I Am a Sore Loser [Some April Translations]

Back when I was in junior high, my best friend and I would spend hours and hours playing Double Dribble on his Nintendo. (Fun fact! This game was called “Exciting Basket” in Japan.) I might be 100% wrong, but I’m pretty sure this was the first basketball game for the Nintendo. And man, was it ever low rent. Keep in mind, this was decades before things like “player likeness” or “realistic gameplay” became buzzwords. I mean, the fact that it sort of looked like the big square blobs took jump shots was pretty impressive. (This was in that period where Nintendo games had exploitable flaws, like getting your left fielder stuck in the wall so that the game would have to be forfeited. I did that every time my brother was about to beat me . . . Because forfeits don’t count!) Just look at this “action”:

Anyway, my friend and I were obsessed with Double Dribble, and basketball, and sports, and the NCAA tournament. We would create endless “brackets”—sometimes real, sometimes invented out of “seasons” we would play against each other—and then play out the whole tournament over the course of a sleepover fueled by endless amounts of pop and popcorn.

The thing that I remember most about these nights though is that I never won a game. Actually, I take that back. I distinctly remember playing out one particular bracket—all 63 games—and winning exactly one game. And I only won that when my boxy blob hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to win by a point. I sucked at that game.

Or, maybe more to the point, my friend was just better than me at all sports competitions. Nerf basketball, Techmo Bowl, sandlot baseball, sprinting, tennis, etc. This used to piss me off to no end. Losing sucks. But losing here and there, or half the time, or even two-thirds of the time, can be totally OK. Can help you cherish those victories. But losing 99.9% of all competitions? Fuck that.

Quitting games, giving up once I got down, trying not to try, acting like it all didn’t matter—these were all the strategies I employed, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I really hated losing. Instead, I’d just pout off, go to my room and read books. Everyone’s a winner when you read!

Although there are many other reasons to be jealous of my old friend—he’s actually published a book, I’m sure he makes at least twice as much as I do, he owns his own house, he lives in a nicer city than Rochester—the thing that still gets to me is that feeling of desperation when we were playing Double Dribble and I just wanted one single victory.

Over the years, my childish anger has become adult anger and I hate a whole slew of things instead of just some dumb Nintendo game. For example, I now hate Mario Kart and its cheating ways. And gross corporate ways of thinking. And Jonathan Franzen’s writing.

But I still hate losing. Which is why I get especially testy around book award season. I’m pretty sure that every single year I’ve predicted that this would be the time than an Open Letter Book would win a national award. I mean, we’ve been doing this for seven years, we publish books that people have praised and referred to as “extremely important,” we know all of the judges of these awards personally and they seem sympathetic to our aesthetic . . . but, then, nothing. And not just nothing—which is to be expected, since if there’s one rule in life it’s that no matter how good a book is, there’s one out there that’s even better—but our books never even make the list of finalists. Actually, we never even make the longlist.

There are three major national awards for literature in translation: the Best Translated Book Award (which I’m ignoring here because we administer it, putting it in a slightly different, less completely objective, category), the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Prize.

I was going to try and break this down statistically, look at which presses have been represented on which award lists, which languages are favored, etc., etc., but unfortunately, I can’t find anything about the NTA 2013 longlists or finalists, so screw it. I can say that we did have one book on the “2014 longlist“https://literarytranslators.wordpress.com/2014-awards/2014-nta-award/nta-longlist/ (The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary), but nothing on the shortlist. (I believe Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, which was translated by Margaret Carson, did make a shortlist back in 2012?, but of course I can’t find that anywhere now that I’m looking.)

In terms of PEN’s Translation Prize, this is only the second year that they’ve included a longlist stage in their announcements, but so far, we’re 0-for-2. And we didn’t have any titles on any of the shortlists prior to that. So, we’re likely 0-for-7. Meanwhile, all of our colleagues—Archipelago, Two Lines, NYRB, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Yale University Press—have been honored with at least one selection. (The real winner is Will Evans who has published one book, and that one book won the Typographical Era Translation Award AND is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize. Yahoo! Go Texas and Deep Vellum!)

There are some damn fine books on these lists, and the winners have been consistently amazing across the board. Which is a testament to how many excellent translations are coming out these days. We’re living in a golden age. I’m always following these awards, reading the books I think have a chance at winning, making mental predictions, etc. It’s fun to follow, even if we don’t have a horse in the race.

