When an author or translator completes a novel, the work is not over by a long shot. She then has to seek out a publisher, another endurance test a lot like job-seeking. When one says ‘Yes, I’ll publish it,’ the author might then think she can hand her work over, sit back and get on with the next book. But no, for the author is expected to be involved in the marketing of her own work… This is a writer’s fact of life that I’m slowly learning.
Part of the marketing involves getting readers to write reviews. Good or bad, apparently they all lead to sales. The publisher of my translation of George Sand’s Spiridion had offered to send it out for reviews, but none have appeared. Three kind readers have voluntarily reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads. But if I want to pique the interest of more buyers, and perhaps eventually be paid a little something, I have to be proactive. A recommended road is the one that leads to literature bloggers. Out of four I contacted, one responded, Francine Maessen at booksien.com. She asked for a copy of the book, which I bought and sent, and then I waited eight months while she completed some university studies, and now, finally, her long and positive review is available on her blog. She’s also written a brief review for Goodreads. Proactivity pays.
Francine praised Sand’s writing, which is indirectly a compliment for me:
George Sand’s writing is just amazing. She is seen as one of the best writers of her period, even better than Honoré de Balzac. What I personally enjoy so much about her style in this specific novel, is that she still uses the beautiful style we know from realist writers for such a different genre as the gothic novel.
Another literary translator today recommended a website that seeks out translated European books for review, the European Literature Network. Since, after nearly three years, my Spiridion account is still in the red, I’ve got nothing to lose by pointing them to my book.
If you’ve read this far you might like to know a bit about Spiridion by George Sand. Published in 1839 initially, then revised and re-published in 1842, it’s a gothic philosophical novel with a little horror and a lot of analysis of the Catholic monastery as an institution and its corrupting potential for men locked away from women and the rest of the world. The founder of this fictional monastery dies and haunts the cloisters for years, searching for a monk who is uncorrupted, who has the courage to go down into the crypt to seek the truth, which turns out to be a grim experience for a young novice.
When I first read the French version I easily imagined the creepiness of the monastery and its tenants, but I found the illustrations available online added to the pleasure of it.
First, I liked the images used to illustrate an old version published in Brussels, and was pleased to see the cover chosen for mine by SUNY Press, both of them featuring an arched entrance to a mysterious cloister.
Here’s a hint if you buy the English translation: look up the illustrations in the original French version from 1839 (mine is from the revised 1842 edition), available freely online, illustrated by Tony Johannot and George Sand’s son, Maurice. You’ll see images of the monastery, its corrupt monks, a couple of good souls, and the ghostly founder.
Thank you, Francine Maessen, for reading and reviewing Spiridion!
For an idle literary translator, what’s a good place to search for foreign fiction? Anthologies and best-seller lists, web wish-lists of books that ought to be translated? Old bookshops where floor-to-ceiling shelves are laden with literature from decades or centuries ago? All good suggestions. But there’s another source which can prove fruitful. If your local university library is like mine, there’s a mass of French fiction, purchased in the sixties or fifties, sitting neglected, waiting for a borrower. Each volume is now ageing beneath a grey layer of dust settled in the nook of its page tops.
Here you can find old French books filled with tales far removed in time and unlike anything in contemporary fiction. Read between the lines of these stories and you’ll see writers disappointed with things unchanging, say, in rigid religious traditions that influenced the behaviour of believers and atheists alike, or writers disappointed with too many changes: the advance of technology, the end of manual labour, the taste for realism versus fantasy. They were authors reluctant to let fairies die, who wanted to revive the Medieval world and the era of monarchs and superstitions.
Libraries are a gift to mankind. And womankind. Their shelves are treasure-laden and cost-free. Yet there are book lovers who never go near them. They read only books they can keep, preferring to build their own personal collection, all the while asserting that libraries are an endangered literary species. Once, a young French exchange student at my old university, searching its library for something from the twenty-first century and finding only these old tomes, curled his lip and declared it a museum.
