In Other Words

Overcoming the Language Barrier

FP's translation project: From the Rwandan genocide to Tito's death, from Indian Muslims to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims, and from Israeli communists to Parisian chroniclers of the Vichy years, a selection of works you won't read anywhere else -- at least, not in English.


"I write in a language that has little to do with tulips, windmills, or silly snowmen with carrot noses, a language honed to denote Africa in all its harshness, cruelty, and beauty," Thomas Dreyer writes in his essay "Not Our Leguaan." It’s also a language, Afrikaans, that is rarely translated into English — like most languages, in fact, as literary translator Edith Grossman elaborated in her article for our May/June issue, "A New Great Wall." But Dreyer’s piece, grappling with the complexities of creating art out of the language that once created apartheid, offers a crucial perspective for understanding the affairs of his country, and so do the eight other pieces in our first-ever Foreign Policy translation project.

A selection from an acclaimed Indian Muslim novelist, Manzoor Ahtesham, recounts the adventure of cranky old Dulchan Chachi, who makes the hajj from her home in Bhopal and comes back complaining about it like a package tour gone horribly wrong: "Oh, they’re mad about making the circuit around the Kaaba. Push and shove, jostle and wrestle, God help them!" In an excerpt from Yang Dongping’s monumental work on China’s cities, the historian performs an almost Seinfeld-ian taxonomy on what makes people from Shanghai so bizarre: "[Shanghainese] will seize on a tiny principle, even if it’s a bit skewed, and sometimes even if it’s downright bogus." Croatian author Marica Bodrožic’s piece describes a young girl’s growing awareness of what communism meant in Yugoslavia after the death of its leader: "Josip Broz-Tito was dead: the man with the giant round glasses whose portrait hung in my classroom and whose image was on the badge I got when I was initiated into the Pioneers." A historic diary written by a French economist chronicles life during the Vichy period in Paris: "A week of horror, filled with executions and the roundup of Jews," one entry begins.

What binds this heterogeneous group together — along with the Rwandan novelist detailing a woman’s first inkling that something’s not right in her home country; the Vietnamese journalist encountering victims of Agent Orange; the Russian-German author writing about how it feels to come of age as a "quota refugee" in a camp; the Israeli author describing a child’s misconceptions about politics — is that, until now, you couldn’t read them in English. Without translation, these funny and sad, fictional and nonfictional, familiar and distant worlds would be completely lost to us, along with our ability to comprehend any part of the intellectual galaxy beyond our very small, very insular solar system. Google Translate doesn’t quite do the trick.

Luckily, despite its disappearance from major publishing houses, literary translation is alive and thriving on the Internet, where a collection of blogs, websites, and listservs keep translators in touch with each other and with their readers. Sites like the University of Rochester’s Three Percent, Words Without Borders, The Quarterly Conversation and its blog Conversational Reading, the complete review and its blog Literary Saloon, and the University of Iowa’s 91st Meridian all focus on translated work. It was through this online network of world literature champions that we tracked down our authors and our translators. As Grossman writes in her FP article, their work is "one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into mutual comprehension."

"Linguistic Apartheid": A South African essayist considers the ugly history of his native tongue.

By Thomas Dreyer; translated by Dreyer from the Afrikaans.

"A Hajj Gone Wrong": What if you went to Mecca — and hated it? A story from a Hindi novelist.

By Manzoor Ahtesham; translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark from the Hindi.

"Coming of Age in the Camps": A young "quota refugee" from Russia adjusts to life in Germany, from pizza to making new friends, in this first novel by a rising German talent.

By Lena Gorelik; translated by Michael Ritterson from the German.

"A Tale of Two Chinese Cities": Why people from Shanghai are so crazy, by one of China’s great environmental historians.

By Yang Dongping; translated by Andrea Lingenfelter from the Mandarin.

"Waking Up to Genocide": The slow realization that everything is wrong, told by one of Rwanda’s most promising young novelists.

By Gilbert Gatore; translated by Marjolijn de Jager from the French.

"Going Underground in Israel": A great Hebrew novelist tells the tale of a young boy with grandiose — and confused — aspirations to join the political sub-classes.

By Benjamin Tammuz; translated by Jessica Cohen from the Hebrew.

"Diary of an Occupation": Entries from the journal of a well-connected French economist, written during the Vichy years in Paris.

By Charles Rist; translated by Michele Aynesworth from the French.

"A Bad Fortune for the Vietnamese": A mother’s struggle with the legacy of Agent Orange, from a Vietnamese journalist’s account.

By Minh Chuyen; translated by Huy Lien and Charles Waugh from the Vietnamese.

"Mourning for a Dictator": The day Tito died, as witnessed by a young Croatian girl.

By Marica Bodrožic; translated by Gerald Chapple from the German.

To go to the first entry in the series, Dreyer’s "Linguistic Apartheid," click here.

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor and columnist for Washingtonian magazine, as well as a freelancer for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Elle. Previously, she was an editor at Foreign Policy, where she oversaw the magazine’s culture section. Twitter: @brittkpeterson

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