Booklist 2016 — the year of translation

This year my reading project was for the majority of the books I read to be translated from a language other than English.  Here’s the list:

  • 31 Dec 2016:  Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
  • 27 Dec 2016:  The Civil Servant’s Notebook, by Wang Xiaofang (Eric Abrahamsen, trans.)
  • 16 Dec 2016:  Nirmala, by Premchand (David Rubin, trans.)
  • 16 Dec 2016:  A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
  • 1 Dec 2016:  Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt
  • 24 Nov 2016: HHhH, by Laurent Binet (Sam Taylor, trans.)
  • 21 Nov 2016:  Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (Bela Shayevich, trans.)
  • 20 Nov 2016:  Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, by Stefan Zweig (Anthea Bell, trans.)
  • 6 Nov 2016:  Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono (John Reed, trans.)
  • 3 Nov 2016:  The Good Life Elsewhere, by Vladimir Lorchenkov (Ross Ufberg, trans.)
  • 12 Oct 2016:  Tales of the Hasidim:  The Early Masters, by Martin Buber (Olga Marx, trans.)
  • 1 Oct 2016:  Hit Makers, by Derek Thompson
  • 25 Sep 2016:  The Fireman, by Joe Hill
  • 19 Sep 2016:  Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier
  • 3 Sep 2016:  The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz (Elizabeth Jaquette, trans.)
  • 11 Aug 2016:  City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin
  • 26 Jul 2016:  Why I Killed My Best Friend, by Amanda Michalopoulou (Karen Emmerich, trans.)
  • 19 Jul 2016:  1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, trans.)
  • 10 Jul 2016:  The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
  • 1 Jul 2016:  So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighborhood, by Patrick Modiano (Euan Cameron, trans.)
  • 13 May 2016:  Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil
  • 2 May 2016:  Sh*tty Mom for All Seasons, by Erin Clune
  • 20 Apr 2016:  There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, by Cao Naiqian (John Balcom, trans.)
  • 1 Apr 2016:  The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
  • 25 Feb 2016:  Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
  • 10 Feb 2016:  Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich (Keith Gessen, trans.)
  • 1 Feb 2016:  The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
  • 9 Jan 2016:  Amy and Laura, by Marilyn Sachs
  • 7 Jan 2016:  My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)

Note that I’m behind on these posts:  I covered the 2013 booklist about a year ago,  but still have to do 2015 (the year of reading mostly women) and 2014.  I’ll get to it.

20 translated books, 9 books in English.  One thing to note is that I read few books this year; I think reading in translation is just a little slower for me.

The languages:

  • 5 Italian (all Ferrante)
  • 3 French (two from France, one from Cameroon)
  • 3 Russian (but no Russian authors!  Lorchenkov is Moldovan, Alexievich is Belarussian.)
  • 2 Chinese
  • 2 German
  • 1 Japanese, 1 Arabic, 1 Greek, 1 Hindi, 1 Spanish.

Overall thoughts:  My plan, I guess, was to expand my horizons.  Did I?  I’m not sure I found these books to be as different from my usual reading as I expected.  Maybe because when American and British writers translate foreign books they somehow press them into the mold of the American and British novel I’m so at ease with?  Or because the novel is fundamentally a cosmopolitan form that works roughly the same way in different national traditions?

The one exception was There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, a kind of Chinese Winesburg,Ohio:  very short, linked stories all set in a remote and desperately impoverished village.  It’s sort of incantatory, phrases repeated several times, in a way that really feels alien to the prose fiction tradition I know.  Niqian wasn’t trained as a writer; apparently he was a detective who started writing as a bet.  Here’s a review with some excerpts.

Best of the year:  No way to choose between Ferrante and Alexievich.  They are too different.  Also the same, of course, in that they always come back to women and the men from whom they expect little and get even less.  And the men from whom they expect something bad and get something even worse.