Now, for a translator with an itchy writing hand, old books are a rich source of literature begging to be translated. Perusing the shelves, I suspect that many of them have not been translated in a hundred years, if ever, and now the dust seduces me. I dirty my fingers flicking through the yellowed pages. Opening the covers back too far breaks the aged connection between pages and spine, and I half close the book in sympathy, tilting my head to read inside the triangular space.
One little book, George Sand et le rêve monastique : Spiridion by Jean Pommier, about Sand’s novel, Spiridion, leads me to the novel itself, not far away on another shelf. Sand wrote two versions with different endings. Choosing the second version, I translate it and send it to SUNY Press. Sand’s gothic, philosophical novel set in a monastery, excluding all women bar the author and her translator, is the right choice for me: for the first time I become a published translator.
Tickled by this success, I return to the library and pull out a fragile, hand-sized, brown-covered book, Jean Lorrain’s Contes pour lire à la chandelle, ‘Stories to Read by Candlelight’. As I turn the pages I imagine sitting beside a storyteller in a candlelit corner, listening to tales about a haunted house or an ill-treated woman or a hallucinating boy. For a year I borrow and re-borrow the Contes, translating the stories in no particular order, according to my mood. With each opening of the book another page comes loose and corners flake away. Poor book! When my work is finished I return it to the librarians for conservation, and send six stories to journals to see if they like nineteenth-century French fiction. They do. Lorrain’s small stories are now available in print in Eleven Eleven Journal, and online at The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation,Danse Macabre and Sun Star Review.
My addiction has me hurrying back to the ‘museum’. Kneeling on the floor, I bend my head to read the spines along the bottom shelf, down where the dust is thicker. A small gem, Nouvelles orientales by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, appeals by its title; I blow across its top, give the heavier lint a push, read the first page, skip to the middle and scan a few lines. This little number has shortish French stories set in various non-French lands. It comes home with me.
I like some of the stories but not all. The wintry ones are the author’s better work, they make me forget I’m reading. I form a short list, for now avoiding the one that ends in a suicide. Another year passes as I translate the Nouvelles, draft after draft, renewing the library loan a dozen times. When three stories are polished, I send them off. One, my very favourite, is accepted by The Cossack Review: ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, about a lonely man in Ukraine who falls in love with a perfumed pelisse.
Research about Jean Lorrain leads me to his Decadent peer and a great creator of fairies, Catulle Mendès, whose collection Les Contes du Rouet is available online. It’s a thoroughly pleasurable exercise to translate Mendès. A tale about a selfish princess, ‘The Only Beautiful Woman’, makes it into The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. This is an online to online conversion, but I’m eager to work from a physical book, and am thrilled to find, back at the library, two more collections by Mendès, and I borrow them both. As you can imagine for a book entitled ‘To Read in the Bath’, and another, ‘To Read in the Convent’ (a deceptive title which would have drawn pretty young things into Mendès’s naughty fantasies), I read them with the amusement and occasional dismissal they deserve. My translation of La bague enchantée, ‘The Enchanted Ring’, has been transported to new readers via Peacock Journal.
While it’s true I translate only stories I’m pretty sure will please other readers, there has been the odd dusty book that clicked with me but by the time I reached the end of the first draft, I wasn’t convinced that anyone else would eagerly turn its pages. Henry Gréville’s Sonia was such a book. After months of work, I filed the translation manuscript at the bottom of my drawer.
It’s thanks to the library’s stubborn persistence in holding on to these books that I’ve discovered and translated bits and pieces of them. Yet, in this same university library, no searchers will ever pull Spiridion in our language from a shelf in the way I’ve picked up a few pearls simply by browsing. It is in the library catalogue, but only as an e-book. The National Library of Australia has also acquired only the e-book. Disappointing but not surprising.
Still, e-books and digital journals are here to stay and I must be grateful and push on. As Lorrain led me to Mendès, Mendès has led me to Théodore de Banville. The library has a copy of his Œuvres. I’ve translated a number of his stories and can tell you that he is indeed a witty and entertaining writer. One of my patient draft readers has declared him superior to my previous authors, though I myself love them all equally. Indeed, de Banville has driven me to purchase one of his old volumes. I’ve also bought originals by Sand, de Vogüé, Mendès and others I’m keeping for a rainy day. Yes, I’m starting a collection, but I would never have met these books and their authors if the library had not kept them under cover of dust, despite calls to dispose of them. Long live libraries of the physical kind.
