A few books with linguists as characters

I love reading and I though I’d share a few novels with you that have linguists as characters. Some I’ve already read (the list of books in English), and some (the ones in French) I’m looking forward to reading soon.

Books in French I haven’t read yet

I haven’t had the chance to read any of these books yet. Let me know your opinion if you have!

  • Mensonges by Valérie Zenatti. Published May 2011. The translator of Aharon Appelfeld pretends to be him. A book where the fate of the writer and his translator are intertwined.

Aharon Appelfeld, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Assommons les pauvres ! by Shumona Sinha. Published August 2011. Sinha is an interpreter who worked for the OFPRA (French office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons). This (autobiographical?) novel is about an interpreter who works with asylum seekers. You can see a video on ARTE about it here.
  • La traduction est une histoire d’amour by Jacques Poulin. Published in 2006. Set in Quebec. Originally from Ireland, Marine is a translator working on a novel written by Jack Waterman. She ends up meeting him, they beome friends, and he finds her somewhere to live: a chalet on l’Île d’Orléans. One day they discover a black cat, and together they start looking for the cat’s owner, who might need help.

Books in French I have read

  • Je l’aimais by Anna Gavalda was published in 2002, and has been translated into English by Catherine Evans as Someone I Loved. Two men have an affair. One leaves his wife and children, the other stays. Which one was right? Gavalda explores this dilemma from the unusual point of view of a relationship between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law. One of the mistresses, Mathilde, was an interpreter (annoyingly called a translator throughout the book), however she remains she remains a secondary character and the story is never really explored from her point of view.
  • Les amandes amères by Laurence Cossé, was published in September 2011. A translator and occasional interpreter, Edith, wants to teach her Moroccan home-help, Fadila, how to read and write. Edith realises how complicated and humiliating life is for somebody who is illiterate. But Fadila is not young and Edith is not trained to teach literacy. It turns out to be harder than Edith thought – what she thought Fadila had learnt is forgotten by the following week. This is a novel, but is based on the author’s real experience of trying to teach a Moroccan woman in her 60s to read and write. While the overall themes of immigration and illiteracy could have been interesting, I didn’t like the book very much as I found the multiple descriptions of teaching far too detailed and rather uninteresting. The faithful transcription of Fadila’s way of speaking is also rather difficult to read, and occasionally confusing. There are occasional references to Edith’s work, but they are few and far between. We only learn that Edith is a translator one-third of the the way through the book.

Some books I haven’t read yet

Gerbrand Bakker (left) and his translator David Colmer (right).

  • The Missing Shade Of Blue by Jennie Erdal. Lonely Parisian-raised translator Edgar Logan arrives in Edinburgh to study the Enlightenment sage David Hume; once there his life becomes entangled with those of Harry and Carrie, a self-destructive philosopher and his artist wife.
  • The Past by Alan Pauls. Book originally in Spanish (Argentina), translated by Nick Caistor. This is about a translator who works on movie subtitles and as a conference interpreter. His 12-year relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end and, after some time and a few important events in his life, he starts to suffer from amnesia and language issues: he ends up forgetting the languages he used to work with, which is the nightmare of all translators. In 2007 it also became a film, starring Gael García Bernal, and directed by Hector Babenco.
  • Bad Girl: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. Book originally in Spanish (Peru), translated by Edith Grossman. This novel is inspired by autobiographical events. Young Ricardo has only two ambitions in life: loving bad girls and living in Paris. He moves to the capital of France, where he works as a translator and interpreter at UNESCO. His muse will come in the shape of different women: an amateur revolutionary in 1960s Paris and Havana, the wife of a British millionaire in 1970s London, the lover of a Japanese mob boss.
  • Kornél Esti by Dezso Kosztolányi. Book originally in Hungarian, translated by Bernard Adams. In 1933, Kosztolányi released a series of short stories whose protagonist is his most famous character, Kornél Esti―sort of the author’s alter ego. Some of this stories gave shape to the “The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti,” a celebrated Hungarian movie from the mid-1990s. Different editions of the book received different names, depending on the short story editors decided to highlight. In Brazil for example it became O tradutor cleptomaníaco (“The Kleptomaniac Translator”), based on the fact that the translator is stealing elements from the original text, such as jewelry, money, chandelier…. It’s a metaphor for the fact that there always seems to be something lost or “stolen” in translation―even though the vast majority of translators do not suffer from kleptomania.
  • The Translator: A Novel by Nina Schuyler. “When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers from an unusual but real condition — the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work. Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel — a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant and understated prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.

