Category Archives: women in translation

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

Destruction or redemption? The Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada

Translated from the Spanish (Argentina) by Chris Andrews

It’s new Charco book time, which is always something to get excited about: I have yet to read a dud book from Charco, and the newest release, The Wind That Lays Waste, is everything I’ve come to expect from them – original, evocative, memorable, and (quite simply) a really good read. I also want to take a moment to mention what a beautiful artefact this book is: Charco’s visual identity is modern, streamlined, and instantly recognisable, and their books are as much a pleasure to hold and behold as they are to read.

This latest offering is a superb addition to the Charco catalogue; it is Selva Almada’s debut novel, and it is an eerily atmospheric account of the extraordinary events in an ordinary day. While the some of the quotes on the press release hint at traditions of magical realism, I think this does The Wind That Lays Waste a disservice, as it rather draws a veil over how original the story itself is. Where it does “fit” with a literary tradition is in the focus on the everyday, small events that have enormous consequences. The narrative revolves around four characters from two generations, who form a range of unlikely pairings. On the one hand, we have itinerant evangelist Reverend Pearson travelling across the Argentine countryside “burning with the flame of Christ’s love” and dragging his teenage daughter Leni along with him. Their relationship is strained: the righteous preacher is incapable of understanding his daughter and her need for affection from a flesh-and-blood father rather than a divine one, and there is delicious authorial irony in comments such as “Leni kept quiet. They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.” However, this relationship is not one-dimensional: Leni is similarly unable to see her father as a person, viewing only his flaws and the way in which he embarrasses her or irritates her with his insistence on every detail of their life – such as being stranded in the middle of the plains – being part of God’s plan (“Leni thought that if one fine day the good Lord actually came down from the Kingdom of Heaven to attend to the Reverend’s mechanical mishaps, her father would be more stunned than anyone”). Nonetheless, even Leni is eternally – if reluctantly – mesmerised by Reverend Pearson’s charismatic preaching, and wishes their relationship could be different (“This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it like that, straight out; he always had to get Jesus in there, between them”).

When the Reverend’s car breaks down on a journey across the Argentine countryside, they end up at the garage and home of “the Gringo” Brauer, a man who has “no time for lofty thoughts”, and his assistant, Tapioca, a “pure soul, still a little rough around the edges.” The four characters are forced together on a public holiday, unable to leave the remote garage, and tensions rise as a storm gathers across the dusty plains. The storm is an unabashed metaphor, but it works spectacularly well: Brauer comments that “the wind is changing”, a storm approaching, and at the same time his tranquil life with Tapioca is disrupted and turned upside down as the Reverend spreads the “wind that lays waste”, intent on saving Tapioca’s soul and claiming him for Christ: “he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.” The Reverend is both the arrow and the wind that fans the flames, and as the flames lick higher so the heat and intensity of the day burns as the storm approaches. The storm is necessary, inevitable (“Every crack in the earth was crying out for rain”), and yet this wind that lays waste will not spare the Reverend himself, as he risks saving Tapioca only to lose Leni.

If the metaphors and pairings of characters recur through the narrative, so too do the stories of abandonment: there are echoes in the backstories of cars driving off in a cloud of dust, a lone figure left on the plain behind them, and these stories are tied up with the characters’ sense of identity: even the good Reverend’s self-presentation is based on a lie that covers up his own abandonment of his wife. Indeed, there are no mothers in the present in this story; they have been left behind or they have driven off onto the horizon. The Reverend’s own mother (who was also abandoned, this time in her pregnancy by the Reverend’s American father) appears in flashbacks, largely to explain his rebirth and spiritual calling, which comes from a place of great fear and ends with his role as peripatetic evangelist. The ending is particularly enigmatic and open to interpretation: repetition and parallels abound in The Wind That Lays Waste, but nothing is fixed: there is no “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “tainted” and “pure”. Stereotypes are dismantled and opposites blurred in this quietly powerful and superbly crafted tale of idealism and righteousness, destruction and redemption.

Review copy of The Wind That Lays Waste provided by Charco Press

Exploring mental and physical illness: Gine Cornelia Pedersen, Zero, and Maria Gerhardt, Transfer Window

Nordisk Books is an independent publishing house founded in the UK in 2016, with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature. I was fortunate to read two of their recent releases, and am bringing them to you today in a special double-bill review.

