After spending the last few months consciously trying to read translated books, I found the newest anthology by Center for the Art of Translation, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, the perfect introduction to translated literature from around the world. The anthology is a mixture of short stories, book excerpts and poems. The works are stellar; one after another capturing a haunting moment, the beauty of a life, the isolation of a life alone, with an immediacy that some people believe cannot be translated from one language to another. When I read a translated book, I often feel like the translator is a person in the corner watching me, knowing but silent. I poured over the translators introductions to each entry finally feeling like an essential person in my experience was finally given voice.
“Rain at the Construction Site,” a short story from a Greek writer, Ersi Sotiropoulos, translated by Karen Emmerich, contained a combination of the universal, the sadness of a life not lived, a life suddenly and seemingly inexplicitly stolen with elements that were definitely foreign to the American reader. In a snapshot of one afternoon, the reader feels the main characters isolation and kindness as he stops to keep a stranger company during her grief. Even if I didn’t know I was reading a translated story, the second paragraph would have screamed it:
- In his opinion the construction of the road wasn’t moving fast enough, not at the pace he would have liked. “What do you care?” the workmen would bark at him, annoyed. Sooner or later the road would get built, that was their philosophy. “Are you really in such a rush to be out of work?” the foreman would joke.
Clearly, not the overworked American philosophy we’re so used to reading about.
The translator of “Rain at the Construction Site,” Karen Emmerich, agreed to an interview with me about the bookstores that have been important in her life and the ones she currently frequents:
1. Did you have a special bookstore in your life when you were growing up,
that helped foster your love of reading and writing?
Yes! The Corner Bookstore, which was where Nicolls Road met 25A in
Setauket, New York. It was owned by a very short woman named Mrs.
Mullins who had big brown glasses and a bun of gray hair, and there
was at least one huge cat always perched on a stack of books
somewhere, or wandering through the store. A bell rang when you opened
the door, not the electronic kind, but an actual bell. My brother and I
used to save up our allowance for weeks and then go and spend as long
as possible poring over book covers until we found just the right
ones. It’s amazing how vivid my memories of that store still are. And
it was a big blow when the Corner Bookstore closed, shortly after a
Borders opened up close by, though I can’t say for sure whether there
was any causal relationship there.
2. Do you have a hometown bookstore now where you’re likeliest to go browse
I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where there are lots
of fabulous bookstores. The closest to me, and the one I spend the
most time (and money!) in, is Book Court on Court Street. But if you
walk south on Court, you’ll hit the Community Bookstore, and then
Pranga (small and with a bit of an odd selection). There’s also
Freebird Books on Columbia Street, which specializes in books about
New York and is only open on the weekends (its owner works full time
at Bloomsbury). I also on occasion make the hike up to Dumbo and go to
the Melville House store, which of course has all the books their
press puts out, but a nice selection of others as well. I also teach
on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for seven years, so
Book Culture on 112th Street (formerly Labyrinth) is still very much a
part of my literary life.
3. Do you know any unusual bookstores that are doing something different
from all the others?
Well, all of the stores I mentioned are a bit different, one from the
next. I think that’s the wonderful thing about independent bookstores:
each one is shaped by the interests and personalities of the
individuals who own them and work at them. Most of the ones I
mentioned have great events, readings and signings and so on, but each
has a different flavor. Book Culture is great for academic books; you
find stuff there that you just can’t get at most other places. And the
people who work there are incredibly knowledgeable. But I guess if I
had to pick the bookstore I most excited about right now, I’d say
Idlewild on 19th Street in Manhattan. It’s a very young bookstore,
just over a year old, I think. They specialize in travel books and
world literature: books to help you get around in other countries, and
books to help you feel your way through other cultures, cuisines, and
languages, too. They shelve their stock according to place rather than
author or subject. I translate Greek literature, usually for small
presses, and it’s rare for a store, especially a chain store, to carry
more than one at once. So when I walked into Idlewild recently and saw
three books I had translated, and a fairly sizeable selection of other
Greek books in translation, I was thrilled. The one thing I’d still
like to see more of there is poetry.
4. If a bookstore were to group the author you translated with three other
books in a special display, which three others would you handpick?
The story in Two Lines [Wherever I Lie is Your Bed] is taken from a collection by Ersi Sotiropoulos that’s just been released, called Landscape with Dog and Other
Stories. I think I’ve been asked this question before, in a slightly
different form, and for some reason it struck me that the book would
do well to be nestled between Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live and
something by Flannery O’Connor. And maybe Grace Paley. Thematically
they may have nothing in common, but they all seem to share a certain
spareness of language: every word counts, and every word belongs where
it is. You read and you have this sense that if you dared shift even a word, the whole edifice of the prose might come crumbling down.