Category Archives: The Great Untranslated

The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.

The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated  wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of  encapsulating  the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel,  the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant  Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of  Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:

The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

 

Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon. Image Source.

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The Great Untranslated: Days of Ziklag by S. Yizhar

daysofziklag Days of Ziklag is the longest novel in Hebrew literature. Its collective protagonist is a commando unit of Israeli soldiers fighting against the Egyptian troops for the possession of a strategic hilltop during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most of the novel is made up of the stream of consciousness of the Israeli servicemen and the extended descriptions of the Negev Desert region, where the battle takes place: its landscape features, its fauna and flora. Published in 1958,  a decade after the events upon which it is based, Days of Ziklag provoked heated discussions among the literary critics of Israel. The novel had its enthusiastic supporters and staunch detractors. The latter berated it for the experimental excesses which rendered the novel well-nigh unreadable. It was castigated for the lack of plot, monotonousness, repetitiveness, the indiscriminate use of historical facts recreated with obsessive  fastidiousness. But, as is the case with many outstanding novels, the “weaknesses” ascribed to it by the traditionalist critics have proved to be the hallmarks of its brilliance, making this novel so different from everything else written in Hebrew before. The novel is a monumental, meticulously detailed, and even, as some would say, photographically hyper-realistic depiction of the seven days of the brutal fight where, it seems, no tire of an armoured truck, no sight on the barrel of a rifle, no curve of a wadi, no tussock of sun-scorched vegetation has escaped the comprehensive, Funes-the-Memorious gaze of the writer. Here are just two sentences from the novel beautifully translated into English by Gideon Nevo for his article The Realism of S. Yizhar’s  ימי צקלג (Days of Ziklag) (Hebrew Studies, Volume 47, 2006):

Going downward, past unworked earth and humps bunioned with fallen scattered stones, rattling along flattened land on which the neglected path becomes blurred and runs downward with a frightening leap, but soon the flattened ground turns into a sloping ridge and you hardly have time to shake off the cascade of dust before you’re crossing a field full of dusty, shriveled thorns—and behold, stretched out at your feet is the course of the great wadi, the deep ravine whose roots are way back in the mountains, and whose end is in the sea, and you go down it very carefully, with grunts and the screeching of brakes, and terrific jerks and trumpetings of the engine, and are shaken by the rough uneven surface of pebbles and gravel at its bottom, and go splashing through a mildewed pool of green algae, between the pebbles and the reeds, green and fresh, not at all belonging here. Clutched in a strenuous leap, and coming out on the opposite bank with a further shock and a great noise in order to go down again at once to a cub of a ravine rubbing up against its mother’s side, and once again to ascend to a field of yellowish clods with dust covered mulleins, the shape of a Hanukkah lamp, and when the wind snatches for a moment the column of dust and forcibly thrusts it aside, the big mound is revealed in the back in all its grey height, steep and bulky, at its peak the puff-foliaged tamarisk that casts its shadow upon the drowsy hollow sodden with dreams, which have, apparently, got lost.

David Defeats the Amalekites. Image Source.

The verisimilitude of each tiny detail of the battle derives from the extensive research conducted by the author. S. Yizhar used as the prototypes for the novel the Yiftach Brigade soldiers who engaged the Egyptian forces in a fierce combat for the control over the hill Khirbet Mahaz. The ultimate goal of the fight was to lift the siege of the Israeli enclave in the Negev region. A notable fact is that one of the Egyptian officers taking part in the battle was the future president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. This novel, however, is not just a thinly veiled chronicle of the well-documented historical battle that occurred during Operation Avak. There is much more. Besides exploring the obvious military and political aspects of the depicted event, the novel probes the existential depths revealed by the uninhibited thoughts of its participants as well as the mythical dimension lurking in the contemporary armed engagement. The small patch of the desert with the hill that keeps changing hands, taken, lost and retaken several times by the adversaries, irrigated by their blood, becomes the biblical Ziklag. In 1 Samuel 30 it is related that this town, used by King David and his army as a camp, was assaulted and burned down by the Amalekites, a tribe hostile to Israel. The raiders also carried off as captives the families of David and his warriors.  The king and four hundred men pursued the raiders, defeated them and liberated the women and children. The hypothesis that the contested elevation might be the site of the legendary town, although it is never confirmed, leads the soldiers fighting in the Negev to keep calling the hill their Ziklag.

