31 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at Salon, Kevin Canfield has a nice piece about the challenges of translation and the way translators are underappreciated:

Gavin Bowd, the English translator for Michel Houellebecq, was working on the controversial French novelist’s “The Map and the Territory” — Knopf will publish the first American edition in January — when he came to a chapter about a character who’d decided to commit suicide at a legal euthanasia clinic. As the book’s narrator put it, the clinic’s medical staff was “going to ‘se faire des couilles en or,’” Bowd recalled. “Literally: they were going to turn their balls into gold.”

Herein lies the translator’s dilemma. Bowd’s mission is stay as loyal as possible to the original text. But in this case, a strict translation would be ridiculous. “I translated: they were going to make a killing” in fees, Bowd added via e-mail from Scotland, where he teaches French at the University of St. Andrews. “In the context, I prefer that.”

These are the kind of decisions that translators make on a line-by-line basis. Readers don’t notice these artful adjustments, but their enjoyment of literature in translation is dependent upon them. But even as the American appetite for foreign fiction — Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy” remains a bestseller, Haruki Murakami’s just-published “1Q84” is a huge hit, and the months ahead will bring big new English editions from international stars like Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Peter Nadas — the translators of these works typically labor in anonymity. Some even crave it.

For long-time readers of this or similar blogs, a lot of this—especially the litany of gripes—will sound familiar, but it’s still fun to read:

It’s true in America, but it’s even truer in Britain, that there is a kind of cloud of disapproval over translators and translations,” said David Bellos, a translator of novels by Ismail Kadare and Georges Perec and the author of the new book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” (Faber and Faber). “Reviews in the [Times Literary Supplement] of translated books — if they mention the translating at all, it’s to disparage it. Bit by bit over the years, I’ve come to realize that these are very effective devices for holding the foreign at bay. It’s a way of comforting yourself: ‘Oh well, I only read English, and I don’t really have to take these books from elsewhere terribly seriously because they are only translations.’”

Though he chuckles about it — “Bellyaching is part of the community, I’m afraid,” he said — Bellos has a good case when he says that translators deserve better. “A long novel — maybe you get $10,000, in dribs and drabs. A bit on signature, a bit when you deliver the manuscript, a bit when it’s published. How many of those have you got to do in a year to make that a living? More than is really conceivable to do well,” he said. “You would have to translate at 90 miles an hour and not revise. Most literary translators don’t want to do that, even if they could. You can’t really live as a literary or book translator in the English-speaking world as a full-time job and also sleep.” [. . .]

Not too long ago, Imre Goldstein completed a translation of Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas’ 1,100-page “Parallel Stories,” which comes out in the U.S. in November (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Does Goldstein believe translators are appreciated, and properly compensated, for the work they do? “I do not,” he said in an email from Tel Aviv.

BTW, you can check out part of Goldstein’s translation of Parallel Stories by clicking here, and can read a nice chunk of Bellos’s book here.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a bit of a hiatus, Read This Next is back, with a book of truly massive proportions. This week’s title is Parallel Stories by Hungarian author Peter Nadas, which is translated by Imre Goldstein and just out from FSG.

It’s impossible to mention this book without talking about its size and scope. The 1,133-page novel opens in 1989 with a university student in Berlin discovering a corpse during his morning run. From there, the novel stretches back to 1939 to relate a series of interconnected stories focusing on three “unusual” men: Hans von Wolkenstein, whose mother is linked to “secrets of fascist-Nazi collaboration,” Agost Lippay Lehr, whose father worked for Hungary’s political regimes, and Andras Rott, “who has his own dark record of mysterious activities abroad.”

Nadas spent 18 years writing this book (or series of books—I’ve always heard of this referred to as a trilogy), yet, according to editor Elizabeth Sifton, this is a very tight, very well-constructed novel.

And Tim Nassau, who reviewed this for us, claims it’s one of the best books he’s ever read, one that he would recommend indiscriminately. Here’s another bit of his review:

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. [. . .]

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul.

So instead of talking about the plot of the book, etc., Tim spends most of the review praising Imre Goldstein’s translation. You can read the full review by clicking here.

And after reading that, I’m sure you’ll want to read an excerpt from the book itself, which you can do by clicking here. (It’s fitting that this, the longest book we’ve featured in Read This Next also has the longest sample.)

