Category: Translation

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica
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Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:

(…)

Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.

(…)

Absenting the Self: Charlotte Mandell on Translating Mathias Enard

Rob Vollmar interviews for World Literature Today
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Charlotte Mandell, Mathias Enard’s English translator, is interviewed by Rob Vollmar for World Literature Today on how she came to be a translator, and on the process of rendering Enard’s work into English:

 

Mathias Énard’s Compass (New Directions, 2017) is not only a love letter to the field of orientalism but, more broadly, to the power of the written word itself, especially in translation. I became fascinated by the panoply of creative decisions that must have gone into translating it from French into English, while navigating all the other languages (Persian, Arabic, German) that fill its nooks and crannies. In order to satisfy some of that curiosity, after reviewing the book, I reached out to Énard’s traductrice attitrée, Charlotte Mandell, to find out more about her training and work as a translator as well as the eccentricities of bringing this particular book to anglophone readers.

Rob Vollmar: Could you tell us a little about how you got interested in translation and your training in preparation to be a literary translator?

Charlotte Mandell: It’s something of a long story. My parents were both university professors, so we had summers off, and since my father was interested in all things French (he wrote his master’s thesis on a little-known playwright named Henri-René Lenormand), starting when I was ten, we would spend every other summer in either the Swiss or the French Alps. So that’s how I got interested in French.

Later on, I attended Boston Latin High School—the oldest high school in America, founded in 1635—where studying Latin for five years is mandatory. Weirdly, I developed a liking for Latin, and for ancient Greek; in my advanced placement class in junior year we translated Virgil’s Aeneid, and I was hooked.

As a student at Bard College I majored in French (and minored in film theory, since my father used to bring films home to show them on a sheet on the wall—by the time I was a teenager I had seen Bergman’s Seventh Seal at least fifteen times) and continued to translate; my senior project (a book-length volume every senior has to write) was a translation of a book by the contemporary French poet Jean-Paul Auxeméry. During my junior year at Bard, I studied semiotics and film theory at the Université de Paris III. Derrida was lecturing then (this was in 1988–89), along with Julia Kristeva.

RV: Many of your early translations were nonfiction and/or French classics. Does your process for approaching older or nonfiction texts differ from contemporary fiction?

CM: Actually, my approach is almost always the same, regardless of whether or not the original is a classic: I always approach a book as if it had just been written, and as if it had never been translated before, or read in English. Translating for me is a living, breathing thing—Kate Briggs talks about this in her forthcoming essay on translation, This Little Art—and I need to act as if the book I’m translating is brand-new, fresh off the press. That way I become more invested in the act of translating it and more involved in the process. Translating for me is a very exciting process, regardless of whether the book is old or new.

RVCompass is your third Énard novel in translation. How did you become aware of his work, and what attracted you to it as a potential object of translation?

CM: A long time ago—in 2008, I think—I read an excerpt from Zone in a digest published by the French Publishers’ Agency. I knew right away that I had to translate the book, and when I heard that Chad Post’s Open Letter Press was interested in publishing it, I wrote to him and basically begged him to allow me to translate it. Open Letter published both Zone and Street of Thieves, and I’m grateful to them for that.

For Compass, my publishers are Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US; working with Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo and Tynan Kogane at New Directions has been enlightening and enjoyable.

RV: Your first Énard translation, Zone (Open Letter, 2010), has been described as a “novel of essentially one endless sentence.” What were the challenges associated with translating a text without the normal sentence breaks one expects in a narrative?

CM: For me the main challenge in translating Zone was finding a good place to stop for the day—often I would lose track of time and would find I’d been sitting for far too long, and hadn’t eaten in hours. I don’t read ahead when I translate, so I’m always eager to find out what comes next in the book—so Zone turned out to be addictive in its stream-of-consciousness narrative and very hard to put down.

I like long sentences—that must be part of my Latin upbringing—they don’t intimidate me. On the contrary, they pull me in—it’s almost like a literary jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out where a sentence is going, and trying to keep its rhythm and breath intact. Latin is famous for its endless, complex sentences; often the verb will come at the very end, which makes French sentences easy by comparison!

(…)

Lessons in Slowness

Susanna Basso for Asymptote
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Susanna Basso writes for Asymptote on how her translation process has developed over the course of her career. Translated from the Italian by Matilda Colarossi.