The books are oral history, interviews collected and transcribed into something like an epic.  Here’s a young woman in Belarus, released from prison after being arrested in a demonstration, telling her story in Secondhand Time:

Do I still like the village?  People here live the same way year in and year out.  They dig for potatoes in their vegetable patches, crawl around on their knees.  Make moonshine.  You won’t find a sngle sober man after dark, they all drink every single day.  They vote for Lukashenko and mourn the Soviet Union.  The undefeatable Soviet Army.  On the bus, one of our neighbors sat down next to me.  He was drunk.  He talked about politics:  “I would beat every moron democrat’s face in myself if I could.  They let you off easy.  I swear to God!  All of them ought to be shot.  America is behind all this, they’re paying for it … Hillary Clinton … but we’re a strong people.  We lived through perestroika, and we’ll make it through another revolution.  One wise man told me that the kikes are the ones behind it.”  The whole bus supported him.  “Things wouldn’t be any worse than they are now.  All you see on TV is bombings and shootings everywhere.”

The same woman, on her time in jail:

I learned that happiness can come from something as small as a bit of sugar or a piece of soap.  In a cell intended for five people — thirty-two square meters — there were seventeen of us.  You had to learn how to fit your entire life into two square meters.  It was especially hard at night, there was no air to breathe, it was stifling.  We wouldn’t get to sleep for a long time.  We stayed up talking.  The first few days, we discussed politics, but after that, we only ever talked about love.

Other Notes:  1Q84 was my first Murakami.  A fascinating example of a book that in many ways I view as  objectively poorly written but which I found captivating, even though it was 1000 pages long.  So maybe this, like Cao, is another book doing something with prose which I’m not used to and which I can’t completely understand.  Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman was compelling melodrama.  Tales of the Hasidim helped me remember that my idea of what “Jewish culture” means (intellectual, verbal, rule-governed, repressed)  is only one small part of our tradition, and not necessarily the biggest one.  The Lorchenkov was blackly funny.  The Aziz and the Michalopoulou were dull, though this could have been the translator’s fault.  The Civil Servant’s Notebook is a multivocal roman a clef (really multivocal; some of the chapters are narrated by desk furniture) about municipal corruption in China; it was apparently a huge bestseller there and has touched off an entire popular genre of “officialdom literature.”  Maybe we should have that here!

Worst of the year:  Easy, City of Mirrors.  I just dumped a huge ball of words on this terrible book so I went ahead and broke it out as a separate post so as not to dominate my nice year of translations.

 

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6 thoughts on “Booklist 2016 — the year of translation

  1. Leila says:

    I’ve just been reading a series of novels called “Strangers and Brothers” by C.P. Snow (a must if you are in Cambridge, I was told, and so it is), and here’s an excerpt of the failed lawyer getting drunk and whining. “He abandoned himself to hates and wishes. He boasted of the things he could still do: there was still time to gain triumphs at the Bar and, he said, ‘Show them how wrong they are. Show them just where their bloody intrigues and prejudices have led them. Just because I’m not a pansy or a Jew they’ve preferred to ignore me. I tell you, my lad, you’ve got to be a pansy or a Jew to get a chance in this bloody country.’ Drunkenly he saw lurid, romantic conspiracies directed at himself; drunkenly he talked politics. It was the crudest kind of reactionary politics, inflamed by drink, hate, and failure. He talked of women: he boasted of his conquests now.”

    It’s written in 1952! Seems like some things remain constant over time and place, don’t they?

  2. bf says:

    I’m curious about your choice of reading translated books instead of books in a non-English original language. But maybe it is a time issue – I’m indeed slower in English and French than in Italian, and even more in other languages or any language variation I’m not familiar with.

    By the way, how does Ferrante’s translator deal with the many parts of the text which are in Neapolitan?

  3. JSE says:

    For that to be a choice I would have to be able to read a language other than English! I am not.

    Ferrante’s translator doesn’t attempt to indicate dialect through English orthography, or anything like that, but there are lots of places where you are explicitly told someone is talking in dialect, and perhaps those aren’t present in the original text?

  4. dfan says:

    I am a big Murakami fan, and I couldn’t believe how bad 1Q84 was. My reaction was similar to yours; it was so poorly written by such a good writer that I figured something else had to be going on, though I couldn’t figure out what it was.

  5. Kevin says:

    I was surprised to not see The Three-Body Problem on a list of translated books!

  6. JSE says:

    I had that on my list of things to get to, but didn’t get to it (see also: The Man Without Qualities, Knausgaard’s books)

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