31 October 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This should be titled “airplane reading,” since I’m taking off tomorrow morning for the Sharjah International Book Fair. (If you don’t know already, Sharjah is an emirate very near Dubai. It’s a lot less ostentatious than Dubai though—kind of—and has no booze. Which, yeah.)

Anyway, The Creator came in the other day, and immediately got the attention of everyone in the office. Wakefield Press is one of our favorites, mostly for the very strange, almost unclassifiable books that they do. This one is no exception:

Billed by its author—the pseudonymous Mynona (German for “anonymous” backward)—as “the most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus,” The Creator tells the tale of Gumprecht Weiss, an intellectual who has withdrawn from a life of libertinage to pursue his solitary philosophical ruminations. At first dreaming and then actually encountering an enticing young woman named Elvira, Weiss discovers that she has escaped the clutches of her uncle, the Baron, who has been using her as a guinea pig in his metaphysical experiments. But the Baron catches up with them and persuades Gumprecht and Elvira to come to his laboratory, to engage in an experiment to bridge the divide between waking consciousness and dream by entering a mirror engineered to bend and blend realities. Mynona’s philosophical fable was described by the legendary German publisher Kurt Wolff as “a station farther on the imaginative train of thought of Hoffmann, Villiers, Poe, etc.,” when it appeared in 1920, with illustrations by Alfred Kubin (included here).

The “most profound magical experiment since Nostradamus” is what sold it for me. This sounds so wild, and basically perfect for Halloween . . .

This is translated by Peter Wortsman (who has also translated Musil and Kleist for Archipelago Books), and contains the illustrations from Alfred Kubin.

29 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Acacia O’Connor on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions.

This book was published in English in 2012, but considering the attention Ferrante has been getting for her work since then, this is a very appropriate “Better late than never” kind of review. I’ve yet to read anything of Ferrante’s, but am absolutely aching to after all the high praise and descriptions of her writing.

Acacia O’Connor is a first wave U of R MALTS alumna working from Italian into English. She works at Columbia University and shares a subway stop with Dr. Craig Spencer, the first Ebola patient in New York City. Instead of attending ALTA 2014, she thought it would be fun to run a marathon, at night, on the Las Vegas strip. (I was also with her at the opening night midnight-showing of the first part of the last Harry Potter movie. We did not dress up.)

Here’s the beginning of Acacia’s review:

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.

Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef coating the entire bottom of the Mare di Napoli. And readers, it seems, are really into those feels.

I, too, was caught up. My Brilliant Friend evokes those familiar yet almost indescribable feelings about long friendships, adolescence, and home. You’re inextricably tied to a person, a place, but you hate how strong the connection is, how it drags you back in when you try to escape it; slowly it tears you apart.

That sounds melodramatic. In real life, we tend to downplay drama, shake off the pain. Feels are for Tumblr. But those moments of “suffering” (perhaps the most prevalent word in My Brilliant Friend) exist. When elementary school “best friends” were established and betrayed. When a very close friend goes off and gets married young. When someone you love moves smack dab across the country. Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels.

Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness. While the main character and narrator of My Brilliant Friend is Elena Greco, the true protagonist is the bond between Elena, called Lenu, and her childhood friend, Raffaela “Lila” Cerrullo. Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world—a world where adults grease the palms of Mafiosi, scream at one another, beat their children, and throw irons out of windows.

For the rest of the review, go here.

29 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.

Can Xue: The Last Lover, trans. from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale/Margellos

The strangest and by far most original work I read this summer was Can Xue’s The Last Lover. How refreshing it is to encounter fiction that so resolutely disregards conventions of character and plot! The protagonists of this book do not develop—they transform, as do their relationships to one another, from one scene to the next. And they do so unpredictably, in ways that surprise and delight. As in much of Can Xue’s fiction, the prose is comic and disturbing at one and the same time. John Darnielle had Vertical Motion in mind when he pointed to the “grammar of dreams” that underpins that volume of stories: “situations in which a general meowing sound throughout a hospital provokes not the question ‘what’s going on?’ but instead ‘where are the catmen hiding?’” A similar grammar is present in The Last Lover, her most ambitious—and perhaps most radical—novel to date.

