Quarterly Rhapsody: Translated Books

Thirteen Translations

Quarterly RhapsodyI almost forgot my quarterly feature, which is a post where I ramble about book-related stuff. Previous topics that I discussed in Quarterly Rhapsody, if you are interested, are:

So for the third quarter of the year, let’s talk about books translated into other languages. This topic has been bothering me for the past couple of weeks, and we have two books to blame: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. For the first book, I have this unquenchable desire to immediately read the translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy. As for the second book, I was going to start reading Ralph Manheim’s translation when by some accident, I found out that he made some omissions from the original text.

I put it back on my shelf and asked the local book stores if they have the Breon Mitchell translation available. I’m luckier with this one; I am currently reading it and I am not making a lot of progress because I often find myself comparing it with the older translation that propelled Grass to worldwide fame and ultimately, to the Nobel.

With my minor comparisons (really, I just picked some notorious paragraphs and winding sentences), I found out that the meaning is not lost. The thought is still there, although one could discern the style of the translator with his diction. Let’s take the opening paragraph of each translation.

From Manheim:

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole  in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed like me.

From Mitchell:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

Not a lot of difference, right? Yes, but for the reader who’s sensitive to style, there’s something to consider. Disclaimer: I am no literary person. I didn’t major in the letters, I don’t work in the publishing industry. I am merely a reader who appreciates some style.

So please check out that second semi-colon in Manheim’s version; it is dropped in Mitchell’s version. The first translation sounds a little terse to me because of the repeated punctuation mark; the other one is more fluid, which is, according to Grass himself, the narrator’s manner of speaking. This is may be something only for the finicky reader, but if we consider the cumulative effect of trying to make the two languages as parallel as possible, it is worth obsessing which translation to read.

The rest of the first page consists mostly of differences in word choice. Everything seems to be present. I wonder what’s omitted from the older translation?

Two Tin Drums

Two Tin Drums

I jumped to the afterword and found out that there weren’t more than five whole sentences omitted. One of them is about a comparison of a smell with that of a condom, and another one is about the splattering of semen somewhere. Others are hard to translate German dialogues that play with sound and style, and these were either dropped or translated into readable English.

To illustrate that, here’s another example, and with this, we will truly appreciate the insurmountable effort that translators put in their craft.

From the original text:

Auch fiel mir auf, das Tätigkeiten wie: Daumendrehen, Stirnrunzeln, Köpfchensenken, Händeschütteln, Kindermachen, Falschgeldprägen, Lichtausknipsen, Zähneputzen, Totschießen und Trockenlegen überall, wenn auch nicht gleichmäßig geschickt, geübt wurden.

From Manheim:

I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill.

From Mitchell:

And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill.

Whoa! I don’t understand German, but looking at those German words mostly ending in -en (an assonance or consonance?), there’s a rhythmic pattern produced. And that took some time to type; I had to be loyal to the diacritical marks.

The same issue of being loyal to stylistic sound effects pervades the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Take this short sentence: Kápli kápali. Obviously an alliteration, but older translations dropped the effect and turned it instead into “The branches dripped,” or “The trees were dripping.” The duo, which are my favorite translators, went with “Drops dripped.”

Also, the duo kept the French dialogues unchanged. That made reading the novel a little tougher since I had to refer to the footnotes for the English translations. Other translations, such as Constance Garnett’s, translated everything into English. Nothing wrong, but it felt that everyone was speaking the some tongue, which I think isn’t the effect intended by Tolstoy.

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

I trust PV when it comes to Russian literature

We barely have a clue on how translators work their magic and how they go about their translations. Should they be loyal to the text or should they make the text more readable? Should they preserve the feel and culture of the text or should they make the text fit the feel and culture of the language where it is being translated?

I can’t help pondering these questions because I love world literature. I want to read novels from as many countries as possible. I guess it’s my way of traveling and learning about the world. There’s so little time and we can only do so much. Not all of us can travel everywhere in this lifetime or learn the languages of lofty literature, so we have to thank these translators who do the dirty tasks for us.

