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Good Books Get Lost For Want Of Translation

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Italian novelist Umberto Eco's 2011 book, " The Prague Cemetery," is one of three foreign book recommendations from Zephry Press. (AP/Katja Lenz/dapd)
Italian novelist Umberto Eco's 2011 book, " The Prague Cemetery," is one of three foreign book recommendations by Jim Kates of ZephYr Press. (AP/Katja Lenz)

If you want to know how off the radar translated literature is in the United States, take a look at the top 100 books of 2011 from the New York Times. Just a handful were written in a language other than English, which tells us there's a whole lot of books out there that aren't making it to the United States.

The nonprofit publisher, Zephyr Press, is trying to change that. The group's mission is to bring literature and poetry from other country's to an American audience.

Zephyr Press director, Jim Kates, told Here & Now's Robin Young that readers shouldn't be put off by foreign books, if the translations are done properly.

"What I want in a translation is one that reads smoothly with a voice that I can be reasonably convinced is the voice of the author," Kates said.

Kates recommends these foreign works from 2011:

  • "Adonis: Selected Poems" translated by  Khaled Mattawa. (Excerpted below)Adonis, born in Syria in 1931, is one of the most celebrated poets of the Arabic-speaking world, and is credited with leading the modernist movement in Arabic poetry of the late 20th century. Adonis: Sel
  • "Kamchatka" by Marcelo Figueras and translated by Frank Wynne (Excerpted below)Marcelo Figueras is a journalist, filmmaker and author from Buenos Aires, Argentina. His book, "Kamchatka" tells the story of ten-year-old Harry whose parents are politically persecuted in 1980s Argentina.
  • "The Prague Cemetery" by Umberto Eco and translated by Richard Dixon (Excerpted below)Umberto Eco is an Italian literary critic and novelist, best known for his novel "The Name of the Rose."  "The Prague Cemetery" is "The Prague Cemetery" is a thriller set in late-19th-century Europe that traces the adventures of the misanthropic, career criminal, Simone Simonini.

Kates also recommends this poetry:

  • "Between Words:  Juan Gelman's Public Letter" by Juan Gelman  of Argentina and translated by Lisa Rose Bradford
  • "Approaching You In English" by Admiel Kosman of Israel and translated by Lisa Katz
  • Juan Gelman, "Between Words" (tr. Lisa Rose Bradford) National Translation Award winner
  • Admiel Kosman, "Approaching You in English" (tr. Lisa Katz)
  • Adam Zagajewski, "The Unseen Hand" (tr. Clare Cavanagh)
  • Seyhan Erozçelik, "Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds" (tr. Murat Nemet-Nejat)


  • José Saramago, "Cain" (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)
  • Olga Slavnikova, "2017" ( tr. Marian Schwartz) Heldt Prize winner
  • Wieslaw Mysliwski, "Stone Upon Stone" (tr. Bill Johnston)
  • Haruki Murakami, "1Q84" (tr. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel)

Non fiction

  • Daniel Pennac, "School Blues" (tr. Sarah Ardizzone)
  • Yu Hua, "China in Ten Words" (tr. Allan H. Barr)

Here & Now: Bringing The World’s Literature To An American Audience


  • Jim Kates, director of Zephyr Press and former president of the American Literary Translators Association

A Bridge of Tears

by Adonis

There is a bridge of tears that walks alongside me and breaks apart under my eyelids.
There is under my porcelain skin,
a knight from childhood
who ties his horses to the shadows of branches with ropes of wind.
And in a prophet's voice
to us he sings
O wind
O childhood
O bridges of tears
broken under my eyelids!

Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press, copyright © 2011

Book Excerpt: Kamchatka

By Marcelo Figueras
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Chapter 1: The Last Word

The last thing papá said to me, the last word from his lips, was ‘Kamchatka’.

He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroën. The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more. I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm, until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go home’.

And that’s all there is.

If you want, I can give you more details. Grandpa used to say God is in the details. He used to say a lot of things, like ‘What Piazzolla plays isn’t tango’ and ‘It’s just as important to wash your hands before you pee as afterwards – you never know what you’ve been touching’, but I don’t think those things are relevant.

We said our goodbyes on the forecourt of a petrol station on Route 3, a few kilometres outside Dorrego in the south of Buenos Aires province. The three of us had had breakfast in the station café, croissants and café con leche in bowls as big as saucepans, with the petrol company logo on them. Mamá was there too, but she spent the whole time in the toilet. She’d eaten something that had upset her stomach and she couldn’t even hold down liquids. And the Midget, my kid brother, was asleep, sprawled on the back seat of the Citroën. He wriggled his arms, his legs, all the time while he was asleep, as though staking his claim, a king of infinite space.

At this moment, I am ten years old. I look normal enough apart from an unruly tuft of hair that sticks up like an exclamation mark.

