Category Archives: English literature

Sociology of organizations – a (kind of) manual

Recently I was asked by a friend with an interest in sociology of organizations if I could suggest to him a good book on this topic (obviously he thought that my working experience in a comparatively big variety of organizations and countries made me a kind of expert regarding that matter).

After some consideration, I suggested to him not a scientific book, but a work of fiction.

In my opinion, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller contains (among many other things) everything you need to know about how any big organization, institution, or corporation works. And I can assure you, none of the absurd situations in the book are unrealistic or exaggerated. 

An example: General Peckem (sic) assigns Colonel Scheisskopf (a word that means “shithead” in German) to write letters 

“to let everyone know how good we are and how much work we’re turning out.”

Scheisskopf’s answer that he doesn’t know a thing about writing is receiving the following retort:

“Well, don’t let that trouble you,” General Peckem continued with a careless flick of his wrist. “Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive.  Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it. Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand. While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.”

Trust me, this is all you need to know about the sociology of organizations.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22, Simon & Schuster

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Missing in Mexico

Ambrose Bierce, Hart Crane, Arthur Cravan, B. Traven / Ret Marut (or whatever his name was), – it seems that Mexico is the perfect place for authors who want to vanish without traces.

 

Ambrose Bierce: The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, Penguin Classics 2001

Carlos Fuentes: The Old Gringo, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007 – a biographical novel about Bierce’s mysterious disppearence in Mexico

Works of Arthur Cravan, translated by A.G. O’Meara, CreateSpace 2014

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Centennial Edition 2001

B. Traven: Ich kenne das Leben in Mexiko. Briefe an John Schikowski 1925-1932, Limes 1982 (=I know about life in Mexico. Letters to John Schikowski 1925-1932) 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch, the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird, is without doubt one of the most likeable and remarkable literary heroes you will come across in 20th century fiction. Since the novel is very popular (I avoid the word bestseller with its slightly derogative connotation), and most of you will have read the book, I will be rather brief regarding the synopsis.

Scout, the narrator of the story and her older brother Jem grow up in a small town of the Deep South of the 1930s; it is the time of the Great Depression. Atticus, their father is a widowed lawyer with old family ties in town and the whole region.

While a big part of the book deals with a seemingly normal childhood with a good-natured, if somewhat unorthodox father – his children call him by his first name, and he is giving them a lot of freedom – and the small and big adventures that are typical for this age and social surrounding, a really dramatic event takes place that will have a lasting effect on the whole town, and particularly on the Finch family: Tom Robinson, a young man is arrested on rape charges – and Atticus is appointed to be his lawyer. Robinson is a black man, a fact that brings out the not-so-subtle racism of a big part of the local population. And the children of the “nigger-lover” Finch – he is indeed only doing his duty as a lawyer – have to suffer also under this situation. While Atticus teaches his children to never use violence to defend themselves, but their heads, justice is prevailing. No, not justice – the law…and even after the case is closed, the dramatic events triggered by it are not yet at their climax.

To Kill a Mockingbird has of course quite a lot of suspense elements; the court scenes are very dramatic and revealing. The fact that the arrested man is obviously not guilty and the “victim” and the main witness are liars doesn’t prevent the jury from exercising a case of “race justice” that will prove to be fatal for the accused. It is still breath-taking to read how racist the majority of people in the 1930s were (is it different today? – and I am not only talking of the Deep South); but it is also conveying a very humane message: sometimes you just have to do what is right, even when you know that you will lose.

Atticus Finch is standing up for his humanistic principles, even when life would be much more comfortable for him and his children if he would compromise and not defend this man. But in his own eyes, he would lose his dignity and his role as an example to his children if he would. That he accepts this and all the consequences without becoming bitter, makes him such an outstanding literary hero. One of the lessons Atticus is teaching to his children is to always try to “walk for a few minutes in the shoes of the others” – the gift of empathy is what makes Atticus different from some of the other folks in the novel. Although, to be fair, he is not completely alone in his fight for justice. And even those who antagonize him in this particular case have as it turns out such a respect for him as a person that they re-elect him to the local constituency after the court case.

