Monthly Archives: February 2019

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.

Haunting and hypnotic short stories: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (OneWorld, forthcoming February 2019)

Acclaimed Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin returns with this eerie collection of short stories brimming with murdered wives, abandoned brides, abject bodies, lost children, and evil spirits. Schweblin has perfected the art of writing on the fine line between reality and nightmare: by the end of each story, the comfortably recognisable world which has initially been shown to us has shifted towards something altogether more terrifying.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

Schweblin first came to English-language readers’ attention with her novella Fever Dream, also translated by Megan McDowell and also published by OneWorld: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, and is currently in production to be turned into a Netflix series. I loved Fever Dream, and not because I like horror stories (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I couldn’t put it down once I’d started. Like Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds is hypnotically compelling: though each story is self-contained, I often found myself automatically carrying on to the next story even if I hadn’t planned to do so. The stories are well organised and form a coherent collection, broaching topics including environmental damage, ephemerality and mortality, private sorrows hidden behind projections of success or normality, infertility and mindless reproduction, the horrific things humans do because they are rejected for being different, and some wry observations about modern art and the patriarchy.

Schweblin’s talent is, for me, twofold: firstly, she is gifted at presenting a seemingly ordinary story, set in a tangible, recognisable world, and deftly slipping from the familiar to the unthinkable. Secondly, and this is possibly even more apparent in the short stories of Mouthful of Birds than in Fever Dream, she manages to combine complexity and concision in a quite remarkable way (consider, for example, this opening to the final story: “He returns to the room carrying a suitcase. Durable, lined in brown leather, it stands on four wheels and offers up its handle elegantly at knee level. He doesn’t regret his actions. He thinks that the stabbing of his wife had been fair, but he also knows that few people would understand his reasons.”) Megan McDowell does a superb job of translating Schweblin, gleefully communicating the sense of foreboding in the slightly-not-normal.

The collection opens with the magnificent “Headlights”, in which fields whispering with ghostly crowds turn out to be a bevy of jilted brides emerging from the darkness around the highway where the protagonist has been abandoned in her wedding dress after taking too long in the roadside facilities. I’m not going to spoil the ending here; I’ll just say it’s unexpected and brilliant. The title story, “Mouthful of Birds”, is an excellent example of how the familiar becomes suddenly threatening: a father, irritated by his ex-wife’s insistence that he take more of a responsibility for their daughter, goes to see her and finds her uncharacteristically serene and healthy. So far, so normal. But then a birdcage is unveiled, and the daughter gorges herself on its (living) occupant before turning round to bestow a bloody smile on her horrified father.

Many of the stories take place in liminal or desolate spaces: the highway, the countryside, an empty diner, a deserted railway station, on the way somewhere but never quite arriving, and these border places add to the sense of uncertainty. There are dead wives (one lying on the kitchen floor of a roadside restaurant, one stuffed ignominiously into a suitcase), lost children (an almond-sized foetus preserved for a future gestation, the sudden disappearance of a group of children obsessed with digging, a longed-for childlike being who is never seen, but seems to be a savage evil spirit), mild-mannered psychopaths and vengeful creatures, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Turning points abound; “They lost their children that night” is the laconic pivotal moment of a story told over a rural beer counter, and when a man fails a gruesome rite of passage, the simple phrase “you hesitated” seals his fate, the ensuing horror left to our imagination. There is a dreamlike quality to Schweblin’s work that contrasts well with her tightly-structured tales; an unknown that pushes us towards a conclusion that, once reached, seems as though it was always inevitable, and which (whether we want to or not) we finish for ourselves.

My mention of dreams and nightmares are not arbitrary: they are referenced in the collection both explicitly (when a man believes that he has killed his wife and keeps waking up in his doctor’s house, wondering whether he dreamed the sequence of events) and implicitly (another character is trapped in a remote train station because he does not have the exact fare to continue his journey, and ends up being subsumed into life in the railway station). If there is something unsettling about Mouthful of Birds it is surely because, though Schweblin’s work has been described as “Gothic” or “magic realism”, the real horror comes from situations much closer to reality than we might like to think. In a recent interview, Schweblin commented on this aspect of her work, saying: “I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.” The power of these stories lies in the way that they confront us with recognisable situations and turn them into a place we wish to avoid.

I suspect that Schweblin’s star will continue to rise, and if you’re not already familiar with her work, Mouthful of Birds is a good introduction. I do prefer Fever Dream – though this may be partly a question of genre, as short stories aren’t my favourite form – but If you’ve already read and enjoyed Fever Dream then you shouldn’t be disappointed. Addictive and imaginative,  Mouthful of Birds offers well-crafted stories of isolation and disintegration.

Review copy provided by Oneworld Publications.