Faris al-Shidyaq: Leg over Leg volume 3, trans. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies, NYU

I wrote about the charms of this novel last winter, when the first two volumes were eligible for the prize. It should come as no surprise that the other two are now contenders as well. This chapter from volume three appeared in the 2014 translation issue of London’s The White Review. It’s preceded by a concise introduction by Humphrey Davies, whose translation of Shidyaq remains among the most gymnastic and resourceful amongst this year’s competition.

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

There’s no denying the force of Ferrante’s writing. I discovered volume 2 of the Neapolitan Novels last spring when it made our longlist. (Such are the privileges of judging for BTBA; you have to read the 25 titles selected to this list, and thereby profit directly from the enthusiasms of others.) I devoured it whole, then did the same to The Story of a New Name. Ferrante inspires that rare thing, rarer still among contemporary writers: the compulsion to read everything she’s ever published. Like its predecessors, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay bristles with intelligence and is executed with startling clarity. And like the other books in this series, it is all-absorbing. Here’s Ariel Starling in a recent review for The Quarterly Conversation: “Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down.”

Hilda Hilst: With My Dog Eyes, trans. from Portuguese by Adam Morris, Melville House

I’ve already posted on Letters from a Seducer which had been scheduled for 2013 release but entered the world on the wrong side of January 1. Goes without saying that this title and its extraordinary translation by John Keene has not weakened in the slightest since my initial encounter. Hilst deserves to be in the mix when winter arrives and we begin to draft lists. The question then is likely to be: which horse to back? The answer’s not immediately obvious, to the great credit of Hilst’s translators and editors. With My Dog Eyes was as exhilarating to read as the Letter and The Obscene Madame D. Hilst has been blessed with a generation of astute translators who are now introducing her work to an Anglophone readership. With My Dog Eyes struck me as the most aphoristic of the three novels. It begins unforgettably: “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” Adam Levy wrote a canny essay for Music & Literature about this year’s eligible Hilst titles; read it here.

I’ve little doubt concerning the importance of the above works for their respective languages. Those without Chinese or Italian or Portuguese have Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Ann Goldstein, and Adam Morris to thank for ensuring that their greatness has been preserved in the face of formidable challenges. I’d like to mention briefly the names of a few more translators whose work has impressed over these first few months of reading. They succeed at communicating the vitality of the voices translated, but also for their accomplished prose in English. They are, in no particular order, Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi of The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash; Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Brazil) of Nowhere People by Paolo Scott; Chris Andrews from the Spanish (Guatemala) of Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa; and Karen Emmerich from the Greek of Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, whose passages about the bewilderments of adolescent sexuality rank—alongside volume three of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard—among the funniest things I’ve encountered so far.

28 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Hosam Aboul-Ela and published by New Directions.

Chris is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, and happens to be taking the next month off to participate in NaNoWriMo. We wish him endurance and good writing juju!

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’ performance at the 1948 Summer Olympics didn’t help bolster nationalism: of the 85 athletes who participated, only five won medals. Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian officers, including future Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, formed the Free Officers Movement. Originally organized to reinstate institutions removed by the government, the movement grew in strength—and ambition—during the Arab-Israeli War. By 1952, the officers not only overthrew King Farouk, but they ended the British occupation and established Egypt as a republic.

Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim lived through the period leading to and following the revolution, and he has written about the effects it has had on his country. His first novel, That Smell (1966), was written 12 years after Nasser’s rise to power, and according to an article in the New Yorker, which called Ibrahim “Egypt’s oracular novelist,” anticipated Nasser’s fall: a year after it was published, the Israelis defeated Egypt during the Six-Day War and took control of the Sinai Peninsula. Ibrahim wrote That Smell after spending five years as a political prisoner; it was during that time when, according to an article in the National, he conceived the idea for Stealth, which was originally published in Egypt in 2007.