Gine Cornelia Pedersen, Zero, translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Nordisk Books, 2018)

Zero is the stream-of-consciousness narrative of author Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s deteriorating mental health, transitioning from a childhood in which she “absorb[s] everything unfiltered” to an adult life in which:

“I don’t want help
I like it at rock bottom
I’m drowning in my own ego
It feels glorious”

Described on the cover as a “punk rock single of a novel”, Zero certainly bears characteristics of punk rock: fast-paced, hard-edged and stripped bare, this is a painful book, but also an immensely lyrical one: it pulses with obsessive intensity, bursts with life and sound and vivid descriptions. The layout of the text looks something like poetry; thoughts (and pages) are incomplete, and yet the narrative always seems carefully structured, even when sentences are cut adrift and grammar goes out of the window. There are no full stops – or, rather, there are a couple when doctors speak, but none in the monologue – indicating the outpouring and intensity and the lack of definitive “endings” (indeed, the ending itself was the only part I struggled to understand, as it seemed almost hallucinatory – whether from the effects of medication or imagination I don’t know). The story is deeply personal, and the subject pronoun “I” is used repeatedly throughout Zero, yet although such liberal repetition of “I” has the potential to become rather self-indulgent, and indeed such an intense book could easily be quite bleak or emotionally draining, neither of these is the case. On the contrary, this is an absorbing, throbbing narrative, a compelling and compulsive read.

Rosie Hedger’s translation is faultless: she has captured the voice of a tormented millennial perfectly, and every word of this spare, gut-punching book is perfection. One of the questions I found most interesting was about where the real “sickness” lies – is it with a woman struggling with her mental health, or with the way in which society deals with her? Forced into a psychiatric hospital, the narrator is injected with tranquillisers, given pills that make her a stranger to herself, and repeatedly told that this is essential (not even watered down with a platitude of it being “for her own good” – indeed, we rather suspect that the confinement is not for her own good at all). She begins her own internal revolution:

“I realise these people are sicker than I ever expected
That I’m going to have to inwardly oppose them”

This “inward opposition” is carried out by controlling her behaviour in order to assure her release (“I open my mouth to say something but I realise that it’s better to keep my thoughts to myself here”). She clings to these thoughts, to the hope that they will return, to a time when she will feel as though she inhabits her own body again. And when this begins to happen, it also symbolises a return to life:

“The feeling has started to return to my body
I’ve started thinking again
Constantly thinking
Thoughts sweep through me
It’s as if I’m getting high
Getting high off the sun, off the night, off people on the street”

It is not the medical staff with their needles and prescriptions and neat labels of psychosis who save the narrator in the end, but – if indeed she is “saved” at all, for we leave her only part-way towards a recovery that might only ever be temporary – it is by her own determination and her awareness of her mother’s love pulling her back towards life:

“And that’s when it hits me
The love in Mum’s voice
The tenderness
As if she were talking to something that might break if she were to say the wrong thing
Her absolute, total, unconditional acceptance of me”

This tribute to the mother is not at all clichéd – it is not that “love conquers all”, but rather a moving eulogy to an unconditional love that creates a lifeline where modern medicine does not. In Zero, Pedersen gives voice to all that is suppressed, to emotions dismissed as self-indulgence and treated as psychosis, and to the need to be part of the world, not isolated from it. This urgent, rebellious short text is a countdown to zero, a ticking clock, a timebomb, and a gem waiting to be discovered; I highly recommend it.

Maria Gerhardt, Transfer Window, translated from Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Nordisk Books, 2019)

In the latest release from Nordisk Books we move from mental illness to physical illness, as Transfer Window is inspired by author and musician Maria Gerhardt’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Gerhardt died in 2017 at the age of 39, and in this book she relates the difficulties of knowing that life will be cut short, and the impossibility of an old age that she can only imagine. Transfer Window is also an indictment of the failure of “healthy” friends and members of society to provide adequate palliative support: Gerhardt’s friends want her to cheer up, remind her that she “seemed so much better” last time they saw her, and would prefer that she constructed a façade of coping with her diagnosis. The book’s subtitle (“Tales of the Mistakes of the Healthy”) indicates the detrimental effect that lack of understanding and compassion can have on an ill person and, as in Zero, calls into question where the real sickness lies.

