Why Translate?

This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).

Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa

How did you get started in translation?

MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.

AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.

BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.

anngoldsteinWhich has been your most challenging translation project?

AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.

MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.

BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.

Do you have a set routine?

MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.

AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.

dralyukborisBD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.

MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day  – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.

Do you prefer living or dead authors?

We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.

Do you read scholarly/critical works?

MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.

AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.

BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.

What would be your dream project?

MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.

AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.

Who do you wish would get more attention?

AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observations Zibaldone is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?

MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.

How do you feel about retranslating the classics?

AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.

King's Place
King’s Place

Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?

Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]

BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.

MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.

AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.

How does your own style influence your translation?

MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.


Combining Business with Literary Delights

Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.

BookBusinessTripBook Buying

In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.

In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.

Literary Conference

The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.


Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.




One of My Favourite Poems (with Translation)

I was tending the bar at dVerse Poets Pub yesterday and gave a poetry prompt which had most participants puzzled, bemused, scratching their heads… or labelling me crazy. I asked for a homophonic translation of a Romanian poem, which means a translation based on sound and random similarity of word patterns. It was really interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same poem. As one comment said, it was the Rohrschach of poetry – in that same inkblot of a poem we each saw our own obsessions, thoughts, fears, hopes and personalities.

The poem itself, however, is one of my favourite poems in any language. It is by Romanian poet (also playwright, philosopher, essayist) Lucian Blaga and it’s a lyrical love poem tinged with melancholy. I remember reciting it with my high-school sweetheart as we walked under the linden trees lining the boulevards leading from our school to the park. ‘Florarul’ (the flowering one) is the old folk name for the month of May.



Risipei se dedă Florarul

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-aceasta întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

De pe stamine de alun,
din plopii albi, se cerne jarul.
Orice-nceput se vrea fecund,
risipei se deda Florarul.

Polenul cade peste noi,
în preajmă galbene troiene
alcătuieste-n aur fin.
Pe umeri cade-ne şi-n gene.

Ne cade-n gură când vorbim,
şi-n ochi, când nu găsim cuvântul.
Si nu ştim ce păreri de rău
ne tulbură, pieziş, avântul.

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-această întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

Visând, întrezărim prin doruri –
latente-n pulberi aurii –
păduri ce ar putea sa fie
şi niciodată nu vor fi.

It’s been set to music several times, here is one version of it by Nicu Alifantis in concert:

And here is the translation, courtesy of Cristina at the blog Fantasy Pieces (with some of my own tweaks). She also provides a bit of commentary on this poem.

May Gives Itself with Sweet Abandon


We’ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated,
Your burning temple next to mine.

From hazel stamens, cinders fall
White as the poplars that they land on,
Beginnings yearning to be fertile,
May gives itself with sweet abandon.

The pollen falls on both of us,
Small mountains made of golden ashes
It forms around us, and it falls
On our shoulders and our lashes.

It falls into our mouths when speaking,
On eyes, when we are mute with wonder
And there’s regret, but we don’t know
Why it would tear us both asunder.

We’ ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated
Your burning temple next to mine.

In dreams, through longings, we can see—
All latent in the dust of gold
Those forests that perhaps could be—
But that will never, ever grow.

So that’s the literal translation… But, to be honest, I liked some of the free associations and unknowing translations even more!

Who Has the Larger Audience?

Courtesy of louisemore.wordpress.com

A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?

I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on.  Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations.  For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans.  In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.

What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations.  It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!

Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts.  So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well.  However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.

translationglobeMy husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it.  You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster.  That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested.  Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.

‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’

I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there.  But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there.  And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.

Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?

Plans for My Reading Challenges

globeI’ve been doing a bit of research for the two reading challenges I am planning to complete this year: the Global Reading Challenge (dedicated to crime fiction) and the Translation Challenge (any kind of literature).  Along the way, I have been inspired by such wonderful bloggers and review website such as: Fair Dinkum Crime, Mysteries in Paradise, Pulp Curry, Margot Kinberg, Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Savidge Reads, Crime Fiction Lover (OK, I review for them too, but I learn so much from the other reviewers there), Rhian Davies, Stuck in a Book,  and Smithereens.  And of course, the incredibly prolific reader and private investigator of world literature,  Ann Morgan of  A Year of Reading the World. Too many others to list here, but I will do so as I read each novel they recommended, and link to their reviews as well.

Of course, as we say in Romania, sums at home don’t match your sums in the market-place.  In other words, what I plan and what I actually end up doing may be quite different things. I may not find these books easily in my rural, non-English-speaking community.  And I can’t possibly buy them all.  So there may be some last-minute changes to reflect the quirks of the local libraries.

Anyway, here is my list for the Global Reading Challenge – medium level (2 from each continent):

Europe MapFor Europe: 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – a city I have never visited before, either physically or through books

Alfred Komarek: Inspector Polt series – I have yet to read crime fiction by an Austrian author, despite my love of all things Viennese.  Change of plan here, as I have heard very good things about the Lemming series by Stefan Slupetzky, also set in Vienna.

