I’ve been a little quiet here recently, mainly because I’ve been focusing on my MA dissertation (which I finally handed in on Friday, hooray!) and I’ve been really involved with lots of projects with Asymptote and finding my feet in Germany.
However, my review of Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth, translated from the German by Jen Calleja, has been released today on the Asymptote blog!
It was certainly a surreal experience to select a work to review that just happened to have been translated by Jen, someone who’s been a great mentor to all us Literary Translation folks over the MA course. Fate, perhaps?
Anyway, it was a great (dystopian) read, and you can read my take on it here
“You can’t expect the world to be exactly the same as it is in books.”
Skalde and her mother Edith live cut off from the world by fog and a collapsed bridge. Civilization has also collapsed, and they live on the edge of a small loosely-knit group in the so-called ‘territory’. Edith arrived as an outsider, so they are tolerated, yet treated with disdain and suspicion by most of the few people they have any contact with. Skalde loses herself in books until the day she starts losing her milk teeth and finds a girl in the forest called Meisis. Slowly, she finds the strength to rebel against her mother’s neglect and to question the rules of the society she finds herself in.
This is a claustrophobic work. As a child, Skalde rarely leaves their house and garden. The novel feels particularly relevant in the Covid era, as this kind of situation now feels all-too-familiar to all of us. The world beyond the river is a scary, dangerous place that presses at the edges of their small world. It’s a reminder that we are living in an increasingly atomised age — an era of isolationism between countries rather than internationalism, sparked by the international shift to the right, the feeling of some leaders that ‘my country is an island’ — and catalysed by Covid.
In the ‘territory,’ suspicion of outsiders takes hold in Milk Teeth, echoing the eagerness of some to make certain groups responsible for ‘spreading’ new variants in the Covid era. Neighbours judge neighbours, people are cast out for reasons as trivial as having red hair or failing to lose their milk teeth. The setting — dense fog followed by blazing heat in an indiscernible survivalist purgatory, only adds to the novel’s cloying nature. I read this while quarantining. In some ways, it was the best situation in which to read this book, if completely unnerving.
Milk Teeth is difficult to categorise. In some ways, it is a traditional survivalist novel: the narrator rears rabbits, plants potatoes, makes her own soap. In other ways, this book’s eccentricities combine to make a work that is singularly strange: its chapters are entirely inconsistent, the narrator is highly unreliable, and the reader is left with the feeling that everything is distinctly off-kilter, left wondering if anything described is even ‘real’. The narration and prose are dreamlike and topsy-turvy, the women live in a bubble within a closed-off society. Edith never seems to eat yet always paints her lips a new colour, lays in the bath for hours or days on end, and wears a black rabbit skin coat in summer. She feeds her dogs tree bark. To use the vocabulary of Stranger Things, it’s as though they are stuck in the ‘Upside Down’.
Much of the novel is left unexplained. I wondered why society had collapsed: why those who founded the territory fled over the bridge and then blew it up behind them. I wondered where Edith came from, why the trees don’t fruit and the rabbits die. I feel there could be some deeper warning here about the imminent climate emergency we are all facing, but this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for answers rather than more questions. The novel is short, and the short chapters create an almost breathless reading experience
The fragmentation of this novel also adds to its mystery. Some chapters are no more than short scraps of memory. Time doesn’t seem to move in any logical way. Sometimes the novel’s fragmentation is a drawback, as the plot seems to meander in the second half of the book without really building to anything. Skalde seems to speak directly through the reader via the medium of cryptic notes written to herself, which appear in block capitals. I particularly enjoyed these sections — Jen Calleja has constructed sentences with a beautiful cadence in English:
“HOW LONG CAN I STAND UPRIGHT WHEN HOLDING UP MY OWN BODY BRINGS ME TO MY KNEES TWICE AS HARD”
The novel and some of the block caps notes are reminiscent of Cormack Mccarthy’s The Road in its brutality and graphic focus on telling a survival story via the senses:
“I DREAMED THE SMELL OF GUNPOWDER. THE LAND HAS BEEN LEFT FULL OF HOLES. THESE VOIDS ARE MY DOWNFALL.”
This book isn’t for the fainthearted, or someone looking for an uplifting message. Like The Road, this book is dark, heavy, and throws light on the worst facets of the human condition: fear, hatred, mistrust, suspicion, selfishness and neglect. There is violence, but I would say this novel is harrowing on a more psychological level. One of the most tragic themes is the broken relationship between Skalde and her mother Edith. The arrival of Meisis only seems to heat tensions in the household as Edith plays mind games, ignoring and then favouring Meisis over Skalde. The group shun Meisis as an outsider and initiate a campaign of slowly increasing terror and intimidation against them.
Edith, Meisis and Skalde become the town scapegoats and all problems are laid at their door, including the disappearance of a child. It’s a reminder that, in a time of crisis, we often seek to impose meaning on madness, we want to find an easy solution, to make it make sense. Someone or something has to be to blame. But prejudice and finger-pointing only ever serve to endanger us further and tear us further apart. Milk Teeth isn’t a comfortable read, but it’s a timely book. It’s the kind of novel with a lingering taste, one that weighs on the soul. It’s the kind of book that asks for introspection, makes you take a deep look at yourself and wonder aren’t we all just as bad?
