The desire to get one’s name right can exceed the confines of a misspelt Starbucks cup. To Shakespeare’s Juliet, famed for asking her lovestruck question, “What’s in a name?”, Zahia Rahmani, the Franco-Algerian author of the novel “Muslim”, would respond: “Everything”. Call a rose by any other name, and it might doubt its own sweetness. The act of naming, or the denial of one’s name, can devastate one’s identity.
Fiction exploring the interior life of contemporary Iranians is not well represented in translations readily available in the West. The Book of Tehran aims to begin to redress the shortage by offering ten stories set in the Iranian capital, with the authors’ different voices maintained by having each story translated by a different translator.
When Salimah, the African refugee at the center of Iwaki Kei’s Farewell, My Orange, arrives in small-town Australia with spouse and sons, her situation is dire. She can hardly speak English and her options for gainful work are few.
In 1932 a new Asian country suddenly came into being in northeastern China. It was named Manchukuo, and it had been created as a result of the so-called “Mukden Incident”, in which Japanese soldiers had detonated a small charge of dynamite on a Japanese-built railway line and then claimed that Chinese dissidents had done it.
Chinese writer Jia Pingwa is rooted in his own origin story. He says in the Afterword to his most recent novel in English translation, Broken Wings, “Your birthplace has determined who you are,” and that here, “I have written about myself, and only myself.” Jia is from Shaanxi Province, which has places so remote that they can barely even be said to be forgotten, as they exist suspended in their own time and space.
From her early interest in Russia’s hinterlands to her recent focus on the culture and places of Japan, German poet and novelist Marion Poschmann’s writing continues its eastward drift. Her latest novel (and first in English thanks to Jen Calleja’s translation) The Pine Islands, which recounts the tragic-comic journey of a middle-aged German university professor who decamps to Japan (he dreams that his wife is cheating on him) and undertakes a Bashō-inspired journey once there, has been shortlisted for the German Book Prize (2017) and Man Booker International Prize (2019) and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Germany’s esteemed newspaper Die Zeit.
Translating poetry gives rise to a number of problems which may not be present in prose. Poetic language is different from that of prose; it employs many more literary devices. Furthermore, its rhythms may be quite different or varied. Then there is the question of rendering form and meter, not to mention rhyme, if it’s present, which brings on more language difficulties. Poetry may aslo indirectly allude to things through symbols, and these, too, have to be conveyed meaningfully to the reader. Factor in the translator’s own emotional response to the work and what may be perceived as the poet’s “intentions” (often rather opaque), and you have a formidable obstacle to overcome. In short, what medium is best suited to the translation of verse?