2 September 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I guess both of these articles are a couple of weeks old now—but do things really count if they happen in August while all of Europe is on vacation?—but I still want to share them since both are really interesting and feature two great translators and friends.

First up, Asymptote has a nice profile of Danish translator K. E. Semmel, whose most recent publication is his translation of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors.

How did you know you would become a translator? How did you become a translator?

I didn’t really start out wanting to be a translator, I know that much. I started out wanting to be a fiction writer—and I still write fiction, it’s what I do when I’m not translating (I’ve been writing the same novel for eight years!). It wasn’t until I was living and working in Denmark that I decided to translate. I really enjoy reading Danish literature, and puzzling out issues of translation. I found myself reading books in Danish and translating words and sentences in my head. At some point I thought: why not give it a try? So I found one writer whose work I really liked, Simon Fruelund, and got started. Oh, actually, there was something else that came first, I think: I went up to Danish poet Pia Tafdrup at a reading in Washington, DC and told her I really wanted to be a translator. She graciously let me translate a few of her travel essays, and they got published in various places (Aufgabe, dirtcakes). To be honest, I can’t remember which came first. But from those two writers my translation life gathered momentum. I also owe debts of gratitude to Russian translator Marian Schwartz—who actually took time out of her schedule to talk to me, a nobody, on the telephone, and to encourage my translation work—and Danish writer Anne Mette Lundtoft, who recommended me to translate Norwegian novelist Karin Fossum’s The Caller. [. . .]

What’s your pet peeve about the translation/literary industry?

Probably the biggest pet peeve I have, though, is related to reader responses of translated texts. I’ve had people ask me what I think of Stieg Larsson’s books in translation. I’ve not read those books, in either language, but invariably I’m told that they’re not well translated. They’re bumpy. Or clumsy. Or whatever. I don’t quite know what to say to that other than, Can you read Swedish? It’s true that a smoothly flowing text will make you forget a book is translated, but the book may not have been so fluid in the original. It might’ve been bumpy or clumsy or whatever. The translator might have, in other words, chosen to hew closely to the original. Maybe the books weren’t well written in Swedish? I have no idea. But the general assumption often seems to be—when readers dislike something—that the translator is at fault, and I find this troubling. The translator is often ignored if it’s a great book, and pilloried if it’s a “bad” book. How many times do you see, say, quotes by Tolstoy or some other famous, oft-cited foreign author without any attribution of the translator’s role in the quote? Too many.

Fair enough! I wonder if Franzen’s German readers are all “hey, this book is flat and boring! Must be a bad translation” or if they realize that, well, it’s Franzen. (Sorry, that one’s gratuitous, but I can’t help myself right now after reading that Nell Zink review of Purity followed by Tom LeClair’s rant.)

*

Over at the LA Review of Books, translator and publisher Amanda DeMarco has a “Translator’s Note” in which, well, I’ll let her explain:

A translator must naturally take certain liberties with other people’s words in order to wrest the most truth into the text. In this essay on translation, composed strictly of quotations, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.”

I have also committed untold infidelities.

What follows is exactly that. Here are a couple of examples:

Precisely there where you are not — that is the beginning of writing, but I hate traveling and explorers; the soul has to stay where it is. Translation makes the strange familiar. Essentially, it makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality and eventually in one’s own. Remembering my country, I imagine it, and though every man is not only himself, all alone is all we are.

And I cannot explain the action of leveling, why a translation should all boil down to one uniform substance, a magma of interiors. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. Because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence — an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart. The voices of the narrative come, go, disappear, overlap; we do not know who is speaking; the text speaks, that is all: no more image, nothing but language. What is inevitable in a work of art is the style. It is what is sequestered.

1 September 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Although I already miss the lazy days of summer, this fall is going to be amazing. First off, the St. Louis Cardinals will be in the playoffs, again, which guarantees me at least a couple weeks of emotional rollercoasting and eventual disappointment. In terms of books, there are a ton of great things coming out this fall—just see this Flavorwire preview to load up your to-read shelf. And most relevant to this post, Open Letter has two dozen events lined up for September and October. TWO DOZEN.

