Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

On The Remainder, equality, and throwing out the rulebook: an interview with Sophie Hughes

I’m delighted today to bring you an interview with Sophie Hughes. Sophie is the translator of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, which was published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. Sophie has also translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and six English PEN translate awards, and is a translator I greatly admire: the MBI shortlisting is testament not only to an excellent novel by Alia Trabucco Zerán and to the positive changes that And Other Stories have set in motion with their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, but also to Sophie’s great passion for and investment in her translations, and to the immense skill with which she carries them out.

Sophie Hughes, Man Booker International shortlisted translator of The Remainder (Alia Trabucco Zerán, And Other Stories 2018)

Helen Vassallo: How did you first come across The Remainder? Did you pitch for it, or was it offered to you?

Sophie Hughes: The writer and my friend Carlos Fonseca wrote to me saying he thought I’d like his friend’s debut novel. He knew I was translating a cult Mexican novella called El apando (The Hole, by José Revueltas, published by New Directions and co-translated with Amanda Hopkinson), which has a strangely hypnotic but relentless prose style. The first page of that novella unfolds in a single sentence; one half of The Remainder is written as a single sentence… Carlos clearly thought I hadn’t set myself enough of a challenge! So I was just lucky enough to read the book early. I then applied for a PEN/Heim Translation Grant and got it, and that paid for me to work on translating the whole novel. In the meantime, Alia got a world-class agent, and I think Stefan at And Other Stories read a sample on PEN’s dedicated webpage for the PEN/Heim grant. He was bowled over by Alia, as I had been, and asked me to do the translation. I actually pushed back my maternity leave to finish it, which is mad, of course, but love is mad, and I loved the book.

HV: What was it about The Remainder that you found particularly engaging, and that you think readers and the MBI judging panel have enjoyed in it?

SH: It’s impossible to say why the judges or other readers enjoyed it – I’m just pleased they did. I fell for Felipe, one of the novel’s three young characters living in the shadow of the Chilean dictatorship and who take a madcap road trip in a hearse to retrieve the body of one of their ex-militant mothers. Felipe is a rambler, a serial overthinker, an accidental virtuoso spewing his past and present out in one long sentence – it’s not always easy to read, actually, and can feel quite exhausting with all the constant digressions, but it was fun to translate! It meant I could throw out the grammar rulebook and just listen and try to improvise consonant cadences in the English (we look for close approximations all the time as literary translators, but more obviously so with semantics: jokes and sayings, etc.). More so than with other books I’ve translated, this was an exercise in close listening: translation as an infinite canon. One annoying detail when translating the book was the Spanish noun “el muerto” – “the dead man/person” – which comes up all the time. In the plural it’s easy – if inescapably Joycean – “the dead”, but “the dead man” is a clunky old phrase that didn’t work in lots of instances. I had to come up with some snappy alternatives and use them sparingly. ‘Stiff’ is a good word, but you can have too much of a good thing.

HV: You obviously have a very special connection with Alia. Do you work closely with all your authors?

SH: I’ve said it before, but it is true that to know Alia is to love her – she is humble and has a healthy irreverence for the literary world, yet is also incredibly gracious, generous of spirit, and infectiously passionate about reading and literature. She thinks and cares deeply about humankind, about histories and stories (historias – it’s the same word in Spanish), about what is right and good, and why we behave in ways that are neither right nor good. She’s funny but never flippant, and this comes across in La resta (and I hope in The Remainder). I love it when there is understanding between me and the authors I’m translating. I am from the school of: an author’s input can improve a translation. It’s not detrimental to the translation if you can’t rely on it, of course, but I always suss this out early and if they want to be involved in the translation process, I welcome it. In truth, I suppose I feel like some of the responsibility becomes shared. There is always some guesswork involved in translation because good literature necessarily contains ambiguities. When you read a novel, you read it with all of your history weighing on your interpretation, but this doesn’t really matter. When you translate, it does matter, because you will share that interpretation with others. Actors put on accents and so must we. To spend time talking with the author is one way I shed my accent and get closer to theirs. All this being said, some authors really just want to leave it to you (this will sound terrible, but I definitely would if I were an author), and in such cases I merely send a list of questions and never bother them again. So I’m lucky that I now count Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún and Alia among my best friends. Close reading is as beautiful a basis for a friendship as I can imagine.

HV: It seems that women’s voices from Latin America are being heard much more in English than before. Do you think there are specific reasons for this?

SH: Women’s voices in many fields and in many languages and places are being heard louder. This probably explains the phenomenon you describe. But let’s not beat around the bush: it is thanks to the concerted efforts of women that women are being heard. And the problem has not gone away, of course. Many have pointed out the blatant gender-ghettoization in the literary world, and I don’t have the answer for how to create gender parity without playing the numbers game, without employing positive discrimination: separate women writer lists, prizes, panels, blogs and projects and so on. But I do think that, in some cases, somewhere along the way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own” has been taken detrimentally literally.

