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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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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46 Great Opening Lines: 3

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.

1 Kings 10:1

‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.

However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.

She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:

But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.

Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 2

Who’ll show a child just as it is?

From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.

When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.

There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.

The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:

…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’

Bitte?’ said Sophie.

‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’

‘You mean, I have to choose?’

‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’

Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’

This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:

Cover, The Canberra Times entertainment guide, 18th September 2017

The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:

When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.

And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:

She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.

Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.

This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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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!

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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