Italian Posts

Interview with translator Antony Shugaar

Antony Shugaar, picture by Chad van Herpe

I first came across Antony Shugaar’s work as a translator in the magnificently translated novel, The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. It has been translated from Italian to English. It was an extraordinary translation. I was reading English but with the rhythm and cadences of Italian without massacring any language in the process. Instead it made the thrill of reading a translated work so much richer as it was so easy to get into. Perhaps having a husband who shifts smoothly between English and Italian made it easier for me to recognise this truth. The utter joy of being able to appreciate translated literature from the very first page is inexplicable. It is the rare translator who is able to achieve this feat of being able to convey the beauty of the original language in the destination language.

Then I came across his essay “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook” ( 19 Feb 2014) I loved. I made extensive scribbles in the margins of the hard copy while reading it and kept saying, “yes, yes, yes!” There are so many points he raised that interested me. 

Translators put in all the hard work and make literature available in other languages. There is so much variety. Without being a translator myself, I find I “judge” the quality of translations. Very peculiar space to inhabit. I judge based predominantly on the basis of “readability” of the destination language. Obviously not being familiar with the source text or language it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the translation is accurate or not. Yet there is something in “uneven” or “poor” translations that sets my teeth on edge. With a poor translation I find that there are texts I seem to be hitting my head against the wall for the clunkiness of text. There is no rhythm and it is tough to read. This is probably what Antony Shugaar refers to in the “dialect problem” — “the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.” 

Another of his recently translated books that I have read is Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published by Enchanted Lion Books. 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christen Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.

I wrote to Antony Shugaar after reading The Catholic School. He very kindly replied. Subsequently he also agreed to be interviewed for my blog. The following is the result of a lovely, long correspondence we had discussing various aspects of translation.

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Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He’s translated dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books and close to forty novels for Europa Editions. He has translated many novels that were awarded Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize (the 2011 winner, Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, Resistance Is Futile, by Walter Siti [2013], Francesco Piccolo’s Wanna Be Like Everyone [2104], Ferocity, by Nicola Lagioia [2015], and the 2016 winner, The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati). In the realm of Italian noir, aside from some of the work of Gianfranco Carofiglio, he’s also translated books by many of the leading figures in the field: Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri, Maurizio de Giovanni, the late Giorgio Faletti, Antonio Manzini, and others. He’s received two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He translated two books in the W. W. Norton Collected Works of Primo Levi, published in 2015.And his translation of Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado was shortlisted for both the PEN and the ALTA Italian translation awards. He has translated TV series and movies for HBO, Netflix, and Amazon.

  1. What prompted you to become a professional translator?

I forget the name of the professor who said it, but the great translator Richard Howard quoted the line in a lovely essay he wrote many, many decades ago in a book on translation published by University of Texas Press: “No one ever set out to become a professional translator.” That may no longer be true, but it is a wise and wry observation. Languages are such vast and demarcated pools that any attempt to breach the levees separating them almost feels like a rash and ill-advised act. Certainly, comparative literature studies these huge inland seas and “compares” them, but the act of channelling one into another seems to violate some sort of taboo. So there’s a secret thrill to cutting a hole in the wall and letting water out of one reservoir and into another… an act which can be dangerous. The word “rival” comes very much out of the lore of riparian law and the banks of rivers… (in linguistics, “p” and “v” are close neighbours, as the two conjoined words “separate” and “several), in turn connected to “sever”, clearly show). A friend of mine told me a folk etymology that I believe is illustrative. My friend is from a land of canals and rivers, near Venice, a place of flooding and dam-building. He tells me that a “rival” is someone who lives on the opposite river bank. If a river’s level rises dangerously to flood state, he is the first to come over to YOUR side of the river and dig a hole at the top of YOUR levee. Because if YOUR side of the river floods, then HIS doesn’t. That being said, I think it’s clear why there is an age-old suspicion of the act of alchemy and magic that accompanies translation. It seems intrinsically DANGEROUS to unleash the uncontrollable elements of nature that cause floods. Language groups are also known as linguistic reservoirs. I compare translation to time travel. In fact, the classic quote about foreign countries compares them to other times. And rarely do people complete the famous sentence with its second half, separated by a semicolon: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So I became a translator for a couple of reasons, ostensibly to earn money while living in a foreign country, and therefore in order to stay there. But also because it felt like an act of magic, and also a way of sharing with others of my own language the things I was seeing in this amazing new place where I lived. If I travelled to the past, I would certainly want to be able to share my experience with those of the present. The same of course is true for the future. Italy always felt like a mix of past and future to me, blended into a startlingly vivid present. I could say more about the details of how I started, and would be glad to. Suffice it to say that it involved doing translations via Telex, a now-antiquated means of communication that used a huge and clumsy keyboard and a long yellow strip of paper with holes punched into a bizarre and fragile arabesque of meaning. More information on those years in the Italian Alps working as a fledgling translator will happily be provided upon request. 

2. You make a powerful statement with “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.” So what does it take to become a professional translator?

