Borderless Book Club: ‘Arid Dreams’

This week’s Borderless Book Club saw a wonderful discussion on Arid Dreams, published by Tilted Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Arid Dreams is a powerful collection of feminist short stories. The collection came to be published in the UK as Tilted Axis read the US version and loved it, deciding there and then to buy the rights and publish in the UK. This selection of feminist stories are unique in that the majority are written from the point of view of a male character, and showcase the shocking, but unfortunately truthful realities of toxic masculinities. For example, we read of a man whose desire for a woman diminishes when she is no longer ‘forbidden’, and of an inmate on death row whose final wish is for a prostitute to be told that he actually does have a penis, as, knowing he will die, he only cares about his pride remaining intact. In one of the few stories narrated by a female character, we read of a woman reflecting on what her life would be like if her controlling husband were to die as a result of his life-threatening accident. A powerful politician, she lives in his shadow and follows his rules. Later on in the collection, we read a tale from a young boy who reflects on the passionate jealousy and scary possessiveness that one of his colleagues has towards his wife, and of a doctor who is not qualified, but has grown to love the power and glory he holds due to his ‘title’. The collection ends with a poignant story about a political figure, who, close to winning presidency, lost out to a candidate much poorer than him. This dejected politician is now on the search for the second volume to the book he bought from a market stall as a child, however, when he succeeds in finding the second volume, he is left feeling disappointed. He had hoped to set out on this search, and fail, almost as a way of proving that the world was somehow against him.

The book club began with a chat with Mui, the translator. Mui is a former lawyer but retrained as a literary translator. When she began grad school, she realised she didn’t read enough Thai women, however, she kept hearing the name Duanwad and knew she had to read her. Upon finally reading Duanwad’s works, Mui loved her writing and reached out to her to ask if she could translate her. Mui revealed that despite being known for her novel Changsamran, Duanwad has written more short stories than anything else, Arid Dreams being a compilation of stories from four of her separate collections. To put together Arid Dreams Mui marked out stories from each collection that stood out to her and discussed her reasons with Duanwad. In Duanwad’s works, class is a very big issue, and this comes through strongly in Arid Dreams, with her earlier stories focusing on class, and her later writing focusing more on the human psyche – perhaps this is where gender issues become more of a focus. Mui told the group that she feels a lot of pressure as not a great deal of Thai literature is being translated and she worries that her translations will become an all-encompassing representation of Thailand, however, she does not want this to become the case. First and foremost she wants the stories to be read as stories about people, with place coming into play later. Mui has translated two of Duanwad’s books (including Arid Dreams) and hopes to translate more.

In the final part of the evening, we split off into groups to discuss some specific points on the book. To begin, we talked about the reasons and implications behind using mostly male narrators. Personally, I think that this is a collection of brutally honest stories that are a brave and unusual attempt to show the reality of some men’s ways of thinking, of some men’s constructions of what they think women should be. Most, if not all of the stories explore the very grim realities of toxic and fragile masculinity. It could be said that Duanwad holds a mirror up to these types of people, forcing them to look at how their actions and words really appear. I think it is a very unique and extremely interesting take on feminist story-telling. We also discussed whether masculinity and femininity played out differently in class in these stories. In my opinion, there weren’t any grand differences, and the collection highlighted the fact that sexism and toxic masculinity does not discriminate. Although these issues may play out in different ways, they are apparent across all classes. We ended the discussion with some speculation on what the chickens that appear in two of the stories, and of course on the front cover, may symbolise. One idea that I liked was that the chickens were representative of vulnerability.

This week’s discussion was brilliant and it was great to hear everyone’s takes on these brilliantly shocking stories. I am looking forward to meeting again in two weeks time to discuss Holiday Heart published by Charco Press, written by Margarita García Robayo and translated by Charlotte Coombe.

Translation and Voice

Voice is something that we often hear being discussed when it comes to writing, with a writer’s voice perhaps being described as strong or unique, and conversations on how to find one’s voice as a writer. But is it possible for a translator too to have a voice, and if so, is it possible for them to put forth that voice in their work?

First of all, we must consider exactly what voice is. According to Amanda Boutler,

“Our particular configuration of experience and words, knowledge and imagination gives a particular resonance to our voice. […] All language has already been spoken, and all language belongs to other people.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

Voice then, comes from the writer’s previous experiences with words, words they have read, heard and spoken, words that they have experienced. All of these words will culminate in order to produce a unique voice which the writer can then put forth in their work. This means that whilst each individual voice may be unique, there are echoes of other voices within. Boutler continues her discussion on voice by stating that the written voice is then manipulated by and conforms to what the writer is writing:

“Voice is not simply created by the author. It is produced by a cacophony of voices: the author’s, the character’s, the narrator’s, and the reader’s.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

A writer’s voice then contains an innumerable amount of other voices, culminating from previous voices they have heard or read, then manifesting within or conforming to voices that the writer purposefully writes within their text, for example, a character’s voice. So voice is not singular, but plural. In order to find one’s voice then, a writer must mimic other voices that have come before, using these to inspire and create their own voice, a voice that then warps to new, perhaps fictional voices within the text.

