For those of you who feel the written word is in disrepair, it was alive and well at PEN’s 8th Annual World Voices Festival held the first week of May in New York City.

The PEN American Center, founded in 1922, is the largest of the 144 chapters that compose this literary organization around the world. Known for its advocacy of writers internationally and for its strong political position in the world of letters, it has been a spiritual home for well-known scribes, many of whom have fought hard for freedom of speech. People like Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Gay Talese, have all played major roles in PEN: Writer Salman Rushdie was the festival’s chair this year and also delivered the pivotal Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture. PEN is one of the only literary organizations that has successfully combined the writing talent of its author members with an ongoing political agenda.

With that said, the event itself is a celebration and homage to literature the world over; it also addresses current concerns in writing and language from the best way to translate a certain word in a poem to the very meaning of “political” in regard to a work of fiction, and emphasizes social concerns within a literary context. The festival slogan, “Good Literature Is Liberating,” echoed throughout the myriad events, held everywhere from Lincoln Center to bars on the Lower East Side to the High Line and, this year, to Brooklyn for the first time. The offerings included a panel on writers discussing their role in children’s rights; Steve Bell Goes To America, featuring the famed cartoonist who has been lampooning British government since the days of Margaret Thatcher; and Messiah in Brooklyn, an evening where writers such as Jennifer Egan and Luc Sante read short treatises about what we are all waiting for in life while walking around an onsite installation by R. Justin Steward. Events in conjunction with PEN, but not officially part of the week, included Our America, a panel on writing by Afro-American writers led by the eminent Henry Louis Gates, and a talk by poet Jeffrey Yang who has translated work by Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo — a writer whose censorship in China has been a cause célèbre with PEN in recent years. Everywhere one turned, people were huddled in groups discussing books and writers and reading, a welcome respite from email, texting, and anything with words that requires a screen. And not only was it liberating, but it was fun and (dare this be said) brain-expanding.

The lecture series in the New School’s auditorium on West 12th Street filled up with no effort for the whole week, presenting as it did the unique opportunity to hear successful writers talk in the flesh about their work. Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit From the Goon Squad won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2011, played to a packed house as she was interviewed by the amazing Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times on Friday, May 4. Arriving clean-scrubbed and with a skirt just a notch or two below the knee, Egan at first came off as anyone’s favorite first grade teacher; until she started to talk about the creative process. Asked about the inscription to Goon Squad, a Peter M., she said simply “I knew you were going to ask me that and I, well I, just have to answer; he’s my therapist,” which got a rousing round of applause from her audience. Living in Brooklyn, she still has a writing group of which she is part of, and admitted to trepidation when showing her agent or editors newly minted material. “Before Goon Squad, I wrote The Keep,” she said, referring to her best-selling Gothic novel. “I knew that this new book, a series of interwoven stories, probably would not sell as well — and I was right!” She was humorous, irreverent and, during the question and answer session, admitted that a story she published in The New Yorker, which was part of Goon Squad, had undergone editorial changes at the magazine — specifically in terms of the flash forwards that move the story ahead in the book. “They thought one flash forward was enough toward the end,” she said. “I agonized over it and then agreed.” Note, however, that the original version appears in the book — Egan is a woman who knows her own mind.

Tony Kushner, the prolific author of the seminal AIDS-related drama Angels in America, Caroline, Or Change, and a myriad of other theatrical and film works, could have done stand-up comedy, if he had not found his vocation in writing. Originally scheduled to be interviewed by Paul Auster, who could not be there, he was on the stage instead with Jeremy McCarter, who runs the public talks series at The Public Theater. “Did anyone think this was Paul Auster?” quipped Kushner, “well, it’s not!” McCarter warmed up slowly and held his own with Kushner as they traded lines and sometimes whole speeches from Shakespeare and other mutually beloved writers. Kushner, like a warm Jewish grandma, told stories that were fabulously self-demeaning, but pointed. When someone asked him how he knew when he had done enough research for a play or script, he said, “Well, when editors and movie directors start screaming for what has not been written, I know I’ve probably done enough research. “Research” is an elegant way of avoiding work.” He admitted to crying at each viewing of the film Terms of Endearment, and of sometimes wondering how far a writer can push a real character into acts of  illuminating fantasy, such as his version of attorney Roy Cohn in Angels, who has conversations with the doomed (and dead) Ethel Rosenberg. “Obviously Kohn did not have conversations with her,” Kushner said, “but I never had any trouble portraying him as pure evil, which he was, and those conversations underlined that fact.” Kushner’s next big project is a film directed by Steven Spielberg on the life of Abraham Lincoln (“a truly good, good person who could see more widely than the average man,” Kushner remarked) due out in the fall.

As for other things that were going on, The Bowery Poetry Club on the Lower East Side was the scene of PEN’s Translation Slam. Everyone was a bit worried as the club had recently been renovated (as has much of this burgeoning neighborhood), but even the oldest fan from the ’80s and ’90s, when much happened here, was happy with the rickety folding chairs, worn out bar, bad stage lighting, and even the cute young guy taking tickets at the door. This was a one-night event where one writer’s work was translated from English to Spanish and another writer’s work from Spanish to English, all in front of an audience and followed by the translators illuminating their process. Translation “is a solitary art, but, because of that, it is refreshing for translators to come out of the shadows and talk about what they do; to talk out loud about decisions you make in your mind every day,” Michael F. Moore, chairman of the PEN translation fund and the host  of the slam, said. He also stated that, “a slam gets to the heart of the matter. It gets directly to the art and takes you inside it.”

A poem was flashed on a screen above the panel participants, read, and then translations from two or three translators were also read; followed by the translators themselves explaining their choices of word, cadence, and feeling. Laurie Sheck, the author of five books of poems, was the English-speaking writer and author of “White Noise,” a poem about New York City that was translated onstage by Mariela Dreyfus, a Peruvian professor, and Roman Antopolsky, an Argentinian poet. The variance in the words they chose,  but also in their respective ways of speaking Spanish, made a huge difference even to non-Spanish speakers (of whom Ms. Sheck was one). One produced a long, languid translation full of romanticism; the other created a rapid fire staccato poem that aimed to rip through walls. The subject of the poem, New York City, could easily have gone either way and it was fascinating to hear just how well both translations worked.

The Spanish writer, ex-pat Mexican Naief Yehya, produced a prose poem based around watching soccer games in the afternoon, with the underlying theme of being in exile from crucial cultural moorings. This was translated by two American women, Michelle Gil-Montero and Rosalie Knecht. One translated the players’ garments as “shirts” and “shoes” and the other as “jerseys” and “cleats.” To most ears the translations were fairly similar, perhaps because the background of the translators was as well — and perhaps because, as both admitted,  neither knew much about soccer.  The most heated and interesting debate was around the word “penitencia”: the writer’s explanation for why he endured watching these games held far away from those expected as he blatantly expressed that the “results meant little to me.” Ms. Gil-Montero decided on “penance,” while Ms. Knecht chose “penitence.” Why the difference? “Well,” Ms. Gil-Montero said, “I do teach at a Catholic college.” The audience laughed for five minutes as the translators themselves giggled onstage. It was clear that laughter seemed to be the one thing that was never lost in translation.

PEN is already planning next year’s festival. In this age of poor punctuation, truncated sentences and bad grammar, we can only hope they continue to uphold the fun, excitement, and cross-cultural dialogue that good literature promotes — and that people keep turning pages to see what comes next.

Cincopa WordPress plugin