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.

5 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans, translated by Justin Vicari, and out from Wakefield Press.

(We love you, Wakefield!!!)

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s piece:

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the respective translated edition), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the shell of a tortoise. The tortoise, of course, is defenseless to Esseintes, who attaches so many gems that the creature cannot move. Eventually, their weight causes the tortoise to die, and the scene shows how the rich can use their wealth to crush the poor.

In A Dilemma, which was first serialized soon after the publication of À rebours in 1884, Huysmans once again gives us a satirical look at this cruel power. This time, however, the victim is not an animal but a poor, unmarried, pregnant woman named Sophie, the unlucky mistress of Jules—unlucky because Jules died without marrying her or leaving behind a will. Now, Jules’s father (Monsieur Lambois) and grandfather (Maître Le Ponsart) will do anything to protect their fortune and reputation from this woman, who only asked them for a little money just to get by.

For the rest of the review, go here.

4 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This morning, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the recipients for its FY 2016 Literary Translation Fellowship. A total of $275,000 in grants will go to support twenty translators in their projects to translate fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Since 1981, the NEA has awarded 410 fellowships to 363 translators, with translations representing 66 languages and 77 countries.

From the NEA website:

“The NEA is committed to providing Americans with diverse art experiences,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Our support of literary translation provides opportunities for readers to expand their knowledge of other cultures and traditions while also experiencing some of the world’s most talented writers.”

Four of this year’s twenty recipients are tied ever-so-closely to Open Letter Books. In alphabetical order, and with a mere fraction of the skills and attributes they all boast, they are:

  • K. E. Semmel, St. Louis Cardinals fan, and translator from Danish. His translation of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors comes out next week.
  • Benjamin Paloff, translator from Polish and Czech. His translation of Andrzej Sosnowski’s Lodgings came out in 2011.
  • Will Vanderhyden, University of Rochester MALTS graduate, and translator from Spanish. His translation of Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza came out last August, and his translation of Labbé’s Loquela is forthcoming this December.

A massive congratulations to all twenty fellowship recipients, and we look forward to seeing your final project results and products!

For the full NEA press release, go here.

For the full list of NEA Literary Translation Fellowship recipients, go here.

3 August 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water, translated by lmar Lehtpere and out from Unnamed Press.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither a criticism, nor the identification of a flaw is that Walker on Water is an unusual book that pushes boundaries, and the readers it would most appeal to are vastly different. This book is for those who like their stories very brief, abstracted, non-linear, without traditional character or plot, and for those to whom fabulism appeals, those who want stories to be strange and magical, something resembling, but far from, fairy tales.

When you look underneath a woman who walks on water, whose husband comes home and takes his brain out of his head, or a woman who collects her husband’s “big juicy apricots,” look past character names like Teacher of Joy, Surrealist’s Daughter, Stone Chunk, and Beautiful Question, Ehin’s stories are predominantly about relationships, mostly that between lovers. Her characters fall in and out of love, back in and out again, ever changing, ever keeping secrets. At times, the connections to tangible, and recognizable aspects of relationships are visible, though even then there is no certain, specific comparison—as in “Cushions,” where the narrator and her husband are literally deaf to each other, and only each other: “I realized that whenever I related my tales to my husband, he was relating his to me at the same time.” But mostly, when the people come into conflict with one another, the parallels to our lives are indistinct.

The repetition with variation of conflict is not necessarily man versus woman, but man and woman struggling within themselves, and it is the outward expression of that struggle that erupts their relationships. Many of the stories open quickly, directly into their odd world, as in the first sentence of “Patterns,” when the narrator tells us “The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well.” These men, all named Jaan, did nothing to deserve her violence—this impossible, animalistic violence. Each of them simply woke her, but in the wakings, no matter the love, or the peacefulness of the situation, there is a suggestion of control, such as when one has made her breakfast and wants to eat it with her before it gets cold. The women of Walker on Water are tensed, so aware of a culture in which men are violent, are cruel and controlling, that they live on the taut edge of fight or flight. So the arm-chewing woman, when her husband came to her, “felt his gigantic, rapidly twitching muscle” and “Rage struck [her] like a thunderbolt.” She did not want to bite his arm off, but taken from sleep, the instinct, the reaction to the dark potentials of intertwined lives, could not be helped.

For the rest of the review, go here.

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

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A Dilemma
A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .

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Walker on Water
Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .

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The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
The Nightwatches of Bonaventura by Bonaventura
Reviewed by J. T. Mahany

Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .

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Pavane for a Dead Princess
Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-Gyu
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .

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Tram 83
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Reviewed by Caitlin Thomas

Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .

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Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic by Octave Mirbeau
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .

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Sphinx
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Reviewed by Monica Carter

Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .

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Morse, My Deaf Friend
Morse, My Deaf Friend by Miloš Djurdjević
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .

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The Crimson Thread of Abandon
The Crimson Thread of Abandon by Terayama Shūji
Reviewed by Robert Anthony Siegel

The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .

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