Outrageously Out of Print: Ten Books You Didn’t Even Know Existed in Translation

Secondhand Bookseller on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, France, 1821. Image Source

The heading is unapolagetically clickbaity as I sincerely hope that you do know about the existence of at least some of the titles listed below. The idea for the post cristallised after several occasions when I was planning to write a review of some novel I was absolutely sure was not available in English translation, but, upon last-minute fact-checking, had to give up the idea because I discovered (to my surprise and, I have to confess, a bit of chagrin) that the book in question had appeared in English years ago but since then had gone out of print and sunk into oblivion. As you know all too well, I am an obnoxious, self-righteous, pompous advocate of untranslated literature whose glaring absence in the English language is a huge disservice to the English-speaking world.  This time, however, I would like to draw your attention to another problem: that of neglected literature in translation. It is common knowledge that not only ridiculously few works of world literature get translated into English every year, but also that translated books are hard to sell and that they are less likely to get a second printing, let alone a new edition. The fact that so few complex and innovative books get translated is aggravated by the grim circumstance that so many complex and innovative books that did get translated at some point have fallen into obscurity. I have picked ten important works of world literature which at the moment can be found only in second-hand bookstores and now would like to present them to you. The list is chronologically ordered according to the year of the first publication in the original language. Perhaps, you will discover something new or, maybe, recognise the old tome from a garage sale which you never got down to reading; if the latter is the case, now’s the time! After each title I put a quote from a review or two which appeared the same year as the translation of the book, with the link to the full text. I could have found more recent, thorough and, frankly speaking, much better reviews, but that wasn’t my purpose. I wanted you to witness the encounter with the new in all its naked vulnerability. Most of the reviewers were obviously not ready for these books, and it shows. There is also a strong possibility that the translations themselves were not very successful, and that might have influenced the subsequent destiny of these titles. But I want you to look at these ten books from a slightly different angle: the very fact that they have been translated is the cause for joy and celebration, albeit tainted by the awareness that all of them are out of print now.

 

1. Nikos Kazantzakis. The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (Οδύσεια, 1938), trans. by Kimon Friar

From Time, Dec. 8, 1958 (Unfortunately, the complete review is behind the paywall, but you can google, can’t you?):

Masterpieces of literature are hard to come by and even harder to recognize. This is particularly true when they are written in verse, and when they presumably lose their pristine shine in the process of translation. It has taken 20 years for The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel to reach English in hexameter from its original modern Greek. The poem has not been translated into any other language and so is virtually unknown outside its native Greece.

2. Heimito von Doderer. The Demons (Die Dämonen, 1956), trans. by Richard and Clara Winston

From Kirkus Reviews, 1961:

[…] this enormously long and complex novel deals with the relations among a group of people in Vienna in the late 1920’s. In a sense little happens but the whole texture and detail of a society is reconstructed, in cafes, bourgois homes, castles, workrooms, offices. And they are welded together by astonishing, lucid perceptions of the most peripheral insights and relations. […] Narrower, drier, more intellectualized than Proust, though in some ways as complete a segment of a society, this pinpoint concentration on the minutiae of many lives is a complex and brilliant reading experience.

3. Manuel Mujica Láinez. Bomarzo (1962), trans. by Gregory Rabassa

From The Spectator, Aug. 29, 1970:

The book purports to be the memoirs of Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, born in 1512, and who died in 1572. Yet the Duke disconcerts us by juggling not only with Medici and Farnese, with Aretino and Cervantes, but also with Freud, Nabokov and Miss Vita Sackville-West […]

To evoke this astounding era, the writer deploys a profound historical imagination, massive erudition, a vivid period sense of character, and a lapidary, if somewhat hypnotic, style. Some may find that if Senor Mujica-Lainez wears his learning lightly as a glove, this is rather overencrusted with ornamental rings; others that the Proustian periods—admirably translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa—verge at times upon a self-indulgent verbosity. Yet none can surely deny that the writer’s huge ambition—which is no less than to portray the essential essence of the Italian sixteenth century—has been splendidly achieved.

4. Paolo Volponi. The Worldwide Machine. (La macchina mondiale, 1965), trans. by Belen Sevareid

From Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 16, 1967:

The essay-novel, or the novel of introspection or symbolic action, has only recently caught on in Italy. Moravia is sexually oriented, the interests of Silone and Vittorini are basically social, and all three employ a more or less realistic immediacy. Paolo Volponi’s The World Wide Machine, on the other hand, is closer to Musil and Kafka, to dehydrated prose, indirect representation, and allegorical issues.

5. Luigi Malerba. The Serpent (Il serpente, 1966), trans. by William Weaver

From Kirkus Reviews, May 13, 1968:

Behind every thing there is almost always something else hidden. Certainly more than meets the eye with playful images and conceits, while most of it takes place in the head of Mr. Malerba’s scapegrace little stamp dealer, confined in his small shop with its “odor of gum arabic. . . of faint mold.” […] He’s a Cannibal; he’s a Sorcerer: he’s a free-floater with the motility of a paramecium.

