As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson
Publisher: Melville House
Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .
Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.
A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”
The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:
In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).
This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.
I first found out about this, because they included an excerpt from Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance, which we’re bringing out in June. The excerpt is fantastic, naturally, but the care and design that’s gone into this web feature is equally impressive. In addition to the excerpt itself, the righthand column contains a number of cool extras, including a link to read the piece in the original Afrikaans, or to hear Ingrid read it in Afrikaans. There’s also a note from the translators (Ingrid and Dick Winterbach). Obsessed with translation issues as I am, I think their comments are really interesting:
An important motif in the novel The Book of Happenstance is the loss of words in Afrikaans – the countless words that have fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. The protagonist is a lexicographer, who collaborates with an etymologist in cataloguing these obsolete words. The novel accordingly foregrounds language: it focuses on unusual words, word play, the etymology of words, free association. This foregrounding of language poses very specific difficulties for the translator. It requires an attention to language akin to that needed for the translation of poetry.
These disused words occur frequently in the text (sometimes running for paragraphs on end). What is interesting for an Afrikaans reader, however – familiar with the current status of a word – could very well be wearisome to the foreign language reader, unnecessarily and frustratingly slowing down the narrative. The challenge was to retain as many of the words as possible – but still make them as captivating as possible for the foreign reader.
Also included in this issue of Asymptote:An excerpt from Imre Kertesz’s Fiasco which is translated by Tim Wilkinson and has a very striking opening:
Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm’s readers. On the basis of their unanimous opinion we are unable to undertake publication of your novel.
We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, whereas the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become a shattering experience for the reader hinges primarily to the main protagonist’s, to put it mildly, odd reactions. While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees the bald-shaven prisoners as “suspect.” More passages in bad taste follow: “Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect.”
It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria arouses in him feelings of “a sense of a certain joke, a kind of student jape,” as he knows he is in an extermination camp and his being a Jew is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader, who can only be annoyed on reading the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account (e.g. the reproaches he makes to the Jewish family living in the same building). We must also say something about the style. For the most part your sentences are clumsy, couched in a tortuous form, and sadly there are all too many phrases like “…on the whole…,” “naturally enough,” and “besides which …”
We are therefore returning the manuscript to you. Regards.
There’s also a section of Liu Zhenyun’s Cell Phone, which is described by translator Howard Goldblatt:
Cell Phone began as a joint project between Liu Zhenyun, one of the country’s most respected novelists, and Feng Xiaogang, creator of the cinematic blockbuster and China’s most successful director of mainstream films. The co-written script for the movie spawned the novel, both of which appeared at the end of 2003. While observing friends at a party kept busy answering cell phones, Liu noted the camouflage and pretenses employed in many of the conversations, which seemed to hold deep secrets, and he sensed that these instruments of ubiquitous communication could be a double-edged sword, capable of linking practical utility to moral expedience. That is the core issue of Liu’s novel, whose light-hearted, often comical tone lays a thin veil over the author’s evocation of the cost of technology’s incursion into urban life and the concomitant loss of privacy, already in short supply in Chinese society.
The insular village surrounded by oceans of billowing needle trees is one of the recurring themes in Lindgren’s writing. In The Tree, this conceptual image is crucial. Isolated in time and space, the village comes to stand for the paradoxical pairing of insular, uncultivated narrow-mindedness and refined, perfected, material and social culture where everyone and everything knows its place and function. It is a seemingly eternal place, of great beauty and cultural depth, yet always on the brink of annihilation.
Asymptote is quickly establishing itself as one of the most interesting—and best designed—translation websites out there. Keep up the good (and beautiful!) work.
Hungarian Literature Online has a really nice interview with Tim Wilkinson, who is probably best known as Imre Kertesz’s new translator.
But for all publishers out there, Tim’s translated a lot more than Kertesz. In fact, he has a whole host of translations sitting in his desk waiting for a publisher . . .
Which authors would you like to translate and why, if you had the time?
I often translate just for my own pleasure, independent of whether I’ve been commissioned or not by a publisher. If I manage to “sell” one of these translations later on, then all the merrier, but there’s usually no guarantee that this will ever happen. Consequently, I’ve done translations of works—usually one or two—written by ten to twelve different authors, but these manuscripts are still slumbering in the depths of my desk drawer. There is also a list of authors I haven’t translated yet, but would if I only had the time. Among them are István Szilágyi, László Végel, György Spiró and Dezső Tandori, whom I’ve lately included. Ádám Bodor and Péter Lengyel are also on this list, but I know others are already translating them.
And speaking of Kertesz:
In your opinion, what results in a bad translation? And what, do you think, really makes a translation come alive?
When reading a translation or any other piece of writing, it’s extremely obvious if a solid knowledge or understanding of the language just isn’t there. I wrote about this when Imre Kertész received the Nobel Prize. The first English translation of Kaddish for an Unborn Child was painfully bad and fully deserved my criticism that the child, in this case, was actually stillborn. There was hardly a decent sentence in the entire translation—true, Kertész does use rather lengthy sentences in this novel, but that is no excuse. The translation of Fatelessness was barely any better. (In this translation, for example, nine chapters were made into eleven, and I’m talking about the most basic level!) Last year there was an obviously young, American critic writing for an Internet journal who accused me of committing sacrilege, as if I had sent the Rosenberg couple to the electric chair. But if some person (or persons) does not possess a sufficient knowledge of either Hungarian or English, is this something that should remain unmentioned in a critique of the translation?
Unfortunately, there is a long list of English “translators” who really aren’t a great help to Hungarian literature. What makes a translation good? That’s obvious: exactly the opposite of everything I’ve already mentioned. Knowledge, understanding, the right kind of style… these are all very important. In a nutshell, if someone has never learned to write in good, polished English—his or her native language—then this someone will never be a good translator. It’s as simple as that.
Hungarian Literature Online has a great article by Tim Wilkinson on the short prose of Nobel-winner Imre Kertesz.
Wilkinson has translated several Kertesz books, including Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, Detective Story, The Pathseeker: Searching for Traces, and The Union Jack, or The British Standard. (The last three are coming out in 2008—Knopf is bringing out Detective Story this month and Melville House is doing Pathseeker and The Union Jack later this year.)
The article is quite interesting, providing a great overview of Kertesz’s work and tying it into Beckett:
Galley-Boat Log indicates that Kertész was aware of Beckett’s work (despite official disapproval of it on the part of the Soviet bloc’s cultural tsars). Malone Dies evidently made a profound impression, because one can find several references to this in 1987. In mid-year he quotes: “I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”; then, at the very end of that year, “I was born grave as others syphilitic,” and ”. . . he who has waited long enough will wait for ever. And there comes the hour when nothing more can happen and nobody more can come and all is ended but the waiting that knows itself in vain. Perhaps he had come to that.” There is another explicit reference to Malone Dies in Kaddish for an Unborn Child (“I began again, to try and live . . . But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail”), and possibly also to Molloy (“It was a larch tree. It is the only tree I can identify with certainty…”), but maybe the most poignant is: “We have got rid of our rights” (Waiting for Godot). There are other references, such as the epigraph to Liquidation, which is again from Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”
Sara Kramer from NYRB told me 2008 was going to be the “Year of the Hungarians,” and after reading this—and realizing Kertesz has three books coming out this year—I’m starting to believe her . . .
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To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
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