Category Archives: The Great Untranslated

The Great Untranslated: Rondo by Gösta Oswald

rondoGösta Oswald was a prodigy of the Swedish modernist scene, publishing his first collection of poetry at the age of nineteen. His tragic death in a drowning accident in 1950, when he was just twenty-four years old, cut short a formidable literary career in the making. By that time the young man had published only one more text, the novel En privatmans vedermödor (A Private Man’s Hardships). The rest of his literary works  came out posthumously, the most notable of those being his highly experimental novel Rondo that was still unfinished at the time of Oswald’s death. This relatively short poetic work primarily inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain Triptych and Dante’s The Divine Comedy is regarded as one of the most original and challenging texts in Swedish literature.

In this intriguing piece, unfortunately available only in Swedish, writer and critic Carl Johan Malmberg mentions Rondo in the same breath as In Search of Lost Time, Finnegans Wake and Bottom’s Dream. This does not mean, of course, that the novel by the precocious Swedish talent is on a par with these heavy literary monuments, but rather that Oswald’s ambition of creating a work that would be marked by bold stylistic experiments with language as well as over-saturated with cultural and literary references placed him within the tradition of ground-breaking encyclopedic narratives represented by Proust, Joyce, and Arno Schmidt.


Hieronymus Bosch. The Pedlar, closed state of The Hay Wain.

Rondo lacks conventional plot. It is a poetic tapestry woven from a variety of motifs hearkening back both to the old masters such as Plutarch, Dante, Rabelais and the more recent ones: Dostoevsky, Hölderin, T. S. Eliot, Joyce. Structurally, Oswald’s text follows the arrangement of the scenes in The Hay Wain, as each part of the novel corresponds to a certain panel in the triptych. The most prominent theme of the novel is that of a metaphysical search. The main character Aran, named so after the group of Irish islands, is a wanderer just like the dog-deterring pedlar depicted on the closed shutters of Bosch’s triptych. The hostile environment in which the protagonist of Rondo wends his way, looking for a way out, is represented by the City, an allegorical dimension of suffering, sin, and death. The doomed City is counterpoised by Inis, a Beatrice-like character, who is the personification of love and beauty. The novel explores the beautiful and the grotesque in equal measure. It is written in gorgeous musical prose verging on baroque poetry and is replete with striking dream-like imagery.

Itself a product of intense artistic inspiration, Rondo, in its turn, has inspired Swedish composer Bo Nilsson to compose an orchestral tetralogy called Brief an Gösta Oswald (Letter to Gösta Oswald). The tetralogy consists of an overture and three cantatas based on the text of the novel. If you would like to learn more about this creative synthesis, there is an illuminating article by Anders Nilsson available online.

Gösta Oswald’s unfinished novel has not been translated into any language yet, which is understandable, given the fact that the author is virtually unknown outside Sweden. An important landmark of Swedish literary modernism, Rondo has to find its way to a wider readership. Publishers of literature in translation, it’s your chance.

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The Great Untranslated: Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon Salissa

AlastalonIf you are the kind of person who would find fascinating a 70-page account of a character walking across the room to choose a pipe from the mantelpiece, then Volter Kilpi’s novel Alastalon Salissa (In Alastalo’s Parlour)  is up your alley. The book was published in 1933 and forever changed the landscape of Finnish literature, as the modernist techniques employed by Kilpi allowed him to demonstrate to a stunning effect the creative potential of the Finnish language. The two volumes of Kilpi’s novel amounting to 900 pages of dense experimental writing narrate just six hours from the life of well-off dwellers of an island parish who have gathered in Alastalo’s parlour of the title to negotiate the building of a barque. The paucity of action is overcompensated by detailed overlong descriptions, the disjointed interior monologues of the characters, the use of dialect and linguistic innovations. The novel has been deservedly compared to Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, although, as Kilpi’s knowledge of English was not sufficient to read Joyce’s masterpiece, it is more appropriate to talk about the artistic affinities between the two authors than about one’s direct influence on the other.

DieAlbatrosAlthough most of the novel consists of the verbalised thought processes of the participants of the meeting and the meticulous descriptions of the setting, there are also more conventional narratives appearing in the text as set pieces. One such story is about Ville from Vaasa, an accountant who runs into debt to fulfill his dream of building his own ship and sending it to Brazil to bring back a load of coffee beans. This story has been translated into German as Die Albatros.

