When The University of Texas Press (UT Press) started publishing Latin American Literature in translation in the 1960s there weren’t many other publishers competing for acquisitions. That had changed by the time UT Press reassessed its LiT program in 2010. They found a vibrant if small industry that was bringing important work into English and publicizing and distributing these books through traditional publishing channels.
UT Press looked back at the decades of translated books they had published, many of which had gone out of print and were no longer available except for used copies, if copies could be found at all. As part of a press-wide effort to bring back into print hundreds of out-of-print books that UT Press had the rights to, 39 titles were reintroduced as part of the Clásicos/Clássicos Latin American Masterpieces in English Series. UT Press sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell says “Almost every title also has an ebook edition for the first time, a major effort to make these titles as accessible to readers as possible. Some ebook editions are now outselling the print versions.”
El Confidential had one of those yearly articles about the Frankfurt book fair that purports to gauge the trends in publishing. This year it is about the need to have one’s book translated. It is an interesting statement because as I’ve read and mentioned in these pages before, the drive towards translation can also make one write to the international market, not your own. It seems to be one of the down sides of translation, which I find otherwise invaluable.
Es el retrato de una vieja canción que muy pocas veces se repite: escritores labrados en el silencio de sus horas libres y en la seguridad de un empleo insatisfactorio. Lectores por compulsión que con su primera novela logran hacer de su afición su profesión. Es la leyenda que nutre las escuelas de escritores, la ilusión del recién llegado y el mito del encuentro con el gran público. Pero algo ha cambiado en el camino del éxito de un novato: a la fiesta se han unido las editoriales extranjeras.
Autores desconocidos que venden traducciones a decenas de países antes de haber sido publicados en España, antes de tener buenas críticas y de demostrar que son capaces de vender, vender y vender. Antes, incluso, de ser autores. No tienen un rostro conocido en la televisión, no saben a quién ni a dónde mandar el manuscrito en el que llevan años trabajando, sin experiencia en el maltrecho y perverso universo editorial. Espontáneos que, a pesar de todo, triunfan con su primera novela y venden miles de libros. Es el premio gordo menos casual de todas las loterías y apuestas de un Estado donde cada vez hay menos dinero para la lectura.
Las excepciones que convierten las anécdotas en hazañas son la noticia que confirma un boom de la literatura de autores españoles en el extranjero, a los que les han desbrozado la senda Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Javier Sierra, Matilde Asensi, María Dueñas o Félix J. Palma, entre otros. Todos ellos estaban avalados por su nombre o sus ventas, pero en la primera parte de la temporada literaria han surgido tres novelas de éxito de escritores noveles, que además firman los derechos para la adaptación al cine.
Publishing Perspectives has an interesting article that suggests the best way for Latin American writing to get international exposure is to be translated into English. This is especially true if one hopes to break into Asian markets. It is a fascinating statement, suggesting that English language markets are the gateway into other languages. It gives an almost outsized power to English as an arbiter of cultural maters. It is even a bigger statement when so little foreign language fiction is translated into English. I’m not completely sure the need to translate into English is quite as prevalent when translating between European languages, but that still keeps books stuck within the European context.
The award underscores the ongoing question of access of foreign literature to what is increasingly becoming the international language of commerce and literature. In a recent article for Spanish organization Real Instituto Elcano, Cartagena Hay Festival director Cristina Fuentes affirmed that an estimated 250-500 million people across the world speak English as their first language and an estimated 1 billion as a second language.
This preponderance renders it the gateway to translation for other languages. Edith Grossman, renowned for her translations of Cervantes´ Don Quixote and Gabriel García Márquez, stated in an article for Foreign Policy that English often serves as the linguistic bridge for books aiming to reach a number of Asian and African languages: for a book written in Spanish to enter the Chinese market, it must often be translated into English first. (For further exploration of this topic, see “Edith Grossman Frowns: The Challenges of Translation in America.”)
In Europe, statistics show literary translations surpass those in many other segments of publishing. A 2012 survey of European publishers carried out by Literature Across Frontiers revealed that the majority of translated titles are fiction, more than 75% of translations for all publishers surveyed. Earlier, the organization had carried out a study on trends across the continent between 1990 and 2005, which revealed that as of 1996, English as a source language for translations represented double the share in translated literature titles of the next 25 most important European languages together. As of 2005, English was followed —and the gap was wide — by French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Japanese and Russian.
This is all well and good, and it is important to show that Latina American literature is more than Magical Realism. However, there is a darker flip side that in commenting on a Publishing Perspectives article Chad at Three Percent noted:
I’m not sure what direction this took in the panel discussion, but what’s always interested me (mostly because of the publishing angle), is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, “[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!” Which totally bummed me out. The retaining of something unique about a country’s “book culture” is something I think is extremely important. And in some ways, it’s the responsibility of (certain) publishers to help preserve this by publishing and promoting works that are “uniquely French” (if there is such a thing), or at least not “from France, but just like Freedom!” Otherwise, what’s the point?
