It seems to be harder and harder for us, at Three Percent, to find people willing to take on the task of reviewing poetry volumes in translation. Other review sites might have it easier—in which case, share your secrets with us! But in a literary world that currently feels dominated by prose (and to be honest, I kind of think it’s been that way for some time), Vince dares to toe the line between prose and poetry translations and translators in a way that makes me think that the difficulty in getting poetry reviewed may stem from a more difficult process for readers of given poetry to connect with the text on myriad levels, and even so far as the difficulties in translating the original poems. As primarily a prose translator, I definitely bristled at the opening lines of Vince’s review, but the more I think about it, the more I’m willing to concede a bit and say that, while one may not necessarily be harder than the other, there are most likely, if not absolutely, difficulties inherent to poetry translation that prose translators may never (or rarely) come across. What do you guys think?
Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:
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 take a form of writing known for its discipline, its strict forms, rhymes, and meanings suggested through language and render it into a second tongue. It’s inevitable that something will be lost in the process of translation. Prose might survive such a transformation (it may even benefit from it), but poetry is wounded each time it’s translated. I don’t speak Italian, but I know for sure that I’m missing something when I read Dante in English.
Perhaps this is why so much of the poetry in translation I come across seems to fall into the free verse, avant-garde category. One need not fret over how to turn a rhyme from a language like Spanish—a language that allows for easy rhyming—into English when the original doesn’t rhyme. Iambic pentameter from French to English could be rough, but if the French poem doesn’t adhere to a rigid pattern, so much the better for the translator.
That being the case, the free verse poems had better be good. That’s significant pressure on the integrity of the work. A mediocre but clever work in one language can easily fall flat when presented in another. Cultural quirks or idioms might carry an otherwise slight poem, but, robbed of these strengths via translation, the work is ineffective.
For the rest of the review, go here.
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 some early reviews, an excerpt, a press release, and a bit from the Ploughshares interview with the translators.
Benjamin Moser is the author of a biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World and translated her novel Near to the Wild Heart. He’s also a book critic, editor, and currently at work on a new biography of Susan Sontag. He once visited Rochester and did an event with Chad about Clarice Lispector that’s definitely worth watching. He also wrote a biographical note for the novel: “Bette Davis in Yoknapatawpha.”
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.
I keep a tiny watercolor on a bookshelf in my house. It is only a few inches square, slightly larger than a playing card. To all appearances, it is the work of a child: some dabs of color transversed by two black slashes. It looks like something an encouraging parent might have stuck to the refrigerator—but it may be the most poignant thing I own.
In the bottom right corner, in tiny script, someone—not the artist—has written LÚCIO 62. Those characters let it be dated to within a few weeks. It was made in the last days of 1962 by the Brazilian writer Lúcio Cardoso, fifty years old and at the height of his powers when he suffered a stroke on December 7. He would linger another six years, paralyzed, unable to speak or write, devoting his remaining time to making paintings like these. This smear is what remained of one of the most prodigiously gifted artists of twentieth-century Brazil.
It is tempting to read symbols into these blotches. Are those black lines a sign of despair? Is that yellow half-circle a setting sun?
Today, Lúcio Cardoso is primarily remembered for two things: being gay, and being loved by Clarice Lispector, from whose great name his is inseparable. While still a student, the eighteen-year-old Clarice took a job at a government propaganda outfit called the Agência Nacional. There, among the bored young staff, was Lúcio, a twenty-six-year-old from a small town who was already hailed as one of the most talented writers of his generation.
His father, Joaquim Lúcio Cardoso, had studied engineering but left university without a degree, due to the death of his own father. He then headed into the backlands of the interior state of Minas Gerais, where he enjoyed a period of great prosperity, at one time accumulating eight thousand head of cattle, only to be forced to hand over his fortune to a textile factory owner to whom he was indebted. After the death of his wife, he created a soap factory; but his volatile personality brought him trouble with the local merchants, who boycotted his products. His business ventures failed, Joaquim and his second wife, Dona Nhanhá, raised their six children in relative poverty.
Their town of Curvelo was typical of the backwoods of Minas Gerais, a state said to imprint a special character on its inhabitants, and one whose personality occupies a prominent place in Brazilian mythology. The mineiros, the stereotype goes, are tight-fisted, wary, and religious; there is a joke that Minas dining tables have drawers built into them, the better, at the first approach of a visitor, to hide food from potential guests. It is a place where mannered elocutions play an important role in the local language. Nobody in Minas is crazy, or louco; the preferred euphemism is “systematic.” There is a taboo against overt descriptions of medical procedures: “They opened him, and closed him back up” is the most that can be conceded of a surgery. A mineiro, above all, does not draw attention to himself. One native, returning home from São Paulo, recalls his puzzlement at being the object of amazed stares. He finally realized that it was because he was wearing a red shirt.
