Heavy Weather: Overthinking Translation

This post is probably going to annoy a lot of translators, academics, publishers and critics – so it’s just as well that not many of them read my blog. I’ve recently read two books which made me wonder if some people consider learning a new language or translating literary fiction to be an opportunity to show off.

Maybe I am not the right person to be criticising this approach, since I was fortunate enough to grow up trilingual and therefore never had to work hard at languages or think of them as something to boast about. I hasten to add that I will always, always admire people who make themselves vulnerable by learning a new language, and that I am endlessly grateful to translators for making so much wonderful work available to us readers. I can also spend hours or even days debating punctuation marks or a particular word when translating a text – a pleasure-challenge-despair that only other translators will understand, while normal people will say ‘Get over yourselves!’ However, at times, it feels like a performance sport: who can be most opaque, most complicated, most scholarly – and thus most ‘valuable’ as a language expert and translator? Under the guise of being most ‘congruent with the original’, I find tortuous language patterns and syntax in the English translations which occasionally might give me a small flavour of the original, but usually end up putting me off that particular author.

I am by no means a proponent of smoothing things so much for readers that they feel they are reading an English book (someone commented recently on my blog that they translated Reichsmark currency in Emil and the Detectives as pounds in a recent edition!!!). Yet overcomplicating things simply to show off your erudition also feels like a disservice to readers – and ultimately to the authors themselves. This tends to happen less with the major languages (French, German, Spanish), where you have professional translators who are extremely good at capturing the right tone. But publishers of translations from ‘small’ languages tend to prefer academics to do the translation – probably as a quality assurance tool – and the result can be deplorable.

Take for example Nostalgia by Mircea Cărtărescu. It is one of his best and most accessible ‘novels’ if we can call it that (it is a loosely-linked set of novellas), but the translation by Julian Semilian feels heavy-handed and verbose. I am not saying that the author is not verbose in the original, but he is limber and lithe, playful with language, skipping through metaphors, slippery yet hypnotic – everything that Javier Marias is, but which is rendered so elegantly and easily into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Meanwhile, Nostalgia is anything but effortless. Whole paragraphs seem lumbersome and clumsy, but there are certain phrases which simply sound wrong in English.

Suddenly the animation of the ‘stockholders’ – as I was to find out was the name given to those who bet on this game – abated.

I claim no merit for knowing him or that I can write about him.

For better than ten years’ time…

While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick.

Of course, there is an additional element to that confusion and I’ve ranted about it before. When you only get a few translated titles from Eastern Europe every year, publishers tend to prefer those that fit in with their preconceptions of what that should look like (and what they think readers expect): difficult, worthy, filled with trauma, mainly about the disaster of Communism (if you aim to sell more than a few copies) or post-modernistically dense (if you wish to appeal to a niche audience and get reviewed in academic journals). And yet Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai (who is all of the above) seems capable of conveying the endless sentences and breathless narrator voice without making them too impenetrable and off-putting.

I look forward to reading Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid when it comes out and seeing what he makes of Cărtărescu’s later style (although I think it is a weaker work in the original). I would certainly recommend Cotter’s translation of Vol. 1 of the Blinding trilogy, if you want a better introduction to Cărtărescu’s work (I do have quite a lot of issues with the way he portrays women in his work though – very typical of Romanian male writers or perhaps Murakami Haruki). See what Tony Malone thought of that book.

If you feel I’ve been too harsh with Julian Semilian, I should say that on paper he seemed to be an excellent translator for this particular author: they are of roughly the same age, Semilian was born in Romania but soon moved to the States, where he had a successful career as a Hollywood film editor, and more recently as a writer and documentary filmmaker. He corresponded with the author during the translation process and I can imagine they became friends. But I couldn’t help feeling that Julian is not immersed in the Romanian language and culture, especially not in the way it has evolved since he left the country – it does not come as naturally as breathing to him, so he overthinks it. [Or maybe he is just too much of an academic now.]

This ‘immersion’ is precisely the subject of the second book that made me ponder on linguistic expertise recently: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. I read the bilingual version, with the Italian on the left-hand side and the English on the right, and was surprised to discover I could understand quite a bit of the Italian – which Italian speakers have told me is partly because the author starts out with quite simple, basic Italian, but that it gets more sophisticated as it goes along. I enjoyed this book and found the passages about growing up bilingual but with very different approaches to the two languages extremely relatable. However, it seemed more self-absorbed and far less interesting than Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which is also about falling in love with a language and a culture.

I too have recently started learning Italian for no other reason other than that I love the language and the culture – but I did not feel that I was getting a full sense of the beauty, charm, history of the place and its people in this book. For something that has been labelled ‘a love story’, there was little attempt to capture just what made the object of one’s love so irresistible. I admired the hard work and determination in learning the language, and I could understand the temptation of starting afresh in a new language, the freedom of being allowed to be imperfect. But at times she does make things needlessly complicated and repetitive, and I feel like saying: ‘Get over yourself!’ Still, I was relieved to discover this was not Eat Pray Love with a lexicon attached. Despite its simplistic style (a style that is neither English nor Italian, I feel, but hovers somewhere in the middle), there are moments of true insight, beautifully expressed.

