Translations

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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On the Line: Notes from a factory by Joseph Ponthus, translated by Stephanie Smee

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June 2021, no. 432

Few books immediately suspend time; few need no warm-up and almost demand to be read, reread, underlined. Stephanie Smee’s rendition of Joseph Ponthus’s multi-award-winning first solo book, On the Line: Notes from a factory, is one such read. It is the autobiographical story of an intellectual with a career in social work in the suburbs of Paris, who, having moved to Brittany for love, can’t find a job in his field and is forced to sell his labour as a casual worker in the local food-processing industry. Here we couldn’t be further from postcard Brittany, whose wild nature, hazy skies, mysterious language, and inhabitants inspired a Romantic generation of poets in search of an exotic fix without the hassle of leaving the Hexagon.

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There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

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March 2021, no. 429

In a recent interview, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli confessed that the book he would most like to be remembered for is The Order of Time (2018), a work in which time, as it is commonly understood, ‘melts [like a snowflake] between your fingers and vanishes’. The Order of Time, Rovelli admits, only pretends to be about physics. Ultimately, it’s a book about the meaning of life and the complexity of being human.

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Philosophers attending a conference in the Swiss resort of Davos in 1929 eagerly anticipated a debate between Ernst Cassirer, a celebrated member of the academic establishment and a supporter of progressive liberalism, and Martin Heidegger, whose radical break from tradition had impressed younger philosophers. For those who expected a clash of titans, the result was disappointing. There were no denunciations, no rhetorical bolts of lightning. The true parting of their ways came later, in 1933, when Cassirer, a Jewish supporter of the Weimar Republic, was forced out of his position and into exile, and Heidegger, now a member of the National Socialist Party, told students of Freiburg University to be guided by the Führer.

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Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and history by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall

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December 2020, no. 427

Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. In that year, Patrice Gueniffey completed his doctorate under Furet at the prestigious research school the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He remains at that institution today, Furet’s most famous disciple and a celebrated historian in his own right.

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The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

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October 2020, no. 425

From the moment one reads that this book is dedicated ‘To the worm that first gnawed at the cold flesh of my cadaver’, it is clear that The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, first published in Rio de Janeiro in 1881, is a novel like few others.

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Spinoza’s Ethics edited by Clare Carlisle, translated by George Eliot

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September 2020, no. 424

Becoming better acquainted with an author may give rise to a surprise, or two. For example, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin (author of Political Justice) is the author of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley met her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, through his devotion to her father’s anarchist political philosophy. Gaining an awareness of the surprisingly complex threads that link one thinker to the next in dynamic webs of influence is one of the deep pleasures of scholarship.

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Nancy by Bruno Lloret, translated by Ellen Jones

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September 2020, no. 424

Near the beginning of Bruno Lloret’s stark, unvarnished first novel, Nancy, the cancer-riddled protagonist discovers that her husband has died in a workplace accident, sucked into the tuna processor while drunk. With no body to bury, she imagines having ‘a moment alone with the 2,500 tins containing [him]’.

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Westerbork is the name of a transit camp located in the Netherlands. You transitioned from Westerbork to your final destination by means of the Nationale Spoorwegen (the national railways). Eddy de Wind, a Dutch Jewish psychiatrist, met his future wife, Friedel, in Westerbork. Both were sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Eddy was sent to Block 9 as part of the medical staff, Friedel to Block 10 to work as a Pfleger (nurse). Block 10 was administered by the Lagerartz (senior camp doctor), Josef Mengele.

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Meredith McKinney, our pre-eminent translator of Japanese classics – among them Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, the poetry of Saigyō Hōshi, the memoirs Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō, and Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki (Record of the Ten Foot Square Hut) – has delivered another marvel of absorbing, elegant scholarship. Travels with a Writing Brush crosses the country of old Japan, from north to south and from east to west, and is a quintessential travel book. It goes to places, and shows them – except that the latter is not quite true; you would not go to this book to see things objectively so much as to cue to them imaginatively.

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