The OF Blog: Best of 2013: Translations into English

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best of 2013: Translations into English

2013 Translations Read:
Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
Angélica Gorodischer, Tráfalgar
Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City
Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber
Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji:  Six Heirs
Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer
Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump
Inga Ābele, High Tide 
Liliana Bodoc, The Days of the Deer 
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone 
László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below 
Jyrki Vainonen, The Explorer & Other Stories 
Leena Krohn, Datura 
Andrzej Sapkowski, The Time of Contempt 
João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro
Edit:  Translators for these titles are listed in the comments to this post.
I read more translated works, both fiction and non-fiction alike, in 2013 than I had in recent years.  Yet even this list does not contain every book that I've read that saw an English translation this year (Javier Marías' Infatuations is one prominent example, although as good as that tale was, it would not have made my shortlist of three works), plus there is another book, Zoran Živković's Find Me (a sequel to The Last Book), that I got to read before its English publication (and that one would have possibly cracked the top 5, if not the top 3).

The translations here ranged from autobiographies such as Naoki Higashida's insightful look into his life as a teen in Japan with autism (I credit this memoir with helping me immensely with one of my current jobs) to philosophical meanderings (Leopardi's Zibaldone, which I also read in Italian this year) to various "genre" offerings (the mystery elements present in High Tide to the SF of Tráfalgar to the high fantasy of The Days of the Deer and The Time of Contempt) and all other points in-between and around (such as Datura).  It is difficult to choose the very "best" from this list due to the diversity of the genres listed and the various tastes that readers might have (if anything, I could note a few that were not my favorites, although they were decent reads and would appeal to some readers:  The Secret of Ji, Search for the Buried Bomber), but below are three works, only one of which I have reviewed before, that I would consider to be the Best of 2013 for translations into English:

3.  Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer

This harrowing look at the effects of war and terrorism has lingered with me even more than has Nihad Siree's The Silence and the Roar (which does a very good job laying out the crumbling situation in Syria).  See the full review for my thoughts.

2.  Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home

This 2013 US release was one of the more monumental reads of the year.  Blas de Robles tells what appears to be two stories in parallel, that of a 17th century philosopher/scientist and a contemporary scientist, both engaged in attempting to solve mysteries, but the tale soon becomes that about how we conceive of information systems and knowledge itself.  It sounds extremely complex to explain in a single paragraph, but what Blas de Robles does is create a magnificently-woven tapestry of images and concepts that sucks the reader into its weaving, leaving the reader bedazzled at what she encounters.  I enjoyed this work so much in translation that I sought out the French original a few months later to read it anew.

1.  László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

I am planning on doing a series of reviews next year of Krasznahorkai's works, but this novel (his fourth to be translated into English) is a true literary beauty.  Readers familiar with his labyrinthine sentences will encounter even more subtlety of expression and meaning (for those who are not, Krasznahorkai is akin to José Saramago in constructing pages-long sentences without using direct quotations, but with some differences to how points are conveyed within those clause-laden sentences).  The story touches upon many things, but at its heart lies the search for Art, Love, and the true Apocalypse where all of our (self-) deceits shall be laid bare.  Here is an exemplary quote fragment:

