This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Lori Feathers, an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, freelance book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Follow her online @LoriFeathers. 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.
Most of us believe that we are something greater than a body, that our conscious self has significance beyond the physical shell and internal organs and systems that substantiate us. I am one of the believers. Yet thought, mood, and life itself are captive to the body’s faults, its intermittent betrayal of our desire to feel and project vigor and good health. Here are some favorite BTBA titles that captivated me with stories about the body.
Seeing Red, Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)
In her searing autobiographical novel Meruane describes what it was like to lose her eyesight at thirty, a side effect of severe diabetes. The precise moment when she loses total sight in one eye (followed soon after by an almost complete loss in the other) leaps from the page in vivid language that portrays a sense of wonderment that effaces self-pity:
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
What resonates about Seeing Red is how intimate it feels, not simply in the manner that memoir is personal but the way that Meruane takes us insider her visionless existence, a world in which “seeing” the realities of life and love do not require sight.
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, Lola Lafon (translated by Nick Caistor)
I remember Nadia Comãneci. She was the elfish wunderkind whose blurry image was ever-present on my family’s prehistoric television screen in the summer of 1976. I wanted to be like Nadia—taut and sinewy in a white leotard, defying gravity, moving through space straight and sharp as an arrow. But then how could I, an eight year old with little self-discipline, have any notion of the pain, persistence, and personal sacrifice required to be Nadia? In Lola Lafon’s fictionalized account of the gymnast’s career we come to understand just what it took and the repercussions.
The world’s imagine of Nadia as an unbreakable, doll-like creature was the product of an obsessed media and her indomitable coach, Béla Károlyi. Much of Lafon’s story focuses on how a once-adoring public turned on Nadia when her body started to mature. Nadia’s developing breasts and widening hips were met with derision. No one wanted to see the tiny prodigy become a woman. They needed her to continue looking like a child to feed their adoration. As a result, Nadia felt betrayed by her body. She referred to puberty as “The Illness” and fought to keep it at bay:
The Illness is advancing. It’s invading her, gnawing away at her previous existence. Its latest manifestation: last Friday as she sprints towards the vault. Everything seems normal. But as she runs, something else begins to move, a ridiculous, jolting movement: extra flesh that isn’t part of her, but of which she can feel every quiver, every repugnant autonomous fatty cell.
…unacceptable betrayal, a sniggering uppercut: she would love to cut them off, these whatsits—she refuses to say the word breasts—this capitulation forcing her in the direction of all the others: the girls at high school. [ . . . ] They’re so comfortable you can sink into them like cushions. And now, it makes her nauseous, she too has become comfortable. Ugly. Shapeless. [ . . . ]
Lafon’s book is a painful story of objectification that sheds a damning light on the way that society views female athletes and how these views distort girls’ self-image. Today we may have become just a bit more accepting of a variety of female athletes’ body types but without a doubt, the prejudices and misogynistic attitudes mostly persist.
The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)
From its title it would be easy to assume that The Heart is about romantic love. Buyer beware: this is not the stuff of cupids and roses, but a novel about a heart, the internal organ of a certain young man:
The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; . . .
At the risk of revealing too much, Simon suffers a life-threatening accident, and his parents are faced with painful and exigent life and death decisions regarding his care. De Kerangal’s descriptions of Simon’s body and the medical procedures that are performed on it are so crystalline that you cannot help but feel a deep sense of awe for the human body:
. . . The heart is explanted from Simon Limbres’s body. It’s crazy, you can see it—there, in the air—for a brief moment you can apprehend its mass and its volume, attempt to grasp its symmetrical form, its dual bulge, its beautiful color (crimson or vermilion), seek to match it to the universal pictogram of love, the playing card emblem, the T-shirt logo— . . . the organ held in the hand and exhibited to the world, streaming with tears of blood but haloed with radiant light . . .
Rage, Zygmunt Miloszewski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
A different sort of “body book,” Rage is a murder mystery set in modern day Poland. The prosecutor’s primary clue is a complete, seemingly intact skeleton comprised of the bones of a number of different people including that of a man who disappeared only two weeks prior, too soon to have naturally decomposed into a skeleton:
“Somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to complete the perfect skeleton,” he said. “To make sure that nothing is missing. You’ll be getting a full report from me, but the main findings are as follows: Most of the bones are Najman’s. But not all. [. . .]”
. . . Several theories ran through his head, each worse than the last. And each one featured a miserable psycho, lurking in the cellar of one of those Warmian Disney castles, surrounded by little heaps of bones sorted by type, and ticking off the missing items needed to complete his work. Screw that.
“So these are the bones of five different people?” he asked, to confirm it. “Our victim in the starring role, the bit players being the man who owned the hand, the man who owned one ear, the woman who owned the other, and in a walk-on role, the lady who kindly donated the missing parts.”
Author Zygmunt Miloszewski is Poland’s best-selling author, and reading Rage it’s easy to understand why. The novel’s protagonist, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, strikes the perfect balance of sarcasm, determination, and jaded sophistication—a gumshoe with a distinctive voice that, in Llyod-Jones’s flowing translation, makes for a thrilling read.
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.
Small in size and epic in scale, Moonstone is Sjón’s fourth novel to be translated into English from the Icelandic. The setting is 1918 Reykjavik and besides a Europe on the cusp of war, a global influenza epidemic has reached the city. Mani Steinn, the main character, is a young man attempting to survive the threats, both seen and unseen, which arrive from every direction of the city and world. Steinn is also a homesexual at a time when being queer was not only unacceptable, it was unfathomable. Steinn finds solace and companionship in the quiet escape of movies, their titles sprinkled cleverly throughout the novel that make clever nods to periods of time as well as art movements.
The cinemas themselves are seen as breeding grounds for corrupting the imagination of the young as well as eventually becoming sites of the flu contagion itself. The writing is lucid and sharp, and the translation by Victoria Cribb elegant and restrained. It was the first Sjón novel I had read and I found it particularly moving. Certain scenes from the book, fumigating a cinema with chlorine, the main characters sheathed in black, stayed with me for weeks. As well as powerful, Moonstone is an exercise in precision, never falling into pretension when it would be all too easy.
Mixing sex and history, even cinema, Moonstone is an inspiring novel that explores the ways dreams and imagination inform our realities while quietly showing a Europe on the edge of apocalypse. Although fiction, the book is something very personal to the author and which only announces itself on the final page. Wonderful indeed.
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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.
During a recent trip to Havana, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Cuban writer Yoss (né José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), whose Super Extra Grande is under consideration for the BTBA 2017, which fiction judge Rachel Cordasco profiled in her September blog post.
