19 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The writer Henri Michaux had two great missions in life: to explore the darkest parts of human consciousness, and record what he found in those explorations in the clearest possible way. That’s according to Gillian Conoley, who recently published the first English translations of three of Michaux’s books. Thousand Times Broken is a collection of three works by Michaux which he wrote while experimenting with mescalin, a drug he believed would help him explore “a state in which one part of the brain remains unillusioned and lucid during vision, fantasy, or hallucination.” Conoley joined Peter Biello (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) on behalf of Three Percent to talk about Thousand Times Broken, a collection of three books published by City Lights. This is Part II of the interview; you can catch up and read Part I here.

PB: Let’s move on to Watchtowers on Targets. This book was a collaboration between Michaux and Chilean abstract surrealist Roberto Matta. Tell us about their relationship and the product that came from it.

GC: Matta was apparently the visual artist who Michaux felt the closest affinity with as a visual artist himself. And he was very drawn to the level of movement and a kind of frenetic activity that could sometimes be in Matta’s work. The two of them decided that they would do this collaboration and the first two-thirds of the book are Michaux responding to Matta’s etching. For the last third of the book, Matta would respond to Michaux. And they began and it’s unknown as to who created the title Watchtowers on Targets, but what’s steady throughout the entire book is the sense of a human eye and a watchtower that has sprouted from it. And on the watchtower there’s an observation post, and in the observation post there’s an observer who’s looking back at the human eye. So the whole question of subject-object and perspective—who is looking at what and what is looking and what is seeing—all of that is called into question. And in Matta’s drawings you see different interpretations of what I’ve described, though they’re not ever really . . . you see it but it’s not a direct representation of a tower, for example, but pretty close when you look at the drawings.

Michaux’s writing went unrevised and unedited, which is interesting. And it’s a really wild book and it’s really fast and it’s unusual within Michaux’s oeuvre because we don’t have the narrative links you usually see in Michaux. Characters pop out of nowhere, begin to speak, and disappear. There’s a plot at the beginning—a crime is committed—but that quickly vanishes. Toward the end of that book, he’s got the postcards, and that’s the only epistolary writing that Michaux did.

PB: You mentioned the plotless aspects of this. This was for me, at least, the least accessible of the three.

*GC:*Yes. [Laughs]

PB: I mean they’re all challenging to read, but this one is especially challenging.

GC: Yeah, it’s pretty wild. Michaux makes demands on his readers. He wasn’t afraid to do that. I think it goes all the way back to his relationship to language. It makes sense that he would be seeking some other mode of expression. The French always looked down upon the Flemish, on Belgian people. The French language is seen as more beautiful, more expressive than Flemish. Walloon is a dialect of the peasant. He’s got a complicated relationship with the language he’s writing in. He doesn’t like it. It’s like the language of someone who disapproves of his very nationality, so there’s that sort of tension. And yet he goes ahead and uses it.

PB: The third book, the first one you translated, is Four Hundred Men on the Cross. In this one, we’re really seeing Michaux struggle on the page with the inadequacy of language. He’s twisting the poems into the shape of the cross, so the words seem to crouch in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. The medium essentially becomes the message, in a sense, when the shape of the arrangement of the words becomes the message as much as the words themselves.

GC: The place that he puts you in—you can’t say you’re a reader, you can’t say you’re a viewer. You’re caught in some place in between. He achieved that. He puts you in some completely different realm than you’ve been in before, where it’s unclear whether or not you’re reading or seeing. And it’s unclear as to whether he’s writing or drawing. [Laughs] So that’s what’s really interesting. Just to be able to be in that completely different world.

PB: Finally, you’re a poet. Did translating this book change the way you write poetry?

GC: Translating is wonderful, and this is the first thing I’ve ever translated. You get to escape your own consciousness and enter someone else’s. And especially with a book like this, when consciousness is the subject matter, that was an intriguing aspect of it. But in terms of my own poetry, I had been writing long poems anyway, but I wrote a really long one that seemed to be able to expand because I had translated a poem that had done that, so it’s almost like learning to play a piece of music. You know? And then being able to do it in your own work, because you learned to play that music that someone else wrote.

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Gillian Conoley is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace , The Plot Genie , Profane Halo , Lovers In The Used World , and Tall Stranger , a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Conoley earned a BA in journalism at Southern Methodist State University and an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is founder and editor of the long-standing journal Volt.

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18 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The writer Henri Michaux had two great missions in life: to explore the darkest parts of human consciousness, and record what he found in those explorations in the clearest possible way. That’s according to Gillian Conoley, a poet, the founding editor of Volt, and a translator who teaches at Sonoma State University. She’s recently published the first English translations of three of Michaux’s books. Thousand Times Broken is a collection of three works by Michaux which he wrote while experimenting with mescalin, a drug he believed would help him explore “a state in which one part of the brain remains unillusioned and lucid during vision, fantasy, or hallucination.” Gillian Conoley joined Peter Biello (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) on behalf of Three Percent to talk about Thousand Times Broken, a collection of three books published by City Lights. This is Part I of the interview; Part II will be published tomorrow.

Peter Biello: Who was Henri Michaux?

Gillian Conoley: He is one of the most influential French writers of the twentieth century. He was Belgian. And he was a double artist in that he was equally renowned in a visual art career. His work was shown in the Guggenheim and it’s collected in museums all over the world. The Museum of Modern Art in Paris. His visual career almost eclipses his writing career, and they were simultaneous activities. He first started writing when he was 22, and when he was 24 he started painting and drawing.

He was born in Namur, Belgium, which is a little town. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was from Wallonia, which is the southeast region of Belgium. She spoke Walloon, which is a dialect of French. So, growing up, there were three languages in the house: Walloon, formal French, and then Flemish.

