This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is Kate Garber, bookseller at 192 Books. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
We know there are many connections to be made in themes and characters across countries and decades. I’d like to provide a fresh example by sharing three passages I ran across while reading for this year’s fiction award. While the children in the following novels face different emotional struggles, each responds with a similar defense mechanism.
Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (New Vessel Press), first published in Hebrew in 1978.
This scene takes place in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951, in a hotel run by ten-year-old Robby’s family, and frequented by eleven-year-old Victor’s family. The relevant thing to know here is that Victor is much more worldly than Robby, and has already introduced him to “a very nice game.” You guessed it, “‘Each of us will lie down in turn, and the others will stick it to him,’ Victor set the rules of the game.”
But what struck me was a passage when the two boys are watching Victor’s father and brother walk away from the hotel, and Victor tells Robby that his father is taking his brother to a prostitute.
“Robby had never heard that word, but his heart told him that its meaning lay in those moldy, mysterious corners, in the appealing, frightening world of sex. Plug your ears, hear no more. But every cell in his body thirsted for more knowledge.” Once Victor tells Robby what a prostitute is, and how “there are houses like that, there are,” Robby falls into confusion.
A father taking his son to a prostitute. Would his father also come to him one day and say, “Robby, let’s go,” then take him by the hand to a big, dark house? What do those houses look like? Maybe they’re more like palaces? Rooms upon rooms, like cells in a beehive. In each cell, a naked woman. . . . He wouldn’t know what to do. His eyes would cling to his father for help . . . [His father would] say, “That’s it, from here on out, you’re on your own.” On his own in a small, seedy room with cobwebs and . . . a woman.
My brief analysis: Of course the first thing Robby latches onto is The House. How better to displace his deep emotional confusion than to spend his energy wondering about the room layout and moving through space. It’s the sort of displacement that a child can latch onto, and which we also often recognize in dreams. (Robby will clearly be dreaming of labyrinthine palaces and cobwebs in attics for a long time, right?)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett (Graywolf Press), first published in Norwegian in 1987.
This tiny collection of stories centers on young Arvid. Right at the beginning, Arvid’s Dad has been unable to hold a job since “the shoe industry capsized and sank,” and he’s just returned from another six month stint that didn’t work out. The family gathers. “They were all so bewildered they never got round to asking about anything except what was in the suitcase.” [Spoiler: It was lots of duty-free treats.] They’ve settled and gathered in the kitchen. “And of course Uncle Rolf had to have his say. It was a mystery to Arvid why he came round so often, didn’t he have his own place to live?”
This is kind of a throw-away line but I love it. Obviously Arvid knows where his uncle lives. A mere two pages later: “Uncle Rolf . . . drank up and went home to his flat in Vålerenga. The flat was full of clutter and dust balls everywhere . . . and whenever Arvid came to visit him he had to help with the dishes.” But the backdrop is Uncle Rolf’s condescension to Arvid’s father. In this conversation following his father’s perceived failure, Uncle Rolf says “‘The thing is, Frank, you don’t have any social aspirations, and you know it!’ . . . Arvid could see the irritation crawling around his dad’s face, and it was contagious for he could feel himself getting upset.”
At least for a moment, he can grapple with the mystery of where Uncle Rolf lives, to postpone the mystery of who his father is, and whether his Uncle is correct.
One night, a few pages later: “He dreams that his dad’s blue T-shirt with all the muscles inside it is suddenly empty and flabby and hanging there on a nail in a large empty attic room.” Arvid’s dreams won’t let him avoid the confusion, displacing mysteries onto further representative objects.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson (New Directions), originally printed in Portugese in the collection The Foreign Legion, 1964.
In a short story called “Monkeys,” a woman buys a little monkey “whose name would be Lisette. She nearly fit in my hand. She was wearing the skirt, earrings, necklace and bracelet of a Bahian woman.” Very soon, after “admiring Lisette and the way she was ours,” the narrator and her two boys are off in taxis rushing the little monkey to emergency rooms, fearing that she is about to die.
“The next day they called, and I told the boys that Lisette had died. My youngest asked me: ‘Do you think she died wearing her earrings?’ I said yes.” Including the question about her earrings, I think that Lispector has made this moment of grief even more poignant than, say, a question about how she died or whether they can get a new monkey. Read the whole story and it might make you cry.
Just to supplement literature with memory, I conclude with another small example of this displacement (also focusing on architecture, in fact). As a child, I didn’t watch many movies, but was curiously obsessed with the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was entirely creeped out by the Child Catcher, but still needed to watch it over and over. The only clear memory I have of the film is the scene where he searches the doll-maker’s house for children and tells his minions: “You have to know where to look . . . under the floors, in the cracks in the walls, in the woodwork.” Every time I watched the film, I waited anxiously for that scene, hoping to one day figure out how it would be possible for a child to hide in the cracks in the wall. It’s absurd, but was a huge part of my inability to process the coexistence of curiosity and fear, and might be the reason these small elements strike me so.
