Before getting into this month’s list of recommended translations—which is kind of long, mostly because I couldn’t decide on which titles to cut—I want to follow-up a bit on last month’s post about our trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Actually, to be more specific, I want to talk about Germans singing karaoke. The book fair itself was fantastic. We met with dozens and dozens of people, found at least a half-dozen books we want to publish, and ate a year’s worth of currywurst. (I also drank all of Surhkamp’s wine at their swanky party. And heard a lot of details about the current court imbroglio, most of which I can’t write about here.)
As it turned out, the St. Louis Cardinals were playing the L.A. Dodgers on the final night that we were in Frankfurt. Most everyone reading this knows about my love for the Cardinals (and my heart-wrenching disappointment that they lost to the fucking Red Sox), and seeing this was the playoffs, I had to find a way to see the game. Luckily, right next door to our hotel was O’Reilly’s, an Irish Sports pub that also specializes in karaoke.
Although our waitress referred to it as “that singing shit,” I was sort of excited about the mixture of baseball and karaoke. Karaoke is one of those great moments when you get to publicly witness people overvaluing their skills. People generally think of themselves as the exception to the rule—ask all the stock traders in the world if they’re above average or below average and 75% of them will claim to be “above,” something that’s statistically bullshit—but rarely put that out of such obvious display.
Of course, this being Germany, I was expecting ALL the Bon Jovi and Guns n’ Roses, and possibly the ‘Hoff. But NO. NOT EVEN ANY ABBA. We were treated to exactly none of that. Instead, we got a totally different array of shitty music: multiple Billy Joel songs, a Dolly Parton finale (sung by a tone deaf guy who was a regular), and even NICKELBACK.
What was even more interesting than the bizarre song choices (“9 to 5”?? Has this ever been sung at another karaoke bar?) was the way in which German karaokers over-annuciate all the lyrics. There was no slurring or mumbling when the one dude belted out “WOAH-OH-HO-OH. FOH ZE LON-GEST TIME.” It’s as if they were adding in syllables to make sure that each word was fully articulated.
No where was this more apparent, and disturbing, than in the rendition of “How You Remind Me.” Listen to the “video” to remind yourself of a) how fucking terrible this song is, b) that the chorus to this song is “Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no / Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no,” and c) how Mr. Linkin Park trips from vowel to vowel with a bit of fierce in his voice.
That was not at all how it was sung that night in Germany. Instead of the sort of growl that’s a Nickelback trademark (cough), everything was as clean and orderly as possible (cough, Germans). So we got something like this:
It’s not like you to say so-HREE
I vas VAYting on a dee-fer-RENT sto-HREE
Zis time I’m me-STAY-ken
Foh hending you a haht vurt brea-KING
And I’ve been VRONG, I’ve been down,
Been to ze bot-TOM ov EH-VE-REE bottle
Zeez faif VURDS in my head
Scream “ah vee ha-VING fun yet?”
And this guy didn’t just sing one time and then give it up. He went up there TWICE. Oh, karaoke.
Red Grass by Boris Vian. Translated from the French by Paul Knobloch. (Tam Tam Books, $15.95)
Boris Vian was amazing. It’s a true shame that he died at such a young age (39), in such a tragic way (supposedly, he snuck into a premiere of the movie version of I Spit on Your Grave, stood up, yelled, “Those are supposed to be Americans? My ass!,” and died of a heart attack). It’s hard to imagine how many great works he would’ve produced had he lived to the ripe old age of Philip Roth.
Tam Tam Books—which is run by Tosh Berman, former buyer at Book Soup, and is dedicated to making Vian’s works available to English readers—is in a perfect position for a Vian resurgence, what with a new movie version of Mood Indigo coming out this year, and this newly translated novel sounds spectacular:
Red Grass tells the story of Wolf, an engineer like Vian himself, who, with the help of Saphir Lazuli, a mechanic, has devised a bizarre “machine” with which he hopes to annihilate old inhibiting memories.
More exciting than the plot is the Vian language which,
undergoes unexpected subversions, as new concepts, sports or occupations are invented, such as “rednecking,” “bloodsport,” and “thigh climber.”
Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (Two Lines Press, $14.95)
Two Lines, which comes out of the Center for the Art of Translation, is one of the best, and longest-running, journals for literature in translation. When they announced last year that they were going to expand into doing books, this seemed like a natural, and exciting, evolution.
This collection is pretty intriguing. Littell, whose Kindly Ones was a huge deal in France, but not so well received in most other countries, followed up his gigantic novel with four short books he wrote for the Montpellier publisher Fata Morgana. Exploring “sex, love, and memory,” this 178-page book provides a nice entry to Littell’s prose.
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. (Other Press, $29.95)
This book is beautifully produced. Two perfect paperbacks in a slick slipcase—this is one of the best designed volumes I’ve received all year.
Hannah Vose wrote a fantastic review of this book for us, so be sure and check that out for more info on the book itself. (She’s very convincing about how worthwhile this book is.)
Sticking with book design for a second: Have any of you seen S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst? HOLY SHIT. I knew this was going to be a multi-media sort of experience, but the product itself is pretty stunning—just look:
I’m totally getting sucked in . . . It’s like Lost all over again . . . Such a sucker for these sorts of games . . .
Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap. Translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins. (Milkweed Editions, $16.00)
LAP! As is noted in the bio page to this collection, Ngo Tu Lap got his Ph.D. from Illinois State University where he interned at Dalkey Archive Press. Both Nate and I were there during that time, and remember a number of Lap stories. (And the fact that he totally knows how to rock a black leather vest.) My favorite was when he cooked us all a traditional Vietnamese dinner, then implied that it contained dog . . . It didn’t, but shit, for a second there I think most of us bought it . . .
The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. (New Directions, $14.95)
Tom and I talked about this book on one our recent podcasts, including the fact that Tom got the estate to chance the reference to the “FBI agent” to a “CIA agent,” which makes a lot more sense in the context of the plot.
We also talked about the word “fucking.” There are more “fuckings” in this book than in any other book I’ve read recently. Although there are a lot of times that this is used to illuminate the way the protagonist’s mind works, I’m sure it’ll be a bit overwhelming to some readers.
That said, I really appreciated Francisco Goldman’s blurb stating that this is, “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.” Reminds me a bit of Toby Litt’s blurb for Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza, which he refers to as “headfuck fiction.” More blurbs need to include the word “fuck.”
Shantytown by Cesar Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (New Directions, $13.95)
Sticking with ND’s November releases for a minute, Shantytown is the ninth book by Aira that they’ve published. I haven’t had a chance to read this one—Will Vanderhyden is working up a review for us and took the only galley that arrived—but I love using his books in my World Literature class. They’re all readable, enjoyable, and work in a similar way: At some point early on, Aira gets to believe in one unbelievable thing (in Ghosts it’s the existence of ghosts, in The Literary Conference, it’s the impossible to render description of the treasure and how it’s found) and then is free to do basically anything in the text. (Such as having huge silkworms come out of the hills.) This is a great set-up for talking about what translations have to accomplish . . .
The Combover by Adrián Bravi. Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. (Frisch & Co., $7.28)
Including this here both because Frisch & Co. deserves some praise, but also because of this line:
A hilariously dark tale in the tradition of César Aira, The Combover confirms Bravi’s unique status among Italian contemporary writers.
So, if you love the nine Aira books New Directions has put out, you should definitely check this out.
Also, it involves Lapland. LAPLAND.
Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova. Translated from the Bulgarian by Olga Nikolova. (Open Letter Books, $12.95)
Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, Olga Nikolova spent a few weeks in Rochester working on this translation and learning about the American publishing scene. As part of her education, on her last day here, we decided to take her to Taylor’s, a “cougar club” which just so happens to be managed by Cuban author José Manuel Prieto’s brother. So, a literary cougar club? Anyway, as it turned out, Olga’s last night in town corresponded with the “What Women Want Weekend”—a frightening thing that involved hundreds of middle-aged women descending on Taylor’s to meet the University of Rochester’s a cappella group, the Yellowjackets. (Who appeared on NBC’s The Sing-Off.) Those kids barely made it out alive . . . But man, what a shit show! All the awkward dancing, the walk-by ass grabs, the make-up and hair! It was a thing that can only be experienced, never described. And Olga absolutely loved it. The way I remember, she almost “accidentally” left her passport behind so that she would be stranded in Rochester, frequenting the Taylor’s every weekend . . .
Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, the first ten releases.
A few years back, Dalkey Archive announced that they had received a massive grant from the Literary Translation Institute of Korea to publish 25 Korean books. The first 10 come out this month, with the remaining 15 due in 2014.
I recently served as a judge for South Korea’s biennial translation contest, and ended up reading all 11 books published in English translation in the past two years. There’s more to say about those books and that contest, but for now, it’s worth noting that Dalkey, in one day, almost exceeded the total number of Korean books published over the previous two years. That’s what funding and determination can do!
Of the ten books that are coming out now, the four that caught my eye are: A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and Other Stories by Jung Young-moon, translated by Yewon Jung, Inrae You Vinciguerra, and Louis Vinciguerra; One Spoon on This Earth by Hyun Ki-young, translated by Jennifer M. Lee; When Adam Opens His Eyes by Jang Jung-il, translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges; and At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho, translated by Christopher Joseph Dykas.
If you’re interested in learning more about the series, and these ten books, you should really download this PDF sampler, which includes excerpts from all of the books.
The Maya Pill by German Sadulaev. Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio. (Dalkey Archive Press, $15.00)
Sticking with Dalkey for a minute, this book sounds wonderful:
A bitingly funny twenty-first century satire, The Maya Pill tells the story of a mid-level manager at a frozen-food import company who comes upon a box of psychotropic pills that’s accidentally been slipped into a shipment. He takes one, and disappears down the rabbit hole: entering the mind of a Chinese colleague; dreaming that he is one of the rulers of an ancient kingdom; even believing he is in negotiations with the devil. A mind-expanding companion to the great Russian classics, The Maya Pill is strange, savage, bizarre, and uproarious.
I’m also intrigued by this title knowing that Carol Apollonio was one of Bromance Will’s professors at Duke. (And speaking of Bromance, it’s not too many more months before I can start including Deep Vellum titles on this list.)
Eucalyptus by Mauricio Segura. Translated from the French by Donald Winkler. (Biblioasis, $18.95)
Number one reason to read this book? Stephen Sparks of Green Apple and the BTBA blurbed it:
Well-executed, with a cinematic quality and keen visual sense . . . Segura locates the political through the personal in a way that is uncommon.
That’s it for now . . .
Following on the “earlier announcement”: about Albena Stambolova’s This Being How winning this year’s Bulgarian Writers Contest, here’s an excerpt from Olga Nikolova’s translation.
8. Fathers and Their Professions
Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, although without being able to identify where it came from.
For a long time afterwards, he wondered why this creature stood there draped in black cloth, as if an extra in a busy film scene.
Philip was a pathologist and that caused him both annoyance and relief. He was the only one among his friends who could say in a word what he did for a living. For a twenty-seven-year-old man it made things easier. But when people curious about the nature of his work started asking questions, he was not good at explaining.
The voice in the receiver moved him so suddenly and profoundly that he nearly hung up. He couldn’t remember what they said to each other, just as later he couldn’t recall anything specific from conversations with Maria. He could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.
No one could say no to this voice, which was now calling to him from the receiver. Why him and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.
He proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. The one thing he did know was that he could not have done otherwise. She nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.
Time seemed to be out of joint. The days were shamelessly short, the nights blended into one. Something was ripening in Philip; he could feel it in nervous spasms, but he ignored the signs. He was spinning with Maria in some kind of a whirlwind. He turned into a boomerang, always meekly landing at her feet, no matter what he thought, no matter what he did, and no matter who he went out with.
Before meeting Maria, he had been simply Philip, a doctor, a pathologist. He had been able to describe himself in a word.
After meeting Maria, his center of gravity was transposed out of his body and in the beginning this gave him strength. Strength that Maria absorbed.
