UNC/Duke professor Tyler Curtain has an avid interest in literary sf and fantasy translations, and introduced me to Duke ecology PhD student Matthew Ross, whose translation from the French of Pierre Grimbert’s bestselling and award-winning The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs was about to be published by AmazonCrossing (Publishers Weekly review) and Brilliance Audio (SFFAudio review). Ross talked a bit about this process at the recent NC Speculative Fiction Night in April, where he also gave a reading from the book, and here writes about the difficulties of translating the untranslatable.
By Matthew Ross:
At the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s career as a poet, Ezra Pound told the aspiring writer that he couldn’t possibly have enough experience to write about anything at the age of 18. So Pound told Merwin to learn a language and translate. The translation would be the way to learn your own language and practice. And so it has been in our translation of Pierre Grimbert’s Le Secret de Ji.
I say “our” because my translation partner, Eric Lamb, and I equally contributed to the work and it was a completely shared experience. Eric and I have been friends since early college. At the time of our first meeting in 2006, he spoke French fluently, and I had never taken a class. A year later he became my mentor as I began French lessons. Three years later, Eric helped me work through some of the trickier parts of a few Baudelaire translations from Les Fleurs du Mal. Four years later, we were both teaching English in France. The jobs entailed only about 20 hours a week, so Eric took on a translation project of his own, and I followed my friend and mentor by starting a translation of Le Secret de Ji. Finally, when the project solidified, I knew I would need help finishing such a large project, so I asked Eric to join and we have been translating together for two years now. But this partnership isn’t the hardest part, it may be the easiest.
Instead our difficulties translating stem from the growing pains of learning our own language, as Pound noted to Merwin. Of course, there are other difficulties in translating a French fantasy novel, especially French-specific concepts, such as dividing time into periods of tens. A ten-day work week, a ten “hour” day, a hundred “minutes” in an hour, etc. . . In essence these concepts of décade, décan, décille are untranslatable.
They stem from a brief period in France’s history right after the French Revolution when the revolutionaries wanted to abandon all Christian concepts, so they created the time system based on base tens. Of course, in English, we have no concept of this time system, so the concept requires a lot of introduction or abandonment. We went with the former, and many readers have found it alienating and difficult. But this part of the translation is quite exciting and fun. The oulipo, a group of primarily French writers who write with ridiculous constraints such as no e’s in an entire novel, knows the joy and freedom writing within strict constraints can provide. Translating a fantasy novel provides some of these strict constraints, given how important it is to recreate the original author’s world-building effort. So these “untranslatable” terms were not the hardest part.
Rather it was most difficult to work on recreating a tone, pacing, and feeling in English. This difficulty has nothing to do with our abilities in French, but rather our experience as writers in English. Since my background is primarily in science writing, and Eric had done a very literary translation prior to The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs, we both had a formal, sometimes stilted tone that pervaded much of our initial translations.
I found this stilted part of my writing particularly difficult to fix because it was so embedded in who I am. I have spent the last six years focusing on being a better science writer, and though many of the skills cross over to fiction writing, creating the proper tone for storytelling is not one of them. Furthermore (see that sciencey formalism?), unlike the untranslatable terms, tone cannot be precisely extracted, identified, and reworked to some satisfactory state. It permeates every aspect of the novel and every moment of translation. How do you fix that?
For us, we really worked hard in editing each other’s work, but we still have a lot more to learn and have opened up our second translation of The Secret of Ji (it’s a series!) to more comments and edits from outsiders, namely our partners, Nicole and Cassidy, and our editor Joel Bahr. They see subtle, but easily fixable, moments that create a stilted tone. Like changing “the details were finalized,” to “Together, they finalized the last details.” Though this little change seems minor at first, compounded with hundreds of others it was quite difficult to extract and perfect these kinds of simple moments where we failed to keep an active, exciting tone.
As Merwin has, I hope to use translation as a way to work on my knowledge, not of French, but of English. But this part of writing, for us at least, was one of the hardest and we hope we keep improving as the next Ji book comes out.