One of the particular strengths of this book is that it succeeds in what Atticus calls “walking in the shoes of others”. In the framework of the novel, we get to know a wide range of characters, black and white, respected and despised, comparatively wealthy and very poor, people with racial prejudices and a few without – but Harper Lee has the gift to make us readers look at them with understanding, even sympathy. The woman who accuses Robinson of the crime is a terribly lonely person and even her father who is the only really bad person in the novel is more a victim of his low social status and it seems he is acting more out of frustration for being looked upon with contempt by practically everyone (except Atticus Finch) than out of a criminal character.

Lee’s story is so convincing because she introduces a wide range of characters that are in itself already very interesting: Dell, the friend of Jem and Scout who comes always for summer holidays – he is a good boy and loyal friend but also obviously a story teller (I avoid the word liar); Cal, the black cook who reigns the kitchen with sternness but also a big heart and who is the female presence in the house that is sometimes a counter-balance to the laissez-faire attitude of Atticus in many respects; the judge, the sheriff, and the newspaper editor – three principled men who in one way or the other support Atticus in a difficult situation; Aunt Alexandra who goes through a process of development while the story unfolds; Maude, a friendly neighbour who treats the children without the condescension that is so frequent among grown-ups; Mrs Dubose, a wicked old woman with whom the children form against all odds (and not completely voluntarily) a bond; the black people with whom the kids are mingling freely and not to everyone’s delight; the children itself that grow not only physically but also as individuals; and last not least Arthur “Boo” Radley, a man who has been confined to home by his family for decades and about whom the children have the strangest ideas – a kind of demon as they imagine him, but as it turns out just a poor soul with a surprisingly good heart, who makes his personal appearance rather late in the book, but in a moment when the children really need him.

All in all, this a very good book with a timeless, very humane message and likeable characters that makes you think about what is valuable in life, a book about how important empathy is – and that the only way for children to learn to stand up for themselves and others is not by teaching moral principles, but by living them in everyday life even when it is difficult for you. What else can you expect from a work of literature?

A book I can highly recommend, not only for young readers.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird, Vintage Classics

Other Reviews:
A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Address Unknown

Address Unknown is a short epistolary novella with a fascinating plot and a strong message; it was first published in 1938 and its author, Kressmann Taylor, is today almost forgotten.

Max and Martin own a successful art gallery in San Francisco. They are not only business partners but best friends. The bachelor Max is a frequent and welcome guest at Martin’s home and quasi a member of the family; the delicate situation that Max’ sister and Martin have an affair about which Max is aware but keeps quiet to Martin’s wife adds an element of complicity to the relationship between the two friends.

Martin, who has never succeeded in becoming a real American, decides to return to Germany with his growing family. It is the year 1932, and a catastrophe is casting already its long shadows on Germany and Europe. What we read are the fictitious letters and a telegram between Max and Martin, which are an exemplary document for the shocking developments on a large scale in Germany.

The first letters contain the exchange of joint pleasant memoirs, some business news, family developments and also a growing amount of political statements. The friendship between the two once close friends doesn’t survive very long the seizing of the power by the Nazis on 30 January, 1933.

Although Martin has in San Francisco never voiced anti-Semitic opinions, he suddenly talks about the inferiority of the Jews as a race, patronizes local Nazi leaders and finally requests from his former close friend to stop communicating with him. Max reluctantly agrees, but asks for a last time desperately for help from his former friend. His sister has disappeared from her Berlin home and Max’ last letter has returned to him with the stamp “Address Unknown” on it which makes Max fear the worst.

When Martin writes in one of his letters to Max that the pogroms happen because “you (i.e. the Jews) are lamenting all the time, but you don’t have the courage to fight back”, he is committing a serious error that will cost him dearly.

As readers we can relate to both main characters, even to Martin. He is neither a sadist nor a born Jew-hater. He is a victim of the times and political circumstances in which he is entangled; he is a weakling and coward; he has too much to lose and he loves his wealth which he likes to show off a little bit too much – the combination of these characteristics make him the perfect Nazi follower and tool of their policy – just as millions of others that would have been in all probability decent persons and good friends, were it not for the specific circumstances in which they lived.

In a time of growing racism, populism and fascism in many countries, I would like to see this small book read much more; it is an antidote against these evils – and it sets an example that indeed individuals can fight back the Nazis or similar regimes and their followers; maybe not all is lost as long as people are aware that they are usually not completely powerless and can sometimes fight back with success.

A small and very impressive book.

(Kathrine) Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown, Washington Square Press 2001

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


An easily accessible book

One of the things about Finnegans Wake I love most is the fact that it is such an easily accessible book.

An example – but I could quote from any page:

“…for to plaise that man hog stay his stomicker till her pyrraknees shrunk to nutmeg graters while her togglejoints shuck with goyt and as…”

Have you read Finnegans Wake? What is your opinion about the book?

Finnegans Wake

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake, Viking Press 1966

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of 
this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or 
owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and 
clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and 
specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?

 

Hein

Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading/Reviewing Plans

The end of the year is approaching with fast steps. This year I haven’t been so active as a blogger as last year until recently – German Lit Month brought me back to the usual pace – and I have done more blog posts on poetry and translations than the year before; also I did more posts in German and one in Bulgarian too. Book blogging is a dynamic process and the focus of such places will always be subject to small unplanned changes, but I will keep also in the next year my habit to publish reviews of books that were interesting to me.

As you already know when you follow this blog on a regular basis, my taste in books is rather eclectic. I am definitely not a person who is permanently scanning bestseller lists or is jumping in on discussions about books that were – usually for marketing reasons – the “talk of the town”. Therefore I avoided so far reviewing books by Houellebecq or Knausgård; it is difficult to not be influenced by the public discussion that focuses frequently on aspects that have very little to do with the literary quality of the books by such authors but a lot with their public persona and their sometimes very controversial opinions about certain topics. Not that the books by these authors are necessarily bad, but I prefer to read without too much background noise. So I will come also to these authors, but most probably not in the near future.

My blog tries to be diverse, but without quota. But of course my choice is subjective and I am aware of the fact that probably most readers will find many authors/books on this list that are completely unknown to them. If you look for just another blog that is reviewing again and again the same exclusively Anglo-saxon authors, then this might not be the best place for you. If you are eager to discover something new, then you are most welcome. 

There are no ads on this blog and this will also not change in the future. There is zero financial interest from my side to keep this blog alive, I do it just for fun. Please don’t send unsolicitated review copies if you are an author or a publisher. In rare cases I might accept a review copy when contacted first but only when I have already an interest in the book. All blog posts contain of course my own – sometimes idiosyncratic – opinion for what it is worth. In general I tend to write reviews on the positive side. When a book disappoints me, I tend to not write a review unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise.

These are the books presently on my “To-be-read” pile; which means they are the one’s that i will most probably read and review within the coming months. But as always with such lists, they are permanently subject to changes, additions, removals. Therefore I (and also the readers of this blog) will take this list as an orientation and not as a strict task on which I have to work one by one. 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Jim al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom

Ryunosunke Akutagawa: Kappa

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

Sinan Antoon: The Corpse Washer

Toufic Youssef Aouad: Le Pain

Abhijit Banerjee / Esther Duflo: Poor Economics

Hoda Barakat: Le Royaume de cette terre

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Nicolas Born: The Deception

Thomas Brasch: Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne

Joseph Brodsky: On Grief and Reason

Alina Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero

Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

Leila S. Chudori: Pulang

Beqe Cufaj: projekt@party 

Mahmoud Darwish: Memory of Forgetfulness

Oei Hong Djien: Art & Collecting Art

Dimitre Dinev: Engelszungen (Angel’s Tongues)

Anton Donchev: Time of Parting

Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain

Michael R. Dove: The Banana Tree at the Gate

Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes

Isabelle Eberhardt: Works

Tristan Egolf: Lord of the Barnyard

Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria

Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani

Milena Michiko Flašar: I called him Necktie

David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace

Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra

Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land

Georg K. Glaser: Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence)

Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel

Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow

Elizabeth Gowing: Edith and I

David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules

Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Ludwig Harig: Die Hortensien der Frau von Roselius

Johann Peter Hebel: Calendar Stories

Christoph Hein: Settlement

Wolfgang Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous

Albert Hofmann / Ernst Jünger: LSD

Hans Henny Jahnn: Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks) (Part II)

Franz Jung: Der Weg nach unten

Ismail Kadare: Broken April

Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams

Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (Editors): The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia: 1965-1968

Rosen Karamfilov: Kolene (Knees)

Orhan Kemal: The Prisoners

Irmgard Keun: Nach Mitternacht

Georg Klein: Libidissi

Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches

Fatos Kongoli: The Loser

Theodor Kramer: Poems

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September)

Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star

Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy

Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers

Sandor Marai: Embers

Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Multatuli: Max Havelaar

Alice Munro: Open Secrets

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women

Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française 

Ben Okri: The Famished Road

Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra

Georges Perec: Life. A User’s Manual

Leo Perutz: By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Boris Pilnyak: Mahogany

Alek Popov: Black Box

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature

Boris Savinkov: Memoirs of a Terrorist

Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java

Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Carl Seelig: Wandering with Robert Walser

Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Anthony Shadid: House of Stones

Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales

Raja Shehadeh: A Rift in Time

Alexander Shpatov: #LiveFromSofia

Werner Sonne: Staatsräson?

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Way to Babadag

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: A Mute’s Soliloquy

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (4 vol.)

Lionel Trilling: The Middle of the Journey

Iliya Trojanov: The Collector of Worlds

Bernward Vesper: Die Reise (The Journey)

Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten

Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grace

Galina Zlatareva: The Medallion

Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grisha

Stay tuned – and feel free to comment any of my blog posts. Your contributions are very much appreciated. You are also invited to subscribe to this blog if you like.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Women in Translation month upcoming

Following the good example of some blogger friends and in anticipation of this year’s Women in Translation month, I post a list of books by women which I reviewed or from which I published translation samples here, covering the period September 2014 until now:

Deborah Rohan: The Olive Grove
Herta Müller: The Passport
Marjana Gaponenko: Who Is Martha?
Elif Batuman: The Possessed
Neli Dobrinova: Malki mazhki igri
Virginia Zaharieva: Nine Rabbits
Ivanka Mogilska: DNA
Tanja Nikolova: Tolkoz
Isidora Sekulic: Balkan

More to come!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Canada

There is a certain moment when the reader is already half through Richard Ford’s novel Canada, when Dell Parsons, the narrator of the story gives us an insight into his philosophy of life:

“It’s been my habit of mind, over these years, to understand that every situation in which human beings are involved can be turned on its head. Everything someone assures me to be true might not be. Every pillar of belief the world rests on may or may not be about to explode. Most things don’t stay the way they are very long. Knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means believing that good isn’t possible; and I know for a fact that good is. I simply take nothing for granted and try to be ready for the change that’s soon to come.”

What if Dell’s and his twin sister Berner’s parents hadn’t met at all? They could have married someone else, someone more suitable as a partner. What if Dell’s mother had decided to leave her husband with the children at a moment when it still was possible? She was only 34, and her husband 37 – a mismatch if there ever was one – when the terrible thing happened that left such a mark on Dell and destroyed this quite average American family, living in a quiet, average town, Great Falls, Montana. What if Dell’s father, a war hero, charming and good-looking, but obviously over-estimating his talents and under-estimating the risks of his fraudulent business schemes in which some Indians were involved, would have remained in the airforce? Probably none of the terrible events that happened, would have happened at all. But because of a tragic coincidence of many small events and happenstances, Dell Parsons has to begin the life story we are reading with the words:

“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

What follows is the very detailed account of the events that led to the robbery and that make roughly half of the book. The amateurish bank robbery of Dell’s and Berner’s parents happened in a moment when the mother had (almost) made up her mind to leave her husband. But beside from having pretentions regarding her children’s education and of having a real talent to be a poet and writer, a talent that is suffocated in her marriage with a man from an Alabama backwater town who speaks in a funny Dixie accent that is kind of repelling for the daughter of educated Jewish immigrants – beside from that Neeva, the mother, is also a weak person that shies away in the last moment from leaving Bev, her husband.