When he was about six years old—he never got along well with his parents—they sent him to a boarding school in Antwerp. Everything was taught to him in Flemish. He was from the middle class, but the boarding school was a boarding school for the peasant class. Why they did that, I have no idea, but when he became an adolescent, they sent him to another boarding school in Brussels. All of his classes were taught in French in that school. And he describes them as these cold, dark places.

He was in the boarding school in Brussels during the German occupation, and most of it was shut down for quite a long period, except for the library, so they let the students roam around in the library. And that’s when Michaux read The Christian Mystics. And they were very influential to him. He very ardently wanted to become a priest.

PB: Why did he want to become a priest? Did he ever explain why?

GC: He just did. He had faith. His father was dead-set against it and encouraged him to go to medical school instead, so Michaux enrolled in medical school in Brussels. He stuck it out for a year. Then he experienced a kind of religious crisis because he couldn’t go do what he wanted to do, and he dropped out and joined the merchant marines. And he traveled in Asia for a couple of years and returned to Brussels for one year. And then, in 1924, he left Belgium, never to return again, and moved to Paris.

1924 is the same year that André Breton published The First Surrealist Manifesto. And Michaux saw the work of Paul Clay and Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and started to publish in literary magazines that were going on at the time. He taught and worked as a secretary to support himself and became an artist and a writer. And those two activities—writing and the visual work—went on throughout his life, up until his death in 1984 at the age of 85. He published over 30 books of poems, prose, travelogues, journals, and also just a really prodigious output in his visual career. I hear there’re something like 20,000 or 30,000 drawings in his oeuvre. And then there’re the paintings. Just a whole lot of work.

PB: How did you first discover Michaux?

GC: I first read Michaux in the 1970s when I was a young poet. He was one of the first poets I really loved. I have a vague recollection of just picking up one of his books in a bookstore and it was Richard Allman’s translation that was a selected translation of Michaux.

PB: And so, years later, you decide to translate three of his books. What made you want to translate his work?

GC: I was talking with another friend about the visual art career and the writing going on at the same time. I had been invited to give a talk the Poet’s House in New York. It’s a wonderful place. Every poetry book in the country that gets published is sent there, and they have an amazing archive right there on the Hudson. They have talks, and they asked me to give a talk, and I picked Henri Michaux. In preparing, I did a lot of research, read all the criticism about him, and there was a book I had that was specifically about his visual work coming into the written work and how it does that. It was Henri Michaux: Poetry, Painting, and the Universal Sign, by Margaret Rigaud-Drayton. In that book, she wrote about a book of his, 400 Men on the Cross, and that book is the only book where you see Michaux shaping his poems in to visual shapes. The book ties up with his lost Catholicism. He wrote this book in 1956. All three were written between 1956 and 1959. And in the book, he’s trying to draw and write the crucified Christ, and each one is a failure, and they’re shaped. Some of them are shaped into actual crucifixion; some are just part of the crucifix, like a wooden joist. And sometimes there’ll be a text within a text, like he’s carving in wood, almost. And it just sounded really interesting and unlike anything I’d ever read by Michaux because it hadn’t been translated. And I wanted to read it. So I started to translate and I was just sort of fooling around. I didn’t go to the project initially with the idea of taking it as far as it went. It just sort of took off on its own.

400 Men on the Cross is about 36 pages long, which isn’t long enough for a full-length book. Most full-length books of poetry are somewhere between 48 on up. But I went ahead. I tried to stretch it out as much as I could, and sent it to City Lights because they have a great tradition of publishing surrealist poetry, and I thought they might be interested, and they were. They said, “This is great, but it’s too short, so go find a couple of other texts to go with it.” So I went back to his original French oeuvre complet and found the other two books, Watchtowers on Targets and Peace in the Breaking, which are also considered mescaline texts.

PB: With the mescaline experiments, you write in the introduction that he’s trying to break down the barriers between language and consciousness. He’s really struggling with the ways language is insufficient.

GC: In all of his work, you find dissatisfaction with his medium, his tools, with language as a medium, and also with drawing and painting. And he complains about them. But then he goes ahead and uses them anyway, quite decisively.

What he’s interested in doing is exploring the unconscious and, in doing so, having part of the brain be rational as he’s looking at the irrational, so that he can report back. [Laughs] If that makes any sense.

PB: Yes, it’s his best attempt at making sense of it.

GC: He’s like a rationalist mystic. So that’s what’s unusual about his work, and it’s the same desire no matter what he’s writing. It’s all the way through from the very beginning to the very end.

PB: Let’s talk a little bit about the books. Peace in the Breaking starts with drawing and ends with personal essays and a poem. Describe the relationship between the visual elements and the text.

GC: There are 14 drawings at the beginning, and those are all seismographic, spine-like drawings. And when you look closely at them, you’ll notice that there are pieces of them that look like handwriting. It was one of his dual occupations along with delving into the unconscious mind, which was to create a universal language that was somewhere between picture and word. So each of those drawings is simultaneously sort of an alphabetic sign or gesture. In Peace in the Breaking, those drawings are more seismographic, body-like, with little pieces of handwriting. If you know the rest of his visual work, you’re going to make the link between each of those. The overall shape of each drawing is acting like a sign, like an alphabetic letter that is illegible.

He wanted that book to be printed in a scroll because that would have given it the sense of flow. But what he settled for in the original printing was that it was printed in the style of a legal pad, with the binding at the top, so that when you lifted up one page, you could have two drawings before you at the same time.

PB: It would give the reader the sense that the drawings were connected.

GC: And that was the closest to coming to what he was experiencing on mescaline.

PB: We should mention that Michaux was not a drug addict.