The period of history leading to the revolution forms the backdrop of Stealth; however, it isn’t so much a political novel as it is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is an 11-year-old boy who closely observes the actions of adults, including his father, Kahlil, a retired military officer, whom he lives with in a dirty, bug-infested apartment in Cairo. The boy spends a lot of time spying on his father, as well as his friends and acquaintances. If he’s not peeking through keyholes to spy on their private, intimate moments, then he eavesdrops on their conversations. In fact, he seems much more interested in the world of adults than other children, as he only seems to play with other children when he’s forced to.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

By now you may be asking which BTBA-eligible books I’m most looking forward to reading. Probably not, but let’s pretend. Without further ado:

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (translated from Danish by Denise Newman) is a short story collection that’s the first of this author’s work to reach English, and it’s touted as “audacious writing that careens toward bizarre, yet utterly truthful, realizations.” What’s not to like about that? Aidt is originally from Greenland, which is another bonus, as reading her book would get me one step closer to my secret goal of reading something from every country on the globe. Yes, I know Greenland is technically not a country, but it looks so big on Mercator maps that I count it anyway.

Mario Bellatin, who I’ve read before and very much enjoyed, has a new book out from Siete Vientos that contains two separate works, Flowers and Mishima’s Illustrated Biography. The latter portion sounds like non-fiction that wouldn’t qualify for the BTBA, but Bellatin says that it describes “what happened to the writer after his head was cut off.” So yeah, made up. It’s a bilingual edition with the English side having been translated by Kolin Jordan, and it’s a gorgeous little product. Not that I’m judging it solely by its cover, but it does tend to jump out of the stack at me.

Another Spanish language book that carries high expectations is Adam Buenosayres by Argentinian Leopoldo Marechal, a novel so massive that it took two translators, Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier, to tackle it. It was first published in 1948 and was Marechal’s attempt to create an epic that would do for his native city what Dickens did for London and Joyce did for Dublin. Among other Latin American writers who were influenced by it was Julio Cortázar, which is more than enough for me to take an interest in it.

From Germany comes The Giraffe’s Neck, about a tightly-wound, aging biology teacher in a failing public school. It’s written by Judith Schalansky (and translated by Shaun Whiteside) who previously brought the fabulous Atlas of Remote Islands into the world.

Javier Cercas is yet another writer whose fiction is always on my to-read list, and the next book of his on my plate is Outlaws, a novel in which an adult lawyer reconnects with the rebellious political gangster who transfixed him during his youth in 1970s Spain. That it’s by Cercas is one thing, but it’s translated by Anne McLean, so I know it must be good.

We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm is by Lola Lafon, a French writer who’s new to me. Translated by David and Nicole Ball, it was the subject of an intriguing review in the web magazine Full Stop that was very positive while admitting the difficulty of describing or responding to it. Which is like catnip as far as I’m concerned.

Lastly, there are two books, both from Dalkey Archive Press and also by French writers, that engage in the kind of metafictional play that drives some people up a wall but makes them must-reads for me. The first is The Author and Me (translated by Jordan Stump), in which writer Eric Chevillard attempts an ultimate refutation of the notion that narrators, even ones who share the author’s name, are mouthpieces for his opinions. A quote: “If all cauliflower and even all memory of cauliflower were abruptly to vanish from the face of this earth—O miracle!—then, I swear, I would don mourning clothes of red and gold, with a pointy hat and a party whistle unrolling from my lips with every breath.” I’m right there with you, Eric. Sorry, “Eric.”

On the slightly more serious side there’s Antoine Volodine, who I think may be undertaking the most important fictional project of our time. Using various pseudonyms (including the Volodine name), he’s producing a body of work that comments on and indicts contemporary society from the vantage of an imagined, not-too-distant future. His fiction has been spottily available in English from various publishers, and it’s been hard for American readers to grasp its scope, but Writers, translated by Katina Rodgers, looks to provide a useful summary. The different stories in the book purport to come from several Volodine heteronyms, finally together between covers.

It’ll take me a while to finish all these, and by then I’m sure I’ll have a new list of favorites to supplant or supplement them. Stay tuned.

23 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Having talked about books that I think other people will probably like, it seems like I should talk at least a bit about the ones I do.

