Category Archives: Translating Women

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.

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.

Women in translation: the best of 2018

End-of-year compilations are abundant at the moment, and after an exciting year – generally, with the Year of Publishing Women, and personally, with the development of this blog – I want to round off the year with my top picks and recommendations of 2018. I’m going to start by sharing my four Books of the Year as revealed in the interview I did with Sophie Baggott for Wales Arts Review, then talk about four more books that I’ve loved in 2018, before looking ahead to some exciting things coming our way in 2019.

Part 1: My top four

In order of publication date (to avoid any other form of “ranking”), here are my four favourite picks of 2018.

First up is Soviet Milk, the story of three generations of Latvian women based on author Nora Ikstena’s own life, published by Peirene Press. I mentioned in my review of Soviet Milk that it intertwines with my family history, and it’s fair to say that I read much of Soviet Milk through misty eyes. But Soviet Milk is heart-wrenching whether or not you have a personal connection to the history, and is a fine example of how literature can reveal the immeasurable consequences that historical tragedy can have on the life of the individual. The mother, always “striving to turn out her life’s light”, cannot accept the impact of Soviet rule on her homeland, and in rebelling against it condemns her daughter to relative exile, unable to give her maternal affection. It is the daughter – Ikstena herself – who offers this devotion back to her mother in a poignant tribute to a woman whose despair consumed her ability to love. The translation by Margita Gailitis strikes a perfect balance that rages and laments without ever descending into melodrama.

Don’t fall over with shock, but my next choice is Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup. I know, I’ve raved about it (repeatedly), but with good reason! This is not only an excellent collection of stories and novellas, but also the kind of writing that carries you back and forth between desperate wincing and uncontrollable giggles. It offers a snapshot of what the author describes as a “Latin American universe”, but also has a universality in terms of female experience, unromantic realities, adolescent frustration and the weight of tradition that will have broad appeal (particularly when recounted with such caustic humour, beautifully replicated in Charlotte Coombe’s glorious translation). You might have read about my meeting with Margarita, and I have to say that discovering Charco Press, reading Fish Soup, and interviewing Margarita are right up there in my 2018 highlights. Fish Soup is utterly brilliant and uncompromisingly hilarious, and I recommend it unreservedly.

After starting the year in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, Olga Tokarczuk has become something of a household name for literature lovers. Although I enjoyed her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Jennifer Croft’s translation, it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that really stood out for me (you can read my full review here). Tackling issues of ageism, animal cruelty, environmental damage and individuality through the lens of a pseudo-noir murder mystery, this was an unexpected page-turner, offering plenty of insights into the human condition and several moments of sheer hilarity, all brought together in an immaculate translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (again for Fitzcarraldo). Drive Your Plow is a delight from beginning to end: it’s a tale of philosophy, astrology, fatality and retribution, all recounted by a unique, oddball and utterly brilliant narrator who will sweep you up into the banalities of her daily life and the enormities of the universe.

And finally, a book I have yet to review, though I have mentioned it in a previous post: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. If ever you should be disappointed that more publishers didn’t commit to the Year of Publishing Women, then just read this book and you’ll soon feel instead that a small take-up produced great things. The Remainder is a tumultuous riot of a road trip (in search of a dead body that’s gone missing in transit between Berlin and Santiago de Chile) that, in amongst a series of hilariously inappropriate events, tackles the serious issues of historical memory and the generational transmission of guilt. Three main characters struggle with the burden of their parents’ suffering, and bond over death, grief, and nicotine. Throw in a rickety hearse, winding mountain roads, and more than a few bottles of pisco, and it’s a literary treat. The translation by Sophie Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Part 2: another four brilliant books

There have been several other releases that I’ve greatly enjoyed this year. Since And Other Stories were publishing only women this year, the odds were high that I’d find a few I liked, and though The Remainder was the one I loved most, I have to mention two others that I’d highly recommend. Firstly, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, which experiments with genre and drifts between the microscopic detail of individual life and the immensity of polar expeditions, framing everything within an ice metaphor which might seem improbable but which Kopf pulls off deftly. Living with an autistic brother (“a man of ice”) and negotiating relationships in the modern world don’t seem like obvious counterfoils for discussions of polar explorations, but it works brilliantly. Brother in Ice started out as an exhibition, and it is a startlingly luminous multi-genre work of art. I found the translation overly literal in several places, and although this did not prevent me from enjoying Kopf’s daring, creative debut, I’d like to read her own translation into Spanish at some point.

My surprise end-of-year highlight was, undoubtedly, Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas. In a mid 21st-century dystopian Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. Maid Acilde inadvertently holds the key to future survival, but first must become a man (with the help of a sacred anemone) and travel in time to save her home. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, a social comment that never feels moralistic: it encompasses religion and voodoo, male and female, past and present (and future, while we’re at it), is a written text with oral qualities, beautifully constructed while seeming effortlessly spontaneous… put simply, it’s a psychedelic Caribbean genesis story with ecocriticism, voodoo and time travel thrown in – what’s not to love?!

Regular readers will also know how much I enjoyed the final release of the year from Tilted Axis Press, Hwang Jungeun’s I’ll Go On, beautifully and sensitively translated by Emily Yae Won. Two sisters and the boy next door take turns to narrate their childhood and adult life: they thrash out their relationships with each other, their mothers, and themselves, doomed to never truly understand one another yet committed to negotiating life together. In a world where notions of family are becoming more fluid, this quietly profound novel examines the bonds we choose, and those we cannot shake off, and offers reflections that transcend the context of the novel and become something akin to life mottos. One such favourite of mine is this: “The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known” – read the last lines of my full review to see another that you’ll want to shout out loud to everyone you meet.