About Matthew Ross:
Born in 1987 in Colorado, Matthew Ross grew up in the rapidly suburbanizing rangelands outside of Monument, CO. The youngest member of the family, he first fell in love with the speculative fiction genre when he read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea on a trip to his parents’ native home of Amarillo, Texas. His mom, a school teacher, always encouraged his sometimes distracting obsession with books, while his dad, a salesman, made sure he got outside and learned something about the actual world we live in. His brother, an avid cyclist and sports enthusiast, still tries to keep him in shape and well-rounded.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which left him yearning for some non-science conversation. He tried to add a major in English, but after an English professor strongly encouraged him to major in some language other than English, he began taking French. From there, he fell in love with the language, moved to France for a year, and began a search for an excellent French Fantasy author. He found Pierre Grimbert and tentatively began translating his novel. After sending out samples to a few publishing companies, he heard nothing back and moved ahead with his plans to start his PhD in ecology at Duke University.
Two months before he started at Duke, Amazon Crossing contacted him and asked if he wanted to translate The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs. Knowing he might need help, he called his close friend and French mentor, Eric Lamb and asked if he wanted to join the project. They have been translating together since. Eric has been speaking French for ten years and has lived in France for two of those years. Now he is a high-school French teacher, who lives in Carbondale, CO with his fiancée, Cassidy. Ross lives in the Braggtown neighborhood of Durham with his wife, Nicole.
Welcome to the third installment of The Shambling Guide to New York City Listen-a-Long, covering both Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City. As usual, first up a recap of some recent news about the book, starting with last Monday's Orbit Books interview with the author: Mur Lafferty on THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY…
I stopped by Day 1 of Animazement at the Raleigh Convention Center on Friday early afternoon, and already the 3-day anime-centered convention was well underway.
Even before I made it inside the Convention Center doors, Fayetteville Street was awash in Avengers (for a scheduled mass photoshoot on an external stairway) and all manner of other cosplayers:
Inside, most pre-registered attendees had already long since made their way through registration, but there were still some crowds milling about including people coming back from lunch — what must the Krispy Kreme up the street look like this weekend? Naruto and original glazed doughnuts? — and the staggering in of pre-registered people and a line of people buying their passes in person.
Also milling about around registration, I met Faith O’Neil, an associate editor from Maryland-based GeekInsider, down herself from Virginia to cover the event. It was her first time at Animazement, and the Convention Center had already made a good first impression. “It’s an excellent, massive venue, a great place to hold it,” she said. “It’s huge.” GeekInsider is best known for its technology coverage and gadget reviews, and this was also the first time not just covering Animazement, but anime conventions in general; the site has been covering anime under its Lifestyle coverage since April. “It’s our first anime convention,” O’Neil said. “We’re trying to branch out.”
Thanks to Animazement volunteer and recent local college graduate Teresa, I was able to get a quick guided pass through a bit of the convention. “I helped out in the dealer’s room before, but it’s a bit different this year, doing odd errands, that kind of thing,” she said, explaining her role this year. I’d been to the Convention Center for NASFIC in 2010, so the route down to the dealer’s room was not unfamiliar.
The dealer’s room [above, left] is a sprawling space full of booths selling import video games, plushies, t-shirts, films, costumes and accessories, and even a rather large corner booth selling import foods [above, right]. (No sign of any Fruity Oaty Bars, though.) A foothold from the world of books does exist in the form of Chicago Anime [below, left]. Eddie of Chicago Anime explained that the space is “about half manga, half card games” and that the they usually get a “decent amount of interest in the books.”
There’s also an artist’s alley [below, left] and various breakout rooms, along with signings, programming tracks, on and on. On the way back up, Teresa [below, right] asked me if I (a complete anime ignoramus) recognized a particular cosplayer’s outfit. “Sailor Moon?” I hazarded. Apparently I was not even close.
Animazement runs through Sunday at the Raleigh Convention Center.
Friday Quick Updates for Friday, May 24, 2013:
Durham author Richard Dansky‘s new novel Vaporware is now out from JournalStone! Congrats, Rich. I’ve been re-posting a few of the blurbs and guest posts and interviews about the book over on the Bull Spec Facebook and Twitter pages, so go check out this book about a video game project that refuses to be cancelled.
Locals Mark Van Name, Mur Lafferty, and Meagen Voss (among others) are heading up to Baltimore for Balticon this Memorial Day weekend, but here in Raleigh there’s the anime-centered convention Animazement:
Which brings crowds, directors, producers, writers, guests, and voice actors (and more) to the area.
