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Monday, 23 December 2013

Not lost in translation – 2 – other languages

An earlier FaceBook discussion about the paucity of foreign language books translated into English prompted me to check out my own library.  Below are two images of a quarter of the library. The other shelves are elsewhere… These books here are in the main fiction, with some reference and art books and Jen’s Spanish tomes. I must admit that the majority of translated works on the shelves are not modern authors, after all, and some I have yet to read (among several hundred others!)

Previously, I looked at the German and French translations on my shelves. Here, there’s the Spanish, Russian, Czech, Chinese, Norwegian, Swedish, Egyptian and Japanese!

Here you’ll find Chekhov (his short stories fill several volumes), Kafka – perhaps the most popular non-English, non-German or non-French novelists translated. Also, Lampedusa's The Leopard and Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek.

Others are, in no particular order:

The classic Tirant Lo Blanc by Martorell and de Galba was originally published in Catalan in 1490. Begun by a Valencian knight, Joanot Martorell, it was completed after his death by another knight, Marti Joan  de Galba. Cervantes called the book ‘the best book of its kind in the world’ and was naturally influenced by it for his ‘knight of the woeful countenance, Quixote’ in 1605. My copy is dated 1984, the first non-Hispanic translation. Its 600+ pages mixes genres, reveals chivalric encounters and erotic dalliance in an admittedly dated style. If you enjoyed Don Quixote, you’ll love Tirant Lo Blanc.

I bought La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas for Jen just after it first came out in translation in 1984. First published in 1885, it was attacked by critics as an ‘obscene religious monstrosity.’ Its subject is a shabby provincial Spanish town and a woman’s unsuccessful, even disastrous quest for fulfilment through marriage, adultery and religion. Over 700 pages. Alas, Alas gained little success with his writing in his short lifetime; he died aged 49, though his book The Judge’s Wife (La Regenta) is now considered one of the outstanding works of Spanish literature.

The Swede, Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy which has had phenomenal success, even though the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not promising ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’.

Nobel Prize winner Colombian Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude is his most famous – I highlighted the number of times ‘solitude’ figured in the text, and it was a lot. His novel Autumn of the Patriarch consisted of three paragraphs! His collection of short stories, Strange Pilgrims features ‘The Saint’ which was movingly filmed by him as The Miracle in Rome.

Sticking with Nobel prize-winners in a foreign language, there’s Norwegian Knut Hamsun – Picador published many of his books, including Hunger, Growth of the Soil and Victoria. He employs humour and irony and reveals everyday life, often using flashbacks and stream of consciousness. Isaac Beshevis Singer says that the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. Ernest Hemingway stated that “Hamsun taught me to write.”

And there’s the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, whose Cairo Trilogy is beautifully rendered – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street; revealing a Cairo unrecognisable today.
Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin was published in 1831, six years before he received a mortal wound in a duel, aged 37. The translation of poetry is fraught with problems, particularly if there is any rhyme in the original. My 1977 translation by Sir Charles Johnson owes a debt to the Vladamir Nabokov translation and commentary ‘to produce a reasonably accurate rhyming version.’

‘She’s in the wood, the bear still trails her.
There’s powdery snow up to her knees;
now a protruding branch assails her
and clasps her neck; and now she sees…’ – Chapter 5, verse XIV
Arturo Pérez-Reverte hit it big with his first novel The Fencing Master and has become one of Spain’s best-selling authors. His book The Seville Communion is about a hacker who gets into the Pope’s personal computer to leave a warning about mysterious deaths in Seville… His other books include The Flanders Panel, The Ninth Gate and The Dumas Club.

Another modern Spaniard is Ildefonso Falcones. His book The Hand of Fatima (2010) is a 960 page epic set in the Kingdom of Granada in the 1500s, blood-letting between Christian and Moor.