Looking back, the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced some magnificent authors to the world, but its gender imbalance was scandalous. A scandal symptomatic of the times, yes, but scandalous nonetheless: women writers in Latin America were – and to some degree still are – the collateral damage of the deafening acclaim received by its entirely male cast. What is the opposite of boom? I can’t think what that might be. Does such a concept exist? If not, that might tell us what we need to know about how women writers from Latin America have been received, internally and internationally. Today, it’s unlikely that an analogous movement wouldn’t include women writers. But gender equality to me doesn’t mean always finding an equal number of women and men to read, review, publish, laud. It is about calling out injustices in order to slowly forge new taboos: for example, the taboo of talking over or speaking for women.

A truly wonderful thing about literature is that it’s never too late to redress the imbalance: tomorrow you could go to the library and search out, or chance upon, your favourite new author from Latin America. She might be a she. Many of us rely too heavily on the internet when public libraries represent such wonderfully democratic (cookie-free) search engines. What I mean is that every writer has their time to be read. All of those silenced voices are still out there, waiting to be read. It is still perfectly within our power to do those writers the service of reading them.

There’s one last point I’d like to make with regards to the deep-seated misogyny and the physical and emotional abuses committed by too many men in the Latin American literary industry. The problem is endemic (although by no means unique to Latin America) and it has a deep impact on who gets published, publicised and read, but also on what women write, and which women write. When I lived in Latin America I was unlucky enough to see a GIF going around of an adult film star being penetrated from behind by a man, and an accompanying line referring to a contemporary woman writer and an editor, insinuating, of course, that she owed her publishing successes to offering sexual favours to influential men. I’m sorry if that’s graphic. I was sorry I had to see it. But now I’m not. A reader created that GIF for a very niche audience. Not some bored teenager trolling the girl he fancies at school. A reader of “high literature”. I use the grim GIF tale to remind me what women face whenever they sit at their desks to write: the blank page is the least of it; it’s when their page is full that the battle begins. Perhaps it is our duty to do those writers the service of reading them. Relatedly, my colleagues and I have experienced unwanted and uninvited advances from male writers who seem to have trouble distinguishing our job as translators (to read them closer than anyone else) with another kind of intimacy. This rather makes you not want to be good at your job. To shrink into yourself. To evaporate on the page. To fall silent. There you go: the opposite of ‘boom’.

HV: And finally, the nature of publishing is that what we’re reading now is something that you worked on some time ago. What are you currently working on, or excited about?

SH: I’m currently translating a novel by Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, Fitzcarraldo, UK| New Directions, US, 2020). It’s a masterpiece. I have night sweats from the responsibility of translating this novel.

And I’m co-translating, with Juana Adcock, Giuseppe Caputo’s debut novel Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World, Charco Press, UK) which manages to be many things as once: a love letter between a father and son, a seething yet humourous portrait of lives lived in poverty, and a refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) honest reflection on the body as a space of pleasure and violence.

Read ‘A Bitter Pill’, Sophie’s translation of a short story by Alia Trabucco Zerán, in the April 2019 issue of Words Without Borders.

Sophie and Alia talk about their Man Booker International shortlisting on the Man Booker website.

The Remainder is published in the UK by And Other Stories, and will be released in the US by Coffee House Press in August 2019.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.

A dysfunctional Chinese dynasty: Yan Ge, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan

Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (Balestier Press, 2018)

This is the first of a double feature on the Translating Women blog: today I’m reviewing The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, published by Balestier Press, and next week I’ll be bringing you an exclusive interview between author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman.

Image from balestier.com

Set in a provincial village in China, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is the tale of a family empire with the formidable Madame May at its head. As May’s 80th birthday approaches, her middle-aged children gather to prepare an unforgettable celebration, but find themselves caught up in old rivalries and new problems of the heart.

Meet Dad, the unlikely anti-hero of the story, and heir apparent to the family business, the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. He has been working there since he was a teenager, initiated in the ways of stirring vats of fragrant bean paste by the grouchy shifu Chen. Dad’s older brother went off to university and never returned to the village, making a living now as an academic. His sister married a rather useless man, and Dad himself made a happy enough marriage, but that is not enough to keep him from having affairs because, after all, “a man always needed girls to screw.” When we meet Dad, he is embroiled with an artful young mistress named Jasmine. He has installed Jasmine in an apartment just above Gran’s (Gran is the aforementioned matriarch, Madame May, a woman “no one in this family has ever got the better of”), and you can imagine the misadventures that ensue with Dad’s much-feared and revered mother living on one floor and his pert-bottomed mistress just above.

Dad is an unremitting misogynist, for whom women are shrews, vixens, or turtledoves, whereas men – oh, heroic, misunderstood men! – are like the mighty Yangtse River. They are maligned and vilified, their urgent sexual needs not understood, their contribution to society absolute. His character is perhaps best summed up in this section, which combines both his sexual indiscretions and his world view:

“Dad gave her a couple of savage thrusts. He felt extremely aggrieved. It was hard just being human, let alone being a man. It was ever thus. He was one of the workhorses of this life, always needing to do the hard graft. He was fated to be the doormat, working himself to the bone to satisfy his mistress, and so give his old mother a good night’s sleep. Saints and sages were always lonely and misunderstood, always put upon, always working.”

Poor fellow.