In terms of other imminently upcoming events, there’s a big one on Wednesday as bestselling and Hugo Award winning sf author John Scalzi visits Quail Ridge Books. The event starts at 7:30 and officially concludes with a signing, but I know at least a few of us will be heading out for a quick nightcap after. (Fairly quick as it is a Wednesday, after all.)
And next Saturday (June 1) there’s a pair of events to check out. In the afternoon, Piedmont Laureate John Claude Bemis hosts a four-author young readers roundtable, with Frances O’Roark Dowell, Cate Tiernan, Clay Carmichael, and Kelly Starling Lyons. And on Saturday evening, Chapel Hill Comics hosts a launch party for Durham author Mur Lafferty’s new novel, The Shambling Guide to New York City, which comes out this Tuesday.
Almost lastly, one bit of fun news I announced yesterday is that fantasy author Robert V.S. Redick is joining the lineup for the summer speculative fiction event on Saturday, August 3 — it’s going to be a fantastic event so make sure you get it onto your calendars! (And it’s on the handy handout flyer, at the bottom of the post, perfect for sharing…)
Lastly, a big congratulations to The Raleigh Review on their Summit Award for their cover art and design. Rob and his team are great ambassadors for the voice of Raleigh in national literary fiction, and big supporters of Bull Spec, so, hey, again, congratulations to The Raleigh Review.
May 24-26 (Friday to Sunday) — Animazement, an all-volunteer, fan-run anime convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, celebrating popular Japanese visual culture in all of its forms. More info:
May 24-27 (Friday to Monday) — BaltiCon, a science fiction convention in Baltimore, Maryland with guests Joe Haldeman, Nnedi Okorafor, T.C. McCarthy, and others, and Triangle-area participants Mark Van Name and Mur Lafferty. More info:
May 30 (Thursday) 7 pm — The Regulator Bookshop hosts Ian Baucom for Through the Skylight: “two tantalizing tales magically intertwine, crossing cultures and spanning centuries as three kids set out to save the lives of three others—who just happen to live in the Middle Ages! A stone lion roars….A sleek black cat speaks….A faun leaps from the canvas of a painting….When Jared, Shireen, and Miranda are each given one glittering gift from an old Venetian shopkeeper, they never fathom the powers they are now able to unleash; they never expect that their very reality is about to be utterly upended. Danger, it seems, has a way of spanning centuries.”
May 31 – June 2 (Friday to Sunday) — ConCarolinas in Charlotte, with writer guest of honor Timothy Zahn. More info:
1 (Saturday) 2 pm — Piedmont Laureate John Claude Bemis hosts a four-author presentation at the Orange County Library in downtown Hillsborough: “A discussion with four of the Triangle’s most exciting children’s book authors: Frances O’Roark Dowell, Cate Tiernan, Clay Carmichael, and Kelly Starling Lyons. We’ll be talking about our favorite books, how we became authors, stories from our childhoods, and generally sharing lots of inspiration to writers of all stripes. Come and meet these wonderful local authors who write everything from young adult paranormal romance, to middle-grade mysteries, realistic fiction, and picture books. For more information visit Celebrating Children’s Literature with Local Authors.”
1 (Saturday) 7 to 9 pm — Chapel Hill Comics hosts a launch party for Durham author Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City, forthcoming in late May from Orbit. More info:
2 (Sunday) 3:00 pm — Quail Ridge Books hosts SUSANNA KEARSLEY, The Firebird. “With a simple touch, she can see an object’s past. All who have wanted it. All who have owned it. All who have stolen it.”
I’ve very excited to announce that we’ve added another author to the already amazing lineup for the 3rd annual Bull Spec Summer Speculative Fiction event. That author is Robert V.S. Redick, author of The Chathrand Voyage Quartet, recently completed with book 4, The Night of the Swarm, in February. Redick studied literature and Russian at the University of Virginia, tropical conservation and development at the University of Florida, and fiction writing in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC. He has worked as the editor for the Spanish and French websites of the antipoverty organization Oxfam America, and as an instructor in the International Development, Community & Environment (IDCE) Department at Clark University in Worcester, MA.
There’s also a Facebook event, which even though I haven’t sent out my mass invites for it yet, you can join, and invite your friends. You can? You should! The event, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Saturday, August 3, will also feature Karen Lord, Will Hindmarch, Nathan Ballingrud, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and Mur Lafferty.
