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In Conversation with Didier Decoin

By Rebecca Smithson

J’aime rêver, et je veux que le lecteur rêve avec moi

une fluiditê, une grâce, une transparence

Speaking about his latest novel, Le bureau des jardins et des étangs (The Office of Gardens and Ponds), and accompanied by his translator Euan Cameron and Oxford academic Catriona Seth, Didier Decoin led us down a rabbit hole into the author’s mind.

Secretary General of the Académie Goncourt, Decoin has written enough to keep any avid Francophile reader going for years – be it novels, screenplays or essays. Among his most notable works are screenplays for Le comte de Monte Cristo (1999) and Les Misérables (2000). He won the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for his novel John l’enfer. The reasons for his success are clear as soon as he begins to speak. His imagination, his eloquence, his rich vocabulary pour forth like a melody, charming anyone and everyone to fall silent and listen to the magic that he weaves.

Le bureau des jardins et des étangs, published in France in 2017, is set in the Heian era of Japan, in the twelfth Century. After facing unexpected difficulty, the heroine Miyuki is charged with an enormous task: delivering the best carp to the Imperial Palace. Decoin and Cameron’s research into this long-forgotten world is extensive to the point that the reader soon becomes absorbed in the mirage of ancient Japan.

Decoin let the audience in on the secret of his creative experience, informing us that he never lets anyone read his novels until they’re absolutely ready. Additionally, Cameron pointed out that Decoin crafted ‘ripples’ across his words, creating a ‘fluidity, grace and transparency’ that reflects the water motif of the novel.

In terms of translation, Cameron noted that maintaining the right tone was difficult for this complex novel with its setting in Heian Japan over 1000 years ago, citing in particular the contemporary courtesans’ writings. Nonetheless, the translated novel has already received rave reviews in English, much to the delight of both novelist and translator. Decoin, always weaving tales from thin air, says that he likes to dream and loves making the reader dream with him. Seeing his passion, I couldn’t think of any better dream to be a part of.

This event was organised by Catriona Seth (All Souls, Oxford) as part of the Beyond Words Festival.

The Office of Gardens and Ponds was published by Quercus Books on 2 May 2019.

‘I believe in the Martian, but most of all I believe in good faith!’

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri (2019)

Review by Jack Franco

For a number of years, the status of languages in the UK seems to have been determined by what history has established a ‘business language’ to be, or by how many people across the world speak it. In other words, we only seem to study or appreciate a language if it can get us around more than one country or in contact with more than sixty million people. Amongst the imperial goliaths of French, Spanish and, of course, English, Italian has suffered. Once the language of traders and literati, the source of proverbs and the progeny of Latin, Italian has lost its status as a world language. Its wealth of world-class literature, too, has been neglected.

Enter American-Bengali Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who has undertaken a personal quest to read and write solely in Italian. By using the language to demonstrate the impact language and translation can have on life and character, Lahiri has been responsible for a restoration of interest and, I would say, pride, in Italy’s literature. She spent time living in Rome, published in her adopted language and began translating from Italian to English. Her seminal book In Other Words (2013) was written in Italian, narrating her journey from a curious dictionary-dependent school student in Florence to Viareggio Prize-winning Italian writer.

Lahiri’s appearance at Blackwell’s Oxford early in March 2019, launching The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which she compiled and edited, marked her arrival not only as a linguist of distinction, but as an Italianist of rare ability. With Italian’s supposedly ‘limited’ usefulness, to be a consummate literary Italian requires not just the knowledge that a French student needs for a year-long job abroad, but a deep appreciation and commitment to a language which is conscious of its history, its peninsular diversity and unique dependence on turns-of-phrase and small talk; in short, its pride in being a spoken, everyday, witty language, where the so-called ‘vulgar’ is shaped for the page in its literature, rather than crudely replaced by contrived flourish and rhetoric. Lahiri grasped this, and her anthology is a remarkable contribution to a shamefully neglected field.

Lahiri’s vision for her anthology is based on Italian writer Elio Vittorini’s own 1941 attempt, Americana, at publishing the great American literature of his time in Italian translation. Although Vittorini had the likes of Nobel poet Eugenio Montale on his translation team, Lahiri has the insight and scope to avoid the overwrought Italian canon. Instead, her anthology is a treasure trove of previously untranslated material, including excerpts from minor works of Italian giants such as Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi, a feminist defence of Italy’s female literary heritage, and a reintroduction of the pariahs of the conventional Italian short story such as surrealist Alberto Savinio. These all come together in a proud though understated celebration of the Italian racconto, the short story.

