Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘literature in translation’

August is Women in Translation month. I’m quite sad that to-date I haven’t managed to place any of my women writer book projects with a publishing house. This is something I’ve been working hard toward over the last two years – writing samples and querying publishers. I know that one of these projects will take, but it takes a long time. Patience is necessary.

BUT – I have had published a few short translations of women writers in several issues of Spolia Mag and going back to one of them this month seems like a good idea:

  • Julia Allard Daudet’s The Unknown Woman in Spolia’s The Wife Issue

There is a short excerpt of The Unknown Woman here, which includes my favorite line from the story, spoken by the narrator as s/he introduces the strange woman who has arrived in the small, Alpine village and inspired such curiosity with the villagers:

            What other motive than a great misfortune could inspire this desire for isolation?

I loved working on this story, loved discovering Daudet’s careful writing and vision. It comes from a collection of very time-period appropriate pieces. Early 1900s, the concerns of a certain slice of Parisian life. Both domestic and intellectual. It’s a shame Daudet did not publish more in her own right.

If you’re interested in the story and in Daudet, at the time the story came out, Spolia asked me a few questions about it all. The entire interview is here, but below is one small part of it:

Q: I love the strange atmosphere of this story, all of the things that we don’t know about this woman. I chose it to lead off the issue, because the wife, particularly when we are dealing with the wife of great men and their biographies, can be so mysterious and walled up. I liked the tone is set. What drew you to this particular story?

A: Within Daudet’s collection, Miroirs et Mirages, it really stands out. Not just because of its pastoral setting compared to the other more urban stories, but with exactly this atmosphere you mention. It feels very much like a legend, and I love how this woman remains so completely unknown. We don’t even know if she dies in the fire or not, and I love the possibility of escape that Daudet gives her.

Also, I love the context that surrounds this piece. It was published in 1905 at the height of the excitement about “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (The Unknown Woman of the Seine) and it’s clearly an homage to this romantic idea of a beautiful young woman lost to the world before her time. I can’t help but imagine Julia Daudet having one of those death masks in her salon, and it being a witness to the many discussions and writers passing through. And then one evening Daudet sits down after a party and writes her own version of the story.




I enjoyed a lovely and interesting book last week— Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (tr. Chi-Young Kim). It read easily, smoothly, but it’s a book that won’t leave me and I find myself thinking about it still days after finishing. I keep thinking about how it worked, and the texture of it. I think I am mostly taken with its slightly odd structure and 2nd person POV, two things that will charm me immediately. It’s also set in South Korea and very subtly immerses the reader in Korean customs at a time of great intergenerational change. Finally, it asks some provocative questions about the nature of familial love.

The basic premise of the novel is that an older couple has come to Seoul to visit their children. At the train station, they get separated from each other and the wife/mother goes missing. The book is about the family looking for her—both in the present story in and around Seoul, but also “looking for her” in a much more metaphorical way.

I love odd POVs and Please Look After Mom plays with variations of the 2nd person. Other times I’ve seen this done it’s usually a kind of mock how-to type of narrative. (I’m thinking of Lorrie Moore’s “How to be an Other Woman” and similar examples.) In this novel, however, the 2nd person functions like a kind of self-accusation – the narrator is both the subject and the object of what’s being said. If you know Jamaica Kincaid’s powerful and very short story “Girl” – it reminded me in some ways of how that 2nd person works. An inner voice that is shaded with a particular emotion.

Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station subway platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again—a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing.

This example quote is just one of the 2nd person POVs, because it shifts to inhabit several characters… and it even uses the POV to reveal the answer to one of the book’s central questions. I loved that trick (though maybe others would find it a bit like cheating—I didn’t, it felt very natural). And I love thinking how the POV enhanced the book’s emotional current, while playing with that very distance between narrator and character.

The book’s metaphorical “searching” is extremely well-done, looking at ideas of memory and regret. By inhabiting so many different voices, it questions how a family sees each other, and specifically how each family member “sees” the family’s central figure—the mother. In this case, no one seems able to see her until she vanishes and then each person is stuck inside a memory-reel, looking for clues. Who was she? What was her life? Why didn’t she seem important until she left?

Finally, in a subtle but deliberate way, Please Look After Mom is also very much about motherhood—from different angles and how it is transformed from one generation to the next. It’s carefully and lovingly done. Both smart and beautiful.

*Update 15 Jan: it really does help to talk about these issues, following this post and lovely Twitter support, Ann Morgan emailed the Guardian and the article has been amended to include all translators’ names. Fantastic!


Absolutely delighted to see that Beauty on Earth was highlighted in yesterday’s Guardian by Ann Morgan (of Reading the World, a marvelous project-turned-book). Morgan lists ten of her favorite titles from among the 196 she read for her project. The other books on this list look wonderful as well, and I’m now quite keen to read The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins and The Circle of Karma by Choden Kunzang.

