Monthly Archives: February 2012
I was going to write a piece about the sweetest, most inspiring translated love stories I have read, but I didn’t get any Valentine’s cards today and I’m in a bad mood, so I’ve decided to write the opposite. Please let me know about any translated love stories of note I may have missed, anti- or otherwise. In fact, no, just anti-.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Ah! Bonjour Tristesse. It has been included in Penguin’s Great Loves series, which seems a little strange since selfishness and disillusion seem to be a lot more relevant to the story than love, let alone epoch-defining passion. Still, it’s a fabulous, fabulous book, one that made its teenage author an overnight star when it was published in 1954. I’m afraid I’m slightly hazy on the story as I haven’t read it for twelve or so years, but at the time the impact it had on me was akin to being picked up and thrown down the stairs.
Spring Torrents by Ivan Turgenev
A wonderful slice of Turgenev-cheese this, one the academics would undoubtedly label “sentimental”. But never mind them, it’s great. As a young man, it is hard to decide which is more attractive: the young, beautiful, innocent girl-next-door type, or the slightly older vampish, dangerous seductress. Well, unfortunately for Dimitry Sanin, he meets both in the space of a few months, and though he lives to tell the tale, the better life he might have lived is lost for good. It’s kind of sappy, but it all goes wrong at the end, so it makes the list.
Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
Czech author Bohumil Hrabal is surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. This may not be his greatest book, but it is the one that fits best our theme. In the final year of WWII, Milos Hrma is working as an apprentice at a strategically vital railway station in Bohemia. Desperate to alleviate his problems with “ejaculator praecox”, he is driven as far unsuccessfully slitting his wrists and ends up using those two words to proposition every woman in sight. Until, that is, he is propositioned himself . . .
Adolphe by Benjamin Constant
When I worked in a bookshop, this was given to my a propos of nothing by my employer one day: “a good book about obsession”. Adolphe is a cautionary tale that reminds the reader to be careful what they wish for. A gifted but terminally bored young man decides to woo the beautiful Ellenore, mistress of an influential aristocrat. He turns some pretty dirty tricks to seduce her, but, of course, once it’s done he wants her no more and their lives and place in society are deeply compromised by their scandalous affair. Not quite sure how it ends, because I left it in the pub.
Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble
This was introduced to me by the same employer as “a surrealist classic”. That it certainly is. I’m going to quote from the publisher’s blurb because to write about it needs too much thought: “Aboard the Titanic, Lobster watches Angelina devour his father before being plucked out of the aquarium himself. Just as he is put in the boiling pot, the ship hits the iceberg and the pot is thrown to the floor. Lobster survives, with some changes: he finds himself sexually attracted not only to a human, but to the very human who ate his father. He gives her one life-changing orgasm before their tragic separation, following an ugly incident in one of the lifeboats.” It’s good.
On Monday evening 2012’s Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes were awarded in a ceremony at King’s Place. Warmest congratulations to winners Frank Wynne, Khaled Mattawa, Paul Vincent, Damion Searls and Adriana Hunter, and runners up Sarah Ardizzone (for School Blues), Margaret Jull Costa (for The Sickness), David Colmer, Barbara Romaine, Michael Hoffmann and Frank Wynne (this time for French).
The prize-giving was followed by the annual W.G. Sebald Lecture on a subject relating to translation, delivered this year by serial Forward Prize and T.S. Eliot Award-winning poet Sean O’Brien. And so began a curious meeting of two discrete, comparable, but distinct worlds: that of the translator and that of the poet.
O’Brien is not a translator in the usual sense, any more than is his friend and Editor Don Paterson, who has recently(ish) and notably translated Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. He can muddle through in German and French, but his translations are not restricted to these languages, and have recently included Dante’s Inferno, Aristophanes The Birds and the work of a contemporary Portuguese poet. He usually receives a literal translation on which to work his magic.
A refrain that he returned to during the lecture was the idea that faithful translation was inadequate to the task of rendering a version that comes alive as an English poem. The art, we were told, was in infidelity, and he was often savagely witty at the expense of more “honest” translations, subjecting previous incarnations of The Birds to that infamous Harrison Ford quip: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it”.
