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
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
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.
Asked to name any novel in translation, how many readers would immediately think of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE? First published in Spanish in 1967 at the height of the Latin American boom, this seminal work by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez was instantly, and phenomenally, successful. A classic of the genre that became known as ‘magical realism’, it’s sold more than 45 million copies worldwide and been translated into 44 languages, making it the best-selling and most-translated Spanish-language book in modern history, after DON QUIXOTE. In a survey of international writers in 2009, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE topped the poll of novels that had shaped world literature over the preceding 25 years. García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his oeuvre in 1982.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was translated from the Spanish by the great Gregory Rabassa and published in English in 1970. The author famously praised Rabassa’s translation as ‘better than the original’, calling him ‘the best Latin American writer in the English language’. On the advice of Julio Cortázar, García Márquez waited three years for Rabassa to be free to translate his novel. He later said that both of his eminent translators, Rabassa and Edith Grossman, exemplified what he liked best about translation in that they placed intuitiveness above intellectualism. Rabassa himself commented: ‘When I talk about it, I say the English is hiding behind his Spanish. That’s what a good translation is: you have to think if García Márquez had been born speaking English, that’s how a translation should sound.’
Another bestselling translated book that year was PAPILLON, Henri Charrière’s ostensibly autobiographical account of his incarceration in and subsequent escape from the penal colony of French Guiana. It has been described as ‘the greatest adventure story of all time’ and was later made into a major film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Two English translations from the original French were published in 1970: Patrick O’Brian’s appeared in the UK, while the US edition was translated by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels.
Finally, two other notable works that first became available to us in English in 1970: THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN by the Japanese Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata was translated by Edward Seidensticker; and BABI YAR: A DOCUMENT IN THE FORM OF A NOVEL. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s shocking account bears witness to the massacre of more than 33,700 Jewish civilians over two days in the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine in 1941. Kuznetsov, who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, wove together his own and other eye-witness accounts to write this important testimony to one of the largest single mass killings of the Holocaust. It was initially published in a Russian journal in 1966, heavily censored and edited. Three years later Kuznetsov defected from the USSR to the UK, bringing with him the unexpurgated version he described as ‘the authentic text’. This was published in 1970 under the pseudonym ‘A. Anatoli’, in a translation from the Russian by David Lloyd.
“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.
For almost 300 years Norway and Denmark were united kingdoms, and Danish was the sole official language. When the two countries separated in 1814 a linguistic struggle ensued in Norway with different versions of written and spoken Norwegian competing for official recognition. The heavily Danish-influenced Norwegian of the 19th century urban and educated classes evolved into what became known and sanctioned as Bokmål, or ‘book language’, while Nynorsk, or ‘new Norwegian’, predominated in the rural west. Nynorsk is based on the ‘people’s language’ (Folkespråk) proposed by the 19th century linguist Ivar Aasen, assembled using Norwegian dialects that had retained their regional character. The Norwegian language conflict is still a politically contentious issue today; variant spellings are allowed, people are encouraged to speak their local dialect, and there is no officially sanctioned spoken language.
The great Norwegian author Tarje Vesaas wrote in Nynorsk, contributing to its acceptance as a medium of world-class literature. Vesaas’ works are characterised by their rural settings, spare, evocative prose, and the sensitive depiction of characters’ psychological trauma. His masterpiece THE ICE PALACE, which takes its name from the caves of a frozen waterfall, tells of an intense friendship between two young girls, one of whom carries a dreadful secret. Doris Lessing described it as ‘unique… unforgettable… extraordinary’. THE ICE PALACE was translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in 1966.
Another Nordic novel first published in English in 1966 is THE FISH CAN SING by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. It was translated by Magnus Magnusson. Best known in the UK as the presenter of the long-running television quiz show Mastermind, Magnusson was also a journalist and author, and a prolific translator of Icelandic and Old Norse literature, including other works by Halldór Laxness and several classic Norse sagas.
Julio Cortázar’s ground-breaking novel HOPSCOTCH can be read in different ways. It is divided into 155 chapters and employs a variety of different perspectives and non-linear narrative techniques. The author invited his readers to read the episodes consecutively, or to ‘hopscotch’ through them according to his ‘table of instructions’, which shows the events in a different light. Alternatively, readers may choose their own paths through the book, playing on the idea of the reader as the author’s ‘co-conspirator’. Like Carlos Fuentes (cf. #TA60 1964), the Argentine novelist was part of the huge international success of modernist writers from his region in the 1960s and ‘70s known as the Latin American Boom. HOPSCOTCH is often regarded as the first ‘Boom’ novel. It first became accessible to English readers in 1966 in a translation by the great Gregory Rabassa.
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.