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Archive for the ‘in translation’ Category

For this year’s Triple Dog Dare (which I’ve signed up to for two months, because March has plans of its own), I decided to read as many titles from the 2014 IMPAC Longlist as I can make time for.  To fit Triple Dog Dare criteria, the books must have been in my TBR stacks on 31.12.2013.  When I did a quick tally, I found there were 15 stashed away, and I decided to concentrate in the first instance on translated fiction.

Léon and Louise – Alex Capus3stars.GIF

Longlisted for the German Book Prize 2011

Translated from German by John BrownJohn (2012)

If there’s any moral to this story, it has to be, love will find a way.  Léon and Louise meet as teens in 1918 but just as their romance begins, they are caught up in an incident of war and separated, both believing the other dead.  Léon marries Yvonne and settles down to family life (as far as his volatile wife will allow) while Louise becomes an independent mademoiselle.  A few years later, Léon spots her on the métro and phase two begins only for the Second World War to separate the lovers again.

We know it doesn’t end there because the opening scene, that of Léon’s funeral in Notre Dame, sees a mysterious and uninvited  woman in black pay respects to the dead man by ringing a bicycle bell.  Her identity is never in much doubt (the novel’s title gives it away) but the incident sets the prevailing mood.  While the characters live through the traumas and dof the 20th century, they do not despair.  They are survivors and there is always an undercurrent of humour and charm.  In fact, you could say that Léon’s existence is charmed.  He is threatened only by his naïvety during the Nazi occupation and its immediate aftermath (and those scenes are heart-thumpingly menacing).

This is an accessible novel with interesting historical background.  Its scope perhaps too ambitious for its page count (264) necessitating the peace-time decades to be glossed over and the chameleon-like qualities of the most complex character, Léon’s wife, to be summarised in a way that tells rather than shows.  That was a shame because she was, for me, more multi-dimensional than the two title characters.

 
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante4_stars.GIF

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldsmith (2012)

The two girls at the centre of Elena Ferrante’s novel are also survivors.  Theirs, however, is a tale of a poverty-stricken childhood and adolescence in the Naples of the 1950′s. This is a harsh and violent world in which education depends on the parents’ willingness to make tough financial sacrifices. This wasn’t that long ago and I actually found this quite shocking.  These girls are of my generation and of the working class yet with such a different experience to my own. Up to this point I found the novel entertaining but my attention was waning.  Thereafter the fuse was lit and I was fully engaged.

Elena Greco meets her friend, the brilliant Lila Cerullo, on the first day of school.  Lila, who can read despite coming from an illiterate family, is clever and charismatic from the start.  She would be precocious, too, were it not for her violent father, keeping her firmly in her place and that means at home, labouring for him, instead on progressing onto middle school.  Elena’s  parents, though just as poor, are railroaded by a teacher into letting their daughter progress but their begrudging largesse comes at a price.  While clever, Elena must work hard to succeed in her studies and maintain her friendship with Lila, to whom she remains devoted and in thrall. 

This divergence of educational paths sets up two entirely different life journeys where for Elena, a typical adolescent, the grass is always greener.  So, when Lila makes the most of her very limited options in the most advantageous match that she can, Elena is envious. She hasn’t understood the doors that remain open to her and the doors that are closing on Lila.  It is Lila who presses on her the absolute necessity of continuing in education, even offering to pay for it.

“Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

In a novel written entirely from Elena’s point-of-view, this is really the first time that we hear Lila’s thoughts and they turn the premise of the title on its head.  At this point the two girls are barely 16 and Lila realises the need to escape the constraints of her upbringing.  For all her hopes, there are worryinging indications that her marriage won’t have the desired outcome.  More hopefully, however, the scales fall from the severely myopic and bespectacled Elena as she comprehends the small-mindedness and boorishness of her family and her fellow villagers.

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she (the teacher) had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

I’m actually find myself fretting, hoping that this epiphany hasn’t come too late, following her ill-advised romance with Alfonso …. Don’t tell me if you’ve read the 2nd part of this trilogy.  I’ll find out for myself very soon!

