This match was judged by Rachel Crawford, graduate of the University of Rochester and former Open Letter intern. You can follow her rants online at @loveyourrac.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is overall impressive. I try to avoid reading reviews before opening a book, and approaching it with an unbiased and fresh perspective. However, the plethora of reviews from The New York Times, Washington Post, and so forth, littered on both sides of both covers were unavoidable. In fact, they actually made it seem comparable to The Stranger––“compelling,” “gripping,” and other trigger words that imply “crime novel.” In fact, the novel does revolve around a bit of a mystery and a crime. Agnes Magnusdottir, whom Hannah Kent had researched extensively, was the last person to be publicly beheaded in Iceland, and Burial Rites is her story.
There are several notable aspects to be highlighted about that last bit. First, Hannah Kent, as you know is representing Australia and yet the novel takes place in Iceland. Burial Rites offers Iceland’s rich cultural history and takes place after the Treaty of Kiel (meaning, while it was still ruled by Denmark, but not Norway and not Sweden), a historical event I hadn’t known of until experiencing the novel. Second, the eloquent and yet bleak prose that I found to be near euphonious when read aloud––the beauty Kent portrays in the rapidly wilting hope for Agnes, is gently woven into the novel, her first novel. I might add, Hannah Kent is also under the age of thirty.
Yet, while the story of Agnes really is a fascinating tale, Kent’s imaginative ability isn’t eclipsed by the true events. The composition is clever, and the novel serves as a literary collage. Not only does Kent boldly write in the first person of the convicted woman, but she also writes in the third person (giving access to the family Agnes is housed with, the Assistant-Reverend, townspeople, and the District Commissioner), accenting with poems from the infamous Poet-Rosa, translated excerpts from the Supreme Court Trials, and even quotations from “The Icelandic Burial Hymn”.
I haven’t felt the kind of forlorn hopelessness in a novel since perhaps Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk. One forgets that Hannah Kent has no authorial control over Agnes’s fate, and yet our Agnes transcends to a fictional character through Kent’s pen. This looming despair is something that one who finds a home in Russian literature would find darkly familiar in Burial Rites. In the way that a setting’s harsh elements can often become like characters in a novel, the Icelandic winters are indicative of a grief that, like the snow-covered mountains, becomes nearly monochromatic.
The research and passion Kent has put into exposing Agnes empathetically makes Burial Rites a good enough competitor. The exposition, the beauty of countless diacritics dotting the pages, and a description of landscape that Whitman might have written had he resented it, are all bonuses.
James Patterson’s blurb on the cover of Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger is initially a foreboding and disheartening start. The opening page is where I pull out a yellow card. Applying literary merit to a thriller doesn’t have to be a near impossibility, but The Stranger offers a particularly weak narrative and excessive, over-exuberant dialogue riddled with italicizations and exclamation marks (one of the devices attempted to evoke emotion). The backstories are rushed and vague. Fragments. Absent of literary purpose.
This all seems harsh, but when I begin reading a novel, I do so with the question in mind: There are many media that can serve to tell a story––why did this person chose to tell hers with language? Picasso’s Guernica is a good story. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a good story. Similarly, how did The Sound and the Fury revolutionize language––and doesn’t the Judas of literature, James Franco, understand that it cannot be translated to film?
What I’m getting at is the question we often ask: What makes a piece literature? Who decides what is canonical?
Well, Läckberg writes:
She loved the sight of her own blood. Loved the feeling of the knife, or a razor blade or whatever the fuck else she could find within reach that would cut away the anxiety that sat so firmly anchored in her chest . . . She also discovered that this was the only time [her parents] noticed her. The blood made them turn their attention to her and really see her.
I guess the answer to the question, why language, is lost on me here.
However, all is not lost on The Stranger. In fact, the novel may very well satiate the genre reader’s fixation of a different question, often more plot-based, begging: “What happens? What’s the point?” (Questions that hold as much weight with me as, “are the characters relatable?“––very little.) In its defense, The Stranger rather serves as a quintessential introduction to world literature to the Basic Reader in your life. For old Aunt Carol (assuming she can handle a few f-bombs), who perhaps seeks the page-turner for poolside, leisurely reading, The Stranger could be her portal out of the States. Perhaps a thriller with expectedly campy quips but dotted with umlauts and beautiful Swedish names is the gateway for this sort of audience. She might then add “the thriller” to the list of things she knows about Sweden––alongside wooden clogs, death metal, and vikings.
(This is no reprieve for Sweden, however.)
Next up, Australia’s Burial Rites will face off against either Toni Morrison’s Home (USA) or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (Nigeria) on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hannah Chute, and features Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (Canada) squaring off against Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain (Netherlands).Tweet
The following excerpt is one if the student works I had the privelage to assist in workshoping at the 5th Biannual Graduate Student Translation Conference, held this May 8-9 in Ann Arbor, MI. Before finding out who the author really was, I read this excerpt, translated from the German by Chenxin Jiang, and thought I was seeing a new sample of something by Ror Wolf, an author Open Letter publlished a few years ago—which is probably why this specific piece, titled “Winter”, from the book Volatile Texts by Austrian author Zsuzsanna Gahse, was one that particularly stood out to me of the three phenomenal excerpts the students in my group brought to share. Again, I’m grateful for the experience and for being able to participate in the conference, and I hope to see as many of these bright and talented students as possible at the 2015 ALTA conference! Thank you as well to Chenxin for letting me post this! Without further ado, the excerpt . . .
Several hundred people were waiting in a great hall when the door opened and a man came in, the last one, so to speak, the one who arrived last, which means something. Actually being last isn’t easy. The people stood facing each other in two long rows, waiting, and the man walked between them, first nodding wordlessly to the left and to the right, then striding forward, holding his head high, it all came down to holding his head high. His forehead gleamed, he had big, wide-open eyes, which you could even see in profile, his nose gleamed too, or rather, his head was very round, very polished, if you looked more closely at the back of his head, it was bald and also gleaming, and as he strode forward you could see from every angle that his skin was gleaming, or rather: it was not really a head that the man carried on his shoulders, but a radiance, a penetrating glow that shone through everything; the head threw light on the other heads and figures around it, more and more light, and everyone could see with increasing clarity that a lightbulb was glowing where his head should have been, everywhere he went lit up, and as he reached the back of the long room, someone said cheers, glasses clinked, and someone else called out, the lightbulb just broke.
Helmut Heißenbüttel told me about the lightbulb a man carried as his head, he was astonished that this was even possible, but something similar had once happened to me. I stood in front of a door concealed by wallpaper, and when I opened it I found myself striding into a large hall, left and right of the door stood many people facing each other in two rows, and while I walked along between them, I could feel my skin becoming thinner and probably gleaming, I had beads of sweat on my forehead, on my nose, and on the back of my head, and I knew without even having to touch my head that it was turning into glass. I could see through my own glass and at once I saw that all the other heads had turned into lightbulbs. Then the light gradually became so bright that I couldn’t see anything, and someone called out cheers.
These days it gets dark early, at a quarter past five in Lugano, at five here in Basel, by four-thirty in Hamburg, further north the night begins at midday, and from then on everything is always artificially lit. The less daylight there is, the more important lights and candles become. The smallest fire sparks wonder, a matchstick, a smoldering cigarette. Blue and yellow lights give the place a particular tone, but the most important color is red.
Here, night falls at five in the afternoon, and from then on everything is lit in red, the red tint of winter is reflected in the puddles, red is warm, warming, festive, cozy, familiar, trustworthy, attractive, romantic, invigorating, bracing, promising, and full of memories. Not to mention that the color red has something reckless about it.
