Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Video on Translators and Their Rates

You might want to laugh, or possibly cry, at this video on how not to talk to translators about their rates. We probably have all had such experiences!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Monsieur le Commandant

This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

Monsieur le Commandant
by Romain Slocombe, translated by Jesse Browner
190 pp., London: Gallic, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

We’ve surely all read many World War 2 novels. So one might be forgiven for asking what yet another such book could possibly add to the already existent heaps. But it is worth reading Monsieur le Commandant anyway, because it tells the reader about the war from a rather different perspective, and the ending, though what is to come is hinted at, is still shocking. This novel is horrifying and yet it is nonetheless hard to put down.

Monsieur le Commandant is about Paul-Jean Husson, a veteran of World War 1, novelist, and member of the French Academy. He writes a letter – which is the length of the book – to the Nazi officer in charge of his hometown in France, telling him about his life, discussing his political views (all in favour of Nazi policies), and making a special request.

The letter initially lulls the reader. Yes, Husson is clearly a Nazi sympathiser who would like to rid his homeland of unworthy, foreign elements, and yes, he regularly writes extremely anti-Semitic articles, but he is also a successful author with a creative mind, and he is a family man, devoted to his wife, although he cheats on her regularly, and to his two children. But Husson then becomes obsessed with his son’s wife, and it is this unhealthy obsession that drives the plot into more terrifying, and also ironic, territory.

As Husson points out, “I have never indulged in the romantic delusion that writers ought to be saints or heroes to be worshipped at the altar; on the contrary, I Believe that the cultivation of such subversive faculties as the imagination and sensibility carries a clear moral risk. That is why so few writers have led exemplary lives.” (p. 10) Indeed, Husson does not lead an exemplary life.

The protagonist has no fondness for Jews: “Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilisation of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome. Social, because the Jewish mind is critical and subversive to the highest degree; its seditious tendencies, being in no way mitigated by patriotic loyalty, lead it to criticise the institutions of the country to which it has attached itself, sometimes undermining and even destroying them.” (p. 43, italics original)

Beyond his proudly anti-Semitic views, Husson is apparently nothing less than honest in his letter to the Nazi officer (openly discussing his masturbatory fantasies about his daughter-in-law, for example (p. 50), or his attempt to protect a Jew (p. 98)). Nevertheless, this honesty about who he is, what he believes, and how he behaves does not prepare the reader for the choice he makes at the end.

A reader might hope that someone who holds such prejudiced views would change by the end of the book, but perhaps that is not too realistic a wish, given what we know about what actually happened during the Holocaust. The ending will not be given away here, however.

Gallic Press has been publishing “the best of French in English” for six years, and the company is a wonderful resource for anyone who appreciates French literature and/or literature in translation. Monsieur le Commandant was translated by Jesse Browner, an American novelist, food historian, and translator.

And Monsieur le Commandant is a great read that angers and educates in turns, letting readers have access to the perspective of collaborators during World War 2, which is not often depicted in literature.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Market Research

Check out this new publishing company, New Vessel, which clearly is devoted to translated texts. It might be an interesting place to submit work or simply a publisher whose books you want to look for.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

edited by Adam Thirlwell
378 pp., London: Portobello, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

The list of contributors to Multiples reads like a veritable who’s who of contemporary literary superstars (well, as close to superstars as literature ever gets, anyway): Colm Tóibín, Nathan Englander, David Mitchell, Cees Nooteboom, J.M. Coetzee, Aleksander Hemon, Sjón, A.S. Byatt (one of the few women involved), and Jeffrey Eugenides, among around 50 others. Important note, though: they’re all writers and, except for Lydia Davis, few are translators, or appear to have even thought much about translation. Some scarcely know more than their native language.

And yet Multiples is a collection of translations. Odd, isn’t it? So what’s the story?

Editor Adam Thirlwell speaks (as at the recent British Centre for Literary Translation summer school, where I heard him) and writes (as in the introduction to this book) engagingly about why he chose to edit a book of translations by non-translators and what he was hoping to achieve. His hypothesis, he writes, is: “The art of the novel is an international art. Its history is international, and the mechanics of this history is translation—which means that the art of fiction, having survived this history must be tougher than it looks.” (p. 2) He then turned this rather obvious idea into an experiment: “What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working only from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?” (p. 3)

Already the experiment seems rather strange – why would novelists be better able to preserve style than practising, experienced translators? At least that seems to be Thirlwell’s implication, as though translators couldn’t possibly preserve or comment on style.

