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Invisible Ink No 242: Untranslated


Christopher Folwer
Friday 19 September 2014 17:59 BST

Why do so many terrific books remain untranslated, their authors barely known outside their own countries?

Two examples; a baroque, fantastical vampire tale reminiscent of Borges or Calvino, Natural History is set in Barcelona during the 1830s. In 1990 it became the first of the Catalan author Joan Perucho’s works to be published outside Spain. To this day, it remains his only fiction to appear in the English language. Catalan voices were suppressed for decades; in Franco’s Spain the language was forbidden, causing the collapse of a unique literary style.

Today, Catalan writing is flourishing. On St Jordi’s Day, Catalans present each other with a book and a rose, and authors stroll the ramblas signing volumes.

A friend from the Netherlands once told me: “If you want to understand who we are as a nation, you must read Character, written in 1938 by Ferdinand Bordewijk.” The Dutch classic concerns a bailiff who tyrannically rules over the slums of Rotterdam, and the ambitious son who becomes a lawyer in order to destroy him. A keystone of 20th-century literature in its own country, it’s impossible to find in an English translation. A film version won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1998, but the book is still unavailable.

The mass of Holocaust literature, novels in Yiddish, Norwegian, German, Baltic, and Eastern European languages remains untranslated, perhaps because it’s produced in prose that’s less commonly studied and learned in England and America. And there’s another problem; some of the most important works not in the English language have been inadequately translated. For years there was an argument that the English versions of Thomas Mann’s works were rushed and filled with stylistic defects. The German author of Death In Venice has now been re-translated in improved editions.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote is one of the keystones of western fiction, but much of its wit, humour, and social commentary is almost impossible for modern English readers to comprehend. Its first translation was produced by a contemporary, but so many are prepared to tackle this stupendous, daunting novel, that newer translations have become available.

By contrast, Angel Ganivet’s masterpiece about the Latin temperament, Idearium Español, remains untranslated. Just as brilliant European films get overlooked because multiplexes fill every screen with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many novels remain invisible because publishers think we’ll only read Nordic Noir. But there’s a lot more out there than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

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