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

In conclusion, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am glad that translators are gaining more visibility and sharing their thoughts on the challenges of moving between languages and cultures. I greatly enjoyed Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, for example, and found much food for thought there. I am pleased that language learning and translation are viewed as serious and praiseworthy undertakings. But, just like in ballet I admire something that seems effortless even though I know the huge amount of effort that goes into it, I prefer translations to feel as natural as leaves on a tree, not to poke my eyes out with their branches.

#1954Club: Tintin goes to the moon

I had no idea that 1954 was such a good year for literature, particularly children’s literature. So many old favourites were published that year: The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series, the first in the Children of Green Knowe series, the first two volumnes in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lord of the Flies and Moominsummer Madness. Oh, and Good Work, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, which I have to admit I devoured when I was a child but my children never quite relished.

However, I haven’t had the time to reread any of these or to explore any other books for grown-ups published in 1954 this week, so I will participate with the shortest book I could find, namely Hergé’s 17th album in the Tintin series: On a Marché Sur La Lune (Explorers on the Moon), the second in a two-volume mini-series about lunar exploration. In this book, Tintin, Captain Haddock , the Professor Tournesol/Calculus, engineer Wolff and the Dupont-Dupond /Thompson twins, together with the only sensible creature on board the indomitable dog Milou/Snowy, all set off on the rocket to the moon. But the evil machinations that were afoot in the first volume continue, and there are betrayals and dangers aplenty, as well as impressive speculation of what one might find on the surface of the moon – considering this was written well before the first moon landing.

‘I’ve taken a few steps and for the first time in the history of humanity, one can say: “We have walked on the moon.” ‘ says Tintin long before Neil Armstrong.

This is such an iconic album that I don’t even remember when I first read it, but I remember rereading it with my boys while we were living in France and that they had a moneybox in the shape of Tintin’s rocket.

There are some running gags in the book which faithful Tintin readers will remember from other volumes: the sudden spurt in hair growth and change in hair colour of the twins, the Captain’s drinking habits, going round in circles. But there is also a lot of innovation and research, science fiction which later proved to be incredibly accurate – and the discovery of ice caves on the moon!

My favourite thing, however, is Milou’s adorable little astronaut costume.

I seem to remember in my childhood there was a French song about Milou and I wanted to link to it, but cannot find it anymore nor remember anything much about it other than that there was a Milou in the chorus and it wasn’t a children’s song. My favourite album used to be this one with the moon landing, but after living in Geneva for a few years, L’Affaire Tournesol overtook it, because so many of the landmarks were very familiar to me.

The British were latecomers to Tintin – the first translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not appear until 1958. They worked closely with the author to try and capture his humour, but the whole idea was to translate quite freely and anglicise things to make life easier for English-speaking readers, hence Milou becoming Snowy, Chateau Moulinsart became Marlinspike Hall etc. Some of the translations were very clever (like the Thomson/Thompson twins) or the Captain’s imaginative curses ‘blistering barnacles’ (Mille sabords! in the original).

So please excuse my very brief participation in the #1954Club, but do go and check out the links of everyone else taking part this week.

March Summary: Books and Films

I’m on holiday for the next two weeks and not sure how much time or internet access I will have for posting anything new (other than Friday Fun posts, which I’ve scheduled already). So here is a quick summary of the month of March and see you in mid-April!

Reading

Not a massive quantity of books this month (eleven rather than the twelve shown in the picture, because I read the Doina Rusti in both Romanian and English). I decided somewhat upon a whim to dedicate this month primarily to the small number of contemporary Italian books I have on my shelf (I’ve read hardly anything published after Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and most of the translations were in Romanian rather than English, because I believed the cultural and linguistic similarities would be helpful). I read a total of six Italian books, which I divided up into two blog posts of mini-reviews:

Non-fiction: Alberto Prunetti’s Down and Out in England and Italy (trans. and Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues

Fiction: all very moving in different ways – Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins (trans. Elizabeth Harris), Concita de Gregorio’s The Missing Word (trans. Clarissa Botsford – which I think is more fictional than non-fictional, although it is based on a real case and real people), Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax (trans. J. G. Nichols) and Claudia Durastanti’s Cleopatra Goes to Prison (trans. Christine Donougher).

Not sure I can generalise about modern Italian literature on the basis of just a few books, but all of the ones I seem to have picked have been remarkable in their acute observation and restrained style. Quite, quite different from the exuberant, virtuoso storytelling style of The Book of Perilous Dishes, which makes 18th century Bucharest really leap off the pages.

To finish off my Italian sojourn (and because finally my library reservation arrived, after several months), I loved reading about Alan Taylor’s account of his friendship with Muriel Spark when he met her at her house in Arezzo. I love Spark’s writing, but was always doubtful I’d have enjoyed meeting her in person – but this is a loving (not gushing) memoir which slightly changed my mind about her.

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms was very well written and subtle – but oh boy, if you English consider that a difficult mother-daughter relationship (when they only see each other once a year in London for their birthdays), you have no idea how difficult the parent-child relationship can be in other cultures!

I had seen the film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, but of course with Humphrey Bogart in the main role, it was never going to be as dark and mean as the book. Remarkable depiction of psychological self-justification and unravelling – perhaps the book that American Psycho wanted to be but didn’t quite manage.

Although I wished Down and Out in England and Italy could have had more wit and depth, the only book that disappointed me this month was The Twyford Code (I loved the unusual storytelling style in the first book The Appeal, but the audio transcripts here got annoying and repetitive rather quickly, and it was trying a bit too hard to be clever).

