17 March 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

So, every year, PEN Awards a bunch of books with a bunch of money in a bunch of different categories. Some of these categories are dedicated solely to works in translation (like the PEN Translation Prize, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation), and other longlists just happen to include translated books.

Since we cover translations exclusively, and publish them, exclusively, and work, on a regular basis with several of the judges awarded these prizes and the presses winning them (Open Letter struck out again this year, which, you know, it’s like they say, “never a bridesmaid”), I figure it’s kind of our obligation to list all of the relevant books from the longlists that were announced today. So here goes:

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000):

For a book of essays published in 2014 that exemplifies the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature.

Judges: Diane Johnson, Dahlia Lithwick, Vijay Seshadri, and Mark Slouka

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House Press)

All love to Valeria Luiselli and the great people at Coffee House. I love this book, and it should win. (Which, sorry, Valeria, Caroline, Chris, and company, basically guarantees you won’t win. I’m awful at being able to predict what judges value. I think I went one for six at the NBCCs, which was better than usual.)

Next up, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

The $3,000 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published in the previous calendar year and is judged by a single translator of poetry appointed by the PEN Translation Committee.

Judge: Ana Božičević

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Action Books)

Love Poems by Bertolt Brecht, translated from the German by David Constantine & Tom Kuhn (Liveright)

I Am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold, translated from the Pashto by the author (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Selected Poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (W. W. Norton & Company)

Where Are the Trees Going? by Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Hacker (Northwestern University Press)

Breathturn into Timestead by Paul Celan, translated from the German by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from the French by Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press)

Skin by Tone Škrjanec, translated from the Slovenian by Matthew Rohrer and Ana Pepelnik (Tavern Books)

Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Autoepitaph by Reinaldo Arenas, translated from the Spanish by Kelly Washbourne (University Press of Florida)

And now, the one you’ve been probably waiting for, assuming you’re aware of the various PEN prizes and have an interest in this kind of thing—the PEN Translation Prize!

For a book-length translation of prose into English published in 2014.

Judges: Heather Cleary, Lucas Klein, Tess Lewis, and Allison Markin Powell

Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale/Margellos)

The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (New York Review Books)

The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier, translated from the French by Alex Gilly (Ecco)

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I Ching translated from the Chinese by John Minford (Viking Books)

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman (Two Lines Press)

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schness (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Two Lines Press)

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal & Silvester Mazzarella (New York Review Books)

Is the I Ching really prose? I’ve never thought of it in that way myself, but OK. Maybe there’s something special about this particular translation? It would be interesting to know how the judges evaluated this one.

Other than that, solid list. Well done, judges. Good luck to all the translators and authors!

I can’t figure out from the main PEN award page if they’ll be announcing finalists [UPDATE: It’s on April 15th], and I’m too tired stupid and lazy to dig into this any more. The winners will be announced on May 13th, along with all the lifetime achievement awards.

16 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Vincent Francone on Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by New Directions.

Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested in past reviews, rests with poets who seem hell-bent on insulating their art from the community at large, which is why Dunya Mikhail’s work, which work sin so much the opposite manner, is always such a pleasure. It’s enough to get me screaming back into the void.

Mikhail’s previous collection, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, arrived not to push the possibilities of poetry—there’s a prevalent wrongheaded belief that poets have a responsibility to always explore uncharted territory—but to remind readers why we go to poetry in the first place. Comprised of separate approaches, mostly written out of necessity (the section composed in Iraq being considerably more coded), the achievement of that book is that it encompasses disparate styles that communicate the poet’s experience with equal success. Nothing new, just fine writing.

For the rest of the review and a preview of the poetry, go here.

13 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on Andrea Cannobio’s Three Light-Years, translated by Anne Milano Appel and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Friday the 13th! Go catch some black cats before the weekend!

Here’s the beginning of Tiffany’s review:

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in an apartment above his mother and below his ex-wife, and religiously eats boiled vegetables every day for lunch at the same cafe at the same table. Claudio spends over two years obsessing about Cecilia, a doctor and fellow colleague, until the day he is able to stutter out his profession of love for her, only to proceed in engaging with her in his car a safe distance from the hospital where they work. Following and/or during this engagement (not clear), Claudio also stumbles into a relationship with Cecilia’s sister, Silva, who shortly thereafter learns she is expecting. These ingredients and known plot “twists” are the makings of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, except with a passive protagonist as a stand-in for McDreamy. Disappointingly, no attempts were really made to make the characters compelling or interesting beyond those of our typical hour-long sitcoms located in hospitals in Seattle and Los Angeles. The only interesting twist was that this hospital is located in a suburb of a large Italian city, and with that comes the typical romantic stereotypes.