And to be honest, I’m never quite sure why this bugs me, or why I take it so personally. It’s not like I wrote or translated any of the books. Although, that said, I do see the consistent shunning—on all the lists, not just the award ones—as some sort of judgement of my editorial tastes and selection process. And I’m always curious if our books would sell better and win a lot more awards if, say, Archipelago published them. Is there an Open Letter stigma? And if so, isn’t it mostly a Chad Post stigma? I’ve pissed off my fair share of people by having strident opinions and making stupid jokes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our books got shafted just because of my proximity to them. I’m also 100% sure that if we were based in any major city—one with a legit indie bookstore and some form of books coverage—we would be doing much better. For all of its good points, and despite all of the nationally respected writers and translators living in the area, Rochester kind of sucks at books.

Regardless, the whole thing reminds me of Double Dribble and how I’m a sore, petty loser. That said, I’m sure that by book 150, one of our titles will have sunk a half-court shot and won us a slot in the Final Four! (Sorry—that metaphor is jacked.)

On to the April books!

Desert Sorrows by Tayseer Al-Sboul, translated from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari (Michigan State University Press)

It’s really spectacular that Michigan State University Press has committed to doing more works of literature in translation, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Readers deserve access to more works from these parts of the world, and it’s perfect that a university press is stepping up and helping bring these voices to English readers.

Of course, I say this both because this is the first work by a Jordanian poet to come out since 2009, and because I am a Michigan State alum.

On that note, I hope MSU kicks the shit out of Duke on Saturday night. Duke wins all the time—the world will in no way be improved by a Duke victory. But if MSU wins? That’s a huge number of people whose lives just got incrementally happier.

By contrast, when Duke wins, their fans just cackle maniacally, go back to counting their gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and run ads about how Order Has Been Restored. They don’t need any more victories in life.

(Obviously kidding. People who know me know that I’m a Duke fan—as long they’re not playing MSU. I love ACC basketball and the Duke-UNC rivalry and all of it. That said, Go Spartans!)

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin, translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg (Phoneme Books)

This is Mario Bellatin:

And if that doesn’t convince you to read his books, maybe the fact that he’s Valeria Luiselli’s mentor will. (He appears several times in her new book.) In fact, the two of them will be reading together at the ALTA conference in Tucson this October.

I have yet to read this Bellatin—a copy of it should be on its way to us—but I really like Flores and Beauty Salon. He’s a strange, brilliant writer. And it’s so good that Phoneme is making a number of his books available.

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Open Letter)

This is one of our big 2015 books. Gospodinov’s Natural Novel is a cult book, beloved by many of my favorite booksellers and readers. And The Physics of Sorrow_—his follow-up novel—is bigger, more mature, and even more amazing. Whereas in _Natural Novel he structured everything around the idea of a fly’s eye, Physics uses the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth to convey a family’s history. It’s bold and fascinating, and a book that’s already receiving some decent Twitter love.

Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes , translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (Feminist Press)

Tom and I are planning on talking about this book (“a raucous road trip in which two mismatched private investigators—the Hyena, a mysterious and ruthless vigilante, and Lucie, an apathetic and resentful slacker—cruise the streets of Paris and Barcelona in search of a missing girl”) on the Three Percent podcast. The plan is to talk about this on May 12th, so if you want to join in and read along, get a copy of this now, and send any and all questions and comments to threepercentpodcast@gmail.com.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan (Deep Vellum); The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)

These two books perfectly represent the importance of Will Evans and Deep Vellum.

Although Anne Garréta has been writing for decades (Sphinx was originally published in France in 1986), and although everyone loves the Oulipo, this is the first book by the first female member of the Oulipo to be published in English translation. It’s a book in which . . . Actually, following the lead taken by Daniel Levin Becker in his introduction, I’m not going to point out the Oulipian constraint. It’s better for you to read the book and figure it out . . .

Sergio Pitol is another author who has been completely overlooked. He’s written a dozen or so works, including the “Trilogy of Memory,” of which, this is the first volume. He won the Cervantes Prize in 2005, and in the words of Álvaro Enrigue, Pitol is “not just our best living storyteller, he is also the strongest renovator of our literature.” Yet the only thing of his to appear in English is “By Night in Bukhara,” which is included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. It’s time that Pitol has his moment.

With this start—Boullosa, Garréta, Pitol, Gnarr, and Shishkin—Deep Vellum is both making a statement and filling in some gaps for those of us obsessed with world literature. It’s only a matter of time before Deep Vellum is as well regarded and beloved as the Archipelagos and Dalkeys of the world.