Translating is beautiful in autumn, when the days are short and I need to turn my desk lamp on earlier. Natural light distracts me a little; it lights up the room, all of the other books, the furniture, the curtains . . . Here, in this circle of white light that isolates me, we are truly alone, the sentences and I. For every book I have translated, I could tell you what was happening inside this room and in the outside world. This would, I imagine, be anything but interesting, and yet my life has accompanied the life of the words I have looked up, and it has, for me, not been easy to keep them in check. 

As a young woman I translated while in a little white room with no wardrobe, on a bare table, and near a phone that kept interrupting me, that kept dragging me outside to the thousands of things that I had asked others to expect of me. I had yet to come to terms with the slowness translation imposes; I remember trying to invent ways to go faster. I was convinced that experience would make me faster. I would often get frustrated. I would find almost every text repetitive, almost every author a little bit wordy. 

Then I discovered that experience does not, in any way, make translation faster, but it does heal impatience and our need for the phone to ring. 

At the time, I remember, I was fresh out of university and full of literary enthusiasm, and I swathed the words of the Brontë sisters in my own voice. I experienced the difficulty of having to combine the spontaneity of the simple letters between the sisters and their friends, and the intense richness of those extraordinarily captive and yet free women.

(…)

Kalisto Tanzi by Jana Beňová

Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, for Asymptote
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An extract from award-winning Slovakian writer Jana Beňová’s new novel, Seeing People Off. Translated from the Slovak by Janet Livingstone, appearing in the April 2017 issue of Aysmptote.

Elza. Together we ate grapes and washed them down with rosé. The next day I discovered a moist grape stem in my pocket. It looked like an undecorated Christmas tree. 

Kalisto Tanzi vanished from the city, which had been hit by a heat wave. The heat radiated from the houses and streets burning people’s faces, and the scorching town seared its brand onto their foreheads. 

I stopped in front of the theater window so I could read Kalisto’s name on the posters and confirm to myself that he did actually exist. I enjoy pronouncing his name, which tormented him throughout childhood and puberty and only stopped annoying him after my arrival. I walk slowly to the other end of the city, the muscles in my legs shake slightly in the hot air. It’s noon. The only things on the planet that are really moving are drops of sweat. They run down to the base of the nose and then spurt out again under my hair. 

I’m going to buy poison. 

Ian saw a rat in the crapper last night. 

The rat-catcher has a wine cellar underneath his store. Underground we escape the unbearable heat and drink. He’s telling me how intelligent the rats are. 

“They have a taster, who tastes food first. When it dies, the others won’t even touch the bait. So we now offer the next generation of rat bait. The rat only begins to die four days after consuming the poison. It dies from internal bleeding. Even Seneca confirmed that this sort of death is painless. The other rats think their compatriot has died a natural death. But even so, if several of them die in a short time, they’ll evaluate the place as unacceptable because of the high mortality rate and move elsewhere. This gift of judgment is completely missing in some people, or even whole nations.” 

(…)

From Im Stein to Bricks and Mortar

Katy Derbyshire on translating Clemens Meyer
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Translating a book title is rarely an easy feat. Think of Die Verwandlung, rendered as either Metamorphosis or The Metamorphosis – do we need that definite article or not? The first two translations into German of Crime and Punishment were entitled Raskolnikow, followed by many called Schuld und Sühne (meaning something like “guilt and atonement”), then in the 1920s a couple of Verbrechen und Strafe (“crime and punishment”), then a spate of either Raskolnikow or Schuld und Sühne or variations on the two, and back to Verbrechen und Strafe in Svetlana Geier’s most recent iteration from 1994. The shorter and more meaningful a statement, the more difficult it can become to capture it faithfully in another language. And there are few short statements that hold more meaning than book titles.

Clemens Meyer’s Im Stein is one of those conundrums. It’s a long novel, 654 pages in English, with a short title. Two words, two strong beats, not a common phrase but immediately clear. The literal meaning is easily rendered: in the stone. But to my mind, the obvious choices rock and stone are tainted words in English, hackneyed and dulled by overuse in popular culture:

The Sword in the Stone

The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stone

Like a Rolling Stone

Stone cold sober

Sticks and stones

A stone’s throw

Between a rock and a hard place

Rock ‘n’ roll

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Rock around the Clock

Punk rock

Dad rock

Brighton Rock

Crocodile Rock

Jingle Bell Rock

And so on, very possibly ad infinitum.

