GRACE NOTES - SEPTEMBER 2021
September is National Translation Month! This month we'll explore a few great translated works. Thankfully for us Anglphones, some great literature has been translated into English over the years. Read on -
In 2014, I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Iceland. My only two regrets were not riding one of those adorable Icelandic ponies and not visiting Gljúfrasteinn, the home of author Halldor Laxness. Laxness is one of Iceland’s most beloved writers, and the house has been open to the public as a museum since 2004.
Iceland is one of the most literate countries in the world. Children are taught to read at an early age. Bookstores are usually staffed by people with advanced degrees in literature, even the part-timers. The country’s ancient traditions of poetry and prose, dating back to to the Eddas (collections of early Icelandic myth, first written down in the 10th to 13th centuries) are well-noted. One of my favorite Icelandic traditions is that of Jolabokaflod (rough translation - “Christmas book flood”), which I’m trying to establish in my family. On Christmas morning, everyone gives and receives books as gifts and the day is spent reading. Yes, please. More of this.
But back to Laxness - his Nobel Prize winning novel Independent People is an iconic work of Icelandic literature. The story of Bjartur the sheep farmer and his challenges with his spirited daughter has touched the hearts of many readers. Laxness wrote 22 novels, only a handful of which have been translated into English. My focus will be on a lesser-known work, The Fish Can Sing, originally published in 1957 and later translated by Magnus Magnusson.
Set in the early 20th century, the book’s narrator is Alfgrimur, an orphan raised by his grandparents in Brekkukot, a fishing community in Reykyavik. He begins his narration with the declaration, “A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father.” This twisted logic is borne out by the boy’s relationship to his grandparents. Alfgrimur’s grandfather is a taciturn fisherman and his grandmother collects rimur (Icelandic ballads). The two give him a comfortable if somewhat utilitarian upbringing.
One day, the world-renowned but enigmatic opera singer Gardar Holm, a Brekkukot ex-pat, sweeps through town, causing excitement in the village, though few have actually heard him sing. Holm takes an interest in Alfgrimur’s untutored vocal talents after hearing him sing at a funeral. Alfgrimur has no further ambition in life than to carry on the family trade of fishing for lumpfish, but is taken in by the singer’s attention. Holm encourages Alfgrimur to search for “the one note,” the thing that will fulfill his life. “…(H)e who has heard it does not need to ask for anything,” the singer tells him.
Laxness’ skills at character development are second to none. Even the most minor characters are fully fleshed out, whether they have an impact on the rambling plot or not. Comparisons to The Canterbury Tales are almost inevitable. The depictions of the villagers of Brekkukot, from Alfgrimur’s grandparents to the frail young woman who believes that Alfgrmur has healing powers to the near-legendary Pastor Snorri all have stories, and the book is ultimately about these stories and the important role they play in building community. It takes this particular village to send Alfgrimur on his quest to find that one note.
There is an air of modern myth about this book, with hints of the magic and mysticism that music can impart. It is warm and humorous, wise and sharply observed, and full of compassion and heart.
Looking to explore more works in translation? Here are a some of my favorites -
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson
This timeless story of unlikely friendships that develop among three lonely people in a Paris apartment building will touch your heart.
The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer
This swashbuckling work of historical fiction follows the adventures of Red Orm, a Viking captive who accompanies his Danish captors as they rampage through Europe.
Baudolino by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by William Weaver
No one writes historical fiction with the panache of Eco. This story of a quick-witted peasant who survives by his guile during the fourth Crusade melds fantasy, history, and adventure.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
So much heart jammed into such a small package! This is a devastating story of two misfit teens who find sanctuary from school bullies in each other. An elegant paean to the challenges and heartbreaks of growing up weird and the inestimable value of true friendship.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
One of Murakami’s most iconic works, this story of the intertwining lives of two lost souls is strange, puzzling, and beautiful.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Funny, charming and weird, this account of the life of a long-term convenience story employee has been called “A gem of a book…” (Ruth Ozeki) and “As intoxicating as a sake mojito…” (John Powers). Mac’s Backs Book Club will discuss this one on September 15. https://www.macsbacks.com/event/macs-backs-book-club-discusses-convenience-store-woman
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Not technically a book in translation, but a book about translation. Part memoir, part historical fiction, part literary criticism, the book relates Ni Ghriofa’s obsessive quest to find out about eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, who, on discovering that her husband had been murdered, drank handfuls of his blood, then wrote an epic lament about him. Ní Ghríofa’s translation of the poem, a banshee’s wail of anger and deep sorrow, is printed in its entirety. This achingly personal book will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Kafka meets Murakami meets Bradbury in this elegiac story of loss, yearning, and the importance of holding our memories close as long as we can.
History. A Mess. by Sigrun Palsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
A scholar’s mistake while researching the life of a female artist complicates her life and sheds an uneasy light on the vagaries of history, documentation, and veracity.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft
This darkly moody collection of short stories explores the many facets of humans in motion, whether through space, time, or life experience.
Here are previews of some great reads coming out in October -
As You Were by Elaine Feeney
Acerbic, funny, and sad, poet Elaine Feeney’s fiction debut is a bitingly compassionate commentary on community found in the the most trying of circumstances. Sinead Hynes is dying of cancer, but has told no one, not even her own family. (She does, however, confide in a magpie she sees on the hood of a Volvo.) The patients she shares a hospital ward with are a colorful group of characters - think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but narrated by a woman in an oncology ward. Her ward mates form the family that Sinead needs, and they care for each other in their own often clumsy, misguided ways. The story is told in small vignettes made up of memories, dreams, and observations a la Jenny Offil. Each fragment is a prismatic view of Sinead’s fear, exhaustion, and wonder at life’s rich pageant.
I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins
Our narrator, a writer in the throes of postpartum depression, hops a plane to Reno for a conference, leaving her husband and newborn behind. Finding the freedom of life on the road preferable to what she left at home, she extends the trip, dragging along a breast pump and a suitcase full of ghosts from her past. Interspersed between Claire’s exploits with lovers old and new and choices good and awful, are letters from her dead mother, a former hippie with a dark past of her own. Claire achieves an uneasy, teetering balance on her journey, but never really discovers whether she is running away or running toward. The book is a darkly wry commentary on contemporary relationships, freedom, and motherhood.
Poetry of the month -
Seen enough. Visions confronted in every weather.
Had enough. Urban tumult, by night and day, forever.
Known enough. Life’s still-points. —O tumult and Visions!
Departure for fresh affection and noise!
~ Arthur Rimbaud
(From Rimbaud Complete, translated by Wyatt Mason, Modern Library 2002)
Last night she called and told me
about the moon over San Francisco Bay.
Here in Albuquerque it is mirrored
in a cool, dark, Sandia sky.
The reflection is in all of us.
Orange, and almost the harvest
moon. Wind and the chill of the colder
months coming on. The children and I
watched it, crossed San Pedro and Central
coming up from the state fair.
Wind blowing my hair was caught
in my face. I was fearful of traffic,
trying to keep my steps and the moon was east,
ballooning out of the mountain ridge, out of smokey clouds
out of any skin that was covering her. Naked.
We are alive. The woman of the moon looking
at us, and we looking at her, acknowledging
~ Joy Harjo
(From She Had Some Horses, Thunder Mouth Press, 1983)