It is spring. In the southern hemisphere, October days shimmer with golden light and today is no exception; the morning is a palace. The air is filled with fluttering panaderos – dandelion seeds, those daytime stars that in Argentina we call panaderos – or little bakers. I catch them in my cupped palms and, with a puff of breath, set them free again, urging them on to fertile ground.

(The Midget would crack up if he heard me say: ‘The air is filled with fluttering panaderos’. He’d roll on the ground, clutching his belly, laughing like a lunatic as he imagined tiny men, their brown and white aprons covered in flour, floating like bubbles.)

I can even remember the other people at the petrol station. The petrol pump attendant, a chubby man with a moustache and dark armpits. The driver of the IKA truck, counting a fat wad of banknotes as big as bed sheets on his way to the toilet. (I guess grandpa’s maxim about washing your hands before you pee is relevant after all.) The backpacker with the messianic beard, crossing the forecourt as he heads for the open road, his billycans clanking, like tolling bells calling to repentance.

The little girl sets down her skipping rope to go and wet her hair under the tap. She wrings it dry as she walks back, water dripping onto the dusty forecourt. The drops that just a moment earlier spelled out Morse code in the dust vanish as the seconds pass. Obedient to the call of gravity, they trickle down into the mineral particles, snaking through the spaces that exist where there seemed to be none, leaving behind some part of their moisture to give life to these particles even as they lose themselves on their journey towards the molten heart of the planet, the fire where the Earth still looks as it did when it was first formed. (In the end, we always are what we once were.)

Gracefully, the girl in front of me bends down and, for a minute, I think she is bowing. But in fact she’s picking up her skipping rope. She starts to skip again, a perfect rhythm, the rope whipping through the air, whup, whup, creating the bubble in which she hovers.

Papá opens the door to the station café and lets me go in; grandpa is already inside, waiting for us. His teaspoon creating a whirlpool in his café con leche.

Sometimes there are variations in what I remember. Sometimes mamá doesn’t get out of the Citroën until we leave the café because she’s busy scribbling something on her pack of Jockey Club cigarettes. Sometimes the numbers on the petrol pump run backwards instead of forwards. Sometimes the backpacker gets there before us and by the time we arrive he’s already hitchhiking, as though in a hurry to discover a world he’s never seen, the clank of his billycans pealing out the good news. These variations don’t worry me. I’m used to them. They mean I’m remembering something I hadn’t noticed before; they mean that I’m not exactly the same person I was when last I remembered.

Time is weird. That much is obvious. Sometimes I think everything happens at once, which is anything but obvious and even weirder. I feel sorry for people who brag about ‘living in the moment’; they’re like people who come into the cinema after the film has started or people who drink Diet Coke – they’re missing out on the best part. I think time is like the dial on a radio. Most people like to settle on a station with a clear signal and no interference. But that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to two or even three stations at the same time; it doesn’t mean synchrony is impossible. Until quite recently, people believed it was impossible for a universe to fit inside two atoms, but it fits. Why dismiss the idea that on time’s radio you can listen to the entire history of humanity simultaneously?

Every day, life gives us an intimation of this. We sense that, inside us, every ‘we’ we once were (and will be?) coexists: the innocent self-absorbed child, the sensual young man generous to a fault, the adult, feet planted firmly on the ground yet still clinging to his illusions, and finally we are the old man who knows that gold is just another metal; as his eyesight fails he has acquired vision. Sometimes, as I remember, my voice is that of the ten-year-old boy I was then; sometimes the voice of the seventy-year-old man I am yet to be; sometimes it is my voice, at the age I am now . . . or the age I think I am. Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other. That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past. Every time I remember, the person I was speaks his lines, performs his actions with increasing confidence, as though with each performance he grows more comfortable with the role, and understands it better.

The numbers on my petrol pump will start to go backwards. I can’t stop them.

Grandpa is back in his truck, one foot on the running board, softly singing his favorite tango: ‘decí por Dios qué me has dao, que estoy tan cambiao, no sé más quien soy’.

Papá leans down and whispers a last word into my ear. I can feel the warmth of his cheek as I could feel it then. He kisses me, his stubble rasping against my cheek.


Kamchatka is not my name, but as he says it, I know he is thinking of me.

Reprinted with permission from Atlantic Books.
Copyright © Marcelo Figueras, 2003

Translation copyright © Frank Wynne, 2010

Book Excerpt: The Prague Cemetery

By Umberto Eco, English translation by Richard Dixon

Chapter 1

A passerby on that gray morning in March 1897, crossing, at his own risk and peril, place Maubert, or the Maub, as it was known in criminal circles (formerly a center of university life in the Middle Ages, when students flocked there from the Faculty of Arts in Vicus Stramineus, or rue du Fouarre, and later a place of execution for apostles of free thought such as Étienne Dolet), would have found himself in one of the few spots in Paris spared from Baron Haussmann’s devastations, amid a tangle of malodorous alleys, sliced in two by the course of the Bièvre, which still emerged here, flowing out from the bowels of the metropolis, where it had long been confined, before emptying feverish, gasping and verminous into the nearby Seine. From place Maubert, already scarred by boulevard Saint-Germain, a web of narrow lanes still branched off, such as rue Maître-Albert, rue Saint-Séverin, rue Galande, rue de la Bûcherie, rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, as far as rue de la Huchette, littered with filthy hotels generally run by Auvergnat hoteliers of legendary cupidity, who demanded one franc for the first night and forty centimes thereafter (plus twenty sous if you wanted a sheet).

