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.




Not many Thai novels are available for us to read in English. One such is the popular LETTERS FROM THAILAND by Botan, the pseudonym of Supa Sirisingh. It was translated by Susan Fulop Morell (later Kepner), and published in Bangkok in 1977.

LETTERS FROM THAILAND is the story of a young man, Tang Suang U, who leaves China to make his fortune in Thailand shortly after World War II. He settles in Bangkok’s Chinatown where he becomes a successful businessman, marries and raises a family. His letters home to his mother are vivid descriptions of life in the new country, including problems of cultural adaptation, clashes with his children – who grow up at home in the new culture – and loss of identity.

The book won the SEATO literary prize in 1969 and was very popular in Thailand. It also sparked controversy: some readers took issue with what they perceived as negative depictions of both ethnic Chinese and ethnic Thais. Botan herself is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant; the character of Tang Suang U is based on a composite of her father and uncle.

The translator, Susan Fulop Kepner, was criticised at the time for taking liberties with the Thai original. In a fascinating essay [read it here] she defends her ‘admittedly flawed’ translation, which was her first piece of full-length fiction, though she subsequently taught Thai language and literature at UC Berkeley and became a renowned specialist in the field. In the essay Fulop Kepner describes her process, explains some of her more radical choices, and makes clear that the author was keen to revise the book. Thai novels are generally serialised in magazines or newspapers; publication in book form gave Botan the opportunity to make improvements in collaboration with her translator.

Those interested in delving deeper into Thai literature may want to take a look at THE LIONESS IN BLOOM: MODERN THAI FICTION ABOUT WOMEN, an anthology of short stories and extracts selected, edited and translated by Fulop Kepner as part of the Voices from Asia series from University of California Press.

Here are a couple of interesting thoughts about translation and fidelity, taken from Fulop Kepner’s essay, which also references the famous ‘On Trying to Translate Japanese’ by last week’s #TA60 translator, Edward Seidensticker.

First, Fulop Kepner:

Arguments for the value and importance of ‘close’ literary translation always come down to the issue of degree. From a literary standpoint, an absolutely “literal” translation of any work of fiction would amount to gibberish. No one champions an approach this slavish. It is in the middle ground that the battles rage.

Finally, this gem from John Dryden’s 1685 ‘Preface to Sylvae’:

…[A] Translator is to make his Author appear as charming as possibly he can, provided he maintains his Character, and makes him not unlike himself. Translation is a kind of Drawing after the Life, where every one will acknowledge there is a double sort of likeness, a good one and a bad. ’Tis one thing to draw the Out-lines true, the Features like, the Proportions exact, the Colouring it self perhaps tolerable, and another thing to make all these graceful, by the posture, the shadowings, and chiefly by the Spirit which animates the whole.




Edward Seidensticker’s translation of the Japanese literary classic THE TALE OF GENJI was published in 1976. Written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court, this monumental work provides an insight into the lives of high courtiers at the peak of the Heian period. It’s often described as the first modern novel because of its narrative complexity, psychological insight and large cast of characters.

Two translations of THE TALE OF GENJI had already been published prior to 1976. However, as Suematsu Kenchu’s 1882 version was a partial one, and Arthur Waley’s celebrated six-volume translation, published between 1921 and 1933, omitted a chapter, I’m arguing for Seidensticker’s as the first complete translation so I can sneak it into the #TA60. 🙂

Waley’s version was extremely successful. It popularised the work with a Western audience and is still widely read today. However, Seidensticker’s 1976 translation is more faithful to the original while paring back some of its more florid elements. In an entertaining essay entitled ‘On Trying to Translate Japanese’, published in 1958, Seidensticker had commented:

One cannot be enthusiastic about the results thus far of literal translation from the Japanese. It has been responsible for the “by your honourable shadow” school […] [T]he pitch cannot be maintained for long. Most translators will decide, after the Oh’s and the Ah’s, after the blubbering that never seems to strike the Japanese as sentimental and therefore presumably isn’t, after pages on end in which ellipsis alternates with pleonasm, that something must be done.

THE TALE OF GENJI recounts the life of Genji – son of the Japanese emperor and a low-ranking concubine, who becomes an imperial officer – amid the romantic and political intrigue of the Heian imperial court. The original novel is written in stylistically complex, archaic 11th century court language, and is inaccessible to ordinary Japanese readers. The first translation into modern Japanese was completed by the poet Akiko Yosano in the early 20th century. It’s quite common for people in Japan to read an annotated version.



Heinrich Böll was probably the foremost writer of post-war Germany. Sometimes dubbed ‘the conscience of the nation’ – an appellation he rejected – he led a group of authors who tried to address the memory and the legacy of World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust. Their work came to be described as ‘Trümmerliteratur’, or ‘literature of the rubble’.

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM was published in English in 1975, in a translation by Leila Vennewitz. Subtitled ‘How violence develops and where it can lead’, Böll’s most famous novel is a damning account of tabloid sensationalism and its impact on innocent lives. It was written at a time when the German establishment was the focus of domestic terrorism by the Red Army Faction, and the titular character is hounded by the press over her suspected involvement with a leftist militant. The book was turned into a successful film, adapted and directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta.

Heinrich Böll was a lifelong pacifist who habitually challenged authority. He was president of the writers’ association PEN International, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (#TA60 1974), another Nobel laureate, was expelled from the Soviet Union after the publication of THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, he took refuge at Böll’s summer cottage near Cologne.

As well as writing his own novels and short stories, Heinrich Böll also collaborated with his translator wife Annemarie. Between them they are credited with more than seventy translations from the English – despite Heinrich’s admission that, although he enjoyed translation, it was ‘a hell of a job’ and ‘actually my wife did 90% of the work’. Authors whose books Annemarie and Heinrich Böll made available to German readers include Brendan Behan, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, John Synge, Flann O’Brien and Judith Kerr.



