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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 17, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    A better foreign policy in literature

    Laurence Mackin

    I have a bit of a gra for books and novels that have been translated. Maybe it’s the different approach that another language brings to description and prose; perhaps it’s the fiendishness involved in translating what appears to be an innocuous phrase, and subsequently turns into a can of linguistic worms; or maybe its simple, loathsome smuggery at being among the first to experience an author’s work – a hipster of the book world. “Villalobos? Yeah, I prefer his older stuff.”

    Reading a book that has been translated, however skilfully, is always a different experience to reading a native-speaking (writing?) author – and this is not a bad thing. It can open up a whole townland of new linguistic avenues – although a bad translation can leave such massive potholes, that the journey doesn’t seem worth it.

    Lots of these thoughts came to mind while recently reading Drago Jancar’s The Galley Slave. Jancar is a giant of Slovenian literature, and this book, regarded as something of a masterpiece in his homeland, was originally published there in 1978, as Galjot. I knew nothing about Jancar before reading this book, and his life and work are well worth familiarising yourself with. It’s an extraordinary book, not an easy read but certainly a rewarding one.

    The book is published by Dalkey Archive Press, a non-profit publishing house that does a fine line in foreign authors you may never had heard of. Another publisher doing a tremendous service to foreign authors is And Other Stories, which produced the staggeringly good Down the Rabbit Hole by the aforementioned Juan-Pablo Villalobos, the 70-page novella that has the critics (me included) falling over each other to pay it compliments.

    This publishing house has a neat and clever approach to selling its books – a subscription model. A year’s subscription costs £35 and gets you four of the next books the company plans to publish. These are numbered first editions, with a few extras thrown in such as author-produced postcards.

    There are reams of authors who have not quite made a breakthrough into popular fiction but are well known to those who read around a book a week, or people lucky enough to have studied English in university. Ask anyone to name a Russian author, and Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy are usually top of the pile, but my money is always on Mikhail Bulgakov. There also seems to have been a recent resurgence in interest in Vasily Grossman, which is richly deserved.

    Then there are the more modern writers working on the fringes of mainstream fictive fame. Each time Andrey Kurkov releases a new book I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Ismail Kadare is similarly essential reading (if you need somewhere to start, I’d suggest The Successor), and despite winning the Man Booker International prize he still seems under-read . And my favourite book that no one (well few) has ever heard of was written in Italian by a bunch of anarchists: the simply title, swashbuckling extravaganza that is Q.

    Of course, it doesn’t always work. I find Stieg Larsson’s books incredibly clunky, and the charms of Keigo Higashino, his Japanese counterpart, are lost on me. So any further suggestions for foreign writers that I probably haven’t heard of would be warmly welcome.

    • Monique Simmer says:

      You probably already know of his work, but I am very fond of the late Harry Mulisch’s work – particularly “The Discovery of Heaven”.

    • John Self says:

      I share your love for translated stuff, and I’d throw up suggestions such as Dag Solstad (Novel 11, Book 18 is terrific), Marlen Haushofer (her last novel The Loft, recently translated into English, is wonderful), Cesar Aira (who writes books very quickly, and never revises them, but tends to turn out the goods nonetheless), Gert Hofmann (Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl) and others. Slightly better known names that I really like are Bohumil Hrabal (Too Loud a Solitude especially), Thomas Bernhard and others.

      Let’s not forget that the late Caroline Walsh was a firm friend of translated literature, often clearing space in the Books pages of the Irish Times for little-known writers and books instead of the big hitters that everyone else tediously covers. She will be much missed.

    • regan hutchins says:

      I’ve recently tried to up my quota of books in translation. You mention Vasily Grossman. I read Life and Fate last year and gobbled it in a week. It was my first foray into Russian literature. Stunningly good. The Road was next. It’s a collection of his short fiction and essays.
      I’d also mention the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb. His Journey By Moonlight (Pushkin Press) is as delicate as frosted gossamer and the translation by Len Rix is superb. And, while I have you, Deszo Kosztolányi’s Skylark is another Hungarian classic. It’s an Austro-Hungarian romp. A warm delight. Published by New York Review of Books.

    • I admire your courage, Laurence. Always find it difficult to read foreign authors work, How do I obtain some press publicity for my autobiography? Please view website. authormartingordon.com

      God bless,


    • Scarecrows Of The Stipe says:

      ” Papillion ” , probably my favourite book of all time , comes to mind here ……………

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Something the Stoics said about never touching up paintings…one wonders if translations are in line with that?

    • RPE McCarthy says:

      I think unless you pay good money, it is relatively rare that high brow fiction is well translated. I have yet (for instance) to read a satisfying translation of either Camus or Flaubert. The syntax and cadance always seems a little askance. Beckett exposes this best in the jarring use of english in his plays (transposed by the man) from french into english. But he isn’t a good example as he was still a foreigner writing in french no matter how fluent.
      Milan Kundera would be another good example of this. The is a strangeness about the world he inhabits in english that doesn’t seem quite as male, as clinical or a neutered in french. The hard back copies I have of The Divine Comedy, Plato’s republic and War & Peace among other examples were well worth the money. Espcially if the text is very dense like The Idiots.

      In low brow fiction however like Jo Nesbo’s pulp detective thrillers, I think the standard of translation is exceptional and genuinely reads in syntax and choice of words like a native english manuscript set in southern Norway. Whilst the first two books have not (last I checked) been translated, I read all the ones that had been translated sequentially over a week or so last summer and was very impressed by the standard of translation when compared to equivalent genre pieces written by native english speakers or by other more famous scandinavian writers. Possibly the only pulp writer that has as interesting a voice is John Connolly although his work is less original and more than a little repetitive (and not translated).

    • Neil Doherty says:

      I would question the assumption that ‘high-brow’ fiction is rarely translated well (and unless one has access to a plethora of languages, it is very hard to judge this). As someone who is involved in translation I am glad to see an article on the art (for that is what it is). Translators are our mediums into worlds that would otherwise remain closed. To answer the question about other foreign writers I would reccomend everything that Robert Walser ever wrote and a lot of it is available in English ably translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. Also the writings of Gregor von Rezzori, Andrey Platonov, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Witold Gombrowicz, Laszlo Krasnahorkai, Celine, Sadegh Hedayet, Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Saleh, Julio Cortazar, Thomas Bernhard, Kawabata and Tanizaki are all worth your time. Also The Family Mashber by Der Nishter, Night by Bilge Karasu, White Masks by Elias Khory and A Mind at peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar are books that I would recommend.

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