In Translation | The Reader's Shelf

Books in translation are gathering a crowd of readers happy to explore global literary production. These six titles include famous translators and a new translation of a beloved poem.

Books in translation are gathering a crowd of readers happy to explore global literary production. These six titles include famous translators and a new translation of a beloved poem.

Writing a work of translation is an astounding accomplishment. It is one that is rigorous and precise as well as creative and improvisational. Those who undertake it are not just transcribing a text; they are adapting it, forging it, and making it over while at the same time striving not to change it at all. So intense is the work that Jhumpa Lahiri refused to do it for her own memoir, fearing she would be pulled out of the Italian she was striving so hard to learn. So contextual is it that Emily­ ­Wilson provided a fresh look at a centuries’ old poem. Kate Briggs furthers the discussion in This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo. Apr. 2018. ISBN 9781910695456. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781910695463). Starting with her own efforts translating Roland Barthes, she launches outward and considers other translators and the act itself.

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa. 2012. ISBN 9781609450786. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781609458638), translated by Ann Goldstein, helped bring attention to the skill and made Goldstein almost as well known as the author. The first in the “Neapolitan Novels” series, the story traces Lila and Elena’s friendship as it evolves over decades, beginning when both are children trying to prove themselves to each other. Lila is a magnetic force, while Elena is cast—by her own admission—into Lila’s shadow. The texture and dimension of their long relationship and its treasures and toxicity drive the narrative. Ferrante buttresses the tale with vivid characterization and infuses the novel with a brimming sense of emotional complexity. Goldstein’s translation is a ­triumph of tone.

For a long time, the only way to experience the story of Odysseus in English was to read a version translated by a man. Emily Wilson has now met those men on the page and claimed a new space for Homer’s The ­Odyssey (Norton. 2017. ISBN 9780393089059. $39.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393634563). Critics praised Wilson’s translation for its approach: plainer, leaner, and more straightforward than its predecessors. It is also impressively poetic and manifestly interested in the female characters. The frankness, speed, and power of Wilson’s contribution and its insistent emphasis on women as more than obstacles, helpers, or way stations for the heroic traveler allow for an exceptional and multifaceted epic to be told anew.

In Other Words (Vintage. 2017. ISBN 9781101911464. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101875568) by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein, is a lyrical meditation on what language is and what it means to struggle with its sounds, definitions, and forms. Lahiri, whose parents are from India, has won acclaim for her novels and short stories in English and well knows the layers of attachment and of selfhood that are intertwined with language. Long desiring to immerse herself in Italian, she moves her family to Rome. Her memoir is one of multiplicity—about being a writer trying to master tools that are foreign, about learning, and about being an expat. Translated by Goldstein on the facing page, it makes the matter of language deeply resonant.

The work of French comics master ­Moebius is brought to English readers in the wildly imaginative Moebius Library: The World of Edena (Dark Horse. 2016. ISBN 9781506702162. $49.99; ebk. ISBN 9781630088064). With various translators, this sf/fantasy follows two space repairmen, Stel and Atan, and explores concepts of identity, gender, reality, dream worlds, and personal agency. The art is saturated with Crayola colors and finely executed Ligne claire style, often slipping into the psychedelically extravagant as well. Immersive and beguiling, the pages are beautifully laid out, revealing tiny details and offering sweeping perspectives that evoke the vast scope of Moebius’s world—across time, planets, and dreams. The story, written over many years, is trippy, at times loopy, and yet very much of the moment. Some of the segments are only now available in English, helping a new group of readers access the creator’s kaleidoscopic tale.

Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for ­Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin. Jan. 2018. ISBN 9780143128793. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780143128809), set in that city during the U.S. occupation and translated by Jonathan Wright. Explosions weave through the narrative, often serving as a pivot point to locate a character in time or place. These eruptions scatter body parts across the landscape, some of which a junk dealer named Hadi collects. He is bothered by their randomness and thinks that a whole body is more likely to be buried. Constructing a dizzying and surreal plot that straddles black comedy, horror, fantasy, and politics, ­Saadawi has much to say about war. Like Mary Shelley before him, he writes a novel that is far more about its whole message than the creature’s bloody, decaying, and in-need-of-replacing limbs.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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