The Fringe Elements by BTBA Judge Monica Carter
Monica Carter is a freelance critic.
Discerning how one should approach a written work for translation is a challenging task. The approach of some publishers is to accept the writer’s work as is, with no editorial input, which means the translation is as close to the original text as it can be, disregarding cultural, historical, or stylistic choices a translator might make to ameliorate the text for the proposed audience (for the sake of this post, an English-speaking readership). Another approach is to take into account the work’s historical and cultural references, weigh their importance, and interpret those for the reader. If the translator is allowed to work more liberally with the original text, that creative license allows her to be truer to the overall tone and rhythm of the original. Chad Post and Tom Roberge have an interesting discussion about this on the recent Three Percent podcast.
Although it is admirable to hold the words of an author in such high esteem that the translator must produce a copy verbatim, it’s impossible in so doing to capture an author’s cultural, historical, and/or stylistic intent for a different readership. This point seems clearest with fiction that dwells closer to the fringe than the mainstream. Fiction that is experimental, transgressive, surrealist, fabulist, folkloric, or geographically charged with a storied political history cannot rely on a word-by-word translation if the goal, as it is in this case, is to introduce and engage an English-speaking reader. The translator must decide how to provide a context for the that readership and how much detail is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the text and what the author is trying to do.
As the judges near the end of the decision-making process for the BTBA longlist, it felt important to give praise to a few titles that are extremely well-written and translated to as close to perfection as possible. All are boundary-pushing titles in their own way. They have had little mainstream coverage but deserve it. Challenging the English-speaking readership shouldn’t be done quietly or timidly; it should be done loudly and often. The ideas these three titles contain speak to the difficulties we face in the world today in a new and exciting way.
Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, Translated by Nicky Harman
There are a few short story collections floating around the BTBA longlist discussion, but for my money Dorothy Tse’s collection is by far one of the most captivating, original, and intriguing that I’ve read this year or in the past few years. Tse is a Hong Kong writer who writes mostly in Chinese and readily admits that her writing is never an act “that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.” Yet without Nicky Harman’s superb translation, Tse’s style of measured detachment and meticulous prose might be lost. Yet the reader is skillfully led into her surreal worlds, steeped in magical realism and tinged with fabulism. Whether it’s a woman turning into a fish in “Woman Fish,” the ultimate story of psychological gaslighting between wife and husband (“Black Cat City”), or “The Mute Door” about a building where the tenants are in constant search for their own front doors, it’s Tse’s confidence that lures the reader forward, introducing the grotesque, the absurd, and the scatological with such a deft hand and direct style that the reader never feels deceived or that the writer is using any of the surreal twists as a mere conceit.
There’s the feeling of crowded urbanity in most of her stories, the lingering impermanence of reality, and phantasmagorical imagery that offsets the emotionally charged topics of abortion, loss and incest. In “Bed,” a sleep-deprived young girl shares a bed with her father and her older sister and expresses her feelings in a nightmare:
“She pulled back the mound of bedding and discovered her father and her big sister had taken up the whole bed. But they seemed not to need those brightly colored pajamas anymore. They were completely naked and tightly embraced, their fingernails dug deeply into the skin of each other’s back. They seemed fast asleep, curled together like a pair of fetuses. No matter how hard the girl tried, she could not pull them apart, and they were too heavy to push out of bed. The girl just had to sit on the floor, listening all night long to her father and sister emitting low groans like an insect makes just before it pupates and the sound is cut off midstream. The air seemed full of butter about to precipitate, stiflingly hot.”
Many of Tse’s stories seem horrific, but her character’s responses are relatable and often touching. The environment and parameters of each story may appear eerie and bleak, but there is always an empathic underpinning that simmers below the surface. The characters are not intentionally evil; they are the damaged creating their own worlds to inhabit. As in the opening of “Mute Door,” Tse offers an allegorical answer for the reader and her characters:
“Among all the doors I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of the mime artists that capture the essence of the door. Whether in streets occupied by the language of colonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock—this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, ‘A door is not outside of you.’”
In Snow and Shadow, Tse opens a door for the reader to experience worlds she doesn’t know, but the emotions Tse elicits are familiar. Each story raises provocative questions. Many short story collections can dazzle and amuse, but it is the mark of a quality collection that it also makes one think.
Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, Translated by Adrian West
Contra Mundum Press
With proponents such as Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, it’s difficult to understand why Josef Winkler hasn’t garnered more of an English-speaking audience. He’s won many literary prizes in Germany and his native Austria, including the Alfred Döblin Prize for his novella, Natura Morta, in 2001. Winkler hasn’t had many works translated into English but thankfully, that seems to be changing with the release of When the Time Comes in 2013, Natura Morta in 2014 and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges in 2015, both by Contra Mundum Press and translated by Adrian West.