I’m still sad that Granta Books is shuttering its Portobello imprint next year, but Portobello have certainly gone out on a high: the smash hit of the summer (and Foyles Book of the Year) was Convenience Store Woman, and if ever you should judge a book by its cover, this would be the one, because it’s a perfect reflection of its heroine: like misfit convenience store worker Keiko herself, the unremittingly cheerful exterior conceals a depth, nuance and everyday tragedy beneath the surface. Keiko is not like other people, but no matter how hard her family tries to “fix” her, she cannot be “cured” of her differences, acknowledging of her calling that “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual”. Convenience Store Woman challenges us not to assume that “normal” means “better”: Sayaka Murata writes a complex, loveable heroine who cannot understand the world, and in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation, Keiko endears herself to new audiences. Like Keiko, Convenience Store Woman is delightful, original, and impossible to put into a box.

Part 3: women in translation in 2019

Finally, instead of choosing another two books and making this a “top ten”, I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to for 2019.

And Other Stories will continue to bring us excellent women’s writing next year, with three women in translation titles, of which these two appeal to me greatly: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is “the account of a woman who has been trained for a life she cannot live”, and The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, represents a “fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era.”

Charco Press have a bumper year coming up, with new releases from Ariana Harwicz (whose Die, My Love was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize)  and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (if you’ve seen my virtual bookshelf, you’ll know that Slum Virgin is one of my “must-read” recommendations, so a new Cabezón Cámara translation is cause for much rejoicing here!) as well as a “Proustian love story” by Brenda Lozano, and debut novels by Selva Almada and Andrea Jeftanovic.

Peirene Press are publishing only women authors in 2019 in a series called “There Be Monsters”.

As well as the much-anticipated release of their Translating Feminisms chapbooks, Tilted Axis will be kicking off 2019 with Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting catalogue for 2019, with six new releases scheduled.

To conclude my year’s musings, I want to end with this beautiful reflection from an earlier Les Fugitives publication, Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated with great warmth by Ros Schwartz:

“In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

Thank you for reading with me in 2018; I wish you all a restful and joyful festive season, and I’ll be back in January with more women in translation reviews and reflections.

Guilt, sexuality and modernity: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Panty and Abandon

Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press, 2016 and 2017)

When I first started browsing the Tilted Axis catalogue, I was intrigued by Panty and Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay: both novels deal with themes of guilt, duty, sexuality and cultural (non-)conformity, and both present themselves as conscious narratives, playing with story-telling in original ways. Because they have a male translator (Arunava Sinha) they fall outside the parameters of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and so I didn’t read them straight away. But earlier this year I read them for my own pleasure, and am writing about them today for yours!

Images from tiltedaxispress.com

I read Panty first, for no other reason than it was on the top when I opened the parcel, and I’m glad I read them this way round. As soon as I posted a tweet about the two books, several people commented that Panty is good, but Abandon is amazing, and (spoiler) I’m with them. I enjoyed Panty, though, so let’s start with that…

First of all, if you like a linear narrative and a clear plotline, Panty is probably not for you. If you’re happy to be destabilised, to swirl around in circles as different stories unfold simultaneously and in superimposition, then it’s a tremendously fulfilling read. A woman arrives in Kolkata, to an empty and heavily padlocked apartment, and as she is acquainting herself with her new surroundings she finds a leopard-print panty in the wardrobe. She wonders about the owner of this sensuous, shameless undergarment, and when eventually she slips it on, she steps into the sexual memories of the woman who wore it before her. Her own story then ripples out alongside – or enmeshed with – these memories: the reality of a surgery she is awaiting alone and the passion of two bodies writhing in union are brought together in the unnamed woman’s relationship with a man who will not commit to her. Through the memories of the panty’s owner, she discovers what it really is to kiss: “All this time, she’d thought she knew what a kiss was. Just as she’d thought she knew what love was, what the body was, what art was. When in fact she had known none of that.” The limits of her life so far are in stark contrast with the unconditional giving and receiving she experiences through another woman’s memories.

The narration shifts from first person to second person to third person as the stories collapse in on one another, and at times I had to re-read sections to be sure I knew who was speaking (or, at least, to think I was sure). Writing, narration, illness and the body fold together, writing coming from the body (“Was this one line all the blood that would ever flow from the wounds?) and pain being sucked out from the body through passion (“you fit your mouth to her right nipple and suck out all her suffering”) and turned into writing. Panty felt experimental, not rooted in conventional narrative expectations – it is not a snapshot of a life, but an exploration of an experience: introspective, chaotic, and yearning. The structure of Panty is, perhaps, best summed up in this reflection: “I ran away. I escaped to the centre, inside the fire that rages at the circumference of life.” The bodies unfold at the centre of the fire, a circle of flames around past and future, a moment suspended at the eye of the storm.

Sinha’s translation is refined and at times elaborate, but because this is not a novel of gritty realism, it works: though phrases such as “even if we do happen to meet, let there be no flash of recognition in your eyes. Let the portion of your heart in which I exist die this very moment. Let us free ourselves from this bond as far as is possible” would not be out of place in a 19th-century tragedy, they still work here, because it is a story of excess, of pulsing bodies and burning hearts. Trisha Gupta makes an interesting point about the poesy of Sinha’s translation resting on “a style that has a certain lushness and emotional purchase in Bengali, but can sometimes appear long-winded in contemporary English”, but because I cannot (and probably shall never be able to) read Bengali, I rather like that some features of the original language come through in the translation. In fact, in Abandon, one character comments that “there’s no better language than Bengali to pamper someone with”, and so if there is anything intricate in Sinha’s translation, it seems to me that this opens a window to the Bengali beneath the words.

Panty was a brave book with which to launch a new press, and there are some features of Abandon which echo it, particularly in the guilt about neglected children, the challenging of traditional notions of femininity, and the deliberately unconventional narrative style. In Abandon, a young mother runs away from her life and her responsibilities, only to find that her five-year-old son follows her. She is torn between the desire for solitude so that she can write a novel, and the need to protect and care for her son: this polarity of feeling is epitomised by the dual meaning of “abandon” as both neglect and unbridled passion, and in the similarly dual use of narration: “I” for the primal need to care for herself, and “Ishwari” for the mother bound by duty and love to care for her son.

There is a conscious awareness of writing within the narrative: from the opening page, I/Ishwari says that “the taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.” Throughout her narration, she points to incidents that were improbable and therefore part of the structure of her story, characters who are there because the story needed them; she recognises useful narrative devices (such as the occupation of the roof terrace as an ideal space to develop her writing) and consciously lives there so that it can be part of the story. As in Panty, the narrator destabilises the reader with regular reminders that this is just a story, and can manipulate as well as illuminate: “Ishwari’s head was about to drop in embarrassment, but such is the nature of this novel – it is sceptical and trusting at the same time, it tells the truth and also lies.” I/Ishwari repeatedly reminds us that we have chosen to enter her “novel of lies and truths”, and in doing so she exercises the power to lead us wherever she chooses. And yet she herself is powerless in the hands of the narrative force: it is a “predatory novel”, characters enter it because there is not yet anyone like them within its pages, and just as her relationships have always imprisoned her with their needs, so the novel begins to do the same. Ishwari constantly has to choose between her own survival and her son, and her survival seems to be possible only by navigating her way through this treacherous novel which, nonetheless, “understands my agony.”

Creativity and motherhood are seen as incompatible, Roo’s need for Ishwari the only impediment to her unfettered self-expression. Prenatal death is presented as the perfect murder: “When the mother’s womb kills the child, does anyone hold the mother responsible? […] Only mothers can dispense the kind of death neither nature nor civilization can question”, and though Roo has survived into infancy, he is debilitated and weakened, and Ishwari will not allow the same fate to befall her novel. In a book replete with references to gender inequalities in India (beaten wives, “wayward” women, forced sex, submission), I/Ishwari refuses to fulfil a role or meet expectations of womanhood, and yet manages to give the impression that she is doing exactly that. Her job as a companion and caregiver to the sick, grieving Bibaswan outwardly shows her displaying typically “feminine” qualities of nurturing and compassion, and yet when their relationship becomes physical, Bibaswan realises that he has no domination over her mental or emotional presence, only the physical presence that is demanded of her in order to collect her envelope of banknotes. As in Panty, Bandyopadhyay explores women’s independence and sexuality, subverting stereotype and expectation at every turn.

In both Panty and Abandon, the at times confusing, sweeping, spiralling narratives are punctuated by moments of searing beauty. In Abandon, there was one line in particular that took my breath away: “She did not realise that suppressing love is the strongest form of self-flagellation in the world.” Such insights are of the kind that stay with me, that I roll around inside my head and mouth for a long time after I finish reading. Indeed, as I/Ishwari explains, “the more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable”: Panty and Abandon are not simple, or light-hearted, or easily forgettable. They wound, they subvert, and they challenge – and that is their great triumph.

A profound, lyrical incantation: Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On

Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won (Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

I’ll Go On was the final 2018 release in my Tilted Axis subscription, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it all year. It is the story of sisters Sora and Nana and their family bonds: with their damaged mother, Aeja, who was once brimming with love but has now given herself over to grief, with the enigmatic yet tender boy next door, Naghi Oraboni, and with Naghi’s mother, who fed and sustained Sora and Nana through their childhood. The original title, Soranananaghi, binds the three main protagnists’ names together in an incantation, also incorporating the word ‘sonagi’ (meaning ‘downpour’), and both of these meanings are echoed one drunken evening in three drops of water that Naghi names as Sora, Nana and Naghi, and that join together to make one single body of water. The English title is brilliantly chosen, as it is a phrase repeated like a refrain throughout the book: “I’ll go on” is the epitome of the characters’ determination to live out their lives, resigned to not feeling happy. This is far from being the only example of Emily Yae Won’s deftness in the translation: there are many references to the characters that make up the Korean names, and her incorporation of these never feels heavy-handed or “textbook-like”. I always find it hard to imagine the translation process from a language I know nothing of and a culture I know little about, but this translation seemed to me to keep all the cultural importance of the original, and some of the linguistic features, while still ensuring it was a smooth read in English.

Image from tiltedaxispress.com

I’ll Go On is narrated in four parts: Sora, Nana and Naghi all take their turns narrating, and then Nana takes over again for the short final section. I have come to greatly enjoy stories with multiple narrators, and one of the things I like about this technique is exemplified brilliantly in I’ll Go On: viewing the same event from different perspectives. The meeting of Sora, Nana and Naghi as children is recounted by both Sora and Naghi, likewise the revelation that “single-member tribes do exist in the world, you know”; an incident when Naghi strikes Nana to remind her that “forgetting, that’s how people turn monstruous. It’s how you become oblivious to other people’s pain” is remembered by both Nana and Naghi, and tense conversations between Sora and Nana are related by both sisters.

At the heart of the story is Nana’s pregnancy: Sora, the older sister, has always looked after Nana, and now feels that Nana has betrayed her, bringing another life into their family unit. Sora resents the pregnancy but tries to be kind; Nana resents Sora for trying to be kind. Sora’s only concept of motherhood is painful: she addresses Nana in her internal monologue with the musing:

“Has Nana set her heart on becoming a replica of Aeja?
Is that it, Nana.
You want to be another Aeja?
Fall in love like she did, and make a baby, and then have the baby, all so you can turn into an overbearing mother?”

As for Nana herself, she struggles with her (lack of) emotions towards the baby growing in her womb: she likes the father well enough, but does not want to marry him, and does not want to form an attachment to her child:

“When it comes to love, that seems about the right amount of emotional involvement: to be able to soon get back on your feet no matter what occurs. Where whether by mutual agreement of by one-sided betrayal or because one of you vanishes into thin air overnight, the other can manage to say, in due time: I’m fine. That seems about right. Even once the baby is here, Nana has decided that that will be the extent of her love for the child and for Moseh ssi.
Pouring all your heart into love as Aeja had done – that level of devotion is what Nana wants to guard against.”

