Ten Questions for Margaret Jull Costa on Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

The Portuguese modernist par excellence Fernando Pessoa remains an immense figure in world literature. Any significant new translation of his work is an event worthy of attention (all the more so because much of his writing remains untranslated still). But what do you call it when his undisputed masterpiece is translated in a new, impeccably edited, expanded edition by possibly the greatest translator of Iberian literature working today?

That is what we have in Margaret Jull Costa’s new version of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, forthcoming from New Directions later this month. This central text of Portuguese modernism—an unclassifiable, utterly original, and indisputable genius work—here gets what is possibly its most complete and best-translated English edition ever. Pessoa’s magnum opus is famously incomplete—we do not even know the correct order of the hundreds of fragments that now comprise this “book”—and this edition of The Book of Disquiet offers a version that has been carefully edited and is more complete than other available translations.

And, of course, it has been translated by one of the true legends of the translation field. In addition to being the lead translator of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago and frequent Nobel finalist Javier Marías, Margaret Jull Costa is also the translator of scores of other works from Portuguese and Spanish, both classic and contemporary. It is no exaggeration at all to call her the leading living translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature, and her work has won multiple awards. I corresponded with her via email to hear about her latest project.


Scott Esposito: This is not your first try at The Book of Disquiet—you did an edition with Serpent’s Tail in 2011, and you also received a 1992 Portuguese Translation Prize for what I take to be a different translation of Pessoa’s magnum opus. For all I know, there might even be other Margaret Jull Costa translations of Pessoa, as you’re rather prodigious. So can you enlighten us as to why you took the opportunity to translate this book again and how this edition might be different from other translations of Pessoa currently available, either yours or others?

Margaret Jull Costa: The 2011 edition was a reprint of my 1992 translation, and this new edition is actually an expanded version of that original 1992 translation. That first translation was based on Maria José Lancastre’s selection of texts for the Italian edition (translated by her husband, novelist Antonio Tabucchi). This translation follows Jerónimo Pizarro’s 2013 edition, and while this new English edition includes all the texts that appeared in my earlier translation, it also includes a large number of texts that did not. Jerónimo’s edition gives us the Book of Disquiet as it evolved, with the first part attributed to one heteronym—Vicente Guedes—and the second to the better-known heteronym—Bernardo Soares. These two “parts” are very different in tone, and you get a real sense of how the book evolved over the many years Pessoa was writing it. I can’t remember now whose idea it was to produce this new expanded version, but I found it fascinating to return to the book after all these years and to discover a very different voice in the earlier Vicente Guedes sections. I did revisit the texts from my 1992 translation, but I actually changed very little, which is encouraging!

SE: You’ve done extensive work with many classics of Portuguese literature, among them numerous books by José Maria de Eça de Queirós and José Saramago, as well as books by Teolinda Gersão, Lídia Jorge, and many others. I take it your knowledge of Portuguese literature is rather substantial. Where does Pessoa fit in for you? What is his importance?

MJC: I’ve been reading and studying Portuguese literature for the last forty or so years, but there is always more to learn. And I’ve been enormously privileged to be asked to translate so many of Portugal’s finest writers. Pessoa is the Portuguese poet, but, oddly, he had no real followers. I suppose the same could be said of Eça. But maybe that’s the mark of true genius. Pessoa was a contemporary of Eliot and Pound and other Modernists, but none of them produced that wild proliferation of other selves, that constant splitting off into different personalities. To me, he still seems utterly modern and speaks so directly to us across the years that he remains forever fresh.

SE: This is a strange thing about Pessoa—if you visit Portugal nowadays, he’s everywhere. As you say, he is the poet, he’s read by schoolchildren, etc, etc. But The Book of Disquiet only appeared as a complete book in 1982, which was half a century after Pessoa died. In his own lifetime he was a marginal figure, published here and there in little magazines, but not really seen as a great writer along the lines of an Eliot or a Pound. It is a real testament to this book that, as you say, it could appear six or seven decades after it was composed and still feel entirely fresh and new. What kind of an impact did this book have on its release, and who among the contemporary Portuguese writers have been influenced by Pessoa?

MJC: Yes, a whole industry has built up around Pessoa, and that image of him striding along a Lisbon street is everywhere. This does seem ironic, given what a very private person he was in real life. The late appearance of The Book of Disquiet can be put down to the many years it took for researchers to make any sense of the more than 200,000 bits of paper found in the famous trunk after Pessoa’s death. Since the first 1982 version put together by Maria Aliete Galhoz, Teresa Sobral Cunha and Jacinto do Prado Coelho, there have been numerous versions in Portuguese, all of them different and in a different order, and even more translations, again all different, all with a different selection of texts and all in a different order. I’m sure Pessoa would have been most amused at (or bemused by) this chaotic legacy and posthumous celebrity. Pessoa was already known as a poet prior to the publication of The Book of Disquiet, but this prose work seems to hold a perennial fascination for scholars and readers alike, perhaps because it is so incomplete and uncertain. Paradoxically, as I said before, I don’t feel that contemporary Portuguese writers have been much influenced by Pessoa, perhaps because he is a complete one-off.

SE: I’ve read The Book of Disquiet a couple of times, and I still have a hard time when it comes to the matter of categorizing this book. Is it a diary? Notebooks? A collection of pensées? A sort of philosophical work? Fiction or nonfiction? How would you classify The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think The Book of Disquiet defies categorization. It is all of those things, and never just one of them. I would prefer not to classify it at all.

SE: Are there particular books, essays, stories, poems, or writers that you would recommend to read alongside The Book of Disquiet?

MJC: I think perhaps as an antidote, people should read Eça de Queiroz, so eminently unneurotic and unintrospective. For something similar, Pessoa himself recommends Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal. And he has another kindred spirit, I think, in Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno.

SE: What are the particular challenges of translating The Book of Disquiet? Were there certain resources you drew on for this project?

MJC: The translator of Book of Disquiet really has to be able to use his or her own language as inventively as Pessoa used Portuguese. That is, of course, also the great pleasure of translating, and the book is full of wonderful passages which are, at once, so physical, so vivid and so strange. For example: “The trams growl and clang around the edges of the square, like large, yellow, mobile matchboxes, into which a child has stuck a spent match at an angle to act as a mast; as they set off they emit a loud, iron-hard whistle. The pigeons wandering about around the central statue are like dark, ever-shifting crumbs at the mercy of a scattering wind.” Isn’t that amazing? And I don’t mean the translation (!), but the imagery, so vivid and so original, that ‘iron-hard whistle’, for example. Translating such wonderfully creative writing forces the translator to find what his or her own language can do, to test it to its limits. Fortunately, English is a wonderfully rich and flexible tongue. As for resources, I suppose I drew on what every experienced translator would draw on, many years of translating and a life spent reading and absorbing both languages, Portuguese and English.

SE: Could you talk a little about one or two particular ways in which Pessoa’s Portuguese differs from that of the other Portuguese-language authors you’ve translated?

