The Mask

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to the back to read it in English.

The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…

Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62

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The Half-Veil

The digital literary fiction journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, has just published “The Half-Veil”, my translation of “La Voilette”, a Catulle Mendès short short story of 1884. Click on the link and scroll down through other brilliant flash fiction till you see this cool photo added by the editor.

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Header image: La Modiste sur les Champs Élysées, Jean Béraud (1849 – 1935), courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Southerly

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ Condamné à perpétuité, “Life Sentence”, has today been published by Southerly, the journal of the English Association at Sydney University. The journal is available to purchase in print or digitally.

Southerly is dedicated to publishing new Australian literature. I feel honoured to have had my work selected, given that the author I’ve translated lives in New Caledonia, a French island about two hours off the coast of Queensland. However, I’m Australian and the English is mine. The story has much in it that was familiar to me as a child in Queensland: tropical flora, heat, ocean. But one thing I’m not familiar with is leprosy, the topic. There’s a little island clearly visible from Brisbane called Peel Island, which in the past when anyone asked was always quickly identified as the leper colony. The question was a good conversation killer. All we knew was that those who lived there had been expelled from the mainland. No one actually knew what it was like to be there.

Reading Condamné à perpétuité gave me a bit of an insight into life on an Island of Lepers.

To encourage you to read the translation, I’ll reveal that “Life Sentence” has a happy(ish) ending.

I feel especially fortunate that Southerly has published it since the theme of their current issue is Persian literature! “Life Sentence” is one of the few stories included that are outside the theme. Thank you Southerly.

(Be assured this is the latest issue despite the 2016 date.)

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It’s You

From time to time literary translators seek an analogy to help others see what it is that a translator does with a story. When I hear a great cover version of a song or a piece of instrumental music I see the similarity with translation. It’s a work originally written by one artist but interpreted by another. A composer writes a piece of music and another musician can play it, but no two interpretations of the score will be the same. The player or singer always puts a little of himself into the piece. And so it is with translators.

I have sons who play piano or guitar or sing a cappella in quartets, and when they want to learn a new song, they listen to other musicians performing live or on Internet videos. As I’m listening in the background, I note that the same song can sound so different according to the singers’ skills, their personal histories and their countries of origin.

Here’s a good example of a piece of music interpreted quite differently from its original version, though it is equally entertaining and touching. It was a performance in April when my son Ben competed with a quartet in a contest in Sydney for the Barbershop Harmony Australia association. Barbershop singing has changed a lot since its beginnings and is now less about boater hats and corny gestures than the precision of singing four-part harmony without instrumental accompaniment.

Left to right, Danny, Ben, Geordie and Adam – Fresh Notes – sing It’s You, written by Meredith Willson for the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man. Fresh Notes came second in the contest.

The lyrics and melody are Meredith Willson’s, but the style and composition for the quartet belong uniquely to Fresh Notes. Remembering this helps me to relax when I’m translating, it reminds me that sometimes the cover version can be as good as, even better than, the original.

Like a musician, a literary translator takes someone else’s composition and performs it in his own special way.

Performing without a Stage
Robert Wechsler

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Turgenev translation comparison

Once, I read two sentences that had a silent “Oh wow” effect on me; they were by Turgenev, in his story “The Tryst”. I had never read Turgenev, but now I wanted to know him better. I met Turgenev through Rebecca McClanahan in her very useful book, Word Painting. She quoted from “The Tryst” to illustrate description-by-negation, or rather she quoted from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation of Turgenev’s story, without crediting Hapgood. But she should have, for without the translation she would not have known about Turgenev’s skilful repetition in “It was not … not … not”, describing the sound of rustling leaves. Ivan Turgenev’s sketches of provincial Russian life are stories I’ve read and read again in English. Not only are they compelling vignettes of a country I’ve never been to, but his descriptions of closely observed Russian hunters and other forest frequenters hold my attention from beginning to end.

“Turgenev Hunting”, Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wondering whether the beauty lay in the translator’s words or the author’s, I went searching for other translations of the same passage. Here are four versions of Turgenev’s description, followed by the translator’s name:

The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. (Constance Garnett, 1897)

The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner overhead; from their sound alone one could tell what season of the year it was. It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of spring-time, not the soft whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter. (Isabel F. Hapgood, 1903)

The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible, dreamy chattering. (Richard Freeborn, 1967)

The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. (Charles and Natasha Hepburn, 1992)

 

Which is the best?

