The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality

Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Translation. Image Source

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I  wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes. Although the earlier titans of translation might be departing from the scene, either leaving this mortal coil like Gregory Rabassa and William Weaver or retiring like John E. Woods, new names are coming to the fore. There are industrious, talented, determined, and self-abnegating translators who are up to the task of struggling with the most challenging and the least commercially appealing projects to recreate in English the splendour of a foreign language masterpiece, to reinforce its deserved place in the pantheon of world literature. I have selected five such translators, of whom I’d like to think as the Shadow Cabinet of The Untranslated, for if somebody can face the challenge of rendering some of the books reviewed here in English, it is them. Based on their  achievement up to now, I have no reservations in stating that their names are hallmarks of quality and should be sought out on book covers  as vehemently as the names of your beloved authors. I have included here brief information about each of the five translators as well as excerpts from the works published in their translation. They should speak for themselves.

 

Adrian Nathan West is a Renaissance Man of literary translation. Not only does he translate from Spanish, German, Catalan, French, Italian, and Portuguese, but he is also extremely ambitious and as uncompromising as it gets when choosing which texts to translate. It is Adrian West who has introduced Marianne Fritz and Josef Winkler to the English-speaking reader, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of his aspirations is to translate an encyclopedic novel by the Catalan polymath Miquel de Palol, provided that he finds a publisher as intrepid as himself.

From Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West:

Neither ferns nor algae covered the five small sharks, ten to twenty centimeters in length, lying prone in their white styrofoam coffin, their gray skin coarse as sandpaper. A bee sucked greedily at a viscid white calamari ring, and a fat fly, blue-green and shimmery, roamed through the eye socket of a swordfish, glinting silver beneath the sun. With the long green nail of her index finger, a humpbacked woman pulled open a fish’s gill to check it for freshness. A sparrow with a piece of fish meat in its mouth, nearly a third of its weight, flew faltering to the tin roof of the seafood stand before taking off again to light on a pine tree branch in the park of Piazza  San Vittorio where it began to tear the flesh apart. While a nun, her face covered in warts, was passing her payment for the mussels she had selected to Piccoletto, the end of the white cord she wore looped over her hips fell over the neck of a slimy squid. Indignant, unnoticed by the fish- monger, she pulled the cord from the white styrofoam crate of squids.

If somebody writes a mammoth novel containing a Pandora box of horrors and narrated by an unrepentant Nazi war criminal or a one-sentence novel with an overwhelming abundance of historical and cultural allusions, there should be somebody who can skilfully render these and other similarly intimidating texts in English. Charlotte Mandell is the person in question. She is more than a translator. She is an ambassador of French language and culture in the English-speaking world.

From Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell:

Existence is a painful reflection, an opium addict’s dream, a poem by Rumi sung by Shahram Nazeri, the ostinato of the zarb makes the window vibrate slightly beneath my fingers like the skin of the drum, I should go on reading instead of watching Herr Gruber disappearing under the rain, instead of straining my ears to the  swirling melismata of the Iranian singer, whose power and timbre could make many of our tenors blush with shame. I should pause the CD, impossible to concentrate; pointless reading this offprint for the tenth time. I don’t understand any of its mysterious meaning, twenty pages, twenty horrible, frosty pages, which reached me precisely today, today when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased,  almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said, and following the disease’s evolution, evolution, there it is, there we are, contemplating a drop of water evolving toward disappearance before it reforms itself in the Great All.

Thanks to Brendan Riley, many can read Carlos Fuentes’ critical exploration of the Latin American novel from its inception until the present day.  It is also Brendan Riley who put Juan Filloy on the map for the Anglophone readership by translating his Caterva, the notorious tale of seven erudite vagabonds. However, it was just a warm-up for his current project: the translation of Luis Goytisolo’s novel-cathedral Antagony. The first Englished part of this literary monument is already available, and judging by the reaction in this post at Messenger’s Booker, it is spellbinding. I have shamelessly “borrowed” the  following excerpt from that blog post. This is what happens when a great prose stylist contemplates a great piece of architecture, as conveyed to us in a great translation.

From Recounting: Antagony, Book I by Luis Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

Isabel Fargo Cole doesn’t just translate from German – she also writes fiction in German. Her thick novel Die grüne Grenze was nominated for Klaus Michael Kühne Debut Prize. It is owing to her efforts that the GDR genius Wolfgang Hilbig has suddenly materialised in the Anglophone dimension to stun and enthrall his readers.

From Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole:

While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited—all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment—I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil. I saw shapes in them like grimacing faces, not quite identifiable as vegetation, nor as any species of animal I knew; their expression had something strangely skulking, and they seemed ever ready to pull up, like worms from the mud, the roots that held them so unreliably, and shamble many-footed along the course of the waters that, for them, were both nourishment and death… In this contorted skulking, in their eldritch age, there was a spectral dignity, like invalids hobbling through weird tales, creaking and gray with craftiness…thus they seemed filled with abilities beyond their due, and like monstrous creatures long believed extinct they seemed gifted with supernatural senses that called into question the very death whose nearness bowed them down.

And of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning somebody working with the  Russian language. Oliver Ready has taken up the  challenge of translating some of the most complex prose writers of contemporary Russia: Yuri Buida and Vladmir Sharov. Thanks to him, a lot of English-language readers were astounded, puzzled, mystified and delighted by Sharov’s phantasmagoric canvas of a novel Before and During. Now that his translation of Sharov’s another apocalyptic masterpiece, The Rehearsals, is forthcoming in 2018, we can safely assume that the Russian author’s reputation among Anglophone readers will only continue to grow.

