Translation Database: Day Four

With the first day of February comes the fourth instalment of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.


211905961. The Knot in the Rug by Mahsoud Behnoud (translated from the Persian by Sara Phillips; Garnet Publishing)
“The Knot in the Rug” encapsulates the massive upheavals of the first half of 20th century from a point of view that the English-speaking readership rarely glimpses. A gripping read that also sheds light on traditional Persian customs of birth, marriage and death still followed in modern-day IranThe book ‘s heroine, Khanoum, is in the courts of Persia ‘s Qajar dynasty. The twists and turns in Khanoum ‘s life make for a gripping read, whilst at the same time shedding light on traditional Persian customs of birth, marriage and death, still followed in modern-day Iran. Forced to flee Persia during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Khanoum is brought up by her uncle and his immediate family. Her teenage years are marked by her struggles: family tragedy, her horrendous journey through Persia, and her uncertain future. Once in Russia her aunt, a woman of great strength and wisdom, manages to bring some sense of order to their exiled gathering by creating a home akin to what they were accustomed to. However, some years later, the Bolshevik revolution brings another upheaval and they flee once more; this time to Istanbul. In the fairy-tale palaces of the Ottoman Empire Khanoum marries a member of the Ottoman Court. But the newlyweds hardly have time to make plans for their future when they face yet more turmoil; learning of the downfall of the ruling family, they hurriedly escape to France. In Paris with her husband, Khanoum at last finds a resting place, but it does not take long before her eventful and tragic destiny once again beckons and she finds herself alone and destitute.  The story contains a rich and compelling record of how these historic events affected the lives of a group of people from different parts of the world. It presents an overview of the fabric of the Iranian society with an emphasis on the last century ‘s privileged class.


2. Styx by Bavo Dhooge (translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter; Simon & Schuster)25111050
A serial killer is on the loose in Ostend, Belgium. Nicknamed The Stuffer, the mysterious killer fills his victims full of sand and poses them as public art installations—and the once idyllic beach town is in a panic. The fact that Rafael Styx is on the case is no comfort. The corrupt, middle-aged cop has a bum hip, a bad marriage, and ties to the Belgian underworld, but no leads. And if he wants to catch the killer before he’s replaced by the young, ambitious, and flamboyant new cop, Detective Delacroix, he’ll have to take matters into his own hands.  When a chance encounter puts him face to face with The Stuffer, Rafael’s life is cut short by a gun to the chest. But the afterlife has only just begun: Styx wakes up a zombie. Gradually he realizes his unique position. Not only is his body in decay, now that he exists between life and death, he can enter a “different” Ostend, of the Belle Époque in all its grandeur. There he meets the surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux, who gives Styx his first clue about the killer.  With a fresh lead and a fresh start, the dirty cop decides to change his ways, catch The Stuffer, and restore his honor. But as his new hunger for human flesh impedes his progress, he’ll need his old rival, Detective Delacroix to help him out. Only one thing is for sure, even death can’t stop Styx from catching his own murderer.  Complex and compelling, full of suspense, action, and black humor, Styx is an exciting thriller with an intriguing protagonist and evocative setting.


183398773. The Walls of Delhi: Three Stories by Uday Prakash (translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum; Yale University Press)
A street sweeper discovers a cache of black market money and escapes to see the Taj Mahal with his underage mistress; an Untouchable races to reclaim his life that’s been stolen by an upper-caste identity thief; a slum baby’s head gets bigger and bigger as he gets smarter and smarter, while his family tries to find a cure. One of India’s most original and audacious writers, Uday Prakash, weaves three tales of living and surviving in today’s globalized India. In his stories, Prakash portrays realities about caste and class with an authenticity absent in most English-language fiction about South Asia. Sharply political but free of heavy handedness.


4. Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa (translated from the Polish by Wiesiek Powaga; New 23282253Vessel Press)
A young university student named Jurek, with no particular ambitions or talents, is adrift. After his doting aunt asks him to perform a small chore, he decides to kill her for no good reason other than, perhaps, boredom. Killing Auntie follows Jurek as he seeks to dispose of the corpse—a task more difficult than one might imagine—and then falls in love with a girl he meets on a train. Can he tell her what he’s done? Will that ruin everything?


232820165. Smugglers by Ales Debeljak (translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry; BOA Editions)
The poems in Smugglers move through rapid historical shifts and meditations on personal experience, exploring the depths and limits of comprehension through the people and geography of the Balkans. Ultimately, Aleš Debeljak’s urban imagination creates a mosaic—intimate and historical—of a vanished people and their country. Every poem in Smugglers is sixteen lines long—four quatrains, a common form for Debeljak. This structural regularity is reinforced by a commitment to visual balance, with each poem working as a kind of grid into which the poet pours memories and associative riffs.


One From the Archive: ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall ****

Chasing the King of Hearts is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is by internationally acclaimed bestseller Hanna Krall.  The novel appears in its first English translation, which has been well wrought by Philip Boehm.  Chasing the King of Hearts is a little longer than the majority of the books on Peirene’s list, but it is a difficult story to put down.  The entirety of it is told rather simplistically, but this technique only serves to make the horrors of the Holocaust which Krall portrays all the more chilling. 9781908670106

The novel begins in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, and is told entirely from the third person perspective.  It tells the story of Izolda, a young Polish woman, beginning with the pivotal day in which she meets her husband, Shayek, for the first time.  Izolda believes that she is already ‘in love’ with another man, but when she realises she is not and her friends urge her to become engaged, ‘Shayek tosses out: I’m available.’  Izolda works tirelessly as a nurse, and in this way she views the balance between life and death firsthand.  Krall describes the way in which, ‘She tells her husband what death looks like: no soul, no sign.  Then she adds, by way of encouragement: We’re still alive, though.  To which her husband says: Even that is less and less certain.’

The most poignantly portrayed aspect of the novel is the disparity and hopelessness of being Jewish at such a tumultuous period in history.  Izolda and Shayek are called ‘Yids’ by some young boys who pass them, and this is what follows: ‘Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers: Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they could tell.  He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.  She hadn’t realised it had slipped, exposing the armband with the blue star’.  To draw attention away from herself, Izolda drastically alters her appearance, dying her hair ‘ash-blonde’, changing her name to Maria Pawlicka and saying that she worked for a Jewish family in order to escape from and gain access back into the ghetto.  The narrative style rallies against the inherent fear of Jewishness – many have ‘terrible looks and a terrible accent’, which means that they can potentially be found out and taken away in convoys to the concentration camps.

The entirety of the book has been split into small vignettes, the majority of them full of sadnesses.  The most powerful sentences are portrayed in relation to Izolda’s own life – for example, when she was younger and learning English from a private tutor, ‘[she] would certainly have mastered English if the teacher hadn’t hanged himself.’  Krall has addressed many themes of importance within Chasing the King of Hearts – the resistance and underground movements in Warsaw, the notion of trust and how easily it can be broken, violence, interrogations, betrayals and deceit, bravery, imprisonment, forced transit to the camps, grief and forgetting – which enable the book to be historically grounded.  In this way, Krall has ensured that her novel does not merely portray the experiences of one woman and her family, but of an entire nation of people.

And now for the not so positive elements of Chasing the King of Hearts.  There are several black and white photographs which have been placed at random points within the text, but none of them have captions, and it is unclear as to who or what the photographs are meant to relate to.  Despite the book’s power, the story does fizzle out a little toward the end.  When the final sections are reached, it feels as though another book entirely has been tagged onto the end, which is a real shame.

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