The first volume of THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO appeared in English in the spring of 1974. Published in the original Russian just a few months earlier, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book caused such a stir that the American translator, Thomas P. Whitney, a former Moscow bureau chief with the Associated Press, had to work very fast to produce the English version.

THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO is a three-volume, non-fiction, literary-historical record of the Soviet system of prisons and labour camps. While serving as an officer in the Red Army in 1944 Solzhenitsyn made derogatory remarks in letters from the front about Stalin’s handling of the war. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years’ hard labour. THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, written between 1958 and 1967, is based on his own experience and the first-hand testimonies of more than 200 fellow prisoners.

Solzhenitsyn hid different parts of the manuscript with friends around Moscow and never worked on all of it at once. It was smuggled out of the country on microfilm, but he still hoped to be able to publish it in Russia first. However, in August 1973 the KGB seized a copy after interrogating one of the typists, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, who was found hanged just days after her release. When he heard of her death, Solzhenitsyn gave Paris-based Editions du Seuil the go-ahead to publish the text in Russian. Six weeks after the first volume appeared he was charged with treason, deported from the Soviet Union and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.

The sheer quantity of detailed research and testimonies made it impossible for the Soviet authorities to discredit the book. It forced people in both the Soviet Union and the West to confront the reality of the Leninist-Stalinist prison camp system. In 2009 the book became mandatory reading in Russian schools. A 50th anniversary edition will be published as a single volume by Penguin Vintage Classics in November 2018, in the translation by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets. THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO has sold over thirty million copies in 35 languages, and has been hailed by historians as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, but feared he would not be allowed back to Russia if he travelled to Stockholm to receive it. He finally accepted the award at a ceremony in 1974, the year he was exiled.


THE STORY OF THE STONE (also known as DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER and variations of the same) is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels and generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of Chinese fiction. Written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, the tale of the rise and fall of a great family – and, by extension, the Qing dynasty – is thought to be semi-autobiographical. Running to several volumes (twice as long as WAR AND PEACE), it creates a vivid, richly detailed picture of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the age.

THE STORY OF THE STONE features a huge cast of characters. At its heart are the tangled stories of the three main protagonists: a young man called Jia Baoyu and two young women, Xue Baochai and the ill-fated Lin Daiyu. This epic novel is so famous among readers of Chinese that ‘Redology’ has become a respected branch of academic studies. Contemporary speakers and writers still sprinkle their works with its phrases.

The book is notable for having been written in the vernacular rather than in classical Chinese. The dialogue is in the Beijing Mandarin dialect that later formed the basis of modern spoken Chinese, and in the early twentieth century the text of THE STORY OF THE STONE was used both by lexicographers to establish the vocabulary of the new standardised language and by reformers promoting the written vernacular.

Cao’s epic work was edited and re-edited over time, and some of the chapters are believed to have been written, or completed, by another hand. The history of its translation into English has also been a chequered one. Numerous partial translations or excerpts were published from the early nineteenth century onwards, but David Hawkes and John Minford were the first to translate the work in its entirety. The first volume of their complete edition appeared in 1973; another four followed, in 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1986. Nicky Harman, currently the vice-chair of the Translators Association and herself a distinguished translator from Chinese, describes the Hawkes-Minford translation as ‘an inspiration: both extremely readable and awe-inspiring in its ingenuity, for example in its seemingly effortless renderings of the poems’. Another notable complete translation, by the husband-and-wife translation team of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, was published in China just a few years later under the title A DREAM OF RED MANSIONS.

Finally, brief mention must be made of the Polish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose collection A CROWN OF FEATHERS AND OTHER STORIES was also published in English in 1973. The following year it shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. Singer – famously – wrote in Yiddish; these stories were translated into English by the author, Laurie Colwin and others. In the documentary film ‘The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer’ we are told that the author dreamed of having a harem of women – specifically, he said, ‘a harem of translators’, which he felt ‘would be heaven on earth’. Hmm…


The Polish author Bolesław Prus has been likened to both Chekhov and Tolstoy. Born Aleksander Głowacki (Prus was a pen name), at the age of 15 he joined the 1863 Polish Uprising against Imperial Russia, in which he was badly injured. Later he became an influential newspaper columnist with a particular interest in science and technology, and published many keenly observed, often humorous short stories. He also wrote four novels on the ‘great questions of our age’, of which THE DOLL was the second. Czesław Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate, held it to be the greatest Polish novel and an outstanding example of nineteenth-century realistic prose.

Set in 1878, THE DOLL paints a panoramic picture of late nineteenth-century Warsaw society, its tensions, politics, class divisions and attempts at social reform. It tells of an energetic young entrepreneur, Wokulski, who becomes infatuated with Izabela, the daughter of a bankrupt aristocrat. The title refers both to an incident with a stolen toy and also, by implication, to Izabela herself. THE DOLL has been translated into 21 languages and filmed several times. This link provides a wealth of further reading about the book. Although a classic in Poland, it was almost a century before it was published in English in 1972, in a translation by David Welsh.

1972 was a great year all round for literature in English translation. FAMILY TIES, a collection of short stories by the grande dame of Brazilian literature, Clarice Lispector, first appeared in a translation from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. (You’ll hear more about Lispector and Pontiero in #TA60 1992!) Other first translations into English that year include MY MICHAEL by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (more on this author-translator team in #TA60 2002), and Halldór Laxness’ magnum opus UNDER THE GLACIER, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson (cf. THE FISH CAN SING, #TA60 1966).