Some Amazing Books of Translation

Art, Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Prose, Psychology, Science, Translation August 16, 2013

Here is a list of translated books I am currently reading or have recently read or re-read or plan to read or have recently bought or plan to buy or have been thinking about for whatever reason. They are all excellent.

Samuel Beckett. The Unnameable. Tr. SB. 1953/1958.

Samuel Beckett. The Unnameable. 1953. Translated from the French by the author. Grove Press, 1958.

Beckett, the great self-translator. I recently finished this, the third of the trilogy whose other two books are Molloy (1951) and Malone Dies (1951). The Unnameable is not surprisingly the most difficult of them all, but glorious. A thing to note: I have the Grove Press editions for all three of these, but for The Unnameable I was able to find one with the (above pictured) Roy Kuhlman cover. I will also say that my copy is less beat-up looking than the one above and at this moment there is a smug look on my face.

Inger Christensen. alphabet. Tr. Susanna Nied. 1981/2001.

Inger Christensen. alphabet. 1981. Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied. New Directions, 2001.

Wow—is there any other way to describe this book? An (incomplete) abecedarian which also follows the Fibonacci sequence to determine the length of its sections, Christensen’s book is for me about the history of man’s violence upon the earth as well as a history of language and human experience of the world through words. It is a work of history just as much as it is a work of poetry. In its English form it is also a masterpiece of translation.

Vilém Flusser & Louis Bec. Vampyroteuthis infernalis: A Treatise. Tr. Valentine A. Pakis. 1987/2012.

Vilém Flusser & Louis Bec. Vampyroteuthis infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste. 1987. Translated from the German by Valentine A. Pakis. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

I recently posted about this book on Facebook (“This book is INSANE! I just read the first chapter and I’m all jittery. Who put me onto this? WHO?”) and, yes, whoever told me about it is owed a bottle of whatever they like to drink from me. My experience with reading philosophy consists of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World (1991) when I was in high school, whatever philosophy one can glean from novels and poems and Doctor Who, and smatterings of fairly recent what-you-would-call theory. Therefore I have no idea how to properly describe this book.

What I can say is that it begins with a description of the vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) whose evolutionary history would make it the most sophisticated invertebrate the way human beings are the most sophisticated vertebrates. The vampire squid and human beings are therefore Mit-Sein or co-beings. This is how far I’ve gotten. The rest of the treatise promises to offer a critique of the human “from the perspective of a mollusk.” This alone makes me find the book astonishing.

Recently, on a road trip/move to Denver, I had a long conversation with my friend who was driving about how certain people have what I call “a problem with nature” under which would fall also “a problem with animals.” Too complicated and somewhat distant in memory to reproduce here, the conversation did in part criticize the sort of person who would deny consciousness to animals. To then have a book which seeks to understand the human by assuming that “the stream of life will not flow in our direction but rather in [the direction of the vampire squid]” thrills me. Naturally I must read more in this vein.

The Last of the Egyptians_Gerard Mace

Gérard Macé. The Last of the Egyptians. Tr. Brian Evenson. 1989/2011.

Gérard Macé. The Last of the Egyptians. 1989. Translated from the French by Brian Evenson. Burning Deck, 2011.

The blurb for this book is by the author himself:

About Champollion I knew: that he did not go to Egypt with Napoleon, that he never saw the actual Rosetta stone, only more or less bad copies, that he suffered from gout and swollen feet like those of Oedipus, that he heard a lion’s roar in the name of Cleopatra, and that he fainted in his brother’s presence when he had discovered the secret of the hieroglyphics.

Then I learned that in the winter of 1827 he had the novels of Fenimore Cooper read out loud to him, and in particular The Last of the Mohicans. I followed him on this novelistic path through a forest that he perhaps tried to decipher while getting interested in the manners and customs “of America’s savage nations.” I followed him to the Louvre where he had just set up the Egyptian galleries when he saw there Indians of the Osage tribe among the Greek statues and felt the sadness of the tropics in the slow cadences sung by a crouched woman.

If this does not make you want to read this book, then, my dear, you are faint of heart.

The Keeper of Sheep_Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa. The Keeper of Sheep. Tr. Edwin Honig & Susan M. Brown. 1914/1997.

Fernando Pessoa. The Keeper of Sheep. 1914. Translated from the Portuguese by Edwin Honig & Susan M. Brown. Sheep Meadow Press, 1997.

Am I right in thinking this is the only complete English translation of Pessoa’s Sheep (which he wrote under his heteronym Alberto Caeiro) available in book form? I’ve read some excerpts by Richard Zenith (my favorite Pessoa translator), but haven’t been able to find all the poems from this sequence. I also remember beginning to work on a comparative analysis of Sheep translations a few months ago, using a number of various editions I found in a library. For some reason I gave that it up in favor of a comparative analysis of Mandelstam translations. Anyhow, currently I am unattached to a library that would keep these sorts of books (that is to say, the most important books of all time) and am therefore unable to say anything meaningful about Pessoa translations, except that this particular edition, for giving us every single poem in the sequence, is significant.

Jacques Roubaud. Exchanges on Light. Tr. Eleni Sikelianos. 1990/2009.

Jacques Roubaud. Exchanges on Light. 1990. Translated from the French by Eleni Sikelianos. La Presse, 2009.

La Presse does a lot of important work in bringing contemporary French poetry into the English language. Roubaud is an important part of their catalog. I will admit I haven’t yet read this, though I’ve spent time with a few brief passages: it is dazzling. Next on my list to read from cover to cover.

Saitō Tamaki. Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End. Tr. Jeffrey Angles. 1998/2013.

Saitō Tamaki. Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End. 1998. Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

OK, this is one of those books I plan to buy very soon. As soon as I buy shelves for my apartment, that is.

Hikikomori is apparently a type of social withdrawal experienced by approximately one million Japanese adolescents and young adults who recede to their rooms and never come out for months on end. When I read this description on Amazon, I thought: oh, so it’s a book about me. 

You can understand my navel-gazing fascination.

Magadh_Shrikant Verma

Shrikant Verma. Magadh. Tr. Rahul Soni. 1984/2013.

Shrikant Verma. Magadh. 1984. Translated from the Hindi by Rahul Soni. Almost Island Books, 2013.

A most important work of Indian literature, you can read excerpts here.

Speaking of Siva. Tr. A.K. Ramanujan. 1973.

Anonymous. Speaking of Siva. Translated from the Kannada by A.K. Ramanujan. Penguin Classics, 1973 (reprint edition).

There is an excellent article now up at The Caravan about A.K. Ramanujan’s incredible legacy as a poet and translator from Tamil and Kannada which immediately led to me to seek out Speaking of Siva. One of my biggest regrets these past few years, living in an MFA program, is that I read very little poetry from the subcontinent. Ramanujan was always one of my favorite poets, even in high school when I hadn’t yet cultivated anything approaching good taste in literature.

I’m very happy to have this book coming my way.

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