Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants

Kallifatidis, Theodor (1977), Masters and Peasants, Doubleday
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
ISBN 0-385-09916-9

Kallifatidis is a Swedish novelist and poet of Greek descent. That is all I know. He has a large body of work, but very little of it is translated into English (or German, for that matter). Masters and Peasants, the English translation of his novel about WWII Greece, originally published in 1973 as Bönder och Herrar, isn’t currently in print. It’s certainly worth reprinting, it’s a good book. Kallifatidis writes a novel that appears to be written in a specific genre – a tale of the strange behaviors of villagers (think Clochemerle), but is set against a dark background: the German occupation of Greece. It starts with the dark image of someone hanging themselves on a fig tree, but goes on to tell a story that is often comical enough to make you laugh. Kallifatidis works with set-pieces that we all know from novels like this. There’s the mayor, the village priest, the local baker, stupid arguments about territories, pretty girls, the village idiot and many more. These parts are written in a deadpan tone that suits the subject very well. The town of Ialos, where it all takes place, couldn’t be more typical of the genre. A bare mountain with a lonely fig tree behind it, a valley before it, and a strange, neverending obsession with the size and quality of male genitals and death.

It’s very funny, but at the same time, the village is occupied by the German army and as time progresses, things get increasingly worse until a public execution drives many of the town’s men into the mountains to join the resistance. Kallifatidis never changes his tone, and in the way the darkness of history mingles with the elements of the comic bucolic novel Masters and Peasants sometimes resembles Roberto Benigni’s movie La vita è bella. Kallifatidis never really gets nasty except for the handful of remarks reserved for post-war Greece, where he allows his voice to include sharp, acidic takedowns of the fascist continuities in Greece after the war, as well as agreements of the Papandreou government to “sell Greece to the English.” He never dwells on the horrors of war, and the awful things that people do to each other. He mentions them, and moves on, opting to give a sense of how everything coheres rather than breathless condemnation. Ultimately, not all the bad people in the novel are Germans. Many are Greek, many are villagers, and many terrors preceded the German invasion. It’s an interesting, solid book, and I find it deplorable how little of Kallifatidis’s work is available in translation.

Like many of the classic tales of village stupidities, Kallifatidis’s village is full of cruel, stupid people. Cruel, stupid and insecure. Unwilling to learn, scared of change and resentful towards outsiders. Kallifatidis’s novel is full of repetitions, narrative circles. We learn of a person, a thing, an event and then we keep coming back to it until we come back to its chronological end point, which is often death. Thus, on page one, we learn that the village confectioner had hung himself on the fig tree because rumors were going around about his sexuality. People, for stupid reasons, assumed he was gay, and used this rumor as a weapon. When he left the village to learn how to make sweets, it didn’t help, because sweets are, of course, the gayest of foods and the city he learned his trade was the gayest of Greek cities. So upon his return, married with children now, they persecuted him. First by dropping hints like “so you really like to make sweets, huh.” and later, by trying to have him arrested or kicked out until eventually he went to his death, “proving” to the village his sexual inclination. We begin the novel with his suicide and his fate is alluded to again and again until we are explained what happened to him in more detail towards the end of the book. His death functions to contextualize the cruelties under German occupation.

It’s thus no surprise that a group of Greek youths, recruited by the Germans, one night goes out and rapes a young Jewish girl. The rape and the extended tale of suicide come near the end of the book. They help us see the genre of village follies as what it is: the sometimes inhuman mob mentality that small towns and villages easily develop. Kallifatidis goes to greath lengths in between to explain to us the idiosyncrasies of the village. There’s a priest who is an alcoholic womanizer, there’s the obsession with cocks (there’s a whole taxonomy of cock sizes), and the mayor, who has the largest penis in the village (nobody really knows, but he’s the leader and leaders should have large penises, is the village logic), nicknamed the crown prince. There’s a butcher who kills his animals by straddling them, an act that arouses him and the women watching. The obsession with male genitals is part of a kind of insecurity that ends up driving the confectioner to his death, and the general almost hysterical discourse on sex surely contributed to the rape.

