I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself. READ MORE…
First of all, congratulations on the very fine translation, which I can recommend to Asymptote‘s readers without the slightest reservation. I was quite impressed by the deftness of your rendering; I found the book ‘unputdownable,’ riveted as I was by your skillful reconstruction in English of Nir Baram’s adman, and the meteoric ascent of his career in 1930s Germany. In fact, other than the odd German word or two every page, the writing didn’t seem to bear any trace of translation, for me at least, as I found it working perfectly well in English, both in terms of the story’s sitcom-like pacing and the sharp, precise English. I’m curious to know how much was lost in translation?
I’m grateful for your compliments, and I’m also very grateful to the editors at Text Publishing in Australia, who went over the manuscript with meticulous care and fine literary judgment. I always had the feeling that they were working with me (and Nir), not against me, with the aim of producing the most readable book possible. I’m glad you think that we succeeded.
With regard to this translation, I benefited from Nir’s input. Translators into English are fortunate, in that the authors they translate usually known the language, so they can correct misunderstandings, notice sentences that one has skipped, etc. Of course, this has a downside as well, because some writers (even Nir on occasion) think they know English better than their translator. Also, the writer always has the feeling that something has been lost, his voice, in the transition into another language. It must be somewhat distressing to hear one’s voice differently from the way one imagined it. On the other hand, sometimes writers discover things about their work when they see it in translation. But they have to accept loss of control inherent in the process of translation.
Good People is a globe spanning, wide-canvass novel that probes the depths of one of history’s darkest hours; its heroes are those members of the educated middle classes who sit behind office desks. With riveting narrative force, based on thorough historical research, this extraordinary novel spans World-War II Europe across time and space, boldly sketching an unflinching portrait of men and women and their times. In the extract presented below, our protagonist, Thomas Heiselberg, a Berlin adman, discovers a Jewish woman violently murdered in his home.
That night he returned home into a white cloud of feathers. He heard glass splinters grinding under his shoes. The windowpanes, china bowls, lamps, mirrors—almost nothing was intact after the visit by Hermann and his friends. Even the door hinges had been jimmied off. Wooden cabinets and dressers were smashed with hammers, the gas and electricity lines ripped out. At least a dozen jars of fruit preserves had been hurled against the bathroom wall, and flour mixed with soap powder and blood was strewn all over the sink and lavatory.
Frau Stein had been stabbed in every part of her body. She lay face down, her head cradled in her folded arm. He leaned down and turned her over. When he saw her face, coated with a layer of blood-soaked flour, he realised that after stabbing her they had smothered her in the sink with a mixture of flour and soap powder. She looked like a sad clown in the circus. They hadn’t even let her die with that stern expression of hers, well versed in suffering, that had always aroused people’s respect. He gathered some feathers and covered her face with them.