At the Blackwell’s event, Lahiri was accompanied by Professor Nicola Gardini, expert in his native literature. He began the discussion with the bold claim that Italy’s modern history (post-unification) had never kept the racconto in pride of place, neatly underscoring the importance of Lahiri’s new work. It is precisely in this context that the book is an astounding success: the breadth of the forty selected authors creates a mix, for any Italian reader especially, of homecoming, adventure and tradition. It was a joy to open the book and see Tuscan legend Luciano Bianciardi alongside crime-writer and moralist-king Leonardo Sciascia. Lahiri’s decision to deliberately find the short prose of writers unknown for that form is also remarkable: Umberto Saba or futurist Aldo Palazzeschi, both renowned poets, were brave choices that have paid off.

Lahiri, throughout her anthology, has a clear idea of what it means to translate and be translated. Several of her chosen authors were translators themselves, most notably Giorgio Manganelli (who translated T. S. Eliot), Bianciardi and Beppe Fenoglio. Fenoglio particularly, perhaps the most special of all the chosen authors, wrote all his prose in English, and then translated it into Italian. His masterpiece, the unfinished Il Partigiano Johnny, contains several phrases and tracts in English, or many translated idioms. It is presumably the same relationship with Italian to which Lahiri aspires and is approaching.

In fact, this strikes at the heart of the matter. Lahiri’s anthology, so personal a project, suffers from a single, although perhaps unavoidable, error: having too large a team of translators who palpably do not have the same connection with Italian as she does herself. We see in Sciascia’s astounding The Long Voyage, about Sicilians smuggled to ‘America’ only to find themselves forty-three kilometres down the Sicilian coast in Agrigento, that the humour and suspense is taken too literally in the English, with the idioms lost particularly in the dialogue. In contrast, where Lahiri takes the wheel – Carlo Cassola’s At The Station is one of a handful she has done herself – the translation is versatile, capturing the mood by adapting the dialogue to a screenplay-like format, rather than relying on the very Italian reported speech. Fenoglio’s story, The Smell of Death, is a frustrating, interior and cathartic narrative mix of observation and action, and also suffers from a strange detachment in translation where voices are modulated, changing also the unique stunted pace of the original. At times one wishes that Lahiri had translated them all.

It would be impossible to go through every fantastic short story chosen by Lahiri, for the scope is truly impressive. And even if the occasional translation leaves the reader somewhat estranged, one cannot but help feeling like Ennio Flaiano’s Martian in Rome: fascinated by the Colosseums and Basilicas of Italian literature, privileged in the company of the Mayor, President and Pope who welcome the Martian with open arms, yet remaining an extraterrestrial in a country you wish you could call your own.

'Translation can have many pathways….’

Babel: Adventures in Translation

By Rebecca Smithson

Babel: Adventures in Translation aims to break open the stereotypes and myths surrounding languages and introduce the public to deeper debates regarding the art and science of translation. The exhibition will run until the 2nd June 2019 and it’s truly a must-see (even if we at the Translation Exchange are a little biased about this). Displaying Mary and Percy Shelley’s handwritten translations, Ada Lovelace’s first use of a programming language, and a 4000-year-old bowl covered in an undeciphered language, there’s really something for everyone.

But what is translation, really? Often seen as a task reserved for hyper-polyglots or those who ‘just know languages’, the ‘Library Late’ event ventured into the unknown to break every myth surrounding translation. Packed with both activities and visitors, on 8th March 2019 the Weston Library invited guests to participate in a myriad of activities, from recording speech samples to learning Elvish!

Particular highlights included ‘extreme translation’, which challenged people to translate within their own language by prohibiting certain letters. This created all sorts of wonderful results, including poetry in the form of a text message. The Oxford Balkansko Oro and the Oxford International Folkdance Group gave captivating dance performances, displaying a non-verbal way of sharing culture and of translating ways of life.

The Translation Exchange team were also present at the Library Late with their ‘Spectacular Translation Machine’. The team displayed individual pages of the graphic novel Carnets de Thèse (Notes on a Thesis) by Tiphaine Rivière, so that they could be translated by the public. The challenge? Many of the visitors were not familiar with French, and had never translated before. Despite what seemed to be a language barrier, the public creatively and vividly translated large chunks of the graphic novel.

With so many fun and accessible events on offer, it’s no wonder that when the evening reached its end, no one seemed to want to leave. Whether you’re new to languages, a translation aficionado, or just curious, Babel: Adventures in Translation is worth the visit. You never know, you might just knock down your own Tower of Babel.

Babel: Adventures in Translation runs until 2 June 2019 at the Weston Library, Oxford.

Carnets de Thèse, by Tiphaine Rivière, is published by Editions du Seuil in French and Jonathan Cape in English (tr. Francesca Barrie).