This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Jason Grunebaum, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago, and translator from the Hindi. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
When November turns to December, and foreboding over sinking temperatures and greying Midwestern skies is followed by a fear of even colder, starker days to come, suddenly and possibly forever, and when this fear leads one’s thoughts to turn further inward, toward self-absorption, toward the soul, to questions of pride and guilt, joy and innocence, and choices that make life worth living, or not, one could do far worse in raveling and unraveling these questions than taking a night walk through snowy, moody Paris with the impulsive, talkative Changarnier, his co-walker Violette, encountering with them along the way a little man, a police captain, a witness to a murder, and confessed confessions, both real and imaginary, for crimes, equally fuzzy whether true, against self and others, all courtesy of Emmanuel Bove’s 1932 novella A Raskolnikoff, translated by Mitchell Abidor, with an introduction by Brian Evenson, and published by Red Dust.
Changarnier is a lonely man with worn shoes living in a squalid room who’s visited one evening by Violette, frail and dressed in a ragged, dyed rabbit coat. He berates her for her wretchedness one moment, and idealizes her the very next, proclaims his love, asks for her faith in him. She takes both pronouncements in stride, and accedes to his suggestion for fresh air out in the open. The oxygen activates his brain:
[That] boundlessness above the city’s limits, above human order and constructions, seemed to him to be a spectacle, a spectacle that contrasted with the world in which he found himself. He understood that there was an immensity which he was not part of, that no one was part of, and since no one was part of it, he understood that beneath the magnificent sky, on this overpopulated earth, it belonged to whoever knew how to get by. For a brief moment he saw himself to be a brother of the happy, of the unhappy, of the rich, of the ill. He resembled all these men, and this feeling gave him a shiver of joy. But it seemed to him that all these people had reasoned the same way before he did, and that was why they had been able to seize a portion of the happiness of this world while he hadn’t been able to.
“Walk faster,” he said to Violette, who was struggling behind him.
“But where are we going?” she asked, for she was getting tired of being outside.
“I don’t know. We’re walking straight ahead with the hope that something will happen to us.
These micro-reversals of the mind in quick succession are the sparks that keep the novella’s pace lively, and are emblematic of the “some things” that soon do indeed happen to the two. A stop in a café leads to discussion of possibly joining the Foreign Legion, possibly becoming an usherette in a theatre, maybe saving payday money for splurges on restaurants and hotel beds and cigarettes.
A carelessly broken glass prompts an altercation with the café owner, a tense exit from the café, and the expansion of the duo to a triad with the entrance of the Little Man, witness of everything, who offers classified information about the true identity of the café owner. (Changarnier is nonplussed; Violette is upset). The Little Man decides to tag along.
Soon Changarnier is upset, and imagines killing the Little Man, who refuses to get lost. His upset quickly transforms into a fantasy of homicide. At the dream trial for the dream killing, Changarnier recounts in horror as the court sides with the dead Little Man. “In this dream, death didn’t prevent him from being real. On the contrary, it made him look like a victim, a martyr, and consequently he attracted everyone’s sympathy and protection.”
The Little Man soon confesses to the crime of uxoricide, which he got away with but has forever trapped him. “I’m aware that I will remain miserable for the rest of my life. No joy will ever warm my heart. No happiness is accessible to me. I’m not capable of attaining the only one that’s reserved to me, that of expiation. What’s left for me? Repentance.”
The two shake the Little Man, but Changarnier must repent, too, for a heinous crime he insists he committed. Violetta is baffled. Now possessed with the goal of turning himself over the authorities, Changarnier happily walks into a crowd of cops on the lookout at that moment for someone guilty of something.
He is hauled in, but not without a fight. The final section of the novella describes a cat-and-mouse interrogation down at the station, with Changarnier claiming his struggle was because he wanted to give himself up. “I tried to flee in order to run to you, to turn myself in,” he insists. The police captain is not amused.
What makes this novella so delightful is the feeling that Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment have been distilled to a 104-page novella: the character unpredictability and looking-glass morality, detail-driven mood and quickly shifting intrigue.
Perhaps this was the very challenge Emmanuel Bove gave himself. Doubtless he wrote the book in winter, the very season you ought to pick it up, too.
[Note from Chad: If you’re interested in Bove, you should also check out _Henri Duchemin and His Shadows, which came out in July from NYRB.]
With Tom on vacation, Chad recorded a special episode of the podcast with Heather Cleary and Jason Grunebaum, both of whom have a book on the National Translation Award longlist. They talk about Sergio Chejfec’s “The Dark,” Uday Prakash’s “The Girl with the Golden Parasol,” air shows, the future of the American Literary Translators Association, and other non-sports related topics. (Seriously, this is a sports-free podcast.)
