Based on the experiences of Luo Yijun’s immediate and extended families in Taiwan and China, Moon Descendants relates a story spanning four generations. A large part of the narrative pivots on Luo’s father, who joined hundreds of thousands of Chinese men in fleeing China to Taiwan after the Nationalist Party’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. What seemed to be a temporary retreat became a permanent exile, with a ban on traveling between China and Taiwan in place for the following half-century.
As in most writings of exile, memories play a significant role in Moon Descendants. How do memories intervene in an estranged life? How do memories construct time and how does time change memory? In Moon Descendants, narrative time is shuffled by the memories not only of Luo’s father but also of the author-narrator and other characters. The chapters are arranged as if they were a hand of playing cards. According to Luo, the conception of the story came from the imaginative practice of freezing time in fiction, i.e. stopping the time of a decisive moment, prying open the seam of the suspended time, and wriggling into an elaborate, spectacle-filled instant. In this way, Luo presents remembrances as different clocks of the narrative present, turned on and off by memories. These clocks make the time they mark circular like clock faces (as another part of the story portrays). The circular times sometimes intersect with one another, forming overlapping portions that, far from being in sync, trap the narrative present in conflicting arcs and movements of the past.
The translated excerpt is the sixteenth of the novel’s twenty-one chapters, a self-contained piece titled “The Flood” that explores the twists and turns behind the union of the narrator’s parents, with his mother coming from a lineage of adoptive daughters and his father leaving behind a wife in China. In the second half of the excerpt, these two lines of development merge—or submerge—in a flood caused by one of the biggest typhoons to hit Taiwan. Inundating the whole of Taipei and turning streets and alleys into waterways, the flood creates a transient world for the family’s history to rise to the surface of the water. Its effect is not so much to straighten things up as it is to flatten time momentarily and break down the border between past and present.
– Elaine Wong
Crossing a River Twice presents the basic translator’s dilemma: how to tell a story set in a specific time and place in a way that is universally relevant. This problem is compounded in the first three chapters with the character of Itamar, who is alienated from modern society in a way that readers worldwide will recognize, but has a distinctly Israeli way to express this alienation. His stream of consciousness, often undistinguishable from the narration, is comprised of Israeli-specific references and expressions, and he has a habit of using these references and expressions in a literal and figurative sense at the same time. The solution I found was to have Itamar use slightly altered versions of English idioms. This way, צרת רבים חצי נחמה (literally, “there’s consolation in shared troubles”) became “there’s comfort in numbers” rather than “misery loves company,” since Itamar emphatically does not want company. Similarly, וטובה שעה אחת קודם (“and better an hour sooner”) became “an hour saved is an hour earned,” rather than “the sooner the better,” since Itamar means exactly one hour.
The story is set in Tel Aviv, and Itamar’s attachment to the city, and specifically the Yarkon River, is a major aspect of his character. To emphasize this (and to add some clarity for readers not familiar with Tel Aviv and Israel) I added subtle reminders throughout the text. For example, מישור החוף (“the coastal plain”) in the second line of the prologue I translated as “Israel’s coastal plain” to provide an early point of orientation for the international reader. Similarly, I added terms for terrain and infrastructure features (e.g. river, bridge, interchange) that will be obvious to the Israeli reader but perhaps necessary for the international reader. Ultimately, I tried to achieve a translation that would not sound foreign to the international reader, but that would engage their curiosity towards the setting.
– Tom C. Atkins
Josefine Klougart’s One of Us Is Sleeping is a moving, mesmerizingly intense investigation of the power and pain of love, of loss and grief, disillusion and the yearning for emotional and physical homeland. Not obviously a novel in the traditional sense, it is a work of astonishing sensibility, and Klougart’s lyrically elegiac narrative is breathtaking and arresting. Twice abandoned by men she has loved, a young woman returns home from the city to the countryside in which she grew up, her devastation compounded by the discovery that her mother has cancer. In the silence of a landscape blanketed by snow, she reflects on what is lost and what, perhaps, remains to be gained, dwelling on seemingly mundane occurrences and states of affairs, details that in Klougart’s poetically crafted sentences become laden with beauty and significance. It is a work that does not rely on the momentum of what most usually is called plot, its narrative does not proceed in any unidirectional sense. Instead, it is fluid, molten, strangely intangible, its potency residing in the wealth and keenness of its observations, the fullness and sonority of its language. As such, it provides a quite singular challenge to any translator.
