Comparing World Literature

Assessing and comparing translated literature from all over the world is extremely difficult; especially when they are all translated from different languages. Encyclopedia of a life in Russia by José Manuel Prieto, Woes of the true Policeman by Roberto Bolaño, Pow! By Mo Yan, Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and Replacement by Tor Ulven all have one thing in common: they are phenomenal books that transcend the boundaries of traditional literature and encompass defining aspects of the culture they represent. However, if they have to be compared to each other and a winner of the “best translated book award” must be chosen, then Tor Ulven’s Replacement stands above the rest.

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To make such a statement, of course, one must back it up with reasoning. Because these books are all of such high caliber, the least that can be done is construct a criterion that evaluates the different aspects taken into consideration when placing Replacement just slightly higher than the others.

First, because this is the “Best Translated book award” the aspect that is weighed most heavily is the translation of the works themselves. Although it is hard to judge how well a book is translated without being fluent in the original language, the complexity of translating a work can still be seen in the style captured by the translation and whether or not it seems to resemble the original.

Another important aspect to consider is the cultural implications of the text and not only what it means for the culture it represents, but what it does for the culture in an English-speaking world with an American audience.

Accessibility is also taken into consideration. Of course a book shouldn’t be dumb-down for an American audience, but it should still be accessible to people of a different language and culture. People should still be given the same experience-or at least as close to it as possible.

With these aspects in mind, the books are then evaluated and compared with each other. First, the books are evaluated for their own merits and faults and then the reasons behind Replacement placing higher than the others will be revealed.

Encyclopedia of a life in Russia by Cuban author José Manuel Prieto provides vivid impressions of Russian culture in the form of an encyclopedia. The book debunks the concept of chronology in literature and encourages the reader to jump back and forth between the entries, exploring and letting the text lead them down different paths and journeys. The language enraptures the senses, with intricate detailing that manages to create scenes one can visualize and experience. However, because it was published first in 1998, it can seem dated though. In terms of accessibility, this can be a turn-off to a contemporary, modern audience. This is book that is not meant for the commoner, so to speak. It is a compilation of the era it was written in and therefore needs knowledgeable readers that bring their own cross-references.

Pow! by Chinese author Mo Yan, is a stand-out example of exemplary triumphs in translation. Chinese has no specific style or even tenses, making the task of finding a voice and style especially difficult. By the same token, it also makes it somewhat less commendable than having to imitate and transmit a specific style or cadence of rhetoric from the original work (such as is the case with the other books). The complexity of the language doesn’t stop the translator from transmitting descriptions that are extremely vivid and even gruesome at times. The novel merges reality with hallucinations and history with folk tales in a way that leaves the reader confused, shocked, awestruck and at times, even disgusted. It’s not a book that is meant to be taken too seriously, however. When considering the cultural implications of the book and its standing in Chinese society and in the world as a whole, Mo Yan’s presence in the literary community must be acknowledged. This is a book that won the Nobel Prize for literature, after all. The novel can be said to be an allegorical commentary on modern Chinese society and because of it, the book has been criticized for its political involvement. Such a presence in scandal might entice readers to pick up a copy of POW; however, this isn’t a book for everyone. The censor-less language and ideas in this book- sexually graphic explicitness, disgusting obsessions with meat, etc- can turn away the average reader. This is not to say that all award-winning books should be written for everyone, however, for the purpose of the “Best Translated Book” award, the subject matter and the complexity of the text is something to consider when judging which book deserves the prize. Let Mo Yan keep the Nobel for his high-brow, explosive novel.

Woes of the True Policeman by Chilean author Robert Bolaño is a collection of fragmentary threads. This may be due to the fact to that the book was published posthumously; however, it doesn’t keep the fact from making the experience frustrating. There are several instances in the book that go unfinished, left more as sketches of an original outline. However, the novel does have its literary merits, particularly found in the lyrical tone, unexpected twists, intensity of language and dark humor. As a translation, it works. However, that’s about all that can be said about it. It is a well-written translation, but it doesn’t exactly accomplish anything extraordinary, besides having to translate an unfinished book with a dead author. Because of this, it doesn’t rank highly on the translation spectrum of the “Best Translated Book” award scale.

