14 March 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (New York Review Books)

When I first started reading The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell (published by New York Review Books), I had the sense that I had read this book before. Or not this book exactly, but a different novel, or novels, that employed a similar technique of letting an idiosyncratic character’s bizarre—yet compelling and logical in their quirks—ideas run free in a way in which an overarching plot is tossed aside in favor of a series of semi-philosophical sketches.

From “On the Realm of Stupidity”:

No wonder then that Lichter sees modern civilization as a vast extension of the Realm of Stupidity. Intelligence is obsessed with that which is fundamental, original, structural, essential. One recognizes intelligent individuals by their fascination with the elementary and the simple. Their efforts within the spiritual order are integrative: they seek the basic principle, or—to put it metaphorically—the ideal key to all the mysteries of the world. Aspiring towards totality and uniqueness is not stupidity’s ambitions. Its strength lies in its ability to placidly accept any theory, even an erroneous one, as long as it offers a viable starting point towards the practical results. A parasite plagiarizing the pure core of intelligence, sapping its vigor, stupidity forever fortifies and perfects itself, sprawling like a vast and dangerous stain on the consciousness of humanity. For stupidity is vain (the vanity of “efficiency”), sure of itself, economical, has wide-spreading technological tentacles and is shrewdly and ferociously aggressive. Stupidity wills itself to be “universally human.” Since the domain of stupidity is progress itself, Zacharias Lichter naturally concludes that true intelligence evolves within a vicious circle, forever fantasizing escape yet forever falling back into the realization that all efforts at escape are futile.

I still can’t quite put my finger on the other book(s) I’ve read like this. Cortázar’s Cronopios and Famas comes to mind, but that’s not focused on a single individual. There’s something of Stefan Themerson here as well, maybe Tom Harris? Or part of Ergo by Jakov Lind? I feel like there’s a voice just outside of my active memory that is just like this book . . . The best I can come up with right now is Mahu, or, The Material by Robert Pinget. Here’s a bit from “Stilts”:

Supposing I wore stilts? It would change everything. When you went out for your coffee in the morning you’d put on your coat or something longer to hide your feet, and the pieces of wood would show underneath. The grocer’s wife would say, “There goes spindleshanks for his morning drink, it must be nine o’clock.” I’d cross the road without waiting for the green light, the cars would stop at the sight of a man on stilts and you might get your newspaper for nothing, at first anyway.

Anyway, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter is a great bathroom book. Most of the chapters are 3-4 pages long, and require a burst of concentration to immerse oneself in the particulars of this prose style and really tease out the humor and linguistic calisthenics. Don’t read this in one long sitting—it’s a book that’s best enjoyed as little bites, almost like a short story collection, but with a singular mindset, the madness of which takes over the whole book and infuses it with an off-kilter joy accessible to the patient . . . and the clued-in.


Nothing is original, but it’s terribly unoriginal to point out that the phrase “not for everyone” is dumb. Yet, clearly, a book with such baroque sentences and high-minded style—evidenced in chapter titles like “The Crime of ‘Analysis’,” “The Revelations of Begging” (a brilliant piece), and “Eulogy of the Question”—isn’t going to be the next Barnes & Noble Book Club selection. But nothing appeals to everyone, which is why that phrase is so ridiculous. Some books apply to more people than others, but not even Harry Potter is for everyone. (Quiddich sucks. There, I said it.)

What I’m curious about is which books prepare you to like a book like this. If you are what you read, and the books you imprinted on are Twilight, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Lime Works, is that enough? Or will this book seem utterly incomprehensible, or, maybe not incomprehensible, but a waste of time? This book nagged at me because my shitty memory wouldn’t call forth all the books I’ve read in this general tradition. That’s a totally different experience than for someone who has never seen writing like this in their life and struggles to understand how exactly this fits within the category of “novel” that they’ve built up inside of their mind.

The opposite formulation of the “not for everyone” statement is to clearly define who would be into a particular book: “This novel is for fans of Pinget, Themerson, and Jouet.” Which circumscribes a readership of approximately fourteen people.

On the other hand, if you name-check the authors everyone has heard of—“this is for those readers interested in Cortázar, Kundera, and Rushdie”—you’re not only full of shit, but you’re about as useful as an Amazon algorithm.

