I was probably asleep at the wheel in years past, but I think it’s really cool that Publishers Weekly announced the names of the five finalists for 2014 Bookstore of the Year.
Here’s the list of the finalists with some commentary on why they should win:
Do you have any idea how many Open Letter books are on display in this store? Pets (in multiple places), High Tide (a staff favorite), and Elsewhere, were three of the first books I noticed when I walked in there last week. If Elliott Bay takes it, I think it’s because of the “More Open Letter Books = Great Store” hypothesis. Also, they get bonus points for being “The” Elliot Bay Book Company.
I’ve never been to McLean & Eakin, but as a Michigander, I spent a week every year from K through 5th Grade polishing Petoskey stones. So smooth and pretty! Given that Petoskey has a population of under 6,000 (although they do attract the tourists!), it would be kind of cool for McLean & Eakin to win. The real question: How many Open Letter books do they have already? I think they better stock up.
Prairie Lights is pretty much the only thing that people from the University of Iowa talk about. I’m pretty sure Iowa City consists of a river, this bookstore, and a bunch of mediocre football players. (GO MICHIGAN STATE!) It’s almost unfair that this city gets such a fantastic bookstore. Paul Ingram is wonderful to talk to (and my height, which is always a bonus), and this store is the quintessential charming small-town bookstore. They very well could win this.
Women & Children First is helping sell books at an upcoming Open Letter/Black Balloon event celebrating Bulgarian literature—for that alone, they’re probably going to receive this award. But seriously, this is a great store that does what it does better than any store in the country, and has succeeded for years. When I was working for Dalkey, one of my favorite buyers to visit was at WCF . . . She’s since left the store, but I’ll forever respect the hell out of this place.
The winning store will be announced by PW just before BEA, and will be featured in the pre-BEA issue.Tweet
In a press release today, the French American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation announced the finalists for their 27th annual translation prize for one work of fiction and one work of non-fiction.
According to the release, the foundations received 84 submissions to the Translation Prize, from over 40 publishers. This year, the list of finalists saw a massive increase in number. The 2012 list consisted of only three titles and translators—one in the fiction category, and two in the non-fiction category. In fact, with 10 titles in total, 2013 saw the highest number of winners in the history of the award. (The full list of past winners is here.) Hopefully, the foundations’ ability to award multiple translators will keep thriving, thus creating opportunities for a continued and healthy mix (and rotation) of well-known translators, and translators who are slowly working up their repertoire or are only just emerging.
From the release:
One Fiction and one Non-Fiction prize will be presented at the annual Awards Ceremony on May 22 in New York. Each winning translator will receive a $10,000 prize funded by the Florence Gould Foundation.
The jury, which includes Linda Asher, David Bellos, Linda Coverdale, Emmanuelle Ertel and Lorin Stein, has selected the best English translations of French works published in 2013. The 10 finalists form a prestigious and diverse group that includes books by award-winning authors and important French works available in English and in the United States for the first time.
Though every press would, obviously, love to see their title on the docket, this year’s list of translators and titles really is a good one, and even includes one of our newest author-friends, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, who was at the University of Rochester last fall to kick off our Reading the World Conversation Series, and is a fantastic person and amazing writer.
More info on the Translation Prize can be found at the French-American Foundation’s website.
The full list of fiction finalists is:
The list of non-fiction finalists can be seen here.Tweet
So, my friend, writer, and fellow critic of this year’s Duke basketball team, Paul Maliszewski, emailed me this morning with a really intriguing story:
Here’s an odd thing I overheard yesterday. I went to the rare reading (rare for me) by John Banville, and a woman in the audience asked this question, which was more of a comment, about how in the 1960s, Ethiopian writers were greatly influenced by Samuel Beckett. Banville knew nothing about this, and the conversation moved on, but I thought I would ask you: have you heard of this? Or read any Ethiopian literature in translation? A brief turn around Google turns up nothing. Just sounded interesting to me, and sounded like something maybe Open Letter would be interested in, too, given the influence.
