Translating the English Soul

1984QueenLucia
Queen Lucia

Translation work can sometimes be dispiriting: you have to try to render someone else’s words, quite often poorly strung together and generally badly written, into whatever target language you have the honour of translating into, without being able to influence it much beyond making it as inoffensive as you can possibly manage.

A very different kettle of sustainably caught fish is translating – or should I say re-writing? – something that is truly well written, even poetic. This is the case with a book I am working on at the moment: the stories of Mapp and Lucia, E. F. Benson’s best known work. More specifically I am working on the first one, Queen Lucia, from 1920. This story is in the pre-Mappian era, when Lucia’s husband is still alive and they live in Riseholme, a fictional town apparently based on Broadway in Worcestershire (pronounced Woostershah, for any Americans reading this). In later stories Lucia and her dear friend Georgie moves to Tilling, a fictional town based on Rye in East Sussex.

For those who are unfamiliar with these works, the fairly short entry in Wikipedia is as good a starting point as any. I quote: “The novels feature humorous incidents in the lives of (mainly) upper-middle-class British people in the 1920s and 1930s, vying for social prestige and one-upmanship in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery.”

Now, that is quite reductive, as these stories are about so much more. But on the surface, summing up the motifs, as it were, this short précis will have to do. Now let me try to put some good, English beef on these rather bare bones.

The stories bear some resemblance to those of P. G. Wodehouse, he of Jeeves and Wooster fame, but they plough deeper into the psyche of the English. For those familiar with Wodehouse you will know that his stories are softly humorous, and that the fairly silly stories are but vessels for carrying the beauty of the English language, shaped to such perfection by the author know as “The Master”. With Benson it is not so much the beauty of language that is the point in itself, but the beauty or otherwise of Englishness. The story of Queen Lucia, to stick to that, is quite silly, you might say, and although beautifully written, it is the spirit of a genus that is being conjured out of the lamp of words, that is the novel’s main selling point, in my view. I use  “genus” in the Latin sense of “race, stock, kind; family, birth, descent, origin”, and spirit in the sense that the Oxford English Dictionary lists under point 4 of spirit, n: “denoting some particular being of the above nature”. In other words: what rises from the pages of Benson’s seemingly light-hearted stories is the essential nature or quality of the stock or kind that is the English. Not the British, mind, but the English.

The immense difficulty of trying to recreate this in another language cannot be stated emphatically enough. I fear and tremble at attempting this almost sacrilegious act, but try I must. Will continue to share notes on the progress of this project.

E.F.-Benson-cropped
E. F. Benson and moustache.

 

 

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First Chapter of Changemakers

The title is now “Changemakers” (subject to change) and it is now in the process of a final(ish) edit. Obviously not final as the last one before going to print, but the final before starting a new round of sending it to agents and publishers. Had a few refusals already, so that’s good. For every refusal you are one “no” closer to a “yes”. (I once learned that when I worked as an encyclopedia salesman. How that seems like a different century. Which of course if was. The 20th to be exact).

So, dear reader, please have a look, if you want, and I do welcome any comments (not rude ones, unless they are funny) to help me make the opening as engaging as possible.

Chapter one: London Calling

London

Finder’s Keeper

MoneyThis short story came about from two things: 1. A challenge from a friend to write in the present tense, rather than the far more common, and for me comfortable, past tense. It is much more difficult than you think to write in present tense. Go on, try it!

2. A dream I had. No, seriously. I dreamt something similar to what happens at the beginning of the story. Only my dream was even weirder, which I guess is the way with dreams.

Hope you enjoy the read.

Finder_s Keeper

Reading a winner: Close to Home by Cara Hunter – UPDATE

Hunter

After having finished this book, I wanted to share some further thoughts, among them: Hunter hates aspiration! But, because I have to spoil the plot I have put the update at the bottom.

Non-spoiler: The best line of the book is when Hunter’s Oxford detective gives the following knowing meta-comment, to the reader, as it were: “And while I’m at it, the car is a Ford. In case you’re wondering. And I don’t do bloody crosswords either.”

I am reading this book to find out what a success looks like. All the books I like best are written by dead people. And whilst the canon of 18th and early 19th century literature is a great bedrock on which to build your literary garden shed, it is not necessarily a pointer as to what will be commercially successful in what is commonly known as the 21st century, or thereabouts.

Now, so far I have been extremely successful in not being commercially successful – I have learned the 18th century lesson very well – and I therefore wanted, indeed needed, to know what a commercially successful book looks like. So that I might emulate it, you understand.

Close to Home by Cara Hunter is apparently what success looks like. It is not on the favourite list of our bearded and sandal wearing friends over in the Guardian, as it is not an in-te-lec-tual book. It is, however, on the W. H. Smith bestselling list and picked for the Punch and Judy book club, or whatever it’s called. It is, whether you like it or not, a crime novel. And it is not bad.

Yes, there are the usual tropes and motifs, a detective with some personal tragedy lurking in his not very distant past, the cardboard cutout characterisation of middle class people (a symptom of a self hating middle-class writer), and as I seem to already have mentioned it: the very British (or rather English) obsession with the obsession with class. That is not a misprint. More than with class, the English (British) are obsessed, not so much with class, as with the preoccupation with class, and it is mainly the middling classes who churn and gurn and twist and writhe in the hellfire of this particular malady. So also this writer, who so clearly sees what she despises in herself in the characters that she writes with so little love. Not badly written, mind you, just loveless. Her non-middle class characters are written far more lovingly. There is a healthy dose of prejudice – such as in the little Chinese-American girl who is all materialism and money. Lovely.

This is a well written, well put together book, and quite engaging; a page turner, as they say. Almost as good as Inspector Morse, but no Jaguar.

Whether I can pull off something like this at some point remains to be seen. Perhaps an ironic crime novel. That might give rise to a new genre: the chronic novel.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

Here goes: did you ever read Matilda by Roald Dahl, or perhaps see the film by the same name starring Danni DeVito and Rhea Perlman? There is an element of Matildaism in this book, but without Dahl’s dark humour or intellect. What Hunter presents on these pages is a middle class educated person’s fantasy: to be able to take the children away from those horrible aspiring working class people who think they are middle class just because they have a house and a 4×4, but who reads the Daily Mail (she gets that point in) and presumably not books like Close to Home (although they are far more likely to read Close to Home than say Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky).

Her portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Mason, the couple who produced the offspring Daisy, who goes missing at the start of the book, are cardboard cutout types. They are not real people, there is nothing remotely real about them. In 18th century literature the standard types were very central in fiction. The John Bull-character, the fop, the young girl from the country, etc. They used these types because they represented something real, albeit in an idealised version. Hunter also uses types here, but not because they represent something real, rather it is to allow her to create characters that is not just impossible to love or feel any sympathy for, but for whom it is okay not to have feelings of human warmth towards. We want them to be guilty, we will it, just as I suspect Hunter did and does.

This is where the Matildaistic twist in the plot comes in handy: Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, sorry, Mason are not guilty, yet they are obviously guilty: of being aspiring lower middle class people who do not go to the opera, of being interested in looks and one’s status, of reading the Daily Mail, and (although she doesn’t say this one) probably of voting Leave as well. And so, even if they are not guilty, they are guilty anyway. To readers who share Hunters mal-anthropic world view it must therefore be immensely satisfying that Mr. Mason’s sex drive lands him innocently in jail and Mrs. Mason is wrongly convicted of killing her daughter (to which the book records no emotional response that might tease out of the reader a deeper understanding of her as a human being – remember, she is just a type; the type that voted Leave, so no sympathy or understanding is required.

The actual guilty person goes free. Little eight year old Daisy has, it turns out, colluded with her teacher (remember Matilda, waltzing or otherwise, and Miss Honey?) in getting herself kidnapped by said teacher, and as the book ends they are on a ferry on their way to Ireland. Daisy’s teacher, Miss Madigan, a Guardian reading young lady, who once lost her baby, has taken it upon herself to right the wrongs of nature, by saving this poor, intelligent child from her monstrous, striving parents. It’s all she can do to avoid another one growing up to voting the wrong way and reading the wrong newspapers. It is a nice plot twist, but one that is only made possible by a disturbingly amoral view of the universe. As my headline quote of Ibsen says: to write is to judge yourself, and I think Ms. Hunter, in trying to pass judgement on the Despicables has indeed passed judgement on herself.

Close to Home is a shallow book. A book where language is little more than bricks in a utilitarian wall. I feel the words of Beethoven describing Rossini in 1824, if slightly amended, is apposite for Ms. Hunter: “Rossini is a talented and a melodious composer, his music suits the frivolous and sensuous spirit of the times...” I know Hunter has another story out with the same detective. I am not sure though, that a detective who got two people wrongfully convicted, for crimes that didn’t even take place, and let the guilty person get away with it, fills me with confidence and a desire to follow his careers.

As almost stated earlier: nice try, but no Jaguar.

Close to

 

Back in blogaction

It’s been quiet on the, not exactly Western front, but certainly on my personal blog front. For two reasons: 1, what is the point? and 2, I have been busy actually working on my latest book. Title now: Changemakers. Like it? My critical reader suggested it, and I think it is rather good.

I am now looking very carefully at various agencies, to try and find one that I think will suit the kind of material that I produce, and that will have me.

Finished reading a biography of George Orwell, yes, he with Animal Farm and 1984. Such a great personality, and very hard working. Inspiring that he also struggled to be noticed for his first few novels, but kept on keeping on until he had his breakthrough. Got my daughter (13) to read Animal Farm, and she thoroughly enjoyed it.

This morning, as the sun shines on a beautiful Palm Sunday, I decided to give my blog a new look and restart my efforts at communicating with the wider world. Will try to blog more regularly and keep you updated on the process of writing.