17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Allison Charette on Seyhmus Dagtekin’s To the Spring, by Night, translated by Donald Winkler, and from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Allison is another of the students at the University of Rochester in our lovely MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and her review was also written as an assignment for Chad’s publishing class. Allison is also one of the faces behind the relatively new ELTNA, the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, and the translator of Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s The Last Love of George Sand. She’s also got a mean kickball kick and a baking genius husband.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

For the rest, go here.

17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other, I was afraid. . . . Fears are a bit like fog, as are memories. On the one hand, one dreads to go forward and plunge into a future without end, and on the other, one is afraid to retreat into the past and lose oneself in a plethora of events and tales.”

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

What we were told must have happened, and would happen again. It was not one of those jokes for which grownups, some grownups in particular, had the secret, jokes they tossed our way with malicious delight to fill us with uneasiness and fear. They were informing us of a truth, telling us about something we were going to witness in our lifetimes, one day. And if we had any doubt, all we had to do was ask the grownups in confidence . Knowing about such an event was better than being taken by surprise, they told us. We had to expect, we had to accept that we could be overtaken by night in the middle of the day. And we had to live with an uncertainty that made the sun a being that could stumble and disappear at any moment. It was like the sudden death they had told us about, and there was nothing we could try, nothing we could do about either of them. One more thing to mourn, one less certainty.

A solar eclipse is not the only thing that our narrator fears. An already difficult rustic existence is much scarier when seen through a child’s eyes. But even when describing the monsters, djinns, wolves, and snakes that may catch you out at midday or during the night, the text is all very pensive, reflecting on the stories that the “grownups” tell the narrator and the events from the narrator’s past that have become stories to him. The book reads almost like an extended poem, which makes sense, considering that this is Turkish, Kurdish, and French author Seyhmus Dagtekin’s only novel alongside his seven prize-winning poetry books. With Donald Winkler’s English translation, we are treated to a lyrical, almost atmospheric telling of the narrator’s memories and state of being during childhood. The rich, sweet images flow unhindered from one idea to the next, like a spring bubbling up from its source.

Some of the images are strange, though, which lends them even more appeal. The feminine sun is depicted lying in long wait for her moment of ecstasy with the bull of darkness—that’s the solar eclipse—along with a black snake slithering down a woman’s throat to feed on her entrails, as well as an antelope that comes back to life after being the designated meal for the wolf who was shepherding the flock. The narrator’s primitive understanding of the immediate surroundings and inner consciousness is expressed in quasi-stories, which give only an elusive understanding of what is known in the village. The tales are exotic, yet bear a familiar whiff of fables that exist in various forms all around the world.

But they never told us more, claiming that they didn’t want to upset us with the horror of such a vision. Besides, they only knew the beginning of this story. But why begin a story if you don’t know how it turns out? Do you ever know how things are going to turn out for you? they said—and yet there you are, a story, a story whose ending you will never know.

As a story, this book is a strange one. There are no clues to help reveal any identifying markers about either the narrator or the village until well into the last third of the book, when we finally learn that our narrator is male and the village is Kurdish (until then, it could have been anyone telling a story about anywhere with a relatively temperate climate). At first, that information wasn’t important—the focus was on the land and its mystical qualities that inspired reverence in all its inhabitants. But once the details come spilling out, they can’t be contained. We have to learn more, and so does everyone in the village. They get a schoolteacher for the first time, and literacy suddenly skyrockets. But the school becomes a catalyst for opening their world to a wider expanse of knowledge, and the memories are going to change. It seems that once our narrator learns his alphabet, the words he’s been using all along suddenly have no more meaning. Although the book was originally written in French, it’s interesting to ponder what type of language the narrator might have been speaking all along.

This is a gorgeously authored and translated experience from the talented pair of Dagtekin and Winkler, which is great to see from McGill-Queen’s University Press. The novel is enjoyable to read, although a very different read than the jacket copy would have you believe. The back cover implies a very present plot, so I was waiting for “something to happen” for a long time. Eventually, however, I managed to get over that and just enjoy the book for what it really is: a beautiful experience.

18 November 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A current MALTS student here at the University of Rochester, Allison M. Charette is also a translator from the French who recently helped launch the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America. After attending this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, she wanted to write up a couple of the more interesting panels. Here’s one.

You know those list-y blog posts, right? “Top Ten Things You’re Doing Wrong at Work” or “8 Commonly Mispronounced Words” or “25 Ryan Gosling GIFs to Make You Smile”?

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of them.

But I, a true member of my generation, read lots of them. Some of them even have to do with translation (which I also do). And those lists of “Top Ten Things to Make You a Better Translator” always include a directive to talk. Specifically, to read the original text out loud. Then to read your written translation out loud. Everything is supposed to make more sense when you do.

Jordan Smith agrees. As he pointed out in his panel at the recent ALTA conference, “Decentering Semantics: Poetics and Meaning in Translation,” there’s more to words and characters than just their content and contextual meaning. He’s currently translating some wonderfully experimental poetry by Yoshimasu Gōzō, a Japanese poet, which involves a lot of puns, wordplay between different languages, and homophonographic play within its own language.

There’s a practice in Japan called ateji, which replaces a normal kanji character with different characters that are pronounced the same. English has these word games, too—mondegreens, or the physical card game Mad Gab—but it seems to be more poetic and less slapstick in Japanese. Jordan gave an example from Gōzō’s “火・Fire . . .” (published in last summer’s Poetry Review):

smoke: kemuri 煙
ke               mu                           ri
毛               無                             里
HAIR          NOTHINGNESS    VILLAGE

By sounding out each word carefully, the reader gets a new, alternate meaning in each character (or, in English, set of letters). Sounding it out gives it a new sense. In this particular poem, it’s a deeply interesting feature and a novel idea.

In poetry translation, though, it’s something more: the most extreme way to support the idea that sound is more important than content. Rendering a poem literally into another language is stilted at best and wildly off the mark at worst. Jordan argued that the best approach is to keep the semantic meaning decentered, or at least to recenter it somewhere in the space between languages.

To translate this ateji, though, Jordan was faced with a challenge. No matter how you elongate or twist the sounds in the word “smoke” in English, you’ll never hear anything about hair, or village, or a void. But if the sound is all that matters, then “some-oak” or “sumo-oak” should work just fine. And so it does, in Jordan’s translation:

          Thinking of the fire in the heart of Adonis
     «drapé de feu»
“soft flames of the earth’s surface, …….(July 8, 2000. From Miyake-jima, like the hand of an infant, // fresh some,oak (smoke, …….) = hair,nothingness,village (ke毛,mu無,ri里, ……)”
     door = «戸»
seed of the fire even beyond the seed of the fire in the heart of Adonis-san
     door = «戸»

My first reaction to this poetry was “wow, this is strange.” This poem includes three different languages in just this one little excerpt, plus bibliographic information as part of the poem itself. It’s not something you see every day. But it’s beautiful. It sounds beautiful when you speak it out loud. Even though there’s no semantic reference to “oak” in the original poem, it fits. The sound itself fits. And in the end, with poetry, that’s what matters most.

This poem and more will be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Alice, Iris, Red Horse: Selected Poems of Gozo Yoshimasu: a Book in and on Translation, edited by Forrest Gander.

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