Category Archives: translation

Updike and Translation

Say what you will about Updike’s sadly conservative views on fiction, the man was a great reviewer of literature-in-translation. As the WWB blog reminds us:

Updike will always be associated with the New Yorker for his
fiction and poetry, but starting in the 1970s he was also the
magazine’s de facto translation reviewer. He wrote on writers familiar
(Umberto Eco, Gabriel García Márquez) and less so (Harry Mulisch,
Mikhail Prishvin), often at length, always in depth, and with the grace
and precision that characterized his own fiction.

And in fact, if you look through his massive omnibus collections of criticism, you’ll see a lot of foreign titles in there.

University of Texas Translations Back in Business

As Chad notes, the University of Texas is reviving its excellent line of literature in translation. This is great news, and especially good news for adherents of Latin American fiction.

Back when I was first getting into Latin American literature, it seemed like every time I found an author that got my readerly energies up, when I looked for the work in English translation I’d see that U of T colophon on the book’s spine. Unfortunately, a lot of these books were out of print and hard to get a hold of.

The first book U of T will publish is And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio, planned to publish in early March. While I’m hoping they start to put back into print a substantial amount of their backlist, there has been a lot going on in Latin American fiction since U of T once lived (as I’m finding in Dalkey’s forthcoming anthology of recent Mexican lit), so there’s plenty of new stuff to publish as well.

And on the untranslated Mexican literature front, I’m plesed to say that in the summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation we’ll be covering a very intriguing, as yet untranslated recent novel from our neighbors to the south.

Best Translated Book 2008 Shortlist

The BTB 2008 shortlist is available now at Three Percent.

I don’t want to comment too much on the titles that made the shortlist, although I will say that out of the 25 under consideration, I think these 10 fairly well represent the highest quality. This shortlist does include the three books that I thought were far and away the best of the bunch, and there’s nothing here that I find off-base or otherwise indefensible.

I would like to highlight a few of the books that didn’t make the shortlist but that very well might have, had a vote or two changed hands:

  • The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness: As I mention in my review, this was Laxness’s first major novel, and it is a very interesting read. It is kind of a cross between an epic and a novel of ideas, although, despite both of those labels, I also thought this novel has generally realistic characters and a believable plotline. Definitely a must-read for Laxness fans, and anyone else should strongly consider it.
  • The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo: Open Letter will be publishing another of Monzo’s books later in 2009, and I will definitely want to read that based on the strength of this one. This book has a very strange set-up–a priaptic protagonist–but it is neither cartoonish nor vulgar. Quite the opposite, it is a very somber tale of people who lead depressing, isolated lives despite the potential of their surroundings. I look at this book as something like a version of Almodovar translated to literature.
  • I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou: This is an interlinked collection of stories that I’d venture to call both metafictional and realist at once. Though each is self-contained, the stories can be linked together in many different ways, making them something like a cross between a printed book and a hypertext book. Taken together they seem to form a portrait of the author, or someone very much like her.

Also, I’m pleased to say that The Quarterly Conversation has strong coverage of the shortlisted titles. That’s a good indication that we’re fulfilling one of our goals, to provide English-language readers with strong coverage of the translation scene.

Here are links to what we have covered so far, and you can look for future coverage on some of the shortlist titles over the next month and in Issue 16.

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano

2666 by Roberto Bolano

Tranquility by Attila Bartis

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna review

The Literary Saloon has reviewed an interesting book. In linking to the review, they note that the author’s (Arto Paasilinna’s) works

are exactly the sort of foreign fiction there should be more of: accessible, popular fiction, but with a difference — there’s no one like him in the English-speaking world. Why hasn’t he caught on here yet?

And indeed, The Howling Miller sounds like a very interesting read:

The protagonist of The Howling Miller is, as the title suggests, a miller prone to howling. In northern Finland in the early 1950s Gunnar Huttunen is the new man in town, having bought the run-down local mill and now planning to fix it up. He’s kind of a moody character: sometimes he can’t curb his enthusiasm and he’s a jolly, entertaining fellow, but at other times … well, he howls.

The locals are a bit concerned about this animated madman in their midst, but put up with him — for a while. But his spirited ways cause a few problems, and soon the complaints start mounting.