That’s a lie. Amazon’s algorithmic recommendations can be damn interesting. Like with this book, which, I’ll look up right now on Amazon and . . . uh. That’s not what I expected. I should’ve done that search before starting this paragraph and finding out that, aside from other NYRB titles, the “Customers Also Bought” listings include Jenny Erpenbeck, Mathias Énard, and Lúcio Cardoso—all really good authors!, none of which really relate to this book. (Unless you’re looking for titles that fit into the category of “literary,” which is almost as bad as the category I’m going to discuss below.)


Given that I’m on my third day of new-baby-rest (yes, my son was born this week, which means these posts are likely to get wackier and ever more erratic, although possibly more hopeful?), I feel totally OK with making this questionably-informed statement: recommendations from academics tend to look backward, those from booksellers look sideways.

I used to think a lot about “discoverability” and recommendation algorithms. If you find the tag “future of reading” on this blog, you’ll hit upon a treasure trove of detailed breakdowns of “new” book recommendation sites, like BookLamp, Small Demons, Bookish 1.0 (or 2.0? Does it even matter?), GoodReads, etc. I still spend at least one class period every semester going over all of these mostly defunct sites, digging into the rationale for why everyone wanted to create online recommendation sites (it’s crucial to get the right book to people at the right time and we all live online, so that’s where you can make the connections) and the variety of theoretical ways by which these sites created their recommendation algorithms (by starting with the book and matching elements in the text to preferences; by starting with groups of readers and assuming similiar readers like similar books).

Nowadays, I’m not sure that I care all that much. I don’t feel like these sites are a viable strategy for publishers to connect their books with potential readers because a) they don’t exist anymore and b) no one cares. Aside from GoodReads users, I’m not sure there’s a significant subset of readers who use a particular algorithm-driven website to figure out what book to read next.

(A site I never use.)

Last week in my “World Literature & Translation” class, I had a couple grad students give presentations on Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by . . . Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes, a book that I unabashedly love. Adam usually gets an email from me every spring about how much god damn fun it is talking about his book in class. He’s in that relatively small group of authors who I would love to get wasted with and shoot the shit about books. To be honest, I think of The Delighted States and It’s Long Subtitle less as a book and more as a textual eavesdropping in on the smartest guy you know drinking Guinness at a dive bar and getting way too into literary ideas. “The whole of literature can be explained through a tricycle.” (An hour of stories about Proust falling down, the three-wheel theory of literature, triangles and linguistics in translation, and how cool is Hrabal?) “And then when the tricycle appears in [insert obscure work by Eastern European writers] you can see the whole of history of writing as play. You know?” “Fuck yes, Adam. Fuck. Yes.”

The joy I had reading this book for the first time—and reading various sections over and again—wasn’t exactly the same as what my students experienced. Here were their general reactions: 1) this book is all over the place and hard to follow, 2) “I’ve never read the authors Thirlwell mentions.” “Which ones, specifically?” “Flaubert, Proust, Borges, Hrabal, Gombrowicz, Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Ulysses . . .” “. . .” “So it was kind of ridiculous.” “. . . “, and 3) how does any of this relate to the books we’re reading for class?1

I’ve gone through a variety of emotions as I worked my way through these responses, but the main one I keep coming back to is the one that would get the most “thumbs up” on Facebook: why would anyone admit, in a literature class, to not knowing some of the most influential writers of the past hundred-plus years?

Stepping back from my existential dismay, I can cycle through some of the more legitimate reasons: there’s not much value in knowing about books that the masses don’t talk about, no one has read much at nineteen, the Canon is thankfully now canons, and it’s not like they’re aware of classic films, TV shows, albums, or other art works either. These are kids!

At the end of every semester I take myself to task for all of my fuck-ups. I read the student evaluations and get neurotic thinking about the ways in which Open Letter stress bled into my teaching. I replay too many class conversations in which I wish I was just smarter. I obsess over my shortcomings as a hopefully decent (question mark?) publisher and reader who generally functions outside of academia and teaches from particular world experiences—those of bookselling, publishing, and reading, not deep academic research. From September to May, I actively try and teach students how to write for readers who aren’t PhD holders or candidates, from May to September, I question myself and think I’m just stupid. Then I remember that there are very few people in the world—in academia and outside of it—who have read so broadly and voraciously in world literature. And I think that’s valuable? At least for making connections and recommendations?

