Lost in Translation? Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

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!

47 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this one too which Simon lent me – I don’t know whether it was because it was originally written in French or because of the way in which it was translated but it read so beautifully and had such a different flavour to most English language books.

    1. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it Verity! You’re right – it definitely had a different flavour and even if I hadn’t have known the author wasn’t British I would have been able to tell that she wasn’t from the style. It is a nice change to read something European, I must say!

  2. This is obviously doing the rounds because I am seeing comments on it everywhere at the moment. I am most interested in what you have to say about translators because the question of whether we should be more concerned with translating style or with the style of the translator is one that has excited very heated discussion within the university language department I’m associated with. Last term we had a series of seminars organised by the translators among us and it was very clear that they thought it should be the style of the translator that won out over that of the original writer. Those of us who come from a narratology background were horrified. Surely what we need is a translation that is as true to the original in both style and substance as we can get? It was, however, very clear that we were in the minority and thought to be still living in the Dark Ages. Oh well, back to my cave!

    1. Yes – a lot of bloggers have picked up on it so Meike is clearly very good at PR! That’s so interesting – I would definitely have been in your camp – the style of the author should always be more prominent than the translator in my opinion and I can’t believe anyone would say otherwise! If translators want to bring their voice to the page then they should write their own books!

  3. One of the best books I read last year was OUT by Natsuo Kirino. I do not speak or read Japanese, so I read the book in translation and I thought it was fabulous. Later I discovered that there had been a lot of controversy about the translation and that some people who are fluent in both English and Japanese felt the translator (Stephen Snyder) had added a lot of things that were not in the original. That didn’t change my mind about the book–it WAS a great book–but it did make me wonder how much of any translated book is the author’s original intention and how much is the work of a translator.

    BTW, I recently started (but could not finish) a translation of a Norwegian murder-mystery. I had to stop when the translator (or publisher?) found it necessary to add footnotes explaining meters and kilometers.

    1. I haven’t read any Japanese fiction – I normally run a mile from anything that wasn’t originally written in English precisely because of what you describe here. That’s really interesting – I suppose the irritating thing is that you’ll never know whether the translation made the book worse than it could have been, though if you enjoyed the book anyway, I don’t suppose it matters hugely!

      That’s funny! I’d have been annoyed by that too!

  4. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina, it was the only one that really grabbed me from the first page, after spending a bit of time looking through each version!

    Books in translation are interesting, because I grew up with a parent who studied the bible obsessively, comparing the translations and bewailing her lack of knowledge about the original languages, I’ve seen how many different interpretations you can get and how much the translator is involved in subtly changing what was originally written. That said, my mother’s example of pouring over a book in translation for years was probably part of the reason I’m so fascinated with Proust and In Search of Lost Time. I’ve got several volumes in different translations as well and took my time deliberating over which I’d rather read. (It did make me want to study French after reading it so I could reread it in the original and I actually had dreams of being able to study it at university in French, as I don’t think you can study works in translation in university very seriously, they expect you to know the language, so I actually started a French course, but have never found it easy to learn a language in a classroom and didn’t keep it up) I feel lucky when there is more than one translation available, it helps you see that changes have been made, but also gives a choice about which changes you prefer.

    Also interesting is your mention of how your parents encouraged you to take a ‘sensible’ course in English, rather than languages, my parents talked me into taking a sensible course in Education, when all I wanted was to study English and literature! Of course I did get to take English courses too, but not as many as I wanted to. Like you, I still yearn to go back and take what I really wanted.

    1. That’s interesting that you chose the more old fashioned Garnett translation – most people tend to pick up the Pevear and Volokhonsky. I think I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky from the library but I have the Garnett translation for my own copy, which shows which I prefer.😉

      The Bible is quite a tricky one when it comes to translation – there are so many arguments, sometimes just over one word. As I read mine every day, I have simply chosen the one I find easiest and most understandable to read – I am no Bible scholar and I have no desire to become one!

      I love that you are so into Proust – I keep meaning to read him but then get scared at the length and difficulty. I know what you mean about learning a language in a classroom – you need to live it to really get an aptitude for it. I learnt French at school until I was 18 and it was very difficult by the end – we had to read books in French and write analytical essays, in French – I was technically semi fluent by the time I left school, but when I actually went to France, I struggled, because my French was so ‘correct’ and formal, and not really equipped for real life. One day I will pick it back up again and spend some time in France – another one of my dreams!

