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By Beppe Hardwick • January 8, 2019

Not Just Beaches and Festas, Part II: The Literature of Malta -- in English Translation

Mature student in the library at the university

The translation of Maltese-language literature into English admittedly remains a somewhat haphazard affair, in large part because an industry with a systematic approach to the pursuit has yet to arise. As matters stand, the norm is one-off projects tackling this or that work by a particular author, with the reasoning behind the selection not always readily apparent.

That’s better than nothing, of course. Moreover, these one-offs are becoming more frequent, meaning that English speakers may now avail themselves of a greater variety of literature originally written in Maltese, even if most of a specific author’s oeuvre remains untranslated.

Indeed, those of you keen to sample contemporary Maltese literature but unable to read Maltese (yet!) need not despair. In determining which works they should commission translations of, publishers turn into veritable gold mining magnates. As alluded to above, sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing. But other times they do. In such thrilling instances, the translators upon whom it devolves to perform the actual extraction often surface with truly scintillating (and weighty) stuff.

The gold mine that is Maltese literature is no different. Thanks to various translators and publishers, from its depths have emerged some pretty fine nuggets. We’ve done a bit of sifting and sorting – here’s the result:

The Secret Life of Nanna Ġenoveffa, by Trevor Żahra

Translated by Rose Maria Caruana

The Secret Life of Nanna Genoveffa(Merlin Publishers, original edition also published by Merlin)

You will fall in love with Nanna Ġenoveffa, whose charming and bawdy (fictional) memoirs come to life through author Trevor Żahra’s pen. Tracking the familial turmoil and sexual exploits of this otherwise exemplary lady from early 20th century Malta, The Secret Life of Nanna Ġenoveffa moves along at a steady clip, all the while balancing rose-tinted nostalgia for a bygone time with just the right amount of naughtiness.

Having Said Goodnight, by Pierre Mejlak

Translated by Antoine Cassar and Clare Vassallo

Havig Said Goodnight(Merlin Publishers, original edition also published by Merlin)

Thoroughly accessible and entirely heartfelt, Pierre Mejlak’s short fiction deserves an international audience, not least because of this Gozo-born, Brussels-based author’s silky command of language and crafty means of hooking the reader. These talents are on full display in his latest collection of stories, Having Said Goodnight. Note that the impetus behind the English-language version, which comes to us courtesy of award-winning poet Antoine Cassar and veteran translator Clare Vassallo, was the awarding of the European Prize for Literature to the book – a testament to the quality of the author’s work and his widening reach.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, by Immanuel Mifsud

Translated by Albert Gatt

In the Name of the Father and of the Son(Midsea Books, original edition published by Klabb Kotba Maltin)

Translated into English – as well as French, Romanian, Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, and Arabic – following its publication in Maltese in 2011, Immanuel Mifsud’s In the Name of the Father and of the Son (with the original Maltese edition, “and of the Son” appears in parentheses) stands as another local winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. The slim but powerful novella is also perhaps the most “exportable” manifestation of highbrow Maltese literature. An insightful, heavily autobiographical, and often harrowing exploration of fatherhood, the unconventional story is triggered by a heady occurrence: the death of the narrator’s father coinciding with the narrator becoming a father himself. Both intellectually rigorous and emotionally naked, this is a glittering, once-in-a-lifetime book.

Last-Ditch Ecstasy, by Adrian Grima

Translated by Albert Gatt

Last-Ditch Ecstasy(Midsea Books, original edition published by Klabb Kotba Maltin)

One of the movers and shakers of Maltese literature, Adrian Grima is a prominent academic, activist, and poet, as well as a major force behind Malta’s main literary NGO, Inizjamed. In his latest collection of poems, Last-Ditch Ecstasy, one finds meditations on subjects as varied as food – “potato without rosemary/is like time without company” – to weightier matters such as the death of loved ones. The elusive nature of love itself also (deservedly) receives attention.

Alfred Buttigieg: The Collected Plays, by Alfred Buttigieg

Translated by Irene Mangion and Marco Galea

Alfred Buttigieg, The Collected Plays(Self-published; supported by the Malta Arts Fund)

Alfred Buttigieg is the closest thing Malta has to a "bad boy" playwright. His controversial The Priests’ Revolt – first staged at the Manoel Theatre in 1986 – introduced many theatergoers to the power of allegory to comment on contemporary political matters. Comprising translations of that landmark play and three others, along with an excellent introductory essay by scholar of the theater (and co-translator) Marco Galea, Alfred Buttigieg: The Collected Plays allows the reader to track both the development of the playwright himself as well as evolving trends in Maltese theater.

BONUS: Pair Buttigieg’s book with Curtain Up! Theatre in Malta (1963-2015), by veteran theater critic Paul Xuereb. Edited by Marco Galea and published by Midsea Books, Curtain Up! comprises Xuereb’s reviews for the Sunday Times of Malta over a period spanning half a century.

WISHFUL THINKING ON OUR PART: What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels, by Ġużè Stagno

 

What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels(Merlin Publishers)

The title of this Maltese-language book is already in English, so someone might as well translate the whole thing, right? Jokes aside, the most recent novel by onetime enfant terrible of Maltese literature Ġużè Stagno deserves a wider readership, if only because it depicts a relatively new Maltese reality – the professional and other benefits the people of Malta have gained through their country’s accession to the EU – with gusto. While the narrative veers dangerously toward the "shopping and shagging" route at certain points, What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels remains a lucid and thoroughly entertaining satirical takedown of the Maltese character when exposed to international opportunity…and scrutiny.

Want to find out more about the contemporary literature of Malta? Check out Part I of this two-part series, which tackles English-language Maltese fiction and poetry.