Tag Archives: translated literature

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.

Life through a furry lens: Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem, winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017. At first I was a bit nonplussed when I was given this book as a gift: animal narrators are one of those quirks that usually make a novel fall into the “not my thing” category (although, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to challenge my own perceptions about what is or is not “my thing”). Irrational dismissal of articulate polar bears aside, it’s hard to argue with the multiple positive reviews on the jacket cover: “enchanting”, “profound”, “beautiful”, “magnificent”, “exquisite” and “beguiling” are just some of the accolades bestowed on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and I can’t say it doesn’t merit this proliferation of appreciative adjectives. 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 steps outside human narration to better observe human nature.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Though Tawada is a prestigious writer in both Japan and Germany (she was born in Tokyo but moved to Germany in her twenties, and writes in both Japanese and German), Memoirs of a Polar Bear was the first of her novels to be published in the United Kingdom (she has since  published Last Children of Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Tawada’s translator from German, Susan Bernofsky, was also the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (another Portobello Books jewel), and if you read my review of that then you’ll know how much I admire Bernofsky. I have not yet read a single Portobello book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I hope that when Granta Books shutters the Portobello imprint next year, the magnificent women in translation catalogue continues to grow. Neither Portobello nor Bernofsky disappoint here; Bernofksy’s prose in her translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is just beautiful. There were sections that I read over and over, so that their beauty could sink in fully (“Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again. Of course it was perfectly possible that I’d never have been able to see him again even if he’d remained alive. But I would have gone on thinking now and then: Maybe I’ll see him again after all. This ‘maybe’ is what human beings call hope. My ‘maybe’ was dead.”) There is no unnecessary flourish or embellishment: the prose is lyrical but not florid, poetic but not melodramatic. In a novel of 250 pages, there were only two words that struck me as imperfect; it is truly a remarkable feat to translate so much with such beauty.

The polar bear protagonists are shown in all their humanity, while never losing the characteristics that make them bears.  The humans are observed close-up, their smells giving away their feelings and their body language belying their intentions: as it turns out, the polar bears are able to observe the human characters more accurately than any homo sapiens narrator could. It is through the eyes of animals that the complexity of human relationships and historical progress are brought to light: from the restrictions of the Communist regime to concerns about climate change, human history and characteristics are observed and questioned, without ever moralising or turning to propaganda. The three bears – the unnamed exiled memoirist of the first section, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut – are as flawed and as fallible as the humans they seek to understand, but their characterisation and narration is close to divine.

The most remarkable section of this book, in my opinion, was the final one (about a bear cub and his beloved zookeeper). As far as I can tell, this is where the writing process might have started: Knut is the real-life bear born in Berlin Zoo in 2006, whose progress was recorded in minute detail and who captured hearts worldwide while he was a cub. The relationship between Knut and his keeper Matthias moved me deeply and had me thinking about the story long after I had closed the book: the bond is described from Knut’s point of view, and he understands Matthias to be a parent to him, a person who is Knut’s whole universe and who protects him from any threats or danger. Reading this attachment through the child’s eyes was a moving experience for me, and the pivotal moment when we realise that the third-person narrative voice was actually Knut’s all along is one of great beauty. Knut’s reaction when Matthias has to be kept from him for his own safety is heartbreaking; Tawada is  skilled at observing seemingly small incidents and the magnitude of their impact on an individual (furred or not). The boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership, individual and collective experience are all blurred, erased, moved, and re-drawn, and for a book I thought would be “not my thing”, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was memorable for all the right reasons. I am glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, and I can only urge you to do the same (if you haven’t already).

The second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will be awarded TONIGHT, Tuesday 13th November, in a ceremony starting at 6.30pm BST. I’m so sad that I can’t be there, but shall be following it closely on social media – you can see the shortlist here!

Holiday reads 2018: One Night, Markovitch; We That Are Young; The Dead Lake; Pure Hollywood

I took four books on holiday with me this year; though only one was a woman writer in translation, I wanted to showcase the diverse stories that accompanied me through the glorious heatwave of 2018…

I chose one novel from an author I already liked (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch), one debut novel (Preti Taneja, We That Are Young), one recommendation (Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake) and one that came as part of a subscription (Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood).