MJC: All the Portuguese authors I’ve translated have their own particular style and voice. Eça, for example, writing in the nineteenth century, is full of detailed descriptions of people and places, but also very funny, naturalistic dialogues. In his earlier work, Saramago also contains brilliant descriptions of nature (his descriptions of rain and darkness in All the Names are unsurpassed) and excellent dialogues embedded in long, long sentences. Teolinda Gersão has a plainer style, but with every word weighed carefully, and with some exquisite descriptions of nature, particularly in The Word Tree. Ana Luisa Amaral’s poetry is perhaps the closest to Pessoa’s writing in its obliqueness, in the challenge it lays down for the translator to step outside the usual boundaries of language, of what we can say. And Pessoa is constantly trying to say the unsayable, to describe the undescribable, but in way that the reader can understand, because Pessoa, for all that linguistic complexity, does speak to us so clearly across the years.

SE: Pessoa is rather voluminous, prodigious. And though The Book of Disquiet is rather well-represented in the English language, as well as scattered volumes of his poetry in excellent translations, there is still so much of his writing that has never made it into the English language. Do you have plans to go further with him? And beyond your own translation work, are you aware of any future editions of Pessoa that we should know about?

MJC: I’ve heard Pessoa described as “o homem interminável”—the interminable man—which doesn’t actually sound that complimentary in English! But he was SO prodigious in his output. I don’t know about other Pessoa projects, but New Directions have asked me to translate all the poetry and prose of his three best-known heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. That will take me a few years. And there is a possibility that I might translate some of his detective fiction—you see what people mean about his interminability!

SE: In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares writes, “I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting.” How did you feel upon completing this translation?

MJC: Oh, those words have haunted me for years! As a translator, I have that same ‘desire for perfection’ and the same fear of falling short. I only hope that I have done justice to Pessoa’s prose. Perfection is, they say, for the gods. Although when one considers Pessoa’s prodigious output, of course, his desire for perfection clearly didn’t prevent him from starting!

SE: Lastly, we’ve talked a bit about how this book did not see the light of day until four decades after its author’s death, and how even then the writing was still quite fresh and relevant. What would you say The Book of Disquiet has to offer readers in the Anglosphere in this year 2017?

MJC: I think certainty is a very dangerous thing. Beware of people who are too certain about anything. The Book of Disquiet embraces doubt and uncertainty and an awareness of human frailty. Alongside those feelings, though, there is an intense love of life and the physical world, a celebration of seeing, and that, in our overly busy, screen-fixated world, is something to be treasured.

28 Women Authors to Read This Year for Women in Translation Month

August is Women in Translation month. Here are a bunch of writers to enjoy. Add more suggestions in the comments, and share you reading on your favorite social network!

And if you like this list, you should also check out my 22 Classic and Contemporary Female Latin American Authors to Read.


Can Xue

Leading Chinese avant-garde author and Nobel contender known for her highly eccentric idiosyncrasies, her prolific output, and her indescribable books (one of the most frequent points of reference, and a large influence on the author, is Kafka). Start with her short stories, Vertical Motion (tr. Karen Gernant), or dive into a longer work: Five Spice Street (tr. Karen Gernant), The Last Lover (tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), or Old Floating Cloud (tr. Jian Zhang).

 

Silvina Ocampo

Mystic, student of de Chirico, master of the short story, and close friend of Jorge Luis Borges, for years Argentina’s best-kept literary secret until NYRB Classics released a large selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces (tr. Daniel Balderston). Known for her cruelty, her dark humor, her exceedingly strange plots, and her remarkable language.

 

Marlene Van Niekerk

A South African author writing in Afrikaans, she is know for her penetrating explorations of apartheid society and its aftermath. Her books can veer toward the graphic, and she is not a writer to shy away from harsh scenes and difficult relationships. Try her best-known novel Triomf (tr. Leon de Kock), about a poor Afrikaner family in Johannesburg, or Agaat (tr. Michael Heyns), about a wealthy white woman dying of ALS and the black servant who cares for her paralyzed body in her final days.

 

Mariama Bâ

Senegalese author who strongly criticized gender inequality in her society. Her recognized masterpiece is So Long a Letter, called “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction.” A second novel, Scarlet Song (tr. Dorothy S Blair), was published posthumously.

 

Magdalena Tulli

Leading Polish author, influenced by Italo Calvino and creator of postmodern fables with affinities to the work of Jose Saramago. Archipelago has published a number of her works, including In Red, Moving Parts, Dreams and Stones, and Flaw (all tr. Bill Johnston).

 

Kim Hyesoon

One of the leading Korean poets, known for her aggressively postmodern writing, her strident feminism, and her bizarre sense of humor. Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream is a great one to start with, as is All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (both tr. Don Mee Choi).

 

Basma Abdel Aziz

This is the first book in translation from the Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist who has waged a struggle against the darker sides of Egypt’s regimes. The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) is a dystopian work about subjects of an authoritarian regime who must wait in an interminable line to have their needs met. To make matter worse, they live in the repressive aftermath of a failed popular uprising. The New York Times compared The Queue to George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

 

Malika Mokeddem

The daughter of an illiterate nomad family in Algeria, she established herself as a doctor and eventually moved on to writing full time. Try The Forbidden Woman (tr. Karen Melissa Marcus), her surprising memoir My Men (tr. Laura Rice, Karim Hamdy), or Of Dreams and Assassins.

 

Svetlana Alexievich

Nobel Prize winner for her oral histories of Russia and the post-Soviet nations. Her largest book, and likely masterpiece, is Secondhand Time (tr. Bela Shayevich), a massive history of the end of communism. The Unwomanly Face of War, recently reissued in a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is acclaimed as a landmark work of gender studies.
Voices from Chernobyl (tr. Keith Gessen), about the nuclear disaster near Pripyat, Ukraine, is also fantastic.

 

Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Italian author whose work has met with great international acclaim and has been widely translated. Try reading The Almond Picker (tr. Alastair McEwen), which won a number of Italian prizes, or The Nun (tr. Anthony Shugaar), a tale set in the 19th century and involving a woman who is forced to join a convent.

 

Minae Mizumura

A Japanese novelist, scholar, and critic known for formal innovation. Try her lengthy A True Novel (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter), which is a re-telling of Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan. Or read her work of scholarship, The Fall of Language in the Age of English (tr. Mari Yoshihara), which explores the struggles to retain a native language against the invasive and dominant English language. Her Inheritance from Mother has just been released.

 

Celia Dropkin

Yiddish modernist poet known for her rough poems exploring dark themes of sexuality and depression. Try the recent The Acrobat (tr. Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon)

 

Anne Garréta

French novelist and member of the Oulipo since 2000. Well-known in English for her experimental, genderless novel Sphinx, as well as her erotic memoir Not One Day (both tr. Emma Ramadan). She won the Prix Médicis in 2002 for Not One Day, awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent.”

 

Jenny Erpenbeck

An award-winning German novelist and theater director known for her innovative ways of exploring multiple lives in the same novel, mixing politics and penetrating analyses of character. Try Visitation, The End of Days, or Go, Went, Gone (all tr. Susan Bernofsky).