Bohumil Hrabal’s Harlequin’s Millions (translated by Stacey Knecht) has already been highly praised here on the blog by Jeremy Garber (and elsewhere by that inestimable dean of BTBA judges, George Carroll) and I’m calling the shotgun seat on their bandwagon—it really is that good. If you don’t want to trust us, maybe Ivan Vladislavić can talk some sense into you. He calls it a “mesmerizing novel,” and being a brilliant novelist himself, albeit one who writes in the lesser language of English, he should know.

Among the few books in the running that can stack up to HM is Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab, a series of linked short stories put out by Karolinum Press in the Czech Republic. It’s set in the (literally) Bohemian forest village of Kersko, a place notable for drunkenness, lust, venality, and especially the garrulousness of its inhabitants. Their self-serving lies pile up into mountains of manure, and the plots veer from the unbelievable into the surreal and the sublimely ridiculous. Comical, crude, and character-rich, it’s an altogether Hrabal-esque extravaganza of corkscrewing prose. Well, not -esque, because it too is by Bohumil Hrabal. Credit to translator David Short for channeling the flow of the author’s language without stanching it, and to the publisher’s design team as well. This edition is stunning, printed on thick paper that’s a pleasure to touch and practically spilling over with art. It’s bad form to make predictions about the finalists this early in the game, but if Hrabal’s not among them, it’ll only be because he was in competition with himself.

I’m also very high on the much more subdued submission from France’s Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is part of Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series. It combines two short works that were first published separately, and even together they make a book, translated by Ann Jefferson, that clocks in at a scant 116 pages. In both sections, Michon has drawn obscure figures out of the mist of ecclesiastical history and fictionalized episodes from their lives. Their motivations are distinctly pre-modern, driven by a Christian faith that’s barely removed from paganism, and they feel wholly convincing while remaining utterly alien, at least to this hopelessly secular reader. Quiet, complete, and near-perfectly realized, it might be what Austen described when she wrote about “a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” worked with “so fine a brush.”

From the same Yale series comes David Albahari’s Globetrotter. from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Like his earlier novel Leeches, it deals with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, this time treating the conflict more obliquely and displacing it to the placid setting of Banff, British Columbia. At an arts conference, a painter from Saskatchewan becomes obsessed with a Serbian writer and jealous of his burgeoning friendship with the descendant of a Croatian traveler. The vaguely homoerotic triangle that forms is far less important and intense than the maelstrom of ethnic guilt that spins in their psyches and finally wrecks them in an inexorable climax. Warning: Albahari has something against indentations. I think the lack of paragraphing adds to the headlong quality of the tale, but tastes vary. As a public service to traditionalists, I therefore provide an ample selection of pilcrows to be added to the text as needed: ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶ ¶

No one who’s reading this can be unaware of Open Letter’s track record of excellence with world literature, and it’s always difficult to rank their books against each other, but Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard (trans. by Charlotte Mandel) may be their best publication of 2014. It follows a young Moroccan man as he comes of age at home and travels across the Mediterranean to re-establish himself in Barcelona, and it manages to push almost every cultural hot button along the way. Immigration, terrorism, misogyny, the promise and failure of the Arab Spring … it could come across as a paint-by-number op-ed piece, but in fact it addresses these topics organically. The politics arise inevitably out of the fiction rather than the fiction being an artificial veneer over the politics.

Monastery by Eduardo Halfon comes from the Spanish by way of Lisa Dillman’s translation, and it chronicles the journeys of a Guatemalan writer, not coincidentally named Eduardo Halfon. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a novel or a short story collection, and I’m not sure how much reality or imagination lies behind it, but Halfon makes a good deal of hay out of that confusion. The plot carries him from the jungle of Central America to jazz concerts in North America, submarine bases in Europe, and beaches in Asia, and the unstable structure of the book prismatically expands the possibilities for interpretation. (Those who’ve read his very similar prequel, The Polish Boxer, will have to cope with further contradictions, as characters and events from it recur, subtly altered, in Monastery.) Detachment and dislocation have rarely been so well depicted as this. And believe me, in the middle of trying to read as many as possible of more than 400 books in less than a year, I know from dislocation.

22 October 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have lots of jokes to make about my one experience with actual “speed dating,” like about the female minister who was there because she wanted to “sleep outside of her tribe” and the car salesman who was there for his fifth consecutive time . . .

