In our globalized world, translation seems to be everywhere. In subtitles, instructions, signs, menus, in meetings, and walking down the street. And recently, in fiction too. The representation of the act of translation and the task of the translator has become a recurrent topic in literature. In English, novels such as Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear and Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper, both from 2016 and with translator protagonists, were very well received by readers as well as critics; and the latest anthology Crossing Borders, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, brings together stories on translation and translators by acclaimed writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Lydia Davis, among others. Translation was even at the center of the Academy Award nominee film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”) in which Golden Globe nominee Amy Adams plays a translator tasked with communicating with heptapod aliens. The increasing need to understand the importance of translation in our globalized world has manifested in a recurrence with which works of fiction feature a translator or interpreter as the main character. In Spanish, too, there have been dozens of novels with translator protagonists written in the last few decades by both mainstream and cult authors, and by both translators who write and writers who translate. With this newly found interest in translation, more and more of these novels are being translated into English. Here are five novels on translators originally written in Spanish that are available to read in English translation.
The increasing need to understand the importance of translation in our globalized world manifests in works of fiction that feature a translator.
Young people are being told that America comes first. I think we are here tonight because we believe otherwise and because we read otherwise.
The annual Words Without Borders gala celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature on November 1, named for the first chair of the board, Jim Ottaway. This year, the award honored Jill Schoolman, publisher of Archipelago Books. Archipelago has been a stalwart of the small but dedicated cohort of advocates for international literature in the U.S. since Jill founded the house in 2003—the same year Words Without Borders was created. In her humble, sincere acceptance speech, she told the room full of publishers, writers, translators, educators, and philanthropists, “I’ve felt a special kinship with WWB from the beginning. We created ourselves around the same time for many of the same reasons… Books that Archipelago publishes allow us to lose ourselves in other cultures and explore other worlds. It is our extraordinary translators who guide us through those worlds. We are extremely lucky to be working with such talented translators who are able to make books come alive for us, in both language and spirit. This wonderful award also belongs to them, too.”
Sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.
It’s been a fantastic year for literature and, consequently, not such a stellar year for my bank balance as all these purchases have begun taking over my apartment. I recently discovered that there is a word for this condition in Japanese, “tsundoku”; letting books pile up unread as you buy new ones to add to the literary Tower of Babel rising ever higher in your apartment. But sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was one such book, a lucid and meticulously researched biography of the late poet, who also acted as a champion of translation and literary internationalism through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own efforts at translation. Most notable of these efforts were his translations of Hungarian poets during the 1960s and 1970s, living in ‘the Other Europe’ of the Cold War era.
In what might well be a q-memory, I recall coming across Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ at an early age within an anthology of British poetry owned by my great-granddad. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, The Hawk in the Rain would later become a touchstone during my teenage years in rural North Yorkshire. Coming from a similarly unremarkable background, Hughes was someone who didn’t forget his countryside roots, but was in fact sustained by them; in short, he was one of us. Though there has been a huge amount of press around the book for its more scurrilous content, an unavoidable consequence of the ever-profitable ‘Plath industry’, Bate successfully puts Hughes over as someone who lived and breathed for his art; contained it within the marrow of his bones, and pursued an unwavering, unforgiving dedication to his art that brought terrible costs to his life off the page.
After featuring in our summer issue, I quickly snatched up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth when Christine MacSweeney’s wonderful translation hit the shelves of my local bookstore in September. Shortly after beginning the novel, it becomes obvious that Luiselli is sitting comfortably on the edge of greatness; uproariously funny and scathing in its critique of the absurdities and banalities of modern life, the book was just a delight to read from beginning to end. For lovers of the adroit wordplay of Joyce and the ironic farces of Ionesco, this book will make a perfect stocking filler.
Another translated work that has stuck with me throughout the year, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the ongoing debates around military action against the self-styled Islamic State, has been Mary McCarthy’s translation of Simone Weil’s seminal essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’. A meditation on the nature of war and violence, it shows, on the one hand, why the classics are still relevant to our understanding and navigation of the issues thrown at us in the modern world. On the other, it reaffirms warfare and violence as a dehumanising force that strips both victim and aggressor of all humanity. Written on the eve of war in 1939, it remains one of the most moving literary essays ever written.
David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.
A look back at Asymptote, Ayotzinapa, and solidarity through poetry & translation
Asymptote is the only literary magazine I’ve ever worked for (or even heard about) that has the editorial and translatorial brainpower and resources to pull off a 20-language project in 10 days.
Because that is just what we pulled off with Say Ayotztinapa, which—thanks to the intrepid blog, design, and social media teams—surged on the wave of worldwide solidarity with the victims of the Ayotzinapa massacre in September 2014 and with the subsequent protests. And it’s wasn’t only a translatorial feat, the post was shared in the thousands, including retweets by organizations like English PEN, Words Without Borders, and Granta.
This December: family sagas, American classics, flash fiction, and meta-translation
Tiffany Tsao (Editor-at-large, Indonesia): Family sagas make up my month’s leisure reading so far. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! have been on my to-read list for several years, and it was with a combination of sheepishness and triumph that I finally got round to cracking open their spines. One occupational hazard of being a literary academic is that you often lack the energy to graze beyond your particular fields of expertise. As a recent post-academic, it has been a great pleasure indeed to read more in the way of the American “classics”—and not just so I can finally stop embarrassing myself at dinner parties where I often disappoint fellow guests by not having read every work in the western canon, all the latest prize-winners, and everything listed on the latest “Top 100 great reads” list circulating the web.
A look at Valeria Luiselli’s excellent essay collection Sidewalks, translated by Christine MacSweeney for Coffee House Press
Prose and I are having a moment.
I don’t mean this in the glamorously ephemeral, André-Leon-Talley sense; I mean this in the emotionally fraught, tightlipped-dinner-party sense. I just can’t seem to enjoy it as much as I have in past twenty-odd years of my life. I find myself bored by the contrivances of exposition; I roll my eyes at narrative inventiveness, and quote-unquote characters and their grievances simply exhaust me.