I knew I didn’t want either of those words to anchor my translation, to drag it down from vaguely mystical to banal. But what to do? The novel plays on different kinds of stone – the bedrock of the city in which it’s set, gemstones, brick walls – all of which can be called “stein” in German, at least in the elastic way that Meyer uses language. For a while, the working title was Hearts Like Diamonds, a phrase used frequently in the book to sum up women working in prostitution. I liked that it brought those women into sharp focus, but it had the distinct disadvantage of sounding like a romance novel. Which the book is not, by a long shot.

One of the less literal meanings with which Meyer imbues the word Stein is that of real estate. If the novel has a main character other than the city itself and the rock being drilled into beneath it, then it’s AK, a football hooligan turned property magnate who lets apartments to prostitutes. It’s his move into “bricks and mortar” that takes him from providing security services for the sex trade – muscle – to providing shelter and infrastructure – stone, if you like. And that was the mental leap I needed. Once I hit on it, I went back through the translation to sow seeds for my title, adding flourishes to the prose where I felt it could take it. This is the kind of writing that can take it, so we now have sentences like this:

The music echoes across the bricks and mortar, through the rock and stones.

Or like this:

And if you think back to those years between time and stream, between bricks and mortar, between rock and hard place, there’s no way back and that’s a good thing too, even though things are hotting up again now; there weren’t any apartments or luxury girls back then, or as good as none.

Or like this:

The markets and marketplaces are becoming more and more linked, steel and concrete town halls, the meat markets expanding, the bricks and mortar, sticks and stones, the rock growing, in a red-lit circle where everything’s linked, the rubbish truck, the fat woman, the Coke, the Viagras, the blockers, uppers and downers, lost cats, the right to sexual self-determination, scraps of memory like old police badges, the Angels on their motorbikes, peat mosses, flyovers, sixty-six municipal brothels in 1865, trade chronicles, he burrows in the old files, real estate on silver strings leading all the way to Italy, and the fall of the real-estate boss Silvio Lübbke, three bullets, boom, boom, Dead Peepers Alley, houses for pocket money, clues, clues, the country air so clean and pure, soon they’ll be building here but we’ll stop the diggers, the question is, who brings three bodies out to this mire, this swamped puddle, where everyone knows they won’t decompose, when you can dig holes in the sandy ground of the heath or drive out to forest lakes like the ‘Blue Eye’, and there must be anglers there who discover the remotest of lakes, the woods arching around the north-eastern belt of the suburbs and incorporated villages to the south, all of it flat as a pancake.

Clemens himself still isn’t keen because there are other books with the same title, so this piece is partly a defence of my choice. But I stand by it, for several reasons. Firstly, the stone is still there under the surface, even though it’s now clearly manmade, one meaning standing in for all the others. The phrase is something I can imagine all of the book’s characters using, something earthy and real. More important though is the sound: it still has two beats, Bricks and Mortar. Still short and sharp – a trochaic rhythm, I’m told. And when I pronounce my title – and it feels like my title, because I had to fight for it a little bit – it comes out in my accent, which is from London, and I hear a secret echo of rhyming slang concealing one woman, at least. There’s a daughter gone missing in the book, too, and so my title is for her.

Papa the Investor

Andrea di Robilant for the Paris Review
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How Hemingway became a major shareholder in a venerable Italian publishing house.

Ernest Hemingway had a rough time with his Italian publisher, Einaudi, the venerable Turin-based house that still prints a good portion of his titles today. The issue, as is so often the case, was money: Einaudi, Hemingway complained, were communists looking for any excuse to withhold his overdue royalties. After 1947, he’d grown so exasperated that he refused to publish another book with them. So it’s all the more startling to discover that in the spring of 1955, he quietly agreed to convert a large part of his growing credit with the house into company stock, becoming a major shareholder overnight. Hemingway was usually very prudent with his money—and the chronically mismanaged Einaudi was hardly a safe investment. But having a stake in the publication of his own books, he hoped, would make it easier to get his hands on his growing pile of Italian cash.

As an author, Hemingway had gotten a late start in Italy. During the twenties and thirties, when the Anglophone world consecrated him as one of its brightest talents, he was persona non grata in the country. His blacklisting started as early as 1923, when Hemingway, still a young reporter for the Toronto Star, described Mussolini as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” In 1927, he wrote a few sardonic sketches on Fascist Italy for the New Republic. But it was the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, with its antimilitarism and its powerful description of the rout of the Italian Army after Caporetto, that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Mussolini regime—a reputation further sealed by his support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. 

