From the Stacks: Two Lines, Strange Harbors

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So much of the world’s great literature is lost for lack of awareness. Sure, Harry Potter has been translated into 60 or so languages, but it’s not as easy to find lesser known written works. That’s why it’s quite exceptional to find an anthology that translates the writings of up-and-coming authors the world over.

Two Lines: World Writing in Translation, is the Center for the Art of Translation‘s annual collection of poems, short stories, and essays that “could never have been written first in English, as their necessities so clearly reside in the soil and local waters of their cultures,” according to co-editor Sidney Wade. This year’s anthology, edited by John Biguenet and Wade, is titled Strange Harbors, with original works in Bengali, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish, to name a few, side by side with their English translations.

In “Thirteen Harbors,” Vietnamese author Suong Nguyet Minh blends a local folk tale with the consequences of Agent Orange, the poisonous chemical herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War. In the story, translated by Charles Waugh and Nguyen Lien, a young woman repeatedly fails to carry children to term. Unaware of the source of her birthing troubles, she believes herself to be cursed. Only later does she find out that her husband, Lang, was exposed to Agent Orange while he fought in the war:

“How could I know?” said Lang. “I feel fine. But after speaking with the doctor, I thought about the defoliated forests we had to cross. We drank water from streams running through them and even put some in our canteens. Once, in the jungle, we watched American planes flying slowly overhead spraying a dense white mist. A few days later, the leaves shriveled and came down easily in the breeze. All the trees withered and turned the color of death.”

Wrapped in my husband’s heart, I felt a pain there like one I’d not yet seen. Withered and bitter myself, I had no comfort to pour into him.

More lighthearted is Teolinda Gersao’s story “Four Children, Two Dogs and Some Birds,” a wry account of one woman’s difficulty trying to do both the traditional tasks of a wife and mother and take care of her career. Originally written in Portuguese, Gersao’s story presented a challenge for the translator, Margaret Jull Casta, because first-person narratives have a distinct tone of voice that is not easily carried over to another language. In stripped down syntax, Casta succeeded in capturing the humor and latent sadness of Gersao’s main character:

The number of times I regretted having given in to the children and bought the animals. And the number of times, too, that I regretted having had the children. Not, of course, that I said as much.

Anyways, what was done was done, and now I just had to get on with it and look after the whole lot of them.

And then one day, I got really angry; enough is enough, I thought, and it was then that I decided o look for a live-in help.

A loving help, asked the concierge, puzzled, mishearing what I said when I informed her of my plan.

Exactly, I said, and the sooner the better. Today. Yesterday even.

Because I’ll be dead tomorrow, I thought, starting up the car. Tomorrow I’ll be dead.

Nothing in translation can be exact. Obscure connotations can throw an intricate metaphor off balance or lead it astray completely. Alliteration and quirks of diction are often forfeited, and cultural idioms may go tragically unnoticed. For this reason, reading literature in translation can be a strange experience, shrouded in doubt about the translator’s adherence to the original text but spiked with awe at the thought that you have the opportunity to read it at all. A good translator, however, can deliver a story as close as possible to the way in which it was initially written, and for that I am grateful. The stories and poems within Two Lines open the reader up to a world that would otherwise be closed entirely, and to connect with that world is truly fortunate.

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