First Monday Book Day: Reading in Translation

J.M.G. Le Clézio - DésertLast week, as we rolled south toward Kansas, Mrs. Hayes and I occupied our minds with podcasts. The pillowy ride of the new (to us) full-size Buick sedan and the monotony of eastern Iowa might have lulled us to sleep were it not for The Incomparable, The /Filmcast, Roderick on the Line, and Radiolab. "Translation," last week's Radiolab episode, got me thinking about the books I've read in translation, particularly the book I'm reading right now –  J.MG. Le Clézio's Désert, translated in my edition by C. Dickson.

This is my first modern French novel. I dutifully read, as I'm sure many of you did, Voltaire and Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant in high school. I might be forgetting a few. Since I don't speak French, I never read any of them in anything other than English, just like I'm reading Le Clézio. Mostly, reading this book is flying blind. I'm ignorant of any conventions in French literature, and completely reliant on C. Dickson to convey Le Clézio's entire persona as an author – characterization, phrasing, pacing, voice, everything except the plot. If Désert were a film by Godard or Melville I might have more to go on; I wouldn't need a translator to help with anything other than dialogue. But C. Dickson's my only lifeline to the ship Le Clézio is sailing across the Sahara. I'm over halfway through it, and while I can't say if I "get" it yet, I can say with conviction I'm in awe of the writing. Or is it the translation?

I read and translated a little Russian literature in Russian as an undergrad: Pushkin and Akhmatova and Gogol come to mind. I don't speak or read Russian well enough to read a book anything but haltingly, but at one time I got along enough to form a few opinions, mainly about poets. Blok and Akhmatova blew me away. I know enough about Russian literature and culture to have a decent idea of what an author or poet is doing or the society his work is engaging. With the French, I have no idea. (I will be even more lost when I finally get to Ha Jin's War Trash, hopefully by the end of the year.)

It's funny. Some of my favorite authors are those I can only read in translation. Murakami, for example. There are books of his I like better than others, but despite my near-complete ignorance of non-automotive Japan and my total Japanese illiteracy, he is definitely near the top of my list of favorite writers. How much of that do I owe to Murakami, and how much of it to his English translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel? I suppose I could answer that by saying I never recommend anyone read Constance Garnett's translations of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or anybody else. (Please. Read the newer and superior Prevar & Volokhonsky translations.) A good translator gets out of the way and imparts as much of the original author's vision and voice as possible, and a bad one can completely destroy the original while leaving the reader completely unaware of the demolition. The problem is knowing which translator has been at work.

What are you reading?

46 thoughts on “First Monday Book Day: Reading in Translation”

  1. About 2/3 of the way through Unbroken. I've always tossed a jaundiced eye at all that "Greatest Generation" hoo haw but it's pretty amazing the inguenity those guys used to stay alive, both on the life raft and in the prison camps. I realize that history is written by the survivors and many did crumble and succumb, but man I don't see the current generation or my generation able to survive what those guys did.

    1. Based on what I've seen of my generation and my friends who served in Vietnam, I think both would do just fine. I don't subscribe to the Greatest Generation trope. Each generation has its successes and failures, but we haven't reached the point where we can talk much about the failings of the generation that grew up in the Depression and fought WWII.

      1. Thanks. I was thinking about that after I hit send. Perhaps it's the situation men or women find themselves in that define how they react. The Depression/WWII generation was thrust into extraordinary circumstances and thus they reacted extraordinarily. Right now people are thrust into circumstances related to finding the best cheap brunch and thus act accordingly.

        1. also not to be forgotten is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Everything used to be better: the men were tougher, the women stronger, the sheep prettier.

    1. I thought Zealot was interesting enough that I signed up for a Coursera course on the history of Jerusalem (6th century BC, a bit before the years in question in Zealot). I haven't started the video lectures yet, but thought I'd share in case anyone else is interested.

      1. I ended up finishing it tonight. I was, however, a poor historian and didn't bother reading the notes.

        One thing that popped into my mind as I reflected on the book was the Jefferson Bible, wherein Thomas Jefferson literally cut/pasted the Bible removing all references to the divine, and leaving the moral teachings.

