Best of 2013: Translations into English

December 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

2013 Translations Read:
Yoko Ogawa, Revenge

Angélica Gorodischer, Tráfalgar

Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City

Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber

Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji:  Six Heirs

Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home

Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer

Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature

Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump

Inga Ābele, High Tide 

Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer 

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone 

László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below 

Jyrki Vainonen, The Explorer & Other Stories 

Leena Krohn, Datura 

Andrzej Sapkowski, The Time of Contempt 
João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

Edit:  Translators for these titles are listed in the comments to this post.
I read more translated works, both fiction and non-fiction alike, in 2013 than I had in recent years.  Yet even this list does not contain every book that I’ve read that saw an English translation this year (Javier Marías’ Infatuations is one prominent example, although as good as that tale was, it would not have made my shortlist of three works), plus there is another book, Zoran Živković’s Find Me (a sequel to The Last Book), that I got to read before its English publication (and that one would have possibly cracked the top 5, if not the top 3).

The translations here ranged from autobiographies such as Naoki Higashida’s insightful look into his life as a teen in Japan with autism (I credit this memoir with helping me immensely with one of my current jobs) to philosophical meanderings (Leopardi’s Zibaldone, which I also read in Italian this year) to various “genre” offerings (the mystery elements present in High Tide to the SF of Tráfalgar to the high fantasy of The Days of the Deer and The Time of Contempt) and all other points in-between and around (such as Datura).  It is difficult to choose the very “best” from this list due to the diversity of the genres listed and the various tastes that readers might have (if anything, I could note a few that were not my favorites, although they were decent reads and would appeal to some readers:  The Secret of Ji, Search for the Buried Bomber), but below are three works, only one of which I have reviewed before, that I would consider to be the Best of 2013 for translations into English:

3.  Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer

This harrowing look at the effects of war and terrorism has lingered with me even more than has Nihad Siree’s The Silence and the Roar (which does a very good job laying out the crumbling situation in Syria).  See the full review for my thoughts.

2.  Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home

This 2013 US release was one of the more monumental reads of the year.  Blas de Robles tells what appears to be two stories in parallel, that of a 17th century philosopher/scientist and a contemporary scientist, both engaged in attempting to solve mysteries, but the tale soon becomes that about how we conceive of information systems and knowledge itself.  It sounds extremely complex to explain in a single paragraph, but what Blas de Robles does is create a magnificently-woven tapestry of images and concepts that sucks the reader into its weaving, leaving the reader bedazzled at what she encounters.  I enjoyed this work so much in translation that I sought out the French original a few months later to read it anew.

1.  László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

I am planning on doing a series of reviews next year of Krasznahorkai’s works, but this novel (his fourth to be translated into English) is a true literary beauty.  Readers familiar with his labyrinthine sentences will encounter even more subtlety of expression and meaning (for those who are not, Krasznahorkai is akin to José Saramago in constructing pages-long sentences without using direct quotations, but with some differences to how points are conveyed within those clause-laden sentences).  The story touches upon many things, but at its heart lies the search for Art, Love, and the true Apocalypse where all of our (self-) deceits shall be laid bare.  Here is an exemplary quote fragment:

He set off from the deepest of hatreds and arrived, from deep below, and from far away, from so far below and so far away – that then, at the beginning of the beginning, he had not the slightest idea where he was heading; indeed, he didn’t even suspect that there was a route toward anything at all, he had come to hate the country where he lived, come to hate the city where he resided, come to hate the people among whom he stepped onto the metro every morning at dawn, and with whom he traveled home in the evening, it is futile, he said to himself, I have no one here, nothing ties me to this place, let the whole thing go to hell and rot away; since for a good long while he could not decide, he just went with the morning metro and came back with the evening one, back home, and when the day arrived, one morning at dawn, that he no longer stepped onto that metro with the others, he just stood for a while on the platform, there was nothing in his head, he just stood, and he was pushed around, here and there; he picked up one of the free advertising newspapers, then had a beer standing at the counter, and he looked at the want ads and picked out a country along with a job offer, because he knew nothing about it, Spain, that’s a good distance away, so let it be Spain, and from that point on things sped up, and a cheap airline was already dragging him along, he was traveling by plane for the first time in his life, yet he felt nothing other than fear and hatred, for he was afraid of them:  he hated the self-confident stewardesses, the self-confident travelers, and even the self-confident clouds that whirled around below him, and he hated the sun and the sparkling light as well – and then he was nearly plummeting down, plummeting down straight into that city, and hardly had he set foot here then he had already been swindled, for of course there was no job behind the job offer, and the money he had saved up was almost immediately gone – it had gone toward the traveling, accommodation for the first few days, and food, so that he could start here, there was no going back, no going back at all – he could start to look for work in this foreign land, which of course he didn’t find, everything the “Romanian vagrants” and those of their ilk were chased away, he just wandered around in this beautiful city, and no one would give him any kind of work, and a week passed, and then another and then another, … (Ch. 21, pp. 165-166)

