Archive for the ‘Almost Lost in Translation’ Category

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.

Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 2

June 19, 2020

Beyond Sleep by W F Hermans (1966, translated by Ina Rilke in 2006)

Willem Frederik Hermans was a Dutch writer who is generally regarded as one of the three most important post-war writers in the Netherlands, alongside Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve (one of whom may feature later). Despite this, his only previous translation into English was in the 1966 anthology The World of Modern Fiction. Luckily Ina Rilke rescued Hermans from this indignity by translating Beyond Sleep in 2006. The novel tells the story of Dutch geologist on an expedition to the north of Norway which does not go according to plan. This was followed the next year by the more serious The Darkroom of Damocles set during the German occupation of Holland. Sadly, neither made a huge impression, but in 2018 his novella, The Untouched House, also set during war-time, was translated by David Colmer and published by Pushkin Press, who now plan to reprint the previous two novels, so perhaps a Herman revival is on the cards. You can read a review of Beyond Sleep by Michel Faber here.


Seven Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (written during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was a Russian writer of short stories and novellas, most of which were unpublished in his lifetime (1887-1950) due to a combination of bad luck and Soviet censorship. It was not until 1989 that his work began to be published in Russia with a collected edition finally appearing between 2001 and 2005 According to Adam Thirlwell “Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” Although the New York Review of Books Classics imprint has become his de facto publisher in English (beginning with Memories of the Future in 2009), his stories first appeared in 7 Stories from Glass New Russian Writing translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006. Krzhizhanovsky continues to appear in translation with a fifth volume from NYRB, Unwitting Street, is due in August. You can read a review of 7 Stories on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009)

Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone – the direct translation of its title in German used on its original publication in the US by Melville House) was published in 1947, the same year as Hans Fallada’s death. Though Fallada’s work had been translated into English throughout the thirties (indeed, he thought of immigrating to England after Hitler came to power), he was long forgotten until the publication of Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2009. Fallada’s story of an ordinary couple’s resistance to the Nazis was a huge success (you can tell from this list that UK readers still have a keen appetite for anything related to the Second World War) and, like Suite Francaise, was made into a film. Further translations followed, including two more from Hofmann (A Small Circus and Tales from the Underworld) and another late novel, Nightmare in Berlin, translated by Allan Blunden. You can read my review of Alone in Berlin here.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (1947, translated by Damion Searls in 2010)

Hans Keilson was also a German writer, but he left Germany for the Netherlands in 1936 (he was Jewish) and later, under the German occupation, had to go into hiding. His experiences informed Comedy in a Minor Key, translated by Damion Searl and published by Hesperus Press in 2010. This short novel is about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish man, but (proving it’s not entirely autobiographical) the man dies and the couple must find a way to dispose of the body: it’s a fairly dark comedy. Round about the same time the novel he wrote while in hiding, The Death of the Adversary, (in a 1962 translation by Ivo Jarosy) was republished and his first novel, Life Goes On, was translated by Searl in 2012. Though he lived until the age of 101, there were no further novels, though you can also read his 1944 War Diary in English. You can read a review of Comedy in a Minor Key by David Ulin here.


The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo (1986, translated by James Womack, 2010)

The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo has, for many years, lived in the shadow of her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and his (and her) even more famous friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Yet throughout her life she published regularly, although her work mainly consists of stories (many for children) and poetry, leaving her lacking the major novel which is often use to launch a writer in English. The Topless Tower is more a story than a novel – it would be generous to call it a novella. In it the narrator finds himself locked in a windowless room in a tower, which he first saw in a mysterious stranger’s painting. It was a slim introduction to Ocampo’s work, but was followed in 2015 by a selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and, more recently, the posthumous novel The Promise and her first collection of stories from 1937, Forgotten Journey. It seems her work is finally making it into English. You can read my review of The Topless Tower here.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (a selection of short stories written between 1920 and 1952, translated by Ann Marie Jackson in 2014)

Teffi was a Russian writer who began publishing short stories in 1905. She left Russia after the Revolution and settled in Paris. Up until 2014 her stories had only ever been published in English in anthologies. This changed when Pushkin Press brought out a collection of her work translated by Anne Marie Jackson, Subtly Worded, revealing Teffi to be an adept and often amusing proponent of the form. This was followed by two other collections, Rasputin and Other Ironies, and the autobiographical Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. You can read a review of Subtly Worded at JacquiWine’s Journal here.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 1

June 11, 2020

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.