46 Great Opening Lines: 11

1918. 8 March. There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.

Opening line, The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla, 1966, translated by Peter Bush

 

Catalonia is in the news and on my mind. I’m reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. And it’s in my face, for my desktop picture is a 1915 painting, L’esmorzar (Breakfast) by Joaquim Sunyer, one of Pla’s favourite Catalan artists.

Sometime last year I found this image online, bright and deep and earthy. But for an unknown reason I can’t find it again, so here’s a photo of my desktop picture. And my desktop. I so enjoy this painting that I haven’t removed it from my screen since I found it. The couple look friendly, as if they’d happily prepare me a meal even if I don’t speak Catalan, or even Spanish. They’re tanned from working outdoors, probably producing the food on their table and the tables of the townspeople. They’re rugged and strong, a little reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters but healthier.

The colours of south-east France and north-east Spain (or Catalonia) are warm and inviting, baked yellow and clay red, like the colours of the Catalan flag, like the colours in this wall plaque I snapped in Port-Vendres, not far north of the French-Spanish border.

This sense of real life, of a colourful realism, is what I’m reading in Josep Pla. The book is a diary written over twenty months, beginning the day Josep turns 21, but it wasn’t published until he was 69, by which time he had transformed it with added stories, reflections and a little stretched truth. It’s filled with descriptions, yarns, recalled childhood images, and plenty of cynicism. More than anything it revives my own pleasant memories of Pla’s part of the world, Catalonia.

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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: 8

A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.

Opening lines of “Tickets on Time” by Marcel Aymé (translated by Sophie Lewis)

Another story by Marcel Aymé. In this one, “La Carte” in French, the reader must accept the assumption of time-rationing. It’s like food rationing in wartime, and indeed the story is set during the occupation of France in the early 1940s. But now the consumer is forced to ration his time, having the right to only a certain number of days per month, and will be temporarily put to death according to his entitlement. Aymé makes mischievous fun of his own profession as a writer: his main character, Jules Flegmon, is horrified that writers have been lumped together with painters, sculptors and musicians as consumers decreed to be unproductive for the State and returning less than their upkeep.

Aymé’s fictitious character died for 15 days each month. But the real writer Marcel Aymé lived every day of his life until he died in 1967. He lived in Montmartre and has a Place named after him (see header photo of the Place Marcel Aymé), and he’s buried in Montmartre where his character Jules Flegmon lived, died and lived until the decree was abolished.

Grave of Marcel Aymé – Saint-Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre, Paris

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46 Great Opening Lines: 7

In Montmartre there lived a poor fellow named Martin who existed only every second day.

From Dead Time by Marcel Aymé, 1936, translated by me!

This is the opening line of another short story by Marcel Aymé, Le Temps mort in French, Dead Time in English. The main character, Martin, who is alive one day and dead the next, falls in love with a woman who at first doesn’t have a problem with his absences, but eventually finds them expedient.

I’ve translated a bit more than the first line, and when I get to the end I’ll send it out into the world to see if someone would like to publish it.

I’m writing this in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight that doesn’t leave for two hours. A satisfying way to fill dead time.

My previous post about Great Opening Lines was in praise of Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls, another of his excellent fantastical stories for children and adults. All of them highly recommended. Here he is at his desk:

Marcel Aymé, 1929. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

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46 Great Opening Lines: 6

In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all.

From The Man Who Walked Through Walls, 1941, Marcel Aymé, translated by Sophie Lewis

In my previous post about a great opening line I introduced the French author, Marcel Aymé, and his short story, The Wolf, written for children albeit with a pretty scary moral. Aymé also wrote fantasy for adults, and is possibly most famous for his tale about a man who walked through walls. There are several English translations around, but this one (above) is the best I could lay my hands on.

Man in the Wall, tribute to Marcel Aymé, photo courtesy of www.briansolis.com

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46 Great Opening Lines: 5

Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.

Opening line, The Wolf, Marcel Aymé (my translation)

Cover of ‘Les Contes bleus du chat perché’, including ‘Le Loup’ (The Wolf), Marcel Aymé, courtesy of Gallimard, publisher

The Wolf is a children’s story written by Marcel Aymé in 1932. Aymé is more famous for his science fiction/fantasy stories, particularly about characters who have a supernatural ability, like walking through walls, or existing only every second day. This story is about a wolf who convinces two small blonde girls (wolves prefer blondes) to let him into the house while their parents are out. The ending is a happy one, for the girls.

The translation is mine. One day it might be published.

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The Mask

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to the back to read it in English.

The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…

Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62

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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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Southerly

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ Condamné à perpétuité, “Life Sentence”, has today been published by Southerly, the journal of the English Association at Sydney University. The journal is available to purchase in print or digitally.

Southerly is dedicated to publishing new Australian literature. I feel honoured to have had my work selected, given that the author I’ve translated lives in New Caledonia, a French island about two hours off the coast of Queensland. However, I’m Australian and the English is mine. The story has much in it that was familiar to me as a child in Queensland: tropical flora, heat, ocean. But one thing I’m not familiar with is leprosy, the topic. There’s a little island clearly visible from Brisbane called Peel Island, which in the past when anyone asked was always quickly identified as the leper colony. The question was a good conversation killer. All we knew was that those who lived there had been expelled from the mainland. No one actually knew what it was like to be there.

Reading Condamné à perpétuité gave me a bit of an insight into life on an Island of Lepers.

To encourage you to read the translation, I’ll reveal that “Life Sentence” has a happy(ish) ending.

I feel especially fortunate that Southerly has published it since the theme of their current issue is Persian literature! “Life Sentence” is one of the few stories included that are outside the theme. Thank you Southerly.

(Be assured this is the latest issue despite the 2016 date.)

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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!