If he were to turn into what was later to become rue Sauton but was then still rue d’Amboise, about halfway along the street, between a brothel masquerading as a brasserie and a tavern that served dinner with foul wine for two sous (cheap even then, but all that was affordable to students from the nearby Sorbonne), he would have found an impasse, or blind alley, which by that time was called impasse Maubert, but up to 1865 had been called cul-desac d’Amboise, and years earlier had housed a tapis-franc (in underworld slang, a tavern, a hostelry of ill fame, usually run by an ex-convict, and the haunt of felons just released from jail), and was also notorious because in the eighteenth century there had stood here the laboratory of three celebrated women poisoners, found one day asphyxiated by the deadly substances they were distilling on their stoves. At the end of that alleyway, quite inconspicuous, was the window of a junk shop that a faded sign extolled as Brocantage de Qualité — a window whose glass was covered by such a thick layer of dust that it was hard to see the goods on display or the interior, each pane being little more than twenty centimeters square, all held together by a wooden frame. Beside the window he would have seen a door, always shut, and a notice beside the bell pull announcing that the proprietor was temporarily absent.

But if, as rarely happened, the door was open, anyone entering would have been able to make out, in the half-light illuminating that dingy hovel, arranged on a few precarious shelves and several equally unsteady tables, a jumble of objects that, though attractive at first sight, would on closer inspection have turned out to be totally unsuitable for any honest commercial trade, even if they were to be offered at knock-down prices. They included a pair of fire dogs that would have disgraced any hearth, a pendulum clock in flaking blue enamel, cushions once perhaps embroidered in bright colors, vase stands with chipped ceramic putti, small wobbly tables of indeterminate style, a rusty iron visiting-card holder, indefinable pokerwork boxes, hideous mother-of-pearl fans decorated with Chinese designs, a necklace that might have been amber, two white felt slippers with buckles encrusted with Irish diamantes, a chipped bust of Napoleon, butterflies under crazed glass, multicolored marble fruit under a once transparent bell, coconut shells, old albums with mediocre watercolors of flowers, a framed daguerreotype (which even then hardly seemed old) — so if someone, taking a perverse fancy to one of those shameful remnants of past distraints on the possessions of destitute families, and finding himself in front of the highly suspicious proprietor, had asked the price, he would have heard a figure that would have deterred even the most eccentric collector of antiquarian teratology.

And if the visitor, by virtue of some special permission, had continued on through a second door, separating the inside of the shop from the upper floors of the building, and had climbed one of those rickety spiral staircases typical of those Parisian houses whose frontages are as wide as their entrance doors (cramped together sidelong, one against the next), he would have entered a spacious room that, unlike the ground-floor collection of bric-a-brac, appeared to be furnished with objects of quite a different quality: a small three-legged Empire table decorated with eagle heads, a console table supported by a winged sphinx, a seventeenth-century wardrobe, a mahogany bookcase displaying a hundred or so books well bound in morocco, an American-style desk with a roll top and plenty of small drawers like a secrétaire. And if he had passed into the adjoining room, he would have found a luxurious four-poster bed, a rustic étagère laden with Sèvres porcelain, a Turkish hookah, a large alabaster cup and a crystal vase; on the far wall, panels painted with mythological scenes, two large canvases representing the Muses of History and Comedy and, hung variously upon the walls, Arab barracans, other oriental cashmere robes and an ancient pilgrim’s flask; and a washstand with a shelf filled with toiletry articles of the finest quality — in short, a bizarre collection of costly and curious objects that perhaps indicated not so much a consistency and refinement of taste as a desire for ostentatious opulence.

Returning to the first room, the visitor would have made out an elderly figure wrapped in a dressing gown, sitting at a table in front of the only window, through which filtered what little light illuminated the alleyway, who, from what he would have been able to glimpse over that man’s shoulders, was writing what we are about to read, and which the Narrator will summarize from time to time,
so as not to unduly bore the Reader.

Nor should the Reader expect the Narrator to reveal, to his surprise, that this figure is someone already named, since (this being the very beginning of the story) no one has yet been named. And
the Narrator himself does not yet know who the mysterious writer is, proposing to find this out (together with the Reader) while both of us look on inquisitively and follow what he is noting down on
those sheets of paper.

Excerpted from THE PRAGUE CEMETERY by Umberto Eco. Copyright (c) 2010 by RCS Libri S.p.A. English translation copyright (c) 2010 by Richard Dixon. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on January 17, 2012.


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