There is a great deal of darkness in the book, but Kallifatidis serves it on a platter of light deadpan narratives of village stories. In doing so, he hews so close to generic conventions that the novel sometimes seems almost banal in its humor – until, that is, tragedies invade it. There is always a little death in these books, but the end of Masters and Peasants is filled with death, as all the narrative strands converge towards the end of the war, with villagers dead, in Dachau or otherwise aggrieved. At the same time, Kallifatidis does not give us a clean ending either: the book is full of comments on the awful post-war period, and the author himself has made his life experience part of the book. Not only does the book end on “I am one of the children.” but the introduction to the novel makes clear that this is essentially an autobiographical project: “neither the town nor the people are fictional” and explains that the book is called a novel “simply because what I present here is my own picture of reality and not reality itself.” This is deeply curious and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a disclaimer quite like this.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its connection to reality. And by this I am referring to two distinct aspects. One is linguistic, the other generic. Linguistically, it’s fascinating that this book was written in Swedish, but with its references and the introduction, it reads utterly Greek, not to mention the folksy tone of the whole thing. But I am not reading it in Swedish either, I am reading it in English, a process which has completely wiped away the Swedish element of the book and left me only with the Greek. Yes, some awkwardnesses in the translation make me suspect Swedish constructions and holdovers, but my Swedish isn’t good enough to figure these out. So for all intents and purposes, this reads and feels like a Greek book which is an odd feeling. And this sort of brings us to the second part of this. Many countries have their own style of crude village humor, often with clearly recognizable differences. I don’t know the Swedish genre well enough to know whether Kallifatides, in his Swedish text, has used that parameter rather than offer a typically Greek genre of tale. All of these are differences that completely vanish in the translation, where all we know is we are reading a translation, and this is a story about a Greek village.

And there is another part to this generic thought – the brief introduction clearly suggests that the text is supposed to be read as intensely personal. Nothing has been changed, and the reason the book isn’t a memoir but a novel is not because of a distancing fictional device, but really the exact opposite: because the author feels his own perception may have warped reality. in short, it’s too personal. But the book itself never reads like a personal or real story. Disregarding some unique touches, most of it feels incredibly generic – and I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that the book appears to be constructed with generic parameters. If the introduction didn’t exist, I would never assume there to be a personal element to the book. Don’t be absurd! Have you ever considered Clochemerle to be some confessional story from the French province? Of course not! It’s the friction between the novel and its introduction that’s so interesting.

I wonder whether this has something to do with witnessing and speech – I think it is entirely possible to read Masters and Peasants as a text that uses generic markers to facilitate personal speech. I mean, it is explicitly framed as Kallifatides finding his voice, finding the guts to write about his past. The two-sentence declaimer in the introduction is not unlike the worries about representation and reality that pervade, say, Jorge Semprún’s work, but the text is free from epistemological troubles and doubts. It is full of declarations, about the past and human nature, but the text’s language is the impersonal language of genre deadpan. I think there’s a way to read this use of genre as a tool to question narrative in itself. Of course, a better clue to how the book works would be to read Kallifatides’s other books from the period, but publishers have been very negligent in translating a writer who seems to be very accessible.

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The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.

I live with a black Box of terror.

The full text is at ric journalThe Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE.  If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

July Roundup

In July, for some reason, I ran a little experiment and posted something every day, sometimes twice a day. There are four distinct clumps of posts: reviews, #tddl posts, photos and brief personal essays, and then some additional stuff, plus one poem. If you missed the posts, here they are below, sorted by category:

1) Reviews (in alphabetical order)

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand
Graham Greene: A Gun for Sale
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept
Ben Mazer: February Poems
Denise Mina: Still Midnight
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

2) #tddl-Summaries

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol
#tddl, Day One: the Wraypocalypse
#tddl, Day Two: The Jurypocalypse
#tddl, Day Three: The Nopocalypse
#tddl: the winner is…

3) Brief Essays

3a) Mostly personal
Translating for Writing
So what’s your poetry about?
On Liking Short Novels

3b) Less personal, mostly complainy posts
Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche
#Translation and Heartbreak
Object Lessons
Male violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek

5) Photos

Balenciaga & Me
Me and My Grandmother
Dinner
A Jelinek Play in Bonn
Evenings
Cologne Pride

6) Additional Posts

Man Booker, man
Rummelplatz in English translation!
Plots of stories I’ve written or rewritten in the past year: a poem
Marcel Inhoff reading

 

Yours Truly in a Brussels bookshop

Luan Starova: My Father’s Books

Starova, Luan (2012), My Father’s Books, U of Wisconsin P
[Translated by Christina E. Kramer]
ISBN 978-029928794-8

