For fall, 3 novels where great translations make all the difference
The author and translator Jennifer Croft recently wrote an op-ed setting out the reasons why translators should be named on book covers. I could not agree with Croft more; I agree so much, in fact, that reading the op-ed infuriated me, for the simple reason that Croft shouldn't have needed to write it at all.
From my vantage point as both a translator and a book critic who frequently reviews translated works, putting the translator's name on the cover is as vital — and as logical — as putting the writer's name there. I want to know whose words the book holds. Often, in fact, I choose to read a translated book precisely because I admire the translator's previous work, as is the case with all three books below. Take Annie McDermott, who translates, among others, the cult-favorite Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero. I have been a Levrero fan since I began reading him in Spanish over a decade ago. McDermott's translation of his novel “Empty Words” still amazed me. It showed me bits of the text I had missed in Spanish, while capturing the charmingly oddball Levrero spirit I love. Naturally, then, I rushed to read McDermott's newest Levrero translation. The moment I saw her name on the cover, I knew I was in good hands.
‘The Luminous Novel’ by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott
Let me get the comparison out of the way: if you like Karl Øve Knausgaard's “My Struggle,” then you will love Levrero's “Luminous Novel.” The book, which is generally considered his masterwork, is split into two entirely unequal parts: The first 400 pages are Levrero's diary of how he spent his time after being awarded a Guggenheim grant in 2000, and the final 100 are the first chapters of the incomplete, autobiographical "luminous novel" that he was meant to finish with his Guggenheim-financed time. In the diary, which is at once mundane, endearing, and shockingly relaxing to read, Levrero — or a character based on Levrero — describes his daily routines and obsessions: a dead pigeon decomposing on a neighboring roof, his efforts to make Microsoft Word work better, his quest to buy his first-ever air conditioner. Every so often, he writes a hilarious, apologetic letter to Mr. Guggenheim, promising to resume work on the novel soon; sometimes he thinks sadly, "I wonder what I have been doing all this time"; occasionally, he has moments of pure triumph, as when he installs his air-conditioning unit and exults, "HA HA HA! I have defeated summer!"
Translating a novel powered entirely by the narrator's self-deprecating charm cannot be easy, but McDermott does an exceptional job. Levrero, at one point, worries that he has become addicted to the "trance states" of playing online card games and reprogramming Word; his concern is fair, but it also highlights the fact that reading “The Luminous Novel” can itself induce a trance state. McDermott's prose is quietly rhythmic, highly entertaining, and extremely easy to settle into. After 500 pages, I was still disappointed that the book had to end.
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‘Kaya Days’ by Carl de Souza, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
In 1999, the Mauritian singer Kaya, who invented the musical genre known as seggae, died in police custody after getting arrested for smoking marijuana onstage. His death led to days of unrest, which the Mauritian novelist Carl de Souza captures beautifully in his tense, urgent novella" “Kaya Days.” Rather than center his story on the protests, though, de Souza weaves in and out of them as his protagonist, Santee, searches for her runaway brother Ram. In the novella's first chapters, Santee is shy and sheltered; she wanders into a brothel without realizing it, and fails to recognize a predatory sexual advance until it is quite close to too late. To Santee, the city is "Ram's world" — as, indeed, is everywhere else. "At the village, at Ma's," she thinks, "Ram was the center of the universe." In “Kaya Days,” though, Santee is the center. She learns to navigate male attention; she joins in looting; she goes swiftly from awestruck at the sight of a ravine to herself striking awe in her suitor and guide. By the novella's end, Santee has stepped into a confident, adult version of herself.
De Souza's prose, which includes significant amounts of Kreol in addition to French, mirrors his protagonist's transformation: his sentences, in Jeffrey Zuckerman's excellent, language-mixing translation, are compelling at the book's start, but become downright hypnotic by its end. “Kaya Days” is a novella designed to be read in one gulp, and Zuckerman's prose is propulsive enough to make the book nearly impossible to put down. In his translator's note, he writes that "finding an English to mirror the frenetic energy of [de Souza's] French and Kreol has been both a mind-bending challenge, and a delightful opportunity to revitalize English." His prose here is vital in both senses of the word: full of life, and unmissable.
‘Life Sciences’ by Joy Sorman, translated by Lara Vergnaud
Ninon Moise, the teenage protagonist of French novelist and journalist Joy Sorman's “Life Sciences”, is the lone daughter of a mother whose family has a centuries-old legacy of bizarre female illnesses. Ninon's mother Esther cherishes this dark heritage; she tells Ninon stories of their ancestors' seizures, injuries, and addictions, describing them with "dramatic glee and theatricality." Ninon can tell her mom is waiting for her to get sick — but when the skin on Ninon's arms suddenly becomes painfully sensitive, rendering even the brush of a sheet agonizing, her relationship with Esther instantly falls apart. Alone, Ninon navigates years of medical disbelief and bafflement; often, she feels as if her skin itself has "become a hallucination."
Sorman uses her protagonist's suffering to critique the medical establishment, with its massive imbalance of power between doctor and patient; by the time Ninon turns from doctors to Paris's odd host of shamans, it seems clear that to Sorman, the two are barely distinguishable. Her detached tone, which Lara Vergnaud makes crisp and stylized, adds to the sense of novel-as-critique: often, Sorman's narrator seems to be speaking in voiceover, as if Ninon were the subject of a documentary. This strategy serves to alienate the reader from Ninon, precisely as Ninon's pain alienates her from her mother and from her peers. “Life Sciences” is a lonely book — and, for that reason, an effective one. Unsympathetic as Sorman's style may feel, it forces the reader to reckon with what Ninon is going through.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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