It’s simple. Translation is the will to grope in the dark to reach for the light.
This is super hard for me as lately I’ve been reading almost only books in translation. But picking 3 for the sake of this list, and also kind of cheating:
1) Everything by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, especially War & War and Satantango (both translated by George Szirtes). War & War has an amazing opening line:
I no longer care if I die, said Korin, then, after a long silence, pointed to the nearby flooded quarry: Are those swans?
2) Everything by Kim Hyesoon translated by Don Mee Choi, especially Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers and All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, both on Action Books.
3) The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob, translated by Kit Schluter (Wakefield Press).
1) Italo Calvino, INVISIBLE CITIES, as translated by William Weaver. Unfathomably deft.
2) Michel Butor, DEGREES, as translated by Richard Howard. “One doesn’t read Degrees for the qualities of its language. While ‘arid,’ the adjective employed on the back cover blurb to the Dalkey Archive reprint of this title, seems too harsh, it does at least connote some sense of the fragility of Butor’s prose. It may not be beautiful per se, but we must treat it with as much care, maybe even reverence, as anything beautiful, lest it break. Richard Howard’s translation expertly preserves this same quality. In fact, Howard’s rendering possesses a strange translucence; it feels as if the original French is always hovering, just at the threshold of perception, behind or on the other side of the English. It is semi-spoiled or ruined English. English and French have come into contact here, each language, like an acid or base, weakening the bonds of the other’s vocabulary and syntax. What remains are the hard centers of words; the softer edges have melted into a patina. The scarred parts mingle, beginning to organize themselves, but they don’t so much constitute a new language as they suggest an irrevocable Urtext. Butor’s novel is, after all, multi-lingual, and the problems of translation—a hermeneutic, not a paraphrase, as Howard understands—do occupy its characters.”
3) THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, as translated by Stephen Mitchell. Something of a cheat, for Mitchell’s is less a translation (philological) as it is a retelling. But he gives us the story we need, i.e., in all its foundational oddity.
Most of my favorite books are books in translation, so here are my favorites that have been playing a major role in my thoughts & work over the last few months:
1) La Somme Atheologique, Georges Bataille, various translators
Not quite one book, but rather an amorphous “anti-project” conceived of Bataille that stretched through the majority of his active adult life. The core books have been translated into English as Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nietzsche. Other majorly important texts to the Somme include an essay that I’ve found repeatedly important on a personal level, “Methods of Meditation,” available in translation from Stuart Kendall in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge, a book which collects many of the essays & lectures that surround La Somme Atheologique. It spans a sort of non-philosophy developing & exploring the impossible, an idea of inner experience, pushing towards and beyond) the edge of the possible. It consists mostly of essayistic exploration, but also includes poetry & narrative, including the novella Madame Edwarda, which Blanchot once called “the most beautiful narrative of our time” (and I would agree with this sentiment).
2) Four Elemental Bodies, Claude Royet-Journoud trs. Keith Waldrop
Royet-Journoud’s tetralogy is an astounding work that pushes the boundaries of the form of the book, an objectively considered writing (écriture) that was pushed into new development halfway through his first book The Reversal, when a page plays the line “Will we escape analogy?”, setting the tone for écriture to come. An astounding work that feels almost all encompassing in what it addresses while being so insistently against metaphor and stoutly minimal.
3) Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France, edited & translated by Norma Cole
This might seem like a cop-out, as it’s ostensibly an anthology, but this is one of the most important books on poetics I’ve encounters in the last decade. Cole collects texts drawn from that particular realm of écriture that obsesses me: interviews, letters, commentary, and meta-poetic work. It features a translation of Danielle Collobert’s last text, Survival, which is easily one of the most important poetic texts of the 20th century (written shortly before she herself suicided). It also includes an interview between Anne-Marie Albiach & Jean Daive that I find singularly inspiring to an almost unstable degree.
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is my favorite of his, though it might not be his best. It completely transformed my life. I read it twice the first week I had it and two more times before the year was over. I wept in that book, and became a new person at the other end. It destroyed me and then rebuilt me.
A Season in Hell/Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud taught me how to disassemble the world, how to break language apart, and how to be reckless and dangerous. I used to read these books every six months and they’re still something I constantly return to.
Palm of the Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata is sublime. Snow Country a perfect novel, but this is his most perfect writing. With stories that range between a few sentences to just a few pages, he creates such vivid and beautiful lives on every page. He even cut down Snow Country to about fourteen pages, and it might even be better this way. He’s probably the writer I’m always trying to reach after.
CelinaWieniewska, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz
I haven’t read stories from this collection in years, but it sticks in my mind as one of the prime examples of why we should be thankful translation exists as a practice. This one collection contains almost all of the fiction Schulz produced in the span of his brief 20-year career.
Giovanni Ponteiro, The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
George Szirtes, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai
for the two hundred pages I read in a night following which I was stricken by the most vivid nightmare in recent memory, in two parts, separated by a waking glance at a moonlit bedroom window. It was the first novel by Krasznahorkai to be translated into English and it remains my favorite.
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov (tr. Dmitri Nabokov)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (tr. Jay Rubin)
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (tr. various)
Michael J Seidlinger
The three that instantly come to mind are:
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley.
Then, Roberto Bolano, 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer, and W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse.
