Less Than Deadly Serious
Every spring, I teach a class on “World Literature & Translation” in which we read ~10 new translations, talk to as many of the translators as possible, and then the students have to choose one of the books to win their imaginary “Best Translated Book Award.” It’s a great exercise—trying to explain why they want to choose one book over another opens up a ton of different ideas about translation, international literature, readership, etc.—and a fantastic way for me to try and keep up with the important books that are coming out.
In choosing which titles to include, I try and hit as many different languages/countries as possible, and include as many publishers as I can. It’s not quite as varied and diverse as it could be, but for students who have generally only read some of the classics of world literature, this is their first real exposure to contemporary world literature.
It’s interesting to look at the titles in the class as a whole and see what sorts of themes just happen to run throughout. For example, here are the titles I’m using this semester [WARNING: SOME SPOILERS]:
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Kids in an orphanage who end up ripping apart the main character.)
History of a Disappearance by Filip Springer (Fairly depressing history of a German/Polish town that totally falls apart and ends up sinking into the ground.)
Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo (About the modernization of Madagascar and includes some disgusting torture scenes, a bunch of Christians being tossed of a cliff, and a rather unhappy ending.)
Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo (One young student murders another.)
Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu (A murdered prince comes back to life and thinks he sees his lover at a temple.)
Wolf Hunt by Ivailo Petrov (After fairly tough lives, a bunch of Bulgarians go out hunting and several of them die and/or are murdered.)
Notes of a Crocodile by Qui Miaojin (Young girl growing up, embracing her lesbian identity. Author killed herself.)
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (Siamese twins growing up in Yugoslavia during the war. One of the two dies during an operation to separate them.)
I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy (Stories that, according to the jacket copy, are “seething with quiet violence.” Includes one story about tormented siblings in a Swiss boarding school.)
Compass by Mathias Énard (Narrator lies in bed with his memories, suffering from a fatal illness.)
Oraefi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurdsson (A man goes on a grueling expedition to an Icelandic glacier, returns broken and barely alive.
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán (About two boys who grow up as part of the burgeoning science-fiction community in the 1940s.)
Those are some bleak sounding books! With the exception of the Fresán these all sound like downers (or at least intellectually heavy), and almost all of them involve bad things happening to children. One of my students asked the other day when we were going to read a book that didn’t make her cry . . . Like, I guess, never? WORLD LITERATURE IS NOT ABOUT JOY! IT’S ABOUT WORLD WARS AND SUFFERING!
Lindy Falk van Rooyen for her translation of contemporary Danish writer Mich Vraa’s Hope:
Set in the period from 1787 to 1825, Hope tells the intertwined tales of a Danish humanist commissioned to report on the slave trade in the former Danish West Indies, and a fifteen-year-old girl conceived during a mutiny on the slave ship “The Hope.”
Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton for their fine translation from the Korean of One Left, a novel by Sum Kim, published in 2016:
Sum Kim’s important novel is the first Korean novel devoted exclusively to the subject of comfort women. During World War II 200,000 Korean girls, ages 12-16 were forced into sexual servitude to the Japanese forces.
Michael Gluck, for his agile and energetic translation from the Russian of Matisse by Alexander Ilichevsky:
Matisse hearkens back to the great 19th century Russian philosophical novels, with great yarns spun by unsavory characters that sparkle with the language of the heavens and the language of the streets (literally—the protagonist is a theoretical physicist who abandons his former life to be a bum)
Mariam Rahmani for her translation from the Farsi of Mahsa Mohebali’s Don’t Worry:
This novel, published in 2008, follows a wealthy, disillusioned junkie as she makes her away through Tehran on a day punctuated by earthquakes.
Aaron Robertson for his spirited translation from the Italian of a provocative and expansive contemporary novel by Igiaba Scego, an Italian-Somali writer from Rome:
This novel, Beyond Babylon, spans three centuries as it explores the lingering aftershocks of Italy’s colonial interventionism in Somalia and Afghanistan.
Julia Sanches for her translation from the Spanish of Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández:
Although Hernández hails from El Salvador, this direct and unsensationalized novel about a nameless woman’s post-war struggles to secure a better life for herself and her daughters is set in a nameless country.