I should start by pointing out that an editor added the concluding phrase about bridges from one world to another. To my mind, that add-on was optimistic and pat, and not entirely unwarranted, but it wasn’t part of what I wanted to say. I’m not such a positivist, and I definitely feel that there’s an enormous reservoir of lost meaning in the whole process of translation. But then you can hardly help but look around right now at the shambles of our society and wonder if loss isn’t just a standard part of any human interaction. That said, I would probably want to ally myself with the fantastic theorist of translation, Jorge Luis Borges, and say that there are actually no untranslatable worlds, but a full translation of certain sentences might require a multi-volume encyclopaedia to translate them. I’d hearken back to my early years in Italy, when I went to a café in Perugia, where I was studying, and sat down with an espresso at a small table. So far, perfectly translatable. But then I looked out and realized that there was the high-pitched musical sound of hammers tapping on chisels and chisels biting into stone. I looked closer and realized that there were four or five workmen seated on low wooden benches, laboriously shaping large grey stone slabs that formed part of the road surface. These slabs were perhaps a pietra serena, a Tuscan grey stone very similar to the bluestone used for sidewalks in, say, Brooklyn. The crew were all wearing work clothes, possibly the jumpsuits or overalls typical of Italian manual labourers. Certainly, I remember, they wore ingeniously folded hats made out of that morning’s newspaper. The slabs of stone they were working on must have weighed a hundred pounds. The chorus of hammers on metal sounded like something out of Italian high opera or a Japanese abstract composition. Hard to say which. Now if this scene were described in Italian as a “road repair crew,” without any additional description, how could I claim to have translated it accurately? This is an endless problem in translation. Someone opens a door and walks into a restaurant. Well in America by law that door opens outward, to avoid the danger of a panic in case of a fire, with people crushed against a door that cannot be opened inward. I’ve often wondered why Italian doors in public facilities open inward, and I’ve come up with a bit of a joke about it. Since cars park on the sidewalk in Italy, a door that opened outward might easily be blocked by a too-large car parked too close to the building’s facade. Not as unreasonable as it sounds, especially in my early days in Italy. Sometimes these patterns or customs are established and then left in place. William Weaver, a great translator from the Italian who is, sadly, no longer with us, used to say that the hardest word to translate out of Italian is “buongiorno,” a Swiss-Army-knife of a word that has all kinds of subtle aspects to its use and is decidedly not equivalent to “good day.” The Italian “portone” is often translated as “front door” or “street entrance” but neither of those terms really describe the richness and articulation of the “portone” as a filter, a diaphragm, and a scrim between the inner world of the Italian “condominio,” or community of apartment dwellers, and the outside street and sidewalk. The door itself is a double panel, massive thing, large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to drive through and into the courtyard. Often the building in question actually was built when horse-and-carriage was the prime conveyance. You can often see narrow ruts running across the sidewalk and past the doorman’s booth and on into the courtyard. There is usually a small pedestrian door cut into one of the large panels. When the large doors are closed, of course, this door can be buzzed open by any of the inhabitants of the “palazzo.” When the doors are open, there is the entire rich declension of interactions with the doorman or doorwoman. To translate portone with “front door,” like an apartment house aluminum-and-glass door seems impossibly reductive. I could go on. There are window systems called “miradors” in Spain that reach their high point in the Atlantic coast city of La Coruña. Just google “miradors” and “La Coruña” and start scrolling. They’re amazing structures designed to allow light and wind to be calibrated as elaborately as the suit of sails on a clipper ship at the height of the mariner’s art. The windows can be set at an angle, just so, and sunlight can be modulated with precision. To call that a “bow” or “bay window” is to miss and to overlook a world.

3. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation? How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project? How would you define a “good” translation?

I’m going to take the three questions as a prompt for a somewhat independent “riff.” Please bear with me, and I imagine this feels a little bit like herding cats. I will gladly address some of your questions about more specific matters but I’d like to range a little freer on the “metaphysics” of translation.

I did not know about this latest interaction between Cervantes and Rushdie through the person of Edith Grossman[i]. It is almost ironic (as if there were a ghost hand at play) that I sent you a photo of a mirador in La Coruña with a comment on how it resembled Indian vernacular architecture (with a possible British intermediation) two days ago, when we are now talking about a Spanish author and his gnomic influence on a British-Indian novelist and essayist. But there you are. I cannot comment on this interaction and I confess I haven’t read either of the books in question, Quichotte or Grossman’s rendering of Don Quixote. I can say that Cervantes is the source of one of my favourite quotes (we can discuss the detail on this) on translation, saying that a translation is like looking at the reverse of a Turkish carpet, where you see the knots and the warp and weft, but only indistinctly. He specifies, as I recall, that this is true of vernacular languages, not the great classical languages of Latin and Greek. I’ve never quite understood that distinction. Also, I love that Sciascia references a line from Don Quixote in his understanding of the origins of Mafia culture. “Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”[ii] It is quite a brilliant reference: something about how a gentleman doesn’t pry into other people’s business. And of course the Spanish influence on Southern Italian culture is enormous, a result of long centuries of occupation, a Bourbon dynasty ruling over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with its tradition of “¿si hay algo que se puede hacer porque te preocupes y si no hay nada que se puede hacer porque te preocupes?” But especially the role of Spanish culture in the south is the result of roads vs. ships: it was so much faster to sail from Spain, or from North Africa, than it was to take an ox cart from, say, Switzerland…. In short, those links are buried in the geographic structure and the physical anthropology of history. That is a theme that I return to often, in my thinking and my understanding of translation: physical anthropology. And the sheer experiential nature of translation.

After this long and laborious windup, let me however come to Cervantes and translation. I think it is very significant that Rushdie, who is so much about the magic of words and the spark of imagination in the vast grim fields of life as it is lived, should have failed to grasp Don Quixote in one translation and then instantly see it in another. A strong argument for the constant retranslation of classics, but also a reason to think about exactly where the spark of the new style and insight in Grossman’s version comes from. And the answer, as in all things related to translation, in my opinion, is sort of diffuse. Like life, like writing itself, the source of inspiration and success in translation isn’t codifiable. Translation theorists are always talking about “strategy” in translation[iii], and that’s a very fine thing, but to me the important thing is tactics. Expedients and jury-rigged solutions are the only way that I really make my way forward in translation. People sometimes forget the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is an overarching plan for an undertaking, tactics are the way you solve individual snarls and knots in the work. Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox: the hedgehog knows ONE thing and the fox knows a great many things. Wisdom versus cleverness? Perhaps, but I think it goes deeper than that.

In any case, the reference to Don Quixote is this. There was a great philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who died recently. His name was Hilary Putnam. I haven’t read his work, I honestly have only read his obituary and then done some further online research into his background. He had a philosophical theory called the “Twin Earth thought experiment”. The basic idea was that in this scenario there are two planets identical in every way except for one detail. The word for water describes two very slightly different versions of water. Every other aspect of water is the same. I’m guessing that whatever taste water has is described with the same adjectives, even if the reference is to something slightly different. When I read about that thought experiment — Twin Earths — in Putnam’s obituary, my scalp tingled. Perhaps it was mentioned in the obituary, or perhaps I learned it as soon as I read the Wikipedia article about him, but his father was Samuel Putnam, a prominent translator whose Don Quixote is still considered one of the best ever done (and perhaps was the version that Rushdie found wanting in college… I’d love to know[iv]). Hilary Putnam grew up in France, I read, and must have talked frequently with his father about his work.

Where does the instinct to translate come from? Is it inherited? The late great Anthea Bell[v], translator of many things but to my mind, especially, the Asterix comics[vi], to such great effect in English if not American culture, was the daughter of a man who regularly constructed the Times of London’s crossword puzzles. Ann Goldstein[vii], the translator of Elena Ferrante, was for many years the head of copy at The New Yorker, a magazine that has been America’s window into cosmopolitan culture in so many ways. William Weaver was a gay conscientious objector from Virginia who drove ambulances in the war and was injured, only to recover in the palazzo of a noted Italian writer. Life experience is certainly part of it, experience of the mind, also.