Image from pushkinpress.com

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press, 2015), translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Earlier this year I read and loved Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, so was fairly certain I’d enjoy her first novel, One Night, Markovitch, and chose it to kick off my holiday reading. One Night, Markovitch is the tale of two friends – the eponymous and “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch, a man no-one looks at twice, and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg, lover of women, teller of tales, owner of a magnificent moustache. Whereas no-one remembers Markovitch, Zeev Feinberg leaves legends in his wake: he is a man “whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country.” The two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel when the butcher discovers that Zeev has been sleeping with his wife, and so Zeev’s friend, the deputy director of the Irgun, secures them places on a boat bound for Europe, where they and eighteen other men will marry Israeli women fleeing a world on the brink of catastrophe. Once safely in Israel, the new couples are to divorce; Yaacov Marcovitch, however, falls in love with his new wife, Bella, a beauty who belongs to “the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.” He refuses to go through with the divorce, and this decision sets in motion a chain of events that unfold over decades, weaving together the destiny of all the characters and the choices they make. Lovers and foes are entangled and underestimated, and tragedy is never far away: “Bella Zeigerman’s mistake was more terrible than Yaacov Markovitch’s. For she was like someone who wants to cross a river she knows, saying, ‘I know it flows slowly’ and, taking no care, walks into it and drowns because it is winter and the water has risen.” Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos – I laughed out loud at some points, but was choking up at others – and the storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Sondra Silverston’s translation. I can see why it’s described as a fable; there is a lot about it which is a little fantastical, and on a bad day I might have found it slightly twee in places. There were no bad days on holiday, though, and so I found it utterly charming. I shall be keeping a close eye on what Gundar-Goshen publishes next.

Image from galleybeggar.co.uk

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017)

Next up was the debut novel from Preti Taneja, who won the 2018 Desmond Elliott prize for this modern-day re-telling of King Lear, set in the palaces and slums of India. I can only speak about We That Are Young in hyperbole: it’s epic, turbulent, majestic, furious… Jivan Singh returns to India after more than a decade spent in America. He is the illegitimate son of the right-hand man of Devraj Bapuji, the head of “the Company”, a powerful corporation at the core of Indian life; on the night of Jivan’s return, Bapuji announces his shock retirement, dividing his company up between his daughters. The two eldest are the power-hungry Gargi (“Such a shame she’s getting so plump these days”) and PR-savvy Radha, ”polished to a Delhi-girl shine”, and Jivan watches on security monitors as the family is brought together to celebrate the arranged engagement of the youngest daughter, Sita, “a barefoot girl in loose, rolled-up jeans”, the most beautiful of the three daughters, and Bapuji’s favourite. But Sita absconds, for her heart lies with environmental issues and women’s education, not with the corrupt Company that pollutes India both literally and figuratively.

Taneja has grappled with every aspect of Shakespeare’s King Lear: nothing seems forced, despite the centuries and cultures that separate the two stories. In fact, the attention to detail is so meticulous that if you thought you might be spared the scene of eyes being gouged out, think again – even that gets worked in. We That Are Young will sweep you away into another world, but there is one small thing that gnawed at me: there are a number of typos and editing errors, and these dragged me back into the everyday, taking away from that glorious feeling of being transported elsewhere while the book is open. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and urgent novel, and an incredible debut: We That Are Young is dark, frenetic, chilling, and it swept me along like the floods in the Napurthala basti, where Jeet (the legitimate son; Edgar to Jivan’s Edmund) is reborn. Taneja is one to watch.