These events are for Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, Andrés Neuman’s The Things We Don’t Do, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, and Hubert Haddad’s Rochester Knockings. To keep this as simple as possible, I’m organizing all the events chronologically, by book. This is going to be a long post, but hopefully you’ll find at least a couple of events that you can attend . . .


Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel

Thursday, September 10th, 6:30pm
Reading and discussion with Maria Marqvard Jensen at the Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave., New York, NY)

Thursday, September 17th, 7pm
Reading the World Conversation Series with K. E. Semmel at the Daily Refresher (293 Alexander Street, Rochester, NY)

Sunday, September 20th
Brooklyn Book Festival Details on the TWO events Naja is doing there are still being worked out. I’ll update this post when they’re finalized. Also note that Gospodinov AND Neuman will also be participating in the Book Festival!

Tuesday, September 29th, 6pm
Reading at the Fall for the Book Festival (Johnson Center Meeting Room D, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA)

Thursday, October 1st, 7pm
Reading with Naja Marie Aidt and Valeria Luiselli at the Community Bookstore (143 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY)

Tuesday, October 6th, 6pm
Reading and Conversation with Susan Harris of Words Without Borders at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL)

Thursday, October 8th, 7pm
Reading at Magers & Quinn (3030 Hennepin Ave., South, Minneapolis, MN)

Monday, October 12th, 7pm
Naja Marie Aidt: A Reading and Conversation with CJ Evans at Litquake (The Lab, 2948 16th St., San Francisco, CA)

Tuesday, October 13, 7pm
Reading at The Wild Detectives (314 W. Eighth St., Dallas, TX)

Wednesday, October 14, 7pm
Reading at Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX)


The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

Saturday, September 5th, 4:25pm
Presentation at the National Book Festival (Room 143, Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC)

Thursday, September 10th, 6pm
Reading the World Conversation Series with Chad W. Post at Buta Pub (315 Gregory St., Rochester, NY)

Saturday, September 12th, 3pm
Reading and Conversation with Chad W. Post at 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL)

Tuesday, September 15th, 7pm
Reading at Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX)

Wednesday, September 16th, 7:30pm
Reading at Powell’s Books (1005 W. Burnside, Portland, OR)

Sunday, September 20th, 1pm
Brooklyn Book Festival Event: Dark and Light
After darkness there is light, then again darkness. 2105 Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai (Seiobo There Below), Andrés Neuman (The Things We Don’t Do), and Naja Marie Aidt (Rock, Paper, Scissors) explore the unsettling cycles and silences of everyday life, moments that are felt but rarely articulated—allowing the reader to glimpse the transcendent in the ordinary with new intensity. Moderator TBD. (Borough Hall Media Room, 209 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, NY)

Sunday, September 20, 4pm
Brooklyn Book Festival Event: The New Latin American Literature: A View from Within
A very special, freewheeling conversation among some of the leading lights of a new generation of Latin American writers—many of them both peers and friends—as they talk about how their work intersects, inspires, and speaks to each other across borders. Authors include Mexican writers Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, and Yuri Herrera; Chilean author Alejandro Zambra; and Argentine author Andrés Neuman. Moderated by Daniel Alarcón. (Saint Francis Auditorium, 180 Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY)

Tuesday, September 22nd, 7pm
Reading and Conversation with Heather Cleary at McNally Jackson (52 Prince St., New York, NY)


The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Thursday, September 17th, 6pm
Reading and Conversation with Angelia Ilieva at Seminary Co-op (5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL)

Sunday, September 20th, 12pm
Brooklyn Book Festival Event: That Global 70s Show
For American audiences, familiar images of the shaggy-haired 1970s are often evoked in literature, movies, and television. How did that pivotal decade play out in other parts of the world, and how does it powerfully inform the works of Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel (The Body Where I Was Born), Chilean author Alejandro Zambra (My Documents), and Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov (The Physics of Sorrow)? Moderated by Anderson Tepper. (Borough Hall Media Room, 209 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, NY)