But in particular it must be the experience of the mismatch between the life experiences of cultures and the mental experiences therein. What do I mean by that? Well the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that a language SHAPES your experience of the world. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think when you go into a different culture and you start to see the books they know and the books we know and how those two libraries fail to map equivalently, then you are just tempted to pitch in and say: my fellow anglophones NEED to understand this one formative work. There’s a chunk missing in their mental lives. This is certainly true of Dante. Ann Goldstein came to translation by reading Dante. So did I, in some ways. In fact, I studied Dante early and it had a huge influence on my understanding of the basic nature of Italian, the way in which it performs its mimesis. I’ve written something about that early experience and I can dig it up and send it to you if you like. But my point here is that there’s a kind of theatrical, dramatic tradition in Dante that traces its roots back (to Virgil, obviously, and to Apuleius perhaps?) but then, not as far back, to the Song of Roland and the Arthurian saga, and forward to Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and then, of course, to Cervantes. My point, here, however, is the richness of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a beloved work, I know, to Ezra Pound (and that’s a can of worms I’m not going to touch), but also an amazingly prescient piece of writing for the present day. 

In the great epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” Ariosto plays freely with minds, imaginations, and language. One knight, Astolfo, manages to fly to the moon on a hippogriff, where he finds the great knight Orlando’s wits (yes, he lost his wits) in a bottle and returns them to him. Even better, the sorcerer Atlante (I think called Atlantes in English transliteration) builds a castle of dreams in which he hopes to imprison Ruggero to keep him from meeting his fate as predicted by a soothsayer. Ruggero and all the other great knights and ladies are lured into this castle of dreams where each of them constantly sees, fleeing from them, their heart’s desire (in Ruggero’s case, the lady Angelica). Is this not an amazing model of what would become the internet. Even better: as these heroes and heroines stumble around in utter futility pursuing will-o’-the-wisp phantasms, they crash into each other, becoming increasingly angry and accusing each other of having STOLEN the objects of their desire. Did Mark Zuckerberg read this poem in his time at Harvard? I’ll tell you who DID read it and loved it during his time at Yale. James Jesus Angleton, the great and paranoid counterintelligence operative at the CIA who was the inspiration for many of John Le Carré’s novels. Angleton in fact founded a student literary magazine called “Furioso” during his time at Yale, and apparently reached out to Ezra Pound to ask him to become an adviser to the magazine. Angleton, by the way, is perhaps best known for his quote about espionage, calling it “a wilderness of mirrors.” To quote from an essay by John Kimsey, “It was Angleton who first used the phrase ‘a wilderness of mirrors[viii]‘ to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work.” Well, I think that Italians have this amazing artefact in their culture to understand the Internet, while we do not. Perhaps we have the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace instead. 

I don’t think that the reference to halls of mirrors is entirely amiss when it comes to translation. Think of The Third Man, and the ending in the Hall of Mirrors. That’s about espionage in a meeting spot between two warring empires, speaking profoundly different languages. The translator’s work is very much like that, trying to glean meaning from an often ambiguous text. And the question of the “dialect problem” comes into it very adroitly: I believe that dialect is a like a sheet of transparent glass inside a hall of mirrors. Do you remember that specific trick in the halls of mirrors of your childhood? You learn to navigate your way through the mirrors, warned by the sight of your own approaching reflection, but the blank sheets of glass trick you. No reflection and so you walk into them. Well, dialect is like that. It is part of the text, and so invisible in translation into English (or whatever target language you are working in). How do you render it? Do you simply use ungrammatical speech? Then how do you deal with the fact that the sonnet is a verse form invented in Sicilian dialect by the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I? If not he, poets at his court. But I have heard that it was the emperor himself who took part in the invention. Or that Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to speak in his native Neapolitan dialect? The late William Weaver, who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, asked the question, as you’ve read in my VQR piece, “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” He declared the problem to be unsolvable[ix].

Like one of the heart’s desires vanishing around a corner in Atlante’s castle, in other words. 

It really makes me wonder if Italian culture somehow understands the ultimate futility of certain ideological pursuits because of its rich literature of love, yearning, and folly. Is that why they were able to see the madness of doing anything in a time of pandemic other than hunkering down and wearing masks? Is that why they were successful and we Americans, allegedly hard-headed and pragmatic about the Real World, have failed so abjectly, so terrifyingly? 

Do you know the hilarious anecdote about J.M. Austen and Sydney Morgenbesser at Columbia University, my alma mater (well for journalism school, I took my masters at the Graduate School of Journalism)? From a NY Times article about Morgenbesser.

Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humour and preternaturally agile mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale — in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story that it is — was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”

4. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator? 

I really don’t know. I very much taught myself the art of translation, to the extent that I know it. But then I would have had my doubts about the teaching of creative writing. I remember learning from Professor Pietro Scarpellini at the Università per Stranieri that when Perugino and other great artists of the Renaissance were small boys and apprentices in the bottegas where they learned their craft, they were all set to grind minerals and roots and all the other sources of pigments of their day. They would work grinding pigments as long as there was daylight. Working in natural light, they developed a great sense of what the natural spectrum of colours were and how pigments could emulate or reproduce those colours. Having done that work for countless hours from the age of 5 to the age of 12, they worked in colours with an intuitive sense of balance and composition. Perhaps that’s a way of teaching. I know that a great deal of my experience as a translator was translating anything: technical documents, advertising, legal agreements, you name it. And I learned from making mistakes. One of the most wonderful cheat sheets for me is always seeing badly translated material. An experienced translator can look at a badly translated piece of English and almost conjure up the original source language, for me, Italian. It’s like I can see the writer’s original intention from the missteps and false friends in the bad translation.

5. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project? 

It depends. If it’s a well written text by an interesting writer, the pro is a sense of elation and the con is the exhaustion of channelling such intensely gripping text. If it’s a badly written text by a dull writer, it’s like the experience of being trapped in a compartment with an unwelcome motor mouthed travelling companion. It’s excruciating. Luckily I haven’t had anything like that experience for a long, long time. There is the wonderful liberation of completing the translation, though. That’s always memorable.