I don’t mean to say that all children think in the same way—perhaps not everyone reading this associates the deepest experience of childhood to be utter confusion and perpetual displacement—but mostly I hope to remind us of one benefit of reading a wide variety of literature in translation:
Maybe your experiences don’t apply to everyone, but there are few things more unifying than recognizing that your experiences pop up here and there in literature, throughout all of space and time. On one level, we hope to increase our cultural exposure and diversify our empathy; on another, we can take a moment to realize that we’re nothing new. It sometimes doubles as good therapy.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by translator and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review, Heather Cleary. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Earlier this week, I returned home from a month abroad to find my hall closet overflowing with submissions to this year’s BTBA. I’m glad there were no witnesses to my cartoonish glee as I tore into the bright yellow envelopes; not nearly as glad, though, as I am that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to explore so many new translations I might otherwise not have read. To borrow a phrase from a canonical work especially dear to my heart: bring it on.
Anyway. Mixed in among the bounty of this first shipment was Yoel Hoffmann’s beautifully composed Moods, luminously translated by Peter Cole. The text is a series of numbered vignettes narrated in the first person plural by a voice that is by turns mischievous, nostalgic, cynical, reflective, and often quite funny. (At one point, for example, Hoffmann recommends using the book as a prop to pick up a lover, or as a pillow to soothe an aching back.) A few readers I know have wondered aloud whether the book should be considered a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, or something else entirely; Hoffmann, who seems to have anticipated these questions—or quite likely set out to provoke them—replies, “What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation, and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?”
My interest may have been piqued by this challenge to literary norms, but it was the spare yet surprisingly rich descriptions of Hoffmann’s narrative world that drew me in, as well as the urgency with which the book seeks to bear witness to something as vast as a life in one moment, and then unwrite itself in the next. (“If it were printed on thinner paper we’d suggest the reader use it for rolling cigarettes. The smoke would write the book in the air as it really is.”)
But let’s begin at the beginning. “Ever since finishing my last book,” Hoffmann remarks, “I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. // Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole.” Following this observation, Hoffmann presents the beginning of a traditional novelistic storyline (“I know it’s a love story”) which—rather than developing toward the requisite “middle” and “end”—is quickly absorbed by a series of divergent reflections that bind the personal to the philosophical with the twine of dry humor (“It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small”).
Though this narrative gambit might look like a false start, the book’s first chapter does indeed contain the seed of Moods, which is in many ways a work composed of beginnings. Not only because its vignettes could be read in any order, giving rise to new interpretations with every new opening, but also because each chapter seems to double as the opening to another, untold story that intersects with the one on the page at only a single point. And so, across its many moods, this book is—as much as any I’ve read—about what it does not say. Characters we never fully meet pass through the staunchly metonymic moments of a life that seems to remain unknown even to the voice recounting it. One of the great accomplishments of Moods is the way this negative space bears as much weight as the words on the page.
The specter of stories untold is especially pronounced in Hoffmann’s lists, each element of which seems to contain an entire universe, not unlike Hemingway’s famous six-word novel. “Here are some other things that break the heart,” Hoffmann declares: “An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted.” Each image, vivid and universal in its understatement, is heavy with the moments that precede it and invites us to imagine those that follow.
It has been said that one of the most difficult things to translate is the silence of a text—those gaps made intelligible by shared cultural or historical touchstones that rarely pass without a struggle into the target system. In this sense, Cole has done an admirable job of preserving as inklings the hollows that Moods offers its readers. I gather from the English that his task must have been doubly challenging: not only is this a book of many silences, in his reflections on the limits of writing, and of language itself, Hoffmann also traffics in linguistically specific reflections. Cole’s solutions to these challenges are deft, even artful, whether he is re-Englishing Hoffmann’s adaptation of Joyce or rendering a nursery rhyme in one chapter’s paean to unadorned language (“If only we could write like that”).
(Peter Cole at the University of Rochester)
It’s a good thing, too, since a skilled hand is needed to translate a work that operates with such intention, and such self-consciousness, on the level of the word. Just as the form of the book’s opening was the object of reflection, so too is the way it will draw to a close. “This might be the last book we’ll write,” Hoffmann muses,
I wonder what how it will end. What its final words will be. Joyce, for example, finished his final book with the word the.
We’ve always thought it extremely strange that movies (and books) end with the word End. Moreover, sometimes the definite article’s added.
Maybe we’ll end with a different word altogether . . . Imagine if the word turns out to be prow. Or Binyamina. Or epaulettes. Or hydraulic. Or gurgle (which is probably onomatopoetic). Or drowse. Or you.
Given the centrality of beginnings in this book, it is fitting that Hoffmann resolves this question by deciding to close with one—THE beginning, in fact, which he describes as a “beautiful tale”:
In the beginning, when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and waste, and darkness was over the face of the deep . . .
“Imagine the loneliness of countless years,” Hoffmann writes. “Like a giant, old, autistic man, He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Having evoked so many beginnings with his silence, Hoffmann locates silence within this beginning, and in so doing, finds his final word:
The only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names). But when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
In the last few years I’ve read a lot of literature in translation, much of it in Spanish and much of it from Mexico. To try and describe the range and diversity of writers from this country would take forever and it may simply be impossible. There are magical and elemental writers (Guadalupe Nettel), master historian writers (Sergio Pitol), and clever,
philosophical writers (Valeria Luiselli). One thing I’ve also noticed is that Mexico produces some very funny writers.
Take these lines from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ English language debut Down the Rabbit Hole: “I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads. That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money.” See? Funny. Did I mention the narrator is a seven year old who collects hats and happens to be the son of an infamous drug lord?