GC: No, he wasn’t at all. He was a teetotaler. The reason he did mescaline was that he had a neurologist friend who knew his work, and knew what he was doing and said, “If you’re interested in having the rational mind observe the irrational mind, that’s one of the properties of mescaline. One part of the brain stays completely lucid, while the other hallucinates.” And he was hesitant. He was 57 when he first took mescaline and apparently did mescaline a handful of times. And then he quit all together when he was 67.

So anyway, back to the drawings in Peace in the Breaking. The title poem of that book is shaped like the seismographic drawings are. It tumbles down the page, is centered, and some lines are longer, shorter, so that they look a whole lot like the drawings look. And that poem is a poem of complete ascent, the uniting of the rational and the irrational brain. There’s a peak of the sense, and there’s the pull of the poem going down the page, so it’s quite a dynamic sense of movement and energy that goes through that poem.

There was a lot of humor in his work, an arch skepticism, irony. I think the title alone is poking a little fun at that kind of critical essay, because the meaning of the drawing is like, how could someone say what that is? It just seems sort of mildly wry. But the actual writing that follows those titles, especially on the subject of Peace in the Breaking, is very beautiful. They’re sort of like prose poems—especially in that last paragraph where he talks about a poem a thousand times broken, broken to resurrect us.

Stop by tomorrow for Part II.

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Gillian Conoley is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace , The Plot Genie , Profane Halo , Lovers In The Used World , and Tall Stranger , a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Conoley earned a BA in journalism at Southern Methodist State University and an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is founder and editor of the long-standing journal Volt.

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15 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by P.T. Smith on The Madmen of Benghazi by Gerard de Villiers, and out from Vintage/Black Lizard.

Sometimes you want a book to be good. You want it to be amazing, mind-blowing, and one of the best things you’ll have read in months. Sometimes you base this want off of seemingly irrelevant things, like de Villiers’s hat:

And sometimes, judging a book by bit its author’s headgear turns out not that great. But sometimes you can walk away from that book, all eye-rolling aside, having enjoyed certain aspects of it. Isn’t that still in favor of the book and author, to some extent? That the reader still finds something within the text to grab on to? I’d personally say: in some cases, certainly. (Plus, I really, REALLY had high hopes for Villiers’s hat. Sorrynotsorry.)

Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In Gerard de Villiers The Madmen of Benghazi, it happened on the sixth page. The aspiring king of Libya, who turns out to be no more than a patsy, is compared to a “sexual tornado” and within six sentences, Villiers assures us that al-Senussi has “an unusually long cock” and his lover, Cynthia, tells him “You’re very big.” As the opening page describes his lover’s body, we know we’re in for absurdly terrible sex scenes—the type that idealize an oil rig as a sexual metaphor and make you hope that the author isn’t as “good” a sex partner as his male heroes, otherwise it’s easy to feel bad for lovers he’s had. This leads to the hope that the book is a winking parody. In this case, the curiosity is heightened by the author photo: is that hat a straight-faced joke, or does he think that dead animal on his head is working for him? Unfortunately, the suspicious remains that it’s the latter, in both situations.

The hero of the book, part of a series of around 200, is Malko Linge, a freelance CIA agent, hired this time solely for his ability to “seduce any woman alive,” the target being Cynthia. Villiers’s work is compared to Ian Fleming, Malko to James Bond, and the connection is easy to see, in both the positives and the negatives. Unfortunately, in reading Fleming, the sexism, the touches of racism (strong in Fleming, mild in Villiers and more due sloppily conceived minor characters in general), are easier to overlook with the adjustment that you are reading fifty-year-old books. It’s rougher when the book is both contemporary and outdated.

Linge is hired, other than to seduce Cynthia, to find out which Muslim terrorists are trying to kill the would-be-king. It is this, the pure spy thriller based aspects that make the rest of Villiers writing so frustrating. The Madmen of Benghazi is set during the time of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the struggle for control of Libya. Villiers uses this historical setting to put multiple factions into play. Different groups—the CIA, journalists, tribal leaders, terrorists—have their own motivations, leading to alliances being drawn and broken, then new ones made. His other books also take place in real-world situations and time periods. By setting his books this way, they separate from Fleming and have a new appeal. It opens the opportunity for an entertaining combination of the news and an over the top spy-world version of it.

For the rest of the review, go here.

15 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Last week I wrote a post that, among other things, included a brief rant on year-end book lists (one of our favorite things to rant about here). Already before the post’s draft stage, I had been scheming up the foundation to a more translation-inclusive year-end list than the other lists out there this year, and soon after started talking to friends and colleagues from across the spectrum of publishing-and-book related occupations. Thus was conceived, completed, and born a list of 50 spectacular books in translation from 50 spectacular (and mostly indie!) presses publishing books in translation.

To recap, the driving questions were approximately as follows: Why are the same books (and at times presses) always on the lists when there are SO MANY AWESOME BOOKS in translation being published every year by SO MANY PRESSES that work with books in translation? And when the list is a translation-centric list, why list several books published by the same press when you could branch out? Why hasn’t anyone really branched out? And: It can’t be that hard, so, dammit, we’re doing it ourselves. There are too many hardworking and talented people who translate and who publish these works for them to be constantly turned into the red-headed stepchild of literature, shoved into a corner, and made to wear its older sibling’s hand-me-downs.

And, lo.

Ideally, I would like to be able to come up with a list this extensive by myself. But I honestly don’t think I could have—although the easiest part was naming 50 presses that do publish books in translation (and remember, I mentioned here that a list put together by Barbara Epler contained 86 presses, and was still incomplete). Since we started this list, I’ve personally added some more titles to my to-read pile, and have also confirmed my suspicions or expectations for titles I’ve both wanted to read, and titles I’ve simply heard great things about. The reality, I think, is that better lists would be put together by more than one person; it’s one integral aspect of book reading to participate in an information exchange on what we’ve read, liked, disliked, and to go forth from there and read more things.