The article in question was Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation Burton Pike suggested that the there is a growing international style based on the globalization of literature and the transnational nature of modern authors. I believe it to a certain degree, but I’m not completely convinced. In a cultural sense, perhaps writers are less “foreign”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the works are completely homogenized.
I used to tell my students in translation courses that in preparing to translate a writer they could never know enough about the writer’s culture. But looking at the writing coming out of Europe now, I’m not so sure. Now I ask myself: What other culture? Or, what other culture? A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders. A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures. The critic Richard Eder writes in a review of a novel by Geoff Dyer that “his novel is an early specimen of what you might call European Community fiction. Luke, the vaguely intending writer, and Alex are British and need no papers to get laboring jobs in a book warehouse [in Paris]. Nicole, a Yugoslav immigrant, and Sarah, an American, are employed more formally, the first as a secretary, the second as an interpreter.”
Literature is no longer regarded as the sacred bearer of high culture. The Russian formalists’ distinction between literary language and everyday language has faded away. Nora Tarnopolsky writes, for instance, that “Hebrew is becoming an ordinary language, and its literature, a normal literature, no longer the exclusive province of high-minded ideals and nationalistic fervor…[C]haracters in contemporary Israeli fiction have turned away from ideals and ideology, away from the burdens of history, toward their own individual lives, however outlandish.”
Still, I’m reminded of what Jorge Volpi recently said in an interview with the Quarterly Conversation:
DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?
JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.
I have mixed opinions on all of this, but I do know that I’m always surprised by the number of English language books that are translated into Spanish. There are more than enough books out there to influence that writing. In some ways, if you read The Future Is Not Ours you will get that sense that the short story has homogenized a little.
What do you think?
Tim Parks has a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books about how in some countries in Europe the translation into a foreign language in Europe has is completing with the English originals. He posits that in countries where English is commonly spoken as a second language, that readers are more interested in reading books from English writers, and given a choice between a translation from English and the original they will pick the original. This has lead to the phenomenon where English language authors are considered the best writers. Instead of broadening access to writers, it has had the effect of limiting narrowing access. I don’t think this phenomenon is as pronounced in Spain, but I do marvel at how many English speaking authors make it in to Spanish. On reading through a book of interview I was also amazed that outside of some classic short story authors, most of the influences were Spanish or English language authors only. Fascinating stuff. (Via)
When I asked people to list titles they had recently read, they seemed surprised themselves how prevalently English and American, rather than simply foreign, these novels were. A linguist from Amsterdam University, for example, went away and jotted down the names of all the novelists on his shelves: fifty-eight Anglophone authors (many were Booker and Pulitzer winners), nineteen from eight other countries and twenty Dutch. Until he wrote down this list, he remarked, he had not been aware how far his reading was driven by publicity and availability. Indeed, no one spoke of any method behind his or her choice of novels (as opposed to non-fiction, where people declared very specific and usually local interests).
“I read foreign novels because they’re better,” was a remark I began to expect (surprisingly, a senior member of the Dutch Fund for Literature also said this to me). I asked readers if that could really be the case; why would foreign books be “better” across the board, in what way? As the responses mounted up, a pattern emerged: these people had learned excellent English and with it an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture in their school years. They had come to use their novel-reading (but not other kinds of reading) to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world.
Apart from the immediate repercussions on the book market, where there is now fierce competition between English and Dutch editions of English language novels, the phenomenon suggests a few things about reading and the modern psyche. There appears to be a tension, or perhaps necessary balance, between evasion and realism in fiction, between a desire to read seriously about real things—to feel I am not wasting my time, but engaging intelligently with the world—and simultaneously a desire to escape the confines of one’s immediate community, move into the territory of the imagination, and perhaps fantasize about far away places.
Three Percent has updated their translation database for 2011 (you can see the whole list here (Excel file)). But I thought it would be interesting to look at just the Spanish language fiction, especially if you don’t have Excel. Many of the names are familiar such as Bloano, Volpi, Aira, Castellanos Moya. I recognize Felix J Palma from Spain and even own one of his books. But there are many I don’t recognize at all.
