THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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330 posts categorized "Literature"

11 October 2019

The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke have been awarded the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature after the award was suspended last year due to a sexual assault scandal

Born in Poland in 1962, Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Prize, is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary Polish writers. Noted for the mythical tone of her writing, she is adored by her readers and highly praised by critics. Tokarczuk has won many prestigious literary awards for her works both in her native country and abroad. In 2018 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, translated into English by Jennifer Croft (London, 2017; ELD.DS.228759). The book was first published in Poland in 2007 as Bieguni (). The Polish title refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from the perspective of an anonymous female traveller.

Cover of Bieguni ('Flights')

Cover of Bieguni (Krakow, 2007) YF.2008.a.36755

A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk spent a few years practising as a therapist before devoting her working life to her literary career. She is the author of nine novels and a few short stories and essays, and her books have been published into 30 languages including English, Chinese and Japanese. The main translator of her books into English is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose most recent translation is Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (London, 2018; ELD.DS.325469), shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The novel, regarded as an eco-crime story, explores the issues of the animal rights and vegan movements unveiling the hypocrisy of traditional beliefs and religion. The book and the film Spoor by Agnieszka Holland based on this novel caused a political uproar in Poland.

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych ('Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead')

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Krakow, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348

Olga Tokarczuk was a speaker at two recent British Library events: “A life of Crime? Crime writing from Poland”, in 2017, and “Olga Tokarczuk: An evening with Poland’s best”, in 2018. Recordings of both events are available to listen in our Reading Rooms via the online catalogue.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

The 2019 prize has been awarded to the Austrian writer Peter Handke. The Nobel Foundation cites his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” He has won many of Austria’s and Germany’s major literary prizes over the course of a long career.

Born in 1942, Handke began to write while studying at the University of Graz. He became involved with the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, a group of writers (including another future Austrian Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek) associated with the literary magazine manuskripte (P.903/797). 

Alfred Kolleritsch und Peter Handke

Peter Handke (left) and magazine editor Alfred Kolleritsch at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of manuskripte, 2013. (Photograph by Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Handke became known in the 1960s for his experimental plays such as Publikumsbeschimpfung (Frankfurt am Main, 1967; X.907/8495. English translation by Michael Roloff, Insulting the Audience (London, 1971) 11663.l.2/42.). This begins with the words, “You will not see a play” and has the uncostumed actors address the audience from what is usually a bare stage. He has also written novels, poetry and essays. English-speaking audiences, although they may not realise it, are perhaps most likely to have come across his work as the screenwriter for Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Handke has also won awards as a film director.

From the start of his career Handke attracted controversy, although not necessarily for the experimental nature of his work. In an early public appearance at an event organised by the influential post-war writers group Gruppe 47, he gave an angry speech attacking the Group and the work of its members. More recently he has been criticised for his stance and his writing on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This has led to protests at the award of other literary prizes to Handke in recent years, and the Nobel award has attracted similar criticisms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

20 September 2019

Crusoe’s Adventures in Enlightenment Germany

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Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published 300 years ago this year and swiftly became popular both in Britain and beyond. As well as the numerous editions and translations that followed the original publication, there were also many adaptations of the story, particularly for younger readers.

One such was Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere (1779-80). Campe was an educational theorist, teacher, author and publisher in the tradition of the German Enlightenment. Like Rousseau, he believed that Robinson Crusoe could teach children valuable lessons in self-sufficiency and independence, but he thought that Defoe’s text was too dense for young readers and lacking in clear moral instruction. His wanted his own version to correct these supposed defects.

Title-page of Robinson der Jüngere (Braunschweig, 1835).
Title-page of an 1835 edition of Robinson der Jüngere, 1459.b.15.

Certainly nobody could accuse Campe’s version of lacking in instruction, moral or otherwise. The book is presented as a series of conversations between a father, who tells the main story over a number of evenings, and his extended family and friends, who chip in with questions and comments. Some of these relate to practical matters such as geography, natural history and survival skills, while others are moral and philosophical ones relating to Robinson’s actions and beliefs, with no opportunity missed to inform the listeners what course of action is right.

