It’s a mystery. How do we offer something on the internet that pleases more than a few odd readers? In January I joined a Facebook group interested in the golden age of illustration which sort of extends from the mid 1800s to the 1970s. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the exquisite coloured drawings that people were posting, most of which came from long-forgotten books, but I also saw it as a group I could contribute to. Plenty of the French stories I’ve read in old journals and collections were illustrated and I knew where I could get my hands on them. So I thought I’d post a picture or two.
In the first few months of this year I posted three illustrations, and the reception ranged from 5 to 18 ‘likes’. This week, flicking through a book I’ve had for a few years, I lingered long over one of the full-page illustrations, thought it would suit the group’s interests, and posted it. I truly didn’t care if 5 or fewer people acknowledged it, because I knew those 5 would appreciate the image for its touching humour.
Completely blowing away my low expectations, the post has since attracted 622 ‘likes’, a large number of comments, and has been shared 240 times! (Updated Wednesday)
Even though the images I posted earlier were equally interesting, they didn’t tickle the fancy of viewers as this one has. There’s no way of knowing what will!
Here’s the image. It’s by Marcel Pille, illustrating a moment in ‘La Mandragore’ by Jean Lorrain, a story I’ve translated as ‘The Mandrake’, published in Belmont Review. Not that any of this mattered, since people gave their own interpretations of the image without any knowledge of the story.
Some of the reactions were emotional, some humorous, some surprised. So, here, I guess is the answer to my own question: how do I attract the interest of internetters? With something, preferably an image, that evokes emotion, humour and surprise, all at once!
I was searching the internet this week for any mention of a translated book I’m waiting for. It’s my own translation, not yet published. The publisher, Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books, has been working on it, so I wondered if she’d mentioned it somewhere online. Hooray! My search produced a result: I found a cover on Booktopia, and a chance to pre-order the whole book. The link is here.
Here’s a preview of the cover:
The stories are from Jean Lorrain’s small collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, first published in 1897 though most of them had appeared in illustrated journals in the previous ten years. A few of these 19th-century illustrations can be seen in my blog posts here, here and here.
The new book will also be illustrated. The silhouette images on the cover give a clue to what will be inside, but they’re not yet ready. You can imagine how eager I am to see how they look!
Never would I have translated Jean Lorrain if I knew then what I know now.
But that’s the beauty of reading a good book. The reader’s relationship is with the book and the story it tells, not its author.
There’s much I could write about Jean Lorrain that would turn you away from all his work. But as a translator, I choose the writing, not the writer. After I’d read his little collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (Stories to Read by Candlelight), certain pieces stayed with me and compelled me to read them again. Before I knew a thing about Lorrain, I was touched by the sympathy he expressed for some of the underdogs of his society, like the odd old woman in ‘Madame Gorgibus’ and the trapped beauty in ‘Princess Mandosiane’.
A brief bio: Jean Lorrain was born Paul Duval in 1855 and died of decadence in 1906 at the age of 51. He was the only child of a family of wealthy ship-owners. In 1882 he decided to become a writer, disappointing his father who suggested he take on an alias to avoid bringing shame on the family, thus Jean Lorrain was invented. He was a much-published journalist, poet, novelist, and sharp-tongued critic of his decadent peers, despite belonging to their circle.
While his work was well-known in his lifetime, much of it has been forgotten and will probably remain forgotten. But the stories I’ve selected to translate are worth resurrecting for their exquisite prose, particularly some that are in a category entitled ‘Tales for Sick Children’, that are quirky but not decadent like his novels. Their expression is nostalgic and aesthetic, typical of Belle Époque symbolists who rebelled against modern technology and yearned for a return of medieval days and characters in flamboyant gowns and armour.
His tales of knights and princesses, ghostly girls and frightful animated crockery are as masterfully worded as our favourite mythical adventures. What really clinched it for me were the illustrations accompanying several versions in issues of La Revue illustrée and Gil Blas, like the one above. Many of Lorrain’s stories were beautifully illustrated in the art nouveau of the era, not only in journals but also in deliciously decorated books. See this website for some excellent images from his books.
Here’s a taste of the writing that led me to translate it. To set the scene: Princess Mandosiane is embroidered onto a banner once used in grand processions and now stored in the crypt of a cathedral. A mouse tempts her with freedom:
Now, she lent her ear to the counsel of the red mouse, an insidious little mouse, fast as lightning, persistent and wilful, who had haunted her for years.
“Why stubbornly remain a captive, armour‑plated in all these pearls and embroidery holding you so tightly? Yours is not a life, you have never lived, not even during the times when you sparkled on those fine days of proclamations and pealing bells, cheered on by euphoric crowds, and now, you see, your life is oblivion, it is death. If you like, with my sharp teeth I could undo one by one the stitches of silk and gold cord that have held you in place for six hundred years, motionless in this lustrous velvet which, just between us, has lost its brilliance. It will perhaps hurt a little, especially when I unpick the stitches close to your heart, but I’ll begin with the long contours, those of your hands and your face, and already you will be able to stretch and move, and you will see how good it is to breathe and to live!’
Several of my translations of his stories have been published in journals in recent years, but soon the whole collection, “Stories to Read by Candlelight”, will be available. It’s presently being prepared for publication by Odyssey Books, a small Australian publisher.
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.