Sarah Gerard is a writer who used to work at McNally Jackson Books, but recently took a job at BOMB Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Her new book, “Things I Told My Mother,” can be purchased here. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
A few of the BTBA judges have talked about how honored they are to be part of this process. I am also, but I want to be clear about one thing: it’s a lot of work.
The above is my tiny home office. It’s located in a small alcove in the hallway between my kitchen and my bathroom, in the studio apartment I share with my husband. The picture is in no way representative of the way my office looks every day. What I mean is this: recently, I left McNally Jackson Books, where I’d been a bookseller for three years, in order to join the team at BOMB Magazine, a publication that consistently pays homage to the art of translation. Because it would be difficult to inform every publisher of my address change, I still receive BTBA submissions at McNally Jackson, and have to return there every few days to pick up my mail. Each time, I find anywhere between two and ten new titles on the hold shelf for me, and add them to these stacks.
Meanwhile, new emails are coming in all the time from publishers; PDFs of books, eBooks, .mobi books. The judges are racing to keep up. And the list is always growing. Here are some of my recent favorites.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray)
I mentioned BOMB Magazine. The current issue, #125, features a truly excellent conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles, who translated many of his books. It was under Bowles’s tutelage that Rey Rosa discovered his passion for writing, and it was Bowles who initially recognized Rey Rosa’s talent. Rey Rosa later returned to his home of Guatemala, where most of his books are set, and where he currently lives. But The African Shore is set in Tangier, a textured, mystical place full of almost noir-like intrigue. The possibility of violence hums on the outside of two stories held together by colonialism and the life of a snowy owl. Of the book, Francisco Goldman asks
FG: A propos of The African Shore, were there any special challenges for you in setting a novel in Tangier instead of Guatemala? Did you still consider yourself to be an outsider or a foreigner in relation to Tangier, or did you consider it home?
RRR: I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained… I lived there, and partially in New York, from ’82 to ’92, and spent summers in Tangier until 2001. When I started writing the novella, I could sense that I would never live in Morocco again. The book became a sort of farewell. But I never thought of Tangier as a home. I’ve never been at peace at home—but in Tangier I often was.
Regarding Jeffrey Gray’s translation, all I can say is that the book reads like a vivid dream seen through an opium haze, and sentence-by-sentence, is beautiful. I admit that I haven’t read Bowles’s translations, but am inspired now to seek them out and compare styles.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman)
Two of Stig Dagerman’s books are up for the award this year: Sleet, a short story collection, and Burnt Child, a novel that I am now, after reading Sleet, very excited to begin. I admit, I had never heard of Stig Dagerman, but was intrigued by Sleet_’s introduction by Alice McDermott, blurbs from Graham Greene and Siri Hustvedt, and my general love of David R. Godine’s Verba Mundi series. As it turns out, Dagerman was a prolific writer in Sweden, who in his time was compared to everyone from Faulkner to Kafka to Camus. While most of the stories in _Sleet are a mote less philosophical than any of these writers’ works, I would be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend the first and last stories, “To Kill a Child” and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” (Laugh at the second title – it’s fine.) “To Kill a Child” had me hooked immediately and was promisingly quick and devastating, and “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, a nearly novella-length work, had me reduced to a tear-soaked pile of loss and bereavement, and memories of my grandfather. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls)
This was one of the last books I staff picked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson:
The irony of a writer (Robert Walser) trying desperately to craft his own identity, only to succeed tragically at channeling through his words the voices of others. Jelinek captures Walser’s sad humor, his loneliness, and the eventual silence (silencing or death) of a voice that spoke through so many other voices. By way of madness? Genius? Damion Searls’s translation captures beautifully the skill of both writers: Jelinek’s performance and her ode to Walser.
I read this entire book in one mad, intensely satisfying, Homerically victorious sitting. I felt compelled despite its many (gorgeous, thrilling) challenges, to reach the end. Added to which, the book itself is lovely to look at – true objecthood achieved, Sylph Editions.
Here I should recall my last BTBA post, wherein I discussed Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which is also up for the award this year, and is also translated by Damion Searls. As it happens, Searls also – a trifecta of cool – translated Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary, which is up for the award this year, too, and which author figures centrally into this Jelinek book we’re talking about currently – making a complete Searls circle, if you will.
Red Grass by Boris Vian (trans. Paul Knobloch)
I’m currently reading this book and am already completely blown away by it. While I’m not sure I can do it justice here, being that I’m still in the middle of it, I can already say that Vian’s (and Knobloch’s) sentences are some of the most lively I’ve ever read, and that the allegorical nature of the story rivals Kafka and Wells in its grace and complexity. It’s not exactly science fiction, but neither is it exactly Surreal. It’s something entirely its own – no other writer has done what Vian’s done here.
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 . . .
The Guardian mourns the death of Icelandic-English translator Bernard Scudder…
Translators are the neglected stepchildren of literature, considered lucky if they get their names on a book’s title page or receive a small share of an award. This state of affairs was never more apparent than earlier this month, when news slowly trickled out about the recent death of Bernard Scudder, the Iceland-based translator of works by award-winning and best-selling crime writers Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigudardottir. Had Indridason passed, his obituary would have appeared online and in newspapers within a few days of his death. Scudder was not nearly so fortunate. All we know is that Scudder died suddenly on October 15, that he was married, and that Harvill Secker, Indridason’s UK publisher, commented in a statement that they held Scudder’s work “in high regard and that he was a pleasure to work with.”
Tony O’Neill at The Guardian has a nice recap of the hoax and controversy surrounding Boris Vian’s I Shall Spit on Your Graves, which was originally published back in 1947 and is still one of the greatest (and most tragic) literary hoaxes.
In late 1946 Vian announced that he had found the perfect American novel to kick-start his friend’s new publishing house (Editions du Scorpions). He claimed that J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves) was his translation of an underappreciated young black author whose work was banned in his native country. Vernon Sullivan, it was claimed, was now an expatriate, living in France to escape racism and censorship in the US. Vian wrote the book in a two-week burst, and concocted the story of Sullivan as a way to get it published.
The book is still fairly shocking, centering on Lee Anderson, a black man who can pass for white, who eventually takes revenge on society for the lynching of his brother, which results in Anderson being lynched himself.
“Vernon Sullivan’s” I Shall Spit on Your Graves was enormously successful when it was released, especially after being denounced by the Cartel d’Action Sociale et Morale.
Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse:
The original book proceeded to grow even more controversial, being linked quite directly to a real-life murder. A man had strangled his mistress, and left an open copy of the book on the bedside table with the following passage circled and underlined: “I again felt that strange sensation that ran up my back as my hand closed on her throat and I couldn’t stop myself; it came; it was so strong that I let her go . . .”
The book went into reprints and sold more than 500,000 copies, but the case against it had gathered too much momentum: Vian was tried for translating “objectionable material” (funnily enough, the author was still nowhere to be found), fined 100,000 francs, and in the summer of 1950 the French government banned further sales of the book.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the book basically ended up killing Vian at the age of 39:
He died, ironically enough, at a 1959 screening of the movie adaptation of I Shall Spit On Your Graves. He had already disowned the film, and asked to have his name removed from it. Ten minutes into the film, Vian is reputed to have sneered, “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” before collapsing back into his seat, suffering a fatal heart attack.
Vian’s other books are also worth checking out, especially Heartsnatcher and Foam on the Daze, which includes a hilarious dig at Jean-Paul Sartre in the form of “Jean Sol-Patre,” the “author of a book exploring the hermeneutics of neon signs.”
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .