Almost Lost in Translation Part 1

There have been numerous lockdown lists over the last few weeks, and translated literature has not escaped this need to select and recommend, but I recently noticed that some of the books mentioned were not like the others. Most were fresh-faced English versions of the latest work from writers whose journey into other languages was a well-trodden path; or debuts from new discoveries which sales figures or awards had catapulted across the language barrier. Some were even new translations of well-known texts by authors long accepted into the canon. But what about those who almost didn’t make it? Those books, and authors, miraculously lifted from obscurity to new-found, and usually posthumous, fame? So here is my personal recommendations of writer rescued for oblivion in the last twenty years.

Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, translated by Carol Brown Janeway in 2001)
Sandor Marai was a Hungarian author, born in 1900, who ended his life in exile in America, still writing in Hungarian. The fall of Communism (after his death by suicide in 1989) saw his work made available in his home country again though it was Roberto Calasso who rediscovered him for the rest of Europe and Embers was translated into English (not from the original but from a German translation) by Carol Brown Janeway. The novel, which was already sixty years old, begins with two friends who have not seem each other for forty-one years meeting and looking back, and would have already been imbued with nostalgia on its original publication. That its story is one of discovery makes its inclusion here even more appropriate. A further four novels were translated into English from the Hungarian by George Szirtes between 2004 and 2011, and Embers was adapted for theatre by Christopher Hampton. You can read Szirtes on Marai’s rediscovery here.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szeb (1937, translated by Len Rix in 2001)

Journey by moonlightAnother Hungarian writer, Antal Szerb, was in the process of being discovered in the same year. Journey by Moonlight is Szerb’s second novel and it tells the story of Mihaly, newly married and on honeymoon in Italy, attempting to come to terms with his unusual past. Rix went on to translate Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend, and his last, Oliver VII, which was published in 1942 under a pseudonym as Hungary was occupied by the Nazis and Szerb was Jewish. He would die in a concentration camp in 1945. You can read a review of Journey by Moonlight by Nicholas Lezard, who describes it as “a comedy, but a serious and slyly clever one,” here.


Confusion by Stefan Zweig (1927, translated by Anthea Bell in 2002)

Marai and Szerb are straight forward inclusions in this list as, prior to 2001, neither had Confusionmade much impression in the English-speaking world at all. Not so Stefan Zweig. Yet, it is undeniable that the early years of the twenty-first century saw a Zweig revival, largely thanks to publisher Pushkin Press (which might be said to culminate in the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although the first translations published by Pushkin were older ones (such as Beware of Pity and The Royal Game), Confusion was newly translated by Anthea Bell, who would go on to translate many more of his novellas and stories, and also offer new translations of Beware of Pity and The Royal Game (Chess) in the years to come. The novella tells the story of a relationship between a student and the teacher who inspires him, though, as is typical for Zweig, it is also an emotional roller-coaster. Although not Zweig’s most famous work, Robert Macfarlane has described it as “…one of his finest and most exemplary works …. a perfect reminder of, or introduction to, Zweig’s economy and subtlety as a writer.” You can read a review of Confusion by Melissa Beck here.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (1932, translated by Kathie von Ankum in 2002)

Irmgard Keun was a German writer who, until her work was made widely available in English, was perhaps best known as Joseph Roth’s girlfriend. The Artificial Silk Girl is her second novel, originally published in 1932, a wonderfully vivid story of a young girl, Dora, trying to find herself in 1930s Germany. Keun is particularly good on the way in which Dora both uses, and is the victim of, her looks in a novel that still seems relevant today. A translation of Child of All Nations by Michael Hofmann appeared in 2008, and Melville House in the US published translations of Gigli and After Midnight (the latter, by Anthea Bell, admittedly originating from 1985). These 1930s novels can now all be found under the Penguin Classics imprint. Keun spent the Second World War living under an alias, and was, in fact, reported to have committed suicide. Though she survived, the war in many ways ended her literary career, however, a translation by Hofmann of one of her few post-war publications, her 1950 novel, The Man with the Kind Heart, is due this year. You can read my review of The Artificial Silk Girl here.

Suite Francois by Irene Nemirovsky (written 1940-41, published in French 2004, and translated by Sandra Smith the same year)

Probably the most famous rediscovery of the last twenty years is that of Irene Suite FrancaiseNemirovsky. Nemirovsky was from the Ukraine originally but her family settled in France after the revolution and she wrote in French. Her first novel was published in 1926 and she published regularly throughout the 20s and 30s. She was arrested as a Jew in 1942 having completed the first two volumes of the planned five volume Suite Francois. The manuscript survived with her two daughters who were hidden in various places until the end of the war. Nemirovsky, meanwhile, was murdered at Auschwitz just two months after her arrest. The novel, which tells of the time it was written after France’s defeat, was not discovered until almost 60 years later. Its publication led to much of Nemirovsky’s work being translated, including another newly discovered novel, Fire in the Blood, in 2007. You can read a review of Suite Francois by Helen Dunmore here.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz (1975, translated by Tim Wilkinson in 2004)

FatelessImre Kertesz is another Hungarian author, but one from a later generation than Marai and Szerb. This does not mean he was unaffected by the Second World War, however, as he was deported to Auschwitz aged fourteen and only survived by claiming to be older and therefore eligible to work. His first novel, Fatelessness (or Fateless) describes the experiences of a character of similar age, Gyorgy, in a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, though Kertesz denied it was autobiographical. It was originally translated into English in 1992, but was translated again by Tim Wilkinson in 2004, perhaps spurred on by Kertesz’s Nobel Prize win in 2002. Wilkinson went on to translate a number of Ketesz’s novels including Liquidation and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, bringing ten of his novels into English within ten years. You can read a review of Fatelessness by Dorian Stuber here.

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14 Responses to “Almost Lost in Translation Part 1”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    You’ve got an excellent list here! Journey by Moonlight is one of my favorite books. Thanks for linking to my Zweig post!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    That’s a great list, Grant, and four of them I’ve read and loved. Zweig is wonderful, as is Journey by Moonlight. I’ve not read the Kertesz or Marai, but will keep an eye out…

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Great post, Grant. I’ve read four of them: Embers, Journey, Silk Girl and Suite – all excellent. I rewatched The Grand Budapest Hotel recently, so a return to Zweig may well be in order.

  4. Cathy746books Says:

    This is a great list – Embers in particular appeals.

  5. banff1972 Says:

    Love this idea, Grant. If you do a second list, what would you think of including Miklos Banffy?
    Thanks for linking to my piece. Fatelessness is a difficult book that has become more important to me the longer I teach it. Since we”re both teachers, I think it’s especially nice to have that piece included here.

    • 1streading Says:

      Banffy was near the top of my list for inclusion but the first volume was translated in 1999 and I’d decide to begin in 2000. I might include ‘those that just missed out’ at the end though. On a related note, did you know Pushkin Press were bringing out a selected stories in October?

  6. Caroline Says:

    These are all excellent. The Marai is another peculiar case. The translation was published in Germany with great success in the 90s. They said the writer had never been translated before and it was such a find. When I packed up my grandmother’s books after my mother’s death, I found German translations of Marai from the 50s. Isn’t that crazy?

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s more common than you think – often literary journalists make claims about translation which turn out not to be true! I thought German was the language which Marai had mainly been translated into.

      • Caroline Says:

        Yes, in the 90s most of his work was translated but, also before, it seems. I had no idea it was common practice to make such things up. It’s so dishonest.

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