Translation Database: Day Three

We have reached the third day of my picks from the wonderful Translation Database (view it here).  I have chosen all of these books at random, but have tried to ensure that there is a real diversity between picks, both in terms of subject matter, and the original written languages the books were published in.


1. The Sea by Blai Bonet (translated from the Catalan by Cathy Sweeney; Dalkey Archive 16284823Press)
A profoundly touching contribution to the tradition of the metaphysical novel as exemplified by Dostoyevsky and Bernanos, and likewise a worthy counterpart to the vibrant and polyphonic work of fellow Iberians Camilo Jose Cela and Juan Goytisolo, The Sea is a cornerstone of postwar Catalan literature. Set in a tubercular sanatorium in Mallorca after the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of three children sharing a gruesome secret who are brought together again by chance and illness–two patients and one nurse. A love triangle, a story of retribution, and an exploration of evil, The Sea is “a profound and radical descent into the depths of the human soul.” (Gerard de Cortanze).


363344402. Tomas Jonsson, Bestseller by Gudberger Bergsson (translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith; Open Letter)
‘A retired, senile bank clerk confined to his basement apartment, Tómas Jónsson decides that, since memoirs are all the rage, he’s going to write his own—a sure bestseller—that will also right the wrongs of contemporary Icelandic society. Egoistic, cranky, and digressive, Tómas blasts away while relating pick-up techniques, meditations on chamber pot use, ways to assign monetary value to noise pollution, and much more. His rants parody and subvert the idea of the memoir—something that’s as relevant today in our memoir-obsessed society as it was when the novel was first published.  Considered by many to be the ‘Icelandic Ulysses‘ for its wordplay, neologisms, structural upheaval, and reinvention of what’s possible in Icelandic writing, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller was a bestseller, heralding a new age of Icelandic literature.’


3. Zoo in Winter by Polina Barskova  (translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk; 10051654Melville House)
Opulent, playful, and sensual, Polina Barskova’s poems have earned her a reputation as the finest Russian poet under forty. While steeped in Russian and classical culture, Barskova’s work remains unmistakably contemporary, at once classic and edgy–always fresh, new and even startling. A major English-language event, The Zoo in Winter collects poems from seven earlier books as well as from her more recent work. It is a remarkable menagerie of poems, of a strange and intoxicating beauty.


271808124. I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali (translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman; Garnet Publishing)
Iraqi Kurdistan at the turn of the twenty-first century is a territory ruled by strongmen, revolutionaries, fixers, bureaucrats, and the “Barons” who control everything from livestock and land to Kurdish cultural life.  Defying the absolute power wielded by the Barons, a band of friends led by an enigmatic poet embark on an odyssey to find the bodies of two lovers killed unjustly by the authorities. The Barons respond by attempting to crush these would-be avengers—but their real war is waged against the imagination itself, a prized, elusive commodity to which intellectuals, merchants, political elites, and humble workers all seek access in one way or another.  I Stared at the Night of the City is a tale of extraordinary people travelling great distances, in their minds or with their feet. It is a lyrical interpretation of contemporary Kurdistan, so much in the news, but so little understood. Told by several unreliable narrators in a kaleidoscope of fragments that all eventually cohere, the novel immerses readers in the fantastic just long enough, before wrenching them back to hard, cold “real life.”


5. Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies; Parthian Books)
Bound together by blood ties, Martha, Jack, and Shanco live on a farm in Wales, where their lives unfold in the eerie half-presence of their dead parents.


‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon ***

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was has been translated from its original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.  The novella was first published in its native Iceland in 2013, by one of the country’s most revered authors and songwriters, Sjon.  I visited the biggest bookshop in Reykjavik when I visited in February, and many of his books were on display, both in Icelandic and their English translations.  To date, I have read a couple of his books, including the relatively well-known The Blue Fox, which I would go as far as to say is his most prominent work in the English-speaking world.

Characteristically, Sjon’s style does tend toward the sparse, and is almost simplistic on the face of it.  Moonstone begins in 1918, with this sentence: ‘The October evening is windless and cool.  There is a distant throb of a motorcycle.  The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound’.  What comes next is rather a graphic scene, in which a young man – our main character – sexually gratifies an older man: ‘Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches at the land scenes he is staging in his mind’.

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old orphan Mani Stein Karlssson (possibly a spelling error in the book) is from 15,000-citizen strong Reykjavik, in which ‘those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another’, and has lived with his great-grandmother’s sister since his mother’s death.  His real passion in life is going to the cinema, watching, as he does, ‘all the movies that are imported to Iceland’.  Mani is illiterate, and works as a gigolo to earn his money; it is not a job which he dislikes, and he never says anything to make the reader think that he is being exploited, or is performing acts solely for the monetary reward.  In fact, more could have been made of this element of the plot.

