1984

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Milan Kundera’s novels were banned in his native country of Czechoslovakia, so for many years he was read almost exclusively in translation. His best-known work is probably THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, a tale of love, infidelity and ‘improbable fortuities’ against the backdrop of the Prague Spring. It was written after Kundera went into self-imposed exile in Paris in 1975, and first appeared in 1984 in the French translation by François Kérel. Michael Henry Heim’s English translation followed soon afterwards, but it wasn’t until the following year that it was published in the original Czech – by a Toronto-based publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers. This was run by two other émigré writers, Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová. The book was finally published, and became easily available, in the Czech Republic in 2006; until then most people only knew it from the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. This new edition, which was substantially reworked by the author, became an instant bestseller.

Kundera became a French citizen in 1981. Around this time he began to write in French. On discovering that relay translators were working from the French translations of his earlier books, he proceeded to revise them and eventually declared these his new ‘originals’.

Kundera is famously mistrustful of translators. ‘Alas,’ he has said, ‘our translators betray us… You have no idea how much time and energy I have lost correcting the translations of my books.’ He demands full editorial control, insists on close collaboration with the translator wherever possible – particularly in English and French – and has often changed his mind about whose work he does or does not approve. The vexed history of his relationship with his translators, translations, and translation is detailed in a fascinating study by Michelle Woods, TRANSLATING MILAN KUNDERA – well worth a read.

Also in 1984, Primo Levi’s haunting memoir of life as a Jew in Mussolini’s Italy, THE PERIODIC TABLE, was translated into English by Raymond Rosenthal. A collection of twenty-one autobiographical stories themed by chemical elements, the Royal Institution declared it the best science book ever written, ahead of works by Charles Darwin and James Watson. (For more Primo Levi, see #TA60 1959.)

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1983

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THE NAME OF THE ROSE was the fiction debut of the Italian author Umberto Eco. A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, it’s one of the most popular books ever written. More than fifty million copies have been sold worldwide, and it was made into a very successful film starring Sean Connery.

‘Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.’ – Eco was an eminent professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, so it’s unsurprising that his novel is multi-layered, multilingual, and full of intertextual allusions to other works and writers, notably Jorge Luis Borges and Sherlock Holmes. The central premise [*spoiler alert* – death by poisoned book] also features in Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel LA REINE MARGOT, and in the Chinese erotic classic JIN PING MEI (translated by Clement Egerton and Lao She in 1939 as THE GOLDEN LOTUS, and by David Tod Roy in 1993 as THE PLUM IN THE GOLDEN VASE).

Eco’s linguistic interests also extended to translation. His lectures on the subject are collected in EXPERIENCES IN TRANSLATION (tr. Alastair McEwen), and MOUSE OR RAT? TRANSLATION AS NEGOTIATION, for which no translator is named, so we must assume that Eco wrote these Oxford lectures in English. Eco also translated two books from the French: SYLVIE (Gérard de Nerval) and EXERCISES DE STYLE (Raymond Queneau).

We’ve already met the distinguished William Weaver, translator of THE NAME OF THE ROSE, in #TA60 1981 (with Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER). Weaver earned substantial royalties from translating Eco; they enabled him to build an extension to his farmhouse in Tuscany which he called his ‘Eco chamber’.

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How many children’s books have (for better or worse) changed the course of political history? JENNY LIVES WITH ERIC AND MARTIN, written by Susanne Bösche and illustrated by Andreas Hansen, was probably the first children’s book to feature openly gay parents. Bösche has said she wrote the book, in which a patchwork family is depicted leading a perfectly normal life, ‘because I became aware of the problems which some children face when meeting family groupings different from the ones they are familiar with’. Louis Mackay’s English translation, from the original Danish, was published in the UK in 1983.

Three years later, inaccurate newspaper reports that children were being allowed to access the book in a school library led to it being branded homosexual propaganda, condemned in Parliament, and cited in the passing of the controversial Section 28 law. (In fact, only one copy had been purchased by one school, and this was available only to teachers.) Section 28 stated that local governments and schools should ‘not intentionally promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Council libraries were unable to stock books and films with LGBT+ themes, and teachers were prohibited from talking about same-sex relationships. Section 28 remained in force for fifteen years before it was finally repealed across the UK.

A final notable entry for 1983: WOMAN AT POINT ZERO by the Egyptian author, psychiatrist and feminist activist Nawal el Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata. The novel is based on a series of encounters between el Saadawi and Firdaus, an inmate in Egypt’s largest women’s prison, while the author was researching a non-fiction work about women and neurosis. Firdaus was condemned to hang for murdering a man. El Saadawi’s retelling of her story highlights the oppression and subjugation of women in Egyptian society.

