Five years ago on this day, I posted my first review here. Since I have managed to keep my few but faithful readers interested thus far, I believe that time has come to tell the story of The Untranslated.
The story began 12 years before the appearance of the blog when I was studying for my Master’s in literature. During my first year, there arrived an oversees guest lecturer in literature and philosophy — the Stanford professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. At the time, at my university knowing English well was cool. Being able to read an English-language book or a book translated into English without a dictionary was extraordinary. We always adored professors with rich English vocabulary and the most native-sounding pronunciation. Those were the signs of great mastery achieved through perseverance and determination by people who spent most of their lives behind the Iron Curtain. So, there was this professor speaking fluent English who was going to talk about literature not originally written in English, which he must have read in translation. I still remember the moment when he distributed photocopies of Garcia Lorca’s poems with the English translation facing the Spanish original. And then something incredible happened: he told us to follow the translation while he was reading out the poems in Spanish. I was astounded. I had never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t understand most of the Spanish words, but I could feel the tremendous difference, I could hear how incomparably better the poems sounded in Spanish. I realised that some day I would like to be able to do just that: to read the works of my favourite writers and poets in the original, and in as many languages as I could learn. I was further bowled over when Gumbrecht casually said during a different lecture that when he read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose in Italian, he had the impression that its style strongly resembled that of a medieval chronicle. As it turned out, besides English and his native German, Gumbrecht was proficient in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and could also read some additional languages. Knowing English well wasn’t cool anymore. I wanted badly to get at least reading proficiency of the major European languages. Of course, there were considerable differences in my background and Gumbrecht’s. He was born in West Germany in a middle-class family and had the opportunities to study in France, Spain and Italy. I was born in the Soviet Union in a family with a modest income and at that time I had not even been outside the borders of the former USSR, which had collapsed a decade before. It wouldn’t be until my first year as a PhD student in Comparative Literature when I would travel to England for the first time. Notwithstanding these setbacks, I set out on my journey.
By the time of Gumbrecht’s visit I had studied French as my second foreign language, but it was at such a low level that reading original literature was still out of the question. I developed my own system of drastically increasing my vocabulary that proved to be tedious but effective. I started with a short story by Maupassant, just several pages, which I read with a dictionary by my side, copying into a notebook all the words which I didn’t know and writing next to each of the words the Russian translation. There were lots of such words. Then, when I had that glossary at my disposal I would read the same story exactly ten times, so that during the final read I didn’t have to rely on the list anymore. After that, I moved on to another story, which was a bit longer. I proceeded in this fashion until I was able to read a complete novel in French, and, strangely enough, I cannot remember what it was. Slowly but surely, my reading abilities in French were improving, but there was still so much to achieve.
When I started working as a translator and foreign language course manager at a small company, I profited from the opportunity of taking ten private lessons of Spanish with a teacher from Peru for less than the regular price. After that, I bought a couple of Spanish textbooks, some books in Spanish by the authors I liked and went on to study solo, more or less following the pattern of my French studies with the only difference that this time things moved a bit faster. In two years’ time, I was able to read Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth 2666, long before the English translation appeared. I was ridiculously proud of that.
Next was the Italian language whose intensive study was triggered by a tourist trip to Italy. I was as astonished by the beauty of the spoken language as by the beauty of the architectural monuments. After going through two textbooks I started reading immediately Pinocchio with a Russian translation close at hand to help me out when I couldn’t puzzle out the meaning of some phrases. The next book that I read was Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, which I had read before in William Weaver’s translation. Baricco, Pirandello, Landolfi, Buzzati, and more Eco followed.
German proved to be a tough nut to crack. So much different and so much more difficult than the other languages I have studied, it stubbornly refused to join my arsenal. It is still weaker than my French, Italian, and Spanish, but several textbooks and novels later, I can read German texts at an unhurried pace and with recourse to the dictionary, which still requires me to interrupt reading too frequently to really enjoy the process.
That was my linguistic situation around the time I decided to start a blog. The idea had been floating around for some time, and I can point out at least two major sources of inspiration. The first one was to be found in older issues of the magazine World Literature Today, which used to be nothing like it is these days, a faint shadow of its former self. While looking through the magazines in a library when still a student, I was utterly fascinated by the reviews of recently published foreign language books. It was such a great idea, to share with the English-speaking audience what was going on in other literatures, presenting for the first time what would perhaps later become classics of world literature. Those reviewers who could read foreign languages were at the cusp of grandiose events that would reach the English-language world with a delay, like the light of remote stars.