As an outsider, I need to focus more on the positives that I can bring to these classes, on how every session is another chance to turn young readers on to particular authors and literary traditions (and the field of nonprofit publishing as a whole). Instead of assuming that they’ve read Flaubert and Sterne and Hrabal in other classes I should use the contemporary books that we read as ways to hook them on those writers from the past who bent and expanded ideas of the novel. Authors whose works I assumed would be passed down generation to generation, but might not.2

All these anxieties lead me to one central question: how do young readers find out about world literature? And not just the most established authors—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, etc.—but the second, or third level of interesting international authors. Those like Bernhard, Sarraute, Céline, even. Authors who PhD candidates might end up reading, but that the general public rarely comes in contact with.

If you study English, with rare exception, your literature classes tend to focus on writers who write in English. I can’t remember reading many translated texts in my undergrad studies. At least not in class. I read Madame Bovary and The Counterfeiters and Death on the Installment Plan over summer break.

There’s a similar situation if you’re studying a given language. The vast majority of classes in the Modern Languages & Cultures department at the U of R are about a particular aspect of a particular culture. “The Invention of Spanish America: From Colonial Subjects to Global Citizens” or “The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” They look back to the established (or newly established) creators with a lot of academic clout and secondary materials. This is super valuable, and helps illuminate how to read, how to think, how to process. But, for someone interested in International Literature as a grand sweeping idea, each of these classes provides only a part of the picture.

I used to assume that the best opportunity for students to be introduced to world literature and all its various threads—like the Oulipo or Nouveau Roman—from all over the world—when else will you have the time to read a few books from Korea, India, Argentina, and the Czech Republic?—would be through the classroom. But I’m not sure that’s the case. For a reader to truly immerse themselves in the traditions and voices of the world, they need some other sources of recommendations. And not the online algorithms that feel both incomplete and tilted to a certain group of titles. Or literary listicles that might provide a path for looking into a particular topic or grouping of authors, but tend to be too thin to prove valuable.

This is where we tend to look toward booksellers. If a typical academic reads deeply on a focused group of authors or topics, booksellers read (or are at least aware of) a huge swath of what’s being written. They have to in order to be successful at their jobs, even if your average book buyer doesn’t care about personal recommendations and is content browsing in solitude and interacting with employees only when they need to be clerked.

There is a constraint on booksellers as well: for the most part they have to promote recently published books or ones about to come out. Going hard on a handsell of a book that came out fifteen years ago and sold modestly is a losing bet. (Books are both products of capitalist and aesthetic economies.) So, you go sideways. If someone likes Ben Lerner and Knausgaard, you stretch to Ali Smith and Dubravka Ugresic. All those authors have newly shelved titles. As a result, a curious young reader will get another view into the literary scene for world literature from good indie stories, but it’s still just another piece of the picture.


So how does a young reader come across Robert Pinget in 2018? From French class? Unlikely. “Robert Pinget Syllabus” = 0 results on Google. It’s hard to envision teaching Pinget when you could teach Beckett, or someone more relevant to contemporary research. (“Marguerite Duras Syllabus” = 24,000 matches. And “Robbe-Grillet Syllabus” = 14,600 results.) Does that mean that Pinget should be dismissed? Oh, god, I hope not. But I get it—he’s complicated and not for everyone.

And on the flipside, how many bookstores in the U.S. stock Pinget’s titles? Ten? It’s hard to imagine the precursors to The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter being discoverable at all. That’s odd. We have two very different systems: “Commerce” that loves sales, critical accolades, and popular appeal, and “Academia” that loves critical acceptance, secondary material, and teachability. Given this, what do you think the results are for “Roberto Bolaño Syllabus”? A million?

Alas, it’s 8,900. Lots of bookseller love; not encough critical material.

There’s something to be said about publisher branding and the online literary communities that help to keep conversations about these authors and books going. Just this past week, I saw a string of tweets from someone at AWP who bounced from Dorothy Publications to Coffee House, who recommended they go check out Archipelago, which ended up leading them to Open Letter. A wonderful world of literature is out there, if you get put on the path to find it. But there’s a larger question that’s nagging at me: Without having discovered this larger literary context, what would you possibly make of a book like The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter? And what should we be doing to make sure that these gems from the past keep finding new audiences? Those books that may not sell enough to keep a Big Five publisher interested enough to keep them in print, but are valuable contributions to literary thought and culture?

