3 documentary translations to read this spring : NPR

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Three non-fiction translations

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

In March, Frank Wynne, the first translator to chair the International Booker Prize jury, appealed to publishers to pay royalties to translators as well as authors – and the Booker Foundation immediately agreed.

Pro-translator advocacy of this type has become increasingly frequent and visible, for which readers should be grateful. Well-paid, unconstrained translators choose a wider variety of projects, meaning books arrive in English from a truly global range of languages, cultures and traditions. It also means more kinds translated books.

It is a rare occasion that non-academic non-fiction has been translated into English. But that started to change. The three books reviewed here may be academic in the spirited depth of their research, but in style they are anything but. Hannah Arendt Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman is such an unusual biography that it hardly deserves the name; by Silvia Ferrara The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Writings is a complete ancient history – or rather histories – of the written language; and Alia Trabucco Zeran when women kill combines legal history and feminist reconstruction of the lives of four murderers.

Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman by Hannah Arendt, translated by Richard and Clara Winston

In 1933, Hannah Arendt – a Jewish graduate student who would become one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century – fled Nazi Germany after being arrested for illegally researching anti-Semitism. This research was part of a biographical project: Arendt was interested in the life of Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jewess who held an intellectual salon in the 1790s and whose correspondence, published after her death, was so rich, honest and rebellious as the story of Goethe’s daughter-in-law said: “Since Rahel, we women have the right to have thoughts. Arendt’s biography, which was not published until 1955 and has just been reprinted in Richard and Clara Winston’s excellent translation, has its roots in Rahel’s letters. In it, Arendt strives, as she writes in her preface, to “tell the story of Rahel’s life as she herself would have told it”.

On this front, Rahel Varnhagen is an incomplete success. Arendt probes her subject’s inner life so deeply and writes so vividly about her frustrations and heartaches that the biography often reads like a novel. Yet she can’t help but repeatedly return to Rahel’s complete inability to see her problems as part of a larger “Jewish issue.” During Rahel’s lifetime, German Jews could assimilate, but could not be accepted by society without abandoning their religion. Rahel refused to do the latter, but she considered Jewishness her “particular misfortune” – an attitude that obviously frustrates her. This frustration, which stems from Arendt’s otherwise intense identification with her subject, fuels the book, turning it into an imaginative blend of biography and social commentary that still feels, as scholar Barbara Hahn writes in her introduction, completely “ahead of its time”. .”

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Writingsby Silvia Ferrara, translated by Todd Portnowitz

Silvia Ferrara is an expert in cracking old code. An anthropologist and linguist by training, she teaches at the University of Bologna and is part of an EU-funded research group that seeks to reconstruct the invention of writing, to understand “how often writing has been invented throughout history” and to decipher ancient writing systems like Crypto-Minoan and Indus Valley Script. In The greatest invention, which is a whirlwind summary of this triple research project, Ferrara urges readers to take a complicated view not just of writing, but also of language, history, and identity. Ferrara is passionate in her defense of complexity. “Real beauty”, she asserts, is “the beauty of chaos”, and her role as an academic is to “resist [the] obsessive need to organize.”

She resists, okay. The greatest invention bounces from Crete to Rapa Nui to China, happily leaping across centuries and civilizations – and cracking many, many jokes along the way. It feels less like a book than a brilliant, digressive, disorganized lecture: Retaining information while you read is nearly impossible, but each paragraph is so alive with startling facts and scintillating bits of wisdom that retention doesn’t matter. The greatest invention is much more of a performance than a story – which means that, without Portnowitz’s superior translation, it could easily have been a disaster in English. Portnowitz embraces the spark and liveliness of Ferrara; he leans into his assertive statements and corny jokes. Surely he tore his hair out which made his Italian emojis into English. His translation is not only transparent but electric, and deserves huge credit for the success of Ferrara’s show.

when women kill by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes

Before turning to literature, Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán studied to become a lawyer, although she soon realized she could not bear a life of bloodless legal prose. Yet his legal training is also vital to his second book, when women kill, as his considerable literary gifts. Trabucco Zerán, aptly translated by Sophie Hughes, is a moving and imaginative writer — importantly, given that her four subjects are “true villains, avowed killers, [and] almost irremediable beings. According to Trabucco Zerán, their wrongdoings are precisely why they matter: looking at murderous women head-on is “essential to a feminism committed to expanding conventional wisdom about how men and women should feel.” Each of his four subjects clearly seems to have reacted to the intolerable constraints created by their class, gender, and social position – and yet each reacted by killing in cold blood.

when women kill strives to put its readers in the minds of its subjects, but not in the sensationalized way of books like Jim Thompson The killer in me, which inhabits the thoughts of a sociopathic protagonist. Instead, it applies a thoughtful feminist lens to stories that are as painful as they are bloody. Consider María Teresa Alfaro, a domestic worker who poisoned her boss’ children after his boss repeatedly forced her to end pregnancies she wanted to keep: It’s easy to have feelings for Alfaro, and yet impossible not to be horrified by his revenge. This mix of emotions is one that Trabucco Zerán expertly handles and will speak to any reader seeking serious consideration of female violence, or anyone who appreciates the mix of crime and commentary in books like John Darnielle. Devil’s House or Maggie Nelson The red parts. Like the two, when women kill is an ethical approach to true crime – still rare, like translated non-fiction, but hopefully both will become more common each year.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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