Yes—Open Letter would be very interested! Does anyone out there know anything about this? If so, please share.Tweet
Poorly detailed Google map
With the longlist set to be announced in a matter of days—just this morning the judges received the (top secret!) results of our initial vote to narrow down all eligible books to a longlist—I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics about the list we were culling from.
Below is a list of books by country, as included on the BTBA spreadsheet. As usual, Western Europe is heavily represented, Africa and the Middle East are under-represented, and, largely owing to Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature, I suspect (without comparing this list to previous years) that Asian literature, outside of China and Japan, which are generally well served, is better represented.
Of the surprises in these numbers, the one that stands out most to me—though I’m sure Michael Orthofer could help contextualize this—is the paucity of Indian books on the list. That we have just one book translated from Hindi seems to me curious. Are there any numbers here that surprise you?
COUNTRY NO. OF BOOKS
Czech Republic 3
Dominican Republic 1
Puerto Rico 2
Saudi Arabia 2
South Africa 1
South Korea 12
Syrian Arab Republic 2
In all, the BTBA committee has looked at books written in 39 languages—from Afrikaans to Yiddish, as you can see below.
One of CLMP head Jeffrey Lependorf’s favorite sayings is that publishing is getting books to readers, without that, you’re just printing.
That’s not a perfect analogy for why “Spritz,” an app that’s going to be part of Samsung’s wearable technology, irks me, but it’s a good start. (And yes, I realize how awful the first half of that sentence is.)
You have to click on this article to see Spritz at work, but here’s a basic summary:
What Spritz does differently (and brilliantly) is manipulate the format of the words to more appropriately line them up with the eye’s natural motion of reading.
The “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP) is slightly left of the center of each word, and is the precise point at which our brain deciphers each jumble of letters.
The unique aspect of Spritz is that it identifies the ORP of each word, makes that letter red and presents all of the ORPs at the same space on the screen.
In this way, our eyes don’t move at all as we see the words, and we can therefore process information instantaneously rather than spend time decoding each word.
Thanks to this app, which is conveniently part of your wearable technology, which, puke, people will now be able to read text faster—a whole lot faster. Average reading speed is just under 300 words a minute, but as you can see by clicking on the link above, it’s not very difficult to adjust to the 500 wpm speed. Not at all.
Which is great, right? Now we can read twice as fast! I WILL BE ABLE TO READ ALL OF TWITTER.
Seriously though, this is one of those things that terrifies and bugs me. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with reading faster, there is something off-putting about the idea that reading is a thing that needs to be optimized. Sure, maybe this will allow Randy to finally read all the notes in preparation for your weekly “How to Excel at Excel” meeting, but when it comes to anything other application (maybe even that one), a focus on input speed alone can warp the overall reading process.
I don’t doubt that one can become “comfortable” with reading a much faster rate, and can improve at retention the more they use an app like this, but reading, really reading, is as much about thought, about looping back, about making connections—all of which are hindered by a system that is premised upon optimization. READ FASTER, BETTER, MORE EFFICIENTLY.
I can’t wait to have my grandkids laugh at me when I tell them about the days when we read for fun, in our spare time, because we just liked to do it. And we even held the books in our hands!Tweet
This morning, after reading my post on Ukrainian literature, the translator/writer/editor Tanya Paperny passed along the following letter, which is signed by twenty-one Russian-language writers living in Kharkov, the second-largest city in Ukraine. I think it’s important that more people have a chance to read this, so I’m posting it here.
On March 1, the Council of the Russian Federation backed the Russian President’s appeal to take exhaustive measures to protect Russians in Ukraine, going as far as the introduction of Russian armed forces onto Ukrainian territory. On that same day, in the regional capitals of Western Ukraine, pro-Russian rallies instigated by city authorities took place. Participants in the rallies in Kharkov, including people who had been brought in on buses with Russian numbers, stormed the regional administration building and beat up the Euromaidan supporters inside, including the famous writer Serhiy Zhadan (he was taken to the hospital with a fractured skull, a concussion, and a possible broken nose). A Russian citizen and resident of Moscow climbed onto the regional administration building and installed a Russian flag.