Thus Hemingway’s books were banned in Fascist Italy even as the works of other American writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, were brought into translation with success and acclaim. But as soon as Mussolini fell, in 1943, publishers scrambled to buy up the translation rights to his novels. The first Italian edition of The Sun Also Rises was published by a little-known company, Jandi Sapi, in the early summer of 1944, only weeks after General Mark Clark’s troops liberated Rome. A Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Have and Have Not came out in quick succession with different houses the following year, immediately after the liberation of Northern Italy. The translations were hurried and the first editions sloppy; it was unclear which house owned which rights, if it owned any at all.

(…)

Foreign to Oneself

Amanda DeMarco for Asymptote
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Writing for Asymptote, Amanda DeMarco explores the value and limitations of translation.

Introduction

This essay about foreignness and translation is strictly composed of quotations. However, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.” 

It is one of a series of texts I have made that use various collage techniques to create a voice—one that could not possibly be my own. Others can be found in Hotel and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The collage approach has been useful to me in examining various experiences of voicelessness and alienation, but also reveling in the downright Dionysian profusion of voices that can be summoned from the books I love. 

Dionysus, if you’ll recall, was a foreigner too. 

Foreign to Oneself 

One of the great experts on history, culture, and the art in Berlin—Walter Benjamin—once wanted to compose a description of the city using only old descriptions, with all of the monuments described by close contemporaries from the time of their creation. The result would be rather like seeing one’s backyard reproduced with extreme fidelity, but in such a perspective that it becomes a place which one has never seen or visited, which never has existed, which never can exist. This is just like translation. Both are limited, as legends are limited, by being—literally—unlivable, and by referring to the past. Every legend, however, contains its residuum of truth, just as all magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds. 

Travel is a substitute for life. So is translation. Both mean getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story so tightly to your chest; the bigness of the world is a redemption. In translation, you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. After all, literature is the ideal form of possessing the world for a wanderer, or a refugee; to miniaturize is to make portable. 

The White Review’s January Translation Issue

Edited by Daniel Medin
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Check it out: it features work by Enrique Vila-Matas, Herta Müller, Daniel Sada, etc.:

This issue opens with an excerpt from the only novel completed by the surrealist Romanian writer Max Blecher before his untimely death at the age of 28. His Adventures in Immediate Irreality is introduced here by the Nobel-prize winning novelist, poet and essayist Herta Müller (whose cut-ups we published as a pull-out concertina in The White Review No. 5).

We are excited to publish an excerpt from an as-yet-untranslated 2008 novel by Spain’s Enrique Vila-Matas entitled Dietario Voluble; a story by the Finnish artist and novelist Tove Jansson; Uday Prakash’s story, translated from Hindi, on Judge Sa’b’s woes in modern India; an excerpt from Han Kang’s new novel The Vegetarian, on the difficulties of going without meat South Korea; a section from the acclaimed Japanese writer Minae Mizumura’s bilingual, experimental Shisosetsu from left to right; and newly translated prose by the acclaimed Mexican author Daniel Sada, whom Roberto Bolaño considered to be without rival among Mexican writers of his generation.

Elsewhere we have poems from Alejandra Pizarnik, a friend and collaborator of Julio Cortazar and Octavio Paz whose life ended tragically at 36 in 1972; a sequence from the Brazilian Angélica Freitas; and new poetry from the Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz. The issue concludes with two extensive interviews with the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa and the Polish novelist Magdalena Tulli.

This issue was edited by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of the Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.

Seiobo There Below

Excerpt published in The White Review
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Over at The White Review, the first chapter of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, ‘Kamo-Hunter’, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. Originally published in English by New Directions in the US, it’s forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions Tuskar Rock Press in the UK in 2015. 

