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Under Pressure
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Republic of Consciousness Prize > 2020 RoC longlist: Under Pressure

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Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Under Pressure by Faruk Šehić, tr. Mirza Purić (Istros Books)

From the judges:

Written with a poetic voice and an unflinching eye, Faruk Šehić captures the experience of being a soldier on the frontline of the Bosnian war in the 1990s: it’s brutality, banality, the dogged determination to survive and the solace of booze and drugs. All of this is captured in elegant, arresting prose, by a writer who appeared on the first Republic of Consciousness longlist in 2017 with his novel Quiet Flows the Una.

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments One that was firmly on my radar and had been waiting for the inevitable prize listing (albeit I'd expected Booker International) to read

From one of my favourite publishers. Fun fact - their last two novels, I have been the first person to buy a copy

Another double longlistee author - although different translators

A crowd funded book (but sorry to say I omitted to participate);

And a Guardian review of the novel attracted a rather heated twitter debate when it criticised the translation:

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments I struggled with that debate as a some of the most vocal criticism (not from the publisher) was very close to saying - if you can’t read the book in its original language then you are not in any position to critique or review it. Which I don’t necessarily disagree with but seems an odd position to take if you champion translated fiction.

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments I do think the general question of critiquing a translation is a hard one as unless fluent it can be difficult to tell what, good or bad, was from the original and what the translator has added.

Much easier (as Daniel Hahn has advocated for prize juries) to simply judge the book as a whole on how well it works in English.

And actually use of vernacular language to represent a dialect from language A in language B, which iirc was part of the issue the review raised, is one where one can judge by whether the effect works. Although there is no easy answer to how to translate dialect.

There is a twitter thread I saw recently from a translator saying how she'd like people to judge translations - will have to remember where I saw it.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments The controversial excerpt from the actual review (which I think did try and judge if it worked in English)

“The translator, Mirza Purić, has sought to render Šehić’s dialogue in an approximation of English working-class diction, for added realism. The execution is a little overcooked: a conspicuous superabundance of colloquialisms such as “well dodgy”, “yonks ago” and “bint”, combined with a preponderance of studiously dropped consonants and aitches (“’E’s not even a ’uman bein’ any more”), lends the speech a parodic quality redolent of the early days of Jamie Oliver.”

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments This was another controversial review of a translation:

And a response to the controversy here - which includes a contribution by the RoC judge Sophie Lewis:

The original book and its new translation being always the same object creates a delicate task for the reviewer: how to describe the nature of the book behind the translation and what can be said for sure about the nature of the translation? Reviewers who neither know the source language nor have read the source text must tread carefully. They may respond to an ethical impulse to admit as much. Their strength and appropriateness as a reviewer may come from other expertise—from their knowledge of other books in a relevant canon, from knowledge of this region, of this period, of this topic, these concerns… All are admissible. And considerable! It’s a position of strength to read a translated book as a reader with no preparation might read it—just as some translators deliberately write their first draft without reading the book beforehand, so that they’ll react to the text as a first-time reader, similarly a reviewer may approach a foreign book as simply a book and describe the impressions it gives. Nonetheless, to ignore questions of the translation’s strengths or weaknesses without saying why you can’t take a position on them is to shortchange the potential reader: it is a deception.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments This cuts both ways. I am always fascinated that enthusiastic reviews on Goodreads routinely comment on an “excellent translation” with no knowledge of the source text and often at best rudimentary knowledge of the source language. I have been guilty myself.

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Well excellent translation means to me it reads brilliantly in English - Animalia is an obvious example.

One can sometimes see that the translator has had to wrestle with an interesting issue - eg Sphinx which was written so main character’s gender is unclear, which raises completely different issues in different languages.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments But I think the reviewer here was being criticised for saying the book did not read well in English.

message 10: by Ella (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
As an American who reads whatever English translation is available, I have a sneaking suspicion this translation would grate on my nerves b/c of all the British-isms. I think the same is true of overly-Americanized translations (but I'd guess I'm not as good at seeing them right away, or at all.) If a book is only getting one translation, I do think the translator should be a little careful about setting the book firmly in a place other than the one in which it is set. But I've not read this, so who knows?

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments The publisher very kindly sent both Gumble and I a free tote bag for Under Pressure along with the book itself. One advantage to ordering direct.

message 12: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments On the translation it turns out in part the slang language was chosen to be more comprehensible to Americans!