Officially, the Federation’s Council is guided by the alleged reports of numerous infringements upon the rights of Russians in Ukraine. If such reports exist, they should be made public and each one thoroughly studied.
We, Russian writers of Kharkov, want our voices to be heard, too: at work and elsewhere, we freely communicate in Russian, even with our Ukrainian colleagues. In any case, the questions under discussion about linguistics or nationality cannot be reasons for military intervention.
We, Russian writers of Kharkov and citizens of Ukraine, don’t need the military protection of another State. We don’t want another State—hiding behind the rhetoric of protecting our interests—to drive its troops into our city and our country, risking the lives of our friends and relatives. All we need is peace and a calm life. And the decision by the Russian Federation and its military invasion is a real threat to this possibility.
• Anastasia Afanasyeva, winner of the “Russian Prize” and the “LiteratuRRentgen” prize, short listed for the “Debut” prize
• Dmitry Dedyulin, poet, writer
• Elena Donskaya, writer, teacher
• Inna Zakharova, poet, human rights activist
• Andrei Klimov, writer
• Svetlana Klimova, writer
• Vladislav Kolchigin, poet
• Alexander Kocharyan, poet
• Andrei Krasniashikh, co-editor of “Writers Union” literary journal, short listed for
Andrei Bely, “Nonconformism,” O.Henry and Daniil Kharms prizes, long listed for “Russian Prize”
• Alexandra Mkrtchyan, long listed for “Russian Prize”
• Kirill Novikov, poet
• Sergey Pankratov, writer
• Oleg Petrov, poet, writer
• Andrei Pichakhchi, writer, artist
• Irina Skachko, poet, journalist
• Yuri Solomko, short listed for “LiteratuRRentgen” prize, long listed for “Debut” and “Russian Prize”
• Tatyana Polozhii, poet
• Yuri Tsaplin, co-editor of “Writers Union” literary journal, winner of the 2002 “Cultural Hero” award at the national contemporary art festival
• Svetlana Shevchuk, writer
• Victor Shepelev, writer, programmer
• Vladimir Yaskov, poet, translator
[translated by Tanya Paperny]Tweet
This isn’t exactly books related, but in case you’re one of the millions of people of people who have come across this photo recently (like on HuffPo, HLN TV, Reddit, Daily Mail The Sun, Bored Panda, the oft-ridiculed Flavorwire, and several others), I have two things to tell you:
1) Yes, that is a copy of Ricardas Gavelis’s Vilnius Poker, which is published by Open Letter; and,
2) Yes, that is Open Letter editor Kaija Straumanis, whose series of “Headshots” have gone totally viral (over 3 million visits to her Flickr page in just over 24 hours).Tweet
Since the site is about a week behind in posting reviews, I thought we’d start back in with a short and sweet one by Vince. We were at AWP in Seattle last week (we had a blast seeing all those familiar faces, as well as making a new set of new superfans!), and it’s been a bit tough coming back from the jet-lag. Anyway, here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:
Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be sure, writers such as Cesar Aria and Medbh McGuckian are doing their part to keep literature interesting and fun, but having just finished Mario Bellatin’s Flowers & Mishima’s Illustrated Biography (published as a flip edition in Spanish and English by the wonderful 7Vientos, translated by Kolin Jordan) I am secure in the knowledge that compelling writing is plentiful.
The book is the latest English translation of Bellatin’s, whose novellas have been steadily earning him a solid reputation among American readers with both their invention and their brevity. Less really is more, and Bellatin continues this pattern of making big impacts in short books with these two novellas, the first, Flowers, a collection of separate narratives arranged like . . . well, flowers, each different and beautiful individually but combined randomly (or so it seems) to produce a startling effect.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
One of the most common clichés about international literature in America states that we, as reader-citizens, only become interested in a country’s literature once we start bombing in. Go to war with Saddam Hussain; publish a ton of Arabic works. It’s sad that this might be true—it feels a bit Pavlovian—but there is a value to becoming familiar with a region’s culture and developing a context within which to understand various political stances, historical enmities, etc.