Love is an emotion that can turn sour, that can become overwhelming grief, that can leave you a husk, and neither Sora nor Nana want this kind of love to befall them. They prefer recognisable parameters: companionship, shared memories, walls around the heart. And yet, it is in her attitude towards her unborn child that Nana realises with horror how like her own grief-hardened mother she is becoming: “It dawned on her that having been so intent on her own pain, it hadn’t occurred to her to consider the unequivocal anguish now presented before her. And that this made hers the closest likeness to that heart which Nana wholly detested, namely, Aeja’s heart.” The selfishness of Aeja’s pain, the way in which it closed her off to the pain of others, including her own children, is replicated in Nana – and yet this is not portrayed in some moralistic, daughter-understanding-the-mother way, but rather to show the terror of a child whose mother would prefer to leave the world than care for her, on realising that she too has allowed herself to become so consumed by pain that she cannot see the pain she is inflicting on others. And so we see a cycle: of life, love, resentment, and of the ways in which all three main characters are trapped in a past they cannot set free. This is reflected in Aeja’s repeated questioning of Nana about her pregnancy: Aeja chants “Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?” without waiting for an answer, and Nana listens to “the question that’s being repeated over and over like a curse.” Aeja’s lack of happiness in her own life did not prevent her from wanting happiness for her children, but she fails to see that it is her own behaviour that has wrung out all possibility for happiness from them.

The main emotional connection the three narrators share comes through food: they were all nourished through childhood on the food prepared by Naghi’s mother, Ajumoni, a hardworking widow whose only desire in life is to have a grandchild. Just as it was Ajumoni who fed Sora and Nana through their childhood (“They were the plainest of lunchboxes. Plain and commonplace. And yet to have contained so much in such a compact form is nothing short of immense”), so it was also Ajumoni who gave Sora and Nana the maternal love they lacked in their own home, and it is her food that sustains them even as adults, when they gather together to make dumplings, setting their differences aside as they work together to prepare a feast, the taste of which embodies for Nana “The longing, the delight, the tenderness, the fear, the loneliness, the regret, the joy – all muddled, all at once. All one big mess.” Ajumoni’s food defines both childhood and home for Sora and Nana, to the extent that “no matter what delectable and fine food they may come across now, anything that’s not of this home is simply – for Sora and Nana both – other, the taste of not-home.”

Hwang is adept at crafting profound philosophical reflections in the quietest of ways: the fleeting nature of human life within the vastness of history is made evident in the assertion that “the world’s end will only befall us gradually, and this will give Nana time to think properly about things”; the overwhelming nature of pain is given shape in Naghi’s description of Aeja’s widowhood, when he acknowledges that “over a lengthy stretch of time, she has steadily, inaudibly, fulfilled her pain and become whole. She has hauled her pain over herself, covering herself entirely with it, like a carapace”; the physical depth of love is evident in Naghi’s claim that “This sensory memory is a yearning, and will never be erased. If it is to be rubbed out, it will be the last memory to go, It will leave me only in my final moment”, and perhaps Hwang’s characters are best defined by Nana’s conclusion about human life: “People are trifling, their lives meagre and fleeting. But this, Nana thinks, is also what makes them loveable”. These are some of my favourite lines from the novel, and show the lyrical beauty to be found within it. What could be a fairly depressing story is raised to a thing of crystalline incandescence because of the sensitivity and humanity with which both author and translator craft this work.

The line that most struck me and lingered on in my memory is one that I wish I could shout out to everyone I pass, to those who are close to me and those who are not, to friends and foes, to world leaders, the people who vote for them, and the people who oppose them. And I’m going to leave this line as the last word, in the spirit of the #WiTWisdom pledge that I mentioned last week: “Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.”

 

On borders, encounters, and #WiTWisdom

Borders are on my mind right now. I live on an island, and so the borders of my homeland are physical; more importantly, they are also in the hearts and, recently, on the ballot papers of many of my compatriots. Everything about my identity, my work, and my beliefs rejects borders, crosses them, perhaps even aims to transcend them, and so in a time of great uncertainty, I find comfort in encounters that break down borders: I had two particularly uplifting “Translating Women” encounters recently that I want to share with you today, but I also want to reflect further on connections, crossing borders, and the wise, witty and downright wonderful things we can find in translated women’s writing.

Clockwise from top left: publicity shot for BookSHElf podcast; Fish Soup in Caravansérail; in conversation with Margarita García Robayo

I was thrilled when Carolina Orloff, director and editor at Charco Press, invited me to host an evening in conversation with Margarita García Robayo at the Caravansérail bookshop in London on 31 October. It was part of Margarita’s European book tour to promote Fish Soup, and it was a great honour to meet her in person; re-reading Fish Soup on the train to London, I was struck once again by the profundity of its caustic reflections (as well as finding it mildly surreal to be reading one of my favourite books while en route to meet its author). After spectacularly losing track of time in the excitement of meeting Margarita and Carolina at a tea salon in Brick Lane, we trooped to Caravansérail just in time for the event. It was my first time there, and I fell entirely under its spell: it’s a small premises, with the back area packed floor to ceiling with French books on one side and works in English and translation on the other. In the front area there is an intimate interview and audience space, where we gathered for our conversation.

Interviewing Margarita was a dream. She was so open and generous in her responses, both to me and to the audience. We covered topics ranging from the autobiographical nature of her writing and the need to leave Colombia in order to write about it fully, to Charlotte Coombe’s magnificent translation and the cover art of Fish Soup (beautifully described by one of my Twitter friends, author Rónán Hession, as “like Jaws but with fuzzy felt”). The thing I most want to focus on here came about when discussing the novella ‘Sexual Education’, which was published for the first time as part of Fish Soup, and is based on Margarita’s own experience of Opus Dei sex education classes in 1990s Colombia (the “Teen Aid” course was one she was forced to attend at school). There was in her class, as in the novella, a girl who claimed to be in communication with the Blessed Virgin, and we discovered in conversation with Margarita that the teachers lapped this up, pressing the girl to find out what Mary had communicated to her, so that they could use this to further convince the female students of the merits of abstention. Margarita talked about the deep effect that such indoctrination can have (in particular, the notion that “virginity” means “preserving the hymen” which, as her narrator observes wryly, results in a generation of girls with “hymen intact […] ass in tatters”), and described life thereafter as a process of “unlearning”, a sentiment which seemed to resonate with everyone present.

