46 Great Opening Lines: 9

Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner in our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago and which I shall report in its proper context.

Opening line of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880, translated by David McDuff (1993)

This famous book actually has two beginnings. The first is an epigraph from John 12:24, words which are also engraved on the front of Dostoyevsky’s tomb in St Petersburg.

Tomb of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Tikhvin Cemetery, St Petersburg

The second is the opening line of Part One, Book One, as quoted above in a translation by David McDuff. When I first read this translated line, I thought it was Aleksey who’d had a tragic and fishy death. Comparing McDuff’s words with those of Constance Garnett who in 1912 published the earliest English translation of The Brothers Karamazov, I noticed not just the different spellings, Aleksey/Alexey, but I also learned a lesson about ambiguity. The same sentence in Garnett’s translation makes it immediately clear that the father, Fyodor, had died:

Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.

In the McDuff lines, Aleksey is first placed in his family context and the rest of the sentence therefore must be telling us why he was ‘noted in his time … for his tragic and fishy death’. On the other hand, the Garnett lines speak clearly of Fyodor, the father, as ‘a landowner … still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death’. No confusion.

Little lessons like this one are invaluable for translators. The risk of ambiguity is reduced with each pair of fresh eyes reading the words. Of course, The Brothers Karamazov is 971 pages long, so if the translator couldn’t find many friends to proofread so long a manuscript, we would understand.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 4

At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.

‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896

The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.

The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.

George Washington Lambert, ‘Sheoak Sam’, 1898

In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.

The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.

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The Half-Veil

The digital literary fiction journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, has just published “The Half-Veil”, my translation of “La Voilette”, a Catulle Mendès short short story of 1884. Click on the link and scroll down through other brilliant flash fiction till you see this cool photo added by the editor.

IMG_0954

Header image: La Modiste sur les Champs Élysées, Jean Béraud (1849 – 1935), courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Turgenev translation comparison

Once, I read two sentences that had a silent “Oh wow” effect on me; they were by Turgenev, in his story “The Tryst”. I had never read Turgenev, but now I wanted to know him better. I met Turgenev through Rebecca McClanahan in her very useful book, Word Painting. She quoted from “The Tryst” to illustrate description-by-negation, or rather she quoted from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation of Turgenev’s story, without crediting Hapgood. But she should have, for without the translation she would not have known about Turgenev’s skilful repetition in “It was not … not … not”, describing the sound of rustling leaves. Ivan Turgenev’s sketches of provincial Russian life are stories I’ve read and read again in English. Not only are they compelling vignettes of a country I’ve never been to, but his descriptions of closely observed Russian hunters and other forest frequenters hold my attention from beginning to end.

“Turgenev Hunting”, Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wondering whether the beauty lay in the translator’s words or the author’s, I went searching for other translations of the same passage. Here are four versions of Turgenev’s description, followed by the translator’s name:

The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. (Constance Garnett, 1897)

The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner overhead; from their sound alone one could tell what season of the year it was. It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of spring-time, not the soft whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter. (Isabel F. Hapgood, 1903)

The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible, dreamy chattering. (Richard Freeborn, 1967)

The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. (Charles and Natasha Hepburn, 1992)

 

Which is the best?

 

Garnett: Her choice of ‘not … nor … nor’ is as good as Hapgood’s ‘not … not … not’. Each word in the two sentences is individual, and most consist of one or two syllables.

Hapgood:  While it’s the translation chosen by Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate the suspense in ‘not … not … not’, it would be better if Hapgood hadn’t used ‘barely audible’ in two consecutive sentences. And ‘rustling’ and ‘rustle’.

Freeborn: Yes, he uses ‘not … not … not’, but there are too many words of three or four syllables, like ‘long-winded talkativeness’. But then ‘The leaves scarcely rustled’ is more concise than Hapgood’s ‘The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner’.

The Hepburns: They repeat ‘whispering’ and ‘whisper’ in the first sentence, and later in the same sentence their choice of ‘you’ is less literary, less poetic, than ‘one’ which keeps the reader at a distance. Also, ‘could have told the time’ at the beginning of this clause had me thinking of hours; I had to read it again.

 

So, for this little exercise, Constance Garnett is the better translator, and the one I admire. Or is it Turgenev I admire? Since I can’t read Russian, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that comparisons of translations often send me back to Constance Garnett.

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P.S. I’m writing this in autumn, but not in Russia. There are no shy and chill babblings nor is there a cold, frightened rustling. It’s a stunningly beautiful day here in Canberra where the only rustling is from the currawong, shifting branches as he eats my figs!

Under Cover of Dust

Yesterday, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative published a piece I wrote for their French month, “Under Cover of Dust”. It’s available on their Facebook page and on their blog.

Today, I inadvertently deleted the link and the post from my own blog, so here is the article, with illustrations:

 

Under Cover of Dust

by Patricia Worth (© 2017)

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.