Thursday, September 24th, 7pm
Reading and Conversation with Alberto Manguel at Community Bookstore (143 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY)


Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad, translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz

Tuesday, September 29th, 4:30pm
Translation Panel with Jennifer Grotz, K. E. Semmel, Heather Green, and Jordan Stump at the Fall for the Book Festival (Johnson Center Meeting Room D, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA)

Saturday, October 10th, 6pm
Reading and Discussion at Barnes & Noble Collegetown (1305 Mt. Hope Ave., Rochester, NY)

Friday, October 23rd, 8pm
First Annual Open Letter Celebration at German House (315 Gregory St., Rochester, NY)

Phew. That’s a lot of events, a lot of chances to meet one of these great authors!

1 September 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by David Richardson on The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland and published by Other Press.

David Richardson is a writer, editor, and teacher based in New York. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the forest and cloaked in mist, belongs to the past; it has been the summer home of the Brodal family for generations, and their annual descent has endowed it with the wonder and deep mythos of childhood and family identity. The structure comes to the reader as familiar—we know it from Nabokov’s childhood summers at Vyra in Speak, Memory, and from the Ramsay’s retreat in Virginia Woolf’s _To the Lighthouse_—and so the beams of Mailund are as laden with our memories as they are with that of Siri, Jenny Brodal’s daughter, now staying at the estate with her husband Jon and their children Alma and Liv.

Milla, the teenaged daughter of an adored Norwegian photographer, joins the Brodal family at Mailund for the summer as an au pair. Siri, busy with her restaurant and frustrated with her marriage, and Jon, desperate to write the final novel of his trilogy and to keep secret his adulterous entanglements, entrust Alma and Liv to Milla. She is adoring and enthusiastic, if a bit young and striving. The arrangement is quaint enough until Siri announces,

Something was wrong . . . It had to do with Milla. Or something else. But Milla definitely had something to do with it.

For the rest of the review, go here.

26 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on Karel Schoeman’s This Life, translated by Else Silke, and out from Archipelago Books.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other unnamed, usually voiceless, person—recollecting their life, stitching together what is remembered with the forgotten, as much as they can, from beginning to end, though not necessarily in order. Archipelago is a fitting publisher for This Life, given that two of their other books, Stone upon Stone and Treatise on Shelling Beans are masterpieces of the genre. This Life doesn’t reach the heights that those works do, but contributes its own perspective to the genre.

Sussie relates not just her life, but the history of her family, from well before the Boer Wars, then through them, and into the uncertain dates of her apparent deathbed. Her family lives out their lives on a farm in the Karoo, a “[b]itter land where I was born, meager shaly soil where they will dig my grave.” For Sussie, the world outside her family’s farm, and the small village that grows around it in her later years, simply does not exist, is not glimpsed or imagined. The family members, a brother and a nephew, who do leave are burdened with the destiny of returning, silent about their time away. More than anything else, this is a novel about insular, isolated people, in an unrelenting way.

On their farm, far from neighbors, the mother resistant to visitors, the family—father, mother, two brothers, and Sussie—is not just secluded from outsiders, but from each other. They are, as she tells it, “inextricably connected in our isolation, and nonetheless irrevocably divided, with no hope that the rift would ever be healed.” No matter what changes, nothing changes. When Sofie, little older than a child, marries Sussie’s oldest brother, Jakob, she briefly brings relief, even pleasure, to Sussie, but before long the “monotony and isolation of her life with us” overwhelms her.

For the rest of the review, go here

24 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This has been in the works for a number of months now, but we’re finally ready to unveil some of the details about the first annual celebration of Open Letter and Rochester, including how you can buy tickets and support all of our programs. (Spoiler alert: Buy the tickets here.)

