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In March, Frank Wynne, the first translator to serve on the Booker International Prize jury, urged publishers to pay royalties to both translators and authors – and the Booker Foundation immediately agreed.
Advocating for translators of this kind is becoming more common and visible, for which readers should be grateful. Well-paid, unrestricted translators take on a greater variety of projects, which means books arrive in English from a truly global range of languages, cultures and traditions. It also means more species of books being translated.
It is a rare occasion that non-academic non-fiction has been translated into English. But that has started to change. All three books reviewed here may be academic in the spirited depth of their investigations, but they are far from academic in style. Hannah Arendts Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess is a biography so unusual that it hardly justifies the name; Silvia Ferraras The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Writings is a thorough early history – or rather histories – of the written language; and Alia Trabucco Zerans When women kill mixes legal history with a feminist reconstruction of the biographies of four female murderers.
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess by Hannah Arendt, translated by Richard and Clara Winston
In 1933, Hannah Arendt — a Jewish graduate student who would become one of the great 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 ran an intellectual salon in the 1790s and whose correspondence published after her death was as rich, honest, and rebellious as Goethe’s daughter-in-law said to this: “Since Rahel we women have been allowed to have thoughts.” Arendt’s biography, not published until 1955 and just reprinted in Richard and Clara Winston’s excellent translation, is rooted in Rahel’s letters. In it, Arendt tries, as she writes in her foreword, “to tell the story of Rahel’s life as she would have told it herself”.
on this front, Rachel Varnhagen is an incomplete success. Arendt penetrates so deeply into her sitter’s inner life and writes so poignantly about her frustrations and concerns that the biography often reads like a novel. Nevertheless, she cannot avoid coming back to Rahel’s complete inability to see her problems as part of a larger “Jewish question”. While German Jews were able to assimilate during Rahel’s lifetime, they could not achieve social acceptance without abandoning their religion. Rahel refused to do the latter, but she considered being Jewish her “special misfortune” — an attitude that is obviously frustrating. This frustration, which springs from Arendt’s otherwise intense identification with her subject, drives the book and makes it an imaginative mixture of biography and social commentary which, as the scholar Barbara Hahn writes in her introduction, is still “way ahead of its time”. feels .”
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 codes. Trained as an archaeologist and linguist, she teaches at the University of Bologna and is part of an EU-funded research group trying to reconstruct the invention of writing, find out “how many times writing was invented throughout history” and decipher ancient writing systems such as Crypo-Minoan and the Indus Valley Script. in the The greatest invention, which is a stormy summary of this triple research project, Ferrara advocates for readers to take an intricate view not only of writing, but also of language, history, and identity. Ferrara passionately defends complexity. “True beauty,” she argues, is “the beauty of chaos,” and her role as a scholar is “to resist [the] obsessive urge to organize.”
She fights back, all right. The greatest invention jumps from Crete to China via Rapa Nui, bouncing happily through centuries and civilizations – and cracking lots and lots of jokes along the way. It feels less like a book than a brilliant, rambling, disorganized lecture: retaining information as you read is nearly impossible, but each paragraph is so alive with surprising facts and glittering wisdom that retention hardly matters. The greatest invention is much more a performance than a story – which means that without Portnowitz’ excellent translation into English it could easily have been a disaster. Portnowitz applauds Ferrara’s spark and vibrancy; he leans on her assertive statements and cheesy jokes. Surely he pulled his hair out and translated her Italian emoji rebuses into English. His translation is not only seamless but electrifying and deserves tremendous credit for the success of Ferrara’s show.
When women kill by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes
Before she turned to literature, the Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán studied to be a lawyer, but quickly realized that she could not endure a life of bloodless legal prose. Nevertheless, her legal training is just as important for her second book, When women kill, than her considerable literary gifts. Trabucco Zerán, well translated by Sophie Hughes, is a moving, imaginative author – which is important considering her four themes are “real villains, proven killers, [and] almost irretrievable beings.” According to Trabucco Zerán, their misconduct is precisely why they are important: Looking directly at female killers is “essential to a feminism that aims to expand accepted notions of what men and women should feel. ‘ Each of her four subjects seems to have clearly responded to the intolerable constraints created by their class, gender and social position – and yet each responded with killing in cold blood.
When women kill strives to get his readers inside the heads of his subjects, but not in the sensationalist manner of books like Jim Thompson’s The killer in mewho lives in the mind of a sociopathic protagonist. Instead, it applies a thoughtful feminist lens to stories that are as painful as they are gory. Consider María Teresa Alfaro, a domestic worker who poisoned her boss’ children after her boss repeatedly forced her to terminate pregnancies she wanted to keep: It’s easy to sympathize with Alfaro, yet impossible not to be horrified by her revenge to be. Trabucco Zerán expertly handles this mix of emotions, appealing to any reader who is serious about exploring female violence, or anyone who appreciates the mix of crime and commentary in books like John Darnielle’s devil house or Maggie Nelson’s The red parts. like both 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 based in Cincinnati, Ohio.