|Seamstress and the Wind||Cesar||Aira||Argentina||Rosalie||Knecht||New Directions||Fiction||12.95||June|
|My Two Worlds||Sergio||Chejfec||Argentina||Margaret||Carson||Open Letter||Fiction||12.95||July|
|Prose from the Observatory||Julio||Cortazar||Argentina||Anne||McLean||Archipelago||Fiction||18||June|
|Vertical Poetry: Last Poems||Roberto||Juarroz||Argentina||Mary||Crow||White Pine||Poetry||16||June|
|Seconds Out||Martin||Kohan||Argentina||Nick||Caistor||Serpent’s Tail||Fiction||14.95||Apr|
|Passionate Nomads||Maria Rosa||Lojo||Argentina||Brett Alan||Sanders||Aliform||Fiction||14.95||June|
|Sweet Money||Ernesto||Mallo||Argentina||Katherine||Silver||Bitter Lemon||Fiction||14.95||Oct|
|Secret in Their Eyes||Eduardo||Sacheri||Argentina||John||Cullen||Other Press||Fiction||15.95||Oct|
|Scars||Juan Jose||Saer||Argentina||Steve||Dolph||Open Letter||Fiction||14.95||Dec|
|Dark Desires and the Others||Luisa||Valenzuela||Argentina||Susan||Clark||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||15.95||May|
|Lizard’s Tale||Jose||Donoso||Chile||Suzanne Jill||Levine||Northwestern University Press||Fiction||24.95||Oct|
|Chilean Poets: A New Anthology||Jorge||Etcheverry||Chile||various||various||Marick Press||Poetry||16.95||Apr|
|Absent Sea||Carlos||Franz||Chile||Leland||Chambers||McPherson & Company||Fiction||25||June|
|Shadow of What We Were||Luis||Sepulveda||Chile||Howard||Curtis||Europa Editions||Fiction||15||Feb|
|Good Offices||Evelio||Rosero||Colombia||Anne||McLean||New Directions||Fiction||12.95||Sept|
|Secret History of Costaguana||Juan Gabriel||Vasquez||Colombia||Anne||McLean||Riverhead||Fiction||26.95||June|
|Micrograms||Jorge Carrera||Andrade||Ecuador||Alejandro de||Acosta||Wave Books||Poetry||16||Nov|
|Tyrant Memory||Horacio Castellanos||Moya||Honduras||Katherine||Silver||New Directions||Fiction||15.95||June|
|Afterglow||Alberto||Blanco||Mexico||Jennifer||Rathbun||Bitter Oleander Press||Poetry||21||June|
|Destiny and Desire||Carlos||Fuentes||Mexico||Edith||Grossman||Random House||Fiction||27||Jan|
|Three Messages and a Warning||Eduardo Jimenez||Mayo||Mexico||various||various||Small Beer||Fiction||16||Dec|
|Negro Marfil/Ivory Black||Myriam||Moscona||Mexico||Jen||Hofer||Les Figues||Poetry||15||Sept|
|In Spite of the Dark Silence||Jorge||Volpi||Mexico||Olivia||Maciel||Swan Isle Press||Fiction||28||Jan|
|Origin of Species and Other Poems||Ernesto||Cardenal||Nicaragua||John||Lyons||Texas Tech University Press||Poetry||21.95||Apr|
|Reasons for Writing Poetry||Eduardo||Chirinos||Peru||G. J.||Racz||Salt||Poetry||15.95||Jan|
|Against Professional Secrets||Cesar||Vallejo||Peru||Joseph||Mulligan||Roof Books||Poetry||14.95||Apr|
|Fire Wind||Yvan||Yauri||Peru||Marta||del Pozo||Ugly Duckling||Poetry||14||Feb|
|I’m a Box||Natalia||Carrero||Spain||Johanna||Warren||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||July|
|Waiting for Robert Capa||Susana||Fortes||Spain||Adriana||Lopez||HarperCollins||Fiction||14.99||Oct|
|Scale of Maps||Belen||Gopegui||Spain||Mark||Schafer||City Lights||Fiction||14.95||Jan|
|Exiled from Almost Everywhere||Juan||Goytisolo||Spain||Peter||Bush||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||13.95||Apr|
|Nijar Country||Juan||Goytisolo||Spain||Peter||Bush||Lumen Books||Fiction||15||May|
|Barcelona Noir||Adriana||Lopez||Spain||Achy||Obejas||Akashic Books||Fiction||17.95||May|
|Map of Time||Felix||Palma||Spain||Nick||Caistor||Atria||Fiction||26||June|
|No World Concerto||A. G.||Porta||Spain||Rhett||McNeil||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||15.95||Oct|
|Procession of Shadows||Julian||Rios||Spain||Nick||Caistor||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||13.95||May|
|A Bit of Everything||Juan||Valera||Spain||Johanna||Warren||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||Feb|
|Dona Luz||Juan||Valera||Spain||Kenneth Evan||Barger||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||Feb|
|Never Any End to Paris||Enrique||Vila-Matas||Spain||Anne||McLean||New Directions||Fiction||15.95||May|
The Market Place of Ideas podcast has a great interview with three of César Aira’s translators. Definately worth a listen if you are interested in César Aira, translation, or how the various traditions in writing in Spanish is different than those of the United States and how that shapes the market for translation.
