19 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

Language: Italian
Country: Italy
Publisher: Dedalus

Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”

Today’s post is written by the amazing Daniel Hahn, who is both a writer and translator AND a program director at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Once upon a time, we spent a week together at a palace in Salzburg, Austria.

It’s September 1943. A man is found close to death on the quayside at Trieste. He’s wearing a sailor’s jacket, tagged with the name Sampo Karjalainen. He is brought on-board a German hospital ship, the Tubingen, and revived by a kindly doctor. Dr Friari is a Finn, and recognises Sampo Karjalainen as a Finnish name; the man he is treating must, he assumes, be a compatriot. But when Sampo wakes up, he remembers nothing of who he is, and not a word of any language. Dr Friari arranges for him to be sent to Helsinki, where immersion in his land and his language might raise some spark that will help him recover whoever he used to be.

Marani’s book paints a picture of one man’s struggle against the isolation that comes from having no past, and having no language. Though he is made quite welcome by the people he meets, the Helsinki that Sampo comes to inhabit is a city in the midst of a war, under increasing attack from the Soviets. He has a few acquaintances but only one real friend, Olof Koskela, a radical, charismatic pastor who helps him learn the language and shares with him great tales from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, among them the tale of the creation of the magical artefact called the “Sampo.” But the book’s only warmth comes from Irma, a nurse. She takes him to her “memory tree,” a tree where she takes everyone who’s important to her, so that the place might be infused with happy memories that she can call upon whenever she needs them. Irma believes her friendship can help him; he, meanwhile, is repelled by the very idea of intimacy, and when she is posted away to Viipuri (Vyborg) he receives and studies her letters but never manages a reply.

The heart of Sampo’s experience, and everything that’s distinctive about the book, is found in his attempts to master his (new) native language—or, at least, to develop his own version of it. It’s a language with four infinitive forms, with fifteen cases (including the abessive, a case denoting absence), a language, says the Pastor, “which should only be sung”; which Sampo uses in his own way, with no sense of register, mixing Biblical language with vocabulary he has picked up in the bar. That thread of intense language acquisition, more than anything, is the unlikely genius of this book, and in particular Judith Landry’s translation; in the carefully tidied-up voice of a language-less first-person, it weaves syntactical reflections through one man’s most basic experience of trying to create an identity. The language is his only possibility of establishing connections to the outside world, seen always through a veil of half-understanding, bits of information to be picked at, turned around, examined exhaustingly until they make sense.

From his lessons with Pastor Koskela, his letters from Irma, his exposure to the world around him as he wanders the Helsinki streets in the uneasy daylight of a northern summer night-time, Sampo does in time construct a Finnish that allows him to communicate. Yes, mastery of language is at the root of power, that’s clear, and yet it is not enough, without an identity, without roots, without the certainty even of his own name. There is nothing easy and nothing obvious about New Finnish Grammar, a translated book about language, a story narrated by a man without an identity or a voice—a tremendously difficult thing to achieve, and here pulled off admirably.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lily Ye on this week’s Read This Next title, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique by Goncalo Tavares, which is translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s review:

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Click here for the complete review, and click here to read an extended preview of the book.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the very first scene of this book, a young Lenz Buchmann is instructed by his father to “do” a young servant girl in front of him. The command is issued without qualification, and there is no recourse for Lenz except to follow it. From this incident onward the novel spins forth a philosophy of strength, of power, of competence, of morality, or the lack thereof, that is alienating to say the least.

Lenz is a skilled surgeon, who does not operate out of compassion or to save lives, but because he is good at being a surgeon, and it is simply a side effect of his competent practice that lives are saved. Lenz regularly invites beggars into his home, with the implied promise of food or money, and then drags out their stay, demeaning them in conversation and having sex with his wife in front of them. But at his brother’s funeral—the brother that is his opposite in many ways—Lenz witnesses the influence that public figures hold, a renown and regard that even as a celebrated surgeon he could never possess. And so begins his foray into politics.