The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of A Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson5stars.GIF

Winner of the Swedish Booksellers Award 2010 / German Pioneer Prize 2011 / Danish Audiobook Award 2011 / Prix Escapades 2012

Translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury (2012)

i’ve been blogging for just short of 7 years now and I’d never used the adjective before I awarded this the most preposterous 5-star read of 2013.  I can’t sum it up any better.  I mean whoever heard of a 100-year old man with enough flexibility in his limbs to climb out of a window?  Let’s just say that’s the least strenuous of his adventures which turn into a cat and mouse chase across Sweden after he steals a suitcase containing wads of cash.  A parallel narrative takes us back over his life and reveals that we are, in fact, dealing with a superman of sorts.  That explains the steely determination and resilience of the old fellow who flees his own birthday party.  It turns out that Allan Karlsson proved to be more influential to the course of 20th century history than Oppenheimer, Stalin, Franco, and Chairman Mao put together!

Suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential.  So too the quelling of the conscience asking whether it is right to laugh.  In places this comedy is blacker than black and in others absolutely immoral.  Oh yes, people get away with murder – quite gruesome murders too.  There’s an inept gang and an even more inept police inspector chasing Allan and his ever-growing entourage which comes to include an abandoned elephant. The question is who will muck it up first? (Answer – I can’t resist this –  the elephant.)

A riot from beginning to end with hidden messages about the dangers of politics and politicians.  I think that’s the message, not that I can prove it.  I was too busy laughing to collect the evidence.  Roll on the film! 

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Of the 152 titles on the IMPAC longlist, 41 are translations. Of those, I have now featured 10.  Links to the others below.

The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch) / 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool - Viola di Grado (Italian) / The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul (Danish) / The Dinner - Hermann Koch (Dutch) / The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg (Finnish) / The Guard - Peter Terrin (Dutch) / The Method - Juli Zeh (German)

I hope to read more before the shortlist is announced.

 

 

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Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Book 28 in my 30 books for 30 years of the EIBF

Pawel Huelle’s event brought the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival to a close and so it was obvious that his book of short stories would come home with me to prolong the memories.  I intended to read it last autumn but you know how books land on the TBR and wait patiently.  Now that the leaves are turning and the cold winds are blowing, I find that this autumn I am not dreaming of escaping to warmer southern climes (only because I already know when I will next travel south) and so am quite content to snuggle up under the duvet to enjoy Huelle’s melancholy tales set by the cold Baltic sea.

I’ve lived in this unpleasant seascape for 50 years, said Huelle and know that it has shaped me as a human. It has infected me with its culture, cuisine and melancholy.  This collection of stories is a small, modest, summary of those experiences

… which I might add are not as cold and dark as I expected.  Melancholic, for sure, and steeped in local history and folklore. Tracing the past multi-culturalism of a region from which such diversity disappeared following World War II; the failed utopian aspirations of the Mennonites, oral tales of devilish burning spheres on the Bay of Gdansk, the dangers of seeking the original language spoken in the Garden of Eden …

I really enjoyed these stories which were very fluid, populated with interesting and engaging characters, flavoured with detail and imbued with the power to transport. Motifs were repeated throughout pulling the collection together into a coherent whole.  As Chekhov said, a gun appearing in the first act, must be fired in the third.  And so, taking a cue from the master, a bible lost in the first story, is found in the last, only for it …. no, that would be telling.

The edition from Comma Press contains an appendix in which the translator interviews the author about the inspiration for each story.  A delightful idea which divulges, amongst other things, which stories are auto-biographical and which really added to my appreciation of the collection.

I’ll be back for more from both Huelle and Comma Press.

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Here I am checking into Tony’s January in Japan just in the nick of time!

Japanese Literature has a huge following in blogland, but I had never read anything from those shores – nor had I had any conscious inclination to do so. So don’t ask me how The Folio Society’s Japanese Short story anthology had found its way to my shelves, but there it was patiently awaiting my attention.

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I was a little overwhelmed when looked at the table of contents: 28 stories, covering 8 centuries of Japanese literature, from an anonymous 12th century story to a late 20th century one by Banana Yoshimoto. Where to start? From the beginning wasn’t an option – not with a simultaneous read of Les Miserables. I decided to take my cue from fellow January in Japan participants. If an author was mentioned and there was a story in this anthology, then I would read it.

What can I say? It’s been a really interesting experiment.