6. How do you tackle the “dialect problem“? 

Well, the first thing is that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Is dialect best rendered as some variant English accent? That seems very specific. It’s a question of WHAT dialect is. Some translators treat it as if it’s just people speaking ungrammatically. They render it with comically broken English, which dialect most decidedly is not. What’s the old joke? A language is a dialect with an army and a navy? If that’s so, then how is a dialect really any different than someone unexpectedly speaking, say, German inside a book written in Italian? You can use subtitles or else you can use other literary tricks and conventions. In movies about World War II POW camps, the enlisted German soldiers always speak English with a heavy “Choyman” accent, while the officers speak English with an Oxford accent with just the finest razor’s edge of German inflection. Very class-based.

I’ve done both things, the outright Brooklyn dese-and-dose and the incorporation of the actual words in dialect with the literary equivalent of subtitles, that is, a rendering of the dialect in English, in quotes inside parentheses. Two different critics had diametrically opposing views of what I’d done. One, missing the point, complained about the annoying presence of “the original Italian” in the text. I had explained my process in a translator’s note, but the critic must have missed that. Another critic hailed the authenticity of bits of dialect embedded in the English.

I’m going to quote from the review, by Gabino Iglesias. As an author of “barrio noir,” Iglesias may have had a more perceptive eye for the different levels of linguistic depth I was trying to encompass:

“Lastly, there is one more element that separates this novel from most contemporary crime fiction: language. It seems like Saviano worked hard to achieve a balance between Italian and dialect, and translator Antony Shugaar surely added a bit of explanation to the narrative in his translation. The result of this is a story that carries with it the rhythm and linguistic identity of its source, the unique turns of phrase, sayings, terms of endearment, and even insults of lower Naples. Most of it is offered also in translation (sometimes unnecessarily), but there are passages in which there is no direct translation, although the words used are understandable in context. This use of language adds a layer of authenticity to the text and keeps readers deep in the culture of the place.”

One other rule that I try to follow is that if the author uses X amount of dialect, then I reduce that one-quarter X or perhaps even less. No text in translation will bear as much dialect as the original. I’m not sure why, but having cooked the recipes many, many times, I’ve learned to reduce the quantity of that particular ingredient.

  1. When is it best to involve a “living author” in the translation process? For instance, how often did you need to work with Albinati regarding this translation? What are the challenges (if any) of translating a “living vs dead” author? 

I was both impressed and chastened by the very sharp and intuitive eye that Albinati showed. Even though his English is not fluent, he very perceptively came up with critiques of many areas where I had misread his intent, the underlying bones of message. The subtlety of a novelist’s instinct for meaning and nuance is an interesting early warning radar system. We spent days dealing with fine subtleties of meaning that I had misconstrued. Later Albinati wrote a widely read and discussed article in Italian, published in “Corriere della Sera,” which he opened with the statement: “I wrote ‘The Catholic School,’ but I had never read it. Until I read it in English. And it leads me to your next question…

8. You refer to the great paradox of “faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language” in your 2014 essay. How does a translator grapple with this paradox or is it subjective? 

I am NOT a novelist, but I am a writer. I think that above and beyond the sort of hands-on training I alluded to when I talked about apprentice artists in the Renaissance grinding pigments as children, there is a native interest in the working of language—words and connotation and the linguistic equivalent of “body English” in the manipulation of units meaning, from particles to words to sentences and paragraphs—that is a fundamental prerequisite for language.

There are little oddities of language, little ghosts in the machine, that I see as hints at how the larger structure works. Take the expression, “You have another think coming,” as in, “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another think coming.” Roughly half the people in the United States, from the articles on the subject that I have seen, actually believe that it’s: “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another thing coming.” That makes no sense to me, but the “think coming” makes no sense to the other half of the population. And if you look at the history of the term (using the nGram Viewer, a very useful historical tracker of any term you care to put into it, and one I highly recommend), you find that “think” and “thing” are almost exactly the same age. People have been using BOTH versions for as long as the phrase has been around. And, of course, because “thing” backs up to the hard C in “coming,” there is no real difference in the pronunciation. When speaking, Person A can say “thing” and Person B can hear “think,” and no one is the wiser.

That’s a perfect metaphor for what happens in translation. However, I choose to treat dialect, it’s accepted by the reader. I mentioned the past being a different country above. Well, dialect is a piece of the fabric of a given country. Another such element, which I’ve been encountering more and more in the translations I do out of the Italian, is a listing of “Do You Remember? moments from Italian pop cultural history. Things from the 1970s and 1980s: Large “beach marbles” about the size of a billiard ball, that Italians would large along tracks scooped out of the sand in races not unlike a bocce game. Banana seat, high-handle-bar bicycles. Portable record players that you inserted a 45 rpm record into for teenage dance parties. Italian versions of Silly Putty, Play-Doh, and numerous other games. Again, units of meaning and sentiment that cannot just be substituted with their approximate American or British equivalents.

As mentioned above, Isaiah Berlin spoke of the fox and the hedgehog. The strategy with respect to dialect and to pop culture and to all manner of cultural artefacts and touchstones has to be this: try to be true to the original. Try to respect your reader’s intelligence and mental agility. Try to make your text read as if it was written by the imaginary person your author would be if they had been born and brought up speaking and writing English, not Italian or French or Spanish (even if they then would NOT have written the book in question).

Then, the tactics become very fox like: Anything you can use, any contrivance or subtle explanation or mode of speech. Be inventive!

I do my best to take that approach. Am I always or even sometimes successful? Well, I hope I am. But I’m keenly aware that the outcome is always, inevitably, a partial failure.

But I comfort myself with Wallace Shawn’s great, philosophical line from “My Dinner with Andre.”

I’m just trying to survive, you know. […] I mean, uh…ahhh… I live my life. […] I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list! I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!

 I’m a translator, dealing on a regular basis with these knotty, tricky, almost metaphysical questions of meaning and style and questionable equivalency. I’m paid to do it. And it keeps my mind constantly occupied with what I find to be intensely interesting issues of language. I feel like a translation is like Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly alive and possibly dead as long as it sits unopened in that box. If you take the translation and you read it carefully against the original (either the day after it’s published or 200 years later), then you may discover that the cat is either dead or alive. But if you leave the black box carefully untouched, and you enjoy that cup of cold coffee in the morning, and you enjoy what good has been with the text, then translation is a pretty wonderful thing. After all, Wallace Shawn, who spoke the lines above, is also a translator. As it happens, from the Italian.

Let me close this very long interview with another quote, from an article that Michael Cunningham wrote for the New York Times. It was about translation, and the translators of his books into other languages, from the English.

I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation. A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published.