The celebration is set to take place at the Historic German House (315 Gregory St, Rochester, NY) on Friday, October 23rd at 8pm, and is primarily based around our forthcoming release, Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad. Which only makes sense, since Haddad’s novel is all about the Fox Sisters, three of the most famous (or infamous?) Rochesterians of the nineteenth century.

Growing up in a supposedly haunted house just outside of Rochester (the basis of this movie), the two youngest sisters started “communicating” with the dead through a series of “knockings” or “rappings.” They became instantly popular and put on a number of performances—at the now demolished Corinthian Hall and Carnegie Hall in NY—leading to the creation of dozens, if not hundreds, of mediums who toured America in the years following the Civil War, helping explore the “new science” of speaking to the deceased.

Local poet and professor Jennifer Grotz translated this book for us, and will read from the book and talk about it at the celebration.

In addition to a talk from Jen, the celebration will feature the Fox Sisters, a local rock band that will definitely enliven this whole event. There will also be food, drinks, and a silent auction—all of which will go to benefit Open Letter and our myriad programs.

As you can see on the official page, there are three levels of support for this: For $20 you get entry to the party, for $25 you get into the party AND get a copy of the book, and for $100, you get all of that along with entry to a VIP reception with Jennifer Grotz where we will serve up some Fox Sister Cocktails.

I really hope all of you reading this can make it to the event itself, but even if you can’t, I’d love for you to consider buying a ticket anyway as a way of supporting the organization. (Obviously, we’ll send you a copy of the book even if you can’t make it to the celebration.) Donations from readers like you are what allow us to continue all our programs—from publishing and promoting great literature, to maintaining the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Award, to working closely with young translators trying to break into the business—all of which are designed to connect English readers with the rest of the world.

Thanks in advance for all your support and I hope to dance with you in October!

24 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I don’t want to get into the Sad Puppies controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards (mostly because, well, fuck “sad puppies” and their stupid name), but I do want to point out that sci-fi in translation did really well at last night’s award ceremony. In fact, two of the top prizes that were awarded (if you’ve read anything about the “sad puppies” nonsense, you know that voters chose to give “No Award” in a ton of categories) were given out to works in translation.

In fact, The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu, won for “Best Novel,” arguably the most valued prize. And “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated from the Dutch by Lia Belt, won for “Best Novelette.”

According to a Facebook post by Ken Liu, only three translations have ever won a Hugo Award, making this year’s results a pretty huge coup.

I haven’t read either of these—although I’m on the waiting list at the NYPL for the audiobook of The Three Body Problem—I think it’s great that translations are receiving this level of recognition for awards that aren’t translation specific.

Moreover, this ties into P.T. Smith’s recent BTBA post about science fiction in translation.

There does seem to be a tide of change coming though. When a conversation with a translation fan rambles on long enough, more often than not, affection for science fiction comes up. Foreign, seemingly highbrow, authors are more welcoming of genre, and less determined to blend it, or make it literary, justify it as many English-language writers do. With these things, and crime fiction’s success, it’s satisfying to see translated science fiction getting healthier. University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Frontier of the Imagination series has been publishing translations years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Melville House has published both modern authors like Jean-Christophe Valtat and classic ones like the Strugatsky brothers. Lui Cixin’s Three Body Problem had mainstream success in the SF world. Andri Snær Magnason’s Vonnegutian LoveStar is brilliantly fun satire of contemporary life, tossed a few years in the future. [. . .]

As with the rest of translated works, as much as there is, I want more translated SF. I want to read the freshest, weirdest SF that other countries are putting out. I want to read the classics that are only just making it into English. I want to see how writers from other countries are affected by English-language writers, to see old ideas in new interpretations. There are books coming out this year I’ve yet to discover, so if you work for a press publishing SF in translation this year, or a fan of any, let me know. I don’t want to miss any of it, and I may find myself writing a second SF post. If you’re a SF fan, talk to fans of translation; if you’re a translation fan, talk to SF fans. Let’s get those worlds, with all their overlap, working to get more of these books into the world.