So can we “unlearn” how we think about borders? I’m currently reading Go Went Gone by the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by Portobello Books. Erpenbeck seems to me to be a truly important writer of our times: in Go Went Gone she tackles the subject of migration, and I was struck by the wisdom of this reflection: “Have people forgotten in Berlin of all places that a border isn’t just measured by an opponent’s stature but in fact creates him?” How terrifying that a book reflecting on one of the great socio-political scissions of the last century is so resonant with how I feel in my country today. Borders close us off, keep people out, and create enemies: by opening a book we open ourselves, allow others in, and create connections. Charco Press are certainly creating such connections: Margarita described their endeavours as “revolutionary”, since in Latin America literary success is often limited to each individual country, with books not crossing borders in their original language, and so translation into English is an important part of literary success and wider distribution of work. At a time when “the inhabitants of this territory […] are defending their borders with articles of law” (Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone), it seems to me that promoting and celebrating work that breaks through these borders and barriers is a revolutionary act in itself. In his essay “Reflections on Exile”, Edward Said wrote that “Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity.” Familiar territory is exactly what we leave behind when we read literature in translation, as we refuse to remain imprisoned in how our particular political or cultural “time” is telling us to define ourselves. Said goes on to claim that “Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience”, and perhaps here we could substitute “exiles” with “writers in translation”: their books not only cross borders but help to break them down, reminding us that we are more connected than we can sometimes realise.

If you read Spanish, you can read Margarita’s full account of her book tour here.

The morning after interviewing Margarita I went to Oxford Circus to meet Sophie Baggott, who earlier this year made a pledge to read a book by a woman writer from every country in the world by 2020. Sophie also hosts BookSHElf, a monthly podcast for Wales Arts Review, in which each month she interviews a guest about a topic related to women in translation: as the November guest, I followed in the illustrious footsteps of Theodora Danek, writers in translation programme manager at English PEN, Jennifer Croft, translator of the Man Booker International prize-winning Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, and the author-translator duo Michelle Steinbeck and Jen Calleja. It was an honour to find myself the guest on a podcast I look forward to each month, and half an hour has rarely passed so quickly: it was a joy to talk about women in translation with someone who shares my passion for it. Aside from talking about the Translating Women project, we talked about books we’ve loved (I shared my four women in translation Books of the Year for 2018 – tune in to see which I chose and why!) and issues such as the difficulties facing women in translation, the importance of the Year of Publishing Women and its legacy, and what we might look forward to in terms of women in translation (as December approaches, my excitement for the soon-to-be-released Translating Feminisms chapbooks from Tilted Axis Press grows).

Sophie and I also discussed the “labels” we use to talk about literature: I don’t want to try to define what books from a given geographical region might be “like”, and I wonder whether, if we want to transcend borders, it’s helpful to categorise books by country or literary tradition (particularly if a writer might break with this, challenge it, defy it, or simply reject the notion of a national “literary tradition”). Or, like Margarita, they might be from one country, live in another, and be published in another – and it is precisely this porosity, this mobility (dare I utter the words “this freedom of movement”?) which make literature in translation so important to the English-speaking world. What do a gathering in a multicultural bookshop and a podcast that can be listened to on the world wide web represent, if not a breaking down of borders? Sophie asked me to identify the best opportunities to have come out of the Translating Women project, and it was easy to answer: the connections. What a privilege it is to form relationships (real or virtual) with authors, translators, publishers, and fellow readers.

English PEN uses the strapline “Literature knows no frontiers”, and if there is anything that the books I’m reading have in common, it is their ability to reach out beyond national stereotypes and physical borders, and create connections. I hope that a day will come when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because we shall simply be talking about “literature” – but the days of such equality are, I think, still some way off. Until then, I shall be celebrating the inspiring, enriching, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes quiet, sometimes exuberant, always fascinating body of work that women in translation represents.

And on that note, I’m bringing together two things I love at the end of 2018: I always find the end of the year to be a time of reflection and resolution, and I also like to share some of my favourite quotations from the books I’m reading. So each weekday from 1 December until Christmas, I shall post on Twitter a meditative or inspiring quotation from a book by a woman writer in translation, using the hashtag #WiTWisdom. Please feel free to share and follow the hashtag, and to join in if you feel moved to do so!

The books I couldn’t resist purchasing at Caravansérail


 

“No matter where I go I’m still broken”: a tale of displacement and becoming. Carla Maliandi, The German Room

Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)

The German Room is the final release of 2018 from Charco Press, and what a year it’s been for them: A Man Booker International longlisting (for Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), a win at the Creative Edinburgh Awards in the ‘Start-Up Award’ category, five new books (including one of my favourite books of the year, Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Coombe), and the celebration of their first anniversary in business. Charco Press is, without doubt, one of my favourite discoveries of 2018 – I love their attitude, their vision, and their commitment, and I have yet to read a book from them that I didn’t like. So in some ways I was almost fearful to start The German Room – I received a review copy and all I could think was “I hope it’s as good as I want it to be.” So… was it?

Image from charcopress.com

The German Room is a tale of escape and “becoming”, of nostalgia and displacement, and its central premise is particularly thought-provoking: if you flee your life because it becomes intolerable, what are you fleeing towards? And will your problems follow you there? I hesitate to call this a coming-of-age story, because I think it’s more of a reflection on the modern condition: we have infinite possibilities of where to go if we want to get away, but what on earth are we going to do when we get there? As the unnamed narrator reflects early on in her story, “even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.” Though this raises universal questions of displacement and self, the particular catalyst for the narrator’s sudden departure from her hometown of Buenos Aires is a rancorous break-up. Telling no-one that she is going away, she boards a plane to Heidelberg, the German town her parents fled to in an escape from the dictatorship in Argentina three decades earlier, and where she spent several years of her childhood. Yet a return to a place where she was once happy does not necessarily mean a return to happiness, and she finds herself adrift there, lacking purpose but yet not actively seeking it either. She takes a room in a university hall of residence, and enjoys the anonymity there: no-one knows who she is or why she is there (they all assume she is a student), and she doesn’t even have a home to keep clean – this is as much as anything an escape from adulthood and a return to a simpler time. Yet very adult concerns lie in wait for her there: an unlikely friendship with a fragile international student, a reluctant co-dependent friendship with the only other Argentine in the residence, a fleeting sexual encounter with a student she barely even likes, the pressure from the hall’s warden to enrol on a course or lose her right to remain in her room, and an increasingly sinister relationship with a Japanese woman in a state of grief. As if this ensemble cast of unlikely acquaintances didn’t provide enough intrigue, she also collides with Mario, a professor who, as a young man, lived in refuge with her family (an encounter which brings up past memories and offers a poignant insight into the traumatic consequences of a life spent in hiding), becomes sexually obsessed with the man  Mario loves, and discovers that she is pregnant – possibly by her former boyfriend, possibly by a rather vapid friend with whom she had a one-night stand when her relationship broke down.