11.09.21. Colin Marshall talks to Chris Andrews, Katherine Silver, and Rosalie Knecht, English translators of the Argentine novelist César Aira, whom some readers in the Anglosphere are now finding as exciting as Borges. Despite having published over fifty books since 1975, Aira has only recently broken into English with novels such as An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, How I Became a Nun, Ghosts, The Literary Conference, and the new The Seamstress and the Wind that showcase his ability to balance the fine-grained observational detail of with outlandish fantasy and the methodical work habits and genre sensibilities of a mainstream author with the experimentalism and caprice of the avant-garde.
Arabic Literature (in English) has been running a series of interviews with translators about what one should and shouldn’t do. The translators translate from more than just Arabic, but also Spanish, and poetry. It is a great feature. I found the one for about Spanish translations fascinating, in part because one of the translators has already translated works by María Shua who I just discovered the other day. Read the full interview here.
from Lisa Carter
1. Love the work
You are about to spend an inordinate amount of time with any literary translation, so make sure you love it. You can love the text itself, the style, the author, the opportunity the project presents, the editor, the publisher, any number of things. Just remember that initial attraction to the work as the weeks and months pass, when the challenge becomes daunting, when you doubt yourself or your ability. Remember to love the work.
5. For Spanish translators or others whose source language has many regional variations: Find good regional dictionaries, including lexicons of slang. In my arsenal, for example, are: El diccionario etimológico del lunfardo (Argentine slang) by Oscar Conde, Francisco J. Santamaría’s Diccionario de mejicanismos [sic] and a number of country-specific online dictionaries.
David Bellos had an interesting article in the Independent about how Google Translate works: it use translations made by people. As someone who once seriously considered studding computational linguistics, it is both fascinating and disappointing. In some ways the machine can’t really do it. And that’s especially obvious when it tries to translate the indirect object pronoun of the romance languages. (via Scott)
The corpus it can scan includes all the paper put out since 1957 by the EU in two dozen languages, everything the UN and its agencies have ever done in writing in six official languages, and huge amounts of other material, from the records of international tribunals to company reports and all the articles and books in bilingual form that have been put up on the web by individuals, libraries, booksellers, authors and academic departments.
A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi. They thus provide ample material for finding matches between sentences in the two foreign languages; whereas Persian classics translated into Icelandic are surely far fewer, even including those works that have themselves made the journey by way of a pivot such as French or German. This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese. GT-generated translations themselves go up on the web and become part of the corpus that GT scans, producing a feedback loop that reinforces the probability that the original GT translation was acceptable. But it also feeds on human translators, since it always asks users to suggest a better translation than the one it provides – a loop pulling in the opposite direction, towards greater refinement. It’s an extraordinarily clever device. I’ve used it myself to check I had understood a Swedish sentence more or less correctly, for example, and it is used automatically as a webpage translator whenever you use a search engine.
Publishing Perspectives has a profile of Edith Grossman discussing the problems of publish translations in the English speaking world. She lays it out quite accurately and you might say depressingly. I find it amazing any time I open a Spanish language literary magazine, book review, or go into a bookstore in Spain and see the mounds of translations, often of books I can’t believe they would be interested in. It is very timely article for me as I’m about to start a review essay on Spanish short story writers who are unpublished in English (if translations get little respect, translations of short stories get even less).
In her book, Grossman mentions the well-known fact that only three percent of the books published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia are translations, while in Europe and Latin America this percentage number fluctuates between 25% and 40%. “We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says Grossman. (An interviewer infected with translators’ jargon would have commented that Grossman said this “with a sigh”, or “shaking her head.“) “I don’t believe that this will change soon, since almost all publishers are part of large corporations and make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable.”
I mention then that a few small and medium US publishers have recently published translations of books by César Aria, Alejandro Zambra and Juan José Saer. “I love these publishers, and they have good people working there,” she says. “But they are too small, they have a lot of trouble getting adequate distribution and good publicity or reviews in the media.”
In spite of everything, in the English-language world new translations of classical works sometimes get the same attention given to new novels. Grossman’s Quixote was a major event in the world of letters, just like Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary was last year. A few months ago, Julian Barnes wrote a long review of Davis’s version, comparing it with half a dozen earlier translations. In Barnes’ view, translations in the last few decades have become more accurate but also more cumbersome and less fluid. Barnes said that new translators, wanting to reflect in more detail the author’s original intention, had forgotten how to write well in their own language.
The ever interesting Three Percent has thoughts from a small press publisher which puts her comments in greater context.