I have no good answers, but hopefully that’s a direction that this series can pick up again in the future. For now: Go read this book. And Mahu. And other weird shit that isn’t readily available or necessarily discussed in the classroom. Find your own reading path to the more obscure. Just because something isn’t the most popular doesn’t mean that it won’t blow your mind.


1 I’m exaggerating for effect, but not really. A few students had heard of some of the authors mentioned, but they hadn’t read any of the titles. And these are really bright students! All great readers with very interesting viewpoints. But they’ve never come across these literary figures or their writings.

2 Granted, there’s no way Flaubert is going to fade from public—or academic—consciousness, but it’s weird/disconcerting when none of the students in a class have ever read Madame Bovary.

12 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not only did I survive the MLA, but I was also able to make it all the way back to Rochester without delay. (Couple U of R professors who were scheduled to go through Atlanta, and ended up stranded in L.A. for a few extra days. Hopefully they beat this latest chapter in Snowpocalypse 2011.)

Anyway, MLA was a pretty interesting experience. This was the first time Open Letter has displayed at MLA (or any conference for that matter), and the one thing I noticed was that women tended to avoid our booth like the plague. We shared the booth with Counterpath (awesome), and it must’ve been our discussions about football (Seattle?), or something. Regardless, it was an interesting show, and hopefully we’ll be back next year with a larger reception and even more books. (FYI: Next year’s MLA Presidential Theme is “Language, Literature, Learning.” Which seems, at first glance, to a quasi-outsider, to be, well, obvious, but there you are.)

In addition to all the presentations, panels, cocktail receptions, and job interviews, the MLA also includes a number of book awards, including the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Literary Work, which is awarded each even-numbered year. (I know, but it’s for the works from 2010, and since the MLA used to take place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, this made a bit more sense.)

This year’s award went to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Here’s what the selection committee had to say:

On virtually every page of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of The Tin Drum, the reader finds brilliant solutions to vexing problems. This meticulous work, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Günter Grass’s classic novel, accomplishes precisely what one hopes for in a retranslation: it brings us closer to both source and target languages. Mitchell makes us aware that even good work, such as Ralph Manheim’s respected earlier translation, bears improvement, as great consistency, coherence, and tempo are achieved throughout the entire volume in rendering its obsessive drumming theme. The translator’s afterword, where Mitchell explains carefully and concisely all the “tools of the trade” available to twenty-first-century translators, performs an enormous contribution to the field by lifting the curtain on the translator’s craft and making clear to readers the huge challenges at hand.

Congrats, Breon! I’ve heard him speak about this translation a couple of time (most recently at the Wolff Symposium, which include this fascinating panel about his career in translation and work on The Tin Drum.)

It’s also worth nothing that honorable mention went to Lawrence Venuti for his translation of Edward Hopper by Ernest Farrés. Again, the committee:

Lawrence Venuti, one of our foremost translation theorists, has applied his principles of pragmatic and ethical translation to the contemporary Catalan poetry of Edward Hopper with superb results. Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s volume, written in a source language whose literature is little known in the English-speaking world, constitutes a beautiful triangulation of cultures and media. We read with fascination as the North American translator captures the Catalan poet’s meditations on the works of an iconic, popular North American painter. Venuti has not only accurately followed Farrés’s shifting styles through the progression of poems but also sought out some of Hopper’s own idiosyncratic vocabulary through excavation of the painter’s correspondence and diaries. This brilliant choice on Venuti’s part, explained in the volume’s introduction and demonstrated in the endnotes, results in an original translation strategy that redefines traditional fidelity to the source text.

Congrats, Larry! Ironically, at the last MLA, Erica Mena and I interviewed Venuti about his translation of Edward Hopper for what became the very first Reading the World Podcast. Venuti is always interesting, and he’s totally on in this podcast—definitely worth listening to.

9 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier this week I posted about the Wolff Symposium 2010 podcasts from BEZ.

Anyway, the one recording that was missing is now available, so you can check out The Art of Literary Translation with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Ross Benjamin, Krishna Winston, and Breon Mitchell.

