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.

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