So, as you most likely already know, Ukraine has been in turmoil over the past few months, and, this past weekend, following the removal of Yanukovych (whose house is pretty much proof positive that this guy was corrupt as shit), Russia more or less invaded the Crimean Peninsula to “protect” Russian interests. This is all pretty terrifying. Russia making a land-grab and trying to delegitimize Ukraine’s attempt at forming a new government is pretty much impossible to portray as anything less than criminal and dangerous, especially given Putin’s recent press conference, which is rambling and insane and reinforces Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that she wasn’t sure Putin was “in touch with reality.”
I don’t know much more about Ukraine than that, the fact that they hosted Euro Cup 2010 (and looked like a war zone much of the time), that they have great soil, and that the country is stuck between the West and Russia—both of which would like to have significant influence on the country’s future, it’s modernization, and that wonderful soil. Which is why I decided to utilize our Translation Database and find out about recently published Ukrainian books.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated from the Ukrainian by Nina Shevchuk-Murray (AmazonCrossing)
This is the big Ukrainian book that I’m EXTREMELY tempted to read. It’s 714 pages spanning the past sixty years of Ukrainian history, and seems like the work of fiction most useful in creating a context for recent events.
While researching a story, journalist Daryna unearths a worn photograph of Olena Dovgan, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed in 1947 by Stalin’s secret police. Intrigued, Daryna sets out to make a documentary about the extraordinary woman—and unwittingly opens a door to the past that will change the course of the future. For even as she delves into the secrets of Olena’s life, Daryna grapples with the suspicious death of a painter who just may be the latest victim of a corrupt political power play.
From the dim days of World War II to the eve of Orange Revolution, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is an “epic of enlightening force” that explores the enduring power of the dead over the living.
The Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky (Spuyten Duyvil); Perverzion, translated by Michael Naydan (Northwestern University Press); and Recreations, translated by Marko Pavlyshyn (Canadian Institute of Ukranian Study Press), all by Yuri Andrukhovych
Yuri Andrukhovych is the other “big name” Ukrainian author worth checking out. The three novels available in English—Recreations, The Moscoviad, and Perverzion—constitute a loosely based trilogy, united by their style and the focus on a Ukrainian poet. Before getting into the politic side of Andrukhovych’s life, here’s a very selling blurb/copy from Askold Melnyczuk:
The literary dormitory at Moscow University becomes a kind of Russian Grand Hotel, serving the last supper of empire to a host of writers gathered from every corner of the continent, and beyond. Young poets from Vietnam, Mongolia, Yakutia, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine assemble to study, drink, frolic, and explore each other and the decaying city around them. When the supper turns into a bacchanal, who’s surprised? “The empire betrayed its drunks. And thus doomed itself to disintegration.” Part howl, part literary slapstick, part joyful dirge, charged with the brashness of youth, betraying the vision of the permanent outsider, Andrukhovych’s novel suggests that literature really is news that stays news. Funny, buoyant, flamboyant, ground-breaking, and as revelatory today as when it was first published in Ukrainian, The Moscoviad remains a literary milestone. In spirit and intellectual brio Andrukhovych, whose irreverence makes Borat seem pious, is kin to the great Halldor Laxness and the venerable David Foster Wallace.
The above description especially makes sense within the context of the Bu-Ba-Bu (Burlesque, Balagan, and Buffonada”), the literary group that Andrukhovych help found, and which tries to “present a carnival like interpretation of events.”
