7 January 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

There have been books throughout the year that stand out because they astound on a general level, accomplish a number of things well. Others are memorable because they do one or two things incredibly well. In some cases, it’s as if the books are devoted to that one ambition, to that one possibility of literature. This seeking out of one specific bit of a book, whether it’s something in the structure, tone, style, or subject matter, etc. has a couple motivations. The most common one, unfortunately, is when a book isn’t very good, and I still want to engage with it. I have faith there must still be something interesting there, and I seek it out. When it’s found, not only does the reading experience turn more pleasurable, but help forms another way to think about writing. Less common, more worth spending time writing about, are the books that have the one fascinating aspect and do it so well that the reading becomes about that singular pleasure, even if others play in the background. And in the end, I just find this way of identifying a single stand out aspect of a book a way of entertaining myself and beginning conversations. So, here are some BTBA books from the latter category, of books memorable from one pleasure, rather than mundane books scarcely saved.

The first such experience in BTBA reading was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle (trans. Sophie Lewis). The story of a love affair, kept secret, between two girls at a boarding school, Thérèse and Isabelle is so hyper focused it is nearly overwhelming, which is exactly what Leduc portrays. It is unrelentingly physical: “My recollection of the two fingers grew sweeter, my swollen flesh began to recover, bubbles of love rose up. But Isabelle was there again, the fingers turned faster and faster. Where had this mounting wave come from? Smooth wrappings inside my knees. My heels were drugged, my visionary flesh was dreaming.” There is little to no time spent describing how or why these two are attracted to each other, because it is irrelevant. All that matters is the overpowering attraction, the desperate emotional desire that courses in their bodies.

With absolutely nothing in common with Thérèse and Isabelle, Christian Kracht’s Imperium (trans. Daniel Bowles) may have at its heart something to say about the blind following of ideals that led to the world wars, as the cover copy wants to emphasize, but that was not the compelling reason to read. Instead, the humor, the parody of historical adventure novels, is the source of pleasure. The hero is the joke, August Engelhardt, idealist, blind to his flaws and to the fact that other people aren’t the naïve waif he is. His faith is in coconuts, the purest food devised by God, and in nudity. Telling the story of Engelhardt’s travel to New Guinea, his life on an island there, and the failure of his attempt to found a society, the narrator celebrates and mocks sailing and adventure tales, all the while cynically undermining, knowing his utter failure is coming, the man it puts forth as a hero.

It’s through prose that makes the most minute details and observations into something affecting that Jean Echenoz’ story collection The Queen’s Caprice (trans. Linda Coverdale) finds its identity. The opening story, “Nelson,” is of that oftentimes epically depicted historical figure, Admiral Nelson, but this is not of battles and history being made. Instead, it is him visiting friends, their care for him, his adjustment to age and his loss of arm and eye. It is a simple, pleasing tale of him planting acorns so for them to grow into “trees whose trunks will serve to build the future royal fleet.” Only then can the grand scheme of history return through his death in battle. The title story is a roving description of a country landscape, leaving a writer’s hand to travel across the surrounding land, in details of hills and trees, all building to make a tiny moment with ants full of depth and insight. These stories are above all quiet. That quietness is the success of The Queen’s Caprice, parsing down even and abundance to the quietness scenes that can communicate the most.

Regina Ullmann’s The Country Road (trans. Kurt Beals) is a story collection that is completely of a time and space, yet a step outside of that, a skewed mirror image not quite real, but unsettled. The Dream of My Return (trans. Katherine Silver) is Horacio Castellanos’ distillation of paranoia, anxiety, and haunting guilt of a culture, of a time, into the daily life of a man who may in fact be utterly safe. This could go on, this way of reading and talking about books, the aspect that makes one memorable, makes it stand off from others, but these are the best of the bunch so far, though if I wrote this a week from now, Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales (trans. Erik Butler) would probably make the cut for its triumph of the sinister.

