This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago.
Recently, Benjamin Moser, author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times discussing the state and struggle of international literature in English translation. Among the statistics and observations of what it takes to bring great writers of non-English languages to not only America, but the world at large, Moser notes that “Literature is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive,” but cautions against the homogeneity that our English-ruled world could impose upon that very same literature.
The Japanese novelist and critic, Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language In The Age of English, is half memoir of a writer finding her literary voice through U.S. education and the ultimate decision to practice her art in her native (and dying) Japanese. The other half is a much more academic screed against the very same homogeneity that Moser openly struggles with. To Mizumura, this homogeneity is a present threat that endangers the truths in literature that cannot be translated no matter how hard we work at it. In the shadow of that threat lies her steadfast loyalty to writing not only in her native tongue, but also with a conscious awareness and reverence for the literary traditions of Japan.
To Mizumura, dying languages are worth preserving through literature. To Moser, literature of all languages is worth translating. In fact, works of lost literature are waiting to be discovered.
Both Moser and Mizumura mention the invasive reality of English on the world of literature. In their own separate ways, both argue for the concurrent needs to both preserve and promote regional literatures. It is a delicate balance, to be certain. One actively pursues new translations from the Portuguese. The other consciously writes in her native tongue despite being educated in America. One brings a nearly forgotten voice into English on a wider scale than ever before. The other reinterprets an English classic to reflect the post-war conditions of Japanese tradition in the face of the American led industrial globalized society. It is, however, a society that has led to opportunities of discovering more international writing as well as the decline of the very traditions that Mizumura laments in the wake of popular writers such as Haruki Murakami.
Where, then, does this place the three percent figure that is front and center to the English reading world in relation to works in translation? How does someone like me, who is only fluent in the most dominant of languages (with some understanding of casual kitchen Spanish and a picture-book reading competence in German) become so interested in translated fiction? How do I convince others to pick up a lesser known novel that took more than a year of laborious and patient translation work and give it a chance? Why does it matter?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as not only a bookseller, but as a person in an ever-increasingly connected world.
First, I think it matters exactly because we are living within such prevalent connection. Connections that can seem intimate, but so often result in quick flashes and selfies across our screens . . . gone in less time than it takes for Nicholas Cage to steal a sports car. Literature, for me, has always been about curiosity in other perspectives about the world, whether that is a personal narrative of universal human themes or a plot-driven story that pushes us to think in different ways. In a world where seemingly everyone has access to each other all the time, literature gives us a moment of pause and growth. A pause that doesn’t always present itself to us in a media saturated globalized world.
Convincing other people to take these pauses in others’ experiences of the world—especially from other cultures—often boils down to curiosity, which is a quality I find most readers possess. Though it may make Mizumura’s hair stand on end, I don’t see it as much of a stretch to point out to casual readers that learning how one Japanese individual cleans her apartment (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up) isn’t that far removed from learning how one Afrikaner woman organizes and makes sense of her life and family history (Karel Schoeman’s This Life). A stretch for some, of course, but you’d be surprised at how many customers in my store don’t realize that one of the most popular books currently featured on daytime talk shows is translated from another language . . . and how much pointing that fact out to them has opened them to the realization that translated works of all kinds can be relevant, interesting, and perhaps even important to them.
My conscious interest in international literature started unexpectedly when the editor of this site, Chad W. Post, reached into the trunk of his car and handed me a strange and little known novel by the British experimental writer, Ann Quin. The book was Tripticks and I was told it was “British and intense and about America.” I doubt Chad remembers the exchange, but I read the book and thought it was like nothing I had read before. There was a beat sensibility to it and a Woolf-like tone, but with a completely different feel and a critical romanticism about America that I found utterly compelling. And for some unknown reason, It stuck in my head that it was British. It wasn’t British like Dickens or Austen or Hardy. It was something new to me. From that point, I remember paying more attention to where authors were from and began consciously seeking out contemporary novels from other countries and cultures.