And things only get worse for Dad when his lives and lies start to close in on one another after he faints mid-passion in Jasmine’s apartment. An inclination towards both sexual and gastronomical excess is taking its toll on his heart, and he ends up centre stage in a hospital bed, with the women in his life tending to him. Even though both his wife and his mistress are catering to his every need, he is still overcome with self-pity; he’s an unlikeable character alright, but one of this novel’s great achievements is to make you want to know what happens to him even though he is so repellent that you surely wouldn’t have minded too dearly if the heart attack he had in the throes of his passion with Jasmine had been fatal.

The main characters are all brilliantly developed: the brother who left the family and the village behind and is Dad’s main source of resentment has private sorrows of his own, and the moment when the two men realise that all their life they thought the other had everything while they were hard-done-by in comparison is achingly beautiful. At the centre of this revelation – though not present for it – is Gran, who loved her children by trying to make them respectable according to what she perceived as their own particular talents. So blinded by her own experience of being looked down on, she put the family reputation before the happiness of her children, thinking the latter would follow from the former. Gran’s misjudgement is heartbreaking not only because of the wasted years of her children, but also because of the sacrifice we learn she made herself in order to “keep up appearances”.

If the main character is Dad, and his mother is Gran, then you might wonder with good reason who the narrator, Xingxing, is, for she is never present at any of the scenes that she narrates. In fact, we learn very little about Xingxing apart from one vital revelation: she spends the entire period of the narrative in a psychiatric asylum. I was expecting there to be some explanation for how she came to be there, and for her character to be developed alongside the others, but there is no such disclosure. At first I was a little taken aback by this, and then realised that this is part of the originality of the novel: we think all the family secrets are being revealed to us, but they are not. If you should wonder how Xingxing manages to know so much about the family affairs and events that happened in her absence or before her birth, she tells us subtly yet repeatedly: comments such as “That son-of-a-bitch Zhong broke down. Tears poured down his face, Dad told me”, “Later she told me: ‘But this time he’d gone too far. It was a matter of principle’”, and “That may have been Dad’s view, but Mum had another take on it” reveal how Xingxing came to know so much, and at times she even deliberately reports on the extensive investigation she undertook to compile the family history: “To properly get to the bottom of all this, I needed to ask every one of the people involved, without missing anyone out.”

The relationships are what this book is built on: the squabbles between the middle-aged siblings, the rampant misogyny of Dad and his gang of boozing buddies, and the tensions between spouses and lovers are superb, with the dialogues being particularly well translated. Indeed, the colourful language in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of the things that makes it so distinctive and so enjoyable. Harman conveys some of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Chinese (when Dad’s driver curses pedestrians, we are told that he “stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors”), as well as allowing some of its proverbs and sayings to come through in the English (I especially liked “you can’t fill a belly without belching”).

In amongst the comings and goings of the clan, we find comments on both history and modernity: Dad reflects on the overcrowded town that “everyone had more cash to spend and nothing to spend it on. They lived in this piddling little town, where walking from East Street to West Street only took fifteen minutes, yet every family insisted on getting a car, then spent their time weaving in and out of traffic jams in the clogged-up streets,” and Madame May opines that “The younger generation really had no idea how devastating it had been, decades ago, when she took her old father’s arm and led him out of the gates.” This is a family saga rooted in its place and time, and if the narrator is distanced from it all, then perhaps this reflects Yan’s own need, described in the foreword, to “move to the other side of the world to write about my hometown.”

This is a rollicking, engaging saga of a story: I enjoyed it from cover to cover, and I thoroughly recommend it. Come back next week to find out how Madame May and the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste factory got their names, why The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was born out of Yan Ge’s anger, and how Nicky Harman translated a rhyming couplet imbued with classical allusions that reveals the biggest of all the family secrets to the reader, but not to the characters. You won’t want to miss this one!

Review copy of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan provided by Balestier Press

 

 

A Feminist Fairytale? Anne Serre, The Governesses

Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The Governesses launches the 2019 catalogue of Les Fugitives, and is the first of six exciting-looking titles they’ll be releasing this year. In this short novella, Anne Serre turns traditional fairytales on their head: we have young women trapped in a remote rambling house, a possible curse and an almost certain metamorphosis, but nothing is ever quite what you might expect. The Governesses may be told in the manner of a pseudo-classic French fairytale, but don’t be lulled by this: it is a carnal, sensuous, ravenous tale of desire and observation.

Image from lesfugitives.com

The eponymous governesses are three ethereally beautiful young women: Eléonore, Laura and Inés, and they arrive at the sprawling country home of Monsieur and Madame Austeur, ostensibly to look after the Austeur children but really to invigorate the sedate surroundings: their arrival is described as “life itself advancing.” They bring a uniquely female energy to the Austeur home, a sensuality hidden beneath their ornately buttoned dresses and paraded in the grounds of the house (but never beyond its iron gates). Though Monsieur and Madame Austeur have only four children, a flock of young boys follows the governesses everywhere, enthralled by them, occasionally entertained by them and, in the case of the older boys, encountering new feelings of lust because of them.

