Category Archives: The Great Untranslated

The Great Untranslated: Myrbråtenfortellingene by Thure Erik Lund

Let’s talk about Norwegian literature. No, we’re not going to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard; we’re going to quote him:

You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of.

It is a bit ironic that such an overhyped author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, should be the one to break the news to the English-speaking world about the existence of Thure Erik Lund, his complete opposite: obscure, untranslated into any other language, linguistically challenging (“untranslatable” says Knausgaard), not easily marketable. But we should be grateful for the successful author of My Struggle – now we at least know what we are missing.

Thure Erik Lund’s greatest achievement is the genrically heterogenous tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene (The Myrbråten Tales) united by the presence of Thomas Olsen Myrbråten, the eponymous character. The first novel of the cycle is titled Grøftetildragelsesmysteriet (The Ditch Incident Mystery), and it relates the protagonist’s botched attempt to write a report on the protection of Norway’s cultural monuments commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Crushed by this failure and confronted with the existential void, Myrbråten first moves to the countryside and then retreats deep into the woods to lead there a solitary existence like some of  kind of postmodern Thoreau. There he embarks upon writing his own theory of the world. Admiring  Lund’s critique of contemporary culture, literary historian Øystein Rottem has written in  a review that it is so radical as to make Thomas Bernhard and Dag Solstad “pale” in comparison.

Compromateria, the second novel in the tetralogy, is the wildest. It is a science fiction allegory that stretches the limits of imagination and language alike, notorious among the Norwegian readership for its hundreds of neologisms. The main character of the novel is an unnamed writer who makes his own books, manufacturing the paper from random bits of junk: shreds of fabric, straw pieces, crushed stones.  At some point he is transported to the futuristic world of Compromateria in which technologies and language are fused together. In his detailed analysis of the novel (unfortunately available only in Norwegian), the critic Arve Kleiva neatly sums up what to expect of Lund’s extravaganza:

What else should I compare Lund with, in a nutshell? The references or rather the associations and formal similarities are so common that they dissolve into generalities: Homer’s adventures, Dante, Rabelais, Thomas More, Baroque travel allegories, Swift, Holberg and (a far stronger resemblance) Hieronymus Bosch, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Egil Rasmussen, the 20th century dystopia, surrealism, gonzo, sci-fi literature that the reviewer barely knows, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Matrix, Alien, X-Files, but perhaps just as much the revelation traditions,  [..] John’s Apocalypse, the Spanish Renaissance mystics and other visionary poetry. For it is the truth that speaks through this intricate and well-organised system of (alleged) lies and delirium.

The next book of Myrbråtenfortellingene bears the title Elvestengfolket (The Elvesteng Folk) and it features Thomas again as its protagonist. In this short novel we learn about Myrbråten’s earlier life, starting with his childhood in rural Norway in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, with his arrival in Oslo, on the eve of the great tribulations recounted in the first novel of the tetralogy.

With Uranophilia, the fourth novelLund brings his daring literary enterprise to an end. Thomas is now in his sixties and lives in Oslo again, still working on his philosophical system. His ordinary routine is changed when he meets the inventor Ludvig, who has built a time machine in his shabby workshop. Ludvig initiates his friend into his scientific research, and, after the inventor’s death, Thomas continues the experiments with time travelling. Another important part of the plot is the unravelling of the arcane knowledge concealed within a 16th-century treatise called Uranophilia. The investigation of its impact on the course of our civilsation is attended by a welter of historical and cultural references in which fact and fiction are elaborately intertwined. Especially fascinating are travellers’ accounts about visiting fantastic peoples that would make Pliny and Mandeville look like certified anthropologists.

Since the only piece of information in English about Thure Erik Lund’s tetralogy that I’ve been able to unearth is this short entry on the website of Eirin Hagen Literary Agency, I mostly had to rely on Google Translate and common sense when puzzling out the meaning of the Norwegian essays and reviews to form my own opinion. Based on all the secondary sources I thus perused, I would venture to assume that Thure Erik Lund’s cycle of novels fits that rare bill of a literary work whose linguistic complexity is matched by the complexity of its ideas and imagery. The lack of any translations makes Myrbråtenfortellingene especially tantalising, and I want to believe that despite the label of untranslatability, some brave adventurer will stand up to the challenge of widenening the readership of this fascinating work.

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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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