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
Daddy Wants TV Saturday Night is a short story I wrote in Michigan when I was a graduate student. It is based on a personal memory of how Romania was when I was around 10 years old, growing up in a little town on the Danubian plain. The political context is subtly embedded in the text; it’s the year when the communist government in Romania embarked on a path of financial independence and started to save money to pay off the nation’s debt. They succeeded, after a decade of challenging cutbacks which included reducing household electricity. A few years after I wrote this text and my 2002 collection appeared in Romania, I thought about translating some of my short stories into English myself. I started with this text for reasons I find today more sentimental than literary. By translating a very personal piece of fiction I was searching for my own literary identity in an adopted language. To achieve a decent version, I consulted several friends and got a lot of help with conveying some idiomatic expressions. It was not easy for me to try this; it took me several years just to do a few pages. Besides my difficulties in translation, I understood that in Romanian I had a sense of personal identity permeating the text, something that came very naturally and was hard to acquire in another language. In every scene, I felt the narrative voice was legitimate and authentic. It was through this that I learned to truly appreciate the amazing translators working from Romanian into English today, such as Alistair Ian Blyth and Sean Cotter. I have seen them at work and I greatly respect both their knowledge and art.
– Bogdan Suceavă
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
He smokes Camel grays. He translated Ginsberg into Lithuanian. Bushy grey hairs sprout from his pony tail–an unmistakable mane on a wiry frame. He quit drinking six years ago. He translated Bukowski. We worked together to put out an anthology of young Lithuanian poets in English. His literary knowledge is vast. He has read more than most people I know–in English, not to mention Lithuanian and Russian. We are now working together to put out a manuscript of his selected poems, and the poetry here is a part of that project. Marius Burokas is a poet and translator–a constant commentator on contemporary literature, an organizer of events, an editor of anthologies of new poetry, a family man. His poetry is rooted in the daily life of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Unlike much of the neo-romantic, nationalist verse of the last century that came out of a country struggling for independence, Marius is part of a new generation ushering in the postmodern era of interrogation and transnationality. In his second poetry collection, Conditions (Būsenos), he marks himself as a Lithuanian poet while standing naked in an American laundromat–not in the countryside, not on an ancient castle hill as would be expected in the hoary neo-romantic vein that dominated Lithuanian poetry until recently. In his I’ve learned how not to be (Išmokau nebūti), which won him the Young Jotvingian Prize in 2011, his Vilnius is the city outside of the renovated, tourist-filled, historical Old Town. Dingy dives and impersonal apartment blocks present the reader with a seedy and grim contemporary landscape. Whether thematically or stylistically, in a free-verse style indebted to William Carlos Williams, the beats, and the deep-image poets, Marius positions himself outside of traditional Lithuanian perspectives. He sees different aspects of life in Vilnius and he sees more typical aspects differently. So when he describes a traditional folk festival, he brings out the cruelty that lies behind the superficial enjoyments and smug nationalism. Burokas searches for meaning in a fallen world, while death in the form of a naked prostitute calls to him from an apartment window.
– Rimas Uzgiris
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
Do others sneak their words to our lips? Is it confiscated at customs, or will it suit our own angles of approach? These questions of language are ones that Uljana Wolf never poses directly in her debut collection kochanie i bought bread, published by kookbooks in 2005. Wolf’s ear is tuned to what happens at the porous borders between literary cultures, everyday experience, and national history, engaging a poetics in which this dissonance is galvanized into a vibration that rattles us. That we feel unsettled and seduced in this border dance, where “strophe by strophe / the guest is better versed,” alerts us to how we incessantly draw and contest borders through the particularities of language. For Wolf, born in East Berlin in 1979, the complex historical strata of Germany–the ineradicable shadow of the war, the East-West dissonance, the multilingual melting pot of Berlin–offer a site of intercultural contact, her poems brimming with multilingual and historical variances that provoke and kaleidoscope her homeland’s murky inheritance.
Wolf is equal parts inventor and dementor of language, and each poem shimmers with the possibility of what ordinary object or utterance might undergo metamorphosis. A phrase in “postscript to the dogs of kreisau” describes much of Wolf’s wordplay and my approach as a translator: “lautrausch,” or “sonic intoxication.” The semantic and aural qualities of words are not distinct categories in kochanie, but ones that infect each other.
– Greg Nissan
Max Jacob’s writing gives a glimpse of debauchery, the kind that might lie at the collapse of linguistic functioning or on the other side of cliché and metaphor. In taking on washed-up subject matter like the story of Don Juan, Jacob gives new life to staid texts— literary history is used against itself as the means to imagine an otherwise. Yet Jacob’s work poses a problem to translation. As is true of translating most surrealists, the task of the translator becomes more about capturing sound than meaning, more about the feeling of a word than its definition; speech over language.
Some liberties were admittedly taken in translating this text. To keep meter and rhythm, some French words were exchanged for ones with entirely different meanings in English. The sounds and connotations of English words, I hope, evoke the playfulness and tone of the original. I also kept the Chapter sub-headings in French (or semi-French) since, again, the materiality of language is definitively prioritized over the meaning of the words.
This text, neither poem nor drama nor prose but something veritably non-disciplinary, was found in an archival collection of Pierre Reverdy’s short-lived journal Nord-Sud. Though a good portion of Jacob’s work has been translated into English, his writings from this journal have mostly been overlooked. This might be because the orthography is difficult; the words seem somehow unedited and difficult to parse out. Yet I kept the punctuation, spacing, and capitalization exactly as they appear in the original in order to leave a remainder or reminder of the historical context within the text—to keep the rules out, so to speak.
– Mimi Howard
Jean-Baptiste Para, the author of four volumes of poetry, does not receive the kind of attention that some other contemporary French language poets or French poets receive. But then regimes and canons of visibility are always imperfect in their constitution and more than ever in the present epoch. I would stipulate that if there were but one contemporary French poet whom one could have the opportunity to read, then it should be Para, although I would immediately add that one should also read the late and lamented poet, Alain Suied (1951-2008). Para is a poetic and literary intelligence of the first order and the possessor of a sparkling and profound literary erudition, but the truly admirable wonder is that this intelligence and erudition resonate without remainder or constraint or imposition, resonate in seamless lacing with the diction and dynamism of his poetic vibratos and crescendos. Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson,” a poem greatly esteemed by Para, is as good a poem as Rexroth ever wrote, a perfect poem in its union of existential intelligence, socio-historical wisdom, and poetic reciprocity and tragico-existential magnanimity. But so many of Para’s poems have this shimmering and sentience of poetico-existential encompassment where life in its tragedies and celebrations emerges in a music which remains within us in ever the more sustained duration. Poems of existential and political immediacy are the most difficult of all poems to write, but Para’s tribute poem to Rosa Luxembourg, “Ghazal pour Rosa L,” greatest intelligence of her politico-historical epoch, whose terrible and tragic assassination was the gravest historico-political loss, is one of these rare poems where a subject finds its perfect election, its perfect music and duration. But so many of Para’s poems have this sustained and sustaining quality. There are poetries of richness and there are poetries of riches, but rarely a poetry in which we find both, find poem after poem as gift and reward in both breadth and depth. Para is a different poet than is Cavafy or Mandelstam, and yet in all three we find a poetic sounding and historico-existential savor and fancy that all at once are the only ones that a subject at hand could possibly have or beckon or instantiate in all actuality, attention, and affection.
– Steve Light
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).