6 July 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I know I’ve written it before, and will do so again, but the Wolff Symposium is one of the absolute best annual translation-related gatherings. It’s held every June and is centered around the awarding of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, which is given to the best translation from German into English published in the previous year. All genres are eligible, but translators can only win once.

Anyway, the symposium took place a few weeks back and was absolutely amazing. Great panels, wonderful to see Ross Benjamin receive the award, very nice tribute to Breon Mitchell re: his new translation of The Tin Drum. (I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never read this, although every time I see Breon I swear that it’ll be the next book I pick up . . . And it will be! Soon. Soon . . .)

I was planning on writing up some notes and thoughts and whatever from the day of panels, but well, it’s been a busy time and besides, WBEZ was there to record the whole symposium. And although I can’t imagine many people listening to all of these podcasts, they’re a much better record of what was discussed than anything I could babble on about . . .

If you do decide to listen, you might want to do so in order—at least when it comes to the “Increased Interest in Foreign Fiction?” and “Cultivating Audiences” panels, otherwise my random 15-minute speech at the beginning of the latter panel will make next to no sense . . .


First off is the tribute to Breon Mitchell that included an interview with NY Times journalist David Streitfeld.

(There was another panel with Peter Constantine, Drenka Willen, Susan Bernofsky, Krishna Winston, Ross Benjamin, and Breon Mitchell, but I can’t find the podcast . . . Which sucks! This was a great conversation . . . Maybe I’m just missing something? If anyone knows where this is, please e-mail me.)

Then the panel with Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Daniel Slager of Milkweek, Jeremy Davies of Dalkey Archive Press on An Increased Interest in Foreign Literature?

And then the Cultivating Audiences – Particular Examples, Viable Models? panel that started with my rant and ended with all of us (Susan Harris of Words Without Borders, Susan Bernofsky, and Annie Janusch) talking about technology and reaching readers . . . while my phone buzzed with the dozen or so text messages I received during that panel . . .

Finally, we wrapped up with a contentious argument about Amazon.com discussion about Publishing Literary Translations and New Publishing Technologies. Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, Henry Carrigan of Northwestern University Press, and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op were on this panel, which was a great way to end the day, having moved from a grand appreciation of Breon and the craft of translation to the dirty details of the book business and how all the various segments always feel like their getting screwed. Speaking of screwing, this panel also had one of the funniest exchanges of the day:

Jeff: “Being a bookseller, it’s kind of an unrequited love affair with books where you know that you’re going to get screwed.”

Chad: “That’s not really an unrequited . . . It’s actually just a love affair.”

This then led to a series of sexually charged double entendres . . . Man, those end of the day panels—brilliant!

15 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

December isn’t all about gift getting, crowded shopping malls, uncomfortable family gatherings, and cookies—it’s also about year-end donations to worthy non-profit organizations such as the Center for the Art of Translation.

As an added incentive, if you donate more than $5 to CAT, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win books from translators featured in the Lit&Lunch series. Specifically, here are the prizes:

First prize is a three-book package featuring two of this year’s most exciting translators: Natasha Wimmer and Breon Mitchell. The winner receives translator-signed copies of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, plus a copy of the newest Two Lines anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.

Two runners-up will each receive a translator-signed copy of The Tin Drum and a copy of Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed.

Every donation really counts, which is why we brought the threshold for this giveaway to just $5. Those who pledge $20 or more will get 3 chances to win, and those who sign up for a recurring donation totaling $50 or more over the course of next year will have 5 chances to win these excellent books.

Click here for all the details, links to donate, etc.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the biggest international literature publishing events of this fall has to be the release of Breon Mitchell’s new translation of Gunter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This is an event in the grand sense of the word, and definitely worth checking out.

We wrote about this back over the summer, quoting extensively from Breon’s afterword about the reasons for the new translation, but rather than read that post, you can simply listen to this podcast of Breon’s recent appearance in the Center for the Art of Translation’s Lit&Lunch series.

Breon’s a great speaker, and Grass’s technique of bringing together his translators to go through the book page-by-page with tips and whatnot is absolutely fascinating.

8 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.

(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.

Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:

The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:

In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.

“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”

I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.

And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)

Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”

This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.

And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .

I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.

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Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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