Maybe this year’s Hugo results will help out with that . . .

19 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. 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.

We know there are many connections to be made in themes and characters across countries and decades. I’d like to provide a fresh example by sharing three passages I ran across while reading for this year’s fiction award. While the children in the following novels face different emotional struggles, each responds with a similar defense mechanism.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press), first published in Hebrew in 1978.

This scene takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951, in a hotel run by ten-year-old Robby’s family, and frequented by eleven-year-old Victor’s family. The relevant thing to know here is that Victor is much more worldly than Robby, and has already introduced him to “a very nice game.” You guessed it, “‘Each of us will lie down in turn, and the others will stick it to him,’ Victor set the rules of the game.”

But what struck me was a passage when the two boys are watching Victor’s father and brother walk away from the hotel, and Victor tells Robby that his father is taking his brother to a prostitute.

“Robby had never heard that word, but his heart told him that its meaning lay in those moldy, mysterious corners, in the appealing, frightening world of sex. Plug your ears, hear no more. But every cell in his body thirsted for more knowledge.” Once Victor tells Robby what a prostitute is, and how “there are houses like that, there are,” Robby falls into confusion.

A father taking his son to a prostitute. Would his father also come to him one day and say, “Robby, let’s go,” then take him by the hand to a big, dark house? What do those houses look like? Maybe they’re more like palaces? Rooms upon rooms, like cells in a beehive. In each cell, a naked woman. . . . He wouldn’t know what to do. His eyes would cling to his father for help . . . [His father would] say, “That’s it, from here on out, you’re on your own.” On his own in a small, seedy room with cobwebs and . . . a woman.

My brief analysis: Of course the first thing Robby latches onto is The House. How better to displace his deep emotional confusion than to spend his energy wondering about the room layout and moving through space. It’s the sort of displacement that a child can latch onto, and which we also often recognize in dreams. (Robby will clearly be dreaming of labyrinthine palaces and cobwebs in attics for a long time, right?)

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Graywolf Press), first published in Norwegian in 1987.

This tiny collection of stories centers on young Arvid. Right at the beginning, Arvid’s Dad has been unable to hold a job since “the shoe industry capsized and sank,” and he’s just returned from another six month stint that didn’t work out. The family gathers. “They were all so bewildered they never got round to asking about anything except what was in the suitcase.” [Spoiler: It was lots of duty-free treats.] They’ve settled and gathered in the kitchen. “And of course Uncle Rolf had to have his say. It was a mystery to Arvid why he came round so often, didn’t he have his own place to live?”

This is kind of a throw-away line but I love it. Obviously Arvid knows where his uncle lives. A mere two pages later: “Uncle Rolf . . . drank up and went home to his flat in Vålerenga. The flat was full of clutter and dust balls everywhere . . . and whenever Arvid came to visit him he had to help with the dishes.” But the backdrop is Uncle Rolf’s condescension to Arvid’s father. In this conversation following his father’s perceived failure, Uncle Rolf says “‘The thing is, Frank, you don’t have any social aspirations, and you know it!’ . . . Arvid could see the irritation crawling around his dad’s face, and it was contagious for he could feel himself getting upset.”

At least for a moment, he can grapple with the mystery of where Uncle Rolf lives, to postpone the mystery of who his father is, and whether his Uncle is correct.

One night, a few pages later: “He dreams that his dad’s blue T-shirt with all the muscles inside it is suddenly empty and flabby and hanging there on a nail in a large empty attic room.” Arvid’s dreams won’t let him avoid the confusion, displacing mysteries onto further representative objects.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson (New Directions), originally printed in Portugese in the collection The Foreign Legion, 1964.