In terms of his politics, Andrukhovych was one of the twelve writers to sign an Open Letter against Yanukovych back when he ran for president in 2004. Just check this out:
TODAY the Ukrainian (?) “prime minister” Yanukovych consented to the atypical fusion of the criminal Ukrainian government with Russia’s neo-Chekist regime, and by TOMORROW every last trace of Ukrainian democracy will have disappeared, just as this has happened with Russian democracy.
TODAY the Ukrainian (?) “prime minister” Yanukovych is rejecting Ukraine’s European future, and by TOMORROW every Ukrainian city may become a military base for Russia’s armed forces. The only thing left of Ukraine will be its name, hymn, and national emblem (there is no certainty with regard to the latter two attributes, if you recall the example of Yanukovych’s historical fatherland, Belarus).
Yeah. Then, in 2006, Andrukhovych received the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, and his acceptance speech, which is available in full over at Sign and Sight addresses, in part, the essential Ukrainian conflict—whether the country should be closer to the European Union or Russia, and how everyone should respond to that.
On February 20, 2006, an interview with Mr. Verheugen was published in the newspaper Die Welt. Mr. Verheugen – let me remind those of you who might not know – is one of the Commissioners of the European Union. It would be insufficient to describe him as an official person – he is a superofficial superperson. In response to the journalist’s question about the future of United Europe he said the following, “In twenty years all European states will be members of the EU, with the exception of the successor states to the Soviet Union that are not yet part of the EU today.”
Mr. Verheugen’s statement had a devastating impact on me. Yet again, I must give up my hopes and allow myself to express what I honestly feel on this occasion. Perhaps this is impolite, perhaps instead of gratitude, I will now start spouting things that are quite offensive. Quite possibly – in fact, most definitely – you are not the audience that deserves this, and this is not the right place to focus your attention on this particular drama. But I cannot not speak about this, it would be dishonest of me not to speak of it. It seems to me that the now erased possibility of a different future, the future that to a large extent gave meaning to my hopes and efforts, is reason enough for this neurosis of mine.
In December 2004, in that miraculous moment between the completion of our Orange Revolution and the repeated round of presidential elections, I was offered the opportunity to address the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The essence of my speech was a plea to the parliament and the European community at large to help a certain cursed country save itself. I told them roughly what I was hoping to hear: that Europe was waiting for us, that it couldn’t do without us, that Europe would not be able to realize itself fully without Ukraine. Now it is finally clear that I was asking for too much.
You may well have noticed that the word “Ukraine” was never spoken during his interview. Things were put in general terms: “the successor states to the Soviet Union.” But only in Ukraine did this remark evoke such a dramatic response. It is everywhere, in news headlines and Internet banners, it is being reproduced and analysed, first and foremost by the political revanchists, by the anti-European forces bankrolled by Russia, by those who held the reins of power yesterday and now call themselves the opposition, even though they destroy demonstrators’ tents and set their opponents’ cars on fire in exactly the same way they did when they were the powers-that-be: insolently, brutally, and with impunity. In fact, they are already celebrating victory: what a destructive blow to the president and his European dream, what an occasion for mockery at the very notions of European choice, European integration and democratic values! There are also those outside Ukraine’s borders who rejoice at this: the Russian Internet is flooded with headlines like “UKRAINE HAS BEEN SHOWN ITS PROPER PLACE.”
It is fully understandable why things are happening this way. For it is entirely clear who Mr. Verheugen had in mind when he said “the successor states.” In the former USSR there is only one country with a European dream. And a year ago, it believed, as did I, that it would be understood.
But it turns out that in creating a miracle, we did not change anything.
Granted, a lot has changed since 2006, but this speech made me even more interested in revisiting Andrukhovych’s works . . . and made me wish more of his books and articles were available in translation.
