Yuri Herrera’s sharp, thrilling novella Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with calamity. A sinkhole — “the earth’s insanity” — nearly swallows our hero before we can properly meet her:
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.
This opening passage sets the tone of Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina will repeatedly plunge into and out of danger as she treks from her village in borderland Mexico into the weird world of the Big Chilango–the United States.
Makina crosses the border to find her estranged brother, who left the village years ago with the dubious plan of claiming some land (supposedly) owned by his family. (Reader, mark the symbolism there). Makina’s mother prompts her journey, but she’s also aided by a trio of adversarial gangsters—Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, and Mr. Q. At the end of the first chapter of Signs, Mr. Q summarizes Makina’s impending quest (and the novella itself) in terse but eloquent language:
You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate, of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.
Mr. Q plays seer in his short monologue, just one example of the novella’s mythic overtones. Or maybe the word I want is undertones:Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with the earth swallowing victims; underworld mobsters send a hero on a night-quest over rough waters and alien terrain; aided by an underground network, Makina must traverse labyrinths and mazes and dark spaces; and, yes, the book ends underground. This is subterranean fiction. Continue reading →
After my interview with Ilan Stavans for Biblioklept (Part 1; Part 2), I began working with him on Words in Transit: The Cultures of Translation, a year-long ‘festival’ of translation taking place at Amherst College. Events include a series of talks with translators, a Translation Film Series at the nearby cinema, a performance of monologues by ELL students, theatre and music performances, and more. Throughout the year, we are maintaining a blog devoted to translation at the Amherst College website. I will be posting excerpts from the blog here.
Melih Levi, an Amherst student and Turkish translator, wrote this first blog post on the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and poet Orhan Vali Kanik. Read below or check it out here. — Ryan Mihaly
Whenever I start thinking about translation as an enterprise, José Ortega y Gasset’s words come to my mind: “Translation is dead. Long live translation!” This playful maxim outlines the problems of translation in two different ways. First and foremost, it is a farewell to the practice of translation as we know it. The modern age and the technological advancements of today challenge the traditional practice of translation where translators work their way diligently through each word in a given text. Certainly, it is impossible to categorize all forms of traditional translation as one; after all, there can never be a single attitude towards translation. But if we look at how widely and deeply the print culture is influenced by the rapid technological changes of our times, it is perhaps acceptable to say that the cultures of translation, as we know it, are swiftly changing. The old ways are almost “dead.” But does this mean that there won’t be a new culture of translation in the future? Certainly not. Even if Google Translate ends up becoming a major tool in tomorrow’s translation world, a culture will develop. This is one of the ways in which Gasset’s maxim informs translation.
The second reading of Gasset’s words is perhaps more relevant and important. Gasset is thinking about the fate of literary works in general. That is, he is laying out his idea of what happens to a work when it goes through the process of translation. According to him, the work has to die before it can start to breathe again, in a different language or in a different medium. Thus, a translator is at once a gravedigger and a creator. Gasset poses a pivotal question: “Isn’t the act of translating necessarily a utopian task?”
JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: Why since 1975 have you set aside novel-writing in favor of autobiography?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have never written a novel, but merely prose texts of greater or lesser length, and I’m going to take care not to describe them as novels; I don’t know what the word means. I haven’t ever wanted to write an autobiographical work either; I have a genuine aversion to all things autobiographical. The fact is that at a certain moment in my life I got curious about my childhood. I said to myself, “I haven’t much longer to live. Why not try to record my life up to the age of nineteen? Not as it was in reality—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.”
When I was planning the book I envisaged it as a single slim volume. A second one emerged. Then yet another one…until the point when I started to get bored. In the end childhood is always just childhood. After the fifth volume I decided to call it a day. In the case of each my books I’m always torn this way and that between a passion and a loathing for my chosen subject.
Every time my second thoughts get the upper hand, I resolve to give up intellectual pursuits for good and dedicate myself instead to purely material tasks, for example to chopping wood or plastering a wall, in the hope of recovering my good cheer. My dream is of a never-ending wall and never-ending good cheer. But after a stretch of time of greater or lesser length, I once again start to loathe myself for being unproductive, and despair about this drives me to seek refuge in my brain. Sometimes I tell myself my instability is something I’ve inherited from my ancestors, who were a very heterogeneous bunch. This bunch included farmers, philosophers, laborers, writers, geniuses, and morons, mediocre petit-bourgeois types, and even criminals. All these people exist within me, and they never leave off fighting each other. Sometimes I feel like committing myself into the custody of the goose-keeper, at other times into the custody of the thief or the murderer. Because you’ve got to make choices, and every choice means precluding other choices; this round-dance ultimately drives me to the brink of madness. Such that if I make it to the end of my matutinal shaving routine without killing myself in front of the mirror, I have only my cowardice to thank for it.
Cowardice, vanity, and curiosity are the three basic and essential impetuses to life, the things that keep it moving along, even though every conceivable rational argument gainsays this movement. At any rate, that’s the way it seems to me today. Because it may very well happen that tomorrow I’ll think something completely different.
The closer he drew to the day of his release from the penal institution, the more Kulterer dreaded returning to his wife. He led an existence that was completely withdrawn and completely unheeded by his fellow-inmates, and during his free time, which was often much too long, because in accordance with regulations they worked only five or six hours a day at the printing machines, he would write down his ideas, or as he termed them, “trifling thoughts,” which preoccupied him almost uninterruptedly.
How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
First, Marek Hlasko’s Killing the Second Dog (translation by Tomaasz Mirkowicz). Blurb:
Robert and Jacob are two down-and-out Polish con men living in Israel in the early 1960s. They’re planning to run a scam on an American widow visiting the country. Robert, who masterminds the scheme, and Jacob who acts it out, are tough, desperate men, exiled from their native land and adrift in the hot, nasty underworld of Tel Aviv. Robert arranges for Jacob to run into the woman, who has enough trouble with her young son to keep her occupied all day. Her heart is open though, and the men are hoping her wallet is too. What follows is a story of love, deception, cruelty and shame, as Jacob pretends to fall in love with the American. But it’s not just Jacob who seems to be performing a role; nearly all the characters are actors in an ugly story, complete with parts for murder and suicide. Hlasko’s writing combines brutal realism with smoky, hardboiled dialogue, in a bleak world where violence is the norm and love is often only an act.
I’m gonna crack into this one next week.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov (translation by Ross Ufberg):
The Good Life Elsewhere is a very funny book. It is also a very sad one. Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov tells the story of a group of villagers and their tragicomic efforts, against all odds and at any cost, to emigrate from Europe’s most impoverished nation to Italy for work. This is a book with wild imagination and heartbreaking honesty, grim appraisals alongside optimistic commentary about the nature of human striving. In Lorchenkov’s uproarious tale, an Orthodox priest is deserted by his wife for an art-dealing atheist; a rookie curling team makes it to an international competition; a mechanic redesigns his tractor for travel by air and sea; thousands of villagers take to the road on a modern-day religious crusade to make it to the promised land of Italy; meanwhile, politicians remain politicians. Like many great satirists from Voltaire to Gogol to Vonnegut, Lorchenkov makes use of the grotesque to both horrify us and help us laugh. It is not often that stories from forgotten countries such as Moldova reach us in the English-speaking world. A country where 25 percent of its population works abroad, where remittances make up nearly 40 percent of the GDP, where alcohol consumption per capita is the highest in the world, and which has the lowest per capita income in all of Europe – this is a country that surely has its problems. But, as Lorchenkov vividly shows, it’s a country whose residents don’t easily give up.
No sooner was Felice out of her mother’s sight, however, than she blossomed. At the train station in Marienbad, she greeted an anxious Kafka in the tender and natural way he had always hoped for in vain in Berlin. Even the stumbling blocks they had to deal with on their first days in Marienbad–switching hotels, constant rain, and of course Kafka’s sensitivities and rigid habits–did nothing to change that. “Tribulations of living together,” he noted on the third day, and although he was undoubtedly aware that Felice had far more reason to complain, he twisted the knife a little deeper: “Impossibility of living with F. Impossibility of living with anyone at all.”