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.

ΔΔΔ

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