Translations

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the planet Trentor is the capital of the Galactic Empire. Seen from space, Trentor is nothing but city: there are no rivers, trees, or any other natural features, only an endless urban landscape, a metropolis that has taken over the planet. Landing in Mexico City feels like landing in Trentor: the size is overwhelming, and its apparent infinity challenges most people’s understanding of a city. Juan Villoro calls this sensation ‘horizontal vertigo’. The term is borrowed from a description of the grazing lands of the Argentine pampa, and Villoro chose it as the apt title of his chronicle of Mexico City.

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More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

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December 2021, no. 438

Studying The Crucible in English class engendered fierce competition for the part of John Procter, drawn as we schoolgirls were to his irradiating idealism and dogged pursuit of truth, and besotted by his nobility. The play’s force remains even as the passage of time has worked upon subsequent rereadings. When resisting false allegations of witchcraft, Proctor’s plea is harrowing: ‘Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin

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December 2021, no. 438

‘I loathe romans à clef as much as I loathe fictionalised biographies,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir (1908–76). For this reason, the novel and the memoir were her preferred genres, even though the boundaries between the two were frequently blurred, a distinction that Beauvoir insisted must be maintained: fiction has ‘only very dubious connections with truth’. While Beauvoir was adamant that her fictional women protagonists are ‘not her’ in any recognisable sense, she conceded that characters may resemble living models. The most famous example is Lewis in The Mandarins (1954), loosely based on Nelson Algren, the American writer and Beauvoir’s lover for some twenty years. It may be loose, but the resemblance was enough for Algren to take his revenge by panning subsequent American editions of Beauvoir’s work. Even memoir has a very particular relationship to reality for Beauvoir. The writer of the memoir is not the same as the subject: the future, she notes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), ‘would turn me into another being, someone who would still be, and yet no longer seem, myself’.

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After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

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December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

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September 2021, no. 435

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has a gift for writing short, conversational, popular physics books. His earlier works, notably Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (2015) and The Order of Time (2018), have been bestsellers, and Helgoland is continuing the trend.

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The Gleaner Song by by Song Lin, translated by Dong Li & Vociferate | 詠 by Emily Sun

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September 2021, no. 435

The Chinese poet is so often a wanderer and an exile. The tradition goes back to Qu Yuan (c.340–278 BCE), author of ‘Encountering Sorrow’, the honest official who was banished from court and drowned himself in a river, and it continues to our time. During the Sino–Japanese war (1937–45) a group of patriotic early Chinese modernists were displaced from their Beijing universities to an improvised campus in the south-west, where they read avant-garde Western poetry.

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Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man by Thomas Mann, translated by Walter D. Morris

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September 2021, no. 435

Nobel Laureate, author of The Magic Mountain (1924) and Doctor Faustus (1947), Thomas Mann (1875–1955) needs little introduction. His books have long been available in English. Yet one work, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), a series of confessional essays on which he laboured throughout World War I, is rarely praised. Mann (not known for his modesty) pointed to its importance as a historical document: ‘By listening to my own inner voice,’ he says in the prologue, ‘I was able to hear the voice of the times.’

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Civilisations by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

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September 2021, no. 435

Acclaimed as the most original novel of the 2019 rentrée littéraire, and recipient of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française, Laurent Binet’s most recent book, Civilisations (2019), is a cleverly crafted uchronia, or speculative fiction. The author is inviting us on an epic journey that devises alternative key moments in history, from a Viking tale to an Italian travel diary, and from the Inca chronicles to the capricious destiny of Cervantes. Let the adventure of counterfactuals begin …

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Two Women and a Poisoning by Alfred Döblin, translated by Imogen Taylor

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July 2021, no. 433

In Two Women and a Poisoning, Alfred Döblin (1878–1957), one of the twentieth century’s greatest fiction writers, brings his other gift – a profound insight into psychological suffering honed by decades of experience as a psychiatrist – to bear on a baffling murder trial in Berlin in March 1923. Like Sigmund Freud’s famous case histories, his account is compelling as both narrative and an analysis of the unconscious inner conflicts of the people involved. Unlike Freud, however, Döblin warns his readers not to expect definitive answers: ‘Who is so conceited as to fancy that he knows the true driving forces behind such a crime?’

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Only one manuscript of Beowulf has survived. It was in Sir Robert Cotton’s library. Cotton had been a student of that careful genius William Camden, who, through a lifetime’s work, formulated a different view of history: not the record of victory but the recollection of lost worlds and times. He and his fellow Antiquarians searched out fragments and ruins: Roman urns in the fields, Saxon burials under St Paul’s, a giant’s thigh-bone under a London cellar. They collected ancient manuscripts.

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