Just three percent of books published in the US are in translation, and less than one percent are literary fiction and poetry. The University of Rochester is trying to change that, with its three per cent website and Best Translated Book Award. The 2014 longlist is out, and the case will be made for each book over the next month until the award is made on April 28th.
Only two of the 25 are by authors I’ve read in the original (the shame! but there aren’t any Polish, Welsh or Finnish works on the list). Both Elfriede Jelinek’s and Christa Wolf’s nominated books are translated by Damion Searls. They are both feminists, they both wrote in German, but they couldn’t be more different.
Her Not All Her by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek (Austria; Sylph Editions) has already won an Austrian translation award. It is a small but perfectly formed edition of her response to some European greats: the play and 13 paintings take up just 44 pages. Her writing tends to provoke strong reactions – you can get a feel from her own website. She says of her own writing, in her Nobel lecture:
“Is writing the gift of curling up, of curling up with reality? One would so love to curl up, of course, but what happens to me then? What happens to those, who don’t really know reality at all? It’s so very dishevelled. No comb, that could smooth it down. The writers run through it and despairingly gather together their hair into a style, which promptly haunts them at night. Something’s wrong with the way one looks. The beautifully piled up hair can be chased out of its home of dreams again, but can anyway no longer be tamed… Sometimes language finds itself on the way by mistake, but it doesn’t go out of the way. It is no arbitrary process, speaking with language, it is one that is involuntarily arbitrary, whether one likes it or not. Language knows what it wants. Good for it, because I don’t know, no not at all.”
City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud is by Christa Wolf (Germany; FSG), described as East Germany’s most acclaimed writer. She was born in 1929 Landsberg, which became Gorzów Wielkopolski after WWII, at which the German population was expelled. She lived through the rise and fall the GDR, died three years ago in Berlin. This, her final novel, is an autobiographical story of how, three years after the Berlin Wall fell, she was able to read her secret police file and found she had been registered as an informant, though she did not remember this. She worked through the fallout of this in the most Western place she could go to – Los Angeles – and this novel set during the year she there. The novel is a look back on her life, which is also a history of 20th century Germany. She says of her own writing, in Ein Tag im Jahr (One Day a Year, 2003, cited here):
“From a certain point on, a point which one can no longer identify, one begins to see oneself as historical; by which I mean embedded in, bound to one’s time … I don’t know how else we should escape and confront the pressure to commodify everything, a compulsion which floods even our most intimate feelings, except through the development and expression of our own subjectivity, no matter how difficult and painful that may be. The need to be known, even with one’s problematic qualities, false assumptions and mistakes, lies at the source of all literature and is also one motivation for this book.”
If you want a sensory experience, visual and visceral, go for the Jelinek. If you want to be swept up in the course of 20th century history, go for the Wolf.
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