The narrator is, it must be said, rather coy. We are invited to view the governesses, to spy on them, to pity them, and to pursue them as they escape from view; the narrator toys with us, telling us that “it’s obvious there’s a secret in their past”, but never revealing what this might be. Drawn into this world where nothing is quite what it seems, the governesses seem demure and vapid at first glance, but don’t be fooled: they are voracious sexual predators, hunting and devouring their prey. There are several references to their teeth, which are “gleaming” and “wet”, dripping at the thought of sinking into flesh. They hunt ruthlessly, capturing their prey in a net that may be either real or metaphorical, trussing him up, bleeding him dry, and using him for their own pleasure alone. So far, so subversive:

“They loved watching a stranger arrive. There were times, in fact, when they liked that more than anything, for as long as he advanced, ignorant yet dimly aware of a summons that was never clearly formulated as such, they were all-powerful. Once he had been bound hand and foot and consumed, on the other hand, they turned back into three poor little governesses.”

The governesses are siren-like in their allure, pitiless towards their prey but, crucially, once the prey has been devoured, they turn back into the form we first meet them in, “three poor little governesses.” Some kind of metamorphosis is at play, and will come full circle at the end of the narrative; for now, the governesses leap naked through the grounds in search of men to conquer, tearing their skin on branches and grasses. They are often described as a single being, and they take on – or partially take on – various forms: they bound across the road like young deer, their skirts rise around them like wings, and at other points they are described as alien, a coven of witches, and the Three Graces. They are vampiric, and they are also creatures of the moon, but at other times they are three flesh-and-blood women who reject their archetypal role: “They had heard about love, they had heard about men and the power they wielded. It filled them with dread.”

Traditional curses are disrupted, as it is not true love that will set them free, but the pretence of true love that will allow them to dodge the spell:

“Oh, if only they could leave! Run off with this man who has happened along, using him to pass through the gates and loving him because he can take them to a place where their bonds will be ever so gently loosed at last. So that, one day, each of them will be able to live and speak in her own name, be alone in the world and free of the others at last.”

So not only are they trapped, but they are trapped together, in a spell reminiscent of punishment (is it too much to suggest even reminiscent of Sartre and his famous “Hell is other people”?) Redemption would not be through love, but through living freely without being dependent on anyone else. Yet the governesses are not powerful enough to escape the curse or spell that binds them to the house and to one another, and condemns them to be dependent on the gaze of others: the elderly gentleman across the way spies on them with his telescope, and his voyeurism makes them feel cherished, “no longer alone in the world”. They revel in his gaze, sometimes performing seductive dances for him and flashing their skin at him when the fancy takes them, and other times sticking out their tongues at him and reminding him that they decide how much he gets to see and when. Still they are not free of their own narrative: their greatest curse is not that they are trapped, but that if they are not observed, they cease to exist (remember this as you close the book at the end).

The translation by Mark Hutchinson seems to capture the spirit of the governesses, these spellbound, spellbinding beings who defy all expectations: Cécile Menon, publishing director at Les Fugitives, told me that Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together, and it shows. There were only a few details (mainly syntactical) that I stumbled over; overall this was a seamless, sumptuous read. Serre’s book, like the eponymous governesses, may seem prim and archetypal at first glance, but is surprising and bewitching beneath the exterior. It is a hymn to voluptuous pleasure, a retelling of classic tales that foregrounds female sexual desire, an enchantment of the senses. If you like dark, decadent narratives, then it’s well worth losing yourself in The Governesses for an hour or two.

The Governesses will be released in the UK on 2nd April; you can pre-order your copy here. Available in the US from New Directions.

Review copy provided by Les Fugitives.

The Man Booker International 2019 longlist: picks, celebrations, and regrets

The picks

Last week saw the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and with it a remarkable and welcome surge of women in translation: more than half of the thirteen books selected this year are by women writers. The two books I was particularly delighted to see on the longlist were Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a funny, subversive and insightful pseudo-noir murder mystery translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions (full review here), and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, a glorious tumult of historical memory, friendship, guilt, families and death, with raining ash and a lot of pisco, translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories (short review here, a more in-depth one to follow). Drive Your Plow and The Remainder are very different narratives, with distinct preoccupations: an elderly woman struggles to be taken seriously in rural Poland in Drive Your Plow, and three young Chileans weighed down by a past they can never experience go on the road trip of a lifetime in The Remainder. But these two books also have plenty in common: they are both brave, distinctive, brilliantly translated, and a window onto the culture they represent.

The celebrations

As you can imagine, I find it immensely heartening to see a clear move away from the some of the biases that have traditionally prevailed in literary prizes: in an article for In Other Words, Daniel Hahn wrote of the 2017 Man Booker International prize that the longlist reflected “a significant gender imbalance (as we see every year), and a significant bias towards European writers and European languages (as we see every year, too).” Hahn goes on to note that these imbalances were indicative of the overall submissions pool, and so this leads me to wonder whether the tipping away from gender bias and eurocentrism on the 2019 longlist might also reflect moves in this direction more generally. Nine languages and twelve countries are represented in the thirteen books, and here’s where they’re coming from:

Europe is not quite as dominant as in previous years, which suggests the beginnings of a shift towards greater diversity and globalisation. As for languages, Spanish is best represented with three of the thirteen books:

All of the books translated from Spanish are from Latin America rather than peninsular Spain, which also partly accounts for the more diverse geographical spread. Arabic and French tie for second place, and of the remaining six, two are Asian and four European.