Well, OK. I was going to complain here about how difficult it is getting books into bookstores where the buyers won’t even take a call because “that sort of stuff doesn’t sell here on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.” (Or in Nebraska, the Mountain & Plains states, or wherever.) And I was going to point out that Juan Jose Saer’s Sixty-Five Years of Washington sold out its first print run and was reviewed in the New York Times and The Nation among other places. But whatever. She’s right.1 Even at our best, the lousiest piece from crap from Corporate Publisher X will get more penetration into the marketplace, which is the slow sick sucking part of the business, and I’m not sure it will ever really change.
Obviously, Internet retailers have leveled the field a bit—all of our books are just as available through Amazon as anyone else’s—but in that case, when a reader is faced with an overwhelming number of choices (approx. 3 million new ones each year, including tons and tons of $.99 entertainments), it’s tricky for an unknown author from Peru to make it through. Ideally, when everything’s available, people would try new things and find some niche tastes, but in reality, we search for what we already know we want to find, and bust the Bieber while reading Twilight. But that’s a subject for another post and/or book . . .
The Guardian has a brief essay by Maureen Freely on why she enjoys translating and its importance. If her name isn’t quite familiar, you might better know her as one of Oran Palmuk’s translators. While she isn’t throwing up any deep insights into the art of translating, the life of the translator she describes is interesting, especially if one is translating a controversial author. Translation occasionally is a dangerous business.
I was initially drawn to this art because, after many years of journalism, I longed for a quiet life. I imagined weeks and months of solitary reflection in my favourite chair. And of course there were periods like this. But if you are translating a controversial author, the world is never far away.
My first rude awakening came while I was translating the first chapters of Pamuk’s 2002 novel, Snow. A Turkish newspaper got in touch; having heard what I was up to, it wanted to know what I thought of the headscarf issue, about which Snow has a great deal to say. My innocuous answer (that a woman should be able to choose what she wears on her head) was transformed into a provocative headline (“I curse the fathers!”), following which I was bombarded with emails from an extremist Islamist newspaper. I could not help but notice that their questions were almost identical to those asked by an Islamist extremist in the chapter I’d just translated. It ends with said extremist pumping a few bullets into his interlocutor’s head.
Arab Literature (in English) published this excellent list of literary journals in English that publish translations. I know that I’ve had a few readers from Spain who’d like to have their work translated in English and published here in the great isolation. It is a great start for you efforts and I hope it can be of help. I know it took quite a while to put together.
Now and then, I get a note from an emerging translator who wonders where she or he might submit a short story (or stories, or novel excerpts or poems) translated from the Arabic.
However, these three are not necessarily the most accessible venues: Banipal and WWB both regularly have theme issues, and Two Lines (like WWB) is working from the entire world-language community. (However, Two Lines does publish Arabic translations, as with a lovely translation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s “Tongue,” by Elliott Colla.)
But those three aren’t the only magazines that are looking for your translated stories, novel excerpts, poems, plays, and essays.
The list below has an emphasis on magazines that allow for electronic submissions and simultaneous submissions (that means they’re okay if you send your story to several magazines at once). I have some information below, but please check it against the magazine’s submission guidelines before you send anything in.
Nagib Mahfouz’s comparably brief novel, Miramar, captures a moment of great change in the history of Egypt through the lives of the inhabitants of a the pension Miramar. Although politics are ever present in the background, the novel focuses on the way the lives of the inhabitants of the pension have been changed by the Nasarite revolution of the late 50s. Mahfouz, the great story teller he his, uses the personal disappointments brought on by the revolution to draw a picture of a country trying to radically change, yet tied to the past and unable to change many of its ways despite official policies. His subtle focus on the relationships between the characters of the pension, drawing out the conflicts between the shifting class of people, lifts the book above politics and draws a fascinating picture of classes rising and falling.
Miramar is divided into four chapters, each told by a different resident of the pension. Amir Wagdi, the first to narrate, is a retired journalist who provides a historical memory to the story. He had seen the uprising against the British in the twenties and later the revolution. A long time friend of the proprietor of the pension, Mariana, he has returned an old man, content to live in his memories and accept what his life has given him. He has a sage like quality that in conversation with his contemporary the Pasha, a rich man now disposed of most of his lands, he is able to avoid arguments about politics. Much of his chapter has a dream like feel of the lost, and his interactions with the Pasha and Mariana recall the days when he was amongst the action, before their respective lives and the movements they belonged to failed and faded into the past.