So whilst we can see how a writer ‘finds’ their voice and puts this forth in their writing, how apt is the phrase ‘finding a voice’ for the translation process? Can a translator have a voice, and if so, how do they ‘find’ it? Like Boutler asserts, a writer’s voice is an amalgamation of voices and experiences that have come before, combining in order to create a new, unique voice. We could consider then, that the translator simply adds to this amalgamation of voices, simply adding another layer, a voice now in a new language. The translator renders a combination of their reader’s voice and the source text original author’s voice into a new voice.

As well as their readerly voice and the source text’s original author’s voice, the translator too has a unique voice, one that is also influenced by the voices that surround them in their daily life. Just like a writer’s voice is made up of voices that are before theirs, so is a translator’s. In fact, perhaps even more so, translators need to be surrounded by literature, words that they can see, hear and touch. This is in the way in which they can find voices to match that of the source text author’s, or the character’s within the source text, and allow them to add a little of their voice that will inevitably appear. Edith Grossman has stated that when she cannot capture the words for a translation, she takes a walk in the city and waits for the words to ‘slip off the tongue’ of a stranger, a passerby. She ‘hears’ her translation in the voices of the city. It is possible then, that a translator’s world harbours the voices they need in order to render the source text into the target text, voices that balance between the original writer’s voice and the translator’s own.

So, it is possible for a translator to have a voice, and it is possible for that voice to be apparent in translation. However, the translator’s voice is unique, as it is a voice that must be balanced and mediated with the original author’s. The translator then, has to go beyond his/her individuality to form a ‘dual individuality’, a dual voice.

Borderless Book Club: ‘Snow, Dog, Foot’

Last Thursday I was very excited to be back at the wonderful Borderless Book Club, this time, for a discussion on Snow, Dog, Foot from Peirene Press, written by Claudio Morandini, and translated by J.Ockenden.

The meeting started with a chat about the translation of the book. The translator, J, came to this translation (their first full length) in quite a unique way. Snow, Dog, Foot came to fruition through the inaugural year of the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, established in order to reach out to unpublished literary translators. Each year the prize focuses on one language, with participants being asked to translate the opening chapter of a book, in this case, Snow, Dog, Foot. The winner then goes on to complete the whole translation, commissioned and published by Peirene Press, with the opportunity to complete part of their work during a three month stay in a lodge in the Pyrenees. After graduating from Oxford in French and Italian, the prize came at a perfect time for J, who was unsure of what to do next. J explained that they were immediately hooked after reading the first chapter of the book, proceeding to download the PDF so they could finish the book before beginning the translation. J’s approach to the translation was to create a quick first draft, avoiding obsessing over and second guessing words and phrases (something that it is very easy to do in translation!), then going back to the completed first draft to begin fine-tuning. Jenny Higgins was also J’s mentor throughout the translation process, J said having a second Italian speaker was great for clearing up doubts, and that being able to discuss complex and difficult parts of the translation with someone opened up some really interesting conversations. The most challenging part of translation for J was writing the landscape, they said that they felt the atmosphere and the location were the most important elements of the novel, therefore, they were very tricky to translate and get right. It was very interesting to hear how J found completing their first translation, and such a wonderful one at that!

A warning that from here onwards there are spoilers.