Despite the obvious challenges of translating this modernist classic, the complete translation of Alastalon Salissa into Swedish saw light in 1997. The gargantuan task was undertaken by Thomas Warburton who had previously translated Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as of now, it is the only complete translation of Volter Kilpi’s novel into any language. As for the prospects of seeing an English translation, there is little to be optimistic about. Only a short passage from the novel has been Englished and made available in the now extinct journal Books from Finland. The first sentence of the translator’s letter to the editors says it all: “Reluctantly (I really have tried) I have been driven to conclude that Alastalon salissa is untranslatable, except perhaps by a fanatical Volter Kilpi enthusiast who is prepared to devote a lifetime to it.” (You can read the rest of it as well as the translated excerpt here.) Of course, it is an assessment of just one translator, and who knows, maybe there will appear a daredevil who will be self-confident enough to shoulder this daunting task.

In case I have sparked your interest and you would like to learn more about Volter Kilpi and his monumental novel, without further ado, I’m redirecting you to Kai Latinen’s informative article (also from the defunct Books from Finland) with the dispiriting title On Not Translating Volter Kilpi. 

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The Great Untranslated: Tutunamayanlar by Oğuz Atay


When it comes to Turkish literature, we are lamentably deprived. The gaping lacuna is what is considered by many to be the greatest 20th-century literary achievement in Turkey: Oğuz Atay’s experimental, linguistically complex novel of ideas Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). It has been quite a while since it was put up on the UNESCO site as an important literary work in need of English translation, and, just like Germán Espinosa’s masterpiece The Weaver of Crowns, it still remains unavailable for a host of the prospective readers. Granted, the author’s use of different varieties of Turkish such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish, the so-called Öztürkçe, renders the job of the translator extremely demanding, but not unfeasible. The conclusive proof of that is the Dutch translation of the novel published four years ago. At the moment it is the only translation of Atay’s book into any other language, so, I guess, we should congratulate the Dutch on having the privilege to read the cult classic.

HetLevenOtayThe plot of the novel focuses primarily on the quest of engineer Turgut Özben to find out the reason for his friend’s suicide. The investigation leads the main character to the array of different texts left by the deceased, and the further  Özben proceeds with his inquiry, the closer he approaches his own radical transformation. If it sounds like something written by Orhan Pamuk, you should not be surprised as Atay has exercised considerable influence on the Nobel Laureate. Within the context of Turkish letters, Atay was a trailblazer whose innovative techniques left a lasting impression on the next generation of writers. The manner in which the story of Özben’s search is presented took the Turkish reader at the time by surprise, which partly explains why Atay’s novel received due recognition much later, already after the writer’s untimely death at the age of 43. As one of the Dutch translators of the novel Hanneke van der Heijden writes:

The literary form of Atay’s novel was not exactly what readers were used to either: the unbridled stream of consciousness, all kinds of short texts in different genres, that cut across the story, such as a poem of 600 lines plus commentary, a chapter of 70 pages, written without a single comma or full stop – it may remind us, the readers of today, of James Joyce, of Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and other western modernist writers – writers Atay was very familiar with. But, as the critic Ahmet Oktay once remarked, the number of Turkish readers that in the beginnings of the seventies had read Ulysses, was no more than ten.

The more pity that most of us who have read Ulysses and seem to be ready for this seminal text of Turkish modernism have to live with our frustration for an unknown period of time. Maybe learning Turkish or Dutch could be a more realistic alternative to waiting for a quality English translation to materialise in the foreseeable future.

Hanneke van der Heijden has her own blog dedicated to Turkish literature. Most of it is in Dutch, but the written version of her talk on the translation of  Tutunamayanlar is available in English. It’s the best article about Atay’s novel in English you will find on the Web, and I urge you to check it out.


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The Great Untranslated: De Zondvloed (The Deluge) by Jeroen Brouwers

DezondvloedWhen you hear “the Great Dutch novel”, what is it that first comes to your mind? Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven? Willem Frederik Hermans’ The Dark Room of Damocles? Or, perhaps, Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium? but that would be the Great Flemish Novel, wouldn’t it? Anyway, there is this partially autobiographic novel by Jeroen Brouwers, whose title could be translated as The Flood or The Deluge, that has kept fascinating and repelling the Dutch language readers since it was published in 1988, and, by virtue (or, rather, vice) of being untranslated, has stayed under the radar of the English speaking public. Some of its readers do believe that this novel has all the rights to literary  greatness and that its author should be awarded the Nobel Prize for it. How come, many of you, readers of this blog, have neither heard of this novel, nor about its author? Well, try to find something in English on him, and you’ll be lucky if you dredge up at least a couple of pages worth of useful information. However, based on the few titbits I’ve been able to dig up, I assure you that The Deluge is a worthy candidate for my rubric The Great Untranslated.

