The Year in Reading: A Conversation (Part Two)

This is Part Two of our three-part Year in Reading conversation. Click here for Part One and here for Part Three .

November 7

Remarks from Sweden notwithstanding, a look back over the reviews in our pages suggests that Americans — or at least American publishers – are paying plenty of attention to world literature (We’re thinking of books by Stieg Larsson, Victor Pelevin, Sasa Stanisic, Natsuo Kirino, and Ma Jian, among others) What have been the most interesting works in translation that you’ve read recently? Are you finding yourself drawn to any particular national or regional literatures that are new for you? –The Editors

Brooke Allen

I have come across quite a few interesting things.

Probably the wildest is a novel called Softcore by a young Iranian writer named Tirdad Zolghadr. The hero’s misadventures around the city of Teheran are wild and wooly and give a marvelous picture of what a strange, varied, and unexpected place modern Teheran is. In fact it made me want to go there and I have even been looking into guided tours (easier to book with British companies, for obvious reasons! I greatly enjoyed this book.

I very much admired the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, a work of fiction written as a mock-encyclopedia. Bolaño has created a bizarre collection of right-wing writers throughout North and South America; this incredibly clever pastiche gives an effective, parallel-universe history of political extremism in the twentieth century. Bolaño (1953-2003) was very active in the violent politics of his native country and in Mexico as well; rejecting magic realism, he and some friends came up with a style they dubbed “infrarealism.” Bolaño is a parodist of genius. He has said that his supposed focus in this book “is on the world of the ultra right, but much of the time, in reality, I’m talking about the left.” In fact he skewers the world of literature in general.

A book I reviewed for B&N Review and adored was Bernhard Schlink’s Homecoming. It is a beautifully put-together novel (an allegory, but so subtly presented that many will not recognize it as such) about the reunification of Germany. I really was bowled over by this, and the translation, by Michael Henry Heim, is also top-of-the-line.

I’ve also looked back (or for the first time) at some classics. As I said in the last e-mail, I’ve started tackling Dante. This has been particularly interesting as one of my daughters is now reading The Aeneid ,and the correspondences between the two become clear as I listen to her. Last year she was reading Petronius, and I laughed so hard helping her with the translations that I read big hunks of the Satyricon on my own. Great.

Aldalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, a nineteenth-century novella recently published by New York Review Books, is about as perfect as anything can get. It is a simple story about two children getting lost in the Alps — told with such an extraordinary visual flair that you feel as though you are looking at a Caspar David Friedrich painting. It was translated by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Mayer.

Over the last couple of years I’ve gone back to a favorite writer from my college days, Emile Zola. I think a lot of people are put off of him because he is presented in college courses, etc., academically as a doctrinaire and depressing “naturalist,” but nothing could be further from the truth. These novels are truly delicious, lavish, dramatic, and full of the most intense details….So much fun to read. For those who like big 19th-century novels, these cannot fail to please.

November 9

Tess Taylor

I want to put in a plug for David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry– a thoroughly comprehensive and masterful sweep through three millennia of ancient Chinese tradition. It is just gorgeous — detailed, ambitious, informative. A beautifully realized education. I also recently re-read Zbigniew Herbert’s transcendently good book of essays- Barbarian in the Garden. That stayed with me and I recommend it to all world travelers and would be essayists and to anyone who wants to think more about the uneasy place of art in the difficult world.

This year, my friend Rosanna Warren, whom I admire immensely, has a very fine new book on translation: Fables of the Self explores the idea of poems as creations of the language of self-hood, and also shows her intense engagement with the way poets influence one another across time and space. It’s about translation from one language into another, but also from idea to form and language, and past into present, and old master to new creation. I enjoyed that a lot, too. Another important book this year was Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. That poems bring together dense images from around the world-through the eyes of contemporary poets. Not to belabor the state of the world again, but it’s obvious that we need that kind of contact, and sharing. Oddly, I think to circle back to Dan’s point, I honestly think we will never stop needing work that offers us lenses into parts of the world (or of our own country) that we may not be able to see clearly — the kinds of stories and images and use of language that goes beyond headlines and into lived experience. I’m hungry for good books out of India or Pakistan or China or Hungary or Georgia or Turkey right now. We absolutely need those lenses — around the world and from the worlds within our own country, too.

