The 100 Best Novels in Translation by Boyd Tonkin

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The 100 Best Novels in Translation by Boyd Tonkin

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Category: Reference
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A book that certainly knows its purpose, but one with a style that didn't make me grab for the contents.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Galileo Publishers
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781903385678

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Consider, if you will, translated fiction. Some say it's impossible – that if a book was so good in one tongue it could never survive being put into another. Samuel Beckett must have laboured over ever syllable and Breath, but he could translate his own works, and other equally complex pieces can cross borders. It's a market that has actually doubled in sales volume between 2000 and 2016 (thanks, Millennium Trilogy). Novels, in particular, in translation, are – as the introduction here so smartly puts it – a privileged means of passing border posts, a sort of universal passport issued by that Utopian state, the Republic of Letters. We here at the 'Bag regularly try and give equal credit to the translator, without whom we wouldn't be reading what we have in our hands. But all that said, do we really need one of those list books about the subject? I got given a book the other year detailing 1001 places to go to before I die, and I might even then have missed out a zero. It would take as long as a fortnight's holiday to wade through, and even though this is not as long as your typical Bolano housebrick, it's not a short thing. Should it take our time?

Well, I can't give a definitive answer. I can start by defining what we get, beyond that introduction – a hundred two-page essays of what my uneducated guess suggests are about a thousand words each, a single sentence every time about which translation is the one to go for and why, a list of further reading from within these pages as a suggestion of thematically linked exploration, and a few other highlights from each author's output. Such are only really needed to remind the forgetful that Goethe also wrote Faust – as it's not quite a novel, his entry here has to be something else. The essays themselves are so concise – a few words do the work that in other hands takes pages as he says of Georges Simenon – that you fear too many crucial spoilers at times.

Throughout, the level of scholarly effort is exemplary – there was never any doubt in my mind that Tonkin had read every word of War and Peace, all 1600pp of the Musil, and, er, something in Chinese I'd never heard of that comes in five separate volumes it's so long. The essays are a mix of the story of the book, and the story in the book, although I did at times have to think too hard to remember which was which, especially with some of the more obscure entrants.

But rest assured, not all the entrants are five-part Chinese dramas, or works in Portuguese that had completely passed me by before now. You certainly get the commonly canonised as well as the diverse from this book. But its biggest failing for me, and one much more important than its erudition, its sagacity and its breadth, is the fact that none of it convinced me to rush to the library to see what the fuss was about – or at least nothing until Germinal. Perhaps reading too many fresh-off-the-press books over a decade reviewing has immured me to the charms of the really old. But I speak as a man who, when in sixth form or thereabouts, compared each Penguin Classics catalogue as it came out to see what was new, what had been retranslated, and what I might potentially latch on to as an obscure classic nobody else ever bothered with. I've bothered with several of these authors over the years – I can claim to having read something at least by 18 of them – but the sad fact remains that, even as a fan of an erudite list, I too rarely felt inspired to make that more than 20.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Where I'm Reading From: The Changing World of Books by Tim Parks discusses foreign fiction in general, among other things.

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