Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Fiona McFarlane's first novel The Night Guest has been long-listed for the Miles Franklin, Australia's premier literary award. My local library has it in the Crime section, which is a bit like putting Dostoyevsky there. Some bookshops had a similar issue about whether to put Peter Temple's Truth, the 2010 Winner, under

Nevertheless, its climax and conclusion both quicken the pulse with elements of a classic thriller. This is despite their seeming inevitability.

We know from the opening lines (and the cover) that this is not going to be the usual trip:
Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, 'Tiger.' That was natural; she was dreaming. But there were nosies in the house, and as she woke she heard them.
Another tiger comes in human form but by taxi. Frida takes on the role of the seventy-five year-old's carer. It's the beginning of the novel's central relationship that swings between affection and suspicion, kindness and exploitation. With time Ruth comes to regard Frida as her defender but also as a threat.

Ruth's has been alone since her husband Harry died five years earlier. Her sons, Jeffrey and Phillip, show a passing interest in her welfare from afar. Like many elderly people, Ruth is increasingly trapped in her home both literally and figuratively. She is also trapped in her memories. Even the visit of Richard, a romantic blast from her youth in Fiji, is more about the past than her shaky future.

Enough potential spoilers for now.

Fiona's writing has clarity and fluency, not always common in contemporary fiction despite the pared prose. It is easy to be drawn in as its pace increases in the second half. Whilst the final elements of the Ruth's story are not unexpected, Fiona handles them sensitively and without melodrama.

A very well executed debut that deserves a prize or two.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Tribute to Linda Jaivin's Found in Translation

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Translators are not tools
[君子不器 Junzi bu qi]

A Tribute to Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World

'Linda Jaivin has been translating from Chinese for more than thirty years. While her specialty is subtitles, she has also translated song lyrics, poetry and fiction, and interpreted for ABC film crews, Chinese artists and even the English singer Billy Bragg as he gave his take on socialism to some Beijing rockers. In Found in Translation she reveals the work of the translator and considers whether different worldviews can be bridged. She pays special attention to China and the English-speaking West, Australia in particular, but also discusses French, Japanese and even the odd phrase of Maori. This is a free-ranging essay, personal and informed, about translation in its narrowest and broadest senses, and the prism – occasionally prison – of culture.'

The Confucian saying, 君子不器 Junzi bu qi, is not hard to decipher according to Linda Jaivin, just to translate. Take your pick: 'The accomplished/gentleman scholar is not a utensil/pot/tool.' If it’s possible for a woman to be to a ‘gentleman scholar’, then Linda more than fits that tag from her essay for the Quarterly magazine.

The contact page on her website is for ‘messages or love letters’. It entices the sender to engage ‘tutoiement’ - the process of using the informal 'tu' in French. We should all pay homage there to her invisible hand behind the subtitles that have enriched cinephiles’ lives for decades. As a former teacher of NESB [Non-English Speaking Background] students and an author and sub-editor with Global Voices Online, this is my response to her essay and my tribute to translators.

In 1980 I attended a matinee Woody Allen doubleheader in Lisbon. The packed house was a clear indicator of his international popularity. I remember laughing loudly during both movies. It was a tad embarrassing for my reactions were slightly ahead of the pack as most of the audience were reading the subtitles. His New York Jewish humour didn’t seem to ruffle the Portuguese audience’s enjoyment.

Lingua Voices

Our GV Lingua team has volunteer translators for approximately forty languages. They are as diverse as Aymara, Magyar [Hungarian], Swahili, Bangla, Korean and Amharic [official language of Ethiopia and second-most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic]. In addition, posts are also translated into English as all stories on the main section use that lingua franca. Nearly 100,000 translations of posts have been completed since 2006.

Volunteers choose which ones they will translate. It is a form of feedback that can be a bit disheartening sometimes but that is compensated for when quoted bloggers/ tweeters find their words in two kinds of Chinese, Filipino or Farsi and send messages of delight.

Word play

As an author and a sub-editor helping with translations into English, my earliest lesson was to avoid puns. Word plays are potential nightmares for audience and translators alike. The most common slang in Oz English can stump even experienced linguists. It belongs in Pandora’s box, with jargon and cricket metaphors, marked ‘never to be opened’. Allusions to Australian Rules football prove even more dangerous.

