Categories
Book Reviews German Prose Translations

State of Emergency: Helene Bukowski’s Milk Teeth in Review – Asymptote Blog

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

Categories
Book Reviews

Book Review: Helene Bukowski’s ‘Milk Teeth’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“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?

Categories
Uncategorized

Asymptote Issue: Summer 2021

The Summer 2021 issue of Asymptote has just dropped! (here)

There’s new free-to-read world literature in translation, with a focus on an ‘Age of Division’ for this edition. It’s the first edition of Asymptote that I’ve personally been a part of making, so I’m really excited.

Image preview

The Educator’s Guide we’ve been working on over the last three months will also be out in the next week or so – Free-to-download lesson plans on fiction, poetry and non-fiction for high school and university students, all based on contributions on the website!

Image preview

More than any other issue in recent memory, “Age of Division,” our Summer 2021 issue, also speaks to the current divisiveness of our times.

In Ethiopian writer Mulugeta Alebachew’s fiction, childhood memories are betrayed when the narrator returns home after a long time away only to find his friends “intently drawing family trees and working out ethnic background of people as if they worked for the cartography agency, and it was their task to draw boundaries.” Meanwhile, at a “time of infinite sadness,” diasporic Palestinian poet Olivia Elias speaks to us of “a life in the eye of the hurricane” and of “a country / engulfed in a fault of history.”

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a country’s divides. This is the case in Lusine Kharatyan’s fiction comprising tweet-sized vignettes delivered in a brilliant deadpan, such as this zinger of an opening: “After 9/11 my American family decided to learn about other cultures. This is how I appeared in their home. I tell them about Armenia, they tell me about the Chinese guy they hosted before me.” It is also the case in Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir, in which he tells us of his return to North Korea “some forty-odd years after pretending to leave on a picnic”—but only after recounting at length his visit to a divided Berlin in 1985.

A name such as Abdushukur Muhammet’s in Sweden can be cause for ”unverbalised anguish” even as it recalls the “circular naan” of the poet’s homeland. For Bouchaib Gadir, however, names are a contested site of exile—that most painful of divisions: “When you live in a country that does not resemble you, / Your name becomes: Those ones.” Newly transplanted in Brooklyn, Chinese artist Zi Yi Wang recalls being “pulled between Eastern and Western ideologies . . . [longing] for belonging and identification”; as a result, both hybridity and a sense of history inform her beautiful assemblages of trash. Also an assemblage of sorts, Marius Ivaškevičius’s staging of historical figures like Chopin and Balzac in conversation with one another suggests that belonging can yet be cultivated on foreign soil.

Categories
German Translations

Living Between Two Languages

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.

Categories
Teaching Translations

Self-Translation (and Dissertation)

Recently, I’ve been thanking my lucky stars for the cooler weather. My office window faces the sun in the morning, and, when it’s over 25 degrees, I get real sweaty. Teaching, in any context, always gets me warm, so, in summer, it turns into a real pain. I just wear black every day, like the hermit vampire I’ve become over the last 18 months. It’s sunny today, though, and, up in my artist’s garret, I’m already starting to feel restless.

When it’s cloudy, I also don’t feel like I’m missing out too horrendously by not being outside. I’ve been slaving away at drafting the 10,000 words necessary for the translation side of my MA dissertation (although I’ve done around 12,000 now, so I can cut out my worst chapter). Since It’s historical fiction, I’ve been burying myself in all the unread historical fiction I’ve got laying around in English and I now have a newfound respect for the genre, if that’s even possible since I’d already developed a massive respect for it through writing my own this spring.

We’re also busy squirrelling away at the new Educator’s Guide for the next issue of Asymptote, which I’m really excited about. There’s a couple of blog posts in the wings, there, too. It was my first time designing a lesson plan around a poem, so I’m just real jazzed that no-one else on my team thought it in need of a complete overhaul.

I get the itch to write for myself, but all my creative energies are being swallowed by my dissertation. My tutoring work has also gone quieter, so I’ve been busy doing job interviews for new companies. Tutoring is a catch-22 situation. You can choose between good pay, no support and an extremely unreliable schedule, or a reliable schedule, bad pay and some support. Completely freelance students don’t come along very often, and I don’t work to any pre-ordained plan there. Which is both freeing and daunting. However, the majority of my work this year has been through agencies.

