Five Favorite Books of 2014

Posted in Uncategorized on 01/04/2015 by northnorthw


Harlequin’s Millions / Bohumil Hrabal / Stacey Knecht /Archipelago


Faces in the Crowd / Valeria Luiselli / Christina MacSweeney / Coffee House


Talking to Ourselves / Andres Neuman / Nick Caistor / FSG


Street of Thieves / Mathias Enard / Charlotte Mandell / Open Letter


Scholastique Mukasonga / Our Lady of the Nile / Melanie Mauthner / Archipelago

Fear of the Longlist

Posted in Uncategorized on 11/13/2014 by northnorthw

None of the San Francisco Giants spoke with pitcher Madison Bumgartner in the dugout before he took the mound in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series except for a brief exchange with his catcher Buster Posey. Partly due to superstition and partly because Bumgartner was intensely focused, was in the zone.

I’m currently in The Best Translated Book Award reading zone. Please do not distract.

There are rules and traditions about not speaking the name of something, whether it’s Voldemort in the Harry Potter books or Nest Egg in Lost in America, or saying rain while fly-fishing.

This is so, in my mind, with longlist and the BTBA.

There’s an ultra-secret password-protected, for-your-eyes-only spreadsheet that the BTBA judges use that lists the title, author, translator, publisher, language, and country for each of the 2015 submissions. There is a column for each judge to place her notes or remarks. (Don’t try to access the spreadsheet, publishers, it will self-destruct quicker than Jim Phelps’ MI instructions.)

Fortunately my spreadsheet column is at the beginning of that section, just to the right of Katrine Osgaard Jensen’s. She uses a letter code, which I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked. But I scroll right no further, for therein lies the use of longlist, the word that assigns power, the word which can strip power. “Longlist contender, must longlist, short of longlist, no longlist.” It can draw you in (I better read this) or repel (I better move on to something else).

I just have a list. Books move around like the stairways at Hogwarts. (Did I mention I just watched all of the Harry Potter movies?) Books that I read early in the process that I thought were really good, were really good, but they’re not as really good in comparison with the other really good books that I’ve now read.

That doesn’t mean that some of the books I’ve read don’t keep popping up a like a literary Whac-a-Mole. But will they make it to l-word? I don’t know.

Milena Michiko Flasar’s I Called Him Necktie, Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, both Bohumil Hrabal titles Harlequin’s Millions and Ramblin’ On, Carlos Labbe’s Navidad & Matanza, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, Andres Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, Roderigo Rey Rosa’s Severina, Paulo Scott’s Nowhere People, Solvi Bjorn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother, Goncalo Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump, Antoine Volodine’sWriters, Christa Wolf’s August.

All have much to love and I can do no better than to arrange them alphabetically.

Cesar Aira’s Conversations, Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes, Jorn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs, Giulio Mozzi’sThis is the Garden, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November, Antonio Skarmeta’s A Distant Father, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesdillas, Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon.

Again, only alphabetical, all flawed in little ways, but solid nonetheless.

Predicting the longlist is a bit like handicapping horses: consistency, class, form, and pace. Books get boxed, parked out, shuffled back. Fortunately, I have miles to read before I sleep and need not place my bets until March.

- From Three Percent, The Best Translated Book Award

New and Recent Recommendations from West Coast Booksellers

Posted in Uncategorized on 11/03/2014 by northnorthw

9788024623160James Crossley, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA

Bohumil Hrabal, Ramblin’ On, Translated from the Czech by David Short


Nick DiMartino, University Bookstore, Seattle, WA

Scholastique Mukasonga. Our Lady of the Nile, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner

Benito Perez Galdos, Tristana, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa


Shawn Donley, Powell’s Books, Portland, OR

Eduardo Halfon, Monastery, Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn

Milena Michiko Flasar, I Called Him Necktie, Translated from the German by Sheila Dickie