      2. I didn't sign up, but would be interested in your feedback (i.e.. can you screen first for the rest of us?).

  2. Other books I'm working on:

    Robert Lax, Poems (1962-1997). The strange format of this one caught my eye as it sat on the shelf in a bookstore. Plain cover, odd size/format. I picked it up, flipped through a few poems, and was absolutely stunned by the beautiful, mantra-like poetry. This is one I am going to cherish reading for the first time, reading slowly and only a few poems a day at most, to get the fullest experience.

    Christopher Munro Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. A timely read, for sure. This one has received some good reviews, and so far I think Clark's work merits them. He balances detail and narrative well. The book reminds me how easily historians can pigeonhole themselves. My undergrad major was technically European history, though it would be most accurately described as Eastern European intellectual and political history. I am pretty comfortable with my knowledge of Russian and Eastern European history, but Western and even Central Europe is almost terra incognita outside of the major historical events. (And even those I am more comfortable examining though a Eastern European or American lens.)

  3. The last couple of years, I've made a more concentrated effort to read translated fiction. I've had the same experience as CH where I'm conscious of the layering of the storytellers (translator, editor, author, culture) while I'm reading. It's a very different experience. I haven't really found a particular literature movement or country of origin that makes me want to go out and read a bunch of related books (maybe the Oulipo movement in France is the closest), so I've been kind of scattered in my reading.

    The most impressive feat of translation I've seen was in Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec, where a 179-line acrostic with each line containing 180 letters is used to spell out one word. The translator had to maintain the meaning of each line and translate the hidden word and make the word fit into the same pattern of the acrostic. I was (and still am) amazed.

    My favorite books in translation that I've read recently are Satantango and Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian author. He writes in huge, multiple page sentences that have a real propelling force behind them. You find yourself anticipating the next period and driving forward through the book. Satantango is about a Hungarian village that is desperate for a savior, even one that they know won't save them. Seiobo There Below is about art; how we experience it, how we create it, how we preserve it, and mostly why we make it.

    1. I love the metaphor of negotiating multiple layers to describe the act of reading in translation, DG.

      I'm not familiar with either Perec or Kraznahorkai, but those books sound very interesting. I'll be adding them to my ever-growing list.

    2. The book I've read in translation that I wonder most about is Madame Bovary. I know it's a big deal as a novel, but I didn't study it in college and when I read it after graduating, I felt like I was just missing what brilliance I was supposed to find. Should I have read a different translation? I also wonder if I should try again now because perhaps as a 22-year-old, I just didn't have the life experience to get some of it.

  4. This month, I finally got around to reading Ancillary Justice (this year's Hugo and Nebula winner for best novel).

    It was very good. The worlds and system of AI that set the book were complete and well set up, and the conflict that drives the book was well done. Brecq is an AI that was part of a massive battleship that was destroyed (or maybe she is the battleship, identity is fluid that way in this book). She is looking for answers and revenge. I saw that the sequel just came out this month, so maybe I'll get that while the first book is fresh in my mind.

  5. After Zealot, my list to read includes Love In The Time Of Cholera. I'm glad to have a little bit of this discussion on translated works before I crack into it. I'm not sure, but I'm fairly certain I've not read a translated work of my own choosing as an adult.

    I wonder if that has to do with my tendencies toward non-fiction works, historical ones in particular.

    1. History in translation has been pretty similar to most anything else I've read in translation, with the added layer of a particular academic culture's expectations of what a work of history actually should do and how it should read. Based on experience I can say I definitely do not enjoy French histories.

      1. In line with your statement about historians pigeonholeing themselves, as someone who is primarily an Irish historian (and to a lesser extent the entire British Isles ) I can find myself completely ignoring large swaths of scholarship thanks to how easy it is to be so Anglo-centric.

    2. On the subject of translated non-fiction:

      I thought A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist was really interesting. It was concerned with the development of bombing as a technique that served to separate the bombers from the bombees. It was published in 2001, and so doesn't address the seeming culmination of this idea (drone warfare), but it was an interesting book that was laid out in a really interesting way. The chapters are arranged chronologically, but each chapter has a note at the bottom directing you to the appropriate next related chapter (not necessarily the next chronologically). It seemed a little gimmicky, but it got the point across following trends through time.

    3. I started Love In the Time of Cholera a couple years ago . . . and then it was due at the library. I really should pick it up again.

  6. I'm sure many of you did, Voltaire and Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant in high school...
    Nothing outside of L'Étranger.

  7. My non-fiction audiobook this month was Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. I liked the historical reconstruction of previous mass extinctions more than the starry-eyed sci-fi approach of the second half concerned with how humans will adapt to current threats. That probably says something about me.