Checking out the January in Japan book review site, the month kicked off with Banana Yoshimoto. So there we are, starting at the end of my book (which appeals – I was a breach birth.) In Honeymoon, a recently married man finds himself debating whether he should go home. Marriage isn’t what he expected and while he’s not unhappy, neither is he ecstatic. A shape-shifting stranger sits next to him in he empty carriage, and much against his will engages him in a motive-examining conversation. Slightly surreal but not overly so. In my mind the stranger is an outward manifestation of the protagonist’s conscience and that leads to some thought-provoking insights.

Next up J-lit giant Junichiro Tanizaki and a story of a tatooist which will appeal to those who enjoyed Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. Appeal may actually be the wrong word here, because there are subtle shades of sadism in this story.

When he had to deal with a faint-hearted customer whose teeth would grind or who gave out shrieks of pan, Seikichi would say: Really, I thought you were a native of Kyoto where people are supposed to be courageous. Please try to be patient. my needles are unusually painful.’ And glancing from the corner of his eyes eyes at the victim’s face, now moist with tears, he would continue his work with utter unconcern. if, on the contrary, his patient bore the agony without flinching, he would say: ‘Ah you are much braver than you look. But wait awhile. soon you will be unable to endure it in silence, try as you may.’ And he would laugh, showing his white teeth.

On second thoughts, the sadism’s not so subtle. His great ambition is to tatoo his very soul onto the skin of a beautiful young girl and so when he finds the ideal candidate, he kidnaps, drugs her and does exactly that. Judge for yourself the beauty (or otherwise) of the resulting tatoo. It’s certainly one of the most striking illustrations in the book.

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Tattoo by Yukki Yaura 2000

Of the 6 J-Lit Giants featured on the January in Japan thus far, 5 are represented in this anthology. The 6th is a poet so it’s no surprise that he is not represented. Natsume, Mishima, Tanizaki, Dazai and Abe are all there with my favourite story amongst them Abe’s An Irrelevant Death.

A young man arrives home to find a corpse in his flat. He decides that he must dispose of the body somehow. He takes so long thinking about how to do this, that the window of opportunity for informing the police has passed. Noone will believe his innocence now. He spends the whole of the night attempting to dispose of the body but – spoiler alert – he never gets past the front door. The disposal of the body and even the death are, as the title suggests, irrelevant. This playful take on a murder story is actually an examination of courage. Whether he turned himself in or went on grappling with the corpse, he would need courage. And whichever choice required the most courage was bound to be the right one.

Let me just even up these highlights gender-wise by mentioning Higuchi Ichiyo‘s wonderful Troubled Waters , a 19th-century tale which takes us right into the heart of the pleasure zone and the despondent life of girl, forced by poverty into the life of a courtesan. Oriki, the prettiest, the most charming and witty, is the envy of the other girls and yet she pines for her favourite customer. Having squandered his money on her, he can no longer afford her services. Not that we feel sorry for him- with a wife and a child, he should have a better sense of responsibility. Higuchi takes us from the pleasure house into his hovel of a home where his nagging exasperated wife lives a similarly miserable existence. I’m not sure what shocked me most, the nastiness of the man or the subservient grovelling of his wife when she had overstepped the mark. There was no way this was going to end well ….

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Troubled Waters by Yukki Yaura 2000

Neither did it but while it was a tragedy for the characters, it was a high note reading-wise and a good place to end my first foray into Japanese literature. So thanks to Tony for the encouragement,  to the Folio Society for such a diverse selection of stories,  and to Yukki Yaura for the beautifully intricate illustrations. With a TBR of over 1000 volumes, I really didn’t need a whole new world opening to me. But now that my toe is in the water, I suspect I shall soon be swimming ….

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From the moment Peirene announced the series of the small epic, I was worried. Not that I doubted the quality of the offerings for a moment. The nymph does have impeccable taste. My concern stemmed from the fact that my least favourite Peirene Press title is the novella-sized Stone in A Landslide. What did I write in that review: “Too short for its scope ….. so much to tell, so little space ….. I always felt like an observer looking in, never absorbed”. For this reader the 2012 series was fraught with danger and I held off and held off some more – despite rave reviews for all 3 in the blogosphere. Then I decided this read had to be done, particularly if I was to be up-to-date before the really promising 2013 Turning Point series hits the shelves. Deep breathe – here we go – in reverse order of publication, for reasons that will become clear …..