Films

The eight films I’ve watched this month can be divided into :

  • heartwarming (Studio Ghibli to the rescue once again, with a rewatch of Howl’s Moving Castle and wistful new entrants From Up on Poppy Hill and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
  • sinister (featuring strong-minded and cruel female leads: Lady Macbeth and Black Medusa or dodgy, damaged male leads in The Master)
  • ‘talkie’ comedies (where the script and dialogue are the most important components, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Other Activities

This month I got a chance to remember how rewarding but also energy-consuming it is to work with primary-school children. I ran an assembly and a couple of translation workshops for six and seven-year-olds, introducing them to my favourite little penguin, Apolodor, an intrepid but not very bright traveller from a well-loved Romanian children’s book in verse by Gellu Naum. As students during Communist times, we adapted the story for the stage… and promptly got censored for daring to talk about travelling abroad. But this time, the story had a happy ending and the children enjoyed it a lot (although not necessarily the ‘having to translate it’ bit).

After a brief hiatus while we were all busy translating and working on other projects, Corylus is now back on track with editing and finalising our next two titles, which should be out before the summer. I sent out our very first newsletter, and there was so much I wanted to say that I had to be really, really selective, so as not to make it an overlong reading experience. In future months, I hope to talk about international crime fiction more widely, have guest contributors, cover reveals and exclusive additional material (such as short stories). If you think you’d like to be part of the Corylus family, you can sign up for the newsletter on our homepage.

January in Japan: The Poet Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.

For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.

She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.

Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.

Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).

For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?

Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles

like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.

What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.

You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?

Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:

In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me

with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.

with:

Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,

twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.

The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax

I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!

Yosano Akiko

Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?

The anime Yosano Akiko. Long may her memory live on!

P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).

Incoming Books and Their Sources (3)

When my credit card bill came in mid-October, I realised I might have exaggerated with my book purchases – but of course they managed to hide quite comfortably behind the major purchases such as the sofa and the mattress. Nevertheless, I have continued my merry bookish dissolute ways!

The #1976Club is to blame for the impulse buy of The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore – several of the participants read and reviewed this book about… well a woman’s mid-life crisis, I suppose. I initially looked for it at my local library and they didn’t have it, but they had another book with the same title by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published in 1864. This also talks about adultery, death and the ‘spectacle of female recrimination and suffering’, so I thought it might be interesting to compare the two. Another library reservation also showed up at last: Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes, a satire of the literary festival world. I can never resist a book gently mocking the writing and publishing world, so as soon as I heard what it was about, it went on my wishlist. I hope it won’t be as disappointing as that other reservation I had to wait for, Magpie.

I am a big fan of tiny but innovative Emma Press, especially of its poetry books (now that my children are too old to enjoy their children’s literature). They work with local illustrators as well, and send everything with much love and care. This small poetry pamphlet by Julia Bird has just come out and promises to be full of childish reminiscence about growing up in a small English seaside town – with a tinge of the surreal.

One single online event led to three book purchases, such is the strength of my willpower. The event was part of the Durham Book Festival and it featured two American authors: Willy Vlautin in conversation with Nickolas Butler. They were not only on the same wavelength with their own writing and world views, but they both expressed admiration for Sara Gran (whom I also admire), so I ended up buying Vlautin’s latest The Night Always Comes, Butler’s Godspeed (the author is new to me, but the theme of impossible deadlines in building works just intrigued me) and Come Closer, one of the non Clara DeWitt books by Sara Gran, which makes for perfect Halloween reading.

The next batch of three books were all recommended on Twitter and blogs: Janet Emson reviewed The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery, while Lisa of ANZ LitLovers waxed lyrical about Frank Moorhouse when we were still speculating about the Nobel Prize winners, so I ordered the first in his ‘Edith’ trilogy, Grand Days, because I cannot resist books about working for international organisations (as my own father did) and because I am woefully ignorant about Australian literature. I cannot remember who was the triggering person who made me order Men to Avoid in Art and Life, but I had enjoyed Nicole Tersigni’s satire on Twitter for quite a while. Here is an example of what she does below. Several of my friends have already asked to borrow it.

I hardly ever get review copies anymore, but Europa Editions is still good enough to have me on their list, and Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian, transl. from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza, sounds fascinating, about trying to love and live amid the dangers and political/social turmoil of late 1980s Tunisia. I also support Nordisk Books, so get sent every new book that they publish, and I love this bilingual edition of Danish poetry by Michael Strunge, Speed of Life.

I couldn’t go out on Independent Bookshop Day on the 9th of October, but I ordered a book from my nearest independent shop, the lovely, very well-stocked Marlow Bookshop, namely Simon Armitage’s collected public lectures from when he was Oxford University Professor of Poetry, A Vertical Art. Of course, immediately after they told me they had received the book, I entered a period of self-isolation, so I have only been able to pick it up a few days ago. Naturally, since I happened to be in a bookshop, I stumbled across The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, which I’ve heard so many good things about, so… another impulse buy, I’m afraid.