Mexico is constantly derided for its violence and corruption; the government, the political process, the police force and drug cartels, all rife and seemingly in cahoots or, perhaps worse, in conflict. This is not something lost on its inhabitants. It faces them every day when they open their eyes. A gritty and absurd fatalism is abundant in the humor of Mexican literature. This might come from the seemingly endless contradictions their homeland contains, a complexity of contemporary life impossible to ignore and, incidentally, who would want to? The Guilty, Juan Villoro’s incredibly compelling short story collection, displays these complexities to a thrilling degree. The writing is razor sharp, the satire brilliant and biting. There is hope. There is misery. There is optimism shaded by fatalism. You see? Everything is complex.
A celebrated journalist and novelist, Villoro’s English language debut presents seven expertly crafted stories that are funny and agile but also illuminating, exploring the paradox of being a Mexican in Mexico. Can everyone relate to the world-weary humor of these stories? Just about. There is a universality to these damaged characters laughing from the abyss because, as one quickly discovers, they are all of us.
The protagonist of the first story is a mariachi who is tired of being a mariachi and gets involved in adult films in order to find himself, only to further lose himself. The title story features two screenwriting brothers, one a trafficker in border crossers. “Holding Pattern” focuses on a bottled water salesman circling endlessly over London in the hopes of making a connecting flight. Villoro’s stories are populated by the exhausted and the desperate, people at the end of their ropes, all connected seamlessly by the world-weary humor of the condemned. In fiction, just as in life, levity is often a succor for anguish. It sustains us. It tells us we’re less alone. Humor is a form of grace. Villoro understands this. As tragic and hopeless as the subjects and characters may be, there is always the humor to keep us going. What at first appears to be a collection of curious and offbeat characters—soccer players, window washers, mariachis—quickly becomes the bleak and hysterical kin of the everyday. It’s not that these people are exciting to read because of their occupations; they’re exciting to read because, like us, they’re trying to survive.
Injured, but still playing soccer, the narrator of “The Whistle” remarks:
I got used to playing through the pain. Then I got used to the injections. I played on painkillers more often than a normal body should. But my body isn’t normal. It’s a kicked-in lump. When she was feeling for my nerve with the needle, the doctor talked about my calcified flesh, as if I were turning into a wall. I like that idea: a wall the opposing team smashes into, where Argentinians crack open their heads.
But even the world of soccer is teeming with violence and corruption. Keeping one’s sense of humor might be the only way of keeping one’s sanity. Later he considers heaven:
Heaven for strikers is full of balls, I guess. But for midfielders, heaven is an empty field where there’s nothing to do and you can finally scratch your nuts, the balls you haven’t been able to touch your whole career.
The interplay of flippancy and frustration is adroitly translated by Kimi Traube, who clearly understands the tone and nuance Villoro is going for. Finding the balance for expressing the downright unpleasant from the lips of a detached but likable narrator is no easy task. And, incidentally, why are these characters likable? Because they’ve been down hard roads. Life has dealt them bad hands. They’ve seen things. You just know it. And translating this feeling can’t be easy. Sometimes the effort involved in artfully translating a book is discernable, other times the art lies in its subtlety. The translation of The Guilty is striking in the sense that the reader distinctly hears the voices of Villoro’s characters, senses their desperation and disquiet; the perception of impending violence that’s palpable.
Another subject in this collection is Americans, or gringos. Reminiscent of the stories of Álvaro Enrigue, the give-and-take between Mexicans and Americans is a topic of fascination and comedy. Mexicans often look at their northern neighbors with a sense of charmed befuddlement and genuine perplexity, sometimes both at once. Samuel Katzenberg, the gluten-free gringo reporter in the story “Amigos Mexicanos” asks the narrator to be his contact in Mexico City as he searches for an “authentic” Mexico, after having done his “bazillionth story on Frida Kahlo.” Katzenberg, of course, asks about the violence: “How violent is Mexico City, really?” And the narrator reflects: “I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he’d get jumped: ‘Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.’”
The stories in The Guilty not only delve into the psyches of Mexicans but into the shallow perceptions “gringos” have toward Mexico. In fact, “Amigos Mexicanos” showcases the way we as neighbors perceive one another, chiefly through misunderstandings and shallow abstractions, seldom if ever correct, like a married couple continually misinterpreting the other, as if language were a hindrance more than a tool. At one point the narrator says: “The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else.” Yet these stories do the opposite by deciphering the myriad attitudes of its Mexican characters.
One of the most important aspects of translated literature, I think, is the glimpse we get of people in other places, how they think and feel and conduct their lives. If one doesn’t visit a country or speak its language there is simply no other way but through translation to open the door to these places. Do I think translators are magicians of a sort? I do. When I look back at the last ten years of books I’ve read, the stack would be largely diminished if translations were taken out. This wasn’t something I sought out, at least not at first, but after reading three or four Thomas Bernhard novels and just as many by Roberto Bolaño and an equal amount by Elena Ferrante and Javier Marías I was compelled to seek them out.