So I had been looking at the Macedonian language for a little while, which is fascinating with its closeness to my own Russian. Somewhere in the process, I took a look at literature from the country translated into English and there’s remarkably little of it. One writer who has been graced with a translation is Luan Starova. And boy o boy is this a lovely book. It’s a childhood memoir, but also an ode to books, to language, and to the feeling of being at home in books, rather than in a specific place – I say, childhood memoir, but Starova uses his childhood memories as a way to try and understand his father rather than offer us stories from his childhood. The child in this memoir is mostly someone who looks, who admires, who is sometimes hungry or sad, but very rarely actively doing anything. No, this book circles around books, more importantly, around Starova’s father and his attempt to find a place for himself in this world. The father uses books to build an identity, and to interrogate one. And throughout his whole reading life, the ebbs and flows of Balkan history shake his father’s life, but never really imperil his true calling: reading, collecting, annotating books.

Luan Starova writes his book in small vignettes, small episodes, that start with the basic elements of the house the family lived in, and where the library in it was, and how the family and the books co-existed. Later sections look at his father’s friends, of which he had few, in fact, “towards the end of his life, my father had many books but few friends,” as well as at various important objects in his life. The order is not random – as we near the end of the book, the circles Starova draws become larger and larger, returning again and again to his father’s migrancy, to his family history, to the decisions he made before he became a reclusive book-obsessed Macedonian, and in the final sections, we look at a process beyond reading – a process of creation, as Starova’s father uses old manuscripts he found to untangle not just his family history, but the cultural heritage of the Balkans altogether. His father died before finishing his work, and some of the book concerns the spidery traces of his father’s notes in his books, his father’s attempt to “shore up these fragments,” to borrow a much-borrowed line of poetry. Starova’s father was obsessed with order – and reading the book, including the almost unbearably moving final chapter, one feels a similar purpose in his son.

It’s enormously odd, for a memoir by a son about a father who is obsessed with family history and books, to be so disinterested in actual books. But the movement of his father’s life, after all, is from life, into a life in books, and then, as he neared death, back into life itself. As Starova writes: “he had found an exit from the labyrinth of manuscripts that led out into life.” And in a sense, Starova’s own book follows that path, I suppose. Starova, born on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but on the Albanian side, is a multi-lingual writer who dedicated his writing life to writing the work that his father had begun as he died, at least that’s how it looks when I peruse his biography. Still, it leaves me with an odd feeling: some of the book feels almost anthropological, a book about this strange tribe of people who love books as much as life itself – like the professor of French, who wanted to die while reading a book, and was buried holding a copy of André Gide. Or entomological, with the concentric structure of the book like a microscope, looking at these people as if at a strange group of bugs.

I don’t mean it’s cruel – it’s loving and warm and lovely throughout. But it is not a book by someone similarly obsessed, very clearly, Starova is not a book person to the same degree as his father. I mean, he’s a different category of people, very clearly. We are warned of this, although maybe warned isn’t the right word. In the small section “The Cabinet,” very early in the book, Starova tells of his acts of accidental vandalism in the cabinet, leaving that space of valuable books and documents in disarray, with valuable books and documents damaged beyond repair. I mean, reading it, my heart broke for these books. But the section isn’t written to evoke my kind of heartbreak – it is about the way his youthful misdeeds impacted the family, in particular his mother. It is his mother who finds the chaos, it is his mother who tries to get things back in shape – in fact, his mother knows her way around that inner sanctum of that house-cum-library better than his father does. She doesn’t share her husband’s predilections, but it seems as if her distance from what’s in the books helps her deal with them better than Starova’s father who is too distracted by the books to stay on top of things.

Indeed, it is the mother who is the most interesting figure of the whole book, and the fact that she survived his father and helped the children understand their father’s self-chosen mission in life maybe explains why the book is like it is. It is unbothered by what’s in the books and is thus well positioned to contextualize the reading and collecting and thinking that went on in Starova’s childhood home. His mother supported and protected his father, until the very end, without having his need for books. In fact, the very first story of the book is called “Love” and that’s what we understand to be a dominant theme of the book, running underneath everything. The marriage depicted is old-fashioned, and nobody could view an arrangement like this as ideal today, but Starova posits love as the glue that holds that household together, a small house full of people and even fuller of books and objects. Because of course his father’s obsessions didn’t stop at books, they also included all kinds of unwieldy objects like a globe or a spyglass. Love, Starova tells us, kept the household running through all the troubles. And I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree.

