Edited by Jean Anderson
VUP, NZ$30 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

THIS COLLECTION marked the opening of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation at Victoria University in March. It gathers together, in alphabetical order according to their country of origin, 21 diverse stories and excerpts from novels, most of which are previously unpublished in English. Acting as a showcase for some of the lecturers in Victoria’s language schools, Been There, Read That! is a good way to sample recent, and in many cases unfamiliar, writing from 21 different countries.

Editor, Jean Anderson, Senior Lecturer in French at Victoria, has translated four stories, from across la Francophonie; about a travelling French village, a Mauritian beggar woman, a Tahitian fighting cock, and a Vietnamese soprano. Reading stories with such distinct settings, subjects and styles, but all brought into English by the same person, emphasises what chameleons translators must be, almost like actors. The interest of this book is in its celebration of the often forgotten art of translation, and its exhibition of exotic voices, places and tales.

Before each story, there is a brief bio note about the writer and their work. Considering that many of the authors are relatively unknown in New Zealand—Partow Nooriala, Severino Salazar, Vladimir Voinovich, Mohd Affandi Hassan, to name a few—these blurbs help put the stories into a context and provide a sort of bibliography for further reading. After finishing Gianni Celati’s bizarre and lingering fable, ‘Marine Forecast’, about a doctor who becomes obsessed with an ailing giantess, I made a note of the collection it appears in, Cinema naturale, and look forward to tracking it down.

Another highlight, not necessarily for the quality of the writing – according to the modern Western canon, which I assume I’m influenced by – so much as the novelty value, was Mohd Affandi Hassan’s ‘Still Learning’, translated from the Malay by Washima Che Dan. Written in the analytical and theoretical framework, Persuratan Baru (Genuine Literature), ‘Still Learning’ exemplifies the discourse-elucidating style characteristic of Islamic literature. The pedagogical focus of the story (about a school girl who gets a C in an exam because her answers are identical to those on the marking schedule and therefore unimaginative) is crystal clear and quite different to the decorated, or satirical, messages of most contemporary Western fiction.

‘Emile Forever . . . Amen’, by Amélie Plume and translated from the French by ChristTina Anderes, more poem than story, about the romance seeping out from a couple’s relationship after the arrival of their children, was also refreshingly direct. At the opposite end of the scale is Pol Hoste’s ‘Outlandia’, translated from the Dutch by Nadine Malfait, memorable for the rich twists and turns taken by its slightly autistic narrator. Partow Nooriala’s ‘Se-pa-ra-tion’, an achingly vivid two-page account of a small girl discovering her parents are divorcing, is another piece worthy of mention.

The stories collected here are diverse, but, of course, far from exhaustive. After reading 21 unfamiliar writers, all I could wonder was how many others must be out there, which could be gathered into Been There, Read That! Vol. 2. The opening of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation, suggests that the skill to produce a regular anthology of new, translated work is available here in Wellington, all that is needed are intrepid readers.