I met North Carolina author Tonia Brown at ConTemporal last summer, mostly by accident as she was on a panel with Cherie Priest and Phil and Kaja Foglio. But she was funny, she had a clear idea of how to tell her stories, her way, and when she handed me a copy of Railroad!, the print version of her (ongoing!) web serial, it was an easy thing to have on hand to remember to look up her other work later. That led me to find out about this strange book she published earlier this year, Gnomageddon. As the title implies, it’s a little… quirky. So is Tonia, and so is her entry in “The Hardest Part” guest column series. Enjoy!
“Dancing with Myself”
By Tonia Brown
Gnomageddon was a pain in my tail pouch before I even started working on it. The trouble came from the onset of the idea—an idea that would not leave me alone until it saw completion. You see, for me writing has always been less like crafting a story, and more like taking dictation while my imagination runs amok. In this case, my imagination had chosen to manifest itself the form of a mouthy, bossy, merciless gnome. I was already working on a novel, as well as trying to update my web serial, when the gnome first nudged me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” I said, not surprised to see the little guy. It wasn’t unusual for ideas to crop up now and again, introduce themselves, explain their plot and purpose, and then take a backseat to wait their turn.
Only this one wasn’t interested in waiting. He watched over my shoulder as I typed for a few moments before he asked, “Whatcha working on?”
“A novel about a serial killer that is bitten by a werewolf.”
“Yeah. It’s going to not only challenge the genre but change the entire idea of good versus evil. It’ll blur the line between man and beast, between hunger and appetite, between sin and salvation.” What could I say? I had pretty lofty hopes for that werewolf.
Unimpressed by my hopes, lofty or otherwise, the gnome yawned. “Sounds boring. You should write a story about a bunch of undead gnomes.”
“Lawn gnomes or fantasy gnomes?”
“Fantasy, of course. It’ll be great. It’ll be funny and sexy and I’ll be the star. Write it. I command you.”
“Okay, okay. I will, but not right now. I’m busy with this serial killer werewolf.”
“Blech! No one likes that kind of stuff. Everyone loves a laugh, sweet cheeks. Write me instead.”
“I’m busy. And besides, if I am going to write anything else, I have to finish the next volume of Railroad. I’m already behind schedule and my editor is going to kill-”
“Pffft,” he said over me. “Railroad schmailroad. No one reads that trash. Write me. Write me now!”
“It’s not trash and people do so read it.” I stopped arguing here because I realized I was exchanging angry words with a figment of my imagination.
Sometimes you have to draw a line when it comes to your inner narrative.
I pushed the gnome away for several weeks, refusing to give the idea voice, or rather listen to the voice the idea had given itself. Instead, I cracked down on volume six of Railroad, hoping to get it in before the deadline. There is a certain rhythm to running a web serial, and I was dangerously close to disrupting it by dragging my heels on the latest update. I also kept my mind on the werewolf novel, assuming I could work on each a bit at a time. But the gnome was persistent, as well as heavy handed.
“Whatcha working on?” he asked. “And you better say me, or I’ll break both your legs.”
“I don’t see how you plan on …” I started, but paused when I saw the war hammer he was carrying.
“What was it you were working on?” he asked.
“Your story,” I said as I closed the serial killer werewolf novel and opened a blank document. “I was working on your story.”
He grinned as he leaned on the handle of the hammer. “Damn right you are.”
I wished that was the only trouble the gnome gave me, but no, there was more. There was always more. The next problem to arise dealt with the length of the story. The gnome was always meant to be short. A quick read filled with cheap laughs. A few dirty jokes wrapped in a parody. But again, when it came time to write him, he had ideas of his own.
He looked over my shoulder as I wrote him. “You haven’t built enough world. Build more.”
“I’ve built plenty of world,” I said, pushing him away. “You don’t need any more world. You’re only a novella.”
“I don’t want to be a novella. I wanna be an epic series.”
“Too bad, because that’s not how I plotted you.”
“I’ll fix that.” The gnome tossed something at my manuscript. It landed between two very different characters.
“What was that?”
“An unexpected love story.”
“Oh, man. Now I have to work that out.”