I leave you with a quote from Michael Hofmann’s review of Eco’s MOUSE OR RAT? :

‘In the English-speaking world (ha!), there is very little empathy with translators. Most readers don’t have any experience of translating, or indeed of another language at a serious level. […] The background of such ignorance and lack of experience has left an odd nimbus or whiff around translation. People don’t know how to talk about it, and so they don’t like to talk about it. Translation is perceived either in terms of clarity and faithfulness (Eco does it too), or in terms of mistakes, which is banal, because everyone makes mistakes. […] But really, there is no mystery. If you have a good time with a book, praise the author; if you have a good time with a paragraph, praise the translator (as well).’

#namethetranslator

#PicturesMeanBusiness

1982

1982

AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman and the seventh novel by the great Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa – another Nobel laureate for our list. It was translated from Spanish to English in 1982 by Helen R. Lane. (You can read an extensive interview with Helen Lane here in which she discusses various aspects of translation.)

The plot of AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER mirrors events from the author’s youth. A young radio journalist and would-be writer named Mario becomes involved with the older Julia, his beautiful aunt-by-marriage. As Vargas Llosa did, Mario has an eccentric and charismatic colleague: a prolific writer of radio soaps called Pedro Camacho. This comic ‘Boom’ novel switches back and forth between Mario’s affair with ‘Aunt Julia’ and the scripts for Camacho’s increasingly bizarre and convoluted soap operas. It was adapted for the screen as TUNE IN TOMORROW, and the setting moved from 1950s Lima to New Orleans.

1982 also saw the publication of A GREAT LOVE by Alexandra Kollontai, in a translation by her biographer, Cathy Porter. This was the first English edition to include all three stories from the original Russian collection. (The title novella was translated by Lily Lore and published separately in 1929.)

Kollontai was a remarkable character. A convinced Marxist, she was politically active from an early age, first with the Mensheviks and later as a Bolshevik. She was the only woman in the first Soviet government, although she did not always see eye to eye with Lenin, which led to her falling out of favour with the Communist Party. She was removed from influence and appointed to a series of diplomatic positions abroad. Kollontai was a feminist and an outspoken advocate of sexual liberation; she is thought to have been the inspiration for Greta Garbo’s character in the film NINOTCHKA. She was the only member of the original Bolshevik Central Committee to survive the Stalinist purges, other than Stalin himself.

1981

1981

1981 was the year Italo Calvino‘s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER, a postmodernist take on the very act of reading (and writing), first appeared in English. A nest of stories, or beginnings of stories, the Reader – addressed in the second person – is given initial fragments of a series of different tales which, for various reasons, they – you – are never in a position to finish. Heading off in search of complete editions, the Reader is drawn into a complex, playful and surreal adventure involving, among other things, a trickster translator who may be part of a plot to subvert fiction itself.

This hugely popular novel was translated from the Italian by the great and prolific William Weaver. Weaver liked to work closely with his authors. With Calvino, he reported, he would often wrangle over the right word, and Calvino would try to slip things past him in the proofs; in one translation the word ‘feedback’, which Weaver had firmly rejected, kept mysteriously reappearing. (Weaver ultimately got his way with that one as Calvino died before he could fiddle with the final proofs.)

For almost twenty years, alongside many other projects, Weaver was always translating something by Calvino. This was how he described the experience:

‘Translating Calvino is an aural exercise as well as a verbal one. It is not a process of turning this Italian noun into that English one, but rather of pursuing a cadence, a rhythm – sometimes regular, sometimes wilfully jagged – and trying to catch it, while, like a Wagner villain, it may squirm and change shape in your hands. This tantalizing, if finally rewarding task could not be performed entirely at the typewriter. Frequently, I would get up from my desk, pace my study, testing words aloud, listening to their sound, their pace, alert also to silences.’

1980

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Novelist and dramatist Lao She was a leading figure in 20th century Chinese literature, specialising in humorous and satirical novels and short stories. His comic masterpiece MR MA AND SON has been translated into English four times since it came out in China in 1931. The version by Jean M. James was the first to be published, by the Chinese Materials Centre in 1980. This one is no longer available, but in 2014 Penguin Modern Classics published a fresh translation by William Dolby, notable for its convincing use of English idiom.

she-dp061259-plaque-1000Born to a poor family in Beijing in 1899, Lao She – real name Shu Qingchun – travelled to London in the 1920s to lecture in Mandarin at what was then the School of Oriental Studies. A blue English Heritage plaque at 31 St James’ Gardens in Notting Hill commemorates the five years he spent living in London – he is the only Chinese person to date to be honoured in this way. While in London Lao She read widely; he was particularly impressed by Dickens and by Modernist writers such as Joyce and Conrad.