Images and imagery are both of importance here; the result is gory and strange, but incredibly memorable.  Throughout, Sjon’s use of imagery is both interesting and thought-provoking: ‘With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock’.  Some of his descriptions – and, indeed, Cribb’s interpretation of them – are striking: ‘She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla…’.  Indeed, the geographical prominence of the landscape features wonderfully:

‘Although it’s past midnight there’s still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, labourers… and waifs and strays like himself…  When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the ease where the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.’

For the first quarter or so of the novella, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of dates, it would be difficult to pinpoint the period in which Mani’s story takes place.  There is very little else, at first, to give the era away, and its writing style – or perhaps its translation – feels relatively contemporary.  There are those things going on in Icelandic society which we recognise from the modern-day media – eruptions from various volcanoes, such as the aforementioned Katla, steamers coming across from Denmark, and a referendum about the country’s independence.

Later comes the first reference to Spanish influenza, which the remainder of the plot revolves around, and which builds a sense of history in a far more effective manner.  As Sjon writes, this epidemic acts almost as a uniting force: ‘An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavik at the same time as it is happening in the outside world’.  The influenza is consequently personified, given human attributes and actions: ‘By the time Miss Inga Maria Waagfjord, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of ‘The Golden Reel’ at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune’.

At first, whilst Moonstone provides some character portraits which warrant exploration on behalf of the reader, there is a definite sense of detachment to the whole.  The novella takes a while to find its feet, but it can certainly be said that it builds in intensity after the first few chapters, and becomes almost compelling in consequence.  The detachment disappears after a while, and the third person perspective cleverly becomes a necessary, rather than a distancing, tool.  Sjon has demonstrated, however, how quickly the city changed in the face of the epidemic, and how its atmosphere and bustle all but disappeared.  An important time in history, which does not appear to have been very well documented in Western history (at least in the English-speaking world) has been demonstrated in Moonstone, which alone makes the novella well worth reading.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Whispering Muse’ by Sjon ***

Sjón’s The Whispering Muse is more of a novella than a novel, filling just 143 pages. The author is a celebrated poet and novelist in his native Iceland, and his books have been translated into twenty five languages to date. The Whispering Muse won the award for best Icelandic novel in 2005, and has recently been translated into English by Victoria Cribb.

The novel, which has been heralded by such authors as Alberto Manguel and David Mitchell as ‘a marvel’ and ‘a lovingly published gem of a novel’ respectively, opens in 1949 and takes place over a relatively short period of time. Its protagonist is an Icelandic man named Valdimar Haraldsson, who is rather an eccentric character from the start. He is twenty seven years old when the story begins, and states his ‘chief preoccupation’ as ‘the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race’.

One of the few men who believe Valdimar’s theory, that the Nordic diet of fish makes the race ‘superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean’, is a Danish shipbroker named Hermann Jung-Olsen. Hermann, ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’, is described as ‘a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work’. After his untimely death, Hermann’s father, Magnus, invites Valdimar on a cruise on one of the Jung-Olsen family’s own liners, from Copenhagen to Norway, and then on to İzmit in Turkey.

The second mate of the ship is the mythical hero Caeneus, working in disguise. Each night after supper he weaves stories for those present, apparently striking his inspiration from a piece of wood chipping which he holds close to his ear. He tells of his adventures aboard a ship named the Argo, which Valdimar deems to be ‘fascinating stuff for the most part, if a little on the racy side’. The interwoven story is inventive, and Sjón has struck just the right balance in his telling of the tales of Valdimar and Caeneus. The concept is a clever one.

A good mixture of sentence structure has been used throughout The Whispering Muse, particularly with regard to the balance between short and long sentences. Valdimar’s first person narrative voice is strong, and he comes across as a likeable character from the outset. His narrative is light and relatively informal, and his style is a chatty one. Sjón’s character descriptions too are rather inventive and often amusing. The purser of the ship, for example, is ‘a likeable chap, despite an inability to pronounce his ‘r’s’. The story does feel rather factually heavy at times, particularly when such elements as freight weights and the intricacies of the paper making process are included.

Where the writing style is concerned, the majority of the book has been very well captured in translation. The author’s descriptions work incredibly well, particularly those of the sea, and a real sense of place is created when the liner first reaches Norway. Caeneus’ dialogue is nothing short of poetic for the most part. The only downside to Cribb’s interpretation of the text is the way in which several of the phrases used do sound rather clumsy – ‘when we made landfall on the island’, for example.

On the whole, the story is a clever one, but elements of the bizarre creep in throughout. The ending of the book does sadly seem a little abrupt, particularly where Valdimar’s transformation as a character is concerned. Still, The Whispering Muse is a must-read for anyone interested in mythology and fables, or those who merely wish to expand their knowledge of contemporary Icelandic literature.

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