If you’re not subscribed to Asymptote‘s newsletter or following their blog, you’re missing out. Their staff are like magical book sprites who leave little gifts of international literature in your RSS feed or email inbox. Rien où poser sa tête was one of those little gifts.
Of course, Nowhere to Lay One’s Head turned up in Asymptote thanks to Brigitte Manion’s review of the English translation. But since I have a passing familiarity with French, and really should practice a little now and then to keep it up, I opted to read the French original rather than the English or Swedish translations.
Author: Françoise Frenkel
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.94
Language scaling: N/A (I read it in French)
Summary: Frenkel’s memoirs of Vichy France, and her flight from Berlin to France to Switzerland
Recommended audience: Literally everyone
Content warning: It’s Nazi Germany; there is witnessed and described brutality throughout. (If you, like me, are easily stressed and need to know certain things from the outset: Frenkel, a Polish Jew, managed to escape Nazi clutches and find asylum in Switzerland, despite a few close brushes with the authorities. It all works out okay.)
In-depth thoughts: As a student, I had a hard time connecting with the books we read about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Fortunately I’m not a psychopath and so I can understand, on an intellectual level, why these books are important. I could then, too. I just resented them for not being better, considering the topic matter. Now that we’re apparently willing to give Nazis the benefit of the doubt, I’ve been wondering lately: what do I think students should read instead of what I read in school?
I’d argue that Rien où poser sa tête is a good candidate. Trying to convey the horror of what happened through the concentration camps can be a bit much to take in. (Not that it should be forgotten, either.) It’s so horrible as to be unreal, unfathomable. But because Frenkel handles the slow agony of daily life under the Nazi regime, with rations and visa applications and constant upheaval, it becomes easier to understand how these things were able to come to pass, and how they could easily come to pass again.
I’m still bad at staying up to date, though. Last year’s award passed me right by. But this year I’m top of things, since I’m subscribed to Asymptote’s newsletter and LitHub’s daily digests. Tokarczu’s Flights sounds like an unorthodox and interesting choice (not a novel but a collection of shorter pieces), and Asymptote even has extracts from Flights available online! I hope to get my hands on the whole thing as soon as possible.
One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote. It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!
Since I also think that short-form writing is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!
As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunionsmade me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind howNo Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.
And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).
I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.95
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.
Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era
In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)
Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.
This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?
Author: Maria Semple
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.91
Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)
Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.
Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.
Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor
In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.
The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!
The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.
It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.
The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.
Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.
I think about gender a lot, and I’m a woman interested in translation. It’s surprising, then that I haven’t really thought about the impact of gender on translation (who is translated as well as how) until a number of articles conspired to appear in front of me at the same time. (Big shout-out to The Editors Association of Earth on Facebook; I think I came across these in there.)
A culture gains things when it has access to art and literature outside its own language. An individual gains when they have access to the experiences and voices of someone completely different from themselves. If only three percent of published English literature is going to be translation (and we can quibble about what that percentage should be another time) then it seems the least we can do is ensure that a full half of that three percent is works by women.
Which is why, in 2018, I’m going into my pet translation projects with a renewed sense of purpose. Swedish is already underrepresented in English, outside of Strindberg and “Nordic noir” (or so it seems to me); if I can bring more Swedish to the English-speaking table while at the same time bringing more women, so much the better. Translations are first and foremost labors of love; ultimately, market forces are what decide if a translation is viable publishing material. I can’t guarantee that anything I produce will be of interest to an English-speaking audience. But I can’t try to publish anything without having something to publish first.
It’s a little presumptuous of me to sit down and review Selma Lagerlöf’s legendary debut novel more than 100 years after the fact, but since I want to keep a fairly accurate public record of the books I read, here we are!
Like so many bookworms, I have a tendency to acquire books faster than I read them. I try to make a concerted effort to focus on my book backlog whenever I can; I have a long-standing goal every year to read a certain number of books that I’ve owned for over a year. I picked up Gösta Berling’s Saga in 2008 at the very earliest and probably 2010 at the latest, so this one definitely counts. Good ol’ Dover Thrift Editions!