Deep inside the mother must have felt that the bank robbery she is about to commit with her husband in order to pay a debt to some Indian who threatened to kill the family – a result of the failed dealings of her husband and his fellow crooks – is going to fail, because she made arrangements for her children to be taken to Canada by her friend Mildred Remlinger, and thus to prevent them from being brought up in a foster home or even a juvenile prison. While Berner runs away on her own and leads later a hippie-style life in San Francisco, Dell is making the journey to Canada with Mildred. Mildred has a brother in Canada, Arthur, and this Arthur is supposed to take care of Dell.

If it wouldn’t be for the intro of the book, we as readers would suspect that after the traumatic experience with his parents who are locked away for life or at least a very long time, Dell is now through the worst part of his life, and the second part would describe how he builds up a new better life in Canada. But – there is Arthur Remlinger, handsome, intelligent, with good manners, a former Harvard student, a reader and chess player with an interesting ladyfriend, Florence, a painter.

Remlinger seems oddly out of place in the godforsaken place in Sasketchewan where he owns a run-down hotel with a gambling den and a bar full of “Filipino” girls that spend the night frequently with the guests in their rooms; his right-hand man Charley, a halfbred, is a really creepy guy and probably a pervert, as Dell suspects who has to work with this Charley when the “sports”, the hunters from the U.S., visit the area that is full of game. Arthur Remlinger, an American like Dell, has a dark past, a past that is not forgotten by everyone as it turns out…and he has a violent temper too…

The reviewers were divided regarding the qualities of this book. While some praised the work as a masterpiece, others complained about the slowness with which the story builds up and about certain redundancies. Yes, this is a story that builds up very slowly – and you need to like that if you want to enjoy the novel. And yes, there are redundancies, but I found them quite interesting. After all, we are reading the story told by Dell Parsosns, after his retirement as a teacher in Canada, and after having met his twin sister again who is suffering from the final stages of cancer. For me the redundancies are attempts of the narrator to rationalize what has happened to him, to make sense of a life in which everything went upside down more than once, and to reassure himself that the things really happened to him the way they did.

What makes the book also interesting to me, are the antagonisms on various levels: between the parents; between the parents and children; between Dell and Berner, who although being twins are so different; between men and women; between the United States and Canada, so near and similar, and yet so different countries and societies. And the big villain of the book, the enigmatic Arthur Remlinger, has the format of Kurtz, the “hero” of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

How come Dell survives the catastrophes of his life so (seemingly) unharmed? Maybe it is because of his ability to take life like it is, and not as it should be according to our plans and pretentions; maybe because of the fact that he felt always loved by his parents and his sister, despite the fact that this family was not like other families; maybe because of  the fact that there was always a woman in his life who made an important decision for him in a crucial moment (his mother; his sister; Mildred; Florence; Clare) that proved to be life-altering in a positive way. But in the end, it remains a mystery why some of us not only survive difficult childhoods but do something meaningful with their lives, while others in similar conditions turn into criminals or end in suicide. 

Dell has not become a beekeeper, something he wanted to become when he was young; and he has also not become a strong chess player, despite the fact that he studied Mikhail Tal’s combinations again and again when he was young. But he took a few good lessons from life and mastered it somehow, even when the odds were against him in his youth, and even when his father and later Arthur Remlinger tried to make him an accomplice to their crimes.  

For me this is the best work of Ford so far – and his previous books were already excellent. Canada is a book about the fragility and loneliness of life, and how to come to terms with this fact. It left a very strong impression on me.

Ford

Richard Ford: Canada, Bloomsbury, London 2012

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

L1, L2, indirect – and a few more words on translations

When I have some free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now of the fact that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore two of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with scepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn’t some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn’t include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn’t be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester.

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

“W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!”

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.

Bellos

David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.