In the photo below are shown some books which are not originally written in English and which I rated with either 4 or 5 stars. Below are their original titles and the translators I am indebted to:

  • 2666 – ditto (translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
  • Atomised (UK); The Elementary Particles (US) – Les Particules Élémentaires (translated from French by Frank Wynne)
  • Fatelessness – Sorstalanság (translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)
  • The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero)
  • Hunger – Sult (translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly)
  • Independent People – Sjálfstætt Fólk (translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson)
  • The Land of Green Plums – Herztier (translated from German by Michael Hofmann)
  • My Name Is Red – Benim Adım Kırmızı (translated from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar)
  • Noli Me Tangere – ditto (translated from Spanish by Soledad Lacson-Locsin)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude – Cien Años de Soledad (translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa)
  • The Piano Teacher – Die Klavierspielerin (translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel)
  • The Tin Drum – Die Blechtrommel (translated from German by Breon Mitchell)
  • War and Peace – Война и миръ (translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Thirteen Translations

Thirteen Translations

Some notes on this list: I guess I’d have to hunt for other translations of my favorite book, Hunger. There are two more by George Egerton and Sverre Lyngstad. And look! That’s nine languages of great literature!

And oh, I made it seem here that Breon Mitchell is butchering Ralph Manheim’s work. That is not the case. The former is actually very grateful to the latter. He just had the great opportunity to work with Gunter Grass himself in coming up with a 50th anniversary edition of his first novel. He also mentioned that new translations for great works of literature are necessary for they do not endure as long as the original text. In addition, new translations of any work do not seek to be a better edition. Rather, they present different reading experiences that are totally separate from each other.

So if I get the translation that I don’t dig, I shouldn’t worry too much, right? I guess I should just do some more research when it comes to this matter. And good thing that I learned early on that the Fahnestock-MacAfee translation of Les Miserables is the one that I might enjoy. The book is just too damn long for me to read another translation of it.

Quarterly Rhapsody: Signed Books

A heartwarming message from a wonderful writer

Quarterly RhapsodyRecently, I joined three of my bookish friends, Kwesi, Maria, and Rollie, for the book signing of a young adult author. The author’s name escapes me now. Lauren Oliver? I am sorry. Regular readers of this blog, which I am confident must be at around five or at most ten, must know that I am not keen at this genre. I will explore it soon, but that is not the point.

Why was I there? These three didn’t want to go with our other bookish friends to watch Hunger Games. I cannot be counted to shell out money for something that I am not too interested to watch despite the presence of people that I like. Besides, people are supposed to sit and watch and not chitchat while watching a movie in a cinema, no?

So I just joined the three for the book signing of someone I am not familiar with. Besides, I quite approve of this. There’s a feeling of elation when you meet an author that you are particularly fond of and have your copies of his or her books signed. I am not so sure what the rabidity level of these friends’ fanaticism is for the author, but still, I tagged along.

The book signing was held at the same venue where Junot Diaz held his last year. I am not a huge fan of Diaz, but a Pulitzer Prize winner visiting Philippines does not happen frequently. Besides, the venue is so near our office. I could walk my way there, so this opportunity is something that I can hardly miss.

My fresh and signed copy of Drown

My fresh and signed copy of Drown

I noticed a difference: a young adult author can draw more people than a literary one. I was baffled when my friends were assigned line numbers. This was something not distributed during the Junot Diaz book signing. We were just asked to register and get a seat. And there were seats enough for people who were on time.

A worse occasion was the Edward P. Jones book signing. There were seats for everyone, even stray shoppers. And a heartbreaking observation: less than ten people lined up to have their books signed.

This has its pros and cons. A crowded book signing consumes more time and energy than necessary. Besides, all you can get from it is some chitchat with the author. I could imagine a hi, hello, what’s your name, you want our picture, sure, thanks, happy reading. I don’t know how the fleeting minutes of my friends’ respective turns turned out, but they must have been spent in a rush.

With Junot Diaz and Edward P. Jones, I had a real conversation. The one with the former might just be a pivotal conversation, because after the hi-hello-I’m-Junot (and it was only this time that I found out that his name is pronounced as Juno, like the moon or the movie), he asked me what my name is and what I did. I didn’t want to say what I did for my living because most of the time, people get intimidated. But I couldn’t think of anything else, and how could I intimidate this published author?