Red is the color of courage, and whether it’s courageous or not, red is always provocative,
now you’re thinking about something that I didn’t mention but am also thinking about,
we don’t have to compete with each other,
it’s all the same which one of us was the first to think that thought,
why should we have to compete,
on my account you’ve been thinking about nothing else this whole time, which says something,
in any case we can now see dark-red lips, naturally in a house that’s glowing bright red, and nearby three pastry shops have had to close down. A hostile takeover, that’s what they called it. It would stimulate growth in the red-light district. The chocolate scene is dead, twenty-three jobs were lost, and a few of the sales clerks went over to the other side, they were probably hostile to begin with. Instead of the candy stores there are entire houses full of red lamps, and in the middle of the night, the winter night, red-lipped, red-eyed women in red boots and red underwear emerge from the houses and breathe red fire.
A man with a white beard unbuttons his long red coat, discards his beard, and hurries naked into the house, that’s how it goes!, he screams, why on earth,
I am not going to figure the world out or see through it, not even in winter, and I am not pretending to be happy about it, which is to say that I’m not pretending to be happy about how the color red is abused under these or any circumstances at all. (Coughing) How did I end up here? Great, if I’ve lost my good mood I’ve lost everything, that much is clear, there’s always something that’s forbidden, and right now losing your good mood is forbidden, that is what the sales clerks at the candy stores told me too.
Show your teeth, they said,
but then there’ll be black ravens flying past,
did you think about that? Have you had to imagine everything on your own? Why didn’t you say anything?
Ravens used to be called firebirds because they love smoke and always have. They can even start fires on their own, they love to set things on fire, they still fly past smoky fires and screech, pause, and screech again, the various meanings of the color red are all the same to them!
In this case the ravens are nothing but phantoms, animated phantoms directly from
the house with red lights, the daylight reddens early in winter,
excuse me, I have something in my throat, it feels scratchy,
like having a wire filament in my throat,
and as far as the ravens go,
but you know, I don’t have to say anything
there’s something scratchy in my throat. My skin is becoming thinner, I know without having to check that it’s probably glowing, there are beads of sweat on my forehead again, but at least no one is coming round with full glasses, and no one is saying cheers.
The above excerpt from Volatile Texts was posted with permission of the translator and Dalkey Archive Press.
This is a bit of a risk, posting something among all the commotion surrounding the Women’s World Cup of Literature, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and wanted to finally write about it.
I’m writing this post from Venstpils, Latvia, where I’ve had the pleasure to spend these first two weeks of June working primarily on some of my own translation projects (and also primarily at cursing Google Docs and my inability to figure out how to auto-sync manuscript edits between my iPad and the Intarwebs—my apologies to summer Open Letter intern-apprentice Meg Berkobien for the near-endless outpouring of techfury I text her in the middle of the night), meeting the other residents also at the Ventspils Writer’s and Translator’s House, and experiencing a slightly different part of Latvia than what I’m used to.
These two weeks have gone by incredibly quickly, and in addition to wholeheartedly thanking the Ventspils House for giving me this opportunity, I wanted to use it as one of two examples (the other being the 5th Biannual Graduate Student Translation Conference that took place in Ann Arbor, MI in May) of how important—nay, crucial—it is for translators (and writers, and editors, and publishers!) to find out about and apply to these kinds of “retreats,” if you will, and similar conferences or meetings, not just to make and maintain connections with people and presses, but in order to do something we all really, really need to do, whether you’re aware of it or not: energize your Happy.
Granted, this sounds like the product of a so-close-not-quite translation (or something a little sexual, or a drug habit), but it make perfect sense. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more aware of how great I feel after each ALTA conference—yes, even with all exhaustion each conference results in—how jazzed-up and ready-to-go I feel after each panel I go to, after each colleague I talk with, how reenergized my “Happy” for literary translation becomes. It’s not that I find myself depressed about translation life in the months leading up to ALTA, but there’s undeniably something about coming together with other people working through the same obstacles, hearing what your friends have been working on, what they’re excited about, etc., that really just does it for me, emotionally and mentally. Being around that like-minded vibe makes me look forward to doing more of the same: in my personal projects, in my capacity as editor at Open Letter, etc. This is one of the reasons I go to ALTA, and that I have been going for the past five years (I know, I’m still a newbie, relatively speaking), and why I will continue to go to this conference.
BUT. What are we supposed to do in the year between each conference? Do we even care to look for and find anything else to participate in or travel to in the bleak days until the next Declamácion? I know some larger cities have groups of literary translators who come together to chat, discuss, workshop, breathe the same air together—but not every city has something like this, and not every city has more than one active literary translator living in it. Which is why it is crucial to be aware of and seek out the other (more or less) myriad opportunities out there to keep fuelling your Happy throughout the year. Over the past few years I’ve become more aware of when this refuelling happens, and more aware of how I need it to keep happening, and how I want to talk to other people and make sure that they’re aware of and energizing their Happies as well (okay okay, now it really sounds like something sexual, but just humor me, please). Do you know where your Happy is? Do you know how your Happy is? Your Happy needs you. And truth be told, the world of literary translation needs your Happy. We all do.
Back in April, I had the wonderful opportunity to go to Ann Arbor to participate in the Graduate Student Translation Conference, where I spoke on a roundtable with Benjamin Paloff and Meg Berkobien, got to hear keynote speaker Sean Cotter, and helped moderate/facilitate one of several translation workshops with a group of students. The conference only took place over the course of two days, and I didn’t even bring my own translation work to the table—but I felt SO. AMAZING. after all was said and done. Just being around this group of bright, young translators working through their translations (which where all fantastic, and one of which I’d particularly like to share1), hearing about how they became interested in literary translation, their specific projects, what they want to do in the future, and simply seeing how excited they were about literary translation . . . It jump-started that same Happy in me. This isn’t a case of “being reminded of how I once felt” about translation. This is the Happy I know is there, and will never forget is there, but the Happy that sometimes, unfortunately, gets put on the back burner while I’m dealing with other projects, other manuscripts, piles of laundry, traveling, forgetting to buy groceries because of traveling, cleaning up trails of cat vomit and shit because oh thank god you’re home but DAMN YOU MEOWMMY AND YOUR TRAVELING SLASH ABANDONMENT. It’s the Happy that feels so good when you put it back in the spotlight, the Happy that makes you want to translate All the Things!, the Happy that, truly, makes you the literary translator that you are. It’s the obvious love and craft you put into your work, your skill, the hours you spend agonizing over a single sentence, phrase, word, semicolon. And as precious as it sounds, it’s also what connects each of us to one another. It’s why I’m grateful to call so many of you literary translators/editors/publishers not only colleagues, but friends—because we get each other. We know what’s up. We’re down with the flow.
The translation conference—which I’d like to add was professional, but very casual and comfortable at the same time, an element that definitely had some influence—left me with this spark, this gleam in my eye. It left me ready and wanting to get home, give my Happy a football-slap on the buttcheek and say “See that book over there, the one we’ve been tinkering with and talking about for months? LET’S DO THIS THING.” The awareness alone that I was reenergized just fuelled me even more, and it really was something I needed to get me to push myself into committing to resuming a project, to finding the time to let myself get lost in it. That’s when I started to really realize that what I need—what I believe most of us need, if even on some level—is a string of mini-ALTAs throughout the year to keep us going, to drive our Happies forward. Be it through literary events and readings, festivals, conferences, seminars, residencies, or just talking to someone who’s not a literary translator, it’s vital for us to be aware of these events, to get involved, and to talk them up to any literary translator who will listen.