It’s really great when ten books like this get talked about, books that often don’t get a lot of formal publicity. But I wanted to highlight that six of these books are translations, and I was disappointed to see that only one translator was named.

I’m not pointing a finger at Ann Morgan here because she has struck me as keenly aware of how important the role of translation is in bringing books from around the world into larger discussions through English-language publication. In her Ted Talk she tells a fantastic story about how she managed to read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe (which had no existing literature in English that she could find) only because a bunch of translators actually translated one for her so that she could.

I don’t know if this was the case for the other five translations on Morgan’s list as it was for my work with Ramuz, but it’s been my general experience that many (maybe even most) translations get published because the translator has actively hunted down a publisher for the book. Unfortunately, these books are often not commercially interesting to publishers, or many publishers just don’t know where to look or don’t have the time to hunt down interesting foreign language titles. (I am excluding from that thought the wonderful translation-only publishers that are growing in number all the time.) I do think things have been changing in recent years, for the better, which is maybe why I was so surprised to see this list somewhat overlook the translator/translation aspect.

It seems evident to me that most readers understand and accept the fact that translators deserve a mention beside the author because a book inevitably changes through the work of translation, it is only one version of what that book might look like in another language; this is the main reason I think translators must be mentioned. My version of Beauty on Earth is just one way of rewriting the novel in English, it is just one possibility. I think it’s important this distinction always remains clear–this honors the work of both the author and the translator. But I also think that translators especially deserve this mention because of how much they champion and support the books they love.

In any case, here is the list again, this time with the translators included.

  • The Circle of Karma by Choden Kunzang
  • Beauty on Earth by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, tr. Michelle Bailat-Jones
  • Our Musseque by Jose Luandino Vieira, tr. Robin Patterson
  • African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala
  • Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, tr. Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye
  • The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  • The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins
  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, tr. Jethro Soutar
  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies
  • Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, tr. Edith Grossman

The opening paragraph of Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew* involves a clever repetition:

Never forgive, I said that morning just as I do every morning, by the window, waiting for dawn. Never forgive. Whom? Constanza? Which one of them? Never forgive her, the young Constanza, or myself, the old one? I did not know, all I knew was: I was never to forgive.

‘It hasn’t been that long, mother, it’s normal you feel lonely,’ my daughter Agustina had said a few days before. I don’t feel lonely, it’s this house that suddenly has an echo.

First is the mention of two women sharing the same first name, a young and an old Constanza, something which creates an immediate doubling. Two women, both needing forgiveness. Second is that last word echo and how it so casually evokes an emptiness that both contains and repeats itself. More doubling. There is also the subtle image of a figure at a window; a pre-dawn moment that most likely involves a reflection as well as the implied experience of looking out while looking in. And, finally, there is the actual printed repetition of the word forgive—four times in five lines!—along with a single repetition of the word lonely.

This idea of doubling and echo winds its way throughout the entire novel, because even the premise of Mildew is dual. There are two stories running alongside one another—the story of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with their niece, and the story of a woman who finds a green spot on her body. And not just anywhere.

I went into the bathroom and undressed in front of the mirror. I did not find in my reflection the young woman I had been just seconds ago. I examined my body, a personal audition that I fail every morning. Big feet, varicose ankles, wide thighs.

A slight prickling in the pubis made me look down and I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.

Within a few lines, Jonguitud confirms what is first here only an allusion to Macbeth. Constanza is a costume designer for a local theatre group and six months before the novel opens, she made the costumes for this very play. References to theatre abound and this again reinforces the idea of doubling: scenes on stage within the scenes of the novel that give the reader two “stages” of action, careful insinuations that characters might be playing “roles,” specific theatrical movements within a longer story, even the growing spot of mildew on Constanza’s body is discussed in terms of costume. And the first person direct-to-reader narrative perspective plays right into this; it isn’t too much of a stretch to consider Mildew a form of or even an homage to Shakespearean soliloquy. With these careful allusions and parallels, Jonguitud enriches a short text with great depth and complexity.

Alongside this intertextual depth, there is a tremendous amount of story packed into these 91 beautifully printed pages. An entire history condensed into a single day, an entire family and their respective pasts brought out in quick but vivid portraits. Constanza tells of her childhood, her parents and siblings, and eventually explains how she came to raise her sister’s child, the younger Constanza, and what that experience was like—not just for her but for the rest of the family. If we believe Constanza, it was not a pleasant experience and the younger Constanza was a source of constant tension and family crisis.