So I told him I was a technical writer. He looked at me. I was flustered. Oops, now he’s going to ask me if I like what I did. He asked me if I liked what I did. I answered his question about my job honestly, albeit hesitantly, so I might as well be completely honest with him. No. It’s quite boring, but I need a job. Let me tell you something, why don’t you start writing about what a crazy day today is. Are you going to do that? Uhm (a piercing stare, expecting me to really do it like he was some successful distant elder cousin), uhm, yes. Have a nice day, Angus (a more expectant stare). You too, Junot. Thanks.

I ran off. Junot, I may not write about what a crazy day that day was, but I will write something and I will hunt your head down and force you to read it.

Wow, a signed Oscar Wao!

Wow, a signed Oscar Wao!

Now, let’s go to the latter. These two actually took place just a few days apart, so you can just imagine the literary high that I got. With Edward P. Jones, it was a little quiet. The audience is not too participative. Heck, I could tell that half of the people were just people who happened to be killing time in the venue, which was a book store.

And when we were asked to line up, each person had more time to talk to the writer. He’s a little quiet and maybe timid, so I had to think of something to extend my few minutes with him. So when it was my turn, there’s the usual hi-hello, and then he flipped through my copy because it was a little battered. He was looking for marginalia, which I am not guilty of, and I told him that the only writing that he could find there were my initials and the date that I bought it.

He was pretty impressed, me having bought that copy five years ago. So when I saw his shy smile, I ranted about my favorite character in the novel. I told him how Luke’s death broke my heart. And then he went on about Luke, explaining that his death was necessary to break all the lies that were going on in the novel. I never thought of it as that, and I apologize for spoiling this detail in the novel. I can’t help it. And then, as a side comment, he said, Hmm, it’s been a long time since I talked about Luke. Thank you, Angus.

I ran off. During these two occasions, I didn’t dare look back. I don’t know why, but I just sped off with my heart beating wildly with joy. There’s something about authors writing your name on the title page and signing it.

A heartwarming message from a wonderful writer

A heartwarming message from a wonderful writer

Really, the book’s content will still be the same, and it wouldn’t make you understand the novel more or less. But admit it; authors are celebrities in their own rights. A signed book is sure to increase its value in due time. But surely, we don’t get our books signed just so that we could sell them in the future, no?

Oh well, maybe some do that. At least not me. I had Oscar Wao and The Known World signed because I loved them. I considered buying new copies for the signing, but that would be different. I want the copies that I read to be the ones signed. It’s like an affirmation, like this here, Angus, read this book and understood it to the best of his abilities and hopefully loved it, I therefore affix my signature on the title page as a symbol of his great love for literature.

I only have four signed books in my library. So what is the fourth one?

I just pool-ordered this so no name for me

I just pool-ordered this so no name for me

Quarterly Rhapsody: Reading Plans

Books I Am Excited to Read

Quarterly RhapsodyI love plans. Rather, I love plans but I am not crazy about executing them. But really, it depends on the plan that is being planned. There are different types of it, like a fire escape plan. It’s something that most employees must have had to drill with, but really, can people even go with such a plan when fire is licking the fire exit?

So I prefer planning things that are achievable. A reading plan sounds nice. To others, it is the act of the obsessed. Never mind that. I figure planning the books that I read actually makes me read the books that are just sleeping in my book shelf.

I started plotting and following reading plans maybe the first quarter of this year. I was staring at my pile of books and I was wondering when the hell can I ever get to read all my books. Seems impossible for every bibliophile, but I am dead set at reading all the books that I buy, especially the ones listed on my compiled list. This might have been borne out of, yes, obsession, but I don’t care what people think about reading anymore. What I care about is a future generation bereft of readers. Hence, more or less, this blog.

Going back, I feel that I need to give justice to the books that I hoard. I really don’t care about the money because it makes me happy when I go book shopping. Besides, a lot of my books are not brand new, and I don’t care about that as well. As long as the pages are complete and the spine is intact, I’d still buy a book if I like it.

Enough of buying. So how do I plan the books that I read? First, I check my library, a spreadsheet that classifies the books that I own into multiple lists. Such lists are those Top 100 Books from Time, Modern Library, et al, and winners of big book awards. I try my best to have an even distribution of books to be read among the lists, but I have to admit that National Book Award winners are a little behind because I just recently started on them.

Then after the first cut, I sort the books according to length. I distribute the selected books through a given number of period, say three months, to make sure that I don’t overread on a particular month. And voilà, a reading plan is done.

