August 7, 2013

Books with Character


This edition of 1984 appeared on my desk some months ago, leaving me slightly baffled. I know I’ve done the deal, but what language is this? The discussion in the office quickly turned into a little twitter contest… I cheated, of course, but it took the twitterverse several hours to come around, finally arriving at the right answer after a trek around the world.

Armenian. It’s beautiful. And looking around my office now I notice that I’m surrounded by old and in some cases endangered species of languages that I don’t understand, forming books I know I love. It’s a rather exotic position to be in. Just look at Hilary Mantel’s Susipalatsi – the Finnish title which translates as ‘Wolf’s Palace’ could be a character in a soap opera (or a whispered thank you). Or the same book in Greek, directly transliterated from the English into Γουλφ Χολ. It is as close as it can be to replicating the original, but I can hear the soft gamma in place of our dirt-digger double-u. There are other sounds too that I can’t hear: I can work out the Latin characters on the Polish edition, but no Polish person would understand me. I know that one of the Japanese characters in the substituted title of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian means ‘boobs’ but I don’t know which, or what that word (or any of its sisters) might sound like.

Most of the books in my office are in easily recognisable languages, especially for those of us who tend to wander around bookshops in foreign countries marvelling at these things. But look closely and you might pick out an Occitan, a Plattdeutsch or a Friuli edition amidst the French and German and Italians. In the last few years we have sent Orwell into these as well as Breton, Faroese, Galician, Georgian, Kurdish, Malay, and Montenegrin. We’ve sent Hilary Mantel and Kamila Shamsie into Uygur. We have forthcoming Marathi editions. Bosnian and Amharic. Aragonese! I might not know these editions the moment they come in, but it’s a rather wonderful mystery to solve. And one that makes me feel very proud.