I agree that his father was mostly useless outside of his profession as a judge and his hobby as a reader and scholar. But the way the couple came to be married sounds a bit off, and the whole arrangement – sure, love could explain it. But you know what also could explain it? A woman trying to make a very difficult situation work, love or not. And that fits the way his mother is depicted in the book generally. In fact, she is the book’s most compelling character. It is her, whose skill with languages saves them twice from being killed by Italian soldiers during WWII, as the Axis marched through the Balkan. The very description of her knowledge of the way the books are sorted throughout the house is a marvel of practical dedication. If nobody knows where the books are, nothing will get done, and so it falls to her, who doesn’t even particularly love books. It’s curious that her son, who is clearly much more her son than his father’s, doesn’t have enough empathy for his mother to interrogate the way his childhood household was run. There’s always a bit of a haut goût to these male narratives of bookishness where the preoccupation with books allows them to filter out the practical aspects of life, forcing women who are with these obsessive men, to do all the emotional labor, to work through it, to make it work.

All this is in the book, but it bubbles under the surface. Starova admires his mother, but I don’t think the book does her justice, or his father’s blinkered blindness. The best example for the latter is an episode involving a similarly bookloving friend. This one is obsessed to the point where he accidentally uses money set aside for an ophthalmologist and buys himself a van full of books. So this friend and Starova’s father lend each other books, but they don’t always read the books and upon returning them they test each other over this. As it happens, one day, the friend borrows a book in which Starova’s father forgot food stamps. The children are angry, desperate and hungry, and as the friend returns the book, the stamps are discovered. Starova’s father does not discuss his hunger, his wife’s hunger or that of his children – instead he gloats because this discovery is proof his friend did not read the book all the way through. I mean, he is a hell of a difficult man, and making a household work around a man like that must be hard; loving a man like that must be even harder, however, and if Starova is right about his mother’s feelings towards his father, that’s even more impressive than her feats of survival.

All of this is told in a very simple language. Macedonian is, as far as I understand it, a Slavic language. I know, we all grew up on stories of Alexander and Macedonia, but that Greek Macedonia is not the same as today’s Macedonia. If you speak Russian, and you hear Macedonian spoken, you can sorta-kinda understand it. My Russian is bad, but I watched a Romanian movie this year and listened to the music of Toše Proeski at some point this spring, and even I can get the gist of it. All this is to say that Russian is a difficult to translate language – you can always either see the seams or accept that the translator papered over it. Christina Kramer translated this book with, I think, an emphasis on accuracy – that explains the extreme unevenness of style. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it sings, sometimes it reads angular and awkward. Have you read Green Integer’s Ko Un translations? Yeah, that awkward. And speaking of awkward, sometimes, and this is not a translation issue, Starova likes to end his vignettes on overly clichéd phrases or on a sentence brimming with somewhat unearned pathos. It gives the book a feeling of being overdetermined, of an author who tries to get things to come out with the same emotional power that they felt when writing it, but that’s not how writing works. However, the structure of the book, which repeats phrases and observations again and again, leading readers to the powerful ending, is extremely well done. The book works best when its language is simple and declarative. Some of the most shattering sentences here are unremarkable in terms of style, but Starova imbues them with meaning.

You should read this book. There are other topics I haven’t even touched on, like his father’s attitude towards language and script. And despite some of my gripes, the portrayal of someone who loves books is heartwarming, and as a fellow book nut, I connected strongly to the book. But the most important aspect of the book that I haven’t touched on is the idea of migration. I’ve talked before about James Clifford and traveling cultures – in a sense, Starova’s book works like an example of that. His father lived in Turkey for 4 years, talked to Atatürk and was happy – but he returned home, to the “hell” of the Balkans, to connect with his family, and ultimately, to write an anatomy of the post-coloniality of the Balkans as they recovered from the Ottoman empire. He brought his books with him, wherever he went, but once he settled in Macedonia, he didn’t actually go anywhere, but he traveled through his books, but even in his travels through ink and paper eventually he returned home, as he found documents that helped him understand his country, his family and his heritage.

 

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Translating for Writing

I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.

But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.

Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.

As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.

I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.