But one standout, knock-me-dead, just-plain-amazing book this year was Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story. It’s a very short fable about life in a police state, where a policeman from the former regime is being tried under the new one. It’s also a haunting meditation about terror. The whole novella — which is only about 112 pages long — nominally takes place in an unnamed Central or South American country, and the surnames are vaguely Spanish. But the blurred setting — we might be in any troubled country undergoing upheaval — makes the story’s explorations of moral ambiguity seem universally applicable. There’s an old adage: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what about mere embeddedness? What is the power — or the responsibility — of the cog in the wheel?

Daniel Menaker

Not one. Not one single book in translation this year. Embarrassed. But I will read the Kertesz for sure, in small part because Tess’s description of it reminds me of Ceridwen Dovey’s (I think brilliant) Blood Kin, a first novel, about a coup in a nameless country. I really have to sit this one out, but no doubt like others here, I have had something of my own translated — into Dutch. The translator, Guido Goluke, was incredibly conscientious — he sent me a long list of terms he wasn’t familiar with or wanted further explanations about. I have the list somewhere, but the only phrase I can remember offhand is “tract house.” My wife and I went to Amsterdam when the book was published there, and my editor, a publishing hero named Emile Brugman, took us to dinner at a restaurant called d’Vijff Vlieghen, which means the Five Flies — not an auspicious name for a restaurant, but the kitchen was fully visible and as clean and orderly as a hospital OR. Many chefs, all in spotless white. The same book was supposed to be translated into Italian, but the company was bought by another company and many books were cancelled. But I did get some lira. I wonder if they would have had trouble with “tract house.” Perdoneme, scusi, es tut mir Leid, excusez-moi, sumimasen, etc., for my provincialness.

Michael Anderson

I also have read no book in translation this year.

Katherine A. Powers

The Swedish Academy has me down pretty accurately: insular and isolated. I tend not to read recent novels that have been translated from other languages. (Nineteenth-century ones are quite a different matter.) One reason for this is that I am forever battling deadlines and putting together columns and I think, O God, now I have to spend time on the context, the country and its circumstance, the writer and his or her milieu and tradition, as well as reading the book and coming up with something to write that comes to grips with the book in a graceful, enlightening and entertaining manner. I have Robert Bolaño stacked up like cordwood here — well, two novels — but every time I say, OK, let’s go! I don’t. Brooke causes me to consider renewing the attempt.

Still, in the last year I did in fact read a few novels in translation: The French Jeane-Claude Izzo’s The Lost Sailors, which I thought was pretty good, certainly evocative of place and melancholy without being tiresome, and then I went on to give his famous (or so I am told) Marseilles Trilogy a shot, but bailed out very quickly when a raped, mutilated, and murdered young woman, an innocent and pride of her family, was introduced. I felt my face was being rubbed in it and that, frankly, if the scene had been in an American novel reviewers would not have been pleased with it one bit.

I should say here, I simply loathe sadism and so was not 100 percent happy with the Swedish Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which has torture at the plot’s heart. I did finish it as it was definitely gripping as we reviewers like to say, but in the end I did not believe one word of the denouement.

Just to continue in this unfortunate, liverish way: I read the French Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and, wow, was it awful. P.C. squared, pretentious, and sentimental almost beyond bearing. For me — every other review I read of it was favorable.

On the plus side, I read the Norwegian Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and thought it was very good indeed, moving, powerful in its imagery of nature and in its resonance with the Sagas and ingenious in its construction. Yes.

