Catching Fire: A Translation Diary

This is the most wonderful book! And it’s not even fiction. At least, I don’t believe it is. Daniel Hahn’s online diary on his work translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire – as it became – from [the] Spanish into English (I’ll go without the ‘the’ there.)

You will remember – yes, you will – that I wrote about the diary last year as it was actually happening.

So, why would I read the same thing all over again, in book form? Well, because another translator I happen to know sent it to me. And it was pure luck I hadn’t already bought it myself. Because I wanted to read it again. Not so much as the companion piece to Never Did the Fire, but because this is like sitting down with a dear friend; someone who is funny and intelligent and you just want to spend more time with them and you want to be entertained by their thoughts, and they have a fun and different way with language.

Daniel is modest about his abilities. (Maybe.) He doesn’t mind mentioning all that he doesn’t know [yet], or musing on how he might solve another stumbling stone he’s stumbled across. I think I hadn’t quite understood that a professional translator might read a book they are about to work on, knowing only half the words or not understanding what the author meant, like the 13-year-old witch read Agatha Christie in English. You are propelled forward by a wish to get somewhere, and you learn as you go. Though I have to say that Daniel being equipped with a Chilean stepfather is a very handy thing. Under the circumstances.

I was also amused to learn Daniel has lots of incomprehensible gaps in his manuscript, once he’s ‘written’ the first translation. It’s what I have when transcribing an interview, having no idea what my victim just said there. But my advantage is that I can cut out the worst. I imagine Daniel needed to keep what was in Diamela’s book; ‘Plugging the gaps makes what looked like sheer linguistic carnage begin to resemble a piece of continuous text’.

So, this is my random meander through a really fun diary.* And I’d say that unlike with some books, this one got even funner** on a second reading. Daniel talks directly to the reader. He also chats to himself.

I could read it again, again.

I have to say: read this book! Even if your friends aren’t in it, or if you know nothing about languages. It’s like having the loveliest of friends pop in for a visit.

*He doesn’t really favour footnotes. But they are amusing. He also very kindly put me in one. Or did he? No, he didn’t. But still. It’s one of my favouritest footnote tales. And he mentions people I know.

**Channelling Daniel’s style of making words up.

Displaced

It’s hard to know what to think these days. Having read and loved so many children’s books about the Kindertransport and all the other schemes from WWII to get people, children and adults, to safety, I have been proud of what Britain did. With hindsight I realise that not everything was quite like in the books. But still, people arrived here, and many remained and many did well. So apart from the awful reason for them coming, the end result seems to have been OK a lot of the time.

And now we are ashamed of what Britain is not doing. Most of us have the Ukraine in mind, but I don’t mind casting wider and will mention Syria and Afghanistan among many other crisis-laden nations. And that other countries are receiving refugees more generously and with greater ease than seems to be possible here.

One night recently I came to think of ‘my’ first lot of refugees. Not counting the girl from Hungary I was friendly with in my first year at school, because that happened before I was aware, ‘my’ displaced people came from Chile.

Well, they arrived from there, but they were frequently from some other Latin American country, having already fled to Chile from their place of birth. I encountered many of them where I lived, which was a small town. I suspect one reason for their appearance there was that the then head of Amnesty International in Sweden lived nearby. But as is often the case, they moved on, and congregated in the bigger cities, where they could be with others from the same background.

When I moved to Gothenburg, I met Chilean refugees there. And I know many of them are still there, with children and grandchildren born in this other country at the opposite end of the world. Such a lot of them ended up there because one night they clambered over the wall to the Swedish embassy, where the ambassador temporarily achieved hero status for saving so many individuals fleeing for their lives.

So, that night I mentioned, I began wondering if the person whose full name I for some reason still remember, might still be there. He is. That’s the beauty of computerised, publicly available records. Back then he was a political student leader, not from Chile, but from one of the neighbouring countries. I have no idea what he’s done in the nearly fifty years since then, but he’s now ‘old’ and still living in the city that took him in. I wonder what his life has been like. Still marooned at the other end of the world. But I dare say it beats the alternative.

The witches have flown

When I woke on Good Friday I discovered the storage in the sky was full. It’s not worried me unduly, and for the last few years I have chipped away at the far too full email account. But clearly I’d not gone far enough. Have you any idea of how many emails a Witch gets?

So my Långfredag as it is called in Sweden became rather long, with my emptying away from breakfast onwards. If this had been a desk, and the email piles of paper, I’d have been looking at a considerable bonfire by now.

Which is quite appropriate as Easter Saturday is when those Swedes light bonfires, to cook their sausages over, and to move those pesky witches on. The sky used to be full of smoke and of witches on broomsticks.

If you’ve been here a very long time I congratulate you for persisting with Bookwitch, and you might possibly remember reading about this before. The sausages and the witches; not the email situation. There was also some disagreement in the comments section as someone discovered they had been missing out on the sausages all these years.

