June 4, 2009
Clancy Martin tells Tao Lin a thing or two
by Melville House
Clancy Martin is the author of How To Sell (FSG, 2009) and theÂ translator ofÂ the Barnes and Noble ClassicÂ Series edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. He is a former jeweler and currently an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he is working onÂ a memoir, aÂ second novel, and a translation of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Tao Lin interviewed him for MobyLives via email:
Tao Lin: Have you ever “caught” someone robbing you of jewelry?
Clancy Martin: Oh, dozens of times. The first time was after a trip to Thailand, one of our managers had swapped a package of beautiful two carats for czs, and when the diamond wholesaler came in to pick up his goods he immediately recognized that they were high-quality Russian czs, not his stones. Another time our bookkeeper, who was in charge of tagging our merchandise, was taking gold chains and bracelets and earrings home with her and having her teenage son fence them at school. Another time a customer who sold me drugs stole a twenty carat emerald ring right off my desk, just put it in his pocket when I was out of the showing room for a moment. I was busy with other things and didn’t realize until he was out of the store. I bluffed him and said “we observed something odd on the security cameras”–we hadn’t replaced the tapes in months–and he brought it back in the next afternoon. Many more stories of this kind.
What was your concrete situation in life when you were closest to killing yourself?
Again, several. When I was in the jewelry business it was part of my routine: I’d get in early, make a coffee, throw it back up again–I was having severe stomach trouble at this time–do a few lines of coke, and then put my Glock in my mouth and stare at myself in the mirror and really try to pull the trigger. I did this day after day, convinced when I finally pulled the gun from my mouth–I can still remember that oily taste–that I would have the courage to do it tomorrow. More recently, a few months ago, I tried to hang myself in my bedroom closet. I was kicking and my wife found me–I had passed out, but apparently still kicking, making some noise–and she got me down and to the hospital, and I spent several days locked up in a psych ward and then was released. Another time, in high school, I took a whole bottle of librium and drank half a bottle of CC rye whiskey and lay down naked in a snow bank in the middle of a field. This was in Calgary Alberta in January. I remember the snow above me on both sides going blue and then pink and then very very green. Then someone happened to walk by and I was saved again. There are a couple more stories of this kind, too, I am sad to say.
When you are really depressed what determines whether you next “do work,” “do drugs,” or “continue to feel depressed”?
I have no idea. The best thing for me is to work. I don’t do drugs any more. But booze was a great–and very common–consolation when I was still drinking. I have been sober for 6 months now.
What are you thinking, in terms of your own life, when you are reading Nietzsche?
Help me, Nietzsche, to think more clearly. You make me feel so shallow and stupid. That and, why did I agree to do this goddamn new translation of Beyond Good and Evil?
Can you describe some of your difficulties, or frustrations, or something, in doing a new translation of Beyond Good and Evil?
Well, part of the difficulty is adding value, because unlike Thus Spoke Zarathurstra–which still has not been translated properly, my own translation sucks as do all of the others–the existing translations of Beyond Good and Evil are not bad. Kaufmann’s is the best, and improving on him is the challenge, while not making changes just for the sake of making changes. He made some textual errors and over-edited and missed some philosophical subtlety, especially in the use of terminology–Nietzsche is very careful and precise about his word choice, Kaufmann often is not–so all that is helpful. But the major frustration in translation, for me, is when you sense that you are wrestling with an intelligence much greater than your own, and a writer whose talents far exceed your own, and trying to do justice to the subtlety of that intelligence, and the elegance, range of connotation in the writing. You can puzzle over a sentence for hours. That’s the other frustrating part about it, of course, is making the time to do it properly. I am email acquaintances with Richard Pevear, the great translator with his partner Volokhonsky of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and others, and we have talked a little bit about this–I don’t know how they do it, or how someone like Lydia Davis does it–but I think they are extremely disciplined people, and they work very regular work days, and work over it and over it until they get it right. I am still not disciplined enough, and I tend to do too many different projects at the same time: I need to learn to focus. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” as Kierkegaard reminds us. I don’t have a pure enough heart to ever be a really good translator, I don’t think. But I will keep at it, and hope to continue to translate for the rest of my life. I would like to translate some new writers next, like one of my heroes, Lorin Stein. He is a great translator of new French texts, and does it only out of love. That’s the ideal way to do it, I think: fall in love with some new writer who hasn’t been translated yet and translate her. But of course many of the greatest translations and translators, like the PV Dostoevskies and Davis’s Proust, are retranslations. Adam Thirlwell, an annoyingly brilliant young guy just wrote an excellent book about translation, The Delighted States, came out last year. I recommend it. He is much more eloquent on the problem and significance of translation than I can be. For me it is a wrestling match, a wrestling match that I am always losing, like poor old Jacob, or that great line from the GM Hopkins (my favorite poet, I think) poem: I wretch lay wrestling (my God!) with my God.