In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream. Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.
Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it. But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.
The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):
The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.
Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:
The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.
Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15. Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English. “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.
Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog. (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)
[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]
Last year Daniel told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”
Much more. Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.
Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French. It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):
Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.
Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”
We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.