For the rest of the review, go here

13 March 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Monica Carter is a freelance critic.

Discerning how one should approach a written work for translation is a challenging task. The approach of some publishers is to accept the writer’s work as is, with no editorial input, which means the translation is as close to the original text as it can be, disregarding cultural, historical, or stylistic choices a translator might make to ameliorate the text for the proposed audience (for the sake of this post, an English-speaking readership). Another approach is to take into account the work’s historical and cultural references, weigh their importance, and interpret those for the reader. If the translator is allowed to work more liberally with the original text, that creative license allows her to be truer to the overall tone and rhythm of the original. Chad Post and Tom Roberge have an interesting discussion about this on the recent Three Percent podcast.

Although it is admirable to hold the words of an author in such high esteem that the translator must produce a copy verbatim, it’s impossible in so doing to capture an author’s cultural, historical, and/or stylistic intent for a different readership. This point seems clearest with fiction that dwells closer to the fringe than the mainstream. Fiction that is experimental, transgressive, surrealist, fabulist, folkloric, or geographically charged with a storied political history cannot rely on a word-by-word translation if the goal, as it is in this case, is to introduce and engage an English-speaking reader. The translator must decide how to provide a context for the that readership and how much detail is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the text and what the author is trying to do.

As the judges near the end of the decision-making process for the BTBA longlist, it felt important to give praise to a few titles that are extremely well-written and translated to as close to perfection as possible. All are boundary-pushing titles in their own way. They have had little mainstream coverage but deserve it. Challenging the English-speaking readership shouldn’t be done quietly or timidly; it should be done loudly and often. The ideas these three titles contain speak to the difficulties we face in the world today in a new and exciting way.

Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, Translated by Nicky Harman
Muse Publishing

There are a few short story collections floating around the BTBA longlist discussion, but for my money Dorothy Tse’s collection is by far one of the most captivating, original, and intriguing that I’ve read this year or in the past few years. Tse is a Hong Kong writer who writes mostly in Chinese and readily admits that her writing is never an act “that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.” Yet without Nicky Harman’s superb translation, Tse’s style of measured detachment and meticulous prose might be lost. Yet the reader is skillfully led into her surreal worlds, steeped in magical realism and tinged with fabulism. Whether it’s a woman turning into a fish in “Woman Fish,” the ultimate story of psychological gaslighting between wife and husband (“Black Cat City”), or “The Mute Door” about a building where the tenants are in constant search for their own front doors, it’s Tse’s confidence that lures the reader forward, introducing the grotesque, the absurd, and the scatological with such a deft hand and direct style that the reader never feels deceived or that the writer is using any of the surreal twists as a mere conceit.

There’s the feeling of crowded urbanity in most of her stories, the lingering impermanence of reality, and phantasmagorical imagery that offsets the emotionally charged topics of abortion, loss and incest. In “Bed,” a sleep-deprived young girl shares a bed with her father and her older sister and expresses her feelings in a nightmare:

“She pulled back the mound of bedding and discovered her father and her big sister had taken up the whole bed. But they seemed not to need those brightly colored pajamas anymore. They were completely naked and tightly embraced, their fingernails dug deeply into the skin of each other’s back. They seemed fast asleep, curled together like a pair of fetuses. No matter how hard the girl tried, she could not pull them apart, and they were too heavy to push out of bed. The girl just had to sit on the floor, listening all night long to her father and sister emitting low groans like an insect makes just before it pupates and the sound is cut off midstream. The air seemed full of butter about to precipitate, stiflingly hot.”

Many of Tse’s stories seem horrific, but her character’s responses are relatable and often touching. The environment and parameters of each story may appear eerie and bleak, but there is always an empathic underpinning that simmers below the surface. The characters are not intentionally evil; they are the damaged creating their own worlds to inhabit. As in the opening of “Mute Door,” Tse offers an allegorical answer for the reader and her characters:

“Among all the doors I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of the mime artists that capture the essence of the door. Whether in streets occupied by the language of colonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock—this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, ‘A door is not outside of you.’”

