The Hidden Novels in Translation
Literature in the English speaking world has a tendency to be particularly closed off to everything but English literature. Few non-English authors are admitted to the canon and we willingly deprive ourselves of countless worldviews, cultures, themes, plots and characters on the basis that they are in some way secondary to works written in our native tongue. Yes, we are prepared to welcome in Hugo and Tolstoy and Flaubert into the inner circle, but they are firmly in the minority. Perhaps we are suspicious of the translator of literature. Perhaps we view translated novels as being a distorted version of the original text or a version of the novel seen through someone else’s eyes. Whatever the reason, while we will voraciously devour Dickens, Blyton, Lewis, King and Brown, we adopt a more standoffish relationship with those who do who write in Spanish, French, Mandarin and Portuguese. This list is not an exhaustive list of all overlooked writers for that would take many lifetimes’ work. Instead it acts to point readers towards some of our favourite novels in translation and from there to the larger body of translated work.
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
(David McLintock, translator)
Concrete is a darkly comical tale of narrator Rudolph’s mind and soul, of his inaction and procrastination and of the book that he is meant to, but never does, write. While one of the novel’s central tenets is inaction, Rudolph’s vitriolic rants against everything but the purest of intellectual pursuits inject tremendous energy into the text plot and the reader anxiously devours sentence after sentence to learn which subject will be the next target of the narrator.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
(David Magarshack, translator)
Despite being described as being “ten heads above me in talent” by Anton Chekhov, Goncharov has unfairly remained in the shadows of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Oblomov is Goncharov’s masterpiece. A story about ordinary Russian aristocrat, Ilya Ilich Oblomov, who is bestowed with extraordinary apathy. The first 200 pages see Oblomov confined not only to his apartment but also internally to his bed, chair and sofa. The novel later focuses on the disruption of Oblomov’s slothful life when his childhood friend, Stoltz, introduces him to the lovely and cultured Olga.
Climates by Andre Maurois
(Adriana Hunter, translator)
While a French classic, the English translation of Climates remain unjustly unknown. This fantastic novel by Andre Maurois beautifully bridges the gap between the intimately personal and the universally relatable. The story follows Philippe Marcenat and his sorties into the world of love. Marmois summarised the novel’s skeleton as such:
Part 1. I love, and am not loved. Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.
While this distillation sounds simple, it betrays a complexity that runs through all the novel’s narrative and thematic strands. When you dig through the love, you find something that resembles the absence of it and when you dig through the absence, you find something that very much resembles love itself. It is confusing and beguiling and a true triumph of literature.
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
(Anthea Bell, Translator)
It might sound peculiar to say that Austerlitz, winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, is a hidden novel in translation, but despite its critical acclaim it remains painfully unknown to the public at large. W.G. Sebald’s final novel is a beautiful unravelling of the Austerlitz’s life narrated by the eponymous character himself across several European cities between 1960 and 1997. Along the way the narrator drifts to and from topics and themes and between fiction and fact. Austerlitz is notable, too, for its inclusion of evocative photographs scattered throughout the pages. These photographs are tied to the themes of the text as well as Sebald’s other works.