At times I feel that there is no more room for me at the table of literary translation from Romanian, because a) so little gets translated from that language anyway; b) there are much more qualified/highly regarded people doing it. Jozefina Komporaly falls into the second category: she lectures at the University of the Arts in London and is very well known in theatrical circles for her translations of plays from Romanian and Hungarian. I have only just started theatre translation, so when I heard Methuen Drama has just brought out this collection of contemporary Romanian plays, I had to get it, even though the prices are more ‘academic’ rather than ‘literary’.

Lovely though it is to join the translation community, one victim of this is my bank account. As I get to know and appreciate more translators, I am tempted to buy all of the books that they translate. I have some favourites I will follow pretty much anywhere, such as Alison Anderson and Tina Kover (from French), Katy Derbyshire, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (from German), Polly Barton and Ginny Tapley Takemori (from Japanese). One such translator is Anton Hur from Korean and hits translation of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City has just come out from Tilted Axis Press, so I preordered it a few weeks back, and it’s just arrived in time to take its place amongst my bumper crop of books.

September Reading and Watching Summary

September used to be a rather lovely month in my calendar, as I always enjoyed the still warm but not excessively hot days and the return to school fervour. But for the past two years, it has not been a happy occasion. School in Covid times has proved an anxious and challenging enterprise, while both last year and this year, September brought rather devastating personal losses: the death of Barney (our gentleman cat) in 2020 and of my dear friend Csaba in 2021.

Reading

So I have been once again mostly in search of easy, comforting reading, and the two books I was reading for two different book clubs were not quite hitting the spot. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club, is rather gruelling in its subject matter, a car crash you can foresee but not quite stop. Meanwhile, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I read for London Reads the World Book Club (although unfortunately, I had to pull out of the meeting at short notice) is about life in the ‘grey zone’ between two warring factions in the Donbass region of the Ukraine. Although there is nothing too graphic or horrible in the novel, there is an unsettling, ever-present underlying rumble of threat of death, torture, fighting.

So it was with a real sense of relief that I turned to a rather uncharacteristic read for me: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which I understand was originally intended to be a four-book series, but then had a fifth volume added to it much later. This went down so well (as you’ll have seen from my recent review) that I have now embarked upon the Romanian equivalent of the nostalgic family saga: the Medeleni trilogy (often published as four volumes, because the last book is very long). This one takes place just before and after the First World War, rather than the Second, and was written much closer in time to the events described in the book (he wrote the entire series in record time 1925-27). Yet it too describes a vanished world in minute and loving detail. I am tempted to continue rereading all the volumes and to write a thorough review and comparison.

Watching

I’ve been in the mood for less dark and gruesome films as well, so there have been quite a few with deadpan humour and slightly surreal experiences, such as the Icelandic film about an escalation of neighbourly conflict Under the Tree, or the challenges of young love on holiday in All Hands on Deck (filmed in my beloved Rhone-Alpes), the irresistible Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim doing their best to seem utterly unglamorous in the tale of life of nuclear plant workers in Grand Central, the impressive Japanese animation Akira, which looks as fresh as if it had been created yesterday, not back in 1988, and my first acquaintance with a Hal Hartley film, with its fantastic and slightly ridiculous dialogue, Amateur. I also had a tender moment with Ghibli Studios’ Whisper of the Heart but failed to impress the boys with Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

Whimsical scene from Whisper of the Heart

Going Out

Although I have missed theatres and live music performances so, so much, I am less and less comfortable about going out, because it appears that all social distancing or other safety measures have been dropped, and people are closely packed together in public transport or at cultural venues. I ventured to the Royal Albert Hall to see the Classic FM Live concert with my older son (who is now nearly as keen on classical music as I am), as our last ‘treat’ before he went off to university. I assumed it would be a good experience, as they sent several emails beforehand about the Covid-secure measures they were taking, that they recommended wearing masks and that we would have to bring either a proof of vaccination or negative test to be allowed into the venue. Imagine my surprise and discontent when I discovered that nobody checked us at all at the entrance, that no one worse a facemask in the auditorium, and that there were huge queues of people jostling into each other at very close quarters both for the toilets and the bar. It felt like hypochondria, but I felt quite unwell for several days after this, and actually had to do a PCR test to make sure I hadn’t fallen ill.

Translation and Other Literary Pursuits

Since I wasn’t quite ready to go out, I brought the events to me – fortunately, there are still lots of literary and other events being livestreamed. I attended a workshop on writing for the theatre run by the Young People’s London Poet Laureate Cecilia Knapp, based around her play Losing the Night, which was going to be performed and toured starting in March 2020. I also attended several of the Noirwich events: David Peace talking about the final volume in his Tokyo trilogy, Megan Abbott speaking about the current enthusiasm for true crime shows, as well as Maryla Szymiczkowa – the pen name of charismatic Polish crime writing duo, Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski and their translator Antonia Lloyd Jones, about their semi-cosy feminist historical crime fiction set in late 19th century Krakow. I have recently resubscribed to the Asymptote Book Club and attended a Q&A with the author and translator of the August book club title, Jonas Eika’s After the Sun, transl. Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg.

I also had the novel experience of being interviewed together with Romanian author Bogdan Hrib about the recently published novel Resilience by Dr Noir (aka Jacky Collins). I don’t think I am cut out for being filmed on Zoom, as I move around too much, nod and smile inappropriately and constantly, but it was great fun having to think carefully about the work of translation and to justify some of the choices I made.

