Untranslated World Literature.

Alexander Beecroft has a post at the Verso blog listing five “important works of world literature unavailable in the English language.” Right off the bat he cheats by including Ruan Ji’s “Poems which sing my emotions” (詠懷詩), which has in fact been translated: “a translation by Graham Hartill was published in China in 1988 and reprinted there in 2006, but it’s available in only a handful of university libraries, and not for sale at Amazon.” I can understand your desire to see his work more widely available, but when you’ve only got five slots, surely you could use them all for untranslated works that are actually untranslated.

But never mind, I forgive him because the others are so enticingly described; I was particularly taken with 3 and 4:

3. Constanzo Beschi (1680-1747) Thembavani, a Tamil-language epic on St. Joseph.

…The Thembavani is said to draw on two rich, but utterly distinct, strands of epic tradition: the Tamil tradition of devotional epic, which in turn derives from both Sanskrit epic and a rich local lyric tradition; and the Renaissance Italian epic tradition of Ariosto and Tasso. As such, it ranks as one of the earliest works (to my knowledge at least) which attempts to integrate European and non-European aesthetics into a single work of imaginative literature. It’s an unbelievably strange and fascinating prologue to colonial and post-colonial literature, but one not accessible to those who don’t know Tamil. Elijah Hoole, a nineteenth-century Methodist missionary who himself translated parts of the Bible into Tamil, offers a glimpse into this strange text, with some selections from the description of Jerusalem in the second canto:

“There were swarms of contending crocodiles, showing teeth sharp as a sword, and curved like the fair new moon, opening their fleshy mouths, and flashing fire from their eyes, as though the moat had formerly been deepened to hell, and the demons lying there had assumed and wandered about in a terrifying form.”

4. Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil (1866-1945). Aşk-ı Memnu (“Forbidden Love”) 1900.

It’s one of the first novels written in Ottoman Turkish, and one of the most highly acclaimed, a sort of Madame Bovary set in turn-of-the-century Istanbul. … I translated a sentence from the opening of the novel (from the review of the German translation in Der Spiegel):

“They were by now so used to these chance encounters with the mahogany boat, which came close to a collision with them each time, that today they barely seemed to notice when, on their return from Kalender, they came within a hair of colliding with it again.”

This sentence seems to give us what we want from a novel – hints of complex and perhaps illicit social interaction among the well-to-do; a whiff of exoticism; the sense of total immersion in a social world – that it’s frustrating not to be able to read more.

Here‘s a post that links to this “Translate This Book!” list, and here‘s my decade-old lament at the absence of a translation of Abdelrahman Munif’s historical novel Ard Al-Sawad (an absence that, I need hardly say, still continues). Thanks for the link, Trevor!


  1. I used to watch TV series Aşk-ı Memnu when I was studying Turkish. It was available on Youtube with English subtitles.

    I guess that’s how people get acquainted with world culture nowadays.

  2. So I assume Aşk-ı Memnu has been translated into modern Turkish?

  3. I would guess so. On the other hand, I couldn’t find any translator listed here:

  4. According to Turkish Wikipedia + Google Translate:

    Print made after 1920 (especially from 1939 edition) conducted a simplification of the language used by the author. … 2004 was the year a new edition of the Free Publications novel; printing of this edition in 1939 were basically the current provisions of the Turkish Ottoman words are given in brackets. This edition of a directory adapted from the novel 2008 has seen great interest owing to the effect of start running in March 2009 made ​​two prints.

    So it sounds like it’s been simplified (i.e., some Arabo-Persian words replaced?) and modern word equivalents are given in brackets, but not actually translated into Modern Turkish.

  5. A European classic I’ve always wanted to read is Gracián’s novel El Criticón. There’s a 1681 translation of the first third by Paul Rycaut, and translations into other European languages, but so far as I know the rest has never been translated into English. It’s a long book in a difficult, punning style, and my Spanish isn’t up to reading it in the original, and probably never will be.

    Whether the problem is on the supply side or the demand side, I do not know, but could one (or more) of the tens of thousands of Spanish professors in English-speaking countries please do this job before I die? Surely I’m not the only one who would gratefully buy and read even a high-priced copy.