As a character, Lenz is unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time. In his treatment of his wife, in particular, he can be described as monstrous. In his determination to create a rational system of perception and action, in his complete subservience to the memory and ideology of his father, he is understandable. Perhaps the most incomprehensible character however is his wife, Maria Buchmann. It is hard to understand who would marry a man like Lenz, or why even he would want to marry. But she does not play a very large role in the book, and dies about halfway through, to the benefit of Lenz’s political career.

Tavares does not mince words in this novel. His style is severe and technical. It appears to mirror the mental processes of Lenz himself, ruthlessly rational, but as the book progresses, the style seems to convey more of a sense of scrutiny. It is a mockery of itself, a meta-commentary on its own insufficiency, as we simultaneously see Buchmann himself degenerate from illness.

To elaborate, take first that Lenz often likens himself to a hunter, who remains calm and collected while instilling a hysterical fear in his prey:

A good hunter proceeds in this way, and with just two or three of his well-placed steps in the middle of the forest he will be able to instill the second year in the fleeing hare, the decisive fear. And it will be out of this par that the hare will really begin to hurry, to race off at full speed, but a speed without order or objective, recalling those little mice locked in cages that run inside of wheels, turning them with their feet; movements that are very quick indeed, but in a category of motion that might be described as the speed of someone just trying to keep going, so different from the speed of someone who wants to advance.

It was only when—in his role as hunter—he realized that he could strike this second fear into the hare that Lenz Buchmann became completely convinced that the animal would not escape him. His many years’ hunting had taught him that this second terror—unlike the first—has only detrimental effects for the quarry: it is illogical, almost suicidal. The first fear, being instinctive, makes the quarry flee in a direction away from the hunter—any intelligent living creature would do that. The second fear, however, once it invades the organism being pursued, completely disorders the strategic system that all living creatures have, and can bring the quarry around in a circular route ending up—stupidly—five meters from the hunter’s weapon.

For Lenz, a technician, prey is marked by illogicality, which is a stupidity. As he comes down with cancer, and slowly his faculties begin to go, until all he is able to do is hold a piece of paper on which his father’s name is written and read it over and over again, Tavares does not loosen his prose. We see it clearly when spittle drips down Lenz’s face. He cannot kill himself because he has let himself get too far gone, and Tavares’ prose stands strong as a reminder of the irrational hyper-rationality that fueled Lenz’s ambition, his frightened flight from insignificance, which brings about his demise.

19 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To support this week’s “Read This Next”: title, we just posted an interview with Daniel Hahn about his translation of Goncalo Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique:

Lily Ye: In Learning to Pray, the tone of the book seemed to me to be very severe, perhaps in reflection of the personality of the protagonist, Lenz Buchmann. Would you agree with this assessment, both in your translation and in the original, and how did it affect the process of translation? That is, how did you find translating this particular style of writing?

Daniel Hahn: Yes, it’s severe—it’s very chilly and cynical, and generally I think a pretty bleak place to be. There’s one sense in which this made it a difficult translation job (though not in the sense meant by your question, I think)—when you translate a book you live in it much more intensely, and naturally for a much longer period, than if you’re simply strolling through it once as a reader, and when a book is sown through with views as toxic as those found here, it doesn’t make it an altogether pleasant place to be living. That said, he’s a brilliant writer, and translating brilliant writing is always more enjoyable than translating mediocre writing, unsurprisingly.

Your question I guess is more to do with style, though, and that was certainly difficult to get right. It’s one of the hardest books I’ve worked on in terms of making sense of the structure of complicated sentences, sometimes very imprecise and sometimes very sharp-focus; this also meant that it benefited from a pretty significant edit once I was done, from a rigorous editor who approached it simply as an English-language reader—the result, I think, might be pulling away from my draft and producing something a little smoother for English-language readers.

You can read the entire interview here.

17 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next featured selection is Goncalo Tavare’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, and available from Dalkey Archive Press at the end of the month.

