Books I read this week: March week 4

I just realized that I didn’t do a post for week 3, because I didn’t finish anything that week. Oops. I was reading Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay over the week, but didn’t finish it, as it’s infinity pages long. I’m still working on it.

This week I reread The Translator by Nina Schuyler for book club. It’s a really breathtaking book, and I enjoyed it just as much this time through. It’s the story of a multi-lingual woman, Hanne,  who suffers a brain injury and loses her ability to speak all of her languages except Japanese. She can still understand the other languages, and write in them, but not speak them. (This is an actual thing that happens to people.) She decides to travel to Japan for a conference where she will be able to meet the author of the novel she has just finished translating. While there, he accuses her of ruining his book – a claim which devastates her, because she felt a great kinship with the main character. She goes on a quest to find the man the character was based on, and runs smack into her assumptions, her worldview, and how she has injured not only the author, but people in her life by her “mistranslations”.

This time around I was more interested in the issue of translation of languages, of trying to express something from on language in the words of another, and of the translator’s interpretation necessarily creeping into the translation.  I also was acutely aware of the parenting issues that arise — tying this book in with the Child Whisperer book I read earlier in the month, I kept wanting to show the book to Hanne as she mishandled situation after situation. Her daughter is similar to some people in my life, and I actually found myself thinking of her yesterday and dealing with a situation in a different way as a result.

A powerful passage:

What happens, then, when the soul is assigned its purpose, but is neglected? Forgotten? Or worse, thwarted? When someone or something comes along and tells the soul that its reason for being here is not wanted?

The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne M. Valente is a collection of bits and pieces by the divine Ms. Valente. Some of the pieces in here I already have, but I’m willing to have them again for new stuff. Like Valente’s other work, these are stories and poems that turn fairy and folk tales slightly askew so that they can be seen at a different angle. There’s science fiction and witch stories and coyote legends set in midwestern high schools and even 25 facts about Santa Claus.

The list isn’t about naughty and nice. If you think about it, coal is a very useful present. Santa Claus isn’t a monster. You can burn that coal and stay warm in the winter. Just because it is black and grimy and it isn’t a fantastical electronic intelligent machine with a kung-fu grip and a pre-installed game suite doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful and warm and formed over millennia in the heart of the earth and very occasionally the difference between life and death. The list is about whether or not you need to figure out the lesson of the coal.

I really can’t speak highly enough of Valente. She writes the way I wish I could write, about things I love. This collection is a great one.

Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation is an interesting book. The original book, Portrait of a Tongue, was written by a Japanese woman who lives in Germany and writes in German, for a German audience. German is her second language, acquired as an adult, which puts her in the “exophonic” school of writing. (Book introductions are educational things!)  The story is a stream of consciousness auto-biographical pondering of the author’s meeting of P, a German woman living in the US, whose German has been influenced by English. This book is a translation of that story into English, with the addition of the translator’s thought process during translating.

So you’ve got thoughts about English influencing the speaking of German, Japanese influencing the writing and understanding of German,   and the understanding of German and non-understanding of Japanese influencing the translation of Japanese influenced German into English. It sounds mind boggling, and it kind of is. I finished reading and kind of sat there wondering what I had just read. But it set my brain on fire, so that’s a positive.

A lot of the themes here tie into those in The Translator, issues of how the nuances of a single word (or differences in its meaning to the reader or translator) can make a huge difference in meaning.

“You divide up a piece of cake between you and your siblings, you don’t do it voluntarily, you divide it up with a sharp knife. If it isn;t divided equally, there’ll be an argument.” Would this sound different if I used the word “share” to translate teilen instead of “divide”?

This is another translation conundrum. The narrator literally says, “If you speak hotly, you quickly get dry lips/your lips soon dry out.” Heifs sprechen [to speak hotly] is not an idiomatic expression in German. J says there is an idiomatic expression like this in Japanese, and it means, “to speak passionately”.

This idea is fascinating to me- of taking a phrase or idea from one language and trying to make it exist in another.

There are also themes that tie into a story from The Bread We Eat In Dreams called Auromas, a futuristic story where the population lives in a cloud city and language is strictly controlled. A passage from it:

But I find I cannot say the word altimeter. I cannot say smoke. I cannot even say my father’s name. In the cypher I can indicate them, spell them intricately, in the diameters of my angstroms. I still know those words, and what they speak of. But I cannot make myself say them. I know that those sad mechanical faces handing on my father’s wall like game-trophies are called liars now. Smoke is gas. My father should be referred to only as redacted.

Meat is memory. Tiger is sin.

I wrote just before of tigers. Of concentrations. But only after that night with Pyotr Duda and the roast gannet stuffed with plums did we start calling them tigers. They were something else before. That dark red and black wildness, that sleekness, the teeth. Something else. Not Tigers. But the words is gone. Scooped away as cleaning as a mother. Everyone I knew started calling them tigers at the same time. The cafes were suddenly full of feline phrasing.

And from Portrait of a Tongue:

I and M, Prague ’68ers who fled to Germany after the Russian invasion, are examples of asylum seekers turned immigrants. In conversation with their adult son on a trip to Prague, they talked about how their Czech is very different from the Czech in spoken in Prague today. They suspect that this divergence did not come about through a gradual linguistic evolution but is the result of an overt attempt by the authorities to erase traces of the Prague Spring from everyday life by replacing the old radio and television voices with new ones in the early 1970s. M and I’s Czech was not subject to the purge, residing as it did in Germany at the time.

So that’s 3 this week for a total of 11 this month. (And 3407 pages, for anyone who cares.)  I did buy an alarming number of books this month, now that I look at it. A number of those are excused because they were birthday presents, and some were legitimately loopholed, but that loophole may have stretched a little far. I need to pull that back in April.

What are you reading?

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