What to Read from Central and Eastern Europe: Part I

by Ken Bruce

In the first of a three-part series, Ken Bruce takes a look at nine translated books from Central and Eastern Europe.

Case Closed, Patrik Ouředník, tr. Alex Zucker

In Case Closed, Ouředník presents his readers with a wonderfully surreal murder mystery, case closedor, well, a mystery of some sort or another.  Narrative ambiguity is to be expected here given that the author himself has translated the triumvirate of ‘pataphysical mischief-makers, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, and Boris Vian, from French into Czech.  And so as entirely regular Czech citizens indulge in all kinds of undoubtedly noir-ish behavior slip in and out of the narrative, you find yourself asking, are they relevant to the story?  One just has to keep reading to find out, but if you’re feeling at all unsure of your abilities to connect the dots, the author steps in about halfway through the book with this helpful disclaimer:

You ask, How will it all end?  But that, dear readers, we cannot reveal.  We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea.  How it will turn out, we do not know; whether it will turn out, we haven’t a clue.  We’re in the same boat as you, or almost, since at this moment, as you read our book, our work is done; the book is out, you bought it, invested part of your earnings in the hope that it would pay off in the form of spiritual dividends.  We don’t mean to be impolite, we have no intention of committing cheap provocations, and yet, and yet, and yet: what do we care:  We’ve assumed the majority of responsibility; now it’s up to you to patiently bear your share.

Aside from such formal hijinks, I can only imagine the difficulties that must have faced translator Alex Zucker as he made his way through a text so heavily saturated with wordplay and pun-making as this one.  Luckily, the reader can at least feel confident of being guided by someone up to the task, as Zucker appears to make sport out of “difficult” Czech literature.  And in the end, the admittedly silly formal trickery of Ouředník’s novella belies a scathing commentary against post-Communist Czech Republic society.  When our protagonist Vilém Lebeda is purchasing vegetables and observes, “The rotten tomatoes were carefully tucked away underneath the good ones, an effect of the last revolution; under the old regime they didn’t bother with such formalities,” you get the feeling Ouředník’s real target is likely something other than produce.


You Do Understand, Andrej Blatnik, tr. Tamara M. Soban

you do understandIn a 1995 interview for the Dominion Review, Anrej Blatnik says that after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the “‘great stories,’ of ruling ideologies which are to be fought against, are over, and the so-called Eastern European literature, strangely enough, seems to find itself in an empty, vast space.”  Well, Blatnik himself has chosen to fill this perceived vast, empty space with very many tiny stories, ones populated by a large cast of nameless characters, all trying to navigate a vague, barely defined world.  One story, “Separation,” begins with a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment, next to a woman he met the previous night.  He listens carefully to hear if she is still breathing and expresses relief when, yes, she is still alive, “It would be awful if she wasn’t,” he reflects, “Who would you call?  How would you explain?”  And this is the situation that Blatnik’s characters find themselves in, placed in the ostensibly calm but always precarious morass of the banal, waiting for any catastrophe to happen.  Least of all of these characters the unnamed professor from the story “Learning,” excerpted here in full:

I used to be a university professor, now I live on the street.  Could you spare some change so I could have a square meal and do my laundry?

He had been practicing the two sentences in his mind of a long time.  His lectures, though, continued.  True, no students attended, and hadn’t for a long time, but nobody appeared to notice, and the doorman still nodded to him every time he saw him struggling to insert his key in the lecture-room door.  I have to learn, he thought, someday, someday it’ll come in handy.  I have to learn.

Or alternatively, as is the case of the woman from “Thirty Years” who has been married comfortably for three decades but finds a knife in her hand apparently (and quite unremarkably) about to stab her husband, the moment of catastrophe has come but the complacency, the sheer sameness of reality persists.  Gone are the grand narratives of Soviet-era samizdat, true, but it’s not difficult to imagine Blatnik’s humorous stories being secretly passed around among office workers, a quiet rebellion against a much different kind of ruling ideology.


Dreams and Stones, Magdalena Tulli, tr. Bill Johnston

[I]n any kiosk one can buy a street map of the city, folded into sixteen or thirty-two and marked ondreamsandstones the surface by a special configuration that is like a gateway bristling with the black shafts of the letters W and A, like a great entrance guarding the teeming street names within. These names, printed in the tiniest lettering beneath closed eyes, evoke images of Sunday mornings, autumnal clouds racing across the rooftops, people in overcoats, cracked flagstones in the sidewalk, a music store with cellos in the window, an Alsatian dog with a newspaper in its mouth and a hundred thousand other things. All this breaks off suddenly at the thin line beyond which the white margin begins.

This is the paragraph Angela Woodward excerpts from Dreams and Stones in her overview of Tulli’s complete ouvre for the Los Angeles Review of Books, prefacing it with, “Dreams and Stones especially […] is so amply rewarding sentence after sentence, that it would be achievement enough if it were only a pretty contraption. Opening Dreams and Stones almost at random produces tiny masterpieces of paragraphs.”  Indeed, this is a truly magnificent little book that unfolds like a mystical, (maybe) living puzzle box made from some unstable and many-colored material.  There are no real characters or plot to speak of, just the unrelentingly beautiful transformations undergone by Tulli’s fictional world.  It’s a treat for the mind, but as the world disintegrates from a tree, a machine or a city into a map, a train station or a wasteland, the text continually challenges you to evaluate exactly what it is you’ve gotten your hands on.  Even Tulli and her translator, the fantastic Bill Johnston, disagree as to what this book actually is, Tulli claims it’s a novel, Johnston claims it’s a prose-poem.

And this is perfectly fitting considering what lies at the heart of this work is just how uncertain of a thing language so often turns out to be, making it just the thing to pick up if one wishes to meditate upon translated literature in general.  One can see in the fragility of Tulli’s prose, its moments of uncertainty and leaps of faith that transform the world of Dreams and Stones, echoes of the delicate process of translation, the hazards of carrying over a work from one world to another to create something belonging to but also somewhat removed from both.  Fortunately, Johnston’s translation is also a testament to the kind of powerful, beautiful reading experience that can be won as a result of putting our faith into such a perilous endeavor as that of literary translation.


Ken Bruce lives in Cincinnati, Ohio where he studiesken bruce philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, writes short fiction, and enjoys reading and learning about translated literature from all parts of the world.

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ALTA39 Panels Seeking Participants


It’s not too late to join a panel for ALTA39: Translation and Crossings in Oakland, CA, October 6-9! If you’re interested in being on one of the panels actively seeking additional participants, look at the list here and contact the organizer of the panel(s) you’d like to join. The deadline for organizers to finalize session lineups is June 3rd, so make sure to write soon if you’re interested.

Are you a session organizer who would like to add your session to this list? Please email bpenzer@literarytranslators.org and your session details can be added.

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ALTA Recommended for NEA Funding!


ALTA is thrilled to have been recommended for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for an Art Works or Research: Art Works grant!

In its first 50 years, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded more than $5 billion in grants to recipients in every state and U.S. jurisdiction, the only arts funder in the nation to do so. Today, the NEA announced awards totaling more than $27.6 million in its first funding round of fiscal year 2016.

The Art Works category supports the creation of work and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu said, “The arts are part of our everyday lives – no matter who you are or where you live – they have the power to transform individuals, spark economic vibrancy in communities, and transcend the boundaries across diverse sectors of society. Supporting projects like the one from [Name of Organization] offers more opportunities to engage in the arts every day.”

Here’s to many more years!

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On Reading and Translating Queer Literature

by Allison Grimaldi Donahue

I think of translating firstly as a branch of my reading life rather than my writing life, if the two can be separated at all.  I am moved to translate books I read in Italian that seem new or important or unique, and I come to these texts generally through my reading life.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of a reading life lately, and how for artists and writers of any kind it is extremely important—but for translators, it creates all kinds of new questions.  Since I’ve read a lot of articles recently about reading only women authors for a year or only reading authors of color, I’ve been trying to read more queer authors myself, since I am one.  In my search for answers to how to decide what to read, I picked up Moyra Davey’s book The Problem of Reading.  In this wonderful book, she talks about what she calls the “dilemma” of reading, this constant feeling that we should be reading one thing and not the other, that we are missing something, that we are unable to focus on one singular thing.  This anxiety is something a lot of us may be hesitant to admit to, but it is so true.