I think this is one of the wisest and most rueful comments I have ever read about the enterprise of translation and, taking a step back, the enterprise of writing, thinking, and feeling about human life. I think that this quote is, perhaps, a very small but dazzlingly brilliant cathedral made of fire.


[i] I heard this in an interview Rushdie did with Razia Iqbal in London for Intelligence Squared. ( https://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/an-evening-with-salman-rushdie/ , Aug 2019) This happened because a few years ago to commemorate the 400 years of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the UK indie publisher And Other Stories published a fantastic volume of commissioned short stories. These stories were to pay homage to these two great writers and renowned names had been asked to contribute. Rushdie wrote the preface and it remains one of my favourite introductions.

Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes I read slowly. I have not finished it but editors and writers whose work I truly admire swear by its magnificence. Here is one of her more recent interviews, published in Asymptote, Sept 2019.   

[ii] “I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristóbal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jáuregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”

[iii] Our 10 yo daughter, Sarah, is being taught French in school. So Jacob is teaching her French at home. Jacob is a polyglot and fluent in English, Hindi, Italian, French and smattering of German. But it is about the “tactics” you speak of that he is employing. His pronunciation and vocabulary in every language is accurate. So he wants Sarah to learn accurately too. She is obviously stumbling in some French pronunciations. So he makes her write the French word, then to get the right pronunciation, he makes her write the spelling in Hindi as it is a phonetic language and then the meaning in English. It is incredible how fast the little girl is picking up French!

For a couple of years now Sarah asks translations of words in different languages without realising how significant this fact is. She takes it for granted that this is how it is in every household.

Jacob often tells her that if you learn a language correctly, you learn about a new culture.

Antony Shugaar replied:

Very nice, and congratulations. Sounds like Sarah is heading in an interesting direction. I have a nice, similar teaching trick. It is very difficult for English speakers to hear the crucial distinction between single- and double-consonanted proununciations in Italian. Anno versus ano. But it is possible to hear it in English and then apply it in Italian. “Anice” has a single “n”. Un-nice has a double n, if pronounced carefully in English. For “l” – Alice versus pill-like. “Hammett” is a single “m” but the ridiculous and improbably construction, “ham meat,” that’s a double m. It makes it easy for English speakers to hear the double. Then they know not to say “Ho 21 ani,” instead of “Ho 21 aNNi.”

[iv] Quite likely since the Putnam translation seems to have been published in 1949 and was considered the best in those days. Having said that it, it seems there were two more translations published in quick succession. These were by Cohen (1950) and Starkie (1957). Ref:  https://franklycurious.com/wp/don-quixote-english/

Antony Shugaar replied: “Nice. In the Italian Asterix, there’s a very nice translator-invented joke (works only in Italian). Tapping his head, Asterix (and others) frequently like to say. “SPQR: sono pazzi questi romani!” – These Romans are crazy.”

[v] When Anthea Bell turned 80, many celebrations were planned across UK. The following was posted on FB (2016). I found it fascinating that an obituary for her former husband also gave the origins of her career as a translator of Asterix. Take a look.

Her father, Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword creator for The Times.

Anthea Bell married Robert Kamm, a fellow student at Oxford. Kamm’s father, George Kamm, was a founder-director of Pan Books. Kamm’s mother, Josephine, was a biographer and YA lit writer too. “Robert Kamm’s first job was with the National Book League, now known as the Book Trust, and in 1957 he married fellow Oxford student Anthea Bell. He moved to Brockhampton Press in Leicester in 1960 where he was editorial director and played a key role in the publication of the Asterix books, whose humour and original French jokes had previously been deemed impossible to translate. That task fell to his wife and a fellow translator and the first three titled were published in 1969.He spent 12 years at Brockhampton before a two-year spell as a senior education officer with the Commonwealth Secretariat, touring Commonwealth countries, discussing books and exploring the possibilities there for publishing for children. During the time he was at Brockhampton he chaired both the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers Association and the Children’s Book Circle. From 1963 to 1976 he was also a consultant to various international organisations including Unesco.” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-antony-kamm-publisher-author-historian-and-cricketer-1-1503632#ixzz49pIyI1rf  )

Robert Kamm divorced Anthea. He remained in publishing including being the director of children’s literature at OUP. Where he met his second wife who outlived him. She was Eileen Dunlop, a biographer and children’s writer and one of his authors.

Anthea Bell’s brother is the well-known BBC correspondent, Martin Bell.

One of Anthea’s sons is Oliver Kamm, a left-wing politician and banker.

[vi] Speaking of translations of Asterix comics, you may like to see this article on my blog of the comics being translated into Hindi: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/asterix-speaks-hindi-now/

[vii] Seen this brilliant article on Ann Goldstein published in the New York Times?

[viii] A word/phrase that now seems to be embedded in everyone’s psyche while talking about counterintelligence work etc.

Antony: Yes, but coined by Angleton. Whose father was from Idaho, rode down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the same expedition on which Ambrose Bierce lost his life, and brought home a beautiful señorita, James Jesus Angleton’s mother. Then, working for the National Cash Register company (the same company that made defective voting machines used in the 2000 election), he took wife and son to live in Rome, under Fascism. There is a short history of the corruption and decline of the American republic. It all, inevitably, ends with the OSS being replaced by the CIA. All that makes perfect sense to me.

[ix] This is a big problematic area in Indian literature. Translations from various regional languages are being made available in English and it is a minefield. There are texts in English that are a nightmare to read as the translators insist on making the dialects visible to the English reader. And there are others who completely scrub the dialect out but also do not provide a translator’s note to say that the author relies on dialects to provide a texture to the novel + give the social context of their characters. It is all so complicated and an extremely sensitive topic in Indian literature. Broaching it with translators, authors, and editors is an extremely sensitive topic.

“Telephone Tales” by Gianni Rodari

Telephone Tales

Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, translated from Italian to English by Antony Shugaar, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and is published by Enchanted Lion Books. It’s publication in 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read. 

According to the press release:

The genius of Rodari lay in his commitment to the dialectical use of the imaginatinon, which he saw as necessary for passage from a passive acceptance of the world to the ability to challenge it and then to change it. Insight into Rodari’s subversive sensibility can quickly be gleaned from a casual comment he made in defense of comics: “Every now and then we hear talk about banning this or that comic: wouldn’t it be more useful to forbid teachers to hate books, which only turns them into instruments of torture instead of discovery?”