E.J. wrote about Tavares a couple years back when he won the Portugal Telecom Prize for Jerusalem. He included this bit about the “Neighborhood” books, which really should be available to English readers:

We found out about Tavares at Frankfurt and got our hands on a few of his “Neighborhood” books—some of which have been translated into English by TransBooks in India (What kind of audience is there is in India for Portuguese translations . . . into English?). Each book in the series is a small collection of short stories inspired by literary and artistic figures. The ones we have in English are Mister Brecht, Mister Valéry, Mister Henri, and Mister Juarroz. It appears that the neighborhood—represented in an illustration on the back of the books by a sketch of a set of buildings with arrows telling you which building, and which window, each person lives in—is ever expanding, but so far includes, among others, Calvino, Kafka, Walser, and Woolf.

They’re incredible little books, and the stories remind me a lot of Augosto Monterroso’s. For the most part the stories are very short—some are only a few lines long—and fable-like, and some of the stories feature the writer/artist as main characters.

Jerusalem came out from Dalkey in the fall of 2009 in Anna Kushner’s translation to a lot of great attention. It’s great that they’re also doing Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, which, as mentioned above is translated by Daniel Hahn.

Daniel is a great translator who I had the chance to meet at the Salzburg Global Seminar on translation a few years ago. He’s most well-known as a translator for his work on Jose Agualusa, and is currently an interim co-director (with fellow Salzburg alum Kate Griffin) of the British Centre for Literary Translation in East Anglia.

Later this week we’ll be posting an interview with Daniel, but for now, you can read an extended preview of Learning to Pray, which is described below:

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion. Soon, however, Buchmann’s ambition is no longer content with medicine, and he finds himself rising through the ranks of his country’s ruling party . . . until a diagnosis transforms this likely future president from a leading player into just another victim. In language that is at once precise, clinical, and oddly childlike, Gonçalo M. Tavares—the Portuguese novelist hailed by José Saramago as the greatest of his generation—here brings us another chilling investigation into the limits of human experience, mapping the creation and then disintegration of a man we might call “evil,” and showing us how he must learn to adapt in a world he can no longer dominate.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is more of public congratulations post than anything else, but I think it’s exciting that Kate Griffin and Daniel Hahn have been named as interim co-directors of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia.

The BCLT is one of the coolest translation centers in the world, and does a ton of cool stuff, such as hosting the International Literary Translation Summer School, putting on a series of events (including the annual Sebald Lecture, which is named after W. G. “Max” Sebald, who founded BCLT in 1989), and other activities supporting the professional development of literary translators.

Although I knew of both Kate and Daniel beforehand, I first met them at the Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation that took place in February 2009 in a palace where part of The Sound of Music was filmed. We had a great time discussing issues surrounding literature in translation, how to produce more of it, how to find more readers for great international works, etc. And we also had a great time in the bierstube laughing our asses off, playing table tennis, and occasionally acting like morons. (You can read all about it by clicking here.)

Anyway, Kate spent nine years at the Arts Council England as a literature officer with a special focus on translations and has also been judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Daniel is also an IFFP judge, and a translator from Portuguese and Spanish. He’s most well known for his translation of Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons, which won the IFFP in 2007.

Both are energetic, smart, fun people who will be great for the BCLT. Congrats!

23 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is it—the last overview of a book from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist. The 10 finalists will be announced on Tuesday . . . Click here for all previous overviews.



The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. (Angola, Simon & Schuster)

Although this is the first (and only, at least so far) book of Agualusa’s to be published in the U.S., he has been making a name for himself and garnering lots of attention and praise from an international audience. Fellow fiction longlist member Antonio Lobo Antunes has called Agualusa, “Without doubt one of the most important Portuguese-language writers of his generation.” And in 2007 he won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Chameleons.

He now has two additional titles available in the UK from Arcadia, including Creole and the recently released My Father’s Wives. (A review of which will appear in an upcoming issue of Quarterly Conversation.)