An odd premise to be certain, but also extremely interesting. Later in the review:

Paasilinna also opts for an interesting outcome: there’s not really a happy end here, yet everyone gets most of what they deserve — including Huttunen. Though the miller does not get the girl, he does get his freedom — and he can (and does) go on baying and howling. The free spirit is not, however, integrated into this petty and small-minded society — and the way Paasilinna brings his story to a close suggests it is impossible for Huttunen to be a part of this world. It’s cleverly done, the very dark lesson cloaked yet again in some lightness — which is, indeed, Paasilinna’s technique throughout (and, indeed, throughout most of his works): yes, this is a comic novel, but there is considerable darkness and even anger, especially at the petty silliness so many indulge in, ruining their own and other people’s lives.

Uniform Transliteration

For obvious reasons American interest in fiction from the Middle East has be on the rise, and we’ve been fortunate enough to receive some excellent translations, with many more in the works. With a large number of translation from the Arabic like to be upon us in the years to come, the Literary Saloon makes a good point, calling for publishers to respect uniform standards of transliteration:

As we mentioned, one of the shortlisted works — Hunger — is actually already available in English from the American University in Cairo Press.
But they spell the authors name as:

  • Mohammad Al Bisatie on the shortlist page
  • Muhammad Al-Bisatie further down on the shortlist page
  • Mohamed El-Bisatie further down on the shortlist page
  • Mohamed El-Bisatie at the AUC Press publicity page

(Yes, they spell it three different ways on the shortlist page …..) . . .

Are we missing something ?
This guy’s first name, for example — isn’t that a pretty common and well-known one in the Arabic-speaking world ?
Can’t we just settle on one standard spelling of at least that ?

The Literary Saloon makes the good point that in the age of Google the uniform spelling of an author’s name is crucial to info and books on the Internet; obviously any publishers interested in actually selling their books by making them easily locatable online would have a vested interest in establishing some standard spellings of their author’s names.

Best Translation Award on Wisconsin Public Radio

While at the O’Hare airport (?!) Chad Post records a segment for Wisconsin Public Radio on the Best Translation Award. Over at Three Percent, he provides links to the content, and relates one woman’s goodwill and holiday cheer vis a vis the cause of translations in the U.S. and our incipient literary award:

You can listen to the entire broadcast either by clicking the “Listen” button on this page, or by clicking on this mp3 version that can be found here

you can’t hear this on the recording of the broadcast, but when I first
got on the air and was describing Three Percent, a woman in the gate
area who was laying across a row of chairs sat up, glared at me and
said “Hey, I’m trying to sleep here!”

New Arabian Nights Translation

The Literary Saloon has some more info on that utterly beautiful translation of The Arabian Nights that I mentioned last week. If you want to read this re-translation, it’ll cost you:

Unfortunately, instead of a reasonably priced boxed set of mass-market-sized paperbacks they’re only publishing it in an unaffordable three-volume hardback set — in an edition limited to 3000, no less. As The Bookseller has it:

Adam Freudenheim, Penguin Classics publisher, said the scale of the project, which involved translating around one million words across three volumes, merited giving it the luxury treatment. "The sheer scale of the translation meant we couldn’t publish it in one volume," he said. "Two volumes would have been stretching the binding capacity to the fullest extent. Once we realised we would have to publish three volumes it automatically became something special."

Well, so much for reading that.

30 Great Untranslated Argentines

Chad Post blogs about a PDF from Frankfurt detailing 30 "great" Argentine writers who have yet to be translated into English.

For those who choose not to delve into the PDF, Chad also pulls a few of the most intriguing titles. Let’s hope this one gets translated soon:

The No Variations by Luis Chitarroni (Interzona,
2007): “In this book—one of the most complex and challenging texts of
Argentine literature in recent years—the Borgesian themes of erudition,
tradition, and consecraton are sent through the shredding machine. The
result is a ‘novel’ made up of diaries, notes, forgetfulness, articles,
and poems created by writers invented by the author.”

Sounds a little like what Enrique Vila-Matas does.

And also:

Neon by Liliana Heer (Paradiso, 2007): “Neon, a
wonderful example of this century’s expressionism, invites the reader
to delve into the fundamentals of power. In this novel three characters
recreate humanity in Kafka’s style. Evil is shown from different points
of view, in relation with an inheritance, with repression, with racial
prejudices, and with some humorous lines that balance on the edge
between madness and reason, justice and injustice, man and animal. And
above all towers an erotic scene that is the leitmotiv of the whole story . . .”