August is Women in Translation month. This is a time to search for books by one of the minorities among writers, female authors who have been translated into English. As a translator of a couple of them, I’ve decided to slip out of my translatorly solitude and become somewhat actively involved. I’m very fortunate to have a daughter-in-law who works in a bookshop frequented by serious readers, ‘Paperchain’ in Canberra, so I took in a few copies of Spiridion by George Sand, (which I translated), and asked if she would be interested in making a small display of books authored by women in languages other than English. She selected a few from the shop stock and assigned a shelf to the cause, directly beneath the shelf assigned to Harry Potter books…
This month, try to read at least one translated book originally written by a woman. I’m reading a book of poems by New Caledonian author, Déwé Gorodé, translated by Raylene Ramsay and Deborah Walker, and from the same island some short stories by Claudine Jacques, which are not yet available in English but will be, just as soon as I find a publisher for my work!
So, think outside the box that contains only male English-writing authors, and enjoy some of the other outstanding books from around the world.
Today in Valldemossa, Mallorca, I heard two Chopin piano concerts, each lasting ten minutes. They were included with the ticket to the Real Cartuja Municipal Museum which exhibits Frédéric Chopin and George Sand memorabilia in a few cells of the old monastery. Though one of Chopin’s pianos is present in another cell, the Celda de Chopin (a different, privately owned museum), it was not played today; the pianist played on a grand piano in the adjoining Palace of King Sancho, who owned the monastery before it was a monastery.
The Chopin pieces give visitors an impression of the sounds that drifted from the monks’ cells where he was staying in the winter of 1838/39. Though he began his sojourn by composing on a borrowed instrument, in the last few weeks of his stay his new Pleyel piano arrived from Paris. In the cold bare cells he composed a few Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo – pieces now famous. Today’s tourists come to see this very piano in the private museum, they photograph it and even hear it played by concert pianists, but only in summer. I missed out, being here in spring.
They photograph his handwritten musical scores, his death mask, his hand mask. There’s little information attached to the exhibits, and if visitors can’t speak to the guide in Spanish, they can only look but not learn. Yet if Chopin’s name is famous here, it is a modern phenomenon; when he and his lover, George Sand, were staying in Valldemossa, they were anything but popular, he having a disease which in the Mallorcan mind was contagious and deadly, and she wearing men’s clothes and not attending mass on Sunday. Even two years later when she wrote her account of their stay, Un Hiver à Majorque, Sand did not reveal the name of her companion but discreetly referred to him as the sick one, the invalid, our friend, someone in my family.
Time passed, and the world learnt that Chopin had been here, had composed here. They wanted to come and feel his presence, hear the echoes of his music in the cloisters, see his music scores with all their corrections exhibited on the walls.
George’s photos and images also adorn both of the museums, samples of writings by her and about her are exhibited under glass, with no indication of who wrote what. Copies of paintings of Sand, Chopin and their contemporaries hang on the walls.
The view from each cell is stunning, a distant perspective with a foreground of Mediterranean plantings in a monk’s garden. While Chopin composed, Sand finished Spiridion, the novel she’d begun a year earlier, coincidentally about monks in a monastery. What providence for a writer to land in her imaginary setting, to live for a short time the life of her protagonists!
Copies of Sand’s travel account, Un Hiver à Majorque, are on sale in both museums in many languages. An English translation by Shirley Kerby James, A Winter in Mallorca, sells well. Clearly tourists like to buy it and relive Sand’s experience here with Chopin, its ups and downs, mostly downs. His health deteriorated with the winter rains, the cells were miserably furnished and bitterly cold and the local food was unpalatable to them. If you listen to Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28 no. 15, sometimes called the Raindrop prelude because of the repeating A flat which seems to imitate insistent raindrops – it’s believed he wrote it during a rainstorm – remember him at this low point in his physical health, remember that this music came from his suffering.