Let me swiftly drop in the caveat that no mention was made of prose or fiction translation: the lecture was focused on one poet’s experience of translating poetry and verse drama, the idea that poetry can be what is found in translation rather than what is lost. In the Q&A session he likened this trend – that is conventionally traced back to Robert Lowell’s Imitations and Pound’s translations – to what was happening in the Renaissance, when the original served as a springboard for the poet’s imagination. Sometimes the only way to translate the essence of a poem is to privilege the music of the original over its meaning.
All this left me wondering two things. Does the poet need to be very firmly established to be free to use their imagination with confidence in this regard? And would this approach arouse any resentment amongst translators who have invested many years in mastering the language(s) they are translating from? (If a publisher were to apply for a European Translation grant to subsidise an O’Brien translation they might struggle with the section that asks for his qualifications in the language of origin.) Well, the Q&A session did seem a little tense, but then again, the only translator I spoke to about it afterwards said it was the best Sebald Lecture yet.
And yet it is worth skipping through the Guardian review of O’Brien’s Inferno and noting who the critic is . . . Still, if can bring myself look beyond my considerable nose for mischief, I will inevitably conclude that the lecture — through sheer weight of reason, honesty and wit, all illuminating a growing trend in verse translation — is more likely to build bridges between the faithful and the infidels than inspire any antagonism.
By the editor popularly known as Pengles.
Santuary Line has generated particularly intense interest in Ireland, partly because both Urquhart and the family at the novel’s centre are the descendants of Irish immigrants. Today there is a great interview with Jane in the Irish Times that covers the relative dearth of novels about Irish emigration to Canada (as opposed to to America), and the delicate blend of fiction and family history that is Sanctuary Line.
THE IRISH in America is a familiar subject in fiction. Or is it? Many wonderful novels, from Alice McDermott’sCharming Billy through to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin have explored the immigrant experience in the US. The stories of Irish families who settled in Canada, however, are still largely untold.
One such family is at the centre of Jane Urquhart’s new novel, Sanctuary Line. The book is narrated by an entomologist who has returned to Lake Erie to study the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly. Wandering through the now-deserted farmhouse where she spent her childhood summers, she finds herself thinking about the family she took for granted.
Foremost in Liz Crane’s thoughts is her cousin Amanda, a military strategist who has recently been killed in Afghanistan. Then there’s Amanda’s father, the charismatic “character” whose vivid presence holds the family together. Further back in time are the shadowy folk Liz refers to as the “great greats” – the Butler ancestors who carved the family farm out of an unforgiving landscape, and other Butlers who fled from the tyranny of tending the land and ran away to sea to become lighthouse keepers.
Emigrate to the Irish Times for the full article
Jane has also been interviewed for RTE’s premier arts show, Arena, and on TV3; click here to listen and watch, respectively.
So it is February, and that means that Daša Drndić’s Trieste, a startling marriage of fiction and cold fact, is now to be found in discerning British bookshops. The first Serbo-Croat masterpiece of the twenty-first century, it has been or will be translated into French, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Slovenian for publication by some of Europe’s most prestigious houses and editors.
A challenging work to summarise, Drndić’s novel — which in most countries will be published as some variant of “Summertime” — shines a sombre light on the little known existence of the only Nazi concentration camp to be established on Italian soil, in a suburb of the great cultural city of Trieste. A literary collage of poetry, interviews, testimonies, biography, photographs and rosters of the dead and their murderers, it reveals through the fictional character of Haya Tedeschi — a woman whose only child was abducted and adopted by the S.S. — the horrifying lengths the Nazis were prepared to go to to selectively breed and indoctinate a racially pure army of fanatically loyal soldiers.
Translator Daniel Hahn reviewed the novel in the Independent on Sunday, and it is to his words we will now turn . . .
Haya Tedeschi, a retired maths teacher, sits in her rocking chair, a red basket at her feet.
The scraps it contains – letters, photographs, cuttings – tell her story and the story of her time, eight turbulent decades in the heart of Europe, a place that shimmers with history.
Haya was born in Gorizia (also variously Görz, Gorica, Gurize), though her family also spend time in Venice, Albania, Naples, Milan and Trieste. All around, wars are fought, borders and territories contested. Her own little story never holds the focus for long, budding and sprouting into others – here a sketch of Francesco Illy, there the horrors of San Sabba and Treblinka, gas chambers and euthanasia programmes, or the life of a dissenting Italian mathematician.
Each part is fleeting. We rarely linger long enough to experience a moment or to savour it, but with this lack of depth comes the simultaneous impression of a vast, sometimes overwhelming richness.
Read the full review.