That said, this list is not to be taken as a be-all, end-all of lists or of books in 2014. There also were some roadblocks along the way—but that doesn’t mean any press or book not on this list is to be scoffed at—these are just 50 amazing books (fiction, poetry, other) in translation, published by 50 individual presses that publish translations, that we’ve read, or our friends have read, but which have undeniably spoken to us this year and gotten us excited about reading all over again. And we want to share them with you.

Before getting to the list, I’d like to thank Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Chad W. Post, Tom Roberge, Patrick Smith, Stephen Sparks, and Jeff Waxman (who let me rant about this over empanadas) for their enthusiastic help (and tolerance) in creating the list, their knowledge, and their equally obsessive book-reading tendencies. Second, I’d like to challenge others—bloggers, reviewers, general readers—to make their own, more-inclusive lists. Start with 25 books, a good old standard. Push it to 50. See if 80 is possible. Get to 100 and you’re probably the first. Third, I was going to try and add one-liners built using ISBN-13s, but I didn’t. So—9780802121110.

50/50: FIFTY BOOKS IN TRANSLATION FROM FIFTY PRESSES

And Other Stories: Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, trans. Clarissa Botsford

Antilever Press: Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer, trans. Adrian West

Action Books: Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, trans. Don Mee Choi

Archipelago Books: My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard; trasn. Don Bartlett

Bellevue Literary Press: Aaron’s Leap by Magdalená Platzová, trans. Craig Cravens

Biblioasis: Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, trans. Stephen Henighan

City Lights: Thousand Times Broken by Henri Michaux, trans. Gillian Conoly

Coach House Books: Guyana (by Élise Turcotte, trans. Rhonda Mullins

Coffee House Press: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, trans. Christina MacSweeney

Contra Mundum Press: Towards the One and Only Metaphor by Miklós Szentkuthy, trans. Tim Wilkinson

Dalkey Archive Press: Collected Stories by Kjell Askildsen, trans. Seán Kinsella

David R. Godine Press: Temple of the Iconoclasts by J. Rodolfo Wilcock, trans. Lawrence Venuti

Deep Vellum Publishing: Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, trans. Samantha Schnee

Dzanc/DISQUIET Books: Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, trans. Mariya Gusev & Jeff Parker

Europa Editions: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein

Feminist Press: The Silent Woman by Monika Zgustova, trans. Mathew Tree

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, trans. Polly Gannon

Graywolf Press: Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, trans. Martin Aitken

Grove Atlantic: Twilight of the Eastern Gods Ismail Kadare/David Bellos

Hispabooks: Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente, trans. Margaret Jull Costa

McSweeney’s: McSweeney’s 46: 13 Crime Stories from Latin America by various, trans. various

Melville House: The Nose by Nikolai Gogol, trans. Ian Dreiblatt

New Directions: End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky

New Press: Viviane by Julia Deck, trans. Linda Coverdale

New Vessel Press: Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko, trans. Arabella Spencer

Nightboat Books: Mausoleum of Lovers by Hervé Guibert, trans. Nathanaël

New York Review Books: The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette, trans. James Sallis

NYU Press: Leg Over Leg [Vol. 2] by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, trans. Humphrey Davies

Oneworld Publications: The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, trans. Steven Cohen

Open Letter Books: La Grande by Juan José Saer, trans. Steve Dolph

Other Press: Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, trans. Margaret Jull Costa

Otis Books: Panic Cure by various, trans. by Forrest Gander

Penguin Classics: The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, trans. Alexander Dawe & Maureen Freely

Pushkin Press: The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, trans. Michael Emmerich

Seagull Books: Privy Portrait by Jean-Luc Benoziglio, trans. Tess Lewis

Seven Stories Press: Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel, trans. J.T. Lichtenstein

Serpent’s Tail: Sila’s Fortune by Fabrice Humbert, trans. Frank Wynne

Siete Vientos (7Vientos): Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography by Mario Bellatin, trans. Kolin Jordan

SOHO Press: Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura, trans. Allison Markin Powell

Sylph Editions: Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor, trans. Ornan Rotem

Talon Books: Birth of a Bridge by Mylis de Kerangal, trans. Jessica Moore

Tam Tam Books: The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine, trans. Robert Greene & Catherine Texier

Tavern Books: Collected Translations by various, trans. David Wevill

Twisted Spoon: Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă, trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

Two Lines: Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, trans. Denise Newman

Ugly Duckling Presse: Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, trans. Yvette Siegert

Unnamed Press: Walker on Water by Kristiina Ehin, trans. Ilmar Lehtpere

Wakefield Press: The Physiology of the Employee by Honoré de Balzac, trans. André Naffis-Sahely

Wave Books: Wallless Space by Ernst Meister, trans. Graham Faust & Samuel Frederick

Yale University Press: Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano, trans. Mark Polizzoti

9 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

For those of you who haven’t yet seen the Facebook posts and re-posts, we are thrilled (and grateful) that Open Letter has once again received an Arts Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The grant awarded to the press for 2015 was one of the largest awarded this year.

From the press release published by the University of Rochester:

“The $60,000 grant will support the publication and promotion of several books in 2015, including Rochester Knockings, a novel based on the Rochester-based religious movement of Spiritualism and the famous Fox Sisters.

‘We’re extremely grateful to the NEA for this generous award,’ said Open Letter Publisher Chad W. Post. ‘To be awarded the third largest grant in the literature category is one of the highest honors a nonprofit publisher can receive. But even more importantly is that this award allows us to introduce English readers to six amazing new books.’

The press was one of 55 organizations to receive a grant in this year’s literature category. In 2014, the NEA received more than 1,400 applications for Arts Works grants, requesting more than $75 million in funding.

. . .

