2014 IFFP shortlist announced

April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Missed this the other day, but I see that Tony Malone has done an excellent recap of the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist, with reviews of four of the six finalists, as well as an alt-shortlist that he and other members of the “Shadow Panel” did based on their readings of the longlisted titles.  Be sure to read those reviews, as there are a few works that I want to read once I resume buying books in a couple of weeks.  Here are the shortlisted titles, with bolded titles for the ones I’ve already read:

Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo (published in the US as The Briefcase; Asian Prize finalist in 2013)

Hassan Blasim, The Iraqi Christ

Karl Ove Knausgård, A Man in Love

Birget Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter

The winner will be announced May 22.

So you find yourself wanting to discover works in translation…

September 10, 2013 § 6 Comments

Perhaps you came here from Twitter, where shortly after the last word is typed, a link will be posted there.  Perhaps you arrived via a Google search for an author.  Maybe you are reading this blog on an RSS feed.  Regardless of how you arrived, perhaps there will be some intriguing recent releases that will appeal to you, as I am one of those readers who believe that it is of paramount importance that cultures thrive best when they are in constant dialogue with one another and that no singular voice drowns out another.  Therefore, I am going to list below a few works that have recently been translated into English that I think readers should consider picking up.  These are in no particular order other than what I see on my e-book readers or shelves:

Alain Mabanckou, Black Bazaar – Congolese writer.  Translated from French in 2012 (2009 original).  Here is an excerpt.  Made the 2013 International Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.  Among many other things it is a satirical look at how outsiders view African societies.

Laurent Binet, HHhH – French writer.  Translated from French in 2012.  Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Review here.

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale – Icelandic writer.  Translated from Icelandic in 2011.  Finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize.  Review here.

Diego Marani, New Finnish Grammar – Italian writer.  Translated from Italian in 2011.  Finalist for 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  I discussed it briefly in a post that also lists other outstanding translated fictions near the end of the post.

Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer – Argentine writer.  Translated from Spanish in August 2013 (originally published in 2000).  I enjoyed her Spanish-language epic fantasy when I read it several years ago and I perhaps might write a review after judging the translation against the original.

Shani Boianjiu, The People of Forever are Not Afraid – Israeli writer.  Originally written in English and published in 2012.  Including this because Boianjiu is a non-native English speaker and her story is a wonderful look into contemporary Israeli society, particularly in regards to young Israeli women and the effects of continual guardedness have on their outlooks on life.

Inga Ābele, High Tide – Latvian writer.  Translated from Latvian in September 2013.  Open Letter, the translator, claims this might be the first Latvian novel translated into English and if this is indeed the case, then Ābele’s twisted mystery narrative is an excellent choice.  Wish I could read more of her works.

Juli Zeh, The Method – German writer.  Translated from German in 2012.  One of the better dystopian novels that I’ve read and one that comments more forcefully on women’s issues in particular than most other such dystopian fictions.

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home – French writer.  Translated from French in 2011.  This book is one of the best I’ve read in years in any language (also read it in French).  A must-read for most readers.

Zoran Živković, Find Me – Serbian writer.  Translated from Serbian, but not yet available from US or UK publishers.  Sequel to his excellent literary mystery, The Last Book.  Lives up to the standards of that book.  Will attempt to write a review before the year is out.

Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion – Ukrainian writer.  Translated from Ukrainian in 2005.  Older translation than others listed here, but when I was thumbing through my books to come up with a short starter list of translated fictions that I enjoyed, I just had to include this one.

I could easily spend several more hours writing a very exhaustive (and exhausting!) list of other translated works that I think deserve greater consideration.  But these should make for an excellent beginning.  Feel free to suggest other recent translations of literary and/or genre fictions.  Doubtless I’m overlooking several, perhaps because I didn’t read them in translation and thus cannot comment on the quality of the translations.