It was all sorts of amusing, but, to be honest, all I wanted to do was date a translator. (They’re all so short and verbal!) And I’m sure that all you translators out there dream of dating a publisher. (They’re all so short and angry!)

Well, in that case, you need to come to this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in Milwaukee (October 12-16) and sign up for the Editor-Translator Speed Dating sessions.

And to be honest, this program will be a million times more interesting than typical speed dating. (Although I promise a creepy pick-up line for every translator who has a session with me. At least one. I have a storage chest of them as big as Ulysses.)

The way this works is that interested translators fill out this form (before October 28th!) with the following information:

  • Your name, email address, and a 50 word (max) translator biography
  • Your preference for editor area-of-expertise (poetry, prose, or non-fiction)
  • Up to 2 pages of translated material to discuss with the editor (suggested 2 double-spaced pages of prose or 1 single-spaced page of poetry; see formatting guidelines below)
  • Up to 2 specific questions for the editor about the material (ex. “Is this pacing effective?” or “What do you think of this phrasing?”). General inquiries (“How can I get published?”) will not be permitted.

Then, at the conference, you’ll be paired with an appropriate editor who will have read your submission and will be able to give you some publisher-centric feedback. (And come on lines.)

For anyone just starting out—or even for the wizened, experienced translator who is working on a new project—this sounds like the best possible way to interact with a publisher. It’s so much better than trapping someone in a hallway and shoving papers into their hands, or pretending that they’re really absorbing the complex details of your project while drinking their ninth glass of wine . . .

Also, IT’S FREE. (Well, mostly. ALTA’s asking for a $10 donation, but really, that’s nothing. I paid $50 to speed date and came away with no advice about my writing. None!)

I know from talking with Erica Mena that they still have a number of openings for translators, so, sign up now!

21 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Yesterday we ran Part I of an interview between author Mylene Fernández Pintado and translator Dick Cluster. Part I left off with Mylene going over a little background information on their work together on A Corner of the World to be. This here is Part II of that interview.

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

MF: But of course the main thing we are discussing here is the translation. Could you describe some of the choices you had to make—and we had to make—in this book?

DC: First let me make some observations about the general issue of “translating Cuba” for U.S. readers. Sometimes the translator will need to subtly “un-teach” U.S. readers what they think they know about Cuba, un-teach notions that can get in the way of their understanding of what the writer means to say. Sometimes the translator will need to help clue in the U.S. reader to subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) that the Cuban reader understands but the one here will not. In A Corner of the World, with its many small touches of Havana life and context, it was mostly the latter. Some of these have to do with economics and social structure and customs, some with the Cuban language itself.

One of my favorite examples in terms of Cuban language also presents the eternal challenge facing translators when we have to deal with puns. Here’s what the translation says: “When I was a kid, and I read The Arabian Nights for the first time, that’s where I discovered the word peddler. Ever since, I’ve associated it with bicycles, because I imagined it must be a guy pedaling along while hawking his wares. Later I found out what the word actually meant. So simple, but now, I don’t know. I don’t want to give up on the guy who bikes through Baghdad with a basketful of plantains and boniatos teetering on top of his turban.” In the original, the pun is not “peddle” and “pedal,” but “viandante” and “vianda.” A viandante is someone who goes by on a road, a passerby. Viandas in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world are any kind of foodstuffs, but in Cuba they are specifically tropical root vegetables (such as yuca, boniato, malanga) and plantains. So it’s a play on words, but at the same time it shows how Cubans cubanize things, and I wanted to maintain both aspects. I hope it works.
A related problem of language and culture has to do with the Malecón, Havana’s curving seaside drive which you’ve already talked about, which really becomes one of the characters in your novel. But the word denotes not just the drive or boulevard—it’s also the seawall that protects the shore, and the wide sidewalk in between the wall and the drive, and more metaphorically it’s the place where the sea and land meet, which in Cuba is always tied up—again this issue—with the sense of being an island. All of this comes into play in a paragraph toward the end of the book, where the female protagonist and narrator, Marian, goes out to the Malecón, thinking about the male protagonist, Daniel. The translation reads:

London is gruff and has no seacoast. I looked at Havana, bordered by miles of ocean, but for the first time I felt the water was besieging us. What we have is a wall where sea meets land, not a beach that one can walk from end to end, setting foot simultaneously in city and sea. What we can do is to look out over the waves, which exist as a promise of the rest of the world. But the promise is unreliable. Like Daniel’s return.