Telephone Tales is a collection of bedtime stories told by a father to his daughter over the telephone in the time allotted by a single call token, for the father is a travelling salesman and phone calls across countries are expensive. The Hans Christen Andersen Award committee said of his stories, “they are clearly and deliberately constructed. They develop according to their own natural laws, even though they may not always coincide with reality. They are truly fantastic stories rooted in our modern world which, through their playfulness, often take a very critical view of it. He wants to sharpen his young readers’ vision, so that they will learn to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. He wants to open their eyes to true humanity, to tolerance and international understanding, to social justice and personal integrity.”

Rodari worked … for Italy’s education system and took a serious interest in pedagogy. In the 1960s, Italy’s schools were reformed to be more inclusive of poor and working-class children, but the changes sparked a conservative backlash. Rodari’s books, with their accessible style and jokes built around grammatical mistakes, were intended to empower disadvantaged children who weren’t exposed to books and formal speech at home.

“He wanted kids not to feel intimidated, to see mistakes as a tool to grow and as a creative moment,” Roghi, his biographer, said. She added that Rodari also contributed to the development of the Reggio approach, the educational philosophy born in Reggio Emilia after World War II, that saw the classroom as a self-educating community. ( Famous in Italy, Rodari Reaches U.S. Shores With ‘Telephone Tales’” The New York Times, 5 Sept 2020) 

It is an absolutely gorgeous book! Impossible to put down once you begin reading it. The illustrations complement the text well but are never distracting. They add a playful element to the reading experience. Every little detail adds up to bring sheer joy in reading this magnificently produced volume of short stories.

Buy it!

16 Oct 2020

Edoardo Albinati’s “The Catholic School”

My review of Edoardo Albinati’s award-winning novel The Catholic School was published in The Hindu Literary Review on Sunday, 3 Nov 2019. It was publishing in the online edition on Saturday, 2 Nov 2019. Here is the link. Given the sudden space crunch, the published version of the review had to be shortened considerably. So I am c&p the longer version below.

Edoardo Albinati The Catholic School (Transl. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar) Picador, London, 2019. Pb. Pp. 1263 £16.99

The Catholic School by Italian novelist Edoardo Albinati is about the abduction and murder of two girls by three well-heeled boys — Andrea Ghira, Gianni Guido and Angelo Izzo —who belonged to the all-male Istituto San Leone Magno (SLM)The group had met at the Il Fungo, the Mushroom, a long time meeting spot for fascists. Over the next 36 hours, the two girls were tortured and raped. Rosaria was killed but Donatella managed to save herself by faking her death. The murderers dumped the bodies of the girls in a car boot. It was found after Donatella began banging on the roof of the boot. The notorious sex crime occurred on the weekend of 29 September 1975. The SLM is a private catholic school established in Rome (1887) by the Marist Brothers. It is also Edoardo Albinati’s alma mater. Albinati was a contemporary of the three school students accused of murder whom the popular press of the time described as “young and pitiless nabobs”.

Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is about this appalling crime while also attempting to understand the minds of these brutal killers. At nearly 1300-pages, this semi-autobiographical novel, mentions the Circeo massacre briefly. Otherwise the book mostly consists of long digressions —philosophical, literary, anthropological analyses. His musings are mostly on how masculinity has been defined over the decades, for which he relies on extensive literary and popular culture references. He investigates the peculiar position that men employ in Italian society: from being mammoni (mammas’ boys) to virile, bursting-with-testosterone men in public spaces who have to prove themselves as “men”. Expecting The Catholic School to bea firsthand account of the slow transformation of the school students into notorious “killers” is not what one gets except for glimpses into Angelo’s criminal mind. The novel is more of a meandering introspection on understanding the potent mix of masculinity, fascism, violence and sex, that converted these boys into monsters particularly when all SLM students were given a firm religious grounding in their formative years by the Catholic Brothers. Albinati believes that religious instruction in many ways taught suppression of emotions resulting in the boys being akin to ticking masculine time bombs.

Albinati acknowledges that while the novel employs the first person singular narrative to tell the story these may well “differ from the author cited on the cover” as he “freely [interbreeds] memory and imagination”. In the mid-nineties, Albinati became a teacher in the maximum security wing of the Rebibbia Prison, Rome, where Mafiosi and Camorristi were among the inmates. In fact, Albinati says that he made “use of police reports, deposition manuscripts, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts” as is evident in his descriptions of Angelo. These multiple experiences of knowing his infamous contemporaries at school to being in his adult life in close proximity to criminals who required to be under maximum security creates an astonishing monotone in the novel. It comes across as the author is doing his best to understand the sex crime committed but not really quite comprehending it, instead by offering many philosophical expositions on it, he hopes to find a rationale for these despicable acts. Albinati fails to be a convincing narrator. The reader feels no remorse for the criminals. All that exists is undiluted rage for there seems to be no change in society towards its attitude to women. It is curious that the author while seeming to be empathetic to rape victims by referring to the predatory attitude towards women and of offering the etymology of the Italian word as “stupro” (indicating something that causes stupor, astonishment, something that one wasn’t expecting), meticulously documents his own sexual encounters and then in the acknowledgements bizarrely credits his daughter for transcribing parts of his manuscript that he had written by hand! If that isn’t a way of perpetuating gender violence then what else is it?!

The Catholic School is also a testament to Albinati’s ambition at creating that “large and engrossing novel” that he has so far been unsuccessful at discovering. Albinati is well read and with confident ease experiments with the literary form. There are unexpected sections in the novel that are like lists, a poem, only dialogue or long monologues. At times he addresses the readers directly encouraging them to skip a few pages if they are bored by what they have read. He also flips back and forth in time recollecting his childhood and comparing it with modern times, particularly his children’s lives. Yet the story remains drearily flat, with even the descriptions of male violence dulling one’s senses, as Albinati remains mildly detached. Never does he offer any solution for the male brutality documented but uncomfortably seems to be accepting of the way society is. According to him, “Being born a boy is an incurable disease”. Written forty years after the crime, this novel won the topmost literary prize in Italy — the Strega Prize 2016.

The translation from Italian to English by translator Antony Shugaar is commendable. It reads smoothly. Shugaar does not believe that there are untranslatable words. As he says, “my goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken.” ( VQR, “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, 19 Feb 2014) Shugaar achieves this beautifully with The Catholic School for whatever the shortcomings one may find with the novel’s portrayal of its male world, there is no doubt that Shugaar has been faithful to his mantra of building bridges from untranslatable worlds to where we live.  

3 November 2019

Book Post 44: 25 Aug – 14 Sept 2019

Book Post 44 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

16 Sept 2019

An interview with Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting

Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige  Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.


