Begoña Paz is, to my mind, a necessary writer for the world to know. She writes about topics that I notice most English-language writers seem to avoid (I could never imagine someone from the US writing “The Weight of My Desire”), and in such a startling, beautiful manner. To me, “The Weight of My Desire” represents some of the best characteristics of flash fiction, and the things that draw me to it: in the space of about a page, Paz is able to evoke so much of the history of this crumbling marriage in such simple ways. For example: “Despite every year’s present, a jar of Pond’s wrinkle cream.” With one image she evokes an uncaring husband, not only giving the same present every year, but a present which is a constant reminder to the protagonist that she is aging, that she no longer satisfies him, that he wishes she were younger, and that she feels emptiness over her inability to do anything about her situation. The story delves deep, probing, moving slowly until, with the last two paragraphs Paz turns a slow, pensive narrative into one with charge, moving at lightning speed. It gallops forward towards its conclusion and ends so fast that the reader is left as confused and disoriented as the narrator, who seems, when it is all over, to be wondering what happened and looking down at the page, or the husband, to check and see if it truly did occur.
One of the challenges of translating her poetry is that she has a great economy of language and beautiful imagery: “And cars like pills/ for anything and/ for nothing,/ and pounds/ of dreams/ that spread/ over sidewalks/ at twilight/ so that we step on them/ on our way to the/ jobschooljail of/ our everyday lives.” There is a sort of vague clarity to these lines from her poem, “Proof,” that sort of foggy clarity one gets if awake around that hour before the sun has fully risen and it’s still dark outside. The challenge of linguistic economy becomes greater when dealing with Galician—the amount of contractions in the language makes English seem tame. The Galician language, too, has such a distinct sound to it that it can be hard to approach the sonority of the original, best exemplified by “Motel Silviculture.” In the original, the last stanza reads “Elixe./ Elixe./ Elixe.” In Galician that “x” has a soft, “shh” sound, which softens the tone of the middle-heavy word (e-LI-xe). The word in Galician has a heavy emphasis, but is softened by the “shh” sound, giving a sense of harshness and pressure at the same time as it has a voice-in-your-head, whispering quality to it. In English, the two best translations of this word, which is an imperative verb conjugation of “elixir,” would be “choose” or “decide.” With “choose” readers get some of that softness from the Galician “x,” with “decide,” readers get that pounding iambic nature of the original—faced with a choice between two words in English which only contain half of the original’s sonority, how does one choose, how does one decide?
– Jacob Rogers
Italo-Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s patient, nomadic gaze observes the world through the cracks and fissures of everyday life in order to disclose its discontinuities, uncovering along the way the secret lives of people and things. As a geographic and linguistic immigrant–from Italy to Mexico and from Italian to Spanish–Morábito sets his writing in a perpetually liminal space, seeking anonymous points of convergence made possible at the edges and borders of the surface of things. In order to do so, he purposefully displaces himself, tempting the void, as he states in a poem from De lunes todo el año (“A Year of Mondays”), “In order to feel alive/ we must be standing on a kind of desolation.” (All translations are mine.)
Morábito is the rare author who practices fiction and poetry with equal dexterity, and “The Sailboat” is the first story in his fourth collection of short fiction, Madres y perros (“Mothers and Dogs”), published in 2016 by Editorial Sexto Piso. The fifteen stories spring from quotidian situations and places in Mexico and abroad, but his writing soon reveals unsettling enigmas: two brothers worry more about a dog locked in an apartment who hasn’t been fed than they do about their dying mother; a man’s evening jog on a racetrack turns into a savage battle between runners when the lights go out; a daughter learns to draft business letters as an homage to her mother. The stories leave us with what critic Peio Riaño calls a “deaf question that is never truly answered,” that nevertheless offers new ways of viewing and caring for our world.
I was an ardent reader of Morábito’s poetry before I discovered his fiction and essays. Often-overlooked everyday things and people who are commonly forgotten–for example, a swing set, a group of construction workers, the old pipes running up a bathroom wall, a cow grazing in a field–are given space in his verse to be resignified and to resignify, in turn, the poetic subject and the reader herself. In Morábito’s fiction, this amplified process obliges us to question constructions of order and meaning, and to contemplate the false coherence of systems of knowledge and representation, memory, and narration.
– Sarah Pollack
We all know the fairy tales of Perrault and Grimm, but few readers would recognise the name of Catulle Mendès, one of the great turn-of-the-century creators of fairies. His fairy tales in Les Oiseaux bleus (“The Bluebirds”) were first published in 1888, but were largely forgotten until 1993, when the collection was reissued in French. I discovered Catulle Mendès while researching his contemporary, Jean Lorrain, whose fairy tales I have also translated. I was tickled by the outrageous princess in “La Belle du Monde” (“The Only Beautiful Woman”) and was soon reading it to children and adults in French or in my translation.
In Les Oiseaux bleus, Mendès foresaw the extinction of fairies as interveners in human life. But here at the beginning of the collection, enchantment can still change the course of things for the better: a princess prefers riches and power to a good prince, but with the help of a little magic and a lot of muscle, the prince who has tried to win her love receives a far better reward.
Readers will recognise Perrault’s inspiration and a style reminiscent of Grimm, but Mendès’ storytelling breaks with their tradition of toning down the comedy; he explores the incurable selfishness of humans by invoking laughter at the princess’s trifling and time-wasting. Mendès often takes pleasure in surprising his readers with an unexpected turn near the end of a story, as he does here, giving us, and the prince, the last laugh.
