Monica Carter is a freelance critic.
This week as I takeover the BTBA blog and I finally get the opportunity to do something I have been longing to do – highlight some of the incredible publishers the are committed to producing quality literature in translation. Each day, I will tip my hat to a small press that has grown with the Best Translated Book Award, which began in 2007. There are no specific requirements except that these publishers continued to refine their identities, remain loyal to their mission statements and produce great works each year for Americans to discover, read and discuss.
Since the alphabet begins with “A” and I have never been shy about my love for them, I will begin with Archipelago Books. Run by the elegant Jill Schoolman and a small staff, Archipelago is celebrating its tenth year in publishing this October. I could explain exactly what they are about, but they say it best in this excerpt:
Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. In our first decade, we have brought out over ninety books from more than twenty-five languages.
Artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial aspect of global understanding. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country—our place in the world depends upon it. Sadly, less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere. By publishing diverse and innovative literary translations we are doing what we can to change this lamentable circumstance and to broaden the American literary landscape.
We are always striving to find literary voices that simply would never be heard in the U.S. without Archipelago. While our efforts, especially those of our translators and authors, have been recognized by numerous literary awards, the sort of recognition we seek is for those largely unknown and forgotten locales—the Spanish Basque Country, the Chukchi lands of Siberia, the scrublands of South Africa, war-torn Lebanon—and the writing that allows our readers to see these places through the eyes of the people who live there.
Not that I don’t think the above sentiment is lovely, but the reason I fell in love with Archipelago was a little reddish-orange covered number entitled, The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre, translated by Jordan Stump. A slim, whisper of a book that speaks to aging, solitude and the need for human contact, it feels like a philosophy primer for the meaning of life. A short read with a long tail impact.
Any book after that I spied with the tiny cluster of islands on the spine went immediately into my hands. I was obsessed.
Then came Georg Letham:Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg. A compelling, creepy read about a murderer who still wants to use his talents to contribute to humanity (check my review here. My site is under construction, by the way) in this original tale of a man’s own struggle between good and evil.
Seeming able to choose classics and contemporary fiction and poetry with equal expertise, Archipelago steadily built a long list of premiere literature in translation from well-chosen locations that represented lands and peoples with deep traditions not known outside of that area. Along the way, Achipelago picked up numerous prizes and garnered more attention from the media. Then they virtually hit gold. This gold, otherwise known as the “Norwegian Marcel Proust”, is Karl Ove Knausgaard. I don’t know whether or not Archipelago had the foresight of Knausgaard’s success because the fact is they would have picked up Knausgaard for the quality anyway. What sets Archipelago apart from most publishers is not only their impeccable taste, their faith in their writers and their translators, but it is this magical element – they have faith in readers out there, in you and me. I don’t know about you but I feel underestimated by most American media, including publishers, and I appreciate that someone doesn’t assume I will run screaming from the bookstore because a book is over 300 pages.
Archipelago Books, this love letter is to you. You have made my life better through reading, through your sophistication and through your loyalty. You’ve even made my bookshelves prettier. Don’t go changing, I love you just they way you are.
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._
Click here for all past and future posts.
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated by Joel Rotenberg
Why This Book Should Win: Again with the Mad Scientist!; Archipelago titles are always contenders; the novel is long, engrossing, gothic, and classic.
You wouldn’t know it from the myopic reviews, at least the ones that I have read, but Georg Letham is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. (Probably the greatest—name the contenders.) Not horror in the adolescent Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft mode of rampaging monsters, but in the scientific romance genre, a modernist version of the Gothic mythopoetic imagination found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It sits proudly with those wonderful books, daring to go to hallucinogenic extremes when linking the sadistic depths of the scientific mentality with the amorality of modern life.
Because it was published in 1931 by a Czech-Jewish writer and deals with a “mad” homicidal doctor (a bacteriologist), who wants to benefit a mankind he feels nothing for, the critical tendency has been to see the story as a expose of the fascist mentality, which it is, and as a Freudian nightmare, which it isn’t. Or that is the least interesting reading of this jaw-dropper of a book, as exemplified by the dreary Nation piece that reduces Weiss’s fascinating narrative into a mirror of the process of psychoanalysis.
Weiss’s vision in Georg Letham is not rote Freudian; it is firmly in the social critique/ apocalyptic Darwinian mode. “Can man triumph over nature?” asks Georg. “Never. He, man, is only an experiment on the part of nature, the terrible.” Thus evolution (or God) may be experimenting with pitiless objectivity on us, generating humans out of animals. And the terrible is woven into everything we think and do: the predominate metaphor in the novel—repeated to the point of saturation—is the degrading/violent transformation of humans into animals (rats and frogs dominate) and animals into humans (a “feminist” retelling of Adam and Eve stars two rats in a pit and ends with the female gobbling up the male). Tossed into prison for killing his wife (because she nauseates him), Georg ends up looking for a cure for Yellow fever in the tropics (fire), with a memorable flashback to his brutal father fighting an army of rats during a hellish expedition to the North Pole (ice).
