Translated works and I have a fraught relationship. It’s not that I don’t like reading the work of foreign authors; far from it. I love to be transported to different countries and learn about the people, culture, history and landscape of other nations. I certainly don’t like to reside in an Anglo-centric bubble. However, I am never sure, with translations, whether I am truly reading the book as the author intended. The author’s voice, syntax, expression, invariably becomes blurred with that of the translator. The translator must make decisions about how to interpret words and phrases; for those authors long dead, how can you be sure that the words chosen by the translator accurately express the author’s voice? Some things are just untranslatable; so many French phrases have no equivalent meaning in English, and so the power of them in the original text is lost in translation. And what about novels written in the nineteenth century, or earlier? How can modern translators accurately express an archaic mode of speech to a modern audience? All too frequently these days I see ‘modernised’ translations; for example, those of Pevear and Volokhonsky are wonderfully readable, fresh versions of the Russian masters, but is it really justifiable to replace nineteenth century grammar and language with a twenty first century equivalent? Surely half the pleasure in reading period novels is being steeped in the contemporary language then used; imagine the uproar if Shakespeare was ‘modernised’ for today’s schoolchildren, to make it ‘fresher’!
I have a lot of respect for translators; they do an admirable job and make the works of wonderful authors available to all through their incredible linguistic and literary skills. This is an entirely necessary process, I know, because unless all of us become fluent in several languages during our lifetimes, we would otherwise be cut off from all literature written in a language other than our own. I adore the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, all of which I have read in contemporary nineteenth century translation to try and get an authentic sense of these authors rather than a modernised version. The pioneers of Russian translation into English, the fascinating Louise and Aylmer Maude, and the dynamic Constance Garnett, who learned Russian precisely in order to translate Tolstoy (and was the mother of Bloomsbury novelist David Garnett, husband of Angelica Bell), did a wonderful service to Russian literature, and many have enjoyed the works of its greatest novelists thanks to their work, but really, I wonder whether I have ever truly read their novels, because no matter how good the translation, it can never really adequately express the author’s voice.
I once read a wonderful, inspiring article about an English woman in her seventies who was given a copy of War and Peace to read by her daughter. She read it voraciously, and then moved on to Tolstoy’s other novels, but when she finished, she suddenly had the realisation that she had never really read Tolstoy at all; she had read him through the filter of the translators who had interpreted his words from Russian into the equivalent English. Having never received much of a formal education, she decided that she was so passionate about reading Tolstoy in the original that she would sign up to do a university degree in Russian. She duly did so, and when the article was written, she had finished the degree, was fluent in Russian, had spent some time living in Russia, and was so happy at how learning Russian had enriched and widened the horizons of her life. Had I the time, money and tenacity, I too would be at university learning languages; I very nearly enrolled on a French and Russian degree instead of English Literature, but was talked out of it by my eminently practical parents, who raised an eyebrow at my taking a degree of which half would be composed of learning a very difficult language I had no prior knowledge of. If I turned out to be rubbish, I’d end up with a worthless degree, so instead I signed up for a subject I knew I’d be good at, and while I loved it, part of me does regret not having the courage to go with my heart. However, it’s encouraging to know that, illustrated by the wonderful septugenarian above, that it really is never too late…one day I might get to do that degree after all!
So anyway, these musings are leading me to review Stone in a Landslide by Catalonian author Maria Barbal, which was kindly sent to me by Meike at Peirene Press, a new publishing house that brings translations of modern European writers to an English speaking audience. This is an admirable premise, as I know how hard it is, unless you’re Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for outstanding European authors to break into the English speaking market, and for that reason alone, I decided to accept the offer of Stone in a Landslide, despite my reluctance to read novels in translation for all of the aforementioned reasons. The reviews of this by other bloggers have been largely enthusiastic, and I was expecting a small masterpiece, I have to admit. I was slightly disappointed on that front; it didn’t blow me away, but it was really very good in its exploration of the life of one rural Catalonian, Conxa, throughout the 20th century. Born into a poor family living a hard life on the land in the rural Pyrenees, Conxa is sent at thirteen to live with her childless aunt Tia in a neighbouring village to help her with the house and land. Despite the relatively short distance between the villages, Conxa knows it will be a rare occasion when she gets to see her family again in the future, due to the expense of travelling, and she soon must get over her grief at leaving her parents and siblings, and immerse herself in her new life with her Tia and Oncle.
Conxa does just this, and she grows to love her Aunt and Uncle like her own parents, and feel like a native in her new home. Life is not easy; there is an endless round of work to do both in the fields and in the house, and money is always hard to come by, but there are festivals to enjoy and friendships to relish in, and Conxa is an optimist; her circumstances never get her down. At sixteen she falls in love with a local, Jaume, and they marry shortly after and have three children. Conxa loves Jaume passionately, and she is an excellent mother, but life is still difficult, and there is much to do to keep things ticking over. When there is civil unrest, Jaume gets involved in the revolutionary political activity, and there are devastating consequences for the whole family. Conxa must hold it all together for everyone, and as times change and the life she has always known on the land gets rejected by the new generation, who want a life of modern convenience rather than backbreaking toil, she must learn to flow with the tide of progress, and leave the past behind.
It is a beautiful, evocative novel about the life of a woman whose passive yet stoical nature see her swept along through the decades of her life, doing what is expected of her, and coping with the disappointments, tragedies and grief that eventually come to all of us. I know some other bloggers found Conxa’s passivity and lack of strong personality disappointing, but I didn’t; I think Maria Barbal does an excellent job of showing how women in the early twentieth century were very much passive objects, led first by parents then husbands, responsible for children and home and never really given control of their own lives. Conxa asserts authority over her existence through her ability to keep going with her head held up high, no matter what, and it was this spirit and tenacity that made her such an emotive and inspirational character for me. I loved the descriptions of rural Catalan life; of the poverty and toil, but also the beautiful landscape, the close knit communities, and the festivals and markets and traditions that tied everyone together. Conxa lives through one of the most rapidly changing centuries known to man, and despite seeing her way of life swept away by the incessant march of progress, her spirit, her beliefs, and her soul stay the same, and this is what gives her the power to cope with it all, and to look back at the end of a long, often hard life with affection, gratitude, and grace.
I thought this was excellent, though of course, I don’t know how much of Barbal’s voice comes through in the translation. I think that is one of the most frustrating things for me about translations; the reason why I’m reading a translation is because I can’t read the original, and the fact that I don’t know what I could be missing is what I find intensely irritating. However, the fact Stone in a Landslide was translated didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it, and I am pleased that I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried a modern European translation. Judging by the passion and excellent critical eye of Meike at Peirene, I think I will be trying many more novels from their selection.
Giveaway Alert! I am trying to downsize my possessions so I am delighted to offer this lovely book to a fellow blogger; please do let me know if you’d like to be entered for the draw to win it in the comments. All are welcome, no matter where you live!