 

Garnett: Her choice of ‘not … nor … nor’ is as good as Hapgood’s ‘not … not … not’. Each word in the two sentences is individual, and most consist of one or two syllables.

Hapgood:  While it’s the translation chosen by Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate the suspense in ‘not … not … not’, it would be better if Hapgood hadn’t used ‘barely audible’ in two consecutive sentences. And ‘rustling’ and ‘rustle’.

Freeborn: Yes, he uses ‘not … not … not’, but there are too many words of three or four syllables, like ‘long-winded talkativeness’. But then ‘The leaves scarcely rustled’ is more concise than Hapgood’s ‘The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner’.

The Hepburns: They repeat ‘whispering’ and ‘whisper’ in the first sentence, and later in the same sentence their choice of ‘you’ is less literary, less poetic, than ‘one’ which keeps the reader at a distance. Also, ‘could have told the time’ at the beginning of this clause had me thinking of hours; I had to read it again.

 

So, for this little exercise, Constance Garnett is the better translator, and the one I admire. Or is it Turgenev I admire? Since I can’t read Russian, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that comparisons of translations often send me back to Constance Garnett.

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P.S. I’m writing this in autumn, but not in Russia. There are no shy and chill babblings nor is there a cold, frightened rustling. It’s a stunningly beautiful day here in Canberra where the only rustling is from the currawong, shifting branches as he eats my figs!

Under Cover of Dust

Yesterday, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative published a piece I wrote for their French month, “Under Cover of Dust”. It’s available on their Facebook page and on their blog.

Today, I inadvertently deleted the link and the post from my own blog, so here is the article, with illustrations:

 

Under Cover of Dust

by Patricia Worth (© 2017)

For an idle literary translator, what’s a good place to search for foreign fiction? Anthologies and best-seller lists, web wish-lists of books that ought to be translated? Old bookshops where floor-to-ceiling shelves are laden with literature from decades or centuries ago? All good suggestions. But there’s another source which can prove fruitful. If your local university library is like mine, there’s a mass of French fiction, purchased in the sixties or fifties, sitting neglected, waiting for a borrower. Each volume is now ageing beneath a grey layer of dust settled in the nook of its page tops.

Here you can find old French books filled with tales far removed in time and unlike anything in contemporary fiction. Read between the lines of these stories and you’ll see writers disappointed with things unchanging, say, in rigid religious traditions that influenced the behaviour of believers and atheists alike, or writers disappointed with too many changes: the advance of technology, the end of manual labour, the taste for realism versus fantasy. They were authors reluctant to let fairies die, who wanted to revive the Medieval world and the era of monarchs and superstitions.

Libraries are a gift to mankind. And womankind. Their shelves are treasure-laden and cost-free. Yet there are book lovers who never go near them. They read only books they can keep, preferring to build their own personal collection, all the while asserting that libraries are an endangered literary species. Once, a young French exchange student at my old university, searching its library for something from the twenty-first century and finding only these old tomes, curled his lip and declared it a museum.

Now, for a translator with an itchy writing hand, old books are a rich source of literature begging to be translated. Perusing the shelves, I suspect that many of them have not been translated in a hundred years, if ever, and now the dust seduces me. I dirty my fingers flicking through the yellowed pages. Opening the covers back too far breaks the aged connection between pages and spine, and I half close the book in sympathy, tilting my head to read inside the triangular space.

One little book, George Sand et le rêve monastique : Spiridion by Jean Pommier, about Sand’s novel, Spiridion, leads me to the novel itself, not far away on another shelf. Sand wrote two versions with different endings. Choosing the second version, I translate it and send it to SUNY Press. Sand’s gothic, philosophical novel set in a monastery, excluding all women bar the author and her translator, is the right choice for me: for the first time I become a published translator.

Tickled by this success, I return to the library and pull out a fragile, hand-sized, brown-covered book, Jean Lorrain’s Contes pour lire à la chandelle, ‘Stories to Read by Candlelight’. As I turn the pages I imagine sitting beside a storyteller in a candlelit corner, listening to tales about a haunted house or an ill-treated woman or a hallucinating boy. For a year I borrow and re-borrow the Contes, translating the stories in no particular order, according to my mood. With each opening of the book another page comes loose and corners flake away. Poor book! When my work is finished I return it to the librarians for conservation, and send six stories to journals to see if they like nineteenth-century French fiction. They do. Lorrain’s small stories are now available in print in Eleven Eleven Journal, and online at The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation, Danse Macabre and Sun Star Review.