Frances Riddle has translated this book extremely well: there is nothing in the English that seems awkward or out of place. There are things that must have been difficult to translate (Miguel Javier, for example, is “the Tucumano”, referring to the region of Argentina that he comes from; though “the Tucumano” might not be recognisable out of context in English, there seems to me no other way of describing him, since simply referring to him by name would erase the socio-cultural references which are so important to his characterisation and the power dynamics of his relationship with the narrator). I also greatly appreciated Riddle’s translation of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press, 2017), and imagine that Charco’s Spanish-language texts are in safe hands with her.

Carla Maliandi’s debut novel meets the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Charco books: in particular, I find it quite an achievement to write a narrator who in many ways is quite unlikeable, and yet make her sympathetic. I was quite surprised that I didn’t find myself getting irritated with the narrator or finding her introspection tedious: the character is written in such a way that she seems aware of the potentially self-indulgent nature of her own train of thought, and just stops short of being grating. Perhaps the other thing that saves this from being too navel-gazing is the overlap of the present-day personal story and a more universal past history: when asked why she wants to be in Heidelberg, the narrator replies that “I don’t know, maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here, we hoped that everything would get better so that we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.” Heidelberg was once a place where her family sought refuge until things got better at home, and she is attempting to repeat this experience, even though she is unsure what she’s really doing “in this conservative storybook city, in this repulsively perfect country.”

It seems that what the narrator is seeking above all is anonymity, even invisibility: she likes living in the residence because “being there is like not being anywhere, it’s being alone but surrounded by a lot of people, having everything without owning anything, and being able to pass unnoticed.” Passing unnoticed will, she thinks, allow her the time to decide what she is going to do with her “life in shambles”, but even this desire remains unfulfilled, primarily because of her encounters with two particular characters and their families. Firstly, Miguel Javier (“the Tucumano”) wants to spend time with her because she represents for him some kind of anchor connecting him to his homeland, and she ends up being dragged into his sister Marta Paula’s life back home, a life of drudgery and self-sacrifice where Marta Paula’s only outlet is to visit Feli, a psychic who begins to destabilise and threaten all of their lives. Then there is Shanice, a Japanese student whose brash happiness is nothing more than “a horrible sadness disguised with bright colours and screeching music”, who wants to befriend the narrator in order to feel useful, and whose mother ends up coming to stay in Heidelberg and attaching herself to the narrator like a vampire. The narrator’s initial desire for solitude is both disrupted and reversed by this motley crew of companions, leading her to realise that there is no simple solution to her need for flight. Ultimately, the narrator’s plan for escape seems doomed to fail: as she notes herself, “simply returning to your childhood home is not much better than having no plan at all.” Her pregnancy pulls her back to the very place and people she had wanted to forget, and her prospects in Heidelberg are limited. The overlaps between past and present are particularly affecting here: having lived the happiest of childhood exiles in Heidelberg out of political necessity, her adult return to the place where she felt safe only destabilises her further, and in her encounters with Mario she begins to realise quite how severe the circumstances really were when she was a child. Now carrying a child herself, and reluctant to commit to motherhood, she seems to be seeking above all a solution to her rootlessness – a solution that is not neatly packaged and offered to us.

The narrative ends ambiguously, in a scene that is almost mystical: this was the only part I wasn’t quite sure about. I don’t want to give away the ending so I shan’t discuss it in detail here, but it certainly didn’t detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole. In fact, I was entirely swept away by The German Room: at the end of each chapter I kept telling myself “just one more”, and ended up racing through it in a day. 2018 is definitely ending on a high note for Charco Press.

The German Room is released on 22 November 2018; you can order a copy here.

Review copy provided by Charco Press.

A retirement facility with a terrifying difference: Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy (OneWorld, 2018, 2nd edition)

As soon as I read The Unit, it went straight down as a “must-read” recommendation on my virtual bookshelf: it is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s advertised as a dystopian narrative comparable to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and comes with an endorsement from Atwood on the front cover. You may already know about my admiration for Atwood’s oeuvre, so from my perspective there’s a lot to live up to if something is compared with it. Let me give you two reasons why The Unit does this for me and more: I couldn’t drag myself away from it, and I forgot I was reading a translation.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

The Unit is a dystopian novel about the value of human life and the desperation of the human heart in which, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopia feels all too possible. It takes place in the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a retirement facility with a difference: the people who go there live their final years in comfort, wanting for nothing, in exchange for taking part in medical experiments and donating their organs one by one until the “final donation”. The only inhabitants of the Unit are “dispensables”: women over 50 and men over 60 who are childless, and who do not have a profession deemed “necessary” to society. Once they enter the Unit there is no going back, and no more contact with the outside world; their organs are donated to people “out in the community” – people more “necessary” than them.

It wasn’t just The Handmaid’s Tale that The Unit reminded me of, but also Atwood’s Positron series (brought together in The Heart Goes Last), and so I was interested to note that The Unit’s original publication pre-dates The Heart Goes Last, leaving no doubt that there is nothing derivative about Holmqvist’s dystopia. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I found The Unit so impressive: for a debut novel to be this perfectly observed, I can’t help but pinch myself. It is no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t put The Unit down: often when I only really had time to read one chapter, I found myself reading another and another, and then rushing late and breathless to whatever I needed to do next. I didn’t even consciously decide to read more and make myself late; it just happened. It’s very rare that a book can have this effect on me, draw me in and shut out all else as books could do in a time before I had responsibilities, internet, and a mobile phone.