When I wrote ‘Coca Cola Machine ‘Out of Order’ in Australia’ it was translated into six other languages including Malagasy, Macedonian and Catalan. In French it became ‘Distributeur Coca-Cola « En panne » en Australie’ [‘Distributor Coca-Cola ‘Broken Down’ in Australia] abandoning the double play on words. The charged word, ‘machine’, just went through to the keeper. That’s wicket-keeper, not goal-keeper, in case anyone is translating this response.

Neologisms [new words] are an essential element of netizen-speak but they are not universally understood even amongst geeks or tweeps (not to be confused with tweeping). Inevitably we fall captive to the latest. ‘Lacticvist’ was impossible to resist when breastfeeding in public hotted up in early 2012 but its rendition as ‘les militantes de l'allaitement maternel’ was a real mouthful. De l'autre côté, ‘SlutWalks’ was simply incorporated into the German, Italian and French using quotation marks – a very slippery slope indeed for L'Académie français. The Spanish translator was more creative with ‘Marcha de putas’- roughly ‘march of whores’ though it had currency in Brazil by then. Portuguese prefers ‘Marcha das Vadias’ i.e. ‘Bitches’.

It is often hard to know exactly which connotations attached to words like these, especially in different languages and cultures. Linda observes, "The swearwords and curses of a language expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred in that culture."

The use of Twitter hashtags presents its own complications. Some tweeters use multilingual tags such as #Syria #Siria #Syrie #Syrien to reach a wider audience but limit the length of the message. Others tweet in more than one language. GV always includes the original text when quoting plus a translation. The 140-character limit adds a challenge normally confined to post titles or headings, where brevity invites wit but not always clarity.

Lingua global

Linda asks, 'Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?' When my partner and I visited Iceland in July 2013, we were entertained by an Esperanto choir on the grand steps of Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. They were taking a break from the World Congress of Esperanto, which involved over one thousand participants from fifty-five countries. Linda would be glad to know that there were some Chinese involved. Hvað er merking hörpu? No prizes for guessing that one, though harpa has two distinct meanings in Icelandic.

Sub-editing posts written originally in a LOTE (Language other than English) is both daunting and rewarding. I often use Google Translate to check a word or phrase or to get a better grasp on the context.

Google doesn’t seem to like Japanese but sometimes gets it right. A scandal about Tokyo’s governor taking a bribe had this: ‘The document is a note of hand to borrow 50 million yen with no interest, no collateral and no return date set.’  I presumed ‘note of hand’ referred to something hand-written but it turned out to be a legit term for an informal promissory note. I.O.U. might have sufficed even if some readers wouldn’t have understood the etymology. It is a clear forerunner of SMS and twitter-speak.

"Words have the power to change the way we think."

Meanwhile the Chinese government is trying to eradicate Chinglish [中式英語]  in a bid to stop people who ‘slip carefully’ in their translations. Chinese netizens are also annoying the authorities by mining euphemisms that Internet surveillance software is not blocking yet. They started using the term “tea talk” or “forced to drink tea” [被喝茶] to describe vigorous interrogations by the internal security police.

“River crab’ (censorship)  and ‘watch uncle’ (corruption) have required pest control. Mention of the 18th National Party Congress was banned on Sina Weibo [China’s version of Twitter] and their Facebook equivalent Renren, so it became ‘Sparta’ because of its similar sound. Modifying English words also became a game on Weibo. Freedamn [中國特色自由] is freedom with Chinese characteristics. You can raise the red lantern against China’s censorship by offering a friendly Internet connection for the new circumvention software called Lantern [燈籠].

You have to wonder what the Chinese censors would have made of the ChinaSmacks’ translation of the ‘My Vagina Says - If your vagina could talk, what would she say?’ meme. It certainly went against stereotype: “You need to be invited – to get in!”

Barbaros babble

Chinese is one of the United Nations six official diplomatic languages. The others are Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. They are obviously vehicular but they don’t always travel that well. We spent a month in 1996 at a Spanish language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The teachers claimed that Cubans speaking Spanish sound like they have a mouthful of chewing gum. At that time my Chilean colleagues and students at Melbourne’s Westall Secondary College tested my tin ear by omitting the end or middle of words and sometimes both. They often contracted two of these into one word. There’s a word for everything in English, often borrowed. ‘Elision’ might fit here or perhaps ‘syncope’.

