On translations

Let’s put a quick trigger warning for sexual assault here; it’s an unavoidable plot point of a book I’ll be discussing several paragraphs into the piece, and it won’t be dwelled upon.


I’m on my third book in a row that I’m reading in translation, and my fourth in a row that wasn’t written in especially modern English, since the Ernest Shackleton book was published in 1909. I haven’t loved any of the three that I’ve finished, but I’m not far enough into the fourth one to really have an opinion of it yet– maybe 40 pages deep on a 600-page novel. And the bit that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is that I’m not sure how to discern between a book that I didn’t enjoy and a translation I didn’t enjoy. I can think of one particular series where the first book was translated by one person was great and the second was translated by someone else and it was so bad that I couldn’t get even a third of the way through it; that I can blame on the translator. But when it’s the only book I’ve read by a given person, or sometimes the only book by that person available in English, it’s a lot harder to tease that apart and it may actually not be a difference worth bothering to tease apart in the first place.

It’s the most recent book that’s really got me thinking about this, honestly– and if you’re wondering why I’m not specifically naming the book, it’s because this is pretty clearly running into my Don’t Shit on Books Without a Good Reason rule, and my Goodreads is right there anyway– because this book was very clearly deliberately written in a certain way, and I’m not sure it survived translation into English very well.

(Let me reiterate the trigger warning)

The book is about a woman whose father sexually abused her for several years when she was a child, and she is, as a result, estranged from her family, most of whom don’t believe her. She is very much not over her trauma, and in fact dwells upon it more or less constantly. The book is told entirely from her perspective, and, well, she’s not in an especially mentally healthy place; the entire book is about disputes over inheritance, and her father passes away partway through the narrative. Now, I think what’s going on here is that the author is trying to mimic in text what is going on in this person’s head, and as a result the entire text is very very repetitive, constantly circling back to the same events and the same conversations, and also with insanely long sentences that can sometimes take up a page or more. The text is never pauses for breath, never slows down, and constantly loops back to retread the same material, sometimes phrased differently and sometimes repeating the exact same language several times in a (paragraph-length) sentence.

I made fun of this on Twitter while I was reading it, and the fact is this isn’t that far off from what’s going on:

So, like, I can see what the author is trying to do here, and I even appreciate the technique, but the unfortunate result is that, in English and to me at least, the book is really damn difficult to read. Imagine a book where every sentence was like that Tweet, and each sentence in the book was similar to the Tweet in a way that was very like the Tweet, and not like things that are not like that Tweet, that’s what you’re trying to imagine right now, you’re imagining a book where every sentence is like that Tweet, because the sentences in this book are all like that Tweet and you’re imagining them.

I am not kidding. Like, I’ll post examples if I have to.

And the thing is, I didn’t dislike the book, I just didn’t enjoy it at all, if that’s something that makes any sense. I mean, I finished it instead of putting it down, and I don’t think I regret buying and reading it, and it made a big splash in its country of origin when it came out so it even remains a good choice that way. But I wish I could read it in its original language to see behind the scenes, so to speak, on how the translator did her job, because this book must have been a nightmare to translate.

I need to be able to read all of Earth’s languages, is what I’m getting at here. Is that the Moderna shot, maybe?

#Readaroundtheworld: March update

You want me to nerd out about my little reading project, right? Sure you do. We’re roughly 1/4 of the way through 2021 already somehow, and I’ve read books from 15 US states and 17 countries so far, putting me on track to successfully read books from all 50 states and 68 different countries over the course of the year. Now, realistically, this first three months has been pursuing low-hanging fruit, and I’ve already read multiple books from several different states as well as the UK, and I have at least one other book by a Nigerian on my shelf waiting for me, so as the year goes on it’s going to get more and more difficult to find books that “count” for the series. I’m sure I’ll be able to get the US done one way or another, but the fact is books from Canada and Russia and Australia and the UK weren’t exactly hard to find, and I’m at the point already where I’m picking a country and Googling “Authors from XXX” to find books. There’s several easy ones left (and I have several books on my unread shelf that will fill in some spaces) but these first few months were definitely going to be the fastest ones.

I have been keeping track of the square mileage this has covered, because of course I am, and thus far, excluding the water, 21,418,356 square miles are filled in, which is 37.24% of the world’s surface. This will also be increasing much more slowly, as I’ve got Australia, Canada, Brazil and Russia done already. I’ll be filling in Antarctica and China next month, which are the biggest two chunks left, and after that it’s all smaller countries. Russia was 11.5% of the world’s surface all by itself, so I’m not going to be getting any more big jumps like that.