That was in the capital, Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s largest and most modern cities, in the 1960s. Four decades earlier, in the no-name village of Curvelo, it was presumably even easier to provoke a scandal. And nobody did it quite as well as Joaquin and Nhanhá Cardoso’s youngest son, Lúcio, who refused to go to school, was obsessed with movie stars, and played with dolls. This last point especially galled his father, who fought with his wife about it. “It’s your fault,” he would charge, “you brought him up clinging to your skirts, and the result is this queer. Where did you ever hear of a boy playing with dolls? Why doesn’t he like playing with the other boys? He’s a nervous child who’s never going to amount to anything.”
It was impossible to keep him in school, but he was curious about everything, and his older sister, Maria Helena, who became the best chronicler of his life, oriented his reading. This ranged from Dostoyevsky to the romantic novels serialized in the newspapers, which Lúcio and Maria Helena followed avidly. In his teens, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and he was sent to boarding school, where he was predictably miserable, and he eventually ended up working at an insurance company, A Equitativa, run by his uncle. “I was always a terrible employee,” he said. “All I did was write poetry.”
But he was finally free and in the capital. He was twenty-two when, in 1934, with the help of the Catholic poet and industrialist Augusto Frederico Schmidt, he published his first novel, Maleita. By the time he published his third novel, The Light in the Basement, two years later, he had attracted the attention of Brazil’s ultimate cultural arbiter, Mário de Andrade, who dispatched a typically colorful letter from São Paulo. “Artistically it is terrible,” Andrade thundered. “Socially it is detestable. But I understood its point . . . to return the spiritual dimension to the materialistic literature that is now being made in Brazil. God has returned to stir the face of the waters. Finally.”
You can read the rest of Ben’s piece—which includes a lot of information about his relationship with Lispector—by purchasing the book, either from us or from your favorite book retailer.
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 some early reviews, an excerpt, a press release, and part of Ben Moser’s piece.
Ploughshares was kind enough to interview both Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson about the process of translating this book. You can read the whole interview here after you check out a couple bits from it 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.
Graham Oliver: Given Cardoso’s fame in Brazil, his extensive ouevre, and his romantic relationship and friendship with Clarice Lispector (who in turn has an enduring and even growing popularity in the US), why do you think this is the first book of Cardoso’s to be translated?\
Margaret Jull Costa: Ben Moser, who wrote the introduction and has written a biography of Clarice Lispector, recommended the book to Chad Post at Open Letter, who was sufficiently intrigued to commission a translation.
Robin Patterson: I think it was both a natural choice, in that Chronicle of the Murdered House is certainly Cardoso’s best-known work, and also a bold one, in that it is not the most accessible of books. So it is both an obvious starting point, and a difficult one. Perhaps that is why it has taken to so long to bring to readers in English.
GO: Can you talk some about how you approach translating a deceased writer versus having the author available for questions or guidance? Do you rely on the author’s other works as points of reference??
MJC: I’m not sure it makes any difference, except, as you say, the author is not available to answer queries. The edition we used proved very useful, because it gave all the variants from earlier drafts, and the clue to what the author might have meant was often to be found there.
RP: Yes, looking at earlier drafts was useful, but at times not so much to clarify meaning, as to indicate where we simply needed to stop trying to clarify (even to ourselves!) and simply trust the author. Although it might be more time-consuming, in some ways not having the author around gives you a clearer concept of the text as a thing in itself—ultimately, that is where you have to find the answers.
GO: The story is told using the voices of multiple characters. In English, I could easily see differences in style between them, but I’m curious if there were any differences in the original that you found harder to bring over during translation? Or maybe you differentiated them in other ways?
MJC: The differences are clear in the style of each of the characters, the very melodramatic style of André, for example, and the rather pedantic style of the pharmacist. The Portuguese tells you what tone and register to use in English, but I must admit that I found André the most difficult, simply because his language and the way he expresses his feelings are so florid and over-the-top. I had to resist the temptation to tone him down a bit.
RP: Yes, as well as the linguistic indications in the Portuguese, I think the characters themselves helped to set their own tone. We get to know them so well over the course of the book that you begin to know how they would speak, or formulate their thoughts. The fact that nearly all the characters take their turn as narrator at some point helps with that—you really do get inside their minds, even if at times that can be quite an unsettling process.
Go read the rest of the interview at Ploughshares and come back tomorrow for a bit of Ben Moser’s introduction to the novel.
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.
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.”
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. . .