Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.
Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.
That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.
Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.
I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.
The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.
On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.
From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)
Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)
Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?
I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.
So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?
I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .
I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .
Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.
Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.
Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)
So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.
Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.
(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)
I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.
WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:
Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!
A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)
That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)
On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)
Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)
I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:
He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.
Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .
OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.
The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .
When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .