One site finds the wide world's tales

Thursday January 26, 2012

SHEFFIELD -- There are words English does not have.

Jane Kasten at The Bookstore in Lenox offered the word gemütlich.

"It's a feeling of harmony and contentment," she said. "It's hard to describe."

The definition is a visceral feeling of warmth.

"If you had guests for dinner with your family, and you're all sitting around a table," she said, "that would be gemütlich."

To meet words like this, readers who do not know German can turn to writing in translation.

If they can find any.

Many great books have never been translated into English, Kasten said. And many more are hard to hear about.

In 1999, Michael "Mitja" Orthofer, a book lover in New York City, set out to change that.

Son of Helga Kaiser of Stockbridge, Orthofer was born in Austria, and he reads German and French.

He is the editorial force the behind The Complete Review, www.complete -- a one-man offort to introduce the United States to stories from around the world. He will speak at Bushnell Sage Library in Sheffield on Friday at 7 p.m. about the resources that bring readers and writers together. He began the Complete Review informally.

"I was coming onto the Internet and seeing what was out there," he said.

Book reviews appeared online in 1999, but they did not link to each other. He collected reviews and began adding his own -- focusing on books he felt the United States was overlooking. He is a judge for the annual Best Translated Book Award, which looks for books that have not been translated before -- and the judges only have 300 some-odd books to consider.

"Translations are a very hard sell for many publishers," he said.

"Out of all books published here, less than 3 percent are translations," said Peter Filkins, poet, translator and professor of language and literature at Bard College at Simon's Rock. "In other countries -- Germany, France, Spain -- it may be 40 or 50 percent."

The New Republic has just named Filkins' translation of Holocaust survivor H.G. Adler's "Panorama" as one of the best books of 2011. He praised Orthofer's work and dedication.

"He's a serious reader writing serious front-line criticism of new works and helping readers find books that matter to them, or that will matter to them," Filkins said. "Few outlets do as much or as well."

At a time when book review space is shrinking everywhere, he said, Orthofer's practice of collecting reviews -- a panoply of responses, a conversation around each book -- is unique.

Orthofer said he tries to have a global reach. His list of top-ranked books ranges from "Mr. Pip" -- New Zealand novelist Lloyd Jones' story of a blockaded island in civil war -- to "Story of the Stone" -- Cao Xueqin's family saga and love story written in China in 1763 -- to Irmtraud Morgner's "The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as told by her Minstrel Laura," a magical and shrewd tale out of East Germany from 1974.

Something simple done well may be as good as the most intricate text, he said. He likes to see a writer trying something new to him; he enjoys playfulness and hungers for a good story. So he reviews mysteries and fantasies alongside novels and nonfiction.

"A great story well-told is compelling," he said.

He reads for pleasure and to be moved. He also reads to walk into new worlds.

Insight into many cultures is important in a globalized world, he said: as the U.S. faces tensions in the Middle East and in China, knowing how to talk to these places helps this country.

"You have to understand these people you're constantly dealing with," he said.

The Internet may influence this effort, he added, as it helps writers and readers to find each other.

And in many places, new writers are speaking with newly confident voices. In many countries, he said, a government office fosters translations from the local language into many languages. And publishing industries are growing in India and Africa. Writers can finally publish in their own countries without relying on the United States.

"I think there will be wonderful developments across the world soon," he said.

Storytellers can speak, one person to another.

"I don't think news coverage gives the insight you get from a variety of books," Orthofer said.

Filkins agreed.

"Storytelling is in our bones," he said. "We can understand the writers' world because they have imagined their world, and the translator re-imagines that world ... magnifies and illuminates it."

People have more undertanding now of what translators do, he said -- they are more aware that translation is an art, not a machine.

"We're trying to create a text which has a blood relation to the original text but is not the same text," he said.

A translator has to create something alive in its new language, he explained: when he translates, he tells a story from one time and place in the language of the moment in a new time and place.

"Jokes are the hardest things to translate," Filkins said. "Jokes are suffused with context or references ... (often) you have to invent a new joke."

Languages closest to each other are easiest to translate, Orthofer said, and poetry, like puns, can be difficult to translate whole.

Poetry relies on sounds, nuances and tones of voice, and objects and ideas that are part of the writer's everyday world, from amphorae to iPhones. Learning new stories, readers and listeners learn new ways to see the world. And they learn new ways to tell their own stories.

Through translations, "you pollinate your own culture and your own languages," Filkins said. "We look to other cultures to find new ways to tell stories. You do not get Salman Rushdie's ‘Midnight's Children' without Günter Grass's ‘The Tin Drum.'"

We have known this all along.

"We are surrounded by translations -- the Bible, the Torah, Galileo, the Greeks ... Freud, Neitzche ... science, philosophy, art history," Filkins said. "Certain stories become part of a language's DNA and revive it."

If you go ...

What: Mitja Orthofer will speak
on ‘A World of International Literature: Bringing Foreign Fiction Home'

When: Friday at 7 p.m.

Where: Bushnell Sage Library, Sheffield

Admission: Free



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