The protagonist of the novel is a bibulous, mysanthropic, sexually frustrated writer who at the symbolic age of 33 flees society to live in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. The story of his life is told in flashbacks, and in general lines, it follows the biography of Brouwers himself. We learn about the main character’s childhood in Indonesia at the time of the Second World War and immediately after it. Besides the hardships experienced by his family in a Japanese internment camp, there are happy memories of the time spent in the post-war Balikpapan which is not meant to last as the boy moves to the Netherlands where he is immersed into the suffocating ambiance of regimentation and strict discipline reigning in a boarding school for boys. While at school, the boy conjures up an image of his beloved, a Beatrice of sorts, that he will be trying to encounter most of his adult life. He does meet a woman he thinks he loves; they get married and have two children.  But, eventually, the writer abandons his family that has turned out to be anything but the ideals he has cherished since childhood. Angst-ridden and disillusioned, he becomes a hermit in the woods, drowning his sorrows in gin.

There seems to be nothing striking about the plot, but that is not the main thing in this novel. The Dutch reviewers seem to concur that the imagery and the language are just jaw-dropping. There are also various mythological and classical motifs woven into the fabric of the narrative such as Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and Dante’s journey through Hell. The narrative itself is not chronological, but jumps between different time frames, and when it comes to reminiscing about things past, Brouwers appears to reach truly Proustian heights.

Returning to the initial question of this post, I cannot promise you that Jeroen Brouwers’ hefty tome is as great as it looks to be based on several secondary sources. You will have to find it out for yourselves. And in order for that to transpire, obviously, this novel should be made available in English. You know, several years ago I would have been very pessimistic on this account, but not anymore. Just recently we have seen the English translations of such perennial preterites as Adam Buenosayres and Prae. Arno Schmidt’s untranslatable Bottom’s Dream, albeit with delay, is for sure to be published by Dalkey Archive at some point, perhaps this year. All these developments give us hope to see The Deluge translated sooner than we might think. Let me know if  any information regarding this becomes available.

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The Great Untranslated: O Megas Anatolikos by Andreas Embirikos

MegasAnatolikosThis is to inaugurate a new category of this blog. It will be an idiosyncratic overview of works not translated into any language that I can read or not translated at all, but which, judging by the secondary sources,  seem to me not only tantalisingly interesting reading matter but also an important contribution to world literature.

I would like to begin with Andreas Embirikos, the famous Greek surrealist poet, and his epic novel O Megas Anatolikos (The Great Eastern). Embirikos worked on this meganovel for more than two decades, and it was published only after his death in 8 volumes. The novel has 100 chapters and clocks in at more than 2000 pages. The main characters of the work are the passengers of the ocean liner the Great Eastern travelling from Liverpool to New York in May, 1867. The action takes place within 10 days, but despite this, it is not so much Boccaccio’s Decameron this notorious book has been compared with, but rather Donatien Alphonse François’s The 120 Days of Sodom. The novel is said to contain lots of extremely explicit scenes, and this  translation of the more innocuous passages might give you the idea. Follow this link with caution: definitely not-safe-for-work type of content! One can imagine something like a voyage of the ship Anubis from Gravity’s Rainbow described in minute detail over a couple thousand pages. In the open ocean, far from the shore and unaffected by any social constraints and taboos, the passengers of the ship indulge in all possible hedonistic pursuits many of which might be mildly called perversions. Besides the Marquis de Sade, the volume is also an obvious homage to Jules Verne’s nowadays obscure A Floating City. It is  a sea adventure novel  set on board of the Great Eastern in which a woman  travelling with her husband realizes that the man she is in love with is among the passengers. Jules Verne got his inspiration by actually taking a transatlantic trip to the United States on this ship with his brother in 1867.

Great Eastern at Heart's Content, 1866

Great Eastern at Heart’s Content, 1866

The publication of the novel made quite a splash in Greece, dividing the reading public into belligerent opponents and ardent supporters of Embirikos’ magnum opus. It is worth noting that among the champions of the novel  was the Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis who admired its visionary quality. According to him, in contrast to the Marquis de Sade who used sexual subject matter to depict hell on earth, Embirikos employed the same material to create paradise. Thus the liner comes to represent some kind of sexual utopia and universal celebration of eros flying in the face of the strait-laced Victorian society.

You can find some additional information on Embirikos’ works on the website of the poet’s Greek publisher Agra. As far as I know, there isn’t a separate volume of Embirikos’ poems available in English translation yet, and in order to at least have some idea of what it is about you might have to check this anthology of Greek surrealist poetry or the mammoth A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000. There is no any information even about some plans to translate The Great Eastern into any language. All we have to content ourselves with for the time being is his poetry.

Whale Light

The initial form woman took was the braided throats of two dinosaurs.
Later, time changed and woman changed too.
She became smaller, more lithe, more in keeping with the two-masted (in some countries three-masted)
ships that float on the misfortune of making a living.
She herself floats on the scales of a cylinder-bearing dove of immense weight.
Epochs change and the woman of our epoch resembles the gap in a filament.
© Translation: 2004, Karen van Dyck
From: A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000


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