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.




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.’



Novelist and dramatist Lao She was a leading figure in 20th century Chinese literature, specialising in humorous and satirical novels and short stories. His comic masterpiece MR MA AND SON has been translated into English four times since it came out in China in 1931. The version by Jean M. James was the first to be published, by the Chinese Materials Centre in 1980. This one is no longer available, but in 2014 Penguin Modern Classics published a fresh translation by William Dolby, notable for its convincing use of English idiom.

she-dp061259-plaque-1000Born to a poor family in Beijing in 1899, Lao She – real name Shu Qingchun – travelled to London in the 1920s to lecture in Mandarin at what was then the School of Oriental Studies. A blue English Heritage plaque at 31 St James’ Gardens in Notting Hill commemorates the five years he spent living in London – he is the only Chinese person to date to be honoured in this way. While in London Lao She read widely; he was particularly impressed by Dickens and by Modernist writers such as Joyce and Conrad.

MR MA AND SON draws on his experiences of the London of this period. It depicts life in the area then known as Chinatown, which prior to its destruction in World War Two was a small community located around Limehouse docks in the east of the city. The eponymous protagonists are shopkeepers struggling to find their feet in English society. Lao She’s book details the unfriendliness, racial and class discrimination and narrow-minded patriotism the Mas encounter, providing an alternative, Chinese perspective on 1920s Sinophobia. The author’s mordant wit makes it a hilarious as well as discomfiting read.

Another Chinese classic first published in English in 1980 – but written in 1598! – is THE PEONY PAVILION by Tang Xianzu. A tragicomic romantic opera and panorama of Chinese society, it’s a masterpiece of Ming dynasty drama. Cyril Birch’s translation captures (I am told) the elegance, lyricism and subtle, earthy humour of the original, and has been used for some spectacular productions.



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.





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.


letters thailand

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.