So how does it all work in Multiples? As an example, Clancy Martin translated Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard’s story “Skrift-Prøver” to English. This is then translated to Dutch by Cees Nooteboom, and that is translated back to English by J.M. Coetzee. Jean-Christophe Valtat translated Coetzee’s work to French, Sheila Heti (who mentions that she barely knows French though her skills are good enough to “arrange a threesome” (p. 51)) translated his to English, and finally Jonas Hassen Khemiri translated Heti’s text to Swedish. And what did we learn from it? Well, the final product ended up rather different from the original and yet had some things in common with it. Hmm.

Many of the writers add a few notes about their experience of translation. Some are more interesting than others, while many comment on their desperate need to “customize”, as Jean-Christophe Valtat put it (p. 51), the text they were working on. Jonas Hassen Khemiri too describes the text as a “straitjacket” (p. 52) and indeed, this is a common feeling. In other words, writers want to make stuff up and change things around, not translate the texts they are given. Okay. Let the translators at the texts then.

So what is actually to be gained from this intricate game of “Operator” (or “Chinese Whispers”, as the less politically correct call it)?

It seems to be, in part, to suggest that style crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries, and also that there is no one style, so writers should feel free to use whatever suits their topics, needs, and abilities. Again, this isn’t news. Thirlwell also adds that “Maybe in some hypothetical future, literature will become the pure international—oblivious to the problems of time and space—and somehow the language in which you write or read your literature will be less important than the singular, multiple structures those languages happen to form…” (p. 14) One might ask how trapped readers and writers actually are by time and space anyway. Readers are arguably more trapped, by not knowing all the languages of the world, but that’s what translators are for, of course.

Yes, well, I suppose this is all interesting enough. For me, it sounds and reads like postmodern shtick:  clever writers trying to show off their cleverness. I’m not sure if they’ve proven anything with this book other than that good translators are great craftspeople and should be valued higher. Writers might want to stick to their writing, while translators can stick to theirs.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Phrases from Falconry

This summer, I went to the wonderful Suffolk Owl Sanctuary. I learned a lot about birds of prey there and really enjoyed my visit. One thing that was particularly interesting from a linguistics point of view is the influence of falconry on the English language.

You can read more about terms we have derived from falconry, such as “hoodwink” or “haggard”, on this website and this one.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Song of King Gesar

This review was originally published in the Wales Art Review.

The Song of King Gesar
by Alai, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin
436 pp., Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

What’s in your heart? Is it a demon? Or a treasure? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Tibetan writer Alai’s novel The Song of Gesar, translated from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin, explores what’s in the hearts of both humans and deities. It’s an epic story from Tibet, told by generations of bards, and now in written format by Alai, the author of a number of novels and collections of poetry and short stories (besides Gesar, only his novel Red Poppies seems available in English).

The novel starts off quite gently, lulling the reader into believing this might be an easy read about the far-off land of Tibet. But soon the reader is hit with paragraphs such as this: “Meanwhile, the demons howled with laughter as they feasted at a banquet of human flesh. First to be eaten were those who had spread rumours. Their tongues were cut out, then their blood was poured into jars and placed on the altar as an offering to evil deities. The demons consumed some of these poor souls, but there were more than they could eat, so the rest were left without their tongues, weeping in remorse and pain. Their wailing streamed past people’s hearts, like a dark river of grief.” (p. 11)

Such passages make the reader (and the characters) wonder whether the gods actually care about humans. Will they help humans or do they expect humans to sort things out on their own? What actually would be best for people? And what are the deities up to anyway? As this might show, The Song of Gesar is part of Canongate’s brilliant Myths series (which also includes work by Ali Smith, Klas Östergren, and Margaret Atwood, among many other important writers), and it’s a vital addition, as this is the first time the Tibetan story has appeared in English.

Alai considers these questions of gods and humans, good and evil, in beautifully written (and beautifully translated) turns of phrases: “The next day the sky shone bright and clear, when the old steward stood on a dais in front of the fortress. The snowdrifts were silently collapsing under the heat of the sun, with water gurgling beneath the white blanket. It was nearly noon, but not a single person could be seen on the roads that led to the tribal lands. The old steward sent soldiers to find them, while he sat on the top tier of the fortress, neither drinking tea nor touching the cheese that was brought to him. Eyes closed, he could hear the snow melting, and when he opened his eyes, he saw steam rising in the sun’s rays. Still no one came. The heat from the sun weakened and, battered by an icy western wind, the steamy vapours turned to grey mist and fog. He sank into gloom. Perhaps he had outlived his usefulness; perhaps he deserved to be abandoned by the people.” (p. 89)

Gesar, the cultural hero of Tibet, the lord of Gling, has fascinating experiences, and at last anglopone readers have access to his story.