Something Else but Still the Same

One of the activities for this year’s Winter of Reading is to read a translated work. Instead of choosing among particular authors or countries of origin, I’d like to suggest you go for the other name on the cover: the translator.

In a 2017 article for World Literature Today, translator Charlotte Mandell (whose work includes Justine Lévy’s Nothing Serious and Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants) says of the act of translating:

"Whenever we speak or write, we are translating our inner feelings and impressions into language, into words on a page or sounds in our mouth. This is a radical act, just as translation is a radical act; whenever I begin translating a book, I feel a sense of despair at the hopelessness of the task, the impossibility of taking a text that sounds perfectly fine in its own language and transforming it into my own speech, my own words. This very impossibility is the challenge and delight of translation: the translator engages in a sort of inner struggle between hopeless despair and optimistic industriousness in turning the text into something else but still the same."

Translators are unsung heroes of the literary world, their names often found in small print on the cover of the books they translate, if not excluded from the cover entirely. If they’re thought of at all, it’s as little more than a tool of the original author, just the means by which we’re able to read works in languages we don’t know. But as Charlotte Mandell says above, the translator is as much an artist as the original author. In our increasingly connected global society, the importance of the translator’s role appears to be growing. For example, 2018 marked the first year that the National Book Foundation awarded a prize for translated fiction (which went to Margaret Mitsutani for her translation of Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary). Better late than never, as all the cool kids from the 1380s say. And so to shine a little light into the literary crevices of the translator’s world, I’d like to highlight a couple noteworthy translators:

Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
Wasmoen is a relative newcomer to the scene. She has translated a few short stories and essays by Chinese authors but her claim to fame is her 2014 translation of Can Xue’s The Last Lover, the second of the Beijing author’s works to appear in English. Wasmoen’s translation won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award presented by Three Percent, a resource for international literature.

Margaret Jull Costa
She specializes in Spanish- and Portuguese-language fiction and poetry. She has won numerous awards for her work in translating Portuguese writer José Saramago and one of her most recent works is a new translation of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Other titles to check out:

John E. Woods
Because I am a normal person with normal interests, I get very excited when I hear about someone translating a notoriously difficult work. So it was when I heard that John E. Woods was tackling Arno Schmidt’s gargantuan novel of geography lessons and Freudian puns Zettel’s Traum (translated by Woods as Bottom’s Dream). While I was dismayed that this massive achievement in translation didn’t win a single award in 2017, at least that year’s Best Translated Book Award went to Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, co-translated by Robin Patterson and the aforementioned Margaret Jull Costa. If you’re interested in diving into some German literature, it’s hard to find a better guide than Woods:


This blog was written by Aaron. 

Written by Hana on January 14, 2019