I see the English translation of Goran Petrović’s An Atlas Traced by the Sky is now available

December 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

I placed an order a couple of weeks ago when I saw it on Amazon, but it was oddly labeled as being in Serbian, yet with an English-language cover, so I ordered it more thinking that I’d have the original text to go with the Spanish translation (which I enjoyed quite a bit) than I would be having the English translation.  Well, it turns out that it is indeed a Belgrade-published English translation (no idea if there’ll be UK/US publication in the near future) and this is the blurb.  Tell me if this sounds interesting to you:

Have you ever wanted to own an atlas that would map out the relations between dreams and waking, between reality and imagination, between the past and the future?  Award winning writer Goran Petrović offers you precisely that in his authentic postmodernist style.  In their search for life’s meaning and happiness, the cast of characters, living in a house with the sky as its roof, spend their days connecting the threads of this life with the myriad threads of other worlds.  They offer us maps which show the paths through birth and death, love and romance, the thoroughfare between joy and despair.  By combining their tale with a collection of ancient and future documents dealing with amulets, map-making, legends and mythology, the author guides the reader through a fantastic labyrinth toward the rather astounding outcome of self-awareness.  This is an atlas that will make you dream and, even more, it will show you where your dreams may ultimately lead.  Some of the best qualities of Serbian postmodernist prose in Pavić’s manner can be found in this novel.

An Atlas Traced by the Sky is, paradoxically, a book which stylistically reminds us of many other books and authors (The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Borges, Pavić, Ende), but which actually, in its rarity, in its baroque elegance and in the feast of imagination it contains, truly does not resemble a single one of those books or authors. – Mihajlo Pantić

 I will review this translation before year’s end.  Unless the quality of the English translation is much poorer than that of the Spanish, I suspect it’ll have a place in my year-end summary of 2012 releases.

Translating Weirdness: The New Translation of Augusto Monterroso’s "Mister Taylor" for The Weird

November 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

Menos rara, aunque sin duda más ejemplar – dijo entonces el otro –, es la historia de…

Less strange, although without a doubt more exemplary, is the story of how Augusto Monterroso’s classic political fable, “Mister Taylor,” came to be translated anew for publication in the recently-released anthology The Weird:  A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.  This piece is not as much a commentary on the author and his most famous fiction but rather more a look at the strangeness of translating this deceptively devilish short story. 

Before I was asked by Jeff to translate “Mister Taylor,” I was only vaguely familiar with Monterroso’s name.  He was often cited as an example of Boom Generation fiction to explore when one had already read Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, or Mario Vargas Llosa, but until Jeff suggested that I translate “Mister Taylor,” I had never gotten around to reading him.  So the first thing I did was get a copy of this story (I have an Alianza Editorial edition of his collected Cuentos) and I began to read “Mister Taylor” in earnest.

The first thing that I noticed was that Monterroso uses complex clauses to create a contrasting playful and serious effect.  Those readers who are apt to skim descriptive passages (and I sometimes do this, to my chagrin) will find themselves needing to re-read Monterroso’s sentences several times, as he buries humor and biting satire inside these passages.  In turn, these elements, when placed beside troubling, surreal aspects (such as the desire to engage in mass headhunting), evokes a sense of weirdness, that this should not be happening and yet for the characters it is the most natural thing in the world!  Without Monterroso’s carefully placed descriptions, connected together with a plethora of dependent clauses, the weird effect would be ruined.

Delightful as it may be to read such elegantly constructed sentences in the original Spanish, it was a real struggle to render this literary effect into English.  It took several drafts to reproduce this.  Typically, when I translate a passage (say for some of the reviews that I do of Spanish-language works), I first begin by making as literal of a translation as I can, even if it sounds stilted and unnatural to Anglophones.  Then I begin to go through each paragraph and change the order of adjectives and if it would sound better, tighten the sentences by removing extraneous modifiers (e.g. “the braying donkey” in place of “the donkey that brayed”) to create something more harmonious for English speakers.

However, doing this too often in a story such as “Mister Taylor” risks destroying the delicate structure he has created.  Yet some compromises have to made in translation lest both the letter and spirit of the text be lost.  Below is a passage that underwent several modifications over the drafts I first did and then when Jeff submitted it to a few more rounds of copyediting:

Grande fue el regocijo con que Mr. Taylor regresó a su choza.  Esa noche, acostado boca arriba sobre la precaria estera de palma que le servía de lecho, interrumpido tan sólo por el zumbar de las moscas acaloradas que revoloteaban en torno haciéndose obscenamente el amor, Mr. Taylor contempló con deleite durante un buen rato su curiosa adquisición.  El mayor goce estético lo extraía de contar, uno por uno, los pelos de la barba y el bigote, y de ver de frente el par de ojillos entre irónicos que parecían sonreírle agradecidos por aquella deferencia.