“It is only on the edges of human experience that Dorrit understands what it is to belong”

Dorrit enters the Unit just after her 50th birthday: she has never had children, and never had a stable relationship. Her last relationship was with a married man, who eventually made it clear to her that he would never leave his wife and children. With no-one but her dog to care for, and with her economic position becoming untenable, Dorrit decides to have her dog adopted, live her final years in peace, and enter the Second Reserve Bank Unit. What Dorrit hadn’t anticipated is that inside the Unit she would fall in love, and that this love would make her want to cling to life at the very time she had resigned herself to it drawing to a close. For the first time in her life, she experiences what it is to be “part of a couple, not always the fifth wheel on the wagon, but regarded and treated as someone who belongs with someone else.” The connection between her desire to hold onto life because of the discovery of what it is to belong and the awareness of the inevitable tearing asunder of the “final donation” is exquisitely expressed when she describes herself as “throbbing like a heart that has just been cut out of one body and is about to be inserted and stitched into another”: it is only on the edges of human experience that she understands what it is to belong.

There are chilling references to the “dispensability” of people who have not had children, and shrewd observations about the unworthiness of some of those who have, and who “live a needed, worthwhile life, showing off with [their] offspring and spreading [themselves] out all over the streets and squares and public transportation, pushing everybody else out of the way with [their] stroller and all the rest of the stuff [they] find it necessary to carry around with [them].” More than this, there is the boundless grief of older members of society who would have liked to become parents but did not have the opportunity – because of their sexuality and the strict controls of adoption, because they thought there would always be time later on, because they were infertile, or because they did not meet the love of their life until they were “dispensable.” Dorrit’s sorrow goes even deeper: she had an abortion as a teenager because it never occurred to her that she would not have another opportunity to become a parent. She spends her years grieving for the child she never had, and that your greatest grief should represent the reason you are “dispensable” to society seems the cruellest twist of all. Added to this is an acute reflection on age: the “dispensables” have been cast out of a society that values youth and procreation, and that has very narrow ideas of what is “useful”.

“The Unit is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values”

Marlaine Delargy’s translation is excellent, and so is the editing: in the whole book, there were only two minor points that niggled at me (one was the hyper-corrected “Johannes and I” instead of “Johannes and me”, and another was the phrase “when it comes to Johannes” – “when it comes to” in conjunction with a proper name sounds awkward to me). To say that these are the only flaws I can come up with is quite a compliment – I’m constantly on the lookout for such things, so if this was all I found then you know there’s not much to criticise. I also appreciated the focus on older protagonists: Holmqvist offers a blistering yet understated indictment of a society that dismisses this age group, and she gives them voices, personal lives, desires, and fears. They develop their own tightly-knit community outside the boundaries of “normal” life, supporting one another through the painful decision they have all taken to be there. They all know why they are in the Unit, and they all struggle with the fate that they have putatively “chosen”, but which in reality has been thrust upon them by a society incapable of seeing beyond prescribed values. This leads me to one of the most provocative points implicit in the novel: if you lived in a society where not having children rendered you “dispensable”, what would be your main aim before you reached “dispensable” age? And wouldn’t this create its own new, advanced dystopian society?

I’m not going to say too much about the ending as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll limit myself to one objective observation and one subjective one: firstly, and objectively, fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will see that there is nothing derivative about The Unit when they read how it ends. Secondly, and entirely subjectively, I cried uncontrollably and still think about it months later. The Unit is another triumph for OneWorld (see my previous reviews of Fever Dream and Umami): it is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values; reading it has been, for me, one of the best things to come out of this project so far.

 

 

From Sangria to Bloodletting: translating Brazilian feminisms

I’m delighted to welcome to the blog feminist translator Beatriz Regina Guimarães Barboza. You can find out more about Beatriz and her work on the guest contributor page; today she’s sharing a compelling in-depth discussion of her translation of Luiza Romão’s ‘book of rage’, Sangria, in a post that is particularly timely given the presidential election in Brazil next week.

When I first heard about Luiza Romão’s Sangria (doburro, 2017), it seemed to me exactly the sort of book I was looking for in contemporary Brazilian poetry: inventive, outrageous and felt with deep consciousness of sound and rhythm. So vivid that you could imagine it coming out of the page, inscribed in and for the body (for Luiza is a slammer and actress, too). It is a book of rage against the cruel History of Brazil, a past of colonization by the Portuguese and later the imperialistic forces of the USA (until today), with a gendered perspective of several forms of oppression that emerged from this process.

Front cover of SANGRIA by Luiza Romão

The book is composed of 28 poems, mirroring the days of a period cycle, and several monochrome pictures of Luiza’s own body, covered with red threads weaving different shapes that denounce violence. In the preface, Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda, a notorious intellectual and writer in Brazil, says that “the chosen path was of activating a process of continuous weaving (à la mode of female embroiderers and weavers) between the menstrual cycle, that is, parting from the female organism’s reproductive potential and the revision of oppressive episodes of Brazilian History”. Brazil’s History was (and still is) marked by domination, just as women are, because State violence is not separated from gender and sexual hierarchies (with huge influence of the Catholic Church since the colonization, and, recently, the Neo-charismatic movement), with capitalist inequalities that reflect racial segregation. Luiza Romão exposes all this and shows that women can fight, from within, and not only for their material struggles, but also for their hearts and souls, these issues brought together in a political claim of a feminist writer in Brazil.

The violence that Latin American countries suffered, with the slaughter of indigenous societies and years of slavery of people captured in Africa because of colonization, mostly came from Portugal and Spain, so we share this burden with our Spanish-speaking neighbors. Maybe because of that and to reach wider audiences, Luiza chose to publish a bilingual book: Sangria has the original Brazilian Portuguese on one side of each page, and a Spanish translation by Martina Altalef on the other.