Snow, Dog, Foot was a brilliant read, one of my favourite from the book club so far! The novella follows the strange and somewhat repulsive Adelmo, a cantankerous hermit living in a mountain recluse in the Italian Alps. We first meet him at the end of autumn as he is reluctantly heading down the mountain and into the village to stock up on supplies so that he can survive his long, solitary winter back up in the mountains. Someway up the mountain he comes across a dog that begins to follow him, annoyed by its apparent attachment, Aldelmo curses the dog and even kicks it, despite all of this, the dog sticks closely to his side and follows him home. Back at the house, the dog still shadowing him, Adelmo begrudgingly accepts that it is here to stay. Slowly his annoyance at the dog begins to wear off a little, and, seeing him as a potential companion, Adelmo begins to talk to the dog, who, after a while, speaks back. We also discover that Adelmo believes he is being spied on by a mountain ranger. The mountain ranger attempts to be friendly and make conversation with Adelmo, but his responses are blunt and rude, we even find out that he has thrown rocks at the mountain ranger in order to drive him away. With hints that Adelmo’s memory is blurred and confused from the very start of the book, here, it begins to become more obvious. Through Adelmo’s encounters with the dog and the ranger, we begin to see that his memory is very muddled, he repeats things to the dog and doesn’t remember conversations he has had with the ranger for example. The only memories of Adelmo’s that seem certain and well formed are those of the war and his childhood. Adelmo remembers hiding from the grey coated soldiers for days in a small nook in an old mine during the war, and offers a glimpse into his childhood where he lived under buzzing electric lines that made everyone ‘crazy’. With the arrival of winter, the man and the dog are snowed in, everything runs smoothly at first, however, their stock soon begins to rapidly deplete, so, rather than starve, Adelmo takes to picking the grime off his skin and consuming this. We are treated to very detailed and grotesque accounts of the man’s appearance, having not washed or cleaned his teeth for years and years, one can only imagine how disgusting Adelmo is. As the pair wait impatiently for the snow to melt so they can replenish their stock, Adelmo continues to reminisce on memories of the war and the buzzing electric lines, and continues to slowly eat the grime off his body. Finally, the snow melts just enough that they are able to leave the house, and the pair make a shocking discovery: the foot of a human corpse sticking out of the snow. As the snow slowly thaws to reveal the body, Adelmo thinks the man looks a little like the ranger, in fact, he thinks that he remembers shooting him. Upon the resurfacing of this hazy memory, the old man makes the sudden decision to take the body to the perfect hiding place, after all, he doesn’t want anyone to discover it and accuse him of murder. So, Adelmo drags the corpse up the steep mountain to the old mine that he hid in during the war. He digs out the covered entrance to the mine whilst the dog waits outside, he takes his time to do this, and the dog grows impatient, persistently whining. Eventually, Adelmo breaks through and pushes the body into the depths of the mine, he also decides to lie down alongside it, and it is here that Adelmo’s memory once again begins to become confused. Adelmo now thinks that he doesn’t recognise the dead man at all, so, who is he? As night falls the dog stops whining, Adelmo leaves the cave and upon seeing the dog asleep, he brings a rock down onto its head and kills it. In the closing pages, we see Adelmo lying alongside the cadavre, conversing with the body as he hears his brother searching for him outside.

After the chat on the translation of the novel, we broke off into groups to discuss the ins and outs of the story. One of the main points of discussion was on the dead body and who it belonged to. A whole range of interesting ideas were floated around, many that I had not even considered myself. My personal reading was that the dead body was that of Adelmo’s. Perhaps he died during after being found by the ‘grey coats’, and now his ghost is haunting the mountains. At the end of the novella then, it could be considered that Adelmo’s soul or ghost drags his or body back to his hiding or resting place. This could explain the unreliability of Adelmo’s memories and the fact that the most certain points of his memory are those before he died. This could also perhaps explain his ability to converse with the dog. Our group also talked about the significance of the setting, with the mountains and the landscape being the third protagonist of the novel. We all agreed that the landscape and climate were the driving forces behind the narrative, with nature having complete control over Adelmo, even undermining him, and, as mentioned, at the end of the novella he goes back to nature, submits to it as he lays surrounded by dirt and moss in his hiding place. This return to nature could explain why Adelmo makes the decision to kill the dog, detaching himself from everything that links him to the ‘real’ world.

I had a wonderful evening on Thursday discussing Snow, Dog, Foot! This week I will be reading Arid Dreams from Titled Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pinwama and translated by Mui Poopoksakul, in preparation for the next Borderless Book Club…

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Singer in the Night’

This week saw the final session for the online Translated Fiction Book Club where we discussed Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.

A warning that there are spoilers throughout this post!

Singer in the Night is a Croatian novel in which we follow the protagonist, a television soap writer, Clementine as she searches for her old lover, Nightingale, an artist who has mysteriously disappeared after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours. The first person narrative from Clementine is interrupted by these ambiguous, sometimes bizarre letters from Nightingale and allows us a glimpse into the seemingly troubled artist’s life. Having moved away from Split and the apartment that she and Nightingale shared, Clementine returns in an attempt to figure out where he may have gone. Her journey takes her to his home village and his childhood house, then even further to a small village in Bosnia where their mutual friend Helanka lives. It is here that Clementine finds out that Nightingale has flown to the United States in order to find his estranged daughter. The final chapters of the novel, however, leave us questioning her entire story. It is clear within the final pages that we are potentially dealing with an ‘unreliable narrator’. Around halfway through the novel, we find out that Clementine has suffered head injuries from a car crash, injuries that have left her with symptoms of amnesia. However, it is not until we reach the final pages, that we find out that Clementine is in an insitution, where she repeatedly watches the artist Nightingale tell his life story in a television interview. Here, it begins to come clear that perhaps this whole story was a figment of Clementine’s imagination. In the penultimate chapter, we see Nightingale and Helenka in Detroit, a letter has arrived for Nightingale, a letter from Clementine (which we read in the closing chapter). Nightingale does not have the slightest idea who Clementine is, nor why she is writing to him. These final pages make the reader question completely the incredibly detailed story that Clementine has woven, a story that it seems she has built around this one television interview. Within this jarring and confusing story, the writer also explores themes of literature and art, as well as questions of linguistic and national identities through lyrical and juxtaposing language.

