The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, an excerpt, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.
Although the book has only been out for a couple days, it has already received a number of quality mentions, three of which are detailed below.
Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.
First up is this review in Foreword that sort of sets the tone for what the book is about:
Lúcio Cardoso’s lurid and voluminous masterpiece Chronicle of the Murdered House follows the unraveling of the Meneses family, a once-proud Brazilian clan undone by internal mistrust. [. . .] Pages pass quickly under the influence of heady intrigue as Nina battles for her rightful place on her husband’s estate and plans punishments for those who undermined her. Even at her most cruel, she comes across as complex: a fading beauty, wronged, furious, pathetic, and ferocious, by turns. Questions are raised: can lines be crossed beyond which forgiveness is not possible? Can love survive severe betrayals? What is the true meaning of absolution? Cardoso’s novel is complex, gorgeous, and heartbreaking, well justifying its place in Brazil’s literary canon.
Over the sixteen+ years I’ve worked in publishing, until yesterday, none of our books had ever been reviewed in The Onion’s A.V. Club (not without great effort on our part, since this seems like a good fit for our type of book). And not only was Chronicle of a Murdered House reviewed by the A.V. Club, it was given a straight A rating!
Like its protagonist—or, depending on which account herein you believe, antagonist—Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle Of The Murdered House has reemerged from seclusion. First published in 1959, it was a postmodernist work that veered from the nationalist literature that had preceded it. Where his forebears sought to represent their country’s social consciousness, Cardoso narrowed his focus to the moral and financial decline of the fictional Meneses, a once-grand family relegated to the Brazilian countryside. [. . .] Cardoso was an openly gay man, and the cross-dressing Timóteo is both his stand-in and the avatar for a social order already past its expiration date in the early 20th century. As the novel makes its way to a conclusion both thundering and mewling, Timóteo retreats once more, symbolizing a discussion shelved by Cardoso’s death in 1968. But the gorgeous, deviant story he was able to tell in Chronicle’s pages became one of the hallmarks of Brazilian literature, prompting this English rendition decades later.
And last, but definitely not least, the wonderful Jane Ciabattari included Chronicle on the BBC’s Ten Books You Should Read in December list:
The family’s secrets, many revolving around the arrival of Valdo’s seductive wife Nina, are revealed slowly through a series of documents – diaries, letters, confessions, and reports from the town doctor, pharmacist and priest. It’s a sensuous, bewitching tale, suspenseful to the last page.
And I’m certain there will be many more to come . . .
The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.
Following on the press release post, here’s an excerpt from the book itself.
Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.
André’s Diary (conclusion)
18th . . . 19 . . . – (. . . ah, dear God, what is death exactly? When she’s far from me, beneath the earth that will enfold her mortal remains, for how long will I have to go on remaking in this world the path she taught me, her admirable lesson of love, finding in another woman the velvet of her kisses—“this was how she used to kiss”—in yet another her way of smiling, in yet another the same rebellious lock of hair—all the many women one meets throughout one’s life, and who will help me to rebuild, out of grief and longing, that unique image gone for ever? And what does “forever” mean—the harsh, pompous echo of those words ringing down the deserted corridors of the soul—the “forever” that is, in fact, meaningless, not even a visible moment in the very instant in which we think it, and yet it is all we have, because it is the one definitive word available to us in our scant earthly vocabulary . . .
What does “forever” mean but the continuous, fluid existence of all that has been set free from contingency, that is transformed, evolves and breaks ceaselessly on the shores of equally mutable feelings? There was no point in trying to hide: the “forever” was there before my eyes. A minute, a single minute—and that, too, would escape any attempt to grasp it, while I myself—also forever—will escape and slip away, and, like a pile of cold, futile flotsam, all my love and pain and even my faithfulness will drift away forever. Yes, what else is “forever” but the final image of this world, and not just this world, but any world that one binds together with the illusory architecture of dreams and permanence—all our games and pleasures, our ills and our fears, our loves and our betrayals—the impulse, in short, that shapes not our everyday self, but the possible, never-achieved self that we pursue as one might follow the trail of a never-to-be-requited love, and that becomes, in the end, only the memory of a lost love—but lost when?—in a place we do not know, but whose loss pierces us and, whether justifiably or not, hurls us, everyone of us, into that nothing or that all-consuming everything where we vanish into the general, the absolute, the perfection we so lack.)