MR MA AND SON draws on his experiences of the London of this period. It depicts life in the area then known as Chinatown, which prior to its destruction in World War Two was a small community located around Limehouse docks in the east of the city. The eponymous protagonists are shopkeepers struggling to find their feet in English society. Lao She’s book details the unfriendliness, racial and class discrimination and narrow-minded patriotism the Mas encounter, providing an alternative, Chinese perspective on 1920s Sinophobia. The author’s mordant wit makes it a hilarious as well as discomfiting read.

Another Chinese classic first published in English in 1980 – but written in 1598! – is THE PEONY PAVILION by Tang Xianzu. A tragicomic romantic opera and panorama of Chinese society, it’s a masterpiece of Ming dynasty drama. Cyril Birch’s translation captures (I am told) the elegance, lyricism and subtle, earthy humour of the original, and has been used for some spectacular productions.

1979

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Elias Canetti’s childhood was shaped by language: it became his lifelong passion. Born in Bulgaria in 1905, his native tongue was Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, a form of medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardi Jews. When he was six the Canettis moved to Manchester, where the young Elias learned English. Two years later his father died suddenly and his mother took her sons back to the continent, where they lived first in Vienna, then in Zurich and Frankfurt. In his memoir THE TONGUE SET FREE: REMEMBRANCE OF A EUROPEAN CHILDHOOD, Canetti describes his imperious mother forcing him to learn perfect German, aged eight, in just three months:

She read a German sentence to me and had me repeat it. Disliking my accent, she made me repeat the sentence several times, until it struck her as tolerable. But this didn’t occur often, for she derided me for my accent, and since I couldn’t stand her derision for anything in the world, I made an effort and soon pronounced the sentence correctly. Only then did she tell me what the sentence meant in English. But this she never repeated, I had to note it instantly and for all time. […] I don’t know how many sentences she expected to drill me in the first time; let us conservatively say a few, I fear it was many. She let me go, saying: ‘Repeat it all to yourself. You must not forget a single sentence. Not a single one. Tomorrow, we shall continue.’ She kept the book, and I was left to myself, perplexed.

THE TONGUE SET FREE is the first book of Canetti’s three-volume autobiography. It was translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel and published in English in 1979, followed in 1982 by THE TORCH IN MY EAR, and in 1986 by THE PLAY OF THE EYES, this last translated by Ralph Manheim. Together they constitute a remarkable memoir, vividly and beautifully written, engaging in its candour and directness. The later books paint a lively picture of 1920s and ’30s literary Vienna, city of intellectuals and coffee houses, under the lengthening shadow of fascism. Canetti, who gained a degree in chemistry, escaped Vienna in 1938 for London, where he lived for many years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 for his literary oeuvre spanning non-fiction, essays, plays, and one novel.

Canetti’s translator, Joachim Neugroschel, was also multilingual. Born in Vienna, the son of a Galician Yiddish poet, his parents fled the Nazis when he was a baby and Neugroschel grew up in New York City. He was an editor and publisher, and translated more than 200 books from French, German, Italian, Russian, and Yiddish, which he taught himself as an adult. Here he is in an entertaining interview, which includes the following exchange:

Interviewer: What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of METAMORPHOSIS?

Neugroschel: He would find it excellent. I’ve captured the flavour and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.

🙂

 

1978

1978

Yugoslav author Danilo Kiš sparked a literary firestorm in his home country with his short story collection A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH. It was translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Duška Mikić-Mitchell and published in English two years later – 1978 – garnering praise from Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky. The author and critic Adam Thirlwell rates Kiš as ‘one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century’.

The stories in A TOMB FOR BORIS DAVIDOVICH are set primarily in Russia and Eastern Europe during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s. Ostensibly based on real events, Kiš blends fact and fiction to portray the lives of seven misguided revolutionaries who all fall victim to the totalitarian ideologies they espouse.

Kiš’ techniques were often experimental; he deliberately references other writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Bruno Schulz and James Joyce, in a manner that was unfamiliar to his contemporaries. When BORIS DAVIDOVICH was published, certain members of the Yugoslav literary establishment accused him of plagiarism. This quickly escalated into a major literary scandal that ended up in court. Kiš emerged victorious, but left Belgrade for Paris shortly afterwards.

The child of a Serbian mother and a Hungarian Jewish father, Danilo Kiš was also a translator. He translated numerous French, Hungarian and Russian poets into Serbo-Croatian, including Sándor Petöfi, Marina Tsvetaeva, Corneille, Baudelaire and Verlaine. One of his last translations was Raymond Queneau’s EXERCISES IN STYLE.

Turning to another famous French book, A LOVER’S DISCOURSE: FRAGMENTS by the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes was also made available to us in English in 1978, quickly becoming a staple of every student bookshelf. Like many other important works of popular culture (including some mentioned in #TA60 1958 and 1962), Barthes’ structuralist analysis of the lexicon of relationships, love and desire was translated from the French by the prolific and multi-award-winning American translator Richard Howard.