      How funny! My parents wanted me to get a good degree, and so they thought English would be the most sensible option in that regard. I am glad I took their advice – I think I would have found a linguistic degree a real struggle, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed university as much as I did as a consequence, but there is a part of me that wishes I had have had the courage I do now then, and stood up for what I wanted. I’m sorry you didn’t get to study literature – but – there is still time!

  5. I ponder the paradox (?) of translations too, especially after reading That Mad Ache by Françoise Sagan; the translator, perhaps egotistically, included an essay on his experience translating the novel, and even showed comparisons between his translation and the original translation the author’s husband had done decades ago. I’m going to read another of her books, translated by someone else, and see if it has the same kind of style – whether an author’s voice comes through the translation process intact, after all.

    My edition of Anna Karenina was translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude but I found it quite stiff and stuffy. It was Wordsworths Classics and the editing of the actual book was awful. I have two different copies of War and Peace – the “original” translation and the “new” translation, and I cannot decide which to read first! I’m sure the “new” one is more “readable”, but is that what I want?

    I’d like to be put in the draw for the book thanks – I’m very interested in the story🙂 Thanks!

    1. That’s interesting about the translator including an essay on his own experience and technique – though in a way, I suppose a translated book is a joint effort between author and translator and I do think the translator’s work should get more recognition. Too often the translator’s name is just a footnote on the title page, and this negates the hours of work they have put in to bringing the book alive for another tongue to enjoy.

      It’s interesting you find the Maude translation stiff and stuffy – the Maudes were close friends of Tolstoy, and though they were English, were both born and raised in Russia and only moved to England after they married. So they were fully bilingual, and consulted with Tolstoy over the translations they made – he highly endorsed their work. I think their translation must accurately echo Tolstoy’s own writing style much more closely than the modern, as they both knew him and used the same contemporary style of speech to him. Victorian novels often are stiff and stuffy (to our modern ears) and I think when it comes to translating older works there is a temptation to ‘funk’ them up for a modern audience – sacrilege!

      You are entered!

      1. I didn’t know the Maudes were friends with Tolstoy but I could tell by the style that the translation itself was quite old (at the time, I didn’t think twice about the translators but assumed they were modern – just one of those things! I think that’s why I formed the opinion I did, which is hugely unfair of me!).

        Really my main problem was how sloppy the book itself had been put together by Wordsworth, and this reflected badly on the translators – again unfair. You make a good point and I wouldn’t want it “funked up” at all!! Still leaves me undecided about what to do with War and Peace though…

      2. Ha! I know how rubbish Wordsworth Classics are – no wonder that put you off!

        I suppose it depends what you want – readability or authenticity – personally I would take authenticity over readability, because in my opinion, there’s no point reading a book unless you’re going to experience it as the author meant it to be. Translation is already one filter between the author and reader; modernised translation is yet another. So…that’s my take on it. But the choice must be yours!

      3. I do want to read it as the author intended, not publisher or translator, but on the question of readability I am never sure whether hard-to-read prose is the fault of the translator, or the author. How can you ever know unless you read the original language (in which case you wouldn’t need a translation anyway!). It gets especially interesting when more than one person translates the same book. How much of the differences are due to interpretation? How much to a conscious effort to make it read more smooth and “modern”? What do you think?

      4. Shannon you raise so many interesting points! That is something I struggle with too – is the prose hard to read because it is hard to read or because the translator’s style is not so great? And what makes one translation ‘better’ – how do translators ‘improve’ upon previous versions? I think really it’s about personal interpretation of texts and whether a translator captures the spirit of an author’s style or not. I do think that the translation you choose can have a massive effect on your enjoyment of a translated book as some translators have no style, no literary finesse, and are just literal translators, producing clunky and unnatural prose. Those that make the words flow and the spirit of the book come alive are the ones whose work you want to read, and this is easier for modern books in translation than older ones. Older texts carry with them the temptation to modernise and that is where I think problems lie. Authenticity and readability should by rights go hand in hand – those who read 19th century stuff by Eliot, Dickens, etc, don’t complain about the language, so why should modern translators feel the need to adapt a nineteenth century novel to modern linguistic usage? It makes no sense to me.

  6. I totally agree with you on the subject of reading books in translation – It’s one reason they don’t attract me very much. I think I’d find it helpful if both author and translater were credited on the cover because without doubt your getting both voices.

    1. What an interesting conversation on a subject I had not given much thought to – translation. I especially think Study Window gave me a bit to ponder. I think about it Biblically all the time with so many new interpretations coming out, having been a King James learner at the beginning, but not much thought literally. I think you can enjoy a book on whatever level/translation it comes out in, knowing that it will never be as good as the language of its author. On the other hand, I KNOW I would have enjoyed Homer with more modern translations first. I always get the unabridged versions of books in English, which brings a new sort of translation to the forefront.

      An intriguing and thoughtful review of the book as well, Rachel. You have stimulated conversation here, all of which I find interesting as well as thought provoking.

      I would love to have my name put into your “blogging hat” for a chance at the book. Thanks for that chance.

      1. I think that’s the problem – I always have that nagging thought that what I’m reading is no comparison to the original, and it does somewhat ruin my enjoyment of the book. I’m glad you enjoyed the topic and the conversation and consider yourself entered for the draw – good luck!

    2. I complerely agree – I also think the translator deserves to be credited on the cover – they have done half the work and too often they are completely ignored!

  7. Great post! I have a similarly fraught relationship with works in translation – when I dislike a work in translation, I never know if I really don’t like the book, or if I just don’t care for the translation. Plus I’m never sure to what extent my frustration over NOT being able to read the original is interfering with my enjoyment of the book.

    I always wish that I’d been less dilettante-y about learning languages – I did eight years of Latin so I was SOLID in Latin, but then I only did two semesters of French at uni (plus a lot of watching Buffy in French) and two years of Arabic in high school. Not very useful for conversations, even if I hadn’t let slide what I learned in the first place.

    1. You are so like me – I think exactly the same. Is the book bad, or the translation? Am I just annoyed that I can’t read it in the original, or did I really not like the book? So confusing!

      I am the same – I did French, Latin and German at school and I’ve let them all slide…one day I’ll pick them back up again but there just never seems to be the time!

  8. I do like reading about different cultures, so I’m very willing to read both books and poetry in translations even though I know something may be lost along the way.

    Being fluent in sign language myself I know that it is very difficult to translate in and from written English — so I know the feeling of not getting the “right words” down.

    When I was in college, in order to earn a BA degree, there was a foreign language requirement. It wasn’t until after I graduated that sign language was considered a foreign language. Anyway, at the time, I felt I didn’t have the time or energy to try to learn a foreign language without hearing it, so I got a waiver (had to take linguistics, cultural anthropology, and ethnography instead). Looking back, I really wish I had gone ahead and tried taking a foreign language anyway. Maybe I’ll give it a shot someday!

    Thanks for letting me ramble on, haha.

    1. Hi Valerie, thanks for your comments! I need to be more willing to read translations as I can get very Anglo centric in my reading and I need to branch out more!

      How interesting about your experiences as a sign language user – I wonder how easy or difficult you would find learning a foreign language through signing? I’d be interested to know. Thanks for your interesting addition to this discussion – I had never thought about foreign languages from the point of view of someone with hearing difficulties before.

  9. Thank you, Rachel, for a lovely review. You’ve raised some very interesting questions re the art of translation. I am German and came to the UK when I was 19. In Germany (as in other European countries) over 30% of all books are translations (in comparison to the UK where it is only 3%). As a child and even teenager I read many books written by foreign authors without being aware of it. There are two reasons for that: a) the translations read like German texts and b) translations are not a separate category of literature. In a bookshop you wouldn’t find a table with “translated fiction”, perhaps “Literature from Latin America” but in general translated lit is not a separate entity.
    What is a good literary translation? I absolutely believe (and that is reflected in the translations I publish) that the voice of the text – it’s rhythm, tone and color – is the most vital part, failing to transpose that will not only alter the text beyond recognition but even kill it. A good translator, in my view, works self-effacingly, is capable of letting the voice(s) work through him/her, like a good actor. Before I commission a translator for a text, I always ask for a sample translation of the first 1000 words. From that I can see if the translator has understood the underlying rhythm and voice of the text. And again, like an actor, I believe not every text suits each translator. With Stone in a Landslide I ended up requesting four different sample translations. The results varied hugely. I remember one sample – as I was reading it I imagined a bitter old woman at a kitchen table with a fag in her mouth, complaining about her messed-up past life in a wailing voice. Although it was the same story, it wasn’t Conxa’s voice. Of course, how do we know if that is the voice the author intended to create? If it’s a living author, the publisher/translator/editor can talk to them. And look at translations into other languages. With Stone in a Landslide, for example, I read the German translation, where I knew that the translator had worked very closely with Maria Barbal.
    A literary text, in the original or in translation, does very rarely spring from the genius of a single mind, despite what the popular believe tries to teach us. Without Ezra Pound, The Waste Land would have never become T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land as we know it. Therefore the question of whose voice are we hearing – the author’s, the editor’s, the translator’s, can always be asked – with any text, even a non-translated text. In my view a much more important question is: Has the text got a voice? Can we hear the voice of the text? And does the text communicate something and with us?

    1. What a fascinating insight into the translation process Meike!

      When a translated book wins an award, doesn’t the translator share the prize money? I can no longer remember. I was thinking that it’s a way to acknowledge and show appreciation for the translator’s work, though you could also argue that they don’t actually write, only interpret… It’s interesting.

    2. I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Meike, and thank you for such a detailed response to my thoughts and an eye opening insight into how the process of translation works. I can imagine Europeans have a much more flexible attitude towards translation than us English speakers and I love how you describe the different translation styles you came across of Stone in a Landslide. I trust your discretion in choosing the best translation availavle and you are right in saying that really, no text is ‘pure’ – funny how we never think about how much the editor has played a role in a finished text! Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to read this – I wish you every success!

  10. Great point raised Rachel and weirdly at the launch they talked about how the translation was then edited and then changed so that I worried about really. We asked if Barbal had read it… apparently she doesnt read english!!!!

    1. Yes the whole process of translation is a tricky one! That’s interesting about Barbal – though I suppose if she spoke English she could have just translated it herself!

  11. That is a very pertinent point! It’s only recently that I’ve given more thought to differences in translations and interpretations of texts. I like reading translated fiction only because most of the time I can’t read it in the original language. Although I do read japanese, because it’s so difficult and takes me such a long time to finish a book, I read translated novels most of the time. I’m always aware that you can never get a direct translation, and for me, part of the fun is wondering how it would sound in Japanese (that is when the translations are smooth). However occasionally, like you, I find that it jarrs, usually when you find added colloquialisms that don’t sit well with the text as a whole. But you post has made me wonder what may have been lost in some of the novels I’ve read (and also which ones remained faithful to the original.)

    1. How amazing that you can read Japanese! I wish I could read another language without heavy use of a dictionary and much skipping over huge parts! I’m glad you enjoyed the post – it sounds like you read a lot more translations than me and you probably get more enjoyment out of them than me with my cynical wonderings about whether it’s accurate!

  12. There’s a solution against translations: when everybody could read and write Esperanto.

    In the meanwhile, I am very happy to read translations from Chinese, German, English, Russian, or Bulgarian to Catalan. It is just a matter of rely on the others.

  13. I’d just like to let you know that I learn so much from your posts! The Diary of Ann Frank is the only translation I’ve ever read…I really must revisit that amazing story as an adult. Anyway, having a colleague with a Swedish father, I found out that the subtitles in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo were not absolutely correct…shocking! Apparently, when Swedes swear at people the devil is referred to but in the subtitles it was written as ‘Go &*@# yourself’. Not highly valuable information but it’s making me laugh this morning so I thought I would share!

    1. Thanks Darlene! I could say the same thing about yours! That’s so funny – subtitles are frequently incorrect I think – some stuff doesn’t translate easily so I think they take quite a few liberties! I speak French well enough to sort of follow a film, and sometimes I look at the subtitles and it’s totally not at all what they’ve said – it’s often a shortened and simplified version. Such a shame as us monolinguists miss out!

  14. “I know how hard it is, unless you’re Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for outstanding European authors to break into the English speaking market.”
    Gabriel García Márquez is Colombian.

  15. I really enjoyed this book as well.

    I have to admit that I sometimes share your concern when it comes to translation. The weird thing is, I never really considered it when it came to books translated to English, but often when I read an English book in Dutch translation I feel that if I dislike the style, do I really dislike the actual style or the translation? Of course, when it’s a case of a translation from English to Dutch, I am able to check. But if it’s Spanish or Japanese to English, I really can’t. I find I often trust translators though.

    1. I’m so glad Iris!

      You are lucky that you are bilingual and can check, though that’s interesting what you say about whether you dislike the book or the translation. That’s what makes reading translations so difficult – I disliked Madame Bovary, for example, but did I, or did I just dislike the translation? Unless I brush up my French, I’ll never know!

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