For Australia/New Zealand:

P.C. Laird: The Shadow World (NZ)

Sulari Gentill: A Few Right-Thinking Men (AUS) Have been unable to find this, so opted instead for Arthur W. Upfield and his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series.

For North America:

M.J. McGrath: White Heat (Canada)

Penny Louise: Armand Gamache (a name which always reminds me of a dessert – chocolate ganache) – Quebec

translationglobeFor Asia:

Natsuki Shizuko: Murder at Mt. Fuji (Japan) I had no luck finding this, but was fortunately sent a book to review by a Japanese thriller writer who is obsessed with Spain and flamenco guitars.  So I read ‘The Red Star of Cadiz‘ by Ōsaka Gō, to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover website.

Martin Limon: Jade Lady Burning (South Korea) Yet another change to the planned schedule, as I got to hear and meet John Burdett, so I want to read his crime novels set in Bangkok. 

For Africa:

Andrew Brown: Coldsleep Lullaby (South Africa) 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours  (South Africa)

For Central/ South America:

Leonardo Padura Fuentes: Havana Red (Cuba)

Garcia Roza: Silence of the Rain (Brazil)

Seventh Continent (a new territory, outside our comfort zone):

Ben H. Winters: The Last Policeman (sci-fi)

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (historical, paranormal)

I am a little bit worried, for instance, that for all of that magnificent continent of Africa, I ended up with two South African writers.  So if you can recommend anybody else, from another African country, that would be wonderful.  Any other suggestions or comments on my choices would also be appreciated.

GlobalFinally, for the translation challenge, there is no set number, but I would like to aim for between 5-10 of these.  Some of them are still crime fiction (am I cheating a little here?), but others are in more varied genres.  This is a live, changing list, so feel free to make further recommendations.  For instance, it’s a little light on feminine voices, so I may make up by reading lots of English-speaking women writers instead.

Petros Markaris: The Late-Night News – Liquidations à la grecque

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

Mario Vargas-Llosa: Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence

Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

Roland Topor: The Tenant

Miyabe Miyuki: All She Was Worth

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

I promise to post reviews along the way.  And of course, I will have the usual books to review and books written or recommended by friends, plus lots of English writers to enjoy.  I wonder how many I will get to read this year? 52 would be a good place to start, one for each week of the year.

Happy Bastille Day!


Not far from where I live is the Chateau de Voltaire, where the great man lived for about 20 years, when he was banished from Paris and Geneva for his inability to put up and shut up.  Voltaire was also imprisoned twice in the Bastille, so today’s celebrations of the Fall of the Bastille would have gladdened his heart.  I hope the weather holds and the fireworks, dancing, music and theatre will take place as planned in the grounds of his estate.  He would have rejoiced to see children playing, couples flirting and sipping champagne, poetry being recited down the shadey paths. After all, he is not only the champion of social justice, tolerance and anti-mumbo-jumbo, but also the man who said:

Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.


If you are an admirer of French philosophy and literature and want to celebrate the 14th of July with fiction, here are some recently-released English translations or  novels set in France which you might enjoy. It has often been said that French literature and French films are an acquired taste for English-speaking audiences, but the mix below is a really painless introduction:

1) Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Sylvie Granotier is a former actress now turned full-time writer of thrillers, well-respected in France.  You can find a full review of this interesting, atypical crime fiction novel on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

2) Fred Vargas

This is the pseudonym of a French historian and archaelogist and I have probably mentioned her before (and will do again).  Her crime fiction books are always surprising, unusual, with historical and supernatural element, always unsettling me (in a good way).  She has two series – the Commissaire Adamsberg that more closely resemble police procedurals, and the Three Evangelists, about three friends who share a house. If you don’t mind reading books out of order, then ‘Seeking Whom He May Devour’ and ‘Have Mercy on Us All’ are probably good ones to start with.


3) Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

A debut novel by a Welsh/Canadian writer but set on the Côte d’Azure, this is a delightful cosy mystery and romp through pâté de foie gras and champagne for breakfast, cross-cultural misunderstandings and glamorous locations.  I will have a full review of it next week on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

4) Janet Hubbard: Champagne- The Farewell

Another one for foodie and drink fans, this is essentially manor house mystery set in the Champagne region of France. When an attractive French magistrate and a dynamic NYPD detective find themselves thrown together to solve a murder at a mutual friend’s wedding, sparks are bound to fly!

5) Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This has been a runaway bestseller in France since it first came out in 2006, but the English translation has not done as well.  It is a controversial book, with not much in the way of plot, except the friendship between the concierge of an apartment building and a twelve-year old girl, both alienated, over-sensitive souls.  It’s the kind of book you either love or you hate, full of literary and philosophical allusions, yet not pretentious.  Definitely worth a try!