Translators are essential presences in literature (it is obvious that, without them, we wouldn’t have access to many of the literary creations in the whole wide world), but the nature of their job requires them to be extremely discrete. Nevertheless, there are a few novels in which the translators step out from the shadow and become characters themselves.
I have read (and even blogged about) several such novels: in End of the Story, by Lydia Davis*, the main character is a translator who explains how scrupulous one must be to do this job, what skills it requires, and how it is viewed from within; in The Greek Interpreter, by Max Davidson, the protagonist is a conference interpreter who gets involved in all sorts of funny and dangerous situations against his will, and the author makes a few comments about this professional environment which, although not at all realistic, are funny and even sarcastic; another conference interpreter is the narrator in A Heart So White, novel of one of my favourite writers, Javier Marias; and I shouldn’t forget about The Translator, by Leila Aboulela, a beautiful book in which we witness the loneliness of a Muslim translator, her longing for home, an unexpected love story, and her return to her country.
The list could continue with Un Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine, which I haven’t read yet, but everyone has recommended to me; Daniel Stein, Interpreter, by Ludmila Ulițkaia, a novel about a Polish Jew who survives the Holocaust by translating for the Gestapo and for NKDV and saves the lives of hundreds of people, and so on and so forth.
When so many translators and interpreters become literary characters, who can doubt that they are such special and interesting people? I was intrigued by this subject, so I did some research. Here’s a list of book titles starring translators:
César Aira – The Literary Conference;
Brian Aldiss – The Interpreter, aka Bow Down to Nul (science fiction)
Paul Auster – The Book of Illusions – I’m tempted to read this one, I kind of liked Paul Auster so far.
Ingeborg Bachmann – Three Paths to the Lake (the story Word for Word)
L. Frank Baum – The Marvelous Land of Oz (chapter 7 His Majesty the Scarecrow) – It seems I have to read it again, I can’t remember this.
Luciano Bianciardi – La Vita Agra
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly – I read another novel by her, Hôtel du Lac (Booker Prize), and I liked it.
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – I’ve been wanting to read this one for a very long time!
Cervantes – Don Quixote – I should read this one again, as well!
Susan Choi – The Foreign Student
John Crowley – The Translator
Dicey Deere – The Irish Manor House Murder – Mmmm, this sounds so good!
Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (science fiction)
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment – Where’s the translator in this one? I need to read it again!
Sarah Dunant – Transgressions
Francesca Duranti – House on Moon Lake
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated – Oh, yes! How could I forget about it? The broken English of the so-called interpreter is both funny and touching.
Brian Friel – Translations (play)
Anna Gavalda – Someone I Loved
Suzanne Glass – The Interpreter
Peter Handke – The Left-Handed Woman
Todd Hasak-Lowy – The Task of This Translator
Donald A. Herron – The Misadventures of Interpreter Sam
Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker
Sheri Holman – A Stolen Tongue (historic icton)
Nancy Horan – Loving Frank
Susanna Jones – The Earthquake Bird (thriller)
Ward Just – The Translator
Suki Kim – The Interpreter
India Knight – Don’t You Want Me
Julia Kristeva – Possessions – Kristeva’s name reminds me of my BA Thesis on intertextuality. 😀
Wally Lamb – I Know This Much Is True
John le Carré – The Mission Song
David Lodge – Small World – I read the campus trilogy, extremely entertaining.
Peter Manseau – Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
Pascal Mercier – Night Train to Lisbon
Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces
Andrew Miller – Oxygen
Nicole Mones – Lost in Translation
Robert Moss – The Interpreter (historic fiction)
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net – I used to love Iris Murdoch when I was younger. I haven’t read this one, though.
Joyce Carol Oates – The Tattooed Girl – Another one on my list!
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
Matthew Pearl – The Dante Club
Jacques Poulin – Translation Is a Love Affair
Piers Paul Read – A Season in the West
Arno Schmidt – Bottom’s Dream (upcoming)
Carol Shields – Unless
José Carlos Somoza – The Athenian Murders
Rose Tremain – The Way I Found Her – This sounds like a mystery to me! Me wants it!
Mario Vargas Llosa – The Bad Girl
Paolo Volponi – Last Act in Urbino
Peter Waterhouse – Language Death Night Outside: Poem. Novel
Barbara Wilson – Cassandra Reilly Mystery series
Jeannete Winterson – Written on the Body – I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Maybe I should try this one, too.
A. B. Yehoshua – The Liberated Bride
(The source is a more comprehensive list which can be found here.)
Have you read anything on this list? Do you know any other fictional books on this theme?
*The links in this article, except for the last one, indicating the source of the list, will take you to my blog in Romanian, dedicated to books and travels.