It’s not only women writers who make up the majority of this list: independent publishers are the big winners, with eleven of the thirteen entries. The year when gendered and eurocentric biases are less evident is the same year that independent publishers dominate the longlist, suggesting a direct correlation between the activism of smaller presses and increased parity in the translated literature market. As MBI judge Maureen Freely noted in an article in The Guardian, “the really good independents have become the cultural talent scouts”, and The Remainder and Drive Your Plow are stellar examples of this: The Remainder is a debut novel published by And Other Stories as part of their commitment to the Year of Publishing Women, and Tokarczuk was discovered by Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions because of his determination to seek out a Polish author as a response to the backlash against the Polish community in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

The regrets…

Though there is much to celebrate, I can’t offer a reaction without mentioning the books I wish had been on the longlist. I am fully aware that I have not read all thirteen longlisted books, and that my opinions are necessarily inflected with my own subjectivities, but for what it’s worth, I am baffled that these two did not feature on the longlist:

Disoriental (Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover for Europa Editions): this is not just one of the best books I’ve read for this project, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, Disoriental is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe. It’s ambitious, witty, wrenching, and the translation by Tina Kover is exquisite.

Resistance (Julián Fuks, translated by Daniel Hahn for Charco Press): another story of exile and an intensely poetic imbrication of the personal and the historical. Resistance is a haunting account of Fuks’s troubled relationship with his adopted brother, and the consequences of displacement. The writing is taut, subtle, and lyrical, and Hahn’s translation is flawless.

The shortlist?

I fervently hope that both Drive Your Plow and The Remainder will make it onto the shortlist. Last year’s winner and a debut author, two fantastic books and two impeccable translations. I’ll leave you with a favourite quotation from each:

“Can it really be true? Is this nightmare really happening? This mass killing, cruel, impassive, automatic, without any pangs of conscience, without the slightest pause for thought, though plenty of thought is applied to ingenious philosophies and theologies. What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm? What on earth is wrong with us?”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

“the heat intensifies and I push it away and the ash is falling and I push it away and the memories come flooding back and I push them away too, and I think that I could just let go, let it all out and then leave, but no, I don’t, cos if I did that I’d get lost and I’ve already got enough missing people on my hands; I’m never going missing, never ever.”
The Remainder

Further reading:

Tony offers the Man Booker International shadow panel’s official response to the longlist

Michael at Translated Lit does a roundup of the longlist

Jess and Will at Books and Bao choose their favourites, with links to reviews of several of the longlisted books

My full reviews of two other longlisted books:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld Books, 2019)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.

 

Historical horror, supernatural stories, and a gentle gem: three books reviewed

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, tr. Megan McDowell (Portobello Books)
Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books)

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

I started the year’s reading with a book I felt sure would be a safe bet, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books). I’d greatly enjoyed Erpenbeck’s two other books in translation, the magnificent The End of Days and Go Went Gone, and so completing the Erpenbeck/Bernofsky/Portobello trilogy seemed like a good way to get my 2019 reading off to a stellar start.

And yet… I was disappointed. I simply didn’t connect with the story or the characters in Visitation. There are many themes in Visitation that are echoed in The End of Days – most notably, the progression of German history through the 20th century – but whereas in The End of Days this is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Visitation is as beautifully written and consummately translated as The End of Days and Go Went Gone, with many instances of Erpenbeck’s brutally poetic minimalism, such as in this extract: “Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized…” The house with its specially designed walk-in closet is also suitably spooky, and there are some understated one-liners brimming with personal and historical tragedy (“then she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot”) and lyrical comments on 20th-century German history (“even this dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things.”) So it’s not that I disliked Visitation, but it didn’t engage me in the way that The End of Days and Go Went Gone did. I found it hard to maintain interest in (and thus enthusiasm for) the story/stories, and the house itself failed to move me. It’s always worth reading Erpenbeck, so I wouldn’t advise against reading Visitation, but I did feel that it had almost been a practice run for the utter brilliance of The End of Days.

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Portobello Books, 2017)

Two things that don’t normally appeal to me are horror stories and the supernatural, so Things We Lost in the Fire (a collection of supernatural horror stories) wasn’t an obvious choice for me. Yet it has received consistently excellent reviews, and with good reason: Mariana Enriquez writes characters and situations that are universally recognisable, and twists them deftly yet mercilessly into your worst nightmares. You’ll know from my reviews of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds how much I admire Megan McDowell’s translations, and her translation of Enriquez’s short stories is perfectly controlled and dark, showcasing her own admiration for “writers who can combine the transgressive joy of horror with literary depth and original style”.

Things We Lost in the Fire is about as perfect an example of the art of short story writing as I’ve seen. Each story is exquisitely crafted: the details are full while being minimal, the characterisation impeccable, and the descriptive sections vivid yet concise. I’m going to focus on the two stories that I enjoyed the most: the first was ‘Under the Black Water’, with its themes of environmental pollution, deformed children, and the monsters we unleash on the world. A female district attorney known for her integrity is following up leads on a slum murder case when the victims seem to rise from the dead – indeed, from the depths – and we are invited not only to see a grotesque reality we might prefer to ignore, but question our own complicity in this reality for the fact of having ignored it. If this doesn’t reel you in, perhaps a quotation will: “She had no time to react; the priest was drunk, but his movement when he grabbed her gun was surprisingly fast and precise. She couldn’t even fight back, nor did she see that the deformed child had turned around and started screaming mutely. His mouth was open and he screamed without a sound.” You’ll have to read it to find out what fate awaits the priest, the DA, and the child.