Arcadia is also bringing out a fourth—_Estação das Chuvas_ or Rainy Season—and over at Book Trust, translator Daniel Hahn is currently blogging about his experience working on this book. (His posts range from addressing specific translation issues to the book’s jacket copy—the blog is worth checking out, and is updated on a weekly basis.)

In terms of this particular book, it’s necessary to point out right from the start that it’s narrated by a gecko. A gecko who lives with an albino book dealer and “seller of pasts” (the title can be literally translated as “The Genealogy Salesman”) who provides his clients—who are well-off and have a nice future ahead of them, but nothing special in their lineage—with a complete background.

For one of these clients, Felix Ventura doesn’t just create a past, but provides “Jose Buchmann” with a whole new identity, complete with stories of his mother and her death. Against Felix’s advice, Jose decides to look into this past of his, visiting his native home, etc.

This idea of reinvention ties nicely into the Borges quote that opens the novel:

If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different. I’d quite like to be Norwegian. Or Persian, perhaps. Not Uruguayan, though—that’d feel too much like just moving down the street.

In the Simon & Schuster “Reading Group Guide,” Daniel Hahn asks Agualusa about the influence of Borges on the novel:

This book is a tribute to Borges. It’s a game that I hope Borges would have appreciated. At the same time, it’s also a sort of settling up of accounts. I love Borges as a writer, but think that as a man there was always something about him that was closed and obtuse, reactionary even, and he not infrequently expressed opinions that were misogynistic or racist. His relations with women were very complicated—it’s believe that he died a virgin. Now, in my book Borges is reincarnated in Luanda in the body of a gecko. The gecko’s memories correspond to fragments of Borges’s real life story. Somehow I wanted to give Borges a second chance—in my book he makes the most of his opportunities.

Not sure if the book is all that, but E.J. sums up some of the books qualities in his review:

The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.

13 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Daniel Hahn’s new blog at Booktrust’s Translated Fiction site is a pretty interesting experiment:

About to embark on translating a fourth Agulausa book, Estação das Chuvas, Daniel has kindly agreed to write a diary about the process from start to finish, which will appear exclusively on this website.

Or, in his own words:

In this blog I hope to examine the translation process, working through a novel from my own first launching into a first draft, right up to publication. It’s not a blog about the life of a translator – musings about translation generally, reports of events I’ve attended or readings I’ve given, people I’ve met at launch parties, books I’ve read – but intimately about a single piece of translation work, which I hope will bring you closer to the experience, to the pleasures it brings and the questions it raises.

I am just about to embark on the translation of _Estação das Chuvas _by José Eduardo Agualusa, a wonderful Angolan novelist I’ve been privileged to work with a few times before. This book – our fourth together – presents a search for the story of Angolan poet Lídia do Carmo Ferreira; but it’s also the story of many other people who spin into and out of her life and the narrator’s; and each has his own rich back-story told, and each engages with the setting – the state of their country through the second half of the 20th century.

Should be very interesting for months to come . . .

25 April 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

The Literary Saloon pointed out another new UK-based translation site: this time Booktrust’s Translated Ficion. One of the first articles on the site is from Daniel Hahn, translator of one of my favorite authors, Jose Eduardo Agualusa.

He has a refreshingly different take on the low number of translations that appear in the UK (we have the same problem here):

But given a choice between on the one hand transforming those 3% into a market share of, say, 6%, and on the other remaining at 3% and doubling the readership for each of those fine books we’re already translating, I’d choose the latter without hesitation.

and then a bit later:

We should be persuading readers to read more bravely whatever the language; instead of bemoaning the paltriness of the 3% quota, we should be talking passionately about those culture-expanding books that are being published and how damn good they are. (And many of them – as it happens – are translations.) We should celebrate them, these many, many varied triumphs. You absolutely must read the most wonderful novel I’ve just discovered…

His argument is a good one (and I especially agree with his point about the mistake of grouping translations as if they were a monolithic genre) but within limits. That is to say, it’s a good argument for how to proceed from where we are now (moving from few translations with a smallish readership to few translations with a larger readership), but it seems to me that that can only be the first step, not the end of the discussion.

