Bill Marx’s new PRI’s The World World Books podcast features an interview with Ross Benjamin, recipient of this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize for Speak, Nabokov and translator of Joseph Roth’s Job, which is due out in November from Archipelago Books.
It’s clear from this interview that Ross not only is a great translator, but also an amazing reader, and after listening to this, I feel like I need to read more of Roth’s works . . . starting with this one. (And his comments on why books need to be retranslated—not always because the original translation is flawed, but sometimes because the new translation can enrich the work—are pretty interesting.)
From the Archipelago website:
Job is the tale of Mendel Singer, a pious, destitute Eastern-European Jew and children’s Torah teacher whose faith is tested at every turn. His youngest son seems to be incurably disabled, one of his older sons joins the Russian Army, the other deserts to America, and his daughter is running around with a Cossack. When the parents flee with their daughter to America, further blows of fate await them. In this modern fable based on the Biblical story of Job, Mendel Singer witnesses the collapse of his world, experiences unbearable suffering and loss, and ultimately gives up all hope and curses God, only to be saved by a miraculous reversal of fortune.
And speaking of Archipelago, their Fall 2010 catalog arrived yesterday, and as always, they’re bringing out some great books, including:
Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, which is “a profound and irreverent stream of memory cutting through the rich and varied terrain of one man’s connection to the land, to his family and community, to women, to tradition, to God, to death, and to what it means to be alive.” (Check out this recent RTW Podcast for more info on Stone Upon Stone and Bill’s translation.)
My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, which is “a Bengali Decameron for the twentieth century.” (Although much shorter.) The novella takes place in a railway station where four strangers are trapped overnight. “The sight of a young loving couple prompts them to share their own experiences of the vagaries of the human heart with each other in a story cycle that is in turn melancholy, playful, wise, and heart-wringing.”
The Chukchi Bible by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, which is “a collection of the myths and tales of Yuri Rytkheu’s own shaman father. The stories compose both a moving history of the Chukchi people who inhabit the shores of the Bering Sea, and a beautiful cautionary tale, rife with conflict, human drama, and humor.”
Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets came out a few months ago, but with Iceland and its overturned government in the news these days, it’s a pretty good time for reviews to be appearing . . . Just this week two new reviews came out, the first being Lara Tupper’s piece in The Believer, which puts Olafsson’s novel about a man stuck hiding under a bed in some nice artistic company:
In a few ways, The Pets parallels Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which Ólafsson translated into Icelandic. Both focus on chance meetings; both feature a linguist. Auster’s interest in possessions, or loss of possessions, seems influential as well: the duty-free liquor in The Pets is a source of comedy and a partial cause of Emil’s extended entrapment—that and his inability to face the messy entanglements in his living room. Emil, frozen by embarrassment, unwilling to emerge, instead worries about the mishandling of his CD collection.
Ólafsson, who cites David Lynch as an influence, enjoys comic “scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time.” The bed premise affords exactly this sort of comedy.
The other is from Bill Marx at PRI’s The World, which focuses more on reading this novel in light of Iceland’s financial implosion:
Let economics professors conjecture about how and why Iceland flat-lined; fiction probably furnishes more understanding of the self-destructive reasons behind the country’s financial breakdown. Creative writers often deal with accounts due, moral, financial, and otherwise; they can also train a prophetically comic and/or philosophical eye on the national collective unconscious, in this case a blend of cowardice, blindness, and greed.
I suspect that is not what novelist Bragi Ólafsson set out to do in this breezily acidic short novel (first published in 2001), but as a study of radical denial, a small scale vision of blindfolded lemmings marching toward the cliff, The Pets works as a raffishly amusing allegory of utter irresponsibility. It blows a warning whistle that sounds far outside of the Arctic Circle.
Ironically, Ólafsson himself was once a lucrative Icelandic export; he played bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. The Pets, the first of his four novels to be translated into English, received critical acclaim in Iceland, as have his other books. Judging by this tale, Ólafsson specializes in a kind of impish deadpan, wry studies in what happens when the links between real estate and the psyche break.
The book (which we did in a beautiful—and cheap—paper-over-board edition is available at bookstores everywhere, on our website.
In his latest World Books podcast, Bill Marx — who runs PRI’s The World’s very impressive World Books website — talks with translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, the translator of Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home and several books by David Albahari, including the brillian Gotz and Meyer for which she won the 2006 American Literary Translators Association award.
Arts Fuse has a nice introduction to the interview and references a new, long, critically acclaimed Albahari novel that Elias-Bursac is currently working on. (I assume Harcourt will be bringing this out, but I’ll try and get the pud date and other details and post an update later.)
Over at the PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a great appreciation piece for Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a writer far ahead of his time, and who died 100 years ago yesterday:
“If Borges is the writer who made Garcia Marquez possible,” observed Salman Rushdie, “then it is no exaggeration to say that Machado De Assis is the writer who made Borges possible.” Rushdie’s piggyback history of the hemisphere’s premier intellectual ironists is correct but, at least until the last decade or so, Machado was a neglected progenitor, his finest novels hailed by a relatively small circle of discerning readers who wondered why the gargantuan achievement of the Brazilian writer wasn’t sufficiently recognized. [. . .]
Why has it taken so long for Machado to become as well known here as Borges or Marquez? In the 1950s and 60s Helen Caldwell and William Grossman translated the best of his fiction into English; these efforts were enthusiastically received by reviewers, including V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Hardwick. Among contemporary critics, John Barth and the late Susan Sontag are fans of Machado. But when the Latin American literary boom boomed across American campuses in the 1970s, lazy readers, gorging on diets of Marquez and Llosa, never adventured back in time further than three or four decades.
Perhaps the problem is that the remarkable playfulness of Machado’s fiction works against him. He is difficult to classify: romantic and realist, idealistic and cynical, rational and cranky. His life includes extremes as well: a mulatto who received little formal education, Machado was a shy epileptic who became president of Brazil’s Academy of letters and received a state funeral when he died in 1908.
Over at PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a really interesting podcast interview with Marian Schwartz, whose retranslation of Bulgakov’s The White Guard was recently released by Yale University Press. (Bill Marx also put together a special White Guard related Geo Quiz.)
The interview is really interesting, touching on why people should read The White Guard in addition to The Master and Margarita, what some of the issues were with the previous translation, and, on a related note, how onomatopoeia works in the new version.
This isn’t the only new translation Schwartz has coming out this year—in October Seven Stories will release her retranslation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.
I’m looking forward to getting my hands on both of these titles, and we’ll definitely review them as soon as possible.
On a related note, Marian Schwartz will be here in Rochester on October 1st to participate in a translator’s roundtable (which will be recorded and posted here) in part to talk about the opportunities and challenges of retranslating classics.
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