Here’s my self-translation of my previous blog post:
Living between Two Languages
Do I bring a language to life? Or do I inhabit it? Can the same be said for a learned language? The term ‘Mother tongue’ is outdated, that we already know. I did, however, grow up with one language until I chose my second. I’m not sure whether this fact makes my relationship to German more or less meaningful. Before Year 9, I had absolutely no connection to German. But I chose it anyway. An artificial decision, yes. Meaningful all the same.
As I wrote those first two questions, it became painfully obvious to me how difficult they would be to translate. Maybe even impossible. No matter what I choose, the English words will only ever be a pale shadow of what I wrote first. I’ve shot myself in the foot there. I’m a translator, a teacher, obsessed with words. How languages overlap one another, reflect one another, but never line up exactly. Because that never works. Because it’s always a fantasy. Translation is the endless acquisition of all the possibilities of how to put similar thoughts into words in two or more languages. Similar but never the same. A translation is an echo, a subjective re-writing.
How much space can two languages take up? Is it endless, could I add more and more languages, like sailing until I reach the horizon? Or is there a limit? Would something eventually slip out the other side as I shove more and more in? I’ve found it difficult to commit myself to a third language. I’ve tried Russian, as well as French and Norwegian. But nothing sticks. Nothing has left the same indelible, intangible imprint as German.
My second language is learned. My existence split in two, the other half of me is learned. I’ve often been asked why I chose it. Why German, of all languages? Germans can all speak English, can’t they? (no). Do you have German relatives? German roots? (no). It was a simple choice between German and French at school, I say. But I know it’s probably not the whole truth. The truth is always much more complicated than you think. I’ve never been sure what my truth is in this respect. Yes, why German?
We belong to the same family. The further you go back in the past, the more similar the two languages become, German and English, English and German. The same extraction, the same roots. You just don’t see it these days waiting at the pedestrian crossing; the man is lit a steady red, and the British walk, unhurried, out into the road in front of an accelerating taxi.
Maybe it was, for me, rather an exercise in vanity. I didn’t want to be like ‘all’ other Brits. I didn’t just want to live in one language, that felt too blinkered. The word is full of endless possibility for self-expression. Had I only been able to express myself in one language, I would always have wondered to myself: what am I missing? Still, as a bilingual, I’m far removed from the world’s most proficient linguists.
German still doesn’t come as easily to me as English. I speak and write like no German. Some would call it a deficiency, a failure— my not-quite-mastery. But I like to keep my flaws. Is there not room for an endless variety of Germans in the word, just as there’s an endless variety of Englishes? The English brought their language on slave and pilgrim ships and thought they could master the world as you ‘master’ a language. But now English belongs to everybody who learns or grows up with English. It doesn’t just belong to the English anymore.
When I started writing today, I was intending to send it to my German friend, so that he could check it for flaws and mistakes. But now I’ve decided against it. The flaws can stay. They’re signposts along a long trail behind me, breadcrumbs of the years of patience and frustration, like the rings in a tree, layers built up over layers. My German was rootless, but now it’s laid down roots.
It’s strange to think about how this square, angular, spiked language is rejecting me. After Brexit, while COVID marches forwards, in this new, dystopian era: I’m not allowed in. Absolute travel ban to contain the Delta variant. In the last six months, there was a window of six days in which I could legally have travelled to Germany. I missed this window, of course.
I had the naive, childish hope that everything would progressively get better, and that I’d be able to see my partner this summer. But my German half is still in its extended winter hibernation. Re-book those flights, just once more, and again. We can make it one more month, then another, and another. I can’t hear the Odenwald dialect anymore, melodic, half-swallowed, rising and falling in my ears, the words falling over each other whilst I strain to catch his grandpa’s gist. He doesn’t understand me either, although I try to say my German as German as possible.
So what does German mean to me? I’ve already spent two years of my adulthood there. I’m young, but I see my future there. Lower rents, Freiluftlust, muesli with yoghurt. German means building a firepit on the terrace, breakfast on wooden boards, breadbasket in the middle of the table. German means warm evenings in the beer garden on rough benches. Just don’t lose your balance. It means sunsets over the trees behind the house, watching how the colours bleach and blend and the pines turn to shadow, black teeth against the night sky. It means pulling Bollerwagen through festival puddles as Hurricane proves its name. My partner smiling as I stick a jumble of words together, as I test the limits of this Lego-language, trying to express the intricacies of my feelings in exactly this moment. Today I called him unmitbestreitbar. Un-arguable-with.
I have to keep asking what a pine cone is called in Odenwäldisch. Or maybe it’s just called something different in his village, I forget that too. Hussmouge. I find it funny every time, before I forget it again. Why funny? Maybe because it’s so antithetical to the standard German Tannenzapfle. Maybe because it’s so specific to have a completely different word for something that so often lies unnoticed on the forest floor, trampled, or is ripped apart by village kids so they can get at the sweet-bitter nuts inside. I’ve almost forgotten the smell of moss under pines, how the ferns slowly unroll over the spring months, and how you develop your mushroom vision if you look long and hard enough. Endless degrees of brown and green.