As an added bonus, there’s a short conversation Chad had with Uday Prakash about his collection “The Walls of Delhi.”Read More...
Thanks to a blown out tire, which forced me to spend most of last Friday riding in a tow truck and sitting in a tire shop, I didn’t have a chance to write my weekly Weekend Reading post.1 So this week, I’m going to triple up on the normal post and write about the three books I hope to spend the next four days reading.
First up is Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, which is translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. In case you don’t remember, Bill’s translation of Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone won the Best Translated Book Award in 2012, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a couple years.
And to be honest, I’ve been reading it for the last week. In many ways, it’s similar to Stone Upon Stone—a long, looping monologue detailing the crazy adventures of one person’s life, very plain language, intricate narrative structure—but also a bit different in the way that narrator isn’t quite as self-mythologizing as the guy from Stone Upon Stone, and the general setting (in a part of Poland completely destroyed in WWII). Regardless, it’s an excellent book, and one that I’m definitely going to finish tonight or tomorrow, and will be reviewing in full next week.
Next up is a book I should’ve read years ago: The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash, translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum, and available from Yale University Press. Jason is a good friend, and one of the funniest people I know, which is one reason it’s inexcusable that I’ve had this on my “to read” shelf for so many months.
The main reason I’m picking it up now though is thanks to Jason’s essay “Choosing an English for Hindi” from the invaluable collection, In Translation, which was put together by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.
In this essay, Jason invents two possible readers for this novel—Krishna, who lives in South Delhi, is a polyglot who is comfortable reading and speaking in Hindi, English, and Panjabi; and Kris, an English-reader born in Detroit and living in Chicago who has lots of South Asian friends and has attended bhangra dance parties. The crux of Jason’s piece is on whether he should translate The Girl with the Golden Parasol for Krishna (and the potentially huge audience of Indians who would be comfortable reading this book in English), or for Kris (and the much smaller number of American counterparts who might buy this), and what falls out from that particular decision.
Leaving certain words from the Hindi in the English translation won’t be the only difference in strategy if I translate for Krishna. I might also decide to write in a more South Asianized English. I might use an idiomatic phrase like, “I am just coming,” confident that Krishna would take this to mean what in American English would translate as, “I’ll be right back.” Sometimes Uday’s characters use English words in their Hindi or even speak in complete English sentences, like when the protagonist, Rahul, bursts into tears, and his friend implores him (and this is the Hindi), “Don’t be senti, Rahul!” “Senti” comes from the word “sentimental,” and here means an excessive public display of emotion: when someone loses it, can’t keep a grip on himself, fails to keep a grip on himself or hold it together. Krishna would know what “senti” means, and I could leave this, and many other instances of English-in-the-Hindi, as is.
There are several more interesting examples, but you’ll just have to buy, borrow, or steal In Translation to find out what they are.
And the last book I’d like to get to this weekend: The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story Is an Accident by J. P. Cuenca, translated by Elizabeth Lowe, and available from Tagus Press.
First off, this is a Brazilian book, and if you’ve been following this blog at all the past few months, you’ve probably heard about my Brazil obsession. (Which will culminate in our publication of Rafael Cardoso’s The Chronicle of the Murdered House in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation a few years from now.) As a result, I’ve been reading bunches of Brazilian books, but mostly by author’s I’d already heard of. By contrast, I hadn’t heard of J. P. Cuenca until reading “Before the Fall” in Granta’s special young Brazilian authors issue.
It’s also really intriguing that the setting for this book is Tokyo, in the near future, and featuring a mad poet whose hobby is spying on his son. I’ve read the first few chapters in this book, and can confirm that the jack copy is pretty much on target:
In poetic and imaginative language, Cuenca subtly interweaves reality and fiction, creating a dreamlike world whose palpable characters, including a silicone doll,2 leave a lasting impression. Written like a crime novel, full of odd events and reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s work,3 this disturbing, kaleidoscopic story of voyeurism and perversion draws the reader in from the very first page.
What I really like about this book though is the title. Such a great title. And the fact that it’s from Tagus Press, a relatively new venture specializing in lusophone writing.
Anyway, that’s it for this week—see you after the break!
1 OK, yes, I know this is only “weekly” in my mind, but I do have every intention of making this a more regular feature. Also, to follow up on the last one of these posts—the one about Viviane by Julia Deck—I have to tell you that Viviane turned out to be amazing. So amazing that I’m going to be teaching it in my class next semester, and highly recommend it to everyone.
2 If I had written this copy, I would’ve referred to Yoshiko as a “silicone sex doll.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but from the first page: “I could not be anything else because I have this body, and I only have this body, I am this body. And the purpose of this body is just one thing: to serve Mr. Okuda.”
