Is it fair to weigh in on a translation I haven’t read much of in a language unknown to me–but also to most of the rest of the world? Maybe not. But the continuing controversy about the English version of a prize-winning Asian novel I won’t name here (so as not to personalize matters beyond the translation community, already aware of the case), does provoke some unavoidable questions and convictions about the business of translation.
The translator is young and like most of us probably still has more to learn about her craft. Success has brought her attention, and she’s given quite a few interviews in which she talks about her theory and practice, interviews readily available online to anyone interested. Her translation has been criticized in the novel’s country of origin, and it’s suggested she decisively changed the register and the tone to meet the expectations of Anglophone readers. Those critics have in turn been attacked by scholars and translators who know the home country and language, on the grounds they reflect the intense male chauvinism of its patriarchal society. Women, particularly have risen to the translator’s defence in a way that reminds me of the outrage at attempts to identify the author behind the novels by Elena Ferrante.
There’s good reason for this: women translators, like women writers, have long been ignored, neglected, underestimated, criticized, patronized and pounced on for making trivial errors that might be grandly overlooked in a male counterpart. In a long-ago essay Vladimir Nabokov classified translators into three types, of which “the well-meaning hack” devoid of all creative genius is personified by a “laborious lady” (his guilty party, who goes unnamed, was certainly Constance Garnett.) I’m sure male chauvinism is driving some criticism of this present, contested translation too.
And yet. more
If I could, I would just dig holes in the ground. Wind or rain, under the blistering sun when every breath sends fire into the lungs, when winter cold gnaws at the fingers. What matters is that it’s just me and the earth, no distractions, no interlopers. She and I have a good rapport, always did. I do what I have to do, and she lets me.
The Timberline Review is a young Oregon-based literary review. When I told Giacomo Sartori they wanted to print a couple of what we might call his flash fictions, he was delighted, because the agronomist in him particularly likes the English word “timberline” and what it connotes: the point on a mountainside above which soil and climate do not support the growth of trees.
Sartori was born in 1958 in the city of Trento in the Alpine northeast of Italy. An agronomist who specializes in soil analysis, he lives in Paris and works in Europe and abroad. He’s also a prolific writer with a dozen volumes to his credit: novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. His subjects range from the beleaguered biosphere to the dark sides of Italian history, and he handles them without melodrama or fatalism. The language is concrete and vivid, crafted, never dull. In The Anatomy of the Battle Sartori writes of his childhood in a family of convinced Fascists. His work has been lauded for the way it transcends the usual limits of both psychological and the historical fiction.
The two brief tales in Timberline portray a man struggling to cope with the baffling expectations and hypocrisies all around him. The voice is that of Sartori’s collection Autisms.
“There are a freaking 7 billion of us here,” says the speaker in “My Death”, “we’d be in a bad way if everyone staged a Greek tragedy when they died.” Human beings are rattled by death, he thinks, they don’t know how to behave.
“What Earth Costs” tells of the pleasant sides of his solitary love affair with the soil, and the unpleasant: his galley post at the computer, the stony bureaucrats he must call on to beg for funding.
Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) is a first novel by a young Sri Lankan about the final months of his country’s long civil war that ended in 2009. It’s written in English, a lyrical, plain, slightly odd English that immediately drew me in. The voice speaking is alien, not one of the “us” we are accustomed to hear in English language novels, including those coming from Asia.
“Didn’t dying in the end mean being separated from other humans, after all, from the sea of human gaits, gestures, noises and gazes in which for so many years one had floated, didn’t it mean abandoning the possibility of connecting with another human that being among others always afforded?”
The character Dinesh, whose thoughts these are, is a young man, as is the author, 28, but there’s nothing very youthful or contemporary about either the language or the thought.
Young Dinesh is part of the Tamil population being harried to the sea by the army as the desperate rebels of the Tamil insurgency try to co-opt every last civilian in the battle. The last member of his family still alive, Dinesh does not expect to survive long himself. A chance meeting with a man in a camp for displaced persons presents him with an unexpected companion, the man’s young daughter Ganga, and overnight, they become husband and wife.
All of Dinesh’s experience–which is mostly suffering–is expressed in physical, bodily terms. The absence of any psychological register to his thinking is one of the things that puts him at a distance from the contemporary Western voice and makes him interesting and worthy of our attention. Nothing that is happening to him is simple or ordinary, but the terms we might reach for to describe his reactions—grief, fear, anxiety—are inadequate. His vocabulary is that of ingesting, expelling. Breathing. Eating rice and dhal. Moving his bowels, sweating, weeping uncontrollably.
What makes the novel so rich is that “Dinesh’s “otherness” is expressed not only in his story, this fable about the briefest of marriages and the small hopes it can inspire, but also in the novel’s language. As a translator, I long to find a register in English that can point at those elements of a text from another language that are not quite the same as their “equivalents” in English, the points where a culture’s imagination is different from the Ur- culture of our era, the Anglophone. My translations are from the Italian, a culture closely linked to Anglophone culture, and yet not identical. I’m often searching for a language that will convey the difference while also sounding plausible, and even fresh and lively, in English. If the issue arises for a translator from the Italian, it is so much greater for someone writing in English whose mother tongue is Tamil, and that is the case with Arudpragasam, although he grew up far from the war in Colombo and comes from a privileged family.