Campe’s Robinson is the youngest and only surviving son of a Hamburg merchant. (Oddly, Robinson is the family’s surname and ‘Krusoe’ the protagonist’s forename; even the narraor admits ‘I don’t know why’, and ‘Krusoe Robinson’ is referred to by his surname for most of the book). Over-indulged by his parents and allowed to neglect his education, he boards a ship bound for England on a whim, and without telling anyone. After various misadventures he finds himself the only survivor of a shipwreck, washed up on a deserted island. Unlike Defoe’s hero, he is unable to salvage tools and supplies from the wreck, and has to create shelter and find food using only his hands and his wits.

Picture of Robinson washed up on the rocky shore of an Island
Robinson is washed ashore. Woodcut by John Bewick from The new Robinson Crusoe ... (London, 1811)
Cup.403.a.26. an English translation made from  the first French translation of Campe’s text, 

Only quite late on in the story does Robinson, now accompanied by Friday whom he has rescued as in Defoe’s version, find another wreck from which useful supplies can be taken. Eventually both Robinson and Friday are able to return to Hamburg, where they establish a carpentry workshop (having become ‘accustomed to the pleasures of manual labour’), become model citizens, and remain lifelong friends.

Picture of Robinson and Friday building a wooden boat
Robinson and Friday build a boat, woodcut from  The new Robinson Crusoe

Although the book wears its didacticism rather heavily for modern tastes, it was hugely successful in its time. The British Library’s collections give some idea of the wide range of translations that appeared in the century after its first publication. We have editions in English, FrenchLatin, Yiddish, Hungarian, Greek, Italian, Estonian, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Spanish.

Title page and frontispiece (shopwing Robinson standing under a tree)  of a 1789 English translation, 'The New Robinson Crusoe'

Title-page (in Hebrew characters) of a 1784 Yiddish translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere'

Title-page and frontispiece (showing Robinson and a tame llama) of a Greek translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere'

Title page of a Latin translation, 'Robinson Secundus' 1794
Translations of Robinson der Jüngere, top to bottom: English (Dublin, 1789; RB.23.a.8790); Yiddish (Prague, 544 [1784]; 1978.c.22); Greek (Vienna, 1792; 868.c.12.); and Latin (Zullichau, 1794; 1578/5264.)

Like the Latin versions - and probably the Greek one - some of the other translations are also obviously aimed at language learners rather than native speakers, as is clear from the notes explaining vocabulary: we have English translations with notes in German and in Danish, and a French translation with Danish notes.

Opening of the text of 'Robinson the Younger', 1789, with copious footnotes explaining the vocabulary in German
Editions for language learners. Above: Opening of an English translation with German vocabulary, Robinson the Younger (Frankfurt am Main, 1789) RB.23.a.11543; Below: Title-page of a French translation with Danish vocabulary

Title page of a French translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere' with Danish notes 1817

Like Defoe’s original, Campe’s adaptation was itself adapted and changed. Some translations (and later German editions) jettisoned much or all of the framing discussion and and stuck to the basic story of Robinson’s adventures. Some translations even claimed to be versions of Defoe’s work rather than Campe’s. The book also inspired two sequels by Christoph Hildebrandt, Robinsons Colonie and Robinsons letzte Tage (RB.23.a.20778), in which the island becomes a European colony where Robinson eventually returns to live out his last days.

Unlike the slightly later, similarly moralising, German-language Robinsonade, Der schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Familiy Robinson), Campe’s work has not maintained its popularity, but for many 19th-century children it would have been their first introduction to the character of Robinson Crusoe and the basic outline of Defoe’s story.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Book cover showing Robinson and Friday being rowed towards a ship
Cover of a Swedish translation (Stockholm, 1628. 12604.aa.12.)

10 September 2019

A European Autumn at the British Library

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This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.

Cover of Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the Citytranslated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337 

First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.

Cover of The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811

Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!

Covers of recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.

Photograph of Rosie Goldsmith next to the Berlin Wall

Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall

On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Finally, on Thursday 29 November, Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.

Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.