I’m also very excited about another translation-related work I will be involved in this year. The Stephen Spender Trust is a champion of multilingual poetry and storytelling, and they run an annual programme for creative translations in schools. I will be working together with a primary school to encourage children to have a go at translating seasonal and other poems from Romanian. I briefly worked as a language teacher in primary school and also helped out regularly at my sons’ schools when they were small, so it will be lovely to go back into that environment and feed children’s curiosity about other cultures before they grow too old or jaded to care.

Last but not least, as part of the events surrounding International Translation Day (30th of September, the Feast of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, because he translated the Bible into Latin, although this particular event took place on the 28th), I had the pleasure of seeing one of my fellow ‘classmates’ from the BCLT Summer School, Sebastián Gutiérrez, among the three translators talking about the power of theatre and translation for exploring identity and equality.

#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

Bookish Musings for July 2021

This past month has been a strange one for me (for the rest of the world too, possibly, but I’ll stick to what I know best). It was composed of roughly four quarters/weeks. The first was extremely busy at work with a major event (which went well, but exhausted me). The second was spent recovering from the aforementioned major event, catching up on home life and cautiously venturing forth into the Big City. The third was phenomenally busy but exhilarating with the online British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, which made me realise how much I enjoy the literary life and wish I could spend all my days on it. And the fourth was going back to work, trying to catch up on everything while suffering one of my huge three-four day migraines.

So overall, it’s been the kind of month where my head felt very ‘ouch’ (both literally and metaphorically) and I struggled to concentrate on any reading or reviewing. I feel very far behind on just about everything. But I do want to recapture some of the sheer glee of the third week of July, when I lived in a literary bubble that consisted not just of myself, but many other people equally passionate about words and cultures, about comma splices and sounds and rhythms. Rather than a lone madness, I had the pleasure and privilege of experiencing a folie à deux – or rather, folie à plusieurs, which is much more fun!

My brain is currently a jumble of ideas and sudden personal insights relating to books, reading, writing and translation, so I thought I’d jot some of them down here, while they are still fresh. Apologies for not having a nicely digested, thoughtful essay, but just random bullet points.

  1. I mentioned that several of the books I read in July were excellent, entertaining holiday reads, but not particularly memorable. However, I feel they deserve more credit than that.
    • The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton is a mix of cosy and serious crime, with older female amateur protagonists, published in 2015, well ahead of the current trend of precisely such crime novels, which seem to be taking the bestseller charts by storm, perhaps in the wake of one written by a likeable male TV celebrity. It’s hard to be ahead of a certain trend, isn’t it? To my mind, this book was better than several others in this subgenre.
    • Caro Ramsay’s The Tears of Angels is a well-written, impactful police procedural and, although I haven’t read others in the series (which made the large cast of characters a bit difficult to place at times), has a great sense of place. However, although there is a lot of talk of #TartanNoir (which this one is not, not exactly), it seems that Scotland is still not perceived as being as atmospheric as Iceland, Sweden or Norway. I’ve seen far too many mediocre ScandiNoir fiction lately, so it feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, rather than focusing on homegrown stuff of equal or mostly higher quality.
    • I’ve grown to like Joanna Cannon on Twitter, but am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of her books (although I have them all on my Kindle – which usually means: out of sight, out of mind – I am far more likely to grab something off my shelves). I thought her debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was an intriguing mix of humour and grit, mostly seen through the eyes of a child, which is notoriously difficult to do. I thought she was quite clever in giving us the perspective of a child looking back, but also additional adult perspectives, which shows us events and interpretations that a child couldn’t possibly understand. And yet this breaks all the rules of what us wannabe novelists are told to do: don’t have too many points of view, don’t switch too much between timelines so as not to confuse the reader etc. By setting out all these rules, are publishers just setting themselves up for clones of whatever has been successful in the past?
    • There was a period in my late 20s and early 30s when all I read was crime fiction and Sophie Hannah was one of my favourites for the way she managed to write her way out of the most outrageous, impossible premise. Nowadays, I usually prefer crime with a social message, strong characterisation, atmospheric details, but every now and then I crave a thorough page-turner (if it has any of the above additional elements, then all the better) and am willing to suspend some disbelief for a book that will keep me up all night. It’s harder to do this than it looks, and it hurts me to say that Hannah herself seems to have lost this capability in the final stages of the execution. But one writer who seems to have taken over the mantle of this successfully is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her Nothing Man was one of the most appreciated books we ever had at the Virtual Crime Book Club, and I embarked almost immediately upon her lockdown thriller 56 Days, which is coming out imminently (and which fits none of my August reading plans, but rules are made to be broken, right?)

2. The Translation Summer School made me realise how much I belong to this ‘tribe’, i.e. of people who are fond of and curious about other languages and cultures, even if some of them got into translation by accident. To be fair, I think fewer and fewer are getting into literary translation by accident, unless they are particularly well connected, because it is becoming very competitive. Translation courses are becoming the new MFAs – yet I think there are very few translators who can make a living entirely out of their literary translations (hence perhaps the need to teach). In particular, there are still cultural institutions, funding and awarding bodies, publishers who distrust anyone who is not a ‘native English speaker’ for a literary translation, as if the (sometimes, not always) superior command and understanding of nuances in the source language is not as important as fluency in the target language. But many of us ‘immigrants’ or ‘non-natives’ have grown up with the English language, which has become a victim perhaps of its own imperial and corporate success. Given the recent brouhaha about accents on TV in the Olympic coverage, the myth of ‘proper English’ is still alive and well, although there has never been one unitary, commonly defined and monitored English language (unlike the Académie Française – which, incidentally, is looking increasingly out of touch, conservative and ridiculous), but many Englishes.