Peirene No 9 Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (Translated from the German by Jaimie Bulloch)

Winner of the Prix des Auditeurs de La Radio Suisse Romande

As an object, this is undoubtedly the most beautiful book that Peirene has produced. It tells of the life of the influential Chinese painter, Bada Shanren, and contains a number of his paintings. Bada Shanren began life as Zhu Da, a prince of the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Turbulent times and he had to flee for his life to a Buddhist monastery, leaving behind his wife and young son – without it appears a second thought as to their safety. 40 years later, when the Qing dynasty is no longer as insecure and having learned that his wife and son have died (no details are given) he leaves the monastery to take a second wife because he feels the need to preserve his line. The second marriage is not a happy one (scant detail is given) but it is at this time that he begins to live the life of an artist using the skills taught him in the monastery.

You can tell from the above that I wasn’t concentrating of the focus of Weihe’s work – i.e the development of Bada Shanren’s career and almost philosophical relationship with his brushes and ink. This story is told in beautiful lyrical prose, I admit, but I was more interested in his failed human relationships and his alleged madness. These gaps were bound to frustrate me. I accept that condensing the 80 year life of Bada Shanren into 107 pages requires a strict scoping exercise. Weihe, for instance, does not even mention Bada Shanren’s poetry. The result, however, is an episodic structure in 51 small chapters and a work that makes me want to repeat my review of Peirene No 2. stars3

Peirene No 8 The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

Winner of the 2009 Danske Banks Litteraturpris

Having established that I don’t like narrative gaps, Pia Juul’s book was bound to drive me demented, wasn’t it? And yet ….

Right at the start – page 3 to be exact – Halland’s corpse is found in the street. He has been shot and his partner of 10 years, Bess, is initially accused by a neighbour of the crime. The story is narrated by Bess, who behaves very strangely. But then she always has – leaving her husband for Halland, after a 5-minute meeting in a bookshop. Her relationship with Halland never seeming to be worth the price of the resulting estrangement from her teenage daughter. After Halland’s death Bess’s grief for her daughter blends seemlessly into her grief for Halland – or does it? People and details from Halland’s past begin to emerge which could lead to a revision of the 10 years she has spent with him.  Bess seems to be in denial. Then, people from her past reappear, seemingly out of nowhere, with motivations that appear flimsy – at least to me.

The question is how far can we believe Bess. She’s as unreliable as unreliable goes. She even tells us so and it’s a supreme irony that I believe her ….

Actually there’s a great deal that I haven’t mentioned. How could I possibly include everything? Nonetheless there is something that I haven’t mentioned that I must have left out on purpose.

The job of the reader is to work out what that something is and let’s say that because the gaps in Bess’s story are huge there’s plenty of room for manoeuver. This could be very frustrating, particularly if you wanted an answer to the whodunnit, which the author refuses to supply.  Despite this, I’m pretty clear about what I think happened, though not so clear about why I think that way.

I’d quite happily re-read this with my book group. I reckon the discussion would be never-ending.  3hstars

Peirene No 7 The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg (Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah)

Nothing like sibling rivalry to conjure up a good old-fashioned family feud. Cherchez la femme and even more originally, cherchez le cheval! Add the Swedish-Russian war during which the brothers fought on opposing sides to create a plethora of unresolved grievance, festering and lying in ambush of some future time.

That time appears to be 1809 when, following the war, both brothers return to the farmstead on which they were raised. It is winter. The landscape is frozen and the atmosphere is just as icy.

The war has been waged, but here we may yet have corpses, so speaks the first of 7 first-person narrators. 7 narrators in a 115 page novella – it could get confusing but it doesn’t. Firstly there are signifiers whenever the narrator changes and secondly, each narrator has a distinct voice and point of view. Revelation upon revelation follows until it is clear that the problems I outlined above are the least of this family’s problems. There are further secrets hidden in the past and even greater betrayals to come. The question is from which direction? I’ll be honest, it took me by surprise, even though as I skim through the text again, the clues are there.