To introduce the session, there was a discussion with Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, and Celia Hawkesworth, the translator of the novel. Istros publishes literature uniquely from South-Eastern Europe, its name coming from the old Greek for the Danube river that passes through the majority of the countries they publish translations from. Hawkesworth told us that, without much luck, she had spent many years trying to get Croatian books published in translation, therefore, when she met Curtis, she was delighted. The translator then went on to tell us about the break up of Yugoslavia, and how in the aftermath, many countries began attempting to form their own identities, part of this was creating new words in order that they spoke ‘different’ languages. Hawkesworth spoke of how several characters within the novel speak very different dialects, something that is almost impossible to convey in translation, as choosing an English equivalent for these dialects would mean displacing the novel. Therefore, Hawkesworth creates distinctive dialects or accents that seem to belong nowhere but are very particular to the individual speaking them. Sometimes the odd anglicism slips in such as ‘bloody’ or ‘love’ but these words are not at all too jarring, and the novel’s position in Croatia remains strong. In my opinion, here, Hawkesworth has dealt with a very tricky translation challenge, very well.

For the second part of the book club, we broke off into groups to discuss the novel in more detail. First of all, we talked about the use of language within the book and its marked accents and dialects. The placing of these juxtaposing dialects within the novel cause it to have a number of strong voices that intermingle and within our group we talked about whether this was perhaps representative of the various national identities found in post-Yugoslavia, specifically these peoples’ search for an identity. As Hawkesworth told us earlier, each country attempted to distinguish itself after the break up of Yugoslavia, leading to the forming of new dialects and words within the language that would differ from each other. The novel is set in a cultural quagmire, a difficult area of the world, still dealing with a number of fresh memories or wounds from the Yugoslav wars, the appearance of these strong and very different voices in the novel is perhaps representative of this. We then discussed the ending of the novel, which, as previously mentioned, made us readers question everything we had just experienced. The revelation of Clementine as an unreliable narrator definitely makes me want to return to the novel to see if I can pick up on any holes in her story. As mentioned, at the end of the novel, Nightingale claims to have no knowledge at all of who Clementine is, yet her vividly detailed account of their story does make me somewhat suspicious of this. Whilst Clementine’s version of events may be a tapestry of imagined situations, I do wonder if she and Nightingale did ever cross paths. Perhaps they did, or perhaps Clementine’s amnesia really has allowed her to weave such an intricate tale. Another interesting element that this ending brings, is that it contrasts completely with what a reader was perhaps expecting, it being the opposite of the normal endings that Clementine would be used to writing for her romantic soap stories. I think I will definitely revisit the novel soon to see if I can pull together my own idea of what the relationship (if any at all) between the pair consisted of.

I really enjoyed this week’s discussion of Singer in the Night, it was great to hear the discussion on translation, and also to hear other reader’s ideas on the story. Despite these online sessions originally being planned for six weeks, it seems pretty clear that we are all going to be in lockdown for far longer, therefore, when I heard that the book club would be returning under the name ‘Borderless Book Club’ I was delighted! So, I will be returning for the next meeting in two weeks where we will be back with Peirene Press reading Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J. Ockenden.

Gender in Translation (3): Translating Gendered Constraints

A few posts back, in Gender in Translation (2): Translating Grammatical Gender, I discussed the difficulties of translating between different languages with different grammatical rules concerning gender. Translating grammatical gender is something that a translator normally doesn’t have to think twice about, as in most cases, the straightforward translation of ‘la’ and ‘le’ into ‘the’ for example, is all that is required. However, as explored in the aforementioned post, sometimes these definite articles mean much more. This is definitely the case in translating texts with gendered constraints, such as the Oulipo text Sphinx, written in 1986 by Anne Garréta.

The Oulipo is a group of French writers who wrote works according to constrictive rules or techniques, its most notable members include Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. Garréta’s rule when creating Sphinx was to write without assigning either the protagonist or antagonist a gender, giving the translator of the novel into the English, Emma Ramadan, a great task.

The opening passages of the book describe the first encounters the narrator has with a romantic interest, A***, exploring the beginning of the relationship, whilst not assigning the main characters a gender. As Jakobson states:

“Grammatical gender colours a speaker’s perception of objects and idea.”

Roman Jakobson, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation

In avoiding assigning the two main characters a gender, Garréta removes the possibility of the readers’ assumptions or biases towards a character based on their gender. In her translator’s note, Ramadan considers Garréta’s reasons behind placing a constraint on gender:

“By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities, but it is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

In not allowing either of the characters’ genders to be revealed, Garréta omits the possibility of bias and gendered perceptions and proves that the question of gender in romantic relationships should not matter.

