All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.
Anna Karenin, Leo Tolstoy (Trans. by Rosemary Edmonds, who prefers this title over Anna Karenina)
This novel brings two things to mind:
1. An author I work for dictates while I type. She dictates for several minutes, then thinks for several more. During one of these silences I once pulled Anna Karenin from her shelves and began reading. After six months, I’d read about half the novel during our dictation sessions. She rewarded me with my own copy so I could finish it.
2. The opening line is famous, but Tolstoy didn’t write these words; the translator did. You might recognise or have heard the line as it is above, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, or another of the many slight variations on this opening proverb, like a recent one by Pevear and Volokhonsky:
‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Or a golden oldie by Constance Garnett:
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ‘
If you ever quote one of them, you’re giving credit to a translator. And that makes me feel like my hours translating literature are worthwhile.
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…’
One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.
The Paper House, Carlos María Domínguez (Trans. Nick Caistor)
This is a small novel I found on my daughter-in-law’s bookshelf. I was hooked from the first line, and took it home.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Some books have a title that tempts me to turn to the blurb; this is one of them. And then, even better, it has this great opening line. So I began reading. About half-way through I put the book down. It lost me.
The Outsider, Albert Camus (trans. by Stuart Gilbert. Originally L’étranger)
Yesterday (no. 14) I posted the first line from The Outsiders. With a final s. Different book, different author, but the same theme of a protagonist who feels like he’s outside of society. Like a misfit.
Today’s post is about The Outsider by Albert Camus. Thousands of words have been penned and keyed about his opening line. In French, it is ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.’ Literally, ‘Today, Mum died.’ Three words that various translators render variously. Today, Mother died. Today, Mummy died. Today, my mother died. My mother died today. Mum died today. Mummy died today. Mama died today. Today, mum is dead. If it’s published in the US, Mum would be Mom.
The maman quandary was mine when I translated the short story Origami by Anne Bihan, in which a small girl refers to her mother as maman, French for Mum and Mummy. Since the girl is Japanese and the setting is Japan, I searched the web and happily found that some Japanese children are starting to use the European-sounding Mama, which I liked for my translation because of its similarity to Maman, and thought it good for retaining a closeness to the French. (I also liked Mama because one of my sons uses it when addressing me…) Of course, I put myself in the shoes of the little girl and remembered that I used to address my own mother as Mummy. But that doesn’t sound Japanese or French; it sounds English. Or Australian. Like me.
What about the actual Japanese word for Mum: Okaasan? There’s not really any question of using it; an English reader with no knowledge of Japanese would be lost. But did I want this child to sound Japanese or French or Australian? Well, Japanese. Ok, so I should write either Okaasan or Mama. Yet, as I wrote Mama Mama Mama, my life’s experience continually prompted me: as a child and then a mother, the word was Mummy (except for one son!). So, at first, I wrote Mummy, then read the story into a recorder and listened to the playback as objectively as possible. It didn’t sound Japanese or French. But does it have to? For me, for this story, it does. I changed it to Mama and read it again into the recorder, played it back and liked it for its Frenchness and modern Japaneseness. Mama it is.
A sidenote: I couldn’t have written this post, repeatedly typing ‘my mother died’, if my very own mother were alive! A second sidenote: On the day Mum died, I was doing some paid work for the French lecturer who had taught me Camus’ L’étranger, and I had to send him an email to say I needed time off for the funeral. I began the email, at first, with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Then I deleted it and wrote something less direct, less literary. Perhaps he thought of Camus, anyway.
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.
You may have read this short story in French. 🙂 But if you didn’t, then let me show you what it looks like in English. The author, Anne Bihan, has given me permission to blog my translation of it, so, after dinner, I’ll post it. If you’d like to see the original French version, go to p. 13 of the online publication, Il y a toujours une guêpe pour piquer le visage en pleurs: http://issuu.com/ecrireenoceanie/docs/il-y-a-toujours-une-guepe
The photo I chose for the ‘Together’ challenge shows soldiers far from home, undoubtedly lonely for family and not wanting to isolate themselves from the local people.
It reminded me of the concluding words of George Sand (pen name of Mme Aurore Dudevant) after spending a couple of months in a deserted monastery in Majorca, separated from almost everyone except her family and her lover, Frédéric Chopin. Two paragraphs express her need, not for solitude, but for companionship:
“In the stormy days of youth, we imagine that solitude is the great refuge against attacks, the great remedy for battle wounds. This is a grave error. Life experience teaches us that when we cannot live in peace with our fellow man, no poetic admiration or pleasures of art are capable of filling the abyss that forms in the depth of our soul.
I had always dreamt of living in the desert, and any simple dreamer will admit he has had the same fantasy. But believe me, my brothers, we have hearts too loving to get by without each other; and the best thing left for us to do is tolerate each other, for we are like children of the same womb who tease, fight and even hit each other, and yet cannot part.”
George Sand, A Winter in Majorca, 1855 (My translation)
8th April – My son is on a camping holiday for four nights at the Folk Festival, fifteen minutes from home.
9th April – The 100th day of this year. A guest brought us some Hot Cross Buns from a Vegan bakery. On the packet it says ‘cruelty free’. How much cruelty is there in producing a sweet bun in a traditional bakery? (Each of the six buns was wrapped in cling wrap.)
10th April – A hairdresser washed my hair, then massaged my head for minutes and minutes and minutes. She seemed to be luxuriously filling in spare time.
11th April – In a book of short stories I found that the Q is the Queen of Capital Letters with an attention-seeking train.
12th April – Survey results today show the greatest editorial barrier to publishing literary translations is the ‘cost of paying translators’. I’ll push on with my novel translation anyway, for the love of it.
13th April – Went to my son’s wedding rehearsal in the forest. The bride’s father was mowing a path, an aisle, for her to enter along.
14th April – The wedding day; the most unusual wedding I’ve ever been to. The bride played a ukulele (which she has just learnt) and sang, in the sweetest voice I’ve heard, a song by Ingrid Michaelson, You and I. (Note the chair – refer to my ‘unusual thing’ for 5th Feb; note the table – she found it at a flea market and painted it this week; note the bunting – she made it.)
15th April – At dinner with my son and his bride, she was still wearing her wedding shoes which she bought online from Sweden. (See photo above)
16th April – Years ago I opened a long-term investment account at the bank with $500, and tried to do it again today. The minimum they now take is $5,000.
17th April – Watched a documentary about an Australian man who gave up a wealthy Hollywood life to establish schools for kids from the rubbish dumps of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. He started the Cambodian Children’s Fund: http://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/