If you believe, as I do, that the personal is the political, then what and how we read is an expression of something beyond a passing interest or entertainment— it is a reflection of who we are.  A reading life, which for most people is private, can become very public for a translator through the choices she makes in translating and publishing.  As Davey writes:

Jean-Paul Sartre and many other writers have said reading is writing, by which I understand that as readers we are always piecing together meaning and, in a sense, writing our own texts by weaving the threads and associations of previous readings and experiences. But by this I don’t mean to suggest that reading and writing are one and the same—writing is infinitely harder. The central question I mean to pose is, what if the most gratifying reading is the one that also entails the risks of producing a text of one’s own?

What we read and what we translate is an implicitly political act. The more foreign texts I read, the more I come to know the Italian literary landscape, and the better the chances I have of finding that next book I want to translate. I look for diversity in what I read, I seek out texts that may not be as popular but are experimenting in form or structure, I also seek out texts written by queer authors. Perhaps this comes from my own identification as a queer author but it also comes from wanting to show the multiplicity of a language and a culture to English language readers. The issue with queerness is in its slippage of meaning; how what it may mean in one context, cultural, temporal or otherwise can change when transposed.  I’m editing a special issue at Queen Mob’s Teahouse of queer authors in translation and I have had more than one email asking what exactly I mean by that.  I don’t know.

Queerness in art is a multilayered term.  It can mean the author is queer—I think this is the most common understanding.  It can also mean that the text itself is queer.  This queer text can potentially be written by anyone.  And this queerness doesn’t necessarily coincide with the author’s identity.  Or does it?  I’m still not certain.  I know plenty of queer identified authors who don’t write “queer” and other writers who wouldn’t use the term to describe themselves but write work that formally, structurally could only be termed queer.  Because it is work that doesn’t fit a category, that unsettles, that refuses the framework offered.  The book I think of is Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick— it is one of the queerest texts I’ve read.  But she doesn’t write about homosexuality or sexual or gender orientation.  She writes an unsettling text about female desire.  This is queer.  She subverts form through her unanswered letters; she mixes memoir, fiction and theory; she makes her desire apparent for all and it isn’t monogamous desire.

I would like to be able to answer these questions:  Can my body be queer and my practice not?  And vice versa?  But I just find myself with more questions.  There is a great book on queerness in visual art called Pink Labor on Gold Streets: Queer Art Practices, in various artists and critics discuss what queer art actually is.  José Esteban Muños writes,

Nothing but intellectual laziness or misguided hipness has led to the word queer establishing itself in our speech as a synonym for “gay/lesbian”: for example what was once called “gay cinema” is now known as “queer cinema” although it generally means “gay cinema” and nothing else.  By contrast Andreas Kraß explains in his introduction to the reader Queer denken, queer thinking aims to denaturalize normative concepts of masculinity and femininity, to decouple the categories of gender and sexuality, to destabilize the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and to acknowledge sexual pluralism.