I met Yoss by chance as I meandered down the sidewalk that runs along the Coppelia ice-cream park (think Strawberry and Chocolate), opposite the Yara movie house, at L and 23, arguably Havana’s most iconic intersection. I was with Eliezer Jiménez, the owner of Cuba’s most colorful independent bookstores, frequented by every American, Latin American, and European academic worth their salt.
After returning from Havana, it occurred to me to check the number of books on the BTBA list written by Cubans. The magic number turned out to be four: Zoé Valdés’s The Weeping Woman (Arcade), translated by David Frye, who, it so happens, also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande (Restless Books), Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, also published by Restless Books, and, finally, 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara, the late grandson of Che Guevara-cum-anti-Castro-dissent, translated by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions. [Ed. Note: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, translated by Nick Caistor, published by Atria, also counts.]
Of the four writers, only Yoss and de Rojas, who died in 2011, wrote their nominated books on the island. My interest, however, is not to engage in a polemic about, much less downplay the importance of, Cuban diasporic writers. My point, I hope, will become clearer as you read.
Valdés, who began her writing career in Cuba, now lives and writes in Paris. Sánchez Guevara’s claim to the laurel “Cuban writer,” however, is much more tenuous. Although born in Cuba, to Che Guevara’s oldest daughter, his father was Mexican Alberto Sánchez, a revolutionary who hijacked a Boeing 727 in Monterrey and forced it to land in Cuba. Raised in Milan, Barcelona, and Mexico City, Sánchez Guevara returned to his native Cuba in 1986 at the age of 12, only to abandon the island nine years later, following the death of his mother. If nothing else, these biographical details remind us that the label “Cuban writer” can be fraught with complexity.
With the exception of Leonardo Padura, and perhaps Wendy Guerra, Yoss is perhaps the writer most well-known outside the island. Like Padura and Guerra, that recognition comes not just from translation but also from having been published abroad. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that their works were published outside the island is responsible for their having been translated.
In fact, of the four novels, only El año 200 was published in Cuba, by Editorial Letras Cubanas, a publishing house located in Old Havana, on Calle Obispo. Founded in 1977, two years after the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, during the years of the so-called restoration, Letras Cubanas, which also published Valdés’s first novel, was charged with publishing works by national authors as a means of incentivizing and promoting Cuban literature. Unfortunately, as Leonardo Padura pointed out in a 2012 address to the Casa de las Américas, being published on the island can be more a curse than a blessing. Please indulge the lengthy quote:
What changed in the territory of creation, and specifically of Cuban literature, was a sum of material and spiritual circumstances that, combined, were able to redefine the situation of the writer living in Cuba and to alter in a rather radical way the content and intentions of his work. Among those elements was the aforementioned paralysis of the country’s publishing industry, which motivated writers to search the world for a literary prize that would save them from poverty and, at the same time, enable them to publish their work without, for the first time in three decades, their editorial intentions being a sin, punishable like all sins. [. . .]
Above all, there is the certainty that Cuban writing is an act or vocation of faith, an almost mystical exercise. In a country in which publication, distribution, commercialization, and promotion of literature functions according to generally extra-artistic and noncommercial circumstances, a search for cultural balance, and even random codes of impossible systemization, the writer’s situation and role become unstable and difficult to maintain. Writers who publish in Cuba receive for their work royalties paid in the increasingly devalued national currency, amounts often paid independent of the quality of the work or its reception by the public. These fees, of course, make the option of writing professionally almost impossible (which, it’s fair to say, is rather common in the rest of the world), often influencing the quality of the work. [. . .]
Nor can one forget that with considerable frequency the Cuban writer who lives and writes in Cuba must also confront a scarce advertising industry, many times due to the very absence of a book market within the country, but also due to the disastrous state of domestic literary criticism and the still-present political suspicion about what a critic can be subjected to if his work does not comply with the precepts of orthodoxy established during those distant times, or with the limits of “correctness” imposed in the 1970s. The sum of these elements has created, against the very validation of the literature that is being written in the country, the feeling that for two generations the island has scarcely produced—or simply has not produced—writers of importance, creating a false image of a vacuum.1
Ironically, it is precisely Padura’s international (read: commercial) success that provided him a platform from which to criticize the state of publishing in Cuba. What’s more, it is precisely the industry that he criticizes that drives Cuban writers to publish their novels off the island, or, in Yoss’s case, to submit their novels to competitions, such as the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) Prize in Science-Fiction, which he subsequently won. The prize not only carried a 6,000 Euro purse but also digital publication, which created, at the very least contributed to, the likelihood that the novel would be translated and, consequently, eligible for consideration for the BTBA.
If we are to believe Padura, and I do, of the four novelists, Yoss and de Rojas traveled the most obstacle-laden path to the BTBA, as much for their genre, science fiction, as for their publishing provenance. That Valdés and Sánchez Guevara published their works for Planeta and Alfaguara respectively made the path much more travelable.
All in all, the four novels seem to have little in common. I will not quote or comment on Super Extra Grande or 33 Revolutions, which have already been featured on this blog. See instead Rachel Cordasco’s and Jennifer Croft’s excellent introductions. This leaves me, instead, to comment briefly on Valdés’s The Weeping Woman and de Rojas’s The Year 200.
Winner of Planeta’s Azorín Prize, Valdés’s novel follows the relationship of Picasso and his lover-muse Dora Mara, the subject of many of the Spanish artist’s paintings, including, you guessed it, one titled “The Weeping Woman.”
At first blush, the novels of Elena Poniatowska come to mind, especially Querido Diego and Dos veces única, both of which rescue the memory of two women who were married to and served as muses for Diego Rivera, but with hints to Jackie Collins. Unlike Poniatowska’s novels, The Weeping Woman seems less inclined to rescue Dara Mara than to novelize her. The prose, at times, reads like the light literature of nineteenth-century French feuilletons of writers like Ponson du Terrail:
Yes, it was a young woman, not exactly pretty, but by her shape she was the type of woman the artist might find attractive. Blond, sublime green eyes, shock of straight and slightly flaxen hair, a soft complexion. She wasn’t vulgar, and she knew how to walk—that is, she walked with a sway in her hips, as if she were dancing, undulating with the rhythmic disdain of a mermaid.
As mentioned, The Weeping Woman was translated by David Frye, who also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande. As a translator, I cannot imagine shifting between two more radically different genres and registers. Frye does so, however, with aplomb.
Translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, The Year 200 (Restless Books) was originally published in 1990 as El año 200. Known perhaps best for his translation of Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century, and for working with co-translator Lorenza García, Caistor is one of my favorite Spanish-English translators working today. The following excerpt may give you an idea why:
The Hermitage Walls had vanished behind panels and consoles.