He set off from the deepest of hatreds and arrived, from deep below, and from far away, from so far below and so far away – that then, at the beginning of the beginning, he had not the slightest idea where he was heading; indeed, he didn't even suspect that there was a route toward anything at all, he had come to hate the country where he lived, come to hate the city where he resided, come to hate the people among whom he stepped onto the metro every morning at dawn, and with whom he traveled home in the evening, it is futile, he said to himself, I have no one here, nothing ties me to this place, let the whole thing go to hell and rot away; since for a good long while he could not decide, he just went with the morning metro and came back with the evening one, back home, and when the day arrived, one morning at dawn, that he no longer stepped onto that metro with the others, he just stood for a while on the platform, there was nothing in his head, he just stood, and he was pushed around, here and there; he picked up one of the free advertising newspapers, then had a beer standing at the counter, and he looked at the want ads and picked out a country along with a job offer, because he knew nothing about it, Spain, that's a good distance away, so let it be Spain, and from that point on things sped up, and a cheap airline was already dragging him along, he was traveling by plane for the first time in his life, yet he felt nothing other than fear and hatred, for he was afraid of them:  he hated the self-confident stewardesses, the self-confident travelers, and even the self-confident clouds that whirled around below him, and he hated the sun and the sparkling light as well – and then he was nearly plummeting down, plummeting down straight into that city, and hardly had he set foot here then he had already been swindled, for of course there was no job behind the job offer, and the money he had saved up was almost immediately gone – it had gone toward the traveling, accommodation for the first few days, and food, so that he could start here, there was no going back, no going back at all – he could start to look for work in this foreign land, which of course he didn't find, everything the "Romanian vagrants" and those of their ilk were chased away, he just wandered around in this beautiful city, and no one would give him any kind of work, and a week passed, and then another and then another, ... (Ch. 21, pp. 165-166)
At first these "walls of words" may be intimidating for even intrepid readers most eager to parse them, but there is a rhythm to his narrator's thoughts, to his blending of description and introspection, that lulls the reader into reading just a little bit more, into considering just a little bit more what is transpiring.  There comes a point (for myself, it was around 20 pages in) where the rhythms become so internalized that the narrative seems to "pulse" (for lack of a better work) with a force that is irresistible.  While this has been true for the other Krasznahorkai novels that I have read, here in Seiobo There Below it is intensified, perhaps because the author's explorations, which formerly focused more on matters of desolation and despair, have expanded to included the yearning qualities of hope and beauty.  It truly is a marvelous work to behold and (re)consider.


Unknown said...

Some great books there :)

I've read a few of these, but there are several I'd like to try (the Krasznahorkai being at the very top of the list...). Of the modern translated releases this year, a couple of suggestions I'd give would be Elena Ferrante's 'The Story of a New Name' and Jón Kalman Stefánsson's 'The Sorrow of Angels' - although they are both the second book of a trilogy...

Daniel Hahn said...

Agreed, some great books on here! Names of translators, please?

Lsrry said...

The Ferrante is on my radar, but I knew I wouldn't have time to read it this year (might see if I can get it in Italian, since I'm working on my reading fluency there). The Stefánsson I'll look into now. Thanks!

Lsrry said...

Translator names? I'll look them up shortly, but I know Seiobo There Below was translated by the very talented Ottilie Mulzet. I'll post as many of the others as I can find in the next few minutes. Have to go hunt down the books.

Lsrry said...


Ogawa - Stephen Snyder
Gorodischer - Amalia Gladhart
Kadare - John Hodgson
Xu Lei - Gabriel Ascher
Grimbert - Matthew Ross and Eric Lamb
Sirees - Max Weiss
Blas de Robles - Mike Mitchell
Antoon - Antoon himself
Higashida - David Mitchell and his wife
Bodoc - Nick Caistor with Lucia Caistor Arendar
Vainonen - J. Robert Tupasela and Anna Volmari
Krohn - J. Robert Tupasela and Anna Volmari
Sapkowski - David French
Cerqueira - Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay

Lsrry said...

More translators (overlooked somehow):

Ābele - Kaija Straumanis
Arias and Hadis (Borges) - Katherine Silver
Leopardi - group translation edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino

Daniel Hahn said...


Liviu said...

I would add one more translation - The Night of Time by A.M. Molina which was published a few weeks ago.

I tried reading it in the original Spanish but it was over my skills in the language where I can manage more or less linear stuff like C.R. Zafon or S. Posteguillo but not this...

Got the English translation of La Noche de los Tiempos a few days ago and the book is superb...

Lsrry said...

Hadn't heard of the Molina until now (my awareness of Spanish-language books is spotty, alas), but the premise sounds promising.

Now to see if I can find it at a cheaper price than $30 used (I know I could read the translation and it'd be a good one, but I prefer the original whenever possible when the language in question is Spanish)...

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