New British title makes a literary world journey

There is a world of literature, if not exactly a «world literature» in any generally accepted sense of the term. Both these truisms are brought home in a forceful yet reader-friendly way in a sampler of works drawn from various cultures, recently published in Britain. «Rearranging the World» is the rather bold title, whose subtitle – «A Contemporary Anthology of Literature in Translation» – more precisely states its contents. The British Center for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia has collaborated with the Arts Council of England in the «New Audiences Project,» designed to promote new readerships for translated works. This volume, edited by Josephine Balmer, is a confident step in that direction; opening new cultural horizons, introducing different styles of writing and perhaps unfamiliar writers, and highlighting the crucial but often unheralded role of the translator. At its best, writes Michele Roberts in a short but highly engaging introduction, «translation is a form of magic,» in which not just a book’s language but its cultural context, cadence, and essential spirit is transferred across time and place to the reader’s own milieu. But far from being a highfalutin exercise in promoting touchy-feely, one-world understanding, it also underscores the many differences between cultures and peoples, without pretending false commonalities. In under 200 pages, «Rearranging the World» gathers together 36 selections, some with brief translating notes. Most are prose but a few poems appear too. They were chosen partly to illustrate the volume’s theme, the human life-cycle; «Familiar emotions in unfamiliar surroundings,» as the book’s cover puts it. Thus early sections like «Youthful Days» are followed by «Marriage and Family Life» and «Calm Old Age,» though some readers will undoubtedly run first to «Passionate Affairs.» Many pieces reveal human dramas while others offer wry takes on the curious things people will do. Tessa de Loo’s best-selling novel «The Twins» looks at two sisters separated by death and war and who meet up again in strained circumstances. The sense of division and altered priorities during times of crisis comes through in painful detail: «Humanity seemed to be divided into two camps: the one spread [all their butter] on one piece and had dry bread for the rest of the week, the other carefully spread each piece with a puritanically wafer-thin layer…» Other, lighter Dutch fare is on offer in «Silent Extras,» by Arnon Grunberg, which follows three youngsters who enter acting school with dreams of Hollywood glory, and wind up with egg on their faces. The crime genre is also well represented, as in «The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro» by Antonio Tabucchi, or Emmanuel Carrere’s «The Adversary: A True Story of Murder and Deception,» which deals with wholehearted deception in an international setting. Indeed, surprising multinational combinations often crop up; Tabucchi’s story involves an Italian writing on a Portuguese event, while Norwegian Nikolaj Frobenius’s «De Sade’s Valet» fills in the historical cracks with an imaginative evocation of the notorious 18th-century Frenchman. The dramas or tedium of marriage appear in Marta Morazzoni’s award-winning «Alphonse Courrier Affair,» while in Amos Oz’s novel «The Same Sea,» «In a whisper she told her closest friend, who would say, ‘When there is love it feels different, but how can you explain butterflies to a tortoise?’ Yet it is hard to top the pathos of «Letters to my Wife,» by Miklos Radnoti, shot in a Nazi slave-labor camp and later exhumed, with poems found in his pocket: «I’ve no idea when I’ll see you once more, and you who were as solemn as psalms, and sure, as beautiful as light, as shade – I could find my way home to you, though I were dumb and blind…» In «Soul Mountain,» Gao Xingjiang (the 2000 Nobel laureate) also faces death, but recovers to ask, «How should I change this life for which I had just won a reprieve?» Greece is represented too, with Andreas Staikos’s «Les Liaisons Culinaires» (ably translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife) making – cleverly but unnecessarily – two appearances. This first-novel selection, mixing witty dialogue with recipes, arguably doesn’t match the sheer grit (or explicitness) of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s «Dirty Havana Trilogy.» But when the going gets too heavy, delightful pieces crop up, like «Cat out of Hell,» a short poem about a 93-year-old caught for speeding, as «fast Ada does community service, no wage… to pay for not acting her age.» And it is often the non-Western pieces – May Telmissany’s «Dunyazad» (set in Egypt), or Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s «Life is a Caravanserai» (in Turkey), both by women – that add much richness and fraught realism to the volume. Apart from the inevitably varying quality, the main problem in this compilation is the brevity of the selections. At 2-4 pages they provide a mere taste, leaving you wanting more – which no doubt is one of the book’s aims. This is evidently the mere tip of the iceberg of international writings on common (and uncommon) themes. For its thoughtful selections, quality editing, and especially its focus on the art and science of translating, this volume provides a worthy service to literature aficionados. Forthcoming projects «Rearranging the World» is far from being the last product of the British Center for Literary Translation. In addition to public readings involving book contributors and its wide distribution in the UK’s public library system, there is a summer school in Cambridge and the annual St Jerome lecture in London in September, by the writer Susan Sontag. On that occasion, European translation prizes for literary translation will be given, including a new Greek one: the Hellenic Foundation for Culture Award for Greek Translation. For more information see www.literary, or write to Catherine Fuller, BCLT co-coordinator, at [email protected]. Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard. War drama relating the adventures of two US soldiers as they try to extract themselves from a battle in Somalia in 1993.

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