Image from peirenepress.com

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Peirene, 2014), translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

I discovered Hamid Ismailov’s work earlier this year, when I read The Devil’s Dance: when I was talking to my husband about it, he mentioned Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, which he had read and greatly enjoyed while judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 (The Dead Lake was longlisted). He recommended that I read it, and I pass on that recommendation unreservedly: The Dead Lake is haunting and understated, and pulled me in right from the opening line (“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible”). Yet there is nothing remotely prosaic about the story of Yerzhan, a young boy growing up in a small village on a bleak steppe in Kazakhstan, right at the heart of Soviet nuclear testing sites. Yerzhan is in love with his neighbour, Aisulu, and one day, on a school trip, to impress Aisulu he undresses and walks into the forbidden Dead Lake – a pool of radioactive water. Although nothing happens immediately, Yerzhan has cursed himself by entering it: he will never grow, and will remain trapped in his twelve-year-old body forever. We meet Yerzhan at the age of twenty-seven, a man in a child’s body, playing violin on a passenger train making its way across the steppe. The unnamed narrator is travelling on the train for reasons unknown, and Yerzhan tells the narrator his story; the narrator then re-tells the first-person story in the third person (from the two novels I’ve read, Ismailov’s original use of narrators seems to be a feature of his writing). The short introductory section ends on this reflection: “‘Does anything make any sense?’ he retorted, suddenly prickly again, and his question seemed to be addressed, not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness, which…” One individual’s experiences are set against the immensity of a majestic yet rapacious earth, and from this introduction Yerzhan’s story is set out in three parts: “Before”, “The Destiny”, and “The Salt of the Myth” – each with an alternative title composed of musical notes that echo both Yerzhan’s prodigious skills with a violin and dombra and his onward march to the final act of his story. It’s impossible not to admire Ismailov: The Dead Lake is tragic, yet never descends into melodrama, it’s a horror story without the hamming up, a star-crossed romance that has nothing trite about it. Andrew Bromfield’s translation is sensitive and stark, and Ismailov a force to be reckoned with.

Image from andotherstories.org

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, 2018)

There had to be a Year of Publishing Women book in my suitcase! Pure Hollywood is a collection of short stories by American author Christine Schutt. I confess that the short story genre isn’t generally my favourite (though Fish Soup may have converted me): I invest in the characters and then the page is turned on them; I start a new story still filled with thoughts about the last one; there’s always a disappointing one that I like less than the others.  I’m full of excuses for avoiding them, but I’m glad this one found me: Pure Hollywood is the antidote to vapid, happy-ever-after tales. It introduces, among others, a young widow left penniless after her (much older) comedian husband dies and leaves his wealth to his children, a fractious child whose desperate parents resort to a babysitter with tragic consequences, a snooty woman whose rudeness to a younger woman on a horse ride has (wait for it) tragic consequences, two ageing men coming to terms with the past and imminent loss of their respective wives, and a newly-wed couple who befriend a misanthropic painter with (you guessed it) tragic consequences. But though I may joke about Schutt’s penchant for eschewing a happy ending, the stories are refreshing and invigorating: they are not neat, at least not in the sense of being tied up with a pretty bow. They leave you to think and to wonder, they are written in a brutally poetic style (“He fell over the railing and cracked his skull and many other bones that gave him shape”), sharply observed (a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea”) and all too believable (“Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead”). But despite the bleak undertones of Schutt’s stories, they are far from depressing; rather, they showcase a pithy candour:

“Oh.”
The little oh was all that was left of Dan’s story, the one that played out in his head about a husband with a ponytail and his purposeful, dying wife. As far as Dan was concerned, Nancy Cork was a woman needful and deserving of more love than her self-absorbed husband could give, whereas he could give… oh.
He could not put a name to it or perhaps ever find it again.

Without a subscription, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, and so it highlights the valuable ways in which independent presses can influence reading choices.

So that’s my holiday reading rounded up for 2018. If you have any recommendations for summer 2019, I’m all ears!

“An elegant surpassing of the truth”: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2015)

I’m delighted to welcome another guest contributor to the blog today: Katie Brown has been a great supporter of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project since its launch (and was the one who urged me to read Umami!), so you can imagine my joy when she recently accepted a job in the Modern Languages department here at Exeter. Today she’s writing about a fascinating author-translator collaboration that offers new perspectives on the creativity of translation acts and which is, I hope, the first of many collaborations with Katie. You can find out more about her on the Guest Contributor page, and on her blog.