Perhaps this is where my answer lies, in the destabilization of binaries, which can be a smooth analogy for translation in itself.  Queerness can be a model for translation, but prismatic, multiple, collaborative translations can also be a practice of queer writing.  As a reader and translator I am always looking for queer texts, queer in both regards: I want formally challenging work written by queer-identified authors.  But authors in Italy don’t advertize their sexuality very openly so it is difficult to find those texts.  Often in the LGBTQ area of a bookstore, or in an LGBTQ bookstore itself, the books are stereotypical. While I am always happy to see LGBTQ books represented I am also concerned by the limited point of view some of these shelves may be advertizing. There is room for white cis-male love stories and erotica or middle class lesbian coming out stories but there also needs to be room for so much more. Queer texts should not only be challenging in content but they should be challenging to what dominant culture expects from a narrative. A popular example of this is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts— blending criticism and memoir not only does the book deal with the topic of queer family and life building but also queers the very genre of memoir itself through its use of theory. Another text that comes to mind is Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Farther Traveler: Poetry, Prose, Other. Just the title alone lets us know we will not be confined by form but instead freed through its many uses. Wilson writes uncomfortable truths about sexuality and race, includes graphic images, places the personal beside the theoretical and reveals both pain and pleasure, often on the same page. Texts like these should be on all book shelves, not only LGBTQ shelves. But as it is they often have to be sought out, discovered.

When voices are already marginalized and it is difficult to find them, it becomes our task, as translators, to promote them; maybe it is even our task to work on promoting these authors within their original language and context. As a translator actively looking for queer texts in Italian it could also be part of my task to share this work with other Italian readers as well— what I learn from one language and culture, meaning the energy I spend reading promoting American LGBTQ writers can be shared by doing the same in Italian.  

A lot of artists have been pushed to take the “queerness” out of their work, either directly through fear or threats of violence or through rejection from journals and publishing houses.  In some cases any trace of the queer in a work could be physically dangerous to the artist; I think that highlights how queerness across cultures is so diverse and complex. This complexity makes creating a truly queer bookstore or bookshelve an endless task, as large as literature itself. Queerness is not universal and to better understand the term and the way of life translation must seek those authors and bring them to new readers. This active creation of a larger queer canon makes room for more diverse stories and moves away from those repeated stereotypes mass media likes to sell us.

It may be that I decided to make this special issue because I am still unsure what it means to be a queer artist. And, since the term queer is so impossible to pin down, it can mean different things to different people.  It is an ongoing search to find those texts to read and fall in love with and translate, a dilemma that is filled with pleasure.  And through more translation of queer texts and queer authors we can define and redefine over and over again what queerness can be.

Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator originally from Connecticut.  Her fiction, essays and translations have appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry,addddddOmega Metatron, and tNYpress Eeel.  She was awarded an NEA Translation grant to the Vermont Studio Center for her translation work on Davide Orecchio’s novel Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli. In summer 2015 she was a Katherine Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference.  Allison is contributing fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, an online literary and arts journal.  She earned her BA from St. Michael’s College, an MA from Middlebury College in Italian, and an MA from the University of Toronto in Comparative literature. Allison is also pursuing her MFA in fiction and translation in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and works in Bologna, Italy.

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Call for submissions: Translation Review

Call for submissions:  Translation Review
University of Texas at Dallas
distributed by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

Translation Review is unique in the English-speaking world. While many literary journals publish the works of international authors in English translation, TR also focuses on the re-creative, cultural, practical, theoretical, and critical aspects of translation.

Our aim is to provide translators, scholars, and readers with a forum in which to cultivate a dialogue about the importance of translation in a globalized world, to illuminate the challenges and difficulties involved in transplanting a text from a foreign language and culture into English, and to increase the visibility and status of the translator in our contemporary world. As such, Translation Review serves as a major critical and scholarly journal that facilitates cross-cultural communication through the refined art and craft of literary translation. In 2013, TR received the Phoenix Award from The Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) for significant editorial achievement.

Translation Review is a peer-reviewed journal published by the University of Texas at Dallas and distributed internationally by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. The journal is read worldwide and has both national and international institutional subscribers. It is our hope that if your library does not currently carry a subscription to the journal that you might encourage them to subscribe in order to have it available to the students, faculty, and staff.  TR is published three times a year and accepts submissions on a rolling basis.

Translation Review is committed to publishing the best new scholarship on any aspect of the history, practice, and theory of translation. We are also interested in publishing interviews with translators and innovative research related to emerging relationships between translation, music, visual culture, and the digital.

Please see author guidelines here.
Send submissions to:

You may address any questions to Shelby Vincent, Managing Editor, at translation.review@utdallas.edu

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