When a young peasant girl, Zorha, comes to work at the pension, everything changes for the boarders. For Amir Wagdi, he takes on the role of a grandfather, hoping for her to succeed as she attempts leave the country side and survive in a world where everyone wants to take her independence. Zorha is a defiant woman who had left the village when her family wanted her to marry someone she didn’t want to marry. Surrounded by men in the pension, she stands up to them and though shy she, she is strong enough to fight back against all the things that befall her. She is one of the few characters in the book that really is looking towards the future and doing it on her own terms. She is illiterate, but hires a teacher to learn to read even though most people tell her it is a waste of time. She is also one of the few, perhaps the only, who is good hearted. One read could see Zorha as the future of the new Egypt, but Mahfouz is too clear eyed for that simplicity, because all the young who live in the pension either want the old society, or are just looking for ways to exploit the new corruption that has replaced the old corruption. Nor is the country side a bastion of wisdom. If it were, Zorha wouldn’t have needed to leave the country side. Instead, Mahfouz celebrates an individuality that is strong and not tempted by the faults of society.
The other men, Husni Allam, a rich playboy, Mansour Bahi, an indecisive radio host, and Sarhan al-Behairi, a low ranking party man whose is looking to make money on the black market, have only one interest: what they can get for themselves. They are consumed by lust, which varies in cruelty, but is all consuming and is an attempt themselves in a position of power, using women without care. The hustling nature puts them in conflict with each other, especially as they fight for Zorha’s affections. Ultimately, the mix of hustling, sexual tension and the close confinement leads to the murder of Sarhan al-Behairi, who is found on a street one morning. As each of the three men narrate their section, the events that lead up to al-Behairi’s death become clearer. It is obvious that none of these men are particularly praiseworthy. Yet even in a character such as Husni Allam, Mahfouz creates evocative characters that also express the frustrations of men who, in many ways, don’t have many options. On the one hand, the rich are loosing their lands, and on the other those are part of the new regime can’t get ahead either. The frustrations add complexity to what might have otherwise been a simple tale of lust and envey.
Ultimately, it is not important if al-Behairi’s murderer is found, what is important is Mahfouz’s picture of post revolution Egypt. The conflicting interests and impulses he presents avoids the pessimistic, yet there is an air of fatalism in the characters who cannot get beyond their pasts. Only Zorha offers hope, but it is unclear what that it is. It is not for Mahfouz to describe the future. Still, one hopes Zorha will survive, for it suggests there is a future worth having.
Last month Spanish novelist and short story writer Félix J Palma published a new book of short stories, The Smallest Show in the World (El menor espectáculo del mundo). In it he mixes the fantastic with the comic to explore “human relations, most of all those of love, are microcosms inhabited only by those who are living it” (relaciones humanas, sobre todo las amorosas, son microcosmos habitados únicamente por los protagonistas de la historia. Revista de Letras Spanish only.) He treats the subject with humor and his use of the fantastic sounds interesting. In one story, a character doubles every time he has to make a decision (via Spanish only) . Instead of the Garden of Forking Paths, the character becomes the path, turning the Borges classic on its head. As Palma notes in an interview at Canal-l (Spanish only) many Spanish short story authors follow one of two paths, either those of Borges, Cortizar, and other Latin American authors who tended towards the fantastic, or those of Americans like Raymond Carver. He, by his own accounting, is in the first camp. While I’m not sure if he is one of Spain’s best short story writers as the Revista de Letras article says, I am sufficiently intrigued to get a copy of his book.
For those of you who can only read English, his successful novel The Map of Time will be coming out in English sometime this year. I don’t know much about it and from the description Publisher’s Weekly gave I’m not sure if I should be afraid or hope for something interesting. Given that it got a six figure deal, I’m a little leery.
Johanna Castillo at Atria won an auction for Felix J. Palma’sThe Map of Time via Thomas Colchie, who sold North American rights for six figures (in collaboration with Palma’s principal agent, Antonia Kerrigan, on behalf of Algaida in Spain). Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, Palma’s English-language debut features three intertwined plots, in which H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate incidents of time travel and save the lives of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past, a woman attempting to flee the strictures of society by searching for her lover somewhere in the future and Wells’s own wife, who may have become a pawn in a plot to murder him as well as Henry James and Bram Stoker. The book was just published in Spain.
First of all, I love Edith Wharton’s work. However, Fighting France and A Son at the Front, her novels about World War I, are not really the best of her work. What is so annoying and marvelous at the same time is how the non-English speaking world is willing to translate so much more than we do. Perhaps she has the reputation of the current literary superstar Roberto Bolaño, but I doubt it. So to translate a lesser of her works seems to have a genuine respect. It is just so exasperating that we English speakers do return the favor.
You can read a review of it in Spanish at the Revista de Letras.
Martín Solares novel The Black Minutes was reviewed by the NY Times. It is a positive review and for a crime novel it sounds a little atypical. Perhaps one of the reasons it was translated was it has a sense of the urgent with characters involved in the drug trade and corruption, something that is plaguing Mexico. While I don’t read much crime fiction, done right it can transcend the genre and become a report on its times. Considering Jorge Volpi’s call for a more committed literature, perhaps this novel is a good example in the Mexican context.