In addition to supporting the publication of Rochester Knockings (translated by Jennifer Grotz, associate professor of English at Rochester), the grant will support the publication of five additional books: Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven (translated by J.T. Mahany ’13); Traces of Time; Rock, Paper, Scissors; So Much, So Much War; and Loquela (translated by Will Vanderhyden ’13).”

For the full release and more information, go here.

For more information on the NEA and its work, go here.

9 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Patience Haggin on Giuseppe Di Piazza’s The Four Corners of Palermo, translated by Antony Shugaar and published by Other Press.

Patience is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in comparative literature, focusing on translation. As her senior thesis, she translated a novel from the Italian, which won her the Robert Fagles Senior Thesis Prize. She hopes to spend more time in Italy in the near future.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this, though with less success.

The Four Corners of Palermo is not a novel but a collection of four episodes. Each chapter takes the hero, a gritty young crime reporter, to a different quarter of the city, where he finds a new noir crime scene and a new Venus-like lover. In the first chapter, he pieces together the family drama behind a shootout in the streets. The second has him investigating car bombings, and the third chasing a father who kidnapped his own children. The fourth has him befriending a daughter whose father is found beheaded in a town square, and ultimately deciding not to publish what he learns.

Di Piazza’s sensational material and nostalgic memory of the 1980s make his stories pleasurable, though vapid. The book suffers for its episodic structure, which leaves little opportunity for the nameless reporter to make much of an impression on the reader, and even less opportunity for him to learn something. A cast of shallow, personality-free female characters surrounds a “Gary Stu” protagonist, who runs from fashion model to murder scene without a misstep. It is a fun noir romp told in cinematic jump-cut scenes, but not a gratifying novel.

For the rest of the review, go here.

9 December 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Jeremy Garber is the events coordinator for Powell’s Books and also a freelance reviewer.

As the calendar draws to a close, annual lists of the year’s best books begin to proliferate. However subjective these literary lineups may be, it should come as no surprise to readers of translated fiction that titles originating from outside the English-speaking world are seldom included in these year-end roundups. The lack of astonishment that comes with seeing a dearth of translated books included on such lists is outweighed perhaps only by the frustration that a bevy of such remarkable books will never enjoy the attention they truly deserve.

Reviewers, critics, and editors are, of course, entitled to their own opinions, but charged as they are with shaping the readerly landscape and exposing their audiences to books they elseways would not likely discover on their own, it can be rather dispiriting, year in and year out, to see some of the world’s best fiction go neglected, ignored, and otherwise uncelebrated (hence the need for the Best Translated Book Award).

What is it about literature in translation that fails to attract its deserved share of both popular and critical acclaim? Theories abound – and have for some time. Are American readers simply not properly exposed to the breadth of titles available in English translation? Are they provincial and xenophobic? Are they sated by the wealth of domestic talent? Do they mistakenly presume books rendered from another language will be needlessly arduous and unrewarding?

Are publishers, bookshops, media, and reviewers equally culpable for the disproportionately low interest in international fiction? Does lack of review coverage keep the average reader from discovering an exceptional work from without our borders? Are the big houses unwilling to publish more works in translation – having seen disappointing or diminishing returns previously? Are booksellers, despite their often-tireless advocacy for the books they admire, unable to engender and maintain enough of a groundswell? Is lit in translation to be forever relegated to a niche market, comprising but a sliver of the publishing and bookselling world?

With over 500 works of fiction published in English translation in each of the past two years (about a 50% increase from 2010), it appears interest in such books is, in fact, growing. As ever more translation-centric publishers join the scene (whether for profit or not), the abundance of titles available to English readers from all over the world will surely increase – a veritable windfall for those with broad, open-minded tastes (and monolingual backgrounds). But how to make those books appeal to the larger American readership? For the success of every Larsson, Murakami, or Bolaño are scores of writers equally worthy of as ardent an audience. Perhaps an industry with creative output as its product will forever remain a fickle and unpredictable one. Perhaps the arbiters of taste and merit are slow to evolve.

Knowing that great books written in languages other than English often have a laborious road to the American bookshelf, an award that aims to recognize the best translated book in a given year has more to consider than what a first glance may reveal. Ought the award, all things considered, bestow the prize upon the most altogether worthy entrant (excellence in writing, translation, presentation, et al.)? What if the book in question is unlikely, given even the most robust accolades and promotion, to ever find appeal beyond academic circles or a very narrow general readership? Should the notion of how a book has done critically (or might do commercially) bear weight upon the decision? Do we trust that readers will, if given a hearty enough recommendation from a reliable source, take a chance on something that they would otherwise pass by?

Undeservedly or not, a single work in translation (at least for a reader not normally inclined to pick up such a book) may well be seen as a reflection of all works in translation. For a reading public that relies on reviews and best-of lists as much as bookseller recommendations and word-of-mouth encouragement from fellow readers, it is incumbent upon publishers, reviewers, and bookshops (and award juries, as well) that we champion deserved works and their authors – if international fiction is ever to gain a wider appeal.

While end-of-the year lists often feature the more obvious selections, there is an (increasing?) opportunity for the so-called also-rans to get their due. Blogs, social media, and other non-traditional outlets are constantly reshaping the literary landscape. Books which, even a decade ago, may not have had a chance to wend their way into the hands of readers now have an easier time doing so (although it remains prohibitively difficult for most). A good many of the books translated into English in any given year are very likely amongst the best in their native languages (as it is difficult to imagine mid-list international authors finding either a translator or publisher stateside), so a list of the year’s translated titles is already a quasi-best-of selection by default.

It’ll be a welcome (and exciting!) day for all those interested in great literature when the ever-popular “best books of the year” lists count even a quarter of their entries as those rendered from a foreign language. Readers, culture, and society alike will benefit greatly, confirming and reiterating the fact that exceptional works of art need not be confined by arbitrary borders or the limitations of tongue. No “best of” list could ever presume to have the definitive word on the extraordinary, but declining to include more works in translation does a disservice to all readers. Much as ecosystems thrive best with greater diversity (and suffer, conversely, wherever monoculture is present), we, too, will be all the richer for indulging the abundance of authorial voices which currently flourish.

