Tag Archives: Tina Kover

REVIEW: Cécile Coulon, A Beast in Paradise

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2021)

A Beast in Paradise is the English-language debut of Cécile Coulon, and deals with the tragedy and determination of a farming family in rural France. The opening is a scene of bucolic tranquillity: “On either side of the narrow road snaking through rich green field, the green of storms and of gras, flowers – enormous, pale-hued, fragile-stemmed flowers – bloom all year round. They run alongside this ribbon of asphalt until it joins up with a path marked by a wooden stake, capped by a sign reading:

YOU HAVE REACHED PARADISE”

We are invited into Paradise, a sprawling farm whose topography is mapped out for us in the first two pages, until we encounter an elderly lady with a long memory standing in the empty pigpen. The idyll is broken in the final line of this first chapter, in a style that will come to be recognisable as one of the contrasts that characterise Coulon’s storytelling: “one beast comes here each morning, to mourn.
Blanche.”

Then a flashback begins, first to a key episode in Blanche’s adolescence and then to her childhood. Presiding over Paradise is Blanche’s grandmother Émilienne, whose dedication to the farm and its occupants – both human and animal – holds the family together and gives them a purpose: in Paradise, “everything began and ended with her.” When her daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident on the perilous hairpin bend leading to the farm, Émilienne is left to raise their infant children Blanche and Gabriel. Her own devastation is rarely mentioned: Émilienne is a woman who raises herself up and marches on.

In addition to her grandchildren, Émilienne takes in a young man named Louis who starts to work on the farm after the death of Blanche’s parents. Louis is systematically beaten by his father and one evening flees to Paradise in search of a refuge that he assumed would be only temporary, but which Émilienne calmly makes permanent. Louis becomes her trusted farmhand, as devoted to Paradise as Émilienne is. Paradise is a haven, but also a succubus, a place that lives inside its inhabitants as much as they dwell within it: Émilienne is part of the herd; Louis’ greatest connection to Blanche is their shared attachment to Paradise, “consuming, voracious, untameable”; even Gabriel, the only one who eventually summons up the strength to leave, is cursed with a black tree that had “taken root inside him in early childhood, a tree watered with fury by his parents’ deaths.”

Headstrong Blanche and sickly Gabriel are marked out as different because of their family tragedy, and have few friends at school. Though Gabriel has an interesting story arc in his own right, the focus is on Blanche: this is a girl who circumstances have “turned into a warrior at five years old.” As the children stumble into adolescence, Blanche’s proximity awakens feelings in Louis that she recognises but can never reciprocate – she only has eyes for Alexandre, the golden boy of the class. This is the love story that will raise Blanche up and then knock her down, and which forms the majority of the novel’s intrigue. Alexandre is wholly undeserving of Blanche, an unremarkable man with “big ideas, big dreams and little words” who has erected around himself a hubris of brilliance that fools everyone but Louis. Yet Louis, whose feelings for Blanche are widely known, is assumed to be simply jealous of Alexandre, and all his warnings go unheeded.

The great strength of the narrative is the way in which it builds up the tension towards the dénouement: in reality, years pass with very little happening, yet there is something compulsive about the awareness that something dramatic is looming. The balance between bucolic idyll and emotional and physical ferocity is also a key feature, and one that is particularly well rendered in Kover’s translation. Deep emotions burst out of careful restraint, and in these moments the expression is exquisite (“Her body remained upright through pure reflex, but inside, her whole soul, the soul made up of all the ages she had been, all the experiences she had had, caved in”). Indeed, the entire novel is sensitively translated, particularly the shifts in tone but also the smaller details of vocabulary: the path to Paradise is “pocked with brown puddles”, tiny insects go “skittering” up Blanche’s arms, one character “soils another with shame.”

The feature I most enjoyed about A Beast in Paradise, however, was the question over who the beast is – and what we understand by “beast”. The word appears in various contexts, and the perspectives on monstrosity are extremely clever: I got entirely the wrong idea about who was going to do what to whom, and so as the events developed I found myself spellbound by a story I hadn’t anticipated at all. Most of all, each time I put this book down I really looked forward to getting back to it. A Beast in Paradise is one of those books that reminds you that you don’t have to “relate” to characters – they can be completely different from you, and still draw you in. In particular, the build-up to the final revelation is outstanding, and after I’d finished reading I was left thinking about it for days. This is a story of ordinary lives and extraordinary pain, and a superb English-language debut.