At first these “walls of words” may be intimidating for even intrepid readers most eager to parse them, but there is a rhythm to his narrator’s thoughts, to his blending of description and introspection, that lulls the reader into reading just a little bit more, into considering just a little bit more what is transpiring.  There comes a point (for myself, it was around 20 pages in) where the rhythms become so internalized that the narrative seems to “pulse” (for lack of a better work) with a force that is irresistible.  While this has been true for the other Krasznahorkai novels that I have read, here in Seiobo There Below it is intensified, perhaps because the author’s explorations, which formerly focused more on matters of desolation and despair, have expanded to included the yearning qualities of hope and beauty.  It truly is a marvelous work to behold and (re)consider.


§ 10 Responses to Best of 2013: Translations into English

  • Tony Malone says:

    Some great books there 🙂

    I've read a few of these, but there are several I'd like to try (the Krasznahorkai being at the very top of the list…). Of the modern translated releases this year, a couple of suggestions I'd give would be Elena Ferrante's 'The Story of a New Name' and Jón Kalman Stefánsson's 'The Sorrow of Angels' – although they are both the second book of a trilogy…

  • Daniel Hahn says:

    Agreed, some great books on here! Names of translators, please?

  • Larry Nolen says:

    The Ferrante is on my radar, but I knew I wouldn't have time to read it this year (might see if I can get it in Italian, since I'm working on my reading fluency there). The Stefánsson I'll look into now. Thanks!

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Translator names? I'll look them up shortly, but I know Seiobo There Below was translated by the very talented Ottilie Mulzet. I'll post as many of the others as I can find in the next few minutes. Have to go hunt down the books.

  • Larry Nolen says:


    Ogawa – Stephen Snyder
    Gorodischer – Amalia Gladhart
    Kadare – John Hodgson
    Xu Lei – Gabriel Ascher
    Grimbert – Matthew Ross and Eric Lamb
    Sirees – Max Weiss
    Blas de Robles – Mike Mitchell
    Antoon – Antoon himself
    Higashida – David Mitchell and his wife
    Bodoc – Nick Caistor with Lucia Caistor Arendar
    Vainonen – J. Robert Tupasela and Anna Volmari
    Krohn – J. Robert Tupasela and Anna Volmari
    Sapkowski – David French
    Cerqueira – Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay

  • Larry Nolen says:

    More translators (overlooked somehow):

    Ābele – Kaija Straumanis
    Arias and Hadis (Borges) – Katherine Silver
    Leopardi – group translation edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino

  • Daniel Hahn says:


  • Liviu says:

    I would add one more translation – The Night of Time by A.M. Molina which was published a few weeks ago.

    I tried reading it in the original Spanish but it was over my skills in the language where I can manage more or less linear stuff like C.R. Zafon or S. Posteguillo but not this…

    Got the English translation of La Noche de los Tiempos a few days ago and the book is superb…

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Hadn't heard of the Molina until now (my awareness of Spanish-language books is spotty, alas), but the premise sounds promising.