All day, I wandered about the empty house, unable even to dredge up enough courage to enter the living room. Ah, how painfully intense the knowledge that she no longer belonged to me, that she was merely a thing looted and manhandled by strangers, without tenderness or understanding. Somewhere far from me, very far, they would uncover her now defenseless form—and with the sad diligence of the indifferent, would dress her for the last time, never even imagining that her flesh had once been alive or how often it had trembled with love—that she had once been younger, more splendid than all the youth you could possibly imagine blossoming throughout the world. No, this was not the right death for her, at least, I had never imagined it like this, in the few difficult moments when I had managed to imagine it—so brutal and final, so unjust in its violence, like the uprooting of a new plant torn from the earth.
But there was no point in remembering what she had been—or, rather, what we had been. Therein lay the explanation: two beings hurled into the maelstrom of one exceptional circumstance, and suddenly stopped, brought up short—she, her face frozen in its final, dying expression, and me, still standing, although God knows for how long, my body still shaken by the last echo of that experience. All I wanted was to wander through the rooms and corridors, as bleak now as a stage when the principal actor has left—and all the weariness of the last few days washed over me, and I was filled by a sense of emptiness, not an ordinary emptiness, but the total emptiness that suddenly and forcefully replaces everything in us that was once impulse and vibrancy. Blindly, as if in obedience to a will not my own, I opened doors, leaned out of windows, walked through rooms: the house no longer existed.
Knowing this put me beyond consolation; no affectionate, no despairing words could touch me. Like a cauldron removed from the fire, but in whose depths the remnants still boil and bubble, what gave me courage were my memories of the days I had just lived through. Meanwhile, as if prompted by a newly discovered strength, I managed, once or twice, to go over to the room where she lay and half-opened the door to watch from a distance what was happening. Everything was now so repellently banal: it could have been the same scene I had been accustomed to seeing as a child, had it not been transfigured, as if by a potent, invincible exhalation, by the supernatural breath that fills any room touched by the presence of a corpse. The dining table, which, during its long life, had witnessed so many meals, so many family meetings and councils—how often, around those same boards, had Nina herself been judged and dissected?—had been turned into a temporary bier. On each corner, placed there with inevitable haste, stood four solitary candles. Cheap, ordinary candles, doubtless rescued from the bottom of some forgotten drawer. And to think that this was the backdrop to her final farewell, the stage on which she would say her last goodbye.
Another, totally different excerpt is available over at Lit Hub. This one is from the “First Letter from Nina to Valdo Meneses.” Enjoy!
The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including an interview with the translators, some early reviews, an excerpt, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.
We’ll start with this—the press release that was sent to reviewers and booksellers with the galleys.
The book is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.
“When a friend suggested that Chronicle of the Murdered House might be the greatest modern Brazilian novel, I was startled. There are so many more obvious candidates, after all. But as I thought about it, I realized that the statement wasn’t as strange as it sounds. The book itself is strange—part Faulknerian meditation on the perversities, including sexual, of degenerate country folk; part Dostoevskian examination of good and evil and God—but in its strangeness lies its rare power, and in the sincerity and seriousness with which the essential questions are posed lies its greatness.“—Benjamin Moser
There are a number of approaches to Lúcio Cardoso’s life and work that mark the first English-language publication of his Chronicle of the Murdered House as a major literary event.
For one, there’s Cardoso’s influence on the beloved Clarice Lispector, whose own work is currently enjoying an incredible renaissance. Clarice was enamored with Cardoso, and, as Benjamin Moser explains in his introduction, transformed one of Cardoso’s suggestions into the title of one of her most famous books—Near to the Wild Heart.
Although their writing styles are quite different, you can see the impact Cardoso had on Lispector while reading Chronicle of the Murdered House. The introspective nature of its prose marked a significant turning point in the history of Brazilian writing, carving out a path that Lispector and many others would eventually follow. In contrast to what came before, writing for these authors was less an activity concerned with social or national issues, but, again in Moser’s words, “a spiritual exercise, not an intellectual one.”
