Collecting New Admirations
Say you know you’ll be traveling to Italy, and that you’ll be there for several months. Wow. A stunning windfall.
And of course you’ll want to read. So you contrive to ship yourself a bunch of books. (Sorry, world: I’m not yet sufficiently out of the tar-pit to make the leap to reading devices. Give me time.)
The choice of those shipped books must be, of course, a meticulous, obsessive thing. So I put together a mini-smorgasbord: old, new, domestic, foreign, fiction and nonfiction.
But what grew instantly clear the moment I arrived was that it would be stupid (a waste of fabulous resources) to read stories taking place elsewhere.
This was the best possible time to read about where I was.
With excitement, I dove into Elena Ferrante’s stunning new novel about a painful, complex friendship between two girls growing up in impoverished, hardscrabble 1950s Naples: My Brilliant Friend (wonderfully translated by Ann Goldstein).
The novel blew me away—the more so because I understood the setting (and the importance of dialects in a country like Italy) a hundred times more deeply than I might have at any other time or place.
And I grasped at once that no matter what kinds of writing we make or where we live, writers need to read more work in translation. What else can trowel us up out of the warm, comfy, sleep-inducing soil of all our own familiar cultural assumptions? What else can smack us awake (yes, in the Rilkean mode of You must change your life) to consider worlds we’d never dreamed of, or just pushed aside? How can reading translated works effect anything other than a cross-fertilization of our writing minds?
I admit that, as an American writer, I’ve been badly neglectful of seeking out writers in translation. Europa is one publisher providing superb titles regularly to the States. Other Press is another, but there are many more. Keep your eye on what’s coming out. Listen to buzz from journals and writers you admire, about whom they’re reading in translation. (Suggestions: Per Petterson. Jens Christian Grondahl. Annie Ernaux.) Follow your curiosity. Collect new admirations. What you absorb can only enlarge and enrich that sacred space of the writerly mind.
Joan Frank is the author of the novel Make it Stay, the short story collection In Envy Country, and, most recently, Because We Have To: A Writing Life. Visit her at joanfrank.org.