Some thoughts on translation

In A Splendid Conspiracy (reviewed here), the police informant and intellectual of the streets, Rezk, covets foreign books, which he diligently reads at the pace of a page a day even though he frequently finds phrases that are beyond his comprehension. At the same time, Medhat, who works the for the town’s newspaper, dismisses the idea of reading books in other languages because people are the same everywhere and the books are going to share the perversity in any language so why bother working so hard.

In The Russian Girl Richard Vaisey stubbornly resists teaching courses in translation because the students cannot then claim to read Russian novels, but only a pale image of the real thing.

Years ago I had a conversation with a friend who declared that he doesn’t read books in translation. In contrast, almost forty percent of my non-academic reading in the past four years has been translated into English. My friend’s concern was over the quality of the translation and I must admit that I have read some book where the translation was distinctly antiquated in such a way that it distracted. Sometimes the issues with the translation are with the translator, but sometimes they is with the original text. But even that dichotomy is too simple. To wit, all translation is going to itself be an art, with decisions about how to render turns of phrase, but where some syntax tracks well with English, some languages do not, while some books like Tyrant Banderas flow between multiple different dialects with varying levels of complexity and each with its own external symbolism in its diction.

The proper solution would, for Richard Vaisey, to read the book in the original. There is a value to this, which I can quite attest to in my academic work with Greek texts, but since there are multiple purposes for reading, translations are usually satisfactory so long as it is realized what they are.

I like explanations for particular word choices, as Alyson Waters offers in her translation of A Splendid Conspiracy, but generally trust publishers to employ capable translators. As a rule, cut some slack on purely aesthetic judgements of the text since it is being passed through a medium. The problem is trickier when there are dueling translations, but thankfully Google provides a service that allows easy access to reviews of the different translations. At the most granular level each will probably have its virtues, but, being interested in collecting stories, I prefer readability to a word-for-word translation. While I appreciate authors who have enough English to work closely with their translators like Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk have done, but the truth is that I greedily want access to these stories and (usually) lack the facility with the original language so I happily settle for the translation.

I will likely soon pick up one or more novels in French just to work toward fluency with that language, but I don’t consider it necessary to appreciate a book as a work of art. I believe that one of the things reading enables is to unlock all sorts of people and places, world views and experiences that are not normally available, particularly to someone living in the United States. To reject works in translation is to apply blinders to a whole range of cultures, not mention willfully denying oneself great art.

A Splendid Conspiracy – Albert Cossery

Since reading his novel The Jokers several years ago, Albert Cossery, the French-resident, Egyptian-born, Syriac-descended anti-materialist author, I have been an admirer of his work. A Splendid Conspiracy is the fourth of his novel I have consumed. While there is a lot to admire in these books, each successive one has rubbed away some of the shine. None of them has lived up to the promise of the The Jokers and each has further revealed some of the warts that plague Cossery’s striking worldview.

The semi-autobiographical hero of A Splendid Conspiracy is Teymour, the heir to the fortunes of a landowner of a small Egyptian city. Dismissive of the pursuit of material goods, the doddering, illiterate old man is nonetheless overawed by the prospects of a diploma in chemical engineering and therefore sent his son to Europe for an education. Teymour, equally unmoved by material things except insofar as they can be consumed, naturally took the opportunity to indulge in the licentious pleasures of European capitals, but, after six years, his father has summoned him. Being without a degree, Teymour pays for a forged diploma and returns home. Fortunately for him, Teymour is rescued from his boredom by an old friend Medhat and Imtaz, a famous actor whose looks are not diminished by his failing eyesight. This troika is determined to entertain themselves by observing others making fools of themselves. While people’s sexual and materialistic foibles are entertaining enough on their own, Medhat has an elaborate prank planned for the wealthy and lustful Chawki, far beyond the usual ploy of summoning him to risqué parties at the home of his former mistress so that she can berate him. So the conspirators set to work.

At the same time, there is a second conspiracy taking place in town. Rich men from the countryside are disappearing from the streets. They are presumed dead, but their bodies are not found. The authorities are at a loss as to what is happening and suspect that the secretive conspirators with no regard for decency and a tendency to randomly purchase things like a school girl’s uniform are revolutionaries or terrorists behind the murders. This is despite protestations of their informer, the young intellectual Rezk who does not believe that these men who are so decent to him could be guilty of such heinous crimes.

A Splendid Conspiracy unfolds at the intersection of these two conspiracies. Its strengths are common in Cossery’s work: scathing critiques of the pursuit of material wants and an elevation of the pursuit of happiness to a divine mandate. There is even something of a touching love story in the novel between Teymour and a saltimbanque, a street performer who entertains people on her bicycle. Much of the story is imbued with little moments where Cossery magnifies the various greeds of each individual character, with the heroes claiming that title because they are greedy for entertainment rather than sex or money or status. A Splendid Conspiracy also wrestled with the theme of longing to be somewhere else, with the characters divided between those finding the small city to be an exotic land filled with wonders, those finding it a bore compared with the wonders of faraway lands, and those who think people are exactly as entertaining everywhere.

The problems with A Splendid Conspiracy are, unfortunately, also common to Cossery’s work. I largely excused the problems with women when I reviewed The Jokers because the critique remained on materialism. In the rest of his work there is more bitterness toward women in general and a greater obsession with young women. The latter is particularly true in A Splendid Conspiracy. For instance, Medhat keeps an eye out for prepubescent girls who he believes will be both beautiful and licentious when they hit puberty and Chawki lusts after young women and laments that his former mistress is old and ugly in her early twenties. Even in a culture of fetishizing teenagers and sexualizing young girls, this near-universal obsession in A Splendid Conspiracy could be tough to read when the frame of the novel seems to condone rather than condemn this interest. What’s more, this is not presented as a cultural norm, but something for the purpose of the men’s pleasure and the only moral quality to it existing in the motives of the men. Chawki is a miser and a slave to his lust and therefore his obsession is something that can be exploited. Medhat, a married man, is in control of his and only looking out for pleasure. Even Salma, the former mistress and a liberated woman eventually proves desperate to cling to her material things.

The portrayal of women presented enough issues for me that I can’t categorically recommend this novel, but, at the same time, the social critiques of materialism and longing were more substantive than even The Jokers. This is solidly my second favorite Cossery novel and worth a read, even if it is also worth looking in askance at the gender politics.

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Next up is an espionage thriller set in China, Night Heron by Adam Brookes.

The Storyteller – Mario Vargas Llosa

In a gallery in Florence an ex-pat Peruvian writer (Mario Vargas Llosa) comes across a photograph of a gathering of Machiguenga natives and is transfixed by the sight of the storyteller with a conspicuous birthmark. Familiar with the Machiguenga, but not privileged enough to have met a reclusive storyteller, the narrator is certain that he knows that man, in a past life as a student in Peru. The novel unfolds in two symbolically linked narratives. In the first, the narrator thinks back to his days in Peru, remembering the young jewish man Saul Zarutas, called Mascarita, and everything he knows about the Machiguenga while in school or working as a television producer. These wandering peoples only recently came into contact with the modern world through missionaries who translated the bible into their language, but already their ways have begun to change. In the second, he imagines the tales of the Machiguenga storyteller, etiologies for the indigenous environment and Mascaritas transition to the channeler of these semi-divine stories.

The Storyteller, conspicuously told by an outsider looking back on his native land, deals with the issues of identity, particularly with regard to the duality inherent to some extant in all American countries. The chapters dedicated to Machiguenga cosmology offer insight into the tribe of nomadic walkers, as the tribe considers themselves, and work backward toward Mascarita’s transition. The closer to the modern world they come, the more imbued with western symbolism that is nonetheless presented as universal.

I liked The Storyteller and Llosa is an excellent author, but this was one of the weaker stories of his I have read. For one thing, the dual narrative works, but it is not as tightly linked as in The War of the End of the World or The Feast of the Goat. For another, Mascarita’s transition and Llosa’s nostalgia are poignant, but not as powerful as The Bad Girl. More importantly, though, I simply was unable to connect as strongly as I would have liked to the Native American portion of the story—it was interesting, but there was always some distance that I was unable to close.