For a lot of readers and critics, this approach is particularly interesting given Cardoso’s position as a gay Brazilian author who was also a member of the Catholic Church. Although Chronicle itself doesn’t address many themes of contemporary gay literature, Cardoso’s sexual orientation does influence a lot of his writings, especially in terms of the role homosexuals could play in Brazil during that period.
The comments about Cardoso’s spirituality—as a Catholic and in terms of the goal of his writing—are particularly interesting in context of the morally suspect situations found throughout the book. In isolation, or as part of the jacket copy at least, these bits sound almost overly sensational. There’s incest. Madness. Adultery. An obese, cross-dressing character locked up in his room. There’s a cultured woman from the city whose very presence calls into question generations of familial habits.
The novel is never sordid just for the sake of being sordid though, and beyond the machinations of the plot—which twist and turn like great mid-century, or even Victorian, works—there is the form through which Cardoso tells his story. With shifts of tone and point of view, he utilizes confessions, diary entries, letters, statements, reports, to bring to life this once great family that is now represented by a crumbling estate that they can’t afford to maintain. (A very Faulknerian image.)
This a book that is a “classic” on a number of counts, including its scope, its literary style that approaches but doesn’t always embrace the high modernists, and in its import to Brazilian literature as a whole. A book of this import—that’s spectacular and complex—requires a brilliant translator to really make it work in English. Thankfully, Margaret Jull Costa—translator of such literary giants as Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Maria Eça de Queirós, José Saramago, and many more—was willing and able to undertake this task. With the help of Robin Patterson (translator of José Luandino Vieira), they have fully captured the intricacies and beauty of Cardoso’s writing, producing a rendition that’s as linguistically powerful as the original.
For such a lengthy book, Chronicle is a rather quick read. It embraces its page-turner impulses, and uses a non-linear structure to stimulate and engross the reader. From the very opening chapter, the reader can get a sense of the overall pattern of dissolution driving the lives of the characters, but keeps reading in order to witness all the juicy details and see just how crazy things can get. (Answer: As crazy as the wake scene in the final chapters.) It’s a book that fills in a gap in our collective knowledge about Brazilian literature from the twentieth century, and hopefully will spark a resurgence of interest in one of Brazil’s greatest literary stars.
Rochester, NY—National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $30 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $40,000 to Open Letter Books for the publication of six works of international literature. The Art Works category focuses on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.
“The arts are for all of us, and by supporting organizations such as Open Letter Books, the National Endowment for the Arts is providing more opportunities for the public to engage with the arts,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Whether in a theater, a town square, a museum, or a hospital, the arts are everywhere and make our lives richer.”
“It’s always an honor to receive a National Endowment for the Arts grant,” said Open Letter publisher Chad W. Post. “Their support goes a long way in helping us to make these amazing works of international literature available to an English-reading audience. Thanks to the NEA, readers have access to far more voices from around the world than they otherwise would. This support allows us to take more risks, both in terms of acquiring titles and in the sorts of promotions we’re able to undertake for these books.”
The six titles included in this grant are The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina); The Brahmadells by Jóanes Nielsen, translated by Kerri A. Pierce (Faroe Islands); Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Gudbergur Bergsson, translated by Lytton Smith (Iceland); Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira, translated by Eric M. Becker (Brazil); The Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, translated by Hannah Chute (France); and The Owls’ Absence by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith (South Korea).
All these books will be published in 2017, and several of the authors will tour the United States in support of their books. These titles—as well as the rest of the Open Letter backlist—are available at better bookstores everywhere, and through the press’s website.
Open Letter was established in 2007 at the University of Rochester to support the university’s literary translation programs, and to publish a line of high quality, lasting literature in translation. In addition to publishing ten works of international literature every year, the press runs the Three Percent website, which is home to the world’s only Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. Additionally, the press organizes the Reading the World Conversation Series, which brings renowned authors and translators to Rochester for an evening of conversation.
For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, click here.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.