The moody, dark, brooding, and sometimes earthy language brings the drama right off the page. Twists and turns aplenty and yet it never feels rushed. Sahlberg even has time to weave in some wonderful symbolism – the decrepit house, a visual representation of the state of the family for instance. The Brothers has been described as Shakespearian and I heartily agree. More importantly there are no narrative gaps, and that makes this the most absorbing and satisfying read of the series.  4stars

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The Swiss were on a roll (sorry!) during week 2 of the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival.

Fellow Left-hander Arno Camenisch

Day 11 21.08.2012 Arno Camenisch

EIBF foreign fiction events are enhanced by the author reading sections of their work in the original language.  It was a particular joy, however, when Arno Camenisch, read  in both Rhaeto-Romanisch (and the two languages have nothing in common, to my ear).  He wrote the story in German and then rewrote it in Rhaeto-Romanisch.  He was adamant – he does not translate his stories as the two languages have different sounds, different registers.  The voice must be found in both languages.   Sometimes the writing process is reversed. The story in question, Sez Ner, is published in the European Fiction 2011 anthology, and was translated from the, in this case, German version by Donal McLaughlin, who read the story in English and was delighted to announce that he is in the process of translating the Sez Ner trilogy, which will be published in its entirety by Dalkey Archive.

Is the story any good?
It’s only 6 pages long  but it certainly establishes the place and the background of an alpine farming community with a very incompetent swineherd.   I’ll be reading the novel when it appears in English.  EIBF author’s mission accomplished.

Stuart Kelly, Gabriel Josipovici, Christoph Simon

Day 12 22.08.2012 Christoph Simon

Christoph Simon appeared on stage with the legendary Gabriel Josipovici, who gave the reading of the festival for me.  By the looks of the picture on the left, Simon enjoyed it just as much.  But this post is about the Swiss and my lips are sealed about Josipovici’s novel, Infinity, The Story of A Moment, until I have read it.

Simon was talking about Zbinden’s Progress, also translated by Donal McLaughlin, a novel in which the plot can be contained in the following sentence. An old man in a home takes a walk down a flight of stairs, accompanied by his carer, Kazim. The walk takes so long that Zbinden has time to tell his life story to Kazim. It’s a story that is not action-packed but is nonetheless full of human emotion and poignancy:  a happy marriage between two serious walkers, the sadness of the widower and the bemusement of a father who cannot relate to his only son.  And yet Zbinden is not full of self-pity.  Simon summarised his story as humane.  Others have a more vexed relationship with old age.  Indeed there is plenty of entertainment in the home.  It is full of characters and humour in the old folk’s home: someone who “escapes” from time to time to travel around Europe, his kleptomaniac tedencies leading to a variety of souvenirs; a man and a women who hate the sight of each other, but who Zbinden is convinced belong together; and Zbinden himself who wants only to convert his fellow pensioners to the art and joy of walking to induce in them his own joie-de-vivre.

Is the book any good?  Oh yes, although it’s not for those who prefer plot-driven tragedies. This is life and an old man living the days that remain to him with dignity.  There’s a happy end which brought a few tears, not only to one of the main characters, but also to my own.

Day 13 23.08.2012 Peter Stamm

We’ll dispense with the is the book any good section here because you already know that I loved Seven Years earlier this year, and that I interviewed Peter Stamm about it.  But I couldn’t resist this event could I?  I even picked a seat in the front row to sneak the most fantastic picture ever – but then the microphones got in the way! Bah!

Anyway Stamm’s English is so good, there was no need for a translator and Rosemary Burnett, the interviewer, once married to an architect who wanted to live in a house with no cupboards,  fully understood the architectural conflicts underpinning the novel.

Talkng of his spartan style and voice, Stamm said that it has taken years to develop.  He often throws again half of what he writes because it’s not up to scratch.  He would probably be less picky if he penned baroque, ornate prose because mistakes are less obvious.

He prefers to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives because extreme situations (such as war) don’t teach us much about ourselves.

Rosemary Burnett confronted Stamm with a review from someone who accused him of being nothing other than the bookkeeper he had been for 10 years.  Stamm’s response, dry and deadpan like a typical dusty bookkeeper, “It wasn’t 10 years.”  Hilarious.  Revealing that one couple had reconciled after reading the novel, while another had split, he said that he is considering putting a disclaimer apropos future editions of the novel.

The event ended on a high note in the signing queue where I managed to snap myself what I consider the would-have-been-perfect-if-I’d-got-the-lighting-right portrait of a quiet, unassuming but brilliant author.

