February: In Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I have been meaning to read this book for a long time, and in the end I couldn’t have had a better book to kick off “In Translation” month than The Elegance of the Hedgehog, namely because the this month’s theme serves partly to answer the question: is reading a book in translation different than reading it in its original language? That is to say, Do we shy away from reading works in translation for a good reason (and not just laziness)- because once something has been translated, the language of the work loses it’s ability to delight and amaze, and instead just becomes a workman-like storytelling?

Thankfully, Alison Anderson’s beautiful translation lays to rest any of those concerns. Not only is The Elegance of the Hedgehog a delightful and charming story with engrossing characters, interesting philosophical notions, and a pretty nifty conceit; but most importantly Barbery’s original prose is given it’s full due and the novel reads just as eloquently and any originally written in English. This is especially important for a story where characters often mull over the intracacies of language, grammar, and literature in general.

This book is the total package: with it’s beautiful language and philosophical ramblings, it still manages to have heart, and be funny and sarcastic. Most importantly it’s the sort of book that you want to live inside. For me, reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog was like being introduced to an old friend.

“That’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult; the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe”

Goodreads rating:*****

The Little Prince, by Andre de Saint Expery

Translated from the French by Richard Howard

Again, with The Little Prince, we have  book that I should have read a long time ago. It’s a lovely little tale of an aviator, stranded in the Sahara, who befriends a little prince that hails from a distant asteroid. The main appeal of the story comes from de Saint Epery’s poking fun at adults. When the little prince recounts for the narrator all the adults he encountered before visiting earth, we are treated to a parade of human folly, from workaholics to alcoholics. Who doesn’t love a story that points out that for all our pretensions, adults are amazingly stupid compared to children?

As far as this being a work in translation, The preface of this edition of The Little Prince is given over to the translator, Richard Howard’s, ideas about his duty as translator, and specifically the need for this updated version that, with the changing times, is truer to the French version. Since the story has such simple and straight-forward language, the translation seemed just right. As charming as The Little Prince is, at times the story comes off as a bit bizarre. So our little prince is in love with a flower and lives on an asteroid by himself… ? I suppose we of course are meant to read this all as allegorical and not look to deeply into the technicalities and plot holes of the story. (How did the little prince get to earth, who are his parents!?) Although I guess many works of children’s literature are oftentimes a bit strange or flimsy when examined too closely.

“Anything essential is invisible to they eyes.”

Goodreads rating:***

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

Here we have yet another book where bizarre is an apt description. One Hundred Years of Solitude spans the generations of the virile Buendia family and the rise and fall of the city they helped create- Macondo. It’s a sweeping epic tale, that at the same time never strays far from the, at times grand, at times crumbling, ancestral home (which fits nicely with the title). Thanks to Marquez’s eloquently dense, yet also at times breezy language, this book was truly a joy to read.

And what to say of the plot and characters? Certain characters such as Ursula Iguaran Buendia, and Jose Arcadio Buendia, the matriarch and patriarch of the clan, are incredibly moving and sympathtic. As the story goes on each generation echoes the earlier characters and- as is commented on in the book- the Buendias are almost fated or cursed to repeat certain roles in life- as their fortunes rise and fall with that of Macondo itself. Because of this, many of the later characters take on a sort of carbon copy persona, becoming archetypes in the mold of either an Aureliano or a Jose Arcadio.

Similarly their stories, even with a twisted and contorted genealogy, often have a 2-dimensional, fairy tale feel. Certain characters, such as Jose Arcadio and Aureliano Segundo, take on amazing larger than life characteristics, and the family has an amazing capacity for sexual desire (especially with the wrong people). Since it’s a novel so bursting with detail that Marquez gets away with these off-putting couplings; it’s a novel about love, ghosts, sex, hate, family, remorse, and, of course, destruction and decay. This all lends itself the general tone of the novel- a fine example of magical realism- One Hundred Years of Solitude ultimately serves as a vast Amazonian fable- a Latin American 1,001 Arabian Nights.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Goodreads rating:****

Lovers, by Daniel Arsand

Translated from the French by Howard Curtis

Yet again this month we have a book that I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Lovers is a slim volume set in 18th century France, that tells the of a love affair between Balthazar, a young nobleman, and Sebastien, a beautiful and magical adolescent. Theirs is an all-encompassing love that refuses to be cowed by society’s expectations, class differences, or even Sebastien’s wandering ways.

Ultimately of course it leads to both of their ruin. Because of his infatuation, Balthazar neglects his obligation to the King and refuses to dutifully make an appearance at Versailles that could dispel rumors about him. This leads to his ultimate destruction and sends Sebastien off on a trajectory that has equally fatal results.

Interestingly, while the fact that they are “buggers” is abhorred by Sebastien’s parents, and a catalyst for the damning rumors that lead to Balthazar’s downfall, the two lovers are not explicitly persecuted for being gay. It is more that the fact that their love is so engrossing that it causes them to abandon responsibilities and reason that leads to their destruction. There seems to be the possibility that if Balthazar had only gone to Versailles and won the favor of the King the court would have turned and blind eye to their romance. Arsand is able to pack quite a story into such a short book; but the story, such as it is, is full of heartbreak. Lovers is a very beautifully written, yet sad novella.

“We are different he and I, why deny it? His is the infidelity, mine the jealousy, ours the undeniable fact of our love.”

Goodreads rating:***

Also read this month: 419, by Will Ferguson

Next Month’s theme: “Newberys”. I’ll be going back to children’s classics and taking a look at some Newbery winners I, shamefuly, haven’t read. First up will The Giver, by Lois Lowry.


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