The Lost Button by Iren Rozdobudko, translated by Michael Naydan (Glagoslav Publications)
In terms of more contemporary Ukrainian works, Glagoslav is definitely the best source (even if the books can sometimes by tricky/expensive to get in the U.S.). There are three that stand out from their recent catalogs, starting with The Lost Button:
In early 80’s Ukraine is stricken by perestroika and struggles for “democracy,” Afghanistan is in flames of a war where hundreds of eighteen-year-old youths are killed every day. Their peer, Dan, a student of cinematography, hardly cares about social problems anywhere on the planet. But one fatal encounter with a mysterious young lady in a picturesque corner of the Carpathians changes his life forever.
The Lost Button received first place in the “Coronation of the Word” competition in 2005 and subsequently was made into a feature film.
“Depeche Mode”: by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (Glagoslav Publications)
In contrast to The Lost Button’s focus on the 70s and 80s, Depeche Mode is set in the 90s and focuses with the generation coming of age during that turbulent time:
Against a background of social disintegration, slowly eroding Soviet mores and rapidly encroaching Western culture, the three comrades drink gratuitous amounts of vodka and embark on a quest to find their missing friend Sasha Carburetor to tell him about the suicide of his one-legged stepfather. Despite containing some darker themes, Depeche Mode takes an irreverent look at life; Zhadan is not afraid to mix philosophical musings and grotesque narrative with moments of slapstick comedy.
Serhiy Zhadan is one of the key voices in contemporary Ukrainian literature: his poetry and novels have enjoyed popularity at home and abroad. His poetic style and masterful wordplay have led critics to dub his trademark approach “verbal jazz,” a description that reflects his unique authorial voice. Zhadan stands as a witness to a time of great social change through the eyes of Ukraine’s dispossessed youth. His work explores the changes he has witnessed as a representative of the immediate post-Soviet generation in Ukraine. Never one to bow to convention, since giving up university teaching in 2004 Zhadan was involved in 2006’s Orange Revolution.
The Sarabande of Sara’s Band by Larysa Denysenko, translated by Michael Naydan and Svitlana Bednazh (Glagoslav Publications)
The Sarabande of Sara’s Band appears to be the most contemporary Ukrainian work of fiction available in English. It’s written by Larysa Denysenko, who, in addition to being a writer, has worked for the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. Revolving around a man’s second wife and her extended family, the novel has been praised for its witty dialogue, humor, word play, and glimpse into the lives of Ukrainians today.
There are probably hundreds of people more qualified than I am to write about Ukrainian literature, so feel free to overload our comment section with recommendations, thoughts, and the like. This really is meant just to be a starting point for becoming more familiar with Ukrainian culture and literature—especially in light of Russia’s recent actions.Tweet
Elizabeth Harris has translated fiction by Mario Rigoni Stern, Fabio Stassi, and Marco Candida, among others. Her translation of Giulio Mozzi’s story collection Questo è il giardino (This Is the Garden) will be published by Open Letter Books in 2014; the individual stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her translation of Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” appears in Dalkey Archive’s annual anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and her translation of an excerpt of Candida’s Dream Diary appears in Best European Fiction 2011. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota.
When a fiction translator really knows her job, the resulting book in English—if the original author is good enough—shines. You might have a spectacular work of fiction in the original, but if the translator isn’t up to it, that book will be lackluster in English. The translation, people will say, is clumsy, because it’s noticeably bad. The translator who has truly done her job shouldn’t be noticed. Gustave Flaubert (as translated by Francis Steegmuller) insisted that authors should be “like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Such is the fate of good translators as well.
As we approach our selection process for the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award, I’m finding that there are some books in the mix that truly shine. They were no doubt glorious in the original, and—due to their translators’ abilities as writers—they are glorious in the English as well. And in these wonderful books, paradoxically, the translators’ skills as writers have made them disappear as writers. The books now seem to be original works in English, as if an author has magically moved from her own language to English, without missing a beat. Many of these fantastic books have already been mentioned by other judges, but I thought I might emphasize a few here and applaud their ever-present, invisible translators.