Great was Mr. Taylor’s joy as he returned to his hut.  That night, lying on his back on a precarious palm mat which served as his bed, interrupted only by the buzzing of the aroused flies that flew around him making love obscenely, Mr. Taylor contemplated with delight for a long time his curious acquisition.  He took the greatest aesthetic pleasure from counting, one by one, the hairs of the beard and moustache and looking straight into the pair of half-ironic eyes that seemed to smile at him, pleased by his deference.

When I first handwrote my translation back in the spring of 2010, I rendered the first sentence as “Great was the joy with which Mr. Taylor returned to his hut.”  It is more literal and while some might think it would sound better or at least represent the Latin American Spanish-ness of the text, I ultimately decided that it was unnecessary, since Monterroso did not construct that sentence to be any stranger than the usual “con que” construction is in Spanish.  Therefore, I went with the simpler “as.”  Similarly, “boca arriba” literally means “face up,” but what native English speaker ever speaks of sleeping “face up?”  Likewise with the flies buzzing around Mr. Taylor.  Sure, “que revoloteaban en torno” sounds grander than “that flew around him,” but rendering it as “that were revolving in turn” just throws the reader off a bit too much.

This is not to say that there weren’t times when a more ornate (and weird-reading) construction wasn’t called for.  If I recall correctly, the passage below was perhaps of the most problematic for Jeff and me when we were working on the final draft:

El Ministro de Salud Pública se sintió sincero, y una noche caliginosa, con la luz apagada, después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar, le confesó a su mujer que se consideraba incapaz de elevar la mortalidad a un nivel grato a los intereses de la Compañía, a lo que ella le contestó que no se preocupara, que vería cómo todo iba a salier bien, y que mejor se durmieran.

The Minister of Public Health, feeling sincere one dark night, with the light turned off, after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife’s breast, confessed to her that he considered himself incapable of elevating mortality rates to a level pleasing to the Company’s interests, to which she replied that he should not worry, that he would see that everything would turn out well and that it would be best that they sleep.

I seem to recall that the adjective “sincero” was a topic of discussion.  Ultimately, its literal “sincere” translation was left in, in part because it sets up an amusing allusion to “sincere – truthful – politicans,” but also because that adjective describes so much of what follows in the second half of the story.  But that sentence was torturous to translate and ultimately we decided to leave it mostly as was, in order to impart the strangeness of the situation and the “off” quality that can accompany even the best translations from one language to another.  Yet even here are modifications:  “después de acariciarle un ratito el pecho como por no dejar” describes rather strongly the unspoken desire to massage his wife’s breasts as if he couldn’t ever stop, while for simplicity’s sake “after unceasingly caressing for a little while his wife’s breast” is substituted.  Yes, some might argue that changes the mood slightly from desire to (temporary) action, but the intent is largely conveyed without interrupting the larger flow of that key passage, which is to note that while in the midst of lovemaking, there is concern that the shrunken head quota isn’t being met.

Yet despite these changes, whether one thinks they are for the better or for the worse (I think they help improve the clarity of several key passages), what I hope readers will discover when they read my new translation of “Mister Taylor” is a story that depends heavily upon its juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrificly weird to create a satirical fable whose impact will be strongest after the final words are read and the true import of the story becomes clear to readers.  It was a difficult but yet instructive experience “carrying across” Monterroso’s original into a new English translation, but I hope readers will be appreciative of the result of this labor of love.

René Belletto, Dying

November 2, 2010 § 6 Comments

A thousand first sentences, if not to say all, rush to my quill with a howl of collective suicide.

This early spring, believe me, was colder than the cold of winter. 

The three squat floors of the Rats and Vermin Hotel were rotting away, piled up at the end of a cul-de-sac in the twelfth arrondissement of the city.

It was here that I was dying.

Not living had taken its toll.  The bloom had lost its rose.

I couldn’t remember life before the hotel.  I had forgotten.  Was it that I had seen so little of the world that I no longer remembered it, or had the world so completely deadened me that I could have forgotten?

