Georges Perec’s remarkable, complex masterpiece LIFE A USER’S MANUAL was published in David Bellos’ translation from the French in 1987. The lives of the inhabitants of a Paris apartment block are pieced together like a jigsaw – one of the novel’s key motifs – in this intricate yet playful logistical puzzle.

Perec belonged to the OuLiPo group of writers and mathematicians, who applied algorithms and formal constraints to their work. The content of LIFE A USER’S MANUAL was partly generated by forty-two lists in the form of bi-squares (similar to sudoku). These determine which elements have to appear in each chapter. Translator David Bellos described it as ‘a universal novel that just happened to be written in French’, and ‘the most exhilarating hard work I have ever done’.

David Bellos is also the preferred English translator of the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. As explained in #TA60 1971, Bellos – like Derek Coltman, the translator of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY – worked from the French versions of Kadare’s novels, which the author perfected with translator Isuf Vrioni.

However, CHRONICLE IN STONE, first published in English in 1987, was translated directly from the Albanian. The translator, Arshi Pipa, was an Albanian intellectual who lived in the US. He spent ten years in prison under the Hoxha regime for reciting a verse from Goethe’s FAUST, and fled the country upon his release in 1956. Pipa objected strongly to the way his translation of CHRONICLE IN STONE was edited by the British publisher, Serpent’s Tail, and to the cutting of his long introduction; he eventually demanded that his name be removed from the book. Pipa subsequently published an essay in which he argued that Kadare’s depiction of sexual deviance in Gjirokastër – the hometown of both the author and the dictator Enver Hoxha – was a way of casting aspersions on the leader’s sexuality. It was known that Hoxha had had homosexual encounters in his youth, but to say so openly could, at the time, have got Kadare killed. Kadare was horrified, and a long-drawn-out argument with Pipa ensued, which became known as the ‘Pipi-Kaka affair’.

A revised version of the novel was issued by Canongate in 2007. Arshi Pipa’s translator credit was restored, while David Bellos edited the translation to correspond to Kadare’s definitive French version.

Life A User’s Manual

Chronicle in Stone



The Chilean writer Isabel Allende took the literary world by storm with her first novel, translated into English from the Spanish by Magda Bogin and published in 1985 as THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS. The lush, magical-realist family saga, which spans three generations of the Trueba family and a century of turbulence in an unnamed Latin American country, has been translated into more than 37 languages, and Allende is one of the most widely-read Spanish-language authors in the world.

Born in Peru in 1942, Allende lived in Chile from the age of three, but fled to Venezuela shortly after the 1973 military coup. She later said that without this caesura she would not have become a writer. She started out as a journalist and TV personality, and also translated English romantic fiction, notably Barbara Cartland. That job didn’t last long: she was fired for altering Cartland’s dialogue and endings to make her heroines appear intelligent and independent. Allende’s own novels feature memorable female characters, and she was one of the first female Latin American writers to rival the international success of the men of the Latin American Boom. She discusses various aspects of her writing here.

Another very popular novel first published in English in 1985 was Marguerite Duras’ THE LOVER, translated from the French by Barbara Bray. It tells of a passionate, clandestine, transgressive affair between a 15-year-old French girl and her older Chinese-Vietnamese lover, based on Duras’ own experience as a young girl in colonial Indochina. She later wrote a second version entitled THE NORTH CHINA LOVER (translated into English by Leigh Hafrey). A hybrid of novel and screenplay, it started out as notes for a film script, but Duras used it to ‘reclaim’ the story after quarrelling with the director of the 1992 film, Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Duras was good friends with her translator, Barbara Bray, who lived in Paris and was, for almost thirty years, the lover, translator, and collaborator of Samuel Beckett. Bray’s twin sister, Olive Classe, also translated from the French, and is the editor of the ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF LITERARY TRANSLATION INTO ENGLISH.

The House of the Spirits

The Lover



The first novel by Albania’s great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, appeared in English in 1971 in a relay translation. The English translator of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY, Derek Coltman, based his work on the French of Isuf Vrioni. An Italian general and a priest are sent to Albania to find and return the bones of their country’s war dead for burial. Written under Enver Hoxha’s repressive Communist dictatorship, Kadare’s novel raises questions about the futility of war and gestures of national pride.

Kadare is acclaimed as one of the foremost European writers of the twentieth century, and is one of the few internationally known writers in Albanian. He was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. The format of the prize at the time allowed non-anglophone authors to nominate one of their English translators to receive a separate award. Kadare nominated David Bellos, who has translated seven of his other novels – also as retranslations from the French.