9. The Hero’s Prize
There was no wedding. They only signed a marriage certificate. She never allowed him to see her passport. The civil servant could see it, but not her husband. He had no idea when she was born, or who her parents were or whether she had any siblings. Whenever he asked her about these things, she laughed, as if his questions were the most inappropriate thing in the world. He was surprised at how easily he could lie to his friends and his family when they asked the same questions. And he lied to himself, thinking that one day he would surely find out, as soon as Maria stopped playing this funny game. Then he forgot about it and remembered it again only when it was too late.
She did not simply give herself to him – she laid herself out like a gift, like an offering. He sank into her with the feeling that he had never experienced anything like this before. All thoughts and questions vanished. Maria became a world he inhabited. He knew he must have done things, at least he must have eaten food and drunk water. Later when the doctor asked him, he could not remember anything else, only that he had felt tireless and strong.
She stayed at home knitting sweaters. There was always something cooked to eat. Maria always had money and the food was always tasty. So tasty that after dinner, his only wish was to take her in his arms and bury his face in her long hair.
She became pregnant almost by magic. Philip was certain it had happened the very first time. If happiness meant being able to stop thinking, Philip was happy. Things just happened and he was part of the process.
The twins were born. A boy, Valentin, and a girl, Margarita. Philip could not remember ever having discussed what names to choose. It seemed like they were born with their names.
10. After the Fairy Tale’s End
Then Maria started to frighten him.
One night, he woke up and looked at his sleeping wife. He watched her for a long time. He was certain that she was not asleep. She lay perfectly still, as if absent from her body.
For the first time he wondered whether a human being had a beginning and an end. He could see her. Maria was sleeping naked, enveloped in her hair. Her breath was barely perceptible. No adjectives could describe her for him. He couldn’t say that she was kind, for example, or anything like that. This creature had simply appeared and in the face of this fact Philip was powerless. He was suddenly overtaken by despair. What were his or her feelings? Only star dust, dispersing.
Then he realized that Maria was staring at him. Perhaps everyone having just risen out of sleep had this look in their eyes. Maria’s look was evil. At last, something definite. Philip had come to know something and now he could see she didn’t like it. Her eyes stared unblinkingly, as if she had no eyelids.
He got up from the bed and left the room.
After this first onrush of fear, Philip tried to talk to his brother. What he heard was that Maria was breaking all accepted codes of behavior.
At first he could not understand what his brother meant. Gradually it dawned on him that he was being accused of disloyalty. Towards himself, towards his family, towards his friends. The sound of these trivial words, which he hadn’t heard pronounced for a while, unsettled him.
That same night, Maria refused to sleep with him, and he knew her refusal was going to last.
Philip tried to hide in his work. From then on, he often slept in the hospital, he worked night shifts and became better at his job. He was called more often for criminal cases. He discovered courtrooms.
But he also started drinking. And drinking brought back his ability to speak.
Albena Stambolova’s novel, This Being How, translated by Olga Nikolova, has been selected as the winner of the third iteration of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s annual novel contest supporting Bulgarian literature.
Open Letter will be publishing this book in October 2013, making it the fourth Bulgarian title to be published by OL as a result of this award. Past winners include Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, and the forthcoming A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. All three of these novels were translated by superstar Angela Rodel.
(We’re also going to publish Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, after which, we will have effectively have a monopoly on Bulgarian literature. BOOM.)
What’s particularly interesting about this year’s winner is that the translator Olga Nikolova was selected as the recipient of last year’s Bulgarian Fellowship Contest, and spent three weeks here in Rochester working on her translation of This Being How, learning about the American publishing scene, and enjoying the cougar-tastic vibes of Taylor’s, a local dance club. (Which, interestingly enough is run by Cuban author Jose Manuel Prieto’s brother.)
In terms of Albena Stambolova, she is a language specialist and a psychologist, with a MA from the University of Paris VII Jusseu and a PhD from Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski. This Being How (2002) is her debut novel, which has also been transalted into Polish. It was followed by Hop-Hop the Stars (2003), and An Adventure, To Pass the Time (2007). The author of numerous articles and translations, she is now working on a book about fairy tales and a collection of short stories.