He lobbed a few more things. “Have a moral dilemma or two. Some betrayal. A touch of intrigue.”
“Good grief! That’ll triple the story.”
“And to top it all off,” he said as he took a potshot at my document, “a couple of reoccurring jokes.”
I glanced down at his ammo and found myself giggling uncontrollably. “Actually, that is funny. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. Now, more world building. Chop! Chop!”
With a sigh, I did as asked, and without my consent a thirty thousand word novella evolved into a ninety five thousand word novel; an epic parody with loads of gore, tons of humor, plenty of filth, great sequel potential and every word of it written under duress. Thus, Gnomageddon was born.
Of course that isn’t how it really happened, yet when I look back on it, I can’t help but remember it just that way. Sometimes an idea gets stuck in your craw, and you have no choice but to drop everything else and work on it, lest it go crazy on you with a war hammer. Seriously, have you seen those things?
By the way, volume six of Railroad came in just under the wire, and at long last the serial killer werewolf had his chance to tell his hairy, scary tale—which, funny enough, ended up as a novella instead of a novel. Turns out he had less bark and much more bite.
Tonia Brown is a southern author with a penchant for Victorian dead things. She lives in the backwoods of North Carolina with her genius husband and an ever fluctuating number of cats. She likes fudgesicles and coffee, though not always together. Her current novel, Gnomageddon, is a horrible fantasy with just enough gore and filth to make you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it. When not writing, or talking to herself, she raises unicorns and fights crime with her husband under the code names Dr. Weird and his sexy sidekick Butternut. You can learn more about her at: www.thebackseatwriter.com
Review of Kevin (from Archie Comics) by Paul Kupperberg (Grosset& Dunlap paper-over-board novel, April 18, 2013)
Kevin Keller is the first openly gay kid at Riverdale High. He had a comic miniseries which was very successful, so he went to an ongoing series which is now on its eighth issue. The second issue of that series dealt with Kevin’s first high school prom. Kevin had been elected class president in issue four of the miniseries, so it fell to him to select a theme for the prom and get all the decorating done. Being a smart leader he delegated most of the decorating to classmates Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones.
The time the three characters spent decorating for the prom is the framing story for this novel, which tells of Kevin’s middle school prom. As with all Archie tales, the teenage characters are realistic and have a wide variety of family situations. This novel has a strong anti-bullying message and shows how both victims and bystanders can change the situation. One character has a particularly bad home situation where even his father bullies him. Kevin befriends the boy, whose name is Luke, and ends up helping him accept that many students at Medford Middle School are willing to be his friends.
In a time of crisis, Luke comes out as gay to Kevin, trying to show Kevin that no one will want to be his friend because of what he is. Kevin has a nice speech about what he thinks of people who will hate someone for being gay and tells Luke, everyone but the bully will like you for who you are, not who you love (Note that at this time Kevin was not identifying as gay). Helping Luke makes Kevin realize something about himself which had caused him a great deal of confusion and eventually leads to Kevin coming out to his middle-school friends (how he came out to his parents is shown in the comics).
This coming-out story of Kevin and Luke is sweet with a hint of sadness, as well as funny in some places, particularly when Kevin tries to figure out why he doesn’t think his female best mate Sammie is sexy. Luckily for Kevin she is understanding and she is more relieved that there is not something wrong with the way she looks than she is concerned that Kevin likes boys. For anyone who is struggling to find who they are, for people who want to understand those who are doing so, and for those who did so in a time when Luke’s words about hatred were true almost everywhere, this is an excellent read. Read it yourself to see how great it can be when you have understanding friends and family. Riverdale is a fictional place, but the relationships are realistic; share it with friends and family members to make your own coming-out story an easier one. For adults, sharing this book with your teen can help them understand themselves or someone they know because the message is not just about coming out as gay, it is about standing up to bullies and how people with differences can be accepted. It truthfully shows how sometimes having two differences can lead to acceptance, because identifying as a geek makes you fit in that crowd, no matter what other differences you have. If you have ever attended a science fiction convention, you have seen this idea in action because you see every type of person imaginable and they are all part of the geek crowd, and they don’t notice the differences of others because they feel different too.
If you like the Kevin Keller character and would like to read more, check your local comic or book store for comic issues, and compilation paperbacks. Issues can also be read by way of digital comic book apps.