#KokoschkasDoll by Afonso Cruz, transl. Rahul Bery

I interrupt my season of January in Japan for a quick trip to Portugal, via Dresden, Paris and even Budapest.

I don’t usually take part in blog tours, but this is an unusual, one-day ‘make some noise’ for an unusual book, which I might not have picked up otherwise, although the title intrigued me. Perhaps I should clarify from the word go that this is not a biopic of Kokoschka nor about his obsession with Alma Mahler, which led to the creation of that monstrous doll he commissioned. This story is briefly mentioned in the book, but it is tangential to the main plot. If this meandering tale sparked by another tale sparked by a reminiscence sparked by a minor character who then writes their own story can be called a plot. It is in fact rather like a set of Russian dolls, one story nesting within another, although not progressing from the big to the small as neatly and predictably as Russian dolls. Of course, there is also the metaphor of the doll – of women, in particular, even ones the men obsess over (or particularly the ones they obsess over) having to be the beautiful silent partner, or being viewed as a possession.

In the first part of the novel we are introduced to Bonifaz Vogel, who has lost all of his family in the war-time fire-bombing of Dresden and now lives above the bird shop he runs, appropriately enough (Vogel is bird in German, but ‘to have a bird’ also means to be crazy or obsessed – the book is full of such puns and word games). When he hears a voice coming out from underneath his floorboards, his first thought is that it’s all in his head. In actual fact, it is Isaac Dresner, a Jewish boy who has hidden in the cellar, after witnessing his best friend being shot by a Nazi. A little later, a third person joins this little ‘family’: Tsilia Kacev, a waif of an artist’s model who wants to become a painter herself.

But that is just the first layer of the story. We are then taken into the swirling eddies of family histories, and particularly a lost manuscript of Thomas Mann’s, although the name of the author is Mathias Popa, an unsuccessful writer, who apparently stole it and tried to pass it off as his own. This mysterious Popa seems to have lived a million different lives all over the world, and in what follows we are never quite sure what is real and what is fiction, what is the world of his novel and what constitutes other people’s memories. Popa tells Isaac that he has decided to put him in a novel:

‘I’m going to be one of your characters?’

‘On the contrary, Mr Dresner, you are one of my character’s characters. My creation is far more perfect than you are… My character is the true you.’

‘But you hardly know me.’

‘We’ve met a few times, and that’s enough for me. I am able to see people the way they really are and not how they appear or how they dress in this world. I understand a person just by looking at them.’

If this reminds you of Fernando Pessoa and his personas or heteronyms, then this book certainly has an echo of that, and it is resolutely tongue-in-cheek about whether we can trust anyone to give us a coherent, truthful account of their life. I did occasionally get lost in the labyrinth of stories. This is almost certainly a book that needs to be read several times to be fully understood or appreciated. But there are moments of fairly straightforward and fun narrative that will appeal to any reader. One recommendation: it might be easier to keep track of the different stories and families if you have a paperback edition rather than e-book. I struggled a bit with the formatting for Kindle.

Rahul Berry translates from both Spanish and Portuguese, and seems to naturally gravitate towards quite experimental fiction. I was very intrigued by this interview I uncovered from when he became the Translator-in-Residence at the British Library in 2018.

I want to focus on how peopleā€™s identities change and adapt as people start existing in other languages. Though I grew up speaking only English, 3 of my grandparents spoke 4 languages between them (Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Welsh) but spent most of their lives existing in English. I also want to play a small role in challenging the hegemony of English, which, under the guise of utility, ends up being ubiquitous, making the world a more predictable and less exciting place.

In a way, this novel challenges the hegemony of ‘received’ narrative, showing us that everything is always open to interpretation, and that we need to be open to new ways of looking at things. Our stories are constantly being constructed, and never quite finished.

Why Translate?

This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of JosĆ© Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier MarĆ­as, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) andĀ Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).

Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa

How did you get started in translation?

MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.

AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.

BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.

anngoldsteinWhich has been your most challenging translation project?

AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.

MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.

BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.

Do you have a set routine?

MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.

AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.

dralyukborisBD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.

MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day Ā – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.

Do you prefer living or dead authors?

We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.

Do you read scholarly/critical works?

MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.

AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.

BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.

What would be your dream project?

MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese authorĀ EƧa de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.

AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.

Who do you wish would get more attention?

AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observationsĀ ZibaldoneĀ is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?

MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.

How do you feel about retranslating the classics?

AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.

King's Place
King’s Place

Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?

Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]

BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.

MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.

AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.

How does your own style influence your translation?

MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.