Friday, February 17, 2012

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of the Center for the Art of Translation's Lit & Lunch events with translator and poet Richard Howard. As many of you may know, Mr. Howard is an accomplished translator of French poetry and literature, notably introducing American readers to the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon, as well as rendering canonical works by Baudelaire, E.M. Cioran, Camus, Foucault, and Roland Barthes into English. His latest project, in fact, is a translation of Barthes' complete Mythologies, due next month. (Can you believe we've been reading an incomplete text of Mythologies all this time?)

And, for good measure, he's also the translator of the beloved Little Prince, a fact I just learned. As a poet, he's proven himself equally adept, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.

At yesterday's talk, a free event held at 111 Minna, Mr. Howard spoke of the vagaries of translation, focusing specifically on the difficulties presented by Stephane Mallarme. He also gave an account of a scandalous 1912 balletic adaptation of Mallarme's poem "The Afternoon of the Faun" during which Nijinsky simulated masturbation.

One of the more entertaining moments of Mr. Howard's talk came during a discussion of "three old men" who influenced his reading and writing. One was his grandfather, a great book collector in the 19th-century mold; another a professor at Columbia in the 1940s; and the third, much to my delight, was a bookseller, Richard Laukhuff. Laukhuff, a German immigrant who settled in Cleveland, seems from what I can gather to be one of those legendary early-20th century figures who took bookselling with a seriousness that seems almost unfathomable now. His eponymously named store specialized in carrying challenging and often hard to find literature. If you were an Ohioan in the 1920s and wanted to find something by that smutty Jimmy Joyce, you went to Laukhuff's. Hart Crane apparently knew this; he frequented Laukhoff's Bookstore. The incident that Mr. Howard related is of a more mundane moment in bookselling, one that hearkens back to a different era.

One afternoon, while Richard and his mother were in the shop--the Howards were family friends of the bookseller and his wife, both of whom, according to Howard, "never left the shop"--a woman inquired about purchasing a Bible. Laukhuff, who was sitting behind the counter, turned down the woman's request. After the customer left, Mrs. Howard, who knew that there were indeed Bibles in the store, asked Laukhuff why he would send the woman away empty-handed. To which he replied, "There are some days when one doesn't feel like selling a Bible."

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If you're interested in more events like this one, including an upcoming conversation between Haruki Murakami's collaborative translators Jay Rubin and J. Philip Gabriel (April 3), check out the Center for the Art of Translation's events page or consider donating to this fine non-profit.

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