Jamie Lee Searle for her translation from the German of Valerie Fritsch’s novel Winter’s Garden:
This masterful translation of the young Austrian poet and prose writer’s prize-winning novel brilliantly captures its complexity, originality, and stylistic tour-de-force. Winter’s Garden brings together a fascinating juxtaposition of utopia and dystopia, mixing the idyllic with the apocalyptic.
Ri J. Turner for her moving translation from the Hebrew of Fischel Schneerson’s seminal Yiddish novel, Chaim Gravitzer:
Chaim Gravitzer is an epic of Eastern European Chasidic life, written over nearly twenty years by Schneerson, himself an initiate in the world of Chasidism and a secular psychologist.
A lot of these sound really interesting, but with a couple of exceptions, they don’t necessarily sound fun. These are the sort of books that Sessalee Hensley from Barnes & Noble envisions when you tell her a book is translated—dry, European, challenging, medicinal. It’s quite possible that these books are incredibly joyous to read, but the way that they’re described . . . Most of them sound like books you feel you should read, not necessarily the book you’d zone out with on the beach.
This isn’t to say that these books aren’t valuable, stylistically amazing, really gripping, emotional, etc. It’s just that I think there’s a sort of weird bias at work in the translation world, where we favor the serious over the entertaining, and this might be hampering the “brand,” so to speak. If you’re a casual reader—not someone who is anxiously anticipating the next volume of My Struggle or who is deep into mid-century Russian literature—you’re much more likely to buy a book that sounds fun, enjoyable, a diversion, humorous. Where are these translations?
I’ve never heard of Revol, but a “Menippean satire of the cosmopolitan west in the sixties, detailing hilariously but humanely the lives of intellectual and artistic émigré’s” sounded so refreshing after all the bleak books that I’ve been reading. (Including The Stone Building and Other Places by Asli Erdogan, the subject of next week’s post.) Besides, I generally have faith in Dalkey Archive’s editorial vision. Like with any press, there are some titles that sound deadly to me, but John O’Brien has always been great at finding obscure classics that are unique in style, voice, subject matter. These books are frequently operating way outside of the current literary trends, which is why they’re rarely buzzed about in the normal Twitter-circles, but are also incredibly refreshing to read.
And Abrupt Mutations is the most Dalkey book that I’ve read in a long time. It’s so very 1970s in terms of its approach—the narrative is wild, a bit slapdash, incomplete in almost every way—and its general sense of humor. This is a book that no other press would ever publish, and a good justification for why different presses should have different editorial visions. The literary world is a richer place when we’re not all in a bidding war for the same book.
I’m at a loss of how exactly to talk about this book. One idea is to compare the differences between Revol’s fragmented narrative and that of Empty Set. The second I started Empty Set, I knew that it would play really well with all the translation-friendly booksellers. Bicecci’s novel is broken up into little components, but they all are written with the same sort of voice and emotional self-importance. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel like it’s more important than it really is, and gives you a sort of reading adrenaline-boost as you piece everything together. I found it a bit precious and tiresome, but it’s exactly the sort of book that a lot of readers gravitate toward. Unusual, but not too unusual.
By contrast, you can piece together the narrative of Abrupt Mutations, more or less, but it keeps, well, mutating, and doesn’t really come together into the sort of satisfying whole that most readers are looking for. The first part (which makes up more than half of the book) introduces the reader to a ton of academics, artists, heiresses, self-involved poets, and the like, each one as easy to ridicule as the last. Their lives and loves are interwoven, and they’re all heading toward a going away potlatch for O Jango, a multimillionaire who’s going to burn all his expensive works of art before heading back to Brazil.
The main event in terms of the novel’s plot, I guess, is that at this crazy party, Kiki (a short story writer and puffed up crap academic of kitsch) sees his ex-wife Celia making love to another woman, which weirdly freaks him out. An accident involving the bed’s curtains takes place and the two women go up in flames as part of the ritual bonfire of O Jango’s possessions.
At this same party, Kiki gets together with an old professor and they decide to get married. (Because why not?) In Part Three, he goes with her to Brazil to search for a heretofore unknown jungle tribe of descendents from eighteenth-century French adventurers. The image of a bunch of pasty white people living in the middle of Brazil with powdered wigs smoking crazy ass drugs is a pretty fun one, even if it doesn’t really seem to connect to any sort of overarching plot.