I didn’t know. (p. 3)

Rarely do works capture my attention so completely on the first page, yet French author René Belletto’s 2002 novel, Dying (published in English translation in October 2010 by Dalkey Archive),  manages to do so.  Here is a first-person narrator talking not just of “dying,” but also on “not living.”  What does he mean here?  And what is this about not remembering “life before the hotel?”  I wanted to know more and I ended up discovering that this story is much more than just a search for meaning and the defining of those boundaries between “dying” and “living.”

Dying‘s back cover blurb describes it as a “metaphysical thriller about the lengths to which men will go to escape the inevitable – be it love or death…” and to a very large degree, this is true.  It is a composite tale of two seemingly independent subplots that manage to interweave themselves, thematically at least, into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.  There is a mystery surrounding an expectant father and his conflicted feelings about his mistress and their unborn child and there is a mystery revolving around the apparent death of another.  Who “lives” and who is “dying” in these cases is much more than just the matter of events and situations, but rather is a set-up for so many of those central questions people ask themselves each day about the nature of their lives and the actions done and undone daily.

Belletto easily could have written a novel several times its slim 165 pages without repeating any of the motifs explored here.  Yet in this small book he has managed to pack so many allusions to everyday life, our concerns, our pitfalls, and et cetera that the narratives’ powers become even more effective because we are not allowed to become too distracted from the points he wants to explore via these fascinating characters.  What is the origin of “prison” but in prehensionem, which itself contains its own fascinating etymology?  What happens when the forger forges something that ultimately becomes genuine?  In reviewing a novel such as Dying, perhaps it is best that the questions are considered at least as much as the possible answers which are provided (or in some cases, purposely left hanging for the reader to interpret as she may).

Alexander Hertich did a fine job translating Dying.  There is a delicate sense of wordplay in this novel that appears to be largely intact in this English translation.  Rarely did I feel that I was reading a translation, as the syntax was smooth even through the most intricate of passages.  For those readers who value characterizations, Belletto’s characters certainly do “live,” even as they are “dying” in multiple senses through this novel.  There were very few moments of tedium and the conclusion is a very fitting one for the novel.  Generally, I discuss the plot specifics more than I have above, but this is the sort of novel where the explications can distort the effects created by the textual interplay.  Dying is the sort of novel that will appeal most to those readers who want more than just an “easy” read where “more of the same” occurs.  However, it is not so challenging that it limits its readership; it merely expects that its readers are curious, inquisitive beings who have questioned themselves at some point about matters of life and death and have not assumed that they know all the answers.  For those readers, Dying will be just the sort of novel they will want to read.

Well, one of my "secret projects" was just announced

October 29, 2010 § 10 Comments

One of the reasons why I’ve been somewhat quieter these days (besides spending the past month and a half teaching full-time) is my involvement in a variety of projects that are coming close to fruition.  I’ve hinted that I was working on something in the past, but now I can go ahead and confirm publicly (be sure to read this post at Jeff VanderMeer’s site) that Fábio Fernandes and I are in the process of translating into English the first 250 or so words of each of the eight stories found in the recently-published Brazilian steampunkish anthology, Vaporpunk.  I am doing the translations for the first four stories and Fábio will translate the final four.  We plan to have these translations available no later than the middle of November.

Does this news spark your curiosity a bit?  If so, be sure to continue to check this site and a few others for more information in the coming weeks.

Viscount Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping

October 24, 2010 § 3 Comments

I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.  I write for myself and for friends.  I don’t have a large audience or fame and don’t receive awards.  I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them.  The naiveté of my contemporaries pains me, but I respect it.  I’m also conceited enough to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I’ll always remain a virgin, and this narcissism doesn’t come cheap.  I have to suffer the indifference of those around me.  But, as I said, I write out of pure voluptuousness.  And so, like a courtesan, I’ll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe.