In addition, you can also click here to hear Elizabeth Sifton’s comments on the book. It’s cool to hear her talk about this, and she manages to make this sound even more interesting.

Finally, FSG published this interview with Nadas, which is also worth checking out.

27 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Most of the books I have reviewed for this site were only reviewed in one or two other places: small journals, literary blogs, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly, perhaps . . . This is, of course, the norm for literature in translation, and the discrepancy between the quality and coverage of these books has been bemoaned enough that I do not need to revisit it here. Every so often, however, a new book comes out that is big enough and important enough for its translation to be an event, and everyone takes notice. On the back of my reader’s copy of Parallel Stories, Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’s magnum opus, it says, at the bottom, “Author Appearances • National Publicity • National Advertising.” I don’t know if these phrases were printed as a request or an order, but they certainly create a grand air of expectancy, and I can’t help imagining an exclamation point after each phrase (Author Appearances!), as if a literary carnival were coming to town. Perhaps they are, simply, a statement of how it will be, as if the naming of these things could call them into being.

Not that the publishers should be worried. Susan Sontag, perennial blurber though she was, called Nádas’s last novel, Book of Memories, “The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” That one clocked in at upwards of 700 pages after 11 years of writing. Parallel Stories runs over 1,100 pages and took 15 years to produce. It is being sold (National Advertising!) as a modern day version of War and Peace or The Magic Mountain, and Nádas has been dubbed a new Proust, so why not throw In Search of Lost Time into the mix? We must pity those reviewers who come late to the party and find that all the good comparisons to other thousand page novels have already been taken (it’s a twenty-first century Hungarian Tale of Genji!). We seem to have on our hands a masterpiece, a ready-made Classic in the great modernist tradition of Europe, or at least that’s what someone wants us to believe.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it not recall the excitement around another massive book published by FSG at almost exactly this time three years ago? Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a tremendously different book than Parallel Stories (to neither one’s discredit), but it was met by a small media frenzy, winning the Triple Crown with write-ups in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. I do not bring any of this up to criticize, but merely to observe that, as a reviewer of exclusively foreign literature, I find myself in the rare position of being one of the score of critics that will weigh in on this novel, rather than one of only two or three.

Which is why I do not intend to review Parallel Lives. Enough people will do so that several will surely do a better job than I could; Jonathan Lethem reviewed 2666 for the New York Times, and, to be honest, I find such a high level of competition intimidating. The case might be different if I hated the novel, if I believed that all the hype was just a ploy to move copies, but I do not believe these things. If you have come here to know, simply, if you should read this book, then the answer is yes. It is one of the best novels I have read, and I recommend it indiscriminately. Here is post-war Eastern Europe: an encyclopedia of people’s lives as exhaustive in detail as it is ambitious in scale, an unflinchingly honest depiction of political and personal perversions. Yes, the characters are the products of Nádas’s imagination, but the way he describes their emotions and motivations reveals such an uncommonly deep and sensitive understanding of what forces constitute any person that the reader cannot help but feel he is gazing at his own soul. The following is a description of Döhring, a fellow university student around my age:

He had lived in the city for two years but had neither friends nor acquaintances. How else could he explain this except that this was the way he wanted it to be.

He did not say that yes, I am a prematurely embittered, rather sad person and the reason I chose to study these sciences is to steel myself against constant suffering, to give my mind some means to battle my gaping doubts, and perhaps these studies will help me find out what makes me suffer.

Listen, people, he would have shouted, all day long I pretend that everything is all right, but that makes me suffer even more. Help me, somebody, anybody, come, knock on my door, break down my door, anytime. No, he did the exact opposite.

What I would like to do, very briefly, in lieu of reviewing Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, is review its translation by Imre Goldstein, and to do so from the same position as the majority of its potential English-speaking readers: as someone who does not speak Hungarian. Goldstein has translated several authors (his translation of Tranquility by Attila Bartis won the Best Translated Book Award a few years back), but his focus is on Nádas; this is the sixth book by the author that Goldstein has translated, and it took him five years to do so. But what, now, is there to say about his work here? Very little, and this is perhaps the highest praise: the English does not feel stilted or encumbered (unless it is meant to), and so the book reads very well; if the translation drew undue attention to itself, then something would be amiss.