In addition to ‘who gets to translate’, there is also the issue of ‘what gets translated’. There is still far too much stereotyping of what the ‘the literature of a particular culture’ should look like, or what writing style will appeal to English language readers. There is far too much emphasis on what will sell among the big publishers, and it is left up to the small independent publishers, the ones who can least afford the risk of low sales, to educate readers and try to broaden their taste (or cater to a more diverse group of readers).

On a more cheery note, the Summer School made me realise how much I enjoy theatre and all the people who work in it (I was in the Multingual Theatre Translation stream and our tutor was the very thoughtful, encouraging and thoroughly engaging William Gregory). I was very active in theatre groups throughout school and university, and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a coherent, beautiful whole emerge from a group effort, something that is so much better than the work of any individual, and that depends on each person performing at their best. The work of a translator is often very solitary, but this collaborative effort that is inevitable in theatre translation is something that appeals hugely to me, and I will try to keep it in my life somehow, if I can afford it. At the very least, my eight fellow theatre group participants and I are planning to keep in touch and meet up occasionally to continue sharing our play translations.

3. The joys and woes of indie publishing

In my upbeat moments, I tell myself that Corylus Books is doing great work, taking on lesser-known languages and the kinds of quirky, genre-busting works that I like to read myself and that many of my (online or not) friends tell me they too like to read. However, the sales figures tell another story. Although each one of our books thus far has received excellent reviews, it appears that English language readers are not ready for Balkan Noir, nor for crime fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the subgenres of police procedural or psychological thriller or spy thriller etc.

I don’t want to rubbish the crime fiction genre, which I truly love, and where so much great writing and experimentation is taking place. But I have to admit it is discouraging to see some of the very average and ‘samey’ offerings that are being churned out by the big publishers month after month, and which end up ranking very highly on the sales charts. Yes, maybe that is the sort of book that the wider public prefer, but I think it’s at least 50% due to the money they can afford to splurge on advertising and promotion, the connections they have to journalists and other media people, to festival organisers and celebrity endorsements etc. There is no point in being snobbish and saying that we are not influenced by the buzz: probably around 80% of readers are. It works, and that is why they do it. And if it doesn’t work for three out of ten titles, they can afford to swallow the losses, or the Amazon spokes in their wheels.

Last but not least, there is one aspect of being a small indie publisher that I hadn’t realised before (and probably should have). Namely, that if you are not a purveyor of literary fiction in translation, you are unlikely to have much chance of winning translation and publication grants from the source countries, or literary awards which can then increase sales and visibility (both are usually given to ‘works of literary merit’, which crime fiction is still not considered to be generally).

I’ve been in this position before, starting my own company, and know it can take a couple of years to find success. But at least back then, I was only tightening my own belt, while this time there are many other people that we are letting down if we don’t achieve at least a modest success. Ah well, we chose this path ourselves, so mustn’t grumble, as they say. We’ll find ways to access funding, pay our translators properly, market and distribute our books and promote our authors in innovative ways, overcoming the double barriers of Covid and Brexit.

Oh, and Happy National Day, Switzerland, miss you lots! Hop Suisse!

How to Befriend a Language: Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021.

As soon as I heard about this book, I was pretty sure I was going to love it – and it has certainly not disappointed me! It is a book about the encounter with a foreign language and culture, so it feels like an anthropological study (which, as you know, I love). Like any modern and honest anthropological study, it also reveals things about the ‘participant observer’. And, above all, it is about Japan, which was the country that delighted, puzzled, intrigued and infuriated me at roughly the same age that Polly Barton went there to teach English and started learning Japanese. But I am finding it really hard to review, without simply piling on one quote after another, exclaiming ‘That’s exactly how I felt too!’ and urging you to read it.

I’d already read several of Polly Barton’s translations of Japanese women writers and attended a Borderless Book Club in which she talked about the translation of Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, so I knew she was both thoughtful and fearless as a reader and translator. This certainly carries through to this book, with very candid (but purposeful) descriptions of her personal life at the time. What I did not know was that she originally studied philosophy and had a passion for Wittgenstein, but, looking back now, Wittgenstein is exactly what I had in mind even before I started reading this. In my own student days, I used to proudly cite Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, claiming that the world around me does not exist if I cannot find the words to describe it.

What a monumental ego I must have had then! In some ways, Barton’s book is all about reducing that ego down to size. It certainly describes all the emotions and fears that I went through, although I was seldom that honest with even myself, let alone with others.

The concept behind the book is simple yet extremely effective: it’s a love story. How Polly Barton fell in love with the Japanese language (initially through falling in love with a Japanese man), told via fifty Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetics which describe various moments or states of mind during this journey. Like any love story, the journey is not straightforward and there are moments of confusion, misery and near-hatred (as well as enchantment, pride and euphoria). It is very personal ‘felt experience’, as the author tells us from the very start, unscientific and ‘unashamedly subjective’. Yet to this reader, who had a very similar experience with Japan and its language, it feels like she touches upon true universals of language-learning:

‘…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Onomatopoeia are much more widely used in Japan than anywhere else, both verbally and in writing, and are not considered childish. I have selected a few of the ‘sounds’ which spoke to me most, and how the author interprets them (I should add that her ‘translations’ of the onomatoepia are quite loose, and more linked to what she wants to narrate or describe, rather than the generally accepted meaning, so I’m adding the dictionary meaning next to it).