So, now that I have you, I will say that the most transforming translation of any book I’ve ever read is Tiina Nunnally’s newish (ten years old or so) translation of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. I had tried to read this enormous work (a trilogy, in fact) set in twelfth-century Norway in its first English translation, a ye olde version crammed with “thee”s and “thy”s and “doth”s and “willest thou”s and that sort of mossy old denture clatter. Nothing doing. Then I started Nunnally’s translation and it was if a shroud had been lifted. Yes, sir. It’s a miracle and I read on, assignments to the left of me, assignments to the right of me, on and on through the valley of deadlines, 1,000-plus pages, completely enthralled.

November 11

James Parker

Hello, all — I have a hobgoblin about translation: I start to think about the million tiny decisions made by the author, and then the million slightly different tiny decisions made by the translator, and then I find that I am not enjoying myself. So I tend to do better with freer, more explicitly adaptive translations, Christopher Logue’s version of The Iliad being the gold standard for me. I read Logue’s autobiography, Prince Charming, this year and was most encouraged by it — a late bloomer myself, I found it heartening that Logue basically thrashed about in a rather shiftless, deracinated way, firing off the odd poem or play and doing a bit of jail time, until he got into the Iliad work in his 50s, at which point talent, task and moment converged and a masterpiece (in my opinion) began its self-creation.

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in the U.S. last year, was fantastic — rugged, chatty, effortlessly current. (“I’ll knee, bare my neck and take the first knock./ So who has the gall, the gumption, the guts?”) Armitage came through Boston and we had an excellent pint together, talking about Ted Hughes and Joy Division and the Smiths (he’s from Manchester). This year he came out with a “dramatic retelling” — actually an adaptation for radio — of The Odyssey, which I reviewed for the NYTBR. Good stuff, but not quite up there with his Gawain.

Translation — so easy to get wrong! Or rather, so rarely got right. Jewel-like exceptions, of course: There’s Saul Bellow’s rendition of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story “Gimpel the Fool,” the raffish, idiomatic authority of which leads one to suspect that all other Singer translations might be suffering from an entirely misjudged solemnity. So when professors start rending their garments in the back pages of the New Republic because the new translation of Dostoevsky is too this, or too that, I shrug, idiot that I am — how could it be otherwise?

To quote ye olde Twain: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

And what is translation but a sequence of well-groomed lightning bugs? (Sound of heads exploding, possibly.) Really though — I just finished Charles Portis’s
How do you translate that?

November 12

Michael Anderson


Your points are well taken, and I should agree with you wholeheartedly, given my immense admiration for Fitzgerald, who virtually rewrote the
and Iliad in his translations. Yet the very term “adaptive translation” raises my hackles. The ultimate, I suppose, would have to be Lowell, who knew not the language from which he was ostensibly translating! Perhaps because my training was in journalism, for me the issue is honesty (more than fidelity); Fitzgerald certainly gives you Homer! “Adaptive translation” carries as much stink as “creative nonfiction,” the ultimate in dishonest self-preening.

Sorry for the overreaction!

Tess Taylor

I just heard Robert Pinsky — who did a very fine version of Dante, by the way, say that the first translation is from the mind of God into the mind of Dante. After that it’s another falling off, Dante’s Italian into Pinsky’s (or anyone’s) English, and so on. The gift of language, alas, is marred by losses. But I guess rather than throw around terms to detest, I’d say we’re always balancing loss against remaking. Obviously in any remaking we miss something, but the whole point is to get something anyway, and also one hopes, something new. Therefore all translation would be and is adaptive, and of course, the wider spectrum is that some of that translation spills over into remaking — as Chaucer did with Ovid, or Wyatt did with Petrarch. The poems that come out of those particular forges of remaking and adaptation are highly wonderful. And from a creative standpoint the process is not so different. Meanwhile, of course its silly to say “creative nonfiction”: frankly, all nonfiction has some creativity to it, even if it is in forging the most basic links of a just-the-facts-ma’am news story. And often nonfiction that’s got novelistic qualities is and feels the most true: I’m thinking here of the high lyric forms in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, published in 1978. It’s an analysis of the decline and fall of Haile Selassie’s regime in Ethiopia — but a rather sidelong one. And of course there are lots of lovely hybrid books — Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother being one obvious example.

