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.

Reading Summary for Oct 2022

I had been looking forward so much to this month, the only quiet month I usually have at work. I had planned a week of annual leave, lots of reading, writing, translating, rest. Well, the reading part worked out at least! Most of it comfort reading and clearing up a lot of things that had been hanging around on my Kindle for far too long.

17 books read this month (8 by women writers, 4 in other languages/in translation). It is also the month in which I achieved and overshot my Goodreads challenge for the year. I have now read 139 of my goal of 130 books. Unfortunately, quantity does not always mean quality – and in my case, it usually means that things have been going awry in my personal life, so I have felt the need for lots of bookish escapism.

Escapist reading (to me is mostly crime fiction):

The Clever:

Denise Mina: The Long Drop – a fictional retelling of a true crime case I had not previously heard of: the mix of slippery characters and the recreation of a dodgy 1950s Glasgow was quite irresistible, if sad. Denise Mina is one of my favourite writers working today, crime or not.

Abir Mukherjee: The Shadows of Men – this series gets better and better, and we Western readers are on the same journey as Sam Wyndham in getting to understand Indian culture and history in more depth. I loved the fact that this time we had chapters from the POV of Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee too.

Paul Cleave: The Quiet People – it has often been said that a crime author could get away with murder – but could they really? Such a simple yet clever premise to this novel, plus a main character who does just about everything wrong, yet gets us wondering: what would you do if the media and your neighbours had already judged you and found you guilty?

The Fun

James Oswald: Bury Them Deep – always a pleasure to return to the McLean novels, although the Emma storyline is often as annoying as Ari Thor’s relationship with Kirstin (see below). Effective use of folk horror elements, although it does at times strain credibility, and perhaps a little more information about dogging than I needed to know!

Joy Kluver: Last Seen – proves that debut authors need to work harder than established ones, because it was a tight, good story, a solid police procedural with endearing and promising characters. Missing children storylines always scare me, but this was sensitively done, and I can’t wait to see more of Detective Bernie Noel.

Ian Rankin: A Song for the Dark Times – another return to familiar hunting grounds with Rebus, except this time his daughter is involved, but all the old characters are present and correct, Cafferty, Siobhan, Malcolm Fox. The solution to the ‘mystery’ element itself was perhaps a bit of a letdown, but nevertheless a pleasure to read.

Anthony Horowitz: The Twist of a Knife – consummate storyteller, impossible not to be entertained, especially when the author is gently poking fun at himself and his lack of playwriting success

Julia May Jonas: Vladimir – not really crime fiction, more of a campus novel for quite a niche audience (you will love this if you enjoy books about academics and writers, literary analysis, and a depiction of women’s appetites – food, sex, intellectual stimulation – at whatever age). If you liked the Netflix series The Chair with Sandra Oh, you will probably like this. The ending was a bit too neat, but I enjoyed the journey there.

The Average

A. R. Torre: A Familiar Stranger – a preposterous plot, but perky American fiction, very easy to finish in one day, competently written and amusing, although there were some quite obvious cliches (and a bit of a whiny tone in the main narrator)

Nikki Dudley: Volta – I know this author as a poet and really like her work, so feel mean saying anything negative about her debut novel. I think the problem with this one was that it couldn’t make up its mind if it was crime or romance, so it didn’t quite hit the mark for either.

Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May – Another author I rate as a poet and was curios to encounter as a novelist: an interesting premise (a chance to relive and perhaps repair your mistakes in life in a sort of purgatory with a window on life on earth), and written in a lively, sure-handed way, but became a bit predictable and repetitive towards the end.

Ragnar Jonasson: Winterkill – the last in the Ari Thor series, brought back by popular demand if I understood correctly, and it shows. That annoying wishy-washy relationship with Kirstin, rather predictable storyline (not much of a mystery there), quite pedestrian writing.

Non-Fiction

Two very interesting craft books that I will return to many times, no doubt:

  • Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, while he was translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, is full of interesting discussions about the bigger picture as well as the minutiae of translation challenges and delights
  • Matthew Salesses: Craft in the Real World – a timely reminder of how writing workshops and critiques have been formed by certain cultural expectations, and how they might not suit all writers, particularly marginalised ones. I felt it gave me permission to think and write differently, as well as many ideas of how to improve feedback sessions with my own writing group.

Books I Reviewed or Read for Book Club:

Margarita Garcia-Robayo: Fish Soup – a collection of rather bleak stories from Colombia. Although translator Charlotte Coombe points out the author’s humour in her translator’s notes, I struggled to find it. It was the wrong thing for me to read at this time, but it was for my London Reads the World Book Club.

The remaining two books were probably my favourites this month, and also the only two I reviewed properly. They couldn’t provide more of a contrast: the icy coolness and pared-down style of Winter in Sokcho and my only #1929Club read, the lush, baroque style of Mateiu Caragiale.

Plans for November

I have already started on the #Solenoid2022 readalong with Reem and others on Twitter. I was quietly resisting this, although I had bought the book several years ago in Romania (I am reading it in the original, but the readalong is celebrating Sean Cotter’s long-awaited translation of it). Mircea Cărtărescu has always been a bit hit-and-miss for me (a bit too navel-gazing and narcissistic for my taste, but with great turns of the phrase and some exciting books), but so far I am finding this quite funny and bringing back a lot of memories of living in Bucharest during Communist times.