Though there is much realism in Transfer Window, the setting is a futuristic representation of end-of-life care. The majority of the narrative takes place in a vast hospital compound, a section of the city that has been blocked off and dedicated to the dying. They leave their loved ones (“We have already said goodbye to our families in a beautiful ceremony”) and enter a white-walled hospital where “bar a miraculous recovery, once you check in, you can never leave.” This hospital for the dying also seems like a voluntary prison (“I’ve been here three hundred and eighty days”; “I etch lines in the wall, to the lift of my mattress, in order to keep track of how long I have been here”), and eventually the narrator acknowledges that “this really is a ghastly place to be.” The dystopia of a seemingly perfect “death hotel” reminded me of Ninni Holmqvist’s marvellous The Unit (translated by Marlaine Delargy for Oneworld and reviewed here) – the residents seem to have all they could want, including access to marijuana oil and to virtual reality experiences that allow them to relive their most cherished memories – but what they do not have is a future.

The inconsistency of the translation was the one thing that let this book down for me: though much of the translation conveys a stark beauty and musicality, in places some literal or calqued phrases creep in. There are also some editing errors, including a number of rather oddly placed commas – this shouldn’t spoil your appreciation of the book, but it’s a shame as this is otherwise a powerful and moving text. Where Falk van Rooyen has excelled in the translation, however, is in its lyricism: there are a number of sections which are almost unbearable in the rawness of their pain. In particular, references to the narrator’s (healthy) partner are immensely moving: “My sweetheart, you are not to see me lying here sobbing. You are not to see me hunched over the toilet bowl, howling for help down the drain.” It is not only life that is cut short, but also love (“The only thing I find frustrating about the next dimension is that you are not coming along”), and yet this is never saccharine. Rather, we are made aware that the partner gets to carry on where the narrator is cut off: when the partner shouts at their son that she doesn’t have time for his reluctance to get dressed for kindergarten, the narrator comments that “I hated that you said you didn’t have time. You have so much time. You have nothing but time.”

This was a painful book to read, particularly with the knowledge that the author had died. Such confrontation with mortality is rarely comfortable, but I rather think that’s Gerhardt’s point: she doesn’t want to make things comfortable for her reader, she wants to share her pain. Gerhardt’s descriptions of her ravaged body (“My body knew pain which the body can’t bear”, “my body seized in the agony that only a body in absence of motion feels”, “a body forever in a state of emergency”) are just as important as her reflections on health and illness, and the most human thing we can do is to read this book without trying to find a “silver lining”, but rather learn from it to make fewer “Mistakes of the Healthy”.

Review copies of Zero and Transfer Window provided by Nordisk Books (via Inpress Books)

Writing between two worlds: Eva Moreda, Home is Like a Different Time

Translated from Galician by Craig Patterson

In Home is like a different time, Galician writer Eva Moreda delves into the lived experience of emigrant communities in London in the 1960s and 70s. She writes from the perspective of Gelo, a recently widowed young(ish) man who has travelled from his home town of Veiga in Galicia to seek a different life in London, leaving his home – and with it his former life – suspended in his memory, exactly as it was when he left: “To go to London, Hamburg, even Madrid or Barcelona, as some people go, was to really go: to be resigned to not seeing Veiga for a year or two. It was knowing that in your mind, Veiga was going to be frozen in that same moment when you left.” In the original, the title is Veiga is like a different time (A Veiga é como un tempo distinto), and the more general “home” is well chosen for the translation, opening up the narrative to invite a more universal connection and empathy. Veiga features throughout as distant yet always remembered, a place to leave but one which is never truly left behind. Moreda’s prose is limpid and precise, and this is delicately rendered in the translation: despite an occasional overly literal term or grammatical slip, Craig Patterson communicates sensitively the undertones of longing and belonging, as well as the numerous “unsaids” so crucial to the tone of the work. Patterson resists the temptation to over-explain, showing a discreet understanding of Moreda’s uncluttered style.

Gelo addresses his narrative to a second-person “you”; this “you” is Elisa, a young woman from Veiga who Gelo meets again in London and whose life intersects with his in ways that contribute to the wistfulness and longing that pervade the text. Veiga is described as frozen in time; Elisa describes its traditions and expectations when she acknowledges that “My mum sees me working in a shop, my granny tidying up and her doing the accounts. It’s all she dreams about and hopes from life”. England is represented, then, not only as a different place, but also as a different time – in terms of years elapsed, but also a time of different attitudes and possibilities, “a country where there were no haberdasheries or families of three generations of women who lived in the same house.” Apart from one chapter which returns to the “different time” in Galicia to explain how Gelo met Elisa, all the chapters in the book take a London place name as their title. This not only shows the various locations that were significant for Galician emigrants at the time the narrative is set – places that define the characters who inhabit them, and the different versions of themselves that those characters embody in each place – but also traces Gelo and Elisa’s path through London. Both of them leave Veiga in search of something different, and both end up by turn finding and losing themselves in their new lives.