The service translations do isn’t easily summarized. It’s art. It’s literature and history. It’s a million unseen decisions oblivious to the reader. Sometimes, by default, it’s political. But it allows a person who’s willing to take the time a portal into the intricacies of another place, sometimes distant, other times right across a border. A collection like The Guilty displays the diverse challenges and staggering contradictions a country like Mexico embodies but without relying on gun-toting narcos or the simple cliches of good and bad. And lucky for us, this is done through the transcendent act of comedy.
I decided to write my first post about The Guilty for several reasons: it is a slight book (in size) and could easily disappear in the deluge of great books we’re getting sent and lucky enough to read. It is also a debut (in English) and like any debut, the future of that author’s works rests heavily upon its success. Although Villoro is highly regarded in Mexico (and has a large body of work in Spanish) it is often the success of that debut that determines if readers will see any more books by that writer in translation.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Up until college, I didn’t put much, if any, thought into my reading methods. I read what I was assigned for school, and outside of that, read what I wanted, when I wanted to. During college I started choosing an order to read books in, planning a dozen at a time. After some years, I found a new reading method: reading an author’s entire oeuvre, in linear fashion, then moving on to another. I mention all this, leaving out minor phases, and variations of the methods, because as a BTBA judge, I have to come up with a new pattern, while preserving as much of my current habits as I can.
I read multiple books at a time, different types for different reasons, and a genre novel is always one. I deeply love genre, it dominated my childhood reading, particularly science fiction, but also detective, noir, fantasy. This foundation fell apart, during some of those insufferable years of young lit snob pretension, but for years now, has reestablished and strengthened itself. Not wanting to leave this, my eyes seek out genre-in-translation when I peruse and stack books as they arrive.
For years now, since well before Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, crime fiction has been translated in relatively high numbers, and even more so in the time since that series’ success. In recent years, we’ve had the modern, unrelenting Scandinavians, hard-boiled classics like Manchette, the contemporary grim Mediterranean noir of Jean-Claude Izzo and Massimo Carlotto, the resurgence of Simenon, so I had no worries about finding translated crime novels to read this year. Science fiction, however, generally hasn’t faired as well. After all, we’re still waiting for the Bill Johnston translation of Stanislov Lem’s utter classic, Solaris to make it into a print edition.
There does seem to be a tide of change coming though. When a conversation with a translation fan rambles on long enough, more often than not, affection for science fiction comes up. Foreign, seemingly highbrow, authors are more welcoming of genre, and less determined to blend it, or make it literary, justify it as many English-language writers do. With these things, and crime fiction’s success, it’s satisfying to see translated science fiction getting healthier. University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Frontier of the Imagination series has been publishing translations years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Melville House has published both modern authors like Jean-Christophe Valtat and classic ones like the Strugatsky brothers. Lui Cixin’s Three Body Problem had mainstream success in the SF world. Andri Snær Magnason’s “Vonnegutian LoveStar”: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6702 is brilliantly fun satire of contemporary life, tossed a few years in the future.
Those efforts help set up the BTBA SF books this year. Leading the way, if only for their flashy covers and early arrival in my mailbox, are the first two publications in Restless Books’ Cuban Science Fiction series. A Planet for Rent and A Legend of the Future have little in common besides being Cuban and good. This is a fine move by Restless, not making a cultural statement about what Cuban SF is, instead just letting the books do what translation does best: offer the literature from other languages that most deserves to be read, and lay out alternative stories, or alternative ways to tell familiar stories.
A Legend of the Future—translated by Nick Caistor, whose name seems to be popping up on excellent translations rather frequently—is by Agustin de Rojas, who the jacket copy calls the “patron saint of Cuban science fiction.” He died in 2011 and published this book in 1985. On the other hand, Planet for Rent was published in 2001, the author goes only by Yoss, and he looks like Criss Angel with a DFW bandana. The differences are not all biographical detail. Rojas’s is a straightforward novel, and in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke in that the book is about people doing their jobs. The characters of his book and Clarkes’ are scientists as professionals. In Legend of the Future, an extended, deep-space journey with a small crew turns disastrous, half the crew dies, the captain is left nearly paralyzed, only able to speak, another is distraught, and a third has a slowly-explained conditioning triggered in her. They work desperately, yet rationally, skillfully, to figure out what exactly went wrong, what they can do about it, and how to get home.
Throughout, cohesively worked into the narrative as part of the conditioning, as memories vividly relived as like hallucinations, reveal just how tightly-knit this crew was, still is, and the philosophy and indoctrination that created that. The characters are put in situations, through changes, only possible in SF, but the psychological exploration of death, desires, thoughts, and values among deeply emotional-connected people struggling to find a way to survive catastrophe is relatable and human. It’s a fantastic book, well-plotted and paced, that plays with some traditional SF rules and gambits, while ever-exciting in the new avenues it creates.
Plot and human relationships are the main forces in Legend of the Future, while Planet for Rent, translated by David Frye, is in the allegorical SF tradition and tells multiple stories instead of just one: it made up of short stories separated by narratives about the world Yoss built, allowing for info-dumps without awkward interruptions. In the future, advanced alien races have decided that humans will destroy themselves before being able to join the larger galactic civilization. With that, the aliens take over, instituting their own rules for fuel use and population growth. They wipe out cities, as punishment, as a way of showing their dominance, and to reestablish “ecological balance.”
