Translation has always been a sensitive business. Many a great writer has questioned its value, with Samuel Johnson being one such example, lamenting to his biographer Boswell that in translation “the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved”. The Scottish poet Robert Burns wasn’t as gentle as Johnson in his critique and curtly dismissed poetry translation as something akin to "murder". Translation can incite controversy – but it can also incite much worse, as in Tudor England where unauthorised translation could prove grounds for a hanging. (William Tyndale, one of literature’s most famous martyrs, was strangled and burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible.)
Still, in spite of the troubles and terrors it occasionally kindles, translation has become a foundation of literature in a modern globalised world. We live in a time when Homer’s millennia-old epics are taught in Tokyo and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – inscrutable enough in English – can become a bestseller in Shanghai. Translated fiction has especially enjoyed something of a rebirth among English readers in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of publishers capitalising on the popularity of contemporary writers like Stieg Larsson, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The books collected here, all published within the last year, showcase some of this contemporary talent alongside some fresh translations of older and grander writers like Franz Kafka and Alexander Pushkin.
1. War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans and David McKay (translator): £8.99, Vintage
Stefan Hertmans is a Flemish author and translator who currently lives in The Hague, and in his most recent work he blends fiction and non-fiction as he retells the life of Urbain Martien, his grandfather. A painter and soldier whose life spanned the worst parts of “the most ruthless century in all human history”, Hertmans’s portrait of his grandfather begins in Ghent with the type of pleasant scenery you’d expect of a Dutch Golden Age painting. Urbain’s life in Ghent is tough, full of poverty and tragedy, but the Belgian backdrop of his boyhood soon gives way to the mud, thunder and slaughter in the sodden trenches of the First World War. A vivid and unforgettable account of an unforgettable life, War and Turpentine is a timely tribute to one of the many millions killed, maimed or transformed during those four long years of catastrophe.
2. The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère and John Lambert (translator): £20, Allen Lane
Emmanuel Carrère is a celebrated French author whose work features a recurring character: himself. In his books, Carrère – like Knausgaard in Norway – finds literary inspiration in himself, from the most banal city walks to the most profound spiritual crises. (One of his less autobiographical books is given the title of Lives Other than My Own.) In his most recent book, The Kingdom, Carrère pushes solipsism to its logical limits by drawing parallels between himself and the early saints of Christianity. The memoir-novel begins in late 20th century France, where the depressed author is rediscovering his Christianity, but soon drifts back 20 centuries, where Carrère follows, among other apostles, the stocky but sickly Paul of Tarsus. The Kingdom is a fascinating fictional investigation into the more impenetrable parts of Christianity’s past.
3. Novels, Tales, Journeys by Alexander Pushkin, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators): £20, Penguin Classics
This new collection of Pushkin’s prose is one of the latest efforts of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the Russo-American couple whose ground-breaking translations of authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have stirred a good few controversies in the fiery world of Russian translation. This is their first attempt at translating Pushkin, considered the Shakespeare of Russia, and the couple – P&V, as they’re known in forums and discussion groups – imbue Pushkin’s prose with the same colourful verve that they have given to other titans of Russian literature like Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s beautiful rendering of Pushkin’s disparate writings is unmissable for the lovers of Russian literature.
4. Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue and Natasha Wimmer (translator): £8.99, Vintage
Alvaro Enrigue is a Mexican novelist who, in 2009, won the honour of being praised by Carlos Fuentes, the late Mexican novelist whose career flourished during the Latin American Boom. Fuentes admired Enrigue’s ironic use of history in his books, something that we find in abundance in Sudden Death as Enrigue’s narrative drifts from the dim and bloody shores of Tudor England to the opulence of a resurgent Rome, before darting across the Atlantic to Cuauhtemoc’s fractured kingdom, with the emperor reeling from the cruel wars with Hernan Cortes and his bands of conquistadors. At the heart of all these transcontinental narrative leaps, however, is a tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo – a duel from which the story grows and grows until it encompass all of Western Europe, with its splendour and savagery, pushing out into the New World.
5. Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou and Helen Stevenson (translator): £12.99, Serpent’s Tail
Alain Mabanckou is a Franco-Congolese author and UCLA professor whose work has earned him the title of “Africa’s Samuel Beckett”. An author whose books, like Beckett’s, often dip into the absurd, his most recent novel follows the life and times of the eponymous hero, a Congolese orphan who finds himself mired in the political violence whipped up by the recently arrived Marxist-Leninists. Following the disappearance of the much-loved Papa Moupelo, the charismatic priest of the orphanage, a reign of terror plays out in microcosm. In the style of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is a tale of one child’s odyssey through his country’s many misfortunes.
6. Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin and Megan McDowell (translator): £12.99, Oneworld
Samantha Schweblin is an Argentinian author currently living in Berlin. Fever Dream is a short, bizarre book that holds the reader captive from the first page until the last – a story so exquisitely written and cleverly crafted that you find yourself, from the earliest pages, slipping into the literary equivalent of a Netflix binge. The story begins with a dialogue between two characters whose voices the reader initially expects to clash and vie for predominance, but instead entwine and interact in surprising ways. David, the owner of the novel’s curt, strange, unlikeable voice, interrogates a woman called Amanda whose disjointed and feverish replies suggest something is amiss. As the book progresses, the many mysteries begin to disperse and a terrible clarity settles over the story.
7. Judas by Amos Oz and Nicholas de Lange (translator): £8.99, Vintage
Amos Oz is Israel’s foremost writer. The prolific author of novels, short stories, articles and creative non-fiction (he won international acclaim for his 2002 novel-memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness), his latest novel Judas is, in his own words, “a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unsolved.” The religious question concerns – as you might have guessed – Judas, the historical arch-villain of Christian Europe and the embodiment of treacherous Jewry, a poisonous myth exploited to such catastrophic effect just 15 years before the novel’s setting. With the exception of a few marginal characters, Judas plays host to a cast of three: Shmuel Ash, an awkward ex-student, Gershom Wald, an old and lonely invalid, and Atalia, a mysterious older woman with whom Shmuel quickly grows enamoured. A novel that grapples with mankind’s most indelible anxieties, from the nature of damnation to the smaller but no less urgent details of tea-making, Judas is an intelligent and hypnotic novel.
8. The Burrow by Franz Kafka and Michael Hofmann (translator): £9.99, Penguin Classics
Franz Kafka is one those writers who, like Orwell and Dickens, is so well-known, and widely-read, that his very name has metamorphosed into idiom. Where Orwell came to lend his name to the Orwellian, and Dickens to the Dickensian, Kafka’s stories of bugs and dirt and oppressive monotony have given birth to the Kafkaesque. Though the term is justly loathed by literary critics for its overuse, the stories collected in The Burrow serve almost as a template for what we now call the Kafkaesque: dark stories set in murky worlds, populated by murky human and non-human characters. The collection’s translator, Michael Hoffman, has translated Kafka before, and in The Burrow succeeds in recreating the same hauntingly pithy prose that keeps readers captivated almost a century after his death.
9. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Daniel Hahn (translator): £18.99, Vintage
Jose Eduardo Agualusa is an Angolan author who has won literary prizes like the English PEN Award and the International Dublin Literary Award. In his most recent work, A General Theory of Oblivion, Agualusa provides the reader with a portrait of one Ludovica (or Ludo, as she’s known for most of the story), a Portuguese woman living in an Angola on the cusp of its independence from Portugal. She lives in the country’s capital of Luanda with her sister and brother-in-law until the war for independence, previously a brutal provincial affair, reaches the city, whereupon her family disappears and she barricades herself in her apartment, living there for some three decades. Agualusa’s novel about Ludo in her urban hermitage is a charming Rip Van Winkle-style story of political upheaval and the passage of time.
10. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Stephen Garry (translator): £9.99, Penguin Classics
Mikhail Sholokhov was a writer who lived and wrote in a particularly dangerous time and place for a man of his profession: Stalin-era Moscow. When he was still a young man he wrote and published And Quiet Flows the Don, which quickly won Pravda’s plaudits and then those of Stalin himself. A dubious literary endorsement, sure, but Sholokhov’s epic novel of war and revolution (a Tolstoyan epic, according to some slightly-too-enthusiastic critics) went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1965, a rather more palatable confirmation of his talents. The Don follows the fortunes of the Melekhov family, Cossacks whose lives become embroiled in the First World War, then the Bolshevik Revolution and then finally the brutal Civil War fought between the Reds and Whites. At a hefty 560-pages, Sholokhov’s is a novel for lovers of the long and rich tradition of the Russian epic.
The Verdict: Translated fiction
Of the books collected here, War and Turpentine is especially memorable. Many of the more contemporary authors on this list tinker with their chosen genres, experimenting with style and form. Hertmans rummages through very personal, very non-fictional histories and comes back with Joyce-like half-fictions. He gives us an elegant, devastating portrait of the grandfather he so loved and admired, sticking to non-fiction as much as he can but filling the copious blanks with his own inventions.
The stories listed here, whether they deal with spiritual struggles in Paris or more literal struggles in Angola, are superb – but we mustn’t forget to give the translators the applause they’re due. Translation is often described as a process of reinvention on the translator’s part, and the one common feature binding this list of books is the exquisite quality of the prose.
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