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.)




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’.


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).’





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.’


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



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.