Sometimes called the female Kafka writer of her time, Clarice Lispector is an already well-established and known Brazilian author. Although her literature does bring a new perspective on the way people think Brazilian literature can or should do, she is already internationally acclaimed and recognized around the world. In fact, there are more than one different translations of The Hour of the Star. Besides Lispector’s recognition, the prevalence of literature in Portuguese accessible to the English-speaking world is notably larger than that of Norwegian literature.

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Maidenhair by Russian author Mikhail Shishkin should be praised on the front of the complexity of the translation as well. The quality of the translation is superb, especially when the complexity of the original work is considered. As if Russian wasn’t already a difficult enough language to translate, Mikhail Shishkin filled Maidenhair with shifts in tone, obscure references, and complex language. However, the translation isn’t flawless. There are mistakes throughout the novel and it becomes hard to distinguish whether those stem from a flaw in the translator’s part, or the authors. Although flawed, there’s no denying Maidenhair’s merit. Already a National Bestseller Prize and Big Book Prize winner, Maidenhair has already garnered the recognition and renown that Replacement has yet to acquire. Because of this, it is hard to consider awarding it “Best Translated Book” over Replacement. In terms of the accessibility of the book, the density of the language can sometimes come off as pretentious and might be meant more for a grad student studying literature than the average reader.

And then of course, there’s Replacement by Norwegian author Tor Ulven. The word Replacement is so powerful. It can be used in a myriad of contexts and can weigh as lightly as replacing the batteries on a remote control, or as heavily as replacing a person with another, or replacing oneself with an ideal self or a more suitable self.

Tor Ulven has a distinctive style that provides a window into the quintessential Norwegian style. Replacement also provides an outlet into Norwegian literature that is not crime fiction, making the cultural implications of this award more prominent than to some of the other books. Ulven’s style is so distinctive that it could be called Ulven-esque. He writes in a chain of detailed fragments, blending between what we know and what we don’t know through a series of flashbacks and snapshots that could all be about the same man’s life at different points in time, or alternatively about more than 15 different character’s lives. Replacement employs a narrative voice composed of the perspectives of a multitude of seemingly unrelated characters. The text shifts constantly but subtly from the third person to the second and back again, involving the reader in the story and drawing attention to the internal lives of the characters.

There are no chapters in this book; in fact, it seems like a giant run-on-sentence. The cadence is so poetic and fast paced that it leaves little room to put the book down and catch one’s breath. However, the book still manages a hyper-attentiveness to details in the margins of daily life that makes the reader connect with the book regardless of the experimental structure. The translation is still understandable despite the complexity of the original work and even takes into consideration the poetics of the language. It doesn’t, however, dumb down the text for an English-speaking audience. The translation makes the reader think as well as analyze the text just as much (at least it is assumed) as the original. It feels as though we are getting the same experience that a Norwegian reader would get. This is no easy undertaking, especially when one considers how poetic the book reads. It is exactly the translator’s ability to capture the prose-poetry relationship in the text that makes it such a feat as a translation. When considering the accessibility of the novel, it is important to note the way it takes into account the universality of people’s innermost needs and the impossibility of them attaining them, coupled with regret and wistful hope. It is a verbose way of exposing the internal life of the externally frustrated.

This is a book that doesn’t follow the conventions of literature and creates a new way of thinking about the ways literature can be played around with. Ulven toys with the rhythm and melody of the words and the way they flow together but still manages to capture a narrative style and rhetoric that translate well to sound natural in English. Because of these reasons, Replacement is a winning contender for the metaphorical “Best translated book” award. It encompasses not only great literature, but also an embodiment of what makes a great translation, which in the end, is the goal of a great translated book.

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