Another reason it’s important to get involved in these mini-conferences or residencies, even as an observer, is because they also give you the opportunity to take a step back from everything. For me, it was refreshing to see the group of students at the Ann Arbor conference—people I had never met before—be so openly excited and passionate in a group of people they had mostly not met before either. It was refreshing to be at a conference that wasn’t ALTA, but still upheld the same interests and values and conversations. It was refreshing to have the realization that other people were just as jazzed-up about literary translation in the spring as people are in the fall. I needed that. And I think the students needed that, too. Putting yourself in a different situation, a different location, a largely different group of people helps you see a different picture that uses the same materials. It’s simultaneously fresh, yet familiar.
I guess what I’m saying is that it is so incredibly necessary for us as literary translators to get out there. Not like missionaries, but just as people, for our own good. If you’re lucky enough to have been to a residency, or are lucky enough to be able to go to conferences throughout the year, just think about how you feel afterward, how the full spectrum of emotionally charged discussions (heated to pissed to drunk and singing folk songs in a foreign language) leave you feeling revved up at the end of it all. For those who have had the opportunity to go to a residency and are amazed at how much work you get done? Is it because you’re not in your usual setting with the usual office or house distractions and it feels at times like a vacation? Or is it because you spend some time with the other residents (if there are any), exchanging stories about what you’re working on, how it’s going, what sort of obstacles you’ve met with or have overcome, just being around like-minded and like-driven people and their Happies? No one at the Ventspils house is sad. Yes, we’ve all had our days where nothing seems to work (eff you, Google Docs), where none of the words seem right; but we’re always smiling. We’re always looking and drawing internally and externally for inspiration, for that boost to get us to the next wave of Happy. We enjoy each other’s company, because we get one another. I went on a long walk with another one of the residents the other day; we were both stiff and sore from too many hours hunched over our computers, and took the day off to rest our slightly broken and limping bodies. We chatted the entire time, about our families, home, travel, strange foreign foods, our respective projects… And when I saw her the next afternoon, we were both reenergized, back where we wanted to be (both in posture and in our work), and for my part, going on that walk and having someone here to talk to and connect with really did the trick. Another of the residents tells me about her poetry now and then, and has given me samples of it to read—and I love it; I love being in a new environment, and in one that makes it totally cool and safe-feeling to just give someone a page of your work to read without the fear of judgement. Though we’re not all literary translators here, we are all here for the same reason, and that’s the sense of community I cherish being made more aware of.
Time-jumping a bit—even on the drive to and back from Ann Arbor, Cameron Rowe, the University of Rochester MALTS student who I carpooled with, and I talked a lot about what we thought the conference would be like, and afterward what our impressions were of it. And I’m glad I had the chance to hear the thoughts of one of the participating students before and after the conference, and to see the experience through her eyes for a moment, as well as the positive effect the weekend had on her.
At this point I’m not sure how many themes I’ve repeated, or how much sense this is making. I do know that there are plenty of other ways to say the same thing I’m saying here, and that, in addition to these residencies (Banff, Ventspils, the Baltic Residencies, the Ledig House, etc.) and conferences and organizations (ALTA, AWP, MLA, BEA, ATA, PEN, etc.) there are many, many, many more that I am either not naming, or not immediately aware of, as well as events, festivals, and lecture series held throughout the year. Go to as many of these as you can. If you go to one and you had an amazing time—TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES. Tell as many people as will listen. If you’re a student or a non-student literary translator looking for opportunities to participate in the translation community, for a residency, for a book reading, ASK AROUND, POKE AROUND. It’s possible you may give or find new information.
For example, the Venstpils Writer’s and Translator’s House accepts and considers applications from writers and translators in all stages of their careers. It also books up 1.5 – 2 years into the future, from what I understand, so either apply for a residency period a few years down the line, or, if your schedule permits it, say you would be open to placement at any point throughout the year. While on research trips or while at festivals, the Ventspils House staff have also consistently found that most potential applicants think they have to be prolific, widely-published, have been working in the field forever—which just isn’t true. Yes, there are some residencies and conferences that ask for some of those things, but there are also plenty like the Venstpils House that are ready and waiting to give as many interesting and important projects as possible the chance to flourish. They DO exist! (That’s my personal tip. Also, come fall in love with Latvia!) I didn’t apply to the Ventspils House for years because I thought I had to have a few published works under my belt—if I had known otherwise, especially as a graduate student, I would’ve acted much, much sooner, and would have doubtlessly experienced a significant and electrifying jump to my Happy that much sooner as well.
I suppose in closing all I have is this: Friends and colleagues don’t let friends and colleagues forget about their Happies. Information exchange is one of the essential ways for all of us to keep caring about what we do as literary translators (and editors and publishers), and to keep caring about what the rest of our community is doing, and to feel good and energized year-round. Because a triple-shot of espresso every three hours will only get you so far.
1 I also wanted to share a sample of one of the three works I had the pleasure to help workshop at the Ann Arbor conference. Because of the length of this post, I’ve given its own page here.Tweet
This match was judged by Florian Duijsens, a senior editor at Asymptote, fiction editor at SAND Journal, and teacher at Bard College Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter at @neonres.
Today’s match pits two trophy winners against each other; in 2013, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries snagged both the Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. Can Xue’s The Last Lover and its translator Annalise Finnegan Wasmoen, meanwhile, captured the hotly contested Best Translated Book Award Cup just last month. As for your referee today, I read Catton’s book when it came out, eager to lose myself in the brick-sized book after its buzz made it all the way over to Berlin from New Zealand. Before being assigned this match-up, I’d not read Can Xue’s work, though Dylan Suher’s wonderful interview with her (sample quote, from Can Xue herself: “China has more than a few Can Xue fans, but overall, Can Xue’s era still hasn’t arrived, because her works are too ahead of the curve, and don’t conform to commonplace, habitual aesthetics.”), and the recent BTBA honor certainly made me stoked to read her “radiantly original” novel.
The singular voice Can Xue and her translator chose for The Last Lover is radically different from most fiction I encounter: the sentences are pointedly gawky, the dialogue stilted, and emotions change as quickly as chameleons lost in a book of paisley wallpaper samples. This is entirely intentional (and remarkably consistent), as I learned from Daniel Medin’s interview with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen:
Since it was important to follow [Can Xue’s] associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow [. . .] translate everything; explain nothing.
All this also means that synopsizing The Last Lover is entirely beside the point: generically named characters live in an unnamed and barely detailed Western country. They obsess over their boss, employee, wife, husband, son, or lover, each of them equally volatile in their emotional and geographical states, popping up now here, then there, now crying, then shouting. The book makes a point of all of them being on a “long march,” a somewhat allegorical reference to the Long March of the 1930s that here seems to translate to our unending journey of self-discovery and, not least, our acceptance of others’ similarly unending travails of the soul.
Joe, the novel’s quasi-protagonist, may work at a clothing manufacturing company, but he really is a professional reader at heart, constantly dipping in and out of books hidden among his papers at work and in the higgledy-piggledy library cum bedroom he keeps for himself at home. Joe’s way of reading is how I can best interpret the way Can Xue would like her books to be read. “Wrongly,” that is: Joe is constantly mixing up the stories in different books (Kafka’s stories seem particularly ripe for his plundering) or performing more radical readings by tackling them in pitch dark or by putting his ear to their covers. Books are as untrustworthy and inconstant as memory, we are told, and we should not expect them to make any more sense.