Despite the rampant spread and saturation of the English language in culture and literature, an English novel about America led me to the wider world of international literature and, in part, to a genuine curiosity in understanding experiences around the world. From a bookselling perspective, I don’t see why a book about cleaning your clutter can’t do the same. Of course, with the popularity of authors like Knausgaard or Murakami among readers these days, leading someone to the next translated novel isn’t often that much of a stretch, but with only three percent of all books published in America being translated, I’m happy to have an entry point for readers available anywhere I can find one.
As for approaching four percent, it may not be something achievable in the near future for books in translation based on scale alone, but I’m seeing small micro publishers sprout up regularly who are dedicating their efforts toward bringing international literature to the English reader. In a way, the larger issues that Moser and Mizumura struggle with and passionately work for aren’t dissimilar from what I aim to do as a bookseller. Every day I work to preserve the importance of taking the time to read books while simultaneously aiming to open people up to discovering the myriad nuances of art and experience.
Over the next year, I’ll be reading through as many of the hundreds of eligible titles for the 2016 BTBA as I can. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the process. But as much as I’ll be offering my opinions and reactions to the books themselves, I’m also interested in sharing what I’ve seen happening in translation at the bookselling level. From the energetic and passionate publishers I’ve been in communication with to the unique ways that different bookstores work to point out the existence and importance of international lit, there are amazing things happening to bring more readers (and more books) into the three percent realm many of us are eager to grow.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions
This piece is by Will Vanderhyden (aka Willsconsin), student in the University of Rochester’s Translation Program and translator of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad and Matanza, which will be released in 2014.
Before I talk directly about why I think Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life deserves to win this year’s Best Translated Book Award, I want to offer a little background about how this novel’s English publication came about, mostly because it strengthens my overall argument, but also because it deals with issues relevant to literature in translation more broadly. (I realize that readers of Three Percent might already be familiar with much of the following information regarding Lispector and her English translations, so if you are one of those readers, please forgive the lengthy digression).
Although she is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector has never enjoyed a large English language readership. She is wildly popular in Brazil, revered and adored to the point of idolatry. Her strange, captivating prose, epic life story, and striking beauty have made her a legendary national icon. Her books are sold in vending machines, her face adorns postage stamps, and her name appears regularly in all sorts of literary and popular media. But for whatever reason—be it the challenging nature of her work, the fact that she’s a woman, flat English translations, or a general lack of interest in Brazilian literature—she has never enjoyed the popularity among English readers of other Latin American Boom writers like Jorge Amado, Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Over the last several years, New Directions and Benjamin Moser—author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2009—have been working to change that. In 2011, New Directions published Moser’s retranslation of The Hour of the Star (the last novel Lispector published during her lifetime), and in June of 2012 they published a series of four new translations of Lispector novels, all edited by Moser. This series includes retranslations of three of her most well known books—Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrkin), Aqua Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), and The Passion According to G. H. (translated by Idra Novey)—as well as the first English edition of A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz), a novel which was published after Lispector’s death, and assembled, organized and edited by her close friend Olga Borelli.
In the introduction to A Breath of Life, Moser refers to New Directions series of Lispector translations as “the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” According to Moser, the original English translations of Lispector’s work were woefully inadequate, flattening out, “correcting,” and explaining the strange grammar, idiosyncratic syntax, and surprising word choices that define Lispector’s style. Lispector’s own response to an early French translation of Near to the Wild Heart, which upset her because of the liberties it took in translating her style, provides definitive support for Moser’s sentiment, in a letter to her editor at the time she wrote:
I admit, if you like, the sentences do not reflect the usual manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese. The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that elementary principals of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.
Though he acknowledges that, to some extent, translators invariably tend to smooth out oddities and correct “errors” present in original works, for his own translation of The Hour of the Star and for the other Lispector translations he edited for New Directions, Moser aimed for the greatest fidelity possible to the syntax and grammar of her Portuguese originals. In the afterword to The Hour of the Star, he writes: “The translator must therefore resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it the ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.”
