This week’s Translation Tuesday features the Swahili-language writer Mlenge Mgendi. “Comfort Is Expensive” comes from Mlenge Mgendi’s self-published collection Mama wa Jey: Hadithi za Uswahilini (Jey’s Mother: Stories of Swahili Life). Nathalie S. Koening’s nuanced translation captures the different registers of speech in this scatological tale, which weaves indispensable Swahili terms with well-timed slang that, in some ways, feels universal. The speaker captures the anxiety of youth squeezed under community expectations and bureaucratic pressure. Sober, infused with wry humor, and laced with charming off-beat metaphor, “Comfort is Expensive” shows a slice of life that points to the atmosphere of a place and the dispositions that form under specific pressures there.
That day, I was coming from school. My stomach, jeopardizing the love, unity and cooperation that had reigned in my bowels for centuries, was causing me real trouble. I had no choice but to hurl myself into a daladala bus and get home in a hurry. Don’t you know? Since our schools have no money for healing all that ails us, students get a “discount” when they ride the bus?
When I got to the stop, a daladala was waiting. It was totally empty, having been outsmarted by another bus that, zipping past like a toothbrush, had plucked up all the fares. As I was climbing in, the konda boy grabbed hold of me. “Hey, you! Stoo-denty! You taking up an actual seat coz you’re gonna pay full price?” The bus pulled away brush-empty, but even then, he wouldn’t let me sit. READ MORE…
From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan.
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019
Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor
In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.
Today’s Translation Tuesday comes from the Polish writer Mirka Szychowiak. “I’m Scared of Those Dots” is a haunting ellipsis of a story, concealing just as much as it reveals.
I came earlier today, let’s spend as much time together as we can, let’s enjoy each other’s company, stock up on it. As usual, we won’t be able to answer the same questions, but they will be asked nonetheless.
Zbyszek, who pushed you out of that dirty train? Your bloody blonde mop on the tracks, it still hurts. Who did it to us? How are you, Basia, do tell. What’s up? You were the fastest among us, made us so proud. Somebody said that the healthiest ones die most easily. You didn’t want to be an exception, did you? You passed away at a faster pace than when you broke the 100-metre record. Rysiu, your last letter made us angry. You better all come, you wrote. Your life with us was filled with laughter, but you were alone when you shot yourself for some strange girl. We were furious, but almost all of us did come. Almost, because Bolek had left by then, as was his custom, quietly. He fell over and that was it. Two hours after his death, he became a father. Both prematurely. Youth gave us no guarantees, we understood it early on and only Adam didn’t get it in time—it was the youth, which tore his heart apart, like a bullet. It was so literal it stripped him of all romanticism. It poured out of him, ripped him inside and that was it. Later it was Bożenka and Janusz. The two of them and the carbon monoxide from the stove. A potted fern—a nameday present—withered and then somebody called to say that there were less of us yet again.
Courtesy of Literature Translation Institute of Korea, we are pleased to showcase the work of Lee Seong-Bok, translated by Yea Jung Park. Wistful for lost opportunity, these urgent, insistent prose poems hark back to a time of youth, and are sure to evoke strong personal memories.
1) Sister, the boat we rode on that day
My love, my sister,
do dream of the sweet happiness
of going there and living, just the two of us!
— Charles Baudelaire, “Invitation to a Voyage”
That year in late spring, one night spent in the bungalow by the reservoir. Tens of thousands of stars whizzing above the campfire. The night-long cuckoo cry engraved a tattoo on my forearm in the shadow-shape of a heaving wooden ship, and sister, in the morning all those day-lily blossoms, I did not know where to find your eyes among them. Eyes with yellow petals hung like the wings of a fan, eyes rolling like iron hoops to the sound of buzzing. Even now, at the cuckoo’s cry my crazed arms will mimic the rowing of a boat, and sister, the boat we rode on that day advances carefully through the buzzing day-lily stars, searching for the eyes you have lost in the night.
The strength of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Youth (Jugend), an autobiographical account of the German author’s formation, lies in the small stuff: its sentence constructions, its often-startling words. These sentences can go on endlessly, such as the evocation of its setting that starts the book. After a first, short sentence—“My mother was afraid of snakes”—Koeppen goes on to describe the area of Rosental in one elaborate sentence that continues for the next three pages. This sentence twists and grows, covering furniture, landmarks, food, even the history of the young narrator’s family, until the speaker plunges into a fantastic rant against the place:
[…] while all around the streets smelled complacently of the anatomy of clinics, the sweat of patients, the horror of the dying, the fear of the examinee and the guilty innocents at the mercy of the prison-warders […] of the vanity of professors, the dead hearts of officials, the frowst of the laws, and then the poverty of the Lange Reihe and the indurated humiliation of the gray school, how I hated the city and wished it consigned to the snakes (5).
A soda machine burns outside a grocery store
and all the Pepsi and the Coke (diet, too) and the Sprite
Explode in all directions like grenades.
The village of Markabe is burnt and bombed like in a war movie.
And like in a war movie
there’s the guy who carries a heavy jerrycan on his back
and the guy with the cigarette between his teeth
and the guy called Nir
and the guy who’s going to die and doesn’t know it so he allows himself to reminisce about that time when
In the life of every bibliophile-parent, there comes a moment when each new children’s book begins to seem very much like the last. A blurry train of flat narratives skim past one’s eyes, filled with stock characters, stale language, and an all-too-familiar anodyne tone. Yes, there are brilliant books that stand out, and these are worth reading and re-reading. But there is also a sameness that suffuses English-language books for young people, a shared set of narrative tools and assumptions. READ MORE…