominantly editors, ironing, sculpting, kneading texts until they sing and shine, surprise and amaze. To do so, we must have highly developed instincts for what sounds authentic as well as enough informed hubris to take leaps of faith in formulating language equivalencies. (In the fall, I will, in fact, be teaching a course at NYU entitled “Editing for Translators.”)

Though certainly unripe, the Princeton undergraduates I taught weren’t, apparently, intimidated by anything, and their writing and literary preparation was remarkable. What came as a complete surprise to me, however, was to discover that only one of the students was an English major—the other majors ranged from economics and computer science to East Asian studies, history, and classics. Their languages included Korean, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Latin, and French, the majority having acquired their fluency through study. (Though I am fluent in only three languages, I feel equipped to teach in a polylingual classroom because I know that although deep knowledge of one’s source language and culture are paramount, an even more profound and nuanced knowledge of your target language, in this case English, is the crux of the matter.)

The Princeton students were taking the course because they were curious about the field of translation, since the discipline has now risen out of the shadows and into the sunny ranks of what is considered by the academy a legitimate area of study (Princeton has an impressive program and certificate in translation and intercultural communication). These students recognized their language skills and their experiences abroad as an asset to their overall development and were motivated to increase their global exposure and communication skills.

Both my Princeton and NYU classes were structured as workshops and the students translated selections from various genres—fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, poetry, and plays—texts they were tasked with finding from their source languages and which had to be either previously untranslated into English or not translated within the past twenty years. The students, in finding these texts, introduced themselves, each other, and me to a wide range of classic, modern, and contemporary literature from their source languages–for example an excerpt from a contemporary South Korean sci-fi satire that sold more than 400 million copies; the last speech of Salvador Allende; Soviet journalist Ilya Ehrenburg’s frontline reporting during WW II; poems by Shuntaro Tanigawa describing the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan; a hilarious drunken scene taken from a comedy written by Plautus in the second century BC; a classic Puerto Rican tragedy set in the sugarcane fields of Aguadilla, to name just a few of the selections that came into our classroom. The students regularly read aloud from both the original and the translation (in the online class they made videos of themselves), a practice I insist upon, as translation is as much about sound as it is about language.

Our discussions involved deep dives into questions of comparative syntax, use of pronouns, adverbs, idioms, the role of prosody, sound, and accent; we examined issues of language idiosyncrasies, as well as cultural and historical context, thus making each of the students an expert in their source language. Our deliberations dramatically revealed how language difference shapes cultural difference across time, texts, and geography. We became acutely aware that the rest of the world does not speak, think, and feel homogeneously, but in an infinite variety of ways. As Octavio Paz put it: “The sun praised in an Aztec poem is not the sun of the Egyptian hymn, although both speak of the same star.”

The study of translation is key to human understanding as it promotes genuine intercultural exchange, increases global literacy, and mines the gold of all existence: empathy. As these new crops of shiitake- and chanterelle-grade translation students traipse through the hallowed halls (virtual or otherwise) of higher ed, pursuing their particular field of study, and then on into their careers, they will each be ambassadors for translation spreading the idea that literature by its very nature is global literature, that translation empowers communication and connection as nothing else can.

Funghi, I read the other day, are an antidote to dementia, stimulators of increased cognitive function, and generally help improve quality of life. They also make a great risotto, enhance an escabèche, perfect a khao phat, and complement a doro wat. The same could be said of translation.

Published Jul 1, 2019   Copyright 2019 Jenny McPhee


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