The fine print attached to the Best Translated Book Award states that in order to be eligible, a work cannot have been previously translated. I don’t disagree with the rule, especially as we already over 350 books to consider, but worry that because of this stipulation we may miss out on notable books that we, as a jury, should in some way recognize. It’s with this concern in mind that I offer here a handful of new translations/reprints not eligible for the BTBA but nonetheless worthy of some attention.
The Woman of Porto Pim, by Antonio Tabucchi (Archipelago), trans. Tim Parks
Tabucchi is one of the great post-War Italian novelists and despite his place in the pantheon of European letters, he seems little appreciated in the U.S. The Women of Porto Pim is an ideal introduction: it’s as much a travelogue as a collection of tales about the remote volcanic outcrop of the Azores. Broken into two sections (with the evocative and impossible to resist titles, “Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Crossings, Distances” and “Of Whales and Whalemen”), this slim work, previously published along with The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico in the early 90s, is a gorgeous, sometimes oblique portrait of a fascinating culture.
The Smell, by Sonallah Ibrahim (New Directions), trans. Robyn Creswell
In flat, unaffected prose that works more through what’s left unsaid, or what, for political reasons can’t be said, Ibrahim’s 1966 novel provides insight into Egypt that’s still relevant today. Written as a diary of an ex-prisoner finding his footing after his release, That Smell is a stark and haunting chronicle of life on constant threat of lock and key.
Happily, New Directions is publishing another of Ibrahim’s novels next spring, Stealth.
The Transylvanian Trilogy (or the Writing on the Wall trilogy), by Miklos Banffy (Everyman’s Library), trans. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen
Comprised of They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, Banffy’s epic masterpiece is the Transylvanian (Romanian) equivalent of the great 19th century Russian novels. Set in the years leading up to WWI, the trilogy concerns itself with an enlightened landowner, Balint, who watches helplessly as his country slides into disaster. It’s an old story—that of the idle rich unconcerned with the sad and soon unavoidable state of the world—but Banffy, who like his protagonist was a politician who tried to get his countrymen to see the writing on the wall, handles the whole thing with grace and humor, though his story is bleak.
Winter Journeys, by Georges Perec and the Oulipo (Atlas Press), trans. Ian White, John Sturrock, and Harry Mathews
Georges Perec’s “The Winter Journey” is a story about a man who discovers a book, also called The Winter Journey, containing a secret that overturns everything we know about modern French literature. Unfortunately, this fictional discovery occurs in 1939 and with the outbreak of WW2, the book is lost and all attempts to track it down prove fruitless. Winter Journeys collects what turned out to be Perec’s prompt and twenty successive tales, each in some way building off another. A fine, playful time is had by all.
[A shameless plug: we’ll be hosting Oulipians Paul Fournel, Hervé Le Tellier, and Daniel Levin Becker for a reading of Winter Journeys at Green Apple Books on November 8.]
Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf (NYRB Classics), trans. Susan Bernofsky
This is an insanely creepy (and, Happy Halloween, timely) novella full of spiders, heartless and vicious landowners, desperate weak-willed farmers, bold women, satanic strangers, more spiders, cosmic horror, and even more spiders. Written in the mid-19th century by a Swiss priest, Black Spider was considered by Thomas Mann as a premonition of Nazism and is considered a classic of horror. Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of Gotthelf’s unique dialect and High German is full of life. A chilling book.
The only thing the typically spot-on NYRB Classics got wrong was not using Edward Gorey’s brilliant cover illustration from the old edition of Nineteenth Century German Tales (via 50 Watts), seen below.