Tag Archives: Ismail Kadare

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Moscow, 1958. A young and talented Albanian author is sent to the centre of the Communist world in order to complete his literary education at the renowned Gorky Institute. The bustling atmosphere of the Soviet capital with all its interesting opportunities in the cultural sphere (despite the limitations that the communist ideology imposes), the chance to meet with fellow writers from diverse backgrounds, the less puritan lifestyle in Moscow compared to the more and more paranoid atmosphere in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and its (then) backwater capital Tirana, and the elevated feeling to belong visibly to the chosen intellectual elite of the future in the communist world – all this should make this stay a pleasant experience for someone who aspires to be a professional writer.

And indeed we see our hero/narrator (who shares many experiences and characteristics with the book’s author) at a writer’s holiday retreat on the Baltic sea – a previous one at the Crimea is mentioned -, enjoying romantic infatuations with several young women, indulging in “typical” student’s activities in Moscow at that time, like getting terribly drunk on several occasions, and so on. In between, we follow our hero to lessons at the Gorky Institute, which are moderately interesting, or we read his talks, discussions or overheard rumors that usually centre around the Russian literary elite; Yevtushenko asks the hero on one occasion in the corridor of the student’s building, if he has seen Bella (Akhmadulina) – that’s the kind of every day experience the narrator has. And yet, for the main character Moscow and particularly the Gorky Institute and the literary circles become a serious disappointment, for various reasons.

When Lida Snegina, the hero’s love interest for most of the book mentions to him that she doesn’t like living but only dead authors, it sounds a bit provoking first. But somehow this casual remark is a kind of trigger for some soul-searching and analysis of the authors and would-be authors that surround the hero at the Gorky Institute: the majority of them mediocre figures, willing to sell their souls and to change their convictions immediately if a new party line requires it. And their works: books that have got almost nothing to do with the real life of the people in the Soviet Union or their respective homeland, most of them idyllic descriptions of a non-existing communist paradise without any literary value.

There is of course another literature in Russia at that time, but it’s a literature that is banned, and circulated only in Samizdat, copied secretly and handed over clandestinely from friend to friend. In an abandoned tract of the student’s building, the narrator finds an incomplete manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the famous banned novel for which Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once the news regarding this award is public, a ferocious, well-orchestrated, nation-wide campaign against Pasternak is let loose, a campaign that is so vicious that the narrator asks himself how it must feel when one is at the receiving end of so much hate propaganda, venom, and even threats against one’s own life. No wonder, that his opinion about most of his colleagues at the Gorky Institute becomes free of any illusions:

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, after having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

While this evaluation may be true for the big majority of students, there are a few of his colleagues with whom the narrator develops a distanced friendship. One of them, the Greek Antaeus, a veteran of the Greek Civil War, and by coincidence a one-time patient of a hospital in Gjirokaster, the narrator’s home town, reminds the narrator of the besa, this Albanian obsession about the keeping of a once given word under all circumstances, and even when it means to rise again from the dead, as it happens in the old Albanian legend of Kostandin and Dorutine; this legend that plays a certain role in this novel was later made the theme of The Ghost Rider, another Kadare novel. There are more references to Kadare novels that obviously are brain-childs of his stay in Moscow: The General of the Dead Army, The Niche of Shame, and The Three-Arched Bridge. The world of the Kadare novels is full of cross-references, and The Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception.

I mentioned it in another review of a Kadare book: it rains a lot in Kadare’s novels – as much as it does in the movies of Andrey Tarkovsky. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception, but it gives a hint why this is a recurring theme in all of Kadare’s books. In the books that were typical for the Socialist Realism of the 1950s it would hardly ever rain, the sun was always shining over the Worker’s Fatherland. The insistence on rain is also an act to distance himself from this kind of fantasy literature that was expected from writers who had graduated from the Gorky Institute; at least this is how I understand Kadare.