The French and English languages use gender very differently therefore, translation for Ramadan would have been challenging. French uses grammatical gender, meaning that nouns are assigned either a masculine or feminine gender, with pronouns and adjectives then agreeing with the gender of the noun. Garréta used this to her advantage. French possessive adjectives refer to the gender of the noun described, using ‘sa’ or ‘son’, depending on whether the noun described is masculine or feminine, therefore, Garréta was able to describe a character’s body, appearance or possessions without ever revealing their gender. On the other hand, English has semantic gender, meaning that inanimate objects are not gendered, but people are referred to as masculine or feminine. This means that in English possessive adjectives agree with the gender of the person. This would be an issue in translation as where Garréta used the possessive adjective to avoid gender, in English translation, this would have the opposite effect, revealing gender. For example, on page twelve of Sphinx, Garréta begins a sentence: ‘Ses bras, douceur intense […]’, here she avoids assigning A*** a gender, as the possessive adjective refers to the gender of the masculine plural noun ‘arms’. In English, this is not possible as in translation it would have to be ‘her/his arms’ depending on the gender of the person described. To tackle this problem, Ramadan translated it as: ‘Those arms, the intense sweetness […]’. Whilst it is still clear that Ramadan is referring to A***’s arms, the gender of the character is avoided. 

Garréta’s use of the French possessive adjective would have consistently caused problems in Ramadan’s translation, another example is on page twenty-one of the source text: ‘J’entrai dans sa loge […], once again, Garréta uses the possessive adjective in order to avoid gendering this character. Here, Ramadan uses the character’s name to avoid gender: ‘I would follow A*** into the dressing room […]’. Another example appears on page twenty-two of Sphinx: “[…] j’écoutais les détails de sa journée, les anecdotes de son dîner.” Here Garréta uses the possessive adjective twice, once to describe the character’s day, a feminine noun, therefore using the feminine possessive adjective ‘sa’, and a second time to describe the character’s dinner, a masculine noun, therefore using the masculine possessive adjective, ‘son’. To retain the Oulipo constraint in translation Ramadan rendered this sentence into English as: ‘I would listen to the details of A***’s day’, she has used A***’s name once again in place of a possessive adjective, however, to avoid gender when describing the characters dinner, she has simply omitted this part of the text.

In her translator’s note, Emma Ramadan discusses her techniques for avoiding gender as follows: 

“Using a demonstrative, dropping the article altogether, pluralising, or repeating A***’s name, [re-writing] certain [passages] to avoid personal pronouns, or [applying] adjectives directly to the subject rather than to something possessed by the subject.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

These methods are all great solutions to avoiding the use of gender in the text.

Translating this text with a restriction on gender would have been extremely challenging, but this is not a new concept, and gender in translation has long been a discussion:

“The focus on gender, and more recently, on its diversification or pluralization, may be attractive and stimulating for some; for others, it threatens unity, tradition, belief systems, and power structures. Predict­ably, there are attempts to control the contexts in which certain texts are translated.”

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

In this article, Flotow discusses the restrictions that the Vatican imposed on the translation of the Bible. Unlike Garréta’s restrictions that aimed to eliminate gender bias, these restrictions were an attempt to control translation and avoid ‘gender-neutral, inclusive liturgy’. According to Flotow:

“[In recognising] the fact that gender has become an important cat­egory according to which people identify and live [the Vatican has imposed many rules on translating gendered language. This includes the condemnation of] translations that might have Jesus telling his disciples to become ‘fishers of people’ rather than ‘fishers of men’.” 

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

Modern translators of the Bible, wishing to render passages gender-neutral, promoting equality, had a vast number of restraints posed on them in order to stop them from doing so. Garréta’s text enforces a gender constraint on the translator that is very different from the norm.

In translating a text with gendered restraints such as Sphinx, it becomes clear that a translator’s decision can have huge effects on the target text, for example, any translator could have made the bold decision to ignore the restraint, although this would of course completely miss the point entirely. In deviating from the norm when it comes to gendered constraints, Sphinx invites the reader to narrate the romantic text without even considering gender, not only does each reader then write their ‘own’ reading of this text, but they also encounter an approach to writing that welcomes gender positive discussions, a text that does not feel the need to place a gender on love.


Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’

This week saw the penultimate session of the online Translated Fiction Book club in which we talked about Thirteen Months of Sunrise, a collection of short stories published by Comma Press, written by the Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun and translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

The evening commenced with a conversation with Elisabeth Jaquette on her translation of the wonderful book. This was a very interesting beginning to the meeting, with Jaquette telling us a little about Rania’s quite astounding journey. To start with, however, she focused more on the translation side of things, discussing the ins and outs of the Arabic language, a diglossic language with many different dialects. Elisabeth learnt her Arabic in Cairo, a city that speaks its own dialect of Arabic, thus, when translating Thirteen Months of Sunrise, which is written in standard arabic, and peppered with Sudanese Arabic words and phrases, there were some points in which Elisabeth had to research words, or discuss them with Rania. Elisabeth says that Rania was very supportive through the translation process, and despite having never met in person, the pair corresponded a lot through email. Elisabeth then went on to tell us Rania’s inspiring story. Rania is very politically active, something that comes with great danger in Sudan. Therefore in the first steps of the translation of Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania was actually in the process of moving to the US, however, right at the same time that the pair received the great news that they had a PEN Translates grant in order to help translate the book, Donald Trump imposed the infamous travel ban on several countries, including Sudan. Luckily, however, after a very long process and help from many others, Rania finally made it to the US three years later.

As we moved on to the group discussions of the book, it was very quickly clear to see that we all loved Rania’s tender touch for storytelling. In each story, Rania introduces us to a person and a new theme. Despite the very short length of each of the stories, she manages to allow us to understand the depths of the character’s mind and personality, and whilst she doesn’t give a lot away, what does appear in the narrative is incredibly descriptive and poetic. Rania paints a beautiful picture with her writing, in fact, someone perfectly described her prose as like an ‘impressionist painting’, her stories delicate and graceful. Despite wanting to know more about these character’s and their stories, Rania leaves you to write the rest of the story, leaves you to figure out the significance and the meanings (of which I am sure there are a vast amount) behind each story. The collection explores a range of themes, for example, in the story ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ Rania tells of finding connection in differences, in ‘Passing’ she speaks of loss and religion, and in ‘Woman Asleep on a Bundle’ she writes of morals. All three of the themes explored in these stories continue to resonate throughout the beautiful collection.

I absolutely loved this week’s discussion, and am looking forward to next week’s meeting where we will be talking about Singer in the Night, published by Istros Books, written by Olja Savičević Ivančević, and translated by Celia Hawkesworth.

Translation and Image

As of late, I have been delving into the possibilities found in translating word into image, and vice versa. I think the fact that two creative forces such as writing and painting can correlate in a host of different ways and collide through the act of translation is very exciting and is something I aim to explore further in the coming months. As Horace states…

“as is painting, so is poetry.”


One of the first ‘translating from image’ tasks I completed was only a few months ago, where I decided to take a photograph and ‘re-write’, or ‘tell the tale of’ the image. The photo I selected was the following:

Robert Doisneau, 1950

I simply took in the image and wrote what came to my mind as I explored the different elements of the photograph. It is a very striking image that poses several questions, for example, who are the bride and groom in the photograph, and why are they here, in this place at this time? These are questions that I attempted to explore within my writing, creating a ‘story’ from my own reading or interpretation of the image. 

Following on from this, I visited the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in order to write from a painting. For this, I chose Three Quarter Head by John Davies. For this exercise I decided to incorporate this current writing from painting, into the writing I previously did based on the photograph, creating a palimpsest of writings from different sources. Like the above photograph, this portrait of a woman could be placed anywhere spatially or temporally, it all depends on the audiences reading of the painting. The woman’s gaze is directed towards something in particular, and her reaction to whatever it is she is looking at seems to be concern or worry, yet her eyes still appear to be slightly passive, almost separated from her emotions. I placed the woman spatially into the cafe pictured in front of the bride and groom who appear in the photograph I previously ‘translated’ by Doisneau, therefore, temporally into my story. In doing so, I intertwined my readings of these pieces of art together to create a new piece of art, using a new medium. 

In the past, there have been a number of debates on whether the artistic forms of poetry or prose and painting or photography can be compared or translated intersemiotically. I believe the two can absolutely be compared and as a result translated between. The way in which a reader experiences a text is very similar to the way in which a spectator views an image or painting. This quote from Gilman sums it up perfectly…

“Much is lost if we refuse on principle to consider the activity of reading, the process of interacting with a book. The experience of painting is in an important sense the same. The witness sees the painting as a pattern but does not understand it fully until he ‘reads’ it. The ‘reading’ is not primarily the interpretation of iconic imagery, though that act is often part of the experience […], but rather the general process of moving from one detail to another overtime – of perceiving the interrelationships of light, colour, form, gesture, surface, space, point of view, and so on. The order of experience in painting (seeing first, then ‘reading’) is superficially the reverse of literary experience, except that the final painting, which, having been seen and ‘read’ is finally known, is no longer identical with the square of the canvas we happened to notice as we first walked into the room. It is seen again, inwardly revised. Like the literary dianoia, this painting occupies a portion of our mental space and contains not only a visual memory of the canvas, but an understanding of its significance. That understanding will be formed in part by each person’s needs and desires, rechanneled through the convolutions of an individual consciousness that projects its own identity into a work of art and extracts from its own psychic urgencies and comforts.” Ernest Gilman, The Curious Perspective

Just like a painting offers its spectator only a snapshot of what the painter wishes to portray, a text offers its reader only a part of what the writer wishes to portray, the rest of the story behind the painting or writing is up to the spectator or the reader to paint or write. The space around a painting or text is space in which the spectator or reader is free to explore and interpret bringing their own ‘reading’ to the art. One can certainly say that just as we can identify patterns, lines, and movement in images, we can also do so in a literary text.

