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3 nonfiction translations to read this spring

Three non-fiction translations
Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

In March, Frank Wynne, the first translator to chair the International Booker Prize jury, issued a call for publishers to pay royalties to translators as well as authors — and the Booker Foundation instantly agreed.

Pro-translator advocacy of this sort has become increasingly frequent and visible, for which readers should be grateful. Well-paid, unconstrained translators choose a wider variety of projects, which means books arriving in English from a truly global range of languages, cultures, and traditions. It also means more kinds of books getting translated.

It's been a rare occasion that non-academic nonfiction has been translated into English. But that has begun to change. All three of the books reviewed here are perhaps academic in the spirited depth of their inquiries, but in style, they're anything but. Hannah Arendt's Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman is a biography so unusual it hardly warrants the name; Silvia Ferrara's The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts is a thorough early history — or, rather, histories — of written language; and Alia Trabucco Zerán's When Women Kill mixes legal history with a feminist reconstruction of four female murderers' lives.

Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman by Hannah Arendt, translated by Richard and Clara Winston

In 1933, Hannah Arendt — a Jewish graduate student who would become one of the 20th century's great philosophers — fled Nazi Germany after getting arrested for illegally researching anti-Semitism. That research was part of a biographical project: Arendt had become interested in the life of Rahel Varnhagen, a German Jew who ran an intellectual salon in the 1790s and whose correspondence, published after her death, was so rich, honest, and rebellious that Goethe's daughter-in-law said of it, "Since Rahel, we women are allowed to have thoughts." Arendt's biography, which wasn't published until 1955 and has just been reissued in Richard and Clara Winston's excellent translation, is rooted in Rahel's letters. In it, Arendt strives, as she writes in her preface, to "tell the story of Rahel's life as she herself would have told it."

On that front, Rahel Varnhagen is an incomplete success. Arendt probes so deeply into her subject's inner life, and writes so vividly about her frustrations and sorrows, that the biography often reads like a novel. Still, she cannot help but return repeatedly to Rahel's utter inability to see her problems as part of a larger "Jewish question." In Rahel's lifetime, German Jews could assimilate, but could not achieve social acceptance without abandoning their religion. Rahel refused to do the latter, but she saw Jewishness as her "special misfortune" —an attitude that plainly frustrates. That frustration, which springs from Arendt's otherwise-intense identification with her subject, powers the book, turning it into an imaginative mix of biography and social commentary that still feels, as the scholar Barbara Hahn writes in her introduction, thoroughly "ahead of its time."

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts, by Silvia Ferrara, translated by Todd Portnowitz

Silvia Ferrara is an expert in ancient code-cracking. An archeologist and linguist by training, she teaches at the University of Bologna and belongs to an EU-funded research group that seeks to reconstruct the invention of writing, figure out "just how many times writing has been invented throughout history," and decrypt ancient writing systems like Crypo-Minoan and the Indus Valley Script. In The Greatest Invention, which is a whirlwind summary of this triple research project, Ferrara lobbies for readers to take a complicated view not only of writing, but of language, history, and identity. Ferrara is passionate in her defense of complexity. "True beauty," she argues, is "the beauty of chaos," and her role as a scholar is to "resist [the] obsessive urge to organize."

She resists, all right. The Greatest Invention bounces from Crete to Rapa Nui to China, skipping blithely through centuries and civilizations — and making many, many jokes along the way. It feels less like a book than a brilliant, digressive, disorganized lecture: Retaining information as you read is next to impossible, but every paragraph is so alive with startling facts and glittering bits of wisdom that retention hardly matters. The Greatest Invention is far more of a performance than a history — which means that, without Portnowitz's superior translation, it could have easily been a disaster in English. Portnowitz embraces Ferrara's spark and liveliness; he leans into her assertive statements and corny jokes. Surely he tore his hair out rendering her Italian emoji rebuses into English. His translation is not only seamless but electric, and deserves tremendous credit for the success of Ferrara's show.

When Women Kill by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes

Before she turned to literature, the Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán studied to be a lawyer, though she realized swiftly that she couldn't bear a life of bloodless legal prose. Still, her training in the law is as vital to her second book, When Women Kill, as her considerable literary gifts. Trabucco Zerán, well translated by Sophie Hughes, is a moving, imaginative writer — which is important, given that her four subjects are "genuine wrongdoers, proven killers, [and] almost irredeemable beings." According to Trabucco Zerán, their wrongdoing is precisely why they matter: Looking at female murderers head-on is "essential to a feminism intent on expanding accepted ideas of what men and women should feel." Each of her four subjects seems plainly to have reacted to the intolerable constraints created by her class, gender, and social position — and yet each one reacted by killing in cold blood.

When Women Kill strives to put its readers in its subjects' minds, but not in the sensationalistic manner of books like Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, which inhabits a sociopathic protagonist's thoughts. Instead, it applies a thoughtful feminist lens to stories as painful as they are gory. Consider María Teresa Alfaro, a domestic worker who poisoned her boss' children after her boss repeatedly forced her to terminate pregnancies she wanted to keep: It is easy to feel for Alfaro, and yet impossible not to be horrified by her revenge. This mix of emotions is one that Trabucco Zerán manages expertly, and one that will speak to any reader seeking a serious consideration of female violence, or anyone who appreciates the mix of crime and commentary in books like John Darnielle's Devil House or Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts. Like both, When Women Kill is an ethical approach to true crime — still rare, like translated nonfiction, but hopefully both will become more common every year.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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