As for Valldemossa, I can recommend it if you like well cared-for stone houses and cobbled streets, green-shuttered windows, and if you like to be surrounded by your fellow human beings, for masses of them flock to this village to see the place that unceremoniously inspired Chopin to write beautiful music, the place where Sand observed so astutely the Mallorcans and a few monks left over from the days when the Real Cartuja was a functioning Spanish monastery.
Morning, Valldemossa. Defeated by the insomnia of jet lag, I rise and open the curtains to a full moon shining on me. It’s four o’clock. Sheep down below the valley wall shuffle through grass, chewing and bleating. No other sound; no other presence; it’s the other extreme of Valldemossa. Twelve hours ago the streets crawled with tourists, Europeans on spring holiday spending their money in the restaurants and terrace cafés, in the souvenir and art shops. Their numbers surprised me. I’d expected this small village to be of minor touristic interest, but I was wrong. It’s all because of George Sand. Well, more precisely, because of Frédéric Chopin.
His is the famous name. Even the non-musical could tell you he composed music in some past century. Without him, Valldemossa’s cafés wouldn’t be nearly as profitable. It began when he fell in love with one of nineteenth-century-France’s gifted writers, George Sand, a woman six years older with two children in tow. In need of a warmer, healing clime for his bad chest, they ventured to Mallorca in the Mediterranean. After a few weeks of hurdles and blocks (inevitable when travelling abroad) they found themselves on the west coast of the island, temporary residents of three monk cells in a recently secularised monastery, the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa. Real for Royal. Cartuja for Carthusian. Once a king’s residence, then a Carthusian monastery. Now a museum and tourist attraction.
I’m quietly, very quietly, celebrating the publishing of my translation of Spiridion, George Sand’s novel that she finished in the cells of the Real Cartuja while Chopin, in his poor health, composed several pieces – Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo.
When you wake at three, the morning is long. I wait for the new day by writing, and eating scraps of leftover food, my First Breakfast, like the hobbit. Now it’s ten to seven and the ragged Mallorcan mountains are silhouetted in the east. It’s seven o’clock and church bells in the monastery are ringing. It’s twenty past seven and there’s light, soft and shaded by mountains. The warm yellow street lamps are still on. It’s a quarter to eight and the lamps are now off. It’s half past eight and the hotel owners have set the tables. Time for Second Breakfast.
Four years ago I began translating one of George Sand’s novels: Spiridion. She was, some say, the first French feminist. I wrote a post about her here, not because she was a feminist but because she did what people said she couldn’t do: George Sand was a female who earned her living from writing, which, if it’s difficult in the 21st century, was next to impossible in the 19th.
Two years ago I finished the translation, and SUNY Press agreed to publish it.
Today, sitting in an airport in a foreign land – an unusual experience no matter how many times I do it – I’ve received an email from them to say Spiridion is now available as an ebook from their website. I’ve had a few short translated pieces published in literary journals, but this is the first novel. It’s a morning of unusual things.
In May it will be available as a real hold-in-your-hand book. Fantastic!
Here’s the book cover and summary of the story, with a little bit about me as the translator, copied from the web page. Hope it tickles your 19th-century-French literary fancies!
An abbot’s ghost searches for an intelligent monk to exhume his manuscript from a hellish crypt and learn the truth that monks lack two things: freedom of inquiry and benevolence.
Both Gothic and philosophical, Spiridion tells the story of a young novice, Angel, who finds himself cruelly ostracized by his monastic superiors and terrified by the ghostly visits of his monastery’s founder, the abbot Spiridion. Though he founded the monastery on the search for truth, Spiridion watched his once intelligent and virtuous monks degenerate into a cruel, mindless community. Turning away from the Church and withdrawing into his cell, he poured his energy into a manuscript that tells the “truth” about Roman Catholic doctrine and monastic life and provides a vision of a new and eternal gospel. The manuscript was buried with him, and his spirit now searches for a monk who is intelligent enough to exhume it from his crypt, which is guarded by hellish spirits, and share its vision with the world.