November is also Novella in November and German Literature Month, so I was initially planning to combine the two by reading shorter works by German/Austrian writers. However, I can feel another set-in-Berlin binge coming on, so I am now setting aside: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung, The Stasi Poetry Circle (non-fiction, although the German author has written this in English), Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath mystery, and perhaps (not a German author, but an expat) Bea Setton’s Berlin. Although I expect two chapters of Solenoid per day will keep me busy for most of the month. As will my current translation project.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (6)

I thought I had the perfect excuse for justifying the vast amount of books that recently joined my household: it’s two months’ worth of incomings. But actually, it’s more like 6 weeks. Time to hit the pause button, I think, especially with the cost of everything going up so much and me contemplating a more part-time role (i.e. lower pay) so that I have more time to write, translate and promote Corylus. In the meantime, however, it’s been inspiration (or greed) galore. And, if I’m honest, book addiction is my way of escaping from all the anxiety that the current news cycle provokes in me.

From blogs and podcasts

I’m naming the culprits here (my daily walks while listening to podcasts are proving terribly injurious to my bank balance):

  • Backlisted Pod: for O Caledonia (mentioned in passing) and Stephen Sondheim (a full episode)
  • Slightly Foxed for Red Comet (full episode with biographer), although I vowed I had enough books about and by Sylvia Plath
  • Late to It for Hilma Wolitzer (although not this particular book) and Kirsty Gunn’s Infidelities
  • Book reviews by favourite bloggers such as Jacqui and Susana (who read it in the original Portuguese of course) and in Asymptote Journal for Empty Wardrobes
  • Dorian Stuber and his guest Niccie Panetta for the 2021 books of the year round-up which included Blue Remembered Hills and Olga Zilbergourg for mentioning The Man Between about legendary translator Michael Henry Heim.
Sent by the publisher

Someone at Penguin Classics heard my boisterous declarations of love for Mishima’s work, for which I am profoundly grateful. Meanwhile, Clare O’Dea is a Switzerland-based expat writer whom I briefly encountered at Geneva Writers Group and she asked her publisher to send me this fictional account of the very recent (1959) Swiss referendum about women’s suffrage. Finally, I’d been a keen reader of Daniel Hahn’s diary of translating Damiela Elit’s Never Did the Fire for Charco Press, and commented on some of his blog posts, so was kindly sent a copy of the final diary published in book form.

Book clubs and discussions with friends

I have several books of poetry and prose by my friend and fellow Romanian writer who writes in English, Carmen Bugan, but realised that I did not have this collected version of her poems. I had been covetously eyeing Hannah Lowe’s The Kids and finally got the nudge to buy it after it won the Costa Award. I can’t remember exactly whom I had a conversation with on Twitter about the Bloomsbury Group, but I thought it was high time I read Angelica Garnett’s memoir, which puts them all in a less golden light. Meander Spiral Explode has been recommended to me for its exploration of the writing craft for those who are no longer content with the Three Act or linear structure. Finally, for our London Reads the World Book Club in March, we will be reading a Romanian book at last and it’s one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian. I thought it might be helpful to have the English translation to hand, rather than rely solely on the Romanian version I have, and I might end up having OPINIONS about the translation.

From the library

I’ve heard so many good things about this memoir of living with disability A Still Life, shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and I’ve been on the waiting list for it at the library for ages. When I finally went to pick up my reservation, I came across this collection of short stories by Dostoevsky and I’ve never been able to ignore anything by him, even when he infuriates me.

Spontaneous purchases

I happened to be in the lovely Marlow Bookshop in real life, and was intrigued about Gail Simmons’ journey across the Chiltern Hills, which recreates Robert Louis Stevenson’s three-day journey across the same landscape nearly 150 years earlier. With HS2 speed railway threatening to destroy this landscape forever, it’s an attempt to capture a place and time before it disappears. I also picked up a British Library anthology there, because crime fiction and books are an irresistible combination. The quest to diversity my bookcase continues with the academic study of London as a migrant city, a science-fiction take on office life by Chinese American author Ling Ma, and two crime novels by Adam Macqueen introducing Tommy Wildeblood, rent boy turned sleuth, against a backdrop of London’s recent history (1970s-80s).

Catnip topics

Communist dictatorships in the former East Bloc countries and the United Nations (or other international organisations) are very triggering for me: in other words, as soon as I see or hear something about these topics, my online buying finger gets activated. The Stasi Poetry Circle is the true story of an attempt to set up a ‘propaganda poetry writing group’ in the German Democratic Republic. As for Romain Gary’s book: as I mentioned in the blog post about Frank Moorhouse’s book, it is a satire about the United Nations (thank you, Emma, for first drawing my attention to it), which Gary initially published under a pseudonym. I managed to find it second-hand on a French website and it got here relatively quickly.

An afterthought

Last, but not least, an online conversation with the same Emma as above, following her brilliant review of the Marseille Trilogy reminded me how much I love Jean-Claude Izzo and how difficult his books are to find over here. But lo and behold, a quick online search produced these two at reasonable prices. They’re both set mainly in Marseille too.

Part 4 of #HayFestival: Translations

What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…

Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.

Liliana Colanzi and Carlos Fonseca being kind enough to pose. Felipe Restrepo Pombo on the left is chatting to Daniel Hahn.

The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).

The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’

Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.

The second panel: from left to right, Ignacio (? – translator, though not much needed), Emiliano Monge, Claudia Ulloa, Laia Jufresa and Daniel Hahn.

What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.

What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.

Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’

If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).

The flower arrangements were beautiful throughout.

The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.

Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vasquez – apologies for the blurry picture.

They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.

Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.

Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.