Americans of an isolationist bent may not know it, but there are languages other than English that are spoken in the world. Travel to Kenya, say, the paternal homeland of a certain American president of internationalist bent, and you’ll find a fantastically diverse array of tongues spoken from city to city and village to village. It’s fitting, then, that the work of the eminent Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o should be the subject of a brilliant multilingual experiment mounted by the online pan-African magazine Jalada, in which a story of his, “The Upright Revolution,” is translated out of its original Kikuyu into English, Amharic, Dholuo, Kikamba, Lwisukha-Lwidakho, French, Arabic, Luganda, Kiswahili, Afrikaans, Hausa, Ikinyarwanda, Meru, Lingala, IsiZulu, Igbo, Ibibio, Somali, Sayyidka, XiTsonga, Nandi, Rukiga, Bamanankan, Shona, Lugbarati, Lubukusu, Kimaragoli, Giriama, Sheng, Naija Languej, Marakwet, and Ewe. The editors are encouraging translations into unrepresented languages, so this long list may only be a start. In fact, reports the South African blog BooksLive, “the ultimate goal is to have each story translated into 2,000 African languages.”
French is more accessible to many English speakers than that dizzying field of African languages, but too few French writers are known to American readers. One who we’ll be hearing more from is the Anglophone, multicultural Aliette de Bodard, who recently took an unprecedented two awards—for best novel and best short story—from the British Science Fiction Association. Her prizewinning novel, The House of Shattered Wings, lends a terrible postapocalyptic air to the storied City of Light, now overrun by angels, alchemists, and Vietnamese immortals.
Italian is perhaps less accessible still for monolingual Americans, and as for physics, well, fuggedaboudit. Amazingly, then, an Italian researcher, Carlo Rovelli, has carried off an unlikely success: He’s penned a bestselling book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, about that most heady of scientific disciplines. In its original Italian version, the book has even managed to displace the translation of Fifty Shades of Gray from its spot on the bestseller list, a public service if ever there was one.
“Writing is often like driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road, and spending a decade in a ditch.” So writes Gay Talese in his memoir A Writer’s Life, which we praised on its publication 10 years ago. Speaking can sometimes land you in that ditch, too, as Talese discovered last week at a conference in Boston. Speaking before a mostly female audience of journalists, The Guardian reports, Talese was asked to name women writers who inspired him as a reporter. “None,” he replied, going on to explain that “educated women” don’t like to keep company with the antisocial figures who make good stories and good headlines.
Tell it to Edna Buchanan, Oriana Fallaci, and Susan Sontag. Or perhaps tell it to Beverly Cleary, who turns 100 on April 12, and who seems to have never minded talking to anyone of whatever station in life as a librarian and writer. The creator of the fearlessly adventurous 9-year-old Ramona Quimby, Cleary laments in a profile in the Washington Post what many another social critic has observed: that children today are so overscheduled and overregulated that they don’t have the opportunity to have real adventures of their own. Long may she wave!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.