Translated into English for the first time in more than 160 years, Spiridion offers a fierce critique of Catholic doctrine as well as solutions for living with the Church’s teachings. Although Sand had broken with the Church several years earlier, she nevertheless continued to believe in an omnipotent God, and her novel makes the distinction, as Angel’s protector, Father Alexis, puts it, “between the authority of faith and the application of this authority in the hands of men.” As translator Patricia J. F. Worth argues in her introduction, the novel’s emphasis on freedom of inquiry, benevolence, and moral reform inspired other nineteenth-century writers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Matthew Arnold, and Henry James, and the novel is also relevant to twenty-first-century discussions of religious authority and rigid adherence to doctrine.
“This is an excellent translation of a tale of the supernatural by a major French author. With her searing critique of Catholicism and its labyrinthine structures, Sand in Spiridion deconstructs her culture in a way similar to what Mary Shelley has done in Frankenstein. Both works are effective as horror stories, but both can also sustain serious academic inquiry, yielding still deeper rewards. Beyond academe, serious students of religion will also find that Spiridion’s subject matter raises provocative theological questions.” — Lynn Hoggard, translator of Nelida by Marie d’Agoult
Patricia J. F. Worth is a French-English translator and private tutor of English and French. She received her master of translation studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, where she focused on nineteenth-century French literature and recent New Caledonian literature.
On the SUNY Press web page for Spiridion there’s a link to what is called the ‘first chapter’, but it will in fact take you to the introductory material. So, to read the first chapter you will have to get the book…
She was a great-great granddaughter of the King of Poland, Augustus II the Strong. Her father was the king’s great-grandson, Maurice Dupin.
Her mother, Sophie Delaborde, the daughter of a bird fancier, was, said George, of the ‘vagabond race of Bohemians’.
She was a girl with a foot in two worlds, born Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin in 1804 in Paris, raised by her aristocratic grandmother.
She did what women did in the nineteenth century: she married at 18 and produced a child, and a few years later, after some time away from home, she produced another child. Perhaps not by the same father…
She did what women didn’t do: she left her husband to live as a single mother in Paris.
In 1831, she began mixing in artistic circles and changed her name to George Sand.
To be independent, George had to earn her living. She took to writing, lived in attics, cropped her hair, abandoned her expensive layers of women’s drapery and donned cheaper clothing: a redingote, trousers, vest and tie.
Dressing in men’s clothes allowed her to visit clubs and theatre-pits where she closely observed men in their public male spaces and listened in on their literary and cultural conversations.
And dressing in men’s clothes brought her valuable attention as a new author. It helped her books to sell so she and her two children could eat.
In her writing career she considered herself an equal among her male peers, and her works were widely read.
By the end of the nineteenth century, her works were out of fashion.
Some of her best writings have been translated into English in recent years. After I read her Gothic novel, Spiridion, (in French), about 3 years and 3 months ago, I had an idea that English-language readers would find it intriguing. When I’d finished reading it, I started translating it. Now SUNY Press is publishing my translation of Spiridion, and will have it ready in May 2015.
George wrote it in 1838/39 while keeping company with Frédéric Chopin, several years her junior. When Frédéric, George and her children sojourned in Majorca for the winter of 1838, she finished Spiridion to the sounds of Chopin composing his Preludes.
But in 1842 George revised the novel’s ending, and it’s this one you’ll read in the English translation.
In Spiridion the audacious George wrote of an exclusively male microcosm where not one female plays a part, a world impossible for her to experience but not impossible to imagine: a monastery where goodness is punished, corruption is encouraged, love is discouraged, and real and unreal demons haunt the cloisters and the crypt.
It was a harsh critique of the rigid dogmas of a monastery and its authorities. “I allowed myself to challenge purely human institutions,” she said, and, for that, some declared her to be “without principles.” Her response: “Should it bother me?”.
Some readers will learn a lesson and find hope in this story. Others will read a mystery based on the evil tendencies of humans confined in an institution, with a positive suggestion or two for living peaceably with our fellow monks.
In May next year, if you’re looking for a Gothic novel with a philosophical turn, keep your eye out for this cover.
George became one of the rare women of the nineteenth century able to earn enough to be financially independent. She was still writing when she died at 71.
On Thursday, the WordPress writing prompt was “Voice Work”: who would you like to do a voice recording of your blog?