 

Samanta Schweblin

Argentine author known for her mixing of surreal touches into everyday stories, as well as for her gothic touches and her love of the grotesque and the nightmarish. The only one thus far translated is her debut novel, Fever Dream (tr. Megan McDowell), the very frightening story of a dying woman and the young boy who seems to control her demise. Stories from her debut collection, Pajaros en la boca, are available in English translation in various journals, online and off.

 

Bae Suah

Korean author known for her bizarre plots and experimental prose. Try A Greater Music, called “another addition to a growing body of literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels we assign to it” by Melissa Beck of World Literature Today; or Recitation, a fragmentary novel about language, travel, and memory (both tr. Deborah Smith).

 

Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Haitian author known for her in-depth portrayals of issues of class, race, gender, and family attendant to political upheaval in Haiti during the U.S. occupation and the regime of dictator François Duvalier. Try her family saga Dance on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L Glover) or Love, Anger, Madness (tr. Rose-Myriam Rejouis).

 

Sara Uribe

Mexican poet and author of seven collection, living in the northern state of Tamaulipas. Her booklength poem, Antígona González (tr. John Pluecker), based on the story of Antigone, is about a woman’s search for the lost body of her brother, who has died in the Mexican drug war. It is spare, evocative, moody, and heartbreaking.

 

Margarita Karapanou

Classic Greek modernist who integrates surreal and fantastic elements into her labyrinthine plots, as well as for her depictions of madness. Try Kassandra and the Wolf (tr. N.C. Germanacos) narrated by a frightening 6-year-old child or The Sleepwalker (tr. Karen Emmerich), an absurd, postmodern mixing of genres involving the appearance of a new Messiah on a Greek island.

 

Dubravka Ugresic

A Croatian author widely regarded as the master of post-Yugoslav literature, known for her acerbic wit, and deemed “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had” by Ruth Franklin. Try Thank You for Not Reading (tr. Celia Hawkesworth and Damion Searles), essays that masterfully dissect and mock the realities of the literary marketplace; Karaoke Culture (tr. David Williams, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth), more witty deconstructions of Western culture; The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (tr. Celia Hawkesworth), a postmodern, innovative novel exploring the realities of a life lived in exile; and Europe in Sepia (tr. David Williams), more masterful essays.

 

Hiromi Itō

Prominent Japanese poet exploring transgressive themes, including pregnancy, feminine erotic desire, and bodies, using very in-your-face, frank language. Try Wild Grass on the Riverbank, or the very powerful and grotesque Killing Kanoko (both tr. Jeffrey Angles).

 

Carmen Boullosa

Mexican author, playwright, and poet who has mastered a variety of fictional genres and is known for her deep exploration of feminism and gender roles. Try the historical novel Texas: The Great Theft (tr. Samantha Schnee) a re-writing of the history of the U.S./Mexico border regions, They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (tr. Leland H. Chambers) a feminist fantasia of the wild and chaotic 17th-century Caribbean world, or Before (tr. Peter Bush) a coming-of-age story that received won Mexico’s two most prestigious literary prizes.

 

Christa Wolf

Major, and controversial, East German author exploring themes of illness, fascism, and feminism, one of the most widely read and respected authors of her generation. They Divided the Sky (tr. Luise von Flotow) was the book that brought her to prominence; also try The Quest for Christa T (tr. Christopher Middleton), which was denounced as “an attempt to replace Marx with Freud” or her modern retelling of Medea.

 

Mercé Rodoreda

Regarded as among the greatest Catalan novelists of all time. The Time of the Doves (tr. David H. Rosenthal), a novel of the Spanish Civil War, is considered her masterpiece and is her most famous work. Death in Spring (tr. Martha Tennent) has also been popular in English translation, and it is the story of a bizarre, violent unnamed town. Also of interest is The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda (tr. Martha Tennent).

 

Lina Meruane

Prominent Chilean author whose only translated work is the remarkable novel Seeing Red (tr. Megan McDowell). It is an autobiographical novel about a Chilean writer who moves to New York and suffers a stroke the leaves her blind. This novel won the prestigious Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in when it was originally released in Spanish in 2012.

 

Laia Jufresa

Up-and-coming Mexican author whose novel Umami (tr. Sophie Hughes) has met a great deal of success in English translation and has been translated into multiple languages. The book follows the lives of five different families in Mexico city following the death of a little girl.

 

Clarice Lispector

Widely acclaimed as the greatest Brazilian novelist of the modern era and memorably described by Hélène Cixous as what “Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German.” Start anywhere, as they are all extraordinary, but popular starting points are her haunting final novel Hour of the Star (tr. Ben Moser) and her Complete Stories (tr. Katrina Dodson).

 

Qiu Miaojin

Taiwanese queer author who became a cult phenomenon in her home nation and tragiclaly killed herself at 26 years of age. She lives on through her remarkable, Lispector-like autobiographical work Last Words from Montmartre (tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich), as well as her novel about queer youths coming of age in the post-martial-law era of late-1980s Taipei, Notes of a Crocodile (tr. Bonnie Huie).

The Missing Books Version 2

The Missing Books Version 2 has just been released.

The Missing Books is a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.

When you now purchase The Missing Books you will receive: 1) a PDF of The Missing Books Version 2; 2) an ePub of The Missing Books Version 2 3) a PDF changelog highlighting new text to The Missing Books Version 2.

The original The Missing Books was released in October of last year and was featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed.

Featuring missing books from: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé. Nearly 100 titles in all.

You can read more about the project here, or get it below.

Kindle ($4.99)

 

Seven Questions for Lytton Smith on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

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The remarkable thing about literature in translation is that there can be an entire Ulysses just sitting around for decades, unknown until someone translates it—and boom, suddenly it exists in our world.

Such is the case with the 1966 Icelandic novel Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, which is often compared to Ulysses and which was a complete revelation that forever transformed Icelandic literature. This mammoth, enormously complex and playful novel has been carefully translated by Lytton Smith into English and is now available to readers from Open Letter Books.

In addition to being a translation of such Icelandic authors as Jón Gnarr, Bragi Ólafsson, and Kristin Omarsdottir, Smith is also a poet whose collections include The All-Purpose Magical Tent, which was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize in 2009, and While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It. In addition, his poetry has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Atlantic, Bateau, Boston Review, and Tin House.


Scott Esposito: If you know one thing about this book, it’s probably that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller has been called the “Icelandic Ulysses.” In the world of literary translation we definitely see our share of such claims, and it is true that many of them are quite legitimate and useful, but they are a thing one tends to take with a grain of salt. So I’m curious to know your own take on this description of the book. Do you see similarities there?

Lytton Smith: The translator Michael Scammell introduced me to the importance of “touchstone” texts in the target language, the language you’re translating into—texts that might be comparable to the experience a reader in the original language would have. In that sense, Ulysses, or perhaps Finnegans Wake, make good comparisons: they’re poetic in that they play with words and the meaning of language even as they have onward momentum and narrative causality. So thinking back to Ulysses as a reader helped: I read it in a group, with a compendious books of notes with us, often out loud, and that’s a different, wonderful, reading experience—I hope some readers of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller do that, too.