Multicolored dots zigzagged across some of the screens; others were covered with constantly changing figures; still more were dark. Flashing lights, leaping from bulb to bulb, column to column, in an unpredictable pattern.
Although I am not particularly a fan of science fiction, the novel’s quick, unadorned prose succeeded in holding my attention, which says as much for de Rojas’s writing as Caistor and Powell’s translation. That the second science fiction novel in this quartet of Cuban novels, Yoss’s Super Extra Grande, accomplished the same feat suggests that I should rethink my opinion of the genre.
After meeting Yoss in Havana, I continued with Eliezer down Avenida L to his bookshop, where I bought $250 worth of books, the majority written by Cuban writers, published on the island in a book industry imposed by socialism. Each of these books, however, are worth far more than the pennies they originally sold for or the CUC I paid for them. They also share another unfortunate fate: Most, if not all, will never be translated. More unfortunate, perhaps, is the knowledge that de Rojas didn’t live to see his novel translated and nominated for this prize. It is, after all, writers like de Rojas to whom Padura was referring, indeed championing, when he said:
Let’s not forget, as we recall the current situation of the resident Cuban writer and take note of some of his troubles and achievements, the most essential of the elements that define his character and the character of this work. Unlike other countries, where the most prominent or engaged writers tend to have a social or artistic presence thanks to the support of media with the greatest circulation or prestige, the Cuban writer has only his work and an occasional interview as a way of expressing his relationship to the world, to his reality, to his obsessions.
1 My translation of Padura’s address, “Writing in Cuba in the Twenty-first Century,” originally appeared in World Literature Today in May, 2013.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge Rachel Cordasco. 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.
I’ve only come across two books this year that take as their main narrator(s) a non-human creature: Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky; and Mr. Turtle by Yusaku Kitano, translated by Tyran Grillo (let me know if I missed any). But don’t think for a moment that the authors simply placed human emotions, experiences, and values in polar bear or cyborg turtle bodies and called it a day. Rather, Tawada and Kitano explore (to the extent that any of us can) the many nuances of non-human experiences in a human-dominated world. How can one successfully mingle with humans in their communities without the constant threat of suspicion and/or mockery? In what ways might creatures like polar bears and cyborg turtles experience reality that are at odds with how humans experience it? These are just two of the careful, curious questions that Tawada and Kitano raise in their novels, and their answers are both uplifting and heartbreaking. And yet, an even larger question grows out of these, one that points back toward us humans: what is it like to live as an outsider?
Why am I focusing on this topic/these two books in the first place? You can thank James Joyce’s Ulysses. I wrote a paper on this infuriatingly complex and complicated book back in grad school, and rather than rehashing all the old arguments about Leopold, Stephen, Molly, etc., I focused on what I thought was the most interesting character: the cat. Remember him? In four separate scenes, the cat figures prominently, whether “conversing” with Leopold about his breakfast or pointedly walking through a room. Thinking about the cat’s place in the narrative led me to William James’s (and others’) theories about animal consciousness and the roles that animals and other creatures play in stories about humans. Throughout my research, I kept coming back to the same core ideas: that we can never truly know the mind of another creature (we can’t even know the mind of another human, for that matter), but that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to see the world from their perspectives.
Ultimately, though, stories that include non-human perspectives are still stories about ourselves. What does our relationship to pets, for example, tell us about how we treat other people? Do our careless or dismissive attitudes toward non-humans reflect the ways in which we perceive people from cultures different from our own, or people with different abilities?
But back to the polar bear and the cyborg turtle. I’ve been calling both Memoirs and Mr. Turtle “speculative fiction,” but they represent very different strands of the genre. In Tawada’s novel, we have a three-part story, each one narrated by a polar bear from different generations of the same family (part of the second section is narrated by a human, Tosca’s trainer Barbara). Each bear “writes” his or her autobiography using human language, ideas, and imagery. And yet, throughout each story about circus training and life in East Germany during the Cold War, we learn about the polar bears’ physiological connections to their ancestors, their feelings about their ancestral homeland, and primal urges like hunting and hibernating. The matriarch polar bear at one point thinks about how her new love of writing is like and unlike her work as a circus performer:
Writing was a more dangerous acrobatic stunt than dancing on a rolling ball. To be sure, I’d worked myself to the bone learning to dance atop that ball and actually broke some bones while rehearsing, but in the end I attained my goal. In the end I knew with certainty that I could balance on a rolling object—but when it comes to writing, I can make no such claims. Where was the ball of authorship rolling? It couldn’t just roll in a straight line, or I’d fall off the stage. My ball was supposed to spin on its axis and at the same time circle the midpoint of the stage, like the Earth revolving around the sun. Writing demanded as much strength as hunting. When I caught the scent of prey, the first thing I felt was despair. Would I succeed in catching my prey, or would I fail yet again? This uncertainty was the hunter’s daily lot . . . My ancestors had spent entire winters slumbering in their sheltered caves. How pleasant it would be to withdraw once a year until spring came to wake me . . .
Here Tawada imagines what a polar bear might conclude about the two seemingly different vocations of circus performer and author, even as she simultaneously performs stylistically for the reader. Tawada asks us to see writing from an unusual perspective: it is like balancing on a ball, or hunting. Thus we’re forced to see writing not just as a cerebral art but a physical one, as well.
In each polar bear’s story, issues of exile, foreignness, and loneliness figure prominently, especially in the bears’ interactions with various human managers and trainers. The bears are often asked if they’re from the North Pole, a place they’ve never even seen, just because they’re polar bears. Assumptions about their likes and dislikes, abilities, and desires are drawn based just on their appearance—sound familiar? Exactly Tawada’s point.
Enter Mr. Turtle (Kame-kun), a perfect example of this kind of alienation. He goes to work, returns to his apartment, and interacts with a couple of human friends at the library, every day. Thing is, he’s a large cyborg turtle, and he can’t even ride on public transportation without schoolgirls mocking and ridiculing him. He’s haunted by flashes of memory that he can’t place and suspects that his mind has been tampered with for nefarious reasons. The real reason for this tampering is an ingenious idea on Kitano’s part, and taps into some excellent sci-fi tropes about the nature of reality and our perception of it.