REVIEW: Translators Aloud YouTube channel

Earlier this year, literary translators Charlie Coombe and Tina Kover set up Translators Aloud, a YouTube channel dedicated to putting translators in the spotlight. The channel grew from a speculative tweet by Tina, who at the time was considering reading a section from one of her translations and wondered whether there would be an audience for it. The response was definite and affirmative: not only did people want to hear it, but many other translators had also had similar thoughts and fears. Buoyed by this wave of response, Charlie suggested setting up a YouTube channel: by the end of that same day Translators Aloud (which was given its activism-meets-popular-culture name by Open University PhD student Babs Spicer) had been created.

On the channel, Charlie and Tina post regular short videos of translators reading from their work. A fruit of the global lockdown which Charlie says came about because “we were both looking for something inspiring to focus on” at a difficult and restricted time, it is a venture that brings together the best of a virtual community. Translators Aloud shares work at a time when it has not been possible to meet in person, using the modern technologies we’ve never appreciated so much until now to create a positive space for exchange. Translators Aloud is not only an excellent platform for translators trying to promote or pitch their work, but also a space in which to represent voices from around the world, bringing cultures together at a time when we are physically distanced and subjected to powerful discourses of division. It also advocates for the visibility of the translator, showing explicitly how these texts became available in English by having them read by the people who wrote the English versions.

The channel has grown in popularity and diversity, with almost 700 subscribers to date; there are over a hundred videos available to view, with the readings grouped into playlists for easy navigation. There were a number of special posts to mark International Translation Day on 30 September, notably videos from the wonderful Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Ros Schwartz, in which they give guidance to aspiring literary translators on how to pitch projects and read from their own work. Tina says this is the feature she’s most proud of, as “it felt like we were helping our community and our colleagues, and that was great.” As an added International Translation Day bonus, you can also watch Emily Wilson give a dramatic reading of her controversial and highly acclaimed translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

You won’t be surprised to learn that my favourite playlist is the one devoted to readings of women in translation. I’m always slightly wary of grouping translations by original language (though I fully recognise the convenience and simplicity of doing so) because it can potentially mean that less dominant languages still don’t get the same recognition that the “big” languages (such as French and Spanish) do, and so for me the themed playlists do exactly what I want from publicising translations – they promote diversity, encourage us to look beyond our own bubbles or what we think we like or identify with, and discover something new.

When I asked Tina and Charlie about their hopes for the future, Tina had this to say: “Obviously I hope we’ll continue to attract subscribers, and to boost sales of translated books as people discover these wonderful readings and are inspired to buy books they wouldn’t even have heard of otherwise. But right now what I’m most excited about is our new ‘Seeking a Publisher’ playlist, which features as-yet-undiscovered projects that are ripe and ready to be picked up, with the English-language rights available. If we can help in bringing more world literature to the market, I would feel incredibly satisfied that we’d really made a difference at the end of the day.”

That notion of “making a difference” is so close to my heart, as if we don’t actively do what we can to make that difference, challenging universal structures or dominant narratives, then we allow an incomplete and inadequate status quo to perpetuate itself. Those of you familiar with my more academic research focus will know that I’m currently writing a book on the agency and activism of translators and publishers, so this comment from Charlie about her hopes for the channel’s growth also very much hit home for me: “I am really keen to increase awareness of how important translators are in the process of a foreign language book getting published in English, increasing awareness of what we do in general, and also increasing transparency in the publishing process. This all goes back to the main aim of Translators Aloud which is to shine the spotlight on translators.”

Any initiative that makes translators more visible gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me, and Translators Aloud is a wonderful community resource that both fosters and thrives on engagement and inclusion, and one which I hope will continue to grow in scope and success. You can see more in any of the hyperlinks, or follow my viewing recommendations below.

You can probably guess my first two recommendations, since Charlie and Tina have translated two of my favourite authors, and in my list you’ll also spot a number of books I’ve reviewed on this blog – if my review hasn’t already encouraged you to discover the book, hopefully the translators reading from their work will do so!