Katherine A. Powers

Whenever the subject of Masters of Atlantis — one of the greatest novels ever written — comes up, I have to add my two cents. I agree with James. I don’t see how MoA could be translated into any other language and still preserve its essential mood, which is a wholly American form of optimism, a sort of entrepreneurial aplomb and earnest festivity about the good things in life that are out there for the go-getter. The expression “generous measure,” found in the passage James quotes, is an example.

Here are a couple of other untranslatable bits chosen without spending a lot of time looking for the absolute best examples:

“June and her mother drank hot chocolate topped off with floating marshmallows.” Topped off! I just laugh out loud reading that and can’t see how it could be put in other words or another language because the whole American Way of Life and the Booster, commercial spirit is smuggled into that expression.

Portis’s choice of words in this novel and others also conveys a particular brand of dignity and respectability that is completely and untranslatably American. I just opened the book at random and read this: “W. W. Polton was a glum little man. Everything he saw seemed to let him down in some way…. He drank one Pepsi-Cola after another, leaving behind him a trail of wet bottles atop fine pieces of furniture.” It is just an accident, I suppose, that “top” comes into the picture again–but once again “atop” is exactly and uniquely the right word. It has a formal air — one that W. C. Fields, say, might adopt — and in this way it amplifies Polton’s offense against right living and positive thinking. And also, there surely is no synonym for “let him down.” It is not the same as being merely disappointed, but has a grudge and confounded expectations packed into it and I wonder in my admitted ignorance (some French, some Latin) if that could exist in one expression in any other language. Maybe German?

And, just to complete this rambling offering; here is something that has puzzled me for years. Why are some of the most rabid fans of P. G. Wodehouse Russian? I read Wodehouse when I am suffering an inability to write — frequently, in other words — just to slip into an inebriating world of language which, it seems to me, would be utterly impossible to translate.

Daniel Menaker

I feel I ought to try to add something to this conversation, so here goes: When I was in college, I took a one-semester course called Classical Mythology in Art and Literature, taught by the late Helen North, an Episcopalian lay nun of great Classics renown. The reading load was enormous — Homer, Ovid, Petrarch, Virgil, Dante, I forget what else but a lot else, and all in one semester. I don’t remember what translations were used, but I’m sure they were among the best of their time. And Miss North was a wonderful, wonderful teacher, who adumbrated her lectures on what we were reading with slides of classical and Renaissance works of art that reflected this particular written version or Zeus or that particular literary rendition of Athena.

This course was a kind of Western Canon pond-stocking for kids who had never had much knowledge of these crucial cultural works. And it didn’t matter, for these purposes, intellectually utilitarian though they may have been, what had been lost or remade in this or that translation. It mattered mainly that for an overworked while we pretty vigorously rubbed up against these great artifacts, and a good deal of certain kinds of knowledge rubbed off on us. Later we might discover the inevitable translational impossibilities and deficiencies — actually, those of us who had had the good luck to, say, read and try to translate Caesar in high school Latin classes already had an embryonic idea of the sadness of the task, of what was always left behind; in that case, of course, the Latin-ness of Latin — but for the time being for Miss North’s students, the intellectual usefulness of translations far outweighed their shortcomings. And on the merely conversational level, we could, with a little more learning than we’d had before, and however bathetically, call the cafeteria the Tenth Circle of Hell, or say that we felt like Laoco?n as we struggled with three term papers in the same week.

The last full work I’ve read in translation was Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf — just about a perfect match, it seems to me, between ancient and modern sensibilities. But what do I know? I can’t read it in the original.

Brooke Allen

I thought you all might be interested in reading William Cowper’s 1791 com