26 January 09 | Chad W. Post

Admittedly, books from university presses are under-represented on this year’s Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, a situation that will hopefully change next year.

But for now, I thought that before announcing the finalists for fiction and poetry (and yes, I do know what they are, but that post won’t go live until tomorrow morning . . .), I’d take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting university presses and the translations they published this year.

At the top of the list has to be Columbia University Press. There’s no other university press in the country doing as many interesting Asian works in translation as Columbia. (Not to mention the fact that their books are handsomely designed, and paperback editions of several — such as I Love Dollars — have been picked up by very prestigious presses, like Penguin.)

The two big books that came out this year as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series (both of which could’ve easily made our longlist) are Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Chinese author Wang Anyi was actually a Reading the World book this year, and got some very nice coverage when it came out this summer. Here’s a description from an article by Howard Choy:

Spanning forty odd years from 1945 to 1986, the novel is tripartite. Book I is set in the glittery city of Shanghai during the latter half of the 1940s. Wang Qiyao, a glamorous girl from a lowly family who dreamed of becoming a movie star in her school days, takes third place in the first Miss Shanghai beauty contest after the war. She is then kept as a mistress by a politician, who is unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1948. In Book II she retreats to the countryside and soon returns as a neighborhood nurse to the fallen city in the 1950s. Associating with three men—a profligate son of the rich, a half-Russian loafer, and a photographer—she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock in 1961. Largely skipping the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Book III covers the decade after the political turmoil. The protagonist spends a simple life with her daughter and young admirers in the reviving city until her daughter gets married and leaves for the United States. With its thinly veiled allusions to Lady Yang Yuhuan’s (719-755) demise romanticized in Bo Juyi’s (772-846) oft-quoted poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” the story ends with Wang Qiyao’s violent death while protecting a box of gold bars left to her by the politician. The last thing she sees on her deathbed is the mise en scène of a bedroom murder that she watched forty years ago in a film studio. Miss Shanghai Wang Qiyao’s declining life from youth to old age can be understood synecdochically as Shanghai’s vicissitudes from the postwar to the post-revolutionary periods.

And for anyone interested in sampling this, a pdf excerpt of the first chapter is available through Columbia’s site.

Korean author Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls consists of three stories, including the title one, which “explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule.”

Bill Marx of PRI’s The World interviewed Ch’oe Yun and made this sound even more intriguing:

The World: Critics describe you as an experimental, post-modernist author, heavily influenced by Western literary influences. How have avant-garde techniques shaped your writing? In what ways have they not?

Ch’oe Yun: In each of the three works I took pains to apply the most appropriate form to the story’s world-view. I’ll grant you that this approach can appear experimental. I’ve never been one to agonize over technique, though. The notion of language and expression as constituting their own world-view is part and parcel of much of what I’ve read in Western literary thought and aesthetics.

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Another university press that deserves a lot of praise (and actually got some as well) is Syracuse University Press and their Middle East Literature in Translation Series. (American University at Cairo also deserves some special praise for all they’ve done in making Arabic works available to English readers, but I’ll write about them separately at another time.)

The Virgin of Solitude by Iranian author Taghi Modarressi was one of the most intriguing publications to come out from this series last year. Here’s their description:

Set around the time of the revolution, The Virgin of Solitude follows the parallel lives of a transplanted Austrian woman, who has made Iran her home, and her grandson, Nuri, who desperately misses his mother but hides his longing behind a veneer of teenage bravado. As the turmoil of the revolution envelops the country, grandmother and grandson witness the dissolution of social, class, and political order, while searching for a sense of belonging.

Also, Contemporary Iraqi Fiction was a book that we positively reviewed over the summer. On the Syracuse website you can find podcasts of editor Shakir Mustafa reading and answering questions, and an interview with the aforementioned Bill Marx.

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Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard wasn’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award (we don’t consider retranslations), this is a good example of the fine work that’s going on at Yale University Press these days. And this year promises to be even more exciting, with the launch of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series and the publication of Can Xue’s novel Five Spice Street.

There are any number of other university presses deserving of attention—University of Nebraska and Northwestern are two others with a long history of publishing literature in translation—and this year we’ll do our best to review more of their books. In many ways, that’s what a site like Three Percent exists for . . .


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