In Natura Morta, a novella that reads like a demonic script version of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin directed by Michael Haneke, Winkler stays true to his themes of Catholicism, homoeroticism and death. In just over ninety pages, his indefatigable sensory detail pulses and throbs, rots and stinks, foams and drips, sweats and sticks so that the reader cannot escape the suffocating reality of the Roman marketplace, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Natura Morta is fragmented, visceral, primordial—a work that uses endless imagery, mostly Catholic iconography, and the sexuality of a teenage boy to dramatize the moral psychomachy of our modern day world. In these snapshots of the marketplace, Winkler chooses Piccoletto, the fig vendor’s son, as the Christ-like object of sexual desire for men and women, desire that subtly buoys the character’s own sense of power:
“One of the girls, folding her hands behind the nape of her neck, turned her head toward the two young men and bit her upper lip coquettishly. The girl tore a piece of fabric, pressed the scrap against her lips, which were smeared with red lipstick, and threw it in the branches of the pine tree. The two boys fetched the lipstick-streaked cloth from the tree and, each snatching the scrap from the other’s hands, pressed it against their noses. One of the bathroom attendants in the park of Piazza San Vittorio, nibbling a green fig, worked a crossword puzzle while the other sank herself deep into the liberally illustrated crime reportage of the Cronaca vera. In exasperation, a gecko dodged the black ants with red heads over the sun-drenched walls of the market bathrooms, trying frantically to return to his niche, which had just been plastered over by a bricklayer. Near the entrance to the market bathrooms, Piccoletto pulled a splinter from the elbow of the alimentari owner’s son and smeared his spit over his friend’s wound.”
With Winkler’s use of repetition, imagery and inference, Natura Morta had to be masterfully translated in order to stay true to the essence of Winkler’s work while also conveying the tone of each fragment and the importance of each image that buttresses the book’s conclusion.
Winkler, like Tse, doesn’t go in for plot. He’s internal and reactionary, in a way, writing his way around those provocative questions that continue to mystify him, anger him, or shackle him. Yet, these are the questions that matter, the questions that should be asked but are too often ignored by many writers. I look forward to Winkler’s next exploration of the world we live in and the hypocrisy of it.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceavă, Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Twisted Spoon Press
Out of the three books out on the fringe, Miruna, A Tale, is the most accessible. It has a plot, a traditional structure and a few main characters that drive the story. What makes this book more challenging and enjoyable is that it harkens back to the adult fairy tale. Set in Evil Vale, a small hamlet in Southern Romania, Miruna, A Tale is actually many tales woven together and retold by Niculae Berca to his two grandchildren, a seven year-old boy named Trajan and a six year-old girl named Miruna. It’s an older version of the latter child who narrates the book. Most of the stories center around Trajan’s and Miruna’s great-grandfather, the seemingly mythical Constantine Berca, and his archetypal village mates Father Dimitrie, Old Woman Fira the fortune teller, and Oarță Aman, a bandit who robs the rich on their way to Bucharest.
The oral storytelling tradition is so vibrant that it doesn’t take much for the reader to feel herself sitting by the fire listening to Trajan relay the long ago stories of Old Woman Fira’s exorcism for witchcraft by Father Dimitrie, or how Niculae the Welldigger found a water source on a barren hill, or that the ghost of Oarță carved crosses on the faces of Germans during World War I. Many of these fables have a basis in truth or involve an historical element, but Blyth does well not to call attention to these events. There are notes at the end of the text, but they are not numbered or italicized within it; the reader never feels the heavy hand of the translator pointing out the importance of something that the reader might not find necessary to know.
The young Miruna is the heir apparent as keeper of the tales, and over three summers, her grandfather’s stories grew more complex and detailed until “Miruna eventually [comes] to conceive the world in the form of a fairy tale, living for years in a world full of the fantastical, which gave her the air of being a child prodigy, one of those who know something of history and geography before they even start attending school but cannot say for sure if King Carol and Prâslea lived at the same time or before one another.”
Even as some of the tales are magical or enchanting, sounding like a postcard from the rural hills of Romania, where “the fays lifted him up by the arms, as if he, the giant of Evil Vale, were light as a snowflake, and they bore him toward the palace of crystal and porphyry,” they’re still serious in tone, planting the seeds of the Russo-Turkish War and World War I and stressing the geographical isolation of the village.
This book is a bewitching tribute to the Balkan tradition of oral storytelling and to Suceavă’s loyalty to the traditional culture of his grandparent’s small town in the Carpathians. Paired with Blyth’s vivid translation, this is work that hopefully will be passed on as many times as the stories within.