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The Enchanted Ring

Today a new story has been published in Peacock Journal online, “The Enchanted Ring”, written by Catulle Mendès in 1887, translated by me. The story is in his collection, Pour lire au couvent (To Read in the Convent), which might surprise since it’s a wee bit spicy for innocent convent girls and only a little less risqué than his tales in Pour lire au bain (To Read in the Bath).

To set the scene, the Peacock Journal editors have illustrated the story with Claude Monet’s impression of Vétheuil in the outer regions of Paris in 1879. This will give readers a hint that the story works its way towards a country inn where three rich and handsome princes are resting for the night (only one of them is asleep…).

Claude Monet, ‘Vétheuil, Paysage’, 1879

Another of my Mendès translations, “The Only Beautiful Woman”, appeared recently in The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation which you can read about in my blog post here where you’ll see a photo of Catulle Mendès standing casually in his study reading a story. Or a poem. If you don’t recognise Mendès, you might recognise his daughters from this painting by his friend Auguste Renoir in 1888, now in the Met Museum, New York:

Auguste Renoir, ‘The Daughters of Catulle Mendès’, (1888), Huguette b. 1871, Claudine b. 1876, Helyonne b. 1879

Peacock Journal has a theme: beauty. The editors search for it in every submission. I feel fortunate and chuffed that they found it in “The Enchanted Ring”. Make your day better by popping over to read this and other stories about beauty.

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The Only Beautiful Woman…

… is the title of my newest translated story, published yesterday by The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. You can read the story online: go to the website, scroll down to the translator’s note (that’s me, of course) then click on “click here to read”. You’ll then be able to enjoy The Only Beautiful Woman by Catulle Mendès, originally “La Belle du Monde” in his collection Les Oiseaux bleus.

Like Perrault and the Grimm brothers, Mendès was a great creator of fairies. In “The Only Beautiful Woman” the incurable selfishness of humans is embodied in a trifling, time-wasting princess who frightens even the mirrors that reflect her beauty.

Image from
Image from “L’Illustration”, no. 3240, 1 April 1905

I’m very grateful to The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation editors for publishing my work, especially since this is my second appearance in their journal. In 2015 they published my translation of Madame Gorgibus by Jean Lorrain, another story in which one character suffers from another’s selfishness. But Mme Gorgibus never sees the victory of good over evil; her story is less of a comedy than Mendès’ little tale in which mirth predominates and the ending is happy.

I invite you to read these tales; they’re old and short but memorable! If you enjoy them please let me know.

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Women in Translation Month

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…

My translation of George Sand’s ‘Spiridion’ in the front row…

She then put a post on Paperchain’s Facebook page showing some translated books written by women and available in her shop.

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.

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The Mandrake

‘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!

Cover of first issue of Belmont Story Review
Cover of first issue of Belmont Story Review

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…  Illustration by Marcel Pille in original edition of 'La Mandragore' by Jean Lorrain. My translation, 'The Mandrake' has been published in The Belmont Story Review (no illustrations, unfortunately). A Spanish translation was published in 2015, with the original illustrations. Ilustración de Marcel Pille para la obra La Mandrágora, de Jean Lorraine.:

‘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.

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Joseph Olenin's Coat

By coincidence, a literary journal named The Cossack Review has accepted my translation of a story set in Russia and Ukraine. There are no cossacks in the story, but there is a quirky Russian man who falls in love with a coat. He is alone, winter is long, his sojourn in the Russian countryside is monotonous and tedious, and now he is besotted with a velvet and sable coat that is not his.

You can read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, my translation of ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (or Marie-Eugène-Melchior, Vicomte de Vogüé!), in Issue 6 of The Cossack Review, out now. The original was published in 1886 in an illustrated review, Les Lettres et les Arts. Above, in the header, is a part of the decorative first page as it appeared in the Paris journal. And here’s one of the images that appeared mid-story:

'Contemplation' by M. H. Gray, illustration in 'Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine' in 'Les Lettres et les Arts', Paris, 1 July 1886
‘Contemplation’ by M. H. Gray, illustration for ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ in ‘Les Lettres et les Arts’, Paris, 1 July 1886

And here’s the cover of the spring 2016 issue of The Cossack Review (not from Paris, nor from Russia, but from America):

Issue 6 features new prose, poetry, and translation from twenty-five contributors and three translators.

A few weeks ago I told a friend that I do read Facebook but I never write on it. Well, today – never say never – I wrote on it for the first time, after reading, somewhere, recommendations for promoting one’s own writing. Apparently I was mad not to be taking advantage of it.

I much prefer blogging. I’ve enjoyed writing this post today, hunting down the picture and thinking about my words. Facebook seems too narrow by comparison; but perhaps I should look at it like one of those poster pillars we see in city centres, where people can legally post bills. So today, I posted a bill advertising the journal that has very kindly published my translation.

If you read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, let me know.

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