The Luminaries, to address the massive tome on the other side of the field today, is an entirely different kettle of verbs and nouns: a historical murder mystery that would not seem outré to readers of either Henry James or Wilkie Collins. Imagine TV’s Deadwood, but scripted and directed by Jane Campion and her astrologer AD. Over the course of its 800+ pages, Catton slowly reveals how a suicidal prostitute, a dead prospector, a villainous captain, and a fortune sown into a dress are all connected to, and intertwined with, the lives and fates of a varied troupe of characters in a New Zealand town during the 1860s Otago Gold Rush. Precisely plotted and charted to the movement of the stars, each chapter perches on a cliffhanger, with the reader helplessly leaping ever onward until the whole thing comes twisting back together. (I couldn’t help but wonder what the critics’ response would have been had the name on the cover been that of a man—would Catton have been showered in yet more awards, not to mention shouts of “Genius”?)
True, I was exhausted when I was done, and the book is so long and intricately structured that it includes (and practically requires) its own recap in the middle, but the language is enchanting, evocative in its conjuring of time and place, and vivid in its depiction of villains and heroes alike. Although its astronomical underpinnings largely went over my head on my first reading (each of the characters is associated with a heavenly body, coming together and apart with the orbits of the stars; the chapters slowly wane with the moon), it makes for a gripping experience that is as much about plot as it is about who killed the prospecting Crosbie Wells, perhaps more so.
Back in 2008, film critic Roger Ebert called out the critics who remained unmoved by Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, noting that having a woman move into a house that is perennially on fire is not “unrealistic” at all: “Don’t unhappy homes always seem like that? Aren’t people always trying to ignore it?” (In fact, Wikipedia tells me Tennessee Williams said something similar: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”)
I wonder if critics would have embraced Kaufman’s masterpiece more had it come from Italy or Iran, as we tend to give outsiders in world cinema (or literature, for that matter) a touch more leeway; if the names are big enough (or the country of origin exotic enough), we are more likely to waive the otherwise required elements of plot, character, and dialogue. Often this is an entirely good thing: how else to first approach the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang? Of Elfriede Jelinek or even James Joyce? Yet this can become a rusty reflex too, recommending books because they won a bunch of awards or because Susan Sontag (no stranger to enjoying difficulty for difficulty’s sake) once said she liked them, so they must be good, right?
In The Last Lover, Joe’s boss, Vincent, at some point ends up at the house of his in-laws, who can’t stop talking to their parrot:
Vincent couldn’t understand their conversation. It seemed they were debating the question of putting power lines on the stone mountains. It also seemed like they were analyzing methods of tracking down criminals on the run. No matter what the old couple said, the old parrot always said, “Very good! Very good! A work of genius! A work of genius!”
In today’s verdict, I cannot parrot the esteemed critics and friends who’ve already praised Can Xue. Reading The Last Lover was non-stop torture for me. Not a page went by that I wasn’t entirely lost at sea, that didn’t make me want to violently toss the book out of whichever room or vehicle I was in, whereas Catton’s was a wonderful slog that I now—almost two years later—fell right back into with equal measures of delight and intrigue.
Of course people flit between emotions like demented hummingbirds, faces can change quicker than a paragraph can break, and places suddenly can feel farther or closer apart. Can Xue is right: life in no way functions like the celestial clockwork of The Luminaries. Yet, to me, the best books do. However precise or pointillist their construction, my favorite books pay tribute to the intricate designs the human mind is capable of, and is capable of conveying to others through the medium of the book. I know reality is a complex muddle of emotion, politics, etc. but I hope books can somehow convince me otherwise, or—in absence of such syntactic solace—comfort me instead: with their skill, their beauty, their truth.
We all live in a house on fire, so best buy yourself a stack of the biggest, smartest books you can find and build yourself a bonfire. New Zealand for the win.
New Zealand: 4
Next up, New Zealand’s The Luminaries will face off against either Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Canada) or The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (Netherlands) on Monday, June 22nd.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rachel Crawford, and features Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent against Sweden’s The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg.Tweet
This match was judged by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller and events coordinator at Community Bookstore in Park Slope.
I’ll be up front and say that this match is a bit one-sided, and was something of a surprise for this judge: Veronique Tadjo’s agile book Queen Pokou (Côte d’Ivoire) managed to handily rout Linn Ullmann’s brooding novel The Cold Song (Norway). So what happened to the Norwegians?
The Cold Song stumbles out vicious and sloppy from the start. Somewhere between thriller and family drama, but with the conviction of neither, Ullmann’s novel is humorlessly peopled by people one would rather not spend time with. There’s Siri, the mother and shrew, overworked and undersexed, spread too thin as narrative glue but the narrative’s glue nonetheless. There’s Jon, the father and blocked novelist (there’s a specter haunting Norwegian literature), who simply cannot seem to write a word or stop constantly cheating on his wife. Then there’s Jenny, the drunken grandmother; and Alma, the disgruntled teen; and her sister Liv, who lives a life in fifty words or less. Oh, and of course, don’t forget Milla, the au pair whose brutal rape and murder at the hands of the sociopath K.B. occasions this whole ordeal. More on Milla in a bit.
As a thriller, The Cold Song relies on the smallest suspicion that a family member may have snuffed out the babysitter. Did Siri uncover an affair? Is Jon covering one up? Did Jenny get soused and commit a hit-and-run? When, halfway through, we learn that’s not the case, and that an Evil Villain is at the heart of Milla’s disappearance, everything falls back on the shoulders of the family drama. The floodgates open, and these banal voices yell and fuck and drink, revisiting their own pasts’ traumas and indiscretions without ever really coming into emotional contact. Great novels are built on less, but Ullmann never takes these relationships into dangerous waters—nothing is real or unreal, challenging or exciting or terrifying enough. All seems static and half-sketched and grey. What some have called nuanced, I’m calling flat.
And then there’s the rape and murder at the center of it all. Given the Scandinavian crime genre’s fascination with the brutalization of women’s bodies, one might read Ullmann’s take as a kind of critique, and I don’t think that’s wrong; yet it’s tired, tiring, to trudge through one more rape-as-narrative-engine novel, hell bent on having us act as witness while, at the same time, flattening the act’s social and political and cultural machinations. Furthermore, Milla spends much of the book missing, her rape and murder disclosed only to the reader, leaving the cast to dwell in their petty, simple miseries. One wonders if any of it was really necessary, the extremity wedged inside such a timid story, and, at the conclusion, Ullmann sacrifices complexity for a simple Bad Things Happen tact.
Queen Pokou plays a different, smarter game altogether. Of course the general caveat: it’s hard to compare the two books, considering their drastically different approaches to narrative. But follow Tadjo’s epic-in-miniature close enough, and it’s clear, at least to this judge, who the winner is.
Queen Pokou adapts a sweeping, legendary tone to recast the story of Queen Pokou’s sacrifice of her child, a foundation myth for the Baoule, the largest tribe in modern Côte d’Ivoire. In the story, Pokou escapes assassination from the invading Ashanti Confederacy and flees slavery with her people, making the long journey west to the Komoe River. At the river’s edge, with no way to cross and troops closing in, a priest proclaims that a sacrifice is required for the tribe’s survival. Pokou throws her infant into the dangerous waters, screaming, “Ba-ou-li: the child is dead!,” after which a giant tree crashes down to form a bridge. The tribe passes into safety, settling to farm in exile and taking the name Baoule in honor of the queen’s sacrifice. This is the basis for the legend, and the first story that appears in Tadjo’s narrative.