Separation is an endless exercise in waiting, hesitation, deferral, refresh the website, book then re-book and cancel, read the restrictions, mandatory quarantine or not? Vaccination passport, proof of test, green-amber-red list. I spend my days at my desk and translate from German, but I haven’t ever felt further away from it.
Lebe ich eine Sprache? Oder bewohne ich sie? Gilt das für eine gelernte Sprache auch?
Der Begriff ‘Muttersprache’ ist veraltet, das wissen wir schon. Ich bin aber mit einer Sprache aufgewachsen, bis ich meine zweite Sprache gewählt habe. Kann ich sogar meine zweite Sprache beleben, oder eher bewohnen?
Als ich das schrieb, war es mir peinlich bewusst, wie schwierig das Übersetzen davon wird, unübersetzbar sogar. Damit habe ich mich, sozusagen, selbst in den Fuß geschossen. Ich bin Übersetzerin, Lehrerin, von Wörtern besessen. Wie Sprachen einander überschneiden, einander widerspiegeln, aber nie genau einander abgleichen. Weil das nie klappt. Weil das immer eine Fantasie ist. Übersetzung ist das endlose Lernen von allen Möglichkeiten, wie man in zwei oder mehrere Sprachen ähnliche Gedanken erklärt. Ähnlich aber nie gleich. Eine Übersetzung ist immer nur eine Echo, eine subjektive Wiederschreibung.
Wieviel Platz können zwei Sprachen aufnehmen? Ist es endlos, könnten noch weitere Sprachen dazukommen, wie zum endlosen Horizont, offen weit und breit? Oder ist es irgendwie begrenzt? Rutscht was eventuell aus der anderen Seite, wenn was neues rein muss?
Meine zweite Sprache ist gelernt. Mein gespaltenes Dasein, die andere Hälfte von mir ist gelernt. Ich werde oft gefragt, warum ich mich dafür entschieden habe. Warum ausgerechnet Deutsch? Deutschen können doch alle schon Englisch, oder? (nein). Hast du deutsche Verwandte? Bist du von deutscher Abstammung? (nein). Es war eine einfache Wahl in der Schule, sage ich. Aber ich weiß, dass das vielleicht nicht die ganze Wahrheit ist. Die Wahrheit ist immer viel komplizierte, als man denkt. Ich bin mir nicht genau sicher, was meine Wahrheit ist. Ja, warum Deutsch?
Wir gehören aber zur gleichen Familie. Je weiter man in die Vergangenheit zurückgreift, desto ähnlicher werden die zwei Sprachen, Deutsch und Englisch, Englisch und Deutsch. Die gleiche Abstammung, die gleiche Wurzeln. Sieht man aber nur heutzutage nicht am Ampel, wo die Engländer ungestört zwei Meter vor einem beschleunigenden Taxi bei rot überlaufen.
Vielleicht war es für mich eher eine Übung der Eitelkeit, weil ich nicht wie ‘alle’ andere Engländer sein wollte. Ich wollte nicht nur eine Sprache zur Verfügung haben, das schien mir zu engstirnig. Die Welt ist voller endlosen Möglichkeiten, sich selbst zum Ausdruck zu bringen. Hätte ich das nur auf eine Sprache gekonnt, hätte ich mir immer gewundert, was hätte anders sein können. Aber bilingual zu sein ist auch weit entfernt von den geschicktesten Linguisten der Welt.
Deutsch fällt mir immer noch nicht so einfach wie Englisch. Ich rede und schreibe wie kein/e Deutsche/r. Manche würden das als Unzulänglichkeit bezeichnen, als Scheitern, als Unvollkommenheit, meine nicht-ganz-Beherrschung. Aber ich behalte gerne meine Makel. Gibt es nicht die Möglichkeit für eine endlose Mehrzahl an Arten von Deutsch in der Welt, genauso wie es ein endloses Vielfalt Englisch gibts? Die Engländer haben es auf Sklaven- und Pilgerschiffe mitgebracht, und dachten, sie könnten die Welt beherrschen wie man eine Sprache ‘beherrscht’. Aber jetzt gehört Englisch jedem, der mit Englisch aufwächst oder Englisch lernt. Es gehört nicht mehr den Engländern. Als ich heute anfing zu schreiben, hatte ich es vor, es meinem deutschen Freund zu schicken, um für Makel und Fehler zu überprüfen. Aber ich habe mich anders entschlossen. Die Makel bleiben. Sie sind Kennzeichen eines langen Weges hinter mir, Brotkrümel der Jahren des Gedulds und der Frustration, wie die Ringe in einem Baumschnitt, Schichten über Schichten aufgebaut. Mein Deutsch war wurzellos, aber jetzt habe sie Wurzeln geschlagen.
Es ist komisch, daran zu denken, wie diese kantige, eckige, stachelige Sprache mich gerade ablehnt. Nach Brexit, während Corona noch weitermarschiert, im neuen, dystopischen Zeitalter, darf ich nicht hin. Absolutes Reiseverbot zur Eindämmung der Delta-Variante. Im letzten sechs Monaten, gab es ein Fenster von 6 Tagen, indem ich legal nach Deutschland reisen konnte. Natürlich habe ich das Fenster verpasst.