Jeremy Garber, Powell’s Books, Portland, OR

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves, Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia

Gonçalo M. Tavares, A Man: Klaus Klump, Translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil

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Alex Gholz, Ravenna Third Place, Seattle, WA

Auður ava Olafsdóttir, Butterflies in November, Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

Christa Wolf, August, Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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Justus Joseph, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Helene Cixous, Tombe, Translated from the French by Laurent Milesi


Greg Kindall, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA

Michael Laub, Diary of the Fall, Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Other Press

Juan Jose Saer, La Grande, Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph


Rick Simonson, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Uday Prakash, The Walls of Delhi, Translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum

Dominique Edde, Kamal Jann, Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz


Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books, San Francisco, CA

Giacomo Leopardi, Passions, Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks, Margellos World Literature, Yale University Press

Yuri Herrara, Signs Preceding the End of the World, Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman


Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

Scholastique Mukasonga. Our Lady of the Nile, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner


Interview with translator Mark Polizzotti

Posted in Uncategorized on 10/29/2014 by northnorthw

10523339_944665262227677_2693804625298909805_nThe big question is when you were translating Suspended Sentences, did you imagine a possibility that  Modiano would become a Nobel Laureate?

No, and it’s just as well: I might unconsciously have layered on a bit too much grandeur. Let’s say I was pleasantly surprised. Not that I don’t feel he deserves it – far from it. But Modiano is not a writer of grand gestures, as some previous laureates have been. His work doesn’t aim for the international sweep and journalistic earnestness of a Le Clézio, for instance, and certainly not the grandstanding philosophical aggressiveness of a Sartre (or even of a Camus, though Modiano’s and Camus’s writings often share a certain modesty of tone). There is an understated, almost matter-of-fact quality about Modiano’s books that makes them very strong – a quiet strength – but that doesn’t necessarily attract the notice of big prize committees. (That said, his work has won virtually all the major French literary awards, including the Goncourt.) I was surprised when I heard the news the way I was surprised when Elfriede Jelinek won – another author whose work stands outside the mainstream, and, as it happens, another whom I’d published, back when I was an editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson (we did her first book in English, The Piano Teacher, which was later made into a film).

At the same time, let’s not forget that the main subject underlying virtually all of Modiano’s work is the greatest historical calamity and human tragedy suffered by France (and not just France, of course) in the twentieth century: the Second World War, not only for the overt horrors it visited on so many lives, but also – and in some ways even more so – for the insidious moral devastation of the Occupation, the troubling questions it continues to raise even today. This is the stain that permeates his narratives, whether they take place during the war years or, as is more often the case, in the decades following. Still, these questions don’t necessarily mean the same thing to people born several generations after the fact, and I believe that it’s the indirect way Modiano addresses them – in the ambiguous choices his characters make or don’t make, the way they drift into the most equivocal situations (as with the protagonist of Lacombe Lucien) – that makes his books relevant to contemporary audiences.

 Did you work directly with him on the translation? Is he fluent in English?

Modiano had little to do with the translation itself – I believe Yale sent the manuscript to him when it was done, and I’m told he’s pleased with it – but he did answer a few questions about specific details, personal references that I wasn’t sure I’d gotten right, and provided a few pieces of information that I needed for my introduction. Having written to him through his publisher, I received a cordial, extensive, handwritten letter, which I thought was very gracious of him. Overall, however, we haven’t had any contact to speak of, though I’d love to meet him at some point.

Were the three novellas previously translated into English?  If so, did you read them or dive right in?

No, this is the first time these three have been translated. About ten books of Modiano’s have been published in English, out of nearly three dozen that he’s written, and I had read most of the ones previously translated well before undertaking the ones for Yale, so I had a general sense of how Modiano might sound in English (even though nearly every book was the work of a different translator). I have retranslated books that had previously been done in English – Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa – but in both those cases I made a point of not reading the other translations beforehand so as not to be unconsciously influenced.

