Translator: Redefined

While the number of books published in translation in the United Kingdom remains low—research by Literature Across Frontiers, a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate produced an average figure of 3% over the past 20 years—the success of the likes of Karl Ove KnausgårdElena Ferrante, and Han Kang is catalysing interest towards books written in languages other than English. The number of literary translations grew by 66% between 1990 and 2015, LAF says. Among the most popular source languages were Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch, alongside Arabic and Japanese. These figures conceal the fact that out of the world’s thousands of literary cultures, only a few ever achieve any level of representation in English. For those who translate from these under-represented languages, it is an opportunity to act beyond the traditional boundaries of a translator.

Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature win has yet to ease China’s big break on the Western literary market. “There is a huge canon of contemporary Chinese literature that no one in the United Kingdom has ever heard of,” says Nicky Harman, previously a teacher of translation at Imperial College London and a full-time translator of Chinese since 2011. “I have the privilege of pushing open the window.” Harman is one of the Chinese into English translators who set up Paper Republic, a website that promotes Chinese literature, in 2008. Continue reading

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Fear and loathing in the Congo

Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.

The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles

an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.

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Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)

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Not bad, Markovitch

Thanks to the Easter holidays (bliss), I’ve just managed to start and finish Ayelet Gundar-Goshen‘s debut novel One Night, Markovitch (2012, published in English by Pushkin Press in 2015). This was of course also thanks to Gundar-Goshen’s very readable writing. The Amazon reviews of this book are, by the way, rather scathing. Although it didn’t quite live up to its excellent first impressions, I still think it’s a lovely novel and well worth a read.

 

Despite its name, One Night, Markovitch, features a bunch of eccentric characters living in a small, gossipy village whose interwoven story we get to know. Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are two Jewish blokes living in Palestine in what is presumably the 1930s. The men have similar interests – milky-white boobs, vaginas that smell of fruit, and other female body-parts – but couldn’t be more different. Feinberg is the one gets (all) the ladies: he’s imposing, charismatic, and

first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”.

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Opium, bonanzas, and whores — New Zealand’s wild west in The Luminaries

In a world where we’re supposed to cry tears of joy whilst ridding ourselves of old crap (cue KonMari), I’m not ashamed to admit I’m prone to nostalgia.

In particular, I’m endlessly drawn to revisiting places. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from recognising familiar features, familiar sounds, a familiar sense of space. Yet these moments are at the same time coloured by sadness because they, more so than any other moments, make me feel difference and change in me. The place might be the same, but I’m not.

This is my awkward transition to books: I also hugely enjoy rereading them, mostly because I know exactly what I’m getting. The risk of going for a new book, possibly the beginning of a new love affair, possibly a horrible, time-wasting letdown, is occasionally more than a vulnerable reader can handle. I don’t get bored of re-encountering stories, characters, and moods — they never feel quite the same as they did the previous time, because I’ll have changed.

Of course, a book must be great for me to want to reread it in the first place, and Eleanor Catton‘s The Luminaries (Granta, 2013) is a fantastic example of such a book. I first read it just over a yeah ago (yes, its 832 pages took me, hmm, maybe 2 months to finish, and yes, I am ashamed to admit that), mostly sat on the train in or out of London whilst doing my internship. I’d bought the book mainly because I knew it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, and also because the location, New Zealand in the 1860s, sounded cool. Also, I was really into astrology as a teenager, but let’s not go there. Continue reading

Guilt, shame, and fear: I Let You Go

Apologies for the silence – the last few weeks have been busy. BUT! I’ve still managed to read something, namely Clare Mackintosh‘s debut novel, the thriller I Let You Go.

I got a free copy of the book and let’s face it, it’s not one I would’ve spontaneously bought for myself. Even though I don’t usually read commercial thrillers, a free book is a free book and mustn’t be frowned upon! Here was a perfect opportunity to read outside of the box and find out about a new writer, and even if I did end up hating it at least I would’ve only wasted my time.

Clare Mackintosh used to work as a police officer, so she’s writing about a world she’s very familiar with. I Let You Go (Sphere, 2014) begins with a car crash in which a young child running across the street is killed by a speeding car after his mother lets go of his hand. The car and the driver vanish without barely any trace, and are searched for by a team from Bristol police with Detective Inspector Ray Stevens at the helm, himself going through difficult times both at work and at home. A parallel storyline follows a young woman who appears to have left Bristol in great haste. Letting go of any connections to her past, she settles in a tiny old cottage by a secluded beach in Wales. The reader is – or at least I was – lead to believe that the woman is connected to the events that had taken place in Bristol and is possibly the child’s mother. Continue reading

Death in a cold climate

I’ll be honest: I love book cover art. LOVE it.

