Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play for no other reason than I read it in high school and liked it better than Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet. It’s also the only Shakespeare play to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so that’s something.
When I learned that Dramaten was putting on a production of Hamlet, I conferred with friends, found what were maybe the last four seats (all together) for the season, and booked our nosebleed cheap seat tickets for March 3.
Because I’m pretty familiar with Hamlet, I thought a Swedish version would be a challenging test of my language skills and, in terms of translation, provide some food for thought. I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I was smarter than I realized to pick a play I already knew well, because my own background knowledge of the story was sometimes the only thing that helped me follow just what was going on despite the very modern language. (Though, sambo mentioned later that he also had problems following what people were saying, so part of it was certainly related to theatrical, dramatic elocution rather than to my poor Swedish. Part of it.)
The translation is a new one by Ulf Peter Wallberg, in the collectionDet blodiga parlementet. I might take a break from everything I’m reading now to dip into this and see if my reading comprehension fares any better than my listening.
This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.
I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!
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.