(How do I plan to fill in Antarctica’s 5.483 million square miles when no one lives there? I’ve decided Ernest Shackleton counts. My game, my rules.)

This has been a fun project so far, although for the most part my international “discovery” authors haven’t really set my world on fire yet, and a lot of the books I’ve really enjoyed this year from authors outside the US have been people I’m already familiar with. There’s also been a touch of strategic rereading going on; I filled in Italy by picking up The Name of the Rose for the first time in forever, and I’ll probably reread A Confederacy of Dunces at some point this year to take care of Louisiana. I might go back to Dumas to get France filled in. But for the most part it’s going to be authors I’m not familiar with, since that’s sort of the point of the entire exercise.

Remember, if you look at the top of the sidebar on the right there, you can follow along with me as I’m doing this if you’re so inclined. I should be done with Requiem Moon in a couple of days, and my next book after that will be another Rachel Caine, so I figured this was a good time to do an update.

Announcing #readaroundtheworld

I’m making it official today: having finished Tiffany D. Jackson’s Grown, which I might still review, and as such having read 62 books by 53 different women of color over the course of 2020, I find myself with no books by women of color on my unread shelf. As such, and since there’s only six days left in 2020, I’m declaring that project officially closed.

I’m calling my reading project for next year #readaroundtheworld. It will last through the entirety of 2021, and may in fact continue beyond that, because there’s no earthly way I manage to complete the globe next year, so we’ll see how much fun I’m having with it and move on from there.

The goal is to read one book from as many countries as I can, plus one book from each of the 50 states.

Now, the rules for the #52booksbywomenofcolor project were pretty simple: if the author considered herself a woman of color, she was. There was one author I ended up removing after initially counting them– Akwaeke Emezi is transgender and gender fluid, and actually removed their name from consideration for a women’s fiction prize in 2019, so their book Pet was removed from the list when I learned a bit more about them, and Rivers Solomon is included but is … also complicated. As far as I know the other 52 women would have no issues describing themselves as such.

This one’s going to be a little bit more formal in terms of what counts and what doesn’t, mostly because my choices for languages are 1) English, and 2) kids’ books in Spanish. So I’m going to have to read either a lot of work in translation or I’m going to have to play around a bit with what from means.

Therefore:

  • Authors who are at least second-generation Americans (ie, not immigrants or the children of immigrants) will count for either their current state of residence or the state of their birth. Expat Americans do not count for their current country of residence.
  • Americans who are immigrants or the children of immigrants can count for either their current state or the country they immigrated from. In other words, Ilhan Omar can count as an American from Minnesota or a Somali. It is preferable but not required that if a second-generation American is counted for their country of ancestry that the book being read be heavily influenced by or concerned with that country. For example, Daniel José Older and Malka Older, who are brother and sister, are both New Yorkers, and are half Cuban. Malka has, to my knowledge, written no books concerned with Cuba, but Daniel’s book The Book of Lost Saints, which is explicitly about being Cuban-American, would be OK to represent Cuba.
  • No book can count for more than one place. No author can either.
  • Authors from outside of the United States, in general, will count for their country of residence, with exceptions occasionally made for political refugees. For example– and I just discovered he lives in New York now but roll with this anyway– Salman Rushdie would be a perfectly cromulent Indian author, and Shokoofeh Azar, who is an Iranian refugee currently residing in Australia, would be legal as a choice for Australia but would probably better count as an Iranian.
  • Only the identity of the author counts. I don’t expect this to come up, but if I read something in translation it doesn’t matter where the translator is from.
  • Where possible, diversity in gender, sexuality and ethnicity will be deliberately sought out.

Any other cases will be adjudicated at that time. I may ask the Internet for advice but it’s my game so I make the rules, and if I can come up with a way to decide Stephen King is from Malawi then dammit he’s from Malawi.

I will keep track of my books via a spreadsheet (I love projects involving spreadsheets!) that I may actually perma-link in the sidebar of the blog and via coloring in countries and states as I read books on the map above, which will be updated on the site periodically. Despite Australia and Canada being divided into provinces/states on the map I’m using, I intend to treat them as unitary countries, so once I read a book by a Canadian the entire country’s getting filled in. I will also probably continue posting individual book entries on Instagram and I’ll keep a shelf for them on Goodreads. You should add me on both places, if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, who are your favorite authors from outside the United States? Give me some names! I’ve got reading to do!