Unless I’m buying a classic, a great cover can well be the decisive factor in choosing a book  – and even in the case of a classic, if several editions with different covers exist, I always buy the one I like the most.

So. Andrey Kurkov‘s Death and the Penguin (1996, Vintage Books). Spotted in an independent book shop in Chelsea. Amazing yellow cover (I also happen to love yellow). Imaginative use of the penguin figure. Front cover tagline:

In today’s Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin

Must buy!

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Vintage cover (source: http://bit.ly/1H16kLv)

The reader is promised a “tragicomic masterpiece” and “chilling black comedy”. There’s quite possible something wrong with me and my reading of the book, but despite the absurd figure of the penguin and many of the book’s similarly absurd events failed to, well, amuse me. Not a bad read at all, no. But comic? Not so much.

The book begins in Ukraine’s capital Kiev with the aspiring writer of fiction, Viktor Zolotaryov, living quite frankly a boring, unaccomplished life* with his pet penguin Misha, who he’d rescued from a local zoo giving away animals it could no longer care for. Viktor’s short stories aren’t a success with Igor Lvovitch, the editor in chief of Capital News, but he finally finds his niche when given the task to write speculative obituaries, i.e. obituaries of notable people who haven’t yet died, for Lvovitch’s paper. Using the pseudonym A Group of Friends, his obelisks certainly have a style of their own:

Much against his will, the departed acquiesced in the murder of his younger brother, the latter having chanced upon a list of shareholders of an as yet unprivatized washing-machine factory. However, the monument erected by the deceased in memory of his brother has become a veritable adornment of the cemetery. Often life makes it necessary to kill, while the death of someone close makes it necessary to live on regardless… Everything in this world is united by virtue of blood.

The editor in chief loves it, and a success story is born. Or at least until the people Viktor has written obituaries on begin to die – naturally or unnaturally – and he is forced to attend their funerals with Misha the penguin in tow, or else…!

I did quite like the book, although it wasn’t funny as I’d hoped. It was certainly a dramatic change in scenery from The Talented Mr Ripley‘s Italy. One of the qualities I actually enjoyed the most about Death and the Penguin was the depiction of the harsh, long, snowy winter, so similar to that of my native Finland. Another highlight is of course Misha the penguin, itself (or himself?) a figure of loneliness and depression:

A little later, the penguin emerged from behind the dark-green settee, and sauntered towards the half-open living-room door. En route he paused by the sleeping girl, gazed thoughtfully at her, then continued on into the corridor. Pushing the next door open, he proceeded to the kitchen.

Sitting asleep in his mater’s place, head resting on the table, was a strange man.

For several minutes the penguin considered him, standing motionless by the door, then turned about and retraced his steps.

I might read Death and the Penguin‘s sequel, Penguin Lost, just to find out what happens to Misha.

 

 

The book is written in a laconic style and in short chapters that are quick to read. Throughout the book I expected something really exciting and scary to happen. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler if I say that nothing did, or at least nothing exciting enough for me.

It’s possible some of the humour and excitement of the original was literally lost in translation. I’d say I’m very familiar with reading translated fiction – my mother tongue is Finnish after all, which means that before university I would have read most foreign books as translations. In fact, one of the most recent translated books I read in Finnish was Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. Perhaps it was a matter of excellent translation, but while reading it I never stopped and noticed I wasn’t reading the book in the original language.

George Bird‘s translation of Death and the Penguin however… felt a bit empty somehow. Lacking in content and colour. I found myself thinking I wish I could’ve read another translation of it for the sake of comparison. Sadly, this option was not available, so it’s impossible to know whether this feeling of lacking was a feature of Kurkov’s original text or something that happened in translation. I do appreciate that Kurkov writes in a laconic style, but I feel this was a question of more than just that.

I don’t want to sound too disappointed or as if I didn’t like and enjoy the book at all. I did enjoy it. For me, it just wasn’t what I would have expected. Still, I’d raise a glass of Finlandia vodka to Viktor, Misha, and Andrey.

*Distinct similarities with Auster‘s City of Glasswithout the penguin of course!

 

Death and the Penguin reviews

The Guardian
The New York Times

Kurkov talks about his book on the BBC World Book Club 

 

andrey-kurkov-007Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov (1961-) is a Ukrainian novelist and an independent thinker who writes in Russian. He is the author of 18 novels, 7 books for children, and about 20 documentary, fiction and TV movie scripts.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrey_Kurkov

 

 

 

(featured image source: http://bit.ly/1ESGYSK)

 

Living the High Life in Italy

Azure blue skies, the intense rays of the sun warming up your skin, red swimsuits, a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta made just right. Welcome aboard the 7.47 Thameslink service to Bedford!

Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) was my daily commute read last month, and boy, could the world it depicted be any further from the rush hour trains racing through the grey English winter landscape. Despite having (yet again… I do see a pattern forming here) unpleasant protagonists, Highsmith’s well-crafted novel paints an enchanting picture of 1950s Italy with its quaint little villages and buzzing cities, all seemingly crowded with cash-flashing young Americans eager to take on the habits and culture of the Old Continent.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage.

Beautiful cover design from Vintage

The Talented Mr Ripley tells the story of the American Tom Ripley, an ambitious but poor young man with a severe inferiority complex he tries to make up for by impersonating other people, especially those he perceives to be more successful than him, by forging signatures, and being quite frankly a general dick. Not that other people easily notice his dick-ness – he’s highly skilled in making just the right impression. When ship-building magnate Mr Greenleaf the elder suggests that he go to Italy and try to persuade Mr Greenleaf the younger, who spends his time and his father’s money there painting, sailing, and sightseeing, return to the family business in the States, it’s an offer Tom can’t refuse particularly as the police are just about to find out about his shady activities in New York. Soon he is off on a fancy cruise ship, travel naturally paid for by Mr Greenleaf the elder:

Lying in his deckchair, fortified morally by the luxurious surrounding and inwardly by the abundance of well-prepared food, he tried to take an objective look at his past life. The last four years had been for the most part a waste, there was no denying that. A series of haphazard jobs, long perilous intervals of with no job at all and consequent demoralization because of having no money, and then taking up with stupid, silly people in order not to be lonely, or because they could offer him something for a while.

As the passage makes clear, Tom isn’t fond of many people, and even when he is attracted to a person it has more to do with their position and status than with anything else. Finding himself in the village of Mongibello, he infiltrates his way into the company of Dick Greenleaf and his friend-girlfriend Marge Sherwood, who he finds chubby, stupid, and annoying. Although enthralled by Dick’s lifestyle and confidence, Tom’s opinion of him isn’t much more positive: he’s boring, deceitful (!), and his painting is embarrassingly bad. When Mr Greenleaf the elder’s money transmissions to Tom end and Dick and Marge grow disenchanted with their guest, conflict ensues. Add to the mix a murder or two, a couple tight spots for the personality-changing Tom, and lots of lovely depictions of food, scenery, and culture, and you have The Talented Mr Ripley.

I’d watched the 1999 film of the same name, directed by Anthony Minghella, several years previously, and as I’m especially interested in adaptation theory, I watched the film again to compare it to Highsmith’s original text. It’s clear the film is at most inspired by the book. Minghella has kept most of the main characters but changed their personality to the degree that their motivations are completely altered. Tom has been made into a gay man in love with Dickie – in the book, Tom dismisses any suggestion of being queer as ridiculous – while Dickie, although in a relationship with Marge who is played by the non-chubby, gorgeous young Gwyneth Paltrow, spends most of his time courting the village’s girls and is a much more raucous character than the novel’s Dickie the painter. Minor characters have been added, and the ending changed entirely. The film is really best viewed as an independent piece of work, definitely still worth watching if only for the even more gorgeous young Jude Law.

jude law

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Tom Ripley do the 1950s look

This book was a lovely little surprise. I hadn’t realised it had actually been published in the 1950s, that there were two other books in the series on Tom Ripley, and that another one of her books had been made into the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train.

Highsmith’s characters are well-crafted, and the story has just enough suspense to keep you waiting for Tom’s next move. As you may have already guessed, I particularly loved the passages describing Tom’s life in Southern Europe:

He bought two evening newspapers, tucked them under his arm and walked on, over a little arched bridge, through a long street hardly six feet wide full of leather shops and men’s shirt shops, past windows glittering with jewelled boxes that spilled out necklaces and rings like the boxes Tom has always imagined that treasures spilled out of in fairy tales. He liked the fact that Venice had no cars. It made the city human. The streets were like veins, he thought, and the people were the blood, circulating everywhere. He took another street back and crossed the great quadrangle of San Marco’s for the second time. Pigeons everywhere, in the air, in the light of shops – even at night, pigeons walking along under people’s feet like sightseers themselves in their home town!

Viva Italia, I say!

 

 

 

The Talented Mr Ripley reviews

The New York Times (by Jeannette Winterson)
Persephone Magazine

Listen to Patricia Highsmith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (1979)

 

patriciahighsmith2_recortadoPatricia Highsmith (1921–1995) was an American novelist and short story writer, known for her psychological thrillers, which led to more than two dozen film adaptations.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Highsmith)