Arabic should present fewer difficulties, at least for Arabs. However, a Tunisian blogger maintains that their vernacular can be almost impenetrable at times, even to near neighbours.

Linda canvasses "linguistic imperialism". English may be the great vehicular language but assumptions about its  international currency are hazardous. The term ‘dog-whistling’ originated down under thanks to Prime Minister John Howard et al and has spread to some in the U.S. and UK. One of my posts began :

“There has been a contest for the worst pun following remarks by Teresa Gambaro [MP who] called for immigrants on work visas to be taught ‘social norms’ such as the use of deodorants and waiting in orderly queues.”

I was stretching all the rules about language accessibility but you’ve got to have fun. ‘Raw prawn’ and ‘hair of the dog’ were my favourites. My advice: “Check it out while the poop is still fresh”. You wouldn’t be dead for quids!

Northern Territory lights

Segue to Katherine High School 2002. After sharing my interest in etymology with my Year 8 class, I was approached on lunchtime yard duty by an unfamiliar youth who asked if it was true that I read the dictionary for fun. My confirmation brought the response, “You’re a very sick man!”

When we were teaching in Maningrida in Arnhem Land during 2003-6, senior students were required to get exemptions to enroll in English as a Second Language [ESL]. For most it was not their second, third or in some cases even fourth or fifth. The indigenous community, and its homelands, has ten or more languages. Some are spoken by one or two extended families yet are healthy, rich and vibrant. Nakkara, with ap,proximately 60 speakers, and Rembarrnga are two of those. The township has a lingua franca but somewhat surprisingly it isn’t the local traditional owners’ Ndjebbana/Kunibidji but rather the other major language of the township Burarra.

Ars Poetica

Linda explores difficulties with translating poetry. They apply equally to song lyrics. Welsh band Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' didn’t faze some of our translators. Rezwan did an outstanding job in Bangla, going by my back-translation using Google. However, there was a stumble over ‘fascists’. Most online machines were fooled, ‘phyasistaderao’ being the only stab for ফ্যাসিস্টদেরও. Linda is, of course, no fan of "machine translations".


Finally, some wisdom from multi-linguist supremo, Danica Radisic, GV’s Central and Eastern Europe editor. Recently Niki wrote of her childhood growing up as a third culture kid:
Our parents’ work and lives allowed us to travel to different countries and often live on several different continents throughout our childhood, learn to speak countless languages and move seamlessly between cultures…”
Her ability to converse with someone simultaneously in their respective native languages is awesome. She concludes:
“…this spot on the Word Wide Web [GV] that is a scrapbook of different cultures and opposing views, is where third culture kids come when they grow up.”
The full story is on The Bridge at GV. Please join our global conversation.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Karen Foxlee: The Anatomy Of Wings

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

The Anatomy Of Wings is Karen Foxlee's award winning first novel. It is my second favourite Foxlee book, to borrow one of the narrator's turns of phrase. I suspect this comes from reading the second one first. The Midnight Dress has some similar themes and characters, though that is not meant as a criticism.

Both are about girls growing up in Australian country towns. The setting of Wings is rooted in Karen's own childhood in the North Queensland mining town of Mt. Isa where suburban houses backed onto the desert. It's emblematic that a funeral opens the narrative in her fictional town of Memorial. Even the water tower, so typical of regional Oz, is a foreboding focal point.

Of course, her use of symbolism spreads from the wings of the title: Icarus, butterflies and Jenny's beloved birds, even references to the mythical phoenix.

Underlying these images is a fragility and impermanence clearly linked to the tale of loss. Jenny takes us through the events that lead up to her sister Beth's death and her quest to understand what happened. It is also a quest to get back Jenny's singing voice, with the able assistance of her friend Angela. She's both a best friend and a good friend. Beth's mate Miranda is part of the wrong crowd. Like the protagonist of The Midnight Dress, she is an itinerant moving around country towns in a caravan with her stepmother.

It's the early nineteen-eighties but Beth is a very 21st century character, a thirteen-year-old growing up too fast without real survival skills. On the surface it's the usual suspects. Sex, grog, and drugs mixed with an overdose of pubescent rebellion. But Beth's aches are deep within:
...she felt keenly the pain of insects and then the pain of people.

...she wanted to save everything but couldn't even save herself."
Today she'd be labelled with all sorts of psychological and social syndromes.