– Martin Aitken
When I first read Bernhard Aichner’s Austrian crime novel Woman of the Dead, I found it a real page-turner. He sets up his heroine, Blum, so that she looks like a villain at first, avenging herself on the parents who adopted her solely so that she could carry on their family business, and who never understood a child’s need for affection. Then, once the happiness she has found in family life is destroyed by the murder of her police officer husband Mark, the reader comes to sympathize with her more and more. She finds a purpose in taking on the case that led to his death, continuing his unofficial investigations into a particularly sadistic group of killers and rapists exploiting Eastern European immigrants, and the storyline ingeniously unravels.
By the end I was rooting for her. Bernhard’s narrative skill shows in all kinds of ways, such as the practical details of an undertaker’s work, which he learned firsthand for this book. Most of all, however, its sheer readability lies in the heroine’s sense of natural justice. Her quarry includes such pillars of the community as a priest, a fashionable photographer, and a local politician. But Blum takes out only the truly guilty. One of those three, for instance, is a thoroughly unpleasant man, but not in fact a core member of the group she is pursuing, and she lets him go.
Then, in translating, I had the chance to appreciate Bernhard’s writing all over again. I like translating dialogue, and there is plenty of it here: short, snappy exchanges in between the passages of straight narrative. Those are in the historic present tense, which I also like for its immediacy. Bernhard uses it for most of the story, with occasional flashbacks in the ordinary past tense.
I admit that I was surprised when I found out that Woman of the Dead was the first of a trilogy, and wondered how, with so many main characters dead by the end of it, the story could continue. But Bernhard gave me a copy of the second novel, fresh off the press, when we met in London in June this year, and all I can say is that you’d be surprised–I was.
– Anthea Bell
Translating The Black Box was challenging, but enjoyable. The novel is set in two worlds–in the enmeshed corporate intrigue of New York and the distant parochiality of post-communist Bulgaria. The two main protagonists, brothers, trade places. The one coming from Bulgaria accidentally stays in New York and dives into the city’s underground of crooks and emigrants. The other, a successful Wall Street broker, goes back to his native country on a business trip, only to find himself locked in the surreal world of political intrigue Balkan style, where he meets his former boss Kurtz, who has turned himself into the heart of post-communist darkness.
The language comes from diverse sectors, and thus involves a number of different jargons. The challenge in translating these came from author’s careful use of language to support and to individualize his characters. Conveying the same nuances and connotations in English required painstaking research. The other challenge was to make macabre Balkan humor understandable for the contemporary English readership. The style changes, too: the book toggles between the two brothers’ points of view, allowing both worlds to be satirized. The Black Box is truly contemporary literature, where the honesty of brutal reality fades into the surreal and the mixture of both is twisted and funny.
– Daniella and Charles Gill de Mayol de Lupe
Bettina Suleiman’s debut novel Auswilderung (in my English translation: Back to the Wild) takes the relationship between a female human and a male gorilla as its main focus. It explores an interesting and productive question—whether animals ought to have something akin to human rights.
Auswilderung is narrated by Marina, an academic specialized in sign language. She tells the story—not in linear form; that would be far less interesting—of research projects she’s been involved with in Leipzig, essentially investigating whether gorillas can live as humans and whether they have personalities that would entitle them to rights. One particular subject, as the animals are called by the researchers, is Yeh-teh, the male in this extract.
Like in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but deeper—Suleiman being a philosopher by training—the animals live with human families and are treated like human children. Eventually the study is abandoned and the next project is to return the gorillas to the wild. Not such an easy task, it turns out. So Marina is brought back on board to persuade Yeh-teh that moving to an island with a bunch of female gorillas he doesn’t much like is a good idea. She manages, using lies and manipulation on both sides. Marina and a small team move to the island to get the subjects settled in.