Under this harsh rule, the police state with its swift and severe punishments, the purposeful structural poverty, the denial of emigration, Earth becomes a parable for a third world nation, as administrated by a country like the US. It survives on tourism, on selling its culture, and its bodies, all for the entertainment of the rich xenoids, and the humans who successfully collude. The stories are about the sex trade, art, illegal emigration, and inter-species offspring. Yoss’s writing is politically and socially motivated, but by committing to the genre, the imaginative aspects, the entertainment takes precedent over any agenda—at times, one to one connections with reality are clear, other times left in the dust of creative drive.
It is hard to imagine either book written by an English-language author. Rojas’s for its basis in a scientific culture that preaches ideology of the collective, and its conflicted take on that, portraying affection for it and damage done by it. Yoss’s for the remarkably clear expression of how whole cultures and economies are hobbled by more economically and industrially dominant cultures, preaching both their superiority and beneficence, but a clarity not self-righteous, not so committed to message that craft and art are lost, as an English-language author, determined to speak for others, could easily do.
It’s early in the year, dozens more books are going to come to my mailbox, including SF, and hopefully those will live up to these two. I’m in the beginning of Martin Vopenka’s Fifth Dimension, handpicked by translator Hana Sklenkova as one of the best untranslated Czech SF novels. A man, his business and career ruined, for a large sum of money agrees to live in isolation from everyone, including his family, for a year as part of an as-yet unexplained experiment. This beginning touches on one of the pleasures of SF set in the present: the tension of waiting for the SF kernel to expand. I’m looking forward to receiving Taiyo Fujii’s Gene Mapper, translated from the Japanese by Jim Hubbert, a highly praised and awarded contemporary novel. It pushes technological advances and predictions 30 years into the future and I like that type of SF while harboring an affection for Japanese literature.
As with the rest of translated works, as much as there is, I want more translated SF. I want to read the freshest, weirdest SF that other countries are putting out. I want to read the classics that are only just making it into English. I want to see how writers from other countries are affected by English-language writers, to see old ideas in new interpretations. There are books coming out this year I’ve yet to discover, so if you work for a press publishing SF in translation this year, or a fan of any, let me know. I don’t want to miss any of it, and I may find myself writing a second SF post. If you’re a SF fan, talk to fans of translation; if you’re a translation fan, talk to SF fans. Let’s get those worlds, with all their overlap, working to get more of these books into the world.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago.
Recently, Benjamin Moser, author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times discussing the state and struggle of international literature in English translation. Among the statistics and observations of what it takes to bring great writers of non-English languages to not only America, but the world at large, Moser notes that “Literature is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive,” but cautions against the homogeneity that our English-ruled world could impose upon that very same literature.
The Japanese novelist and critic, Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language In The Age of English, is half memoir of a writer finding her literary voice through U.S. education and the ultimate decision to practice her art in her native (and dying) Japanese. The other half is a much more academic screed against the very same homogeneity that Moser openly struggles with. To Mizumura, this homogeneity is a present threat that endangers the truths in literature that cannot be translated no matter how hard we work at it. In the shadow of that threat lies her steadfast loyalty to writing not only in her native tongue, but also with a conscious awareness and reverence for the literary traditions of Japan.
To Mizumura, dying languages are worth preserving through literature. To Moser, literature of all languages is worth translating. In fact, works of lost literature are waiting to be discovered.
Both Moser and Mizumura mention the invasive reality of English on the world of literature. In their own separate ways, both argue for the concurrent needs to both preserve and promote regional literatures. It is a delicate balance, to be certain. One actively pursues new translations from the Portuguese. The other consciously writes in her native tongue despite being educated in America. One brings a nearly forgotten voice into English on a wider scale than ever before. The other reinterprets an English classic to reflect the post-war conditions of Japanese tradition in the face of the American led industrial globalized society. It is, however, a society that has led to opportunities of discovering more international writing as well as the decline of the very traditions that Mizumura laments in the wake of popular writers such as Haruki Murakami.
Where, then, does this place the three percent figure that is front and center to the English reading world in relation to works in translation? How does someone like me, who is only fluent in the most dominant of languages (with some understanding of casual kitchen Spanish and a picture-book reading competence in German) become so interested in translated fiction? How do I convince others to pick up a lesser known novel that took more than a year of laborious and patient translation work and give it a chance? Why does it matter?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as not only a bookseller, but as a person in an ever-increasingly connected world.
First, I think it matters exactly because we are living within such prevalent connection. Connections that can seem intimate, but so often result in quick flashes and selfies across our screens . . . gone in less time than it takes for Nicholas Cage to steal a sports car. Literature, for me, has always been about curiosity in other perspectives about the world, whether that is a personal narrative of universal human themes or a plot-driven story that pushes us to think in different ways. In a world where seemingly everyone has access to each other all the time, literature gives us a moment of pause and growth. A pause that doesn’t always present itself to us in a media saturated globalized world.
Convincing other people to take these pauses in others’ experiences of the world—especially from other cultures—often boils down to curiosity, which is a quality I find most readers possess. Though it may make Mizumura’s hair stand on end, I don’t see it as much of a stretch to point out to casual readers that learning how one Japanese individual cleans her apartment (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up) isn’t that far removed from learning how one Afrikaner woman organizes and makes sense of her life and family history (Karel Schoeman’s This Life). A stretch for some, of course, but you’d be surprised at how many customers in my store don’t realize that one of the most popular books currently featured on daytime talk shows is translated from another language . . . and how much pointing that fact out to them has opened them to the realization that translated works of all kinds can be relevant, interesting, and perhaps even important to them.