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That’s not a royal we..

In 2010 Kader Abdolah was interviewed by myself and a few others.  And now the interview is available in Spanish! (Thank you, Carola.)

I think that’s wonderful.  Who said blog posts were ephemeral throwaways?

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The Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, Nick Barlay, was a judge for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and that interest in translated fiction carried through to the programming of this year’s festival.  There was a series of events discussing the art of translation and many others with international authors of which I attended a goodly number.  It soon began to feel as if all these authors and translators were having an ongoing conversation with each other.  This is my summary of the salient points and the translator tricks that were identified.

Day One 11.08.2012
Gerhard Bakker confesses to thinking that his novel The Detour was untranslatable.  The reason being it is a novel about the translation into Dutch of a poem by Emily Dickinson – the novel ends with the translated poem.  How, exclaimed Bakker, can you translate a novel like that?  David Colmer’s answer was to insert clues and the Dutch words at appropriate moments in the text so that the final page, which must be in Dutch or the whole point of the novel is lost, does not come as a shock to the English reader.

Day Three 13.08.12
David Bellos, translator of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, maintained that the idea of an untranslatable language is absurd.  Language is always meaningful and, therefore, always translatable.  He claimed that the idea of a literal translation is an oxymoron given that literal means from letters and that letters have no meaning. He was galvanised into writing his recently published book on translation Is That A Fish In Your Ear by the oft-quoted myth that a translation is no substitute for an original. The status of translators, he said, shows the way that a culture feels about itself.  The UK and USA are quite secure and so translators are allocated a modest place in the social hierarchy.  In Japan, however, the translator’s name is often printed in a bigger font than that of the original author!  However, as a word of warning to all translators everywhere, he reminded us that translators were publicly executed in the Ottoman Empire, if those receiving the message didn’t like it.

Anecdotes from his own translating career: Bellos maintained that his English translations of Kadare from the intermediate French feel closer to the original in that they have restored Albanian character names.  As he doesn’t speak Albanian, he can’t say if they are better.  Only an Albanian speaking very good French and English would be able to make that judgement.  As for translating Georges Perec, he claimed there are huge swathes of Perec’s prose that are quite mundane and not at all difficult to translate.  He kept his secrets about translating Perec’s fancy linguistic pirouettes close to his chest.

Day Ten 20.8.2012
Translation Duel: Spanish with Bernardo Atxaga, Rosalind Harvey and Frank Wynne, chaired by Daniel Hahn

One author, two translators

A sell-out event (who says there’s no interest in translation) during which the translators sat centre-stage.  I attended a German equivalent last year and was interested to see how the format worked for a language I’m not that familiar with.  It does because the discussion about language is fascinating.  Take one short story, two translators and the resulting translations, although technically correct, bear very little resemblance to each other when compared sentence by sentence.  Bernardo Atxaga’s  short story about a man, an unfriendly dog and a herd of cows posed some interesting challenges.  When for instance does a dog tranform from an it to a he/she in English?  When do animals scutter?On a more abstract level, discussion about what makes a good translator culminated in this quotation from Edgar Keret:  Good translators are like ninjas.  As soon as you see them, they stop being any good.

Day ?? Pertinent comment by Anonymous
It is not possible to attend events about translation and translated fiction without the inevitable question about why so little is translated into English – the oft quoted 3% cent.  So I apologise to whoever said the following, but I was too busy wondering why this thought had never struck me before,  to note it down.  He (that much I do remember, Frank Wynne perhaps?) pointed out that Anglophone literature covers many cultures and continents that there isn’t the imperative to translate to the level of 40% of all publications that is reached in France.

Day 17 27.08.2012 Gained in Translation:How the Best Translators do it

Sarah Ardizzone, Marion Bourbouze and Daniel Hahn

An event in which two literary translators, Sarah Ardizzone and Daniel Hahn, discussed their craft with Marion Bourbouze, the Head of Marketing for the Scottish Book Trust.  And what were their top tips? 1) Find yourself a good editor (Sarah Ardizzone) 2) Wear two hats: the first being the translator’s hat, the second that of an editor of an anglophone audience (Sarah Ardizzone) 3) Become a good reader in the foreign language and a good writer in English – note you do not need to be a perfect speaker of the language you are translating (Daniel Hahn) 4) Avoid the author who thinks his English is good enough to make final decisions and 5) Don’t be afraid of editing the original by changing the text or sequence of chapters, if it’s not working in English.   As Daniel Hahn said, a translator lives with a book for 3 months.  If there are mistakes to be found, and frequently there are in books where the editing culture is not as rigorous as in the UK, a translator will find them!