Ich hatte die naive, kindliche Hoffnung, dass alles wieder fortschreitend besser wird, dass ich diesen Sommer meinen Partner wiedersehen könnte. Aber meine deutsche Hälfte schlummert noch ihren ausgezogenen Winterschlaf. Flüge verschieben, noch einmal, nur noch einmal. Noch einen Monat schaffen mir, dann nur noch einen Monat. Den odenwäldischen Dialekt kann ich nicht mehr hören, melodisch, halb-geschluckt, hoch- und runter in meinen Ohren, die Wörter einander überfallend, während ich mich anstrenge, seinen Opa mitzubekommen. Er versteht mich auch nicht, obwohl ich versuche, mein Deutsch so deutsch wie möglich auszusprechen.
Ich muss immer wieder fragen, wie ein Tannenzapfen auf Odenwäldisch heißt. Oder vielleicht heißt es nur so im Dorf meines Freundes, dass vergesse ich auch. ________. Ich finde es jedesmal lustig, vergesse es aber auch immer wieder. Wieso lustig? Vielleicht weil es so anders ist. Vielleicht weil es so spezifisch ist, ein ganz anderes Wort für etwas, was so oft so unbemerkt auf dem Waldboden liegt, getrampelt, oder von eifrigen Dorfkindern aufgerissen, um an die süßbitter Kernchen zu gelangen. Ich habe auch fast den Geruch von Moos unter Tannen vergessen, wie die Farne über die Sommermonaten sich langsam entfalten, und wie man den Blick für Pilzen entwickelt, wenn man lang genug hinsieht.
Die Trennung ist ein endloses Hinauszögern, verzögern, die Seite neu laden, buchen dann umbuchen und stornieren, Bedingungen lesen, Quarantänepflicht oder nicht? Impfbescheinigung, Testnachweis, Grüne-Gelbte-Rote Liste. Ich verbringe meine Tage am Schreibtisch und übersetzte aus Deutsch, aber ich bin seit Jahren nie weiter weg von Deutsch gewesen.
A charming and somewhat saddening family history which promised more than it gave.
Arnautovic tells the story of her own family in this brand new ‘novel’, a documentary tale which details a war-scattered family spread across several countries, from Vienna to Kursk and Moscow to Manchester.
Ljuba’s father, Viktor/Karli (he has an Austrian and, later, a Russian name), is transported to Moscow along with his brother as a child. Why? Their parents are socialist revolutionaries, supporters of the ‘Red Vienna’, a failed socialist project for the city which ended in a short yet bloody civil war in the 1930s. In 1934, Karli and Slavko are sent to Russia to grow up under the Bolshevist state. At first, things are great. They live amongst fellow socialists and other Austrian children in a state-of-the-art children’s home and remain shielded from the worst of the Great Purges.
But the peace doesn’t last. After the invasion of Russia by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, the children’s home is disbanded and the children are treated with immediate suspicion. They are German-speaking. Hitler has broken the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They could be moles or spies for the enemy. They could be sabotaging the Soviet regime from within. Karli is separated from his brother, and, after fleeing from several horrific ‘vocational schools’, he is sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Karli survives, but he will never see his brother again. He eventually returns to Kursk and marries a woman he met in the gulag called Nina. They have two daughters together, one of whom is Ljuba Arnautovic.
Karli/Viktor eventually manages to get back in touch with his mother after twenty years. She lives in Vienna. After years of wrangling with Russian and Austrian bureaucracy, Karli and his family eventually get the necessary documentation to move to Vienna in the 1950s, just as the Cold War is hotting up. Karli loves his new/old life in Vienna, and finds it easy to re-learn his German, but Nina feels trapped and isolated. Eva, Karli’s mother, is less than understanding, despite them all having to live under one roof. Unsurprisingly the marriage breaks down.
Karli turns out to be the villain of the story, as he has an affair (he will go on to marry three more times), yet somehow manages to win sole custody of their children. But he has no intention of being a single dad, and parcels them off intermittently to children’s homes when his current wife or put-upon mother is unable to care for them. Nina is now homeless in Vienna after being pushed out of the family home following their divorce, and has no choice but to become a quasi-housekeeper-cum-domestic slave to a local violent, illiterate Ukranian widower. My heart bled for Nina for the entire second half of the book.
The story is told in short chapters (yay) with impressive flashes of quiet lyricism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arnautovic’s prose. The story itself is one I have never heard of- I had no idea there was a civil war in Vienna in the 1930s, and I had no idea that there were so many young Austrian children sent to Russia to escape rising fascism in Germany.
Then there’s the maternal side of the story: Anastasia, Nina’s mother and Ljuba’s maternal grandmother, is a very interesting character indeed. In fact, I would have very much liked to hear more of her and less of Karli. She’s the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter’s daughter, and is the local wise woman. The people of her neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Kursk think she is blessed with the second sight, and simultaneously revere and fear her. Towards the end, I was fed up with Karli’s selfish exploits and really wanted to hear more about Ljuba’s maternal line. This would definitely have improved the book.
I had a few problems with this book, and really couldn’t understand why it got such glowing reviews (4.4 stars on Amazon).