    An interesting listen with some new science areas for me. I find that audio non-fiction is much easier for me to take in, I'm probably going to designate my Audible subscription to non-fiction for now. Next up is Listen to This by Alex Ross. I loved his book on modern classical music (The Rest is Noise) and I've been meaning to get to this one for quite a while.

  8. I've re-plowed the first three books in the Wheel of Time and now into book 4, The Shadow Rising. Neal Stephenson's Anathem continues to sit on my nightstand, taunting me.

  9. I swung by the library today. My nightstand is getting rather crowded with a good variety of books. There's the aforementioned Zealot and LitToC. Still have GR to have an honest crack at. And I just added "Learning Android Application Programming" and "Czech Grammar Basics".

  10. I bought a bunch of books from indie publishers Two Dollar Radio and The Dorothy Project, so I've been working through those stacks as well.

    In October:

    Dan by Joanna Ruocco.
    Dan is a town that shifts. People disappear without necessarily going anywhere. And it may be that the entire town is conspiring against Melba. Throughout the whole book, the town kept trapping Melba further and further, the more she tried to adapt to the rules, the more she got stuck. At the same time, there are no chapters and so I felt like I was getting deeper and deeper into a narrative that never quite let me find my balance.

    Coyote by Colin Winnette (from Les Figues Press - not one of the ones linked above, but an indie press nonetheless)
    The narrator is the mother of a missing girl. She and the girl's father (they are married, but everything in the book is defined by its relationship to the missing girl) are living with the disappearance. She is lost, and she is losing her daughter bit by bit. Soon there might not be anything left. It's short but powerful and has a paragraph or two that will stop you for a minute while you take it in. I have really liked everything I've read by Colin Winnette and this is no exception.

    The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich.
    Meth-fueled teen "vampires" run amok in the Pacific northwest. The narrator tries to find her sister on "The Highway that Eats People". I was caught up in this book from the beginning, there was constant motion (not all of it forward) that kept me plowing through. The back half of the book, once things settled a little bit and we stepped away from the "vampire hobo-slut" lifestyle, is what really stuck with me. Things changed from the narrator and her friends being the monsters to the world around them being more monstrous than they could ever manage. There was lots of hallucination and lots of non-linearity. There are monsters, but there isn't really one monster. The Warlock (my favorite character description in the entire book) who appears most concretely at the end of the book is the closest thing, but even then...

    Creature by Amina Cain
    Quiet stories of women that are almost comfortable where they are. It's hard to describe this book in a way that makes it sound as interesting as it is. Despite a measured, quiet tone each story was a little uneasy and generally affecting.

  11. El Deafo by Cece Bell. Graphic novel memoir. Cece became deaf at age 4 after getting meningitis, and this book focuses on her experience in school and with friends from roughly ages 5 to 10. She created an alternate superhero persona, El Deafo, to help herself through the rough patches. This is ultimately the story of how she came to accept herself and find something positive in the thing that made her different from all the other kids. Cece does a great job of authentically portraying a kid and showing the weird logic that kids sometimes employ to try to understand the world.

    Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. Novel. I read an interesting interview with the author, so I requested this book from the library and unfortunately it didn’t end up being my thing. The premise is that the four members of a mommies group (actually made up of 3 moms and 1 dad) and their spouses and kids gather at a beachfront home in Long Island for a weekend. Drama ensues. I had a really hard time with the characters. They’re all Brooklynites in their 30s or early 40s and have young children. They’re also all neurotic New Yorkers, and every single one of them seems to be dissatisfied with their current life and is unable to be truthful to anyone (spouse or friends) about what they really want or how they really feel. The one character who doesn’t fit this mold is a Tibetan nanny who is also present that weekend. She isn’t quite a “magical Negro” character, but she did have some qualities that seemed to me to be too good to be true.

    The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Novel. Do I get points for making it to page 460 in October? It’s really well written and really intense. So much so that last week I needed a little time away from it. But I’ll for sure finish it this month.

    Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. Young adult poetry collection. I’d heard lots of good stuff about this one. It’s also a really quick read, so it worked well for my break from The Goldfinch. The concept behind this is fairy tale tropes approached from a feminist perspective. But for me, it just didn’t live up to the potential of the concept. Anorexia came up a few times, and there was more on body image and society’s expectations of women/girls, but the poems were superficial—describing these problems without going much deeper than that. There weren't as many fair tale elements woven in as I was hoping for, and the use of language wasn’t especially compelling either. Too bad, because I feel like something so much more interesting that could have been done here.

