1987

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Georges Perec’s remarkable, complex masterpiece LIFE A USER’S MANUAL was published in David Bellos’ translation from the French in 1987. The lives of the inhabitants of a Paris apartment block are pieced together like a jigsaw – one of the novel’s key motifs – in this intricate yet playful logistical puzzle.

Perec belonged to the OuLiPo group of writers and mathematicians, who applied algorithms and formal constraints to their work. The content of LIFE A USER’S MANUAL was partly generated by forty-two lists in the form of bi-squares (similar to sudoku). These determine which elements have to appear in each chapter. Translator David Bellos described it as ‘a universal novel that just happened to be written in French’, and ‘the most exhilarating hard work I have ever done’.

David Bellos is also the preferred English translator of the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. As explained in #TA60 1971, Bellos – like Derek Coltman, the translator of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY – worked from the French versions of Kadare’s novels, which the author perfected with translator Isuf Vrioni.

However, CHRONICLE IN STONE, first published in English in 1987, was translated directly from the Albanian. The translator, Arshi Pipa, was an Albanian intellectual who lived in the US. He spent ten years in prison under the Hoxha regime for reciting a verse from Goethe’s FAUST, and fled the country upon his release in 1956. Pipa objected strongly to the way his translation of CHRONICLE IN STONE was edited by the British publisher, Serpent’s Tail, and to the cutting of his long introduction; he eventually demanded that his name be removed from the book. Pipa subsequently published an essay in which he argued that Kadare’s depiction of sexual deviance in Gjirokastër – the hometown of both the author and the dictator Enver Hoxha – was a way of casting aspersions on the leader’s sexuality. It was known that Hoxha had had homosexual encounters in his youth, but to say so openly could, at the time, have got Kadare killed. Kadare was horrified, and a long-drawn-out argument with Pipa ensued, which became known as the ‘Pipi-Kaka affair’.

A revised version of the novel was issued by Canongate in 2007. Arshi Pipa’s translator credit was restored, while David Bellos edited the translation to correspond to Kadare’s definitive French version.

Life A User’s Manual
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/102/1028585/life/9780099449256.html

Chronicle in Stone
https://canongate.co.uk/books/483-chronicle-in-stone/

1971

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The first novel by Albania’s great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, appeared in English in 1971 in a relay translation. The English translator of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY, Derek Coltman, based his work on the French of Isuf Vrioni. An Italian general and a priest are sent to Albania to find and return the bones of their country’s war dead for burial. Written under Enver Hoxha’s repressive Communist dictatorship, Kadare’s novel raises questions about the futility of war and gestures of national pride.

Kadare is acclaimed as one of the foremost European writers of the twentieth century, and is one of the few internationally known writers in Albanian. He was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. The format of the prize at the time allowed non-anglophone authors to nominate one of their English translators to receive a separate award. Kadare nominated David Bellos, who has translated seven of his other novels – also as retranslations from the French.

According to Bellos, Kadare and Isuf Vrioni worked together so closely on the French versions of his books that the author actually preferred them to be translated from French rather than Albanian. Vrioni grew up and studied in Paris as the son of the Albanian ambassador. After WWII he was persecuted by Albania’s Communist regime and imprisoned for more than a decade. He started translating works into French during his long imprisonment to keep his memory of civilisation alive. Later, after the fall of Communism, he worked in human rights before being appointed his country’s representative to UNESCO. He also wrote a memoir, MONDES EFFACÉS: SOUVENIRS D’UN EUROPÉEN; you can read an extract in English here.