The other story that really stood out for me was the title story, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, in which women protest against their life of silence and suffering by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation spreads as if by contagion, women burning themselves to confront male violence and a society that tells them how they should be. But this is not necessarily presented as a positive thing: while one burned woman describes it as “a new kind of beauty”, the pain – and deaths – resulting from this macabre struggle for control and agency are also detailed. And when the “bonfires” become commonplace, society simply accepts the shift, the protagonist’s mother so chillingly committed to the cause that she would offer her daughter up in sacrifice. Nothing is straightforward or black and white in Enriquez’s stories, and that’s why, though I wouldn’t have expected to be championing a collection of horror stories, I found Things we Lost in the Fire to be excellent.

Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books, forthcoming 2019)

And now for something completely different… my Twitter friend, Rónán Hession, is releasing his debut novel this month with independent publisher Bluemoose Books, and I had the joy of reading an advance copy of this anthem to gentleness and quiet humour. I first encountered Rónán during Women in Translation month last August, when we both read and loved Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe for Charco Press, and reviewed here), and we’ve exchanged many comments about our women in translation reading ever since. I was slightly nervous about reading his own work (if I wasn’t crazy about it, wouldn’t it be terribly awkward?) but I didn’t have to deal with that, because it is a SUPERB debut. Through his two main characters (the eponymous Leonard and Hungry Paul), Hession finds pathos in the everyday, turning the humdrum into something magical.

We meet socially awkward Leonard just after his mother’s death, at a time when the family of his best friend (Hungry Paul) is preparing for the wedding of Hungry Paul’s older sister, Grace. Hession combines instances of the unsaid (we never find out why Hungry Paul got his nickname, and he may or may not be autistic, but the word is never used) with others of great detail (I never thought accounts of board game marathons could be so compelling, and just wait for the moment when an irate Hungry Paul takes a past-its-use-by-date tin of Roses chocolates back to the supermarket), and writes every page with immense warmth; to read Leonard and Hungry Paul is to live a while in their world. I love that Rónán was unafraid to write a book where nothing “happens” as such – because life is happening on every page, and this is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a long time. Its gentle tone harbours some profound insights (“It may well be that if you truly want to open a heart, you need to break it open”; “We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere”), and by the end I had tears streaming down my face. I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters, I cared about them: I wanted to tell Hungry Paul that the “strange pocket-within-a-pocket that denim jeans have” is called a coin pocket (this knowledge would have saved him from a great childhood humiliation) and hug Grace when she realised that “it was possible to make someone feel so loved at the very moment you are letting them go.” Gentleness and kindness are under-rated qualities, and they abound in Leonard and Hungry Paul: the characters may be fictional, but a real person wrote them, and that makes me feel just that bit better about the world.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’ll be back on Friday for a special International Women’s Day post!

The Susanna Roth Competition, Czech–English Translation and Bianca Bellová’s ‘The Lake’

I’m delighted to welcome a new guest contributor to the blog: Julia Sutton-Mattocks won the 2017 Susanna Roth Translation Competition for her translation of Bianca Bellová’s The Lake, and is writing today about her experience.

Find out more about Julia on our Guest Contributors page.

One of my translation students recently told me that she always saved her translation homework for the end of the week. It would be a treat, she said; something to look forward to when all of the other tasks were done. It amused me, because it was what I had always done too. What’s odd is that, as an undergrad, I never really considered translation except as a language exercise. I’m a grammar geek type of linguist and translation presented a gloriously creative form of grammar puzzle. I loved it, but for some reason it never crossed my mind to take it further.

Fast-forward several years to January 2017, when a Twitter post from Czech Centre London caught my eye. They were inviting submissions for the Czech–English round of their annual Susanna Roth Translation Competition, which they run jointly with the Czech Literary Centre in a number of different countries. The competition aims to encourage a new generation of translators to enter the world of Czech literary translation and is named in honour of the Swiss translator Susanna Roth (1950–1997), who translated the work of some of Czech literature’s best-known names into German. The announcement reached me at an auspicious moment; I was part-way through the second year of my PhD and had recently made a New Year’s resolution to make the most of my PhD years by not focusing exclusively on my thesis (apologies to my supervisors, should they be reading). I decided to give it a shot.

The competition’s focus is on contemporary Czech prose, even the leading lights of which often have to fight quite hard to get translated into other languages. 2017’s chosen text was the opening of Bianca Bellová’s Jezero (The Lake) (Host, 2016). Bellová (b.1970), a Prague-born writer with Bulgarian roots, is a big name in contemporary Czech prose. The Lake, her fourth novel, won the Czech Republic’s prestigious Magnesia Litera Book of the Year award in 2017 and was also one of the 2017 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature. It is a Bildungsroman and was inspired by the drying up of the Aral Sea, but its setting is completely fictional. Certain of the details identify the location as Central Asian, the presence of Russian soldiers indicates a Soviet context, and the sense of change and rupture that permeates the novel suggests that it is set in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Yet there’s nothing to enable the reader to define a precise geographical or historical setting, which makes it a novel of unknowns, disorientating and yet universal.