Lispector has clearly carved out her place in the canon of world literature. Her unique artistic vision, innovative narrative style, and philosophical insight situate her comfortably among the best writers of the twentieth century. And in light of the aim—and what I believe to be the success—of the Moser/New Directions project, the comparison to the translation of Borges’ complete works, which might come off as overblown at first glance, seems to me entirely appropriate. Because A Breath of Life is the only title in the New Directions series that is not a retranslation, it is the only one eligible for the BTBA. Which is not to say that it necessarily represents the significance of the entire project, but at the same time, its importance as a translated book cannot be fully appreciated outside that context.
So, finally, A Breath of Life. This novel, like much of Lispector’s work, delves into the relationships between thoughts, sensations, words, facts, and objects; into the ways language constructs and mediates what we call reality. It is structured as a sort of dialogue between a male “Author” and Angela, a character he creates. In short, alternating passages, the two voices reflect on the nature of time, meaning, death, and on the relationship between author and character, between creator and creation. As the “Author” states:
Angela and I are my interior dialogue: I talk to myself. Angela is from my dark interior: she however comes to light. The tenebrous darkness from which I emerge. Pullulating darkness, lava of a humid volcano burning intensely. Darkness full of worms and butterflies, rats and stars.
If the novel had a plot, it might be described as the “Author’s” struggle to understand Angela and his relationship to her, and Angela’s struggle to understand herself and her relationship to the “things” of the world. But it all takes place inside; there is no action, no grounding in the world, no “real” handhold.
The structure of an interior dialogue between author and character—which might be thought of as defining a split in Lispector’s mind, a divided self—undermines the distinction between form and content, laying bare the ways in which not only fiction and fictitious characters, but the “facts” of the world in which we live, and our identities, what we call “selves,” are fabrications of language. As the “Author” writes: “Reality does not exist in itself. What there is is seeing the truth through dream. Real life is merely symbolic: it refers to something else.” And: “I wouldn’t exist if there were no words.” And: “Angela goes from language to existence. She wouldn’t exist if there were no words.”
If all this sounds really abstract, well, it is. Many questions are raised and very few unambiguous answers are given. Angela tells us:
I know the secret of the sphinx. She did not devour me because I gave the right answer to her question. But I am an enigma for the sphinx and nevertheless I did not devour her. Decipher me, I said to the sphinx. And she fell mute. The pyramids are eternal. They will always be restored. Is the human soul a thing? Is it eternal? Between the hammer and the blows I hear silence.
There are many such quotable lines and Nietzsche-esque aphorisms, but in itself this probing into the nature of reality, identity, and meaning is not really what gives this book its power. It is the way Lispector’s style is able to render these ideas not only thought but also felt. The structure and rhythm of her sentences, the surprising juxtapositions, and subtle, provocative rearrangements of ordinary language are able to tap into something primordial that transcends the limits of ordinary expression. And here we readers of Lispector in English are indebted to the extraordinary work of translator Johnny Lorenz and the vision of Benjamin Moser, who, by holding true to Lispector’s unconventional grammar and syntax, sustain the jagged, hypnotic musicality that makes her prose so intellectually rewarding and so viscerally resonant.
A Breath of Life deserves to win the BTBA because it is the only entirely new part of a translation series that reintroduces a canonical writer to English readers; but also because it is a beautiful, original, and deeply intelligent book by a writer who leaves us, like the sphinx, mute and wondering at her genius and her mystery.
(As far as wrestling goes, no contest: Lispector will seduce all comers with her feline eyes then crush them with the weight of her brain).
A couple weeks ago, Ben Moser was in town for the unfortunately acronymed NeMLA conference. We took advantage of this to host a special RTWCS event to talk to Ben about his biography of Lispector (Why This World, Oxford University Press), his new translation of The Hour of the Star, and the four Lispector books he’s editing for New Directions.
The results were pretty entertaining, in part because Ben (who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle) is so damn entertaining, and in part because Lispector is one of the most interesting literary figures of this past century.
This post is two days overdue, so you may already have noticed that Brazos has replaced Skylight as our “Featured Bookstore” for September.
