Thankfully, Paul Verhaeghen just posted the opening statement he gave at the “Writers as Translators” panel that he was during the PEN World Voices Festival. All of the opening statements from the panelists were really interesting, but this one stood out to me:
Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.
Allow me to elaborate.
But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes — the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats — we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.
“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.
Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.
Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.
Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”
“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”
When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.
Just announced today that Flemish author Paul Verhaeghen has won the Independent foreign fiction prize for his novel Omega Minor.
Moving back and forth through the last century, Omega Minor, translated from the Dutch, is a story of love and death on the grandest possible scale. Its whirlwind plot takes in Berlin, Boston, Los Alamos and Auschwitz, and characters including neo-Nazis, a physics professor who returns to Potsdam to atone for his sins, a Holocaust survivor going over his trauma with a young psychologist and an Italian postgraduate who designs an experiment that will determine the fate of the universe.
Verhaeghen’s an interesting guy. Not only is he a Pynchon-esque author, but he’s also a cognitive psychologist. And translated the immense Omega Minor himself, thus taking home both halves of the £10,000 award that is supposed to be split between author and translator.
(Well, not exactly “taking home”:
“It’s always amazing when people like your work, and it’s absolutely amazing when four leading intellectuals say it’s the best book they’ve read all year,” Verhaeghen said after learning of his victory. However, while he is delighted to receive the endorsement, he has decided not to take the money. “Part of this book is about the rise and aftermath of Fascism in Nazi Germany. And it’s hard to miss the analogous things happening in the US. I refused the Flemish Culture award after I realised around $5,000 (£2,555) of the winnings would go to the US treasury. So this time, I decided to give the money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which works for civil rights. The money won’t be liable for tax.”)
Unfortunately, this book hasn’t gotten a ton of attention in the mainstream U.S. media, although Michael Orthofer wrote a very thoughtful, praising review of it some time back.
As Michael Orthofer—who has been praising this book and its break-out potential for quite some time—points out, the book hasn’t been receiving a lot of attention on this side of the Atlantic. (The Dalkey site references pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Bookslut.) This did make our Top 10 Translations of 2007 list, and is a brilliant book that’s definitely worth reading. (We probably would’ve reviewed it, but haven’t received a copy yet, and I don’t want to base a review on my memory of reading it in manuscript form.)
I want to echo Orthofer’s sentiment that hopefully this paucity of attention will change with the release of the book in the UK. Of course, Thorne points out some of the potential obstacles in the opening paragraph of his review:
It is hard to imagine Omega Minor, Paul Verhaeghen’s extraordinary new novel, having the same success in England as it has enjoyed in Germany, the Netherlands and the author’s native Belgium. Indeed, it seems likely that the author has translated the book himself not as a display of his polymath abilities but because he might have found it hard to find another translator prepared to take on a 700-page novel about cognitive psychology, quantum physics, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. It would be philistine not to admire the sheer ambition of the book, especially when the market for serious fiction is under endless assault, but the author has a number of quirks that may alienate some readers. Foremost is a bizarre fixation with ejaculation, prompting phrases such as “pearly liquid”, “creamy harvest”, “frothy broth” and, most imaginatively, “an acrobatic snake snapping at – but missing – its own tail”. There are dozens more.
Still, the review ends where it should, praising the qualities of this ambitious novel:
Omega Minor is undoubtedly a curate’s egg, but few recent novels rival its richness. And there is something admirable about an author who challenges not just the structural limitations of the novel, but also the limitations of our understanding of the universe. For all its flaws, this is an uncommonly intellectually stretching- and satisfying – experience.
Nice to see Omega Minor getting some play. The feature is pretty interesting, and Morrison does a nice job summarizing the novel and its merits:
Omega Minor has now finally arrived in the U.S. and Britain, the first of Verhaeghen’s three novels to be translated into English. Critics are comparing him to such German masters as Günter Grass and W. G. Sebald, as well as to science-minded American novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers. Indeed, Powers — who has lived in Holland — helped find a U.S. publisher for the book, calling it “amazing” and praising Verhaeghen for taking on “the whole 20th century in a single novel.”
That is putting it gently. Much as Einstein struggled toward the end of his life to fashion a Grand Unified Theory explaining the entire cosmos, Verhaeghen links Nazism, the Holocaust, the nuclear age and the fall of communism in a grand web of causality and suspense. Hitler, Himmler, Mengele, Speer, Heisenberg, Honnecker and Gorbachev strut and fret through hot war and cold. The action ricochets back and forth from the ’30s to the ’90s, from Potsdam to Los Alamos to Auschwitz to post-Wall Berlin, where neo-Nazis are plotting an apocalypse that could put new zip in Einstein’s abandoned idea.
The New York Times has a really interesting article today about “Stalags,” “a series of pornographic pocket books called Stalags, based on Nazi themes,” which were best-sellers in the 1960s.
The books told perverse tales of captured American or British pilots being abused by sadistic female SS officers outfitted with whips and boots. The plot usually ended with the male protagonists taking revenge, by raping and killing their tormentors.
These books probably didn’t have a lot of literary merit (although “I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch” is a pretty great title), but the upcoming release of the documentary “Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel” demonstrates that these books did have a significant impact on the culture and the representation of Nazism.
After decades in dusty back rooms and closets, the Stalags, a peculiar Hebrew concoction of Nazism, sex and violence, are re-emerging in the public eye. And with them comes a rekindled debate on the cultural representation here of Nazism and the Holocaust, and whether they have been unduly mixed in with a kind of sexual perversion and voyeurism that has permeated even the school curriculum.
And although it doesn’t always seem the case, fiction can be quite powerful. According to the film, these books came out of the Eichmann trial and was an extension of K. Tzetnik’s writings, which were the first person to write about Auschwitz in Hebrew.
K. Tzetnik was a pseudonym for Yehiel Feiner De-Nur. The alias, short for the German for concentration camper, was meant to represent all survivors, a kind of Holocaust everyman. One of K. Tzetnik’s biggest literary successes, “Doll’s House,” published in 1953, told the story of a character purporting to be the author’s sister, serving the SS as a sex slave in Block 24, the notorious Pleasure Block in Auschwitz.
Though a Holocaust classic, many scholars now describe it as pornographic and likely made up.
The idea of falsified Holocaust memoirs is one that comes up in Omega Minor, another book we’ve been on about this week.
Dutch author Harry Mulisch turned 80 yesterday, and as part of the celebration
Mulisch’s Dutch publisher commissioned six novellas from noted Dutch authors, taking Mulisch’s novels as their departure points. It’s an unlikely homage to a writer whose exuberantly inventive, philosophical works depart from the understated realism of most Dutch literary fiction. “Dutch writers and painters are naturalists, describing normal life. That tradition is not mine.” (via The Age)
Strange way to celebrate someone, although the idea of six authors writing novellas based on Pynchon books would be fun. Besides, when you’re as big as Mulisch—and I’d argue that along with Cees Nooteboom, he’s the most well-known contemporary Dutch writer—you deserve this sort of odd homage.
Although Mulisch and Nooteboom overshadow everyone else (at least in terms of sales), there are quite a few interesting contemporary Dutch and Flemish authors out there. Especially in terms of Flemish. I highly recommend Problemski Hotel by Dmitri Verhulst and, when it comes out, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor.
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