It got me thinking about audio books, a book pleasure I enjoy from time to time. The delight of this kind of ‘reading’ is in the hearing. The voice of the reader combined with an excellent novel is the best kind of one-sided conversation. Usually an actor is chosen as the reader, but hearing him read is streets ahead of seeing and hearing actors interpret a novel as film (well, for me it is).
Take, as an example of a highly-recommended audio book, Dances with Wolves read by its author, Michael Blake. My husband and I listened to it on a long drive and often found we didn’t want to get out of the car.
Then there was The Collector, written by John Fowles, narrated by James Wilby. Creepy story. A butterfly collector decides to collect something less morally acceptable. The reader played the part so well that I don’t think I could trust him in real life.
And recently, on another long drive interstate and back again, we listened to The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerard Basil Edwards, a story about a long life on the island of Guernsey, written by a Guernsey man, and read by Guernsey-born Roy Dotrice. It was so good that we’ve replayed parts of it just to hear the narrator’s voice and the quirky dialogue, where verbs aren’t always conjugated and h’s are dropped when they exist and added when they don’t.
I tried to imagine someone (not me) reading my blog posts, but I drew a blank. But something else sprang to mind: a book I’ve translated which will be available next year. That is something I’d like to hear read aloud. The story, Spiridion, is set in an 18th-century monastery where goodness is punished and females play no part. So my reader would have to be male, for the only female in this book is the author, though she’s a writer with a man’s name: George Sand. She wrote in French, but for my English translation I would choose, perhaps, an eloquent Englishman. Or Australian, because I’m Australian. But then, perhaps not, since there are no 18th-century monasteries here; an Australian accent might not be credible. I’d need someone who sounds like he could have lived in the 18th century, from a country where monasteries have been around for a millennium. How about an actor I’ve seen in a film of the same genre? Say, Sean Connery. Hmmm. Did you see him in The Name of the Rose? Yes, he’s the one. I’d pick him.
I’ve been reluctant to respond to the theme of ‘mine’ – it struck me as a request to show how self-centred and unsharing we can be sometimes. However, I’ve just realised that I have something I’m pleased to call ‘mine’ because I’ve been using a borrowed one for 15 months. I don’t need to hang onto it very tightly: it’s one of those things that no one else would ever want!
In June last year I began working on the translation of a story, reading from a library book which I was the first to borrow since the 1980s. The story was so good that I soon tried to buy my own copy. But it’s such a peculiar title and edition that my worldwide search turned up nothing. Until 2 weeks ago. I was reminded that persistence pays.
Here’s the library book I’ve been using, printed in 1980:
And here’s ‘mine’, the edition which rewarded my relentless searching. It came from a bookshop in Geneva complete with an old folded 1920 invoice between its pages. I was thrilled to find that the book is the original of the library version, meaning the page numbers are the same and I don’t have to rearrange my notes.
My book is so fragile that page shards are appearing on every surface where I work with it. But it’s mine and I don’t have to return it to a library. Every one of its readers from the past 145 years is inspiring me as I translate its words for a new century of readers.
The photo I chose for the ‘Together’ challenge shows soldiers far from home, undoubtedly lonely for family and not wanting to isolate themselves from the local people.
It reminded me of the concluding words of George Sand (pen name of Mme Aurore Dudevant) after spending a couple of months in a deserted monastery in Majorca, separated from almost everyone except her family and her lover, Frédéric Chopin. Two paragraphs express her need, not for solitude, but for companionship:
“In the stormy days of youth, we imagine that solitude is the great refuge against attacks, the great remedy for battle wounds. This is a grave error. Life experience teaches us that when we cannot live in peace with our fellow man, no poetic admiration or pleasures of art are capable of filling the abyss that forms in the depth of our soul.
I had always dreamt of living in the desert, and any simple dreamer will admit he has had the same fantasy. But believe me, my brothers, we have hearts too loving to get by without each other; and the best thing left for us to do is tolerate each other, for we are like children of the same womb who tease, fight and even hit each other, and yet cannot part.”
George Sand, A Winter in Majorca, 1855 (My translation)