    Now to see if I can find it at a cheaper price than $30 used (I know I could read the translation and it'd be a good one, but I prefer the original whenever possible when the language in question is Spanish)…

  • I reviewed Kaija Straumanis’ translation of Inga Abele’s High Tide as an expert reader for ALTA and found it to be full of egregious mistakes and style problems. Words are mistranslated or ‘interpreted’ with words or phrases that have a similar meaning but are off for the context. Paragraph breaks do not follow the original, but are arbitrarily made – a sentence or two lopped off at the end – and if this is being done, why aren’t the voluminous blocks of copy broken up to be more readable? Dialogue is not set off by quotes but embedded in the text.
    Page 7, which I looked at early because so many clumsy phrases were catching my eye, is rife with mistakes. Instead of ‘the ending needs to be something predictable’, the text reads that it needs to be ‘similar to the writing of an epitaph’, which is referred to later as ‘set in granite’, but not translated as such. The ‘carousel’ of life is simply ‘wheel’, ‘few’ mistakes should be ‘couple of’ – and you ‘can’t get free of’ them rather than you ‘carry with you your entire life’, ‘eventually’ is ‘in the end.’ The fact that what the protagonist writes is ‘some film scenario’ is completely left out; the fact that nothing can happen here is completely left out; there is the awkward phrase that one will be ‘scrubbed, doused, and wrung clean’ which could be put more naturally as ‘scraped, washed and rinsed.’ The meaning is completely changed by saying Ieva ‘just touches up those [scripts] written by others and send them in’ rather than ‘she is sent writing by others and touches it up.’
    I believe the misuse of words is due to Kaija Straumanis’ not really being a native speaker of English: she probably spoke only Latvian in the home, learned English only in kindergarten, and was forced to go to Latvian school on the weekends and Latvian camp in the summers. She says that she taught herself English by watching TV: I doubt that she has much familiarity with literature in English, from Shakespeare and Dickens to the present.
    She doesn’t know that one would never ‘muscle on’ a jacket (the text reads simply ‘pull on’); in moving around a room the protagonist can’t be described as ‘ she grabs onto something, touches on something’ but ‘touches something, grazes something.’ Later, ‘the woman had dressed up for the event’ – it’s not an event, it’s clearly an occasion, going in to Riga to see a film. ‘Server’ should be ‘waiter.’ A ‘domesticated’ wild animal should clearly be ‘tamed.’ A character is told that she has ‘horrific’ eyes – the word ‘briesmigas’ means terrible or awful, no one would say ‘horrific.’ One might say ‘honestly’ in speaking to someone, but in the text the word should be ‘actually’ or ‘really’, it’s not a question of the narrator being honest but of her conception of reality.
    These problems remind me of translator Ieva Lesinska, brought up in similar circumstances to those of Kaija Straumanis and having spent only a few years in America when she was already in her twenties, translating in a poem “fat was hung on the branches for the birds.” It was suet, but she didn’t know that word. Neither of these translators have the facility with the English language to translate literature.
    Straumanis is also lazy, frequently substituting words or phrases which she thinks mean the same thing for words or phrases in the original. To agree ‘immediately’ is not the same as agreeing ‘without thinking’ – one could embellish the ‘without thinking’, saying ‘without thinking twice’, etc., but there is no reason to be completely inaccurate. The word for ‘spirit’ is ‘gars’, for ‘soul’ is ‘dvesele’, but Straumanis apparently thinks they’re the same thing, so she has just used ‘soul’ in a long passage on page 7 where three times, it should have been ‘spirit.’ The entire phrase ‘even a couple of pure souls’ is left out of what should read, ‘a speed that makes any material – even a couple of pure souls – grow heavy in mass as marshy land, but volume shrinks, until it vanishes.’ It would have been nice to have that image. Straumanis simply says ‘a speed that makes everything down to the smallest particle feel simultaneously heavy and weightless’ [sic]. They (the couple of pure souls) are ‘erased from the memory of the world’ along with their time, not just general time. ‘Not a single molecule’ of water is lost, she’s left the word out, so either she felt it was unimportant or she didn’t proofread.
    Really, I was in a state of Edvard Munch-like horror when I looked back at the original to check something that seemed awkward in the translation and found it teeming with mistakes.

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