Playing with Fire: Translation and Its Challenges

The London Reads the World Book Club (which stretches far beyond the confines of London, as we have people calling in from Italy and the US, as well as me just outside the M25) reads books in translation. For November, we had chosen not one but two books, which work very well together: Chilean writer Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, translated by Daniel Hahn, and Hahn’s Catching Fire, a real-time diary of blog posts that he wrote while translating the book, now reunited in one volume.

Photo credit: Charco Press

Both are published by the tiny but mighty Charco Press, who specialises in Latin American literature, and whom I’ve loved since it first appeared on the publishing scene. I had followed Danny’s diary as he was writing it, but missed the occasional post and had forgotten most of it, so it was a lovely reread. But it was my first time reading the book. Most of us in the book club read the diary first and then the book, and I think I would recommend doing it that way round, because the book itself can be quite a challenging read, so it helps to know a bit more about it. We were also fortunate to have Danny join us on Zoom and tell us even more about his experience of translating the book, which added to my understanding and appreciation of it.

I admit that I admired rather than loved the book – because I found the subject matter quite difficult. It takes place mostly in the small flat, in the bed even, of a couple who used to belong to an underground revolutionary cell in the past, and who have lost a child because back then they did not dare to go the hospital and thereby risk discovery. We don’t find out much more than that, this could take place at any time (it’s been fifty years, a century, a thousand years since Franco died) and in any country that has experienced a dictatorial regime where protest was punishable with torture and imprisonment. But we could also be talking about a radical leftist group like the FARC, since there seems to be talk about discipline, training of cadres, carrying out orders. The plot, such as it is, is so obliquely done that some of us thought the narrator was talking about an abortion rather than a child. I was convinced the two revolutionaries were getting old, because there is constant talk of physical pain, of bones and limbs struggling to unfold. However, Danny pointed out that even that is not beyond doubt, as it could be that their bodies are suffering the consequences of torture or years of living ‘underground’ with no medical services, rather than age.

Nevertheless, it feels to me like a novel about the loss of revolutionary ideals and beliefs, seeing that the world has not changed so much after all, in spite of all the personal sacrifices that the rebels have made. Yet there are hints that even the idealistic youthful impulses were not quite as spontaneous and free as one might think.

… we used to take each other’s hands at the sound of The Internationale, its music, its words that are so eloquent or persuasive, a mythical line-up of elated bodies that are young, so young and already shackled to The Internationale as we sealed an urgent commitement to history and you sang and I struggled to fix the song’s words in my mind, I didn’t want to get them wrong, it was dangerous, yes, changing a single word or a syllable within those great sparking lines and transforming the song, the International no less, into trouble, demolishing it utterly to rubble.

It is rare to encounter a book that is, as the translator describes it, so uncompromising. The author makes no concessions for the reader: she refuses to disambiguate events, characters, who is speaking, or what has happened. The ambiguity is deliberate, everything in the book feels slippery, all our knowledge and certainties are ready to fall at any minute. You can tell that this is a deliberate effect, because there are also passages that are more literal, that are descriptive and simple: where the female narrator goes out into the world and cares for old people in their homes. The descriptions of wiping their bums and cleaning their dirty bedsheets are not the most lyrical, but they are deeply affecting and therefore effective. Yet I was equally as fascinated by the infuriatingly repetitive passages, the incriminations and self-justifications as the couple argue with each other. You don’t often get a glimpse of what the Baader-Meinhof gang might have been like if they’d grown old and disillusioned (and less terrorist). The only way to read this book is to allow yourself to be taken into its wildwater like a raft and emerge somewhat shaken and most definitely stirred on the other side.

But as a translator, of course, you cannot do that. So how can you recreate that effect in another language, without completely confusing the reader and making them want to give up? Especially when in English you might miss even the small clues you get in Spanish regarding gender or number of people speaking. I think he has succeeded very well in conveying that sense of discombobulation and claustrophobia that the novel provokes in its readers.

I would recommend reading the two books in tandem, as we did, although perhaps not when you are reading other books in parallel which are also slippery, tricky and delve deep into the human psyche (like Solenoid and The Loft). I think I need something very light and fluffy now, for a change.

12 thoughts on “Playing with Fire: Translation and Its Challenges”

  1. This sounds like a difficult couple of reads at any time, but perhaps particularly now when the world is not at all in a good place. They sound like a pair of books one could always find an excuse for not reading, until … tomorrow … or next week maybe?

    1. The book about translation was not a hard read – and I think it’s designed to appeal to general readers as well as translators, it’s merely a look under the bonnet of translation at the time of doing it. Fascinating!

      1. I’m not a translator, but it’s an art I really admire. Getting the nuances right in a way that reads well in the langage the book’s being translated into, and captures the writer’s style – what a challenge! So yes, perhaps I need to read this.

  2. Such an interesting combination, although I’m not sure I have the stomach for Never Did the Fire at the moment. I find translation fascinating. My copy editor friend has described itching to make changes to manuscripts that she knows she musn’t. I imagine a translator might feel that with knobs on at times.

    1. You can imagine what it’s like for me when I am both translator and editor for a book, as I often am for Corylus! Gets hard to trust your own judgement, too…

  3. You’ve really described the challenge of translation effectively, Marina Sofia. How do you give readers the experience the author planned, but not use the same language to do it? How fascinating to have that inside look into how it works.

  4. Perfect for the translated week of Novellas in November. Never Did the Fire does sound like a difficult read, but what an interesting experience to read it in conjunction with the translator’s thoughts.

  5. Goodness, that does indeed sound like a challenging translation exercise, and the diary must be fascinating (I like reading accounts of how writers work on a project, whether translation or something like Sarah LeFanu’s ‘Dreaming of Rose’. I think the uncompromising nature of this novel would certainly be quite a challenge, and I can understand why you would admire rather than love!

  6. I am in awe of people who can translate. I am rubbish at languages, and it makes me so sad. If I could have any super power in the world, it would be to read, write, speak, and understand every language there is. I feel like I am missing out on so much by only speaking one language. I’m trying to learn German now, and would love to learn Italian, as well.

  7. Such an interesting post, especially to hear Daniel’s perspective as a translator. The more I read about the art of translation, the more I appreciate the skill and artistry involved. A fascinating activity, complete with all the subtleties and challenges.

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