I’ve only come across two books this year that take as their main narrator(s) a non-human creature: Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky; and Mr. Turtle by Yusaku Kitano, translated by Tyran Grillo (let me know if I missed any). But don’t think for a moment that the authors simply placed human emotions, experiences, and values in polar bear or cyborg turtle bodies and called it a day. Rather, Tawada and Kitano explore (to the extent that any of us can) the many nuances of non-human experiences in a human-dominated world. How can one successfully mingle with humans in their communities without the constant threat of suspicion and/or mockery? In what ways might creatures like polar bears and cyborg turtles experience reality that are at odds with how humans experience it? These are just two of the careful, curious questions that Tawada and Kitano raise in their novels, and their answers are both uplifting and heartbreaking. And yet, an even larger question grows out of these, one that points back toward us humans: what is it like to live as an outsider?
Why am I focusing on this topic/these two books in the first place? You can thank James Joyce’s Ulysses. I wrote a paper on this infuriatingly complex and complicated book back in grad school, and rather than rehashing all the old arguments about Leopold, Stephen, Molly, etc., I focused on what I thought was the most interesting character: the cat. Remember him? In four separate scenes, the cat figures prominently, whether “conversing” with Leopold about his breakfast or pointedly walking through a room. Thinking about the cat’s place in the narrative led me to William James’s (and others’) theories about animal consciousness and the roles that animals and other creatures play in stories about humans. Throughout my research, I kept coming back to the same core ideas: that we can never truly know the mind of another creature (we can’t even know the mind of another human, for that matter), but that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to see the world from their perspectives.
Ultimately, though, stories that include non-human perspectives are still stories about ourselves. What does our relationship to pets, for example, tell us about how we treat other people? Do our careless or dismissive attitudes toward non-humans reflect the ways in which we perceive people from cultures different from our own, or people with different abilities?
But back to the polar bear and the cyborg turtle. I’ve been calling both Memoirs and Mr. Turtle “speculative fiction,” but they represent very different strands of the genre. In Tawada’s novel, we have a three-part story, each one narrated by a polar bear from different generations of the same family (part of the second section is narrated by a human, Tosca’s trainer Barbara). Each bear “writes” his or her autobiography using human language, ideas, and imagery. And yet, throughout each story about circus training and life in East Germany during the Cold War, we learn about the polar bears’ physiological connections to their ancestors, their feelings about their ancestral homeland, and primal urges like hunting and hibernating. The matriarch polar bear at one point thinks about how her new love of writing is like and unlike her work as a circus performer:
Writing was a more dangerous acrobatic stunt than dancing on a rolling ball. To be sure, I’d worked myself to the bone learning to dance atop that ball and actually broke some bones while rehearsing, but in the end I attained my goal. In the end I knew with certainty that I could balance on a rolling object—but when it comes to writing, I can make no such claims. Where was the ball of authorship rolling? It couldn’t just roll in a straight line, or I’d fall off the stage. My ball was supposed to spin on its axis and at the same time circle the midpoint of the stage, like the Earth revolving around the sun. Writing demanded as much strength as hunting. When I caught the scent of prey, the first thing I felt was despair. Would I succeed in catching my prey, or would I fail yet again? This uncertainty was the hunter’s daily lot . . . My ancestors had spent entire winters slumbering in their sheltered caves. How pleasant it would be to withdraw once a year until spring came to wake me . . .
Here Tawada imagines what a polar bear might conclude about the two seemingly different vocations of circus performer and author, even as she simultaneously performs stylistically for the reader. Tawada asks us to see writing from an unusual perspective: it is like balancing on a ball, or hunting. Thus we’re forced to see writing not just as a cerebral art but a physical one, as well.
In each polar bear’s story, issues of exile, foreignness, and loneliness figure prominently, especially in the bears’ interactions with various human managers and trainers. The bears are often asked if they’re from the North Pole, a place they’ve never even seen, just because they’re polar bears. Assumptions about their likes and dislikes, abilities, and desires are drawn based just on their appearance—sound familiar? Exactly Tawada’s point.
Enter Mr. Turtle (Kame-kun), a perfect example of this kind of alienation. He goes to work, returns to his apartment, and interacts with a couple of human friends at the library, every day. Thing is, he’s a large cyborg turtle, and he can’t even ride on public transportation without schoolgirls mocking and ridiculing him. He’s haunted by flashes of memory that he can’t place and suspects that his mind has been tampered with for nefarious reasons. The real reason for this tampering is an ingenious idea on Kitano’s part, and taps into some excellent sci-fi tropes about the nature of reality and our perception of it.