But I also want to throw out two other touchstones, perhaps more important to me. The first is Moby-Dick, which I had in mind because it’s a work of self-conscious national construction which is composed and pastiched from myriad places. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is much more ironic, suspicious and critical of the national myth, but the two texts go together well—not for nothing does Bestseller end on the high seas! And then there’s Lawrence Sterne’s 18th century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, largely because of the importance to both books of the unreliable narrator. I love books that explore the unreliable narrator—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the books I keep re-reading—and thinking of those types of novel helped me think about Bestseller.

What matters most about Bestseller, though, is that it’s a sort of anthology: it contains stories within stories. So I was also thinking about Moby-Dick and other texts that share that approach: you’re reading one story, come across another, and get influenced by that. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad were often in my mind, in quite different ways. Perhaps we’re less looking for the perfect touchstone than some kind of Venn diagram of myriad touchstones!

SE: Hearing you talk about stories within stories, unreliable narrators, and works on the level of Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy, it’s clear that this is a rather sizable, complex book. So this may not be the easiest thing to do, but could you give us a sense of what this book is about in terms of plot, character, theme, etc?

LS: You’re right that the plot is hard to sum up, but I’d say this: Tómas Jónsson, a retired bank-clerk living in a basement apartment in Reykjavík, decides to write a best-selling autobiography, both to lament the diminishing quality of Icelandic people—particularly the increasingly soft men—and to laud its culture, through stories about an opera singer who Hitler chased around Europe and the first black baby born in Iceland, among other things. Along the way, he digresses into meditations on owning property—the book’s plot can be measured by which story a character lives on: the ideal is to progress from basement apartment to first then second or even third floor, and Tómas, despite a life of hard white-collar work, has ended up in the basement, subletting rooms. It’s a novel about disability—he’s blind for at least part of it, and bedridden, and needs carers—and about intimacy—hearing subletters having sex, revealing one’s bodily functions—and within in Tómas tries to make a case for innocence against charges of rape.

SE: As with many of the titles you’ve brought up here, this is a text that is extraordinarily playful and abounds in wordplay. For you as the translator, is rich prose like this more of a pleasure or a pain? What were some of the memorable challenges of this text?

LS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, but also a responsibility: as a poet, I’m trying to make language supple and energetic in the ways I believe poetry, and poetically minded prose, can be, but as a student of Icelandic modern and ancient (I started out learning Icelandic by learning Old Iceland and studying the Icelandic Sagas at University College London) I’m trying to be responsible to the whole sweep of that history. For instance, the character Bósi appears in places, a bit-part. I eventually learned that is the name of the main character in a less celebrated, less ancient saga (from the group known as “fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda,” not part of the classic canon)—and his saga is known for its pornographic nature. So there’s another level of challenge: you can’t teach the often esoteric history of Iceland, but you’re wanting to keep avenues open for readers who might disappear down the rabbit hole and search out all the references. And such is the author’s own compendious, deft mind, that you know you’re going to miss things.

I was stumped by a simple description of Tómas getting up one morning, laboriously doing everything you’d expect him to do (swinging his legs out of bed, stretching) and amid this all there’s a reference to him emptying his socks. Was he turning them inside out? An Icelandic friend and author pointed out the contraction involved: you can use “skin-sock” as a euphemism for penis in Icelandic, so TJ is taking a piss—that’s quite a few steps of association, and it’s one reason I love the writing of Guðbergur Bergsson, but it makes the task difficult. I think I could spend my life translating this book; there will always be more to uncover. Which is another reason to have collaborative rather than isolated, individual reading: we’ll each discover from one another.

SE: I have read that this is a very, very well-known book in Iceland—the sort of thing that everybody owns, or at least everybody knows about. Could you give some since of the impact of this book on Icelandic literature and the Icelandic language?

LS: The impact was huge, and still is. I think it’s hard to contemplate an equivalent in the UK or the US. Bestseller skewered a set of cherished ideas about what a novel was meant to be for, how it was meant to be written, and what the Icelandic nation was. Against a prevailing romanticized idea of rural purity and wisdom, the sort of pastoral celebrated in Hálldor Laxness’s earlier (but not later) novels, Bestseller recognized the corruptions and injustices, the danger of that myth. And the publication hugely divided the reading population—which in Iceland is just about the entire population. Almost every review was scathing. The keepers of prevailing culture indicated he’d destroyed everything, which was about the best compliment he could receive. But what’s crucial, and something I learned from the scholar Daisy Neijman, is that Guðbergur Bergsson’s achievement is stylistic as much as in terms of content: she points out that he’s anti-mimesis, suspicious of the kind of word that claims to replicate experience. Every time you think you’re identifying with a character, the narrative doubles back on itself. (And I should mention that, beyond all this, Guðbergur is a notorious figure who is prone to outlandish and controversial statement about other authors—he can be exacting/dismissive, depending on your perspective – and wider culture. I hesitate to focus on the author rather than the book, especially with a book like this, but his continuing divisive impact on Icelandic life shouldn’t be understated.)

One metaphor that Bergsson himself has used for the role of the author is that an author is involved in creating “groups of islands.” We start off writing in a particular geography—say, Iceland—but, he argues, the author should be less concerned with this originating geography and more with creating some set of places (it’s telling he uses islands as the metaphor, not constellations or cities or something) which creates “another possible world,” even, he argues, a “mother tongue” existing in his works. So there’s a sense in which this most Icelandic of books is also aware of a universe that exceeds Iceland.

It’s telling that I’m writing to you in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s e-mails. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, really is about the danger of us trusting the narrative rather than questioning the narrator. I think that’s a lesson many of us—on all sides of the political spectrum—need to learn again. It was an education to be working on this book this past year.

SE: Hearing about the radical impact that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller had in Iceland, I’m curious to know about Bergsson’s work following that book. This was (I believe) his second published novel, in 1966, and there has been quite a steady output since then, going right up into 2014. What is the work since then like, and is there something of a shadow cast over it by the impact of this early, major work?

LS: One of the key incursions made by this book was that it advanced the novel by skewering the fetish for biography, particularly for overly laudatory biographies: Tómas is an anti-hero, fleshly and led by appetite, and as such he’s both true to Icelandic culture and a way to parody it. In one sense, nothing Guðbergur wrote lived up to this—it’s been in three editions in Iceland, over the years—but it’s also true that the effect of it in 1967 exceeded the number of readers: perhaps like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, far more people had an opinion on than had actually read it. (There’s a bit of a joke today that everyone in Iceland owns a copy but almost no-one has finished it. That’s not quite fair, but it’s like Don Quixote or Infinite Jest: you’d want to be able to say you’ve read it, but perhaps haven’t.)

That’s not to say he hasn’t had great successes and continued cultural importance: there’s a museum devoted to his life and works, he’s been the subject of international symposia, received from the King of Spain the award De la orden de Isabel la Católica, a huge deal for Spain, translated numerous writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Don Quixote (twice!) into Icelandic, and his own books have won acclaim. The other book he’s most known for is probably The Swan, because it won the Iceland Literary Prize in 1991; it explores the sufferings and toils of rural life, in ways that Bestseller touches on, but it’s an inverse of that book in that it’s set in the country whereas Bestseller is really set in the city and aware of the country. Plus the protagonist is a young girl, not a near-senile man. It was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. But there are other gems: he also received the Icelandic Literary Prize in 1997 for a book whose title translates as “Father and Mother and The Mysterious Power of Childhood,” a fictional autobiography. And his novel Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma, a title usually translated as “The Mind’s Tormented Love,” also uses diaries and the conceit of a man writing in his basement. I’d see the shadow cast by Bestseller more as a reaching, that it’s exploring themes that other books also turn to. And Guðbergur’s continued success make clear he’s far from a one-hit wonder: Bestseller may be his most important book, but it’s so because of the literary environment of the time, not necessarily because it’s his most accomplished or read.

SE: It’s interesting to hear you bring up Trump in this context—I suppose right now it’s a very unavoidable subject, but it also brings up a question that I’m always interested in when we’re talking about translations. What sorts of things would you say this brings to a U.S. context—words, ideas, plots, characters that you think can add something to our understanding of the world?

LS: Bestseller‘s very taken with the idea of meritocracy: one key subplot concerns Tómas being passed over for promotions he feels are owed him. It’s hard to know whether to side with his view or not: on the one hand, he seems to be a dependable kind of worker with great experience. On the other, he’s clearly old-fashioned and bumbling and the guys that get the management positions are perhaps scoundrels and fraudsters, but they’re also high-flying in ways he isn’t. We’re living at a moment where the first family is the manifestation of that process: they believe they’ve succeeded by merit, and many people want to buy into that because it would mean they, too, could succeed by merit. But merit has very little to do with it: privilege, nepotism, access to cash, and lack of scruples have more to do with it. At the heart of the book is a group called the Board or the Table, who eat together in a restaurant in Reykjavík. They’re the movers and shakers of Iceland, and there are definite hierarchies of who sits where. But the joke is that they’re insular and all they’re doing is eating: they’re less a Board than a table. And I think Bestseller can help us realize the illusion, see that the emperor’s new clothes are actually no clothes at all. The novel begins with the narrator trying to write his autobiography in a way that emphasizes his noble descent, and he has to give up right away: it’s nonsense. And that move seems one we need to make now: so much of what’s being said about transparency and such like is nonsense, literally: it doesn’t not accord with any definition of words in any dictionary or common usage anywhere. In one sense, this isn’t a political point: it should be possible to agree with Trump’s politics and still notice the nonsense. But either we’re so partisan that’s impossible, or so post-political that the politics doesn’t matter at all: the illusion does.

SE: Lastly, to circle back to what you were saying about Bestseller having a sense that there’s a whole world out there that exceeds Iceland, do you feel like this is kind of an Icelandic thing? I mean, there are some countries I could think of (e.g. America) where it seems that most authors don’t tend to be troubled by such thoughts when writing a novel. And as a related question, what was it like walking the line of keeping this book firmly rooted in what must be a very Icelandic sort of prose and culture, while also making it a work of its own in English?

LS: My sense of Icelandic literature, particularly contemporary writing—and much contemporary writing does owe a debt that starts with Bestseller, to the ways it exploded conventions and expectations of literature—is a beautiful paradox in which the world, both spiritually and geographically, is profoundly Icelandic, often including very esoteric meditation on dirt floor homes or sheep herding or the fishing industry, and yet will often draw on many languages (it’s not uncommon to encounter Danish, English, and German in an Icelandic book, alongside poetic coinages) and either allude to or reference directly other places and cultures and literary situations. Guðbergur is heavily associated with the town of Grindavík, but engages with it in ways that cast it as a kind of Florence. Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s beautiful and sad Hér (which I got to translate as Children in Reindeer Woods) exists in this no-place that’s both Iceland and non-Iceland, and it’s informed as much by her experience of Spain as Iceland.

I think many writers reach beyond the place they’re from or writing about, even as they’re writing about it. But that seems to be particularly common within the Icelandic writing I spend time reading—I’m not saying it’s true of all Icelandic writing (I don’t see it as much in the poetry, and not in the thrillers), but I don’t want to be an outsider claiming to know exhaustively all of Icelandic writing: there’s a sense in what I see is often pre-selected by publishers as right for translation. But I would feel comfortable saying that Icelandic insularity means, post-Bestseller, not a navel-gazing focus on one’s own small island, but on the fact that you need to be aware of a world beyond your island to recognize it is an island—and so Icelandic writings often tends to triangulate narrowly Icelandic phenomena via other cultural events. That’s not to say there aren’t blind spots: Icelandic writing can be years behind American when it comes to thinking through race, and one other challenge I had with Bestseller was working out just how much the novel was challenging racist tropes and where it was repeating them; the story-within-a-story about the black baby is going to be something that American readers take issue with, and should. So we have to be careful about being overly full of praise for Icelandic open-mindedness. I know there’s plenty of criticism of that from within Iceland. But I do think, to go back to one of your prior questions, we can learn something from Bestseller and Icelandic literature more widely: that there’s a way to be of one’s nation, aware of and engaged with the place you’re from, without being protectionist and closed-minded: to be nationally international, or something.

On Bolaño, Art, and Fascism

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

It’s rather fitting the my column on the cultural roots of fascism in America comes out amid the latest cluster bombing of bombshells from President Trump—the latest being the currently evolving story surrounding his son, Donald, Jr.’s, betrayal of America by colluding with the Russian government to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton during the summer of 2016.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that our government is fascist. No one worth taking seriously is saying anything of the sort, for the simple reason that it’s not true. Our votes still matter, we still hold free and fair elections, we have a division of power in our government.

However, it’s clear to me that our culture is beginning to lean toward one that enables fascist government. That is, powerful politicians and their strategists are exploiting fears and hatreds to manipulate large swaths of the voting public. Anti-intellectualism has reached the point that a majority of Republicans now say that higher education is a bad thing for America. The Republican President regularly spouts enormous, grotesque lies that go far, far beyond the twisting of facts typical of any harmless, garden-variety politician in any reasonable democracy. And the Republican Party is now engaged in massive, racially inflected voter suppression efforts to help game the next election.

I would argue that these things are consistent with a culture of fascism. That is, a dangerous culture that makes fascist government possible, that we could say is a pre-condition of fascist government existing. As I explain in the column, this is where I have found Roberto Bolaño so instructive. As I have reflected on his books in the past year or so, it seems to me that he understood things about how the culture of fascism has infected the Americans and the West, and he put these things into his books. My column is an opening salvo into some of that territory.

Bolaño also opened up the very interesting overlap between fascism and art, a subject that I have not seen discussed very much (other than in Thomas Mann’s masterful novel Doctor Faustus, which is essential reading at any time, and especially these days). I discuss this a little in the column as well, although it is a very big question, and there is still very much to think about here. But it does seem to me that there is something going on, some overlap among art, the performances of the President and other partisan media personalities, and the embryonic Internet-native communications and social performances that we are all feeling our way through these days.

