Joyce Carol Oates and Literary Translation in Vegas

One of America's preeminent writers and thinkers, prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates, gave a reading at my alma mater, the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Saturday, hosted by UNLV's Black Mountain Institute. I was elated, as Vegas has infrequent visits by authors of her caliber.

Joyce Carol Oates is as thin and elegant as she appears on the back covers of her books, but there is nothing weak or frail in her voice, her wit, and her eloquence. Since she has been successfully publishing since the 60s, I was certain she must be past the age of 60, but had no idea she was actually 70 years young. She appears as fresh and sharp as a UNLV freshman (fresher, actually). She opened her reading by remarking she'd been in Vegas only 24 hours and had already lost 24 million dollars. Carol Harter, Executive Director of the Black Mountain Institute, introduced Oates, whom she'd known since the early 70s. The novelist read a part of a short story from her recent collection "Wild Nights!" in which she fictionalizes the last days of the lives of many notable authors and poets, including Hemingway, Dickinson, Twain, and Poe. In "EDickinsonRepliLux," a life-like mannequin of Emily Dickinson is purchased by a well-to-do suburban couple. It moves like Emily Dickinson, it talks like Emily Dickinson, but has no internal organs. Is what she writes real Emily Dickinson? The diminutive poet brings all sorts of problems into the house, and the husband finally says it: he hates poetry and he hates riddles.

Here in Las Vegas, I frequent places where one can run into supposed superstars from pop culture -- you name them, and they have been here. I couldn't care less about running into Pamela Anderson at Tryst or Britney Spears at Simon, but give me a famous author (Wole Soyinka, Tobias Wolff) and I am starstruck. I did muster up enough courage to have my two copies of Oates' most recent novel "My Sister, My Love" autographed. As always: one for me and one for Dagy. Oates was very gracious, and unlike many highly acclaimed authors (most recently, Paul Auster in Vienna) she even offered to inscribe the books while a journalist (you know who you are) was interviewing her during the autograph session.

On my way out I spoke to Doug Unger, interim chair of UNLV's English department, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 (although I am biased, I must say that I prefer Unger's work to Updike's), my undergraduate literature professor, Director of the Creative Writing Program at UNLV and my overall local literary hero. Doug and I briefly chatted about Black Mountain Institute's Rainmaker Translations, which seeks to translate works from underrepresented languages into English and bring translations of top international fiction to the United States. While none of our languages are exotic (German, Spanish, French), we would certainly be honored to participate in literary translations in academia and are thrilled that the Black Mountain Institute is involved in such a fantastic endeavor. However, in spite of our immense love of literature, we have thus far stayed away from poorly paid literary translations, but that can certainly be changed. As we mentioned in a previous post, our hats are off to our literary translation colleagues, especially to German translator Wibke Kuhn, who made Swedish author Stieg Larsson accessible to us.


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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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