My addiction has me hurrying back to the ‘museum’. Kneeling on the floor, I bend my head to read the spines along the bottom shelf, down where the dust is thicker. A small gem, Nouvelles orientales by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, appeals by its title; I blow across its top, give the heavier lint a push, read the first page, skip to the middle and scan a few lines. This little number has shortish French stories set in various non-French lands. It comes home with me.

I like some of the stories but not all. The wintry ones are the author’s better work, they make me forget I’m reading. I form a short list, for now avoiding the one that ends in a suicide. Another year passes as I translate the Nouvelles, draft after draft, renewing the library loan a dozen times. When three stories are polished, I send them off. One, my very favourite, is accepted by The Cossack Review: ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, about a lonely man in Ukraine who falls in love with a perfumed pelisse.

Research about Jean Lorrain leads me to his Decadent peer and a great creator of fairies, Catulle Mendès, whose collection Les Contes du Rouet is available online. It’s a thoroughly pleasurable exercise to translate Mendès. A tale about a selfish princess, ‘The Only Beautiful Woman’, makes it into The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. This is an online to online conversion, but I’m eager to work from a physical book, and am thrilled to find, back at the library, two more collections by Mendès, and I borrow them both. As you can imagine for a book entitled ‘To Read in the Bath’, and another, ‘To Read in the Convent’ (a deceptive title which would have drawn pretty young things into Mendès’s naughty fantasies), I read them with the amusement and occasional dismissal they deserve. My translation of La bague enchantée, ‘The Enchanted Ring’, has been transported to new readers via Peacock Journal.

While it’s true I translate only stories I’m pretty sure will please other readers, there has been the odd dusty book that clicked with me but by the time I reached the end of the first draft, I wasn’t convinced that anyone else would eagerly turn its pages. Henry Gréville’s Sonia was such a book. After months of work, I filed the translation manuscript at the bottom of my drawer.

It’s thanks to the library’s stubborn persistence in holding on to these books that I’ve discovered and translated bits and pieces of them. Yet, in this same university library, no searchers will ever pull Spiridion in our language from a shelf in the way I’ve picked up a few pearls simply by browsing. It is in the library catalogue, but only as an e-book. The National Library of Australia has also acquired only the e-book. Disappointing but not surprising.

Still, e-books and digital journals are here to stay and I must be grateful and push on. As Lorrain led me to Mendès, Mendès has led me to Théodore de Banville. The library has a copy of his Œuvres. I’ve translated a number of his stories and can tell you that he is indeed a witty and entertaining writer. One of my patient draft readers has declared him superior to my previous authors, though I myself love them all equally. Indeed, de Banville has driven me to purchase one of his old volumes. I’ve also bought originals by Sand, de Vogüé, Mendès and others I’m keeping for a rainy day. Yes, I’m starting a collection, but I would never have met these books and their authors if the library had not kept them under cover of dust, despite calls to dispose of them. Long live libraries of the physical kind.

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The Enchanted Ring

Today a new story has been published in Peacock Journal online, “The Enchanted Ring”, written by Catulle Mendès in 1887, translated by me. The story is in his collection, Pour lire au couvent (To Read in the Convent), which might surprise since it’s a wee bit spicy for innocent convent girls and only a little less risqué than his tales in Pour lire au bain (To Read in the Bath).

To set the scene, the Peacock Journal editors have illustrated the story with Claude Monet’s impression of Vétheuil in the outer regions of Paris in 1879. This will give readers a hint that the story works its way towards a country inn where three rich and handsome princes are resting for the night (only one of them is asleep…).

Claude Monet, ‘Vétheuil, Paysage’, 1879

Another of my Mendès translations, “The Only Beautiful Woman”, appeared recently in The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation which you can read about in my blog post here where you’ll see a photo of Catulle Mendès standing casually in his study reading a story. Or a poem. If you don’t recognise Mendès, you might recognise his daughters from this painting by his friend Auguste Renoir in 1888, now in the Met Museum, New York:

daughters-of-catulle-mendes-renoir

Auguste Renoir, ‘The Daughters of Catulle Mendès’, (1888), Huguette b. 1871, Claudine b. 1876, Helyonne b. 1879

Peacock Journal has a theme: beauty. The editors search for it in every submission. I feel fortunate and chuffed that they found it in “The Enchanted Ring”. Make your day better by popping over to read this and other stories about beauty.