From Before and During by Vladimir Sharov, translated from the Russian by Oliver Ready:

“In music, for all his innovation, Scriabin undoubtedly remains within the bounds of tradition, albeit in the broadest, freest sense; in smells, he denies not only tradition, but culture in general. It is the destruction and negation of everything, first and foremost of organized, man-made bouquets, whether cheese or perfume. Yet still, in that cacophony of smells that permeates Scriabin’s score, two interwoven themes can be clearly distinguished: the city in its St. Petersburg guise and the Russian south – the beginning of the movement of the Mysterium to India. Both themes are treated at ostentatious length; and through them, through these smells, it becomes easier to grasp how Scriabin imagined the course of the Mysterium than, strangely enough, through the music.
“‘St. Petersburg: war and gradual weakening, the dying away of the smells of normal, manicured life, of confectioner’s shops, restaurants, bakeries, where everything—who should smell, how and where – has long been established and become a matter of habit; in their place are the smells of men engaged in their primordial labor of war, leaving for the front, briefly returning home after hospitalization, leaving once more; the artificial smells of the sick quarters: iodine, spirit, carbolic, ointments of various kinds—all this mixed up with the smell of a body rotting alive, of excrement, urine, and the rich, abundant sweat of the wounded and the dying; the smell of the desperate and hopeless struggle for life, the smell of your body being cut into pieces like meat, the table where you are carved up, your part – an arm, a leg – is already corpse, but you are clinging to life. The sweat of deadly fatigue and deadly labor. And also: the smell of freshly laundered bandages, which take the place in this world of freshly laundered linen; the smell of a rotting wound and of the bandages, white and medicine-soaked, that have just been applied to it. Yet stronger than all is the smell of corpse, and it gets stronger all the time; you can’t get rid of it, it’s the definitive, terminal smell of man – the end of life.

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12 Responses to The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    How nice to see translators being given due credit in this way:)
    Can I put in a word for my fellow Aussie Will Firth? Will is a multi-lingual Aussie translator of Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croatian. Born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia, Will studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb and Moscow, and since 1991, he has been living in Berlin, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. Having read a couple of novels which are not only culturally unfamiliar to me but also conceptually difficult (i.e. A Handful of Sand, by Marinko Koscec, and Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić, both reviewed on my blog) I can vouch for Will’s claim to be ‘a mediator and a smuggler’ with a mission ‘to funnel socially and politically relevant writings and quality literature from Eastern Europe, so vastly underrated, to the egotistical ‘West’’. He makes a valid point: apart from Stu at Winston’s Dad who reads translated fiction from *everywhere* there is not much attention paid to Eastern European literature in the LitBlogSphere and yet there are so many stories to tell…
    You can find out more about Will by following this links from:
    https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/01/02/change-is-the-only-constant-writing-from-macedonia-by-will-firth-with-thanks-to-words-without-borders/

    • Thank you this information. I fully agree that “the egotistical West” needs to get more literally contraband from Eastern Europe. There are so many undiscovered gems there!

      • Lisa Hill says:

        That’s why I love the Winston’s Dad blog: Stu’s just recently reviewed three books from Serbia (Istros Press) and they all sound really interesting.

  2. Anthony says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

    I couldn’t leave without dropping in the name of Chris Turner who unassumingly translates so many fascinating French books that our lives would be less rich without. Thanks to Chris, we have available in English a lot of Baudrillard, Virilio, Barthes, Quignard’s “llinguistically dazzling, arcana-laden” novels, and two particular favourites: Pascale Casanova’s Kafka, Angry Poet, and Catherine Clément’s The Call of the Trance.

  3. enricocioni says:

    I’d add Arunava Sinha to the list. I don’t know if there are many undiscovered weird book-mammoths in Bengali, but Sinha is clearly comfortable with the strange and unsettling and challenging. This is start of his translation of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s Abandon:

    And then we proceed to wander around the city in search of shelter. We drift through the morbid yellow afternoon. Before our eyes, dusk descends like the trilling of a fire-engine bell and night falls like flames being extinguished by jets of water, a night as conspicuous as the whirling black skirts of desert gypsies. As for us, we are still spinning on our feet. We, that is to say, Roo and I. I, Ishwari, and Roo, who is my soul, stall for a moment in mid-air on our downward plummet. And when it is eleven-thirty (not midnight, for midnight is the hour of extreme longing for injured birds), a hallucinogenic silence surfaces on the city’s streets from the netherworld.
    Roo digs his nails into my thigh fearfully as I climb without hesitation into the taxi parked in the darkness beneath a tree, and ask the driver, “Will you take us?”
    The young man, his hair like a bunch of black grapes, nods, he will take us. The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel beings. A malevolent, repressive, unpalatable novel. It begins to answer the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ And by the time it ends, a virtual human being with transformed proclivities will have to admit that ‘life is constantly being a murderer!’

  4. Thank you so much for including me in such esteemed company. Regarding Juan Filloy, I’m honor bound to add that Lisa Dillman’s very fine translation of his novel Op Oloop, the first English translation of a Filloy novel, appeared in 2009, while my translation of Caterva was published in 2015.

  5. Just to keep the conversation on these books going, I’m privileged to be able to share this positive, insightful review on Recounting (Antagony: Book I) from The White Review: http://www.thewhitereview.org/reviews/luis-goytisolos-recounting/

  6. Nice to see Isabel Cole’s translation of Old Rendering Plant singled out here! Stay tuned for exciting news about that translation: our publicity will be going live this coming week!

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