  6. John Emerson says

    I have been recommending Ribeiro’s Portuguese “Menina e Moca / Saudades” for years. it’s classified as a “psychological romance”, a category with very few members. It seems like a courtly romance, but it’s from the 16th century and is, like Don Quixote, a comment on courtly romance. It focusses on an abandoned woman living in solitude in the wilds, and shows her understanding and perception of her reality which seems to include either hallucinations or haunts. There are confused traces of Heraclitean pessimism, neo-Platonism, Manichaeanism, etc. it is thought to have been written by a noble poet expelled from Portugal when his Jewish ancestry is exposed and describes the complete collapse of order someone like that would experience. There are also indications that a woman had a hand in the writing, a childbirth and other events only experience by women are described.

    An older translation (ca. 1700-1800 I think) disappeared from sight, and for a long time the book was unavailable. More recently it’s been translated into French by Cecile Lombard and now into English by Rabassa. So it doesn’t really belong here, but people should still read it.



  7. As already translated works are being nominated, my nomination is Grande sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa. It was translated (1963; never reprinted) as “The Devil To Pay In The Backlands”, but the translation is mechanical and gives little hint of the reported linguistic complexity of the original (which my Portuguese is too poor to judge). A decade ago a new translation was apparently in preparation but nothing has emerged.

  8. In learning the languages of some peoples rather obscure to an English-speaking audience, I’ve encountered some literature that I think deserves to be translated. However, I think I would have been more enthusiastic to do this a couple of decades ago, when established publishers could be talked into this kind of thing, there would be some kind of quality control, and it would be noticed on a real bookshop shelf. Some might claim that we are in a golden age of availability, but anything done now is extremely unlikely to be well done and stand out in the market.

    There has been a proliferation of small presses in recent years that try to put out as much world literature as possible, but virtually no editing is done to the manuscript, typesetting and graphic design is horrible, and the focus is often on the Kindle with the print publication being a shoddy digital printing afterthought. Of course there’s virtually no marketing done, just uploading to Amazon and hoping for the best. I’ve been commissioned to produce translations of non-fiction titles by certain of these presses, and I’m uniformly horrified by what their “editors” did to my work.

  9. Well, that’s depressing.

  10. Back to Aşk-ı Memnu…

    It appears to have been translated to German: http://www.amazon.de/Verbotene-Lieben-Halid-Ziya-Usakligil/dp/3293100090

    Also, if you hypothetically put together these url pieces: pdfkutuphane.
    and then if you hypothetically click ‘Dosyayı İndir’, it seems you can read a Turkish version. As far as I can tell with my limited Turkish, it’s written in modern Turkish. And although it has some endnotes, there are no words in brackets, so I guess it’s not the Özgür Yayınları version?

  11. “but virtually no editing is done to the manuscript, typesetting and graphic design is horrible, and the focus is often on the Kindle with the print publication being a shoddy digital printing afterthought.”

    CC, this is not just a recent problem. I read Dream of the Red Chamber in the Alice Yang translation on Kindle. It degenerated into translationese gibberish in some places. She was the daughter of missionaries, so she must have made this translation decades ago – born and raised in China, and apparently she thought she still spoke English.

  12. Jim, the Gladys Lang translation was a product of Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press, which is not one of the great quality publishers of yesteryear I had in mind. As much as those books were often enchanting with their foreign-smelling ink and exotic paper, the English within was often poor, but what can one expect from a state-run press in a non-English-speaking country? Think more of the Hawkes/Minford translation and how Penguin gave it a good polish before putting it on the market. I think anyone who translates world literature and dreams of bringing it to an appreciative audience would hope for a modicum of editorial intervention, but you really cannot expect that from the small presses to which these kind of books are increasingly relegated.

    (Of course, I’m not sure one can expect that today even from venerable old publishers in the English-speaking world. Rumours abound of extreme costcutting measures abound.)

  13. David Marjanović says

    It appears to have been translated to German:

    German is the world’s biggest target language for translations. I’m not quite sure why.

  14. CC,
    “Think more of the Hawkes/Minford translation and how Penguin gave it a good polish before putting it on the market.”

    I think that may have been the version I first read. I don’t remember exactly because it has been 40 years.

    You’re right basically. The situation has gone from a mixed bag to a bag of shit.

  15. The above opening lines remind me of this would-be bestseller, written to feature “high life, sex, and an unconventional situation”:

    “Damn it,” said the Duchess to the Queen, “get your hand off my leg.”

    Also a proposed title for a different work, presumably non-fiction: Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.

  16. Neither of those quotes gets any Google results. Are you sure you’re not thinking of the famous “Hell, said the Duchess”?