Talking of biblical proportions, if ever translated into any European language, the resulting version of Days of Ziklag will considerably exceed the impressive girth  of the original (1,143 pages) since the vowels are not shown in Hebrew writing. The question is, who would be ambitious or reckless enough to tackle this Goliath of a novel. What kind of David?

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The Great Untranslated: Rondo by Gösta Oswald

rondoGösta Oswald was a prodigy of the Swedish modernist scene, publishing his first collection of poetry at the age of nineteen. His tragic death in a drowning accident in 1950, when he was just twenty-four years old, cut short a formidable literary career in the making. By that time the young man had published only one more text, the novel En privatmans vedermödor (A Private Man’s Hardships). The rest of his literary works  came out posthumously, the most notable of those being his highly experimental novel Rondo that was still unfinished at the time of Oswald’s death. This relatively short poetic work primarily inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain Triptych and Dante’s The Divine Comedy is regarded as one of the most original and challenging texts in Swedish literature.

In this intriguing piece, unfortunately available only in Swedish, writer and critic Carl Johan Malmberg mentions Rondo in the same breath as In Search of Lost Time, Finnegans Wake and Bottom’s Dream. This does not mean, of course, that the novel by the precocious Swedish talent is on a par with these heavy literary monuments, but rather that Oswald’s ambition of creating a work that would be marked by bold stylistic experiments with language as well as over-saturated with cultural and literary references placed him within the tradition of ground-breaking encyclopedic narratives represented by Proust, Joyce, and Arno Schmidt.

the_pedlar_closed_state_of_the_hay_wain_by_hieronymus_bosch

Hieronymus Bosch. The Pedlar, closed state of The Hay Wain.

Rondo lacks conventional plot. It is a poetic tapestry woven from a variety of motifs hearkening back both to the old masters such as Plutarch, Dante, Rabelais and the more recent ones: Dostoevsky, Hölderin, T. S. Eliot, Joyce. Structurally, Oswald’s text follows the arrangement of the scenes in The Hay Wain, as each part of the novel corresponds to a certain panel in the triptych. The most prominent theme of the novel is that of a metaphysical search. The main character Aran, named so after the group of Irish islands, is a wanderer just like the dog-deterring pedlar depicted on the closed shutters of Bosch’s triptych. The hostile environment in which the protagonist of Rondo wends his way, looking for a way out, is represented by the City, an allegorical dimension of suffering, sin, and death. The doomed City is counterpoised by Inis, a Beatrice-like character, who is the personification of love and beauty. The novel explores the beautiful and the grotesque in equal measure. It is written in gorgeous musical prose verging on baroque poetry and is replete with striking dream-like imagery.

Itself a product of intense artistic inspiration, Rondo, in its turn, has inspired Swedish composer Bo Nilsson to compose an orchestral tetralogy called Brief an Gösta Oswald (Letter to Gösta Oswald). The tetralogy consists of an overture and three cantatas based on the text of the novel. If you would like to learn more about this creative synthesis, there is an illuminating article by Anders Nilsson available online.

Gösta Oswald’s unfinished novel has not been translated into any language yet, which is understandable, given the fact that the author is virtually unknown outside Sweden. An important landmark of Swedish literary modernism, Rondo has to find its way to a wider readership. Publishers of literature in translation, it’s your chance.

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The Great Untranslated: Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon Salissa

AlastalonIf you are the kind of person who would find fascinating a 70-page account of a character walking across the room to choose a pipe from the mantelpiece, then Volter Kilpi’s novel Alastalon Salissa (In Alastalo’s Parlour)  is up your alley. The book was published in 1933 and forever changed the landscape of Finnish literature, as the modernist techniques employed by Kilpi allowed him to demonstrate to a stunning effect the creative potential of the Finnish language. The two volumes of Kilpi’s novel amounting to 900 pages of dense experimental writing narrate just six hours from the life of well-off dwellers of an island parish who have gathered in Alastalo’s parlour of the title to negotiate the building of a barque. The paucity of action is overcompensated by detailed overlong descriptions, the disjointed interior monologues of the characters, the use of dialect and linguistic innovations. The novel has been deservedly compared to Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, although, as Kilpi’s knowledge of English was not sufficient to read Joyce’s masterpiece, it is more appropriate to talk about the artistic affinities between the two authors than about one’s direct influence on the other.