Firstly, the term ‘novel’ is misleading. It should be called ‘a family biography’ or something along those lines. I was expecting a historical novel and didn’t get one in the slightest. It’s not very literary, as dialogue is sparse and Ljuba’s storytelling is rather swallowed up by the documentary material included in this short volume. There are a lot of translated official documents included in italics, which are written in an incredibly bureaucratic German I found difficult to digest. There are interviews included, which I really feel that Arnautovic could have turned into convincing dialogue surrounded by prose. I felt this book could have been longer, as there was so much to tell. I also really felt that Arnautovic could definitely have been more imaginative and creative in filling in the gaps between the evidence. It could have been a well-researched historical novel, but it felt like a fragmentary anthology of documentary evidence.
I also had a problem with the sheer volume of letters included in the book. We hear from Karli, but replies from Eva, Nina or Erika (his second wife) aren’t included. Maybe they had been lost, but we’re only getting half of the story regardless. This made it frustrating for me, as the long-suffering women in his life became silent. Also, Karli is fairly uneducated and clearly not a born letter-writer. His writing was awkward and incredibly cringey in places. Arnautovic could have put these letters to good use, but they don’t quite work in their raw form.
All I can think of is ‘you wrote a Bad Roman’ to the Lady Gaga tune.
What’s this Bad Roman?
What’s this Bad Roman?
I don’t usually give up on a book I spent €15 on. But I had to give this one up. I had to. I got to page 123 and thought, Jesus Christ on a silver pushbike, I can’t do this anymore.
Which is strange, because everything looked great. The review on New Books in German looked great, the premise looked great, the cover looked great. I do usually enjoy satire – I devoured both the German and English version of Timur Verme’s Hitler-noveau Er Ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back).
I’m not going to include a highlights section, because there weren’t any. But I will give a brief synopsis.
A small town in the Bavarian Alps is slowly being bought out by a Chinese billionaire called Chen. The main character, Othmar, is a slovenly alcoholic who lives off the small payments he receives as the carer of a black Mancunian DJ who had an unfortunate drunk skiing accident twenty years before. The novel meanders along depicting the eccentric characters – exactly 46 -remaining in this slowly dying town.
This is satire trying to be clever. Sometimes it is clever, sometimes it is funny, but it’s mostly just boring. Othmar is completely uncompelling, and so are the other characters in the village. They’re mostly racist or rudderless, or a combination of both. There’s no real intrigue developing over the first few chapters, and its attempt at Thoman Mann Magic Mountain-style surrealism falls flat because I remained completely uninvested by the 30% mark. There is a huge amount of references to Austrian things which I didn’t really get (which I’m not blaming the author for, it was just another reason I struggled), and a lot of nostalgia for a kind of amorphous 80s/90s punk rock/DJ-culture I’m too young to relate to.
The satire was largely blunt and underwhelming. Poking fun at provincial racists is fun, but it can’t sustain a book. This could have been a brilliant book, a comment on the gradual decay of the EU, with especially dire warnings for the post-Covid age. But it didn’t manage it. It just didn’t. The characters feel flat, 2D. The story is going nowhere. The story starts when most of the town and its residents are already gone. I didn’t really understand why Schalko did this. The idea of slow decline could have been imaginatively developed. Chen is a mysterious, amorphous character. Nobody seems to have seen him, just his white Toyota rolling by. I understand that this is a conscious device by the author to comment on the ‘threat’ to the West posed by the Eastern economies in the 21st century. Keeping Chen anonymous means he can represent almost anyone, anything. But this is set twenty years after he first started buying the place. And nobody knows what he’s planning, nobody has even seen him? It’s just unbelievable.
I had almost no idea of place of setting, even a third of the way in. The Alps are a beautiful landscape. Beautiful and isolated for the people still living in the mountains, largely untouched by the 21st century. Believe me, I’ve lived in a similar place in Germany. Why did Schalko pay almost no attention to setting when setting is almost the most important facet of this novel? Many rural places are currently suffering with population decline as young professionals seek their fortune in the cities. But I had no idea of the place. The mountains, the lakes, the resort-ness of the place goes unmentioned. They could have been anywhere.
It could have worked as a short story, maybe. I was looking forward to an Austrian adventure, wittily written, a social commentary on the global shift to the right. But don’t get this book. You will be disappointed. It spreads itself too thin, it tries to develop too many characters simultaneously, meaning that nothing is compelling. Nobody is developed well.
I’ll be starting an MA Historical Fiction module on the 1st of February. I have a joint BA in History so I’ve always been fascinated by the past. Reading historical fiction offers a perfect fusion of history and literature for me.
I’d always dabbled in the genre and enjoyed fast-paced bestsellers from authors such as Philippa Gregory. The Other Boleyn Girl was a complete revelation to me, as, like most people, I had gotten a bit sick of the over-representation of Anne Boleyn in anything Tudor, along with either another character assassination or attempt at resurrection. Anne Boleyn is such a polemic historical figure that portrayals of her are never anything but extreme. She’s either the harlot or misunderstood heroine, the witch or Protestant reformer. Gregory’s focus on her long-forgotten sister was a master stroke. And she had Henry VIII’s son (possibly even two sons). Why didn’t anyone know this?
