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.
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.
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.
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.
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.