    1. One of those poems from Poisoned Apples was excerpted by either Anne Ursu (fka Batgirl) or someone she tweeted a link to. I thought that one was quite good. Was it a connection to the three little pigs and a wrestling girl giving that up? I wonder if the limited focus you've described minimizes the impact.

      1. Here it is:

        Blow Your House In

        She used to be a house of bricks,
        point guard on the JV team, walling out
        defenders who could only huff and puff
        and watch the layups roll in.

        She traded for a house of sticks,
        kindling in Converse high-tops and a red Adidas tent.
        At lunch she swirled a teeny spoon in yogurt
        that never touched her lips and said
        she'd decided to quit chasing a stupid ball.

        Now she's building herself out of straw
        as light as the needle swimming in her bathroom scale.
        The smaller the number, the closer to gold,
        the tighter her face, afire with the zeal of a wolf
        who has one house left to destroy.

        1. Saw this on a bus in Toronto a couple (a lot of) years ago:

          We Real Cool

          We real cool. We
          Left school. We

          Lurk late. We
          Strike straight. We

          Sing sin. We
          Thin gin. We

          Jazz June. We
          Die soon.

          Gwendolyn Brooks

            1. Since we're poemerizing and Beau doing the HOFery:
              Baseball's Sad Lexicon
              These are the saddest of possible words:
              "Tinker to Evers to Chance."
              Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
              Tinker and Evers and Chance.
              Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon[a] bubble,
              Making a Giant hit into a double[b] –
              Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
              "Tinker to Evers to Chance."

      2. Thanks for bringing it up. For me, this one does a better job than a lot of the poems in terms of weaving together the fairy tale tropes with body image issues.

        1. If that's a standout rather than a typical one, I'm much less interested in tracking this down.
          I've got a slip of paper in my bag with the column in it, as a reminder.

  12. My big book for October was 1Q84 by Murakami.

    I haven't quite finished, but I'm over 800 pages in and have only 100 pages left. We'll see how it turns out. There are parts of this that I really liked, and other parts that I was consciously slogging through.

    For November I think I'm going to read a couple of story collections that I've always wanted to read but just never made time for. Labyrinths by Borges and, if I have time, Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. They aren't as thick of books as others in the "big book challenge of 2014" (1Q84 or Gravity's Rainbow come to mind), but it's my challenge, so I say they count.

    1. Finished it. Mostly it felt like I was re-reading Wind-Up Bird Chronicle only longer. I liked it, but I don't know that it had anything to recommend it over other Murakami.

      1. Do you have a favorite Murakami novel? I'm partial to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (the first of his I read) and Norwegian Wood.

        1. Probably Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was my first Murakami as well.

          I haven't read Hard-Boiled Wonderland which is a favorite of a lot of people, both here and elsewhere. I almost read that instead of 1Q84, but decided that the spirit of my big book challenge was to finish off the book I had started once before but not finished.

    2. 1Q84 is one of the few books I couldn't power through. I made it about 27% in late 2013, and haven't picked it up since.

      1. I can easily see how that could happen. I thought the very beginning of book 2 was the best part of the whole thing (around 30-40% of the way through), but until then I struggled a bit.

  13. at the risk of drawing out the trolls, there's this going on in the SFF community

    Friends, the tl;dr of this very long, comprehensive, analytical report is that up-and-coming John W. Campbell nominee Benjanun Sriduangkaew (who is also rage-blogger Requires Hate, who is also several other internet personalities including Winterfox, pyrofennec, acrackedmoon, and others) (oh yes, the list goes on), is VERY BAD NEWS.

    Those who have no idea yet what I’m talking about—you’ve never heard of this person but you heard some buzz and you’re curious—go straight to Linkage; getting up to speed, which has some useful background info.

    Those who are well aware of the extent of her prior destructive behavior and just want to cut to the chase and find out what I’ve found in my four-week investigation into her history, go straight to Throat clearing and report parameters.

    Otherwise, read on.

    1. Yuck. The mentality of trolls is one I can't quite wrap my head around. Maybe I'm lucky that my circumstances haven't put me in a position where that worldview makes sense.

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