And yet, like Tawada, Kitano is most interested in showing readers what it’s like to live as a cyborg turtle in a near-future Japan, where creatures like him are tolerated but never truly accepted. Mr. Turtle himself never speaks; our access to his mind is through the close third-person, and this accentuates the loneliness that permeates the story. But Mr. Turtle’s few opportunities to interact with humans enables him to spend time thinking deeply about the world around him and his relationship to it:
This thing called a “turtle” was built to look at the outside from within its shell, and from that perspective formulated an internal model of the world. The turtle perceived and acted in accordance with how it processed its own world model. Through learned behaviors and by the information it was able to acquire, it updated that model internally, making inferences through its management thereof. The turtle’s sensory perception of the outside world was at least a facsimile, thought Kame-kun. All of which meant that the turtle could never leave its own shell. Such thinking, too, was embeded in Kame-kun, for even his pondering of these things came of its own accord, as he’d been designed. At last, Kame-kun confirmed what he’d already known: that a giant shell contained the world and everything in it and that inside his shell was another world, where another self worse a shell, which contained yet another.
Here Kitano uses the image of the shell to emphasize each individual creatures’ unbridgeable loneliness, and then goes further by pointing out that Mr. Turtle was able to think this way because of what he was. Can any of us ever rise above our own minds to bridge the gap between ourselves and others? Must we remain trapped in our own brains and unable to experience true empathy for other living creatures, even those of our own species?
Questions like these make Memoirs and Mr. Turtle masterpieces of narrative perspective and important works that force us to look at ourselves and reevaluate how we treat one another.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Steph Opitz, who reviews books for _Marie Claire, while also working with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), Kirkus Reviews, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and the Twin Cities Book Festival. 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._
I’m so excited to be deliberately reading more work in translation this year. Though, I’d guess my mailperson is less excited about this venture. Boxes of books arrive every day regularly, as I review for some magazines, but the submissions for the BTBA right now are tripling the average delivery. As an avid reader, this uptick is awesome. Also, my puppy is really into padded mailers, so it’s kind of a win-win-win at our house.
Most of the books have me reading a bit slower than average, and that’s mostly because I’m reading about places and people I haven’t read about before. It’s pretty easy to quickly read about someone more like me in the place that I’m from, but it’s slower, and a different kind of enjoyment to read about something totally new. I find myself googling places more, and relearning, learning more about, or learning for the first time parts of world history that have eluded me. A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska (Author), Christina E. Kramer (Translator), a story about conjoined twins, for example, filled in a lot I didn’t know about Yugoslavia (psst! In the premise Dimkovska lays out the greatest metaphor for what happened to the country).
Then there are books that are less location-relevant and more about the characters and what’s happening to them. I loved reading Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (Author), Asa Yoneda (Translator), a story about a mother and daughter attempting to grieve the loss of the the family’s patriarch, who might be haunting them.
Speaking of haunting, Erik Axl Sund’s Crow Girl (translated by Neil Smith) scared the absolute shit out of me. I’ve been trying my darndest to get more and more books between that one, so I can try to forget it. Which is to say if you love being scared by gruesome crimes: read it.
Many of the titles have been alive in the world for decades and yet, for those of us limited to reading in only one language, we haven’t had access until now. It’s wonderful to be able to read something like Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya (Author), Lee Klein (Translator) a book highly praised throughout the world and beloved by Roberto Bolaño, which was finally published in English this year.
I haven’t taken a class in literature since, oh, 2007, and being a judge for BTBA is a great education in world books. it’s great to have all of these engrossing, diverse “assignments” to read and think about. I feel like I’m reading some truly unique stories, which, I think, says a lot from someone who reads for a living.
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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.
Unlike my fellow BTBA judges who have published blog posts before me, I am not going to tease you with cursory reviews of the books I am reading.
This decision is due in part to the fact that the books have been slow to arrive to the hinterlands of Norman, Oklahoma, where I teach at the University of Oklahoma. But also because the University of Oklahoma celebrated last week one of its best kept secrets: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which gave me occasion to think about what it means to evaluate foreign literature.
The Neustadt is a biennial prize awarded during even years since 1970 by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The first recipient was Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. In 1972, the prize was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez, who ten years later would earn the Nobel Prize. That same year, 1982, Octavio Paz became the seventh Neustadt recipient. Eight years later, Paz would also go on to win the Nobel. It is this pattern that has led many to call the Neustadt the precursor to the Nobel. Like the Nobel and the Neustadt, the BTBA recognizes international literature. It differs, however, in that it is awarded to a translated book.
At last week’s opening night reception, Chad Post, founder of Open Letter Books, Three Percent, and the BTBA, was charged with introducing the 2016 laureate, Dubravka Ugrešić. As publisher of three of Ugrešić’s translated books, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture, and Europe in Sepia, Chad has worked closely with Ugrešić. His affection for the Croatian—she prefers European—writer is obvious.
During his introduction, among many humorous anecdotes, Chad recounted that the only request Ugrešić had of Open Letter Books was that the diacritics be removed from her last name. Her rationale was that her name was hard enough for readers to pronounce without the added confusion of Croatian diacritics. Hence, Dubravka Ugresic was born.
Immediately, I remembered an anecdote recounted by Valeria Luiselli about Mexican author Sergio Pitol, whose Trilogy of Memory I translated. Writing in Granta, Luiselli recalled that when she first happened upon one of Pitol’s books, she thought he “was a dead Eastern European or Russian writer whose real name was probably Sergei Pytol.” “For decades,” she added, “Mexican publishers had us reading works by Guillermo Shakespeare and Federico Nietzsche.”
This odd habit of domesticating names was not limited to authors; on the contrary, it applied equally to their characters, whereby Gregor Samsa became Gregorio, Anna Karenina, Ana, and the Count Alexey, the conde Alejo.
This practice points to a wider strategy among translators (and publishers): the erasure of the foreign in translated texts. For a translated text to be marketable, the argument goes, it must be readable. In this domesticating logic, readability is synonymous with fluency; in other words, for a text to be fluent, the translator must be invisible, and, in order for a translator to be invisible, he must domesticate. Lawrence Venuti examines this phenomenon in depth in his groundbreaking work, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.
A byproduct of this logic is the all-too common refrain, “This book reads as if it were written in English,” which runs counter to Walter Benjamin caveat that “it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language.” The translator, Benjamin adds, “must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language,” which is achieved to greater effect by foreignization.
Edith Grossman echoes Benjamin’s injunction in Why Translation Matters: “Literary translation,” Grossman writes, “infuses a language with influences, alterations, and combinations that would not have been possible without the presence of translated foreign literary styles and perceptions, the material significance and heft of literature that lies outside the territory of the purely monolingual.”
This, of course, is only possible if the translator resists the temptation to domesticate her translation, to find an equivalent for every idiom and metaphor, to rewrite the syntax so that it conforms to the strictures of the receptor language, to recur to linguistic formulae and set phrases unique to the receptor language that trick the reader into believing he is reading a text that was written in English.