My conscious interest in international literature started unexpectedly when the editor of this site, Chad W. Post, reached into the trunk of his car and handed me a strange and little known novel by the British experimental writer, Ann Quin. The book was Tripticks and I was told it was “British and intense and about America.” I doubt Chad remembers the exchange, but I read the book and thought it was like nothing I had read before. There was a beat sensibility to it and a Woolf-like tone, but with a completely different feel and a critical romanticism about America that I found utterly compelling. And for some unknown reason, It stuck in my head that it was British. It wasn’t British like Dickens or Austen or Hardy. It was something new to me. From that point, I remember paying more attention to where authors were from and began consciously seeking out contemporary novels from other countries and cultures.
Despite the rampant spread and saturation of the English language in culture and literature, an English novel about America led me to the wider world of international literature and, in part, to a genuine curiosity in understanding experiences around the world. From a bookselling perspective, I don’t see why a book about cleaning your clutter can’t do the same. Of course, with the popularity of authors like Knausgaard or Murakami among readers these days, leading someone to the next translated novel isn’t often that much of a stretch, but with only three percent of all books published in America being translated, I’m happy to have an entry point for readers available anywhere I can find one.
As for approaching four percent, it may not be something achievable in the near future for books in translation based on scale alone, but I’m seeing small micro publishers sprout up regularly who are dedicating their efforts toward bringing international literature to the English reader. In a way, the larger issues that Moser and Mizumura struggle with and passionately work for aren’t dissimilar from what I aim to do as a bookseller. Every day I work to preserve the importance of taking the time to read books while simultaneously aiming to open people up to discovering the myriad nuances of art and experience.
Over the next year, I’ll be reading through as many of the hundreds of eligible titles for the 2016 BTBA as I can. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the process. But as much as I’ll be offering my opinions and reactions to the books themselves, I’m also interested in sharing what I’ve seen happening in translation at the bookselling level. From the energetic and passionate publishers I’ve been in communication with to the unique ways that different bookstores work to point out the existence and importance of international lit, there are amazing things happening to bring more readers (and more books) into the three percent realm many of us are eager to grow.
As with past years, every week one of the Best Translated Book Award judges will be posting their thoughts and observations on some of the books that they’re reading for this year’s award. Stacey Knecht agreed to kick things off today with this post.
Yes, I live in the Netherlands. No, I don’t live in Amsterdam. (Believe it or not, there’s an entire country attached to that city.) My home is Zwolle, an elegant old Hanseatic town situated in what is often referred to, especially by the more urbanized Dutch, as “the Provinces.” Our house is right around the corner from Zwolle’s central station, with trains running to nearly every major European city on the map. One hour to Amsterdam, three to Brussels, five to Paris, seven to Berlin, twelve to Prague or Vienna, sixteen to Budapest . . . you can even travel to Athens, if you’ve got a few days to spare. At night I lie in bed listening to the faint rumble of trains en route to places that, long ago, when I was growing up on the other side of the Atlantic, seemed farther away than the moon.
For the next few months, I’ll be reading through the many hundreds of contenders for the BTBA 2016. And since I live in such close proximity to so much of Europe, why not read these books, whenever possible, in the countries in which they were written? Literature on location. Every few months, I’ll report my findings on this blog, starting right here, in my own backyard, with the prizewinning Dutch novel Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, first published in 2010 and now available to English readers.
Despite its immense popularity here in the Netherlands, and perhaps wary of the hype, I hadn’t read Bonita Avenue until now, in the English translation by Jonathan Reeder. I was pleasantly surprised at how credibly the novel has assumed its English form. The book has been compared to various works by Jonathan Franzen; I can see why, but while Franzen tugs at my heartstrings, Bonita Avenue is darker. I found myself putting it aside now and again, delaying what I dreaded was yet to come.
Bonita Avenue tells of Siem Sigerius, a brilliant professor and ambitious politician, whose interactions with his “family of prevaricators” (a son charged with murder, a pornstar stepdaughter and her psychotic boyfriend) lead to his downfall—and theirs. The story moves back and forth through time and place, from “provincial” Enschede (or as one of Buwalda’s characters describes it, “that godforsaken hick town in Twente”), to Brussels, Belgium, to the eponymous Bonita Avenue, in California, the only place where the family has ever been happy. The town of Enschede, where Sigerius lives and teaches, is the site of an actual event that plays an essential role in the book: on May 13, 2000, an explosion in a fireworks depot demolished the surrounding neighborhood of Roombeek, leaving 23 dead, nearly 1,000 wounded, and 1,250 homeless. I remember sitting in front of the television just after it happened, staring at the charred expanse where a neighborhood used to be (and thinking it was only a matter of time before someone incorporated those images into a novel).