23 December 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rather than devolve into posting clickbait featuring cats, penguins, hedgehogs, corgis, and books, like other BuzzHole sites, I’m going hard for the rest of the week, starting with seven books by women in translation.

The gender disparity in terms of women in translation has been fairly well documented—see the Women in Translation tumblr and all of the work Meytal Radzinski has been doing—but it’s worth reiterating some of the primary numbers.

Using our own Translation Database, I calculated that between 2008 and 2014 only 26.6% of all the works of fiction and poetry published in translation were written by women. That’s pretty damn appalling.

I still might be missing some 2015 titles, but at this moment, I have logged in 552 original works of fiction and poetry in translation, 165 written by women. I don’t think this is a reason to celebrate, but at 29.9%, that is a slight uptick over the average . . .

Leaving off all of the books by women that I included on my previous lists (post listing all lists is forthcoming), and ones that I’m planning on including in the future (this will never end!), here are seven books by women from 2015 that are worth reading.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel (Open Letter)

Given that this is the first Open Letter book I’ve included on these lists, I hope everyone reading this can acknowledge that I’m doing my best to include as many different presses, writers, translators as possible, and not just promoting the mind-blowingly amazing books that we’ve been bringing out.

This is Naja’s first novel and her second book to be translated into English. (The first, Baboon, translated by Denise Newman, won the PEN Translation Prize last year.) It’s a book I considered including on the “noir” list that’s forthcoming, but with all the competition for that—do you have any idea how many crime titles are published every year?—I thought it would make more sense to include her here.

Rock, Paper, Scissors centers around Thomas, a stationery-store owner whose dad dies in prison. Going through some of his belongings, Thomas discovers a mysterious package that could radically change his family’s fortunes. But as the book develops, more and more awful things start happening to him . . .

You can find out more about Naja by reading this interview with Mieke Chew in Bomb.

_The Weight of Things _ by Marianne Fritz, translated from the Germany by Adrian Nathan West (Dorothy Project)

(What’s below appeared verbatim in an earlier post, but I have nothing new to add.)

This may well be the most intriguing jacket copy I’ve read in a while.

The Weight of Things is the first book, and the first translated book, and possibly the only translatable book by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz (1948–2007). For after winning acclaim with this novel—awarded the Robert Walser Prize in 1978—she embarked on a 10,000-page literary project called “The Fortress,” creating over her lifetime elaborate, colorful diagrams and typescripts so complicated that her publisher had to print them straight from her original documents. A project as brilliant as it is ambitious and as bizarre as it is brilliant, it earned her cult status, comparisons to James Joyce no less than Henry Darger, and admirers including Elfriede Jelinek and W. G. Sebald.

My knee-jerk reaction when I see something referred to as “untranslatable” is to cry Nonsense! and bust out all sort of practical versus theoretical reasons why everything’s translatable, just maybe not in the way the speaker has in mind.

But then I Googled Marianne Fritz’s later works and found this:

Yep. That. Amazing.

The Mountain and the Wall by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum)

We have a full review of this forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here. Basically this is a genre-bending novel about what happens when rumors spread that the Russian government is going to erect a wall to block off the Caucasus republics from the rest of the country. (Shades of Trump!) It’s also one of the only (the only?) book from Dagestan to be published in English translation.

Not too many months ago, I listened to the audiobook recording of Masha Gessen’s The Brothers about the Boston Bombers. It also involves a lot about Dagestan and I totally fell in love with the way the reader pronounced “Makhachkala.” Weirdly, that got me interested in this book . . . Sometimes the way we find things to read is so random.

Hot Sur by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Ernest Mestre-Reed (AmazonCrossing)

I just got a copy of this and hope to read it over the holiday break. (Although I’ll probably spend most of my vacation reading out 2016 titles and prepping for my world lit class . . . sigh. There’s just not enough time for pleasure reading anymore.) Anyway, Restrepo is one of those “AmazonCrossing coups” that I’ve mentioned in past articles and interviews. Sure, a lot of what Amazon does are genre books, romances, thrillers, etc., but they also do a handful of big name literary authors who have been overlooked by more established publishers. Such as Restrepo.