02 September 2019

Digging within digging: ‘Rosso Malpelo’

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He was called Malpelo because he had red hair, and he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave promise of turning out a rascal of first order. Hence everyone at the mine of red sand called him Malpelo, and even his mother, by dint of always hearing the word, had almost forgotten his real name. Besides, she only saw him on Saturdays, when he brought home the few pence that made up his week’s earnings, and since he was Malpelo, there was always the fear that he might keep back some of the pence, so, given the doubt, and to avoid mistakes, his older sister would give him cuffs by way of a receipt. [Giovanni Verga, ‘Red-headed Malpelo’, from, Cavalleria Rusticana and other tales of Sicilian peasant life. Translated by Alma Strettel (London, 1893) 12600.d.d.1/29]

Photograph of a shepherd boy sitting on a heap of straw

Photograph by Giovanni Verga – ‘Tébidi, 1900: pastorello su un cumulo di paglia’, reproduced in Giovanni Garra Agosta, Verga: Fotografo. (Catania, 1991) YA.1995.b.1157

When Giovanni Verga published Rosso Malpelo (1878), child labour was high on the political agenda. In 1876, Agostino Depretis formed Italy’s first left-wing government, the so called Sinistra Storica, and swiftly introduced compulsory education for children aged between six and nine. In 1877, Depretis also launched the first ministerial inquiry into child and female labour in factories, highlighting the need for better legislation. A few months before the publication of Verga’s short story, Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino, two opponents of Depretis, had published their unofficial inquiry into the state of Sicilian society, Inchiesta in Sicilia. It described the working conditions in Sicilian mines, which Verga read carefully, as scholar Romano Luperini points out in his essay Verga e le strutture narrative del realismo. As his collaboration with the Rassegna settimanale, the journal funded by the authors of the inquiry shows, Verga was far from being a socialist. However Rosso Malpelo remains a fine literary denunciation of the horrible conditions of child labour during that time, as Luperini adds: “His political-social ideology precipitates into the artistic result through the mediation of a philosophy […] not reducible to that ideological level […] and in which elements of private existential reflection flow.” In other words: there is more humanity in Verga’s literary work than his political views might suggest.

Title page of Cavellerìa Rusticana

Title-page of Giovanni Verga, Cavallerìa Rusticana and other tales of Sicilian Peasant life, translated by Alma Strettell (London, 1893) 12600.d.d.1/29

From the very beginning of Rosso Malpelo, the reader is absorbed in the essence of Verismo: the author looks at the main character through the eyes of the people close to him. The popular superstition that redheads are bad people is not only left intact, but also enhanced by blending the boy’s red hair with the red sand at the mine where he works, and the mine itself is nicknamed ‘Malpelo’s mine’. We see Rosso Malpelo buried in his own destiny from the very beginning: “He was always ragged and soiled with the red sand”. The story unravels and the events follow one another “like concentric circular ripples caused by the fall of the fateful stone in a pond” as Vincenzo Consolo puts it in his introduction [Vincenzo Consolo presenta Rosso Malpelo… (Bari, 1996) YA.2001.a.35936 (My translation)].

Photographic self-portrait by Giovanni Verga

Photographic self-portrait by Giovanni Verga, 1887, reproduced in Verga: Fotografo.

For Malpelo, going from a state of metaphysical damnation to the awareness of social injustice, means to face a lower level of hopelessness: the death of his father, who also worked at the mine, and whose affection is the only human warmth Malpelo has ever known, marks this shift. He was nicknamed Master Misciu the Donkey, “the beast of burden of the whole mine”, as he would take on whatever job he was given, and he dies while digging around a pillar at the mine in order to remove it. The moment when Malpelo tries to save him is one the most poignant in the story:

In all the commotion and chatter, no one had paid any heed to a child’s voice, which had lost all human sound, and kept crying, – Dig here, dig here, quick, quick! – […] he was deep down in the hole, so that no one had seen him before, and they turned the light on him they beheld such a distorted face, with glassy eyes and foam at the mouth, as was enough to terrify one; his nails were torn off and hung from his bleeding hands. When the time came to get him away from the place, they had a bad job of it; being no longer able to scratch, he bit like a mad dog, and they were obliged to lay hold of his hair in order to drag him away.

Entrance to a 19th-century Italian mine

A 19th-century Italian mine, photograph by G. Verga “Stelvio, Braulio, 18 agosto 1892”, reproduced in Verga: Fotografo.

Rosso Malpelo’s hardship is claustrophobically condensed in just over 30 pages: “– For us who are made to work underground – thought Malpélo – it should be dark always and everywhere”. Even the only chance given him to get out of that metaphysical apnoea even just for a moment, Malpelo rejects with remarkable lucidity. One fine summer night, after a long day of work, Ranocchio (a poor boy who came to work in the mine soon after Malpelo’s father died) tries to talk about the stars shining in the sky, “delighted in explaining to Malpelo what they were doing up there, and he would tell him that Paradise is there on high, where the dead go who have been good […]”. “My father was so good, never doing any one any harm, that they even called him ‘Donkey’. And he is down there, underground; and they found his very tool and shoes, and the trousers I have on”, says Malpelo.

