I usually like to take my time and savor each and every piece in Asymptote before I link to my favorites here, but between NaNoWriMo and work that is simply not going to happen. I made time for cursory reading, at least, and my work did not go unrewarded!
I love Antoinette Fawcett’s essay on Translating Bird Cottage. I don’t have the luxury of spending days, weeks, months to find the right word, to research women’s undergarments in the early 20th century, to do field studies—but I understand the drive to do so. There is always the attendant obsession with finding just the right word, but there is also (if you are translating a piece you love, for the sheer love of it and in the hope that you can bring a thing you love to people who wouldn’t experience it otherwise) the desire to connect with the writer, to walk in their footsteps, to live in the story, to be their companion (or maybe be them). It’s the same reason I had to visit Walden Pond last year, and the reason I carried America Day by Day with me while I was in New York in 2016.
I try to make a point of reading Swedish magazines and journals when I can. Sometimes I only have the brain power to focus on something short and article-length, and it’s good to mix up my literary fiction reading with popular non-fiction.
One of the unintended benefits of this project is that I’ve collected numerous tips on Swedish authors to read. Historiskan always profiles an author or two in every issue, and Populär Historia put out a special issue earlier this year, dedicated to “pioneering women,” that was chock full of writers (or women who did exciting things and also happened to write about it). I have a list in my phone of all the names that have turned up so far in my reading, and if I find myself at the library without another book to get, I see if I can find what’s there.
Language scaling: N/A (read in Swedish; available in English as Men and Other Misfortunes in a collection entitled Stockholm Stories, translated by Betty Cain and Ulla Sweedler)
Summary: The daily struggles of four working-class women who share an apartment in Stockholm at the turn of the last century.
Recommended audience: People who liked the concept of Lena Dunham’s Girls but found the actual execution unappealing
In-depth thoughts: I didn’t remember much about Wägner when I checked this book out from the library, except that she was a suffragette and her name was on my list. But I did remember this photograph of her:
At the turn of the last century, there was something of a mass exodus of young women from the Swedish countryside into larger cities, leading to a social phenomenon of young women who could (more or less) support themselves and therefore weren’t as desperate to marry as they would have been in previous generations. Norrtullsligan is a quick survey of daily life of four of those women (the “league” referred to in the title). The day’s media addressed this civilization-ending phenomenon with the same breathless pearl-clutching that today’s media uses with Millenials, making Norrtullsligan something like the Swedish 1900s version of Girls. Except better.
The league (Baby, Eva, Emmy, and the narrator, Elisabeth) takes on headier issues of suffrage and worker’s rights while also dodging everyday headaches like insufferable relatives, sexual harassment from bosses, and heartache. Nonetheless, Norrtullsligan avoids being didactic and moralizing. The social commentary springs organically from the women’s lives and situations, rather than dictating plot points. Wägner’s prose is also a delight: 100 years old and somehow still fresh and contemporary in tone. Elisabeth is the best kind of narrator, wry and witty and ironic but with plenty of compassion. It’s a short book that reads quickly, yet still manages to address a wide range of larger issues. It’s like an explicitly feminist and infinitely more cheerful Doktor Glas.
The English translation is available on Google Books if you’d like a preview. I’m not entirely sold on it myself, though I appreciate the work that Cain and Sweedler did in bringing Norrtullsligan to the wider English-speaking world: Stockholm Stories is available via Xlibris, a self-publishing company, meaning that they probably invested a great deal of their own money into making it available. Something about the English translation, however, falls a little flat for me. Swedish speakers, even if non-native, would do better to just read the original.
Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!
Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars
Language scaling: C1
Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore
Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.
Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature
In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French). But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.
My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.
The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.
For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places; among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:
A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.
But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.
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.