This epigraph to Argentine writer Viscount Lascano Tegui’s 1925 short novel, On Elegance While Sleeping, written by the author himself, sets the stage nicely for what follows.  It is a pseudo-personal diary; it is a macabre novel.  It has similarities with fellow South American Comte de Lautréamont; it may have some with Oscar Wilde.  Yet it ultimately is little like any of these and it is in that tension between the apparent and the actual where the adventuresome reader might discover some discomforting truths which might excite them even as they might feel repelled.  That is the genius on display here and it is long past time that this contemporary of Oliverio Girondo, Roberto Arlt, and Jorge Luis Borges receives his own translation into English.

On Elegance While Sleeping is a short novel; it is under 200 pages.  Yet its contents belie its brevity; it is full of digressions that slowly, purposely build up to tell a story that is much more than the sum of its thoughts.  Take for instance the introduction to the narrator’s pseudo-diary:

The first time I entrusted my hands to a manicurist was the evening I headed to the Moulin Rouge.  The woman trimmed back my cuticles and polished my nails with an emery board.  Then she filed them to points and finished up with some polish.  My hands no longer looked like they belonged to me.  I put them on my table, in front of my mirror, and changed their positions in the light.  With the same sense of self-consciousness one feels when posing for a photographer, I picked up a pen and began to write.

That’s how I started this book.

At the Moulin Rouge that night I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish:  “That man’s taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them.” (p. 3)

Underneath the banal descriptions of a dandy getting his nails filed and polished, with its near eidetic recall detailed at laborious length, there is a hint of something monstrous that is being planned.  With each entry, most rarely being more than a few pages long, Tegui develops this fascinating narrator.  Is this narrator what he appears to be?  Is he hiding something out in plain sight?  Just why does he keep engaging in digressions?

Tegui does a masterful job throughout this novel of playing off these tensions found in juxtaposing mundane details (such as the Seine river flowing through the narrator’s 19th century birthplace of Bougival) with the horrific (detailed discussions of things such as “it [the river] jammed the millwheel with the bodies of drowning victims, bashful beneath its surface.” (p. 4)).  The reader perhaps will find herself just wondering more about this narrator.  Is he sane at all?  Just what is he telling us that’s so important that he interrupts his descriptions of depravities with trivialities and his depictions of everyday life with brutalities?

One possible approach toward reading On Elegance While Sleeping is to pay closer attention to those seemingly trivial details.  A closer examination of these dozens of entries reveals a life that is fascinating in its frustrations as much as in what has been accomplished.  The narrator is a former soldier and in those descriptions of his sensitivities and his impending dissolution (both moral and physical alike), Tegui slowly constructs a fascinating portrait of a person at the edge, both in terms of his real and imagined conflicts such as his statements on homosexuality, which are intriguing in how denial and implied acceptance of it are conmingled in such a fashion as to accentuate the divisions within the narrator’s own mind.  The result is a mosaic image of a person whose desires and conflicts are not as much baldly stated but rather elements that are constructed from inferences and strengthened by seeming digressions into the quotidian, mundane world surrounding him.

Idra Novey’s translation appears to contain no faults.  Although I have the Spanish original on import order now, her prose is elegant and there never is the sense that I was reading a translation.  The psychological depths of Tegui’s writings are brought out here in full splendor and despite the sometimes graphic, lurid recounting of certain desires (the “sleeping” desire being foremost here), the narrative contains a force to it that almost compels the reader to continue onward.  The diary concludes abruptly, realizing the full impact of the gradual buildup prior to its sudden conclusion.  That conclusion strengthens what Tegui has developed all along, as the narrator’s proclivities, his anguish, his quest for “rest” flow into a murderous crescendo that reverberates back through the narrative, creating a desire on the reader’s part to re-read and reconsider just what has transpired and how Tegui relates this momentous event.

Published a generation after the Symbolists and Decadents made their mark on European and American literary scenes, On Elegance While Sleeping is a worthy successor to such memorable works as Maldoror, Là-Bas, or The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Tegui’s work contains the layers of psychological depth and conflict found in the works mentioned above and the sometimes surreal-like alternation between the “real” and the narrator’s feverish views of himself and the world around him creates a narrative tension that adds power to a potent tale.  On Elegance While Sleeping is quite simply one of the best successors to the literary worlds of the Symbolists and Decadents and 85 years after its initial release, it is finally receiving the English translation it so richly deserves.

This book will be published on November 30, 2010 and is available online and through Dalkey Archive Press.

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