6. Juan Benet. A Meditation (Una meditación, 1970), trans. by Gregory Rabassa

From Kirkus Reviews, May 3, 1982:

Benet, like Juan Goytisolo (Makbara, Juan the Landless), is a highly intellectual contemporary Spanish novelist who’s not afraid of knotty forms. This novel consists of a single long paragraph, a “meditation” on the provincial, the erotic, the obsessional, the conscious. Set in a Catalonian area called Región, the book casts disparate elements–bits of family history, the story of a local inn owned by a mysterious and dusky woman, the effect of the civil war, incest and sexual implacabilities–into a stream of apothegms and snaky reflections […]

7. Vassily Aksyonov. The Burn (Ожог, 1975), trans. by Michael Glenny

From Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 1, 1984:

Aksyonov’s magnum opus–and quite something: shaggy, surrealist, knowingly comic, painful, and always utterly carbonated. Is there a plot here? Well, yes and no. Aksyonov (The Steel Bird, The Island of Crimea) offers a narrator/hero named Tolya von Steinbock–a quasi-autobiographical figure who is variously metamorphosed into a scientist, a jazz musician, a sculptor, a writer, a doctor.

8. Abel Posse. The Dogs of Paradise (Los perros del paraíso, 1983) trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden

From Publishers Weekly, Jan., 1989:

The medieval Spanish state and the New World in the early years of its discovery by Europeans are the backdrops for a revisionist historical farce that will be best appreciated by those already familiar with the personalities and events of the period. The disjointed narrative renders with Rabelaisian gusto (and, frequently, crudity) several settings: Aztec and Inca societies; the passionate, cruel court of Isabella and Ferdinand; the lonely wanderings of Christopher Columbus as he moves toward his fateful mission of finding Earthly Paradise.

From Kirkus Reviews, Jan. 1st, 1989:

Argentinian writer Posse, translated into English for the first time, joins those other Latin American writers who dazzle us with their verbal virtuosity, flair for magic realism, and incomparable interplay of the sacred and the profane. Mindful perhaps of that approaching half-millenium celebration, Posse makes Christopher Columbus the central character of the novel. But Posse’s Columbus is a mystic, a sensual lover, and a utopian–not the usual crass fortune-seeker of the history books, though he is shrewd enough to play on other men’s greed.

9. João Ubaldo Ribeiro. An Invincible Memory (Viva o povo brasileiro, 1984)trans. by the author

From The New York Times, Apr. 16, 1989:

Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro’s novel ”An Invincible Memory” is about the forging of the Brazilian national identity – the incongruous merging of the various elements of its indigenous, Dutch, Portuguese colonialist and African slave populations into one unified spirit that calls itself Brazilian. As such, the novel attempts to trace the history of Brazil from the arrival of the early Dutch settlers in the 17th century (with some fairly hilarious Rabelaisian passages regarding their cannibalism) to the country’s recent struggles with right-wing dictatorship and state-sponsored terrorism.

10. Sasha Sokolov. Astrophobia (Палисандрия, 1985), trans. by Michael Henry Heim

From Publishers Weekly, Nov., 1989:

With their exploded sense of time and space and one-dimensional characterization, these postmodern “memoirs” of a 21st-century Soviet leader are purely Russian in temperament, although the author’s inventive use of language is uniquely his own. The narrator, Palisander Dahlberg, is raised in an orphanage inside the Kremlin walls, a warm, enveloping womb of a place that even includes a whorehouse for residents.

From Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 1, 1989:

Most notable for its rich Rabelaisian style, the book’s farcical indulgences can be hilarious or merely hysterical. […] At best, a paean to vibrancy and to life (“Long live existence!”) worthy of Falstaff; but also too often impressed with its own excess.

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13 Responses to Outrageously Out of Print: Ten Books You Didn’t Even Know Existed in Translation

  1. mlex says:

    Quartet re-issued Heimito von Doderer’s “The Demons” in 1989 (in 3 vols).

  2. Numbers 1 and 2 I had heard of, though not read; the others are new to me. Enticing.

    One book you might add to the list is Jerzy Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise, which consists almost entirely of one enormous sentence. The translation hasn’t had a reprint since the 60s, and copies are not easy to get hold of. I wrote a review of it here.

  3. enricocioni says:

    I read IL SERPENTE last year and loved it, so much so that I haven’t read anything else by Malerba for fear of disappointment! Though I’m sure at least a few of his other books are also excellent. Also–this is making me think of all the great books in translation that have come out in recent years, and how many may no longer be in print in a decade’s time–though perhaps ones that have also come out in ebook form will stick around for longer?

  4. Scott W. says:

    I have The Serpent sitting on the to be read pile.

    So thrilled to see Bomarzo here. It is a favorite and a book that richly deserves to be reissued. I’ve written about it here in case you’re interested:

    https://seraillon.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-book-made-of-rock-manuel-mujica.html

    • As a matter of fact, I have read your review and thoroughly enjoyed it! (I also encourage anyone who’s reading the comments to follow the link and check it out).

      • Scott W. says:

        Terrific, thanks!

        To enricocioni’s point above, I’m learning the hard way that one has to pounce on these things as soon as they get reissued. There’s often not a second printing, which leaves those who hesitate pretty much back where they started.

      • That’s why I never disclose which obscure book I’m gonna read next as there is usually one or two affordable copies on the market.

  5. languagehat says:

    Damn, I had a copy of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel lying around for years and finally deaccessioned it during one of my moves, having decided I was never going to read it. And I’m shocked that the Aksyonov and Sokolov translations are out of print! Anyway, thanks for this intriguing write-up; may it inspire at least one of these books to be reissued..

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