Spring Reading Tag

I saw this book tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it sounded fun. I have no intention whatsoever of forcing you to watch me vlogging about it, but there are some great Booktube videos out there, such as Victoria’s from Eve’s Alexandria. We all need some spring-like sunshine and plenty of books to take our mind off things, don’t we?

What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?

I want to be more systematic about reading books for my #EU27Project. I really enjoy them when I get around to them, but urgent book reviews or other priorities keep getting in the way. Three books I am particularly looking forward to are:

  • Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (for Germany) – a thriller set in North Africa, with an international cast, written by a German writer who died far too young
  • Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag (for Poland) – a road trip through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and the Ukraine after the fall of Communism
  • Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted (for Hungary) – pre-1914 Transylvanian counts in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire
The RHS Wisley garden borders are pretty much my ideal. From their site.

What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

It must be The Secret Garden by F. H. Burnett. Anyone who knows me will tell you what a hopeless and lazy gardener I am, but I do love flowers, particularly in spring, and the abstract idea of gardening (I even have books with pictures about the perfect English country garden). When I read that book as a child, I was sure that at some point, if I ever were to live in England, I would have that marvellous garden with minimal effort on my part.

The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

One volume Quarto Gallimard edition of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in French – 2401 pages before it says FIN. Well, to be honest, I read it in separate volumes a long time ago, but I couldn’t resist buying it so I have it all in one place to reread. At some point. When I have time. Hah!

What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

My gallows humour would probably not appeal to most people, but I do have some favourite books which are funny and sunny. I really enjoyed The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. The thought of the Queen discussing Jean Genet with the French President just cracks me up every single time. I also admire Oscar Wilde’s plays: every line is a gem.

Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

I wish there could have been more books written by Jane Austen or a novel by Dorothy Parker. As for a theme, I wouldn’t mind seeing a novel about a menopausal woman having inappropriate thoughts about younger man all day long and grappling with her fading writing muse – as a counterpoint to all those middle-aged male protagonists out there facing their midlife crisis. Now that I think about it, Dorothy Parker could have written the perfect novel on this theme.

Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

I was such a good reader during my teens: constantly trying out new genres, obscure authors, quite challenging books of science and philosophy and history, which I hardly ever attempt now.

According to my diary at the time, just before my 16th birthday I was reading and pondering about Spinoza, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rimbaud, The Cherry Orchard, Mademoiselle Julie, Meredith’s The Egoist and K. A. Porter’s Flowering Judas.

Yes, I was a bit pretentious and know-it-all, but also voracious and not as set in my ways as I am now. I am much more of a moody reader now, have to find the book to suit me at any given point in time. However, for the past 4-5 years I’ve kept better track of my reading, with Goodreads lists and with reviews.

We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

I had a rather slow start to the reading year in the first two months, but things improved in March and April. I am now at 47 books read mark, 12 ahead of my schedule (target is 120 books for the year and I was somewhat behind the target in February). There’s been the usual mix of good, mediocre and memorable books, but no truly horrendous books yet. Or perhaps I’ve just got better at avoiding them.

Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

Sadly, I won’t be going to Crimefest or Harrogate or Hay-on-Wye or Bloody Scotland this year, as my personal circumstances are still quite muddy. I do love literary festivals though, find them inspirational and motivational, so I might try to attend more local ones, such as Henley or Noirwich in Norwich, where I can go there and back in a day.

The other ‘top-secret’ plan is to get more involved in bringing East European crime fiction to the attention of English-speaking audiences. I’ll be writing a feature on this topic for Crime Fiction Lover, and hope to translate Romanian crime fiction for a collaborative project very soon. Watch this space!

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This Will Be a Great Year of Writing… in a Week

2017 will be a great year for writing, I can feel it in my bones. I don’t just mean the rise of writing as political protest more generally, around the world, but for me personally. (Yes, forgive me, I am shallow and self-centred this time round.)

And this week has been a little microcosm of that.

wp_20161121_12_10_59_pro
It’s a long road ahead, but Voltaire is there to guide me… even at a distance.

First of all, as the title of my blog indicates, the greatest challenge I face as a writer is simply finding the bladidah time to write! So I joined the 5 day writing challenge on Prolifiko, a productivity coaching website aimed specifically at procrastinating writers such as myself. The idea being that by sticking to your resolutions for five days, and being held to account over them, you will develop new habits and will want to continue. My resolution has been a very simple one: to write for one hour a day 6 days a week (7 if I can manage it).

It may seem ridiculous that I cannot commit to writing more at this moment in time, when I am not working and while the children are in school from 8:30 to 15:30 every day. But I am also job hunting, doing some freelance work, reviewing, doing tax returns for two countries, doing housework, sorting out tricky financials and having discussions with solicitors etc. etc. By ‘writing’, I do not mean blogging or book reviews or HR articles or cover letters for job applications, but actual creative writing. Poetry, novel, short story.

So far, so good. I set my alarm for 12 noon and then scribble away blissfully for an hour. I find it works best if I have a combination of older work to edit and then allow myself to play around with ideas and words to bring out some fresh stuff. It certainly never feels like a chore, which confirms my impression that I would be the world’s happiest little writer, if only I didn’t have to do all the other boring bits in life.