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My next read is going to be Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

Dr. Futurity – Philip K. Dick

I picked up Dr. Futurity in a used bookstore recently based on two criteria. First, one of my blindspots in the area of classic science fiction is the work of Philip K. Dick. I am aware of the premises for quite a few books, but I have never read any of them. Second, of the options before me, the synopsis of Dr. Futurity, a future world dominated by the young and fetishizes death, sounded the most interesting. [I should also mention that I believe in the important marketing elements of cover and description when it comes to pre-judging a book.]

Doctor Jim Parsons leaves his wife standing on the porch of their southern-California home one morning in 2010 and takes the expressway north to San Fransisco. On this high-speed commute there is an accident and he is launched four hundred years into the future, into a a world that is barely recognizable. This future world is one in which healing is stigmatized and death fetishized. The population is divided into tribes based on totems, with athletic competitions determining the proportion of the population each tribe gets to have. Men are sterilized at birth and zygotes brought to term through a strict regimen of eugenics; women are without representation and, other than their participation in the competitions, serve to please their male partners and guests as housekeepers and sexual objects. Mars is transformed into a prison colony for dissenters and Venus into a mine, with juvenile delinquents trained to be shupos, violent killers who enforce the government’s positions.

Parsons, with his white skin and hippocratic oath, is dropped into this world and sentenced to Mars. In transit he is rescued by the Wolf Tribe, dissenters of Native American heritage, who need him to save their leader who was killed with an arrow while on a mission to the sixteenth century. Using the time machine, Parsons leaps backward and forward, trying to find a balance between his family back home, a new love in the future, and the vicissitudes of human ambition.

The basic hypothetical Dick poses, the one that caused me to get the book, was the strongest part of Dr. Futurity. In contrast, the plot (and the questions pertaining to time travel) were simply okay, as it hopped forward and back in time. In my opinion, Dick did not add much by way of conversation about history or the paradoxes posed by time travel, and the fact that the story veered away from the future and to these issues weakened the book. In fact, most of the consequences in Dr. Futurity fell back on the question of personalities and power dynamics within human families or societies.

And yet, I had other, bigger issues with Dr. Futurity

  1. Some of the specifics Dick used to place Parsons as the inhabitant of the near future were hilariously out of date. Notably, the inhabitants of the future try to make Parsons feel at home by providing creature comforts of his era, and the go-to taste of home was a Lucky Strike cigarette—a brand that was discontinued in the United States in 2006.
  2. More important was the treatment of women. Where the racial dynamics in the future were refreshing, generally treated just as a fact and not with a moral attached, the book reeked of gender issues. First, while the stay-at-home wife seeing her husband off might have been true of the time of publication (1960), the setting is somewhat in the future and therefore distressingly regressive. Second, in the far future the need for biological mothers is eliminated, and yet the women are further relegated, being sex objects and servants for their men, while it is considered rebellious to even broach the topic of female suffrage. Some of the main characters do not fall into this category, but only because they are exceptional women.

    The first two issues were troubling enough, but could have been explained in the course of the narrative, but, instead, Dick’s writing slips into a third sexist tic. He tells the story through Parson’s eyes, and often has Parson casually ogle the breasts of female characters. To wit, he describes Loris, the leader of the Wolf Tribe and “the most potent human being alive” as “the powerful, full-breasted creature” who has “energetic loins” and “superb breasts” that “glistened, swayed”. Dick does use these moments to establish sexual interest, but while Loris has her uses for Parsons, the interest in principally coming from the other direction. Had there been a valuable narrative purpose to Parson’s wandering eye that would be one thing, but the above quotes come from multiple passages that offer a troubling discourse on the purpose of women in the world of the story.

In sum, Dr. Futurity brimmed with tantalizing potential, but fell short on a number of fronts. It might well be a setting worth revisiting, but this particular story only flashed glimpses, otherwise proving shallow and problematic.

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I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, about an isolated tribe being acclimated to modern society as a modern anthropology student becomes absorbed into their traditions. Next up I am going to read Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.