Time to read?

As many of us are prevented from travelling abroad to be with family and friends this year, perhaps we’ll have a little more time for reading. You, just like me, may already have a stack of unread classics and other reading matter on your bedside table, but nevertheless I thought I’d share a few suggestions that might also serve as a last-minute gift idea for a colleague, since I have selected books where the protagonist is a translator.

As many of us are prevented from travelling abroad to be with family and friends this year, perhaps we’ll have a little more time for reading. You, just like me, may already have a stack of unread classics and other reading matter on your bedside table, but nevertheless I thought I’d share a few suggestions that might also serve as a last-minute gift idea for a colleague, since I have selected books where the protagonist is a translator.

The first one, actually called “The Translator”, is by John Crowley, an American author, and was published in 2002. It’s about a dissident Russian poet who gets a post as a professor at a Midwestern college, and the relationship that develops between him and one of his female students, who takes up Russian in order to help him translate his poetry. The story is set against the background of the Cold War, in particular the Cuban missile crisis. What more can you ask for: you get a love story embedded in the political events in 1960’s America and the wider world, but you also get the benefit of insights into the difficulty of transposing poetry from one culture into another. Crowley, apparently better known as a writer of fantasy, was hitherto unknown to me, but I must say that I found this story compelling.

The next book, a much more recent novel, is by Hannelore Cayre, a French state prosecutor who has taken to writing and clearly has a real knack for language and a lot of insider knowledge about crime and the judicial system. “La Daronne” in French, “The Godmother” in English, in a marvellous translation by Stephanie Smee, is classified as crime fiction. It very quickly won the European Crime Fiction Prize and the Grand Prix de Literature Policière. Written in the form of a memoir, The Godmother tells the story of Mme. Patience Portefeux, a 53 year old widow with two teenage daughters and a very elderly and ailing mother in an old people’s home. She is employed by the French police to act as a translator/transcriber between Arabic and French. Worn down by bad pay and hard work, she seizes the chance of making quick money when she overhears conversations by dealers and a shipment of cannabis comes her way. The story would be interesting enough by itself, but what makes the book stand out is how the author uses the plot to explore the immigrant experience, to celebrate female survival instincts and resourcefulness, but also to paint a realistically harsh picture of French society and the legal system. I particularly enjoyed the early parts, the portrayal of Mme. Portefeux’s parents (father an immigrant from North Africa, mother of Jewish descent from Vienna) and their unique lifestyle, but also the scene in court when she speaks out for the underdogs (not least on behalf of the undervalued translators in the service of the French police and law courts). I am absolutely not a fan of crime fiction, but this was utterly fascinating and I would thoroughly recommend it.

And now I come back to the “Vengeance du Traducteur” by Brice Matthieussent, first published in 2009, which I believe I have mentioned before. It took no fewer than 9 years for the English translation to appear, not a mean feast, accomplished beautifully by Emma Ramadan, who has earned huge praise from critics for her “Revenge of the Translator”. Not surprisingly, Mr. Matthieussent is a literary translator himself, with more than 200 titles under his belt, so clearly he knows a thing or two about the profession, and certainly about the frustrations it holds (much greater for literary translators than for us technical translators, believe me).

His hero – Trad – is translating a novel about another translator, David, who is translating a novel with the name N.d.T. (Note du Traducteur) and his relationship with his author. Against this “Russian doll” setup you can imagine that the narrative(s) get(s) more and more complicated. Particularly as David, on being asked to make a little adaptation (we would call it: localization) by moving the story from Paris to New York, starts taking things into his own hands, with open warfare breaking out between the translator and his author. There is even a love triangle, and it all becomes extremely involved and bitter. Gradually, David the Translator, takes over. The footnotes gradually start to creep upwards, taking up more space on the page than the actual novel.

It’s kind of a revolt by the suppressed translator against his author, who typically gets all the glory. Here, the translator sheds his submissive role and de-thrones the author. That’s certainly one way of reading the story. Different and original, I would say.

As some of you know I am a fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I know much about it, but I just find some of its authors utterly compelling. One of these is Deszö Kosztolanyi (1885-1936), who wrote essays, journalistic articles, poetry and plays. His most endearing character, a kind of alter-ego, is Kornel Esti, who figures in a number of short stories, or vignettes. They were first published in English in 2011, as Kornél Esti, translated by Bernard Adams. Among the stories is one in which Kornél experiences “the sweet dismay of the linguistic chaos of Babel”. With only a handful of Bulgarian phrases at his disposal (and very short ones at that), Esti manages to carry out an hour-and-a-half conversation with a train guard who speaks nothing but Bulgarian … Another story is about the city of conscience, where everyone speaks the truth. A restaurant will advertise itself with the sign “Inedible food, undrinkable drinks. Worse than at home”, and the newspaper claims for itself “Every single letter in this paper is corrupt”. One of the vignettes – and my excuse for smuggling Kosztolanyi into this selection – is about a translator. Or rather an intellectual who has a major defect – he is a compulsive thief. His friends are trying to help him by getting him a “harmless” job – as a translator, but he just cannot stop himself. As the story is barely 5 pages long, I do not want to give anything away. So look for story XIV in this wonderful “novel”, or buy the French “Le traducteur cleptomane” as a paperback. Wishing you a happy festive season and the time to curl up with a good book!

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