In Snow and Shadow, Tse opens a door for the reader to experience worlds she doesn’t know, but the emotions Tse elicits are familiar. Each story raises provocative questions. Many short story collections can dazzle and amuse, but it is the mark of a quality collection that it also makes one think.

Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, Translated by Adrian West
Contra Mundum Press

With proponents such as Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, it’s difficult to understand why Josef Winkler hasn’t garnered more of an English-speaking audience. He’s won many literary prizes in Germany and his native Austria, including the Alfred Döblin Prize for his novella, Natura Morta, in 2001. Winkler hasn’t had many works translated into English but thankfully, that seems to be changing with the release of When the Time Comes in 2013, Natura Morta in 2014 and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges in 2015, both by Contra Mundum Press and translated by Adrian West.

In Natura Morta, a novella that reads like a demonic script version of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin directed by Michael Haneke, Winkler stays true to his themes of Catholicism, homoeroticism and death. In just over ninety pages, his indefatigable sensory detail pulses and throbs, rots and stinks, foams and drips, sweats and sticks so that the reader cannot escape the suffocating reality of the Roman marketplace, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Natura Morta is fragmented, visceral, primordial—a work that uses endless imagery, mostly Catholic iconography, and the sexuality of a teenage boy to dramatize the moral psychomachy of our modern day world. In these snapshots of the marketplace, Winkler chooses Piccoletto, the fig vendor’s son, as the Christ-like object of sexual desire for men and women, desire that subtly buoys the character’s own sense of power:

“One of the girls, folding her hands behind the nape of her neck, turned her head toward the two young men and bit her upper lip coquettishly. The girl tore a piece of fabric, pressed the scrap against her lips, which were smeared with red lipstick, and threw it in the branches of the pine tree. The two boys fetched the lipstick-streaked cloth from the tree and, each snatching the scrap from the other’s hands, pressed it against their noses. One of the bathroom attendants in the park of Piazza San Vittorio, nibbling a green fig, worked a crossword puzzle while the other sank herself deep into the liberally illustrated crime reportage of the Cronaca vera. In exasperation, a gecko dodged the black ants with red heads over the sun-drenched walls of the market bathrooms, trying frantically to return to his niche, which had just been plastered over by a bricklayer. Near the entrance to the market bathrooms, Piccoletto pulled a splinter from the elbow of the alimentari owner’s son and smeared his spit over his friend’s wound.”

With Winkler’s use of repetition, imagery and inference, Natura Morta had to be masterfully translated in order to stay true to the essence of Winkler’s work while also conveying the tone of each fragment and the importance of each image that buttresses the book’s conclusion.

Winkler, like Tse, doesn’t go in for plot. He’s internal and reactionary, in a way, writing his way around those provocative questions that continue to mystify him, anger him, or shackle him. Yet, these are the questions that matter, the questions that should be asked but are too often ignored by many writers. I look forward to Winkler’s next exploration of the world we live in and the hypocrisy of it.

Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceavă, Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Twisted Spoon Press

Out of the three books out on the fringe, Miruna, A Tale, is the most accessible. It has a plot, a traditional structure and a few main characters that drive the story. What makes this book more challenging and enjoyable is that it harkens back to the adult fairy tale. Set in Evil Vale, a small hamlet in Southern Romania, Miruna, A Tale is actually many tales woven together and retold by Niculae Berca to his two grandchildren, a seven year-old boy named Trajan and a six year-old girl named Miruna. It’s an older version of the latter child who narrates the book. Most of the stories center around Trajan’s and Miruna’s great-grandfather, the seemingly mythical Constantine Berca, and his archetypal village mates Father Dimitrie, Old Woman Fira the fortune teller, and Oarță Aman, a bandit who robs the rich on their way to Bucharest.

The oral storytelling tradition is so vibrant that it doesn’t take much for the reader to feel herself sitting by the fire listening to Trajan relay the long ago stories of Old Woman Fira’s exorcism for witchcraft by Father Dimitrie, or how Niculae the Welldigger found a water source on a barren hill, or that the ghost of Oarță carved crosses on the faces of Germans during World War I. Many of these fables have a basis in truth or involve an historical element, but Blyth does well not to call attention to these events. There are notes at the end of the text, but they are not numbered or italicized within it; the reader never feels the heavy hand of the translator pointing out the importance of something that the reader might not find necessary to know.

The young Miruna is the heir apparent as keeper of the tales, and over three summers, her grandfather’s stories grew more complex and detailed until “Miruna eventually [comes] to conceive the world in the form of a fairy tale, living for years in a world full of the fantastical, which gave her the air of being a child prodigy, one of those who know something of history and geography before they even start attending school but cannot say for sure if King Carol and Prâslea lived at the same time or before one another.”

Even as some of the tales are magical or enchanting, sounding like a postcard from the rural hills of Romania, where “the fays lifted him up by the arms, as if he, the giant of Evil Vale, were light as a snowflake, and they bore him toward the palace of crystal and porphyry,” they’re still serious in tone, planting the seeds of the Russo-Turkish War and World War I and stressing the geographical isolation of the village.

This book is a bewitching tribute to the Balkan tradition of oral storytelling and to Suceavă’s loyalty to the traditional culture of his grandparent’s small town in the Carpathians. Paired with Blyth’s vivid translation, this is work that hopefully will be passed on as many times as the stories within.

12 March 15 | N. J. Furl | Comments

This week’s podcast is a special “book club” one in which Tom and Chad talk about Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad, a violent little book by the author of Fatale.

They also talk about the Spanish branch of Penguin Random House cutting translator rates and this incredible video:

This week’s music is When I Was Done Dying by the incredible Dan Deacon.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

And you can email us with complaints and comments at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com

10 March 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For the handful of people who read these posts every month (I hope there are at least three of you), unfortunately, this one is going to be pretty short. I’m really strapped for time right now, with four trips (to New York, Bennington, Toronto, Seattle-Portland) and at least seven different events scheduled for the next month. And then, after than, AWP followed by two Jón Gnarr events. Summer “break” can’t come quick enough.

That said, yesterday was such a great day. Time jumped ahead and suddenly it was light outside after six pm. Not only that, but the “Real Feel ™” for Rochester was actually ABOVE zero. Really! Snow melted, children smiled, people took off their gloves. I actually thought (although only thought) about washing my car. The start of the baseball season (which kicks off with my beloved Cardinals playing the hated Cubs) is only twenty-six days away, and Selection Sunday for the Greatest Tournament on Earth is only six.

This horrendous winter is almost over.

So, in the spirit of all great Spring Cleanings, I’m going to pitch out all the things that I’m over, that have been annoying me, weighing me down. And then, I’ll brighten the corners with a handful of interesting books in translation. First up, all the crap that I’m just done with, in list form:

Grimy snow; seasonally enhanced depression; not being able to ride my bike; winter weight gain; the soundtrack at L.A. Fitness, which is equivalent to torture with its off-version remixes of every terrible pop song ever; the Kardashians; Time Warner’s On Demand being perennially out of date, probably because Time Warner hates its customers; getting frustrated when Open Letter titles are left off of hipster website lists; “Uptown Funk”; Kate Upton ads for iPhone games I will never play; pretentious coffee shops; Dick Vitale, Stephen A. Smith, and basically all sports pundits; Rochesterians who haven’t watched The Subterranean Stadium short; grading papers; readers who want books and TV shows to be “fun” and feature “likable characters”; bracket-based tournament competitions that are not about college basketball and instead feature things like cupcakes and fast food chains; all the awards ceremonies like the Grammys and the Oscars; and the guilt that comes from not keeping up with email.

And with that all cleaned out, here are some interesting things about a handful of interesting books:

The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, translated from the Irish by Alan Titley (Yale University Press)

Interesting Facts: 1) Ó Cadhain is considered to be the master of modern Irish prose writing, but has never been translated into English; 2) Dalkey is publishing another book of his, The Key later this year; and last, but most interesting, 3) from the press release, “Yale University Press will publish another translation of this novel, Graveyard Clay: Creé na Cille, translated by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, also as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, in a special annotate edition in 2016.”

God’s Dog by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus Books)

I wish Diego Marani still wrote in Europanto.

I was just texting with my friend Brian Jay (not his real name!) about the Iona-Manhattan basketball game, and decided that Iona sounds like a college where you can major in “School.” (I’m sure it’s a fine institution.)

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories)

“Yuri Herrera must be a thousand years old. He must have travelled to hell, and heaven, and back again. He must have once been a girl, an animal, a rock, a boy, and a woman. Nothing else explains the vastness of his understanding.”—Valeria Luiselli

The Musical Brain and Other Stories by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

The cover of this story collection—Aira’s first story collection to appear in English—changes depending on what angle you look at it. (Lenticular printing? Something like that? You know it when you see it.)