Here, it’s important to note Queen Pokou’s subtitle: Concerto for a Sacrifice. The lead voice in the orchestra, Pokou’s story is not a static note, held indefinitely unto silence, but has melody, rhythm, and counterpoint. For Tadjo, the foundation myth is just that: a foundation upon which to construct something new. In the novel’s second part, “The Time of Questioning,” the narrative begins teasing apart the emotional and ethical dimensions of such a sacrifice; suddenly we’re in the realm of speculation. One variation of the story sees Pokou sparing her infant only to throw herself to the waters to become an ocean goddess; in another, the queen refuses a sacrifice altogether, and the tribe is brutally captured and shipped across the Atlantic Passage into new world slavery; yet another variation reframes the sacrifice as a rejection of motherhood and a bid for power.
By turns fantastical and terrifying and chilling, each new variation looks at the foundation myth from a new vantage point, testing the Queen’s decisions and motives by shifting the variables. Tadjo’s language finds rhythms and repetitions that build in force, turning her mythic tone into something more terrestrial. Indeed, the real power of Queen Pokou is in the way that this tonal shift occurs, in how, variation after variation, Tadjo invokes the traumas of the African eighteenth century—slavery, colonization, and civil war—to deconstruct and humanize the legend. I’m not sure how many of my fellow judges in this tournament will be so affected by Veronique Tadjo’s Queen Pokou, but I, for one, wish the Côte d’Ivoire luck.
Côte d’Ivoire: 3
Next up, Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou will face off against either The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (Germany) or The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva (Thailand) on Tuesday, June 23rd.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Florian Duijsens and is a big one, featuring China’s The Last Lover by Can Xue (recent winner of the Best Translated Book Award) against New Zealand’s much praised The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.Tweet
Every May, 20,000 or so publishing professionals gather at BookExpo America to a) try and create buzz for their fall books, b) court booksellers and librarians, c) attend panels of minimal import, and d) bitch and moan. Mostly it’s just d, to be honest.
Publishing people love to complain about everything. The Javitz Center sucks. (This is a fact! Stupid glass warehouse. Looks like something from Cleveland.) The BEA is too expensive. No booksellers or critics come anymore. People only want free books. Books don’t sell. Stupid Grumpy Cat is clogging up the aisles. A coffee costs $17. This fair is loaded with crap thanks to you Random Harper House and the Algonquins of mediocrity. Why more Mitch Albom? I thought he was in heaven? Writing us letters? It’ll only be more unbearable in Chicago. And on the weekend they’re actually letting in regular readers. This is the worst.
It’s kind of great! Four days of being around my people, all rant-receptive, all cloaking their belief in the power of books behind a shell of unremitting misery . . . So good! I need this in my life at least once a year—it helps me feel human.
The best post-BEA storyline to me was about the Big Publisher reaction to “BookCon,” the weekend part of the show when readers flood the aisles searching for John Green and buying books (although maybe not the books by the presses whose books I usually buy). Here’s the initial reaction, as reported in Publishers Weekly:
Not only are many New York City-based publishers concerned about staffing for next year’s BookCon, they’re also worried that the change in venue [Ed. Note: BEA is in Chicago next summer] will mark a return to the show’s first year, when attendance was lower and the event itself was more chaotic.
Then, a week later, also in Publishers Weekly:
Heather Fain, senior v-p and director of marketing strategy at Hachette Book Group, said she’s looking forward to meeting readers from other parts of the country: “Readers don’t just live in New York. If Reed puts together the programming with big names, I think they could get a crowd to come out in any major market. And I like the idea of interacting with readers outside the Tristate Area.”
Wait, there are readers outside of New York City? I CALL BULLSHIT. I’ve said it a million times, but publishers are amazingly good at distancing themselves from their readers. Just wait—next May there will be a slew of articles about how crappy Chicago BookCon is going to be, then in June, publishers will be all “we sold a lot of books! It was great! But next year when it’s in Los Angeles . . . Well, I’m just not sure . . .”
When publishers finally realize that the main reason they exist is thanks to the passion of readers willing to pay money to come to an awful part of NYC just to meet publishers, there will be a sea change in this show. Granted, there won’t be swarms of tween girls bum rushing the Coach House booth in search of conceptual poetry, but still. I see this in my daughter who, to this day (literally), talks about how excited she was to meet Jón Gnarr and how The Indian is her favorite book. I told her about BEA and to her it sounded like paradise. Not for free stuff, but to see so many books and so many cool people (since cool people are people who work with books) in one place at one time. To her, it was like ComicCon but with fewer costumes.
Steve Rosato, who runs BEA, told me that NY ComicCon—which I am going to go to—draws TEN TIMES as many attendees as BookCon/BEA. This is insane to me. 150,000 people are at NYCC at any moment in time. People who paid $50 to get into a show to buy more stuff. We all love superhero movies more than experimental prose, but still, the great benefit of the various book festivals around the country—the LA Times Festival of Books, Printers Row, Miami Book Fair, now BookCon—is that there’s an opportunity to interact with these people. Instead of only interacting with fellow publishing people drowning their misery with alcohol and hate. (Although alcohol and hate are both wonderful.)
Anyway, my favorite BEA moment? Walking the aisles and finding this at the Overdrive Booth (Overdrive being a service working with libraries to allow patrons to check out audiobooks and ebooks—it’s my favorite app):
Yep, that’s an Open Letter book right next to Dan Brown, and under Gone Girl and Wimpy Kid. We made it!
Not only was Street of Thieves on this oft-repeating mosaic of major works, but they used it as the feature book (along with The Girl on the Train, the number one best-selling book in the country) on this background image inside their booth:
I’ve always dreamt of seeing someone randomly reading one of our books on the subway, but although that hasn’t happened, this is a good runner-up dream.
Vila-Matas is one of my favorites—especially Montano’s Malady—for all the formal games he plays with point of view and narrative, which he uses to upend your expectations time and again, shifting his books from half-essays into strange beasts that aren’t what we usually think of as “novels.” This is important and wonderful. And a book about a secret society of people called “the Shandies,” obsessed with “portable literature”? Yes, all the yes.
By the way, next week, Tom and I will be recording our 100th episode of the Three Percent Podcast. We’re going to make this a “listener appreciation” podcast in which we answer any and all questions from you about publishing, sports, books, whatever. Just send them to email@example.com.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Other Press)
To be honest, I’m not actually all that interested in this book. I’m sure it’s fine and competent and will reach a very wide audience (especially after the Kakutani NY Times review), all of which is great for Other Press and the book. (The set-up alone—a retelling of The Stranger from the perspective of the Arab Meursault kills—guarantees this a huge book club audience.) A lot of people I respect really like this, but I can’t imagine it blowing my mind. Nevertheless, a ton of people will be talking about this, and I’m sure that conversation will be interesting to thousands of readers.
I have to say, the older I get, the less I feel like reading books that I should read in favor of ones I want to. When I moved recently, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and kept having the thought that I was saving books that I would never possibly get to before I die. Ever. It’s an anxiety-making idea, in part because of the death aspect, but also because it makes me question why I choose to read the books I do. I have no good answer to this, but I’m pretty sure The Meursault Investigation won’t be one of the 100 titles that makes the cut for 2015. Sorry.
That said, Jeff Waxman from Other Press—and all their other staff members—is a great guy doing a lot of amazing things, especially in terms of connecting small presses with booksellers. (Like at the upcoming Small Press Night at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.) Jeff is my favorite thing about Other Press. That and the Simon Critchley book they’re bringing out later this year.