However, if you work for a tutoring organisation, don’t expect to get paid much more than if you were stacking shelves at Tesco. Not that there’s anything wrong with stacking shelves at Tesco. I worked in McDonald’s for two years as my first job, and it was a well-deserved education from my cushy couch contemplation into this cutthroat capitalist world we live in and have to somehow adapt to. However, tutoring is extremely skilled labour which is paid like unskilled labour. And you can forget the time you spend planning for and messaging each student, writing down your plans, organising their progress and your schedule, booting up your laptop, opening all your tabs, reading through the materials and opening Zoom and waiting for them. That stuff isn’t paid. So then 12 euros an hour starts to feel more like 10, at which point I could clean tables in Extrablatt and expect just as much.

And self-translation. I’ve been working on my piece in German for this year’s Specimen translation competition. I posted the draft a few days ago. I’ve updated the draft since then, because writing is never finished. Now I have to provide an English translation of it for the judges. I’ve never translated myself before, and certainly not from my second language into my first. I feel like It’s just going to end up with me editing both versions eternally and simultaneously, noticing flaws in one which I change in the other, like a dog chasing its own tail.

Categories
poetry Translations

A Small Nonsense Poem- Ein Kleines Unsinnsgedicht

Composed of the most difficult words to learn in German.

Besteht aus der schwierigsten Wörter, die man lernt, wenn man Deutsch lernt.


Eine höhere,

überraschende,

rücksichtsvolle Maßnahme wird eingeführt,

gegen das Hünehuhn

mit Eichhörnchen in

seinen Streichholzschächtelchen.

A great,

surprising,

considerate measure will be taken,

against the giant chicken

with squirrels in its

little matchboxes.

Categories
Prose Translations

Creative Adaptation: Kai Hermann’s “Engel + Joe”

I really enjoyed this book on first reading years ago, but it’s absolutely jam-packed with slang and colloqualisms. I thought it would be impossible to translate an extract and maintain its German context – because I have to swap the slang for something recognisable in English. I’ve gone for a London idiom instead. This book came out in the early 2000s, when Berlin was still experiencing a huge Punk vs. Skinheads problem. So I’ve swapped it for 80s/90s London, not that there are any particular time markers in the text so far. I’ve worked from my first handwritten draft and did not look at the ST at all in writing it up. I’ve added or taken away words and sentences at whim to try to create an ‘authentic’ voice: Joe is a teenage Londoner from a broken home. The end product is more of an imaginative adaptation than a translation, based on pp.14-17 of the novel.


Joe doesn’t hang around at the bus stop this morning. It would just get her down. There are loads of police around. Wailing sirens are weird for a Sunday. 

A couple of skinheads are standing in front of a Tescos trying to look hard. There’s lots of skinheads in these ends. Joe knows a few of the ones standing in front of Tescos. She wants to switch to the other side of the street, but one of the guys calls out to her. 

“Hey, Joe. Get over here.” 

The guy is called Killer. At least, that’s what everyone calls him. Maybe he started calling himself Killer at some point. To look hard. It’s better not to have any beef with the skinheads when you live in these ends. Joe doesn’t particularly like them. But at least the Nazis in this area aren’t the kind who kick homeless guys to death. She thinks. She’s known some of them since primary school. Boys who didn’t have the guts to talk to a girl alone or do any fucking thing alone. That’s why there’s always loads of them, beer cans in hand, safety in numbers.

Joe walks across the street on autopilot. Towards the guys, even though she absolutely can’t be arsed to let them chat her up. But that’s just how it is. That Joe sometimes automatically does things that these kinds of idiots ask of her. Skinheads, teachers, and even that Mike. When she wanted to show her mum a mock exam, that Mike said “give it here.” She gave him her exercise book on autopilot. Then she kicked herself afterwards. 

When Joe reaches the skinheads, Killer asks “Don’t we get a kiss?”

“Your breath smells like arse,” Joe says. She positions herself as best she can so the skinheads can’t see the swollen side of her face. One of them rips out an enormous burp, and the rest find it amusing. 

“Are you coming with? Squash some fleas?”

“Why?”

“The shitheads wanna kick up a fuss about our demo.”

“No time,” says Joe, “Don’t fuck up. See you around.” She pretends to be in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than bumming around Shoreditch on a Sunday morning. Even worse when you have no idea where you’re going. No window displays. Just dog shit. The big attraction is the posters in the used car salesrooms. At the corner, in front of a used car, a guy is squatting on the floor. Looks like a punk. Doesn’t really belong in these ends. Joe has to get a closer look at him. The guy has a bloody face. Joe wants to get past quickly. 

