Friday, January 7, 2011

Late Night Thoughts After Reading Edith Grossman's "Why Translation Matters"

Only when fortuitous personal circumstances essentially forced me to become serious about learning French did I realize the many splendid paths that knowing a second language would open, not least of which was the one that led into literature in French. I began to discover a number of wonderful writers previously unknown to me: Jean Giono, Boris Vian, Albert Londres, Daniel Pennac, Patrick Modiano, François Cheng, Amélie Nothomb, J. M. G. LeClézio, Emmanuel Carrère, and numerous others from the francophone world beyond France, such as Belgium’s Henry Bauchau and Morocco’s Tahar Ben Jalloun.

An even greater revelation, however, was in learning of many authors from around the world whose works had been translated into French but were difficult or impossible to find in English. While the paucity of translated literature published in the United States each year has earned it notoriety as the “three percent” problem, France – with a strong and respected tradition of translation, weighs in with a percentage closer to 20%. My knowledge of French meant that I suddenly had access to a vast new source of literature translated from other languages. An entire world opened before me as I began to find writers from Japan, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece, the Middle East, China, and many other places around the globe whose work simply wasn’t available in English, or available in only highly limited selections. It was thus, for example, that I had my first exposure to a young South American writer named Roberto Bolaño, whose Étoile Distante I picked up in French after reading an article about him and being surprised to find none of his work in English (nearly a year later, By Night in Chile would be the first Bolaño work to arrive in English translation).

Below I highlight several works I read in French and wished to see translated into English. To date, only one of these works has appeared in English; the others wait too patiently for someone to take up the task. (Translations of the titles are my own; my apologies to more adept translators who may certainly quibble with my amateur choices):

Un Roi Sans Divertissement, by Jean Giono (France)
(A King Without Diversions)
Originally in French; untranslated into English

Jean Giono occupies a place in French literature that merits him the widest possible readership. North Point Press issued several of his works in the United States in the 1980’s, and readers may be aware of him through the perennial gift book for the gardener in the family, The Man Who Planted Trees, or perhaps from the 1995 film “The Horseman on the Roof” based on one of his best-known novels, but Giono’s work still remains in woefully limited availability in English. His rapturous novels of life in the French countryside mesh spiritual and moral questions with the marvels of the natural world. His 1947 novel Un Roi Sans Divertissement - perhaps the highlight of my reading year when I read it in 2007 –dates from Giono’s late period, technically the first in an ambitious projected cycle of novels meant to encompass the human condition. Divided into three linked tales and stretched over five years in the life of police captain Langlois, Un Roi Sans Divertissement takes place in a remote area of Isère in southeastern France, though Giono quite explicitly asserted that the geography of these works of his late career was a fictional creation. The first section follows the search for a serial killer in an isolated, snowbound rural area – an unusual topic for Giono, to say the least. There’s some suggestion of a pot-boiler aspect to the novel, apparently intended to attract American publishers, but there’s no attendant deficiency in the quality of the literature. Un Roi Sans Divertissement contains perhaps the most exquisite descriptions of autumn and winter I’ve ever read. Readers from the English-speaking world would do well to flock to the streets to protest the lack of a translation.

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky (France)
(Suite Française – it can’t be improved upon with a translated title)
Originally in French; English translation by Sandra Smith published in 2006

By now the world has discovered Némirovsky and, more significantly, begun to give her work its proper due. Suite Française, her major work, now appears in English even in an Everyman’s Library edition and consists of two linked novellas (of five interrelated novellas Némirovsky planned, she only completed these two prior to her arrest and subsequent execution in Auschwitz). Hundreds of works of literature wrestle with the horrors of World War II and the world’s having allowed Nazism to emerge, and while many are exceptionally powerful works, none that I’ve read has quite captured, as Némirovsky has, the quiet, docile manner by which ordinary people acquiesced to fascism. This is not a novel of the camps or of the battlefield; its focus on ordinary persons allows it to transcend the specifics of WWII fascism in France to serve as a potent warning of the ease with which people can go along and end up complicit with the most heinous of fascist atrocities.

Amrikanli: Un Automne à San Francisco, by Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt)  
(Amrikanli: An Autumn in San Francisco)
French translation from Arabic by Richard Jacquemond; untranslated into English

If there were one work I read in French that might serve as the poster child of the “three percent” problem, it’s this 2003 novel from Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim (published in French translation in November, 2005). I could argue that some other works on this list may be more deserving, but the sheer inconceivability of the lack of an English translation is unmatched, given Amrikanli’s American setting (San Francisco) and its thematic treatment of the collision of Middle Eastern and American cultures in the contemporary world. Ibrahim is routinely viewed as one of Egypt’s most significant writers. Shortly after Amrikanli’s publication in the Middle East (where it became a bestseller), Ibrahim caused a scandal by publically refusing Egypt’s top literary prize, declaring illegitimate the power of a corrupt and oppressive Egyptian government to bestow the award. I tracked down the book in France after a friend mentioned hearing of an Arabic writer who’d written about San Francisco. I took up Amrikanli assuming it to be a travelogue; only several pages in did I realize it was in fact a novel. The story uses a fairly conventional conceit of the stranger in a strange land, following the almost picaresque adventures of visiting professor of Egyptian history Shukri as he navigates the cultural landscape of San Francisco. While the novel takes place in 1998 as the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is unfolding, it nonetheless inhabits the shadow of the destroyed twin towers and speaks, indirectly, to post-9/11 U.S.-Arab relations. The large amount of contemporary Egyptian history woven into the narrative is a welcome education for those of us ignorant of what is arguably the most important nation in the Middle East. I found Amrikanli mordantly funny in places, and a complete surprise that changed forever my embarrassingly small conception of contemporary Middle Eastern writing. That it remains almost completely unknown in the United States eight years after its publication seems little short of disgraceful, and only serves to underscore Ibrahim’s implicit criticism of American insularity and self-absorption. And while the optimal moment for an English translation of this novel may perhaps be past, American readers, in particular, deserve the opportunity to engage Ibrahim’s caustic, funny, eye-opening and important work.

