Next time you’re reading Elena Ferrante, or Roberto Bolaño, or Leo Tolstoy, think about this.
When you buy a book in translation, only a few pennies of that money are going to the translator–you know, the person who agonized over every word to bring you an incredible story from halfway around the world. In fact, many translators don’t even earn a royalty, so they’re not getting any of your money.
If literary translators weren’t working for pennies, the only other way you could explore these masterpieces of international literature would be to actually learn a foreign language. And how much would that cost?
A third of the way into Lincoln Michel’s imaginative debut collection, I was reminded of a phrase Lorin Stein once used to describe the work Donald Antrim, in comparing his work to that of John Cheever: “plausible magic.” The phrase suggests that an unbelievable—possibly surreal—scenario can arise from “believable” character action and reasonable narrative means. Plausible magic is ordinary life rendered strange through the author’s vision. A Venn diagram of those writers (along with the later, enigmatic work of Kazuo Ishiguro) might provide a contextual starter set for Lincoln Michel, whose stories are strikingly assured in their strange, sublime originality.
Let me just say this: I dug this collection. A lot.
The first time my mother died, in May of 2009, I was about to finish grad school. Her new boyfriend called me to say her tracheotomy had fallen out. When it happened, she managed to call 911 and stay on the line a few minutes before her breathing ceased and her heart stopped. The paramedics were able to bring her back to life before brain death set in. I didn’t know about that part until weeks later. They told me she had merely lost consciousness, but in reality she’d been resuscitated. While I was graduating, she was recovering from near-death. I shook hands with the parents of other students, sneaking off to take her calls, listening to her whisper congratulations.
In August of 2009 she died for the second and final time. Due to my own self-absorption—the writing of my first book, trying to finish up grad school, a recent engagement, etc.—I’d taken her post-treatment condition for granted. I didn’t realize how difficult things had become until she was no longer around to express such for herself. And not until after I finished writing The Silent End, a novel that I can now identify, in its aftermath, as haunted, did I truly understand what she’d been through, and, by extension, how I’d been come to commune with what I can only describe as her ghost.
This week the New York Review of Books published the first of a two-part conversation between President Barack Obama and Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson, in which Obama completely fanboys out on the author.
…And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—
Marilynne Robinson: Thank you very much.
The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.
In the discussion, which took place in Iowa in September, Obama talks literature and Robinson talks politics and they both talk faith and the whole thing is very cool. It makes you wish the primary debates would pose the question of which author the 2016 candidates would most want to sit down with and fawn over.
Read the full conversation here.
Robinson has a new book due out this month, which you can read more about here.
When I tell you which writer from Belarus SHOULD have won the Nobel Prize this year, as I’m about to do, it’s not because I have anything against Svetlana Alexievich, the official winner, whose work I don’t know very well, having only encountered it in the magazine n+1, where I skimmed over it because I still can’t shake the feeling that her translator, Keith Gessen, is somehow a douchebag.
Instead, when I tell you which writer from Belarus SHOULD have won the Nobel Prize this year, what I’m saying is that, despite the fact that I’m an American and Americans supposedly don’t read much fiction in translation, and despite the fact that Belarus is a relatively small and unacknowledged contributor to world literature, it just so happens that I can name a writer from Belarus who is TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME and who deserves all the praise in the world, including (if I had my way) the Nobel Prize.
Remember when Michael Hofmann absolutely destroyed Stefan Zweig in the London Review of Books? It was an impressively vitriolic takedown of the writer who inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it’s worth re-reading now if only for the zingers. (“Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing… just putrid through and through.”) I remember thinking wow, okay, maybe. But why are you so angry about it, Hofmann?
Well, I should have realized—Hofmann is Joseph Roth’s translator. And if you didn’t know any better, you could mistake Joseph Roth for Stefan Zweig. They’re both Austrian and Jewish, both novelists and journalists, both born in the late 1800s and died at the start of WWII, both famous for capturing the spirit of the 1920s and ’30s, when all of Europe held its breath in anticipation of its own destruction.
Hofmann takes these two superficially similar writers and declares that you have to choose a side. Who do you love, and who do you hate—Roth or Zweig?