But the guy asks: “Do you have some shrapnel to call an ambulance?”

Any other day, you can walk about for hours without seeing or hearing a thing. See nobody you know far and wide. Nobody speaks a single word to you. Not even a single dirty builder to whistle at you. And you feel like a spare part. But when you don’t wanna hear or see anyone, suddenly someone’s chanking at you on every street corner. 

Joe rummages for some change in her jean pockets. Automatically. Although she shouldn’t give a shit about this guy. She gives him 50p and asks “Nazis?”

He says “Nope, police.”

The wound on his forehead doesn’t look good. It’s still bleeding. He wipes the blood from his face with a rag. Joe gives him some tissues. 

“You should get that sorted. It looks grim,” she says. 

The guy doesn’t respond. He pulls a rat from his bag. Presses his blood-smeared face into the rat’s fur. Kisses it. Puts it on his knee. 

Joe puts her bag down. Squats down automatically. Has a look at the rat.

“It’s cute.”

“Cute?” the guy puts some glasses on – the only have one lens – and looks at Joe. 

She turns the swollen side of her face away too late.

“Nazis?”

“No, my stepdad.”

“Really?”

Joe stands straight up again and hangs her bag over her shoulder. She has no idea why she bent down and told this guy (of all guys) anything. And then, to top it all off,  she said “my stepdad.”

“If I have to flatten him, lemme know.”

Joe rolls her eyes. She says “you can’t stay here. Nazis are coming.”

“Really?”

“Seriously. You gotta get away from here.”

The guy acts like he doesn’t give a shit. But he’s looking down the street a little nervously all the same. Says: “Thanks, by the way.”

Joe leaves without saying anything. The police cars are out in force again. She’s happy to get away from the guy. He’s probably an arsehole. Although he doesn’t look like one at first glance. How he looked at her through his broken glasses. A guy’s eyes are important to Joe. Not the only important thing, but important. But the guy with the glasses had kind of mocking eyes. Like he knew everything and was taking the piss out of you for it. Although he must have been feeling pretty shitty. He’s probably an arsehole anyway. Up himself. How he spoke to her. Like from his high horse. But the rat was cute. 

For a moment, Joe thinks about what the plan actually is. There isn’t one. Maybe she’ll throw herself in front of the Tube this evening. But that doesn’t seem likely. ‘Cause she doesn’t feel depressed, just lost.

Categories
Translations

Translating from the Visual

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference, or lack of difference, between the visual and the written arts. Lessing theorizes that poetry or prose exists in time, and the visual arts in space: e.g that you can only experience a poem or piece of prose in one direction- linearly through time, usually from start to finish, but in a painting, the whole and parts coexist simultaneously rather than consecutively. You may ‘read’ a painting, but you still experience it as a whole. People often forget to experience poetry or prose as a ‘whole’, as the whole can only be reflected on afterwards the reader has read the final page. However, although the mediums are so different, the viewer and reader responses to visual and textual art can be the same.

Borges has questioned whether we experience reality successively or simultaneously in his short story ‘the Aleph’, whereas Joyce attempted to convey everything in language in his Ulysses. Borges believed it was only possible to capture the temporality of experience- and therefore any attempt to convey the totality of human experience in language would fail.

We experience paintings spatially. The paint, the brushstrokes, the canvas literally take up space and exist for the viewer as a whole composed of complementary parts. Although we usually experience text temporally rather than spatially, there are ways of creating a spatial experience of a text. Imagine, as an author, visually plotting out character arcs and events in a novel using Post-it notes and string, like detectives in a movie. And what is a graphic novel if not simultaneously spatial and temporal? they exist as both art objects and literature. There are also incredibly visual poems, where the shape reminds the reader of the imagery contained in their words. Some novels are also arranged visually in this way. And while the process of reading may be temporal, the evaluation of said reading is often spatial. Our experience of a work builds up an image in our minds. Zooming out of a book after having read it- making connections, seeing patterns, getting an overview of the totality of the work: these are all spatial experiences of a book or poem. As a translation theorist, Berman places emphasis on the whole, deploring translators who get too caught up in the minute linguistic details of a text.

An interesting example of a spatially-organised text would be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In a letter to a friend, she drew a diagram of the plot for her text which looks like the capital letter H. There was a part one and a part two, joined by a narrow bridge in between. The bridge is where a time period of 10 years is skipped over in a single page. Woolf didn’t want to explore death as a process, she wanted to explore death as a state of not being, of the effect that death has on those you leave behind. The poet Pizarnik used to draw a picture to capture her mood and feelings before she wrote the poem. The visual and textural are irrevocably linked. Art, whether visual or written, is a way of conceptualizing and expressing the gaps which open between the perceptions and emotions.