– Patricia Worth
Lana Abdel Rahman probes the internal world of her characters through dreams and memory. “The Sea Facing North” is from Abdel Rahman’s latest collection of short stories, Stories of Strangers. I kept returning to this haunting story, told with deceptive simplicity. Walking along the sea with a friend, a young boy is disturbed by a memory from his childhood, which he tells to his companion. When I asked Lana about “The Sea Facing North,” she told me a friend had told her the story about an honor killing. But she transformed a raw anecdote from daily life into a fable with repetition of images and details. The sea in Brazil brings up the memory of a sea from the past in Lebanon–which, in turn, forces the boy to relive the experience and tell the story.
– Gretchen McCullough
Spanish writer Juan José Millás notices what happens when everyone else is looking the other way. His short fiction intrudes upon the intimate, uncomfortable, often shameful but pivotal moments of his protagonists without introduction, warning, or apology, all with a distinct “Millasian” style: he peers upon an isolated human experience, takes a snapshot of it, winks at the reader, and leaves, usually in the span of two pages. Reading his work is much like spying on a voyeur who is simultaneously spying on someone else. It is discomfort, once-removed.
This brief selection from Stories Out in the Open (Cuentos a la intemperie) unfolds on the streets of Madrid at the close of the twentieth century. When our instinct is to avert our gaze, Millás forces us to look closer yet: at a father’s rage on a family road trip, at the adult man who claims to be the son of a pajama-clad stranger, at the Devil perusing religious literature at the European equivalent of Barnes and Noble. This perpetual uncovering, the initial discomfort that results from bearing witness to such private moments, eventually gives way to amusement.
Millás is a household name and public figure of the Iberian Peninsula. He belongs to a generation of writers born at the height of Franco’s dictatorship, but who began writing during the so-called “transition” to democracy. Despite their insistence upon everyday human experience, Millás’ stories are inextricable from their larger historical and political context: they emerge as the products of one who grew up in a dictatorial pressure cooker and who now wants to write about anything but that. Through a deliberate avoidance of key words such as “Spanish civil war” or “Franquismo,” combined with an experimental form and growing emphasis on the effects of the economic crisis, his stories are unmistakably situated in turn-of-the-century Spain. Millás is a rare jewel for the reader; despite his national fame, his work remains largely absent from the Anglophone literary circuit.
– Gabriella Martin
The choice of the words drunken and intemperate is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. While people might disagree about which of the words indicates a greater degree of dependence, this is entirely the point: The narrator is not in agreement with his father about what the words in question mean, and the pompousness and illogic of the conversation in question is of course characteristic of conversations among inebriated people.
The translation’s “the Potato Rows” is a fairly well-established literal translation of “Kartoffelrækkerne,” the name of a distinctive Copenhagen neighborhood of row houses that was created in the nineteenth century as affordable housing for working-class people but comprises real estate that is very expensive for new buyers today due to its central location and attractive local environment. The narrator’s temporary home on Nørre Farimagsgade; the Botanical Garden, where the narrator’s father claims to have gone for a walk earlier on the day on which the events of the story take place; and Kjeld Langes Gade, where the narrator remembers having lived as a child, are all a short walk from each other and from the Potato Rows.
I have rendered the words attributed to W.C. Fields in the story into English as a close translation of the narrator’s Danish version, which is slightly more brutally formulated than the version of the quote in question that is often elsewhere attributed to Fields, “I feel as though the Russian army had been walking over my tongue in their stockinged feet.”
– Peter Sean Woltemade
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an essay by Faleeha Hassan describing her experience living as an Iraqi refugee in the United States. You can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/04/iraqi-refugee-living-in-america-some-wish-me-dead.
Blume Lempel’s work is noteworthy for its unflinching examination of erotic themes and gender relations, its psychological acuity, and its technical virtuosity. Mirroring the dislocation of her women protagonists, her stories move between present and past, Old World and New, dream and reality. Lempel did not hesitate to take up subjects only rarely explored by writers in Yiddish–including incest, abortion, feminism, and madness. This story–the tale of a blind date–is no exception.
In “The Little Red Umbrella,” Janet Silver accepts an invitation from an eccentric poet who was badly disfigured during the Holocaust. We learn of the erotic imaginings of this middle-aged woman, her preparations for the date, her flustered travel to meet the unknown poet, and finally, the awkward, challenging, and combative nature of the date itself. In the end, Janet finds herself feeling an unexpected compassion for her new acquaintance.
– Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Marek Hlasko, known as the Polish James Dean, made his literary debut in 1956 with a short story collection. Born in 1934, Hlasko was a representative of the first generation to come of age after World War II, and he was known for his brutal prose style and his unflinching eye toward his surroundings. In 1956, Hlasko went to France; while there, he fell out of favor with the Polish communist authorities, and was given a choice of returning home and renouncing some of his work, or staying abroad forever. He chose the latter, and spent the next decade living and writing in many countries, from France to West Germany to the United States to Israel. Hlasko died in 1969 of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills in Wiesbaden, West Germany, preparing for another sojourn in Israel. His memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings, was published for the first time in English in 2013, translated by Ross Ufberg; his novels Killing the Second Dog and All Backs Were Turned were recently published by New Vessel Press.
Klaus Merz is one of the most prominent, prolific, and versatile Swiss writers writing today. Born in Aarau in 1945, he worked as a secondary school and adult education teacher before devoting himself full time to writing. He has written more than two dozen books of poetry, long and short fiction, essays, and commentary, along with screenplays for television and film, and stage and radio plays. His projected seven-volume Collected Works is being published by Haymon Verlag. Merz has won numerous important prizes, most recently the 2012 Friedrich Hölderlin Prize.
In 2016, Seagull Books will publish his three novellas, Jacob Asleep, A Man’s Fate, and The Argentine in a single volume entitled Stigmata of Bliss in Tess Lewis’ translation.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in 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).