Today it’s a month since I last wrote on my blog. I think that in six years of blogging this has been the longest break.
When I reached my hundredth Great Opening Line I had a plan to write about the forthcoming publications of a few of my translated stories. Two journals offered to put my work out there in May and July, but I’m still waiting. The editors aren’t answering my queries so, unfortunately for us all, I’m in the dark. The translations are ‘The Lame Angel’ and ‘Tears on the Sword’ by Catulle Mendès’. I’m particularly hoping the latter will eventually appear in an anthology: Fairytale Riot produced by the Agorist Writers’ Workshop. They have a delightful cover ready, which looks promising:
Translating stories is hard hard work. The first draft is easyish, then there are months of redrafting and tweaking before submitting them to publishers and journals. What follows is a long wait. And while I wait I translate more stories: draft, redraft, tweak, submit. And after that, there’s marketing and promotion… When an editor promises to publish a story and then doesn’t deliver, it’s hard to know whether to promote or forget. Ever the optimist, I’m going to promote another project: Stories to Read by Candlelight.
My translation of Jean Lorrain’s small book of stories, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, was accepted by Odyssey Books back in September 2017, and I’ve now discovered my name on their list of forthcoming publications for September 2018. That’s next month!
It will be illustrated, which is a bit thrilling for me, since the stories are 19th-century fairy tales, some of which I’ve read in illustrated 19th-century journals, as you see in the example below, and which I’ve imagined in a 21st-century edition. It was very exciting when the Odyssey Books editor, Michelle Lovi, offered to decorate the pages of the new book.
I’ll keep you posted on any of my work that makes it out into the wider world. All going well, there should be a new book of old tales available soon in bookshops, real and electronic.
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.
A new literary journal, Sun Star, has just released Issue 2 of Volume 1, and one of my translations of Jean Lorrain’s stories, “Useless Virtue”, is in it. And there’s a bonus: the editor has written a short piece in regard to translations of old works in the public domain. If you’d like to read the story, it’s available online for free here. Scroll down to page 29.
I’ve previously written about “Useless Virtue” on my blog, twice, without writing the actual story (which would have disqualified it from being published elsewhere…). I posted here with a translated part of Lorrain’s accompanying introduction to the story, and here with some connections to paintings of Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens that helped me visualise the action while translating it.
I found the original, “L’Inutile Vertu”, in a small brown book on a dusty shelf at my old university, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (Stories to read by candlelight), but it also appeared later in La Revue Illustrée, a French turn-of-the-century journal which was, unsurprisingly, illustrated, with pages such as this one (courtesy of Gallica).
Illustrated adult books and stories seem to be out of fashion now. But why should children have all the fun of comparing the words to the pictures? For me, it’s an exquisite pleasure to read copies of La Revue Illustrée. True, they’re in French, but there are many examples of English illustrated journals available online that would be a great source of enjoyment for anyone who likes to study drawing styles and the decorated page, not to mention illustrated stories.
If I were gifted with a pencil or a paintbrush, I might have illuminated my own translations. Now there’s a thought. I wonder if there are any translators out there doing just this…
‘The Mandrake’, my translation of ‘La Mandragore’ by Jean Lorrain – about a princess who gives birth to a frog – has just been published in a new literary journal, Belmont Story Review. I missed its appearance in May in this first issue, and discovered it one afternoon this past week when searching randomly online. A delightful surprise!
Jean Lorrain was a French author of the Belle Époque who wrote fantastical stories and novels that were original but often bizarre. He was loathed for the caustic humour of his newspaper columns in which he attacked many of the leading figures of his era. Yet, while his perversions repelled readers, this participant in Belle Époque decadence was also a spectator who wrote sarcastic analyses of its morals: many of his stories encourage questions about prejudices, leaving a reader unmasked and uneasy. Lorrain was particularly renowned for his flamboyant homosexuality and an addiction to ether. No surprise, then, that he died quite young, at 51, in Paris. Today much of his work remains unread, even by the French.