*NB: there will be a 3-week break from the blog after this post, as I am taking my summer holiday. We’ll be back mid-August!*

How do the stories we tell influence the value of objects? Are authors’ and artists’ names any more valuable than other people’s? These are just some of the questions addressed by Valeria Luiselli’s third book, The Story of my Teeth, both through its content and its collaborative creation.

The Story of my Teeth is a genre-defying book. Critics have referred to it variously as a novel, an essay, autofiction and biofiction, or a mixture of them all. The book begins as the relatively straight-forward life story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway”, a picaresque old man whose talents include impersonating Janis Joplin and interpreting fortune cookies. In the first of seven chapters, titled The Story (Beginning, Middle and End), Highway recounts his life from childhood, his work at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City, his failed relationships, how he became an auctioneer, and his quest to replace his malformed teeth. Then through a series of chapters referred to as hyperbolics, parabolics, and allegorics, we see Highway firstly purport to sell the teeth of famous essayists throughout history and later auction a collection of objects stolen from an art gallery through tangentially related stories. The Elliptics then retells Highway’s story from an outsider’s point of view, making us view the first story in a new, much more poignant light.

An unusual protagonist, Highway brings charm and heart to questions about art and literature which might otherwise risk being seen as “too clever.” He explains his “hyperbolic” auctioneering model in this way:

“As the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.”

Luiselli implies that the methods of cheeky auctioneer – inspired in part by Luiselli’s uncle who worked in the giant street market in Mexico City – are not that different from those of international art dealers, only Highway is more honest about it. The Story of my Teeth began life when Luiselli was approached by Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, curators of the exhibition “El cazador y la fábrica” (The Hunter and the Factory) at the Jumex Gallery, to write a story for their exhibition catalogue. The gallery houses the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America and is funded by the profits of the juice factory. The curators reportedly planned the exhibition as a response to questions about urban isolation and the separation of the gallery from its surrounding area, although the exhibition itself gave few clues to this. Luiselli agreed to write a piece for the exhibition catalogue on the agreement that the workers of the juice factory could be involved in its creation. A group of workers met regularly in the factory to read chapters sent to them by Luiselli, discuss them and give feedback based on their own experiences, which was recorded and sent back to Luiselli in New York, who would then incorporate this into new drafts. Luiselli insists that the story is as much theirs as it is hers, in what Aaron Brady in the LA Review of Books calls “an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius.”

The idea of the artistic genius is questioned throughout The Story of my Teeth, as we see everyday characters given the names of Latin American writers, such as newspaper seller Rubén Darío or policeman Yuri Herrera. Luiselli even makes an appearance herself as a mediocre high school student whose parents send her to elocution classes. At the same time, Luiselli makes canonical thinkers part of Highway’s family, such as Miguel Sánchez Foucault or Marcelo Sánchez Proust. This caused uproar among literary critics in Mexico, who claimed that writers’ names are somehow sacred. I find this use of names as “readymades” in the style of avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp quite ambiguous: on the one hand, it breaks down class barriers, asking readers why a writer would deserve any more respect than a factory worker; but on the other hand, it only really appeals to those who keep up-to-date with the Latin American literary scene, as this is necessary to get the joke. While I really enjoyed spotting names of writers whose work I love, when I teach the book to my undergrads, it went over their heads.

“The story behind The Story of my Teeth encourages us to question terms like ‘original’ and ‘fidelity,’ and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation.”