Before, I just pick out whatever book that I wish to read. I used favor books that are listed in Time’s Magazine 100 Novels and National Book Critics Circle Award winners. I still do, but I try my best to pick less books from these two. It is my way of sort of expanding my horizon, although it is really not that because doing that means I would have to explore a lot of genres, which I am not willing to do. Perhaps ever.

And while I can still hold my tongue and keep myself from ranting about my being a literary snob, I would just like to say that my reading plan for 2012 is already done, from January to December. Which means I will have to read books that I will be buying this coming year next year or even the year after next year. Which is fine because I am not the person who immediately buys a book once it is released. In fact, I’d rather wait for books on thrift stores. If I can help it. But there are times I can’t.

I think this is not going anywhere. I just intend to write how I do my reading plan, and I think I accomplished that in two paragraphs. So I have 60 books targeted for 2012. Five books a month. I will not list all of them here, but here is a sneak peek.

Books I Am Excited To Read

Books I Am Excited To Read

McCarthy! It’s been a while since I last read him. I have been warned to be drained of energy after reading Blood Meridian. I also have high expectations for The Bell Jar. This book seems like it is in the same sphere as that of The Catcher in the Rye, angsty, depressing, but I could be wrong. Housekeeping looks like the odd one out here, but I love Robinson’s prose.

There’s Mysteries, from the author of my 2011 Favorite Book, Hamsun. I actually read a couple of pages of this after I paid for it. It seems as crazy as Hunger. And should I say more about number9dream, and Baltasar and Blimunda? In case you don’t know, the two are from my favorite authors.

The Longest Books In My Reading Plan

The Longest Books In My Reading Plan

I intend to open the year with a giant read, with a book as huge and probably as lethal as 2666. This is supposed to be five books, but the publishers decided to spine them into one, disregarding the author’s wish to have them separately published.

Chabon and Grass I’m also quite excited about. There’s Ulysses winking beside the two, and I expect this to be one of the hardest reads of 2012. It may even be the hardest. And don’t be fooled by the two mass markets. An American Tragedy is the second longest book in the lineup, next to 2666. Andersonville is a few pages shy from the 800 mark. The pages are really thin, like onion skin. Really deceptive

The Shortest Books In My Reading Plan

The Shortest Books In My Reading Plan

The shortest books look like serious works. Three are from Nobel laureates: Beckett, Shaw, and Solzhenitsyn. I’m good with this because the former two are plays, and it’s a first for me. Frankenstein and The Red Badge of Courage I’m not too crazy about.

And to wrap this sneak peek is the notorious A Clockwork Orange. It was given to me after the original owner gave up on it because she couldn’t make anything out of it. That is intriguing because I do not doubt her literary comprehension. This should be a challenge.

Quarterly Rhapsody: Book Lists

Quarterly RhapsodyThere’s a list for almost everything. There are lists about the best movies, the best tourist destinations, the best of anything, general interests, eccentric interests, and yes, lists on our beloved books.

What are these lists for anyway? For one, I could say that these lists are out there for recommendations. A reader who’s looking out to venture to new genres could pore through these book lists. In this aspect, book lists can help in increasing the reading activities of a person.

And then, lists bring about healthy, although verbally violent, debates. Which books deserve to make it? Which books should be dropped? Which writer should have a prominent number of works in a list?

These debates call for an understanding of what makes a book really worth it. Is it the style? The plot? The techniques employed? The theme? The appeal to the reading masses? The overall effect? Everything comes into play, so coming up with a list of the top books is a herculean task.

I am a huge fan of book lists. If you haven’t noticed yet, I am collecting nine lists: five award winners and four top 100 lists. There are more lists out there than the ones I am collecting, but if I try to collect all of them, I am afraid I will not achieve my goal of reading all the books in my lists.

Let’s take the 1001 list. The number itself is staggering. If you are a speed reader, fine, go ahead and pursue the goal of reading all the books. The problem is, the list changes every certain number of years. Another one is that the books in the list are not always available. They might even be out of print. So what do we do?

Take only what your cup could hold. I know I can’t read all those books, so I’ll settle for my nine selected lists. It’s not a list I could truly call my own, but what the hey, don’t all these lists belong to someone else?

Which brings me to another point. The book group that I am a member of is recently tackling the task of listing its own 100 best novels. Unfortunately, you have yours truly to blame for this idea.