I’ve translated a number of Lorrain’s short stories, with a few published in literary journals. Last year I decided to translate ‘La Mandragore’ (1899), a dark fairy tale brilliantly illustrated by Marcel Pille and available online in the original French edition at Gallica. I submitted my work to a few journals and this year was fortunate to have it accepted. When you’ve read the translation available in print from Amazon or for free on the site of the digital publisher, Issuu, I highly recommend you check out Gallica, where you’ll see amazing illustrations like the one below which will give you clues to the story about a Queen and her frog daughter. Oh, and of course there’s a mandrake, the plant with an eerily human-shaped root…
‘La Mandragore’ has also been translated into Spanish by Alicia Mariño and Luis Alberto, and it looks to be a beautiful edition that includes the original illustrations.
Authors today are encouraged to promote promote promote their work on a blog (and on other popular elements of social media that I don’t use). One promotional activity which hasn’t been too time-hungry and is even enjoyable is the creation of a Pinterest board with images associated with my translated works. I’ve recently read articles by two much-published authors pushing Pinterest as an author’s friend. So I tried it. When you check out my board you’ll see intricately decorated pages from the original French versions of my translated stories, like this one from La Revue illustrée, 1st June 1899, illustrated by Alfred Daguet for ‘Princesse Mandosiane’, one of the stories you can now read in English in the Eleven Eleven journal (which you’ll have to buy):
Look at the creature in the bottom left of the page doing a handstand while balancing an ‘L’ signpost in his mouth! Reminds me of the sculpted column swallowers in Romanesque churches. Such fun! Why don’t we decorate our pages any more?
Of course, for every one of my translations that’s published there are several others not accepted. Just this week I’ve received two rejections and a notice that someone is already translating some stories I’m working on. Or, rather, was working on until that moment. Submitting stories to magazines and journals has become a part-time job, taking so much time and effort that I hardly have time to translate new stories. But why write it if no one will read it? Between the writing and the reading, there must come submission, publishing and promotion. Fortunately there’s pleasure in it all!
For a couple of months I’ve been waiting for a journal posted in August, and yesterday it arrived in my letterbox: Eleven Eleven, Issue 19, a Journal of Literature and Art produced by the California College of the Arts. I was surprised at the size of it, about half an inch thick, 256 pages of stories and poetry and art, some in colour.
The editors had published two stories I translated from a collection by Jean Lorrain: ‘Princess Mandosiane’ and ‘Queen Maritorne’, and sent me a copy by way of payment. Seeing the stories in the journal was pretty special, and knowing that readers will have to go out and buy it gives the experience an edge.
But even being published in a free online magazine earlier this year was, I have to admit, a thrill! Another one of Jean Lorrain’s stories, ‘Madame Gorgibus’, was published in Intranslation, part of The Brooklyn Rail, ‘an independent forum for arts, culture, and politics throughout New York City and beyond’. I was so glad to read that last word, my home being far far away from New York. Indeed, I’m very grateful to American magazines that welcome submissions from Australia, from the back of beyond (well not quite), since there are virtually no journals here that would take my translations.
What opportunities there are for writers in this electronic world!
Yesterday I read two writing prompts that gave me ideas. The first one was the Daily Post’s prompt, Handwritten, and the second was in the ebook, 365 writing prompts, where the prompt for 11th September is Thank you. The task is defined:
“The internet is full of rants. Help tip the balance: today, simply be thankful for something (or someone).”
It was funny they should say that about the internet and rants, because I was grazed by this combination today. I was feeling thankful for something that happened because of the internet: a nomination for a literary prize by the editor of Eleven Eleven literary journal. Last month the journal published my translation of Jean Lorrain’s Princess Mandosiane. Knowing little about prizes, I made what was perhaps a mistake and searched for online information. Within seconds I was reading a rant about the meaninglessness of nominations, the unlikelihood of winning a prize, the embarrassment of being one of tens of thousands of nominees. Don’t put it in your bio, pleads the ranter, don’t put it in your résumé.