And yet, on every page, there are the marks of an elegant translation. Consider the second to last sentence in the passage above, the one that begins with “Help me.” Every sentence leading up to it is constructed out of long, drawn-out phrases, the results of a rational mind considering its own irrationality until, finally, emotion takes over, the pace picks up, and the thought ends on an “anytime” that sounds slightly off. It seems like it should be the “anytime” of a friendly neighbor (Stop by anytime!) and so here it makes the desperation that much more palpable, as if decorum were slightly out of reach. Consider this brief passage, from the description of the architect Samu Demén, as well:

Everything on him was finely wrought; everything was long, longoid, bony though not without some flesh, like his fingers; at the same time wild and unruly, like the fine strands of his shiny black hair that spilled out from under his headgear.

The use of “longoid” evokes, perhaps, the image of some strange scientific specimen, and its juxtaposition with “long” instantly tempers how we think about this person. So too with the word “headgear.” Why not just say hat? Demén is certainly not wearing any orthodontic appliances, but “headgear” gives a sense of the eccentricity and the awkwardness that characterize Démen, who appears charming and at ease until he opens his mouth.

Such gestures, be they the choice of adjective, the pacing of a sentence, or a certain image (such as the notedly not uncharacteristic “fat shit sausage”) are not always that subtle, and their accumulation over a thousand pages is the constitution of a style. I cannot tell you if these two passages are “accurate” translations, but they are written in English and they operate in English and if they operate as well as they do then we have Imre Goldstein to thank. Every word in this book was written by Nádas, certainly, but by Goldstein as well. Parallel stories indeed.

19 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Just more than two months after the longlist, we are proud to reveal the winners of the 2009 Best Translated Book Award (click here to download the official press release). The announcement was made tonight at a special award party that took place at Melville House Books in Brooklyn, and was hosted by author and critic Francisco Goldman.

For fiction, the award goes to Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein and published by Archipelago Books.



Here’s the description from our overview:

Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.

In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.


*

And on the poetry end of things, the award goes to For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu and published by New Directions.



This book just happens to a be a perfect example of how one award can beget another . . . In 2005, Sawako Nakayasu actually received a PEN Translation Fund Award for her then ongoing translation of this volume. That award brought the book to the attention of New Directions, and the rest is history . . . Playful and unique, our panelists loved this collection. Made up of 111 sections, it’s “a mix of detailed scientific observations, poetics, narrative, autobiography, rhetorical experiments, hyper-realistic images, and playful linguistic subversion—all scored with the precision of a mathematical-musical structure.” A very established writer in Japan, this is only the second of Takashi Hiraide’s collections to be published in English.

Here are a couple sample pieces from the book:

8. Continuous thoughts of packaging ice. No matter what I write it melts, even the address. If and when it arrives, that person will be gone.

17. The radiant subway again. Today, too, in this still-radiant subway, small white explosions occur here and there. They are the sounds of our joints popping, the sound of an all-too-convenient despair fading away. The walls collapse, and the birds of the earth, now without hesitation, begin transporting their nests so as to set them into these daily-renewed explosions.

35. “Up ahead, difficulty.”

14 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . Through next Friday we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein. (Romania/Hungary1, Archipelago)

There’s something amazing going on in Hungarian literature. For such a “small” language to have three books on our long list (this one plus the Imre Kertesz book and Metropole) the is pretty remarkable, and in addition there have been a slew of recently published (or reissued) Hungarian books, including works by Gyorgy Konrad, Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, and my personal favorite, Sunflower by Gyula Krudy.

And it’s not like these are a bunch of random books—all of the above titles are high quality, unique, well-crafted works of literary fiction. Especially Tranquility.

Plot summaries rarely do a book justice, but in short, this novel is about Andor Weer, a thirty-six-year-old writer who lives with his mother (a formerly gorgeous stage actress) who hasn’t left the house in fifteen years. She’s bitter, a bit deranged, and pretty aggressive, especially towards Andor’s girlfriends. The two of them are trapped in a incredibly wicked Oedipal mess. On top of this, Andor’s sister Judit defected from Hungary to pursue her music career (this defection brought about the downfall of Rebeka’s stage career), leading their mother to literally bury an casket with all of Judit’s things in the cemetery.