  17. In the version I heard, the book needs to combine sex, mystery, religion and the elite:

    “My God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant! I wonder who did it?”

  18. They’re both fictional, of course, and the “Damn it” version I tell may have been improved a bit by the folk process. But there are plenty of hits for “Lincoln’s doctor’s dog”.

  19. Rodger C says

    I believe it was Groucho Marx (unless it wasn’t) who said the perfect Reader’s Digest article would be “I Had Intercourse with a Bear in an Iron Lung and Found God.”

  20. David Marjanović says

    That sounds about right.

    (Reader’s Digest was translated into German, and – for, presumably, some reason – we had whole boxes of it at home when I was little. I read a lot. Never saw anyone else reading it.)

  21. Trond Engen says

    Similar in Norway. My father subscribed to it, and so, presumably, did everybody else. There were shelves stacked with years of Det Beste in every basement or holiday house I saw in the seventies and eighties. And I’m pretty sure I read all of it.

  22. Trond Engen says

    My father also owned Det Bestes Store Verdensatlas , the Reader’s Digest World Atlas. It’s by far the single book that did most to make me who I am.

  23. I can still remember the smell of the old shed where my grandmother kept old issues of Det Bedste. And how years later I would find factoids that I read when I was 11 growing like weeds in my collection of knowledge, until I turned the blowtorch of adult discernment on them.

  24. Trond Engen says

    The translation of Reader’s Digest into Western European languages was no doubt sponsored by some American government agency responsible for cultural warfare. Same goes for the cornerstone of post-war European childhood reading, the Donald Duck comics.

  25. Det Bedste may have been sponsored, but they had very aggressive marketing too — that whole ‘add this special sticker to your application form and send within three days for a discount we were going to give you anyway’ thing and having to call between half eleven and twenty five to twelve to cancel your subscription, twenty years before Internet scumbags took up the baton.

    And actually the Danish publisher had to produce their own DD stories because the character was never as popular in the US as here, and Disney didn’t produce enough. So I don’t think a subsidy was needed.

  26. Back in my childhood, Das Beste aus Reader’s Digest was standard doctors’ waiting room fare and I eagerly read them – the alternative was mostly yellow press detailing the peccadillos of celebrities and royals. I can’t remember meeting anyone who actually subscribed to Reader’s Digest and had it at home; sometimes I assumed that it was produced specifically for doctors’ waiting rooms.

  27. Was it translated from the US edition, selections from local material, or a mix?

  28. The case of the Donald Duck comics is quite peculiar, actually. While the characters were obviously hugely famous, the comics were never tremendously popular in America. I read them (although I preferred Scrooge McDuck to Donald), but I don’t think anybody else I knew growing up did. And I only got into them myself because I had an uncle who was a big fan of Carl Barks’s work. In some parts of Europe, the comics seem to have been much more successful than they were in North America, and whole new series were written for the European audience. In Italy, Donald got a superhero identity, Papernik. Some of the European comics have been translated into English now, completing a strange literary circle.

  29. Donald Duck previously on LH.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Oh yeah, Das Beste aus…

    Was it translated from the US edition, selections from local material, or a mix?

    I think a mix; in any case lots of US material in it.

    And actually the Danish publisher had to produce their own DD stories because the character was never as popular in the US as here, and Disney didn’t produce enough. So I don’t think a subsidy was needed.

    Most of the authors have been Italian, actually. But some are Danish.


    Paperinik, from Paperino = little drake = Donald Duck and the tradition of using K in the names of supervillains like Diabolik and Kriminal.

    In German: Phantomias.

    A retconned explanation for why Donald sleeps so much during the day. 🙂

  31. LH: Was it translated from the US edition, selections from local material, or a mix?
    DM: I think a mix; in any case lots of US material in it.

    As far as I remember, the material was mostly American. But I think I read my last RD 20-30 years ago, so I may misremember.

  32. Since the Man of Steel is Stålmanden in Danish, the DD equivalent was of course Stålanden.

    The Swedish chain of furniture stores Staland suffers heavy cognitive interference.

  33. Trond Engen says

    I, too, remember the Reader’s Digest articles as mostly American.

    Donald Duck had one life in Italy, in fumetti format, and another life in Northern Europe. The universe was not exactly the same. Fantonald belonged to the italian universe. But there were crossovers, at least from Italy up to us, with the fumetti stories being published as paperback books.