One moment I was thankful, the next I was fizzing. It took literally seconds for an internet rant to douse my small flame of pleasure.
Digging deeper and reading wider, I found a number of positive articles, a number of writers reminding readers, and me, that it’s incredibly hard work to get something published, let alone to be nominated for a prize, and that that’s something to put in your bio, something to write home about. In fact, since I’m away from home, that’s something I’m going to do.
Today I’m simply thankful for Eleven Eleven journal and for the editor’s opinion of my work.
To illustrate my little achievement, here’s a photo I took at the beach this morning when I saw this rocky man laughing up at the sky. Ha ha ha, you ranters! A nomination is a reason to be cheerful.
This is an account of connections observed when a translator, or any writer, is absorbed in a story.
This morning as I searched through a Wikipedia entry about One Thousand and One Nights for the use of a particular phrase, I came across the sub-heading ‘Foreshadowing’, which, I learned, is a literary device used by an author to hint at certain plot developments such as a disastrous end for the hero. Ah, what a coincidence, I thought, having just posted a blog entry in response to the WordPress weekly photo challenge for which the prompt was foreshadow. Clicking on the highlighted term ‘foreshadowing’ on the Wikipedia page took me to another page where I saw an illustration by Arthur Rackham of the Rhine maidens warning Siegfried of a curse and looming disaster.
Ah, I thought again, what a coincidence! Just a few days ago, reading up on the Symbolism of artists and writers of the 1890s, all the better to understand the story I was translating that day, I came across a painting in a large book about nineteenth-century art, a work by Albert Pinkham Ryder called Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens. It surprised me at the time because it virtually depicts a particular detail in the story I was working on, Useless Virtue (L’Inutile Vertu) by Jean Lorrain (1895). Yet another coincidence. Here’s the painting from Wikimedia Commons:
The scene with Siegfried and the maidens comes from Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), which inspired many painters and writers of the 1890s who produced stories and paintings that transport the reader or viewer, as Wagner did, to a mystical land where symbols foreshadow an unhappy destiny for the hero. There is often a sunless sky or a glowing moon, a mythical natural landscape of forests, mists, bodies of water, and nymphs – often in groups – who seductively invite the hero to join them.
In a few paragraphs from Useless Virtue, Jean Lorrain could have been writing about Wagner’s Rhine maidens. The hero, Bertram, even wears a winged helmet like Siegfried in the paintings above. The story is a gloomy one and quite different from Götterdämmerung, but there’s a moral at the end: there is punishment for a man who avoids temptation all his life! I enjoyed translating the vivid imagery, partly because this week I’ve stumbled across these few connections to the story. Vive la coïncidence!
Queen Maritorne was the terror of greedy thieving children: she reigned from the attic, where lines of pears and apples ripened, to the vat from which the wine was drawn; she was also the punishment for drunks, and without warning would leap out from the cask tapped by the dishonest valet.
Queen Maritorne, Jean Lorrain (Translated by me)
This is the opener of a fairy tale I translated in France. I felt like I’d met her before, this queen who punishes overeaters and overdrinkers.
These are stories for the ill, stories for the dull setting of a bedroom with herbal teas and hot infusions where Norine was invited to come and dreamily tell stories at our too-well loved childhood bedside, between six and seven, the hour when fever increases.
Stories for Sick Children, Jean Lorrain
Thus begins a set of French fairy tales I’m translating. The next lines after the opener gave me cause to reflect yesterday on Macbeth’s witches and their cauldron:
‘Into the bedroom already in shadow she would tiptoe, slipping in without a sound, sitting down at the head of our little bed, and in her toneless voice would begin:
Three white cats with ribbons about their necks dance around the cauldron…’