Malpelo is never told in which state his father’s body was found, “[…] he must have died a lingering death, as the pillar had formed an arch over him and buried him alive […] he was digging on that side, while his boy was digging in this side”.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/Further reading

Giovanni Verga, Vita dei campi (Milan, 1880) 12471.cc.28

Romano Luperini, Verga Moderno (Rome, 2005) YF.2006.a.2953

Romano Luperini, Verga e le strutture narrative del realismo: saggio su Rosso Malpelo (Padova, 1976) YA.2000.a.35165

Alfred Alexander, Giovanni Verga: a great writer and his world (London, 1972.) X.981/3278.

Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino, Inchiesta in Sicilia (Florence, 1974) X.709/18934

Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino, ‘Sicily in 1876. Political and Administrative Conditions’. Rivista di politica economica, vol. 88 (1998), no. 3/4, pp. 347-367. 7992.730000

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

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Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

27 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 1)

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Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

Founded in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) aims to celebrate and promote women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. So why do we need WITMonth? As the organisers of the upcoming ‘Translating Women’ conference in London highlight, ‘translated literature notoriously accounts for only 3.5% of published literature in the English-language book market, and less than one-third of this is women-authored.’

In addition to WITMonth, initiatives such as the Translating Women project and associated conferences and events all help to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry. And there does appear to have been a shift in recent years, with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize shortlist featuring five women authors and six women translators.

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

 

Cover of The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

Goliarda Sapienza, The Art of Joy, translated by Anne Milano Appel (Penguin Books, 2013), Nov.2015/2304
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Written between 1966 and 1976, rejected by many publishers and issued posthumously in Italian, The Art of Joy only sparked interest after its French and English (by award-winning translator Anne Milano Appel) translations appeared, in 2008 and 2013. The Art of Joy is, above all, a novel of instruction and liberation, feminist, socialist, anti-Fascist. Goliarda Sapienza, its provocative and nonconformist Sicilian author, has just recently been rediscovered, being the subject of an international conference organised by UCL in 2013.

Cover of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019, The Pine Islands follows a lecturer with a specialism in beards, as he decides to take off to Japan on a Bashō-inspired journey to the pine islands of Matsushima. It is a poetic exploration of nature and man, and of the potential for resisting conventional existence. This light but profound text is seamlessly reflected in the translation of Jen Calleja, the British Library’s first Translator-in-Residence and writer of fiction and poetry.

Cover of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina,

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Russian author and filmmaker Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel explores one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Soviet history – the large-scale repression of wealthier peasants, kulaks, who were stripped of their property and forcefully relocated to distant and uninhabited parts of the Soviet Union together with other groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, ethnic groups and peoples and ‘enemies of the state’. At the same time, this is a very personal story that relates to the experience of the author’s grandmother – a Muslim Tatar woman in the 1930s Soviet Union. This multi-award winning book is beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden, who described the process as an ‘enjoyable challenge’ due to the novel’s vivid characters and rich cultural and historical elements.

Cover of Sphinx by Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015), YA.1987.a.16171 (French), English translation awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Born in 1962 in Paris, Anne Garréta currently teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. In 2000, she joined Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature), a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. Garréta’s first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) is a work of literary ingenuity: a love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A***, written without any gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult with the strict gender requirements of the French language. Sphinx is the first novel by a woman member of Oulipo to be translated into English. Emma Ramadan’s translation was nominated for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.

Cover of Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press, 2018), ELD.DS.269711
Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

Nora Ikstena’s bestselling and widely translated novel is set in Soviet Latvia and tells a story of three generations of women. The mother, a doctor, is banished for political reasons to rural Latvia and takes her daughter with her. Uprooted and separated from her loving grandparents, in a reversal of roles, the daughter cares for her psychologically damaged and suicidal mother. This novel by one of the most prominent and influential prose writers in Latvia not only explores the mother-daughter relationship (under-represented in literature, according to Ikstena) but also gives a powerful voice to women living under - and coping with - an oppressive regime. It is seamlessly translated from Latvian by translator and poet Margita Gailitis.

