Of mermaids and mandalas

I haven’t blogged for months, but at last I find myself between translations, riding the TGV south from Paris, with a window to write. A real window, too, with distant views of the eastern edge of the Massif Central, its smoky blue skyline like the top of a great wave gathering height. Time to think about books translated, and translations to come, and things I’ve read recently for private pleasure in this brief break from work. Connections emerge. Like the heroes of Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose or Sebald’s Vertigo, I’m an enthusiastic apophenian, prone to a condition defined by Wikipedia as the ‘unmotivated seeing of connections […] which has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general…’.

Jean Rolin’s Congo journey (Dalkey Archive Press 2011) was my first full-length fiction translation, and I’m about to start work on my fifth, for Wakefield Press. Sérènissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’) is a fabulous Venetian poisonfest by the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop, set at the decline and fall of the Serene Republic, where the grisly deaths suffered by the serial wives of Count Alvise Lanzi provoke gossip and speculation among the denizens of the Libro d’Oro, the city’s celebrated Golden Book, its pages inscribed with the names of Venice’s oldest and grandest families.

Venice is a fitting backdrop for a work of translation: the city owes some of its splendour to an act of translation in the other (true? literal?) sense – the bringing across of the remains of the evangelist and Christian martyr Mark from Alexandria, making it an important place of pilgrimage.  And Wittkop is the perfect writer to celebrate Venice’s characteristic mix of beauty and decay, its stunning assertion of civilisation and art (all that gold and marble, colour and architecture, all those glittering mosaics) in a featureless wash of sea and sky, its embodiment of human ingenuity and rottenness alike, its determination to celebrate life amid the persistent whiff of death. Like her cinematic kindred spirit Peter Greenaway, Gabrielle Wittkop’s work is full of all these things. Unafraid of death, she put an end to her own life in 2002, at the age of 82, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, choosing to skip the unenticing final episode of a long, richly eventful, sexually adventurous existence, and to die as she had lived – in her own words – ‘a free man.’

Wittkop loved Venice, the mermaid city, wedded to the sea. Like her writing, Venice is outlandish, beautiful, and a rich source prurient fascination (all those smells, all that fluorescent seaweed slopping at the foot of marble palace walls). And so to the pages of Vanity Fair (the March 2014 issue; I have it with me on the train). Lili Anolik’s brilliant piece All About Eve has this to say about L.A. party girl and boho intellectual Eve Babitz, scarred by horrific burns following a motor accident:

‘…she tells me what her skin looks like (“I’m a mermaid now, half my body.”) That last remark is the one that knocks me out the most. I love it not simply because it shows how tough she is, how un-whining, but because of its sneaky eroticism. She’s comparing her burned epidermis – a painful and grisly condition, a disfigurement – to the scales of a mermaid, the femme fatale of the sea. As an image it’s grotesque and romantic at once. Not just sexy, perversely sexy. Not just perversely sexy, triumphantly perversely sexy.’

This is pure Wittkop. A couple of years ago, leading a discussion of her writing with MA students at the University of London Institute in Paris, I found many who shared my enthusiasm, but others unable to suspend their moral abhorrence: one passage, from Gabrielle’s memoir Chaque jour est un arbre qui tombe, describes the fascinating beauty of a leper’s skin, and the same man’s piercingly human, ‘salacious’ eye, jewel-bright in its exotic setting.  Wittkop’s novel The Necrophiliac (translated by Don Bapst; ECW Press 2011) was hailed by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian as a masterpiece, but perhaps not one you’d care to be seen reading on your morning commute. Triumphantly, perversely sexy.…

It’s an imaginative leap from Venice to the icy expanses of the Finnmark wilderness, and Oliver Truc’s début crime novel Le dernier lapon (‘Forty Days Without Shadow’ in my translation; Little, Brown, 2014). But beauty and mortality are here in abundance, too, not to mention grotesquely fascinating body parts (a pair of severed human ears). And violent death, in a shocking murder and the slow agony of an entire people, the Sami, Europe’s last indigenous nomads. There’s even the potential for mermaids, unlikely as that may seem: one of the best reads of my work hiatus has been Elisabeth Gifford’s Hebridean novel Secrets of the Sea House, which includes a reference to the intriguing theory that mermaids (or Selkies) in the stories and legends of the north-western Scottish isles might well be our last record of a lost people – the Sea Sami, expert kayakers, travelling far from their base on the Norwegian coast, skimming the waves in slender, sealskin craft, their legs encased (crucially) in glossy, waterproof sheaths made from strips of translucent seal gut. Mer-people par excellence, and proof that truth can indeed be stranger than the imaginings of fiction. Strange but true… it occurs to me that yet another mermaid appears in my co-translation of Antoine Laurain’s Parisian ‘fairytale’ The President’s Hat (with Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken of Gallic Books). The ‘mythical, fish-tailed creature’ is the emblem and muse of perfumier Pierre Aslan, under whose aegis he makes a triumphant return from the deserts of depression to new inspiration and life (her trident is a perfumier’s scent strip-holder).

Mermaid

 

I’ve finished a long-standing read in my short break between books: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road (John Murray 2013), the concluding volume of the trilogy that began with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Mermaids are conjured in the pages of the author’s Green Diary, written when he was a young man of twenty, touring the monasteries of Mount Athos in the mid-1930s:  ‘The first glimpse of Simonopetra is magnificent. It is perched high up on the mountain, looking as if it grows straight from the peak beneath it, the brick blending as imperceptibly with the rock as a mermaid with her tail…’  A few pages on, and a fishtail flash of gold returns us to the quasi-Venetian splendours of a frescoed monastery church, with its ‘host of saints and martyrs, the serried ranks of their haloes diminishing in the distance, and interlapping as neatly as fish scales.’

All that to say – what exactly? (We apophenians are enthusiastic pursuers of signs and hidden meanings, but it’s so much more fun to keep travelling than to arrive…). Perhaps quite simply that, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, ‘the world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’ Or as Wittkop herself puts it in the prologue to Murder Most Serene, with a few imaginative leaps and bounds we may cross broad chasms and traverse vast deserts with ease (see ‘Translation is… bunraku?’ on this blog).

One of the loveliest passages in Wittkop’s writing (and there are more than a few – it’s not all death, transgression and decay) occurs in her aforementioned memoir Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe (‘Each Day is a Tree That Falls’).  The narrator takes a plane flight and finds herself with the gift of time, gazing through the porthole at the sky, until her thoughts resolve themselves – through imaginative leaps, unexpected connections, immanent formal correspondences – into a radiant, ordered pattern of compelling beauty,  ‘like a mandala.’

I’m greatly looking forward to translating Gabrielle’s work.

“Is That a (Michael) Fish in Your Ear?” The fun and Games of translating cultural references…

Watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Games at home here in France prompted thoughts of my next translation – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain’s touching, thoughtful, entertaining, feel-good tour of French society in the mid-1980s, published this year by Flammarion to popular and critical acclaim, and coming soon in English from Gallic Books.

How so, I hear you cry?

Well, both ceremonies were big on nostalgia, like Laurain’s novel, and all are awash with loaded references – in Laurain’s case, everything from Minitel soft porn to household-name presenters of France’s day-time TV news, an insidious anti-Mitterrand shibboleth that did the rounds of Paris society back in the day, and a clutch of echt-Eighties products and pop tubes. In which context, it is a truth universally acknowledged that every loaded reference in an Olympic ceremony, novel or other cultural manifestation must be in want of an appropriate, thoughtful and entertaining explanation. Back, then, to the opening night of London 2012, viewed chez nous during a lively BBQ with French friends and neighbours. Some things needed no introduction, bien sûr

Haha! Monsieur Bean!! Excellent! L’humour British… La classe!!”

James Bond, the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter, and David Beckham thundering down the Thames in a speedboat, were all received with delight and understanding. And the tribute to the NHS was easily dealt with (“Ah… Ze Nashurneul ‘Ealt Seurvees, N.H.S., d’accord…”). Great Ormond Street Hospital, less so: why were we being treated to a huge cartoon of a child in tears? “Well,” I weighed in, “It’s the symbol for the charity that helps fund Great Ormond Street, which is a big children’s hospital in London… it spells GOSH, you see, er, like ‘Tiens!’, ‘Dis-donc!’.”  Blank incomprehension. (But the French were not alone in this – a doctor friend has since pointed out that Great Ormond Street was actually part of the “children’s literature” section of the show, because Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie donated his royalties to the the hospital. Who knew? Not me…).

Onto the iconic clip – so familiar to any Briton of a certain age and then some – showing Michael Fish presenting the weather forecast on that fateful evening in 1987.

“Aha! Ze famous Breeteesh wezzer!” chortled our French  friends and neighbours.

“Well not quite…” I launched into an account of how Michael Fish had reassured the nation that a telephone warning from a woman in France, about an impending hurricane, was quite mistaken, just before half the trees in southern England were felled overnight. But the ceremony had continued on its wondrous, bonkers way, and none of our assembled company were any the wiser.

I watched the closing ceremony home alone – just as well, perhaps, what with Only Fools and Horses, and Stomp’s (intentional?) choreographed nod to the People’s Clean-Up after last year’s London riots. Put that in an Olympic ceremony and try and explain it to the French…

My point being that in translation, as in TV broadcast commentaries for the benefit of non-native viewers, any attempted explanation of country-specific references should be unobtrusive and sufficient. Enough to deliver an appreciation of  the reference and its significance, while not interfering with the enjoyment of the words on the page, or the ceremony on the screen. A lesson I hope I can apply…

The President’s Hat will be a co-translation, appropriately enough for a novel that unfolds through the eyes and reported thought of four different characters. Working with Gallic’s in-house translation team, we’re taking a “voice” each. Mine is Daniel Mercier, the hero of the opening and closing episodes, a down-trodden salaryman whose life is transformed by the “Mitterrand touch.” When Gallic tweeted news of the book recently, twitterers pondered a possible sequel: “Sarkozy’s Platform Shoes?” One reference that needs no explanation, across the Channel or around the world…

I hope we succeed in bringing the mood, the icons and the essential spirit of the Mitterrand years back to life – as Antoine Laurain has so triumphantly in French – for English-speaking readers. And especially, perhaps, for the Children of Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag. Moving from London to Paris at the dawn of the Nineties, I was enthralled to catch the tail end of the Mitterrand presidency. They were doing things very differently in France back then.

And they are again today.

PS: References aren’t only country-specific, of course. Folk unfamiliar with the world of translation may not have picked up my title reference to David Bellos’s recent book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? all about the challenges and delights of our craft. And anyone – of any nationality, profession or age – who has never read, listened to, or watched Douglas Adams’s Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its many states (as a radio series, book, TV show and film) won’t have spotted Bellos’s reference to the Babel fish, that enormously useful alien creature which, when popped into the user’s ear, allows him or her to understand all the languages in the known universe. But not necessarily their associated cultural references…