BookBlast reviews The 100 Best Novels in Translation edited by Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent newspaper from 1996 to 2013.
“Since the ages of Enlightenment and Romanticism, the champions of translation – such as Goethe and Madame de Staël – have urged its necessity, if only as an inferior substitute for the true polyglot’s command of several tongues. That case still needs to be made, especially in English, whose position as a planet-spanning lingua franca may trick native speakers into the delusion that their language, or any language, may encompass the whole world of thought and art.” – from the Introduction
Great novels help us to understand what makes people tick and offer glimpses into the human psyche; they are as illuminating as psychology books. Translated fiction gives a whole added dimension, opening windows on to other worlds and ways of being and perceiving, which is ever more important now that Britain is being forced to re-evaluate its place in the world.
In 2001 when he was literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin revived the Independent Foreign Fiction Award – first won in 1990 by Orhan Pamuk for The White Castle (trs. Victoria Holbrook). He was one of the five co-judges until 2015 when it merged with the Man Booker International Prize. The prize has not only been a huge boost for quality translations and translators, but has also paved the way for other prizes – the TA’s translation prizes which recognize outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish; the TA’s first translation prize; and the Warwick prize for women in translation.
Boyd Tonkin’s introduction opens with his going to interview W. G. Sebald (author of The Emigrants, No. 97) at the University of East Anglia outside Norwich, and founder of the British Centre for Literary Translation. His overview of how translation has evolved over recent decades is heartening, although there is still so much more to be done. His description of the hit-and-miss way in which writers are selected for publication, and how translators break into the scene, is essential reading for aspiring students on Translation Studies courses.
One Hundred Best Novels features one hundred authors as opposed to multiple books by a few greats. “The works of fiction discussed in this book represent both a kind of reader’s autobiography, and the record of a professional path.” His eligibility period is 1600-2000 and his selection “offers a personal roadmap that will, I hope, guide readers towards its proposed destinations.”
Each entry comes with a pithy synopsis and context. The writing is sumptuous with detail and human insight, while Tonkin wears his learning lightly. His voice is entertaining and at times subtly humorous, as though he is having a conversation with the reader. Each entry ends with a few words about the translator, other recommended titles, and in some instances a bibliography. The depth of his knowledge, his shrewd observations and keen literary sensitivity make for an original and illuminating reader’s digest of global greats through the centuries.
Here he is, writing about Nabokov’s The Gift (No. 48): “Fyodor’s first volume of poems has sold fifty-one copies. The editor of a Russian-language paper tolerates his scribblings. He moves from one shabby, gossip-ridden boarding-house to another. Solitary, shy, fastidious, “living always uphill”, Fyodor is an exotic fish out of water whose plight touchingly – and wittily – captures the lonely pride of migrants in many places. As if mimicking his own divisions, the storytelling flips and hovers between Fyodor’s own voice and a third person narration. Eidetic memories of his father the intrepid lepidopterist (Nabokov’s own scientific specialism), and of a childhood magic “unknown in other families”, torment but also console him. Tom between countries, between ambitions, he also migrates between languages. He instructs vulgar executives in the rudiments of other tongues while in his own he might make anything, “a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds”.
Written in the late 1930s, just as history’s next earthquake forced him out of Berlin and towards his American exile. The Gift is Vladimir Nabokov’s spectacular farewell – not only to an epoch and a city but to the Russian language as his creative medium. He never again published a novel in his mother tongue.”
Starting with Don Quixote translated by Edith Grossman, we travel round the world from the comfort of our armchairs with Balzac, Bassani, Beckett, Bulgakov, Buzzati, Cabrera Infante, Camus, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Kleist, Flaubert, Garcia Marquez, Gogol, Goethe, Hugo, Kafka, Lermontov, Mahfouz, Manzoni, Platonov, George Sand, Sartre, Stendhal, Perec, Proust, Rilke, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Vargas Llosa, Voltaire, Zola . . . (Penguin Classics and New York Review of Books Classics could give a helping hand promoting this book on social media given all their featured titles!)
There are myriad discoveries – Ivo Andrić, Tanizaki, Tanpinar, Zhongshu – and surprises, Colette’s Chéri (No. 35) and Solaris by Stansilaw Lem (No. 71), both favourites. Naturally I began to make up an additional list – Natacha Appanah, Virginie Despentes, Annie Ernaux, Jenny Erpenbeck, Marie NDiaye, Teffi . . .
The selection is also interesting in terms of what is left out, and what this says about the state of publishing. The Heinemann African Writers Series is no more; only Schwartz Bart from Guadeloupe features. French African and Caribbean literature still largely remains behind closed academic doors.
In the 1990s when I worked as an editor with brilliant and visionary Mr. Pickles, translators were far less in the public eye than now, and were not only undervalued, but often unnamed in the prelim pages. (Our translation programme followed three basic strands: re-translated “greats” such as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, included in Tonkin’s selection; neglected classics reissued in the Quartet Encounters series; and contemporary writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf and Annie Ernaux published for the first time in English. The Independent Award for Foreign Fiction was won in 1992 by Simon Leys for The Death of Napoleon translated by Patricia Clancy, and was duly dramatised by Film 4.) I was lucky enough to collaborate with Donald Watson, translator of Eugène Ionesco and Yves Navarre; Stuart Hood who translated Beppe Fenoglio’s Il partigiano Johnny for us; Professor Michael Dash who translated Gisèle Pineau’s The Drifting of the Spirits; James Kirkup who translated Hervé Guibert, and had deliciously soft hands . . . Pickles gave that first crucial break to hopeful translators new on the scene – Peter Bush, Shaun Whiteside, George Szirtes among them – much as Christopher MacLehose still does today.
Thanks to the success of Scandinavian crime sagas, and the likes of Ferrante and Knausgaard and Slimani, translation is now viewed as a rich seam to be mined. How translations are marketed and brought to the attention of the general reading public, over and beyond the occasional hit, remains all important.
The nuggets of information are perfect for a game of Christmas Trivial Pursuit . . . Did you know that Goethe theorised and idealised the notion of “world literature” in the 1820s and 1830s? . . . That the hundred best books formula dates back to the Victorian era when Sir John Lubbock, “In 1886 delivered a lecture about his ideal hundred-volume library to the Working Men’s College in London . . . It aspired to raise horizons and to initiate debate” . . .?
For readers with a passion for international literature, or who just want a superb curated list to explore and have fun with, The 100 Best Novels in Translation is an essential buy. It is beautifully produced using quality paper, with head and tail bands and red endpapers. It is the perfect present.
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