And yet, like Tawada, Kitano is most interested in showing readers what it’s like to live as a cyborg turtle in a near-future Japan, where creatures like him are tolerated but never truly accepted. Mr. Turtle himself never speaks; our access to his mind is through the close third-person, and this accentuates the loneliness that permeates the story. But Mr. Turtle’s few opportunities to interact with humans enables him to spend time thinking deeply about the world around him and his relationship to it:
This thing called a “turtle” was built to look at the outside from within its shell, and from that perspective formulated an internal model of the world. The turtle perceived and acted in accordance with how it processed its own world model. Through learned behaviors and by the information it was able to acquire, it updated that model internally, making inferences through its management thereof. The turtle’s sensory perception of the outside world was at least a facsimile, thought Kame-kun. All of which meant that the turtle could never leave its own shell. Such thinking, too, was embeded in Kame-kun, for even his pondering of these things came of its own accord, as he’d been designed. At last, Kame-kun confirmed what he’d already known: that a giant shell contained the world and everything in it and that inside his shell was another world, where another self worse a shell, which contained yet another.
Here Kitano uses the image of the shell to emphasize each individual creatures’ unbridgeable loneliness, and then goes further by pointing out that Mr. Turtle was able to think this way because of what he was. Can any of us ever rise above our own minds to bridge the gap between ourselves and others? Must we remain trapped in our own brains and unable to experience true empathy for other living creatures, even those of our own species?
Questions like these make Memoirs and Mr. Turtle masterpieces of narrative perspective and important works that force us to look at ourselves and reevaluate how we treat one another.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Steph Opitz, who reviews books for _Marie Claire, while also working with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), Kirkus Reviews, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and the Twin Cities Book Festival. 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._
I’m so excited to be deliberately reading more work in translation this year. Though, I’d guess my mailperson is less excited about this venture. Boxes of books arrive every day regularly, as I review for some magazines, but the submissions for the BTBA right now are tripling the average delivery. As an avid reader, this uptick is awesome. Also, my puppy is really into padded mailers, so it’s kind of a win-win-win at our house.
Most of the books have me reading a bit slower than average, and that’s mostly because I’m reading about places and people I haven’t read about before. It’s pretty easy to quickly read about someone more like me in the place that I’m from, but it’s slower, and a different kind of enjoyment to read about something totally new. I find myself googling places more, and relearning, learning more about, or learning for the first time parts of world history that have eluded me. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (Author), Christina E. Kramer (Translator), a story about conjoined twins, for example, filled in a lot I didn’t know about Yugoslavia (psst! In the premise Dimkovska lays out the greatest metaphor for what happened to the country).
Then there are books that are less location-relevant and more about the characters and what’s happening to them. I loved reading Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (Author), Asa Yoneda (Translator), a story about a mother and daughter attempting to grieve the loss of the the family’s patriarch, who might be haunting them.
Speaking of haunting, Erik Axl Sund’s Crow Girl (translated by Neil Smith) scared the absolute shit out of me. I’ve been trying my darndest to get more and more books between that one, so I can try to forget it. Which is to say if you love being scared by gruesome crimes: read it.
Many of the titles have been alive in the world for decades and yet, for those of us limited to reading in only one language, we haven’t had access until now. It’s wonderful to be able to read something like Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Author), Lee Klein (Translator) a book highly praised throughout the world and beloved by Roberto Bolaño, which was finally published in English this year.
I haven’t taken a class in literature since, oh, 2007, and being a judge for BTBA is a great education in world books. it’s great to have all of these engrossing, diverse “assignments” to read and think about. I feel like I’m reading some truly unique stories, which, I think, says a lot from someone who reads for a living.
Best Translated Book Award winner Can Xue is back with a new novel, Frontier, (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping with an introduction by Porochista Khakpour), which is every bit as wonderfully strange and complex as anything she’s written to date. You can win a copy through GoodReads simply by clicking on the “Enter Contest” box below.
Frontier opens with the story of Liujin, a young woman heading out on her own to create her own life in Pebble Town, a somewhat surreal place at the base of Snow Mountain where wolves roam the streets and certain enlightened individuals can see and enter a paradisiacal garden.