Some Critical Thoughts on Nine by Andrzej Stasiuk

Andrzej Stasiuk’s novel Dziewięć (Nine) came to me heavily recommended. Stasiuk is a bonafide celebrity in his native Poland and is one of the few contemporary authors form that country to generate a significant amount of international acclaim. Critics have made favorable comparisons to Sarte, Camus, Hamsun, and even Kafka. The book uses a highly fragmented, highly oblique approach that has generally been hailed as modernistic in the best sense of the word. It is also said to grippingly portray the realities of the post-communism generation in Poland.

I think there is a fair amount of truth to what has been said about this book, but I do not think it is quite as good as some have insisted. I enjoyed it, and it is a strong work, but the book’s method of composition does have some limitations, and I think the author’s goals for Nine could have been broader.

The book is indeed very oblique–quite daringly so–and for the most part this works very well. We begin in media res, and the opening sense of dislocation is potent. Pawel, one of the book’s characters (although none are a true protagonist), wakes up and performs his morning ablutions in a shattered apartment:

He picked up one of the toothbrushes, rinsed it under the tap, scraped some toothpaste off the wall. Then he squatted and chose a razor with a cracked handle. He found the can of shaving cream under the bath. It was dented but something still swished inside.

There’s utterly no explanation for what has happened or why Pawel reacts to it all with such nonchalance. It is both an attention-grabbing start and distancing, as the book implies absolutely no intention of filling us in.

This is Nine’s modus operandi. Again and again it drops us in the middle of scenes that usually bear no relation to what has come before or what will immediately follow. Stasiuk likes to refer to characters by pronouns in order to enhance ambiguity and force us to rely on surface details for orientation. (As I will explain in a moment, this poses its own problems, as the scenes and characters blend in this dirty, snow-gray book.)

Even when sections of Nine loosely form a narrative (stress on the loosely), Stasiuk does what he can to stifle our ability to make connections. For instance, at one point there is a tense chase scene that takes place over the course of about 10 one-page fragments. From fragment to fragment, Stasiuk keeps describing the details of the chase in extremely off-kilter ways. The action is really very simple, two men are chasing another with an intent to batter him, but as we jump from fragment to fragment we are forced to figure out whose perspective Stasiuk is now taking and what has happened in the pursuit in the space that has been jumped over.

Although I did not see Robbe-Grillet mentioned in conjunction with Nine, I think in many ways the New Novelists are a more useful reference point than the existentialists. Certainly there is a Sartrean quality to the emptiness of the characters’ lives and the way in which they are depicted with no sympathy or even regard for their most basic feelings, but the existentialists tended to tell a more or less straightforward narrative. By contrast, Nine, like many New Novels, purposely jumbles everything, forces us to do all the work of narrative construction, only infers to crucial scenes (never actually depicting them), and resists giving much beyond surface detail.

I found this both to the book’s advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that it lets Stasiuk work with a story that isn’t terribly original or interesting: Nine basically covers a few minor incidents in the life of small-time. Plotwise, Stasiuk doesn’t offer any new takes on this story. (Probably this is by design, as I don’t think he would find Warsaw gangsters all that different from their brethren in other lands). But by telling his story in such an elliptical manner, Stasiuk manages to make this dull plot an inviting place for an active readers to spend several hours.

Much more importantly, this mode of storytelling also allows Stasiuk to ignore what, presumably, doesn’t interest him: the deals and thrills around which a normal gangster story would circle. Instead Stasiuk often leads us off-course into the little details of life in post-communism Warsaw, sometimes as they pertain to the gangsters and sometimes as they don’t. For example, here Stasiuk’s resistance to focusing on his characters and their stories (represented in this passage by a mobster’s Beamer) allows him to dawdle on details that would detract from the momentum in a more conventional novel:

Now, adults, they slowed to a walking pace because the Beamer was lurching over potholes and scraping its belly on the cinders. To their right, a long building roofed with felt. Several of the chimneys smoking. Life was going on in ten one-room apartments. People sitting together and watching television. Women opened doors and let out kitchen smells. Men pottering about in small sheds behind chain-link fences, fixing mopeds or cars that would never drive again. Between chicken coops, old discolored refrigerators, things still kept in them. Objects rarely used or completely unnecessary, but even when thrown out they remained in reach and were property. A crow perched on a satellite dish.