In a short story called “Monkeys,” a woman buys a little monkey “whose name would be Lisette. She nearly fit in my hand. She was wearing the skirt, earrings, necklace and bracelet of a Bahian woman.” Very soon, after “admiring Lisette and the way she was ours,” the narrator and her two boys are off in taxis rushing the little monkey to emergency rooms, fearing that she is about to die.

“The next day they called, and I told the boys that Lisette had died. My youngest asked me: ‘Do you think she died wearing her earrings?’ I said yes.” Including the question about her earrings, I think that Lispector has made this moment of grief even more poignant than, say, a question about how she died or whether they can get a new monkey. Read the whole story and it might make you cry.

*

Just to supplement literature with memory, I conclude with another small example of this displacement (also focusing on architecture, in fact). As a child, I didn’t watch many movies, but was curiously obsessed with the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was entirely creeped out by the Child Catcher, but still needed to watch it over and over. The only clear memory I have of the film is the scene where he searches the doll-maker’s house for children and tells his minions: “You have to know where to look . . . under the floors, in the cracks in the walls, in the woodwork.” Every time I watched the film, I waited anxiously for that scene, hoping to one day figure out how it would be possible for a child to hide in the cracks in the wall. It’s absurd, but was a huge part of my inability to process the coexistence of curiosity and fear, and might be the reason these small elements strike me so.

I don’t mean to say that all children think in the same way—perhaps not everyone reading this associates the deepest experience of childhood to be utter confusion and perpetual displacement—but mostly I hope to remind us of one benefit of reading a wide variety of literature in translation:

Maybe your experiences don’t apply to everyone, but there are few things more unifying than recognizing that your experiences pop up here and there in literature, throughout all of space and time. On one level, we hope to increase our cultural exposure and diversify our empathy; on another, we can take a moment to realize that we’re nothing new. It sometimes doubles as good therapy.

17 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by translator and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review, Heather Cleary. 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.

Earlier this week, I returned home from a month abroad to find my hall closet overflowing with submissions to this year’s BTBA. I’m glad there were no witnesses to my cartoonish glee as I tore into the bright yellow envelopes; not nearly as glad, though, as I am that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to explore so many new translations I might otherwise not have read. To borrow a phrase from a canonical work especially dear to my heart: bring it on.

Anyway. Mixed in among the bounty of this first shipment was Yoel Hoffmann’s beautifully composed Moods, luminously translated by Peter Cole. The text is a series of numbered vignettes narrated in the first person plural by a voice that is by turns mischievous, nostalgic, cynical, reflective, and often quite funny. (At one point, for example, Hoffmann recommends using the book as a prop to pick up a lover, or as a pillow to soothe an aching back.) A few readers I know have wondered aloud whether the book should be considered a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, or something else entirely; Hoffmann, who seems to have anticipated these questions—or quite likely set out to provoke them—replies, “What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation, and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?”

My interest may have been piqued by this challenge to literary norms, but it was the spare yet surprisingly rich descriptions of Hoffmann’s narrative world that drew me in, as well as the urgency with which the book seeks to bear witness to something as vast as a life in one moment, and then unwrite itself in the next. (“If it were printed on thinner paper we’d suggest the reader use it for rolling cigarettes. The smoke would write the book in the air as it really is.”)

But let’s begin at the beginning. “Ever since finishing my last book,” Hoffmann remarks, “I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. // Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole.” Following this observation, Hoffmann presents the beginning of a traditional novelistic storyline (“I know it’s a love story”) which—rather than developing toward the requisite “middle” and “end”—is quickly absorbed by a series of divergent reflections that bind the personal to the philosophical with the twine of dry humor (“It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small”).

Though this narrative gambit might look like a false start, the book’s first chapter does indeed contain the seed of Moods, which is in many ways a work composed of beginnings. Not only because its vignettes could be read in any order, giving rise to new interpretations with every new opening, but also because each chapter seems to double as the opening to another, untold story that intersects with the one on the page at only a single point. And so, across its many moods, this book is—as much as any I’ve read—about what it does not say. Characters we never fully meet pass through the staunchly metonymic moments of a life that seems to remain unknown even to the voice recounting it. One of the great accomplishments of Moods is the way this negative space bears as much weight as the words on the page.