Back when I did sales calls at Dalkey, I used to love calling Brazos and talking to Karl Kilian. Very nice guy, very kind, very interested in our books. So I was dismayed when he decided to take a job at the Menil Collection and was going to have to sell the store . . . Well, as is detailed in this article, twenty-five local individuals stepped up, pooled resources, formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, and saved Brazos.
Jane Moser—the store manager, and more on her in a second—has a great quote about this: “Houston is known for its oil and conservative politics. It’s really nice to have a literary community take a stand and say it will not let the store disappear.”
To be completely honest, I’ve never been to Brazos—or even to Houston, although I seem to know a lot of cool literary people down there—and the real reason I want to feature Brazos this particular month is because of Jane’s son Benjamin. Ben Moser is the new literary editor at Harper’s, a very funny guy, and the author of Why This World, the new biography of Clarice Lispector. He’s actually in the States right now to promote the book and will be “reading at Brazos” on September 14th.
All month, all of the books mentioned in our posts will link to Brazos’s online ordering catalog. Please take advantage and help support Brazos—one of the top indie stores in the country.
In addition to all the New Directions ones I listed on the original post, Family Ties is also available from the University of Texas Press, and this fall, the UK based Haus Publishing will be reissuing The Apple in the Dark with a new introduction by Moser.
(Haus is one of the coolest presses I’ve come across recently. Found out about them at the London Book Fair thanks to their connection with American University of Cairo Press. And the fact that they do amazing work. More on them in a separate post . . .)
(And granted, I’m not very old, but once, one of my interns was reading Family Ties and I made a joke about Michael J. Fox and the TV show. As it turns out, my befuddled intern wasn’t born until after the show had gone off the air.)
From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:
Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.
I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.
I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.
One of the fall books that I’m really looking forward to is Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, which, according to the back jacket, is “based on previously unknown manuscripts, numerous interviews, and years of research on three continents.”
Moser replaced the late John Leonard as the author of Harper’s “New Books” column, and is also a contributor to New York Review of Books. (And his mom runs Brazos Bookstore—a future featured indie bookstore.)
Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil and wrote all of her works in Portuguese. Most of her books are available from New Directions, including The Hour of the Star, Selected Cronicas, and Soulstorm. (University of Texas did Apple in the Dark a number of years ago, but it’s currently out-of-print.)
She was a fascinating writer, and her life sounds equally intriguing. I’m hoping to write a full review of this bio in the not-too-distant future, but here’s a bit from the beginning about the mysterious, beautiful Clarice Lispector:
In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. “Clarice Lispector” was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.
What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?
Well, at least in relation to Open Letter books . . . The new issue of Harper’s has two pieces on Open Letter titles: a long review by Robert Boyers of Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck and a shorter review of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Rupert in Benjamin Moser’s New Books column. (Both pieces are accessible online to subscribers only.)
Rupert: A Confession just released this week, but is available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website. And I think Ben does a better job describing this book that I ever could. After comparing it to Camus’s The Stranger, he brilliantly sums up the novel’s protagonist:
His Rupert is a walker in the city who offers extended thoughts on the proper layout of public squares, methods for downloading and cataloging online pornography, men who wear comfy sweaters (“an arresting demonstration of farmerly freshness of the kind that . . . feels sorry for you because you’re too uptight and inhibited to dress properly”), and the type of woman who “wants to rove around Afghanistan on stolen horses and feel the auras of Tibetan scales with the energy paths of her vulva.”
You can read one of the funniest excerpts from the book here. (Warning: PDF format.) To celebrate the publication of this striking book and our first Harper’s review, we’re going to giveaway 10 copies. To enter into the drawing, simply e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu with your full mailing address.
I’ll write more about Robert Boyers’s piece on Morante later in the month, after the copies of Morante’s Aracoeli are back from the printer. She’s an amazing writer and deserves a post of her own. Not to mention, Robert Boyers wrote the intro for our reissue, so we can include that as well . . . In the meantime though, you can read a sample of Aracoeli by clicking here. (Again, PDF format.)
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