The best detective novels are those that go beyond the limitations of genre and a specific story to limn the broader society in which they take place. Mr. Solares does that in a profound but entertaining fashion here, revealing the surprising subterranean linkages that give politicians, the police, labor unions, drug cartels, the Roman Catholic Church, business interests and sectors of the press an interest in covering up the truth of the two cases.
To that end he makes especially effective and clever use of the separate time frames, one of whose purposes is to show how chronic, endemic corruption erodes the desire and ability of the individual to do the right thing, or even to act at all. Current-day Paracuán’s duplicitous police chief, Joaquín Taboada, is thus shown as a young, somewhat bumbling officer in the 1970s with the hilarious nickname El Travolta. There is also Fritz Tschanz, an immigrant Jesuit priest who knows so much and has heard so many sordid confessions over the years that his world-weariness has paralyzed him.
Over all it sounds good, but I’m not sure what ethnic types he is talking about:
But Mr. Solares is a graceful, even poetic, writer, especially in his hard-boiled dialogue and his descriptions of the wildly varied landscapes and ethnic types of northern Mexico. Though the world of “The Black Minutes” is one to inspire fear and revulsion, Mr. Solares’s descriptions of it are oddly beautiful and fascinating in the same way that overturning a rock and observing the maggots beneath can be a perversely edifying spectacle.
Publisher’s Weekly has an interesting summary from the BEA on the outlook for Spanish language publishing in the US and translation from Spanish to English. Of more interest to English speakers is their take on Translation from Spanish to English. They all seem to think the market is growing and acceptance of translated works will be greater. Perhaps translation some day will go from 3% to 4%? I’ll believe it when I see it, but it is good to see that the publishers feel that there is something happening, although publishers have been known to be wrong before.
“Translations from Spanish into English: Overview, potentials and hurdles,” looked at the recent surge of successful translations of Spanish-language books. Esther Allen, translator and director Center of Literary Translation at Columbia University, moderated the panel, and began by saying she has “never felt so excited, so sanguine about the possibilities of bringing work from Spanish into English…both from Latin America and Spain.”
“It’s now ‘groovy’ again to read translations,” said New Directions’ Barbara Epler. “It’s the new generation that doesn’t care about anything,” such as whether it’s a translation or not, she explained. “They’re just really excited about somebody fabulous.” Epler said there’s now a difference in the way Spanish-language literature is being perceived in the U.S., and it’s reflected in the number of translations from Spanish published today. “It’s more than I’ve ever seen.”
Granta en español’s Valerie Miles noted that there is “an awakening of talent” within Spanish-language literature itself. Miles said an upcoming issue of Granta, The Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists, would highlight translations of works by young novelists under 35. Miles later noted it was important to steer clear of “blanket” labels, such as Latin American literature, because such tags don’t allow for the notion that each writer hails from a different culture and tradition.
Jesús Badenes from Editorial Planeta said one way Spanish authors measure their own success now, is by whether or not they’ve been published in the U.S. and, consequently, Spanish editors and agents are putting more of a focus on making that happen. He also noted that the U.S. is now more concerned about “world matters,” and thus open to reading—and publishing—more works in translation.
My review of Jacques Poulin’s Translation is a Love Affair is up at the Quarterly Conversation. Jacques Poulin is from Quebec, a city that is relatively close but can seem rather distant to someone from the US. It was a good change of pace to read a book from our neighbor to the north. The review begins
True to its title, Translation Is a Love Affair is centered around language—not only how writers and translators use it but also how it brings people together. Author Jacques Poulin’s characters see language as something to live, like a friendship, and translation is both a means of rendering one language in another and closing the distance between people, and even creatures. But that doesn’t mean Translation is a work of theory; it is a quiet novel of companionship through language.
The Spanish author Miguel Delibes has died at age 89 at his home in Valladolid. El Pais has an obiturary here and commemoration his life here. He had won the Cervantes prize among many others and was considered one of Spains greatest writers of the 20th century. Several of his books have been translated into English.
A brief interview with Edith Grossman about her approach to translation. Interesting, if brief.
IDEAS: Do you read much work by other translators?
GROSSMAN: It’s difficult, but that’s part of the trick of translating – to be able to leave your ear neutral enough so you can hear the first language, and know your own language well enough so you can echo it.
GROSSMAN: When I’m working I prefer to read contemporary American and English fiction. It gives me an idea of what’s possible. Aside from the fact that I’m addicted to novels, reading great fiction broadens my own repertoire of responses to a text. Gregory Rabassa said that when he was working on “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” some ninny asked him if he knew enough Spanish to translate it, and his answer was that the real question was whether or not he knew enough English. He hit it right on the head.