There column is here. I hope you give it a look.

Strong Recommend: Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

I’m hoping to write a little more in-depth about this book down the line, but here’s a strong recommendation for Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things. Basically, this is an extraordinarily thorough, compelling single-volume history of consumerism, starting in roughly 1500 and continuing up through the present day.

As a work of history, Empire of Things is mammoth and revelatory. But it is also a book that comments very much on the present day. Basically, Trentmann puts contemporary debates about materialism and environmental decay into the context of the 200 years or so that have formed the modern consumeristic world as we know it. This adds a very important layer to our understanding of these problems and how we can possibly solve them.

So, for that one reason, this is a really necessary read. In addition to that, this is just a plain fascinating book, with all sorts of facts and statistics from the last 500 years or so. It’s a very eye-opening read, one that puts the lie to a lot of received opinions and makes little-known histories visible.

There is lot of information in this book, and Trentmann knows how to turn this raw information into knowledge and narratives, which makes it very powerful. I strongly recommend this book as a big summer read. It will change how you look at our contemporary society.

Summer Pledge Drive

It’s that time where I ask you to pledge a few dollars if you like what you’re seeing at this site and at The Quarterly Conversation.

To make things a little nicer, I’ll send over The Missing Books to anybody who donates $15 or more. This will include the original edition of TMB, plus all new editions (one is forthcoming very soon!).

Let me (very briefly) talk about online content and subscriptions. This site and The Quarterly Conversation are free. The very idea and purpose of them—which is to create and spread high-value information for the good of the artistic community—defines them as free, open-to-all ventures. They don’t really serve their purpose if they’re paywalled, and they will never be paywalled.

For various reasons, advertising isn’t a sustainable income source on the Web. It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge, New York Times venture or a tiny literary blog, ads alone don’t suffice in the Web economy as we currently know it. (If you’re curious to know more, Josh Marshall does a good job of delving into the logic of this over here and elsewhere.)

It’s increasingly popular to use a hybrid ads/subscription model, where advertising gets some revenue from more incidental users, and where subscriptions are for the core audience who highly values a website, uses it a lot, and is willing to put up a little money to support it.

That’s basically what I’m asking for here with the summer pledge drive.

Let me share a little of what I’ve provided in 2017:

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve done 11 in-depth interviews with publishers, authors, and translators doing worthwhile projects. I’ve maintained my list of Interesting New Titles, one of the most high-traffic pages on this website. I’ve recommended tons and tons of books (both here and on my social media feeds—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). I’ve promoted crowdfunding campaigns for worthy new ventures in our literary world. I’ve edited and brought online two new issues of The Quarterly Conversation.

Based on how much of this content gets shared around the Web and visited here, a lot of people find this to be high-value stuff. If you’re one of those people who finds this useful, important, and beneficial to the community at large, a subscription goes a long ways toward enabling me to do more and more of this sort of thing.

If you’d like to subscribe, you can make a one-time-only donation or a recurring donation with the Paypal buttons below. You can also use the link to my Patreon page (at the bottom) to set up recurring donations.









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Interesting New Books — July 2017

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams. July 3.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. July 4. Paperback release of a book you may have missed and should really give a look to.

Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility by Francesco Berardi. July 4.

The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News by Arkady Ostrovsky. July 4.

Class, Race and Marxism by David Roediger. July 4.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor. July 11. His only novel.

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. July 11.

Moving Kings: A Novel by Joshua Cohen. Jul 11.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðberger Bergsson. July 11. Reputed to be the “Icelandic Ulysses.”

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. July 11. Available for the first time in paperback.

Like a Fading Shadow: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Jul 18.

History is Our Mother: Three Libretti: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Magic Flute by Alice Goodman. July 18. You don’t need to like opera to love these brilliant libretti.

The Dark Dark: Stories by Samantha Hunt. July 18.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan. July 25.

A Few Thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in 1864, three years into the Civil War, as a helpful subtitle instructs us at the beginning of the movie. The entirety of the film takes place at a secluded girls school in the Virginia wilderness, and there is a quality of Southern gothic here. This is one of those movies that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, mostly abstracts away the outside world to focus on the interiority of its small cast and the drama that they confront.

Things get started when the young Jane (played by Angourie Rice), out picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. He has been immobilized by a gunshot to his lower leg, and he will surely die if Jane does not bring him back to the school. She of course does, tipping off a series of events that will comprise the meat of the movie.

Immediately, Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman), the middle-aged, authoritative doyen of the school, takes charge of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), secluding him in the music room and ministering to his wounds. There are some gory shots here of Farnsworth stitching the Corporal up, and she is immediately established as the powerful, worldly, gritty woman opposite Kirsten Dunst’s much more softer, more naive Edwina, who teaches in the school as Farnsworth’s sort of second-in-command.

Coppola wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter: this is deep in the Confederacy, where a Yankee soldier is certainly not welcome, but it’s been ages since Farnsworth and Edwina have seen a man, particularly a striking, muscular one like the Corporal. After tending to his wounds, Farnsworth declares her intent to wash the Corporal’s body (he is still passed out from his injuries), and predictably her hands continue gravitating toward a certain part of his anatomy.

There is also the young and sexy Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student in the school who is a young woman on the verge of sexual discovery and who is clearly intrigued by the arrival of a man in their midst.

For his own part, the Corporal realizes how precarious his position is, that Farnsworth can hand him over to passing mobs of Confederate soldiers at any time, so he contrives to stimulate the women’s fascination with him. Of course, part of his interest here is in his own sexual desires are clearly coming into play, even as he works to ingratiate himself with the woman as a act of pure survival. Part of the intrigue of these early scenes of the movie is to watch as these characters all strive to define their aims: they are all beguiled to an extent by the ripe sexuality that has suddenly appeared in their lives, but they also have other prominent motives that shape their acts.

It is in the movie’s first half that Coppola’s directing, which netted her the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award, is at her best. Virtually none of the film’s communication is done out in the open, instead coming across through doubled meanings, facial expressions, gestures, small acts, and the like. Coppola brilliantly teases out these threads, defining the principal characters’ traits and motives, all while giving an evocative sense of Southern manners and the complex situation of the Civil War. The movie is suffused by a profound aura of femininity, and one very much feels that Farrell’s Corporal is injecting alien elements into the school’s female realm.

On the whole the cast counts seven women all at differing ages form pre-teen to Farnsworth (which I would guess at about 50). Coppola puts together a fascinating and satisfying composite picture of girlhood and womanhood, and there are many small touches throughout that work together to construct a complete picture of femininity, particularly the sense of femininity that existed in the middle of the 19th century amid Southern antebellum culture. Clearly there is some revisionist intent to such a project, as one can’t but help compare the lives of these women to the lives of women today (there was much knowing laughter in the screening I saw), but one also gets the sense of constructing its own world, and one that is not typically seen on the silver screen.