Exploring life in this city (or in the frontier) through the viewpoint of a dozen different characters, some simple, some profound, Can Xue’s latest novel attempts to unify the grand opposites of life—barbarism and civilization, the spiritual and the material, the mundane and the sublime, beauty and death, Eastern and Western cultures.
A layered, multifaceted masterpiece from the 2015 winner of the Best Translated Book Award, Frontier exemplifies John Darnielle’s statement that Can Xue’s books read “as if dreams had invaded the physical world.”
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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.
Unlike my fellow BTBA judges who have published blog posts before me, I am not going to tease you with cursory reviews of the books I am reading.
This decision is due in part to the fact that the books have been slow to arrive to the hinterlands of Norman, Oklahoma, where I teach at the University of Oklahoma. But also because the University of Oklahoma celebrated last week one of its best kept secrets: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which gave me occasion to think about what it means to evaluate foreign literature.
The Neustadt is a biennial prize awarded during even years since 1970 by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The first recipient was Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. In 1972, the prize was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez, who ten years later would earn the Nobel Prize. That same year, 1982, Octavio Paz became the seventh Neustadt recipient. Eight years later, Paz would also go on to win the Nobel. It is this pattern that has led many to call the Neustadt the precursor to the Nobel. Like the Nobel and the Neustadt, the BTBA recognizes international literature. It differs, however, in that it is awarded to a translated book.
At last week’s opening night reception, Chad Post, founder of Open Letter Books, Three Percent, and the BTBA, was charged with introducing the 2016 laureate, Dubravka Ugrešić. As publisher of three of Ugrešić’s translated books, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture, and Europe in Sepia, Chad has worked closely with Ugrešić. His affection for the Croatian—she prefers European—writer is obvious.
During his introduction, among many humorous anecdotes, Chad recounted that the only request Ugrešić had of Open Letter Books was that the diacritics be removed from her last name. Her rationale was that her name was hard enough for readers to pronounce without the added confusion of Croatian diacritics. Hence, Dubravka Ugresic was born.
Immediately, I remembered an anecdote recounted by Valeria Luiselli about Mexican author Sergio Pitol, whose Trilogy of Memory I translated. Writing in Granta, Luiselli recalled that when she first happened upon one of Pitol’s books, she thought he “was a dead Eastern European or Russian writer whose real name was probably Sergei Pytol.” “For decades,” she added, “Mexican publishers had us reading works by Guillermo Shakespeare and Federico Nietzsche.”
This odd habit of domesticating names was not limited to authors; on the contrary, it applied equally to their characters, whereby Gregor Samsa became Gregorio, Anna Karenina, Ana, and the Count Alexey, the conde Alejo.
This practice points to a wider strategy among translators (and publishers): the erasure of the foreign in translated texts. For a translated text to be marketable, the argument goes, it must be readable. In this domesticating logic, readability is synonymous with fluency; in other words, for a text to be fluent, the translator must be invisible, and, in order for a translator to be invisible, he must domesticate. Lawrence Venuti examines this phenomenon in depth in his groundbreaking work, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.
A byproduct of this logic is the all-too common refrain, “This book reads as if it were written in English,” which runs counter to Walter Benjamin caveat that “it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language.” The translator, Benjamin adds, “must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language,” which is achieved to greater effect by foreignization.
Edith Grossman echoes Benjamin’s injunction in Why Translation Matters: “Literary translation,” Grossman writes, “infuses a language with influences, alterations, and combinations that would not have been possible without the presence of translated foreign literary styles and perceptions, the material significance and heft of literature that lies outside the territory of the purely monolingual.”
This, of course, is only possible if the translator resists the temptation to domesticate her translation, to find an equivalent for every idiom and metaphor, to rewrite the syntax so that it conforms to the strictures of the receptor language, to recur to linguistic formulae and set phrases unique to the receptor language that trick the reader into believing he is reading a text that was written in English.