8 December 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of heading down to NYC for the 2014 New Literature from Europe festival, which primarily took place at the slightly Escherian, but beautiful Austrian Cultural Forum NY building. Even if you don’t read beyond this point, let me just say that this was a great festival, short and sweet, but packed with great panels and authors, and for my part I want to thank the organizers as well for their efforts.

My main purpose was to go to support our Bulgarian contingent, in this case Georgi Tenev, author of Party Headquarters, forthcoming from Open Letter 2015 and translated by Angela Rodel. But it was also great to get down to New York, see some familiar faces, pick up conversations started at the last festival/trade show/conference, talk a little business in person, visit some of the bookstores that carry our titles, etc. (Oh, and also eat all the free charcuterie and sample various Hungarian and Romanian wines.) At times it’s smaller-scale festivals like these that are the best places for publishers and readers alike to come together and learn more about foreign cultures and their literatures, and to hear snippets of what will probably be some of the best pieces of literature you could ever come across.

Chad usually does posts like this, and he might do a massive, mind-blowing one once he gets back from his literal Trip around the World, but for now, you have me, and that’s that. I like traveling to NYC for the weekend, or for the week, be it for work or to indulge my mother’s joy of Amtrak travel, and of course, each time you visit NYC you’re bound to discover or wind up someplace you’ve never been before, intentionally or unintentionally. You’re also less likely to get lost in the process with each return, such as this trip, where I didn’t screw up once while in transit someplace. On the subway—I mean I didn’t screw up on the subway. In terms of walking, I inverted building numbers and location names more than once within the first eight hours of being back in the city and probably made some passersby wary of my recurring presence.

Before heading over to the opening event and reading, I made my way to the still relatively new Albertine, a 99.9% French-only bookstore (titles published in French originally, translations into French, French authors published into English) just down the street from MoMA. The bookstore is in no way convenient to just “pop by,” unless you’re in the area already or have multiple things to do in said area (like check out MoMA, or a sandwich shop nearby that I’m told sells their creations at half-price not long before closing up for the night to clear out that day’s stock. WHY HAVE I NOT BEEN TOLD OF THIS SANDWICH HEAVEN BEFORE.), but even that considered, it’s well worth the subway ride and walk—or bus, if you’re into above-ground public transportation. Nowhere will you find the selection of French literature and translations that Albertine carries, and nowhere, probably, will you see this many wall sconces (not my original observation, but I agree).

The main reading Friday night was held at the Austrian Cultural Forum, and featured authors Davide Longo (Italy), Nicol Ljubić (Germany), Susanne Scholl (Austria), János Háy (Hungary), Georgi Tenev (Bulgaria), Lucian Dan Teodorovici (Romania), Magdaléna Platzová (Czech Republic), and translator Philip Boehm (who read from his translation of Polish author Hanna Krall), with a great introduction by New Directions Publisher Barbara Epler. (Julia Deck [France] and Linda Coverdale did their portion of the reading back at Albertine.)

The readings were all wonderful and showcased a nice range of literary subject matter and, as you can tell from the paragraph above, a good range of countries represented. Also worth mentioning was Barbara’s introduction to the readings, in which she made a point to thank not only the authors for their work, but their translators as well, and those publishers (Open Letter Books among them) who continue to bring out literature in translation to enrich the literary world. Barbara had also prepared a double-sided printout that for everyone that had a huge (though not, as she apologized, fully comprehensive) list of publishers that do publish literature in translation, as well as literary magazines/journals, and even a handful of foreign literature centers that work to promote literature and its translation. This list was a pleasant and touching surprise, and hopefully informed those in attendance that there are more than just a few publishers in the United States and elsewhere working their asses off to bring readers amazing world literature, and publishers who want to keep bringing that literature to readers for decades to come. HOPEFULLY. More on this topic in a few paragraphs.

Saturday was a full day of panels, but started off with brunch at the Hospoda Bohemian Beer Hall, which is another cool venue (with delicious breakfast sausages) that I hope everyone is able to one day visit, be it for the restaurant, or for an event that would take place in the Czech Center’s upper floors. Make fun of us Eastern Europeans all you want for our love of Bon Jovi, our at times still outdated sneakers, but the one thing you can never take lightly (nor can we) is the sense of hospitality ever present when we welcome others into our spaces/homes. Which in the case of the Bohemian Beer Hall may be amplified by the cafeteria/beer garden-like interior and its brick walls, wood floors, and picnic-table seating.

While the full list of Saturday panels is available here, the one I do want to briefly touch on—and for a few reasons—is the final one, “Buried Secrets,” a “panel whose theme is untold truths hidden beneath the surface,” paneled by Magdaléna Platzová, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, and our very own Georgi Tenev, and moderated by Siri Hustvedt. Over the course of the panel and through questions asked by the audience after, we got to hear what authors from their countries these writers considered influential on their own works, as well as what it meant to write in a post-Soviet environment and how they thought what and how they wrote would be different had they not grown up or lived in such times and political situations. As someone who grew up reading and being taught about largely occupation-period and post-Soviet Latvian literature, I found the similarities interesting, both in terms of what writers are writing about, and how they see themselves or are perceived as writers in their countries. If I remember correctly, Lucian explained that he felt free and comfortable in Romania as a writer, because there was no pressure to write anything specific or anything that might be considered “great” since Romanians didn’t really read Romanian books anyway. Whereas I find that thought frightening, for him it was a built-in sense of security and release, as he considered he didn’t have any expectations to live up to and could just write what his heart desired to write.

