war's unwomanly face

Soviet women who fought in World War II were given a voice by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her non-fiction book WAR’S UNWOMANLY FACE. It was first published in English in 1988, by Progress Publishers in Moscow, in a translation by Keith Hammond & Lyudmilla Lezhneva. The original Russian text – published three years earlier – had, however, been heavily censored. Alexievich spent seven years patiently interviewing hundreds of women who had served on the front line or were part of the supporting infrastructure, weaving their stories into a remarkable, unvarnished oral history.

By the time Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015, the Moscow edition was out of print. The book was retranslated by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, famous for their translations of Russian classics by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and others. This new, unexpurgated version was published by Penguin in 2017 as THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: AN ORAL HISTORY OF WOMEN IN WORLD WAR II.

Important works by two other Nobel laureates also appeared in English for the first time in 1988. THE PIANO TEACHER, by the Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, was translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel (cf. #TA60 1979). It depicts a sadomasochistic relationship between a piano teacher and her student, and was the first of Jelinek’s many works to be published in English. Elfriede Jelinek has herself translated from French and English into German, mostly plays, including several Feydeau farces, Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Marlowe’s THE JEW OF MALTA, and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon.

Finally for 1988, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (cf. #TA60 1970) describes a romantic love that lasts a lifetime, reuniting the lovers in their old age. It was translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

The Unwomanly Face of War

The Piano Teacher

Love in the Time of Cholera



In Patrick Süskind’s sensual, disturbing novel PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER, set in eighteenth-century France, a young man is born with a remarkable sense of smell. He becomes a perfumer, and kills young women to preserve their intoxicating scent. The book was translated from German by John E. Woods and published in 1986.

PERFUME is one of the most successful German novels of the post-war period. It was originally published in serial form by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, then revised and reissued as a book. It has been translated into forty-five languages, was a SPIEGEL bestseller for nine years, and has sold more than 15 million copies.

Patrick Süskind lives as a recluse, but has collaborated with the director Helmut Dietl on a number of projects, including the script for Dietl’s hit film ROSSINI. The characters in this satire on the late 80s/early 90s Munich jet-set include a well-known director and producer who try to persuade a shy and reluctant author to sell the movie rights to his bestselling novel. The film of Süskind’s PERFUME was finally made by Tom Tykwer and released more than twenty years after the book was published.

The translator, John E. Woods, was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for PERFUME in 1987 – his second win, after EVENING EDGED IN GOLD by Arno Schmidt in 1981. Woods has also translated all the major novels of Thomas Mann, a feat comparable to retranslating Proust. In 1996, he won the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, for not one book but two – Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and Schmidt’s NOBODADDY’S CHILDREN. He has also been awarded the prestigious Goethe Medal.




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.





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.



In 1963 Bruno Schulz’s vivid, hypnotic short stories finally reached an English audience in a translation by Celina Wieniewska. The UK edition retained the Polish title: CINNAMON SHOPS, after the bakeries characteristic of the author’s Galician hometown of Drohobycz. In the United States the collection was renamed THE STREET OF CROCODILES, the title by which it is best known today. Schulz was also an accomplished visual artist, and his drawings were incorporated into the covers of both English first editions.

Schulz, a Jew, was shot in the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942. He thought and wrote in Polish; he didn’t know Yiddish but was fluent in German. He is credited as having translated Kafka’s THE TRIAL, but the attribution is controversial: he probably lent his name to a translation by his fiancée, Józefina Szelińska, on which he may also have collaborated. Schulz defamiliarised language with startling, evocative results. His two surviving works are written in a lush, lyrical style and have inspired many subsequent writers and artists.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH was also first published in English in 1963, in a translation from the Russian by Ralph Parker. This revelatory depiction of life in a Soviet gulag, based on the author’s experience, became an instant classic and has been retranslated several times. The unexpurgated 1991 translation by Harry T. Willetts is the only one to have been authorized by Solzhenitsyn himself.

A spot on this #TA60 list must also go to the much-loved Moomin children’s stories by Tove Jansson. Jansson was part of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and wrote her books in Swedish. Many were translated into English prior to the start of our list in 1958, but 1963 saw the publication of TALES FROM MOOMINVALLEY, translated by Thomas Warburton.



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


Next in the series of 60 classic first translations celebrating 60 years of the Translators Association of The Society of Authors is IF THIS IS A MAN, Primo Levi’s devastating account of his time in Auschwitz, first published in English in 1959 in a translation from the Italian by Stuart Woolf.

Levi supervised the first translations into English and French, and was especially scrupulous when overseeing the German. In a later book, THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED, he wrote: “I did not trust my German publisher. I wrote him an almost insolent letter: I warned him not to remove or change a single word in the text.” This must have made life very difficult indeed for his translator, Heinz Reidt, tasked with changing all the words in the text from Italian ones into German…

In 1959 English readers also met LITTLE OLD MRS PEPPERPOT for the first time. The much-loved children’s books by Alf Prøysen were translated by Marianne Helweg, who found a catchier name for the character known in Norwegian as ‘The Teaspoon Lady’. The illustrator was Björn Berg.

Other classics first translated into English in 1959 include HOMO FABER by Max Frisch, translated from the German by Michael Bullock, and THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA by Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Lovett Edwards.