Sunday, 14 July 2013

'animalinside' and 'Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy' (Review)

One of the perks of blogging is that sometimes people send you stuff unexpectedly, and that's especially good when it's books in your area of interest.  Recently, Daniel Medin, from the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris was kind enough to send me a few titles from The Cahiers Series, coffee-table books for those interested in translation and translated fiction.  The books are short, elegant and visually pleasing  - and (as you'll see) the content's not bad either ;)

First today is Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy, a fascinating little pamphlet by French translator Bernard Turle (translated into English by Dan Gunn).  In this short work, Turle talks about his life as a translator in twenty-six short chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet.  The cahier is accompanied by photos from Gunn's childhood (which, while sounding a strange idea, works well), making for a real bilingual collaboration.

It's a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a translator, and the changes brought about in this field by technology.  Turle explains how the spread of the Internet has allowed for a new relationship between translator and 'translated' and discusses his growing relationship with the English language.  It's one he first describes as exciting (an escape from the realities of French) and later intrusive (an imperialistic tongue...).  He also talks about how translation can sometimes be confronting as you can't always choose what you need to translate (there's some horrible, gut-wrenching stuff out there which some poor soul has to convert from one language to another...).

For me, the best part was the fact that a French insert  of the original text was also provided, allowing me to compare (and criticise!), which just goes to show that translation is an art, one that can be discussed until the cows come home.  In fact, this is even reflected in the choice of title.  While the original title is Le traducteur-orchestre, the English title has echoes of a John Le Carré novel (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), perhaps playing on a comment Turle makes in section E (for 'Espion' or 'Espionnage'):
"Le traducteur est un espion à la solde de l'écrivain." (p.5)
"A translator is a spy whose paymaster is a writer."
 p.12 (Sylph Editions, 2013)
Now that's not a description I'd heard before...

The second of today's choices will be of particular interest to many of my readers (well, those who have a passion for fiction in translation, anyway).  animalinside (words by László Krasznahorkai, images by Max Neumann, translation by Ottilie Mulzet) is a short collaboration where the Hungarian writer reacted to the German artist's surreal pictures of a dog-like figure (as seen on the cover).  There are fourteen pictures, and for each there is one chapter, around two pages in length.

While it may sound short and trivial, it's anything but.  From the very beginning, Krasznahorkai fans will feel themselves to be in very familiar territory.  The text consists of long sentences, flowing powerful prose (that feels more like poetry).  There's a constant, dark feel to the monologues - menacing, threatening, and at the same time claustrophobic.

The focus is on a shadowy 'I', an entity which at times is trapped, constrained and frustrated:
"Every space is too tight for me.  I move around, I jump, I fling myself and yet I'm still inside that one space which is too tight for me, unbearably small, although at times it is only exactly just a bit too tight, and it is exactly then, when it is exactly just a bit too tight, that it is the most unbearable..."
Part IV, p.14 (Sylph Editions, 2012)
These ideas occur over and over again, and the repetition adds to the sense of restriction.

At other times though, the 'I' is a frightening, omnipotent force, greater than the cosmos, a being that threatens to rip you apart:
"...if one day I set out, no matter what you do it is completely hopeless, in vain do you try to resist, it will be of no use because you don't know who I am, and you don't know me, and your not knowing me protects me from your preparations, I am an invisible enemy, and you shall know very soon what invisible means, and chiefly, you will know what enemy means, because I am not just any kind of enemy, not even an enemy, but a blow that smites, that strikes down then and there and onto those exactly when, where, and onto whom it wants to..." (Part VI, p.19)
It's tempting to try and pin down just exactly who 'I' is.  Is it Death, fate, cancer, ruin?  Speculation is fun, but it's easier just to enjoy the rage and anger...

Perhaps animalinside is a work which reflects on our dull human existence, with people trapped in imaginary cages of our own making.  The 'I' comes from inside our own bodies - the seeds of our destruction are already inside us...

...and, apparently, it looks like a dog with no fore-legs ;)

The cahiers may only be forty-pages long each, but they are wonderful little books.  As well as being interesting in their own right, the texts are complemented by the images chosen, providing a wonderful reading experience.  They're well worth a look, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to check them out -  merci, Monsieur Medin ;)