The first is Steven Hartman’s translation from the Swedish of Sleet, by Stig Dagerman, a beautiful collection of short stories (David R. Godine, Publisher). Alice McDermott, in her preface to the collection, speaks of Dagerman as rivaling Joyce “in his ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…he tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.” Hartman has captured Dagerman’s sensitivity to the child’s and others’ points of view so beautifully in his translations—the narrative distances involved, the narrative voice—as to be rendered unnoticeable. What we are left with are quiet, humane, and often heart-wrenching stories, Hartman’s interpretation of Dagerman’s art.
Another book that I found to be astoundingly beautiful in English is Jeffrey Gray’s translation from Spanish of The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Yale University Press). Many of the BTBA judges have praised this surprising, imagistic novel that takes place in Tangier and wanders between two characters, a shepherd dreaming of Spain and “of riches to come” and a Columbian tourist stranded in Morocco; it is a book mysteriously (and wonderfully) held together by an owl passing from hand to hand until it finally escapes, leaving us with a final startling image of the bird hiding in a dark attic. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles and we can see this in his startling imagery and spare prose (Bowles even translated some of his earlier books); Rey Rosa’s style is widely praised: it is “precise, mythic” (Raphaëlle Rérolle) and this book in particular is “inhabited both by poetry and by silence” (Luis Alonso Girgado). This is the kind of book that could easily collapse under the weight of a plodding translation, but that is not the case here: Gray is keenly sensitive to the effects of the original as he interprets Rey Rosa’s pure style—including his silences—and his imagery. I am sure Gray’s work must have been endless to obtain that purity in the English. The sparest of prose shows the effects of translation even more: one misstep is glaring.
There are a number of other books under consideration for this year’s award that I’ve found to have spectacular translations, but I’ll only mention them here: Juliet Winter Carpenter’s incredibly clean, beautiful translation from Japanese of A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (Other Press); Don Bartlett’s creation of narrative voice in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Two (Archipelago Books). The extremely complicated, gorgeous sentences of Ottilie Mulzet’s translation from Hungarian of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below from New Directions (see a great interview with Mulzet at The Quarterly Conversation with BTBA judge Scott Esposito that shows just how complicated and challenging this book was to translate).
I’ll end here on another one of my favorites so far from this year’s selections, Sean Cotter’s translation from Romanian of Mircea Cărtărescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing (Archipelago Books). I remember when Cotter was first offered this book; we were at the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, and he told me he’d just been approached by Jill Schoolman of Archipelago about translating Cărtărescu. The look on his face said it all: excitement—such a great opportunity for a translator, this incredible novel-memoir that’s considered one of the most important of contemporary Romanian literature—and mixed with that excitement: fear of taking on such a daunting task. But from the original, Cotter has created a great a book in English, a journey through childhood and hospitalization, a “kaleidoscope world” as described on the book jacket, of “hallucinatory Bucharest” as told by a deeply sympathetic, vital narrator, a character that Cotter interpreted, created in English. Carla Bariez, a poet and translator from Romanian, had this to say about Cotter’s translation in her review of the book for Words Without Borders: “Sean Cotter has done a masterful, inspired job with the translation. The meditative, Baroque rhythms of Cărtărescu’s Romanian flow into graceful, vigorous English thanks to Cotter.” She goes on to talk about “the linguistic pyrotechnics” of the book that might become “overwhelming” in a work that is “deeply philosophical,” but to her, “nothing seems gratuitous: language itself, in its long lists and flights of fancy, proves Cărtărescu’s ultimate point about birth. Every human life is a Gospel, every birth an Annunciation…” Cotter’s sensitivity to language and to what he has interpreted as Cărtărescu’s intentions in his book are what have given us these “linguistic pyrotechnics” in English.