From an interview:

SP: Right, and this book was translated by Mirza Purić.

FŠ: Mirza is so important not only because he is a great translator, but because he knows the dialect I have used in this book. His mother is from the same city as me, in fact. He knows the soul of the language I use within the book’s dialogue, which is a mixture of western Bosnian dialects, largely the language of rural people, because in the war we were mostly fighting in villages where none of us had been before. We were urban lads, and for us this way of speaking was ridiculous, archaic and unknown. We ridiculed it at first, but through this kind of interaction this way of speaking entered our personal speech and became part of our new linguistic identity.

SP: Yes, the use of that dialect really struck me. The English interpretation of it is something approaching provincial working class, I think. Does that rest easy with you? Why that over the “thee”, “thou” and “thy” afforded to the Catalonians of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, for instance? The dialogue in other ways is very similarly to this book.

FŠ: I think this is more a question for Susan Curtis (Istros Books editor), because if I remember well, the dialect used by the translator originally was like a Broad Yorkshire. This was changed for practical reasons. It would not be understandable to readers in the US, for instance. The most important thing is that the language in the dialogue is rough and raw, because that’s how it is with the rural slang of western Bosnia.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments This is what the translator says

In particular, did you face any specific challenges related to the cultural specificity of the story and the author’s experience?

“In many ways this is a very local book. For instance, most of the dialogue is in a rather rustic local dialect which can be barely comprehensible to most outsiders. I grew up a bike ride from Faruk so this was no problem. I originally had broad Yorkshire there, as I thought the socio-linguistic status and distance from the standard were about right, but there were concerns that the readers would have to work a bit too hard to make sense of all t’ clipped articles, funny syntax and obscure words, so in the end I had to go with some kind of generic non-standard English. I’m a bit of a stickler for heritage languages and dialects and I’m not too happy about this, but it had to be done.”

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments It is rather hard to argue with the conclusion of the Guardian review - which isn't even that harsh and more highlights this as a generic translation problem:

Rendering the vernacular with subtlety and conviction is the holy grail of literary translation; Purić doesn’t quite pull it off, but he is in good company

Rosie Goldsmith wrote a review for European Literature Network which I think author/publisher etc were very happy with, but she also says:

This can’t have been an easy book to translate, but Mirza Purić has worked wonders with his impressively broad vocabulary, which includes slang, swearing, sex, scatology, medical conditions and the natural world. One decision I don’t agree with, however, is making the soldiers’ plentiful dialogue read like West Country colloquial – it’s annoying: ‘Bad job ’e got killed, ’e was talented, ’e could’ve gone on to become a good writer.’

I think the approach the translator has taken here is the worst one - apart from all the other approaches that have been tried from time to time (misquoting Sir Winston)

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments This though does seem rather crucial "We were urban lads, and for us this way of speaking was ridiculous, archaic and unknown. We ridiculed it at first" - i.e. it is meant to be a bit ridiculous.

message 16: by Ella (last edited Jan 28, 2020 07:45PM) (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Paul wrote: "This though does seem rather crucial "We were urban lads, and for us this way of speaking was ridiculous, archaic and unknown. We ridiculed it at first" - i.e. it is meant to be a bit ridiculous."

Knowing that, then, I'd have less of a problem. It's when I read a book from the Southern Cone that suddenly seems set in Brixton that I get bothered. It really always does come down to context, doesn't it?

message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Although what do you do if not trying to sound ridiculous - how does one translate dialect?

The translator's instinct was to have the Bosnian soldiers relocate in speech terms to somewhere specific - Yorkshire. But the publisher appears to have been concerned that it could lead to the subtitles-needed-for-non-Brits problem (see Trainspotting the movie) plus Yorkshire isn't in Bosnia,

The publisher had it changed into a more generic British slang. But that still makes it sound British rather than Bosnian and still, it seems, particularly odd to American ears. There isn't a generic English language slang as it is such an international language.

One could simply render it all in standard English but then what the author regards as a key part of the novel is lost in translation.