The plot is great; edge-of-the-seat stuff at times, and things come to a head on the island. But one of the things I find most exciting about Auswilderung is not the storyline, but the characters. Marina is one of those people who has trouble with other human beings and works things out using theory and self-help books. And Suleiman’s depiction of Yeh-teh proves—within its fictional universe at least—that he does indeed have a personality, and, on a different level, that a writer can create an animal character as believable as a human one. The act of creating an animal character is a statement in itself.
Translating the extract proved more challenging than I’d expected; Suleiman gives her narrator a naïve voice that was difficult to get right. I wanted it to read smoothly but not be too polished, because Marina is a character with jagged edges. I was aided, however, by having translated Bettina Suleiman’s essay “Lessons from the Human Zoo” for Words without Borders. This extract and that piece make good partners. I hope you enjoy reading them and thinking about all the questions they prompt.
– Katy Derbyshire
Back in 2003, I was reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… in a Postmodernism class in college. I remember being completely enthralled by the experience of reading prose in a way I hadn’t before, or since, until I came across Ardian Vehbiu’s book, Bolero, published in Albania earlier this year. Vehbiu is not Calvino, nor is his writing like Calvino’s. But this book, as the narrator declares to a friend right from the very first page, is in many ways “a novel about narration… the labor of narrating and the endless possibilities available” to someone telling a story. “My novel,” we hear him disclose enthusiastically, “instead of telling an adventurous story, is itself going to be a narrative adventure.” And it begins with the narrator entering the New York City subway at Seventh Avenue and 40th street, waiting to take the train uptown but completely oblivious to breaking news of an accident in Brooklyn that has suspended all uptown train service. Reminiscent of the premise of Seinfeld, “a show where nothing happens,” the book is a fable about a book in which nothing happens, where the narrator is stuck waiting for a train that never arrives. The reader soon recognizes that the accident is none other than the 9/11 attack, and yet the main focus and theme here is the structuring of a novel told in many different ways as the title, Bolero, suggests.
Translating the extract featured here proved to be a real adventure for me because a fascinating fact about Bolero is that Vehbiu wrote earlier versions of the book years ago in English, a language he’s made his own since settling in the United States in 1996. He then translated it back into Albanian, his mother tongue, revising the final version in this language. The complete version exists in published form in Albanian. So when translating this extract, I worked with the Albanian text, but it was extremely helpful to have access to the English versions at the same time because the narrative itself and the syntax are both complex and inventive. Sentences are sometimes linked endlessly, which reflects the narrative variations of the story itself and the underground railway system where train cars are linked to each other and where tunnels “lead to tunnels that lead to tunnels.” Perhaps the most pleasurable part about working with Vehbiu is that he’s the kind of writer constantly revising and seeking to place the best words in the best order, which is also something I strive for in my own writing. And so translating his work and going back and forth with him on final edits made for a stimulating and rewarding experience.
– Ani Gjika
Pierre Senges’s Geometry in the Dust is a book about city life. On a visit to a foreign city, the book’s narrator is trying to write a description of the city that will furnish instructions for his king to build a city in his home land. Never having seen a city before, his approach is to try to apprehend and set down on paper the principles of the city that he observes in action around him.
In this third chapter, the narrator reflects on one of the city’s many paradoxes: in order to truly know the city, we have to get lost in it. There are cultural resonances here with certain of the psychogeographers’ and Situationists’ experiments (namely la dérive: the urban walker’s surrender to unconscious impulses, useful for discovering hitherto unknown aspects of the city), but if Senges had them in mind when he was writing this chapter, they go nameless–or nearly so.
Whatever may be said of these wanderers, the greater focus is on the orientateur, or wayfinder: the person one stops on the sidewalk to ask for directions. Luckily, their instructions do not interfere with our ability to get lost: instead of useful directions, the wayfinders provide the traveler with “a Menippean satire for their little corner of the city, a macaronic, a description expressed in the local creole.” Along with the street preachers, buskers, graffitists, bustling crowds, romantic couples, and insomniacs of the city that Geometry in the Dust describes, these wayfinders are the book’s comic heroes, and probably not too different, if we only look hard enough, from ourselves.
