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Thursday, January 17, 2013

11 Great Books Recently Translated Into English

A collection of poems by the late Uruguayan novelist Mario Benedetti, pictured here in 2005, is among the recently translated works recommended by Jim Kates. (Marcelo Casacuberta/AP)

A collection of poems by the late Uruguayan novelist Mario Benedetti, pictured here in 2005, is among the recently translated works recommended by Jim Kates. (Marcelo Casacuberta/AP)

There is plenty of wonderful literature that we miss out on because it’s not written in English.

Jim Kates, literary translator and director of the nonprofit Zephyr Press in Brookline, Mass. dropped by the studio to tell us about some great finds that have recently been translated into English.

He talked about three books in particular: Moroccan poet Rachida Madani’s collection of poems “Tales of a Severed Head(see excerpt below), Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin’s novel “Maidenhair” and the late Uruguayan journalist and writer Mario Benedetti’s “Witness: The Selected Poems (see excerpt below).

“Maidenhair” is difficult, Kates said, but rewarding in its difficulty, in that it interweaves four stories into its plot.

Shishkin also uses palindromes and recently coined words, which was a challenge for his translator Marian Schwartz.

“For the translator… the fun of the work is in the difficult parts,” Kates said. “Sometimes you have to work with equivalents, sometimes you can’t do it precisely the way you do in the original.  But what you’re really working for as a translator is to create the effect of the original sometimes.”

Moroccan poet Rachida Madani’s collection of poems “Tales of a Severed Head,” is a reworking of the classic “Tales of One Thousand and One Nights,” centered around a contemporary Moroccan woman.

Kates called Mario Benedetti, the late Uruguayan journalist author of “Witness: The Selected Poems,” one of the major poets of the twentieth century in South America.

8 More Recommendations From Kates:



  • Daniel Saba, “Almost Never” translated by Katherine Silver (Mexico)
  • Wieslaw Mysliwski, “Stone upon Stone” translated by Bill Johnston (Poland)
  • Claudio Magris, “Blindly” translated by Anne Milano Appel (Italy)

Short stories:

  • David Albahari, “Learning Cyrillic” translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (Serbia/Canada)


Excerpt: ‘Tales of a Severed Head’

Poems by Moroccan Rachida Madani; Translated by Marilyn Hacker

It is true that for centuries
she has gone head-on against absurd cities
to make herself a skeleton
to measure.
A real woman’s skeleton, taut
as a harp
and resounding in its smallest crannies.
A strangled dream among so many others
for which a tribute will be paid in blood
and tears
to Shehriyar.
She had to play locked in Shehriyar’s
nailed down again beneath the steps of an invisible being
between sky and earth,
the unending game of doorless palaces
of hastily drawn curtains
and silken coverlets
on coverlets of emerald.

Excerpt: ‘Witness’

Poems by Mario Benedetti; Translated by Louise Popkin


That tiny thimbleful of hope,
the high curb bordering the mud,
the back and forth from sleep to waking,
the horoscope about a long journey
and the long journey with crowds and farewells
and snowy countries with warm hearts
where each mile brings a change of sky,
the certainty from who knows when,
the vow for who knows how long,
the crossing to who knows where,
the someone else you might have been
with a change of pace and a lucky number or two,
in short, why not come right out and say it,
there’s no room for that thimbleful of hope
in this envelope stuffed with peso bills
dirty from so many dirty hands
which they pay me, of course, at the end of each month
for keeping their books up to date
and letting life go by,
one drop at a time
like rancid oil.

See also: Jim Kates’ recommendations in January 2012


  • Jim Kates, director of Zephyr Press and former president of the American Literary Translators Association.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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