Mildew is an unsettling and uncomfortable text. Not just because it moves through a variety of dark questions – including difficult questions of female desire – but from a structural and narrative perspective as well. Extending the idea of the novel as an echo of Shakespearean soliloquy, it stretches out the very strengths of that form—the way it builds tension through abrupt movements of thought, how it integrates past/present reflections, allusions to action that has occurred “off-scene.” And like many of the best soliloquies, there is a rising sense of madness as Constanza vents her thoughts and emotions.

The marvelous parallel to her increasing unsteadiness (and perhaps increasing untrustworthiness as narrator) is the mildew growing down the trunk of her body. By the middle of the book, Constanza’s leg is nearly completely covered:

I sat on the floor, among the plants. My green leg smelled like a dark basement, an old closet, it smelled forgotten. I saw then that the mildew had extended beyond my toes and had wide filaments, long like pine needles. From one of my toes a branch was now growing.

From this point on, the narrative (which was not particularly linear in the first place) begins to fragment even further. Each short chapter is somehow more jarring than the one preceding it, and the scenes become difficult to puzzle out in terms of timeline. There is a sense—fantastically carried off by Jonguitud—that the story is both building toward a big event and racing as quickly as possible away from a different big event. This, again, is another kind of doubling and it makes for great tension within the novel’s structure.

At only 91 pages, Mildew is a deceptively simple book. Its brevity and relatively unadorned prose belie what is more layered and difficult. This is a novel with a psychological and emotional intensity that invites careful reading and re-reading, and resists immediate interpretation.

*Mildew is translated into English (from Spanish) by the author and published by the marvelous CB Editions.


In all truth, reading Near to the Wild Heart was a frustrating reading experience. Not that this is necessarily a horrible thing, but I’m shocked to find how much trouble I had getting through this—Lispector’s first novel—compared to the other novels I’ve read (and very much enjoyed).

I think that I don’t necessarily have all the right “tools” at my disposal for a truly thoughtful approach to this book but I want to think about it within a few different contexts. First, it was first published in 1943, so she was 23. I’m going to assume she’d been working on it for several years, and it is – despite the incredible maturity of the style – a coming of age novel. It is intensely concerned with transitions from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to understanding, from ignorance to knowledge.

What matters then: to live or to know you are living?

This book is all about the intensities of unknown inner lives – how people truly think and feel, it is all unfiltered and raw, the curious power of a deeply strange interior life:

She had awoken full of daylight, invaded. Still in bed, she had thought about sand, sea, drinking seawater at her dead aunt’s house, about feeling, above all feeling.

Or here again:

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both, because both were incapable of freeing themselves through love, because she had meekly accepted her own fear of suffering, her inability to move beyond the frontier of revolt.

It is also her first novel, and the rest of her books would go on to experiment with this exact form. I don’t believe that any writer manages to get their form/style/project “perfect” on a first go around, and perhaps it is useful to think of this book as the first of her experiments. Maybe this is why it was so hard to get a hold onto. Something about it feeling less “fixed” than her later works – missing certain narrative handholds for the reader to grip onto amidst the free-flowing interior monologue and curious imagery.

It is an intensely feminine/feminist book – much of Joana’s questioning has to do with how to negotiate her interior individual life and thinking with respect to other people, both men and women, but the overall feeling or question remains focused on this idea of how men and women circle around each other. But these questions are transmitted through an existentialist discussion:

In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude.

There’s more to wonder at – looking at it compared to other books published the same year, or perhaps within the context of who she had been reading (do we know? did she keep a journal? I still haven’t read her biography), looking at the book as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and how it embraces this idea while subverting it all the time.

Otherwise – a few smaller, text-based observations:

She wasn’t worn out from crying. She understood that her father had ended. That was all. And her sadness was a big, heavy tiredness, without anger.

Interesting to me that her lyrically-mediated thoughts make it extremely hard for the reader to access her—and yet the point is to expose her as much as possible. Feel we are kept at a distance from her grief. Or perhaps she is the one kept at a distance because her state is so tenuous and so a reader (who cannot help have some form of sympathy from the main character) is also kept at a distance.

The bathroom is indecisive, almost dead. Objects and walls have given way, softening and diluting themselves in tendrils of steam. The water cools slightly on her skin and she shivers in fear and discomfort.

In this scene, she enters a bathtub in one location and then, when she comes out of the tub she has changed location, changed time period, gone from being a child at home to being a teenager away at school. It’s a wonderful and imaginative and symbolic moment.

One of the biggest questions that kept gnawing at me was how are we supposed to feel about Joana? How are we supposed to understand her? It becomes an impossible task, because she remains in a constant state of self-evaluation and self-actualization. That impossibility became extremely frustrating – and is probably, at the heart, the point of the book. Because self-understanding is a never-ending process. We remain “unformed” for all of our lives, or “forming,” we are constantly evolving.