La Forêt des Renards Pendus, by Arto Paasilinna (Finland)
(The Forest of Hanged Foxes)
French translation from Finnish by Anne Colin du Terrail; untranslated into English

I don’t know of any writer quite like Finland’s Arto Paasilinna, at least I know of no other writer with a national stature like Paasilinna. His novels come with such regularity as to be regarded almost as an annual cause for celebration in Finland (I’m starting to join that ritual, and find myself reading one of his works about once a year). Like Jean Giono, Paasilinna expresses a deep connection with nature. He is also capable of tremendous wit - subtle, playful and often absurdist - and of crafting completely indelible images. Of the handful of Paasilinna works that I’ve read, La Forêt des Renards Pendus has been the most arresting and enjoyable, a sustained blend of black humor with an appreciation for the mysteries of the natural world that is rare in the literature of any country. Like many of his novels, this one takes place in  Finland’s frozen far north, where a thief on the run and a drunken military commander deserting his responsibilities wind up sharing a camp in a remote boreal forest with - as often turns up in Paasilinna’s work – an especially sentient representative from nature, in this case a clever fox.

Parfum de Glace, by Yoko Ogawa (Japan)
(My initial literal translation of this title as Ice Cream Flavor seems to miss completely the tone of the novel; I'd always privately thought of the title as Perfume of Ice; I think a better translation of the French might be Frozen Scent. In any event, I will be curious to see what title the novel will be given when it's finally translated into English, and would be grateful if anyone has any insight into the original Japanese title, Kōritsui ta kaori, 凍りついた香り).
French translation from Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle; untranslated into English

At the recommendation of a French friend, I picked up a short Yoko Ogawa work – La Petite Pièce Hexagonale (The Small Hexagonal Chamber) - and quickly became hooked on Ogawa’s elegiac, crystalline, intimately haunting novels of separation and loneliness, filled with imaginative, lyric imagery. Her characters may be isolated individuals inhabiting melancholic landscapes, but they are also seekers whose intellectual and emotional curiosity draw them towards epiphanies and discoveries, often of exceptional beauty, at those intersections where solitude and connection collide. Fortunately, Ogawa’s fiction has begun to be published in English; however, Parfum de Glace has yet to appear.

Comme Tous Les Après-Midi, by Zoyâ Pirzâd (Iran)
(Just Like Every Afternoon)
French translation from Persian by Christophe Balaÿ; untranslated into English

I’m usually not much of a fan of short fiction, but I enjoyed this collection of stories. It’s of a genre that I think highly important: fiction that depicts the lives of women who might otherwise remain invisible. Many of Pirzâd’s short pieces are focused, affecting glimpses into the everyday domestic lives of women in Tehran, including a moving story in which a housewife dreams all day of writing down a story she’s thought of but, prevented from doing so by onerous household responsibilities, manages just a simple paragraph she triumphantly steals from the one moment of the day she finds to be her own. In another vignette, two men face one another on park benches while eating their lunches, both of them having made observation of others into a sort of pastime. It’s a nice conceit: two people, each playing the role of the writer, each assuming incorrectly that the world isn’t observing right back. A more unusual story concerning a reported invasion of locusts seems a thin political metaphor, but is successful nonetheless in delineating how propaganda can inspire a whole people to alarm, panic and drastic overreaction, a sort of mini “War of the Worlds.” Pirzâd’s novel Le Goût Âpre des Kakis (The Bitter Taste of Persimmons) won the 2009 Courrier International Award for international literature.

L’Art de la Joie, by Goliarda Sapienza (Italy)
(The Art of Joy)
French translation from Italian by Nathalie Castagné; untranslated into English

Despite a rather mundane title, Sapienza’s massive novel is a memorable, engaging work of 20th century Italian literature that deserves wide readership and recognition. Published posthumously – Sapienza died in 1996 – this epic Sicilian novel begins in 1900 and follows its main character, Modesta, across nearly the entire span of the 20th century in Sicily. While I was disappointed by the relative tedium of the final chapters of the novel, the lengthy opening chapter, a simply stunning rendering of Modesta’s difficult childhood in rural poverty, can almost stand alone as a novel in itself and was some of the finest writing I read in all of 2005, when the novel first appeared in French.  


  1. Why Translation matters is a great book, have you read George Steiners " After Babel" or Gregory Rabassa's If this be treason, same subject matter so you may enjoy.

  2. Many thanks. I read Rabassa's book and enjoyed it immensely, but am unfamiliar with "After Babel." The few essays I've read by George Steiner have been highly thought-provoking, so I'm grateful for the recommendation and will definitely seek this out.