In this way the movie proceeds toward its inevitable crisis point (spoiler alert). For motives that are not entirely clear, the Corporal has been leading Edwina on, to the point where he promises to come into her bedroom after a lush dinner that is meant to be the Corporal’s send-off out of the school and back into the world. Yet, it is obviously Alicia that he wants to bed. And this is where Edwina discovers him in one shocking moment of outrage and hurt, even as she has made herself beautiful and prepared herself to be taken by the Corporal. In the ensuring chaos the Corporal is thrown down a flight of stairs, and he freshly healed leg is broken open again. Farnsworth declares that the only way to save him is to amputate the leg, which she does. When the Corporal next awakes, he flies into a rage, taking the amputation as an act of revenge for him not choosing to come to Farnsworth’s bedroom.

It is in the concluding 30 minutes that follow this scene that Coppola’s The Beguiled begins to break down. The characters that have been so lovingly tended by Coppola now revert to types, caught up in the straightjacket of Farrell’s extraordinarily overwrought rage. So too does the plot, which had been ambiguous and alluring, and now becomes something along the lines of a thriller. The movie concludes with a fairly predictable trajectory, and we are left with something that, fortunately, ends before it does mortal damage to that beautiful first hour, but which still leaves us disappointed that a movie with such promise did not find a better end.

More than anything else, this concluding half hour feels too rushed, the mixture of motives and gestures that made the pre-amputation parts so rich are absent here, and the plot seems to move mechanically toward its solution. The great pleasure in watching The Beguiled is in trying to figure out just what everybody wants, what they are admitting to themselves and to each other, what they are hiding, how much of what they want they’re going to manage to get, and how this weird interlude that has taken control of all their lives will be solved. This is the brilliance of the film, and at its best it is truly great filmmaking. But all of that comes to an end once the Corporal turns into a rage-fueled caricature, where the nuance and mystery and balance of competing emotions is turned into a clear and obvious need to get rid of him by any means.

Coppola’s The Beguiled is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Instead of basing the film around the male character, as the Eastwood The Beguiled does, in Coppola’s the women become the stars, and the world evoked is a feminine one, not a macho one. This is a fascinating idea, and one appreciates the many touches that turn this film from a male point of view into a female one, but ultimately the ending of Coppola’s The Beguiled feels too over-determined to leave a viewer with a lasting impression or a final conundrum to take with you out of the theater.

During my viewing of The Beguiled, the film often reminded me of a couple of movies that left this one weak by comparison. The first is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, about a pre–Civil War band of naive settlers who are somewhat captive to their macho leader, Meek. As with Coppola’s film, this is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of a Western macho narrative—the world of women definitely dominates Reichardt’s film, and there is a strong female character who comes to define its plot. But, notably, Reichardt goes much further, engaging the historical narratives that surround Meek’s Cutoff to a much greater degree, and never letting the film resolve into a clear sense of right and wrong.

The Beguiled also made me think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, a film very much about feminine identity and solidarity, and one whose three principle female characters are set against a male interloper. As with Coppola, Altman very creatively uses the landscape in 3 Women to open up the characters and their traits, and he is also able to open up the female world to the eyes of the viewer. Where Altman overcomes Coppola is in the ending, which opens up the film’s possibilities instead of concluding them, never reverting to type or convention.

On the whole I would probably recommend The Beguiled. There is very much to like and discuss about it, and the visible texture of the film is magnificent. I only wish that Coppola had let her film find the ending that it wanted, instead of assigning it a conclusion that follows typical Hollywood convention.

Translator Daniel Hahn on Winning the International Dublin Literary Award and Endowing a New Translation Award

Earlier this week, author José Eduardo Agualusa received the International Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion. As translator of this book, Daniel Hahn received the award as well, and they split the €100,000 prize money €75,000/€25,000.

Daniel promptly pledged to donate half of his award prize to help endow a new translation prize, the TA First Translation Prize, which awards £2,000 to a first-time translator and their editor.

I reached out to Daniel to find out more about this new award, why he donated his winnings, and what translators can do to break into the business. Below is our conversation.


Scott Esposito: In your remarks after declaring your intention to donate half of your winnings from the International Dublin Literary Award to a new award to honor debut translators, you noted that translation “remains a difficult [field] for newcomers to break into.” What are some of the difficulties of breaking in, and how does this award address them?

Daniel Hahn: At the moment, there are more people who want to translate than there is work to keep us all as busy as we’d like (a problem I’ll come back to later). This means there’s competition for the work (not a bad thing), but also that it’s relatively easier for understandably risk-averse publishers to stick with a handful of translators they already know, rather than expanding the field except in unusual cases. Of course that suits me well enough personally, but it’s problematic, not least because it’s often through new translators that we find new writers, that we manage to diversify to new languages, and so forth.

I was on the Dublin shortlist with another translator who like me was accompanying the author with whom she originally made her debut (Agualusa was my first), and two brilliant translators at the very start of their own careers. So I’m hoping the award will be a little reminder to editors of the possibilities that can come from working with newcomers; and of course help the translators themselves with recognition that will make it easier not just to get into the profession but to stay here – a prize-winning debut translator might find that second or third contract a little more readily.

SE: Do you feel like more awards will help strengthen the place of translations in the UK literary field? What other things beyond awards are needed to give translated literature a stronger presence and to make it a more vital force in the UK literary world?

Strangely perhaps, I don’t think a lack of awards is the problem. We have so, so many of them. For published and unpublished work, for poetry and prose and children’s books, for work originating in a whole range of particular languages, etc. Too many prizes can be as problematic as too few. (Most prizes depend for their functioning on publicity, on recognition, and there’s only so much oxygen to go around.) But prizes that are targeted quite strategically, to help to fix a particular problem or rectify a particular imbalance, can undoubtedly help – albeit often in a time-limited way. I think translated literature in the UK is significantly more vital these days already, and yes, there are some prizes that have helped that; but some of the prizes I think do us the greatest service are those (like the Dublin) that don’t in fact single out a book’s “translatedness” as a criterion. On the one hand, yes, we’ve benefited from translation itself – the practice of it – being more visible, more discussed, more understood, but we benefit from being in the mainstream, too.

SE: You also noted that you’re “as broke as the next translator,” a characterization of the monetary realities of the profession that probably won’t receive too many rebuttals. But you’re also one of the most in-demand, hardest working translators out there, so I’m curious to hear your insight on how translators can make translation a workable profession (or at least a non-bankrupting passion project). What advice would you give to newcomers out there?

DH: I really don’t think literary translation has to doom you to a life of penury. My rates vary but on average I’d say I’m paid about £95 / $140 per thousand words. And as an average I think that’s fine. Needless to say, some books are much harder than others, and the rates don’t vary to reflect that, which means I have to make sure I translate some easy (ie. quick) books to offset the harder, slower ones. I have no problem with that, either. (If you’re on £95 per thousand words and you stubbornly only ever translate the kind of book that requires crawling through at a pace of four words a day, then yes, you’re in trouble.) I’d like to see rates vary more depending on a book’s challenges (which is unlikely to happen), but otherwise I don’t think our average by-the-yard rate is generally so terrible. I do lots of other kinds of work, too, and it’s the translating that I depend on to pay my rent. (And yes, I know not everybody commands the same rates as I do, but plenty – including newcomers – do.)