So, more than for its thought-provoking subject material, I love to teach The Story of my Teeth as an example of the collaboration between the author and the translator. Valeria Luiselli speaks fluent English, but prefers to work closely with a translator, not to translate, but to rewrite the text with help from fresh eyes. Luiselli and Christina MacSweeney spent time together in New York working on the new text, and while MacSweeney was translating, she even listened to the same music Luiselli had been listening to as she wrote. The Story of my Teeth was the very deserving winner of the prestigious Valle Inclán Prize for translations from Spanish in 2016, whose judges, as well as many reviewers, were particularly impressed by how MacSweeney challenges the traditional invisibility of the translator. Most notably, she has added a new chapter, called “The Chronologics,” to the end of the book, a timeline which places Highway’s life within Mexican and Latin American history and makes it clear to English readers that the names which appear through the text are those of contemporary Latin American authors. MacSweeney told me that she didn’t want “dry as dust translator’s notes”, so instead set out to provide information which could help orient foreign readers in a creative way.

Beyond this most visible change, comparison with the Spanish reveals a whole series of edits to the book, which substantially alter its interpretation. The Spanish epigraphs, for example, are an anonymous quote about death and teeth and a line from Johnny Cash, whereas the English has a series of epigraphs from semioticians placed before each chapter, making it clear to readers that this book is about meaning making and the significance of words. Similarly, the English version makes the link between Highway’s auction of random objects (a stuffed toy, a false leg) and the art gallery much more explicit. New scenes are added in which Highway and his accomplice steal these objects from the gallery, and whereas the Spanish simply gives the stories inspired by the objects, the English gives the artists’ names – slightly altered of course (Doug Sánchez Aitken, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson) – as well as an exorbitant listing price for each, which is mocked when Highway sells the whole lot to a junkyard for 100 pesos.

Such changes have already been included in translations into other languages, and are expected to be included in the second Spanish edition of the book. The story behind The Story of my Teeth – from its collaborative inception to its continuing evolution in translation – encourages us to question terms like ”original” and ”fidelity,” and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation. Like Highway’s stories, each new version is an “elegant surpassing” of the former.

 

The collective memory of a generation: Annie Ernaux, The Years

Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo, 2018)

The opening line of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a modern masterpiece, and I was delighted when Fitzcarraldo sent me a copy for review. Publisher Jacques Testard describes The Years as “a monumental account of twentieth-century French social history as refracted through the life of one woman”, and this is about as accurate a statement as anyone could come up with to describe The Years. It’s a tremendous, poignant, necessary book, but there’s a big issue for the translation: how will something so steeped in French cultural history translate to another context, and into another language?

Firstly, although you don’t need to have read any Ernaux to enjoy this book, any reader who has read other texts based on Ernaux’s life will recognise a number of important references in here: her mother’s illness and decline, her reflections on growing up in a post-war working class milieu, her relationships (including her first sexual relationship, an adult affair, and an illegal abortion) and her use of photographs to frame a narrative all feature in other works by Ernaux, and are presented in a different way here. In fact, “presented in a different way” could sum up everything about this book: it challenges perceptions of autobiography, balances personal triumphs and quiet tragedies with historical atrocities and the implacable passing of time, and offers a fascinating overview of life in France from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Testard advertises The Years as a “collective autobiography”, but there is more to be said on this. In one sense it is not collective, since it is written and narrated by only one person, but it is certainly not a “traditional” memoir. Rather, it is an individual voice representing a collective one: Ernaux herself describes it as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed around photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated. The “collective” aspect is evidenced in the most striking feature of this sort-of-autobiography: Ernaux never uses the first person singular. She does not speak as “I”, but rather “we”, or occasionally “one.” This narrative style mirrors Ernaux’s own description of the way her relatives told stories of World War II: “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Adopting the same narrative strategy elevates this from a personal memoir, and instead makes it about events that affected people of Ernaux’s generation: in this way, The Years becomes an artefact for the collective memory of a generation. In the translation, the pronoun most regularly used is “we”, which creates an inclusivity akin to that of the French impersonal pronoun “on”, but on the few occasions when Strayer uses “one” in the English translation, it stood out as a little jarring to me (“It was quite enough that you had to be afraid of making love, now that everyone knew AIDS was not only a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, contrary to what one had first believed”; “Just getting tested was suspect, an avowal of unspeakable misconduct. One had it done at the hospital, secretly, with a number, avoiding eye contact in the waiting room.”) I can see why Strayer chose the impersonal “one” here, as using “we” in the first instance implies that she and her peers initially believed AIDS to be a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, and in the second instance would confirm that she and her peers went to the hospital for AIDS tests. I imagine that the sudden shift to “one” was a decision not made lightly, but can’t help thinking that something truly impersonal (the non-specific mass noun “people”, for example, or a passive, if we accept a shift in agency), might have stuck out a little less here – especially in the first instance, when the subject shifts from “you” to “everyone” to “one”.