"They probably stil eat rabbits." [from within the Beamer]

The characters’ integration with their surroundings never gets deeper than that dismissive comment, but Stasiuk has nonetheless managed to smuggle in loads of atmospheric detail as to this Warsaw slum. Truly, the environment itself becomes the most interesting and original aspect of Nine, and as the above passage indicates, Stasiuk can write beautifully on it. Notably, Nine pays close attention to mass transit and the characters’ relationship to it (people talk about certain number busses as they would actual people). The book is also very observant of the demarcations drawn between those who can participate in the normal marketplace (and all of its luxury goods), and those who must consume in the gray market that often exists right by its side:

They went down into the underpass, where the neon was like fog, blurring everything. In their place people regained their shape only when they emerged again by the post office and went to catch a 4 tram or a 26 or a 34 and found themselves across the river, where the world was completely different. For decades they’d been getting out of trains and suburban buses at Wilenski station dressed in garish clothing to invade, to conquer downtown with its wonders, glitz, and glamor. . . . It was to tempt them that the Rozyckiego bazaar appeared two streets on. By Brezeska, the smell of the country. White pyramids of heart-shaped cheeses, eggs, pickled cucumbers, bundles of dead chickens, their pale, plucked bodies, live birds in shit-stained cages, carrots, parsnips, . . .

The other advantage with this mode of narrative construction is that it, as I hope can be seen above, gives Stasiuk considerable reason to be creative with his language, a call that I think he answers quite well in the pages of Nine.

The problem with Stasiuk’s structure is that we lose out on character. In some novels, ones that are after other things that realism and character development, this would not be much of an issue; however, it is quite clear that Nine wants to depict a realist world, and that the people who inhabit that world are important. But by so obfuscating our ability to know what is going on, Stasiuk places large barriers to his characters coming across as real and interesting people.

It’s no coincidence that in this novel dominated by men, the two women characters are among the most distinct: with such tangentiality, it’s difficult to develop a sense of the male characters (whom blend together for much of the course of this book), but since there are only two female characters, it’s far easier to determine which of them is being portrayed at any given moment, and so we can more easily develop a sense of each woman as a person.

Eventually, to Stasiuk’s credit, even his male characters begin to develop personas of their own. In fact, once you know who is who, you can go back through the novel and see that Stasiuk has been taking care to define them all along (but you probably didn’t notice on the first pass because you were busy sorting out larger, more fundamental issues). But this process does take a while, and by then we’ve experienced about half of the novel only knowing most of the characters as ghost-like presences.

I think overall Nine triumphs and manages to use its more atypical features to its advantage, although I do think that at times Stasiuk could have been more careful to compensate for his form’s liabilities. Also, although writing in this book is generally a strong point, at times it is lax, enough so to be noticable over the course of the novel. However, I do not mean to be too hard on Nine. I would certainly recommend this book as one that largely thrives on its innovations and wages a successful campaign to innovate while rendering an authentic world. And, my reading of Nine has aroused my interest in future translations of Stasiuk’s work.

Arab All-Stars

The Guardian is reporting that the English-language publishing world has found a new region to colonize:

Western publishers are launching a drive to tap the Arab world for
new stars, hoping to bridge the language gap with more than 200 million
native Arabic speakers – and make money from selling books.

announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday that it is to launch a
new Arabic-language publishing house, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation
Publishing, in partnership with the Gulf state.

The article attributes the incipient boom to "Gulf oil and gas wealth," although one wonders why–if those really are the reasons–this didn’t happen decades ago.

For their own part, the Arabs aren’t about to be outdone when it comes to translation:

Last year another Abu Dhabi-based foundation, Kalima ("word" in Arabic)
announced plans to translate 500 great books from 16 languages into
Arabic by 2010. These included works by Stephen Hawking and Haruki
Murakami. Four years ago, a UN report identified a lack of translated
foreign works as an issue restricting Arab intellectual life. The
report noted that in one year Spain translates the same number of books
that have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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 . . .


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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