In an interview for Asymptote, the very insightful and equally gracious Rosie Clarke asked me what I hoped English-language readers would gain from my translation of The Art of Flight. This is perhaps the best question that could be asked of anyone who translates into English (and infinitely more interesting than the all-too-often and always banal question intended to solicit from the translator a new metaphor for translation). My answer was:
“I hope they also realize they are reading a foreign text. I am not a fan of domestication. I think to say that a translation reads as if it were written in English is unfortunate. I know that most translators consider it a compliment, but I do not. All translators praise the ability of translation to ‘enrich’ the target language and culture, but it cannot do that if translators erase the foreign from the text, if they find English equivalents for every metaphor or idiom. Translation will only enrich the receptor culture and language if translators allow foreign aspects of the source text/language/culture to be visible. The translator can disappear without making the text’s foreignness disappear.”
As the books that comprise the Best Translated Book Award competition begin to reach my homestead on the vast and distant Oklahoma prairie, and I’ve begun to read them, Rosie’s question will be in the forefront of my mind.
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.
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías and translated by Margaret Jull Costa is probably my favorite book of the year. Anyone who has read a novel by Marías will see all the familiar hallmarks: circular, philosophical writing that hits a theme, retreats and then returns, over and over, almost obsessively, to try and “figure it out.” The themes themselves are also characteristic to Marías’s body of work: history, morality, secrets, betrayal, how much can we ever know another person and when is it dangerous to know too much? Through all of this lies an unspoken sense of danger and, of course, the writing. The writing.
The themes that figure in Thus Bad Begins are also prevalent in Marías’s masterful trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. The Franco regime is, if not in the forefront, always present, to remind the reader that the past is never quite through with us. The novel takes place in 1980 and focuses on the Muriels, an unhappy couple living in Madrid. Eduardo, the husband, is a B-movie filmmaker and the story is told by his then-young assistant, Juan. The unhappiness of the Muriel marriage is one of the great unknowns of the novel, for Juan has firsthand access to the family and witnesses a strange and abusive relationship between Eduardo and his wife Beatriz. Eduardo is somehow punishing Beatriz and she not only accepts the abuse but behaves in a way that appears she’s deserving. Juan’s youth gives him the advantage of seeming innocence, of being easily ignored and yet, in one brief passage Marías describes that:
Someone only has to notice you—cast an indolent glance in your direction—and there’s no withdrawing, even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything. Even if you try to erase yourself, you have been spotted, like a distant shape on the ocean that you can’t ignore, that you must either avoid or approach.
Soon the young narrator is tasked by Juan with an indelicate favor, to befriend a close associate, a prestigious doctor and find out if certain, unscrupulous rumors about the doctor are true. Juan’s innocence, and his curiosity about the state of the Muriel marriage, lead him into a Madrid just waking up from fascist rule. Besides a wonderful lesson in contemporary Spanish history, Thus Bad Begins takes the reader into the psychology of civil war: how people (and sides) who have wronged one another—often neighbors and friends—are suddenly expected to forgive each other, or at the very least, remain silent, in the face of a new government. Reading this now, the book has an almost immediate relevance.
Thus Bad Begins contains strands of similar DNA, found in earlier novels, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White. But a reader going into a Javier Marías novel knows what to expect. There is eavesdropping. There is tailing, or following. There are conversations overheard. There is a sensual and palpable sense of danger. Yet Marías uses these tropes to his advantage, telling a sophisticated story, with grand eloquence, about universal truths. One always feels they are in the hands of a master when reading a book by Marías. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is graceful and natural and I couldn’t recommend this wonderful book any more highly. Additionally, it’s a great starting-point for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading Javier Marías before. They will see a Spain awakening from dictatorship and may, in different ways, see a not-so-distant future for America.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Jeremy Garber, events coordinator for Powells and freelance reviewer. 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.
Esteemed translator Margaret Jull Costa has five books in contention for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas (New York Review Books), Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (Open Letter), On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (New Directions), Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías (Knopf), and Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions). Jull Costa translates from both Spanish and Portuguese and has rendered some of each language’s most well-regarded authors, including Nobel laureate José Saramago, the singular (and multitudinous!) Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queirós, Luisa Valenzuela, and Bernardo Atxaga, amongst many others. As a working translator for three decades (her first novel-in-translation was published in 1987), Jull Costa has won a number of awards in recognition of her work and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014.
Despite Jull Costa’s prodigious output, in the first nine years of the award, she has only once made the shortlist—in 2015, for Medardo Fraile’s evocative short story collection, Things Look Different in the Light (Pushkin Press). With five strong works under consideration for the forthcoming prize, will 2017 be the year Jull Costa finally adds a Best Translated Book Award to her many accolades? In looking more closely at three of these books, it’s evident that her quality translations ought to have her squarely in the conversation.
Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes passed away in August 2015, leaving behind some ten novels (On the Edge and the long out-of-print Mimoun being, as yet, his only two translated into English). On the Edge is a dark, tense, and foreboding tale set in the wake of the global recession that robbed so many of so much. Easily one of the year’s finest and most important works, Chirbes’s novel stands out as a marvel of what fiction is capable of doing (and, oh, that inescapable cover!). Valerie Miles’s excellent essay, entitled “The Life and Times of he Great Rafael Chirbes,” was used as the book’s afterword and offers an incomparable glimpse of both the author and On the Edge itself (her piece also appeared on Lit Hub). Below is my review of On the Edge (which originally appeared on Three Percent in December):
Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.
Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away [in August 2015] at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).
Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophoboia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.
Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. Just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.
With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.
Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.
Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amidst the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge_breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s _On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbes’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.
Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same.
Javier Marías’s reputation as a writer of high-quality literary fiction surely precedes him and if the Swedish Academy sees fit to recognize his impressive body of work (Your Face Tomorrow [translated by Jull Costa] alone ought to qualify him), a Nobel Prize would be a deserved coda to an already illustrious authorial career. Thus Bad Begins, his newest novel to be translated into English, is certainly not Marías finest outing (which is hardly a slight, perhaps like saying Blonde on Blonde isn’t this year’s Nobel laureate’s most accomplished album)—yet is still possessed of all the characteristic trademarks that have made him, or, more precisely, his fiction, consistently amongst the best in translation. Marías’s The Infatuations (Knopf, also translated by Jull Costa) was longlisted for the 2014 BTBA. Some thoughts on Thus Bad Begins:
Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up. So much so that they often ask to lose it, ask for it to be taken away, banished from their sight, which is why they not only applaud the very person intending to take it from them, they even vote for him.