In short, this is a dark, twisted book, and one that’s incredibly gripping and very well written and well translated. (No surprise—Imre Goldstein’s one of the best.) Told is a looping, achronological fashion, the horrors of Andor’s life are revealed bit by bit with a hint of dark humor and a sense that the world (at least for Andor) is total shit.

There’s a sample down by Tim Wilkinson available here, but this paragraph should provide a pretty good sense of the tone and style:

When the woman suggested cremation, I did waver for a moment because I remembered my mother’s hysterical poses, “Look, that’s how they sit up, all of them,” she would say, holding on to the chair by her bedside and showing me how corpses sat up in the oven; a few months earlier she had seen a documentary on the subject and since then she would mention it almost every morning, and I’d say to her, don’t worry Mother, you won’t be cremated, and be careful you’ll spill your tea; but in a few days she’d start all over again, that cremation was ungodly, and I knew she was afraid there would be no resurrection for cremated people, and that was really something, considering she had never in her damned life had anything to do with God. Lately she had demanded I swear she wouldn’t wind up in a crematorium; she forbade me to burn her, to which I replied that I’d swear to nothing and since, luckily, she was still ambulatory, she should go to the notary’s office and get a paper saying it was forbidden to burn her; that shut her up, because for fifteen years she’d been too scared to leave the apartment.

I love reading the way reviews have described the outpouring of horrors in this book—here’s a short sample:

There are certainly other writers who employ nonstop misery (Elfriede Jelinek comes to mind), but I think there’s a particular brand of humorless brutality to Bartis’s that sets it apart. For one thing, its ceaseless ferocity gives it a power, even a certain beauty. It’s not written to shock, or merely for the sake of writing in this manner. To many people (and artists especially) the world is a filthy fucking shithole and there’s no reason to cover that up with devices commonly used to take the sting out of this sort of writing. It perhaps takes a certain type of reader to enjoy an endless stream of pessimism and sourness, but for that type of reader Bartis’s novel is very rewarding. [Scott Bryan Wilson in Quarterly Conversation

“Tranquility” is a moving, emotionally complex, subtle, shocking novel — and the inadequacy of these words of praise might be overcome by considering imagery, such as the narrator’s “remembering how I crawled, like a creeper, upon the back of that woman. Like a slug on the wound of a decaying fruit tree.” Or this: “You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can’t anymore, well, it’s time to get hold of that razor blade.” Or this: “[The narrator’s mother’s] nakedness was like that of the dead, in whom only the corpse washer and God take any delight.” [Tom McGonigle in the L.A. Times

And maybe Brian Evenson puts it best in his blurb:

Reading like the bastard child of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, Tranquility is political and personal suffering distilled perfectly and transformed into dark, viscid beauty. It is among the most haunted, most honest, and most human novels I have ever read.

I know I’m making this sound really dark, but amid all of the horrific imagery and overall pessimism is a truly beautiful, accomplished book. One that I think will be read for years to come, and the promising start to Bartis’s career in English translation.

(If you read this and want more Bartis, his short story Engelhard, or the Story of Photography is available online.)

1 Again with the footnotes and the disputable country of origin. One of the things that can be frustrating as a fan of international fiction is the overall lack of info about foreign authors. For example, Attila Bartis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So I’m relying entirely on the Archipelago author bio here. (Which includes the word “maverick”!)

Anyway, Attila Bartis was born in Romania, but currently lives in Budapest. His first novel came out in 1995, and he’s published at least one other book—a collection of short stories. He’s also been awarded the Tibor Dery Prize and the Sandor Marai Prize (for Tranquility).

23 September 08 | Chad W. Post |

In the world of Hungarian literature, of Kertész and Krúdy, of Konrád and Krasznahorkai, how can a writer stand out? Attila Bartis answers that question with his foul masterwork, Tranquility. First published in 2001 and in English for the first time this month, Bartis’s Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.