According to Bellos, Kadare and Isuf Vrioni worked together so closely on the French versions of his books that the author actually preferred them to be translated from French rather than Albanian. Vrioni grew up and studied in Paris as the son of the Albanian ambassador. After WWII he was persecuted by Albania’s Communist regime and imprisoned for more than a decade. He started translating works into French during his long imprisonment to keep his memory of civilisation alive. Later, after the fall of Communism, he worked in human rights before being appointed his country’s representative to UNESCO. He also wrote a memoir, MONDES EFFACÉS: SOUVENIRS D’UN EUROPÉEN; you can read an extract in English here.



SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH was selected by the Arab Literary Academy as the most important Arab novel of the 20th century, and is frequently cited as one of the most important post-colonial works in any language. Eminently readable for its beautiful prose and narrative intensity, the metaphorical exploration of the relationship between colonial powers and their victims and the politics of desire between black men and white women invites comparison with Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS and the work of Frantz Fanon.

The Sudanese author, Tayeb Salih, also worked as a journalist and broadcaster. He was fluent in both English and Arabic, and wrote SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH in Arabic. Published in Beirut in 1966 to immediate acclaim, it appeared in English in 1969 in a translation by Denys Johnson-Davies, whom Edward Said described as ‘the leading Arabic-English translator of our time’. Over the course of his 70-year career, the indomitable Johnson-Davies championed many great contemporary Arab authors, introducing them to anglophone publishers and readers for the first time. You can read more about his life and work here and in his memoir, MEMORIES IN TRANSLATION.

The unnamed narrator of SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH returns to his home village in Sudan after seven years of study in England. He is intrigued by a new villager, the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, who speaks good English. Gradually Sa’eed relates the story of his murky past, including his calamitous and sometimes deadly relationships with women. The book was banned in Sudan for several years from 1989 because of its graphic sexual imagery.

Another great gift to the English-speaking world in 1969 was the first of the Asterix comics, ASTERIX THE GAUL, superbly translated from the French by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The ASTERIX series, created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, has had phenomenal international success, thanks in no small part to the ingenuity of its translators. The albums are available in more than 100 languages and dialects, including Sinhalese, Esperanto and Swabian. Most volumes have been translated into Latin and Ancient Greek, with accompanying guides for language teachers.

Bell and Hockridge are widely acclaimed for their skill in rendering the puns and wordplay of the original French into English, often finding solutions that are even funnier than the original, as with the renaming of the characters. The little dog Idéfix (idée fixe) transforms satisfyingly into Dogmatix, while the druid Panoramix is unforgettably reincarnated (at the height of hippy culture) as Getafix. Meanwhile, in Italian (tr. Marcello Marchesi, Luciana Marconcini, Alba Avesini et al.), Obelix’s famous mantra ‘These Romans are crazy’ becomes ‘Sono pazzi questi romani’ – which, presumably, was why Roman legionaries bore the standard ‘SPQR’. 😉


“рукописи не горят.” – “Manuscripts don’t burn.”

Mikhail Bulgakov’s extraordinary socio-political satire THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, in which Satan (in disguise) and his demonic cat wreak havoc among Moscow’s literary elite, was first published in book form in 1967. Bulgakov wrote the novel during the Stalinist repression of 1930s Russia and was still revising it when he died. Thanks to the persistence of his widow, Yelena, a censored version was finally published in two parts more than a quarter of a century later by the Russian journal Moskva. It was an instant success, and samizdat copies of the uncensored manuscript were circulated widely in the USSR. The full book was published in Russian by YMCA Press in Paris, and appeared soon afterwards in English translation. Mirra Ginsburg’s 1967 translation for Grove Press was based on the Moskva edition, whereas Michael Glenny, whose translation for Harvill Press/Harper and Row appeared the same year, had access to the more complete manuscript. The original novel has been re-edited and retranslated – into multiple languages – several times since then.

Mercè Rodoreda is regarded as the most influential 20th century Catalan writer. Her novel LA PLAÇA DEL DIAMANT, described by Colm Toíbín as ‘a small masterpiece’ and by Gabriel García Márquez as ‘the most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War’ was first translated into English in 1967 by Eda O’Shiel under the title THE PIGEON GIRL. It has also appeared as THE TIME OF THE DOVES (tr. David Rosenthal) and, most recently, IN DIAMOND SQUARE (tr. Peter Bush).

Another novel first published in English in 1967 and known by different names is Boris Vian’s surrealist L’ÉCUME DES JOURS, translated from the French by Stanley Chapman in 1967 as FROTH ON THE DAYDREAM. A translation by John Sturrock appeared the following year under the title MOOD INDIGO, while Brian Harper translated it for the U.S. in 2012 as FOAM OF THE DAZE. Vian’s novel has inspired three feature films, two music albums and an opera.


THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ by Carlos Fuentes was first published in English in 1964, translated from the Mexican Spanish by Sam Hileman. It follows the deathbed reflections of a former soldier of the Mexican revolution who has become a corrupt land baron and newspaper owner; the novel itself is a reflection on 20th century Mexican society and the abuse of power. Both story and style were influenced by the film CITIZEN KANE: Fuentes’ modernist prose deploys switches in narrative perspective and finds literary ways of imitating Orson Welles’ innovative cinematic techniques.

ARTEMIO CRUZ was a milestone in the celebrated Latin American Boom of the 1960s and ’70s, when the Cuban Revolution and political upheaval across the continent prompted a surge of interest in the region. Many Latin American novelists suddenly achieved worldwide popularity, including Carlos Fuentes in Mexico, Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia, Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru and Julio Cortázar in Argentina. Their huge international success was, of course, made possible because their works were championed by foreign publishers and widely translated.

The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who wrote in both English and French, is one of the best-known exponents of self-translation. His radio play CASCANDO premiered in the original French on France Culture, and was first broadcast in English on BBC Radio 3 in 1964. That year also saw the English debut of Beckett’s novel HOW IT IS, again self-translated from the French.



Jorge Luis Borges, whose surreal prose is often considered to have opened the door to magical realism, was largely unknown in the English-speaking world until 1962. The influential Argentine writer was awarded the prestigious Prix International jointly with Samuel Beckett, after which his stories, essays and poems were translated and collected in two major anthologies: LABYRINTHS and FICCIONES. LABYRINTHS was edited and translated by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, with contributions by Harriet de Onis, Andrew Kerrigan, John M. Fein, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts and L. A. Murillo.

Borges went blind at the age of 55: by the time his work found international fame he was no longer able to read. He was fluent in several languages, including English and French, and his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” was published when he was only nine. In his early years as a literary critic he would sometimes publish original works and pass them off as his translations of imaginary authors.

In LABYRINTHS, his essay “The Mirror of Enigmas” examines different translations and interpretations of I Corinthians 13:12 and their implications. Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate… Are we looking through a mirror as through a glass skylight, or staring into it at a reflection? Is what we see a glimpse of divinity, or the infinite abyss of our own souls?

Staying in the realm of the enigmatic and surreal: a close collaboration between director Alain Resnais and the author Alain Robbe-Grillet resulted in the classic French Left Bank film LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. The screenplay was later turned into a “cine-novel”, which was translated into English by Richard Howard and published in 1962.

#TA60 #namethetranslator



Oskar Matzerath, the diminutive anti-hero of Günter Grass’ THE TIN DRUM, was unleashed upon the English-speaking world in 1961. This first translation from the German was by Ralph Manheim. Weird, sweeping, brilliant, it’s frequently nominated as one of the great 20th century novels.

Manheim’s translation contributed to the book’s huge international success, but from the 1970s onwards Grass was keen to see a new English version. With the book’s 50th anniversary approaching, he invited a number of translators into different languages to work with him on the book in his home town of Gdańsk. Breon Mitchell’s acclaimed English retranslation, published in 2009, emulates Grass’ linguistic idiosyncrasies more closely.

Also in 1961: The screenplay of the experimental film HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR was translated into English by Richard Seaver. Written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais, the film explored the influence of war on both Japanese and French culture, and was a major catalyst of French Left Bank cinema.

#TA60 #namethetranslator


1960 is represented by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s THE LEOPARD, translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun. This great historical novel by the last prince of Lampedusa recounts the story of a Sicilian nobleman caught in the political and social upheaval of 19th-century Italy.

The ‘gattopardo’ of the title, translated into English as ‘leopard’, is in fact a smaller North African wildcat, the serval. Servals once ranged as far north as Lampedusa, where they were occasionally kept as exotic pets, but by the mid-19th century they were extinct in Italy. The ‘gattopardo’ is the heraldic animal on the Sicilian prince’s coat of arms.

Also in 1960, Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial reinterpretation of the gospels, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, was published in English for the first time, translated from the Greek by Peter A. Bien.

Meanwhile, in her translation of ZAZIE IN THE METRO, Barbara Wright pulled off the remarkable feat of rendering Raymond Queneau’s stylistically experimental, colloquial ‘neo-French’ into English.

#TA60 #namethetranslator


60 years of literary translation

Founded in 1958, the Translators Association of The Society of Authors (TA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary. For the next 60 weeks we will post and tweet a classic translation for each TA year, and name the translator who rewrote it so we could enjoy it in English. Follow on Twitter with the hashtag #TA60.

Ready? Here we go!

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Boris Pasternak’s epic masterpiece, was smuggled out of Russia and first published in Italian, translated by Pietro Zveteremich. In 1958 readers were able to enjoy the first English translation – from the Russian – by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

Other classic translations first published in English in 1958 include Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s THOUSAND CRANES, translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s postmodern mystery THE VOYEUR, translated from French by Richard Howard.