As one member said, this is an exciting endeavor because it will reflect our literary taste as a group. But coming up with the list that will represent the group’s reading choise is not an easy task. I have made my proposals. I thought of allowing participating members to submit their top books that are ranked in order. Points are given to a book depending on its rank.

However, the pointing system is not foolproof. Think of this: if three members rank Twilight as their number one book, this would be a huge advantage, or disadvantage if you’d like to look at it that way. I am looking at it the latter way. Anyway, another proposed to quash the pointing system to eliminate the complications it brings. Still, another proposed to vote ten members that will come up with an initial list which the members will vote on.

And that’s not all, there are a lot of factors that need to be considered. The genres, the language, the book’s period of publication, et al. Whew. This is proving to be a big, hard, exciting, and endearing task.

I don’t know yet if our group’s goal of coming up our 100 best novels will push through or not. We just started talking about it yesterday. I hope though that it will.

Quarterly Rhapsody: Rating Books

Quarterly RhapsodyWe love reading books. Unfortunately, we don’t love all the books that we read.

Every book is obviously different, catering to various people with various tastes. People’s taste on books depends on a lot of factors, which would take more discussions than I have in mind. They also have different sets of criteria in judging books.

When I say judging books, I merely mean rating them. Giving them the number of stars you think it deserves is an act of judging, which may or may not affect other readers. One may give a high rating to a certain book just because he loves the genre it falls under. Another may do the same just because he adores the author. And so on.

So how do I rate my books?

I loosely base my system on rating books from the descriptive text that Goodreads.com has on its rating system. For those of you who are not familiar with the site, I am strongly suggesting you to create an account to expand your reading horizon. Anyway, to make things easier, here is the five-star rating system of Goodreads.com:

  • 1 star – didn’t like it
  • 2 stars – it was ok
  • 3 stars – liked it
  • 4 stars – really liked it
  • 5 stars – it was amazing

Aside from that, I also have things in mind to make my judging more objective. Come to think of it, it is impossible to judge objectively because judging is essentially subjective. Anyway, here are the five factors that I use in rating my books:

  • Style, Technique, Tone, Mood, Overall Writing – If I understand the narrative without referring too much to a dictionary, if the literary technicalities fit my taste, add one star.
  • Plot Development, Ability to Sustain Interest, Pace – If it can make me read all night, if it makes me lose my sense of time, add one star.
  • Emotional Attachment – If I care about certain characters, if I love particular scenes so much, add one star.
  • Themes, Messages, Meanings – If I agree with what it seems to be telling me, if the book feels like it has an all-encompassing theme, add one star.
  • The “Umph!” Factor – If it makes me laugh or cry or rant and rave about it, if I think and wonder about it long after reading it, add one or two stars.

Whenever I start reading a book, I begin with three stars. The easiest star that a book can gain from me is my first criterion. Usually, if a book fails at this, it ends up getting one star. How can you love a book if you could not understand the printed text? All else follows because of comprehension, or lack thereof.

It’s not enough that I understand the words. I demand from a book to keep me engaged. If I feel that a book is dragging me, it would fail this criterion. Again, it would hard for me to attach myself to the book if I am just forced to read it.

And then there are my emotions. I love reading because I like experiencing a life outside my own. New experiences involve a jolt in your emotions. I usually detect this jolt when I close a book at mid sentence, close my eyes, and breathe. An obvious one would be a laughter or a tear.

And then there are the themes. Does the book have a lasting message? Is it only a cheap thrill? Is it a must-read for everyone? Is it a smart book?

The third and fourth criteria can stand alone. There are books that I like just because they were able to tap my emotions. These can be called emotional roller coasters. There are books that I like just because they are smart reads without having to be fun reads. These can be called mental exercises.

The last and the most important factor is what I call the “Umph!” Factor. Anyone can call it anything; it may be the usual X-Factor that we hear about anywhere. This is much like an aftertaste. If I can’t help thinking about the book, if it sticks to me so bad that I want to have a reading hiatus, if I often come back to my copy and flip the pages to catch a glimpse of some passages, a huge bonus. I can even give two additional stars just because of this factor, which could make a book reach six stars.

I even go back from time to time to the ratings that I gave the books that I read so that I could make adjustments because of the “Umph!” Factor. That’s why I write about the books that I read long after reading them to test that “Umph!”