You might remember Restrepo from last summer’s Women’s World Cup of Literature where her novel, Delirium, lost in the semifinals to Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

Hot Sur is a more recent novel that sounds dark and edgy:

María Paz is a young Latin American woman who, like many others, has come to America chasing a dream. When she is accused of murdering her husband and sentenced to life behind bars, she must struggle to keep hope alive as she works to prove her innocence. But the dangers of prison are not her only obstacles: gaining freedom would mean facing an even greater horror lying in wait outside the prison gates, one that will stop at nothing to get her back.

This is one of those titles that I have a feeling certain booksellers would be rallying around had it come out from someone else. Which makes me feel bad for the book.

War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent (Open Letter)

This book made Jeff VanderMeer’s list of his favorite books of 2015 and since I can’t resist the idea of having lists inside of lists (inside of lists inside of . . . ), I’m just going to quote from his write up:

War, So Much War, the latest translation of her work following volumes of short stories and the darkly sublime novel Death in Spring, is a phantasmagorical journey through a landscape of war. People disappear into the sea. Cat men made out of broken parts try to make their way in the world. A kind of anti-picturesque episodic adventure, the novel makes sense of war through the nonreal, makes us understand that in the worst circumstances the surreal is the every-day as well as the place people escape to because there is nowhere else to hide.

This book has been getting some great year-end play from booksellers and other critics. As one of my all-time favorite writers, I couldn’t be happier. Go Rodoreda! (Now if only I could find a way to learn more about Catalan culture . . . like by attending the Barcelona-Arsenal Champions League match in mid-March at Camp Nou . . . Maybe I should start a “gofundme” for this! “Send me to see some fútbol, I’ll bring back some Catalan lit!”)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich (FSG)

I really like when Jonathan Sturgeon is given the space to write longer pieces about books for Flavorwire. He’s a very insightful, thoughtful, well-read critic, as can be evidenced in this piece about Ulitskaya’s latest:

Because the novel is flat and fast, it’s difficult to describe the next several hundred pages. I’d rather given you an example of how it reads. But first I will say that it does not just dutifully work out the fates of our three young men, their sexualities, marriages, educations, occupations, travels, interpersonal struggles, and deaths; rather, it undutifully resolves these things. The plot meanders. The narrator ice skates along the novel’s surface. And as the book expands, it does become a big (green) tent, one that deals the fates of assorted minor characters, of what the narrator bafflingly calls “C-list extras.” The problem, though, is that any extra would be thrilled to be on the C-list; accordingly, the novel’s minor characters are always clambering in the limelight. (“Vera Samuilovna was crazy about endocrinology,” for instance.) Sometimes they ruin the shot.

Still, the book is often a joy to read. It is, if you will, crack. (Reminder: crack is bad for you.) But at least it is book crack and not TV crack. By this I do not mean that books are better than TV, although this is something I do believe. (I write about books.) What I mean is that The Big Green Tent, unlike some other big works of realism published this year, does not rely too much on TV tropes. Instead, it wins the reader’s attention with narrative art and (sometimes) ingenious language.

I considered including this in my spring class, but asking students to read a 570-page book in a week is begging for a student rebellion.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann, translated from the German by Kurt Beals (New Directions)

I don’t remember seeing a lot of coverage for this book when it first came out, which is both strange and disappointing. Her writing is weird in that way that a lot of literary readers and reviewers seem to enjoy. Robert Musil called her a “genius.” There are blurbs on the book jacket by Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse. Kurt Beals won a PEN Heim Translation Award for this. And here’s the opening of the title story:

Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be int he way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with an almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me . . . The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.

*

So go forth and read women in translation!

....
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

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I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

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Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
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Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
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Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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