Where the impersonal pronouns do work well, and map neatly onto the French original, is in Ernaux’s description of herself via photographs in the third person singular, “she.” The woman in the photographs hopes to write about “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation,” and this is the great strength of The Years: its universality. Anyone who lived through the events Ernaux describes – even if not as closely as those who lived in France – will be able to relate to the global political shifts of the last sixty years (“1968 was the first year of the world”) and the technological advances of the 21st century (“a world that moves ahead in leaps and bounds”). Nonetheless, Ernaux eschews self-congratulation for her enterprise, noting with irony that “in the humdrum routine of personal existence, History did not matter. We were simply happy or unhappy, depending on the day.” This daily life is in part deliberately banal, in part coloured by history, but always recognisable and always beautifully observed. The Years is nostalgic yet still contemporary, from the pronouncement that progress means buying more to the description of fearing Arabs on the street during the Algerian war.

Women’s history is, unsurprisingly, at the forefront of many of the historical narratives: from equal access to education and “the deadly time ruled by their blood” that preceded the legalisation of contraception to the facilitating of backstreet abortions being likened to the Resistance of World War 2 and the revolution of May ’68, Ernaux brings to life a specifically female experience of “the years”. These are underlined by a gritty realism, however, as May ’68 is described as neither as momentous nor as glorious as the recurrent camera images, and Ernaux notes that “the struggle of women sank into oblivion. It was the only struggle that had not been officially revived in collective memory.” The Years helps to combat this, reviving the struggle of women in a conscious contribution to collective memory, and an attempt to allow a generation to own its collective history.

“Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to ‘tell the story of the time-before.’”

The Years is a book that defies translation: how can we translate a novel that is like a memory box of post-war French culture? Yet we have to try, and that Strayer has produced a page-turning, non-alienating piece of literature is a remarkable feat. There are some minor inconsistencies in the translation, though. For example, song and book titles are sometimes given in French with no footnote, sometimes given in French with a translation in the footnote, and sometimes given in translation. It must have been quite an endeavour for the translator to decide which would be recognisable more universally, and which would not. Radio and television shows are dealt with in the same way: Les Guignols de l’Info is given a footnote, but Allô Macha is not. The quintessentially French “minitel” (a pre-internet information system) is left as “the minitel”, and one footnote makes reference to “an untranslatable fart joke.” Strayer’s approach mostly seems to correspond to Michael Hoffman’s position that “what matters to me[…] is providing an experience, not footnoting one that might have been in had in another language, if only the reader had been conversant in that” – she provides an experience with minimal footnoting, recognising that it will not be the same and that endless footnotes would not make it any more comparable to the original. Though there is the occasional inconsistency or turn of phrase that gave me pause for thought, these are small details in an otherwise beautiful manuscript, that takes Ernaux’s masterpiece and offers it as an experience to a new readership.

As a true meta-narrative, the book ends with the woman in the photographs deciding to write down her story, which will be “a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.” To cover more than half a century in such incisive detail, in under 250 pages, is an achievement in itself: the passing of time is palpable throughout, but the narrative never feels rushed. Rather, this is a handing-down of an obligation to remember. Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to “tell the story of the time-before”; translating this important work into English contributes to this imperative to remember.

The Years ends as it began, with snapshots from images that will disappear (at the beginning) to memories she wants to save (at the end). It is, perhaps, no coincidence that she talks of “saving” things in the digital age, and this is one of the great achievements of The Years: it saves a common time, a collective memory, and “the lived dimension of History.”

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.