The novel opens in the tiny fishing village of Boros on the shores of a rapidly disappearing lake. There a little boy called Nami goes to school, builds treehouses, fears the Spirit of the Lake, pretends to shoot down planes and wonders who his parents are. He has a vague memory of his mother, but has grown up with his grandparents, who avoid all of his questions. Nami later escapes Boros for the city on the other side of the lake, where he meets a cast of beautifully drawn characters: a rough diamond construction worker, Gleb Nikitich; a money-crazed drug dealer, Johnny; the Old Lady (an aristocratic former lover of the deposed autocratic Statesman); and a grumpy escaped monkey named Majmun. Over the course of the novel, Nami’s path is set with tasks to overcome and relationships to build. Only once he has built up his physical and moral strength, and learnt to cope with both love and loss, can he complete his journey to self-discovery.

The extract was a joy to translate; full of colloquial language, juicy grammar problems, odd changes of tense and a lot of different types of food. Tense was a sticking point I encountered early on. Czech tends to use the historic present much more commonly than English, and this extract was no exception. Since I often struggle with the feel of the historic present in English, I initially started by putting everything into the past. Yet the immediacy of Bellová’s prose seemed to be lost as a result. I switched backwards and forwards several times before settling on retaining the present tense narration. Even then, there are short passages of past tense narration in the original, which I eventually came to read as cinematic flashbacks within the main narrative, but which initially seemed specially placed just to throw me.

The various foodstuffs hurled a whole new translation issue into the mix. They provide a snapshot of the decisions I found myself needing to make. The characters in The Lake spend a lot of time eating, making or thinking about food; and they eat, make and think about food from a wide variety of different cuisines. How these were rendered in English would have an effect on the reader’s interpretation of the novel’s setting. The Czech ‘lívanec’ is a thick pancake, somewhat like a scotch pancake, an American pancake or a drop scone. The English ‘pancake’ to me is something more akin to a crêpe, so I didn’t feel I could leave it unqualified. Using the word ‘scone’ for a UK audience conjures up incongruous images of jam and cream; and using either ‘American’ or ‘scotch’ wouldn’t have worked for obvious reasons. In the end, I went with ‘bliny’ since, in English, we tend to think of ‘bliny’ as thick pancakes; and I justified the change on the basis that Russian influences already existed elsewhere in the text and that some would be lost in the translation process for other reasons (the immediate Soviet connotations of the Czech word ‘gazík’, for instance, are lost in my English ‘army jeep’).

Another foodstuff, the Czech ‘cibulový koláč’, I rendered as ‘onion pie’. I felt that retaining ‘koláč’ (or, perhaps, ‘kolach’) would have emphasised the text’s Czechness unnecessarily. However, as I discovered when I discussed The Lake at a translation festival in September 2017, this was certainly an imperfect solution, since everyone in the room had a different idea of what a pie looked like. Then there was ‘burek’. Nami’s grandmother and her neighbour spend a lot of time making burek and I spent an inordinate amount of time reading recipes for it so that I could understand how to translate the scene in question (one day, perhaps, I’ll put this knowledge to culinary use.) Burek (or börek) is a savoury pastry made across parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, so its presence in the text served to emphasise the novel’s Central Asian setting. While I consequently left ‘burek’ in the English, I translated ‘těsto’ (‘pastry’) as ‘filo pastry’ so that readers who didn’t know what burek was had a bit of a clue.

Like my student, I used the task as a treat: if I could do a really good day’s concentrated PhD work, I got an hour or so at the end of the day to translate. It was surprisingly motivating and I was more than a little sad when it was done and dusted. The email conveying the news that I’d won arrived in my inbox on a blisteringly hot May day in Seville. I’d just arrived for a three-day choir tour (welcome to my other life) and was absent-mindedly checking my email while waiting for the keys to my hostel room. The sense of euphoria was extraordinary. It only became more so when I found myself whisked off on the prizewinners’ trip to the Czech Republic in July, courtesy of the organisers, for a week-long whirlwind of seminars, presentations, sight-seeing trips (including to the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site of Český Krumlov) and a lot of hearty Czech food. The other eight winners (all women) came from Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan and South Korea, and it was fascinating to talk about the very different experiences we had all had in translating the same text into our own languages and to share our stories about learning Czech.

If, as I hope, I’ve intrigued you, you can download my English translation of the opening of The Lake here. If you want to read on, for the moment you’ll need to turn to the original Czech or to one of the five translations into other European languages that have been published in 2018 (see bottom of page for details). For more of a Bellová fix, or just to read more Czech literature in English translation in general, the latest issue of the quarterly online journal Apofenie is a good place to turn. Four times a year, Apofenie’s all-female editorial team curates a selection of contemporary artwork, poetry and prose from around the world in original English translations. Their latest issue, which focuses on Czech literature, includes my translation of Bellová’s short science fiction story ‘Závrať’ (‘Vertigo’, 2014), as well as translations of works by other leading lights of contemporary Czech prose, including the women authors Alena Mornštajnová, Jana Šrámková and Lucie Faulerová. For the really keen, even more information in English about contemporary Czech literature can be found at Czech Literature Online, a project financed by the Czech Ministry of Culture and managed by the Czech Literary Centre. Happy reading!