Also, Aira is actually coming to the U.S. for this book, and will be doing an event with Open Letter author Sergio Chejfec on Monday, March 23rd at the Cervantes Institute in NY.

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron by Carlos Gamerro, translated from the Spanish by Ian Barnett (And Other Stories)

In 2008, we published a significant speech by Carlos Gamerro about Argentine literature. This was before And Other Stories started bringing out his interesting, unconventional fictions.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)

Vargas Llosa, who has something like twenty-four books available in English already, has two titles coming out this year—this new novel and Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. (Which, with its focus on the “death of the intellectual,” is right up my alley.)

Oh, Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink)

Interlink is the leading U.S.-based publisher of Arabic literature, and the fact that their books aren’t more regularly reviewed or included on lists like this is criminal. Also, it’s a great selling point when the jacket copy states that the book is “the story of three friends—an explosives expert, a sniper, and a torturer.”

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

Way back in the day, I interviewed Horacio as part of our Reading the World Conversation Series:

The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Grove)

This is the fourth Yan Lianke book to make its way into English, which, according to our Translation Database, makes him the second most-translated Chinese author of the past seven years. Only Mo Yan has had more titles published in English during that time (five). There are a few authors who have had three books translated, including my personal favorite, Can Xue.

9 March 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m going to be in NY most of this week for a number of events—a special seminar for publishing professionals on “Publishing Spanish Writers in English,” the National Book Critics Circle Awards—including the NY Circle of Translators Adventures in Literary Translation conference on Saturday, March 14th.

Here’s a description from the official website:

The New York Circle’s first-ever conference on the topic of literary translation will be held this coming March! The event will feature a two-hour session of presentations by three professional literary translators, an hour-long lunch and networking break, and a two-hour round table discussion with a panel of four experts discussing the topic from an editing and publishing perspective. Lunch is included in the registration fee.

And the list of speakers:

Russian>English translator Antonina Bouis
Spanish>English translator G.J. Racz
French>English translator Lee Fahnestock
German>English translator Ross Benjamin
Publisher Chad Post (Open Letter Books; Three Percent)
Editor Sal Robinson (Melville House; The Bridge Series)
Editor Peter Blackstock (Grove/Atlantic)
Editor Tynan Kogane (New Directions)
Editor Alessandra Lusardi (Penguin Rizzoli International)

Pretty loaded . . . Anyway, if you want to come see this, it will take place from 10am to 3pm at 15 Barclay Street, Room 430 (Chambers Street/City Hall stops).

There is a fee for attending—between $30 and $75 depending on what category you fall into—and you can sign up here.

Hope to see you there!

5 March 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this episode, Chad and Tom discuss the recent Festival Neue Literatur, a NYC-based festival promoting German-language literature, and spend a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of editing literature in translation. Additionally, they breakdown this Buzzfeed article about ebook data mining and what this means for the futures of publishing and reading.

This week’s music is Gemini by Lost Lander, which reminds me a bit of early Yeasayer.

As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes by clicking here. To subscribe with other podcast downloading software, such as Google’s Listen, copy the following link.

And you can email us with complaints and comments at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com

2 March 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

With the recent publication of French author Dominique Fabre’s Guys Like Me and the recent review thereof, we thought, why not get author and translator to chat quickly about the book, Fabre’s writing, and a bit more? Both were happy to do so, and translator Howard Curtis was kind enough to both prepare the questions and translate Dominique’s answers. Below is their Q&A.

Howard Curtis: Dominique, I can’t think of any other current French writers your work reminds me of. Your concentration on the everyday lives of supposedly ordinary people seems quite unfashionable. Do you feel a bit of an outsider in contemporary French literature? Is there perhaps an older French tradition that you relate more to?

Dominique Fabre: Actually I’m not aware that what I write is especially different, I’ve never wanted to be an outsider, but without ever being quite sure why I’ve always been a little bit outside the mainstream, and that’s just the way it is. I try to write about the strange and fascinating aspects of our lives, without turning them into something they aren’t. The everyday is the dimension of our lives, whether we like it or not. I am in fact very fond of certain writers from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—Henri Calet, Emmanuel Bove, Guérin, Guilloux—who strike me as very modern, especially since they weren’t trying to be, but they’ve been forgotten. On the one hand, they were from working-class backgrounds, and then in France we had the nouveau roman. And that was followed by autofiction, always something new to replace the latest novelty, and so on.