Moods by Yoel Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (New Directions)
It’s really too bad that FOX has the rights to the Women’s World Cup. Their soccer coverage is fine, but it just feels so buried seeking the games out on FOX Sports 1. Granted, ESPN aired most of last year’s World Cup, but everyone has ESPN. That’s like basic cable.
I was really surprised that last night’s USA-Australia game wasn’t on FOX proper. It was a perfect opportunity for FOX to remind the nation that FOX Sports 1 still exists, and to get a ton of people hooked into this competition. Instead they aired a rerun of So You Think You Can Dance. FOX sucks.
Bringing together my two great loves—translation and sports—here’s a picture of Peter Cole (translator of Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods) giving a talk in front of the Men in Blazers mug that George Carroll sent me.
Disagreeable Tales by Léon Bloy, translated from the French by Erik Butler (Wakefield Press)
The USPS debuted a new spring/summer commercial that I saw during the NBA Finals, and which brought up a lot of questions.
This commercial opens with the following rhetorical question: “What do you think of when you think of the United States Postal Service? . . . . . . Exactly.”
Exactly what??? The things that come to mind when I think of the USPS are, in descending order, 1) the phrase “going postal,” and 2) nothing. It’s like thinking about electricity or garbage collection—it’s just something that’s there and works most of the time.
I feel like the commercial should go on in this way, “You know what we here at the USPS are good at? Occasionally delivering Amazon orders. We’re better than imaginary drones at that! The Postal Service. Sounds like a band name. Hell, next time you hear this commercial think of that. USPS. Band. Name.”
I’m sure that FOX has this commercial on endless loop.
Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by John King (FSG)
This book sounds like such an old man book—I love it!
In the past, culture was a kind of vital consciousness that constantly rejuvenated and revivified everyday reality. Now it is largely a mechanism of distraction and entertainment. [. . .] Vargas Llosa traces a decline whose ill effects have only just begun to be felt. He mourns, in particular, the figure of the intellectual: for most of the twentieth century, men and women of letters drove political, aesthetic, and moral conversations; today they have all but disappeared from public debate.
I think I’m going to read this over the weekend and spend hours yelling at my books to get off my lawn.
The One Before by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Roanne Kantor (Open Letter)
This is our fourth Saer book—with another coming next summer!—and the first to be translated by Roanne Kantor. (Steve Dolph has done the other three, and he’s amazing.) Roanne won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation in 2009 for this book, which is how she ended up working on it for us.
Speaking of Susan Sontag, her biographer, Ben Moser, won the Internet recently for his photo of his six-year-old niece flipping out in the White House. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but if not, here’s a link. I get overly excited when people I know become über-famous for something that’s not what they always do. Now, hopefully 1/1,000,000 of the people who saw that photo will buy a book that Ben has translated, edited, or written.
A Perfect Crime by A Yi, translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood (Oneworld)
So, China was the Global Market Focus country at BEA this year, which was interesting. I only attended a couple of the main events, but saw their various displays, which took up a sizable portion of the exhibition floor.
The New Yorker ran an interesting piece about China and BEA, which includes a depressing story about A Perfect Crime:
Even the Chinese delegation’s most promising soft-power weapons, the twenty-four authors, had trouble drawing crowds. On Friday, a Chinese newspaper lamented the lack of attendees at the on-site book signings. “Where Did the Readers Go?” read the headline. According to the article, during one signing featuring the crime novelist A Yi, the author grabbed a book and tried to push it on a middle-aged American man as he walked by. A Yi soon returned, dejected. “You’d better stop,” said another author, Su Tong, jokingly patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll humiliate our country.” The article went viral in China, before being deleted. (ChinaFile has a translation here.) The rest of the planned book signings were cancelled as a result.
This piece also ends with an odd quote from our favorite author to troll, Jonathan Franzen, which, obviously I’m going to quote:
When I approached Franzen at the PEN rally, he told me that, after visiting China, he’d come to understand the case for censorship. “China has known so much misery, so much social instability in the last century, that there’s this deep cultural fear of it that cuts substantially across political lines,” he said. “From the point of view of the Chinese government, trying to maintain social stability, there are reasons for censorship. And that’s a point of view that has a right to be heard, in the same way that the writers we were supporting here have a right to be heard.”
Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis (Feminist Press)
Violette Leduc was one of the coolest authors ever, and it’s so good that this is finally available in its unedited version.
Also, Feminist Press rocks and you should really listen to our recent podcast in which Feminist Press editor Julia Berner-Tobin joined us to talk about Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby.
A History of Money by Alan Pauls, translated from the Spanish by Ellie Robins (Melville House)
I couldn’t get into the Pauls book that Harvill brought out a few years ago, but he’s always talked about as one of the great contemporary Latin American writers, so I’m willing to give this one a chance.
Unfortunately, Melville House doesn’t send us review copies, so I went ahead and ordered this on Amazon.
Urgency and Patience by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Dalkey Archive)
This looks really interesting: a short set of essays about the art of writing from the author of The Bathroom and Television. When he’s on, Toussaint is spectacular, and it makes me curious to see what his nonfiction is like. Also, this book is 57 pages long with a gigantic font size, so it’s one that I can definitely finish . . .
There are bunch of books I’d like to include, but don’t have the time/energy for. (In other words, I have no obvious jokes for these titles.) So here’s a short list of other things coming out in June that are worth checking out.
Someone’s Trying to Find You by Marc Auge, translated from the French by Chris Turner (Seagull Books)
On Wing by Róbert Gál, translated from the Slovak by Mark Kanak (Dalkey Archive)
The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)
The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Arcadia)
The Body Where I Was Born Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by J.T. Lichtenstein (Seven Stories Press)
Rambling Jack Micheal Ó Conghaile, translated from the Irish by Katherine Duffy (Dalkey Archive)
“Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry”: (Phoneme Books)Tweet
This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by P.T. Smith, a freelance critic. You can follow him on Twitter at @PTSmith_Vt.
Each World Cup traditionally has a Group of Death—a group where more teams are good enough to make it out, and deserve to, than the tournament structure allows. With Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft (trans. Samantha Schnee) going up again up against Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby (trans. Siân Reynolds), France vs. Mexico is without a doubt a Group of Death match-up. I finished both days ago, spent Sunday thinking about both, over and over, and came to no conclusion as to which was better. Even as I write this, though I am leaning one way, I’m not certain of the outcome.
Not only are both books rewarding reads—books I’ve been meaning to and was damned happy to get one final motivating push to get to—but the match-up itself is fascinating. There are ways the two are entirely different. Stylistically, Texas is lush, with prose to dwell over and descriptions to pause and appreciate. At points it gracefully drifts from realism. It is a slow book, expansive, full of anecdotes, allowing tangents to cover the history of a just introduced character. Because it inhabits as many citizens of the border towns Bruneville and Matasánchez as it can, time passes slowly, backtracking to retell events from a new angle.
Apocalypse Baby does not drift. It propels forward, hardly taking a breath. These sentences are not meant to be reread to be understood or appreciated. But this isn’t a criticism or dismissal of the prose. Writing sentences that are straightforward but exciting, that keep a book thrilling and give engaging characters depth is a skill, and Despentes is damn fine at it. Her characters’ biting and cynical jokes hit again and again. Sometimes, you just want to read a book quickly, and in the hands of someone with her skill, that doesn’t make it lesser than a book meant to be read slowly. Apocalypse Baby looks to entertain first and make you ponder its ideas or aesthetics second, whereas Texas switches those motivations. Each achieves both of these goals.