My Bookwitch folder is no longer full of obsolete press releases and awards longlists and my storage in the sky is feeling less bloated. Not so myself, who had to fly away filled with a generous vegan burger. (We discovered we didn’t have much in the way of sausages, so decided burgers were the next best thing for a ravenous witch.)

The bonfires looked glorious from up above!

I’ve been here before

‘You’re not reading enough, Witch’ I told myself, as I was wiping the dining table after a healthy meal of leftover pizza (which we didn’t even finish, so there are leftover leftovers). ‘You only seem to be reading magazines,’ I said.

And then, I noticed the vaguest flicker of déjà vu over the table. I’ve been here before. The magazine reading; not necessarily the dining table (or dinning as it says in so many ads online). When Offspring were small, especially once there were two Offsprings, I really didn’t manage much more than the odd women’s magazine. The kind you can read without really reading.

Until I was saved by Woman & Home. And by my frugal mind. [As I have mentioned here more than once] I bought a copy, because it offered me a free crime paperback. It was Ann Granger’s first crime novel, the first Mitchell & Markby.

And I suppose it was the same frugal mind that told me that now I had the book, free and everything, I had better read it. The Resident IT Consultant travelled weekly to Guildford at that time, so I had three or four evenings all to myself, once Offspring had been put to bed, and stayed there.

One chapter per night, just before my bedtime.

As with many things, slowly does it.

It got me reading actual books again. First, mostly Ann’s books, but as she had to write them for me to read them, I suspect the odd other book got some attention as well.

And now, here I am, struggling to read, [almost] ashamed to be reading quite so many magazines. But actually, after my little dining table chat with me, perhaps there is hope?

And just so you know, I have a pile of ten books in front of me that I have read, but not reviewed. I could always send the Resident IT Consultant to Guildford again.

‘Blistering barnacles!’

I’d never really thought about it. The translating of ‘comics’, by which I mean pages with pictures and speech bubbles. You take out the original words and find something suitable, in both senses; so that it means roughly the same, and so that it fits in physically.

I find the ‘Other Lives’ obituaries in the Guardian fascinating. Often much more so than the ‘real’ obituaries of the people they have on their own list. Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper sounds like an interesting woman, with a career starting in WWII and taking her to the Open University as a rights specialist, until she retired 35 years ago…

What gripped me the most was that she, along with Michael Turner, spent thirty years translating Tintin, coming up with phrases like ‘blistering barnacles’, to fit snugly in those speech bubbles left by Hergé. (I haven’t read much Tintin in English, which makes me wonder what happened in Swedish. Which, of course, I don’t remember.)

There is so much that is important, and interesting, and fun to learn about, and as always my main gripe is that one doesn’t find out about these people while they are still alive.

‘Leslie was especially proud of their invented Tintinian oaths.’ I should think so!

Wished

OK, I need to start by mentioning that 65[ish] is not all that old. But I can see that the three children in Wished by Lissa Evans think so. We can even appear a bit boring, and who’d want to spend their half-term at the house of an ‘old’ neighbour? Well, she might be under the impression that WiFi is a type of biscuit, but she is so kind as to want to supply them with their wished-for biscuit.

And there is that word, wished-for, which is what this whole, wonderful book is about. That, and a very smelly cat. I loved Wished, and I don’t even like cats that much.

It’s when you hit your [reading] rock bottom and feel that nothing truly good will ever come your way again, and then a story like Wished arrives and it’s all you can do to not swallow it whole, in one sitting (which would leave you with not so much to read again), because you simply must.

Birthday cake candles. They can be wished on. Did you know that?

Here we have siblings Ed and Roo, needing to be removed from their own house for the week, and then there is Elastico, aka Willard, from the house behind Miss Filey’s. She’s the one with the biscuits.

It takes virtually no time at all for the children to somehow light a candle – because it’s what you do in a strange house, isn’t it? – and discover that wishes come true, if only for ten seconds. And then you need to organise yourselves a bit so that wishes are handled carefully, and at some point you need to explain to adult people why the sofa looks as if someone set fire to it. And the cat smells. Did I mention that?

What can I say? Except to quote the last sentence of chapter one; ‘What happened at Miss Filey’s house was beyond imagination’. I feel so happy just saying that. I could read the book all over again.

Miss Filey is not boring, even if she doesn’t know about WiFi. But the cat does smell. And the world can be quite wonderful sometimes. Like this book.

Last night’s dream

People’s dreams are rarely worth hearing about, second hand and jumbled as they often are. So last night I immediately came to the conclusion that you wouldn’t hear mine. Yet, here we are.

In fact, I don’t know where I was, except it was bookish, and I’d temporarily left one room to go somewhere else, when I spied Philip Pullman sitting where he had been sitting last time I saw him as well. Decided to go in and speak to him. Then decided not to, because what could I say, except maybe to hurry up with the last Book of Dust? Then decided I would walk up to him anyway and I was sure something would come to me during those ten seconds.

And when I got to his seat, he was no longer there.

(So far, so fascinating?)