Tina Kover reads from Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental (Europa Editions, 2018)

Charlie Coombe reads from Margarita García Robayo’s Holiday Heart (Charco Press, 2020)

Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paul Gordon read from Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small (Istros Books, 2020)

Katy Derbyshire reads from Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (V&Q Books, 2020)

Elisabeth Jaquette reads from ‘Edges’ by Rania Mamoun, from Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Annie McDermott reads from ‘The Same Stone’ by Edurne Portela, from Europa28 (edited by Sarah Cleave and Sophie Hughes, Comma Press, 2020)

Richard Philcox reads from Maryse Condé’s Waiting for the Waters to Rise (World Editions, 2021)

Fiona Graham reads from Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe Books, 2017)

Instructions for submitting work to Translators Aloud are pinned to the Twitter page, and can also be found on the “About” section of the YouTube channel.

Review: The Beauty of the Death Cap, Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Snuggly Books, 2018)

This is the final instalment in a trilogy of reviews of translations by women I met at the Translating Women conference last year (see my reviews of Bellevue and Not My Time To Die for the first two), and it’s also the first of my shorter-format lockdown reviews, a shift I discussed in my open letter a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to all those who wrote to me in response to that letter – it was deeply moving to receive your replies.

The Beauty of the Death Cap is a murderous romp through rural France, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Fans of crime fiction will no doubt enjoy the modern pastiche of an old-fashioned isolated genius with delusions of grandeur and nefarious intent; equally if, like me, you’ve read very little crime fiction, then this is an entertaining place to begin.

Meet Nikonor. He is an elderly and well-to-do resident of Charlanne and inheritor of its chateau, a self-proclaimed “great man” beneath whose refined exterior lies a calculated murderer. Yet this word is never mentioned: Nikonor recounts his crimes in the same way he recounts his everyday life – though the two are inseparable, for Nikonor’s everyday life is consumed by elaborate scheming to rid himself (and the world at large) of all those unworthy imbeciles who have frustrated him. Does this country gentleman sharpen his daggers? Load his pistols? Stock up on arsenic? No, for Nikonor abhors a cliché. He is a mycologist, a specialist in mushroom science, and he knows exactly how much of which species of mushroom will cause an untraceable death. Enemies of Nikonor, beware!

The characterisation and the narration maintain a tongue-in-cheek irony throughout, and though Nikonor is entirely loathsome, I couldn’t help but follow his carefully laid and executed plans with a kind of sadistic glee. If I’m honest, I prefer reading narratives that have strong female characters in the lead role (it’s not as though the literary world is lacking Machiavellian male anti-heroes…) This meant that I didn’t relish Nikonor’s relentless self-aggrandisement, and I confess that the use of phrases such as “Boys will be boys” or describing women as “hysterical” set my teeth on edge. However, I accept that this is a question of characterisation rather than misogyny – we’re not supposed to like Nikonor, after all – and in terms of characterisation it was entirely appropriate, from Nikonor’s condescending footnotes and opinions on the best cheese to his postulating on his own superiority in all things: “All those poets who have penned mawkish tributes to flowers, women and birds since the classic era are vapid fools – dreadful louts suffering from an acute atrophy of the aesthetic gland”; “it was utter madness and completely unthinkable that I would sacrifice my youthful freedom to such drivel.”

Tina Kover translates Doustessyier-Khoze’s debut with a superb blend of darkness and levity, revelling in Nikonor’s affected manner of speaking and rendering his monologue in the tone of a perfect gentleman. Despite Nikonor’s languorous and sometimes florid manner of speaking, there is still a certain urgency to the narrative, which he is committing to paper “before events catch up with me” and he arrives at “the final watershed moment of my life.” He addresses himself consciously to his reader, which is engaging and conspiratorial; his acerbic sense of humour also lends itself brilliantly to English translation, and is communicated with insouciant energy in Kover’s prose. If you’re looking for some amusing yet erudite escapism right now, The Beauty of the Death Cap is a good place to start.

A trio of Translating Women conference books: L-R Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze, THE BEAUTY OF THE DEATH CAP, tr. Tina Kover; Yolande Mukagasana, NOT MY TIME TO DIE, tr. Zoe Norridge; Ivana Dobrokovová, BELLEVUE, tr. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.