Anyway, all of the authors presenting at this year’s festival are wildly intelligent people, with so much thought and process that goes into their writing, and proved to be equally wonderful to chat with afterward in a less on-the-spot setting. More information on all of them can be found at the Festival website here, and only three of the nine works represented have not found English-language publishers. Which brings me to my own version of a rant.

Before kicking off the panel, moderator Siri Hustvedt made a little plug for translated literature and the translators themselves, but then said something along the lines of “unless major publishers start publishing literature in translation, our lives/experiences as readers will be sorely lacking/start to deteriorate.”

Um . . . excuse me?

I want to give Hustvedt (whose latest novel was published, surprise surprise, by Simon & Schuster) the benefit of the doubt (also considering both she and her husband, Paul Auster, translate), that her wording or intent was, well, misworded or ill-communicated, but . . . It was hard not to feel a little offended at that sentiment, and not just because there she was, moderating a panel of authors at a weekend-long festival in part (and on some level) made largely possible by the work and efforts of not only indie/non-profit/small, but fiercely- and well-respected publishers of literary fiction in translation. Was the takeaway here that we should all sit around calmly while the Random Penguins of the world find some time between their Harry Potters and Jodi Picoults to publish the Jakov Linds/Marie NDiayes/Jenny Erpenbecks and save us all?

For once I had to outright agree with some of Chad’s rants about how unforgivable it is that small publishers are so frequently being belittled or crapped on, if even unintentionally, by people who seem to think that, “If it isn’t one of the Top 5 Houses publishing it, it doesn’t count.” Because every year, month, week, day, hour, second spent by people like us to help foster and bring brilliant world literature to a broader readership SHOULD count. It DOES count. And if you can’t see that it does, then you are part of the problem. If Murakami is your only go-to for contemporary literature in translation, then you are part of the problem. If you think that literature in translation “can only be saved” if taken under the wing of some goliath of a publisher, then you are part of the problem. If you are a reviewer at any of the “big” review outlets only reaching for the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc. logo-stamped books in translation because you think that’s probably “safer,” then you are part of the problem. My god, are you ever part of the problem.

I want to look at a small facet of that problem—small, because there are so many ways to look at and approach this specific issue (like, next time someone asks you to recommend them a book, recommend a translation, in a tiny Pay It Forward act, because readers can be held equally responsible for promoting the books they love). But for now let’s go back to that list I mentioned Barbara Epler brought to her introduction. Keeping in mind her disclaimer that the list was not, unfortunately, comprehensive, there are eighty-six publishers of literary translations listed on the front side of her handout. Eighty-six. Yes, that list includes the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc.-type publishers, but they are far outnumbered by the rest. And (again, benefit of the doubt) yet, we’re supposed to hedge all our bets, hopes, and dreams on these Major Presses to help save our literary lives from deterioration? The hell?! Alright, yes, I can buy into the fact that, much like small-press fans look for their beloved small-press logos and covers in store, readers who “stick” to the Major Presses probably do the same thing, to an extent. Maybe. But instead of taking a kind of misdirected angle of championing literature in translation via the graces of Major Presses, how about redirecting and supporting those presses that are already publishing literature in translation, have been doing so for years/decades and will continue to do so no matter what, and (financial aspects aside) without many of the probable obstacles or restrictions or aspirations of Major Presses (though it would be hilarious, our The Last Days of My Mother will likely never end up as a “20xx Box Office Smash Movie Time Hit of the Summer,” or as a 10-part miniseries on Fox or HBO—nor did we care about that when signing it on).

That said, it doesn’t make it easier that many of the mainstream sources that could potentially help these hard-working presses gain some additional recognition seem to always be dropping—or just never picking up—the ball. For example, in the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2014” list, a mere eight out of 100 are translations (if I missed one, I apologize). And the number of times you see Knopf, Simon & Schuster, FSG, Scribner, Random House, etc., show up is basically the entire list. There are, of course, exceptions, and it’s good to see that. But come on! And the most notable books in translation include, what?: Murakami, Knausgaard, Ferrante. Not necessarily bad choices, but depressingly obvious ones.

Let’s move on to a similar, but slightly more tailored list: Book Riot’s A Great Big Guide To 2014’s Must-Read Books from Indie Presses. This list is far friendlier, as the title may indicate, toward indie presses and presses such as Open Letter that publish literature in translation. Except that Open Letter isn’t on there—which hurts, but not everyone can make every list. Or can they?

While Book Riot’s list is comprised of excellent titles (though, as someone pointed out on Facebook, only one translator is named—J.M. Coetzee, and probably only because of his Nobel Prize), I found it interesting that the list includes 41 presses (impressive), as well as multiple titles from each of these presses. Which makes me wonder about the presses not present on the list—did the list maker(s) really not like any of Open Letter’s books this year? Of Bellvue’s? New Vessel’s? Wakefield’s? Hispabooks’s? Does the list-maker even know of these and other presses left off the list? I guess “left off” is a strong phrase, but still. And hey, I’ve said it before, at least our friends at Biblioasis made the list this time around.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering why someone doesn’t make a year-end list that would include the largest number possible (or at least a healthy portion) of indie presses working with literature in translation, along with one book published by that press during the relevant year. It can’t be that hard, let’s say, to come up with a “50/50: Fifty Titles in Translation from Fifty Presses” list (DIBS that title is mine). So, Sunday, six hours into my eight-hour Amtrak trip back up to Rochester and with one free Buzzballz Tequila ‘rita in my system, I started one of my own, beginning with naming presses. Within a few minutes, I had almost forty presses publishing literature in translation written down, off the top of my exhausted, slightly buzzed head. “It’s like these listicle writers aren’t even trying,” I thought to myself. And then, “Oh, wait.”