I feel extremely naughty and ignorant for saying this, but I’d honestly never even heard of Hilary Mantel before I saw the required reading for the module in December. This turned out to be a huge gap in my knowledge which was easily remedied. I’ve now read both the first and second books in her Wolf Hall trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. In the Waterstones sale, I’ve just treated myself to the third, The Mirror and the Light, as well as Gregory’s newest book, Dark Waters. I usually never order anything from Waterstones on account of it being so bloody RRP-priced, but I also had a voucher for being only one of two students who showed up to my University school’s Christmas Zoom quiz. Once again, I reaped the rewards of being an insufferable teacher’s pet. When they arrived last week, I breathed in the new book smell rapturously, and I’m looking forward to finally starting them after getting through my current brick of historical fiction, Charlotte Lynne’s Die Zwölfte Nacht. Honestly, historical fiction tends to come in cinderblock-style bricks rather than books. Genre conventions dictate they must be between 500 and 1000 pages long.
Mantels books are masterpieces, and I can’t stress that enough. They are masterpieces. The reason why I didn’t bother writing individual reviews for them was because I’m fairly sure most of Britain knows this already. She’s won the Booker Prize twice, and might just win it a third time with her final addition to the trilogy, which was released just last year. I’m just really late to the party. I was in such a Mantel-fuelled fangirl haze I even watched her documentary, Return to Wolf Hall, on BBC iPlayer. If anything, her working-class background, fractured childhood and odd mannerisms had me fangirling even harder.
Her focus on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s pig-faced shadow, was a stroke of genius, and her detailing of court intrigue through the eyes of a blacksmith’s son couldn’t have been more insightful. There are so many disparate threads to the story, and such a wealth of characters it certainly has a Game of Thrones feel to it, yet perhaps even more difficult because every character and event is the result of painstaking research as well as boundless imagination. Cromwell is constantly being underestimated, and you don’t particularly like the character- Mantel is far too clever an author to make her protagonist completely morally good, but you’re also rooting for him through all his machinations. The claustrophobic atmosphere of an increasingly volatile King and the knife-edge of the English Reformation only increases as the net slowly tightens around Cromwell, culminating in his fatal error: fixing the declining and capricious Henry up with the (apparently) repugnant Anne of Cleves.
Reading historical fiction in German is another step up the tricky scale. I may be fluent, but until I read my first German historical brick a few years ago, I realised I had no idea what the words for chamber, codpiece, tunic, shilling, jousting, executioner etc. were. Obviously. So It’s been a learning curve. Finding Tudor fiction originally written in German was a huge bonus, as they tend to translate so much out of English. They translate so much from so many languages that if you pick a random book up in a random bookstore in Germany, there’s almost a 50/50 chance it was originally written in some other language. Now, obviously I also enjoy reading translated fiction too, and I often read books translated into German from either English or another language entirely, but I can’t exactly choose translated fiction to translate into English during my modules. No, I need original German fiction for that. So, who knows, I may end up translating some Charlotte Lynne for my Process and Product module this term.
I’m really enjoying Die Zwölfte Nacht (Twelfth Night) at the moment, and I love its focus on the changing seasons. Its 650 pages are split into twelve huge chapters (another genre convention of historical fiction – absolutely whoppingly huge chapters. What’s that all about?), each chapter ending on our around the 6th of January, which is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany if you’re Orthodox. We’ve kind of lost the tradition of celebrating Christmas over twelve days, and many people often forget that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were just the start of the festivities, culminating in a night of debauchery and social turn-tabling on the 6th January. However, its focus on the Seymours and Wolf Hall also feels very Mantel. It came out at around the same time, so I’m thinking Lynne may have taken more than a little bit of inspiration from her English counterpart.
I’ve never actually written any historical fiction myself, but I’ll have to this term, so watch this space.
The extent to which translation is and is inseparable from creative writing is a question which modern translation theorists are currently grappling with. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art is the hottest book in translation right now (sorry, David Bellos), and it deals with this question eloquently and thought-provokingly.
Does translation ‘feel’ different to creative writing? Dan Gunn once asked Lydia Davis, which is referred to in This Little Art (pp.197-199). Yes, it does, was the answer. Is the translator a true ‘artist’ in the same way that authors and poets are often referred to as artists? Or are they merely an ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsperson’, someone who does creative yet ‘derivative’ work. Most translators don’t have a clear answer to this question, but most agree that there is some ‘real artistry’ involved (to quote Davis here).
Is there somehow less risk involved in translation? Knowing that the work has already been done, published, received, and has achieved enough acclaim to be translated in the first place? I wouldn’t agree. Translators are taking a huge risk themselves in translating. If the book is a flop in the target language, the translator often takes the blame for having translated badly, somehow, or having misunderstood the text. If the book is a success, the source text author takes the credit. Where’s the fun in that? Davis, however, argues that there is less risk in translated an established work- each to their own.
Is translation the same as creative writing then? Well, not exactly, because there is often no ‘source text’ when it comes to creative writing, but a literary translator with no creative writing skills cannot succeed. But look at the amount of writing that comes from extant material, Kate Briggs exclaims, that lays claim to being ‘new art’. Re-writing ancient myths for the 21st century, for example – think Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad (2005). Is this creative writing? Is it derivative? Is it a translation?
