Best Books of 2016: Translations!

An old literary crony of mine recently got back in touch in order to complain about book reviewers who make evaluative comments about the quality of translations that are made from languages they don’t know (your average book-critic being resolutely monoglot). I’d often made the same complaint: there I’d be, laboriously crawling through line-by-line Greek in order to do right by some new Iliad, only to read a Sunday critic breezily comment on how “transparent” the translation is – when I, that critic, and that critic’s mother know it’s all Greek to him. But lately I’ve come to soften this censure; translations, after all, don’t just owe fidelity to their source material – they also owe it to their present-day readers. It’s possible, I now grudgingly admit, to be justified in praising a translation even though you can’t read a word of the original Croatian. And in 2016 these were the best translations I encountered:

love-letter-in-cuneiform10. Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomas Zmeskal, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Yale University Press) – This story, set over the course of a generation in 20th century Czechoslovakia, somehow manages to be both rigorously precise and impressively kaleidoscopic as it flashes from one scene to the next in the lives of its characters, particularly the remarkable woman at the heart of all its stories.

9. Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom, translated from thecompartment-no-6 Finnish by Lola Rogers (Graywolf Press) – This little story, about a woman sharing a train compartment with a seemingly disreputable man as the they traverse cold, forbidding terrain, is deceptively unassuming and works a magic usually reserved for long Russian epics.

exemplary-novels8. Exemplary Novels by Cervantes, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Yale University Press) – The English-speaking world’s foremost translator from the Spanish here dusts off the unjustly overlooked books from Cervantes that have the great disadvantage of not being Don Quixote, and Yale University Press does its usual generous job fitting the whole thing out wayward-heroeswith an excellent critical apparatus.

7. Wayward Heroes by Haldor Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Phillip Roughton (Archipelago) – The idea behind this stark and grimly funny novel, the narrating of squalid everyday life in the high and exciting manner of the Icelandic sagas, while inspired, would fall flat in about 30 pages if the writer were to be complacent, but that’s something this author never is.

chronicle-of-the-murdered-house6. Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lucio Cardoso, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jill Costa & Robin Patterson (Open Letter) – Thanks to translators Margaret Jill Costa and Robin Patterson (and the good folks at Open Letter, not to be confused with Open Letters), this towering classic of Brazilian literature – the story of a grand family in decline – is at last available to English-language readers, and it was both a gripping read and something of a voroshilovgradrevelation for me.

5. Voroshilovgrad by Serhy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes & Isaac Wheeler (Deep Vellum Publishing) – The city at the center of this somewhat surreal Ukrainian novel is masterfully conveyed by Serhy Zhadan, as is the somewhat forlorn optimism of the book’s main character. I know next to nothing about Ukrainian literature, but I liked this book so much it left me wanting to wandering-hong-kongknow much more.

4. Wandering Hong Kong with Spirits by Liu Watang, translated from the Chinese by Desmond Sham & Enoch Tam (Zephyr Press) – This slim book was not only the hands-down strangest of the translated books on our list this year but also strongly in the running for the strangest book on our entire list, a smart, slippery combination of quotidian everyday and a kind of alternative Hong Kong existing partly in another dimension, or in a dream of the past. Again, I encountered this book in complete ignorance of one of its key elements, this time its impressively multi-talented author.

3. Martutene by Ramon Saizarbitoria, translated from the Basque by Aritz Branton martutene(Hispabooks) – There’s something dauntingly dreary about learning about the existence of a massive prose epic from a foreign literary tradition about which you knew nothing previously; you feel abruptly transported back to a joyless classroom, and you expect to get lesson-work. This was my initial reaction when I saw this English-language translation of an 800-page classic of Basque literature, but the book – the story of an old, jaded group of friends and spouses whose world is jolted by a new arrival from America – was much, much more than just a lesson in multiculturalism; the stone-tabletswriting, in Aritz Branton’s translation, was gripping for the whole length of the thing.

2. Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books) – This fifty-year-old classic of Polish literature, the story of a Cold War Polish diplomat working in India, here gets its first English-language translation, and like a number of books on this list, I came to it completely cold – and quickly came to love it for its superb storytelling and its controlled but still delectable my-secret-booknostalgia.

1. My Secret Book by Petrarch, translated from the Italian by Nicholas Mann (I Tatti) – It’s the careful, hard-working crew at Harvard University’s I Tatti Renaissance Library who produced the best translation of 2016 with this meticulously-rendered and marvelously sensitive scholarly edition of Petrarch’s most quietly astonishing work, a work of plaintive and rigorous self-examination cast in the form of a dialogue with St. Augustine. The I Tatti Library has been uniformly excellent, but even so, this volume stands out.

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