Nobi nobi = the sound of space (to feel relaxed, to be at ease)

The initial stages of being immersed in a foreign culture are all about that sense of ‘freedom from the known’. Although Barton recognises that it can be problematic to see the country you are moving to as ‘a blank canvas for your personal growth’, she also admits that she felt a real sense of liberation from judgement, from the constructs and obligations that we have absorbed together with our mothertongue. A chance to reinvent oneself, to start afresh.

Mecha kucha = the sound of a truly mixed tool-bag (disorderly, chaotic, higgledy-piggledy)

This refers to the mixed, often hostile reaction of Anglophones to the way that Japanese have imported (and misused) English words into their language. Although in theory Barton understood that you couldn’t just assume that other languages have the same associations with the words as you do, it was a difficult journey to acceptance and she often felt like a fraud, some kind of linguistic tyrant, waving the flag of multiculturalism, while the inner brat was fuming:

It transpired that it required a considerable largeness of spirit to accept the way that these imported words were wielded with little consideration for their original usage and belonged to an entirely different web of associations to those they had in English… Nobody understood you , or had any interest in understanding you.

Koro koro = the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor (small round object rolling or tumbling)

This was one of the most relatable sections. Polly Barton starts by saying she no longer believes that there is only one correct translation of anything, that it’s all about the context and our own familiarity with it. There is no simple direct equivalent for every word from French, for example, into English. This raises the question of those who are bilingual or trilingual – if each language perceives reality differently, are we actually slightly different people when we speak different languages? Are we being too chameleonic, are we losing our authenticity if we do that, or as the author puts it, are we ‘spineless and unfaithful’? I know that I speak with a higher pitch and act more cute in Japanese, gesticulate more and use a deeper voice when I speak Romanian, am both naughtier (with swear words) and more thoughtful in German, sound more grown-up in French. Unlike Polly Barton, I never consciously examined these differences or worried about them, but it certainly drew an ‘aha’ of recognition from me.

The author, photo credit: Michael Troy Judd, from Japan Times

Mote mote = the sound of being a small-town movie star (sexy, popular, well-liked)

The author notes that almost every Western person going to Japan (who is visually identifiable as non-Japanese), especially in a rural setting, is gawped at and admired, although ultimately they keep you at arm’s length. You have to learn not to let it go to your head.

As Japan holds you up, tells you how adorable, glamorous, exotic, unprecedented you are, it is also telling you even as it reaches towards you.. that you are unreachable. It needs you to be unreachable. It needs you to be on the outside. It requires your alienation in order to better admire you…

This is even more so the case in China (where people ask to take selfies with you on the street, especially if you are blonde or have blue or green eyes). However, the Japan I encountered as a Romanian was quite different: there was a decided sniff of superiority, of making you aware that you were far inferior (and I can imagine that is the case for black people too). Well-disguised under multiple layers of politeness, but still perceptible. For me, it seems that the Japanese want to keep themselves unreachable, safely on the inside.

There is a certain ambivalence to how the Japanese feel about the Anglophone (especially American) foreigners, which goes right back to the 19th century (the threatening Black Ships of Commodore Perry) and of course the post-war American occupation, and later in the book Polly speaks almost enviously of the white male Anglophone privilege of the anime lovers turned Japan experts. Perhaps the only people who can feel truly at home in Japan are those who remain blissfully unaware of this ambivalence, who are so secure in their self-confidence and self-belief that another culture cannot shake them or make them feel rejected.

Uda uda = the sound of the wild bore (going on and on, talking nonsense, idling away time)

This was another very funny and self-deprecating section, describing how the author felt when she returned to the UK and started finding the division between Japan and the rest of her life harder to maintain, eventually losing ‘the ability to converse about anything that didn’t relate to Japan’. I’m sure that all of us who have lived abroad for a long time have experienced this when ‘returning home’ and have been disappointed that those who stayed home are not really interested in our tales of adventure in foreign lands.

I knew that people around me didn’t have any particular interest in what for them was just one far-away country of many… I could hear in my head how ridiculous my voice sounded as it began every sentence: “In Japan”… I felt that somewhere along the way I’d lost my right to have an opinion because I was now so badly informed about things back home… I wasn’t the bridge between cultures of which everyone blithely spoke; I was someone bobbing helplessly on the sea… there are still times when I worry that my conversation is like a radio stuck on a single channel: that not only am I a one-trick pony of a person, but my trick is an obscure one which confounds rather than delights.

I’ll stop here, for fear that I will just copy out the entire book. I think you can tell how much I loved it! There is so much food for thought here, not just for anyone who has ever lived abroad, or tried to learn a foreign language. It is such a rich, nuanced look at creating and recreating your personal identity, trying to fit in and learning to live with difference. It is funny, clever, creative and an utter delight!

As an extra bonus, I’d like to include a link to a magazine Monkey featuring two stories by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton.