The way that literary theory and literary history organises itself is also responsible for our linear understandings of text. Why do we put text in a chronological order, why do we separate them into different eras and epochs? Borges claims that every writer creates his own precursors. We are obsessed with uncovering the influences on individual writers from what came before. Literary theorists are interested in the connections between the ideas of Borges and Benjamin, but there’s no evidence that Borges ever even read Benjamin.

So how does photography fit in with these definitions ? Should we treat photographs in the

same way as we treat paintings? I don’t think so. It’s possible to put things in a painting which do not coexist with each other: think of surrealism. However, it’s much more difficult to fit disparate elements into a photograph. Photographs can be taken in an instant and tend to portray things which are closer to reality. Because photographs can be so quickly and readily taken, yet it takes up to two years to complete a painting, I believe that photographs, or series of photographs, can more easily tell a story. There’s also the issue of space with a single painting compared with a series of photographs or a novel. The amount of scenes in photographs or novels are almost endless, yet it would be difficult to tell a story in as much depth with a single painting.

There’s an interesting parallel here between photographs and translations. Photography captures an exact moment which will never repeat itself, whereas literature is immortal and unreal: it always portrays a fantasy world which never really existed. With photography, there’s the idea of inevitable loss, just like with translation. The moment that a photograph captures is already lost by the time it has been captured. In the same vein, translation documents a text, but many say that something is always lost in the process, that the original can never truly be captured in the words of a new language. 

Ekphrasis is the process of translating an object or a visual piece of art into literature. Ideas about ekphrasis are similar to Roman Jakobson’s ideas on translation: he separated translation into three distinct forms-  interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic. According to Jakobson, intersemiotic translation involves the changing of form- for example, from text to picture, or from poetry to play. But for Jakobson, ekphrasis did not count as intersemiotic translation because, for him, intersemiotic translation had to start with a text. Ekphrasis starts with a work of art and ends with the text. An everyday example of this would be audio description for the visually impaired on the television. 

I have been using the idea of ekphrasis this week to create poetry and prose inspired by three paintings of my choice. I have chosen ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Van Gogh, ‘The Sick Child’    by Edvard Munch,  and ‘A View on the River Stour Near Dedham’ by John Constable. I remember writing an assignment on Van Gogh for art at A-Level, and although he has become one of the best known painters in the world since his death, his works still speak to me on an extremely personal level. In some ways he was the archetypal tortured artist, and in other ways he was so much more than that. His free, expressionist style is similar to the style in which I also paint landscapes, no doubt both consciously and unconsciously due to his influence. I have chosen to work from one of his later paintings, one I have copied before,  and one which speaks to his worsening mental state in the same year ear as his suicide. The painting, a landscape, is simple enough, yet laden with emotion and the creeping sense of foreboding. 

I also chose to work from a painting by Edvard Munch because I regret that his talent has been reduced to a single painting since his death: The Scream. Munch’s works go far beyond that. I wanted to include at least one portrait in my trio of chosen paintings, and this scene is laden with such tender emotion that I could immediately visualise it. And finally, I chose a work from John Constable. I wanted to work from one of his sketches rather than one of his finished paintings because I find his sketches so much more lively and vibrant- his finished paintings often look flat and overworked to me. This became my most personal poem. To me, constable is inextricably linked with my childhood experience growing up in Suffolk. Nobody from Suffolk with an interest in art is unaware of Constable’s great legacy, and my grandfather was no exception. My grandfather is a wildlife artist with a deep appreciation for Constable and Gainsborough. This painting reminded me both of going to view these landscapes at galleries and of experiencing these landscapes first-hand on enforced family day trips out in the countryside, which I only became grateful for much later in life.

Categories
Prose Translations

Translating from the Visual 2: Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

Edvard Munch | The Sick Child | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Don’t be sad, mama.”

Astrid’s mother will not meet her eye. The girl’s red hair is plastered to her milky forehead. A sweet, cloying smell hangs in the air. Astrid wants to ask her mother to open the window, just a crack, just for a minute, but knows she’d refuse. Bad for a fever. The room is warmed by a fire flickering in the hearth. It hisses the odd orange ember. It’s too warm: her mother is wasting fuel again.

