Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.
Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.
That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.
Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.
I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.
The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.
On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.
From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)
Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)
Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?
I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.
So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?
I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .
I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .
Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.
Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.
Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)
So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.
Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.
(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)
I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.
WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:
Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!
A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)
That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)
On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)
Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)
I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:
He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.
Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .
OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .
Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .
Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .