26 April 2011

Spiral gears

Translating 'late' from English to French is a trap. The temptation is to translate 'I was late for work' as 'je suis arrivé tard au travail', which doesn't mean the same. You have to say 'je suis arrivé trop tard' - making it explicit that you were too late.

I've lately started watching Spiral, the English version of the French police serial Engrenages (which literally means gears). I don't know if I'm trop tard or merely tard; probably both. Despite the fact that French is my strongest foreign language, I know I wouldn't be able to follow the programme without the English subtitles: it's too fast and slangy. But, inevitably, those subtitles are sometimes a cause of annoyance.

I have sympathy for the translators. The French criminal legal system is so different from the English that you'd need footnotes to explain the role of the character Roban, a juge d'instruction. He's not quite police, not quite prosecutor, and certainly doesn't act as a judge as we know it. But surely we could cope with the fact that the leading detective is called Capitaine Berthaud. Why does she need to become a Chief Inspector in the subtitles? The most egregious act of domestication though occured when the flics needed to know the registered owner of a certain vehicle. The subtitle said the DVLA had provided the information. Again, you can understand the stress on the translator, needing to find a quick equivalent, but I can't help thinking a less specific, less Swansea-based term could have been found ('the vehicle register'?). That seemed to me to cross the line, where the next step is to change the name of the locale of the crimes from Belleville to, say, Hackney, to ease the viewer's understanding that it's a poor area with a large immigrant community.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying the programme. Capitaine Berthaud is one of the worst investigators you'll ever see, leaping to a conclusion of who the murderer is, and then focussing on any evidence that supports that view, and ignoring everything else. Which is probably just what most police detectives do, just not as blatantly.

15 April 2011


and, talking of odd books, I've reread, or at least I think I have, Austerlitz by W G Sebald. The weird thing is that I could remember very little of it, and I seriously am uncertain if I did read it before. Which is appropriate, because one of the things the book is about is memory and forgetting.

You know you're in a strange world when a book begins like this:
In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.
That mystery - here on the part of the narrator - is very much part of Austerlitz's story: he is compelled into action by forces he doesn't understand.

Austerlitz, the central character of the book, was a Jewish Czech boy, sent to Britain by his parents before the second world war to escape the coming holocaust. Over a period of around thirty years he tells his story to the narrator, once from ignorance and then from knowledge of his own background. Simplistically you could see the story as representative of Europe's coming to terms with what happened under Hitler, or more specifically with Germany's self-awareness (a theme that's present in Sebald's Natural History of Destruction), where the narrator - largely invisible - has to be mapped on Sebald himself and by extension onto Germany (though the narrator's nationality isn't mentioned, the fact that it was written in German is important).

So, let's step back a moment into translation theory. The fact that Sebald wrote in German is significant. The German language had baggage in the second half of the twentieth century. Isn't that lost in translation? Sebald's narrator didn't have to say "I (the narrator) am German", his language did that for him. Similarly, a Spanish book would mean something different if it was written in Basque or Catalan. How does translation capture that?

Let's leave that aside for now. Austerlitz is a moving, because understated, portrayal of the effects of destruction of history, personal and racial. One day, maybe, I'll look at the way it works, at, for example, the way the photos illustrate and at the same time undermine the reality of what's told. But I'll just end this post with a sadness. On the front cover an unnamed reviewer in The Times says "Sebald is the Joyce of the 21st century". He died in December 2001.

13 April 2011

Your Face Tomorrow

Because I'm a man, I have to name someone as my favourite living novelist, a successor to Jose Saramago. It might just be Javier Marías, or this might be because I've just finished the 1500 page novel in three volumes, Your Face Tomorrow, and feel it deserves some kind of recognition.

It's a very odd book, unbelievably slow-paced for the most part. In part 2, the main character's boss, Tupra, tells him to go and find someone, without delay. Twenty pages later, after a lot of reflection on what "without delay" might mean, connote, imply, involve, require, or feel like, what memories it provokes, what memories it will bequeath to the future, on how the concept of delay may be different in Spanish and in English, and on previous occasions where the leading character, Deza, using the different versions of his first name - Jacobo, Iago, Jaime - as the situation seemed to require or demand, according to whether he was dealing with his wife, Luisa, still in Madrid, from whom the separation is a cause of grief and unresolved longing, or with his colleague, young Perex Nuix, half-Spanish, whose request for a favour we are still waiting to understand, Deza goes in search of the missing woman.

But despite that it's compelling writing. Marías handles really long sentences much better than my clumsy parody suggests. And the translation is by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa, so she too keeps them intelligible and enjoyable. Through the third volume, it occured to me that the impression the translation gives is that the book was written to be translated into English: English is where it belongs. Marías is fluent in English, and his character, Deza, is superficially similar to himself, a Spanish exile in London, and so there is a lot of explicit reflection on the way words slip their meanings in translation. I'd be interested to see how many separate words there are in the book - how big its lexicon is. It seemed huge.

I'm not going to recommend the book. Some people, probably most, will hate it because of the pace. If you want to try a book by Marías, try Tomorrow in the battle think on me.