World bookshopper: #8 Altaïr, Barcelona

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If Stanfords travel bookshop had a Catalan cousin, it would look a lot like Altaïr. On the day I go, wandering in off the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and away from the Sant Jordi crowds, I find myself confronted with a treasure trove for those who enjoy combining literary exploration and jet-setting.

Like Stanfords, the bulk of the three-storey emporium is given over to country-by-country sections where the curious reader or would-be adventurer can find factual books and fictional works from the regions in question. The choices can be surprising. Look up Serbia and, alongside Lago de Como (the Spanish translation of the book I read from the nation) you’ll find an English-language copy of American novelist David Leavitt’s The Page Turner. In the Scottish section, you can pick up work by French writer Jules Verne.

As in similar English-language shops, setting rather than author nationality seems to be the deciding factor in the categorisation of texts. But unlike their Anglophone counterparts, Altaïr customers seem to be willing to cross linguistic as well as national boundaries.

When it comes to the shelf labelled ‘Regne Unit’ (that’s United Kingdom to you and me), a varied selection awaits. Books by Charles Dickens feature, alongside offerings from James Herriot, Mark Haddon, Hilary Mantel and Doris Lessing. I was particularly pleased to see a copy of El Relojero de Filigree Street, the Spanish incarnation of the international bestseller by Natasha Pulley, whom I met at the Bath Literature Festival earlier this year.

The lack of translation and distribution opportunities for works from some of the world’s more deprived countries – one of the major challenges during my quest to read a book from every country – seems to hold as true in Spanish and Catalan as it does in English. While most European nations boast their own sections in the store, several African countries are lumped together in the basement with only maps and factual histories by foreign writers to represent a number of them. By contrast, feted authors such as the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz have their own mini-sections.

International publishing challenges notwithstanding, the shop must be applauded for the range of its selection. In the section marked Kosovo – a fiendishly difficult nation to find any work in English from – I was delighted to discover Travels in Blood and Honey by Elizabeth Gowing, a British translator, NGO worker and beekeeper, who has lived and worked in the country for much of the past decade.

And the offering doesn’t stop at country-by country. If you’re interested in mountains, you’ll find an area catering for that. If the polar regions capture your imagination, you can while away a good hour or so browsing the explorer memoirs on display. There is an impressive array of photography books, a handsome wall of maps, a collection of publisher-specific stands from which classics by global notaries such as Ferrante, Carver and Marquez can be snapped up, and a swathe of bookcases devoted to the latest smash hits – thrillers and tearjerkers ripe for stuffing into your backpack to beguile those long-haul flights.

Meanwhile, for those who prefer the world to come to them, there are cases of trinkets, scarves and ornaments from different corners of the globe. In addition, Catalonians keen to add a bit of local polish to their English without getting on a plane have the option of resorting to the intriguing volume Laura Lips en habla como los Ingleses.

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This comes with a word of warning, however: when I flick through, I find a few rather eccentric suggested phrases. In particular, attempts to describe a scolding as ‘a tongue-lashing’, to tell someone to ‘keep your hair on’ or to say that ‘my computer is having a bad hair day’ would be more likely to make most native English speakers I know raise their eyebrows rather than invite you down the pub for a pint.

It seems there are some aspects of travel with which books can’t quite compete…

10 responses

  1. Hello Ann, do you remember our rather scary facial in Calcutta?! I’ve been enjoying reading your blog for a while now – thanks! I just wanted to say that, in our family, at least, ‘keep your hair on’ is a well-known expression. It means ‘calm down’, and is usually used in a humorous way when someone is getting snappy. Having said that, some members of my family are fairly eccentric, so perhaps your comment is justified after all! 🙂

    • Hi Rachel. Yes indeed – those were the days! How lovely to hear from you. Yes, I agree, ‘keep your hair on’ is a colloquial phrase that might be used between friends and family, but in the context in which this book was suggesting – a rather more formal setting – it would sound odd or possibly slightly rude, I think. Others may have different views…

  2. OMG!!! I met you thanks to TED platform I now I’m really keen to your blog! I must say that I’m Spaniard so, you can imagine my surprise when today I’ve looked your blog!
    Ann, you are absolutely right. Here in Spain we have a “strange” humour about English culture (don’t ask me why cause I don’t understand neither). Perhaps that’s why our English Speech Level is one of the lowest ones in Europe :(. I hope you enjoy a lot Catalonia, but I reccomend you visit Valencia as well, it’s nice and really cultural (Blasco Ibániez, Joanot Martorell, Sorolla…), I ‘m sure you will enjoy too. Meanwhile I continue reading your posts and learning from you!!! Thank you very much!

    • Thanks. I really like Catalonia. I have been many times. And trust me, most Spanish people speak English far better than British people speak Spanish! I shall be visiting Valencia in September. I love the city. What would your top bookshop recommendation there be?

  3. Hello, Ann! I am a student in Korea who wants to become a writer and contents master director. I watched your TED Talks and I’m very interested in your blog and your project reading a book from every country in the world. I want to read a book from every country in the world like you, but it is more difficult to get books translated in Korean than in English. I’m so sad…:c but I’m trying to study English hard to read more books from other country. I hope that I can read books in English well and someday meet you. If you want to read some Korean books, I can send you a list of some interesting books that I’ve read. I wonder if you recommend some books, from other country excepting Korea, that you have read.

      • Thanks! first of all, I want to recommend ‘Three generations’ written by Yom Sang-seop who is very famous writer in Korea. You can buy this book in The next is the explanation of ‘Three generation’.

        Touted as one of Korea’s most important works of fiction, Three Generations (published in 1931 as a serial in Chosun Ilbo) charts the tensions in the Jo family in 1930s Japanese occupied Seoul. Yom’s keenly observant eye reveals family tensions withprofound insight. Delving deeply into each character’s history and beliefs, he illuminates the diverse pressures and impulses driving each. This Korean classic, often compared to Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, reveals the country’s situation under Japanese rule, the traditional Korean familial structure, and the battle between the modern and the traditional. The long-awaited publication of this masterpiece is a vital addition to Korean literature in English.

        And ‘’ is the site where you can read other Korean literature in English or another languages. (Click ‘언어권별’ -> ‘영어(240)건’)

  4. I just ordered your book “The world between two covers” from my local independent bookstore in Arlington Va, USA. I really love reading world literature but haven’t thought too much about the translators, but I realized that I have read multiple books by Jose Saramago and Arturo Perez-Reverte that were translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and in looking her up on the internet, discovered your references to her..Now I have to look up more of the authors she has translated since all the ones I read were so well done. Now I have to look through your list. Am interested if any of my reads are on your list. Too much to read – too little time 🙂

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