Brief Reviews of Two Books Which Deserve Better

It’s a choice between either giving brief reviews of two books which I really loved recently… or being forever silent about them, as more and more time passes since I read them. So, with apologies to those who were hoping for more thoughtful and detailed reviews, let me tell you about two unusual, beautifully written novels by two authors who certainly ploughed their own furrow and avoided any fashionable trends.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball (1964)

For once, it was not Backlisted Podcast that drew my attention to this work (although I loved listening to their episode on it afterwards). I came to it via a passion for Mozart, particularly Don Giovanni, which clearly Brigid Brophy shared (she wrote a book about Mozart’s operas).

The novel is basically a Mozart opera set in the present-day (or, rather, what passed for present day back in the 1960s, when she wrote it). Yet there is a strange timelessness about the setting as well, so that the mention of phones and taxis seems almost jarring. The two ‘main’ characters describe the plot (such as it is) very well when they say that all they think about is ‘Mozart and sex’ or ‘Mozart, sex and death.’

The scene is a New Year’s Eve masked ball at a very large and impressive mansion somewhere in London. Anna is the friend of the hostess Anne (they also shared a husband at some point – although not at the same time) and she has come dressed as Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. We witness the ritual of seduction between her and a stranger dressed as Don Giovanni, but we also witness the pas de deux between two other couples, the middle-aged hosts, and judgemental, ostensibly bored teenagers. Of course, we also have the interactions between these various couples and other assembled guests. Duets briefly turn into trios or quartets, with the occasional chorus of voices chiming in. Outside, it starts snowing, bringing an occasional hush and wonder to the proceedings.

The book is a playful look at the identities we toy with and then discard, the masks we put on to seduce and confuse, to attract and distract, or even to repel unwanted advances. It has sizzling flirtatious dialogue, a whirlwind of images, a crescendo of passion and one of the best descriptions of postcoital pleasure tinged with melancholy that I have ever read. Although it also brings in the awkward and self-absorbed adolescent voice through the diary that young Ruth (dressed as Cherubino) is keeping throughout the party, it is the verbal sparring of the grown-ups that set the tone for this novel. No one speaks like that in real life, we feel – or at least not with strangers you have barely met – and yet don’t we all wish we could?

There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about whether Donna Anna was seduced or not by Don Giovanni at the start of the opera, but the debate I found even more fascinating was whether the operatic Don Giovanni is brave or merely a cad, whether he chooses to provoke Hell into taking him prematurely, rather than passively wait for death to come. However, I don’t want to give the impression the book is all high-brow flights of fancy, or that you need an in-depth knowledge of Mozart’s operas to appreciate it. It is also surprisingly down-to-earth, very funny and full of witty observations, such as:

… the rich have libraries, whereas people like us have books. People like us read books. The rich have them catalogued.

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder (1994)

From a joyous celebration of life, to a more melancholy book, which I believe nevertheless does celebrate life.

The Memory Police of the title seems to be the elite squad operating in an unnamed island where Ogawa sets her quasi-dystopian novel – but they are not content to merely make things disappear from time to time, they want to make sure that the memories of all the disappeared objects are erased too. Their methods of enforcing compliance get more and more brutal, as they seek out those who cannot forget. One such person who cannot erase his memories is the editor of the narrator, who is a novelist. None of the characters have names, they are described by their physical attributes – the old man – or their jobs, or else simply initials – the editor is also R – as if the names themselves are fading away. The novelist decides to try and save him: despite the great risk, she prepares a small secret room in her house with the help of her faithful friend, the old man with DIY skills, and invites the editor to hide there. Meanwhile, the editor tries to teach them to remember, with the help of a few forbidden ‘missing’ objects which the narrator’s mother had hidden long ago. But the most frightening and sad aspect of the book is that these objects no longer awaken any feelings in them.

Earlier in the book, the novelist wonders sensibly enough about the ratio between the disappearance and the creation of objects:

‘I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?… What can the people on this island create? A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books that no one reads… Poor unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing – and the energy that goes along with them… If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absence and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.’

I have to admit that this and other passages shook me a little: they reminded me a little too much of my years of being shut in a totalitarian country, cut off from the outside world, with no possibility of leaving, and being forcibly told to forget my friends from abroad or any other interpretation of reality other than the ‘official one’.

However, this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Yet, despite the often shocking disappearances and the consequences they have on each of the individuals, the characters try to lead as normal a life as possible, to celebrate birthdays, and cook nice meals, wash and sleep and talk. It’s this resistance, this almost futile resistance, of the small, vulnerable person in the face of the behemoth (which could be a hostile authority, or simply time itself) which makes this book so incredibly subtle and poignant.

The whole book is written in a calm, matter-of-fact yet somewhat dreamy style. I felt as if I was standing in a soft but constant rain, ready to melt and disappear myself, despite the occasional shock of the story within a story told periodically, about a typist who has lost the power of speech, and is emprisoned in a tower full of broken typewriters (this is the novel the main protagonist is writing).

My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.

A huge thanks, incidentally, to Jacqui and Debbie from the Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood Bookshops, who sent this book as part of the subscription package for my fifteen-year-old son. He has been too busy with GCSE exam-replacement assessments to read it yet, and it may be a little too subtle for him, but I absolutely loved borrowing it off his bookshelves. The more I think about the book, the more I love it: it has left a very profound echo in my heart.