The specter of stories untold is especially pronounced in Hoffmann’s lists, each element of which seems to contain an entire universe, not unlike Hemingway’s famous six-word novel. “Here are some other things that break the heart,” Hoffmann declares: “An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted.” Each image, vivid and universal in its understatement, is heavy with the moments that precede it and invites us to imagine those that follow.

It has been said that one of the most difficult things to translate is the silence of a text—those gaps made intelligible by shared cultural or historical touchstones that rarely pass without a struggle into the target system. In this sense, Cole has done an admirable job of preserving as inklings the hollows that Moods offers its readers. I gather from the English that his task must have been doubly challenging: not only is this a book of many silences, in his reflections on the limits of writing, and of language itself, Hoffmann also traffics in linguistically specific reflections. Cole’s solutions to these challenges are deft, even artful, whether he is re-Englishing Hoffmann’s adaptation of Joyce or rendering a nursery rhyme in one chapter’s paean to unadorned language (“If only we could write like that”).

(Peter Cole at the University of Rochester)

It’s a good thing, too, since a skilled hand is needed to translate a work that operates with such intention, and such self-consciousness, on the level of the word. Just as the form of the book’s opening was the object of reflection, so too is the way it will draw to a close. “This might be the last book we’ll write,” Hoffmann muses,

I wonder what how it will end. What its final words will be. Joyce, for example, finished his final book with the word the.

We’ve always thought it extremely strange that movies (and books) end with the word End. Moreover, sometimes the definite article’s added.

Maybe we’ll end with a different word altogether . . . Imagine if the word turns out to be prow. Or Binyamina. Or epaulettes. Or hydraulic. Or gurgle (which is probably onomatopoetic). Or drowse. Or you.

Given the centrality of beginnings in this book, it is fitting that Hoffmann resolves this question by deciding to close with one—THE beginning, in fact, which he describes as a “beautiful tale”:

In the beginning, when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and waste, and darkness was over the face of the deep . . .

“Imagine the loneliness of countless years,” Hoffmann writes. “Like a giant, old, autistic man, He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Having evoked so many beginnings with his silence, Hoffmann locates silence within this beginning, and in so doing, finds his final word:

The only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names). But when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.

11 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s episode starts with a question from a listener about how translation trends come about, then morphs into a discussion of which books Chad and Tom are bringing on their respective vacations and what makes a “beach book.” Rants are raves are random as always.

This week’s music is Girl, You Couldn’t Do Much Better on the Beach by Palma Violets.

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email us at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. Or just copy this link to add our show’s feed to any podcast app:
http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?s=broadcast_3p

And here’s the enormous list of books and authors discussed in this episode, pretty much in order of appearance:

Steig Larsson
Jo Nesbo
Roberto Bolaño
Javier Marias
W. G. Sebald
Elena Ferrante
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind
The Da Vinci Code
Santiago Roncagliolo
Gabriel García Marquez
Andres Neuman
Camilla Lackberg
Rafael Chirbes, On the Edge
Hard Case Crime
Lawrence Block
Emmanuel Carrere, I Am Alive and You Are Dead
Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions
Enrique Vila-Matas, The Illogic of Kassel
Pascal Garnier, Moon in a Dead Eye
Virginie Despentes
Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantible and Abahn Sabana David
Pierre Lemaitre, The Great Swindle
Laurie Weeks, Zipper Mouth
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home and Billy and Girl
David Peace, 1980 and GB84
Derek Raymond
Michel Houellebecq, Submission
Bei Tong, Beijing Comrades
Violette Leduc, Therese and Isabelle


5 August 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. 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.

In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.

Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?

Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.

A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.

The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.

Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:

I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.

But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:

Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.

The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.

Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”

The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.

One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.

The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.

I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation.

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