Where does Modiano place in the difficulty scale of the authors you’ve translated from the French? Were there words, phrases, colloquialisms that were a challenge?

That’s a key question. People often assume that more avant-garde texts, the ones that rely on word games and verbal pyrotechnics, are the most difficult, but I usually find that it’s the “simplest” writings that pose the biggest challenges. Translating the experimental ones that can be tricky, but often it comes down to recreating the pun in a different way – of substituting cleverness for cleverness. In the case of someone like Modiano, much of the pleasure comes from the naturalness of the voice, from the keen linguistic instinct that allows him to craft sentences and dialogue that come across as absolutely spot-on – and that can be murder to get right. Because as a translator, you’re trying to juggle meaning, rhythm, cultural resonance, and verbal music and somehow make it all sound just as natural in an entirely different language and context. Of course, to some extent this is a challenge that every translator faces with every text. But when dealing with a voice as seemingly straightforward and unadorned as Modiano’s, which manages to say highly resonant things with great simplicity and great beauty, finding exactly the right tone and pitch in which to recreate them in English can be the hardest part.

He vaulted over some odds-on favorites, including Bob Dylan. You wrote the 331/3 book on Highway 61 Revisited. What’s more daunting – translating from French  (Flaubert, Duras, Breton) or writing about the iconic album of the 60s?

I greatly enjoyed writing Highway 61, probably more than I’ve enjoyed writing anything in my life, but all things considered I’d much rather be translating. There’s a pure pleasure to translating, an experience of unadulterated craft, of unalloyed engagement with the plasticity of language. I like writing, but when you have to devote your attention to the content as well as the expression, it’s a different experience. Gregory Rabassa once said that the translator can be considered the ideal writer because he doesn’t have to worry about things like plot and character; since all that has already been provided, “he can just sit down and write his ass off.” When I translate someone like Modiano, or Jean Echenoz, or even Flaubert and Roussel, and can immerse myself comfortably in their verbal space, I find it invigorating, challenging in the best sense, to try to recreate that space in another idiom. Sure it can be daunting: I mentioned somewhere that translating Bouvard and Pécuchet was like having Flaubert’s ghost on my shoulder for a year, waiting to pounce on every deviation from the mot juste. But it’s also immensely satisfying.

Did you acquire the three Modiano books for David R. Godine when you were the Editorial Director there?

David and I were talking about this the other day. Funnily enough, he remembers that I acquired the books and I remember that he acquired them. I do know that I worked on Honeymoon while I was an ditor at Godine, which I put into our Verba Mundi translation series, and which remains one of my favorite books by Modiano (along with its nonfiction pendant, Dora Bruder). I’m pretty sure that David acquired the children’s book Catherine Certitude, which he asked me to translate, though I couldn’t at the time. Instead, it was done, beautifully, by the excellent William Rodarmor.

Is it true that you fell into translation by accident?

As with most good things in life, it was entirely unexpected. I’ve told the story elsewhere, but the short version is, I was in France at the age of seventeen and found myself across a table from the experimental novelist Maurice Roche, whom I’d barely met, and the only ice-breaker I could think of on the spur of the moment was to offer to translate his book – which I’d barely understood. To my amazement, Maurice took me up on it, and inadvertently set me on my life of crime. That was forty years ago and I still haven’t reformed. There’s more to it, of course, and if anyone’s interested the full story is in a piece I wrote called “Memento Maurice” (

You’re given translation credit on the jacket of Suspended Sentences. Wish all publishers would do that. It’s important, yes?