As a feminist translator, I felt truly glad to have the opportunity to translate her book into English, but also knew the heavy responsibility of doing such a thing. Luiza came to me because she was looking for women translators from English and a mutual colleague, Isabela Rossi, introduced us to each other. People knew I was a MA student of Translation Studies at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, working with the translation of Anne Sexton’s poems to Brazilian Portuguese with a feminist approach. However, it was quite a challenge to work the other way around: from Brazilian Portuguese to English. And just a brief note: just as there is not a “standard English” that fully represents the several uses of the language around the globe, there is not a “Brazilian Portuguese” that is the same within the whole country, but this debate demands more than I have scope to discuss here. I will limit myself to making the point that I translated Sangria, published in São Paulo, one of our major cultural poles, to the type of English I could learn in Brazil, highly influenced by the USA. It was the first time I would do this, so I asked Luiza to read the translations and see if they sounded good to her. I also asked if it was possible to pay for a reviser of English, because I had the skills of poetry translation, but several uses of the language were not known by me, as I am not used to writing in English). Fortunately, Luiza knew Lâmia Brito, an excellent reviser who changed several details of my translation, questioning choices that were actually big mistakes of mine, and reassured me regarding most of what I had done. And there was one more aspect that had impact: my knowledge of Feminist Translation Studies, which helped me understand the ideological dimension of translating a book from outside the “main world literary system” (as Brazilian writers are still very little read outside Latin America), and that some things should not be rendered easy to be read in English but retain their Brazilian identity. Even more important than that, this made me aware of dealing with particular features of a language with a gendered grammatical system, like Portuguese, and how to maintain Luiza’s feminist issues still visible in English (which erases gender marks in verbs, adjectives and nouns).

At the very beginning of the book, in the poem “Day 1. Full Name”, as Luiza recounts Brazil’s History, some references are not known for people outside Brazil, for example, “dops”, the initials of the Departamento de Ordem Política e Social, that was a government agency of censorship and repression. That’s why the book already contains some footnotes for the Spanish translation by Martina Altalef, which I translated into English, and that was enough to deal with the needs in question, as I could manage to maintain the rhymes in the stanza.

Following in the same poem, the poet uses words with conceptual dimensions: palavra-mercadoria is not only a compound noun to refer to words as products, but uses mercadoria, a word very common in Brazilian translations of Marx’s idea of commodity fetichism. In Brazilian Portuguese, fetichismo da mercadoria. That’s why I translated it as commodity-word, although in Brazil commodities are generally associated with primary goods that are negotiated in stock exchanges, and mercadoria is seldom translated as good or merchandise. I wanted to keep the reference to a Marxist concept as it is known in Brazil and Luiza really approved of this, for she wanted to keep this genealogy of terms.

In “Day 2. Date of Birth”, she uses the word mestiça, used in Brazilian Portuguese to refer to women with interracial origins, hat has a whole past (and present) of gendered and racial stereotypes that suffered (and suffer) oppression. Brazil is known as a country of miscegenation, but this process was very marked by exploitation, violence, rape and prejudice, with different specificities from the process that happened in the USA, for example. So, it couldn’t be the same to translate this term into English. However, it wouldn’t sound so strange for the anglophone readership, for Gloria Anzaldúa’s use of the word mestiza (in Spanish) for Mexican women in the USA it is very know my some writers and scholars, as it is seen in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). I talked to Luiza about that, and she agreed that we would keep the word without translating, in Brazilian Portuguese (mestiça) to mark the difference from the Spanish word (mestiza), and retain the cultural specificity of Luiza’s work.

In the same poem, one decision involved all three of us: poet, translator and reviser. Luiza played with the word minas, which is the first name of one of the first states to be explored in the race for gold, Minas Gerais, and is also a slang for “chicks” as young women, in the following excerpt

tempos idos

minas não mais

When I first translated the text, I wrote to Luiza that I could not keep the double meaning of minas, for she was talking about our country’s birth by force, the gold exploration of Brazil by the Portuguese, and also the lives of women. So, she said she preferred to keep the reference to Minas Gerais and lose the slang, because it was more important to situate this, and her whole poem was discussing gender matters linked with History. Then, the first translation was:

gone times

mines never more

In the source text, there is strong trochaic rhythm in the first verse of the excerpt and one more distended in the second. Also, the alliterative sound of [m] and the assonance of [i] between idos and minas. Fortunately, I could keep the rhythm and the sound, so important to the poetry of a slammer such as Luiza. However, Lâmia, the reviser, found the sound was too heavy at the end, “more”, and the original has the most open vowel of Portuguese in mais, the [a]. There was a partial rhyme between idos and mais, because of the plural, the trochaic rhythm and the sound of [i]. That’s why she suggested inverting the verse, and we all thought it was better:

gone times

never more mines

Just one more example, to show how questions of grammar affected her gender debate: In the poem “Day 3. Register Number”, Luiza reverses the gender of nouns and adjectives to criticize sexism, showing that “not only grammar/ suffers from gender agreement”. I could not keep that trace in English, for there was no grammatical gender I could reverse and I would have to interfere in all words to make that visible. So I chose to write a footnote, which Luiza agreed would be the better option. This kind of procedure had to happen more times, and so I suggested Luiza that it would be better if the English version had a preface talking about this topic, to explain to anglophone audiences how to notice in the source text which words are written in the feminine and which are in the masculine.

As you can see, in the very first three poems of Sangria/Bloodletting, I’ve chosen some aspects to show the deepness of reflection that the translation had to go through, and from the perspectives of three women with different relationships to the text. Questions of sound, rhythm, imagery, History, gender and class struggle all mattered. Many choices depended on the perspective of Luiza Romão and the knowledge of Lâmia Brito, and my own reflection derived from the readings of Olga Castro, Luise von Flotow, Mona Baker, to name just a few. Although indirectly, this range of readings that affected my reflections were supported and developed by our group at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, the GEFLIT (Group of Feminist Studies on Literature and Translation), with Naylane Matos and Sheila Santos, for this makes part of our own research projects and, as you can see here, impacts on my work as a translator. So, let’s keep reading, studying and translating women, together.

And, in the spirit of solidarity and inclusivity, please look at the hashtag #EleNão, and support the movement if you feel it appropriate.