I thought it would be illuminating to delve a bit more into Cotter’s technique, so I asked him for a sample of the original novel plus a “trot,” a “literal” translation of this sample. Here’s just a taste of his approach, with the opening lines of the novel:
Before they built the apartment blocks across the street, before everything was screened off and suffocating, I used to watch Bucharest through the night from the triple window in my room above Ştefan cel Mare. The window usually reflected the room’s cheap furniture—a bedroom set of yellowed wood, a dresser and mirror, a table with some aloe and asparagus in clay pots, a chandelier with globes of green glass, one of which had been chipped long ago. The reflected yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window, and I, a thin, sickly adolescent in torn pajamas and a stretched-out vest, would spend the long afternoon perched on the small cabinet in the bedstead, staring, hypnotized, into the eyes of my reflection in the transparent glass.
The paragraph goes on, but these opening sentences work together incredibly well, one leading rhythmically to the next, and Cotter’s seemingly slight touches have intensified the imagery and sentences’ effect.
Here is the original in Romanian:
Înainte să se construiască blocul de vizavi şi totul să devină ecranat şi irespirabil, priveam nopţi întregi Bucureştiul de la tripla fereastră panoramică a camerei mele din Ştefan cel Mare. Fereastra reflecta de obicei mobilierul sărac al încăperii, un dormitor de lemn gălbui, o toaletă cu oglindă, câteva plante, aloe şi asparagus, în ghivece de argilă, aşezate pe masă. Lustra cu abajururi de sticlă verzuie, unul dintre ele ciobit de mult timp. Spaţiul galben al camerei devenea şi mai galben adâncindu-se în uriaşa fereastră, iar eu, un adolescent ascuţit şi bolnăvicios, în pijama rufoasă şi cu un fel de vestă lăbărţată deasupra, stăteam toată după-amiaza aşezat cu fundul pe lada de la studio, privind în ochi, ca hipnotizat, reflectul meu din oglinda străvezie a ferestrei.
And here is a very rough, literal “trot”:
Before was built the block vis-avis and all became screened and unbreathable, I would look nights whole at Bucharest from the triple window panoramic of room my on Ştefan cel Mare. The window reflected usually the furnishings poor of the room, a bedroom set of yellowy wood, a toilet with mirror, some plants, aloe and asparagus, in pots of clay, sat on the table. The light fixture with shades of glass greenish, one of them chipped of much time. The space yellow of the room became and more yellow getting deep in the giant window, and I an adolescent sharpened and sickly, in pajama ragged and a kind of vest misshapen on top, stayed all afternoon sat with bottom on the chest of the bedstead, looking in eyes, like a hypnotized person, the reflection my in the mirror see-through of the window.
Already, with the very first phrase of the opening, we see Cotter facing a dilemma: a lot of information in the Romanian is introduced with a dependent clause—but the opening line of a novel has to be perfect, can’t be overly cluttered with details, which are so hard to sustain in English. Cotter’s decision to break that clause down into two dependent clauses, both introduced with a repetition of “before,” is very wise, I think, very musical, very inviting, almost hypnotic, reinforcing a dream-like atmosphere so appropriate to this book. Each sentence here shows this same level of attention. I’m especially taken with the third sentence that pulls us closer to the narrator, where we see him for the first time, how beautifully we’re led to him with an abstraction, the lovely, active phrasing here, the “yellow space turned even yellower as it deepened into the enormous window,” which is a long way from the what we find in the “trot,” the much flatter “yellow getting deep.” Cotter has interpreted the author’s intention with that abstraction, heightened the imagery and lyricism for his English rendition and prepared us for this important turn, the introduction of the narrator, the “I,” the “thin, sickly adolescent” staring at himself, hypnotized by his own eyes, his own frailty, reinforced by his thin, ghostly reflection not in a mirror but in a glass window. Even Cotter’s choice at the end to replace the abstract “window” with the concrete word, “glass,” creates a strong effect: the image is much more tangible as a result.
If you took any of these wonderful translations I’ve mentioned and placed them alongside the original language versions, you’d find similar choices to those that Cotter made in Blinding. These choices are everywhere in a translation; they involve every word, every punctuation mark. They’re the endless choices and techniques that the best fiction translators use to make their English versions shine as brightly as possible, as brightly as the originals, while they, the translators, turn to shadows.Tweet
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