Outside, snowflakes land on the windowpanes and immediately turn to water, dribbling their way downwards and making tracks through the condensation. When she is alone, Astrid likes to watch them, placing bets on which one will reach the bottom first. She doesn’t like it when they conjoin, it confuses her.

She turns her head to the left, to the mirror on the wall beside the window. She can see herself over her mother’s shoulder. Her reflection is her constant company. Beneath the sallow sheen of her skin, her eyes burn with the intensity of the damned. Her free hand travels to the silver crucifix around her neck. The metal feels hot to the touch. She swallows. Her throat is parched.

“Mama,” she whispers.

Her mother looks up. Her eyes are sadness ringed with blue. Downturned mouth, fine lines. Worry on her brow. Brown bun, streaked with grey. She’s still clutching Astrid’s left hand.

“Some water, takk,” She croaks.

 Her mother nods, stands up to her full height, crosses the room in two long steps. Pours water from the jug on the dresser, and returns. the room is dim, lit only by the small fire and a paraffin lamp. Her mother is wearing a dark dress. Her pale skin gives the appearance of a disembodied head and hands.

Astrid takes a sip from the glass which has been held out to her. She shifts her weight on the pillow supporting her back. Her joints ache. She wants to go out and walk, but Winter has gathered its short days and bitter cold. Her lungs couldn’t take it. 

An icy wind rattles the glass. Now, despite the heat, the heavy snow is beginning to collect in the corners of the window like dust. Her mother follows her gaze.

“Maybe it will be better by tomorrow,” her mother says, but they both know it’s not true. 

“Yes, maybe.”

“You could even visit the Anderssons in a few weeks, if we get a nice day.”

“Yes.” She tries to smile.

“It’s almost spring really, when you think about it. And then, once it’s spring, it’s not even that much longer until we can go cloudberry picking again. You’ll come with me, won’t you?” her words are falling out faster and faster now “Magnus gets bored, and Ingrid can’t carry the basket yet, or she might trip, and we can’t have tha-”

“Yes, mamma. I will.”

Her mother smiles and smoothes the hair from her forehead.

A silence settles. Astrid can hear her family’s feet creaking on the wooden floorboards in the rest of the house. She counts them: two heavy treads and one lighter tread. She knows who it is when they pass by. Her big brother’s loping stride. Her little sister’s uneven trot. Her father’s heavy thud. At least they seem to have made peace with her passing. She only sees her mother now, and only in the evenings. Only when the last of the sun’s weak light has long since faded over the horizon, travelling west. Only when her mother’s bones ache and her hands are red and cracked. Astrid is a ghost in this house. She haunts them.

 Her mother’s hands clutch at Astrid’s, rough skin brushing against clammy softness. She rubs Astrid’s hands as if she could rub the life back into them. 

“Shall I tell you about Askeladden and the forest troll?” 

Astrid’s heard the tale a hundred times. But her mother always embellishes it differently. Sometimes Askeladden’s brothers go back with him into the forest. Sometimes Askeladden’s cheese is too ripe to fool the troll into thinking it’s a rock. And sometimes Askeladden is sent by the troll to chop wood and threatens to bring the whole forest instead.

“I’m too old,” she says, but she knows her mother will tell it anyway, and secretly she wants her to.Her mother takes a deep breath and begins: “Det var en gang…

Categories
poetry Translations

Translating from the Visual 1: Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows

Wheatfield with Crows - Wikipedia

Wheatfield with crows 

There are crows that gather

under the blue-black horizon,

opening like a bruise

into an empty sky. 

The moon rises

or the sun sets-

The whisper of wings

breathes life into night.

Along the track

furrowed, turned

the Earth that covers boots with dust

lies dormant

waiting for rain.

Cartwheels creak

a tired ox pulls

sheaves of wheat

or ears of corn.

The crops-

knee-high,

waist-high,

elbow-high, 

sway listlessly.

Separated from stems

in an endless cycle- 

harvest bounties baked 

salted, pickled, dried,

for the lean winter

which eats human flesh

from the bone.

The crows call to one another, 

harsh, belligerent. 

They hop and rise as one,

vague outlines overhead

as the wheels turn,

catching on a stone.  

The cart puller

does not stop-

he’s looking at his feet 

and at the cracks and furrows and ridges-

down instead of up.

He picks his steps,

only the snorts of his beast

break the dusk

of a yawning canvas sky

as the crow’s calls fade,

carried on their wings.