In the first place, as Chad has documented, we’re somewhere far, far short of that 3% number (and there is no way that 6000 translations came out in the UK last year—the 3% of the 200,00 Hahn said were published). If we’re at a low number of translations, and it’s a very low number, then the likelihood of that ‘adventurous’ reader stumbling upon a translation is also very low, even if we double the number of adventurous readers out there. The likelihood of those books getting good attention (from publishers, the media, booksellers) is proportionally low, especially when those publishers who publish the translations are not the ones with large marketing/media budgets, or, when they are, that money is generally not going to translations.

I don’t think we can raise awareness for what it is we’re doing without simultaneously doing more of it. The more translations (of all kinds) that are available, the more the cultural playing field can be leveled, and the better chance we have of garnering some attention for those books. By publishing more translations, you’re increasing the chances that one of those translations will break into the larger public consciousness.

Anyway, Hahn’s article is well worth the read. I suggest you take a look, and best of luck to Booktrust, it seems like it’s off to a rousing start.

5 October 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

At Words Without Borders, Daniel Hahn and Clifford Landers discuss their two translations of Germano Almeida’s The Best Seller, which both appear on WWB as well:

Daniel Hahn: Let me start by asking you a question—or rather, two questions, one quite specific and one quite general. The first is effectively about the layout—it’s clear even before reading a word of your version, just from looking at it on the page, that you’ve made a decision different from mine, not to respect the original para breaks, to indent and isolate speech in a way the original doesn’t, but in a way more recognisable in English prose. So my specific question is: What was your reasoning behind that change?

They picked a good story. It’s about publishing and translation, and how there’s no money in either business.

6 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Félix Ventura, an albino, is an antique book dealer and a ‘seller of pasts,’ or genealogist as he tells strangers, who fabricates impressive genealogies for those Luandans who feel that their social station demands a more elevated (or more politically correct, given the bloody and recent revolutionary past of Angola) family history. As Félix says:

“I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature,” he told me conspiratorially. “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.”

Félix’s closest friend (well, really more of a silent interlocutor), and the narrator of the story, is a gecko who lives in his house. The gecko-narrator is a reincarnated human being, who, in addition to telling Félix’s story, provides details of his former life, and, in short chapters, the details of his dreams.

One day, Félix is approached by a photojournalist and war photographer who asks Félix to not only create a past for him, but to create a new identity for him as well. Somewhat reluctantly, Félix creates the identity ‘José Buchmann’, providing the newly dubbed Buchmann with a passport, driver’s license, several photographs of his parents and a detailed family story.

Despite Félix’s admonitions, Buchmann travels to his ‘ancestral home’, seeking evidence of the truth of the fictions that Félix has created. Things begin to take a darker turn when Buchmann comes back with that evidence.

The Book of Chameleons is not the kind of book that can be completely absorbed in a single reading, and Agualusa packs an impressive amount of narrative depth in the short volume. It’s a novel about writing that manages to not be distractingly metafictional, and it’s also a reflection on what the past means in a country that has been repeatedly wounded by war. That he is able to treat these ordinarily difficult subjects with such a deft touch, and so entertainingly, is a credit to his abilities as a writer.

My enthusiasm for The Book of Chameleons is tempered somewhat by the ending. The hazy, pleasingly bewildering atmosphere that Agualusa generates in the first three quarters of the book, which could have sustained me for a long time, is squandered a bit by an ending that happens too quickly, and perhaps too perfectly.

However, I think José Eduardo Agualusa is definitely a writer worth following, especially in light of his excellent Creole, and I’m hopeful that Arcadia, and Daniel Hahn, will continue to bring his books to an English speaking audience.

The Book of Chameleons
José Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
Arcadia Books
£11.99

....
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