Then I woke up ‘properly’ and started the day with some small screen time, aka looking at emails on my phone. There was one [forwarded] from the Society of Authors, telling me Philip had just resigned as its president.

So that’s clearly what the dream meant. He was there, and then he wasn’t. And it would have been rude for me to have chased him about Dust.

It was probably a wise decision to resign, all things considered. But wrong all the same. He shouldn’t have to. Philip wasn’t running the Society; he was ‘merely’ its figurehead. But it seems – like the Queen – that he’s not meant to have own opinions. Or at least, not to voice them.

I would like to think that his resignation will feel like freedom from being the face of writing and books. Even a presidential role must take its toll. He’s now looking forward to being allowed opinions again.

That set me thinking, because I was especially disturbed by the hounding of their president by a large group of society members, back when it all ‘went wrong’ last year. And although I ‘know’ quite a few of them, there is only one face I see when I think back to this ‘we’ll show him he’s wrong and force him out’ mentality. Sort of the ‘poster person’ for the attack on someone who believed he was entitled to say what he said (and entitled to be wrong, too).

The writers who fought to get rid of Philip, were obviously entitled to say what they thought (even if it was a bit too much playground baying for blood for my liking). But then, why wasn’t he? Those who went on the attack were doing it for the good reputation of their society. It seems that such behaviour could be excused on those grounds.

But I know that my ‘poster person’ has ruined my opinion of them for a very long time to come. And I’d have liked for the society to distance itself from this campaign, too, just as it was forced to step away from Philip after his tweets.

Perfectly Weird, Perfectly You

Or ‘A scientific guide to growing up.’ Camilla Pang is autistic, and a scientist, and she combines the two in her book of advice to young autistic persons. I’m glad Camilla found her solution to life in science, being able to make sense of this weird world we live in. I hope that her scientific advice will work for her young readers too. It seemed sensible to me, but I wonder if someone of a non-scientific bent won’t get it, and that someone ‘being’ autistic believes they can’t use her advice because they are not.

But it’s always good to read about people like yourself, to discover you are not alone, and that occasionally it’s that girl in the school playground who is wrong, and that both of you may wear the same cool shoes.

For someone like me who likes a good case history, this book is that. You read to discover what Camilla’s life was like, and her thoughts about how this thing is like that other thing, and therefore it all makes some kind of sense.

And it’s far too common for teachers to write off the ‘weird ones’, to believe that higher education is not for them. So for anyone who’s been told not to get ideas above their station, it’s useful to know Camilla got a PhD. So there.

(Illustrations by Laurène Boglio.)

The Killing Code

What a relief it was to be back with J D Kirk and his DCI Logan! Bad language and bad diet in Inverness, and some bad killings, obviously. They are gruesome, true. But he’s quite kind, with it, is J D. We don’t get to know the victims all that well, which helps, when they die a few minutes after you’ve met them. Yes, we care, but it’s not a personal loss.

You can tell I’m slow, can’t you? This is only my third J D Kirk. But it’s kind of nice to know there is a whole bunch* of them, still to be enjoyed, as and when I need them. And I think I’ve now learned that the peril that we know is coming to one or more of the regular characters, somewhere towards the end, is not going to be too bad. J D’s characters will come out of that danger, and the reader’s heartbeat can return to normal.

In The Killing Code someone goes round murdering people around town, including at the hospital, of all places. You can generally work out who – probably – did it, even when it seems somewhat farfetched, and the thrill is in reading on as Logan and his detectives bark up the wrong trees for a while, and wondering when they will see the light.

And Inverness comes across well. I’ve not been for many years, but I can tell it has changed a bit.

*I recommend the ebooks. If not, the way he’s going, you may well end up with a shelf with nothing but J D’s books on it. (Which, I suppose, is not a totally bad thing, but…)

Mayhem and muffins

It was mayhem. Daughter and I had driven to Fallin to extricate Barbara Henderson from the school there, where she’s doing literary things with the Primary 5 pupils. That’s good, obviously, but you know, we’d overlooked how impossible it is to move near any school at home time, and especially in a smallish, cramped ex-mining village.

In the end Daughter opted for not running over any children and to sit patiently in the car until most of them had left for home with their grown-ups, and I’d got out and found our visitor, and then she did clever things in that small space and got us out of there again. Barbara was surprised we’d never been to Fallin before, but as I said, there’s never been a reason to.

Once back at Bookwitch Towers, there were muffins waiting for us. It’s about the only thing I trust myself to make these days, and I’d made several ‘flavours’ – but not mushroom – in case of issues. No issues, and ‘more than one’ muffin and coffee later, and much gossip, the Resident IT Consultant drove Barbara to her train home. It seems he hadn’t startled her too much by launching into a rant about zoo pens almost before introductions were made.

It was a real tonic spending time with a real person again. At home. With chat and so much laughter that Daughter who had withdrawn needed to know why we laughed so much. Apart from the horizontal wallpaper, I’m not sure. I forget so fast. Oh yes, there might have been a mention of Jacobite bullets.