Cover of Nada by Carmen Laforet, featuring a woman walking down an alleyway

Carmen Laforet, Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (Harvill Secker, 2007), Nov.2007/1429
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Published in 1945, Carmen Laforet’s first novel tells how 18-year old Andrea comes to Barcelona to live with her grandmother’s family while studying at university. The Spanish Civil War has greatly impoverished her relatives and created a nightmarish household of conflict, domestic abuse and religious bigotry. This world contrasts with the better-off milieu of her university friend, Ena, who also becomes embroiled in the family’s personal hell. The novel was translated into English in 2007 by Edith Grossman, whose credits already included works by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

25 July 2019

Matilde Serao: proud to be imperfect

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This woman so conventional and gossipy, false among the people and so simple, so affectionate, so frank with herself, so vain with others and so humble with me, so ugly in her daily life and so beautiful in moments of love, so incorrigible and disgusting, so docile to the teachings, I like her a lot, very much, too much […]

This is how, in a letter to a friend, Edoardo Scarfoglio describes the woman he was about to marry. The future wife was Matilde Serao (1856-1927), writer and journalist, who, at 26, left Naples to live in Rome where, in the capital’s literary salons, she became known for her wit, and was often frowned upon because of her spontaneous laughter and gestures. Scarfoglio had already brutally criticised Fantasia, the novel published in 1883 that made Serao famous, describing its language as inexact, improper, a mixture of dialectal words from Italian and French.

Photograph of Matilde Serao in 1887

Photograph of Matilde Serao in 1887, reproduced in Alberto Consiglio, Napoli amore e morte – Edoardo Scarfgoglio e Matilde Serao (Naples, 1959) 010601.aaa.94

In an interview with Ugo Ojetti, Matilde Serao said this in her defence:

Even though my language is incorrect, even though I cannot write and I admire those who write well, I must confess that if I should by any chance learn to do it, I would not do it. I believe, with the liveliness of that uncertain language and broken style, to infuse warmth in my works, and warmth, not only vivifies the body, it also preserves it from the corruption of time.

Cover of the Italian edition of Serao's Fantasia

Cover of the English translation of Serao's Fantasia

Covers of Serao’s Fantasia (Florence, 1914) W12/6416 and of an English translation by Henry Harland and Paul Sylvester, Fantasy (London, 1891). 12205.ee.3/17.

In the introduction to the edition of Fantasia published in 2010, Riccardo Reims wrote:

[…] if a novel containing the same rapid descriptions of 10 young girls in a college, lined up in a classroom, […] briefly defined […] – Giovanna who, without reading, her eyes semi closed, bites a rose, and the pale Lucia with her mellow hair, lips too red, who holds her own head with one hand and through the fingers looks at the teacher […] – were published today, there would be screams of wonder, no offence to the living writers.

In 1884 Serao published Il ventre di Napoli, clearly recalling Zola’s Le ventre de Paris (1873). She gives a vivid and concrete image of late nineteenth-century Naples, under the influence of the positivistic approach of French literary Naturalism and the detached look of Italian Verismo. Her description of Naples takes us to the most tragic and dark parts of the city, and suddenly we are dazzled by the remarkable livelihood of the people in it: it is as if Serao makes the Neapolitans flourish from the dirt of the city with their colourful songs, elegance and passion for handicraft.

Title-page of Il Ventre di Napoli

Title-page of Il Ventre di Napoli (Milan, 1884) 10130.bb.19.

Serao and Scarfoglio married in 1885. In the same year the couple founded the newspaper Il corriere di Roma. Two years later in Naples they founded Il corriere di Napoli, which in 1892 became Il Mattino. After a while, the marriage went though some crisis: in 1903, Serao left Il Mattino and founded Il Giorno.

In March 1925, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile wrote a manifesto of the fascist intellectuals, following a conference of fascist cultural institutions. The manifesto was published by the national press on 21 April; Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Luigi Pirandello were among the signatories.

On the following 1 May, Benedetto Croce wrote a poster entitled ‘A reply from writers, professors and Italian publicists, to the manifesto of the fascist intellectuals’. The poster was published by the daily newspaper Il Mondo and Matilde Serao was among the contributors. In 1926 the newspaper was suppressed by the Fascist regime and Matilde Serao’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature was stopped. She died the following year, on 25 July.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further reading

Matilde Serao, Fantasia, introduzione di Riccardo Reim. (Milan, 2010). YF.2011.a.19669

Ugo Ojetti, Alla scoperta dei letterati.... (Milan, 1895). 11852.bb.23.