Set in post-communist Budapest, this novel is the life of Andor Weér, a writer. Weér is a continually conflicted character and bears comparison to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Zuckerman, particularly so in his disturbing relationships with women, especially his mother. Rebeka Weér is a living corpse, a reclusive actress who, though she hasn’t seen a stage in decades, has yet to give up her overwrought theatricality. The home they share—which her son frequently refers to as a crypt—is cluttered with stolen stage furniture, “the armchair had one belonged to Lady Macbeth, the bed to Laura Lenbach, and the chest of drawers to Anna Karenina.” In flashbacks, Ms. Weér is a singularly self-absorbed woman, sexually liberated and unfeeling toward her children. When her daughter, a gifted concert violinist, leaves communist Hungary to pursue her career elsewhere, Rebeka Weér’s reaction is macabre and cold:

She opened the coffin with her foot and threw in Judit’s letters. Then all of the sheet music from Paganini to Stravinsky, then the music stand, the strings and the resin. From the birth certificate and the left-behind clothes to Judit’s coffee mug, she threw everything into the coffin . . . anything with the slightest hint at Judit Weér’s existence would go into the coffin.

And as if the ceremonial killing of her daughter were not enough, she buried her also, then:

. . . she purchased ten blank death notices and . . . continued to copy from the telephone book the mailing address of the Ministry, because she was sending death notices not only to my sister, but to the theatre’s party secretary.

Tranquility is a book that never considers its reader—a fact I find gratifying. In fact, the novel is so thoroughly immersed in the troubled mind of Andor Weér that we lose sight of Attila Bartis completely. Weér is so wholly developed, so completely bared to the reader, as to seem more real than his author. Weér seems to have written this novel himself; these are his thoughts and memories and not merely thoughts and memories ascribed to him by some mysterious author. The style of the text, the tendency to run as a stream of consciousness and to occasionally blur together phrases like, “wherehaveyoubeenson” and “Idon’tknowmyself,” makes it all the more internal, personal to the character.

Much can be said of Weér and his peculiar development. The novel’s form, however, is what makes it truly exceptional, and what makes it real. Time is utterly fluid; events from Weér’s are presented to the reader without chronology becoming at all confusing; this is some very artful time-play and well worth the price of admission. Through this device, Weér’s miserable life is relived for our benefit, from his early experiences with sex through the torture of life with his addled mother.

As his mother ages. the phrase “wherehaveyoubeenson” is a frequent one; Weér’s mother has grown old and weird, Weér writes:

That for fifteen years I’ve been getting the vitamins, the Valerian drops, lipsticks, nail polish and hair dyes for my mother and for fifteen years she’s been sitting in the flickering gray light of the TV or standing in the blind spots of her mirror. Considered in this way, she’s been dead for years. An ordinary corpse, its stench concealed by the smell of mint tea and its skin rubbed human-colored with vanishing-cream.

This Hitchcockian corpse-mother haunts Weér, but adds a predictable stability to his life through times of change.

Really, many aspects of this novel reflect the uncertainty that came of living in flux, through the waxing and waning of communist rule. As in the quote above, Weér’s mother fearfully (and vindictively), buried her daughter alive. Hungarians are overheard to say things like “We’ll have to pay the bill one day for our new freedom” and Weér himself noticed that, “. . . everybody was talking politics then too. Some people wanted neutrality with lots of banks, as in Switzerland . . .” Somehow communism always seems to lead to oppressive bureaucracy, to a Kafkaesque state, to absurdity. For a reasonable person, this can be crushing. For literature, however, it is an unbelievable godsend. An encounter with the police brought an incredible exchange that stands out as one of the most powerfully disturbing in a book of already extraordinary power.

Much of this power comes from the remarkable depth of depravity in this novel. The grotesque realism provides a daring contrast to the self-indulgent introspection of Weér, but no respite from the overwhelming darkness. My sense of good taste doesn’t prevent me from mentioning Andor Weér’s early dalliance with incest, but certain passages did cause me to blush uncomfortably; I won’t quote them. This book approaches sexuality like a war and the acts described are damaging and painful, to both the narrator and to the reader. This is powerful writing intent on exposing human sexuality as it exposes so many private things.

More than anything else, that sense of exposure captures the central purpose of this book; nothing is sacrosanct: not religion, not government, not life, love, or motherhood. Bartis and Weér, Weér and Bartis; they touch everything normal and leave nightmarish fingerprints and filthy smears across it all. Their artistry, though, is thrilling and this book is an extraordinary achievement. But for me, one question remains: in all of this obscenity and blood and emotional turmoil, where can one find any tranquility?

....
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