Something Splendid: Books in Translation

Woman WritingOnly 3% of books published in the United States are translated from other languages, according to the introduction to The Door by Magda Szabo, which seemed a tiny number, especially when you consider a country such as Finland, where I spend part of every year, where many if not most of the books on the shelves are translations. Would give one a more sophisticated and international view, don’t you think? I couldn’t find any statistics, in English, about what percentage of books published in Finnish are translated from other languages, but I’m willing to bet the number is very high. Of course it is a small country, and so its own literary output is slim. But a side effect must be a more cosmopolitan world view.

Filmmaker Michael Haneke in a recent interview in the Paris Review, said film has devolved disappointingly into books about sex and material possessions, which is why, he said, the best films now come from foreign lands, the “developing countries” as we in the West are fortunate enough not to experience deprivation or pain, and know very little suffering. In literature we even have a term for this, the “ sex and shopping” novel.

When my daughter was very small, I tired of reading books about penguin and duck mamas loving their babies, or children going to the store with Mommy. In a used bookstore I found some amazing books that I read to her: an illustrated version of the Orpheus myth, a version of the myth of the Golem, and a beautiful edition of Aida by Leontyne Price. My daughter had apparently tired of the cuddling and shopping stories too: “Read me the one with the blood!” she would beg me, referring, of course, to the final pages of Orpheus, where in both image and text he is depicted stoned to death by revelers for refusing to sing, so broken was he by the second and final loss of Eurydice. She immediately knew, for all her youth, that these were real stories and the stories of the hugging penguins were not. If only there were more unbowdlerized translations of myth and history for small children, with illustrations.

Imagine finding yourself in love with an author’s work, so much so you have read everything she has written, and seek out more—only to find her books have not been translated into any language you can read, and are not likely to be any time soon. So what do you do? Commission a translator to translate more! That’s what Cristina Bettancourt did. She is a big fan of the work of Antti Tuuri, a Finnish writer. She contacted his publisher, who provided her with a list of potential translators. She commissioned the translation of a short passage, and then paid the 10,000 euros the translation cost! She is quoted on the (sadly discontinued blog) Books From Finland as saying, ‘I was startled when I heard the cost,’ said Bettencourt. ‘On the other hand you could spend the money on something silly like clothes. This way I would have something splendid.’

I’ve read three wonderful books in translation this past week. Nada by Carmen Laforet, Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich, and The Door by Magda Szabo. All of them were wonderful, told in different ways and in different voices. I’ll write up a brief synopsis of each. Stay tuned.

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

11 thoughts on “Something Splendid: Books in Translation”

  1. The paragraph about Ms. Bettancourt shows that literature still manages to provoke emotions in a way no other form of media can.


  2. For those who cannot resist literary thrillers but whose appetite cannot be sated by popular fare, The Shadow of the Wind, written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is a real treat.

    The descriptions are wonderful…remarkable, in fact, since what we are reading is a translation by Lucia Graves from the Castilian original.

    Barcelona, where the open wounds of war still chafe, comes alive: “The lamps… sketched an avenue of vapor that faded as the city began to wake.” “A crystal breeze carried the cool scent of autumn.” “The world that throbbed outside… seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

    The characters, from the quixotic Fermin Romero de Torres to the sinister Inspector Fumero, will not easily escape memory. Their relationships are, by turn, passionate, touching and tragic. Fermin is one of the most delightful characters you will ever come across in your literary travels.

    This is a book – brilliantly written, beautifully translated – that you will number among your all-time favorites. I can promise it.


  3. It’s interesting that you mentioned Finland. I would say that many smaller countries have similar traditions of translations although they’ve no shortage of their own authors. Growing up in Czechoslovakia’s 70s and 80s, my Mum was a member of ‘The Association of Friends of Beautiful Books. The name is beautiful itself and I remember it very vividly when she received her monthly instalment of books – translations of Mexican, Portugese, French, Scandinavian and other authors. Though you may think this was deep socialism, somehow through these books we were connected with outside world and I feel I knew about the countries a lot more than people who had visited them. Perhaps it’s true that you can time and space travel in books. Me and my Mum surely did. I think translations are a great way to bring humanity together.


      1. Unfortunately no. As many things, it was all swept up in the tide of post-communist changes. We had destroyed the good with the bad and started again!


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