All translations by Giuseppe Alizzi

19 July 2019

Love, Art and Rejection: Mayakovsky’s Pro eto

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Today marks the birthday of the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. To celebrate, we’ve dug into the history behind our edition of his poem Pro eto. Ei i mne (‘About This. To Her and to Me’). Completed in early 1923, Pro eto is a lyric love poem dedicated to the poet’s lover Lilya Brik, a writer, actor, artist and the wife of his publisher, Osip Brik, following a two-month separation. Their relationship was tumultuous to say the least, and the poem expresses Mayakovsky’s feelings of jealousy and emotional insecurities. It also has a political slant and can be viewed as ‘a reflection on life in conditions of revolutionary transformation’ (Day, 328). 

Cover of Pro eto featuring a portrait of Lilya Brik

Cover of Pro eto (Moscow, 1923). C.131.k.12.

Pro eto was initially published in LEF, the journal of Levy Front Iskusstv (‘Left Front of the Arts’), an association of avant-garde writers, photographers, critics and designers, in March 1923. Shortly after, it appeared as a separate edition and was accompanied by photomontages (often featuring Mayakovsky and Lilya) by the artist and central figure in Russian Constructivism Aleksandr Rodchenko. The image of the telephone features throughout and can be viewed as a metaphor for their separation and the complexity of their relationship. The cover also features a striking shot of Lilya’s face with staring eyes.

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes a dinosaur, telephone and a portrait of Mayakovsky

Page from Mayakovsky’s Pro eto with photomontage by Rodchenko

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes portraits of Lilya Brik and a telephone

Photomontage by Rodchenko from Pro eto (Moscow, 1923)

The edition held by the British Library was dedicated to Aleksandr Halpern, a Russian politician and lawyer, by Lilya Brik in Paris in 1924 (both Lilya and Mayakovsky spent time in Paris during this period). Halpern, who served as Kerensky’s private secretary in 1917, left Russia after the October Revolution, living first Paris and then Britain. From 1925 he was married to Salomea Andronikova, a Georgian princess who was an influential figure in literary and artistic circles in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris and Britain. During the Second World War Halpern allegedly worked as an MI6 agent in America as part of the British Government Mission. He returned to Britain after the war, where he counted Isaiah Berlin among his acquaintances, and died in 1956.

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

The British Museum Library acquired this copy of Mayakovsky’s poem from Halpern’s Russian collection in 1958, along with a number of other works including the 1923 book Lidantiu faram (‘Lidantiu as a Beacon’; C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224) by Iliazd (Il'ia Zdanevich) and Naum Granovskii (which warrants a separate blog post!). While Pro eto is written from Mayakovsky’s perspective, it provides an important insight into the complicated relationship between the pair and Lilya’s influence on his work. So much so, that the Barbican Art Gallery borrowed the British Library’s copy for their recent exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References and further reading

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pro eto – That's what, trans. by Larisa Gureyeva & George Hyde (Todmorden, 2009). YC.2010.a.11273

LEF: zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv (Moscow; Petrograd, 1923-1925). C.104.dd.51. Digitised copies of the journal are also available via the British Library’s electronic resources (reading rooms only).

Iliazd, LidantIU fAram (Paris, 1923). C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224

Gail Day, ‘Art, love and social emancipation: the concept 'avant-garde' and the interwar avant-gardes’ in Art of the Avant-gardes, ed. by Edwards S and Wood P (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2004), 307-337. YC.2006.b.696 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, ed. by Jane Alison and Coralie Malissard (Munich, 2018). LC.31.b.20507

19 June 2019

Translating Ibsen: monstrous rare of attainment

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The Duke of York’s Theatre is currently playing Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play that Michael Meyer suggests ‘marks Ibsen’s final withdrawal as a playwright from the polemical field’. It is marked everywhere by a curious sense of withdrawal, as the protagonist John Rosmer, heir to the Rosmersholm legacy and former clergyman, stirs himself towards a revolutionary popular politics, before abruptly asserting its futility. Likewise, the complex love affair between Rosmer and Rebecca West reaches the possibility of marriage, before that becomes impossible because of Rebecca’s guilt over her complicity in the suicide of Rosmer’s first wife and her manipulation of Rosmer towards her radicalism. Hints of idealism amidst the angst-ridden interactions dissolve into a resignation to unchangeable political, psychological and moral realities. This kind of thematic disappointment works also on the level of language, and Toril Moi suggests it depicts a dark modernity ‘where language has come to seem untrustworthy’. This makes you wonder: if the play is about the impossibility of communication, what does it mean to read and experience it at one remove, in translation?