Even in the ways the books are similar, they differ. Both books have an attention-getting character who is an outlaw of sorts, someone others tell legends about. Texas has Nepomuceno, a vaquero who shoots an American sheriff hassling a local drunk and then leads his men in battle against Rangers. Apocalypse Baby has the Hyena, an aggressive beast of a woman, whether in her sexual pursuits or in her breaking down someone’s lie, and a detective who has worked as a debt collector and an information-gatherer for assorted groups and agencies. Yet, neither book spends that much time from either character’s perspective. Instead, the third-person omniscient perspective moves from person to person, letting us see vastly different consciousnesses, seeing the same events and people in new ways, ways that change your perceptions.
Where they differ in this is scope. Apocalypse Baby’s only first-person narrator gets the most pages, but the handful of other characters create a whole world: a semi-successful writer, an Arab teen, a rich French housewife. They get their own chapters, significant chunks of time. Texas’s scope is massive. Many more characters are inhabited, and they are more varied—the owner of a whorehouse, a priest’s wife, a hat shop owner, a madman preacher with a talking cross, a tree, a bullet, the dead, another rich housewife, far from home this time—and the switches happen continually, each stay brief.
In doing this, the contestants are accomplishing the same thing . . . but different again. They capture a culture in conflict and flux. The border of Mexico and the US is shifting, with the latter taking more and more, whether through economics or outright violence. Apocalypse Baby shows modern female perspectives, diverse in tone and sexual attitude, almost combating each other: the apathetic, schlubby narrator, invisible to most people; the superficial woman who knows the power of her sex appeal over men and is willing to sell it; the Hyena, absurdly confident lesbian who sexualizes every female she meets. It also lays out the frightened older culture of France, the power of the Internet, and the young, angry youth.
The fourth referee has held up the sign indicating three minutes of stoppage time, and I’ve still hardly said enough about these books. Plot? Texas: the battle for freedom in the collapsing US-Mexico border, the story of the victims, the bystanders, and the aggressors. Apocalypse Baby: two detectives, one hapless, the other a bit of a charming madwoman, hunt down missing a teen across Paris and Barcelona, a teen lost in her culture, not fitting in with any group, her loneliness and desperation, desire to please others, especially men, to live up to something, putting herself at risk.
Stoppage time passes. We’re onto overtime. This too, passes. So to the ending no one likes: shootouts. There’s something else these books share: flaws. These too are different. Texas is shaggy. It is loose and messy at times. Some pieces don’t connect as they could. It can drag. Apocalypse Baby’s ending loses itself. It changes scope, takes a turn towards a big ending that doesn’t fit with what came before. It doesn’t have what worked so well: the small-world tensions that speak to the larger world. Suddenly, too much happens, too many strings are made to tie, when really they don’t.
So here it is. Down to the fifth shooters. Texas’s flaw suits it. That messiness, those bits of boredom, they are part of what happens with ambitious books. But Apocalypse, in its commitment to the thrills, to the drive of plot, to the fun of genre, must stick the ending. At times, the book is excessive, like its outrageous orgy scene, and if any of that is a flaw, the orgy is not, then it is a flaw that suits it. A flawed ending, and it is hard to criticize without revealing, simply fails a book of Apocalypse’s style.
Texas wins in penalty shoot-outs, as Apocalypse misses its final shot. So, read Texas.
But do yourself a favor, appreciate a book that lost, that could beat many others in the tournament, fucking read Apocalypse Baby too.
Next up, Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft will face off against either Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (England) or Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia) on Saturday, June 27th. Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Hal Hlavinka and features Cote D’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo going up against Norway’s The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann.Tweet
This match, the first of the tournament, was judged by Lori Feathers, a freelance critic and Vice President of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriFeathers.
I cannot think of a better way to kick-off the Women’s World Cup of Literature than a match-up between these two impressive novels: Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano and Switzerland’s With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz.
While in many respects these two novels are as different as the two countries from which they come, reading them in close succession reveals a common theme—what happens when an insular, primitive people are confronted with progressive thoughts and ideas from the outside.
With the Animals is the story of Paul and his wife Vulvia (or “Vulva” (!) as she is called) who live with their six children on the family farm in the French-speaking countryside of Switzerland. Paul is nothing short of crude in his relations with his wife and children. He devotes his life to running the farm and demands work, obedience, and docility from his family, along with occasional sex from Vulva. His behavior towards his children fluctuates between harsh discipline and total indifference, and he feels no remorse about delivering daily blows to both Vulva and the kids. Paul hires a summer farmhand from Portugal, Jorge, who comes to live on the farm and in many respects becomes more of a husband and father to Paul’s wife and children than Paul himself. Jorge (or Georges as Paul calls him) does things that Paul would never do like engaging in conversations with Vulva, teaching the kids, and cooking meals when Vulva is ill.
Paul’s voice, one that will stay with me for a long time, is coarse with distain, paranoia and misogyny and only rarely is it softened by the tender feelings he reserves for his cows and the memory of his deceased father. It is a credit to both Ms. Revaz and translator W. Donald Wilson that Paul always feels original and authentic, never a caricature.
Dark Heart of the Night takes place amongst the Bantu tribe in southern Cameroon. The tribe is locked in the vice of tradition and attitudes that elevate survival of the tribe above all else. Ayané is the daughter of a deceased tribesman and a “foreign” woman from a neighboring village. Neither Ayané nor her mother were ever accepted by the tribe but because both are considered witches they were tolerated even after the death of Ayané’s father for fear that they might cast an evil spell on the tribe. Ayané was always treated differently from the other children in the tribe; her parents sent her away to be educated and she eventually enrolled in college in Paris.
During Ayané’s return to care for her dying mother the tribe is overtaken by rebels seeking young men to recruit for a violent overthrow of the government. Ayané witnesses with incomprehension the docility and fatalism of the tribal members in the face of killings and other brutal acts by the rebels against the tribe’s members, including its children. She struggles to reconcile her relationship to the tribe and to come to terms with what the tribe means for her self-identity. Ayané has spent most of her life rejecting and being rejected by, the tribe. And with her mother’s death she can leave the tribe behind, forever. But for the first time she feels the need to belong, to identify with something larger than herself. Ayané’s inner conflict between her tribal and cosmopolitan “selves” forces her to question her Western ideas about the intrinsic nature of morality and reconsider whether the tribe’s actions when faced with the rebels’ brutality, were immoral. It is in looking at this conflict between Western and tribal ideas of morality that Ms. Miano’s novel excels.
I really admired both of these books and hate to see either eliminated but, as they say, the games must go on! With a tied score of 1-1, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night squeaks-by to defeat Switzerland’s With the Animals by a penalty kick.
Next up, Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night will face off against either Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) or Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío (Ecuador) on Wednesday, June 24th. Tomorrow’s match is one of the most anticipated, with France’s Apocalypse Baby squaring off against Mexico’s Texas: The Great Theft.Tweet
Yesterday we announced the participating titles in this year’s Women’s World Cup of Literature, but now we’re prepared to share the official bracket along with all the dates and judges for the first two rounds. Phew. OK, starting at the top, here’s the official bracket with its incredible graphic:
(Just click on that to get a full-size version.)