Secondly, I’ve tried to apply for jobs I might actually enjoy (typically, those that have to do with books) rather than jobs that will merely pay the bills. Hopefully, I will eventually find one which meets both criteria, but in the meantime it has made the application process a little more fun. Organising a Meet the Agents/Publishers event for Geneva Writers Group in February is also highly energising and much more exciting than running workshops on workforce planning or business strategy.

Thirdly, I submitted a translation sample for a competition (German to English) and have also been in touch about translating crime fiction from Romanian into English. Fingers crossed! The next best thing after writing yourself is to be able to present other writers’ work to a new audience.

Fourth, I have three poems featured today on the literary site Clear Poetry (one I have always enjoyed reading and to which I had previously submitted unsuccessfully). The sound of my own voice makes me cringe a little, but there is audio of me reading the poems too, if you can bear to listen. The moral of the tale: if at first you get rejected, do submit again!

Fifth, I attended a fun-packed book launch  and talked to other writers about their writing process and publication journey, and it helped reset my energy and optimism buttons.

Sixth, I have decided to launch the #EU27Project for reading literature from all of the remaining countries of the EU. The response has been fantastic, and I would invite anyone to join in, whether you can read just one or two or all 27. It’s a project very dear to my heart. Call me a sentimental old idealist, but I was really hoping the European dream would come true. Now I see it in danger of going down in flames, it saddens me. I’ve never belonged to any country in particular, but I do belong to one continent: Europe.

To end on a hopeful note...
To end on a hopeful note…

 

 

Mistranslation of French Tax Forms

There is still plenty of unfinished business on the French side of my administrative papers, so I amused myself with some ‘literal’ translations of their menacing letters. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf and wakes up at night panicking about fines and other punishments? Not me, not me!

 

Apple of the Côte, apples of all orchards unite!

Pursue this chance

limit the number of dates you go out on

keep your bearing regal

and return your ransom

in the envelope joined to the hip of this letter.

You major retard.

Even I can’t keep the imperatives and bad language out.

A man doing his taxes using a calculator and pencil on a white background

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 José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and 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  – 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 author Eça 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 observations Zibaldone 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.

 

Combining Business with Literary Delights

Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.

BookBusinessTripBook Buying

In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.

In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.

Literary Conference

The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.

curiousTheatre

Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.

 

 

 

One of My Favourite Poems (with Translation)

I was tending the bar at dVerse Poets Pub yesterday and gave a poetry prompt which had most participants puzzled, bemused, scratching their heads… or labelling me crazy. I asked for a homophonic translation of a Romanian poem, which means a translation based on sound and random similarity of word patterns. It was really interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same poem. As one comment said, it was the Rohrschach of poetry – in that same inkblot of a poem we each saw our own obsessions, thoughts, fears, hopes and personalities.

The poem itself, however, is one of my favourite poems in any language. It is by Romanian poet (also playwright, philosopher, essayist) Lucian Blaga and it’s a lyrical love poem tinged with melancholy. I remember reciting it with my high-school sweetheart as we walked under the linden trees lining the boulevards leading from our school to the park. ‘Florarul’ (the flowering one) is the old folk name for the month of May.

www.inparc.ro
http://www.inparc.ro

 

Risipei se dedă Florarul

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-aceasta întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

De pe stamine de alun,
din plopii albi, se cerne jarul.
Orice-nceput se vrea fecund,
risipei se deda Florarul.

Polenul cade peste noi,
în preajmă galbene troiene
alcătuieste-n aur fin.
Pe umeri cade-ne şi-n gene.

Ne cade-n gură când vorbim,
şi-n ochi, când nu găsim cuvântul.
Si nu ştim ce păreri de rău
ne tulbură, pieziş, avântul.

Ne-om aminti cândva târziu
de-această întâmplare simplă,
de-aceasta bancă unde stam
tâmplă fierbinte lânga tâmplă.

Visând, întrezărim prin doruri –
latente-n pulberi aurii –
păduri ce ar putea sa fie
şi niciodată nu vor fi.

It’s been set to music several times, here is one version of it by Nicu Alifantis in concert:

And here is the translation, courtesy of Cristina at the blog Fantasy Pieces (with some of my own tweaks). She also provides a bit of commentary on this poem.

May Gives Itself with Sweet Abandon

 

We’ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated,
Your burning temple next to mine.

From hazel stamens, cinders fall
White as the poplars that they land on,
Beginnings yearning to be fertile,
May gives itself with sweet abandon.

The pollen falls on both of us,
Small mountains made of golden ashes
It forms around us, and it falls
On our shoulders and our lashes.

It falls into our mouths when speaking,
On eyes, when we are mute with wonder
And there’s regret, but we don’t know
Why it would tear us both asunder.

We’ ll remember someday later,
This simple moment, so fine,
This very bench where we are seated
Your burning temple next to mine.

In dreams, through longings, we can see—
All latent in the dust of gold
Those forests that perhaps could be—
But that will never, ever grow.

So that’s the literal translation… But, to be honest, I liked some of the free associations and unknowing translations even more!