HC: What’s remarkable about your work is that although the subject matter may seem dull, you manage to make it exciting and to keep the reader’s attention. One way you do this is through your style, the way you move constantly from present to past, from thoughts to memories to dialogue, sometimes in the same sentence, to convey the main character’s state of mind. I wonder if you can say something about how you evolved this style.

DF: Yes, I don’t write about amazing adventures! As far as the writing is concerned, it’s a kind of stew, I mix things up the way we all do when we talk to ourselves, I think this way of writing more or less reproduces how things happen in our heads, when we’re alone or when we’re not lying. This “style” is still evolving from book to book, I’m pleased when people tell me they recognize my work after two lines.

HC: Your novel has a very specific setting, not just Paris, but a particular suburb of Paris, and you include many references to actual places with which most of your readers would be unfamiliar. Are you ever afraid that your readers, especially those outside France, would be alienated by this, or do you think, on the contrary, that it adds to the book’s fascination?

DF: Almost all my books take place in a little corner of the Paris suburbs where, it’s true, nothing unusual happens. That’s why you can imagine all kinds of stories, which contrast with the rather gray setting. I spent my teenage years in the suburbs, I know certain places well, and that avoids me having to worry about getting the geography right when I’m writing. I’m a big fan of the Gare Saint-Lazare, and I always try to include a train in my stories, which gives me an excuse to go on an aimless excursion in the Paris region. I love these neutral places where nothing much happens, they give me a greater sense of freedom than places filled with significance. And perhaps this relative anonymity of the locations—a station platform, an apartment building, the Seine—actually allows the readers to imagine the settings for themselves.

HC: Your main character frequently refers to, and quotes from, F. Scott Fitzgerald. What does the work of Fitzgerald mean to you? And are there other English-language writers you feel close to?

DF: I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he’s the first American writer I read a lot of. He foresaw many things, he was unhappy but quite brilliant, and The Crack Up is a great text about depression. Two American writers who mean a lot to me are John Cheever, who’s a wonderful stylist, and John Fante, whom I often re-read and whom I discovered because Charles Bukowski talks about him. John Fante is a very individual writer, a great stylist too, I find. I’ve also learned a lot from reading the books of Bernard Malamud . . . Actually, the list of wonderful writers is a very long one. There’s a British writer from the ’60s I really liked: Alan Sillitoe, he’s rather forgotten now, if I’m not mistaken.

HC: Finally, if you could sum up in a few words what you hope a new reader, especially a non-French reader, would get from your work, what would you say?

DF: Perhaps a sense of how wonderful and how fragile our lives are, and also the importance of resisting a technological consumer society in which the degree of mass dumbing-down can sometimes be really alarming.

26 February 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P. T. Smith on Torvald Steen’s The Little Horse, translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered on his own property for overdue political debts and ambitious/vengeful rivals, the book breaks down the five days. The structure provides clarity and directness, which Steen slowly unravels by traveling through Snorre’s memories and into the path of the lives intersecting his, of those who loved him, who hated him, and who killed him. The Little Horse shows just how much richness there is in dramatic irony. That we know Snorre’s end and he is ignorant is not single note. We can snicker, find fault and reason to mourn, but at its deepest expression, the dramatic irony is fate, death, and Steen shows it hovering over all of us. In the midst of this, Steen doesn’t abandon the ripe entertainment in a story of love, fatherhood, spies, betrayals, manipulation, revenge, and assassins attacking a man who has secret tunnels on his property and a son who kills on his orders in eleventh-century Iceland. It is a saga itself and Anderson’s translation accomplishes the difficult task of creating not just the descriptions of a historical time, but prose that has the stiffness of an older world, while still tumbling gently, never forgetting that Iceland is a land of beauty.

If historical fiction is straightforward, convinced of its own solidity, that the historical side coheres without the cracks of fiction, particularly the fractured narratives of post-modernity, then there is nothing to trust, naïveté or deception are in play. Done carelessly, plain facts mixed with the overwriting of a historical person to create the whole of a plot- and character-focused novel, leaves a thin fiction, easily undone by any inaccuracies and its leap over what is not and cannot be known.

For the rest of the review, go here.

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