Some warnings before tackling Georg Letham—its structure is lumpy, little more than a series of set pieces that are of novella length. And if you have an abnormal fear of rats and love dogs you will have a very hard time, though the victims dish out some payback to their not-so-fittest tormentors. Adventurous readers with stout temperaments will find this gruesome diagnosis of modernity worthy of Nietzsche (“herd mentality”) and sociologist Max Weber. The latter summed up Georg’s dissociated type perfectly: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” though as an unreliable narrator Georg is self-consciously (and poignantly) aware of his lack of humanity. Weber also refers to civilized men as souls trapped in “the polar night of icy darkness.” Georg Letham is a demanding but magnificent deep freeze of a novel, classic horror served zero to the bone.
One of the best unexpected results of putting together the translation databases is being able to put together an awesome reading list of forthcoming translations. (Or, to put it in a slightly more negative light: to know about way more interesting books than I’ll ever have time to read.)
The spring is a perfect example. As the reading for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award is winding down, I’m getting jacked about 2011 . . . Just look at this list of titles coming out in January – March 2010. (Don’t even get me started on April – June . . . my “to read” bookshelf is already overflowing.) Links below go to the Idlewild Books catalog, since Idlewild is our Indie Store of the Month. (And by “month” I mean the rest of December and all of January.)
Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss (excerpt)
translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg
published by Archipelago Books
Archipelago books tend to deliver, and this sounds really intriguing. Thomas Mann gave this a killer blurb: “easily one of the most interesting books I have come across in years.” It’s the story of a scientist-hero who has killed his wife and is deported to a remote island where he “seeks redemption in science.” It was written around the same time as The Man without Qualities and The Sleepwalkers and has that same sort of middle-European, ambitious vibe.
My Little War by Louis Paul Boon
translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
published by Dalkey Archive Press
I’m a huge Boon fan, especially of Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and it’s great to see more of his work making it into English. This was a first novel, an account of World War II told through “overheard conversations, newspaper articles, manifestos, and other sights and noises of daily life.” Boon had an amazing gift for language, for capturing the dirty reality and comic charms of daily life and creating something bigger and more meaningful. It’ll be very interesting to see what he created out of these materials.
Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
published by New Directions
This next year promises to be yet another big year for Roberto Bolano with three books of his coming out from New Directions: Monseiur Pain, Antwerp and The Return. This novel—which we’ll be reviewing in the very near future—is about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, a mesmerist, two mysterious gentlemen, a bribe, and guilt. With Bolano you can rest assured that it’s at least worth the price of admission.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson
published by Grove
Dubravka’s one of my all-time favorite writers (which is one of the reasons why her collection of essays, Nobody’s Home, was the first book published by Open Letter) and this looks like an awesome follow-up to her last work of fiction, The Ministry of Pain. This novel is part of the “Myths” series, retelling the story of Baba Yaga who, according to Russian myth, “is a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” We posted about this book a while back and included a bit of the opening chapter. This may well be the book that I’m most excited about for 2010 . . .
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias
translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
published by New Directions
I know next to nothing about this book aside from the fact that a) it’s published by New Directions (definite plus), b) it’s by Javier Marias (another plus), and c) it’s translated by Esther Allen (three pluses and I’m sold?). That and this description, which is the very definition of “selling copy”: “In this classic Marias story, Elvis and his entourage abandon their translator in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals.”
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) by Macedonio Fernandez (excerpt)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz
published by Open Letter
Yeah, OK, I’m including one of our own books on this list—but seriously, I waiting almost five years to be able to read this and truly believe it’s one of the great books of the twentieth century. It opens with over fifty prologues! It’s in the meta-vein of At Swim-Two-Birds! It’s written by Borges’s mentor! It’s subtitled “The First Good Novel”! (And was a companion to Macedonio’s Adriana Buenos Aires (The Last Bad Novel)!) What more do you need to know?
Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga
translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
published by Graywolf Press
Atxaga’s The Accordionist’s Son came out from Graywolf earlier this year and got some good attention. Obabakoak is a collection of stories centered around the village of Obaba, and sounds really intriguing: “A tinge of darkness mingles with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of fables, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga’s distinctive and tenderly ironic voice.” Here’s a link to an audio file from PEN America of Atxaga reading Three Pieces about the Basque Language.
Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
published by Grove
Kudos to Grove for having such a great winter/spring line-up—and for publishing two of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2010. We already have a review of this novel on hand, but with the pub date so far in the future, we’re going to hold onto it for at least a few weeks before posting. The review is very positive, and this story of a man traveling from Japan to Berlin to try to understand what drove his brother-in-law to commit suicide sounds incredibly intriguing.
Wolf among Wolves by Hans Fallada
translated from the German by Philip Owens
published by Melville House
This comes on the heels of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which did very well for Melville House. Another massive book (736 pages!), it sounds great: “a sprawling saga of the collapse of a culture—its economy and government—and the common man’s struggle to survive it all. Set in Weimar Germany soon after Germany’s catastrophic loss of World War I, the story follows a young gambler who loses all in Berlin, then flees the chaotic city, where worthless money and shortages are causing pandemonium. Once in the countryside, however, he finds a defeated German army that has deamped there to foment insurrection. Somehow, amidst it all, he finds romance—it’s The Year of Living Dangerously in a European setting.”
That’s it for now . . . More recommendations to come in a few months.
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. . .