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The Only Beautiful Woman…

… is the title of my newest translated story, published yesterday by The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. You can read the story online: go to the website, scroll down to the translator’s note (that’s me, of course) then click on “click here to read”. You’ll then be able to enjoy The Only Beautiful Woman by Catulle Mendès, originally “La Belle du Monde” in his collection Les Oiseaux bleus.

Like Perrault and the Grimm brothers, Mendès was a great creator of fairies. In “The Only Beautiful Woman” the incurable selfishness of humans is embodied in a trifling, time-wasting princess who frightens even the mirrors that reflect her beauty.

Image from

Image from “L’Illustration”, no. 3240, 1 April 1905

I’m very grateful to The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation editors for publishing my work, especially since this is my second appearance in their journal. In 2015 they published my translation of Madame Gorgibus by Jean Lorrain, another story in which one character suffers from another’s selfishness. But Mme Gorgibus never sees the victory of good over evil; her story is less of a comedy than Mendès’ little tale in which mirth predominates and the ending is happy.

I invite you to read these tales; they’re old and short but memorable! If you enjoy them please let me know.

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Useless Virtue

A new literary journal, Sun Star, has just released Issue 2 of Volume 1, and one of my translations of Jean Lorrain’s stories, “Useless Virtue”, is in it. And there’s a bonus: the editor has written a short piece in regard to translations of old works in the public domain. If you’d like to read the story, it’s available online for free here. Scroll down to page 29.

sun-star-issue-2-cover

I’ve previously written about “Useless Virtue” on my blog, twice, without writing the actual story (which would have disqualified it from being published elsewhere…). I posted here with a translated part of Lorrain’s accompanying introduction to the story, and here with some connections to paintings of Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens that helped me visualise the action while translating it.

I found the original, “L’Inutile Vertu”, in a small brown book on a dusty shelf at my old university, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (Stories to read by candlelight), but it also appeared later in La Revue Illustrée, a French turn-of-the-century journal which was, unsurprisingly, illustrated, with pages such as this one (courtesy of Gallica).

Page from 'Inutile Vertu in 'La Revue Illustrée, no. 16, 1 Aug 1901

Page from “L’Inutile Vertu” in “La Revue Illustrée”, no. 16, 1 Aug 1901

Illustrated adult books and stories seem to be out of fashion now. But why should children have all the fun of comparing the words to the pictures? For me, it’s an exquisite pleasure to read copies of La Revue Illustrée. True, they’re in French, but there are many examples of English illustrated journals available online that would be a great source of enjoyment for anyone who likes to study drawing styles and the decorated page, not to mention illustrated stories.

If I were gifted with a pencil or a paintbrush, I might have illuminated my own translations. Now there’s a thought. I wonder if there are any translators out there doing just this…

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Women in Translation Month

August is Women in Translation month. This is a time to search for books by one of the minorities among writers, female authors who have been translated into English. As a translator of a couple of them, I’ve decided to slip out of my translatorly solitude and become somewhat actively involved. I’m very fortunate to have a daughter-in-law who works in a bookshop frequented by serious readers, ‘Paperchain’ in Canberra, so I took in a few copies of Spiridion by George Sand, (which I translated), and asked if she would be interested in making a small display of books authored by women in languages other than English. She selected a few from the shop stock and assigned a shelf to the cause, directly beneath the shelf assigned to Harry Potter books…

My translation of George Sand’s ‘Spiridion’ in the front row…

She then put a post on Paperchain’s Facebook page showing some translated books written by women and available in her shop.

This month, try to read at least one translated book originally written by a woman. I’m reading a book of poems by New Caledonian author, Déwé Gorodé, translated by Raylene Ramsay and Deborah Walker, and from the same island some short stories by Claudine Jacques, which are not yet available in English but will be, just as soon as I find a publisher for my work!

So, think outside the box that contains only male English-writing authors, and enjoy some of the other outstanding books from around the world.

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