Gelo takes a job as a waiter, and the hostility towards emigrants is palpable even when not overt: Gelo’s name is rejected outright by his boss (“Gelo” sounds too much like “hello”; his full name, Angelo, is too aberrant, for how could the boss call a man Angel?) Eventually Gelo’s boss decides that he will be called Martin (a calque of his surname, Martiño), and so Gelo’s dual life begins: Gelo is “left behind somewhere, in a different time”, while Martin is swallowed up by his life in London (“I became more and more Martin and less and less Gelo”). Identity is not chosen but imposed, and this duality and eclipsing of identity is echoed elsewhere: Elisa finds work under the name “Liz”, and is employed by Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street, despite the manager’s reservations about “how the very middle-class customers of that establishment would take your imperfect accent, your at times intuitive English.” If Gelo’s life is full of unfulfilled desires and dreams, then Elisa’s is even more so: there are hints of foreboding early on, references to her eventual disappearance, and details of how she slips away from Gelo as her dreams retreat further away from her, until eventually Gelo acknowledges that “I knew that my Elisa no longer existed.” London is a place of opportunity and possibility, its streets bursting with colour and music, its enclaves brimming with camaraderie, but it is also a place that can strip away Elisa’s dreams, community, and sense of identity, as she moves through increasingly hardened incarnations of herself. Gelo is the only one who still sees “his” Elisa, and who never gives up on her, and in this sense the story is as much about the fleeting, flitting Elisa as it is about Gelo himself.

As we follow Gelo through London, “that immensity, that mass, that gravitating mass that ended up swallowing you as it twists and turns, so everything ends up becoming less important, less than in Veiga”, Gelo in turn follows Elisa – always moving, always elusive, shifting as much in identity as in destination: “The Liz from Oxford Street […] who sold skirts and perfumes in Marks and Spencer in the centre of London, who liked to go to Brighton in the summer. That Liz was alive just three years before. In the days of Bethnal Green, nobody knew where she was. Today, nobody knows where Elisa from Bethnal Green is.” Elisa’s disappearance is explained towards the end of the novel – as usual, I shall avoid spoilers, and restrict myself to saying that all the nostalgia and desire gathers and bursts out in the revelation of Elisa’s fate.

Though Gelo has both a deceased wife and, eventually, a new one, the love story in Home is like a different time is about neither of these women, but rather about the one who is never his, the one in whom he sees himself reflected, the one who always exists in a “different time.” Moreda brings to life the streets and sounds of London in the 1960s and 70s, but above all gives voice to the difficulty of being caught between two worlds, languages and identities. This beautifully observed short novel is meditative and yearning, a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to the lengths we will go to for love, in whatever form that love may take.

Review copy of Home is like a different time provided by Francis Boutle Publishers.

“I don’t want an ending like this”: Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Oneworld, 2019)

This year Oneworld Books have released four books by women in translation (see bottom of page for full details); I went to their Translated Fiction showcase at the British Library in April to hear Olga Grjasnowa and Selja Ahava talk about their newly released titles, City of Jasmine (Grjasnowa, tr. Katy Derbyshire, reviewed here), and Things That Fall from the Sky (Ahava, tr. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah). This was an event brilliantly chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, who also introduced Oneworld authors Alessandro d’Avenia (read a beautiful extract from What Hell is Not, tr. Jeremy Parzen, here), Jasmin B. Frelih (whose In/Half, tr. Jason Blake, was longlisted for the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize) and the extremely witty double act of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynsky writing the period murder mystery Mrs Mohr Goes Missing as Maryla Szymiczkowa (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones).