With over a dozen of his books available in English translation, Javier Marías’s stateside renown seems to grow deservedly with each new release. His most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins (Así empieza lo malo)—named best book of the year by Spain’s El País in 2014—is a domestic drama set in 1980, immediately following Franco’s regime. A brutal, loveless, spiteful, and often cruel marriage is metaphor for a distrusting populace struggling to move beyond the authoritarianism and betrayals of decades past. While Marías’s characters reveal slowly the motivations for their actions, his story (incorporating the best elements of a convincing mystery) builds toward a gripping conclusion—leaving devastated individuals and a tormented legacy in its wake.
Offering stark insight into the erosive qualities of small deceptions and minor treacheries, Marías, as always, deftly navigates realms psychological, political, and philosophical. Thus Bad Begins isn’t Marías’s strongest outing, but, that said, it is still, nonetheless, an exceptional effort (especially given that he has penned such consistently tremendous works). If written by another author, this book may well be considered the peak of said progenitor’s output, but given the Spaniard’s seemingly limitless ability to compose first-rate fiction, Thus Bad Begins pales slightly when compared to some of his other works. All the same, Thus Bad Begins invariably impresses, adding yet another resplendent feather in the cap of a (hopefully) future nobel laureate.
_“In fact, anything you’re told, anything you didn’t personally witness, is pure rumour, however wrapped up in oaths it comes, all swearing the story to be true. And we can’t spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations. When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.”
The Hamlet line from which the title is taken is wonderfully ambiguous and well befitting a novel of such emotional subterfuge. Is “worse” left behind or still yet to come?
Like far too many (most?) authors in translations, Enrique Vila-Matas has yet to enjoy the English-speaking audience he deserves—despite being championed by the likes of his friend Paul Auster. The Spanish writer has published over three dozen books, with Vampire in Love being his eighth rendered into English. A collection of short stories spanning his career, Vampire in Love offers a glimpse of Vila-Matas that hadn’t been apparent in his mostly meta-fictional novels (Bartleby & Co. [translated by Jonathan Dunne], Never Any End to Paris, and Dublineqsue are some of his best). Twice shortlisted for the BTBA (in 2008 for Montano’s Malady [translated by Jonathan Dunne] and in 2012 for Never Any End to Paris [translated by Anne McLean]) and included on the longlist for another (in 2013 for Dublinesque [translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean]), Vila-Matas’s books make for an always fascinating, engaging outing (even if one doesn’t quite know what to expect beforehand, much like his prolific Argentine compatriot, César Aira). Vampire in Love is as good a place as any to start reading Vila-Matas. While short story collections do not sometimes garner the acclaim of their lengthier brethren, Vampire in Love can surely hold it’s own against other contenders for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:
The first collection of Enrique Vila-Matas’s short stories to appear in English translation, Vampire in Love features 19 stories from throughout the Spanish author’s estimable career. Most noteworthy (and quite surprising to this reader) is that save for a couple selections, nearly all of the stories forego the metafictional, self-referential, and literary milieu well familiar to readers of his previously translated works. The stories which compose Vampire in Love reveal an almost entirely different side to Vila-Matas’s fiction—many dealing with death, life’s hardships, and the mystery of the uncertain.
With oft-remarkable prose, wit, and more than a little playfulness, Vila-Matas’s short fiction reveals an artisan as comfortable (and as skillful) in brevity as he is in longer form. Vampire in Love ably demonstrates the wide variety of storytelling hues available on Vila-Matas’s literary palette. The standout stories in Vampire in Love include “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” “They Say I Should Say Who I Am,” “Greetings from Dante,” “The Boy on the Swing,” and the titular tale.
I remember—probably because it seemed to foreshadow something that would affect us later on—the long speech he made that day about how we human beings are all carriers of poisons and inner devils that can undermine our most marvelous achievements.
Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.
There’s little I like better than small, unique books that can fit into my back pocket. This years BTBA considerations bring tantalizing prospects that contain elements of narrative architecture which intrigue or surprise. It takes courage for an author to take the nuts and bolts of fiction to create a structure familiar enough to the reader but, yet, altogether original. Just as courageous is the translator who sees that architectural construct and recreates it with identical effect using different tools. Here are a few authors and translators who have dared to so and succeeded.
French born Roger Lewinter is the epitome of esoteric. His fiction isn’t immediately accessible – there is an adjustment period when reading his fiction. While most authors use time and space as the foundation of a linear narrative, Lewinter uses time and space to build mini structures within each sentence, crafting concentric sentences the spiral to a fine point. With Lewinter, beginning a sentence is an entryway to a maze that guides you through a labyrinthine use of time that ends back at the beginning. He is at his most intricate in The Attraction of Things, a fictional treatise on the magnetism of things and how we are inexplicably drawn to them without knowing why. His sentences can last pages, filled with clauses, stories, references and narrative ephemera, as evident in the following sentence where the narrator declines an invitation from a friend and delves into the history of a mutual acquaintance:
At the time, connection by means of cross-invasion, where the question of knowing who is who ceases to be relevant – because one becomes the other, completed through him – , was, I though, of no interest to me; while I had prepared myself for it by studying , for a year and a half, through an arbitrary choice that I couldn’t really explain to myself, since it vaguely annoyed me, The Man without Qualities, by Musil, the theme of which is the approach, by a novice, of this state; and when I had taken on the task of translating the Fränger into French, I discovered that it had been translated into English by precisely those who would afterward translate The Man without Qualities; while twelve years later, in 1976 – after having translated, in 1969, a first collection by Groddeck, and indentified, in 1974, through the objective and apparently fortuitous sequence of the translations, a convergence between the redistribution of sexual roles that implicated the Groddeckian understanding of sickness and, in Bosch’s work as interpreted by Fränger, the disintegration of the body, which the spirit, through Adamite eroticism, masters even its transports -, I discovered that an American psychoanalyst, Grotjahn, in The Voice of the Symbol, published in1972, had already drawn a connection, through reading Fränger, between Bosch and Groddeck; when in June 1963, with Geneviève Serreau, during the course of dinner in the kitchen, the conversation naturally turned to The Man without Qualities, I note how much I preferred Tonka, a novella that, in sixty pages, incomparably condenses that which remains vague in the two thousand pages of the novel; not learning until October 1981, after her death, that what had struck Geneviève Serreau in 1954, leading her to work for twenty years for Les Lettres Nouvelles, was her reading Tonka, which Les Lettres Nouvelles had just published I translation; and while I didn’t succeed Jean-Francois in her maid’s room, I recommended to Geneviève Serreau, in September 1963, that Fränger, about which, inexplicably, Jean-Francois had spoken to her; and, equally captivated by this book, she had it accepted for publication by Les Lettres Nouvelles; with a patience that I didn’t understand was intended for me, orienting me then in the space from which, through her gaze, radiated the highest pitch of divine madness.
As intellectual as Lewinter’s style may be, and perhaps intimidating, it leads to moments of poignancy that are luminous, most notably in the short story “Nameless”, found in Story of Solitude. Preceded by two pieces – one a micro fiction about his encounters with a household spider and one, a short story about his dedication to two camellia plants – that seamlessly and oddly set up the yearning and evanescence of a chance encounter with a young man who works at a market he frequents:
… “I’ll mark the price” –, had captivated me by their intonation – in April, at the first book that I had bought from him – he was just starting out at the flea market –, his face had made me look at this fly and the way his jeans fell to his sneakers; from that time on avoiding paying him attention –; thus bewitched by sweetness – although – I realized – the possession burning within me proceeded from the trance that I was in to write, the one nourishing the other to the point where, soon, I was uncertain which would prevail – , particularly since, one Wednesday in September, he had read me – passing by his stand without stopping, I had looked back, not knowing that his gaze had followed me pensively – , responding to my greeting from then on with this conscious candor that, in his voice, had gripped me; his coquetry – sporting at each market another T-shirt – lemon, pistachio, raspberry, lavender, plum –, before stripping his chest bare in the sun, the adolescent suppleness of his body, which made life stay a moment on his most fragile grace, troubling –, in contradiction to the solitude in which he seemed to move, ending in subjugating me; thus finally going to the flea market to subject myself his fascination – antagonist of the book, in which I sought, by grasping my mechanism of ascendency, to exorcise the passions that were binding me to my body, so that in its void something unknown might arise – as one plays Russian roulette, the admission magnetized by his approach wanting to escape me; while now, when I realized that I had left him there, the sweetness he inexorably aroused in me froze, from the evidence that something inconceivable had come to pass at the moment when, in front of the density of his body in its unbearable splendor, I’d drawn back;
The sentence continues to even a more lovely emotional depths, but in this example Lewinter’s uncanny gift for dissecting the abstract and unspoken aspects of attraction and self-awareness raises fiction to a higher level. To this point, Rachel Careau is to be commended for her recreation of Lewinter’s vertiginous prose. I am excited by her translation that serves as a diaphanous scrim for Lewinter’s ornate narrative architecture.
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, translation and afterword by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy, a publishing project)
Just under 130 pages, The Weight of Things is weighty itself, in theme and tone. Fritz, an Austrian novelist, had a cult following and instant critical acclaim with the publication of The Weight of Things, her debut novel. The novel feels both as a step backward in time – it deals with the horrors of WWII – and a step forward because its structure isn’t linear but fragmented and impressionistic producing a singularly innovative style. There are moments in the novel where the reader is displaced, disoriented, looking for some type of structural anchor. But to think this is a weakness or a stylistic flaw undermines the effect of the novel. Tonally, Fritz creates an overwhelming sense of foreboding that proves haunting; the horrific isn’t plainly laid out in all its grotesqueness but constructed in a spectral-like fashion that permeates every scene. Although the scenes aren’t linear, Fritz draws us a tragedy of WWII featuring a two soldiers – Rudolph and Wilhelm, a young, unstable mother of two, Berta, and her shrew of a sister, Wilhemine. There is perspicacity and searing satirical commentary that pops up to ground the novel in the quotidian that Fritz does skillfully in this section “Berta Greets Wilhlem; Does Berta Schrei Have a Visitor?” set in a mental hospital:
By now Head Nurse Gotaharda had left Ward 66 to the visitor and his secrets, and Wise Little Mother watch Wilhelm and Berta closely from the corner of her eye. Scarcely ten minutes had gone by since the Wound of Life had made its treacherous entrance into the Wise Little Mother’s realm. It was that whore of a Head Nurse, who threw herself into the arms of anyone who came her way, who had befouled their corner of eternity, and weighed upon the Wise Little Mother now, a heavy burden. The old woman resolved to alert Berta to the evil forces around her.
“You must reflect on what is happening here, Berta dear. Reflect and be careful. Life is a wound, and this wound…this wound is slow to heal.”
The novel though structurally may feel vague, but it enhances darkness of the themes – madness, motherhood, war, and society – for a lasting emotional impact. Again, translating something demands a translator who truly understands all that the novel encompasses in order to render even something similar in the translation. Mr. West honors Fritz by regenerating her singular voice. Besides Fritz, the Dorothy Project is putting out some fantastic work by women, including another tiny wonder and recent biblio-crush, Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden.
The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems, translated by Edward Gauvin (Wakefield Press)
Wakefield Press has become of my favorite presses out there because they consistently put high quality, unique works that make you feel like you’ve just scored something magical and timeless when you read one of their publications. By far, The Cathedral of Mist is going to be one of those works that I will read from time after time, always being inspired by something new within its pages. Williems, a Franco-Belgian fantasist, work is a collection of prose and two essays – on both reading and writing. I couldn’t help but think, after reading The Cathedral of Mist, that Willems had applied Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and On Poetic Reverie and Imagination to perfection. His Elysian stories transport you to realities so vivid, even knowing they don’t exist, feel otherwise.
Willems voice is humorous, light, hopefully resigned to his imagination, and this combination infuses his pieces with a touching nostalgia. I can’t help but be in awe of Edward Gauvin’s translation (he has many fine translations…) that captures Willems’s essence. Whether it’s a story about a man is visiting a count where he ends up sleeping, with the count’s permission, the Countess in a bed outdoors surrounded by a Finnish forest or traveling through he Balkan Mountains with a German ethnologist accompanied by a shepherd who wears a “the flute of Orpheus on his belt,” Willems is charming. From the beginning of each story, Willems pulls you immediately into his voice and imagination, demonstrated beautifully by the opening paragraph of “The Palace of Emptiness”:
Victor lived like a kite, which is to say, tethered. Storms – he had frolicked on them until the age of twenty-five – strained without ever breaking the string that tied him to childhood. He finished his schooling as an architect, married Micheline, and never knew a moment’s vertigo.
His lyrical, celestial imagination is best displayed in the titular story about an architect who, tired of granite, builds a cathedral made out of mist. Through his description, we only wish we could visit a place as enchanting:
The great nave was worthy of admiration. One hundred and fifty-four columns of mist flowed slowly, upward, meeting in seven keystones. There the capor condensed into droplets of water that fell one by one, at random. The goldsmith Wolfers had sculpted admirable irises to catch them on the ground. The deep blue blossoms bristled with slender steel fillets that each drop of water moved to a sustained song. This music, which the fashion of the day deemed “violet,” replaced the bells the architect V. had not been able to hang in the steeple of mist. But instead of taking wing like the sound of bells, this sound could be heard only by visitors, and traveled to a place very deep inside them. Like harness bells on that little horse pulling a sleigh through the night we bear within it glided toward that farthest part of ourselves beyond which music dies in sweet agony.”