Title page of the first edition of Rosmersholm

First edition of Rosmersholm (Copenhagen, 1896) BL 11755.bbb.34.

Ibsen is notoriously difficult to translate, hence the many translations and adaptations of his plays over the last century. This includes the new four-volume Penguin Ibsen, the third volume of which contains a new translation and critical apparatus for Rosmersholm and will be released in December this year. Mark Lawson reminds us of one of the problems of translating Ibsen: that he wrote in Danish in Norway at a time of linguistic transition, when Danish remained in use but was being superseded by Norwegian. ‘This means that the translator … needs two different sets of dictionaries and thesauri and a strong sense of the historical evolution of Scandinavian languages.’

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker, National Portrait Gallery 1917

This combination of disappointed ideals and the thankless task of the translator emerge in the preface to the first English translation of Rosmersholm (London, 1889; 11755.e.13.) by the playwright, poet and musician, Louis Napoleon Parker. Parker writes how Ibsen was slowly becoming known to English audiences and, regarding his translation, ‘It claims only one merit: it is done from the original, and it is done as literally as my limited skill in juggling words would permit. An ideal translation is, like other ideals, monstrous rare of attainment. This is not an ideal translation; but that it is faithful I will pledge the word of one who has hitherto been considered indifferent honest.’ In his autobiography, Parker mentions an ‘obsession’ with Rosmersholm, ‘the only useful lesson in playwriting I ever had’. After first translating from an early German version, probably Marie von Borch’s (Berlin, 1887; 11755.c.2.), he returned to the original, feeling ‘instinctively that there were slips and lacunæ’ in the German.

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown Cup.403.m.4.(7.)

The Ibsen Society of America see the first translations, including presumably Parker’s Rosmersholm, as being particularly faithful but also outdated: ‘older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations’. A couple of the tricky motifs to transmit into English, according to Toril Moi, are the verbs svælge (‘swallow’) and kvæle (‘strangle’). For Moi, these verbs ‘evoke ideas of forced or silenced expression’ in a play about the struggle to connect through language and the actual abyss between Rosmer and Rebecca, as well as between Rosmer and the outside world. These verbs are strange to a Norwegian reader in their contexts and therefore stand out. Rendering into comprehensible English, translators often miss the specific motifs of swallowing and suffocation, which Moi holds central to her understanding of the play.

Let’s compare a couple of passages from Parker’s 1889 work, Charles Archer’s 1891 translation (11755.df.45.), Michael Meyer’s 1966 version (X.908/8346.), Mike Poulton’s 2008 adaptation (YK.2009.a.18115), and Moi’s own renderings in her critical work.

The end of Act 2 sees Rosmer lament the impossibility of his political project due in part to his deep guilt over his wife’s death. Moi has it:

ROSMER: I shall never conquer this – not completely. There will always be a lingering doubt. A question. I’ll never again be able to bask in (svælge i) that which makes life so wonderfully delightful to live.
REBECCA: [leaning over the back of his chair, more slowly] What kind of thing is it you mean, Rosmer?
ROSMER: [looking up at her] Quiet, joyous freedom from guilt.
REBECCA: [takes a step back] Yes. Freedom from guilt.

Moi cannot retain the idea of swallowing but opts for a phrase that keeps a bodily sense, of absorbing something. This is lost in Meyer’s and Poulton’s translations, which go with the verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘losing the one joyful thing’. Parker and Archer settle for ‘revel in’, retaining at least the preposition and therefore some idea of physicality.

The scene takes a turn when Rosmer asks Rebecca to become his second wife, a proposal she rejects for no clear reasons at this stage. Rosmer’s plea is about shaking off the burden of the past in marriage, demanding, according to Moi’s version, to ‘let us strangle (kvæle) all memories in freedom, in pleasure, in passion’. Meyer writes, ‘let us lay all memories to rest in freedom, and joy, and love’, a significantly more peaceful image. Poulton offers a more violent image in the verb ‘drown’. However, closer to the original, Parker and Archer prefer the verb ‘stifle’, a motif of suffocation.