There isn't a satisfactory answer. Any ideas from anyone?

message 18: by Tracy (new)

Tracy (tstan) | 331 comments There could be a literal translation with an explanatory footnote. That doesn’t create a smooth reading experience, though.

message 19: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Literal is going to be hard/impossible though isn't it, if it is in dialect? Ultimately the meaning in English is the same, so how do you render that one passage is in 'correct' speech and one in dialect?

message 20: by Ella (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Paul wrote: "Literal is going to be hard/impossible though isn't it, if it is in dialect? Ultimately the meaning in English is the same, so how do you render that one passage is in 'correct' speech and one in d..."
I have thoughts, but no time, but I shall think on this today & get back to you. (I doubt I'll have any satisfactory thoughts though.)

message 21: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Thanks

Genuinely interests me. I love books in translation. But authors using dialect in the original does seem almost impossible to translate in a satisfactory manner.

Although not just translations. Hemingway had, as the interview with the translator here observes, to resort to similar devices in For Whom the Bell Tolls when representing the speech of the Catalonians.

message 22: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments My review of this:

It isn't an easy read, although not in the technically difficult sense. But what is describes, including the narrator's own actions (and by inference the author's as this is largely based on his experience), is unpleasant. But that's the point - to describe the squalid reality of war.

message 23: by Ella (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Obviously I don't have any great answers here, but I do think there are things to avoid. The biggest one is squarely placing it somewhere else by choosing a dialect that clearly has a "home." If I'm translating a book written/set in Berlin, then it's probably a bad idea to use 100% Cornwall (UK) culture/slang/verbiage, equally bad to use all Harlem or NYC or anywhere that's identifiably not the actual place it's set (my pretend book is in Berlin.)

My first idea has already been brought up. I'm gonna call it "spanglish-izing." Meaning, creatively mixing the original language w/ enough English to get the point across. Not always going to be possible, but worth a try?

The best idea that I can come up with is to make up a completely new 'lingo.' That way it hopefully wouldn't smack of the upper west side of New York in my pretend book that's set in Berlin. I'm not saying this well (I'm doing three things at once,) but the best idea I can think of is that if you have specific untranslatable dialect that can't be "spanglish-ized" (mixed up creatively to get the point across), then perhaps creating something completely new would at least avoid the weird sensation of reading a book about Ukraine that sounds super British or American or anything not Ukrainian. (Actually, I've heard from people who read Slavic languages that Russian often gets stuffed into many translations. I don't know if that's true or one person just repeated it to me a lot, but I do know in movies, people from places that aren't Russian are always speaking either in Russian or w/ Russian accents. Obviously, the former Eastern Bloc comes into play there, but it's a similar point just historically inaccurate.)

message 24: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Thanks

Within an British English (which is the language into which this has been translated) I think they have achieved that. It is more general British vernacular than specific (and rather similar to language politicians have used when trying to suggest they are themselves part of the ordinary people) rather than specific: indeed that is precisely why the publisher had it changed from a specific accent (Yorkshire).

It probably needs a different translation into American or other versions of English though.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments With a touch of Bert from Mary Poppins (just like the politicians you mention) and a few missteps (an abusive song about a referee for example has the wrong words surely?)

message 26: by Ella (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Only tangentially related, but I think of Virginie Despentes this way. I think it would be great if there was a NYC "version" of the Vernon Subutex books and a London "version" etc. Only b/c the topic is so specific and for those of us from that era who spent a lot of time hanging out around music scenes, it would be nice, but there's nothing wrong w/ the existing translation(s.) Clearly that's never going to happen, but it's nice to dream.

Honestly, this doesn't always bother me (nor do I even notice it sometimes,) but when it does stick out in a bad way, I find it terrifically annoying.

We'll see how I feel about this one when it arrives. I just ordered it.

message 27: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments I think he may have translated the referee song based on those sung locally rather than transposing it to the UK.

Ultimately felt more Russell Brand than Bert.

message 28: by Neil (new) - rated it 3 stars

Neil | 1885 comments I've just finished. Like others, I didn't enjoy it but I did appreciate it. The blurb talks of "beauty and horror" which seems a good description.

message 29: by Ella (new)

Ella (ellamc) | 1018 comments Mod
Neil wrote: "I've just finished. Like others, I didn't enjoy it but I did appreciate it. The blurb talks of "beauty and horror" which seems a good description."

That combination can make for some of the most compelling books ever.

message 30: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Extract on prize website for anyone wanting a copy:

And a 'retweet' giveaway competition for one copy...

message 31: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8763 comments Now also on the EBRD longlist

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5401 comments 'ere's 'oping fer the MBI

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