Interestingly both translators came to the profession by chance.  That’s less likely to happen these days when literary translation is becoming increasingly professionalised.  Daniel Hahn, who is also programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, discussed the mentoring programmes that are now in place for budding literary translators, particularly those seeking to translate from a language other that French, German and Spanish.  Apparently there are enough of those to go around.

Plenty of food for thought whether you read translated fiction or not.

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(Seamlessly) translated from Spanish by Beth Fowler.

I read Argentinian Iosi Havilio’s Open Door  last week for Spanish Literature Month.  The start of the novel was as hypnotic as anything I have ever read.  After losing her girlfriend in the city, the female protagonist witnesses a suicide jumping from a bridge over a river. It turns out that she was witnessing her girlfriend jumping to her death. Or was she?

Thereafter, traumatised protagonist retreats to the countryside village of Open Door and takes up with an older man, …. and a younger woman.  The rest of the novel consists mainly of  their liaisons – and a number of visits to the city to identify a series of corpses.   You can tell from my prosaic language that the second two-thirds didn’t live up to the promise of the first, despite some wonderful flowing prose and the tantilising fact that the village and the novel are named after a psychiatric asylum.  In fact, I found myself wondering as to its point.

Then I read the afterword writen by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera which claims that Open Door lives up to Borges’ challenge.

Borges contended you couldn’t approach truth,  ultimate meaning or ideal beauty directly because doing so, and being able to experience such things as the face of God, the meaning of the universe, or truth, would turn out to be a nightmare. The experience would be blinding and destructive. …

It is best to proceed by revealing one layer of appearance after another in the same way as one peels an onion, but without expecting to get to the hard kernel.  Warning: onions do not have a hard kernel. …

… Havilio proceeds as Borges recommended: he describes effects rather than their causes and works through narrative rather than by naming.

Except it seems there is a clue on the back of one of the Spanish editions where Havilio names the causes, his monsters …. capitalism and every man for himself.

Well, knock me sideways.  There I was thinking this was just a sordid little tale in which those with no limits or sense of decency eventually grow up and become responsible adults. Well, put like that I suppose I can see the allegorical application to Havilio’s named monsters.

Perhaps I should reread this book, because nothing in this novel is quite what it seems as Guardiolo-Rivera, convinced of its masterpiece status , exhorts.  Then again, perhaps I should just acquaint myself with Borges.   I don’t think he’ll be anywhere near as grubby.

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This post is part of Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu.

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Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Inevitably my island-hopping expedition brings me to the most famous fictional island of them all. Or is it? Fictional, I mean.

It’s 12 July 2004 and the Swiss author, Alex Capus, has taken his family for a holiday in Samoa, the island in the South Pacific where Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last five years of his life. Capus’s mission is to prove that Treasure Island actually exists, albeit not in the place that the treasure-hunters have been seeking it for generations. The resultant book Sailing by Starlight – In Search of Treasure Island is a slim one, packed with facts and theories supporting Capus’s argument that Stevenson’s island is not located in the Caribbean where those of the Pirates of the Caribbean generation (myself included) would automatically locate it. Nor is Treasure Island, the exotically named Cocos Island, to the east of Costa Rica, where in 1821 Captain Thompson, an honest man whose head was turned by the wealth that was entrusted to him for safe keeping,  allegedly buried  priceless ecclesiastical treasures from Lima Cathedral.  Through the history of the Cocos Island and the experiences of August Gissler, a German who spent 19 years of his life systematically digging up the island inch by inch,  Capus shows that the treasure, which was real enough, could not have been buried there.  The question is where is it?

The clue Capus argues lies with Robert Louis Stevenson’s seemingly snap decision to locate to Samoa and to stay there despite the fact that the climate was detrimental to his tubercular health.  The attraction, according to Capus, its close vicinity to a second island, formerly known as Cocos.  All that effort off the coast of Costa Rica was misdirected due to a simple case of mistaken identity!