One last example that provides interesting comparison is the word vidnesbyrd, the ‘testimony’ or ‘proof’ Rosmer asks of Rebecca to restore his faith, essentially demanding that she takes her own life. Moi prefers to see this as ‘bearing witness’ because the concept is distinct from ‘proof’, as it ‘has to do with a person’, whereas ‘proof’ ‘often refers to things or facts’. This word isolates one translator among our selection. The very first translation, the one that was a product of an obsession with the most faithful rendering, Louis Napoleon Parker’s work is the only version not to use the word ‘proof’. He employs the awkward formulation, ‘Let me have a token!’ The word ‘token’ insists on a visible and tangible manifestation of something in a way that ‘proof’ does not quite manage.

As strange as it sounds in Parker’s rendering, perhaps Parker’s ‘token’ is a more accurate translation after all, and, if anything, his version helps to remind us of Ibsen’s own strange language.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Louis N. Parker, Several of my Lives (London, 1928), 010855.f.42

Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006) YC.2006.a.19524

Mark Lawson, ‘The Master Linguist: The Problem with Translating Ibsen’, The Guardian (29 October 2014)

30 May 2019

Olga in Spain

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Our colleague and co-editor of the European Studies Blog, Olga Kerziouk, retires this week after over 24 years in the British Library. A keen blogger herself on the history and literature of her beloved native Ukraine and on her adopted language of Esperanto, she also always enjoyed working on colleagues’ posts. Here, one of our most prolific departmental bloggers looks at the history of the name Olga in his own area of expertise as a small tribute.

Olga is quite a popular name in Spain, but it seems not to be related to the pro-Soviet sentiments of Republican parents. At national level, she doesn’t figure among the most popular names of 1900-40: in 1941-60 884 Olgas were born; in 1961-75 3486; in 1976-88 982; and in 1988-93 132. In Madrid, 5790 were born between 1900 and 1993, accounting for the percentages 7.5% of babies 1900-1940; 15.3% 1941-1960; 60.2% 1961-75; and 17% 1976-93.

Olga la revolucionaria, heroine of Alberto Insúa’s novel of 1926, technically speaking is not Russian or Ukrainian but ‘Weltravian’ (capital: Bermengrado).

Cover of 'OIga la revolucionaria', shelfmark  YF.2009.a.34822
Cover of  Alberto Insúa, Olga la revolucionaria (Madrid, 1926) YF.2009.a.34822

Insúa (1883-1963) made a career out of writing small popular novels, sold at newsstands, with suggestive titles which are not really borne out by the contents: La mujer fácil (‘The Easy Woman’), Las neuróticas (‘The Neurotic Women’), El demonio de la voluptuosidad (‘The Demon of Voluptuousness’), Dos franceses y un español (‘Two French Women and a Spaniard’).

Need I say more?

The plot of Olga la revolucionaria starts before the revolution. Olga’s parents are left-wingers who have brought her up to be a modern woman (make that Modern Woman). When she meets prince Sergio Sardenomensky he expects to find ‘a sort of suffragist, dry, outspoken, with straight hair, glasses and flat shoes. But he found himself in the presence of a beautiful and naturally elegant woman’.

Picture of the character Olga in typical 1920s clothing
Modern and elegant: Insúa’s Olga

‘Olga was a revelation for him: the woman of a class “apart”. The independent woman, with a profound inter life and clear intelligence. The studious woman. The hard-working woman.’

Their chaste love is broken when he leaves her to marry a lady of his own class. They meet again in the midst of revolution: the noble and strong-minded Olga has become a commandant, and sets Serge free.

Picture of the character Olga dressed for winter in a snowy landscape
Dressed for revolution in the Weltravian winter

It’s rumoured that the Spanish name for cardigan, rebeca, was inspired by the garment worn by Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s film of 1940. Olga la revolucionaria seems not to have been responsible for the generation of Spanish Olgas listed above, but she might remind us of our dear and blog-loving friend Olga.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/further reading

Maurice Hemingway, Alberto Insúa (1883-1993): ensayo bibliográfico (Madrid, 1994) YA.2002.a.20299

Consuelo García Gallarín, Los nombres de pila españoles (Madrid, 1998) YA.2002.a.38363