The main difficulty is – as I mentioned earlier – that there just isn’t enough work for those who want it. If you can translate, say, four or five decent-length books a year, you can make a living – not riches unimaginable, but something reasonable; only there aren’t enough books for everyone who wants to be a translator to get that much work, hence the trouble making ends meet without other sources of income.

The good news, of course, is that translation is perfectly compatible with other work – if you’re a newcomer who wants to be a translator (hooray!), don’t expect there to be a steady stream of work from the moment you start, four or five books a year forever; eventually you’ll get that thrilling first contract, then there’ll be a wait for the second and third, then maybe a looong wait till the fourth, so you need to fill those gaps with other paid work. Which is fine, too. It’s hard to think of any line of work where you get to do only the best bits of the job from your very first entry-level moment…

SE: As someone who’s been remarkably successful in this field, you’re definitely a leader of the profession in many ways, and so I think it’s important that you’ve chosen to visibly give back to the field that has nourished your career. Is there a responsibility on people in our line of work—the translators, the publishers, the editors, the writers, the journalists, the critics, etc—to give back to the field?

DH: Hmm, I wouldn’t presume to say that people should give back, and particularly not that there should be any expectation to do so with money. (One thing I did worry about with this new prize was whether it would make other translators uncomfortably pressured if they won things and chose not to give any away…) We’re all blessed with different circumstances: I’m not rolling in money, but I’m confident that I can make a living from one year to the next, and I don’t have dependents, and so parting with a bit of unexpected money really isn’t a big deal or a great sacrifice. If others are in a position to give back, then great; if not, that’s none of my business.

But while I don’t want to pronounce on whether people should give back to the community, I do want to celebrate just how often they do. The world of people who translate books and publish translations and champion international writing is the most extraordinarily collegial, optimistic, generous tribe I’ve been a part of; every person I know does much more than they’re paid for, everyone is driven by a sense of mission, or a feeling of community, or a drive towards a common good. Every experienced translator I’ve ever met puts a lot of work into helping out those following after them. (When I set up our mentoring programme six years ago, it was prompted in part by the fact that translator mentoring was actually happening every day of the week already, only rather informal, and unpredictable, and unpaid…) Many of my closest friends are translators or workers in the translation world, and we’ve become friends not by translating together but because we met on the board of one charity or another, on someone’s grant committee, when plotting an event for the community, setting up a scheme, throwing around ideas for a new project – unpaid, “for the general good”, if you like – giving time or expertise or solidarity or whatever we can. My contribution to this new prize will also depend on other people being prepared to promote it, and to be on my judging panel, and to organise a celebratory event, and to help recruit other sponsors… – I know it will be a team effort, as all such things are; I just fired the starting-gun.

SE: Notably, this prize goes both to translators and their editor, the latter being an often overlooked part of the world of publishing. Why include editors? What is the editor’s role and responsibility in bringing outstanding new works in translation to the market?

DH: Editors are crucial for bringing work to market, in the most obvious ways; translators can advise or recommend or help to assemble a case for a book, but it’s the editor who has to make the decision, and/or to persuade their sales teams, and get the book past whatever hurdles their particular publishing house requires to reach the point where they’re commissioning it for translation at all. For a new writer, the hurdles are higher still, of course. And then it takes a certain nerve to commission a translator with no track record (even if they are, perhaps, the person who helped you to discover/acquire the book in the first place); and it takes work to magic a good manuscript into a great one. Even the most confident new translators need nurturing, even the best get better with good editing, and learn from it – just as we all do, however experienced and arrogant we’ve become… – but the editor’s critical role is almost always invisible (far more than ours, complain though we do), noticed only when there’s something wrong. I hope the TA prize will help to remind people – not least us translators ourselves – what the benefits of this vital collaboration can be.

SE: What do you see as the prospects for translation in the UK? I mean with rising xenophobia, the looming Brexit, not to mention ongoing budget cuts and slow economic growth in the UK, how has this (largely) esoteric literature by foreigners been doing on the market, and what do you expect in the next few years?

I mostly think we’re heading towards catastrophe of various kinds – political and social – of which Brexit is both a symptom and a cause. I think it’s a disaster. The whole thing appals me and makes me feel ashamed and frightens me by turns.

One thing it doesn’t do, however, is make me fear for the fate of translated literature. Yes, I think publishing in general will be hit (exports are good as our currency collapses, but a slow economy is a problem more generally – retail will struggle, cultural funding and sponsorship will shrink…), and other ancillary areas will suffer, too (reduced critical coverage in a shrinking print media, etc.), but I don’t think the foreign stuff is going to fare any worse than anything else. Mostly I don’t think translated literature is “esoteric”, to use your word – which I think is good. And the split in our country, as in yours, is such that, well, those who were going to read international literary fiction or poetry will be disproportionately “remain-voting” / anti-Trump anyway. I don’t think there are millions of people who had been going to read Krasnahorkai before and now because of Brexit are suddenly going to change their diet to nothing but British novelists and the Daily Mail; but I do worry about Brexit as a symptom – is it telling us something about a culturally protectionist, ungenerous, uncurious strand in my society that I haven’t had to think about before? Is there something those of us who deal daily in enabling cultural transit should be doing about that?

SE: Why are you a translator? What does this world bring to your life, and why should people read translations?

DH: At the Dublin Award dinner last night I described the process of my becoming a translator, when Daniela de Groote and Gary Pulsifer commissioned me to translate my first Agualusa novel; I’d had no intention of being a translator before that debut was thrust upon me, but it turned out to be fun, and something I could do, more or less. I became a translator because of them.

But I also said something about the extraordinary community you and I are a part of – that collegial, generous, energetic group I mentioned before; if Daniela and Gary and Agualusa are why I became a translator, this community is why I’ve stayed. I do enjoy the work itself, and I do think I’m basically pretty good at it (if not as consistent as I’d like), and – yes – I absolutely unashamedly do it for the money, too; but most of all because of all these people around me, who share this slightly odd but totally compelling mission.

But I’m slightly nervous about that last question – “why should people read translations?” For the most part, I think the answer is no different to “why should people read?”. The translatedness of a book doesn’t endow it with special powers.

SE: What projects do you have upcoming?

DH: I’ve just finished translating the first book in a huge French YA sci-fi trilogy by Victor Dixen, so I’m embarking next on book two, and thereafter on book three. When those are done – 1100 pages from now – I have my third Eduardo Halfon book (co-translating with Lisa Dillman) to deliver in October, and I’ve just signed for Agualusa Six for the winter. Those are the next books on the conveyor belt. Then there are all those things that are recently done but not yet out in the world, in various stages of cooking: a Michel Laub novel for Harvill Secker, a José Luís Peixoto novel (co-translated with Robin Patterson) for a Portuguese publisher, a Portuguese novel for Oneworld, Carola Saavedra for Riverhead, and three children’s picture-books. Have I forgotten something? Then there’s the non-translating work, as my translating is only very part-time, and there’s so much else I want to do. Between translations and other things I’m about fifty books into my career, but I feel like I’m only just getting started myself…

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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