… after all, as is painting, so is poetry.

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Restless’

In this week’s Translated Fiction Book Club, we were discussing Restless, published by Nordisk Books, written by Kenneth Moe and translated by Alison McCullough. This week’s discussion was great, as Restless was a book that divided opinions and welcomed some very interesting debates.

In brief, Restless is a one-hundred-page letter, or perhaps even a journal entry written by an angsty young man after being rejected by a love interest. The letters or journal entries appear in short, fleeting blasts, and offer an insight into the mind of a young man struggling with rejection which he tries (and fails?) to overcome. The fragmented structure lends itself well to the protagonist’s fleeting obsessive thoughts based on his relationship with this particular woman and they sometimes enter into potentially controversial territory as we begin to understand his obsession in more depth.

Opening the session was a discussion with the director of Nordisk Books, Duncan J. Lewis and the translator, Alison McCullough. Nordisk Books was set up only four years ago with the aim to publish creative fiction from the Nordic countries – not crime fiction, the Nordic countries have much much more to offer! Alison discussed her translation of the book, explaining that one of the more difficult tasks in this translation was with the difference in the Norwegian and English languages. With Norwegian being a more concise language, it was sometimes difficult to render this preciseness in English. She also touched on her method of ‘inhabiting the narrator’s mental space’, something that may prove to be quite challenging with a book such as Restless.

As we broke off into smaller groups to discuss the book, it became clear that opinions on it were divided. I for one enjoyed the sporadic structure of the book, something that I felt lent itself well to the themes and emotions explored within. However we felt that the difficult nature of the book and the narrator’s thoughts and words ultimately didn’t make for a very enjoyable read.

We held some very interesting discussions on the epigraph that appears at the start of the book:

“The amorous subject cannot write his love story himself.”

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes

We talked about what this meant for the themes covered in the book, and for the narrator’s ultimate aim. In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes explores the idea that there is no ‘order’ to love, there is no universal rhetoric with which to discuss or understand love, and perhaps this is what the narrator eventually comes to realise. I think the quote also speaks to perhaps a more simplistic idea that love is something out of one’s control, it is impossible to ‘pin it down’ and write one’s own love story, so perhaps it could be considered that this quote alerts you to the ‘unreliable narrator’ who is attempting the ‘impossible’ in writing his own ‘love’ story, or trying to find ‘order’ in love. There were also discussions on how ultimately, the point of love is reciprocation, something that was not at all apparent in this book. One more interesting point to make is that the structure of Restless could perhaps be considered as mirroring the layout of A Lover’s Discourse, consisting of short extracts and fleeting trains of thought.

I loved this week’s interesting discussion, and am excited to begin reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, written by Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Comma Press in preparation for next week!

Translation as Palimpsest

Every piece of writing is inevitably influenced by writings that have come before. As we write, we sub-consciously awaken texts we have previously read, undoubtedly bringing these texts, into the new text we are now writing. Furthermore, the world surrounding us will influence our writing, thus making our writing “a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture”, a palimpsest…

“We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”

Genette, Palimpsests.

Our words, sentences, ideas, are undoubtedly influenced by what we read, see, and hear in the world around us. The idea that our surroundings don’t influence our writing is practically unthinkable. We ‘borrow’ words, phrases, ideas that have come before us in order to create our palimpsest of writing.

So what happens when we translate a text? Of course, in the first instance, it is undeniable that we create more of a physical palimpsest, a combination of the original text and the new translation. Whilst the act of writing can be considered a creation of palimpsest, the act of translation is even more so as this palimpsest of writing is so physical, so literal. Not only is the translated text a palimpsest of writing and ideas, but it is also a palimpsest of languages. In many translations, there will be echoes of the source culture, and potentially the source language, adding only another layer to the piece. So, a translation is a piece that consists of many layers, the layers that the original author created, followed by the layers that the translator adds, almost forming a palimpsest upon a palimpsest.

Experimenting with these ideas of palimpsest really opens up one’s eyes to just how much our writing is influenced by texts, words, etc that have come before. Taking a source text, reading it, and making notes over the writing of works, words or instances that parts of the text remind us of, even creating drawings over the source text of images the writing brings to mind, shows us just how much writing, and therefore translation is influenced by layers and layers of reading, listening, and experiencing.

Translated Fiction Book Club: ‘Fate’

This week for the Translated Fiction Book Club, we had the pleasure of reading Fate, from Charco Press, written by Jorge Consiglio, and co-translated by Carolina Orloff.