These works deserve a readership and undoubtedly will have significant ones, although they may be a bit off kilter for the mainstream reader. No mistaking their craftiness or that each author and translator are able architects building something new and original with the elements of fiction.
This week’s post is by Jennifer Croft who is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Follow her on Twitter: @jenniferlcroft.
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Thrilled to be a judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Here are seven of my favorite titles so far.
Sometimes it feels like they spent that entire first year locked away in a permanent rehearsal while we sat among the untouched instruments in their silent music school, the hallway piling up with gift baskets. Something I understood then is that the Mexican gift industry may be well at truly gringofied at Christmas, but when it comes to death, our own comfort foods trump everything. I’ve never received so many bags of Mexican sweet treats—pepitorias, palanquetas, jamoncillos—as I did when my sister died.
I couldn’t put this book down, and when it did end, it left me in tears. An extremely charming novel that seamlessly toggles between a couple of years in the lives of the people who inhabit a Mexico City tenement compound. Particularly wonderful are the amaranth scholar who sets out to reconstruct his beloved wife through writing after she dies of pancreatic cancer and Luz, the five-year-old girl who drowns shortly after her narration ends (as we learn from her sister Ana—a lovely character, as well—in the book’s opening pages). Jufresa’s disarming, unabashed tone and interest in the intersection of languages and cultures reminded me of Chloe Aridjis’ wonderful Book of Clouds, while Sophie Hughes’ translation stands alongside the original as a dazzling feat in its own right. Hughes won the English PEN Award for this translation, and I can certainly see why, as the English abounds with inventive and delightful solutions to the challenges of the Spanish.
A beautiful and surprising meditation on community, absent maternity and growth of all kinds.
The film was delayed by thirty minutes while the cinemagoers offered one another their condolences, passing from row to row, neither pressing hands nor embracing but bowing their heads and repeating the same words of consolation with the variations “your daughter,” “your sister,” “your wife,” “your husband,” “your son,” “your brother”—since everybody had lost someone.
The screening was accompanied by Reynir Gíslason’s Orchestra, and to begin with the music managed to drown out the sighing and weeping. Thick smoke rose from the more expensive seats, where the men were chain-smoking cigars in the hope that this would stifle their sobs.
A glittering little gem of a book that strikes the perfect balance between story and character, on the one hand, and capturing a moment and place, on the other. The place is Reykjavik, and the moment occurs in the midst of the city’s 1918 influenza outbreak. The excellent translation also finds the perfect tone. There is an irrepressible sweetness in protagonist Máni Steinn: as he awaits judgment after being caught engaging in sex with another boy, he tries to make out the identities of his captors, but “he can’t place the fourth, good at faces though he is.” That night, “he dreams of antelopes.” A beautiful meditation on cinema, queer identity and making one’s way in the world.
Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.
A painful account of unrequited love, told in sober, bracing prose. An astute deconstruction of a relationship over the course of a year. A quick and engaging read.
Mold started to grow in my ears because no one ever spoke to me. The tongue is not only for speaking; you can also use it to eat with. Ears, on the other hand, exist only for the purpose of hearing voices and sounds.
This utterly brilliant and absolutely delightful novel by Japanese-born Yoko Tawada, written in German, is by far the freshest take I’ve read on both foreignness and writing in I don’t even know how long—possibly ever. The story of three generations of polar bears, each of whom engages with people and other animals in unique and fascinating ways while meditating on what it means to be a self—a performing or public self, as well as a contemplative, inner self—in different kinds of exile and cages. The earnestness of all the voices in this book is so endearing, often amusing and sometimes heartbreaking. As always, Susan Bernofsky’s translation is graceful and deft, making every single sentence a true pleasure. A treasure of a book, to be read and reread.
He walks in the direction of the bay, observing attentively—pretending to be distracted—the huddles forming on the corners, among the people standing in line, and on the seawall. To all appearances, the scratched record of everyday life continues intact, repeating itself as it does every day; but deep down, something is moving, falling apart, breaking up.
This neat, pocket-sized novel packs a real punch. With the rhythm of a lullaby and the entreating quality of a prayer, 33 Revolutions recounts the attempted escape of an ordinary man from Cuba, which he has come to view as a kind of island prison, drawing interesting comparisons with Soviet Russia throughout. The book covers a ton of territory in its few small pages while still preserving a powerful sense of enclosure and entrapment, stressing a repetitiveness that nonetheless is a kind of ticking time bomb—no easy narrative feat. I read this in a single sitting and liked it a lot.
Men’s hands take hold of you before having even touched you. Once their thoughts turn toward you, they’ve already possessed you. Saying no is an insult, because you would be taking away what they’ve already laid claim to. Like the hand snaking up my T-shirt, they need me to lift my skin so they can feel my organs, or even stop my heart from beating. Their urges won’t be constrained. Soon they’ll be nothing left to take but they’ll keep going anyway. But why should I let them?
This is the most vivid novel I’ve read in ages, magnificently translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. The gorgeous, profoundly poetic writing is completely mesmerizing and viscerally affecting: it gave me goose bumps several times. Cycling through four main adolescent voices in an impoverished neighborhood of Port Louis, Mauritius, the narrative slowly escalates through brilliant and memorable scenes, as well as haunting inner monologues, to its glorious conclusion that manages to somehow be both devastating and uplifting at once.
I am your double. I am your single. I have split completely and totally in two: I was Saad, sitting transfixed in my stiff chair (or stiff in my transfixed chair), and I was someone else, unmoored, observing things but pushing them away through his thoughts, his defiance, his mortality.
There is something so triumphant and so powerful in the structure of Eve, and something so real and touching in these characters, each consistent, unexpected, thought-provoking and wonderful.
My older brother Carlo is gone. He went to France ten years ago. I was little. He was my hero. When he left, he said: I’ll come back to find you. I’m waiting for him. He never came back. He calls sometimes, but only to make small talk. I don’t know what he’s doing over there. But when I hear his voice, I know he’s lying, that he hasn’t done well. When I hear his voice, I know he’s dead. And I’d love to kill, too.
A work of profound sympathy and deep desire.
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.
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 2017 BTBA submission. . .
All original translations published between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016 are eligible. Reprints and retranslation are ineligible. Submissions for the FICTION award will be accepted until November 30, 2016. Submissions for the POETRY award will be accepted until December 31, 2016.