And the dates/judges (subject to change):
Monday 6/8: Lori Feathers – Switzerland vs Cameroon
Tuesday 6/9: P.T. Smith – France vs Mexico
Wednesday 6/10: Hal Hlavinka – Cote D’Ivoire vs Norway
Thursday 6/11: Florian Duijsens – China vs New Zealand
Friday 6/12: Rachel Crawford – Australia vs Sweden
Saturday 6/13: Hannah Chute – Canada vs Netherlands
Sunday 6/14: Rhea Lyons – England vs Colombia
Monday 6/15: Meredith Miller – Brazil vs Costa Rica
Tuesday 6/16: Sal Robinson – USA vs Nigeria
Wednesday 6/17: Mythili Rao – South Korea vs Spain
Thursday 6/18: Joanna Walsh – Germany vs Thailand
Friday 6/19: M. Lynx Quarley – Japan vs Ecuador
Monday 6/22: Canada/Netherlands vs China/New Zealand – Lizzy Siddal
Tuesday 6/23: Germany/Thailand vs Cote D’Ivoire/Norway – Kalah McCaffrey
Wednesday 6/24: Japan/Ecuador vs Switzerland/Cameroon – Margaret Carson
Thursday 6/25: USA/Nigeria vs Australia/Sweden – Meytal Radzinski
Friday 6/26: Brazil/Costa Rica vs South Korea/Spain – Katrine Ogaard Jensen
Saturday 6/27: France/Mexico vs England/Colombia – Hilary Plum
Monday 6/29: Quarterfinal #1
Tuesday 6/30: Quarterfinal #2
Thursday 7/2: Semifinal #1
Friday 7/3: Semifinal #2
Monday 7/6: Championship
Start placing your bets now, and we’ll be back on Monday with the first match breakdown . . .Tweet
As if three trips to New York and one to Torino weren’t enough, I just a few minutes ago arrived in Ripton, VT, where I have the honor of being able to participate in (and generally witness) the first ever Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. (A.K.A. Translation Loaf.)
Since this was organized by Jen Grotz—our poetry editor, the translator of the forthcoming Rochester Knockings—I knew a bit about what was going to happen here, but now that I’m holding the full schedule in my hands . . . holy shit, guys. Holy. Shit.
First off, tonight’s opening event features a reading by Maureen Freely, who will also be giving a talk on Wednesday entitled “Where I Go, When I Look Like I’m Translating a Book.” But then, tomorrow morning, Susan Bernofsky, hot off of winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, will talk about “Finding a Language for the Past.” Oh, and then, on Friday, BTBA winner Bill Johnston (I can’t even type his name without hearing the “BILL, billJOHNSTON, bill!” song that Kaija always sings for him) will be talking about “The Quest for a Voice: Translating Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone upon Stone.” Also, Michael Katz, translator of Dostoevsky and many other Russian greats, will give a lecture entitled “Translation Matters? Translation Matters. Translation Matters:.”
These faculty members won’t just be giving speeches though, they’re also directing workshops each morning with seven or eight translators, going over their pre-submitted samples. (That’s some high quality plübbing!) Each of them will also be giving a reading of their own translations in the evening, and meeting with Loafers throughout the day.
In addition to all of that, there are also four special panels and talks and classes for attendees, including one “On Publishing Literary Translations” where everyone can meet Jill Schoolman from Archipelago and Steve Woodward from Graywolf. Don Share is also teaching a class, as is Bill Johnston (one on “Translating Dialogue for the Stage”).
And finally, I’ll be giving a talk on “Copyrights and Translation Contracts: What You Need to Know.”
Since this is incredibly important information for translators, and since I’m not a legal expert, I thought I would post an overview of what I plan on talking about, and if anyone has any specific bits of info that I should/shouldn’t include, please feel free to contact me.
1) Before contacting a publisher with a sample of a book you want to translate, make sure the rights are available. You as the translator don’t have to “acquire” the rights—that’s something the publisher will do when/if they go ahead with the book—but you definitely need to make sure that no other publisher has already bought them. (And for your sake, it would be good to know that no one else is working on a translation.)
2) When signing a contract, refer to the PEN Model Contract. In addition to your fee—which is something I’ll probably spend most of my talk talking about, because that’s a really practical and pressing issue for a lot of translators—the other keys to pay attention to are: royalties on book sales and subrights, where your name will appear (or if it will at all), who has final approval of changes to the manuscript, whether the translation will be copyrighted in your name or not, and how the rights will be reverted when the book goes out of print.
3) Over the past few months, copyrighting translation in the names of translators has been getting some attention on the social media platforms and whatnot, so it’s worth pointing out why this is important (and why publishers should allow the translations they publish to be copyrighted in the translator’s name).
There are various legal arguments about copyright for translations—the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works establishes that translators are to be considered authors and should be treated as such—but I want to mostly look at the practical, publishing side of this.
In terms of terminology, and since this comes up every so often, if you sign a contract in which the publisher takes away the translator’s copyright of the translation it’s a “work-for-hire contract.” Which, basically means what it says: the translator is being hired to do work for the publisher, after that work is completed and the translator is paid, the publisher owns the finished product and can do what it wants with it for the rest of the translation’s copyright. Nothing more is owed to the translator ever, and if the book goes out of print, the rights to the translation do not revert to the translator.
I’m going to pause for one second and make clear that this doesn’t necessarily impact the amount that you are paid. A translator could sign a contract in which they retain the copyright to their translation (essentially, with PEN’s model contract, etc., the translator is “leasing” their intellectual property to the publisher to use for a specified period of time, such as, for as long as the book is in print) and receive a $100 advance against 25% of all net proceeds. Or, they could sign a work-for-hire contract and get paid a billion dollars. Or vice versa. These two things aren’t tied to one another.
When copyright really becomes an issue is when the book goes out of print. This is usually due to the publisher losing the underlying rights. Just to back up to point one: A publisher doing a translation has a contract with the rights holder for the original work (the foreign publisher, the author, the author’s agent) and with the translator. The original contract may well specify that the publisher only has the rights to publish the book in print form for five years from the date of signing. Or it could state that the rights revert if the sales fall below 100 copies a year. Regardless, a lot of books end up going out-of-print at some point in time, either because the publisher runs out of copies and doesn’t feel like it’s financially worthwhile to print more, or because the agent (it’s always the agent, right?) takes them away after a particular period of time.
If the translator signed a work-for-hire contract, and the book goes out of print, the rights to the translation remain with the publisher to reassign. So, let’s pretend that ten years down the road, a new start up press named Deep Letter Archive of Books wants to reissue a new edition of a supercool Thai book that changed the publisher’s life. First they have to acquire the underlying rights to the book, then the translation. This should be easy enough, unless, in the ensuing ten years, the original publisher went bankrupt (they were doing crazy experimental Thai books, so, you know, “limited upmarket potential” and all that), which means that the rights to translation are . . . where exactly? You have to contact how many lawyers? Ugh. That’s the moment I’d just say Fuck it and walk away.
However, if the rights to the translation had reverted to the translator—just as the rights to the book itself had reverted to the author—then I could call up the translator (or his/her estate) and pay them a small sum ($500?) for the rights. And suddenly, this book would have another shot at finding an audience.
Holding onto the translation rights—when you can’t hold on to the rights to the original book—seems baroque and silly to me. As a publisher you’re hoping for what? A $500 offer ten years down the road? At the expense of angering a group of already disenfranchised people?
I’m sure some publishers have their reasons for doing business this way (the main argument being that they’re paying a lot for the creation of the translation so if there are future monies to be made, they deserve a cut), but it just doesn’t seem like something that should be a standard part of your business model, especially if you think about how much you really paid in comparison to the amount of time the translator spent working on this. Respect your translators! You wouldn’t pull this with an author . . .
And I’m sure my presentation will have more jokes and asides and intricate points. But for now, I thought I’d at least share that.
More importantly: Don’t you wish you were on top of a Vermont mountain spending the week with all these great translators and translation publishers?Tweet
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .