13 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush and published by Archipelago Books.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.

Now, fans of that book can continue the journey with Life Embitters, the second of Pla’s works to be translated into English. Like the first book, Life was translated by Peter Bush, who has not only captured the spirit of Pla but has maintained a consistent quality over more than 1,200 pages. Life contains many of the hallmarks mentioned above, but it has some noticeable differences, too.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 May 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.

Now, fans of that book can continue the journey with Life Embitters, the second of Pla’s works to be translated into English. Like the first book, Life was translated by Peter Bush, who has not only captured the spirit of Pla but has maintained a consistent quality over more than 1,200 pages. Life contains many of the hallmarks mentioned above, but it has some noticeable differences, too.

For starters, Life Embitters consists of self-contained stories (most of which take place after the events in Notebook) rather than chronologically arranged anecdotes. Although Pla revised much of the material that made up The Gray Notebook decades after he had first composed it, he kept the diary-like format of his original writings. For example, one day Pla would write about a day at the beach, and the next he would give an opinion about another Catalan writer’s work. As a result, while it’s still highly recommended, Notebook can at times be an overwhelming read.

Life Embitters doesn’t feel as overwhelming because this time the writing is more focused. For example, in the first story, “The Central Tavern,” Pla writes about an event that took place in the title location that involved the owner, Sra Vincetita (Pla refers to many of his characters formally), whom he describes as “a vivacious, middle-aged woman with rather glazed, artificially rejuvenated features.” And even though her monologues are “endless” and “nonsensical,” she probably could have given Pla plenty to write about. Instead, though, he concentrates on Sra Vincetita’s relationship with the dubious Sr Vinardell.

Pla prefaced the story by saying that his doctor had recommended a stay in Cerinyola, the town where the Central Tavern is located, because of its dry climate and its quietness. However, even if his doctor hadn’t suggested it, he would have eventually ended up there anyway, since it becomes apparent that Pla likes to travel. While in The Gray Notebook, he wrote that he was “fated to be a wanderer,” in Life Embitters, he truly proves it, as he rambles through different parts of Europe, including France, Italy, England, Portugal, and Germany. Once again, Pla gives some dazzling—and occasionally surprising—observations; for example, here is what he wrote during a train ride to Portugal:

The lower reaches of the Tagus are astonishing. It is a broad, fatherly river with a gentle flow. The land is moist and flat. River barges glide by on the horizon hoisting square sails tinged with nicotine or orange juice hues. The appearance of these vessels amid the fields makes you wonder: “Where are we? Are we in Holland? Are we in the Po valley, with Venice as its grand finale?” No. It’s not Holland. Holland is even greener, softer, and spongier. It’s a watery, feathery pillow. There is a similarity with Venice. I think the European landscape most resembling what we know generically as Venetian is the lower stretch of the Tagus.

Of course, a book titled Life Embitters isn’t going to be simply a travelogue or collection of amusing stories. As mentioned above, he was a pessimist, and there are plenty of moments where he shows the dark side of human nature. For example, during his stay in Portugal, he writes about a man who became addicted to gambling after his doctor recommended it as a way to forget about the pain in his tooth. Later, while in Nice, Pla writes again about gambling and the effects casinos have on people: “Anyone standing in front of a gaming table automatically ages ten years.” And gambling isn’t his only target: While visiting a zoo in England with a friend, he observes a penguin eating an innocent sparrow and considers it a lesson in justice. In addition, some of the tales, especially the ones that make up “The Berlin Circle” toward the end of the book, show just how bitter life can be.

Yet, despite this tendency, Pla tries to understand the people he encounters or reads about on a much deeper level. For example, in the story “A Death in Barcelona,” Pla witnessed most of the events in the story, but not the final scene between two men walking down the Rambla after leaving a boarding house. Even though he may have added the dialogue decades after the event took place, he gives the story an appropriate conclusion. Besides filling in gaps in his own stories, Pla also dedicates entire chapters to the “jottings” from his friend Albert Santaniol, who has had some pretty interesting adventures of his own. Pla most likely modified these, but once again, he probably did it to better capture the spirit of his friend. Finally, he retells an old Scottish tale about St. Mungo, the founder and patron saint of Glasgow, with the same kind of irony found in his other stories.

That said, if you’ve read The Gray Notebook and enjoyed it, then you’ll definitely want to read Life Embitters. If you haven’t read either, it may be worth your time to read both books. It sounds like a lot, but like all great works of literature that make considerable demands on a reader, these works demonstrate that Pla is not just writing about life—he’s trying to make sense of it as well.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”

Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more realist than the writers in this vein and, at the same time, succeeds in sublimating reality by getting much closer to its essence, by re-creating it in its essential entirety, in its immense, wondrous complexity.

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

In fact, Pla started The Gray Notebook during one of those dark moments in time. In 1918, as World War I was ending, a deadly influenza pandemic was spreading throughout the world. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 50 million died from this flu.) As a result, the university Pla was attending in Barcelona closed for a time, so he had to return to his parents’ home in Palafrugell along the eastern coast of Spain. Even though he was studying law, Pla wanted to be a writer and, on his twenty-first birthday, he started composing his notebook entries.

After briefly mentioning his ancestors and some of his earliest memories, Pla starts to describe small-town life, which is filled with many colorful characters, including Roldós, the bohemian pianist at the local cinema, and Josep Bofill de Carreres (also known as Gori), the town magistrate. Gori has some pretty interesting opinions about everything, including justice, marriage, and the war. One night, in the café where Pla and his other friends get together, Gori talks about what he believes was the biggest effect of the war. “It introduced short underpants,” he says to Pla. “After centuries of wearing long underparts mankind today can finally breathe.” Gori also criticizes Pla for his love of realism and believes literature should be an escape from reality.

However, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier, the young Pla has plenty to say on that subject, too. Besides Proust, Pla also appreciates Catalan writers such as Josep Carner, who was also known as the “Prince of the Catalan Poets.” “Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can . . . and make of it what you will!” He also defines realism as the “new rule” in literature because of the passion that inspires it.

Pla demonstrates this passion for realism even during the most humdrum moments. For example, his description of relaxing on a boat near the El Canadell beach is so vivid and realistic that a reader cannot help but be drawn into the scene.

At two o’clock, the toast-colored shadow is a foot wide and the sand the sun has just deserted is still warm. But as it gets later in the afternoon, the shadow spreads and the sand cools. . . . The light is a hazy, effervescent, dazzling white. It melds with the air, white walls, and pinkish sands to create misty vapors that glide, twist, and turn. The pale, bluish void of the sky seems to shimmer with light. The herd of foaming white horses gallops monotonously over the azure of the sea. Everything happens so quickly and spontaneously and in the red-hot frenzy the shade is so cooling that a drowsy stupor spreads through your body releasing and relaxing your entrails.

Not everything about Pla’s life is idyllic, though; this is particularly evident in the second half of the book, which covers most of 1919. By January of that year, Pla was able to return to Barcelona, although he was less than enthusiastic about getting his law degree (and returning to that city, which he describes as being “like one endless cemetery”). In fact, the entries for Barcelona present a sharp contrast to the ones for Palafrugell.

One of the reasons for this contrast is Pla finds himself surrounded by chaos at times. Even though the war is over, a general strike leads to the military occupying the city (Pla ends up doing some part-time service). He also witnesses unruly students wreaking havoc in a mineralogy and botany class. Meanwhile, Pla’s family becomes a source for other worries: His brother catches the still-lingering flu, and his father’s financial situation, which was never great to begin with, worsens.

Furthermore, Pla sometimes isolates himself from others. He calls himself a “chatterbox” but admits that he has “no talent for friendship”; after rudely interrupting a poet who is proposing a festival, he wins “another enemy.” Even when he is around friends, he leaves them to go out for strolls. “It seems I am fated to be a wanderer,” he writes. In fact, walking around Barcelona is something Pla likes to do a lot. At one point, he skips classes for four days so he could take strolls along the Rambla, one of his favorite streets in the city.

Still, Pla doesn’t spend this section of the book dwelling on the negative or living a life of solitude. For instance, Dr. Joaquim Borralleras (or Quim, as Pla calls him) eventually becomes a significant part of his social circle. (This circle also included Eugeni d’Ors and Francesc Pujols, who would both become famous in their own right.) While Quim criticizes Pla’s initial attempts at writing, he ultimately helps Pla fulfil his dream of being a writer by encouraging him to be a journalist. Pla apparently took Quim’s advice very seriously: He worked as a journalist until the 1970s, when he started preparing his complete works. (Incidentally, Quim was also the one who recommended that Pla read Proust.)

Pla’s remark that Proust composed “a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements” arguably applies to this work as well. Some readers may initially find it too rich: The multitude of characters, anecdotes, and opinions can seem overwhelming at times. However, Pla’s search through lost time is definitely one worth accompanying him on, especially as he grows as a writer and a man. Peter Bush’s translation is equally appealing, as he brilliantly retains the idiosyncrasies of these characters for English readers. (Having Pla call d’Ors “Frenchified” was a nice touch.) Overall, while Pla originally questioned the value of his notebook within its own pages, the reader who becomes enchanted by it will not only be thankful that it was preserved but will look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

9 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on The Gray Notebook translated by Peter Bush, and out from New York Review Books.

This is another 600+ page book that screams to be read—Pla’s tome describes life and observations in Barcelona, entries written by his twenty-year-old self in the early 1900s. And while Pla did rework and tweak his notebook over the almost fifty years he held on to it before publishing it, this promises to be a pretty candid view of what life was like in Spain then (including during the Spanish Flu, no less), and with a youthful critique and sense of certain sense of humor. And not to be overly book-reader-cocky about essay-autobiographies, but if NYRB published it, it’s obviously going to be a good read.

So add this one to your summer lists! And now, here’s a part of Chris’s review:

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time” . . .

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

For the review in its entirety, go here.

20 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of the fall Open Letter titles that I’m most jacked about is Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons. I’ve been a huge fan of Monzó’s for a while now (maybe since I read, The Enormity of the Tragedy, I guess) and am so proud that we have him on our list. (If you want to check him out, I STRONGLY recommend checking out One Night which appeared in Guernica back in August.)

Anyway, to correspond with the release of this book, we’re going to be showing the movie version, A Thousand Fools, during ALTA. (To be specific, this will take place on Thursday, October 4th from 1:30 to 3:30 at The Little. And before the screening, translator Peter Bush will talk about Monzó, his work, and Catalan literature.)

There’s more to this event to share with you, but first, here’s a trailer:

OK, now thanks to the combined brilliance of George Carroll (our West Coast sales rep!), Paul Yamazaki (of City Lights), and Rick Simonson (of Elliott Bay), we’re going to be giving away t-shirts to promote this book. To be more accurate, we’ll be giving away one thousand t-shirts that look sort of like this (this is an low-res mock up):

And to drive home the promotional point of this, the back will be individually numbered, so each recipient will know exactly which “moron” he/she is:

So everyone coming to the showing during ALTA, all booksellers who are Open Letter fans, every single subscriber, bunches of friends, and any of you who email me can get your own free “Thousand Morons” t-shirt. The only criteria is that you take a picture of yourself wearing it and post it to our Facebook page. (You don’t have to do this, but it would be pretty awesome, and would make us feel loved.)

There you are: One more reason why you should come to ALTA.

22 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This summer has been a crapton of busy. There’s the normal publsihing10bookswiththreeemployeesOMG sort of daily adrenaline rush, and on top of that, and on top of working with a half-dozen interns and apprentices, this summer has been consumed by planning and planning and fretting over and planning the American Literary Translators Association conference, which will be taking place here in Rochester on October 3-6. And if you’ve never tried to organize a conference, well, don’t. (Kidding, ALTA!) It’s a wonderful experience—especially if you like that feeling of being perpetually behind with everything . . .

Anyway, all that is to explain why I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to Three Percent as I would’ve liked. And why I haven’t been able to read as many new books as I would like. Which is why, rather than writing up long posts about all the new books I love, I’m going to start writing weekly posts about new and forthcoming and recently released books that I want to read.

I’m going to start today with five books from the Iberian Peninsula. This might seem a bit random, but I’ve always had a thing for Barcelona and for Antonio Lobo Antunes. Plus, this summer I was lucky enough to speak at the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and fell back in love with all things Iberian.

You might think I’m kidding, but when I got back, I bought a case of Spanish wines, bitched up all the chorizo dishes, and checked out all the Iberian-related books, such as The Basque History of the World, which I would be reading RIGHT NOW if I didn’t have two Open Letter books to proof, one to edit, and a Korean manuscript to evaluate. Ah, publishing!

Sticking with the Basque interest (they have their own breed of cows and pigs and sheep! they invented their own shoes! their language is loaded with ‘x’s and ‘k’s! and has no word for “Basque,” just for “Basque speakers”! so unique, so interesting!) the current book on my nightstand is Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France, which comes out in September from Graywolf Press. This is the third Axtaga book Graywolf has published (Obabakoak and The Accordionist’s Son being the others), and maybe the least Basque of the three—it’s set in the Congo—but it’s new, and is about corruption and things evil, which makes for good beginning-of-the-school-year reading.

Sticking with the corruption theme, the other book that arrived recently that caught my eye is Peter Bush’s new translation of Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, which originally was published in Spanish in the 1920s. According to the NYRB press materials, this was “the first great twentieth-century novel of dictatorship, and the avowed inspiration for Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme.” That’s some pretty fine company to be keeping, and with Peter Bush’s involvement, I’m totally sold. It’s also interesting that Valle-Inclan—who was born in Galicia—wrote a book about a revolution in Mexico.

Switching gears from writers writing about places other than their homeland, Jose Saramago—whose posthumous output is approaching L. Ron Hubbard levels—has a new book out: Raised from the Ground, a novel set in a southern province of Portugal and featuring the Mau Tempo family, a family that resembles Saramago’s own grandparents. I’ve never been a huge Saramago fan, although I do enjoy reading his books for entertainment (along with those of Joyce Carol Oates, which sounds like a slight to both authors, but truly isn’t), but I’m really excited to read this, since it came out in 1980, long before the Nobel Prize and hopefully before he started relying on the sort of smug narratorial tone that infests his more recent works.

As a sidenote, the Saramago is the second book on my Iberian love-list that’s translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Not-so-coincidentally, I just finished reading The City and the Mountains by Portuguese author Eca de Queiros, which was ALSO translated by Costa. This was the first Queiros book I’ve read in full, and although it’s not perfect, it’s really interesting and has led to my adding a ton of his titles to me “to read bookshelves,” including “The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes,” which is available from Tagus Press in Gregory Rabassa’s translation. This bit of the jacket copy is exactly why this is the next Quieros book I’ll be picking up:

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes—ostensibly letters, with an arch introduction—actually ranges widely and revels in many forms of discourse. In this singular work, originally published in 1900, one finds meditations, dialogues, observations, grand shifts in tone, occulted ironies, pastiches, lampoons, and and underlying hilarity throughout.

Another linguistic reveler of sorts—and a fellow Portugese writer—is Goncalo M. Tavares, who is best well know for his two series: The Neighborhood series, one bit of which will be coming out from Texas Tech later this year; and “The Kingdom” series, which consists of four volumes published by Dalkey Archive—Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine. I read the first two right before meeting up with him in Lisbon, and really, really loved Jerusalem. (Learning to Pray is great, but not quite as great as Jerusalem.) In Lisbon, organizers Jeff Parker and Scott Laughlin were both high on Joseph Walser’s Machine, the most recent book in “The Kingdom” to be released. I’m a whore for trilogies and series, especially series of this sort, which don’t follow in a linear fashion, but interlock in a more interesting, complicated fashion. Something like Kjaerstad’s Wergeland Trilogy which is built from three different narrators with three different takes on Jonas Wergeland’s life, and structured in three very different ways. Or the Joyce Cary trilogy that NYRB reissued a way back. Anyway, Tavares’s “Kingdom” is more like that than like a sort of space opera trilogy featuring all the same characters. Sure, some character reappear in Tavares’s different books, but the connections between the books are more thematic and tonal than anything else. But I’ll write more about this after reading Joseph Walser’s Machine and the final book in the series.

That’s it for this week . . . Next week I’ll write about a book I want to read to be able to not understand it. This will make sense . . . Promise . . .

17 July 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Even if Peter Bush hadn’t have sent along the copy of his essay that’s in this collection, I think I would’ve been interested in checking out Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship, which just came out from Monash University Press in Australia.

The essays in this volume address one of the central issues in literary translation, namely the relationship between the creative freedom enjoyed by the translator and the multiplicity of constraints to which translation is necessarily subject. The links between an author’s translation work and his or her own writing are likewise explored.

Through a series of compelling case studies, this volume illustrates the parallel and overlapping discourses within the cognate areas of literary studies, creative writing and translation studies, which together propose a view of translation as (a form of) creative writing, and creative writing itself as being shaped by translation processes. The translations of selected contemporary French, Spanish and German texts offer readers some insights into how the translator’s work mirrors and complements that of the creative writer.

The U of R library has a copy of this on order, so I’ll probably write this up again after I have a chance to look it over, but for now, I wanted to share a part of the included Peter Bush essay that details his experience translating Juan Goytisolo’s Juan the Landless for Dalkey Archive Press.

First off, it’s worth putting Peter’s past editorial experiences with Dalkey into context:

Often one of the unknowns for a translator is the publisher’s eventual strategy for the editing of the translation. I have written about issues that arose in Dalkey’s edit of Quarantine in the Times Literary Supplement (Bush 1996). The editor claimed I was making Goytisolo more difficult than he was in the original and that by using words such as ‘knacker’s yard’ and ‘gentles’, being UK English or even, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, archaic UK English, my translation would not be understood by ‘the man in the street’. I pointed out that this mythical man was unlikely, unfortunately, to be buying Dalkey and reading Juan Goytisolo, and so my Shakespearian English finally passed muster – but not before offering another instance of a superficially plausible editorial criterion that in the end was simply superficial.

A few months before embarking on Juan the Landless, Dalkey Archive had also asked me to act as an arbitrator in a dispute they were having with a translator. I duly read a chapter or so of the original text, the original translation and the Dalkey edit. My report indicated weaknesses in the original translation – I felt it required a few more drafts, a little more time for reflection and rewriting, but that it was on the right track – and concluded that the edit was taking the translation into a more conventional mode. In other words, the translator was attempting to be equally adventurous as the original writer, and the edit was curbing the spirit of adventure in favour of conventionality, albeit of a highbrow variety. In the end, the translator’s final translation was severely edited and published on the basis of the ultimatum: Accept the edit, or your translation will never be published. Clearly, contractually publishers have the last word.

The incident reveals how fraught the editing of literary translations can sometimes be and illustrates what the translator must be prepared to handle.

There’s a lot that could be unpacked here about power struggles, translator rights, etc., but rather than get into all of that (which could come off as Dalkey bashing, which is not my intent), I want to hone in on one specific bit: the idea of the audience for a translation.

A lot of editors—usually at larger trade houses, but also at places like Dalkey—hold to the belief that a translation should be rendered in such a way that it will “appeal to the common man.” I’m not sure who a “common reader” really is, and want to echo Peter’s quip that the “average man on the street” is much more likely to be wacking it to Fifty Shades of Grey than reading a poetically experimental novel from a modern Spanish author, but, well, in theory this idea sounds appealing. The common line goes something like this: There are already enough obstacles to getting an American to read a work in translation (funny names with bunches of consonants, strange locations, unknown customs, not the “real” book, etc.), so why add any more difficulties in the prose itself? Make the translation as target reader-centric as possible, and eliminate anything too daunting or weird.

This is the sort of thinking that translators (and literary people in general) get pissed about—the idea that editors are “dumbing down” translations in hopes of reaching a wider, American audience. (See Larry Venuti’s Mémoires of Translation essay for an example of this.)

But I think this idea can be even more insidious . . . At some level, this isn’t just about eliminating terms that American readers aren’t familiar with, but working from the assumption that readers are stupid and have to have everything explained to them. For example, there’s a lot of offensive stuff in the edits of Mima Simic’s story but the thing that bothers me is the sort of flattening out of the prose to make sure that everyone understands. For example, this:

She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.

She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.

Edits like that alter the fundamental style of the text itself instead treating a work of fiction as if its main function is to “convey information,” like some sort of technical manual on life.

Peter has a few examples of edits to his Juan the Landless translation that follow this same line. For instance:

libradas de sus mazmorras y grillos, las palabras al fin, las traidoras, esquivas palabras, vibren, dancen, copulen, se encueren y cobren cuerpo (Juan Goytisolo original)

released from their chains and dungeons, words, treacherous elusive words, at last quiver dance copulate strip off and flesh out (Peter Bush)

released from their chains, their dungeons, those words, those treacherous elusive words, quiver at last and dance and copulate, removing their rags and clothing themselves in flesh (edited version)

What’s interesting to me, is how these sorts of “Explain Everything!” edits are out-of-sync with John O’Brien’s stated goal of what makes a “good” translation.

One of the things that Peter writes about a lot in his essay is this conversation between Jeremy Davies and John O’Brien about editing translations.

I have a lot of issues with this article (started from the very doubtful claim that it’s an “unedited conversation”), as does Peter Bush and a number of other translators I’ve talked with. I don’t want to quote it at length, or get into too many specifics, but here’s one lengthy section that relates to the examples above:

1) Translators see themselves as the protectors and advocates of a text. This is certainly noble and not entirely untrue. The problem here is that, as concerns contemporary literary fiction, a translator must also be the protector and advocate of an author—a collaborator after the fact, in other words. They must be the advocate of their author—whom we may presume is read and enjoyed and comprehended (however abstrusely) in his or her original tongue—and therefore the advocate of that author’s writing process, the advocate of his or her talent, the advocate of their particular procedure of turning intent into language. Not, then, a defender of what, in the world of translation, must be seen as the calcified remnants of this procedure: the original text. The bottom line is this: if the author reads as being brilliant in the original, then he or she must at the very least read as being pretty damn good in English. What kind of a favor are we doing the book or the author if we provide them with anything less?

Of course, most translators find their own syntax, idiom, and style to be perfectly readable representations of a text—but this is because they have access to something their readers do not: an understanding of the original; and, better, all the unspoken/unwritten assumptions that aid native speakers in reading any kind of fiction. But translators must be capable of developing that “third ear” which gives one at least a (partial, subjective) understanding of how a poor, monophone, but intelligent and fiction-savvy reader is going to see their prose: stripped now of its form and context both. The difference, finally, between translators and authors is that the latter (no matter what they say) do actually worry about being read, and about how they’re read, and if what they transmit (however difficult) can be received or appreciated. Thus, translators need to see themselves as more, not less, a part of the “art” of the novel (say) that they’ve taken on. Authors don’t fight over every sentence because they see their work as being in flux, and can’t really ignore the possibility that they might be doing their work a disservice. Translators need this same flexibility, this same ability to “care” about their texts (rather than just “protect” them): care not about fidelity, or not only fidelity, but about how they will be read.

The editor is, ideally, a stand-in for that “poor, monophone” fiction-reader. Not (or certainly not at Dalkey) a philistine with a machete who wants to dumb knotty prose down. If we can’t make head or tail of a sentence without going back to the French or Spanish or Dutch, something isn’t right—even if, and this is usually the case, the English version is “accurate.”

This is something that could be (and has been) (and will be) debated for hours and ages, and again hinges on how a publisher/editor views readers. In this case, Jeremy Davies describes the target audience as “‘poor, monophone’ fiction-readers.” (I’m not sure I get the “poor” part, or even what type of “poor” he’s referring to—too poor to buy books? too culturally poor to understand them?)

But check this paragraph from Peter’s essay:

John O’Brien continues the dialogue with two ideas that are frequently rehearsed in exchanges on literary translation and seem to me to belong to an immediately appealing, again superficially plausible, but at the same time critically flawed set of prescriptions. The first is that the translator’s goal must be to recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’. Does one track the latter down, questionnaire at the ready? Señora¬ señor what was it like for you reading Juan Goytisolo’s trilogy during the decline of the Generalísimo’s dictatorship? Were these readers in Madrid, Bilbao, Sevilla or Barcelona? Or were they indeed exiled like Goytisolo himself in Paris, or else in Mexico City or Lima or Havana? Or what if they were fascists? And thirty years later, what will they remember of what undeniably must have been a riotously disturbing and severely demanding, and even possibly clandestine, read? Of course, we could ask Spanish readers today but they couldn’t be categorised as ‘original’ readers. We might at most ascertain memories of general impressions, responses to certain passages, perhaps. But hey, perhaps I qualify as an original reader: I read the books when they were first published in Spanish! My reactions belong to the immediate reader as translator as well as the historically formed imagination of someone who has lived in and out of Spain during the dictatorship, transition to democracy and now in Barcelona for the past eight years.

So on the one hand, the goal of the translator is to “recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’” (a very suspect term), but only to recreate that experience in a way that “poor, monophone” readers can understand it. The assumptions about readers—both original and otherwise—that are made here are astoundingly bizarre, and, in my mind, quite problematic. And what concerns me even more is the way in which these beliefs tend to downplay the art of the text being translated in favor of better communicating something to a set of readers that isn’t really even being respected . . .

Anyway, if the other articles in this collection are even half as thought-provoking as Peter’s, this book will be completely amazing.

8 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with other recent books, we’re giving away 10 copies of Guadalajara via Goodreads. Accepting entries until June 15th, so follow the instructions below for a chance to win.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Guadalajara by Quim Monzo


by Quim Monzo

Giveaway ends June 15, 2011.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
10 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As written about in today’s New York Times GoodReads (which has come a bit of an obsession of mine) has just launched a new site called DiscoverReads that uses an algorithm to recommend books. (Book recommendations and how people choose what to read is another obsession of mine, so this announcement is like a double whammy of awesome.)

From the Times:

On Thursday, Goodreads will announce that it has acquired another start-up, Discovereads.com. It uses machine learning algorithms to analyze which books people might like, based on books they’ve liked in the past and books that people with similar tastes have liked.

Otis Chandler, Goodreads’s founder and chief executive, says the site has been an online version of walking into a friend’s living room and scanning the bookshelves to get recommendations. But readers need more than that, he said, particularly now that libraries, bookstores and some newspapers’ book review sections are disappearing and e-bookstores are inspiring more self-published authors.

“This will give the casual reader a quick answer to ‘What should I read first?’” he said. Once people have rated 10 books on a scale of five stars, Goodreads will be able to suggest books they might like.

All I want to do is try this out, but fucking hell, the site “isn’t accepting new members at this time.” OK, screw it: back to watching the Big East Tournament. Thanks for nothing GoodReads + NY Times. Teases!

But while it’s a commercial break I’m here, this does remind me of Quim Monzo’s short story “Books,” which is included in our forthcoming collection Guadalajara. (Which, if you want to buy it—and you should! it’s brilliant—you’ll have to do it at an indie bookstore or online, since B&N isn’t going to be stocking it . . . No, not bitter at all about yesterday’s sales call at B&N. Not a bit.)

Anyway, you can read the entirely of “Books” in PDF format by clicking here, and here’s a longish excerpt from the beginning of the story (translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush):

There are four books on the passionate reader’s table. All waiting to be read. He went to the bookshop this afternoon, and after spending an hour around the new releases tables and reviewing the covers of his favorite authors on the shelves, he chose four. One is a book of short stories by a French writer; he really enjoyed a novel of his years ago. He didn’t like the second novel he published that much (in fact, didn’t like it all) and has now bought this book of stories in the hope of re-discovering what had fired his imagination so many years ago. The second book is a novel by a Dutch writer whose two preceding novels he had tried to read, but with little success, because he’d had to put both of them down after a few lines. Strangely, this didn’t lead him to abandon the idea of a fresh attempt. Strangely, because usually, when he can’t stand twenty lines of the first book by a particular writer, he might try the second but never the third, unless the critics he trusts have singled it out for special praise, or a friend has recommended it particularly enthusiastically. But this wasn’t the case now. Why did he decide to give him another try? Perhaps it’s the beginning. The beginning that goes: “The bellhop rushed in shouting: “Mr. Kington! Mr. Kington, please!” Mr. Kington was reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Ambassade Hotel and was about to raise his hand when he realized that nobody, but nobody, knew he was there. He didn’t even look up when the bellhop walked by. It would be the most intelligent decision he had ever taken.”

The third book is also a novel, the first novel by an American author he has never heard of. He bought it because in spite of the initial quotation (“Oh, how the tiles glinted in the blossoming dawn, when the roosters’ cry broke the silence with the sound . . .”) he had leafed through it and felt drawn in. The fourth book is a book of short stories, also by a Dutch writer, one who had been unpublished to that point. What attracted him to that book? If he were to be sincere, it was the rich abundance of initials: there are three (A., F., Th.) before the three words that make up the surname. A total of six words: three for the surname and three for the forename. What’s more, the first word of the surname is “van.” He simply adores surnames that begin with “van.”

Why, out of the four books that the passionate reader has on his table, are two (50% exactly) Dutch? Because the Book Fair held in the city was this year devoted to Dutch literature, and that meant, on the one hand, that publishers have brought out more writers in that language recently and, on the other, that the main bookshops in the city have created special displays, piling tables up with these new books as well as books by Dutch and Flemish authors that had been published years ago, that are no longer new and were gathering dust in the distributors’ warehouses.

The passionate reader has all four books in front of him and can’t think where to begin. The stories by the French writer whose novel he liked several years ago? The novel by the young American about whom he knows nothing? That way, if (as is very likely) he finds it immediately disappointing, he will have eliminated one of the four at a stroke and will only have to choose from among the other three. Obviously the same may happen with the novel by the Dutch writer whom he has had to put down on two previous occasions, after merely one page. The reader opens the second book and leafs through. He opens the third and does exactly the same. And follows suit with the fourth. He could choose on the basis of the typeface or kind of paper . . . He tries to find another aspect of the books that could decide for him (an isolated sentence, a character’s name). Page layout. Or paragraphing, for example. He knows that many writers struggle to create frequent paragraphs, whether the text calls for it or not, because they think that when the reader sees the page isn’t too dense, he will feel better disposed toward the book. The same goes for dialogue. A serrated text, with lots of dialogue, is (according to current norms) a plus for most people. This may generally be the case, but has the opposite effect on this reader: he finds an abundance of new paragraphs irritating. He is prejudiced against, and mirrors the prejudice felt by lovers of abundant paragraphs, who find a lack of paragraphs extremely monotonous or arrogant.

Where should he begin? The solution might be to begin them all at once, as he often does. Not simultaneously, of course: but going from one to another, just as you never watch six TV channels at the same time but flick from one to another.

21 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

OK, so I didn’t get to writing up all the things I wanted to this week, but before taking off for Amsterdam and the Non-Fiction Conference (see next post), I thought I’d share our Summer 2011 catalog.

With a little luck, I’ll highlight each of these next week, with excerpts and the like, but for now, here’s a list of all five titles along with links to their Open Letter pages, where you can find cover images, jacket copy, links to excerpts, author bios, etc., etc.

  • Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Excellent collection of Monzo’s stories, and the second book of his that we’re publishing. Next up: 1000 Morons.

  • Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson, with an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas

This is the first of three Chejfec titles we’re publishing, the other two being The Dark and The Planets. First came across Chejfec in a post by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading linking to a recommendation at Hermano Cerdo written by Enrique Vila-Matas about how totally awesome this book is. (Or some similar Spanish phrasing.) We then went on to buy the rights to all three books thanks to a brilliant excerpt that was in BOMB magazine.

  • Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And the second Open Letter book in which guinea pigs are subjected to uncool things. I get the strangest reaction from friends when I try and describe just how funny the narrator’s guinea pig “experiments” are. Like the one with the record player. Or the stove. Or the bathtub. . . . Um, yeah. But seriously, it’s hysterical—mainly because of the voice of the befuddled, clueless narrator. And we have some awesome promotions in mind for this . . . none of which involve the harming of physical, living guinea pigs. Promise.

This new collection by Can Xue (who has also been published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale, and Conjunctions) is the first Chinese title to come out from Open Letter. She’s a very interesting, unique writer who reminds me a bit of Rikki Ducornet. The stories are a bit surreal, surprising, and, at time, disorienting in a very pleasurable way.

We published Winterbach’s To Hell with Cronje last fall to some good attention. She’s a stark, interesting South African writer, and in the end, I think Book of Happenstance is an even better book than Cronje . . .

More all next week . . .

4 January 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the University of Rochester’s mail services is back from break, I’m swimming in a sea of books, catalogs, and mailed in donations from our annual campaign. (Well, OK, maybe not swimming in a sea of donations, but thanks to all of you who did donate. And if you haven’t donated, you can by clicking here.)

One of the more interesting catalogs that arrived over break was the new Spring/Summer 2011 catalog from Dalkey Archive. There are a $%^&load of translations in here, from a number of different languages and countries. With the total number of original translations plummeting in 2010 (more on that later this week when I finally finish updating the Translation Database), I’m sure that Dalkey will be one of the top producers of translated literature.

As alluded to in the earlier post about Hotel Europa, Dalkey has traditionally supported its authors by publishing (and reissuing) several of their works, rather than dumping them if sales for a particular title aren’t all that impressive. This is very admirable, and this catalog features books from a number of “classic” Dalkey authors. (Can’t find these titles on the Dalkey site, otherwise I’d link to them. And all quotes are from the catalog):

  • Patrik Ourednik’s The Opportune Moment, 1855, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker;
  • Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled from Almost Everywhere, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush;

In Exiled from Almost Everywhere, Juan Goytisolo’s perverse mutant protagonist—the Parisian “Monster of Le Sentier”—is blown up by an extremist bomber and finds himself in the cyberspace of the Thereafter with an infinite collection of computer monitors.

  • Julian Rios’s Procession of Shadows, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor;
  • Luisa Valenzuela’s Dark Desires and the Others, translated from the Spanish by Susan E. Clark;

Dark Desires is the author’s autobiographical fantasia on the ten years she spent living in New York City. Valenzuela has called this book her “apocryphal autobiography,” and in it she says very little about her work as a writer, about the city itself, or even about literature.

  • Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan;
  • Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged, translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye;
  • Claude Ollier’s Wert and the Life without End, translated from the French by Ursula Meany Scott;
  • Goncalo M. Tavares’s Learning to Pray in the Age of Technology, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

In a city not quite of any particular era, a distant and calculating man named Lenz Buchmann works as a surgeon, treating his patients as little more than equations to be solved: life and death no more than results to be worked through without the least compassion.

There are also a number of interesting sounding “new voices”:

  • Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie;
  • Edouard Leve’s Suicide, translated from the French by Jan Steyn;
  • Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz;

Talismano is a novelistic exploration of writing seen as a hallucinatory journey through half-remembered, half-imagined cities—in particularly, the city of Tunis, both as it is now, and as it once was.

  • Asaf Schurr’s Motti, translated from the Hebrew by Todd Hasak-Lowy;

An unassuming, unambitious man named Motti, who owns a dog named Laika, has a good friend named Menachem. Motti and Menachem drink beer together every week, and Motti spends the rest of his time daydreaming an imaginary love story for himself and his neighbor, Ariella. Motti is the very picture of inertia, until, one night, a drunk Menachem, driving home from a bar with Motti, runs over a woman and kills her.

They’re also doing a couple Japanese Literature Publishing Project titles (Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka and The Shadow of a Blue Cat by Naoyuki Li), and, what may the be the most exciting announcement, they’re brining out Mark Polizzotti’s new translation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa.

I’m sure we’ll end up covering a number of these on the site, and as I peruse more catalogs, I’ll post other “Spring/Summer 2011 Preview” posts . . .

10 December 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 7 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

For today’s update, Emily Davis interviewed Alberto Olmos, whose “Eva and Diego”—the first chapter of his new novel—appears in this issue in Peter Bush’s translation.

Today’s post is brought to you by the number six.

Segovia native Alberto Olmos is one of six Spaniards on the Granta list of Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. He is also one of six writers on the list who were born in 1975, and he has written six—count ’em, six—novels. At age twenty-three (!) he published his first novel, A bordo del naufragio (1998), which was a finalist for the Herralde Prize. His more recent novels are Así de loco te puedes volver (1999), Trenes hacia Tokio (2006), El talento de los demás (2007), Tatami (2008) and El estatus (2009). He is also the editor of the volume Algunas ideas buenísimas que el mundo se va a perder (2009), compiled from internet-based texts. Olmos taught Spanish and English in Japan for three years. Currently he can be found in Madrid as well as on the interwebs.

He generously agreed to answer some questions about the writers who have most influenced him, technology and contemporary literature, and the effects of the Granta honor.

Emily Davis: What writers have influenced you?

Alberto Olmos: I will name three: the Spanish writer Francisco Umbral has shown me the way of style, in the preoccupation with the sonority of words; Henry Miller clued me in to the fact that one could say anything in a novel, and be aggressive and solipsistic; and William Faulkner will continue always to be the great master of narrative structure, of the zeal to tell a story in a different way.

ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the Granta list?

AO: To name one, Alejandro Zambra.

ED: Among your novels are the titles Trenes hacia Tokio (2006) and Tatami (2008). Where did your interest in Japan come from? And the experience of having lived in Japan, has it influenced your work in some way?

AO: I believe that a large part of my literary vocation comes from my desire to leave my mark in writing, that is to say, to write autobiography. Because of that, everything that happens to me in life is susceptible to becoming literature. I lived in Japan for three years and it was inevitable that some pages came out of that experience. But nothing is further from my intention than to become one of those authors who only write about a country in which they lived for a short time.

ED: Where did the desire to be a writer originate?

AO: It’s a mystery, but I believe that solitude has created more writers than all the writing schools in the world.

ED: What are you working on now?

AO: I should be reading over the first draft of my new novel; I am somewhat dazed by the reverberations of the Granta list and I am looking for the calm necessary to read my own writing with objectivity.

ED: In “Eva and Diego” the iPod appears as the product itself and also as a symbol of the epoch in which we live. How would you say that technological or consumerist motifs fit into the literature of today? Is it something unique to twenty-first-century literature?

AO: Those motifs (technology, consumerism) will always be current, given that, as we know, Facebook has changed the human species in greater measure than all the literature written in all the world in the last fifty years. It is a shame, but there it is. However, as central themes, consumerism and technology are somewhat out of fashion.

ED: What does it mean to you to have been named one of the best young Spanish-language novelists by Granta?

AO: It’s an important recognition that has given me new encouragement to write. As Cyril Connolly said, the “menopause” of a writer comes at 35 years (my age) and it consists in losing in certain measure the youthful passion for writing, the faith in your own talent and in the talent of readers. In that way Granta has made me about ten years younger.

The current issue of Granta features “Eva and Diego,” the first chapter of Olmos’ new novel and translated by Peter Bush. Here is just a snippet of it to get you interested:

The day I bought my iPod, forty-five people died in a terrorist attack. When an important piece of news breaks, part of my section collaborates with the ‘affected’ section (National or International Affairs, usually); additionally, the Culture pages are reduced in number and, as the one in charge, I’m left with almost nothing to do. I’m bored and look out of the window.

The bombs exploded at 8.56 a.m. in a Madrid shopping centre. They were hidden in the changing cubicles on the women’s clothes floor. Thirty-two victims were women; twelve were children. Only one man died. Several dozen more were injured, in a similar ratio in terms of sex and age to those who had died.

Responsibility for the attack pointed to Arab terrorist groups.

I saw one photo and refused to look at any more. A dummy clad in human flesh. The bomb had completely wrecked one individual’s body and her skin, bones and organs had splattered all over the front half of a dummy.

‘We’re next.’

Journalism is essentially pessimism. I left the office before lunchtime.

To go spending.

I like buying new technology because it takes me quite a long time to realize it is pointless. I read the instructions, hit the keys, connect a cable here and another there, and feel as if I’m confronting a huge mystery I have to solve. And I enjoy it. Then there is no mystery, only a useless gadget I jettison in any old drawer.

I bought my iPod because the sales assistant was very handsome. The shopping centre was strangely devoid of people (or not so strangely: forty-five dead, after all). I’d decided to use the morning to pay Diego a visit, so I opted for the ground floor rather than the sixth. I take less time to buy a microcomputer or PDA than to buy a pair of shoes and the result would be the same.

The sales assistant was very handsome.

I spotted him within five minutes. He was reading a magazine on the counter of his Apple stand. I have thousands and thousands of CDs at home and the last thing I’d have thought of would be to purchase a gadget that would force me to get rid of them all.

I assumed his drive to sell had been deactivated by the lack of customers. The least he could do was offer me a fucking iPod.

I walked past the young man again, much more slowly and nearer this time. He ignored me.

I finally went over to him.

‘Hello,’ I said.

The young man took off his headset (I’d not noticed it) and smiled.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

His mouth was very sweet.

‘How can I be of help, madam?’

‘I’d like one of those.’

I pointed to the most expensive iPod on display. Indeed, I pointed at the price tag, not at the gadget itself.

The sales assistant headed over to the display cabinet. I gave him a good look up and down while he unlocked one of the glass doors.

He turned round and stared at me.

‘What colour would you like, madam?’


Remember: For the next seven business days—through the end of this “22 Days of Awesome” series—you can get a copy of this issue for free by subscribing to Granta..

30 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With Catalan Days quickly approaching (the festival kicks off on Saturday with the Merce Rodoreda/Jessica Lange event at the Baryshnikov Arts Center) this seems like an appropriate time to mention Black Beach and Other Plays a collection of three works of contemporary Catalan drama by Jordi Coca, Joan Casas, and Lluisa Cunille, (and translated by Richard Thomson, Peter Bush, and Laura McGloughlin) published in English translation by Parthian Book (distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions).

I can’t imagine many works of Catalan drama are available in English translation, so this is a pretty unique publication. And the opening intro by Jordi Coca that provides a very interesting overview of the “minor renaissance” Catalan theatre is currently experiencing.

According to Coca, the big turning point came in 1976 with the availability of public funding for theatre. Prior to that there was a pretty diverse, exciting theatre scene, but it was primarily done “from the perspective of resistance” to the Franco regime, and was performed by “semi-professional companies.”

In the 1980s, the public funding let to the creation of numerous theatres, including the Drama Centre of Catalonia and the National Theatre of Catalonia. All of these outlets have lead to the vitality of the current scene, but according to Coca, the popularity of Catalan theatre comes with a price:

Such is the present state of play. Programming for public theatre is very conservative, very close to the interests of the commercial stage, and proceeds without any risk-taking from an aesthetic, dramatic or ideological point of view. We are therefore waiting for a new generation of English-style angry young men or women able to shake up today’s complacent and optimistic bourgeois outlook.

Nevertheless it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the consolidation of audiences and adaptation of programming policy to more conservative, insipid sensibilities has led to an increase in ticket sales and an increase in the strictly economic level of theatre business.

But that brings us to the three playwrights featured in this collection: Lluisa Cunille (“The Sale”), whose work is “rooted in Pinter;” Joan Casas (“Naked”), in whose work “the place where his characters find themselves is an abstract space subordinate to the interplay of ambiguities of time that form part of the project,” and Jordi Coca, whose “Black Beach” is “driven by a wish to rework the myth of Antigone.”

11 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

The Enormity of the Tragedy by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush. (Catalonia, Peter Owen)

The set-up of The Enormity of the Tragedy sounds like a dirty joke for the Viagra generation: Ramon-Maria wakes up one morning with an “indefatigable erection.” After many “experiments” trying to “relieve” his condition, he goes to a doctor and finds out that his erection is a symptom of a rare and fatal disease that leaves him with two months to live.

But one of the things that makes this novel so interesting is the fact that it doesn’t devolve into penis jokes and sexual set-pieces. Instead, Monzo focuses a lot on the “tragedy” in the title, treating Ramon-Maria situation—his fatal condition and the fact that his stepdaughter plots to murder him—in a straightforward, natural way. Monzo’s warmth as a writer ensures that the book is still funny, it’s just not the sort of slapstick comedy of errors that the initial description seems to point to.

Before reading this, I had read a couple Monzo stories, but that’s it. (Not much has been published in English, although in the interest of full disclosure, Open Letter will be publishing Benzina and Guadalajara over the next year.) This book blew me away though. Peter Bush’s translation is wonderful, and the way that Monzo crafts his story—playing Ramon-Maria’s attempt to “live large” (pun only half-intended) over his last few months against the adolescent struggles of Anna-Francesca. As the novel progresses and the plot becomes more complicated, everything builds to an inevitable conclusion that is also a bit shocking. And definitely not the punchline to a dirty joke.

When this first came out, I wrote a full-length review, which included this passage that does paint a decent picture of the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

In terms of Monzo himself, he’s considered one of the best contemporary Catalan writers. He even gave the opening speech when Catalan was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. This speech is another good example of his playful, self-referential style:

Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although—to be frank—how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

Monzo is an important writer, both for his novels and him many short story collections, and truly deserves to be on the Best Translated Book fiction longlist.

3 August 07 | Chad W. Post |

As described in the jacket copy, the plot of The Enormity of the Tragedy reads like a start to a dirty joke: Ramon-Maria, an aging trumpet player, wakes up with an indefatigable erection. Hilarity ensues. But actually it doesn’t. Not to say the book isn’t funny, or that the set-up couldn’t be treated as such, but that’s not what Monzo’s up to here. Parallel to Ramon-Maria’s story—which isn’t all sexual fun and games, since as it turns out, his erection is a symptom of a rare disease leaving him less than two months to live—is the story of his stepdaughter, Anna-Francesca, who steals from him and is plotting his murder. (And—spoiler alert—does eventually push him off the roof of their decaying mansion.)

Monzo treats all of this—Ramon-Maria’s sex and death situations, Anna-Francesca’s affair with a teacher and quest for revenge—in a very straightforward, fairly believable fashion. Ramon-Maria goes for a second opinion, which eventually confirms the first. He takes out a mortgage so as to “live large” for the last few weeks of his life and to provide his stepdaughter (to whom he never speaks) with cash at least. Anna-Francesca stresses about sex, about boys, about flirting with her friend’s lover. Under the surface, crazy shit is going on though, both in terms of the plot and in the emotional lives of the characters.

It’s Monzo’s understated humor and naturalistic approach to the subject, which, to me, is the most intriguing facet of the book. A lesser author could’ve relied upon one-liner after one-liner, exploiting the enormity of the absurd situation, whereas Monzo focuses on the tragedy. (It’s no wonder the book opens with an epigraph from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.) This book is much more about the inability of humans to connect than it is about penis jokes. Sex plays a role in this—women are sort of overwhelmed by Ramon-Maria, his stepdaughter is afraid of “going all the way”—but the loneliness of the characters is exacerbated by the fact that they don’t even bother to try and connect with others. Several times it’s referenced that Ramon-Maria and Anna-Francesca don’t mind living together too much, since they can go weeks without seeing each other. Neither have any relatives, close friends, etc., and when Ramon-Maria dies, no one really cares. The ending lines kind of sum up the Monzo universe:

Outside a molossus mastiff was observing a whisky-coloured cat. The cat started to run. The dog chased it. The cat tried to get away but found itself trapped in the cul-de-sac with no escape route and walls too high to climb. It turned around, fur bristling. The mastiff stopped. They both looked at each other, motionless. In the distance, a gate squeaked. The cat moved almost imperceptibly, jumped, legs outstretched, and scratched the dog’s cheek striping it in blood. It tried to take advantage of the mastiff’s disarray to make an escape, but the dog jumped nimbly, pounced on the cat, opened its jaws and tore it apart.

My biggest problem with the book is the fact that it feels like the publisher really rushed this. Peter Bush is a top notch translator, and for the most part the book reads really well. It’s riddled with typos though, and one more pass through would’ve made a huge difference. (That and—on a selfish note—Peter Owen should sell the rights to his books to an American publisher instead of distributing them via Dufour. Peter Owen books aren’t really available through stores in this country, and this one, a 222 page paperback retails for $29.95!!)

That said, I hope more Monzo books are translated into English. He’s so well known and respected for his short stories that I feel like we’re only getting a partial picture of a major European writer.

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