In one of the most memorable chapters in a novel full of seen and unseen violence, Dinesh does something from a perfectly ordinary life, he bathes. It’s for the first time in weeks, a long and thorough cleaning process that occupies almost 25 pages, of which the following is just the briefest excerpt.
“Taking the bowl again with his left hand he began emptying out the water in little parcels over his body, scrubbing meticulously with his right hand at the same time. He began with his feet, scouring the slightly ticklish areas between his toes with his index finger, scraping away with his newly cut nails at the patches just below the bumps of his ankles, where the grime had grafted itself tightly to the skin…Layer after layer of dirt collected into little pleats and fell off his wet skin as he kept scrubbing…”
The bath, when Dinesh washes his clothing, cuts his hair and nails, then scrubs with slow attention every inch and corner of his body, noting the particular qualities of the dirt that each of these crevices harbors, is one of the most beautiful passages in the novel. Not much could be more banal than taking a bath, except for a human being so filthy and neglected he is barely human, so fatigued he can no longer rest his muscles or allow his tight, caked skin to relax. The buckets from the well, the ritual wetting of his limbs, the “parcels” of precious water, the grime that comes off in pleats: Arudpragasam finds an English style both familiar and strange to render this epic bath vivid. It is writing we translators can learn from as we struggle not to betray the otherness of our source texts.
Most reviews, although they praised the book, seem inadequate to it. This one from the FT was the best I saw.
Helena Janecek, an editor, poet, and prize-winning author, is one of several influential transcultural figures writing in Italian today who bring a welcome depth of experience to a national literature sometimes in need of fresh inspiration. Lezioni di tenebra (Mondadori 1997, Guanda, 2011, pp 199) tells of the author’s visit to Poland and Auschwitz in the 1990s with her mother, a survivor of the camp. Helena’s Polish-Jewish survivor parents brought her up in Munich after the war, bequeathing such unspoken uneasiness about Germany to their daughter that she fled Bavaria for Italy at age 18. She writes in Italian.
Lezioni is an extended reflection on what the daughter absorbed, through her skin, her senses and her feelings, of the inferno the mother had lived. It’s a reflection on memory as it is passed down in things, bodies, gestures, as much as in words or history, written in a nervous, colloquial, engaging style. “A precise, stubborn, dry voice that can shock but also intimate, and the controlled language of someone who’s succeeded in becoming a ‘writer in Italian’, something more interesting than an Italian writer,” observed Erri De Luca.
Her novel The Swallows of Monte Cassino, 2010, about the foot soldiers of many nations who fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, also draws on autobiography and is written in a similar style.
“Lessons from the Darkness”, as the attached translated excerpt is titled, is a literal, but inadequate translation of the elegant Italian title, Lezioni di tenebra, borrowed from the French Leçons de ténèbres, a type of French baroque music based on the polyphonic lamentations of the Tenebrae service at Easter. François Couperin is perhaps the best known composer in the genre.
In his autobiographical novel The Anatomy of the Battle (Sironi, 2005) Giacomo Sartori writes of his boyhood in post-war Italy, growing up in awe of his father’s austere, radical faith in courage, combat, and war. That boy abruptly becomes a man during the militant 1970s, while he is struggling to extricate himself from the paternal sphere. Anatomy inspects the myths his fascist father held dear and traces what the son inherits in spite of himself: an inclination to seek heroism in violent political action, and a belabored masculinity tied up with the structural misogyny of the family. The deeds and crimes of the fathers must be lived and relived by the sons before they are free of them, Sartori seems to say.
Anatomy‘s unnamed protagonist has left Italy following a botched bank robbery carried out with his comrades in a far left revolutionary group conducting armed struggle against the imperialist state. It is the 1970s, Italy’s Years of Lead, and he–the son of an ex-Fascist family profoundly out of sync with postwar republican Italy–is in the thick of it, on the other side. Worried he’ll be arrested, he has gone off to work on a project to “combat desertification” in some unspecified desert region.
The novel unfolds in distinct, self-sufficient paragraphs that don’t follow one another chronologically but rather imitate the way thoughts take shape, the way a mind reacts unconsciously, or mulls things over. The narrative line is nonlinear, but it is not hard to follow. Sartori is not a “difficult” writer: as he says in an interview, for him literature “is a domain where knowledge and pleasure are closely bound, and where I’ve always felt at ease.” In many ways he’s a natural to translate into English because his language is concrete and vivid, like the best English writing, yet he doesn’t try to echo English style or diction.
Anatomy, like many of Sartori’s novels and stories, is a chronicle of failure and defeat declined in a mood that sometimes verges on comic. His preferred tone is deadpan, the events recounted are rarely dramatic let alone melodramatic, but the sad undertow of his story is evident. A similar mood pervades another of his “historical” novels: Cielo Nero (Black Heavens) as well as more overtly comic works such as the collection of absurdist stories, Autisms and the recent satirical novel I Am God.
An excerpt from the novel was published this month in The Arkansas International, issue 2. My thanks to the editor Geoff Brock and to translation editor Anne Greeott