Given that Nick Barley, Director of EIBF, was chair of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and a second judge, Daniel Hahn, was on site to chair well over a dozen events, it was a given that the Man Booker International Prize would be a focus of this year’s festival. Here are the two of them discussing the judging of the prize.
Wednesday 16.07.2017 was a key date for the Man Booker International Prize with 3 events in Charlotte Square.
Event 1) The Power of Translation
As we queued to attend this event, we were handed samples of Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen: one page of the original and the equivalent page in English translation. “Surely not a translation slam!”, I thought. (Oh, how I miss those.) Indeed it was not. Instead Nora’s translator, Misha Hoekstra, and Kari Dickson, standing in for Don Bartlett, joined both Nick Barley and Daniel Hahn to discuss the particular challenges of translating these two Man Booker International shortlistees.
Now, of course, an hour is not enough to discuss the translation of two whole pages of two different novels in any depth, and so we didn’t. Following a brief synopsis by Daniel Hahn of the other shortlistees and the characteristics which led to their shortlisting (Fever Dream, irresistibly creepy, cannot be read slowly; Judas, the use of biblical King James English mirrors the deep resonance of the original Hebrew; Compass, enormously ambitious, rich, full of stuff, requiring the translator to replicate the research; A Horse Walks into A Bar, captivating, unbearably uncomfortable, a unique if seedy comedian’s voice with untranslatable jokes, which the translator had to substitute with her own), the discussion turned to specifics with relation to the Scandinavian contingent.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
a) The title reflects the way learners are taught to turn in Denmark. Why not Mirror, Signal, Manoeuver? asked Nick Barley. Because that’s not how turning is taught in the USA replied Misha Hoekstra, and the same translation was to be published in both countries, So we stuck to the Danish original.
b) Of the translation in general, he also said that Dorthe Nors wanted to keep the beauty of his American English rather than translate it into British English. (At this point I’m tempted to say – discuss. But I shall refrain.)
c) Expletives – Rather than translate the Danish expletives, I thought about what the driving instructor would say if (American) English was her native tongue.
4) He changed the rhythm of the lyrical sections of the novel to make the prose more musical.
5) In what seemed to be a direct answer to those who find Sonja wish-washy, someone (probably Daniel Hahn or Nick Barclay) pointed out that observation is her revenge.
a) Norway’s population is equivalent to Scotland’s (5 million) but is spread out over a much larger area. Each town has its own dialect (note dialect, not accent). The dialect of the island of Barrøy (or so I assume) in the extract of The Unseen was unrecognisable to the two Norwegian speakers in attendance. (Kari Dickson and one audience member) So how did the two Dons (translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) approach the problem of translation? By inventing a new English dialect merging Scandinavian words used in English with the elongated vowels of Lancashire.
c) The landscape is a central element of The Unseen and the language used is highly specific. So the differences between a tussock and a mound matter. But what happens when there is no English equivalent? Then the translator has to decide if what is lost in translation is compensated for what is won.
Event 2) Samanta Schweblin
Apologies to Karl Geary who was sharing the stage with Samanta Schweblin and must be edited out of this post, because of its remit. Consolation is offered, hopefully, by the fact that I have added Montpellier Parade to my wishlist.
I reviewed Fever Dream a couple of months ago and so I’ll only add additional insights here.
a) Rescue Distance, the original Spanish title, is not a phrase invented by Schweblin. It is one well understood in Argentina. Schweblin applied it not only to the central mother and child relationship but also to the distance between ourselves and the planet. “What happens when we cannot measure the danger?”, she asked. And made me think twice about my consumption of soya beans.
b) She wrote the novel 12 times. The story wouldn’t work until she found David’s voice.
c) Key thought-provoking thought: “As an Argentinian I know nothing about Latin America, until I moved to Berlin.”
Event 3) David Grossman in conversation with Nick Barley
Of course, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize had to make an appearance as the culmination of the afternoon’s events. And I was delighted because although I was rooting for The Unseen to take the prize, I can see why the judges – unanimously, according to Daniel Hahn, deemed this the winner.
Before moving into the event, may I indulge you with a few thoughts of my own? (No? Then skip the next 5 paragraphs.)
I would not have read A Horse Walks into A Bar without its win, and almost abandoned it after the first sitting. It is the tale of a stand-up comedian, going into meltdown on stage. It’s crude (I hate crude), it’s vicious and nasty (I detest that kind of comedy). As a result, the jokes that made me laugh were few and far between. (Were they Grossman’s?, I now wonder. cf notes from Event 1 above.)
It was saved, however, by the introduction of the retired judge. A former friend of the comedian’s, who was implored to attend a performance. “Do you remember me?”, asks Douvaleh Greenstein during a phone call. Eventually the judge does. “Thank God”‘ says Douvaleh. “I thought I’d made you up.”
And that need, that desperation reeled me in. I wasn’t going to stop reading until I knew what had caused it. And even if watching this car-crash of a performance was extremely uncomfortable, I couldn’t avert my eyes. I’m not entirely sure that Douvaleh transformed from a repellent character into one I wanted to embrace (as per Nick Barley), but I certainly softened my opinion of him.
That trajectory mirrors that of Douvaleh’s audience – or at least those that stayed to the end of his performance. It’s only when a sympathetic female audience member, who knew him as a child, reminds him “you were a good boy”, that the cruel, vicious routine begins to transform into something completely different,
The Man Booker International Prize judges were “bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks”. I can see that. A Horse Walks into A Bar is anything but traditional, runs a gamut of risks including offending and alienating the reader. Whoever heard of stand-up comedy without laughs? But my word, the psychological intensity! Although The Unseen remains my favourite on this year’s Man Booker International Prize shortlist, Grossman’s novel is the one that will elicit an emotional response from me for a long time to come.
Nick Barley was keen to put A Horse Walks Into A Bar into the context of Grossman’s work as a whole, specially as the third in a loose-knit trilogy exploring grief. Grossman was 2.5 years into writing To the End of the Land, a novel about a woman who has lost her son in a military operation, when his own son was killed in action against Hizbollah. “I didn’t know if I could save the book”, said Grossman. “In the end, the book saved me. Writing literature is the best way to force me into my life.” He followed up with Falling Out of Time, in Barley’s words “a Homeric journey into the depths of grief. I shed tears on every page.” “Art is the closest a secular non-believer like myself can get to the intersection of life and death” said Grossman of Falling Out of Time. “How little I understood what I was writing at the time, and I now understand that books take place in a writer’s blind spot.” In this context A Horse Walks Into A Bar examines the way humour, as irrational and illogical as it may seem, allows movement in the congealed world of grief.
Finally, in an echo of what Samanta Schweblin said earlier in the day, Grossman told us that he had had the story of A Horse Walks into A Bar for 24 years. It wasn’t until the character of Douvaleh appeared that he knew how to tell it and write himself a worthy Man Booker International winner.