Jenny's teacher knows the real cause of Memorial's, and perhaps the modern world's, troubles:
"I believe that in the last few weeks none of you, yes, not one of you, have been taking fractions seriously at all."
Wings has two, perhaps three-tiered, narration. As Jennifer explains:
"I have pieced together with my own two hands. I made from things I saw and things I did not see but later knew. I made from the tatters of terrible things and the remnants of wonderful things."
What she saw is in first-person, with the straightforward voice of a ten-year-old, reminiscent of Scout from To Kill a MockingBird. Now that's not a unique observation but it struck me as I was reading, before encountering similar comments elsewhere. The rest is in third-person, though there is sometimes a strong element of omniscience in these accounts of what happened.

It is a world of dysfunctional adults. Beth's parents do not know how to communicate with her, much less help her. Her Nanna places her Catholic faith in the wings of angels and patron saints. Her father is the kind of laconic Aussie male who finds little solace in the grog despite his best efforts. Her mother retreats to bed, hiding from a world she has always feared:
"That's how children die," she said. "They slip and the scissors go into their brains."
The other residents of the appropriately named Dardanelles Court are an eccentric, damaged bunch: two brothers surviving their war legacies; a couple who lost a child and eye contact; an untouchable recluse. In their own ways they share Beth's sad history.

Don't be put off by the themes of this novel. As a wedge-tailed eagle circles,  this tale ends with notes of optimism, literally and figuratively. Pun intended.

Karen Foxlee has just released a children's fiction offering Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy. I look forward to her next adult novel.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Karen Foxlee: The Midnight Dress

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Karen Foxlee was an author completely unknown to me. Why hadn’t I heard of her before stumbling across The Midnight Dress in my local library?

It’s one of the best reads from 2013. Reading her second novel makes Karen’s debut award-winning The Anatomy of Wings a must so I borrowed it while it was in [Watch this space!].

This story has ingredients that would normally be a turn off: the friendship of two 15-year-old schoolgirls in a small Queensland town; dressmaking; a harvest parade; elements of the gothic and the romantic (in both senses of the word) and the magical; an assortment of challenged adolescent and adult males; a mysterious old woman in a cluttered, ‘mildewy’ house.

On the other hand, the setting is an obvious attraction. The fictional town of Leonora is on the tropical coast of FNQ (Far North Queensland) where the sugarcane plantations are nestled between the palm-fringed bays and beaches and the mountain forests. Even the caravan park dares to be ‘Paradise’. The climate dominates, especially the wet season: ‘The rain comes in sudden exhausted sighs and spontaneous downpours…’

It is 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. New girl Rose and local Pearl have innocence and naiveté that match their names, despite or perhaps because of baggage associated with their single-parent families. Their school suitors also lack street-wisdom. Motherless Rose, ‘who is not used to being touched.’ is suspicious of boys. Fatherless Pearl is more gullible. She’s a fan of pulp romance: “You know how in all those books you always end up loving the one you didn’t like in the beginning?”

Edie Baker, Rose’s mentor, is more suited to the nineteen century, even her name is somewhat archaic. [In the 1950s we all seemed to have an elderly relative living in rural Australia named Edie.] She lives with the legacy of a father scarred literally and figuratively by the First World War and a mother who passed on her dressmaking skills, the family home and a mountain retreat.

Foxlee uses a consistent structure with each chapter named after a stitch. There is a short passage using a subjective narrator who explores the central mystery - a missing girl. At times it addresses the reader directly with tantalising teasers such as the beginning sentence: ‘Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?’, or later ‘What if they made a different decision right then? What if Rose could go backward?’

The other part of the chapter is a more detached sequential telling of the tale. Clues, red herrings and potential spoilers are scattered through both, resembling Agatha Christie at her best. Enough said about the plot.

Karen’s style is very modern, with the prose stripped of adjectives. At the same time it feels like it could have been written in the 1980s. The elegant simplicity of the language belies a strong poetic quality. [Grumpy old blogger alert!] Anyway, what’s not to enjoy about a story of relationships without smart phones and social media.

The thrill of the hunt is a major aspect but this book doesn’t really fit the crime genre. It is essentially about that cliché of all good novels, the human condition: friendship, rites of passage, sins of the fathers, the cruelty of fate.

We are asked, “What if everything could be changed?’ Why not it’s just a story. Yet this one ends on an affirmative note bringing us full circle: “And so it begins.”