It’s important not only as a mark of respect for the translator’s task but also as an acknowledgment that the book you’re holding in your hands is a collaboration. It’s not the same as the original, but is by necessity a reinterpretation, one person’s reading and recreation of the original. There has been a lot of ink spilled over whether translation is “possible,” whether reading a translation can ever approximate reading the original, how much is “lost,” etc., etc. What most of these discussions leave aside is the fact that every reading is imperfect, even in the original language; that every reader, like every translator, both “loses” something in experiencing an author’s work (through misunderstanding, or inattention, or personal bias) and at the same time brings something to it that no one else could. When it comes to translating, my English Modiano is no more “definitive” than Barbara Wright’s, or Daniel Weissbort’s, or anyone else who has translated him. Suspended Sentences is Modiano filtered through Polizzotti – though, if I’ve done my job, filtered in a way that lets an Anglophone reader experience Modiano’s work the way a French reader would experience it in the original, with the same understanding and emotional impact. So to get back to your question after this minor diatribe, yes, it’s important to identify the translator up front (for praise or blame, depending), and also to acknowledge that this edition is the product of a second writer’s reinterpretation. The small literary houses and university presses, including Yale, have generally been very good about this; the larger commercial publishers, which tend to brush the book’s foreign origins under the rug (when they publish translations at all), not so good.

On that score, Yale will kill me if I don’t mention that it has set November 11 as the pub date – the day World War I ended, though whether that’s by design or coincidence, I don’t know.

You have a pretty serious day job at the Met. Do you sleep?

With enormous pleasure.

– from Shelf Awareness

Six Books, Seven Days

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/15/2014 by northnorthw

Just returned from a lovely vacation that was all about reading and walking the dogs on the beach and doing the hardest 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle ever – a street map of London.

Six books in seven days. That’s a record for someone who reads as slowly as I do.

lumpen_revised_cover_small_158_237_c1_smart_scaleA Little Lumpen Novella by Roberto Bolano, Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions

It’s very good. But it is short. And not exceptional. But it is Bolano. And he was.


Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, Farrar Strauss and Giroux

I liked Down the Rabbit Hole, although precocious kid narrators drive me nuts. This narrator is bit older and the book is better. It goes batshit crazy at the end (think Aira). If someone reviews this as the Mexican Catcher in the Rye, I’ll lose my faith in humanity.


Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner, Archipelago Books

It will be interesting to read a woman’s review of this book. There are a lot of teenage girl interactions, and I don’t know whether they work or not. The Hutu / Tutsi friction is ominous and nasty. A disturbing but beautiful book.


Everyone in Their Place by Maurizio de Giovanni, Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, Europa Editions

This is the third de Giovanni that I’ve read. I really enjoy the Commissario Ricciardi books, love the twists at the end BUT the way he drives the plot is annoying. He’ll write a few paragraphs of interior monologue or reflection and not tell you who is thinking it. I don’t like getting lost, flipping back and forth in a book. Another reason not to read on a fecking Kindle. The Day of the Dead is up for The 2015 Best Translated Book Award and I’m going to need to put space between these two books.


The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press

Really, really good. Horst is my find of the year. This book comes to the US from Sandstone Press, by way of Dufour Editions. They also have Dregs and Closed for Winter, both of which I immediately ordered.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami, Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, Knopf

It’s not close to the bar he set with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, but it’s as least as good as 1Q84.


Iceland Beyond the Mysteries

Posted in Uncategorized on 09/15/2014 by northnorthw

I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate a dark, moody Icelandic mystery by Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Hannah Kent, but there’s much more coming from the country that, per capita, has more books published, more books read, more writers than anywhere else.

The three books by Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) released by FSG–From the Mouth of the Whale, The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse–are all exceptional. His fiction is mythical, magical and poetic. A.S. Byatt said of Sjón: “Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head.”

Sjón was on the board that helped Reykjavik be recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature, and he’s active in the City of Refuge Program. He’s been nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and he’s a pal of Bjork. (Check out Luftgitar on YouTube.) Rumors have it there’s a fourth novel heading for translation.