In literature, as well as biology, there is no such thing as immaculate conception. All ideas come from somewhere. All stories are based on what we’ve already read. There is no such thing as a ‘blank page’, per se. I notice turns of phrase or syntax of the writers I have read recently popping up in my own prose, sometimes consciously, and there must also be the subconscious footprint of authors I have read and enjoyed in my own writings.
The shortness of a short story, the detachment of journalism, the syllable constructions of sonnets and haikus, writing a play in iambic pentameter, writing instructions numbered and in order, the rhetorical and referencing conventions of an academic essay: these are all constraints, just like working from a source text. Writers such as Georges Perec set themselves creative constraints via the experimental Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), culminating for him in writing La Disparition, a novel entirely without the letter ‘e’. The writing of translations may be ‘especially directed and especially constrained’ (Briggs), but it is creative writing nonetheless. We do not see works such as La Disparition as any less creative for their constrained nature, so why do some persist in seeing translation as a merely grammatical or linguistic exercise, as somehow ‘less’ than the source text? There is an obsession with the concept of translation as inevitable ‘loss’ and the translator as a diligent automaton- words in, words out. Knowing a language and translating are two completely different things, just as speaking your mother tongue well does not make you a novelist.
Literary Translation and Creative Writing: Disciplinary Boundaries
Over the past few decades, translation has been undergoing something dubbed ‘the cultural turn’. This generally refers to the process of translation broadening its scope far outside its traditional realm, into areas such as political ideology, feminism and postcolonial studies. The lines between translation and other forms of writing and literary theory are consistently being blurred, and translation as cultural exchange has only been fully appreciated recently, as well as the idea that translation can facilitate, subvert or perpetuate either pre-existing cultural norms or radical new perspectives. Kate Briggs often deals with issues of being a so-called ‘lady translator’ – translation is often seen as a feminised and therefore subservient form of writing. That it has, at least for the last hundred or so years, been done mainly (and ever more increasingly) by middle and upper-class white women has lent credence to a belief of the translator as a sort of housewife hobbyist, an amateur who doesn’t need to be appreciated particularly much, or even paid enough or promptly. Kate Briggs has challenged the view of the ‘lady translator’, and other theorists such as Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush have argued how translation and writing are inextricably linked, and should therefore enjoy a more ‘horizontal’, rather than ‘vertical’, relationship.
Translation as a Creative Writing Process
Kate Briggs did a fantastic interview with Madeleine LaRue here, about the process of writing This Little Art and her thoughts and feelings about translation in general. Translation is creativity with restraints, yet it is also inquiry. Every translation, hell every paragraph of every translation teaches you something. Translating an author is always a rabbit warren of Google searches, yet another tab, tracing quotes, searching for references (what could they have been referring to here?), thesauruses, idiom dictionaries, image searches (how might that have looked?), checking etymologies and collocations, finding connotations, phoning a long suffering German friend (what do you think of when I say this word to you? Is it dark, is it light? Is it high register, low register?). You have to understand every facet of the source text before you can even feel like you got it ‘right’ in translation. And once you know what it all means, you have to put it back together in a way that target text readers would want to read in the first place. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have to use the strengths of your language to your advantage. German sentences can have infamously dense and rambling syntax which has often been used to great effect – think Kafka or Mann’s hugely complex sentences. I personally, think Kafka was a genius and deeply enjoyed die Verwandlung, but I found Mann’s composition so frustratingly obtuse it brought a tear to my eye. German also plays with word order to increase the tension, as verbs can often be delayed until near the end of a sentence, obfuscating its ultimate meaning until you have read the whole sentence, often throwing out red herrings which lead you down a semantic dead end. English sentences tend to be shorter and contain fewer clauses. They follow a more rigid order due to our lack of cases and it’s often impossible to delay the verb. How to translate a German source text with complex syntax, long sentences, delayed verbs and endless clauses into English? You have to get creative (or should I say re-creative?). It’s never going to be the ‘same’ as the original, or even as good as the original in exactly the same ways, but a creative translator can compensate for the differences between languages.
The translator from German is often faced with a Hobson’s choice: do I split up the sentences to make the work flow better for an Anglophone reader? Or do I preserve the strangeness of the syntax in English and hope that the target text reader can get over it, or even learn to appreciate it? This can often lead to a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If you deconstruct the author’s stylistic devices too much, you can be accused of domesticating the translation for the target audience, or even of misunderstanding the author. If you leave too much of the author for the readers to interpret, you risk being accused of doing a ‘bad’ translation which is too literal for the target culture.
Spending this much time with a text throws up another interesting question. Do we have to love the text we are translating? I don’t always love the text. In fact, just like a fleeting fling, my initial fascination with the text can wane the more I am forced to sustain my concentration and analysis. I start to get a wandering eye for a fresh text and new inspiration. But it would be extremely difficult to translate a text I hate, although hate is a strong word. The closest I came was at undergrad, when I was so tightly constrained by the translation brief that I had to choose a GDR author whose writing was academic enough to be translated and read for a conference, so I chose an extract from Günther de Bruyn’s Vierzig Jahre. Subsequently, I loathed every second by the end of the project, and I got a fairly crappy grade. Suprised? I wasn’t. I’ve also written a lot about Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder despite not particularly liking the prose. To me, the controversies around the text and what the text represented were far more important to me than enjoying the reading experience of the text itself. It threw up interesting questions about the East/West ‘culture war’ (to use a neologism) since reunification in 1990. Western critics, and Eastern victims of Stasi terror, accused the book of seeing the GDR through rose-tinted glasses. I argue that most people have rosy memories of their childhood, as long as it was a fairly happy one. International geopolitics do not feature heavily in the private sphere of a child, even in the GDR.