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KAMO-HUNTER

Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles, and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element of this subsiding wave, and all the individual glitterings of light flashing on the surface of this fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down, scintillating, and then reeling in all directions, inexpressible in words; clouds are gathering; the restless, jarring blue sky high above; the sun is concentrated with horrific strength, yet still indescribable, extending onto the entire momentary creation, maddeningly brilliant, blindingly radiant; the fish and the frogs and the beetles and the tiny reptiles are in the river; the cars and the buses, from the northbound number 3 to the number 32 up to the number 38, inexorably creep along on the steaming asphalt roads built parallel on both embankments, then the rapidly propelled bicycles below the breakwaters, the men and women strolling next to the river along paths that were built or inscribed into the dust, and the blocking stones, too, set down artificially and asymmetrically underneath the mass of gliding water: everything is at play or alive, so that things happen, move on, dash along, proceed forward, sink down, rise up, disappear, emerge again, run and flow and rush somewhere, only it, the Ooshirosagi, does not move at all, this enormous snow-white bird, open to attack by all, not concealing its defenselessness; this hunter, it leans forward, its neck folded in an S-form, and it now extends its head and long hard beak out from this S-form, and strains the whole, but at the same time it is strained downward, its wings pressed tightly against its body, its thin legs searching for a firm point beneath the water’s surface; it fixes its gaze on the flowing surface of the water, the surface, yes, while it sees, crystal-clear, what lies beneath this surface, down below in the refractions of light, however rapidly it may arrive, if it does arrive, if it ends up there, if a fish, a frog, a beetle, a tiny reptile arrives with the water that gurgles as the flow is broken and foams up again, with one single precise and quick movement, the bird shall strike with its beak, and lift something up, it’s not even possible to see what it is, everything happens with such lightning speed, it’s not possible to see, only to know that it is a fish — an amago, an ayu, a huna, a kamotsuka, a mugitsuku or an unagi or something else — and that is why it stood there, almost in the middle of the Kamo River, in the shallow water; and there it stands, in one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backward, but just swirling and moving nowhere, like an inconceivably complex net, cast out into time; and this motionlessness, despite all its strength, must be born and sustained, and it would only be fitting to grasp this simultaneously, but it is precisely that, this simultaneous grasping, that cannot be realized, so it remains unsaid, and even the entirety of the words that want to describe it do not appear, not even the separate words; yet still the bird must lean upon one single moment all at once, and in doing so, must obstruct all movement: all alone, within its own self, in the frenzy of events, in the exact center of an absolute, swarming, teeming world, it must remain there in this cast-out moment, so that this moment as it were closes down upon it, and then the moment is closed, so that the bird may bring its snow-white body to a dead halt in the exact center of this furious movement, so that it may impress its own motionlessness against the dreadful forces breaking over it from all directions, because what comes only much later is that once again it will take part in this furious motion, in the total frenzy of everything, and it too will move, in a lightning-quick strike, together with everything else; for now, however, it remains within this enclosing moment, at the beginning of the hunt.

(…)

Picasso

A short story by César Aira
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César Aira’s short story, ‘Picasso’ (trans. Chris Andrews), published in the New Yorker a few weeks back, is taken from The Musical Brain and Other Stories, a story collection forthcoming from New Directions in March 2015. New Directions publisher Barbara Epler’s short interview on discovering Aira‘s work is also worth a read for context.

(This is by the by but worth recounting: In 1997 César Aira wrote a novel, since published in English as The Literary Conference, in which a translator named César with aspirations to rule the world attends a literary conference so that he can be near the man whose clone he hopes will lead an army to victory: the world-renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes. In response, Fuentes wrote Aira into his 2003 novel La Silla del Águila, predicting that he would become the first Argentine writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2020. The odds on that are probably quite good.)

It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be Picasso. He could grant me either wish but, he warned me, only one of the two. I had to think about it for quite a while—or, rather, he obliged me to think about it. Folklore and literature are so full of stories about greedy fools who are punished for their haste it makes you think those offers are all too good to be true. There are no records or reliable precedents on which to base a decision, because this sort of thing happens only in stories or jokes, so no one has ever really thought about it seriously; and in the stories there’s always a trick, otherwise it would be no fun and there would be no story. At some point, we’ve all secretly imagined this happening. I had it all worked out, but only for the classic “three wishes” scenario. The choice the genie had given me was so unexpected, and one of the options was so definitive, that I needed some time to weigh them up.

It was a strange choice but not inappropriate; in fact, it was particularly apt. I was leaving the Picasso Museum, in a state of rapture and boundless admiration, and at that moment I could not have been offered anything, or any two things, that would have tempted me more. I hadn’t actually left the museum yet. I was in the garden, sitting at one of the outdoor tables, having gone to the café and bought a little bottle of the Magic Milk that I’d seen tourists drinking everywhere. It was (it is) a perfect autumn afternoon: gentle light, mild air, and still a while to go before dusk. I took my notebook and pen from my pocket to make some notes, but in the end I didn’t write anything.

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