That’s probably the place where, after besieging you with questions about the passage, I added the most words—words that were implied but not explicit in the original. If I hadn’t, the middle two sentences would have said only: “. . . felt the water was besieging us. The Malecón is not a beach, we can’t walk it. Only look at it from here. It exists as a promise. . .” That would have made some sense, but not much, and I think the poignancy and contradictions would have been lost.

In terms of the “un-teaching” I mentioned before, there’s a passage about how Cubans requesting visas to go abroad are met by suspicion in the embassies of the most-requested countries, embassies whose staff are:

. . . fed up with Cubans, people who were not from the First World yet not from the Third, who were neither citizens nor immigrants. People who traveled out of their own country so as to tell everyone where they went about the great charms of their home. Who lectured anyone who would listen and some who would not, drawing on their endless storehouses of nostalgia, taking full advantage of their new surroundings but always with disdainful expressions of melancholic superiority.”

The meaning there is a hundred percent clear, the words are straightforward, and getting from the Spanish to the English was not hard. But I worried that to American readers it would make no sense, or would provoke some vague feeling of disbelief, since as far as we are concerned the most-requested country is ours, Cubans here are deemed political refugees by mere virtue of being Cuban, and they are always described as having “fled,” and never quoted about any charms of their homeland or its superiorities to the U.S. So I proposed the addition of, “The embassies of the most-requested countries, in many parts of Europe, for instance. . .” which is indeed the embassies the passage was about, as Cuban readers know without this being stated. You agreed about “in many parts of Europe” and said no to “for instance” as being unnecessarily didactic, so that’s what we did.

MF: Often when it comes to explaining something that’s unknown to the foreign reader, there’s the problem of how to clarify this while maintaining the literary level, explaining without getting at all didactic and damaging any of the lyricism in the prose. In this case, and in others, you found a way of not leaving the North Americans “in China” (as we say in Cuba), nor making them feel they are reading footnotes or endnotes—the things that readers in any case avoid because they don’t want to lose the thread of the story. That’s another of the merits of this translation, the way the necessary clarifications for the reader are always done in a literary manner, as if I’d written them in the original too.

Similarly I think the translations of what in Spanish we call guiños, winks, are also very well done. These are allusions to other works whether literary or artworks but without citing them explicitly. So I like the way in which you handled these “winks” originally directed at Spanish-speaking readers, sometimes replacing them with others closer to the Anglo reader, so you keep the book’s spirit intact without confronting the Anglo reader with things that are unnecessarily unfamiliar.

DC: I remember there was one where you had an allusion to a Lorca poem that I couldn’t figure out any way to handle, but a page later, when Marian says “no hay nada más,” I asked you, what about dropping in a substitute by having her say “Only that and nothing more,” which is the kind of thing she would do. And you wrote back, “Poe is great, I’m so happy you’ve managed to give him a place in the novel, it’s perfect for winding up the internal monologue there.”

There are also some moments of Cuban history. There’s a flashback about the parents of Marian’s ex-mother-in-law’s mother, who thought they would be exempt from the social revolution of the early ’60s, because they “knew people in the new government and had even bought some bonds to finance a plan for university autonomy.” The part about the bonds was likely to say nothing to U.S. readers. So, in the translation, they “knew some people in the new government, and had even once bought some underground bonds, during the previous one, to finance a plan for university autonomy.”

When Marian gives an exam to her university students, she thinks about “las mil brujerías que habían hecho” (the thousands of pieces of witchcraft they’d undertaken), “en que mi nombre estaba en todos los congeladores o en tazas llena de miel” (with my name in every freezer or glass full of honey), and that “muchos tendrían ropa interior roja” (many must be wearing red underwear). Again without saying so much as to hit a false note for Marian’s voice, it seemed possible to help out by naming the belief systems involved, of which U.S. readers might have heard, and to specify at least the purpose of the red: “. . . the thousand charms of spiritism and Santería that must be at work, with my name inside every freezer or every cupful of honey they employed. I tried to guess how many were wearing red underwear in honor of Changó.”