Kate Briggs has also spoken about her developing relationship to the author she was translating, Roland Barthes. She talks about feeling inadequately informed about Barthes to be able to translate his work, a kind of ‘imposter syndrome’ common in translators. Briggs intentionally blends Barthe’s perspectives with her own in This Little Art, highlighting the deeply intimate nature of translation. If Briggs is quoting Barthes using words that she herself translated, who is speaking then? Is Barthes speaking through Briggs, or is Briggs speaking for Barthes? She likens translation to an aerobics class. The translator copies the moves of the instructor, in their own unique way.
Daunted by the ridiculous title in German? That’s German for you. I’ll have to dissect this first. ‘Reiseführer’ is the usual name for a guide book (literally ‘ride leader’), and the Fettnäpfchenführer series is a riff on this. An idiom in Germany for embarrassing yourself in front of other people through ignorance (equivalent to a ‘foot in mouth moment’, or ‘putting your foot in it’ in English), is ‘ins Fettnäpfchen treten’, literally meaning ‘to step into the fat bowl’. Therefore, the title Fettnäpfchenführer hints at the alternative kind of travel guide this is: guiding you through Norway by using a provincial Bavarian protagonist to highlight all the faux pas of intercultural communication. Somehow, he manages to step into every fat bowl along the way.
I enjoyed this so much I read it in two days despite it being in my second language. The current lockdown certainly had a hand in that too. I’ve recently taken an interest in Norwegian because it’s pretty hot for translation right now: more novels have been translated from Norwegian or Swedish in recent years than German. So-called ‘Nordic Noir’ is extremely a la mode since Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson’s astronomical successes in English. I’ve spent the last year and a half brushing up on my French and I can now hold a conversation, as long as it’s about something on the Duolingo course. But then I realised that Germanic languages are far closer to my heart. Norwegian and German are fairly similar, around a third of the words are cognates or near-cognates. That doesn’t mean that another good chunk of the words aren’t a bit far-flung and difficult to spell, because the Norwegians seem to take the same laid-back approach to pronouncing their language as they do to everything else. Another complicating factor is that there isn’t really even one Norwegian language anyway. There are two main written Norwegian dialects, and most schoolchildren learn to write and spell in one or the other – Nynorsk and Bokmål, but there is an almost endless number of local dialects whether you’re in the north, south, east or west of the country. Norwegian is also extremely similar to Danish, at least written Danish. All other Scandinavians agree that Danish pronunciation is another kettle of fish entirely. Denmark and Norway were joined in a fairly unequal partnership for centuries, and Norway’s written language is based on written Danish, meaning they are (almost) mutually intelligible to this day.
But I digress. Each chapter of this charming book is split into two or three sections. The narrative comes first. The author, Julia Fellinger, has invented an unlikely protagonist to guide us through Norwegian customs and culture by showing us what not to do. ‘Stefan’, a detective sent to Norway by his boss to investigate the theft of an Edvard Munch painting from its private owner in Germany, is eager to learn but somehow keeps alienating the locals by putting his big German foot in it. This book taught (reinforced?) a lot for me about Germans as well as introducing me to Norwegian culture, because these travel guides are specifically intended for German audiences and consistently compare the two cultures. The author warns the reader, basically, to take a chill pill: no shouting across the aisle at supermarket employees, don’t just get naked in the sauna or by the side of the lake, no road rage please, don’t expect a direct answer, learn to sugar-coat things a little, don’t cut the queue, don’t point out the roads are better in Germany etc. etc.
The narrative part of the book was definitely not what I expect in a travel guide, because the author isn’t even relating her own experiences about Norway, at least not in an autobiographical context. But it’s absolutely charming and really works, with each short chapter describing a different situation tourists are likely to find themselves in, such as going to the Vinmonopol (state-owned wine shops), renting a Hytte (holiday cabin), hiking in the Fjells (mountains) and so on. The second section of each chapter describes the customs behind Stefan’s faux pas, which builds the suspense nicely because the reader is often left wondering along with Stefan just what went wrong. Why is he met with disappointment when he turns up at a dinner party with flowers and chocolates for the hosts? Why is the wine shop closed at 2:30pm? Why shouldn’t he mention the EU?
The answers are respectively: Norwegians expect you to bring alcohol to a dinner party, because it’s so expensive the host either cannot or will not cover the costs of their guest’s drinks themselves, the wine shop is closed at 2:30pm because it must be the day before a festdag, a national holiday, and you definitely shouldn’t mention the EU in polite conversation because it’s likely to illicit a strong reaction either way. And Norwegians don’t like having or showing their strong reactions to anything, so it’s likely to be awkward all round. But you don’t find this out until the end of the chapter, which leads to a feeling of bumbling through Norway with the same amount of ignorant bonhomie as Stefan. I learned a lot along the way, and now I feel almost ready for my first adventure into the most expensive wilderness on Earth. When we can travel again, though- whenever that is.