The second part—probably my favorite—is about Chief Nobodaddy (a sly reference to another Dalkey title) trying to solve the mystery of O Jango’s party. This part mostly consists of reproducing O Jango’s notebook of who to invite to the party, which is both cutting and fairly entertaining, calling to mind some of the more savage bits of Gilbert Sorrentino’s writings.
When you look at her, the first thing you say is: commonplace.
She’s the woman whose high heel always breaks in the subway as she’s about to board the train.
The woman who is out to be modern, but really only wants to do housework, surrounded by stinking, squealing kiddies while she tortures a dutifully bovine husband for years.
The woman who reads books she doesn’t understand. And respectfully stops to look at pictures she doesn’t like.
The woman who smiles but doesn’t really want to, ever. Who is envious and doesn’t realize that she envies anyone.
I also really like this one:
Fifty-eight years old.
She believes there exists an obligation for everyone to always be happy. To that point, her friend Trinidad, in a witty remark I would never have believed her capably of uttering if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, gave the best description of Troika ever. Trinidad was complaining about her and said: “Oh, no! Just think, as soon as Troika gets here, we will all have to keep laughing.”
This book is basically a hodge-podge of character sketches that end up parodying a number of different artistic and academic ideologies that were probably more prominent in the 1970s than they are today. (If I didn’t mention this already, the book was originally published in Spanish in 1971.) That sort of 70s vibe definitely shows up in the treatment of women throughout the book. There are any number of cringe-worthy representations of women to cite here, with Barbara Dowd’s entire story arc being the pinnacle.
Barbara comes to Megalopolis (a stand-in for NYC) to find Nick—the man who visited her provincial town and took her virginity. Expecting the Village to be more or less like her own village, she randonly asks someone to direct her to “Nick,” and ends up finding a Nick, who quickly figures out what’s going on and takes advantage of her naivete and confusion to get her into bed. She then goes to O Jango’s party to find Nick (one or the other) and ends up being straight-up molested by Professor Orvieto, to whom O Jango, in his invitation book, refers as a hero “but mostly a lecher.”
(At this point come a new pause by the orator and the complete success of doctor Orvieto’s most recent efforts: the Scottish plaid skirt suddenly lies at the feet of our tender heroine, who contemplates with horror what she, however, still considers merely another mishap of no consequence to the outcome of her quest. But when she attempts to bend over to pick up her evasive article of clothing, she unexpectedly bumps up against some sector of Dr. Orvieto, which for its part, most naturally, is waiting for her.)
Of course, in a throwaway line it’s revealed that Barbara and Orvieto get married after the party. (So much spontaneous marriage in this book! It’s sort of a fun joke, partially through the sheer repetition of people meeting on a train, then immediately deciding to get married.)
I’m all for non-PC books (and find articles like this new Lionel Shriver piece interesting and valuable), but I can’t imagine this is going to go over that well with most readers.
I doubt this book is going to win any prizes or win over a new crowd of readers, but it was an enjoyable diversion from all the serious books I’ve been inundated with this year. It isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny—except maybe when Nick falls out the window by accident and most of his friends are unaware that he “committed suicide” for quite some time—but it’s weird and unique, and in today’s world, that’s good enough for me. As I mentioned above, next week I’m back into the sincere and serious—a book about Turkish women trapped by various power structures.
I’m too lazy to go find examples, but Google basically anything and you’ll see what I mean. Ozy (which isn’t a Superman villain?) recently ran a few “Best Chilean Fiction You NEED to Read” pieces that are as ignorant as the day is long. Being poorly read is a badge of honor in 2018 though, so who can blame them? It’s so much easier to just find two or five recent books that “everyone” has heard of and that you can slot in there to make your list feel like it’s cutting edge. I mean, fuck, Riverhead loves to retweet these kind of back pats, so you’ve at least got a fighting chance at getting a decent number of clicks and keeping your underpaid freelance position.