Image from oneworld-publications.com

In Things That Fall From the Sky, Selja Ahava writes from the perspective of a child named Saara trying to make sense of something utterly senseless: her mother’s death from being hit on the head by a block of ice falling from the sky. The premise here reminded me of the cult HBO series Six Feet Under, in which a character would die in often improbable circumstances, possibly inspired by a real-life event spied in a newspaper story. The improbable event in this case is that when aeroplanes have a leak, the dripping water freezes on the outside of the plane and, as more water leaks through, can form into an ice block. If this becomes heavy enough, it can get detached in flight and fall to the ground at a speed which, if you happened to be standing in its path of descent, could smash your head off. Ahava explained that this random absurdity appealed to her sense of humour, and this “tragicomic” element is key to the success of the story: the child’s perspective allows Ahava to make pared-down, simple and often amusing observations, crucial to the pathos that serves to remind us that however farcical the circumstances, we are still dealing with a grieving child.

Two other stories of improbable things literally or figuratively “falling from the sky” interweave with Saara’s: her aunt wins the lottery twice, and a man on a remote Scottish island is struck by lightning five times in the course of his life (only to die eventually of heart failure). The common theme is not only the improbability, but also how these chance occurrences – even ostensibly wonderful ones such as winning the lottery twice – isolate the people on whom they are inflicted, and change their lives irreparably. There are three interconnected leitmotivs that recur throughout the book: the notion of “time heals” (which is exposed as a fallacy), outlines (the white lines around dead bodies in murder mysteries, but also the outline of Saara herself, when her mother drew an outline of Saara’s body on a wall one happy day: this drawing has now been wallpapered over, leaving Saara “trapped in the wall” and unable to move on), and time standing still.

Saara is obsessed with “whodunnits” and their dénouements (particularly those involving a certain Belgian detective, gathering an audience for a dramatic scene of revelation). There is understated humour in these references, but the white outline comes to represent the far more serious issues of the intangibility of death, and the difficulty of grieving absence. This is extended in two ways: firstly, in comparison with a lottery win, which is only ever intangible and never a physical pile of money and, secondly, via the image of Saara trapped in the wall: the outline of her body as it was then remains frozen in time under the new decoration, never ageing, cut off – just as  her mother was frozen in time, cut off, never to grow older. Amidst the absurdity and humour, this is a piercing reminder that time stops when loved ones die, that the deceased and those who loved them are always suspended in that moment, as Saara explains in her understanding of time and tense:

“When Mum leans over the bed, her hair spills out from behind her ears and touches my face, along with her kisses. When I say Mum leans, she’s still here. When Mum leaned, she’s already going. Dad doesn’t talk about Mum, because he can’t say leaned. He can’t talk Mum into the past; every now and then, he starts a sentence with Mum’s name, but he stops halfway.
Mum stopped halfway.”

Time “stopping” and the image of the white outline are deftly brought together when Saara explains that “Time stopped. I couldn’t think forwards or backwards. Someone drew a thick white line round our thoughts, and the thoughts stopped, and we got stuck there.” All time becomes that one moment of loss, the little girl in the walls trapped there forever, unable to move on. Things That Fall from the Sky thus becomes, in a way, a “white outline” of its own, immortalising this period of Saara’s life and grieving process.

The simplicity of a child’s perspective crystallises complex emotions: Ahava is a playwright, and this is evident in her novel. There is no superfluous detail, and the prose is characterised by a clarity of expression that is communicated by an excellent translation from Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah: Saara’s voice is vividly and sensitively conveyed – the register and tenor are pitch-perfect in Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s translation, as are the gaps of what is left unsaid.

Like City of Jasmine, the Oneworld book I reviewed last week, Things That Fall from the Sky also has a very poignant ending, showing the inadequacy of “time-heals” for a child who has lost everything that was once familiar. If City of Jasmine offered a fresh perspective on a global humanitarian crisis, Things That Fall from the Sky is more focused on the individual: Saara is not suffering from a historical tragedy, but from a personal one that it is equally impossible to explain away with platitudes. This is a story of the extraordinary events in everyday lives, but it is also the story of a child trying to come to terms with bereavement. Saara does not want her story – and with it, her mother – to come to an end: “Without an ending, there’s no story, but I don’t want an ending like this”, she says, and so her story becomes a reflection not only on the imperative to “move on” but also on storytelling itself, and on the endurance of love.

Oneworld’s women in translation 2019 publications in full:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Argentina). Full review.
Guzel Yakhina, Zuleika, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Russia).
Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Germany). Full review.
Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Finland).

Review copy of Things That Fall from the Sky provided by Oneworld Books.

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.

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.