Author: Selma Lagerlöf
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.71 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Silent film buffs; people interested in Swedish literature (who can’t read the original Swedish)
In-depth thoughts: This edition is a translation from 1894 (with a few chapters being a little later, 1918); there have since been two subsequent translations, one in the 1960s and another in 2009. I don’t know if it’s entirely the age of the translations that sometimes make this a hard slog so much as the age of the work. I don’t see why anyone who can read Swedish would prefer this edition over the original, or why anyone who prefers English to Swedish would choose this one over the later translations (except for comparison’s sake). My wallet loves Dover Thrift Editions, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this one as an introduction to Lagerlöf.
Outside the language, there are other challenges: there’s a huge cast of characters and the structure is more episodic than purely narrative so chapters can feel clunky and disconnected compared to how novels are written today. (I feel like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils holds together a little better, even if it has a similar episodic structure.) Still, once you get into it, it’s still worth reading over 100 years later. Unsurprisingly for a very feminist and pro-woman, pro-women’s rights author, there are a lot of women in this large cast of characters, well developed beyond witches, damsels, and bimbos. They do some awful things, and they also do some heroic things. Of course, most of these women have a tendency to fall in love with Gösta, but then again, he’s the hero.
My personal favorite is the ostensible antagonist, Fru Samzelius. While she spends much of the book outcast from her farm and home, pitted against the cavaliers, she begins and ends the story with competence and dignity, and always does things on her own terms.
Doktor Glas, from around the same time period, has seen a modern re-imagining from the perspective of the antagonist, Reverend Gregorious. I want someone to do the same for Margarita Samzelius. She deserves her own book even more than Reverend Gregorious does.
Something like this just seems ripe for the miniseries pickings, to be honest. The episodic chapters would work just fine as standalone episodes, so the scripts would basically write themselves. Come on, Netflix!
I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).
But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!
Author: Cixin Liu
Translator: Ken Liu
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars
Language scaling: B1/B2+
Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.
Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.
In-depth thoughts:The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.
A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.
Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.
Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.
Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.
*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.
Plot summary: Horrific nightmares lead Yeong-hye to become a vegetarian. The people around her struggle to understand this decision.
Recommended audience: The relatively short length of the story, as well as the clear language of Smith’s translation, make The Vegetarian a great book for EFL students, but some of the content means it’s best suited for teenage readers and older.
Content warning: Brief scenes of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In-depth thoughts: You might recall that I wrote about The Vegetarian a few posts back; in particular, I was impressed with the story of the English translator. I was lucky enough to get a copy from a friend a couple of weeks, so I sat down to read it right away.
As far as the translation goes, I can only speak to the readability of the English prose. Unlike the hiccups I noticed in The Invoice, The Vegetarian was an effortless read, free of distracting, inconsistent attempts at localization. Admittedly, my own closeness to Swedish may have been what kept me hearing Swedish in The Invoice, but here I could put aside idle thoughts about how a particular phrase or sentence was originally expressed and enjoy the story for what it is.
And what it is is a weird little book. I definitely felt drawn to keep reading and to see how this would all play out, but I don’t know that I enjoyed it. To be more exact: I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it, but I definitely didn’t understand it. But I don’t think I needed to?
The Vegetarian, like so many have pointed out, isn’t really about Yeong-hye becoming a vegetarian. It’s not even about the protagonist at all, which probably makes the appellation of “protagonist” kind of inappropriate. Even though Yeong-hye is the thread that ties all three sections together, we spend most of our time with her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law (her sister’s husband). Each is the main character of their own section; it is their innermost thoughts and feelings we experience, not Yeong-hye’s. In that way, Yeong-hye is as confusing and impenetrable for the reader as she is for other characters. Becoming a vegetarian is only the beginning of the story for Yeong-hye, and as things escalate you have to wonder: how much of Yeong-hye’s apparent madness was in her all along? How much was the result of her family’s refusal to grant her autonomy?
The Vegetarian was adapted into a 2010 movie of the same name. It’ll be interesting to see how the story turns out on the big screen, and how Lim Woo-seong chose to end it.