Buwalda makes the disaster—and its repurcussions—tangible, while at the same time giving it the space to evolve into a chilling metaphor: things fall apart, but we don’t always see it coming, even if the threat has been there all along. When Siem Sigerius first hears of the catastrophe, in a news broadcast on TV in a Shanghai hotel room, he doesn’t realize what he’s seeing, nor does he make any attempt to find out: “There’s an item about an accident in some foreign country. He sees a European-looking residential neighborhood with fireworks exploding above the houses in broad daylight. The crackle and claps on the TV get louder, the picture becomes choppy—his eyes fall shut.” Siem’s stepdaughter Joni considers the possibility that the fireworks disaster might actually have been the cause of the family’s breakdown: “A physical disaster like a fireworks accident is a maternity ward where new disasters are born.” When her boyfriend Aaron, who lives in Roombeek but happened to be abroad at the time of the explosion, finally returns home, he discovers that his house, at least on the outside, is still intact:
Glass. He’d heard endless accounts of the shock wave, an invisible Hun that swept relentlessly through the streets of Roombeek without skipping a single address—and still he was awestruck. The entire ground floor, which felt small after two weeks chez Sigerius, was littered with splinters, shards, and rubble. On the table, on the armchair seat cushions, on every uncovered centimeter of his bookshelves, between the buttons on the remote control, on the windowsills of opposing windows, one of which had been blown out, in the kitchen sink, on the cabinets—there was glass everywhere.
The rest of the neighborhood, everything familiar to him, is gone, literally blown to bits. And in the end Aaron, too, along with the disturbing constellation of his family-in-law, will crumble and fall.
Recently on Internet, a reviewer wondered why the Dutch were always writing about dysfunctional families. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly Dutch preoccupation, though I’d be curious to hear the views of other readers. I do think that the staidness of cities and towns like Enschede are the perfect setting for literary explosion, emotional or otherwise. One of my favorite contemporary Dutch novels, The Happy Hunting Grounds by Nanne Tepper (translated by Sam Garrett), is set in East Groningen and depicts a brother and sister gutwrenchingly in love against the backdrop of dusty, desolate potato fields—not the Netherlands most tourists flock to see. From the book jacket: “Swift’s Waterland soaks into McEwan’s Cement Garden in this shocking and intense debut. Incest, madness & romance in the peat.” Suspicious as I am of blurb texts, this one hits the mark. The author, described at the time as “a born writer who will be one of the most important authors of his generation,” committed suicide in 2012, aged 50, as if to underscore the futility of trying to make peace with this life.
And not only in the Netherlands.
It’s only been a a month and a half since Can Xue’s The Last Lover and Rocio Ceron’s Diorama won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, but given the number of eligible titles (over 550 last year), we’re getting the process started as early as possible this year, which is why, today, we’re ready to announce the new list of judges for the 2016 fiction prize.
(Sorry, the poetry jury isn’t finalized yet, but will be shortly. Given the disparity in number of titles eligible for the two awards, I thought it would be ok to do fiction now, poetry in a few weeks. If you’re a publisher looking to submit some poetry titles, just hold tight, that information will be forthcoming.)
It’s possible we may tweak these dates at a later date, but for right now, here’s what we’re planning on for this iteration of the award:
Longlists Announced on March 29, 2016
Finalists on April 26, 2016
Winners on May 11, 2016
And just to review, any translation published for the first time ever (no retranslations, no reprints) between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 is eligible. The deadline for submitting fiction books to the jury is November 30, 2015 (extensions can be granted, just email me). (Poetry will have a deadline of December 31, 2015.)
Although the judges are provided with a list of all eligible titles (generated from the translation database) and will look at every title on there, the best way for a publisher/author/translator to ensure that their title has the best shot at making the longlist is to simply send a copy of the eligible title to all of the judges. (And to me for record keeping.) Most judges prefer hardcopies, but if necessary, an electronic version is fine. There is no cost for submitting titles for the award.
OK, so here’s this year’s crop of judges:
Amanda Bullock is the festival and events manager at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, where she is overseeing the relaunch of Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival in fall 2015. Prior to Literary Arts, she served as director of public programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City. She is also the co-founder and -organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
Heather Cleary’s translations include two novels by Sergio Chejfec—The Planets (finalist, BTBA) and The Dark (nominee, National Translation Award)—and Poems to Read on a Streetcar, a selection of Oliverio Girondo’s poetry (PEN Translation Fund grant). She is a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, writes for publications including Words Without Borders and Music & Literature, and holds a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University.
Kevin Elliott is a bookseller and manager of 57th Street Books in Chicago, IL, the official bookstore of BTBA2016. (For winning last year’s bookstore display contest!) Find them on twitter @57streetbooks.
Kate Garber has worked as a bookseller, book buyer and event coordinator for over eight years. Previously at the Harvard Coop and Strand Bookstore, she is currently store manager and buyer at 192 Books in the Chelsea gallery district of Manhattan. She is also co-founder of and illustrator for Tiny Tastes, a children’s health app.
Jason Grunebaum is a senior lecture of Hindi at the University of Chicago. His English translation of Uday Prakash’s Hindi novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant and was longlisted for the 2014 National Translation Award, and his translation of a trio of Prakash novellas entitled The Walls of Delhi was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was a semifinalist for the Jan Michalski Prize. He also has been awarded a NEA Literature Fellowship for the translation, in collaboration with Ulrike Stark, of Manzoor Ahtesham’s The Tale of the Missing Man.
Mark Haber was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Clearwater, Florida. He currently lives in Houston, Texas where he is a champion for literature at Brazos Bookstore but especially literature in translation. He had a book of short stories published in 2008 by Summerfolk Press.