And the last lines of the novel – which I won’t quote in order to leave the mystery and the beauty to other readers—about immortality and the acceptance of death. They are incredible. They are revealing.

So these thoughts on Near to the Wild Heart are all half-formed and written haphazardly – the book is affecting, curious, frustrating, beautiful, both luminous and incisive, but also incomprehensible and inscrutable. It forces you to read slowly, to think, to ponder. It also asks you put it down and take a breath—it is not a book to absorb in one sitting (Hour of the Star, on the contrary, lends itself to a continuous, one-sitting read). This is a book perhaps best taken as part of a life’s work. It’s a piece of artwork, a narrative collage, something to study, not something to devour or even to enjoy, although there is enjoyment in the reading of it.

(I read this book for the Dead Writer’s Book Club – we’re having a Google Docs discussion as well as on Twitter, and I may come back with other thoughts after the discussion. Wanted to record these here now before talking about the book with anyone else – and really looking forward to others’ thoughts.)




This morning I am thinking about these two quotes from The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector.

The first:

From sculpture, I suppose, I got my knack for only thinking when it was time to think, since I had learned to think only with my hands and when it was time to use them. From my intermitten sculpting I’d also acquired the habit of pleasure, toward which I was naturally inclined: my eyes had handled the form of things so many times that I had increasingly learned the pleasure of it, and taking root within it. I could, with must less than I was, I could already use everything: just as yesterday, at the breakfast table, all I needed, to form round forms from the center of the loaf, was the surface of my fingers and the surface of the bread. In order to have what I had I never needed either pain or talent. What I had wasn’t an achievement, it was a gift.

The second:

Opening in me, with the slowness of stone doors, opening in me was the wide life of silence…

While on holiday two weeks ago, I read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Not even the unruly multi-family party of Scandinavians sharing our hotel, who slammed doors, ran down hallways at 3am and yelled to each other from their balconies at midnight, could make me unlove this beautiful book (of Finland). I wrote immediately on Twitter how this book fits my idea of a “perfect” piece of writing—plotless but absolutely riveting, graceful and honest—and several weeks after finishing its pages, this still holds true.

The Summer Book is set on a small island in Finland, in a vacation home, and the book catalogues the interactions and adventures of an elderly grandmother and her young granddaughter Sophie. In quite short, disarmingly simple and themed chapters like “Playing Venice,” “The Cave” or “The Robe,” Jansson comments on a variety of powerful subjects. The book is, quite simply, about life and the many difficult questions of existence that humans ponder. And that pondering is presented honestly, through the unique ways that humans consider such things, and by that I mean: off-hand, in absurd conversations, in solitude, in our physical relationship to nature and in our love and hate for other human beings.

One of the things that Jansson does, and does incredibly well, is evoke how human beings find magic in the simplest things. Not real magic, she never goes quite so far, but she knows how to bring the reader (through her characters’ actions and thoughts) to that little feeling of awe that strikes at any given moment and for unexplainable reasons. Jansson really has her finger on this human impulse and this is what most of The Summer Book seems to be about. These moments of awe aren’t always joyful, of course, and both sorrowful awe or angry awe are strong currents in the book as well.

Something I found very curious about the book was the portrayal of the father character. I would have to double check, but I don’t think he ever speaks a line of dialogue, and mostly he is absent—either working or away in his boat. But he is this incredibly affecting presence throughout the book, yet without any real engagement with either the grandmother or Sophie. They talk about him, they disobey his stern rules, they watch him a lot. It’s a technique I haven’t come across before in other books, at least not often or that I can remember. I loved it. Also, the reader learns quite early that Sophie’s mother has died. Jansson gives us this piece of information quickly and without ceremony, and she never goes back to it. But this reality haunts the entire book, and these two people—one truly absent, the other perhaps absent out of grieving or loneliness—are powerful characters.

The Summer Book is a serious book, but it’s filled with some excellent humor. Sophie and her Grandmother are often in conversation about very difficult things, although they don’t often touch these subjects head on. Instead, they talk “around” things or they say silly things which are truly very serious. And they are often prickly with one another, but that prickliness reveals a deep mutual need and love. I do not think I have seen this kind of love expressed so well in many other books. Perhaps, however, this is especially striking because it’s accomplished through the non-traditional pairing of a grandmother and a little girl.

It’s a real pleasure to discover a novel and know immediately that I will reread it often. The Summer Book is the kind of book that doesn’t have to be picked up and gone through from start to finish (although I will do this and am looking forward to doing this again soon), but I could nearly choose a chapter at random and enjoy its atmosphere again whenever I feel like it. It is an example of one of those rare books that become life companions. I do not put many books in this category, and it’s a very special treat to be able to add another volume to this, my most precious of book lists.