Translate This Book!

A reader sent me a link to this series of lists of “rules” for literary translators, which I started to read with interest and which I recommend to your attention. When I got to Becka McKay’s list, I was struck by her first “rule”:

1. Make them believe in the necessity of translation. On the first day of the first graduate translation workshop I taught, I gave them Translate This Book!, a remarkable document produced by The Quarterly Conversation consisting of dozens of recommendations by writers of works yet to be translated into English. Peering into that vacuum of inaccessible literature, presented in such a striking way, galvanized many of them into taking the first step.

Naturally, I clicked the link, and immediately was swept away — what a collection of tantalizing descriptions! Some of them I knew about, most I didn’t… and then I got to this:

Tina Kover on Spiridion by George Sand

There is a book I’ve longed to translate for years, a novel called Spiridion by George Sand, which is a far-ahead-of-its-time work about a haunted monastery, an aged monk who is the guardian of handed-down religious secrets, a young, innocent protégé, ghosts emerging from paintings on the ancient walls . . . sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? I haven’t been able to rouse enough interest in any of my publishers yet but I think it has an almost Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code quality that could be very, very successful and appealing to today’s readers if marketed the right way.

That’s the very book I’m in the middle of reading now! And yes, it should definitely be translated; it’s tremendous fun (and was an influence on Dostoevsky, which is why I picked it up — parts of it definitely remind me of the Brothers K).  So check out both the translation rules and the translation suggestions, and I thank you for the link, Bruce!


  1. Ever since Raúl Ruiz’s adaptation of “Mysteries of Lisbon” came out, I’ve been hoping for someone to tackle an English translation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s Portuguese original. No such luck yet!

  2. Eka Kurniawan, modern Indonesia’s most sophisticated novelist, remains largely untranslated. His two novels are Cantik itu Luka (roughly “Beauty, a Wound”) and Lelaki Harimau (“Man-Tiger”); he’s working on a third. Publication of an English translation of Cantik itu Luka is scheduled for 2015. Benedict Anderson has translated a couple of Eka’s stories for the Cornell periodical Indonesia.

  3. He has a pretty minimal Wikipedia page, but at least he has one. Thanks for mentioning him.

  4. Started reading Spiridion after reading this post. So lovely! But it is not so much an argument for translation as an argument for reading (or, indeed, writing) in French.

    Abbreviated list of things that were strangely cheering and made me feel I should like to write something in French:

    une voix tonnante
    un ton glacial
    un accent terrible
    ce sombre viellard (it would be worth writing a whole book simply to have the excuse to use the phrase “ce sombre viellard)
    doux et timide
    comme s’ils eussent craint de toucher un lépreux
    quoique je récitasse … et que je fisse
    beaux yeux

    (We see all at once that the phrase “beaux yeux” had the chance to become a cliché because of the elegance of the written form: “bozieu” would not have made the grade, and there is no English equivalent with comparable appeal. There is something about the x marking the plural form, and the fact that it is only pronounced once but seen twice. Also the trigram of eau has its glamour.)

  5. But it is not so much an argument for translation as an argument for reading (or, indeed, writing) in French.

    Sigh. It’s true: Sand uses the resources of the language in a way that makes it seem pointless to translate, or indeed to use any other language.

  6. Oh, c’mon. Every language has eloquence: its own eloquence. “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

  7. Of course, and when I’m reading really good Russian or English I feel the same way about those languages.

  8. Similarly, when I’m listening to certain rock songs — say, the Clash’s “Complete Control” or the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” — I feel that that song is the only music I ever need listen to.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I find it very funny to read Helen DeWitt reactions to some perfectly ordinary words! Un sombre vieillard is not very common, but without a context it is difficult to guess exactly what it means (I agree that un vieillard can have more presence than just an old man/old gentleman). The verb forms eussent, recitasse, fisse are typical of earlier centuries but are no longer used except if writing historical novels, perhaps, or motr often for parody or just fun as the endings are not considered euphonious. As for beaux yeux, I agree that the written phrase is pretty to look at, but it is such a cliché! (See Monsieur Jourdain and his clumsy attempts at courting an aristocratic woman: Belle marquise, vos beaux yeux me font mourir d’amour).

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