    Northern Europe imported the classic Uncle Scrooge stories of Carl Barks and made many more of their own in the same format (but rarely in the same quality). At least the Nordic countries followed eachother closely, with the same stories the same week, in separate translations. When my family went to Finland the summer I was 10, I remember reading the continuation story first in the Norwegian Donald Duck, then in the Swedish Kalle Anka, then not reading it in the Finnish Aku Ankka, and being relieved when we could get the Swedish Kalle Anka in Helsinki (with a lag of a few days?). Also, at that age I still found Swedish difficult to read. Two years later it was much easier.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the translations of Donald Duck were literally paid by some American government agency. But export of American culture, from movies to jazz musicians and avant-garde art, was liberally supported, as soft-power alliance-building. There’s much to be said for that, generally.

  34. I wish they’d stuck with that and left the hard-power stuff alone.

  35. marie-lucie says

    the famous “Hell, said the Duchess”

    I don’t know that one, but how about the famous Ah! s’écria la comtesse en portugais.

  36. marie-lucie says

    Reader’s Digest: When I was 13 years old my family spent several weeks of the summer in a house belonging to an aunt, who had recently inherited it from her own aunt. All the furniture and other household items were still there, including stacks of reading material which of course I read, especially volumes of short articles and stories on a variety of topics. Something seemed strange though: although all this reading matter was written in French, some of the volumes were full of English names (of authors, places and characters), and sometimes strange customs, while some others were by French authors and referred to French places, customs and characters. Later I realized that “Sélections du Reader’s Digest” consisted of translations of American articles, while “Constellation”, which had exactly the same format, was a French production.

  37. Trond Engen says

    When my family went to Finland the summer I was 10

    No, it must have been a year earlier, maybe two. How I forget.

  38. Ah! s’écria la comtesse en portugais.

    Ha! That reminded me of the hilarious “Коза закричала нечеловеческим голосом” (‘the goat cried out in an inhuman voice’) I posted about back in 2009.

  39. …And now I see that you quoted that comtesse sentence in that very thread!

  40. marie-lucie says

    Good stuff deserves reposting!

  41. Absolutely!

  42. Well, up to a point. I can easily post the same thing every few months, so I make a point of Google searching so I post just a reference or not at all.

  43. marie-lucie says

    JC, every few months might be a little much, but several years later, in different contexts, might be justified.

    That said, I am aware that I sometimes repeat something after a long interval, but I don’t necessarily do it on purpose. I don’t like to repeat myself. I am glad I am retired from teaching, because I sometimes sounded to myself like a broken record after teaching the same course and topics year after year, even though I tried to introduce some variety.

  44. marie-lucie says

    Oh, it did not occur to me to use Google to check whether I already wrote something. Good advice!

  45. The best way is to add “site:languagehat.com” to your Google search. This limits it to this site, but searches both posts and comments, unlike the site-specific search which searches onlly posts.

    Doing a regular Google search, however, I can’t find any other references to the countess in question in French. I find it once in English, attributed to “a story told in France” with no further details, but somewhat longer: “Ah, ah, said the countess in Portuguese and to herself, for she spoke these two languages”: evidently Portuguese and Mentalese.

  46. marie-lucie says

    Merci beaucoup, JC! I am making a note to myself.

    … la comtesse en portugais

    I think I read the whole sentence somewhere in a text, as well as hearing the quote from my father, but I don’t remember where. Perhaps it was some sort of a spoof, on the order of “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    Perhaps the verb was s’exclama instead of s’écria, but for sure it was a countess and the language was Portuguese.

  47. David Marjanović says

    Since the Man of Steel is Stålmanden in Danish, the DD equivalent was of course Stålanden.

    The Swedish chain of furniture stores Staland suffers heavy cognitive interference.


  48. I think I read the whole sentence somewhere in a text, as well as hearing the quote from my father, but I don’t remember where.

    Found at Google Books:

    « Ah ah , dit la comtesse en portugais et en elle-même, car elle parlait ces deux langues… »: ce passage d’une histoire contée en France me sollicite par son ambiguïté (son opacité) signifiante. Il y a une langue en-soi qui outrepasse toute langue donnée. (Le monologue intérieur est indicible. Il n’est signifiant que dans l’opacité: celle de Benjy, au début du roman le Bruit et la Fureur.)

    — Édouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (1981), p. 251, fn. 11.

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