MF: Religion is always a problem to deal with in translations or simply in languages that are tied to doctrines different from our own. In the book all the tone is ironic, Marian’s professor-narrator voice is skeptical, but she’s talking about beliefs or superstitions that are common in Cuba. So the honey and the freezer have to do with charms that are supposed to sweeten someone’s disposition or paralyze their evil intentions, and for the red underwear you need to know something about our religious syncretism and how Cubans have a much more informal and less ceremonious relationship with the African figures who are linked to Catholic ones. Cubans talk to them, get mad at them, it’s like when the Greek gods in the Iliad have their preferred mortals whom they defend and talk to. So in doing the translation you had to make use of your years of Havana daily life and knowledge of popular beliefs, and your feeling for how we can be believers in many things, many mixtures, which for Cubans does not imply any contradiction.

DC: I’ll end with the way the way two different characters address Marian, which presented the problem of finding American English equivalents for the terms and what they imply. Her department chair calls her “Marian querida,” while her ex-mother-in-law calls her “Marian bonita.” This presented dilemmas I batted around both with my literary translators’ workshop group and with you. “Marian querida” might be either “honey” or “sweetie.” After some discussion we agreed that “Marian, honey,” would sound more like the Cuban “Marian, mi amor,” which (in both countries and languages) a waitress might use to address a customer, or in similar situations where the people don’t know each other and where the language is less rarified than in a university. “Marian, sweetie” was more the ticket for this. “Marian, bonita,” on the hand, was—in Cuba—something completely affected and out of place. It was peninsular Spanish, and the mother-in-law was putting on airs based on once having lived there as a diplomat’s wife. We settled on “Marian, my lovely,” for that.

MF: This was an interesting point—because “bonita” in the daily Spanish of Cubans means “pretty,” but in Spain, and especially in Madrid, it’s an adjective placed after a proper name as a signifier of trust, though it can also be used when calling a spade a spade as in “Sorry, bonita, that’s not the way it is.” But in Cuba this usage simply does not exist, and I only know it because I lived in Madrid for two years. Whereas “Marian querida” is used in a maternal way by her department head. I thought it was fantastic when you told me about the debate in your translators’ group around choosing the best word for that. I thought how fantastic it must be to work in that kind of collective way, which reminded me of the days when I worked in ICAIC and we wrote articles about film and had these heated discussion that were very productive both intellectually and socially.

Anyway, all the examples you’ve given reinforce what I always say, which is that translating a book is rewriting it in new words while keeping even the subtlest of its “soul breaths” intact.

And right now, while I’m giving these responses, sitting on your back deck in Oakland which I imagine is for you like my sea-view balcony, I think about the whole chain of coincidences that have brought us here. Maybe we do have a corner of the world on that Calle 17 we both feel is the “most charming and saddest street”—which, if you follow it to its end, takes you to the Malecón, which I call the anteroom of the rest of the world. So, thanks to you for your faith like Quijote’s in this book of ours, and to City Lights for its confidence in us, and to everyone who has inspired it, and to the Havana I always carry with me.

21 October 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Alta Ifland on Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and out from Twisted Spoon Press.

Fun fact! Bogdan and Chad were at MSU during the same time, where they became friends. Here’s the beginning of Alta’s review:

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as “Niculae Berca”). The Evil Vale is located in the region of Wallachia (southern Romania) in the Carpathians, and is described as a place seemingly forgotten by time. In the Author’s Afterword, Bogdan Suceava explains that the remoteness of the place made it possible for its inhabitants to avoid Communist laws and to live according to an archaic way of life that was rare even for the Balkans.