Now I can’t say whether Capus is right, and nor can he, because by the time he had pieced together his thesis, Royal Tonga Airlines had gone bankrupt and he couldn’t reach his ultimate destination.   The argument or conjecture (as Capus calls it) stitched together with pieces of Stevenson’s life, general pirateering and treasure-hunting history (some stranger than the strangest fiction),  and clues from the plot of Treasure Island itself spins a mighty fine yarn. One of which Stevenson himself would approve.

I like biography far better than fiction myself; fiction is too free.  In biography you have your little handful of facts, like bits of a puzzle, and you sit down and fit ‘em together this way and that, and get up and throw ‘em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk.  And it’s real soothing’ and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful.  Of course, it’s not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it, the fathoms of slack and the miles of circuitous tedium.  Still, that’s where the fun comes in” (Robert Louis Stevenson to Sir Edmund Goss, 18 June 1893)

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I have a problem with translated Latin American writing – there’s a large stack of it in my TBR, lying unread because a lot of it concerns dictators and fascism and man’s inhumanity to man.  Now, given the history of the place, that’s understandable but I can handle such subject matter in very small doses.  I chose, therefore, to read this anthology published by Granta in 2010, simply because, as it states in the prefaces, all the writers were under 35 years of age at that time of publication, and, therefore, not as obsessed with the Pinochets as the older generation(s) of writers.  A secondary benefit of reading this anthology – a literary tapas, if you like –  is that I discovered a plethora of new-to-me authors and visited 8 Spanish-speaking countries. (Thereby accepting the subliminal challenge of the Spanish Literature Month badge – how many countries can you visit in one month?)

Full list of authors, pictured on the right. I didn’t know many of them before.  I had read Zambra and knew of 2 others;  Roncagliolo who won the 2011 IFFP and Andres Neuman, whose epic Traveller of the Century is on my Edinburgh Book Festival reading pile. Perhaps the authors on this list are household names now in their home countries.  Certainly, if the list of awards listed on the individual biography pages is anything to go by, I was keeping illustrious company.  That statement is also applies when referring to the list of 20 translators, which includes the big hitters of Spanish translation Peter Bush, Edith Grossman, Anne McLean and Frank Wynne alongside others less familiar to me.  (Let me add that caveat lest I insult someone).

The showcase writings are either short stories never previously published, or excerpts from novels in progress.  The subject matter is far ranging: the life of an anonymous hotel reviewer,  excerpts from the family life of a drug addict,  the sly and witty revenge of a university profession on his enemies, a teenager’s crush on a Mormon missionary.  I can’t possibly mention them all individually but I will name my top 3.

3) The Bonfire and The Chessboard – Matías Néspolo (Argentina)
A 2-part  extract from a novel in progress. In the first part the protagonist El Tano flees to the hills to a wooden shack where a lady friend awaits him.  Only he doesn’t seem to know her, although she is very familiar with him.  In the second part, two men meet over a chess board.  It soon becomes obvious that Mr Manicure is seeking to track down El Tano.  The chess game is actually a metaphor for an interrogation.  Will the other player crack?  On the strength of this, I immediately purchased Nespolo’s 7 Ways to Kill a Cat,  published in 2011.  Whether I get to it later this month, remains to be seen.

2) A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs – Patricio Pron (Argentina)
 The final story in the book and one in which a budding writer finds inspiration in the night-time back and forth pacing of the established author who lives in the flat above.  (The reasons for that unrest so mundane that they are laughable.)  Incidentally this story provides a matching bookend to the collection which begins with a story by Lucia Puenzo (also from Argentina),  set in a writing school.  The less-than-generous tutor is none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

1) Small Mouth, Thin Lips - Antonio Ortuño (Mexico) 
A story designed to make me eat the words in my opening paragraph because it’s set in a prison where a writer, imprisoned by one of those dictatorships, awaits his execution.  But before he can die, his spirit must be broken.  This is not a tale of physical brutal violence.  He is subjected to psychological torture.  14 pages long, with two narrators: the writer and the letters he writes, the tormentor elucidating on his methods.  It is a marvel of compression and all the more powerful for that.

More information on the anthology here, including interviews with all the authors.

This post is part of Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu.

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