Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading in Translation

I was pretty interested in a news piece I came across a week or so ago in the Guardian newspaper: "Orhan Pamuk attacks 'marginalisation' of non-English writers".

Nobel Laureate Pamuk recently spoke at the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival, an international festival of writing that took place in late January in India, and the comments that led to the article were made there. At a session hosted by The Times of India entitled "Out of West", Pamuk took to the stage with fellow writers Kiran Desai, Leila Aboulela, Nam Le and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to discuss issues that face non-western writers publishing today.

The Guardian piece quotes Pamuk as saying (among other things) that "for those writing in other languages [than English], their work is rarely translated and never read. So much of human experience is marginalised". What do you make of Pamuk's comments? Do you read fiction in translation yourself? When and if you do read books set in other cultures or counties, do you think of those books as stories of broad ranging human experiences - or of the countries and cultures in which they are set? (Pamuk's comments also included his assertion that his own writing -- largely set in Turkey -- is frequently provincialized by reviewers:

"You are squeezed and narrowed
down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity."

The library is a great source for international fiction: both international fiction written in English (like the works of several of the authors who shared the panel with Pamuk) and those in translation. Most recent translated fiction can be found by doing a subject search "[original language] fiction - translations into English". But to whet your appetite, here are a few ideas to get you started.

Amélie Nothomb: Perhaps the very definition of an international writer, of Belgian but born in Kobe, Japan (her parents were diplomats), writing in French and having lived across Europe, Asia and in North America and now residing in France. Nothomb writes slim but powerful books that raise questions about modern society, with imagination and a flair for the unusual.

In Fear and Trembling she tells a tale in a post-modern style: although a novel, the story centres on a young Belgian woman named Amélie who is working in a large corporation in Tokyo, making it seem largely autobiographical. Sulphuric Acid is a dark satire of modern entertainment focusing on a a reality TV show set in a concentration camp. Nothomb's fiction would appeal to those who like experimental but not overwhelmingly so: the library has many books by this prolific author, including many in French.

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong: winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize (sponsored by the same company that puts on the British Booker Prize and is popularly referred to as the Asian Booker). Translated from Chinese, the library catalogue summarizes this book "An epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols-the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world-and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf... Part period epic, part fable for modern days, Wolf Totem is a stinging social commentary on the dangers of China's overaccelerated economic growth as well as a fascinating immersion into the heart of Chinese culture." The library also owns this book in the original Chinese.

Speaking of the The Man Asian Literary Prize: the short list for the 2010 award will be announced on February 15th. This and other awards are a great way to find out about popular and/or critically acclaimed books from other regions. Other such awards to note are The Russian Booker Prize (that page is in Russian only, here's an English language blog post that shows the 2010 nominees) or the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (also affiliated with the Man Booker). The downside of these awards for those who only read English, is that many of the nominees are not translated into English ... however, the publicity - particularly for a winner, often ensures that a translation comes about.

Getting ready to write this post, I looked back through the translated fiction I've read. Recently the bulk of the translated fiction I've been reading has been from French Canadian authors. Nicolas Dickner has a newly translated novel called Apocalypse for Beginners, set in the late 1980s (the dying days of the cold war), a coming of age story about two friends in small town Quebec: one of whom is sure she knows the day of the end of the world. Dickner is the winner of the Canada Reads winning book Nikolski.

And of course, it would seem remiss to not mention the biggest literary sensation of recent memory -- translated or not: the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson.

Have a favourite international author or book in translation? Add it to the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. One excellent book in translation is Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina", (1873-77; a time very much like ours) tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky (2000). I believe that Tolstoy also felt marginalized as a non-English author, and was merely trying to produce a Victorian best-seller in the tradition of Anthony Trollope when he accidentally wrote the greatest psychological novel of all time.

    Is it possible that this book influenced Sabina Spielrein? (1884 - 1942) Spielrein was a sort of human bowling ball decisively influencing key figures at the dawn of psychoanalysis including Jung, Freud and Piaget. Tolstoy's novel eerily foreshadows aspects of Jung's typology, but if we assume the Russian Spielrein was familiar with the text then the anachronism disaappears.

    The library's main branch has a copy of "A most dangerous method : the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein" (1993), by John Kerr, which makes fascinating reading.

    I'm presently working through V. Nabokov's posthumous "Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russion Poetry" (2008) which discusses translation at some length (and editor Brian Boyd takes a slap at Douglas Hofstadter's criticism -- in "Le Ton beau de Marot" (English, 1997, yeah **that** Hofstadter) -- of Nabokov's infamous translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin".

    English has been so dominant for so long that the marginalization of authors in other languages continues to be an important issue, as you imply. I can't get over the nasty feeling that it will ultimately turn out (especially after the last couple of weeks!) that Sayyid Qutb (1906 - 1966) will ultimately emerge as the Twentieth Century's most important author. The world is certainly bigger than the anglophone world.