Books in English I have read

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In an unnamed South American country a group of terrorists hold some VIPs hostage; one of the hostages, Gen, is the multilingual interpreter of the Japanese guest of honour. The book explores how the terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. Bel Canto won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize in 2002, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the Book Sense Book of the Year. It sold more than a million copies in the United States and has been translated into thirty languages. I enjoyed this book, although it was rather annoying that Gen was consistently referred to as a translator and not as an interpreter.
  • The Mission Song by John Le Carre. Interpreter Bruno Salvador is fluent in numerous African languages in London. Sent to a mysterious island in the North Sea to interpret during a secret conference between Central African warlords, Bruno thinks he is helping Britain bring peace to a bloody corner of the world. But then he hears something he should not have … . I read this in Mongolia two years ago, and while the story as a whole was interesting enough, from a professional point of view there were a number of  inconsistencies concerning Bruno and his work. Conference interpreter Tiina wrote a good review covering these inconsistencies here.
  • House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti. An Italian translator becomes obsessed by a German novel he is translating. I read this a while back but it didn’t leave much of an impression.
  • The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones. Lucy Fly from Yorkshire is a Japanese to English technical translator who’s been living in Tokyo for ten years. She becomes the principal suspect in a murder case when her friend Lily is killed. During the novel you gradually discover how Lucy and Lily became friends, and whether or not Lucy is guilty. Talking about her work Lucy says: “[she] spent her days putting Japanese sentences into English, twisting the words so that the end went at the beginning, articles and plurals appeared, vagaries became specifics”. Lucy’s work, and the Japanese setting are merely backdrops in this mystery, but they add to the strong narrative. A good read.
  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. New England professor and translator David Zimmer lost his family in a plane crash and spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity.  One night his interest is piqued by a clip from a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann, and he embarks on a journey around the world to research a book on Mann, who vanished in 1929 and has been presumed dead for sixty years. When the book is published the following year, a letter invites him to meet Hector … . Zimmer is the central character but his translation activity is not really an important part of the story. I read this book a few months ago for a book club and enjoyed it – it reconciled me with Auster as I’d read one of his books 15 years ago (The Music of Chance) and it hadn’t made me want to read any of his others.
Paul Auster

Paul Auster

  • The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy. A romantic mistake at the American college where he used to teach has cost Harry Ricks his job and marriage, and he flees to Paris where he ends up having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. He meets beautiful and mysterious Margit, a Hungarian translator, but soon their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events. Margit is not all she seems to be, and Harry finds himself in a nightmare from which there is no easy escape. This is an easy and compelling read, but you might have to suspend your belief in reality. By the way, it’s much better than the film.

Lists of books with linguists as characters

Happy reading!

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10 responses

  1. Another book having a translator as character : “Les larmes du traducteur, journal du Maroc” by Michel Orcel, Grasset. Published about 9 years ago I think. Great insight.

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  3. Fascinating post, Catharine. Your comment on Paul Auster struck a chord – I’ve only read one book of his, I think it was the New York trilogy. Which I hated – it was possibly one of the first books I gave up on (I used to always soldier on to the end, thinking that books somehow deserved the effort on my part).
    I can’t think of any books I’ve read with linguists as characters – films, yes (Charade stands out). This summer I read “The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai” by Ruiyan Xu – which is about (among other things) a speech therapist trying to restore her patient’s ability to speak his mother tongue (Chinese). However, although I’m interested in both languages and speech, I didn’t enjoy the book at all. It’s for the Oxfam shop, I’m afraid.

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