And one of the biggest sellers recently is Carlos Ruiz Zafón with his The Shadow of the Wind. What a concept, the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles. Young Daniel chooses the book of the title and his future life is influenced by his obsession with its author; magic, murder and madness in Barcelona.
Isabel Allende is quite prolific, delving into magic realism and Young Adult fiction. My copy of Zorro is an excellent story of adventure that honours the original by Johnston McCulley. She came to prominence with The House of the Spirits.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, is an 11th century Japanese romance in 1090 pages, describing the court of Heian Japan. Some mystery surrounds the original author, though scholars believe it to be Murasaki; this is not helped by the fact that in Heian Japan it was bad manners to record the names of wellborn ladies, except, oddly, imperial consorts and princesses of the blood. Her sobriquet Shikibu stems from an office held by her father. My paperback edition is adorned with illustrations from woodcuts taken from a 1650 Japanese edition.
Professor Josef Skvorecky emigrated to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. His book The Bass Saxophone is two novellas about life under totalitarian rule, evoking jazz as a voice of freedom and individuality. His magnum Opus is The Engineer of Human Souls (1977, translated 1985), relating youthful romance, attempted sabotage of a German-run factory, the underground literary life under Communism, not forgetting the saxophone and jazz… In some ways it is reminiscent of Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the annoying little sergeant who bucked authority and was a role model for many Czechs who hated their Soviet oppressors. I read Svejk for research for my (now out of print) book The Prague Manuscript:

As he stood watching them vanish into the forest, Janek was torn in two. He ached to go with them ... He wanted to escape ... But he must think of Janna. She was so close to her parents, she wouldn’t want to jeopardize their lives by running off. So he had lied: he would not go out the next time; in fact, never as long as Janna’s ailing parents lived, never as long as the possibilities of reprisals existed. They all remembered the massacre at Lidice too well.

            In May 1942 Hitler’s butcher, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated by the Czech patriots Jan Kubis and Josef Gabchik near Prague. In what seemed like a random reprisal, the village of Lidice, some eighteen kilometers northwest of Prague, was chosen and, on a day in June, all its men were shot, all the women and older children shipped to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, while the younger children were farmed out to German foster homes. The village was burned and bulldozed so that no trace remained. The arrogant SS filmed all of it.

            Janek’s rage turned in on itself. He had to direct it at something, someone. He checked his machine carbine and deliberately strode over to the cellar door.

            He stood there, his legs unsteady, as if he was on the edge of a precipice. An inner part of his mind warned him. Killing in cold blood was not their way. They weren’t butchers like Heydrich; they must fight repression with non-violence. They must create confusion and strife amongst the Soviet occupying forces. In the true Svejkian manner!

            The Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek’s character, The Good Soldier Svejk had been adopted during the war – and again at the time of the Soviet invasion. Svejk, the little fellow, fighting authority, by following orders verbatim, reducing bureaucrats and politicians to absurdity. “Svejkovina,” Janek whispered to himself: the way Svejk does it.
Chinese author Ye Zhaoyan wrote Nanjing 1937 in 1996 and it was translated in 2002. It’s a love story overshadowed by the infamous Japanese invasion. An epic of modern Chinese literature. This terrible event will have some pertinence in one of my upcoming novels.
Alexander Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights (1976) is a satire on Soviet Russia. The translator’s comments suggest I should cut down on my puns if I ever want to be translated: ‘To render a pun from one language to another in such a way that both the meaning and the joke are conveyed is one of the hardest tasks an author can set his translator.’ The book’s title is a pun against the Soviet jargon – the Russian ‘yawning’ as in boring, rather than ‘radiant’ as used by Soviet speechmakers. Zinoviev uses a fictitious place, Ibansk. ‘The Ibanskians do not live, but carry out epoch-making experiments.’

So, even taking a look at my limited book collection, there is a wide variety and richness of fiction being translated into English. Admittedly, there are probably never enough of the new authors, though best-sellers in any country do tend to get translated.

Another later blog will look at Modern World Literature.


Kathleen Janz-Anderson said...

Nik. I admire you not only as an excellent author, but also for your vast knowledge of history and the love you have for books. You’re so inspiring. My wish is to get a place at the beach for month and read, read, read.

Nik said...

Thanks for those kind words, Kathleen! Do let me know when your wish is granted... :)