  1. How and why did you get into publishing?

The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.

2. Why did you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be multi-lingual as you are?

I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.

There are many differences between scouting and agenting but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job – their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights agents in house or in agencies. 

3. How and when was London Literary Scouting established? What are the genres you specialise in?

As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages, on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages. London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously. Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow and in the future.

London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio

We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis in the other languages.

4. What are the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be gleaned from every experience!)

I think our successes are all in the breadth of our client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am proud.

5. How important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals to a literary scout?

Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when. Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.

6. You are an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?

Carefully. I think network and intelligence and understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more important.

7. As a signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely? Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of women writers?

This is a hard question to answer properly. I think the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.

8. The porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers, increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV & videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or commissioning a book?

I think that most publishers acquire and publish the books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian evangelical publishing houses.

9. A mantra that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into other book markets?

I think that the explosion of digital platforms and perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.

10. In your experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the trends to look out for in the coming years?

I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.

11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?

How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.

17 June 2019

Book Post 37: 20 – 25 May 2019

Book Post 37 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

27 May 2019

Geronimo Stilton: The publishing phenomenon it is in India ( and worldwide)

My article on Geronimo Stilton has been published in Scroll on 11 June 2017. It is entitled “Even children who don’t read are addicted to this series of books about a mouse. Why?” I also interviewed Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA. who publish and translate the books as well as Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India who distribute the series locally. 

The Geronimo Stilton series is an incredible phenomenon in children’s publishing in India. In the five years since this series – starring the eponymous mouse who is a bestselling writer and the editor of The Rodent News – was launched here by Scholastic India, one million copies have been sold already. The immense popularity of the books – which have been translated from Italian into English – has actually transcended the realm of regular book fairs and book stores, with the pull coming from even stationary and toy stores.

“Geronimo Stilton as a series is rich with everything that children love in their books. They are replete with humour, they have nail-biting adventures featuring action set pieces in an age-appropriate and non-violent way. There was (and still is) nothing like this in the Indian children’s books category,” said Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India. The marketing campaign has been unique, he added.

“We waited for a while for the series to develop some word-of-mouth publicity,” Jain said. “Once the buzz grew, we went ahead with an on-air campaign on radio. There have been sustained visibility exercises through displays, character visits and special collaterals across schools that we reach out with to book fairs and book clubs. We carried out The Great Geronimo Tour of India in 2016 where there were character visits and activities at Tier II cities across India. The tour was also amplified on radio and social media.”

Children, many of them not big readers in general, have been lapping up these books and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. According to some retailers, schools are actually beginning to issue directives to book exhibitors not to sell Geronimo Stilton books as children are hooked and refuse to read anything else!

In this talk delivered in 2012, Elizabetta Dami, creator of Geronimo Stilton, said that the idea to create these stories came from her storytelling sessions with patients in a children’s hospital ward. She was clear that while the stories had to grip the child’s imagination, they also had to work at multiple levels like inculcating values and giving the young readers hope. Her own publishing house began to create these stories, after which she joined hands with seasoned publisher Pietro Marietti.

In September 2006, Marietti established Atlantyca Entertainment to forge new business opportunities for the company’s library of entertainment book properties. Since then, as chairman of the firm, Marietti has published over 100 titles in the Geronimo Stilton series. It has generated business worth more than $1 billion.

This growth is also attributed to strategic licence sales, such as bi-monthly comic book magazines, toys, stationery products, as well as a Broadway show called Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space presented by Orlando Repertory Theatre (January 2017). Amazon Prime has also committed to two seasons (52 episodes) of an Italian-American-French animated series.

Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca SpA., talked about the series, its origins, and what it takes to keep up the momentum of its phenomenal popularity over generations. Excerpts from the interview:

How did Geronimo Stilton come about? There is no guarantee that an anthropomorphised mouse will be a hit with kids.
The Geronimo Stilton editorial series was initially published in eight titles by the Italian publishing house Dami Editore. Then Elisabetta Dami joined the publishing company Edizioni Piemme as a shareholder and, jointly with the owner Pietro Marietti, they developed the Geronimo Stilton project both on the editorial and the marketing side.

Why did you choose to create the text for children in this manner – multicoloured and diverse fonts?
The “graphisms” in the actual format aim to add an emotional meaning in a funny and witty way to the literal meaning of the word. This helps children to catch the meaning in a blink with the valuable result, among other, to encourage even reluctant readers to read.

Are these texts based on some technical knowledge about creating reading material for younger children? Somewhat similar to Ladybird’s Read It Yourself, Harper Collins’s I Can Read and Dr Seuss books? I ask since these books are poised beautifully in that space between picture books and chapter books but with some characteristics of game books such as those created by Livingstone (1970s). The Geronimo Stilton series definitely helps a child read easily.
This result was achieved little by little at the very beginning of the development of the editorial series in Edizioni Piemme, thanks to the editorial team, the leadership of Mrs Dami and Mr Marietti, and the enthusiastic feedback of young readers.

The rapidity with which these titles are released every month matches the pace of a magazine subscription, but it is actually a book. How does your publishing firm manage it?
The editorial team is a very well-trained engine and they rely upon a big community of illustrators and graphics that have been collaborating for years.

Are some of the titles created specifically for some countries and not for the rest of the world, such as Bollywood Burglary?
The titles are created for a worldwide market. Some themes are suggested by foreign publishers but the books are developed in order to be licensed and distributed all over the world.

What is the turnaround time of a story from conception to publishing?
About five months.

The themes of the stories selected are very modern and at times, topical. How does this come about? Apart from an editorial team does the firm also rely on the feedback from young readers? Are there any special moments or letters that have been memorable?
All over the world, children’s publishers have to be open to changes because their consumers are children – the more flexible, demanding, unpredictable community of the publishing market. The editorial team is even more careful because of the strong ethical commitment of this particular intellectual property. Moreover, a website for children and the related community gives immediate feedback with their comments to books and the marketing initiative.

In contemporary fiction for children, three characters come immediately to mind who have had such huge success – Gruffalo, Peppa Pig and Geronimo Stilton. Do you have any thoughts or insights on why this may have happened? Why now? Of these three only Geronimo is in translation.
We have to make a distinction between properties based on an animated series or movie and those which are based on an editorial series. The first ones derive their popularity from the large-scale awareness that broadcasters can grant. The latter have a different, slower and more resilient evolution. A book-based character and the related brand, once they have reached a level of popularity, can last for years, and can influence generations. In Italy, the first readers of Geronimo Stilton, girls and boys who were eight years old in 2000 when the series was first published, are now grown up. They are parents now and their children are Geronimo Stilton readers.