Are they even trying? Maybe the downfall of these lists (and by downfall I mean “weaknesses perceived”) was that one person was trying to come up with all the information on his or her own. Maybe one person can’t feasibly read books from every press out there—though that doesn’t seem like a reasonable explanation. Out of the nearly forty presses I was able to name without looking at Barbara’s list for help, I can admit that I haven’t yet had the time or pleasure to read books published by a handful of them (for which I am sorry)—but the point is, I am aware of these presses and of what they have published.

It can be easily argued at this point that, as someone who now works in the publishing world, I have more daily access and exposure to these presses (see the stacks of review copies next to my desk for proof) and the authors they publish, and as a result a better working knowledge and awareness of them. Sure, fine. Yet, what about all the “indie press fans” all the indie presses and their authors get at AWP and MLA, and BookExpo, those readers who once read one Polish author translated into English and now Must Have All the Things that Are Polish Books in Translation? Those readers who, flabbergastingly, sometimes know more books than we do? People in the publishing world are not, clearly, the only ones aware of the other presses around them. What about all the Flavorwire and Buzzfeed and Book Riot listicles about year-end book lists that we all see slutted around our Facebook news feeds? What gives . . . ?

Among the many ways that literary translation and the publishers who bust balls can and should be lauded, supported, and promoted by the numerous sites that pride themselves on their monthly and year-end lists, it might be worth their time to consider—nay, START adding some parameters to these lists, such as, in the case of the 100-title list, “No publisher can appear more than twice,” which would already limit the list to 50 publishers minimum, and broaden that scope. Publishing houses play limitation games like this on a daily basis. (Open Letter, for one, is careful to keep its combined seasons for a given year well balanced in terms of author gender, country represented, book length, etc.) So, in the spirit of maintaining that translated literature doesn’t have to wait on Major Presses for anything: I’m going to take on my own challenge and put together our own Three Percent year-end book list: 50 translated titles from 50 presses. I bet I could even do it on two Tequila ‘ritas. (Do friends let friends drink and make lists?) And I bet it won’t even be that hard.

5 December 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re back! And, actually, now that Tom has a more regular schedule at “Albertine”: we’re planning on recording a new episode every other week. More great sports book talk!

This week’s episode centers around John O’Brien’s BookBrunch article, Don’t Blame the Readers for Lack of Interest in Translations. It’s a piece that understandably upset Tom’s French employers . . .

In relation to this episode’s “rave,” you have to watch this video:

This week’s music is When Christmas Comes by Los Campesinos!

As always, you can write to us at threepercentpodcast@gmail.com with complaints, suggestions, ideas for future episodes, or your own rants and raves.

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


4 December 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an editor-at-large for Asymptote and the editor-in-chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.

It’s December. I still have a shit-ton of books left to read for the BTBA, and the very thought of writing a blogpost about my favorite contenders is giving me mild anxiety. But, as a Chuang Tzu once wrote (in David Hinton’s excellent translation), “small fear is fever and worry; great fear is vast and calm.”

The great fear, in this case, consists in creating a longlist from so many well-designed, well-written, and well-translated books. It’s so frightening that I’m actually okay with it. But here comes the small fear: my two cents about what’s good in the pile of submissions.


I can certainly reveal some of my favorite titles to you, such as Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (trans. by Christina MacSweeney), Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita (trans. by Natasha Wimmer), Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile (trans. by Melanie Mauthner), and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Three (trans. by Don Bartlett), but since all of these titles have already been mentioned several times, I figured my blogging energy would be better spent on two Danish titles that have not yet come up as anybody’s favorites. I will allow my fellow judges the benefit of the doubt, and assume they have yet to read the books I’m about to highlight.

As a Dane, Naja Marie Aidt’s writing has been an inevitable part of my life. I grew up reading and analyzing her short stories in middle and high school classes, and I’ve remained fascinated by her fiction ever since. One of Aidt’s literary fortes is her depiction of distorted human relationships; sometimes conveyed explicitly through master-slave abuse, pedophilia, or snuff (Vandmærket, 1993), sometimes portrayed through subtle powerplay and deceit as a matter of routine (Tilgang, 1995). Aidt’s latest short story collection and first book in English, Baboon (Two Lines Press), is no exception:

“I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.” (From Bulbjerg)

These disturbing tales will potentially stay with you for years; they have certainly haunted me since 2006, when I first read the collection in Danish. Rereading Baboon in English was an immense pleasure, thanks to an incredible translation by Denise Newman who managed to capture the beauty of Aidt’s descriptive prose while maintaining a sense of urgency within the lines:

“Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky. We gasped joyfully as though coming up for air after being under water too long. We stood there looking around, our eyes blinking after staring at the gravel road in the dark forest for so long. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be close by. But we lost our bearings long ago.”

Aidt’s talent for combining brutality and beauty is, in my opinion, nothing less than extraordinary.

Another Dane who deserves honorable mention in the BTBA is Dorthe Nors. Her short story collection Karate Chop (Graywolf Press/A Public Space) is a delightfully fast and punchy read, expertly rendered by translator Martin Aitken. Nors’ combination of light language and dark humor is captivating -not only within each individual story, but also in the way the stories complement each other. From the tragicomic self-proclaimed Buddhist, to the man who googles female killers when his wife is asleep, to the heron in Frederiksberg Gardens with mites living in its underfeathers:

“Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck. Its feet were completely white and it barely even reacted when I walked past. The way the wind ruffled its neck feathers made me want to go back and sit down next to it. It was the way the suffering had to be drawn out like that, the way herons never really muster the enthusiasm. But I won’t touch birds, alive or dead.” (from “The Heron”)

Nors’ short story “The Heron” was the first Danish piece to be published in The New Yorker, and it truly does work well as the literary centerpiece of the perfectly unpredictable Karate Chop.

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Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

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