What Do Translators Like to Read?

To be honest, this post isn’t really going to answer the question posed in its title beyond pointing out something that is painfully obvious to begin with: that only someone who truly loves reading and does a lot of it is going to be any good at translating—or any other form of writing, for that matter. I spend so much time reading professionally (books I’m going to review, books I’m going to teach, books someone has asked me to think about translating); this still counts as reading and is enjoyable, but nothing can match the stolen pleasure of reading a book for no other reason than that you feel like it. I’m still in love with that aimless sort of reading—reading done for its own sake, reading you lose yourself in—that most bookish people got addicted to as children. And so when Bookforum invited me to contribute to their end-of-the year feature “2010: A Year of Reading” by telling them what books I most enjoyed this year (regardless of whether they were published in 2010), I was delighted to have occasion to think back over many months’ worth of pleasure reading.

Since my list wound up longer than it was supposed to be, they trimmed it for length so it would fit on the page in their print edition. Translationista, however, is not yet as crowded as a page of Bookforum, and so I have plenty of room here to reproduce my original list in its entirety. All of these are books I recommend with all my heart:

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s book of uncanny fairy tales for a modern-day Russia that have a creepily otherworldly meets just-next-door quality: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in a stunningly vivid translation by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. (Penguin)

Aleksander Hemon’s Love and Obstacles. These devastatingly humorous stories of the Bosnian immigrant experience (black humor, of course) are so sharply observed, so skillfully written I found myself floored and delighted on every page. (Riverhead/Penguin)

The Possessed by Elif Batuman. Until you read this book, you will have no idea how much more you truly needed to know about Dostoevsky, Babel and Tolstoy. Batuman is a gifted comic storyteller. (FSG)

Eça de Queirós, The City and the Mountains: a tale of a man searching for happiness somewhere between the 19th century Portuguese countryside and the luxuries of Paris, luminously described by this classic Portuguese author. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is pitch-perfect. (New Directions)

How: a brilliant poetry debut by Emily Pettit—clearly the most ingenious how-to book ever written. Don’t put all of your octopi in one eye! (Octopus Books)

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