Collected works from:
Jorge Luis Borges
Joseph Michael Owens
I’m going [semi]non traditional i.e. more skewed toward sci-fi/fantasy:
2) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the Worldby Haruki Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum (Translator)
3) Candide by Voltaire
Gaby Torres Olivares
So many translations are utterly fantastic failures (or perhaps not so fantastic). We make choices in translation that can sometimes be painful: in this one, let truth to tone be king, in this, allow its poetic peculiarities to dominate the destination text. There’s just no way to honor every aspect of the original in any one, singular translation or even in multiple ones conducted in an entirely different language / cultural context. Accuracy to the original becomes most important / in scrutiny in works that lack imagination and that fail at engaging the reader in the work. This is not a philosophy on translation, because accuracy is somewhat of a personal obsession of mine as translator. But of course, what aspect of the original are you being true to—which balls do you keep in the air in constant motion? 3 Favorite Translations:
1. Pablo Neruda’s Canto General translated by Jack Schmitt Every time I teach this particular translation, I am gut-punched by the visceral responses it elicits, its palpable spell casting. It affects me in the same way the original does. Enacting. Igniting. Incendiary. Insurgent. Some of my students swoon over this book. Some have considered the translator a bit of a celebrity…. There was just something about his use of language. One time, I noticed while reading a translator bio that Jack Schmitt once taught at Cal State Long Beach, about 5 minutes from my house. I tracked him down, emailed him, and got a quick response. He was living in Chile, but planning on being in town for treatment at the local VA hospital. “Would you like to meet for lunch?” We met at Open Sesame and had a feast of hummus, pita, cauliflower, and he insisted I drink a glass of wine, since he couldn’t. He told me about his home in Patagonia. And by home, I mean place: the terraces, blue lakes, ice fields, ice streams, conifers, fields full of grasses and wildflowers, cougar, llama, ostrich. Eden. In a way, he described the America that Neruda wrote about, the same one I write about and seek, forever through language and through the bottoms of my feet, which I use to traverse as much of this exquisite land as possible. Perhaps the cultural context of Neruda’s Canto General was already embedded deeply within Jack, entering through the aqueous humor of the eye, the epidermis of his foot bottoms, the absorption of oxygen into the blood in alveoli. I don’t know how old Jack was at that amazing lunch date. Maybe 75? Older? But he was full of wonder and reverence in his description of the riotous beauty of Patagonia and I felt the same infection, the same drawing in of my viscera to the place he evoked from the other side of the table. Longing. Of course he invited me to visit. All of Jack’s utterances invite you in.
2. Diamela Eltit’s E. Luminata translated by Ronald Christ. E. Luminata, is as fascinating as it is rigorous, an invigorating challenging to read and teach. I appreciate Ronald Christ’s ingenuity and perseverance (he won the 1997 Kayden National Translation Award for this translation) in undertaking such a radical, innovative text. In the translator’s own words, “…for us to join in the artisanal disconformity of Eltit’s novel as activators, not observers, and to issue that work in our language. No mirror up to literature, then, no transparent eyeball trained upon the foreign, and certainly no magic switch trick; no, still yet another gaze, this time from the English. That’s the goal. To achieve that goal, I joined in Eltit’s disjointing (“phobia d is/members”); her inversions and displacements (“and sweating her opulent backside shimmying from all the effort”); her special effects, such as cinematic, synechdotal close up, which matches her verbal fragmentariness with the visual (“The part of her face that modulates — I’m thirsty — is shot in close-up”); her neologisms and spoken collisions (“thinflamation of the bitch/ thinfection of those mutts”); her grammatical insubordinations (“who on offers herself”). Into each such “event” in her prose, as Kenneth Burke would right have termed them. I entered with a mission to participate and recover, but overall and more generally important, I sought to retake the eventfulness of Eltit’s syntax in registering these events in the sum of their variation, fragmentation, fluctuation — in the syntax’s deliverate alienation of reading’s comfy complacency.”
3. Manuel Zapata Olivella’s Chambacú: Black Slum translated by Jonathan Tittler “The boots galloped. They made a crack that had already turned into an echo before it smashed against the ancient walls. The hobnails of the human herd boomed. Shadows, dust, voices. They woke four sleeping centuries.” So opens Olivella’s Chambacú, an incredible and important book I think everyone, everywhere should read. The book’s economy of language stands out against the highly embellished magical realism that dominated the Columbian literary canon of the time, established by writers like Gabriel García Márquez. Its subject matter also stands in contrast to the canon. García Márquez’s novels often are centered around wealthy, European / White characters, while Olivella, an Afrolatino writer, focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of a poor island barrio named Chambacú, near Cartagena, that is plagued by institutionally sanctioned terror and abuse. It chronicles how one of its residents uses language, in the form of graffiti, as protest, and inspires an uprising. “There’s writing here too!” “Search the neighborhood! I want them dead or alive!” The soldiers’ reaction to the writing on the wall shows just how much is at stake when language is assertive, asserted. In Chambacú, the language, in its minimalism exquisite and urgent, embodies the aesthetic of the revolutionary slogan. There’s no time to graffiti baroque messages or long-winded litanies against the soldiers who abuse, incarcerate, forcibly enlist and torture them. But economical poetry can inspire revolution. And the power to yield language is as potent as any weapon, maybe even more, because it is born from the inside. Even the protagonist’s mother, La Cotena, struggling with the most wretched poverty, can yield power, “She cleaved the words with her teeth.” The language, fragmented, filled with agency, devoid of the passive voice so common in the Spanish language is an excellent example of the diversity of Latin American, or simply, American writing. The voices are there if you make it a priority to seek them. “Sheets, undershorts, and unfastened pajamas. They saw the soldiers flattened against the ground. The black cap like an enormous octopus head with its tentacles of guns and sabre daggers.”