11 June 2017 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Pocket Penguins

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POCKET PENGUINS

Introducing 20 Pocket Penguins

THE   FUTURE   OF   PENGUIN   CLASSICS

26 May 2016

A-format paperbacks

 

Pocket Penguins are the bold next step from the world’s most recognizable publishing brand.  They are the future of Penguin Classics.

On 26 May 2016 we launch with a carefully curated list of twenty titles, highlighting a mix of the famous and unjustly overlooked that celebrate the pure pleasure of reading. Colour coded to reflect their original language, Pocket Penguins contain complete texts in a compact format designed to pick up, pocket, and go.

“These books are intimate, grand, funny, widescreen, painful, visionary – and we have been put on earth to make you want to read them!”

Simon Winder, Publishing Director

 

A REVOLUTION IN READING

In the space of one year, over 2.2 million Little Black Classics have been sold worldwide, demonstrating a huge new appetite for reading the Classics.

A RETURN TO COLOUR AFTER DECADES OF BLACK

 Since 1946, Penguin has been publishing classics in winning formulas and pushing the boundaries of cover design. Our use of oil paintings on black covers paved the way for a look that dominates classics publishing today. Now the timeless tri-band simplicity and bold colours of Pocket Penguins will show the power of leaving authors’ names and titles to speak for themselves.

On the 70th anniversary of the first Penguin Classics, Penguin’s Art Director, Jim Stoddart, has produced a new design that is both approachable and contemporary.

“The new range blossoms from black into the technicolour of Penguin’s heyday. While this is a comforting nod to past Penguin, this is very much a series of books for the modern age.”

Jim Stoddart, Art Director

THE FIRST TWENTY

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA                                         RUSSIAN

Mikhail Bulgakov

This ribald, carnivalesque satire – featuring the Devil, true love and a gun-toting cat – was written in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and became an underground sensation.

 

MRS DALLOWAY                                                                  ENGLISH

Virginia Woolf

The lives of a woman preparing for a party and a young man suffering from shell-shock converge on one June day in 1920’s London, in Woolf’s great novel of time, memory, war and the city.

 

THE SECRET AGENT                                                              ENGLISH

Joseph Conrad

Set in an Edwardian London underworld of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, or ourselves.

 

THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK                                                 CZECH

Jaroslav Hasek

Drunkard, malingerer, oaf and possible genius – the story of Czech soldier Svejk and his misadventures in the First World War is one of the most hilarious and subversive satires on war ever.

 

THE LOST ESTATE                                                                  FRENCH

Alain-Fournier

A novel of desperate yearning and vanished adolescence, the story of Meaulnes and his restless search for a lost, enchanted world has the atmosphere of a dream and the purity of a fairytale.

 

THE CALL OF CTHULHU                                                       ENGLISH

P. Lovecraft

Mad, macabre tales of demonic spirits, hideous rites, ancient curses and alien entities lurking beneath the surface of rural New England, from the man who created the modern horror story.

 

THE BETROTHED                                                                   ITALIAN

Alessandro Manzoni

Two lovers must face tyrants, war, riots, plague and famine in this teeming panorama of seventeenth-century Italian life.

 

METAMORPHOSIS                                                               GERMAN

Franz Kafka

An ordinary man wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach in Kafka’s masterpiece of unease and black humour.

 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE                               GERMAN

Rainer Maria Rilke

This dreamlike meditation on being young and alone in Paris is a feverish work of nerves, angst and sublime beauty from one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

 

THE HOUSE OF ULLOA                                                        SPANISH

Emilia Pardo Bazan

Set in a crumbling Spanish mansion, this gloriously comic and gothic novel follows the fortunes of an innocent young priest as he enters a world of moral decadence, sexual intrigue and corruption.

FATHERS AND SONS                                                            RUSSIAN

Ivan Turgenev

This humane, moving masterpiece of families, love, duels, heartache, failure and the clash between generations caused a scandal in nineteenth-century Russia with its portrayal of youthful nihilism.

 

OUT OF AFRICA                                                                    ENGLISH

Karen Blixen

In one of the most passionate memoirs ever written, Karen Blixen recalls running a farm in Africa at the start of the twentieth century, and the love affair that changed her life.

 

WALDEN                                                                                                ENGLISH

Henry David Thoreau

One man’s account of his solitary and self-sufficient home in the New England woods, this is the original book about abandoning our ‘lives of quiet desperation’ and getting back to nature.

 

A PARISIAN AFFAIR                                                             FRENCH

Guy de Maupassant

Sparkling, darkly humorous tales of high society, playboys, courtesans, peasants, sex and savagery in nineteenth-century France, from the father of the short story.

 

THE BEAST WITHIN                                                              FRENCH

Emile Zola

Zola’s tense, gripping psychological thriller of adultery, corruption and murder on the French railways is a graphic and violent exploration of the darkest recesses of the criminal mind.

 

THE COSSACKS and HADJI MURAT                                    RUSSIAN

Leo Tolstoy

Two masterly Russian tales of freedom, fighting and great warriors in the majestic mountains of the Caucasus, inspired by Tolstoy’s years as a soldier living amid the Cossack people.

 

THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO                                                                ENGLISH

Alfred Russel Wallace

The great Victorian scientist’s heroic adventures across South-East Asia, from Singapore to the wilds of New Guinea, encountering head-hunters, jungles, birds of paradise and new discoveries that would change the world.

 

THE RAINBOW                                                                      ENGLISH

D.H. Lawrence

Following three generations of a family in rural Nottinghamshire as they struggle, fight, labour on the land and discover who they are, Lawrence’s rhapsodic, poetic and mystical work rewrote the English novel.

 

MY CHILDHOOD                                                                   RUSSIAN

Maxim Gorky

In one of the most moving, raw accounts of childhood ever written, Maxim Gorky describes, with appalling clarity and startling freshness, growing up amid poverty and brutality in Tsarist Russia.

 

O PIONEERS!                                                                         ENGLISH

Willa Cather

A rapturous work of savage beauty, Willa Cather’s 1913 tale of a pioneer woman who tames the wild, hostile lands of the Nebraskan prairie is also the story of what it means to be American.

For more information: Caroline Newbury, cnewbury@randomhouse.co.in

20 Feb 2016   

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

***

Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.

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