Anyway, Spanish-language books are such good list generators. And since I’m trying to be more popular in 2018, I figure that I should make my own list. So below is a list of the ten presses who have published the most impressive array of Spanish-language books since 2008. Is my list dumb? Do flies like shit? Is there a methodology? Duh and or obviously. My scheme: Using the PW Translation Database,1 I ran a list of all Spanish-language books in the system. Then I ranked the top 50 in inverse point order. (Top ten books get 50 points each, second group of 10 get 40, fifth get 10 a piece, etc.) Was this subjective? Is online media and book coverage a joke? On the upside, I’ve read more than 1/4 of these books, so I’m 150% more informed than the average list-maker?
Then I took the total number of presses and the total number of Spanish titles they’ve published and crafted a similar sort of numerical score. (The press with the highest number of publications got 50, then I applied a semi-standard curve so that a press who published half as many books got a 25, one-fifth as many books a 10, etc., etc.) I added together all of the press’s individual book scores, then added on the publisher score, and then ranked them. As flawed as it obviously is, at least I’m transparent about the system I’m using, and it isn’t “hey, look, here are four Spanish books in my office!”
First off, here are the ten books that received scores of 50, in alphabetical order by author last name:
2666 by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer (FSG)
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated by Esther Allen (New York Review Books)
Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Riverhead)
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresan, translated by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions)
Talking to Ourselves by Andres Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)
The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker (Feminist Press)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House)
There are quibbles to be had, but I’ll bet 7 of the 10 quibbles are in the 40 point range and were tough choices. Again, I know this is flawed, but I’m doing my best to set forth a system and follow it to its bitter end, so cut me as much slack as you cut those other horrible listicles.
Here are the ten presses, in descending order, who have published the most number of works translated from the Spanish since 2008: AmazonCrossing, New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Hispabooks Publishing, Open Letter, Atria, FSG, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, HarperColins.
And here, using my janky points system, are the top ten presses for Spanish-language literature in terms of quality AND quantity:
Honorable Mention: New York Review Books (1 title, 51.16 total score)
Notable Books: Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto, translated by Esther Allen.
Commentary: If all of the NYRB retranslations of Spanish books were included here, they would definitely be ranked higher.
10. Feminist Press (4 titles, 54.65 score)
Notable Books: The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker (Feminist Press)
Commentary: If I liked August by Romina Paula a bit more, they would be ranked 7 or 8. But I didn’t. It’s a fine book, but there’s something about that voice—so contemporary!—that doesn’t work.
9. Melville House (6 titles, 56.98 score)
Notable Books: Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Carolina De Robertis
Commentary: I gave The Private Lives of Trees some points, but none of the rest of Zambra’s books merited a score. I don’t care what James Wood
or Scott Esposito think (correction, Scott liked Bonsai better as well, apologies to him for misremembering while writing this)—those recent Zambra books aren’t nearly as interesting. Especially not Ways of Being or My Documents. But being trendy has no connection to aesthetic value. (Whatever. I know we’ll lose the rights to our book—our best-selling title—in a year or two because he signed with the Wylie Agency, who likely believes our title can make them more money elsewhere. Such is baseball, such is life. I refuse to suck up to agents/agencies. Especially this one.2)
8. Riverhead (11 titles, 72.79 score)
Notable Books: Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer; The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean
Commentary: If you’re creating a metric, one of the tests for its validity is whether or not it passes the eye-test. Riverhead at 8? Seems right. Also, I included a Vasquez book in the top 50 and I think The Sound of Things Falling sucks.
7. Deep Vellum (13 titles, 75.12 score)
Notable Books: The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson; Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Sergio Waisman
Commentary: If I had included Texas: The Great Theft, Deep Vellum would be higher. But I’m not big on that book. (Tedious. Self-indulgent.) Also, if you want to manipulate these rankings, either get a book in the top twenty, or publish a ton of titles. There is a pattern.
6. Coffee House (6 titles, 86.98 points)
Notable Books: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney; Empty Set by Veronica Gerber Bicecci, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Commentary: Building on the last commentary, Coffee House hasn’t done very many Spanish books at all (you wouldn’t know that if you only read LitHub, but I’ll cull the snark right here because I love internet democracy and don’t feel at all like those lists are based in willful ignorance in which twenty-year-olds log-roll their idols and that’s literary criticism, folks!), but they did hit a grand slam with Luiselli. That was a big help in these rankings.