This is the second excerpt of Geometry in the Dust to be published here at InTranslation. The first chapter was published in the May 2015 edition. The original book, published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales, includes twenty-six illustrations by the artist Killoffer.
– Jacob Siefring
Let the question asked and answered by one German critic stand as introduction to Vasilii Golovanov’s “documentary novel” The Island (Original Russian title: остров or Ostrov):
“A travelogue, a novel, an ethnographic report, a historical narrative, a cautionary tale, an autobiography, or a collection of stories and myths? It is all of this and more. It is the kind of book that only appears a handful of times in a century.”
Now it’s my turn. I say The Island is a transcendently beautiful book, both formally innovative and emotionally charged, possibly the first deep engagement with the extremes of the Russian Far North that is truly post-Soviet. And by “post-Soviet” I mean it is less concerned with bearing witness to great suffering and great crimes, and more concerned with the allure of the north (although Golovanov acknowledges crimes visited upon living beings and living land).
By “post-Soviet” I also mean a work that is not explicitly political (and much of the fiction we call “post-Soviet” continues to identify itself in terms of its stance toward the power of the state). In The Island, the state is marginal, marginalized. The focus is on the individual, his environment, and whatever informs him–past traumas, personal history, education and engagement with the world around him–and as such is liberating, for any reader, not just the Russian reader.
The Island details a number of journeys Golovanov made during the nineties to the island of Kolguev, a “tiny planet” in the Barents Sea. Golovanov claims these sojourns were a therapeutic response to a personal and professional crisis brought on by his work as a war correspondent. Over time, his involvement with Kolguev broadened into a meditation on the Russian Far North, its inhabitants, its natural beauty, and its tragedy; along the way, the work he produced to document this engagement deepened into an exploration as to the meaning of travel itself.
Formally, it may be the first Russian nonfiction novel (it is billed as such). It is certainly the first Russian work I know that mixes a wide variety of genres, and puts them all at the service of a rhapsody. It is a cut-and-paste picaresque, filled with lengthy discursive asides on flora, fauna, indigenous inhabitants, earlier encounters with the landscape (by Scottish explorers, by Soviet scientists, by other late-20th-century dreamers and refugees), myths, legends, personal stories, and the vast Russian literary tradition to which Golovanov lays claim, from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Aksakov, Platonov (to whom he consciously acknowledges a deep debt), and even the Babel of Red Cavalry. The theme of the book, or its impetus, is that of flight–and for the first time in Russian literary history this flight takes place within the vastness of Russia, because of Russia and not in spite of it, constituting challenge, possibility, and opportunity–for redemption, for self-discovery, for a deeper understanding of what it means to go to extremes.
– Adam Siegel
The underlying concept for the book Geometry in the Dust concerns the idea of the city, and its extensive, facetious description. In the book’s first chapter, excerpted here, we learn that an Eastern, desert-dwelling king has dispatched his right-hand man–the book’s narrator–to a distant, nameless city. The aide’s job is to meticulously observe and notate the city, so that these descriptions might furnish instructions to build a city of their own, in the middle of their desert kingdom.
The book’s absurd conceit becomes then, how to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.
As with almost all of Pierre Senges’s texts, the narration unfolds with numerous erudite allusions. These can be overwhelming at times, but mostly they function as an invitation to explore the vast universal library from which Senges often gleans his material. Fortunately, no prior knowledge of Ibn Sahl, the mad caliph Hakem, or the Book of Rare Things in the Art of Calculation by Abū Kāmil–all mentioned here in passing–is required to enjoy this Borgesian tale’s wit.
Twenty-six large black-and-white drawings by the illustrator Killoffer complement the narrator’s anatomy of the city. Above all, they suggest visions of a frenzy: objects cluttered together, the violent pace of city life, and crowds overflowing with gruesome, terror-struck faces. As such, they afford a striking counterpoint to the narrator’s calm, collected, rational elaboration of the city’s aspects.
The book is available in a large, horizontal-format edition, with glossy pages and a cutaway cover, making this book a virtually one-of-a-kind collaboration. It was published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales as the first (and only, it turns out) title in a series entitled one wonders how such books find their way into readers’ hands. A very good question, indeed.
– Jacob Siefring
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).