With time, I developed a peculiar habit of searching for any available information, in any language I could read, about particular kinds of books. From time to time, in various articles, essays, interviews, and blog posts dedicated to literature there was a clue, a slight inkling, or sometimes even a detailed examination leading to books that were not widely known, that were left outside of the established canons due to their complexity, experimentalism, eccentricity, weirdness. Most of those books were either unavailable in English translation or, if they managed somehow to fall through the cracks, remained out of print. There was a whole world to discover, a hidden dimension of the shadow canon lurking outside the matrix. Each time when I stumbled upon a brief mention of some book which sounded extraordinary, I caught myself wishing that there was somebody who would write a longish review in English so that not only the curious reader like myself but also the potential publisher of its translation could get a better idea of what the book was about. There were all those awesome long, complex, encyclopedic novels, like Alberto Laiseca’s The Sorias and Miquel de Palol’s The Troiacord, nobody knew existed, yet they seemed to be so much better than most of the mediocre stuff that was being translated. If somebody could write about such books, to put them on the map of the English-speaking world… At that time I didn’t know, of course, that I would become this person.
The other source of inspiration, which proved to be decisive for the appearance of my blog, was the 2009 post in the online literary journal The Quarterly Conversation under the title Translate this Book! It offered a collection of recommendations from authors, translators, journalists and publishers, who briefly described great books in foreign languages which were still not available in English, drawing attention to the goldmine of untranslated literature that I had been exploring on my own for some time. Here it was, the idea for my blog in all its simplicity: a blog dedicated to great untranslated books. No more occasional name-dropping, no more clues and hints and winks and nudges, no more meek footnotes and self-effacing marginalia. All that is obscure, wild, strange, challenging and completely ignored by most of English-language readers will take centre stage now. At least on my wee blog.
During the following four years, I consolidated my knowledge of the languages and acquired some of the books I discovered in the course of my investigations. God bless the online bookstores! If it hadn’t been for them, The Untranslated wouldn’t exist. After posting my first five reviews I finally realised all the inherent challenges of running this kind of blog. First and foremost, my readership was too small. Although Google generously began putting links to my reviews on the first pages of search results for the titles of the books I reviewed, the fact that almost nobody searched for those titles perfectly explained not only the high rankings of my posts but also the lack of the readers. Remaining elitist meant remaining ignored. There was no way I could draw readership by blogging purely about untranslated literature, but adding reviews of books in English was also out of the question, for it defeated the original purpose of The Untranslated. I found a compromise by introducing a new category in which I started posting short descriptions of forthcoming translations that were of particular interest to me, and, hopefully, to my readers. Those attracted some additional traffic. Reviewing Michelle Houellebecq’s and Umberto Eco’s newly published novels, whose translation was inevitable, also helped to boost my view count. Another significant addition to my blog which helped to make it more visible was, of course, my reading diary of Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum kept during the year preceding the publication of John E. Woods’ monumental translation. It even got me a tiny interview with The Wall Street Journal. Now many random readers who stumbled on my blog while searching for the translations of known works could also be exposed to the titles they didn’t even suspect existed. Going on Twitter also proved extremely beneficial. If used wisely, it’s an effective platform for promoting your stuff. The most important recent development for me has been the willingness of some of my readers to contribute guest posts. I regard that as a sure indication that there is some inherent value in what I’ve been doing.
And yet, and yet, and yet, after these five years I cannot help but think that my blog is, if not a failure, a very insignificant accomplishment. Of course, I can be bursting with pride for having written the only English-language reviews of some of the greatest books of world literature, but this does not mitigate the fact that my readership is unforgivably small for a five-year-old blog. 367 subscribers in five years? Who am I trying to fool? When I look at some other blogs, I am constantly amazed by their authors’ ability to put up quality posts with enviable frequency. This is not my case. I will never be that productive, and most of my reviews will always require a lot of time and effort. That’s the way things are, and I don’t see that improving anytime soon.
This brings me to the way I write my reviews. Perhaps, some of you might be interested in the mechanics of the process. First, I read the book to be reviewed. While reading, I usually do not take any notes and occasionally consult the internet for some crucial facts or events I don’t know or know too little about. When about a third into the book, I start accumulating some material for the background reading and research. That could be anything: articles, books, documentaries, radio podcasts. Very little of all this finds its way into my reviews, but it is very important to me to have all that information for a better understanding of the given text. When I have finished reading, I take a notepad and look through the book again, writing down a summary of the plot with all the quotations I find striking or just noteworthy. The length of this summary varies from ten to a hundred pages. When the summary is over, I take a red pen and go through it underlining the most important details. At this point, the idea of the structure and content of the review begins taking shape in my mind. The final step is the review itself, which can take from a couple of days to several weeks to write. The only review that I wrote in a matter of hours is the first one, and, needless to say, it is the worst. The most time and effort-consuming review I have written so far is that of Miquel de Palol’s novel The Troiacord. I spent more than a year teaching myself Catalan, and then six months reading the novel. It took me another month to prepare the summary, for which I used up three notepads. The writing of the review itself took more than three weeks. In my opinion, this review is the best thing I have done so far.
