Loosed in Translation discussion

Recommendations > The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Rise (last edited Feb 25, 2012 05:15AM) (new)

Rise | 81 comments A thread for the group discussion of The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza.

The book selection is part of "Translators in Fiction" reading list featuring books with a translator as main character and dealing with some aspects of translation.


message 2: by Rise (last edited Feb 25, 2012 05:42AM) (new)

Rise | 81 comments Somoza, born in 1959 in Cuba, is a writer from Spain. He is a psychiatrist by profession before becoming a full-time writer. The Athenian Murders, translated from Spanish by Sonia Soto, is his first novel to come out in English. The book was originally published as La caverna de las ideas (Alfaguara, 2000). The title should translate as "The Cave of Ideas", which, considering the milieu of the novel, is a very apt title. The novel is set in ancient Greece, in the time of Plato and his school, the Academy. Plato's Allegory of the Cave and Theory of Ideas are major philosophical concerns in the book.

The novel is a detective story, with footnotes. The actual text is presented as a translation of a classic Greek text that appeared right after the Peloponnesian War. The (fictional) translator reveals his presence through copious footnotes that serve as commentary and background story of the translation manuscript. The translator is supposedly working from a critical edition of the book that was prepared by a contemporary scholar named Montalo. At the outset, the narrator perceives the book to be an "eidetic text", employing a literary device called "eidesis".

An extract from one of the several more-than-a-page-long footnotes:

   The Athenian Murders, the novel I had just begun translating, was an eidetic text. She stared at me for a moment, holding one of the cherries on the nearby plate by its stalk.
   'A what?' she asked.
   'Eidesis,' I explained, 'is a literary technique invented by the Ancient Greeks to transmit secret messages or keys in their works. It consists in repeating, in any text, metaphors or words that, when identified by a perceptive reader, make up an idea or image that's independent of the original text. Arginisus of Corinth, for example, used eidesis to hide a detailed description of a young woman he loved in a long poem apparently about wild flowers....
   'How interesting,' smiled Helena, bored. 'And would you care to tell me what's hidden in your anonymous The Athenian Murders? [14]

Eidesis is actually a fictional literary device. As the reader goes through the chapters of the novel, the contents of the footnotes became more and more personal as the translator became more and more immersed in the work he is translating.

message 3: by Patty (new)

Patty | 25 comments Thanks for starting the discussion, Ryan! I started reading the book last night. I'll check in with some thoughts, hopefully, in the next couple of days.

message 4: by Zoë (new)

Zoë  | 5 comments Likewise!

message 5: by Patty (new)

Patty | 25 comments For the first 30 pages or so, I thought it was a little boring. Now it's suddenly gone kind of meta on me, and I'm really starting to enjoy it. I have been super swamped at work and haven't had time to check in here, I hope I'll have time to post some thoughts on the weekend.

How's everyone else liking it?

message 6: by Rise (new)

Rise | 81 comments I finished it much earlier than expected. It's as meta as can be.

I will try to post a bit on it later as I want to avoid spoilers this early.

message 7: by Zoë (new)

Zoë  | 5 comments I've finished it too! I have to admit I found the beginning quite hard going, as I was unsure how to relate to the characters in the actual "story" and the eidesis point seemed over-laboured until about chapter 3...

message 8: by Patty (last edited Mar 06, 2012 09:25AM) (new)

Patty | 25 comments I really need to find an hour to write out my thoughts. I'm still only about half way through, but you guys shouldn't worry about spoilers, I'll be fine.

I have to admit that reading it makes me a little nervous. I find myself finding eidetic stuff in the translators notes, and worrying that noticing it might get me mauled by wolves.

message 9: by Rise (new)

Rise | 81 comments I liked how the book played around genres. It started as a crime and detective novel, and then it went philosophical with scenes of debating Greek philosophers (the scene involving Master Plato himself was a good one), and with the footnotes it was sort of po-mo and metafiction. At the end though it turned out to be a possible work of science fiction. His other novels translated so far - The Art of Murder and Zig Zag - are both set in the future, so the speculative and futuristic may be a constant preoccupation with the author.

message 10: by Rise (new)

Rise | 81 comments I liked how the novel also presented various "translator figures". On top of the (fictional) translator of the text we are reading, the detective Heracles at one point also considered himself a translator: I haven't translated that part of the text yet, Diagoras. Although I assure you, in all modesty, I'm not a bad translator. (145)

The detective is like a translator in the way he reads and interprets the available clues (words) to decipher the solution to the crime (text). Heracles's official title of "Decipherer of Enigmas" was hinted as a kind of definition for what a translator does.

Another definition was given by Menaechmus, the sculptor (another translator figure?) who was working on a sculpture with a not so subtle name:

It's called The Translator. The man who tries to decipher the mystery of a text written in a foreign language, not realizing that words simply lead to other words, and thoughts to other thoughts, while the Truth remains unattainable. (159)

My favorite translator figure is the reader. The reader as a godlike and powerful translator, yet an invisible one, or at least invisible to the characters talking in the story:

"There's a widely held belief in many places far from Athens," he said, "that everything we do and say exists as words written in another language on a huge papyrus scroll. And Someone is reading the scroll right now, deciphering our thoughts and actions, and finding hidden keys [eidetic images?] to the texts of our lives. That Someone is known as the Interpreter or Translator … Those who believe in Him think that our lives have an ultimate meaning of which we ourselves are unaware, but which the Translator discovers as he reads us. Eventually, the text comes to an end and we die, knowing no more than before. But the Translator, who has read us, discovers at last the ultimate meaning of our existence." (87-88)

And then I loved the fictional translator's accompanying footnote to the above quote:

Though I've searched through all my books, I can't find a single reference to this supposed religion. The author must have invented it. (T.'s N.) [Translator's Note]

Of course, the fictional translator was not to know that we are reading about him as part of this group read. And he didn't recognize that the religion he was looking for was possibly literature.

message 11: by Zoë (new)

Zoë  | 5 comments Life has been so hectic, I've barely had time to think about this until now! Really interesting post, Ryan, I like the positioning of the reader with the translator, as translators basically have to present their own reading of a text to their target language audience, and so the two roles are very closely linked. As I said before, I found the beginning part hard to get into because the use of eidesis seemed so...obvious, and the translator seemed so unreal to me. But the ending almost completely redeemed the book in my view, suddenly it all made sense and so I'm reading it again! I don't want to post spoilers in case people haven't got to the end yet. But it reminds me a lot about the history of things like Bible translation in different cultures whereby translation becomes THE act of discovery itself, and the reader is arguably reading the translator's quest for a "true" interpretation. Whether such a thing can exist is something which the author of this book has strong feelings about which become apparent at the end! I hope everyone's been enjoying the book, I'm interested to hear what else people thought.

back to top