In the world that is the Evil Vale, the news from the rest of the world, which comes by way of newspapers and rumors, gets tangled up, mixing fact and fiction, the real and the surreal, the past and the present. Niculae Berca spends the summer telling stories to his grandchildren, in which the family history is an outgrowth of the country’s history, and the stories of real heroes sound like the folktales whose protagonists are based on mythical characters. Facts are always contaminated by myth (or, one could say, as the author reminds us, that the myth itself is often born of a real event that happened in the distant past). Most of the stories are centered on a local character: the Welldigger; Old Woman Fira—a soothsayer who can predict the future and who, after being converted by Father Dimitire, still keeps her old ways; Father Dimitrie, who lives to be two hundred; the bandit Oarta Aman, who, after terrorizing the entire province of Wallachia, is killed by the king’s army, then comes back as a ghost to frighten and humiliate the German soldiers.

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 October 14 | Monica Carter | Comments

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

By this point several judges have had an opportunity to share their thoughts about participating in the BTBA process, and it’s hard to come up with anything especially original that I can contribute. But that’s rarely stopped me from blogging in the past, so why would it now?

More than one judge, most recently fellow Northwest bookslinger Jeremy Garber, has written about the honor it is to be involved with the Best Translated Book Award. Ditto that. It’s ego-inflating whenever someone seems to care about my opinions, all the more so when it’s the people at a high-class outfit like the BTBA who do. And it’s a true privilege to think that I can play a small role in bringing attention to the huddled masses of international literature yearning to breathe freely on American shores. I’m like a lamp beside a golden door!

Disgusting paternalism aside, it really is a treat to read all this great writing from around the world. I’m a fan of literature in translation who keeps up with the work of dozens of authors and publishers, but barely a day has gone by without my finding in my mailbox a remarkable book that I’ve never heard of before. Even months away from the final voting, it would be easy for me to compile a very credible shortlist, and I have to remind myself that many more remarkable books are on their way.

What may be most exciting is that by the end of the process I’ll have as complete a picture as possible of an entire segment of the industry. We in the US see relatively little of the world’s production of fiction, which is bad, but it’s still possible (just) for me to familiarize myself with every single piece of fiction newly translated into English during this calendar year, which is fascinating to consider.

One thing I’ve observed is that there’s a broader range of work available than I’ve been finding on my own. I gravitate toward books that don’t come across like mainstream American fiction, books that through their language or form remind me they come from somewhere else, but there’s plenty of reading pleasure to be obtained from fiction that’s not focused on estrangement. Judge M.A. Orthofer has already covered some of the mystery/thriller/suspense titles that have come from abroad in 2014, and there are a number of others that could have strong popular appeal. Jonas Jonasson, for example, had a bestseller a couple of years ago with The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and he has a BTBA entry this year called The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden that’s equally entertaining.

Want proof that not all French novels are thinly-veiled memoirs weighed down by existential angst? That rumor is dispelled by Armand Chauvel’s The Green and the Red : “When Léa and Mathieu first cross paths, it is under false pretenses—Mathieu is posing as a vegetarian, infiltrating the local animal rights community for information that will force Léa’s restaurant toward a swifter demise. And while Léa suspects that Mathieu isn’t all that he appears to be, she has no idea how deep his culinary deception goes. Neither of them can deny the attraction they feel for each other, and it seems as though they might be setting a table for two … until Léa learns the truth.” Swoonworthy for the right reader, n’est-ce pas?

Bulgaria provides a companion volume for foodies via Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva. It’s a good bit grittier than Chauvel’s romance, telling of a young woman growing up under Communist rule who finds solace in the domestic arts passed down by her grandmother—the dozens of recipes that are critical to the heroine’s identity are right there in the text. As a person whose most-used kitchen utensil is a corkscrew, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Zaharieva’s story without the BTBA, and I wouldn’t have known anything about the satisfactions that it offers.

As these and other books have rolled in, I’ve realized how much I’ve missed in earlier years, and I’ve been tempted to start digging into previous longlists and back catalogs. I can’t, of course, given that I still have so much of this year’s crop to harvest. The pile of paperbacks next to my desk is inspiring, but as it continues to climb past the height of an average fourth-grader, there are also moments when I feel like sloping off in search of bad science fiction novels that can be consumed like potato chips. Until the pile actually buries me, though, I’ll persist.

My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

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Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

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Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

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I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

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

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Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

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The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

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Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

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Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

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Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

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