A few observations on reading great books in the original. It is very difficult to achieve for a complete beginner, but it is possible for any of monolingual readers out there to learn at least one language for reading their favourite books without the distorting mediation of translation. I would suggest the following sequence:
- Enrolling on a language course. If you haven’t studied any foreign language before, instruction is absolutely essential. Parallel to that, you can later start studying additionally on your own.
- Going on your own through at least two different elementary to intermediate level textbooks of the chosen language with audio CDs, exercises and the answer key. Looking at the same concepts from different perspectives will help you retain the necessary information.
- Reading adapted texts with glossaries and grammar explanations. No matter how badly you want to dive into the stuff you so enjoyed reading in translation, it ain’t happening soon.
- Reading short authentic texts, translating all the words you don’t understand, and reading them again as many times as it requires you to internalise all the new words.
- Reading a short novel written in a simple language that you have already read in translation and enjoyed, and also diligently copying down all the new words with the respective translations. After that, reading the same novel at least three times.
- Reading more novels of moderate length.
- Finally reading the novel you have always dreamed to read in the original. Since you are a reader of my blog, I suppose it is quite bulky and challenging.
The whole enterprise might take anything from two to five years depending on how frequently and how long you study and practice. It is a lot of hard work. Don’t believe anyone who says it is easy. Most probably, they want to sell you something. I have had an opportunity to get acquainted with the so-called online polyglot community, and came to the conclusion that although there are a lot of people who can read in multiple languages different translations of The Little Prince and the Harry Potter series or some popular science articles swamped with cognates, very few can boast of the ability to read fluently sophisticated literary fiction in more than five languages. The most proficient reader of great literature in several languages that I have the honour to know is the creator of the site The Modern Novel. He is jaw-droppingly phenomenal and efficient. Every year he reads an insane number of books written in or translated into six languages and posts the insightful reviews with preternatural frequency. How many individuals in the whole world can do that? Not a lot, I guess. I will never achieve that kind of proficiency, and each time I visit this inexhaustible resource I am humbled and, at the same time, inspired to do more.
Finally, here are some stats of the blog that some might find interesting. As of now, I have 98 posts on my blog excluding this one. Those have attracted over 69,000 visitors and 136,000 views. My most popular post is the brief report on Oğuz Atay’s novel Tutunamayanlar, which has collected over 8,800 views. The most unjustly neglected post, in my opinion, is my review of Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Book of Illuminations, which cost me a lot of extra research and reading-up but has been viewed just a bit short of 250 times. I have had visitors from 168 countries and territories of the world. Based on the geographic origin, the most views have been coming, in the descending order, from the USA (over 49,000), the United Kingdom (over 10,000), and Germany (over 8,500). My shortest review is that of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Telluria – 760 words. The longest review so far is that of Antonio Moresco’s trilogy Games of Eternity – 11,281 words.
Also, if you ever wondered, let me share my personal top 10 of great untranslated novels:
- The Sorias by Alberto Laiseca
- Songs of Chaos by Antonio Moresco
- The Troiacord by Miquel de Palol
- Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu
- Remember Famagusta by Alexander Goldstein
- The Weaver of Crowns by Germán Espinosa
- Corporal by Paolo Volponi
- Finisterra by Carlos de Oliveira
- The Absolute Marshal by Pierre Jourde
- The Book of Illuminations by Gamal al-Ghitani
I have no idea how long I am going to continue this mindless pleasure. To tell the truth, as years go by, I get more and more reconciled with the idea that, above anything else, this blog is a time-consuming and energy-sapping plaything whose real purpose has always been just to boost my own ego. But I think I have had more than enough of that by now. Learning a couple more languages in addition to the nine I can read at the moment would perhaps bring a short spell of satisfaction, but wouldn’t make any considerable difference. After all, we don’t have the time to read what we would love to, even in one language. And there are so many glaring omissions in my knowledge of classics that I feel like giving up everything and retreating to a hermitage in the wilderness for several years to fill at least some of those gaps. When I stop seeing any reasons for spending any of my limited time on this blog thing, I won’t have any regrets shutting it down. Until then, I still hope to show you some of the treasures unearthed during my obsessive digging.