IMG_1351Sjon and George at Te og Kaffe in Reykjavik

Melville House recently published Gnarr! How I Became Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the story of Jon Gnarr’s Best Party campaign that resulted in his mayoral election in Reykjavik. One could spend all day Googling Gnarr or one could watch the eponymous movie, released in 2010. Deep Vellum, a nascent star in world literature publishing, is releasing autobiographical fiction by Gnarr, The Indian, in spring of 2015.


Deep Vellum publisher Will Evans and Jon Gnarr in Texas

From Open Letter Books, Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson’s The Last Days of My Mother has a first line that sets you up: “I had decided to take Mother to die in Amsterdam.”

After a failed romantic relationship in which his girlfriend bolts with a French dentist, Hermann, aka Trooper, ungracefully moves back into his mother’s attic. When his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he mans up, searches the Net, and arranges for an experimental drug treatment in the Netherlands for her.

Mother, aka Eva, decides if she’s going to do subject herself to daily injections, she’s going to do it in style. She pals up with her son. Cue drinking. And a little dancing for Eva. And drinking. And some weed (it is Amsterdam, after all). And more drinking. Says Trooper, “I was so bloated from drink that I could see my own face without the help of a mirror.”

Sigurdsson places son and daughter in strange encounters with Icelandic bankers, Nazis, con men, pot dealers. It’s funny, very funny, even though you know it’s not going to end well.


 Sölvi Björn Sigurdsson

After her emotionally confused husband dumps her in Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November (Grove), a young woman attempts to leave Iceland for a vacation in the sun. But fate sets her up with two lottery wins and the caregiving responsibility of a deaf-mute boy. With her glove compartment packed with kronur, she opts for a road trip on the 800-mile Iceland Ring Road. For a visual reference of Route 1, think the really good movie Either Way or the really terrible movie Die Another Day.

The narrator is a likable character and her interactions with her mother, her ex, a new boyfriend and the boy are all thoughtful and genuine. The book has a commercial feel to it, which sort of surprises me. Except for Murakami, “world literature” and “commercial” don’t usually pair up in sentences. Maybe it’s the jacket image. Whatever, gangi per vel, Grove/Atlantic.

Olafsdottir, Audur Ava - photo credit Anton Brink

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir

from Shelf Awareness

Bohumil Hrabal

Posted in Uncategorized on 08/15/2014 by northnorthw

imagesNotable contenders for The Best Translated Book Award 2015 will likely be two posthumously released titles by Bohumil Hrabal.

Harlequin’s Millions, one of the author’s last completed novels, is a fine book for Archipelago Books to release during their tenth anniversary, in the year of their 100th book, on the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth.

The narrator of the book is an elderly woman who lives in a medieval castle that is now repurposed as a retirement home. Through her meditative reflections and the anecdotes of three ghostlike pensioners, she comes to terms with the passage of time. As the book progresses, as the narrator ages, her memories and observations lose their reliability.

Hrabal is revisiting characters from his early works, including the unnamed narrator, based on his mother. The famous citizens of the “little town that time forgot” are referred to by nicknames like Cervinka the Parasol, Lousehead, Dlabac the Rib Roast, Sweatbuckets and Votava the Useless.

Early English translations of Hrabal chopped his long, loping sentences into abrupt ugly fragments. Translator Stacey Knecht’s first foray into Czech (she’s an accomplished translator of Dutch) preserves those paragraph-length sentences and streams of consciousness. Ms Knecht has guided this quiet book into an engaging, heartfelt experience without letting it drop into mawkish emofiction. That’s a word, right?


Karolinum Press, Charles University, Prague has published a collection of Hrabal’s short works which the TLS calls “a painstakingly accurate translation” by David Short. For a period of time under Communist rule, Hrabal was not allowed to publish any new works. An illustrated, ribboned, unjacketed cloth edition, Ramblin’ On, collects many of the originally censored stories with other offerings.

Hrabal was a serious football fan. In Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, he calls Real Madrid “Pussies.” I couldn’t agree more, but I’m thinking his reference was in a different context.


–From World Literature, Shelf Awareness


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