In an interview for Asymptote, the very insightful and equally gracious Rosie Clarke asked me what I hoped English-language readers would gain from my translation of The Art of Flight. This is perhaps the best question that could be asked of anyone who translates into English (and infinitely more interesting than the all-too-often and always banal question intended to solicit from the translator a new metaphor for translation). My answer was:
“I hope they also realize they are reading a foreign text. I am not a fan of domestication. I think to say that a translation reads as if it were written in English is unfortunate. I know that most translators consider it a compliment, but I do not. All translators praise the ability of translation to ‘enrich’ the target language and culture, but it cannot do that if translators erase the foreign from the text, if they find English equivalents for every metaphor or idiom. Translation will only enrich the receptor culture and language if translators allow foreign aspects of the source text/language/culture to be visible. The translator can disappear without making the text’s foreignness disappear.”
As the books that comprise the Best Translated Book Award competition begin to reach my homestead on the vast and distant Oklahoma prairie, and I’ve begun to read them, Rosie’s question will be in the forefront of my mind.Tweet
It’s been a few weeks since the last podcast, but Chad and Tom are back with a over-stuffed episode that starts with a recap of recent events before turning to Barnes & Noble’s plans for their concept stores followed by a lengthy discussion about international crime authors.
Here’s a complete list of articles, authors, and books discussed in this episode:
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones;
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series;
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, transalted from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates;
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies;
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang;
The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl, translated from the Danish by K.E. Semmel;
And finally, this is the addiction network commercial that Chad was going on about.
This week’s music is “Dis Generation” from We Got it from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service, the new—and final—album by A Tribe Called Quest.
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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.
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías and translated by Margaret Jull Costa is probably my favorite book of the year. Anyone who has read a novel by Marías will see all the familiar hallmarks: circular, philosophical writing that hits a theme, retreats and then returns, over and over, almost obsessively, to try and “figure it out.” The themes themselves are also characteristic to Marías’s body of work: history, morality, secrets, betrayal, how much can we ever know another person and when is it dangerous to know too much? Through all of this lies an unspoken sense of danger and, of course, the writing. The writing.
The themes that figure in Thus Bad Begins are also prevalent in Marías’s masterful trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. The Franco regime is, if not in the forefront, always present, to remind the reader that the past is never quite through with us. The novel takes place in 1980 and focuses on the Muriels, an unhappy couple living in Madrid. Eduardo, the husband, is a B-movie filmmaker and the story is told by his then-young assistant, Juan. The unhappiness of the Muriel marriage is one of the great unknowns of the novel, for Juan has firsthand access to the family and witnesses a strange and abusive relationship between Eduardo and his wife Beatriz. Eduardo is somehow punishing Beatriz and she not only accepts the abuse but behaves in a way that appears she’s deserving. Juan’s youth gives him the advantage of seeming innocence, of being easily ignored and yet, in one brief passage Marías describes that:
Someone only has to notice you—cast an indolent glance in your direction—and there’s no withdrawing, even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything. Even if you try to erase yourself, you have been spotted, like a distant shape on the ocean that you can’t ignore, that you must either avoid or approach.
Soon the young narrator is tasked by Juan with an indelicate favor, to befriend a close associate, a prestigious doctor and find out if certain, unscrupulous rumors about the doctor are true. Juan’s innocence, and his curiosity about the state of the Muriel marriage, lead him into a Madrid just waking up from fascist rule. Besides a wonderful lesson in contemporary Spanish history, Thus Bad Begins takes the reader into the psychology of civil war: how people (and sides) who have wronged one another—often neighbors and friends—are suddenly expected to forgive each other, or at the very least, remain silent, in the face of a new government. Reading this now, the book has an almost immediate relevance.
Thus Bad Begins contains strands of similar DNA, found in earlier novels, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White. But a reader going into a Javier Marías novel knows what to expect. There is eavesdropping. There is tailing, or following. There are conversations overheard. There is a sensual and palpable sense of danger. Yet Marías uses these tropes to his advantage, telling a sophisticated story, with grand eloquence, about universal truths. One always feels they are in the hands of a master when reading a book by Marías. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is graceful and natural and I couldn’t recommend this wonderful book any more highly. Additionally, it’s a great starting-point for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading Javier Marías before. They will see a Spain awakening from dictatorship and may, in different ways, see a not-so-distant future for America.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .