Books

VOICES FROM FAR AWAY

English Canadians dislike translations: too bad, considering what they’re missing

Brian Bethune June 16 2003
Books

VOICES FROM FAR AWAY

English Canadians dislike translations: too bad, considering what they’re missing

Brian Bethune June 16 2003

VOICES FROM FAR AWAY

English Canadians dislike translations: too bad, considering what they’re missing

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

CANADIANS pride themselves on their openness to the world, their multicultural willingness to embrace any and every voice. True enough, but only if the voice is speaking, without translation, in our own native tongue. In the arts, English Canadians lap up British mysteries, and watch as much U.S. TV as Americans themselves do, but we won’t pay to see foreign-language films even when they’re subtitled. As for literature, so averse are most of us to translations that the House of Anansi, a small but highly regarded publisher, considered removing translators’ names from its book jackets. The idea, says editor Martha Sharpe, was “to give a book its best chance,” by enticing readers to at least have a look.

The popular distaste for translated books is not a reaction to the quality of the work on offer. No, the aversion lies in the translators’ very success at their task, defined by Montrealer Sheila Fischman as crafting books that “read like perfectiy good English with just a hint—that I can’t define—of foreignness.” But literature is the essence of cultural expression, and for Canadians, the alien touch described by Fischman is akin to overhearing a conversation between strangers. Interesting perhaps, but not as compelling as someone, however exotic, speaking directly to them. Somehow, in a translation the moorings seem adrift, and an essential element of communication lost.

And something does happen to the text; for good or ill, translation alters. Consider the fate of Canadian fiction, especially the more idiomatic book tides, when rendered in another tongue. Alistair MacLeod took the name of No Great Mischief'from Gen. James Wolfe’s dismissive remark about the fate of his cannon-fodder Highlanders in the bat-

de for Quebec: “No great mischief if they fall.” It’s clearly untranslatable, and in Italian the novel takes its title from a major (and redhaired) character: Calum II Rosso. That was perfectly acceptable to the ever-courteous MacLeod, who kept his wonderment for the German edition. His publishers there, he says, told him it was an unwritten rule that negatives never appear in titles. Their solution? Land of Trees. That might resonate

with Germans, who are the Western world’s greatest romanticizers of wilderness, but in Canada it would reduce a publisher’s marketing department to tears.

Language is destiny, as Canadians, citizens of an inherently unstable bilingual nation, know very well. For anglophones, Quebec writing is, in every sense except the technical, foreign—in exactly the way American and British writing is not. Hence concepts like

the House of Anansi’s, and the dearth of foreign titles published—and, more importantly, promoted—by major houses in Canada. Those on offer in recent months share some intriguing characteristics. They unfold at a thriller’s pace, their themes are universal, and they’re very good.

Dutch author Karel van Loon’s A Father’s Affair (HarperCollins, translated by Sam Garrett) turns on a terrific premise. Amsterdam resident Armin Minderhout, 36, has a 13-year-old son named Bo and a new girlfriend. Armin and Ellen want to have a child together, but it’s not happening. At the fertility clinic the news is stunning. Armin is sterile and always has been—Bo is not his child. Van Loon’s sharpest twist is that Armin can’t simply confront Bo’s mother, who has been dead for 10 years.

Armin is appalled to find himself brooding on the biology of a child he has loved wholeheartedly since birth. But he can’t help himself. As a science writer well up on the doctrines of sociobiology, Armin knows that all around him people are unconsciously following reproductive strategies that ignore human concepts of honour, fidelity and love. He knows that, worldwide, perhaps a tenth of children have no genetic relationship to the men commonly considered to be their fathers, and that an adulterous woman is twice as likely to become pregnant as a faithful wife. (It’s impossible to imagine this book set in the U.S. without the involvement of firearms, so deeply does it cut to the heart of male paranoia.) While the ending of A Father’s Affair is slightly ridiculous, the journey there is exhilarating.

I’m Not Scared (HarperCollins, translated by Jonathan Hunt) by Italian Niccolö Ammaniti is another work with a first-rate starting point. Narrator Michele Amitrano looks back on his nine-year-old self, in a tiny hamlet in southern Italy in the blazing hot summer of 1978. The country is in the midst of a wave of kidnappings. And Michele stumbles upon a victim, a boy his own age, tethered in an abandoned farmhouse.

It’s too enormous a discovery to tell his friends about, and he’s reluctant to impose on his father, who has started acting mysteriously. Michele’s hesitation to share his secret eventually proves almost fatal. As a novel of childhood lost, I’m Not Scared is almost note-perfect. In Michele’s world, betrayal can be bought with a free driving lesson or a plastic toy. His force-fed matu-

rity and dawning awareness that there are other people in the world as real as he is, who can be hurt badly by what he does or fails to do, is superbly evoked.

Hungarian author Sándor Márai’s masterpiece Embers (Random House, translated by Carol Brown Janeway) is a half-century older and an entire universe apart. A major writer and an anti-fascist in the 1930s, Márai somehow survived Hungary’s catastrophic Second World War experience. But he then ran afoul of the country’s post-war Communist rulers, who suppressed his books, including Embers, first published in 1942. He fled to the U.S., where he committed suicide in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Now his works are being rediscovered and translated around the world.

Embers is the story of Henrik, an elderly general and aristocrat, who is secluded in a castle when he hears that Konrad, his former best friend, is coming to visit. The two men, once inseparable, haven’t seen each other in 41 years, not since a hunting party in 1899. That day something small happened, and everything changed. Konrad

packed his bags and left for the tropics; the general and his wife never spoke again for the remaining eight years of her life. Since the hunting party Henrik has kept his memories alive, waiting for the return of Konrad.

When he arrives, the old men talk or, rather, the general talks, for pages and pages, meticulously combing through the stillsmouldering ashes of friendship, love, lust and honour. When he finishes, he asks his guest two questions, which Konrad declines to answer. And that’s it, the perfectly satisfying ending to a mesmerizing novel, one in which every detail is, for modern readers, simultaneously alien and utterly familiar.

Günter Grass is among the handful of foreign-language writers well-known to Canadians, thanks to his 1999 Nobel Prize for literature. Crabwalk (Harcourt, translated by Krishna Winston) is the fiction counterpart to W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (Knopf). Both reflect the rising clamour in Germany to see ordinary Germans—not just death-camp inmates or anti-Hitler militants—honoured as war victims. The novel’s central event is the sinking of the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloffin 1945. Struck by three Soviet torpedoes, the vessel went down with the loss of at least 8,000 people, mostly women and children. In the midst of one of history’s worst maritime disasters was bom Paul Pokriefke, the novel’s close-to-home narrator (Pokriefke was the name of Grass’s mother).

Paul feels pressured to tell the story of the Gustloff and, by extension, the larger story of German suffering. But like most post-war Germans, burdened by remorse and the urgent need to rebuild, Paul would rather let the past slide. Much of the novel is taken up by his tortuous, crab-like, movement toward reliving the war, as he learns that repressed memory will out. And in the next generation, including his own son, Konrad, the story is being told in the voice of the radical right. In many ways Crabwalk is a depressing novel; as Grass sadly concludes, after Konrad falls headlong into neo-Nazi madness, “every mind is sealed.” But it’s also oddly triumphant by the mere fact of its existence. If Günter Grass, now 75 and throughout his career a voice of moderation in German affairs, can feel it’s finally appropriate to write about his people’s past suffering, it may well signal that mainstream German opinion is now ready to reclaim its history from the radical fringe. lil

‘A FATHER’S AFFAIR’ turns on a terrific premise-an Amsterdam science writer discovers that his 13-year-old son is not his biological child