5. And Other Stories (13 titles, 115.12 score)
Notable Books: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman; Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman; Open Door by Iosi Havilio, translated by Beth Fowler; Islands by Carlos Gamerro, translated by Ian Barnett
Commentary: Those early books of And Other Stories—Islands and Open Door—got them to this spot. It’s too bad more people didn’t read them.
4. Dalkey Archive (31 titles, 146.05 score)
Notable Books: News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated by Alfonso Gonzales; Hypothermia by Alvaro Enrigue, translated by Brendan Riley; Recounting: Antagony, Book I by Luis Goytisolo, translated by Brendan Riley; Op Oloop by Juan Filloy, translated by Lisa Dillman; House of Ulysses by Julian Rios, translated by Nick Caistor
Commentary: If I had read more Dalkey titles, they might rank higher. Then again, the last books from Fuentes are tossers, and some of their titles are grant-based, not quality-based. Fourth seems about right, although props to Dalkey for publishing so many unconventional Spanish-writing authors.
3. FSG (14 titles, 146.28 score)
Notable Books: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer; Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia; Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Commentary: I might be overrating Talking to Ourselves (fuck you, this book is great), but Savage Detectives predates the database, so . . . fair? Also, who isn’t excited for a new, non-Restlless Neuman book to come out?
2. Open Letter (19 titles, 302.09 score)
Notable Books: The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated by Will Vanderhyden; My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Margaret Carson; Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated by Will Vanderhyden; Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno, translated by Andrea Labinger; La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph; The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell; Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia; A Thousand Forests in One Acorn edited by Valerie Miles; The Dark by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary
Commentary: 1) Awareness Bias—I’ve read far more of your books, than you’ve read of ours. So as biased as this might seem, objections are invalid until you’ve finished these titles. 2) Neuman! He burst onto the scene and dude, FINISH YOUR NEW BOOK. Also, don’t sign with . . . oh, hell. Well, that’s gonna be a mess. 3) Chejfec is a writer’s writer who’s likely too obtuse for the buzz-set. That’s unfortunate. He fucking rules. 4) I knew we did a ton of Spanish-language books, but 20% of all our titles? Dang. 5) That Valerie Miles anthology includes excerpts from like 50% of the authors listed in this post alone—many of them (like Chirbes) being their first appearance in English. (Just buy the books now. If you’ve read this far, you know I’m not fucking around in terms of recommending good books.)
1. New Directions (42 titles, 328.83 score)
Notable Books: Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa; Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews; Ghosts by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews; Senslessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver; On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated by Margaret Jull Costa; The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, translated by Katherine Silver; Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean; Armie by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean; The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales, translated by Anna Kushner
Commentary: Again, eye-test. After forty-two titles, New Directions deserves the top spot. Granted, they’re riding a bit on Bolaño and Aira, but people love the Chirbes (if you like him, check out Antonio Lobo Antunes) and it’s not like they’ve turned away from Spanish-language literature. This is a legit list that includes superstars and new voices.
1 If you’re not using the database to generate your lists, then I’m 100% going to keep making fun of you. There’s a legit resource right there, free to use, informed!, and yet you decide to roll out all the recent press releases? And I’m the asshole for pointing out your ignorance? Cool, cool.
2 Here’s the narrative that I’ve heard, which may be inaccurate, yet rings true to me: For years, Andrew Wylie (of a certain poetry fame which, really, this was a post deleted in the Gawker takeover?) didn’t represent many Spanish-language authors. But wanting to be global AF, he decided to hire Cristóbal Pera of Penguin Random House Mexico to sign on as many Latin American writers as possible—with the goal of creating a context that would win over Gabriel García Marquez. (Side Note: García Marquez is represented by the venerable Carmen Balcells, whose agency Wylie failed to buy, and who sadly passed away a few years ago, which resulted in several of her best authors moving to Casanovas & Lynch.) Guess what? García Marquez didn’t sign with Wylie, and Pera left the agency shortly thereafter. Draw your own conclusions. About this separation and the future of authors who got on the Wylie gravy train. (Spoiler: Rumor has it a significant number of recent Wylie Agency clients are less than happy with the agency’s turnover and inability to do shit for them. Is Wylie just the Scott Boras of literature? Holy shit does that idea make me smile. And yes, I know that like, one of every one hundred people reading get that.)