 

The Lake is now available in the following European languages (all 2018 publications):

Dutch: Het Meer, De Geus, trans. by Kees Mercks

French: Nami, Mirobole éditions, trans. by Christine Laferrière

German: Am See, Kein & Aber, trans. by Mirko Kraetsch

Italian: Il Lago, Miraggi, trans. by Laura Angeloni

Polish: Jezioro, Afera, trans. by Anna Radwan-Żbikowska

 

The 2019 round of the Susanna Roth Award is now open for submissions. To find out how to enter, visit this page.

Sharing an “extreme human experience”: Annie Ernaux, Happening

Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019

In this short, stark book, Annie Ernaux reconstructs her experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Ernaux makes frequent reference to both the act of writing and her sense of responsibility in sharing her story; specifically, she insists on the importance of articulating the reality of clandestine abortions, and the need to resist the complacency of remaining silent about past discriminations simply because they no longer happen. Ernaux demolishes such barriers of silencing and secrecy, putting into words her “extreme human experience” as both a chronicle of a brief period of her life in 1963 and a series of observations in parentheses which represent Ernaux’s reflections on living with the memory of the abortion that almost killed her, the process of writing about it, and how the narrative becomes a force of its own.

Image from fitzcarraldoeditions.com

This is the second book of Ernaux’s to be published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and though it might not have the immediate universal appeal of The Years, I believe it to be a necessary book. Happening is different from The Years in many ways, but a sense of collectivity connects the two: The Years is described as a “collective autobiography”, and while Happening details Ernaux’s intimate experience, it is written from a desire to dismantle a taboo that is both social and historical. Ernaux connects her story to a wider community, whether by elaborating on “an invisible chain of artists, women writers, literary heroines and figures from my childhood”, or by situating the timing of her own lived experience within one of the most universally recognisable collective griefs of the 20th century (“One week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas”). She acknowledges the women she cannot mention by name (LB, who helped her to get an abortion, and Madame P-R, the clandestine abortionist), as well as the doctor so terrified of the repercussions if he were to help her that he leaves her adrift, like so many women were, desperate enough to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, this is the most significant community that Ernaux evokes in her writing: that of the thousands of solitary, silenced women who knocked on the doors of strangers and “surrendered their insides” to them.

Tanya Leslie has translated many of Ernaux’s works into English, and conveys well the linguistic purity Ernaux is known for. I was unsure about the title: the omission of a definite article (the original title is L’événement, or “the event”) seems to lessen both its impact and its universality, and though it would be verging on impossible to convey all the French political implications of the term “événement” from the 1960s, the English title seems rather more sanitized. I couldn’t help but wonder what other possibilities were mooted and rejected; this reservation aside, I appreciated the starkness of the translation, and its unflinching representation of the more brutal sections. Take, for example, Ernaux’s decision to take the issue of the unwanted pregnancy into her own hands: “One Monday I came back from [my parents’] place with a pair of knitting needles which I had bought one summer with the intention of making myself a cardigan. Two long, shiny blue needles.”

It’s not all in the implication: the next paragraph details exactly how the needles were put to use, and soon after the failed home abortion we join Annie on a table in the midwife’s apartment. This section is the most challenging and the most necessary of the book, and I confess I read it with one hand over my mouth to stop me from crying out (I was reading this part in a public place): I thought I knew what a “back-street abortion” meant, but I was wrong. And not just about the event itself, but also its aftermath: in no scenario of my own imagination did a 3-month-old foetus burst forth in the shared bathroom of a university hall of residence and get carried along a corridor between clenched legs with the umbilical cord dangling uselessly from the woman’s ravaged body. I needed this challenge, I needed to know the reality of what women went through in a time when their bodies were controlled by law. The pain and mutilation, but also the judgement and the shame: no sooner has the foetus been unceremoniously flushed down the toilet than Ernaux begins to haemorrhage, and “sheer experience of life and death gave way to exposure and judgement.”

While such intimate accounts of personal experience may be dismissed by some as introspective or self-indulgent, I believe that Ernaux displays immense generosity and compassion in sharing her story. She herself recognises that she may be criticised for this, in the following parenthetical statement:

“(I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth. Moreover, if I failed to go through with this undertaking, I would be guilty of silencing the lives of women and condoning a world governed by the patriarchy.)”

Through the public articulation of her experience, Ernaux is fulfilling a sense of moral responsibility to challenge the patriarchy and to speak her “truth”, which is not lesser for being controversial. Indeed, she is convinced that “of one thing I am certain: these things happened to me so that I might recount them. Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing”, and this is where the universality of Happening lies: to take this trauma and to offer it up so that anonymous women are given a voice and a vindication through her experience results in a book that is truly exceptional. It’s not an easy read, but nor should it be. In this time of desensitization and indifference we need books like Happening, and while it is not one to “enjoy” as such, it is one that should be experienced.

Happening is due to be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 13 February 2019. It will be published in the US by Seven Stories Press on 23 April 2019.

Review copy provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.