3 But better.
At some point, we’ll run a review of this book, but for now, I just wanted to point out UWAP’s conscientious approach to highlighting the fact that this book is a translation—an approach that truly sets a new standard for all publishers to follow.
First off, here’s the front cover. Note that Jason’s name is equally as large as both the title and the author. That in and of itself is pretty impressive.
BUT, what’s really impressive is the spine:
And there you are. Based on this single data point, I think that from now on every publisher who fails to acknowledge the translator on the spine deserves to be publicly shamed.
Simply put, Jason Grunebaum is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Super energetic, witty as all get out, he should have his own reality show. (Or something.) At least a podcast. Or a regular guest spot on someone else’s podcast. (Jason: you going to be at MLA? If so, let’s talk.) He’s also one of the only Hindi translators I know . . . and I’m hoping that one day Open Letter will publish a translation of his.
There’s a slew of soon-to-be-profiled translators (like Becka, J.P., and Edward) that I first met at ALTA Richardson, which, though it wasn’t in the most hip, or interesting of surroundings (I mean, damn, the most entertaining thing we found was a 24-hour Casket Store—how’s that for nightlife?), was one of the first ALTA conferences I attended where I hooked up with a lot of young, fun translators.
Anyway, I feel like Jason and I have a special bond thanks to our time together at the Salzburg Seminar last February. After five days in a palace drinking beer on the honor system in the bierstube, we developed a certain rapport . . .
Jason is another person I’d point to as one of the key figures in the future of ALTA as an organization. He’s literally boiling over with ideas. His massive social network for translators, the Hindi translation competition, etc., etc. I can only imagine how much fun his classes at the U of Chicago must be, and I’m excited to read the novel that he’s been working on . . . Anyway, onto the questions and comments:
Favorite Word from Any Language:
“garbar”—a mess, fiasco, Benny Hill style descent into chaos
This is the perfect word for Jason to choose. I have no other comments.
Best Translation You’ve Done to Date: The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash
This came out last year (?) from Penguin India, but has yet to be released in the U.S. (Which maybe isn’t terribly shocking, but is a bit disappointing. There are so few Hindi books published in America—there’s only one listed in the translation database—and to have Jason helping promote . . . ) You can read a sample of this by clicking here. And here are links to a few reviews: Dawn.com, Tehelka, and The Telegraph (India).
Book that Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Basharat Manzil by Manzur Ahtesham
Another surprise: not much information online about this book. But here’s a (fairly generic) description I found:
Set in pre-independence Delhi, centred around a quiet building, Basharat Manzil, home to Billo and Bibbo. A story of love, patience and understanding. A story of ghazals, tawaifs, Batashonwali Gali, unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love.
The lives of the residents of Basharat Manzil, in particular that of Amina Begham, reflect the lives of millions of Indians. In this is the triumph of the novellist, that the reader easily identifies with the protagonists of his novel and as we read the novel, the story of Basharat Manzil quickly becomes the story of our own lives.
Hopefully as time goes on, people will start to read more Indian literature not originally written in English, and Jason will be there to translate and promote it.
Foreign Policy may not be the first magazine you think of when you think of literature in translation, but Britt Peterson put together a really cool set of translation-centric features for the May/June issue.
First off is a piece by Edith Grossman that’s related to her book Why Translation Matters:
The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have—and arguably, already has had—dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged. [. . .]
Publishers have their excuses, of course. A persistent but not very convincing explanation is that English-language readers are, for some reason, put off by translations. This is nothing but a publishing shibboleth that leads to a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is a limited readership for translations the reason so few are published in the Anglophone world? Or is that readership limited because English-language publishers provide their readers with so few translations?
To supplement this piece though (which is pretty much lifted from Edie’s aforementioned book), Britt put together a very cool feature called Overcoming the Language Barrier featuring nine translated pieces from around the world:
“I write in a language that has little to do with tulips, windmills, or silly snowmen with carrot noses, a language honed to denote Africa in all its harshness, cruelty, and beauty,” Thomas Dreyer writes in his essay “Not Our Leguaan.” It’s also a language, Afrikaans, that is rarely translated into English—like most languages, in fact, as literary translator Edith Grossman elaborated in her article for our May/June issue, “A New Great Wall.” But Dreyer’s piece, grappling with the complexities of creating art out of the language that once created apartheid, offers a crucial perspective for understanding the affairs of his country, and so do the eight other pieces in our first-ever Foreign Policy translation project.
Here’s the complete list of translated pieces with links to each one:
Very cool, and hopefully this isn’t just a one-off . . . It would be great if FP could run some translated works of nonfiction every so often . . .
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. . .