I’ll post an excerpt from This Being How separately, but here’s a brief description of the book as a whole:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita . . . And the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until, one Christmas Eve, the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. Unlike more traditional narratives, the novel does not provide the reader with the pleasures of a classical denouement. No character reaches a higher moral ground, no relationship is resolved, no mystery is solved. Rather, as with many a musical composition, the reader is led through a high-spirited climax, a detailed love-making scene in a chapter appropriately called “Erotica,” and a tragic one, the death of the mother, Maria, whose evasive yet intense presence in the book has formed its center of gravity. For a Christmas tale, which the novel is in so many ways, the lesson is not obvious, and if any, it concerns mostly the impossibility of making the deep as immediately accessible as the shallow.
In its scalpel-worthy succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, which enhances the fairy tale elements of the novel in unexpected ways, Stambolova’s style is quite unique. An openly allegorical assemblage of stories, written with a preference for simple structures, This Being How is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful.
And here’s a quote about that appeared in Kultura newspaper from Milena Kirova:
This Being How as the title suggests, is not a conventional narrative novel. Its plot is not smoothly interwoven into an easy-to-follow logical sequence. . . . The novel begins with a series of seemingly unrelated individual stories, which gradually collide, overlap and blend into a whole, building a complex, and yet astonishingly simple, picture of life’s paradoxically chaotic order.
The runners-up this year—samples from which will appear here on Three Percent and at the Contemporary Bulgarian Writers website—are:
Ivan Dimitrov’s “Life as a Missing Spoon”
Kristin Dimitrova’s “Sabazius”
Milen Ruskov’s “Little Encyclopaedia of Mysteries”
Momchil Nikolov’s “The Spherical Fish”
Neli Lishkova’s “The Unborn”
Stanislava Ivancheva’s “Fake Is a State of Mind”
Teodora Dimova’s “Mothers”
Vladimir Zarev “Ruin”
If any publishers are interested in taking a look at these, you should contact Milena Deleva (milena.deleva[at]gmail.com), and I’m sure she’d be willing to send you the samples. (Which are pretty substantial, BTW.)
And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for making this all possible!
In addition to the Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest, Open Letter and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation also sponsor a special fellowship that allows for one Bulgarian translator to stay in Rochester for three weeks and learn about the American publishing scene and interact with the literary translation students at the University of Rochester.
This year’s recipient is Olga Nikolova, who got her Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University and currently teaches English at the Université de La Rochelle, France.
The project that she applied with is Albena Stambolova’s This Is the Way It Happens, which Nikolova described in this way:
Boris, a young boy painfully uncomfortable around people, feels at ease with bees. The apian approach to life, admirable in its single-mindedness, makes human existence appear imperfect and burdensome. He falls in love with a girl who wears a pleated skirt. He never speaks to her, but he feels her presence as a spatial relationship his body cannot avoid. She disappears one moonlit evening, magically climbing the wall of a house. In the meantime, Philip, a 27-year-old pathologist meets Maria, a woman whose eyes, we are told, are like fog. Philip proposes to Maria as if driven by some mysterious compulsion. They marry and have children, the twins Valentin and Margarita. . . . And thus the story continues, accumulating archetypal events and relationships, until the fates of all its seven protagonists become tied in one existential knot. In its scalpel-worthy precision and succinctness, and in its psychological astuteness, Stambolova’s novel can be compared with Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. Yet, unlike the latter, This Is the Way It Happens is not a manifesto, nor a “philosophical novel.” As the author herself claims in her brief introduction, the book aims to be “the story of everyone,” and everyone’s story is a love story in which “one”, as a singular individual, plays the part assigned to him or her by chance. An openly allegorical assemblage of simple stories, This Is the Way It Happens is both highly readable and profoundly meaningful—the mark of a true masterpiece.
I’m personally looking forward to meeting and working with Olga, and hopefully after her fellowship, we’ll publish an excerpt from her translation. And thanks again to the Elizabeth Kosotova Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation for making this all possible.
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the. . .
In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or. . .
There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1
They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.
The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo. . .
Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the. . .
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre. . .
Equal parts stoner pulp thriller and psycho-physiological horror story, a pervasive sense of dread mixes with a cloud of weed smoke to seep into every line of the disturbing, complex Under This Terrible Sun. Originally published by illustrious Spanish publishers. . .
From the start, Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, published by Canadian press Talonbooks, is obviously a novel of form. Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a. . .