Four Novels Read In Translation by Dave Kavanagh

At The Blue Nib, we are blessed to have Clara Burghelea as our international editor. Not only is Clara a splendid poet in her own right, but she is also a talented translator. Every week, together with a team of international poets, writers and translators, she brings us new poetry from both established and unknown poets. Clara’s column, Translation Po-Int, was the spur that prompted me to think more about international writers and ignited a desire to read their work. 

So, this year, rather than reading the entire longlist for the Booker Prize as I usually do, I decided to delve into those listed for the International Prize. There has been enough said and written about the eventual winner, The Discomfort of Evening. I will not include it in this discussion, other than to say that it is well worth reading. 

I selected four books. The three from the shortlist were:

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (German), translated by Ross Benjamin, published by Quercus. 

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Spanish), translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh, published by Charco Press. 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi), translated by Anonymous, published by Europa Editions. 

From the longlist, I chose:

Red Dog by Willem Anker (Afrikaans), translated by Michiel Heyns, published by Pushkin Press.

(I’ve reviewed the first three for The Nib and will review the fourth soon. Those reviews will appear in due course.)

I wanted to share what I learned from reading these works – how the experience of reading in translation differs from that of reading in your own language, and how it introduces you to new voices and expands your world view.

 

Tyll

I picked up Tyll with some trepidation, labouring under the misapprehension that it would be my first time reading a book in translation. Immersing myself in the parabolic style of the book, however, I realised there was a familiarity to it. 

Though few of us pause to acknowledge it, we have all either read or been told stories that came to us in translation. The Bible and other religious texts are translated. The classics are in the main also translated works. The work of Plato and Aristotle come to us through multiple translations, first into Arabic, then Latin and finally into the vernacular during the Middle Ages. Even if you are not a fan of philosophy or theology, you have likely read at least some Nordic noir. (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with Dragon Tattoo was translated by Reg Keeland.) 

As I continued to read Tyll, I learned that translated works are not just portals to a fictional world, but also transport us to new socio-political and cultural landscapes, as well as to attitudes and values that we might otherwise never experience.

In Tyll, Kehlmann has taken massive liberties with historical personages and has reshaped events to suit the narrative. The book cannot be categorised as historical fiction in the real sense. However, he does a good job fictionalising a real/surreal picture of Europe during the Thirty Years War – a place we can hardly imagine in the modern-day. 

This immersion in an era of witches and witchcraft, inquisitors and heretics, superstition and fundamentalism is what drives the story, and both the author and translator invite the reader to experience it.

 

The Adventures of China Iron

Often, reading work in translation is to experience the world, or part of it through the words and imagination of a native. This is true of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s book, The Adventures of China Iron. The author said of this story, ‘I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina.’ 

The book is narrated by the titular character, a fourteen-year-old girl experiencing the expanse of her own country, the wild and fecund post-colonial Argentina, for the first time. We encounter the vast, uncultivated pampas, we meet Gauchos and experience the greed of a new wave of exploiters in a way that only a native could show us. 

In portraying China, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara fleshes out an inquisitive, adventurous character who yearns for, and eventually attains, happiness, while remaining authentic. 

 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

The challenge for a translator is not just to translate the words of the story, but also capture the author’s intent and draw out the characters in a way that is faithful to the original. This challenge is evident in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. A work of magic realism, it is written in Farsi and peopled by jinns and spirits as well as complex flesh-and-blood characters. 

The book not only affords a glimpse of Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but also draws the reader back into Persian mythology. 

The translator chose to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. But they have done a superb job on this story of one family who fled Tehran but could not escape the horror of the regime. 

The book is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a child burned to death in the family home in the first days of chaos. Bahar is a complex character, yet the translator has presented her as fully realised. So the book works on every level.

The last of the four books I read was the most challenging. I can only describe Red Dog by Willem Anker, and translated by Michiel Heyns, as Wilbur Smith on steroids. 

 

Red Dog

Much has been written recently about cultural appropriation (American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was slated on The Blue Nib). It could be said that when Smith wrote about the massive, bearded Afrikaners in his earlier Courtney and Ballantyne novels that he was guilty of that same transgression. 

However, Red Dog drags us, kicking and screaming into the world of the kloofs, the kopjes, the vast wilderness and the savage struggles of Coenraad de Buys in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Anker originally wrote this work in Afrikaans, and it was the recipient of some awards before its translation by Heyns.

De Buys is not fictional; he is a much-discussed and much-researched character who begot a people. In this book, Anker presents De Buys as a legend, a polygamist, a swindler, a big game hunter and a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British. We meet the young De Buys and follow his life, from part-orphaned boy to the patriarch of a sprawling family with a tribe of followers.

He is portrayed (accurately) as a brutal man who could be either a bitter enemy or a loyal friend, but never anything in between, akin to the wild dogs who attached themselves to him and his nomadic followers. And we follow them as they roam across southern Africa, spoiling for a fight. 

Red Dog could, in my opinion, have been shorter. In every other respect, it is a fiercely brilliant novel, and epic in its scope. It paints a picture of Africa before modern boundaries between cultures or people. 

I also believe it had to be written from the perspective of the Afrikaner, employing their colloquialisms. The life of De Buys is the life of that people in microcosm.

I was disappointed when Red Dog failed to make the shortlist. It tells a story that is often ignored, and plunged me into the life of a character who could only have existed in that time and that place. 

Conclusion

With these four books, I learned that when you read a translated text you are, in reality, reading the work of two authors: the original and the translator. The original author tells the story, but the translator, with their craft and talent, brings the story to life for a new audience, and in doing so, adds their own voice to the work.

A good translator is like a good interviewer – mostly invisible, but lending flavour to the text as well as literal accuracy. Without the translators, I would not have been thrilled and horrified by Tyll, travelled across the pampas with China Iron, or witnessed the magic realism of Bahar and her family. And without the translation of author Michiel Heyns, I could not have read Red Dog, and Coenraad de Buys would have remained nothing more to me than an unsatisfying Wikipedia entry, or someone referred to in dry academic prose. 

I am now eagerly searching for other books in translation and am open to your recommendations. 

Dave Kavanagh

About the contributor

Dave Kavanagh, Managing Editor of The Blue Nib, explains why reading works in translation can be so fascinating

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1 COMMENT

  1. For me your observations confirmed what I always knew: we need to red translations (or the original, if we are able) in order to meet other cultures, legends, religions, stories from different woods… translations open worlds. But right now I am translating my own poems into Spanish and thought ‘what is more important, form or content?’ and decided on content, of course. I know what I meant with this or that line in English. A translator may not. I can chose the nearest translationg of MEANING. What do you sacrifice? Again, form or content? I am multilingual. It’s anguish at times. Wish someone else had done it. Fascinating world, the translation world.

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