Set in the city of Buenos Aires, Fate follows the lives of a group of very different characters. First, we meet Amer, a taxidermist, who later falls for Carla, a younger member of his therapy group for smokers. Then we meet Marina a meteorologist, and her husband, Karl with whom she only seems to communicate through text or voice message. Karl, a German-born oboist, and Marina have a son together, Simón. On a field trip, Marina meets Zárate, a man she embarks on an affair with. The novel follows this set of characters as they make a series of potentially life-changing decisions that leave us questioning whether the results occur thanks to fate or chance. The novel’s main focus is on the relationships between both Marina and Karl, and Amer and Carla, the former being an established, long term relationship, and the latter being very new. Fate explores decisions made by each of these characters that effectively change the course of their relationships. Marina, for example, decides to enter into a romantic relationship with another man Zárate. This ultimately ends in her deciding to separate from her husband Karl and making him leave the house. Was it fate or chance that led Marina to meet Zárate? Amer first sets eyes on Carla at a smokers group therapy session, attending for a second time only to see her, he is disappointed that she is not there, yet after Amer attends the meeting a few more times, Carla finally reappears, once again, is this fate or chance?

In the last few pages of the book Karl decides to take his son on a trip to a funfair, they take the train to get there, and go on one of the rides, a Ferris wheel. On the Ferris wheel, Simón is watching the clouds in the sky…

“There were a few clouds, maybe five, and one of them, stretching across the horizon, reminded him of his teddy bear’s head. […] This image, both distinctive and fleeting, awakened something undefinable in his body, without knowing quite how, that bought him face to face with uncertainty. Perhaps this was why he quickly looked away, searching for a reference point. His gaze lit upon the sight of a passing train, its progress neither fats nor slow. The railway tracks were so close that he could make out the faces of the passengers through the windows: transient figures that entered his emotional mesh and anchored him to reality.”

Jorge Consiglio, Fate

The train that Simón focuses on is the exact train that Amer is travelling on. He is on his way to buy beekeeping equipment for a new property he has inherited, Carla was supposed to join him, however, after cancelling last minute, Amer is left disappointed and alone on the train. He too takes to gazing at the clouds…

“After many years, things had fallen into place for him, and those clouds in the corner of the sky, so limpid and serene, were symbols of his state of mind. He looked at them again – not to decipher anything, but just to confirm that these good things had come to stay. He noticed that one of the clouds, abundant, intricate – was neatly curved, forming a shape much like the head of the grizzly bear he’d recently seen in the documentary. […] When he lowered his gaze, he saw a funfair. A funfair! He was surprised. He stared at the Ferris wheel, struck by its design and stylishness – he mistook slowness for sophistication – as it turned in the air. He was so close to the ride that he could make out the faces of the people on it. […] Yet what was remarkable, truly remarkable, is that he didn’t see Simón, who at that very moment was turning his head – like a tiny satellite – slightly to the left. They missed each other by seven seconds. A mere seven seconds. A trifle, a smidgen, an iota, a fragment of time that, amid the vertigo of the evening that seemed to last forever, was absorbed like any other detail into the imperfections of the day.”

Jorge Consiglio, Fate

What is the significance of this almost encounter? Why did they not see each other? Was it fate that they were not meant to lock eyes, or was it simply chance?

To start things off, Carolina Orloff talked about her translation process. Orloff discussed the ‘rule’ of translating into your ‘mother-tongue’ and how she defies this, for many translators, it is not a case of translating into the first language you spoke, but the one you now feel most comfortable with. Speaking specifically about Fate, Orloff said that “some books grab you, and you start hearing them in your target language, this happened with Fate.” On co-translation, Orloff said her and Petch’s method was for Orloff to do a rough first translation into English “attempting to capture as many layers of the Spanish as possible” before passing it on to Petch to edit. This, she says is when “new layers are built” and the “new book begins to form”.

Moving on to the group discussions, we discussed whether fate or chance prevailed in the novel. This was a difficult question to answer, however, we eventually leaned more towards fate, as the characters often seemed to resign themselves, letting fate take its course. We then talked about what we thought of the ending. For myself, upon first reading, the ending left me wanting more, especially as this book is framed by an author’s note discussing that fate and chance often lead to big changes in the course of someone’s life. So, when a big event does not occur in the final pages of the novel, this is unexpected. Upon taking time to reflect on the ending, it is clear that this seemingly ‘eventless’ end is intentional, in fact, this is the point of the entire novel, all of the minute decisions we make, that we barely even think about, can lead to huge consequences, or consequences that are so small we don’t even realise.

I really enjoyed the reading for this week’s Translated Fiction Book Club, and will definitely be ordering some more brilliant books from Charco to see me through the rest of the lockdown. For now, I look forward to reading Restless, from Nordisk Books, written by Kenneth Moe and translated by Alison McCullough for next week!