IDEAS: As you translate a book into a different language, how do you separate your own voice from the author’s?
Rupert: A Confession belongs to that genre of writing called the compulsive explainer, which features a narrator who is unable to control his need to explain the world, often in intricate detail, as he sees it even if it is in his best interest not to explain so much. It can be a difficult way of writing because the obsessions of the narrator can overwhelm a reader with the obscure or the tangential. To that compulsion Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer adds an unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator adds a different complication: how does one tell the reader the narrator is lying without the narrator having to explain the lie? Weaker writers will just have the narrator say two different things at two different times. Yet unless the narrator has gone through some shift the statements are forced or awkward. Why did the narrator sudden decide to say this? Is it because the writer needs to tell me the narrator is unreliable? Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares is an example of this. On the other hand, the narrator who does not know they are unreliable is the truly difficult and interesting approach because not only does it keep the character in character, it gives more work to the reader forcing her to puzzle out the unreliability from the clues within the story. Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy is a excellent example of this precision in characterization.
Pfeijffer successfully combines the two elements the obsessive and the unreliable to create Rupert. Rupert is on trial for something what it is isn’t clear, but what ever it is Rupert feels the need to explain his innocence in great detail. The detail, though, is not a counter argument of the facts, but a brief history of his affair with Mira and the days after. Rupert, though, is a pervert and he’d gets more pleasure in going to a peep show than actually having sex wit his girl friend. He is also quite graphic when he describes his encounter in the peep show and his dreams, and it is an obvious tip off that Rupert, despite his claims to the contrary, is not completely aware of what a courtroom nor society in general thinks is proper behavior. Telling a court that you are stalking an old girlfriend and still love her only suggests madness and violence. As the novel progresses Rupert becomes more obsessive, yet each time he makes the claim it is obvious he is only becoming more unhinged, losing grasp of the boundaries between desire and stalking.
The trial is the perfect contrasting device for the unreliability because Pfeijffer can let Rupert’s story, his obsession, flow naturally in Rupert’s voice. At first Rupert seems a little strange, but not manically obssesed, just a lonely man in a permissive country. As he goes farther into his story, though, it becomes obvious that what he is narrating is probably not true. The distance between how he has behaved in earlier scenes contrasts too heavily with the behavior he claims at the end.
Rupert: A Confession is a tense novel. The coming expectation of some great misdeed flows throughout the novel and over the last 30 pages the question is, is this what landed him in jail? To say what happened would ruin the novel, but the sense of coming disaster animates the book and keeps his obsessions from the tangential. Another source of the tension is the constant fixation of sex. Titillating, as Publishers Weekly said, is the wrong word for the seedy depths that Rupert visits as he seeks to fulfill his fantasies. Had his fantasies with Mira been reality and the reality non existent, the book would be titillating. Instead, coupling the violence and sense of foreboding confront the reader with questions: what happens when eroticism you are enjoying as a spectator (the reader) turns dark? Does it turn the former experience into a mistake, something shameful, or are they two different things? Ultimately, does using the surrogate, Rupert, for some distant enjoyment place one in the same dark peep show where Rupert first shows his obsessive side?
Rupert is also an architectural novel. Pfeijffer uses the city and the spaces within it as a way to distance Rupert from greater human contact. Rupert sees more in the city, its squares, its buildings, and can understand them better than the people in them. He knows how to analyze, not how to connect:
Fredo square is not like that, but it does its best. When it’s on form and happy because it’s being kissed by a sultry summer evening, it can mirror the perfection of the Palio. Then it can stop looking and smile like a brushing bride who embraces you and is grateful and all is well. She stretches herself out comfortably on the soft bed of the humming city, blissfully certain that she is loved.
Towards the end of the novel as Rupert is trying to find Mira in the winding streets of the old part of town, he blends the language of the erotic with the architectural, removing any humanity from Mira and turning her into an object. At the same time, though, the complex eroticism previously mentioned returns, because the city as Rupert sees it is truly erotic. The architecture becomes the reflection and the shape of the inhabitants, and as such is both beautiful and ugly, and in Rupert: A Confession, also a place for shame and titillation.
Rupert: A Confession is a brief novel, but in its 130 pages Pfeijffer is able to master one of the more difficult things in fiction, the unreliable narrator, and that makes it well worth the read.
Three Percent has updated their invaluable Translation Database. If you are interested in foreign fiction in English it is an invaluable resource. (You will need Excel or Open Office to open it. )
As always, these spreadsheets contain info on never-before-translated works of fiction and poetry distributed in the U.S. (I left off anything that’s been published in English translation before, even if the earlier version was censored, corrupt, etc. Just trying to focus on what new titles are being made available to English readers.)