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse, both by Per Petterson, both translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Graywolf)

Speaking of presses that are held in extremely high regard, the transformation of Graywolf from plucky Minneapolis-based nonprofit into publishing power house has been incredible to watch. Just think for a second about how they had four finalists for various National Book Critics Circle Awards this year, including three in the Criticism category. That’s the same number that FSG had, and one more than W.W. Norton. And I think that part of it stems from the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

That book—along with The Elegance of the Hedgehog_—was the first literary translation to hit the _NY Times best-seller list in ages. It was a huge boon for Graywolf and brought a lot of attention from people who may not otherwise have been paying attention. With that success they started getting “bigger” authors, more reviews, more critical attention, more sales (I suspect), and have become one of the most respected and admired presses in the country.

Just to drive this point home, I got all excited the other day when the Open Letter Twitter account hit 10,000 followers. Just for shits and giggles, I checked out some other presses to see where we stand in comparison. We’re basically the same as Dalkey Archive, but Coffee House (another Minneapolis press taking over the world) has 37,300 and Graywolf has 235,000. 235,000 followers! That’s incredible!

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing)

This may well be the best literary book that AmazonCrossing has published to date. Bae Suah is about to become the favorite writer of every member of the “literati.” She is like a female version of Sebald, but with more emotion, a sharper writing style, and a storehouse of incredible works that will be coming out over the next few years. And she’s going to blow people’s minds.

I reviewed this book for the forthcoming issue of list: Books from Korea, and will post about that when it goes live. In short, this 60-page novel (that is a packed with as much detail and character development as most 300-page books) blends the mundane and the strange in the most evocative manner, focusing on a young woman who works a boring administrative university job, has an awkward experience trying to visit her “boyfriend” in the army, receives a couple strange calls from a lecturer on criminal sociology, and gets involved in some S&M tinged sex games.

I can’t recommend Bae Suah highly enough, and by the time her fourth and fifth books come out, everyone’s going to be talking about her as one of the great women writers of our century. Get on the bandwagon now.

A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)

At some point this summer, I’m going to go on a Ganier and Simenon bender. Thanks to Gallic and Penguin, there are a number of titles available from both authors—all of which are quick, dark, noirish reads that would be perfect for a day at the beach. (The beach is on my mind, since it’s actually 60+ degrees here today, making it the first Rochester day above freezing since last August. Approximately.)

To be honest, I’m sort of surprised that Garnier isn’t one of Tom Roberge’s authors. (I’m not sure he’s actually read Garnier yet.) This sort of book—featuring a ramshackle house that Yolanda hasn’t left since 1945, and where her brother, dying of a terminal illness, turns “murderous”—sounds right up his alley. Maybe this could be another Three Percent Podcast Book Club book? Goes in line with the Manchette from last month . . .

The Queen’s Caprice by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)

Echenoz is such an interesting writer for the way that he’s evolved over the course of his career. The early books—_Cherokee_, Chopin’s Move, Big Blondes, _Double Jeopary_—are fun works of French noir. Or “noir.” In these novels he toys with the genre in entertaining ways, creating a great blend of “mystery” and humor.

Then there’s the “Eccentric Genius Suite,” which includes Running, Ravel, and Lightning and is a set of fictional biographies of strange dudes, like Tesla and Ravel. It’s wonderful, and a few steps removed from the early stuff.

And now, after being published for decades, we’re finally treated to a collection of Echenoz’s short fictions, which are set all over the world, and explore a number of different literary styles and modes.

Coincidentally, my class talked with Mark Polizzotti the other week, and he mentioned a new Echenoz book that’s sort of a return to the humorous-noir of old. Can’t wait to read that one as well!

Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago)

I know that most people are excited about the four volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle that Archipelago is bringing out this month, but the last thing the world needs now is another list of books suggesting you read his magnum opus. (Although, as best I can gather from this New Yorker article, Knausgaard or Ferrante? if you’re not knee-deep in Karl Ove’s issues, you’re engrossed in Ferrante’s Neapolitan literary soap opera.)

Pla is definitely worth checking out though. He’s one of Catalonia’s greatest authors, mostly known for The Gray Notebook, which NYRB brought out last year. This collection of stories is his first work of pure fiction to be available in English.

The Buddha’s Return by Gaito Gazdanov, translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk (Pushkin Press)

What I know about Gazdanov, and why I’m including this book here, can be summarized in this anecdote: When I was in Estonia last summer, Sjón was there as well, along with Gesche Ipsen from Pushkin. Sjón had just read Gazdanov’s first book, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and was raving about how strange and wonderful it was and how he wanted more Gazdanov books to come out. Well, here we go.

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel (New Directions)

There’s no way to improve on ND’s jacket copy, so, this:

Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections.

Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters; The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Sleeping Beauty, the royal family, and its retainers are not happy about being woken up their sleep by an absurd, unpretentious Walser-like hero. Mary and Joseph are taken aback by what lies in store for their baby Jesus.

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