Stacey Knecht is a translator of Czech and Dutch literature. Her translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Harlequin’s Millions was a runner-up for the Best Translated Book Award 2015. She is currently working on two new Hrabals: Who I Am and The Tender Barbarian.
Amanda Nelson is the Managing Editor of Book Riot and one of the co-hosts of the Book Riot podcast. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
P. T. Smith is a writer and reader living in Vermont. His work has appeared in Three Percent, Quarterly Conversation, Quebec Reads, and Music and Literature, among others.
To make this process as easy as possible, we’ve already emailed all the publishers we’re aware of with eligible titles and send along these two documents: a mailing label PDF and another version listing everyone’s emails.
If you’re a publisher who hasn’t been contacted, but has an eligible book that deserves consideration, all you need to do is mail a copy to the judges on the above mailing label. That’s it! Super easy.
Best of luck to all the authors and translators with titles coming out this year, and we’ll be back later today with the first BTBA judge’s post of the new award season.
The eighth annual Best Translated Book Awards were announced at BookExpo America this afternoon, with Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, taking home the award for fiction, and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong, winning in poetry.
Thanks again to the support of Amazon.com’s giving programs, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000.
“I’m so excited,” Can Xue said when she was reached for a comment, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing that has happened in my whole life. I always think of the BTBA as a very prestigious prize rewarding writers who have the great courage to achieve their literary ambitions.”
According to the jury, Can Xue’s (“tsan shway”) The Last Lover (published by Yale University Press) was the most radical and uncompromising of this year’s finalists, pushing the novel form into bold new territory. Journeying through a dreamworld as strange yet disquietingly familiar as Kafka’s Amerika, The Last Lover proves radiantly original. If Orientalists describe an East that exists only in the Western imagination, Can Xue describes its shadow, offering a beguiling dream of a Chinese West. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation succeeds in crafting a powerful English voice for a writer of singular imagination and insight.
The judges also named three runners-up in fiction: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht and published by Archipelago Books, for the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences; Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney and published by Coffee House Press, for the exceptional promise it demonstrates as a debut novel; and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions, for its vibrant characters and sweeping narrative power.
On the poetry side of things, David Shook, the co-founder and editorial director of Phoneme Media “congratulates translator Anna Rosenwong for her masterful translation of Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, our first book of poetry and one of the most fascinating and important books to have been published in Mexico this century. Phoneme Media is incredibly grateful for the support of the BTBA’s judges and organizers, to Three Percent and its indefatigable director Chad Post, to our fellow shortlisted publishing houses, translators, and authors, and to our readers around the world. Congratulations, Anna and Rocío, on receiving this much deserved award!”
Past winners of the fiction award include: Seiobo There Below and Satantango, both by László Krasznahorkai (recent recipient of the Man Booker International Prize) and translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes respectively; Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston; and, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. (Jansson and Teal are the only author and translator on this year’s fiction shortlist who have previously won the award.)
In terms of the poetry award, past winners include: The Guest in the Wood by Elisa Biagini, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky; Wheel with a Single Spoke by Nichita Stănescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter; and Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander.
This year’s fiction jury is made up of: George Carroll, North-North-West and Shelf Awareness; Monica Carter, Salonica; James Crossley, Island Books; Scott Esposito, Conversational Reading and Center for the Art of Translation; Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books; Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Asymptote; Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature; Daniel Medin, American University of Paris, Cahiers Series, Quarterly Conversation, and the White Review; and Michael Orthofer, Complete Review.
The poetry jury includes: Biswamit Dwibedy, poet; Bill Martin, translator, critic, organizer of The Bridge; Dawn Lundy Martin, poet; Erica Mena, poet and translator; and Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories and translator.
This is just a reminder for any and everyone in the New York area—especially those of you who are attending BookExpo America.
The official announcement of this year’s Best Translated Book Award winners will take place tomorrow, Wednesday, May 27th, at 2:30pm at the Eastside Stage in the Jacob Javitz Center. Judges Katrine Ogaard Jensen and Jeremy Garber will be there to announce the fiction, and judge Bill Martin will do the poetry.
Following that announcement, everyone in NY with an interest in international literature will be gathering at The Folly (92 W. Houston Street, near Thompson) at 5pm for drinks and appetizers. This is open to the public, so be sure and come by!
For this week’s podcast, we invited Best Translated Book Award Fiction Chair Monica Carter on to talk about the finalists for this year’s awards. Monica graciously gave us some insight into the voting process, revealed which of the final ten was a “personal pick” of one of the judges, and managed to make us second guess who we thought would win the award. Additionally, we talked about the differences between the UK vs. U.S. book scenes, and had some rants, raves, and sports talk.Read More...
Although the judges have been reading books all year, if you're a publisher, author, or translator, and want to make sure that your works are being considered, feel free to contact any and all of the panelists. Mailing list of the poetry judges is forthcoming. Click here for a mailing list of the fiction judges (here for one with emails). If you have any questions, please contact Chad Post.
There's no entry fee, all you have to do is mail one copy (or send an e-version) of your publication to each of the appropriate panelists. Please indicate that the package is a 2016 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until November 30, 2015. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until December 31, 2015.