This morning I pulled from my bookshelf a translation of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I flipped to the end, p. 1,463! Then I backflipped to the middle, where I read on p. 731 the essence of Hugo’s message about the miserable poor of France. Next to it on the shelf was a five-volume set of the novel in French, so I pulled out the third volume and had a go at translating the lines myself.
Just before the lines of my translation, the narrator had recounted an incident where Marius, walking at a wintry nightfall, had run into two barefoot girls in torn rags whispering to each other about their narrow escape from the police. Once they had disappeared, he continued his walk:
Along the way, in an alley off the Rue Mouffetard, he saw a child’s coffin covered in a black cloth, lying across three chairs and lighted by a candle. It brought to his mind the two girls of the twilight.
‘Poor mothers!’ he thought. ‘There’s one thing sadder than seeing your children die, and that’s seeing them live bad lives.’
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 the NGA (USA) web site:
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…’
The verb ‘to read’ does not tolerate the imperative, an aversion it shares with a few others: ‘to love’ … ‘to dream’ …
Like a Novel (originally Comme un roman), Daniel Pennac (my translation)
I’ve read this book in French. On the back cover is a list of ten rights of a reader, which I found online in the printable form of an English language poster, and which I duly printed and stuck to the back of a particular door for everyone to read.
Trembling. It’s what I do best. I’m an expert at trembling. I have an incredible mastery of trembling. Had it since I was very small. Since the day I started kindergarten, the teacher has been telling my mother who comes to pick me up every day, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; she has been telling my father who never misses a fete at the Shizugawa school: Your daughter, she trembles; it’s amazing how she trembles; it’s amazing how well she trembles. Perhaps she didn’t say exactly that at the end, Your daughter, how well she trembles, but she looked so impressed that I think she did. I am the best at trembling.
It began the first time someone said, All children under the table. At first, I hesitated. When the voice repeated, All children under the table, the Earth is trembling, I thought, it’s the table with the red tablecloth, and on top of it all the flowers and the birds and the horses and the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete, if it starts trembling, us underneath, no one to watch it, everything will be knocked to the ground, the fete knocked to the ground. But the voice insisted, so I slipped under the table with the others, and I thought the only thing to do was to tremble all together, me, us, the table, the flowers, the birds, the horses, the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete. And that’s what I did; every time, that’s what I did and the teacher said, Your daughter, she’s an earthquake on legs; and the old doctor Tokiji Watanabe looked at me for a long time, a long time, and he said, There is actually a sickness called ‘Essential Tremor’ or ‘Familial Tremor’, but to be sure, we’ll have to wait till she grows up, and she’ll have to learn to live with it.
Learn to live with it; Papa says, It’s Shinto, it’s knowing that everything is connected, nothing and no one is ever separated, it’s our pride. I’m not sick, my name is Katsumi, Victorious Beauty; my father chose my name and he never misses the school fete that takes a long time, a long time to get ready, sometimes all year, and every day when parents ask, What did you do today?, me, Katsumi, I answer, Today we got ready for the school fete, and the next day, and for days and days, when Papa or Mama asks What did you do today?, always the same answer, Today we got ready for the school fete.
This morning, Friday 11th March 2011, for the school fete, for the origami class, I brought in some beautiful old paper that Grandma Sadako gave me. There’s a drawing on it that frightens me, but Papa says, Fear is like the tengu, like trembling, you must tame it; take this picture, it’s by Hokusai, our ‘Old man mad on painting’, his Great Wave off Kanagawa, it’s everywhere in the world, it’s our pride. So I dared to take it because folding, it calms my trembling, and especially because I saw her in the folds, the creases, the teeth and the claws of the sea on the paper: the crane of my dream. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. And that’s what I did. All morning, I had to fight with this rotten drawing and my trembling. In the end, she was standing on the table with the red tablecloth; the one‑thousandth crane for Grandma Sadako, who folds one every day, saying, It’s my prayer; and she was the most beautiful, too.
She’s Prussian blue and yellow ochre, with greys like you’ve never seen over her whole body; here pale like shellfish soup, there dark like pea soup, and a very white spot on her throat. The great wave living inside her doesn’t frighten me any more. Papa is right. Everything is connected, no one is separated. It was 2.30pm when the voice shouted, All children, quick, the Earth’s trembling. I held her close to me under the table with the red tablecloth. Both of us lying down, folded, patient. When I put her up to my ear, I clearly heard the roar of the sea; Mama, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; Papa, his footsteps, full of pride, coming to the school fete. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. I’m not trembling any more.
26th Aug – Found out that lactose-free cream can’t be whipped.
27th Aug – A 10 year-old told me about a scorpion. It’s a dirt bike trick where the rider throws his body up off the seat, curling his legs up and back like a scorpion’s tail.
28th Aug – Taught English to an ambassador. That’s a first!
29th Aug – Read that some of Marcel Proust’s lines are the longest in English literature.
30th Aug – My students never write in cursive (running writing). One 13 year-old said he had one-hour cursive writing lessons once a week when he was in Year 3 (8 y.o.), but he didn’t like it and prefers to print. What is truly amazing to me is that teachers give them the choice.