DieAlbatrosAlthough most of the novel consists of the verbalised thought processes of the participants of the meeting and the meticulous descriptions of the setting, there are also more conventional narratives appearing in the text as set pieces. One such story is about Ville from Vaasa, an accountant who runs into debt to fulfill his dream of building his own ship and sending it to Brazil to bring back a load of coffee beans. This story has been translated into German as Die Albatros.

Despite the obvious challenges of translating this modernist classic, the complete translation of Alastalon Salissa into Swedish saw light in 1997. The gargantuan task was undertaken by Thomas Warburton who had previously translated Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as of now, it is the only complete translation of Volter Kilpi’s novel into any language. As for the prospects of seeing an English translation, there is little to be optimistic about. Only a short passage from the novel has been Englished and made available in the now extinct journal Books from Finland. The first sentence of the translator’s letter to the editors says it all: “Reluctantly (I really have tried) I have been driven to conclude that Alastalon salissa is untranslatable, except perhaps by a fanatical Volter Kilpi enthusiast who is prepared to devote a lifetime to it.” (You can read the rest of it as well as the translated excerpt here.) Of course, it is an assessment of just one translator, and who knows, maybe there will appear a daredevil who will be self-confident enough to shoulder this daunting task.

In case I have sparked your interest and you would like to learn more about Volter Kilpi and his monumental novel, without further ado, I’m redirecting you to Kai Latinen’s informative article (also from the defunct Books from Finland) with the dispiriting title On Not Translating Volter Kilpi. 

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The Great Untranslated: Tutunamayanlar by Oğuz Atay

Tutunamayanlar

When it comes to Turkish literature, we are lamentably deprived. The gaping lacuna is what is considered by many to be the greatest 20th-century literary achievement in Turkey: Oğuz Atay’s experimental, linguistically complex novel of ideas Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). It has been quite a while since it was put up on the UNESCO site as an important literary work in need of English translation, and, just like Germán Espinosa’s masterpiece The Weaver of Crowns, it still remains unavailable for a host of the prospective readers. Granted, the author’s use of different varieties of Turkish such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish, the so-called Öztürkçe, renders the job of the translator extremely demanding, but not unfeasible. The conclusive proof of that is the Dutch translation of the novel published four years ago. At the moment it is the only translation of Atay’s book into any other language, so, I guess, we should congratulate the Dutch on having the privilege to read the cult classic.

HetLevenOtayThe plot of the novel focuses primarily on the quest of engineer Turgut Özben to find out the reason for his friend’s suicide. The investigation leads the main character to the array of different texts left by the deceased, and the further  Özben proceeds with his inquiry, the closer he approaches his own radical transformation. If it sounds like something written by Orhan Pamuk, you should not be surprised as Atay has exercised considerable influence on the Nobel Laureate. Within the context of Turkish letters, Atay was a trailblazer whose innovative techniques left a lasting impression on the next generation of writers. The manner in which the story of Özben’s search is presented took the Turkish reader at the time by surprise, which partly explains why Atay’s novel received due recognition much later, already after the writer’s untimely death at the age of 43. As one of the Dutch translators of the novel Hanneke van der Heijden writes:

The literary form of Atay’s novel was not exactly what readers were used to either: the unbridled stream of consciousness, all kinds of short texts in different genres, that cut across the story, such as a poem of 600 lines plus commentary, a chapter of 70 pages, written without a single comma or full stop – it may remind us, the readers of today, of James Joyce, of Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and other western modernist writers – writers Atay was very familiar with. But, as the critic Ahmet Oktay once remarked, the number of Turkish readers that in the beginnings of the seventies had read Ulysses, was no more than ten.

The more pity that most of us who have read Ulysses and seem to be ready for this seminal text of Turkish modernism have to live with our frustration for an unknown period of time. Maybe learning Turkish or Dutch could be a more realistic alternative to waiting for a quality English translation to materialise in the foreseeable future.

Hanneke van der Heijden has her own blog dedicated to Turkish literature. Most of it is in Dutch, but the written version of her talk on the translation of  Tutunamayanlar is available in English. It’s the best article about Atay’s novel in English you will find on the Web, and I urge you to check it out.

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