A better foreign policy in literature
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.