In the end, Albania and the Soviet Union start to distance themselves; everybody seems to realize it before the narrator does it. We know what will happen: the narrator will have to return home, and experience his own, even worse dictatorship again.

Maybe Twilight of the Eastern Gods is not exactly on the same literary level as some of his masterpieces (Broken April, The Pyramid, Palace of Dreams, The General of the Dead Army, Chronicle in Stone, The Winter of our Discontent), some of the characters are a bit flat, but still it is a good novel that gives valuable insights in the world of this giant of contemporary world literature. It is his most autobiographical book and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in Kadare’s works.

One word about the translation, and about the translations of Kadare’s books in general. The reviewed edition in English is translated by David Bellos from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni – similarly to The Siege that I reviewed here previously. Overall not a bad effort, although I am in principle opposed to this kind of translations that are for me only acceptable when there are no translators at all for a given combination of languages; so for this edition there is no excuse based on availability of translators. There are excellent translators from Albanian to English. But the case of Kadare is a bit more complicated, and – very typical for this author – even a bit ambiguous.  

All books of Kadare that were published in Albania before 1992 were subject to censorship. Some of his books were even banned after publication in Albania, despite having undergone careful reading by the censors. At the same time, Kadare could publish some of his novels abroad or in Albania in translations. His translator in French was Jusuf Vrioni, also an author and close friend of Kadare. Kadare speaks French and worked usually closely together with Vrioni in the process of translation to French. After the fall of communism in Albania, Kadare started to review his books and included in new editions also banned paragraphs and pages. Therefore, the updated French language editions of Vrioni would contain more authentic versions of Kadare’s novels than the originally published Albanian versions. At a later stage the expanded, uncensored French versions were then published in Albanian, in Kadare’s favourite publishing house Onufri. The German translations of Kadare novels on the other hand are exclusively translated directly from Albanian, based on the versions that Kadare authorized.

There is another reason why Kadare (or his agent, Mr Andrew Wiley) usually favors a translation of his older novels from the French translation, and not from the Albanian originals, I suppose. Albania has become very late a member of the relevant international agreements on authors’ rights and copyright. As a result, authors of Albanian works that were published prior to the ratification of these agreements by Albania, have no copyright protection. Kadare wouldn’t see a penny of royalties for a translation of any of his earlier novels, unless a publisher would – for ethic, not for legal reasons – decide to compensate him. The French translation is considered according to these agreements as a new work (because it includes many changes compared to the original Albanian text), and is therefore subject to royalties. Not that it affects in any way the literary value of Kadare’s works, but this background is important to know, if one wants to understand the strange translation practice of his work in the Anglophone world.

Ismail Kadare: Twilight of the Eastern Gods, tr. David Bellos, from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni, Canongate Edinburgh London 2015

© 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.

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.

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. 

The Drums of Rain

Albania in the middle of the 15th century. Gjergj Kastrioti, called Skanderbeg, is resisting the advance of the Ottoman armies and is fighting a kind of hit-and-run guerrilla war from his fortresses in the Accursed Mountains. This is the historical backdrop of the novel The Siege by the Albanian author Ismail Kadare, a permanent candidate for the Novel Prize and Winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

A huge force of the Ottoman army is advancing to this remote and not yet completely subdued province with the task to conquer one of the biggest fortresses that is still resisting the at that time most powerful army in the world.

The Pasha that is leading the expedition force knows what is at stake for him: a failure to seize the fortress in summer would be considered as a complete failure of his by the Sultan. Not only would it be necessary to abort the siege at the begin of the rainy season, for the Pasha it would mean also personal disgrace and drastic consequences – in the best case early retirement, but more probably a death sentence after his return to the capital.

Kadare tells us the story from two different perspectives. The main narrator is a young chronicler whose task it is to write the official account of the expedition and siege. The chronicler, an intelligent but inexperienced person has therefore (almost) always access to any meetings of the war council, where the military leaders discuss with the Pasha the right strategy and next steps of the siege.

Important for the chronicler is especially his growing friendship with the Quartermaster, a kind of Chief Logistics Officer, who is very friendly and frank with him and is opening his eyes for the difficult task that such a mission including so many people is imposing on the logistics. Basic things about which we rarely read in the history books that tell only of the deeds of “great men”, are of crucial importance. Without a proper system of latrines, no triumph in any battle. We also understand, as the story advances, that the Quartermaster has an agenda too. He wants to be depicted in a positive light for posterity, and he is doubting also (like many others) the abilities of the Pasha as a leader, though he is voicing his reservations in the most indirect way.

A siege of a fortress on that scale was an extraordinary undertaking in the 15th century. It required already a very high level of organization, specialization and division of labor. We have the simple soldiers and the medics, experts for artillery, the janissaries, elite soldiers of the Sultan, the raiders (akinzhis), the infantry (azabs), the cavalry, and other specialized and rivaling groups, the “volunteers” (people who join in the hope to get a part of the booty), but also exorcists, soothsayers, spell casters, dream interpreters, and many other important crafts.

Each chapter that is written by the young Ottoman chronicler is mirrored by a short chapter that is told by an unnamed Albanian chronicler who is inside the fortress. The Albanians pray for an early begin of the rainy season, which seems to be the only possible rescue. (Or an attack of the myth Skanderbeg, who is hiding somewhere in the mountains.) So, “the drums of rain” – also the planned original title of the book, and also the name under which The Siege is published in French – are dreaded by the Pasha, but longed-for by the Albanians.

Since the fortress is well-protected by a sophisticated system of walls, and since there is also enough food and water inside the fortress, it proves more difficult as anticipated by the invaders to take it. Several attempts to storm the fortress in a frontal assault, supported by the newly cast cannon, fail and cause many casualties. A success at all costs must be achieved, and so the Pasha decides to follow a cunning plan: secretly he lets his soldiers build a tunnel that should lead directly to the middle of the fortress and that should enable a surprise attack and the opening of the gates from the inside for a huge wave of attackers…

Regarding the technical details of the siege, Kadare has made extensive use of Marin Barleti’s chronicle about the siege of Shkodra. But The Siege is more than a historical novel: it was written shortly after the invasion of Prague 1968 by the Warsaw Pact states. It is therefore obvious that the book contains also some very interesting comments on the situation after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

One message that Kadare wanted to send out is possibly: Albania will resist any attempt to invade the country (the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha built therefore hundreds of thousands of small bunkers – fortresses en miniature).

On the other hand, and this is also fairly obvious, the victory of the besieged (the invaders have to withdraw at the beginning of the rainy season and after the death of the Pasha) in the novel is only a temporary one. We can easily assume that a new, bigger army with even more frightful weapons will come back again next year – and from the history books we know the outcome of this process. Therefore Kadare’s message in this novel is – like in most of his books – very ambiguous.

What is additionally interesting about the novel are the countless calculated and intentional anachronisms it contains. To name just a few: There are show trials, the victims are sentenced to slave labor in the tunnel. And the only possible friend and ally in the outside world (in the book it is the Republic of Venice) plays a double game, because it is trading with and equipping the enemy of their (Christian) brothers, just for the profit.

“Great massacres always give birth to great books”,

says the Quartermaster to the chronicler quite at the beginning of The Siege. That may indeed be true. The Siege is a brilliant historical novel.

Siege

Ismail Kadare: The Siege, transl. David Bellos, Canongate, Edinburgh London New York Melbourne 2008 

Marin Barleti: The Siege of Shkodra, transl. David Hosaflook, Onufri Publishing House, Tirana, Albania, 2012 (first English edition; the original was published in Latin in 1504) 

Other reviews: 
1st reading’s Blog

see also:  http://edifyingdiscourse.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/notes-on-ismail-kadares-the-siege/

 

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