Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

HARDCOVER, 335 P.
RIVERHEAD BOOKS, 2007
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú–the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim–until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.

With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the  uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the family’s epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey’s Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere–and to risk it all–in the name of love.

A true literary triumph, this novel confirms Junot Díaz as one of the  best and most exciting writers of our time.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Junot Díaz’s first novel published in 2007, although he had ten years previously gained fame with his short story collection Drown. The book topped BBC’s Greatest Novels of the 21st Century list and it has been praised and recommended to me by many people that I admire, which is why I decided to pick it up during my library visit in March. However, the timing was a bit off, so it took me until May to finally start reading. And I’m glad I did because it is an immersive experience to the bone. You think you know what it is about, but you have no idea.

Let me tell you about the main character Oscar. First of all, his last name is not Wao – the name was given to him in jest in college and it stuck. Oscar de León grew up in New Jersey, in a neighbourhood consisting of mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Growing up, Oscar and his older sister Lola quickly learn what is expected from them as Dominicans and as those lucky enough to be born in the U.S. Their mother Belicia had to fight for her way and despite being in the past known as Santo Domingo’s beauty queen, she now works two jobs to support her children. Oscar himself is quite the anti-hero: he’s an overweight, nerdy boy of colour in the contemporary US ghetto dreaming of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien. Lola is the family rebel: she rebels against the her mother and the expectations of the society around her. And back in her youth, Beli too rebelled against the curse of her family, the wishes of her aunt and her status as a child of the a powerful doctor who lost it all.

What first stood out to me in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the use of language. Díaz mixes Spanish and English, academic and slang, and tops it off with a heavy dose of fantasy and comic references that all together bring humor and compassion to the story. For example, in describing Trujillo the narrator notes: “Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor” whereas Oscar is known to have “a zero combat rating”. The vivacious voice of the book was, at least for me, new and exciting. I’ve never studied Spanish, so my knowledge of the language is based on what I’ve heard from TV or other people. Hence a lot of the words thrown in were unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, I did’t feel that this was slowing down my reading experience – once you get the sense of the expression, the words don’t matter.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao maps the history of each of the de León family members, narrated by a person who’s identity remains unknown to the reader until towards the end of the book. Oscar’s contemporary struggles are placed against the backdrop of the ill-fated family and the dark days of Dominican Repulic. The timeline jumps back and forth in time building the story like a jigsaw puzzle – piece by piece you start to see some figures/themes emerging from the miscellaneous pile. One of the main characters in the story, aside from the De León family, is the Dominican Republic. The history of the country under the tyrannical ruler Rafael Leónidas Trujillo is explored in many of the footnotes that the narrator uses and through the fates of the individuals, the entire population gets a voice. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic quadrupled by simply reading this book. Another interesting element in the story is the explanation to the bad luck running in the family, the imbalance between fukú (a curse) and zafa (a blessing). The age-old beliefs circle from ancestors to the contemporary lives and give the story a twist of magical realism. For though the events can be explained with facts, the magic still feels real.

I can highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to readers who want to diversify their reading and to find new voices. Although Oscar Wao didn’t completely wow me, the voice and the narrative structure of the story are very distinct and memorable. It is a book that is bound to stay fresh in my mind and that has enriched my idea of the “American experience”.

4/5

Poor Oscar. Without even realizing it he’d fallen into one of those Let’s Be Friends Vortexes, the bane of nerdboys everywhere. These relationships were love’s version of a stay in the stocks, in you go, plenty of misery guaranteed and what you got out of it besides bitterness and heartbreak nobody knows. Perhaps some knowledge of self and women.

Review: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

PAPERBACK; 94 P.
FABER AND FABER, 1965/1952
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible‘ was Jean Anouilh’s judgement on the first production of Waiting for Godot. But, he went on to conclude, that evening at the Babylone in 1953 was the most important première put on in Paris for forty years. Nobody to whom the names of Pozzo, Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon are familiar would now question this prescient recognition of a classic of twentieth-century European literature.

Picture an empty country road in the evening. A single tree stands by that road, a tree that will witness a complex and abstract meeting of two fellows, Vladimir and Estragon. The men, of whom we know nothing, wait for the mysterious man Godot, contemplate whether he’ll arrive this time, and whilst waiting meet two other men: the powerful Pozzo driven by another man ironically named Lucky. This is the simplified basis for the play that in itself is so abstract that even an attempt of explaining it seems limiting. Samuel Beckett is a Nobel-winning playwright and Waiting for Godot is one of his most known plays in which “nothing happens, twice”.

My previous experiences of play-reading narrow down to Shakespeare and Beckett’s fellow countryman, Oscar Wilde. While I hold Shakespeare in a class of his own, I was surprised how much Beckett’s style of writing stage directions differed from Wilde’s. What struck me the most was the detail with which Beckett described movement on stage. Because of the simplicity of the setting and the fact that “nothing happens”, the atmosphere and the themes of the play are mainly built through dialogue. However, unlike Wilde who leaves more room for the director’s imagination, Beckett has a clear vision of how the characters move on the stage and he presents that also in his stage directions. This is, indeed, very helpful for the reader, because it gave me an idea of the visual presentation, and I think that the motions also build intensity. The tension of the play rises and falls constantly making it very addicting – almost like a page-turner. However, Beckett’s use of language and metaphors also invites the reader to study the text closer.

An interesting fact about Waiting for Godot is that although it has been voted as one of the most important English-language plays, it was originally written in French and translated into English by the author. There are multiple ways of reading the play and an also ways to interpret the notably missing character Godot. The most common interpretation is that it stands for God, as there are many references to biblical texts in the play, but there are also those who believe Godot presents something completely different. The bare-boned presentation of the play invites the reader and the audience to reflect their own ideas as to what the plays is really about, which brilliantly brings out a myriad of responses.

Waiting for Godot is now one of my must-see plays and I cannot wait to read more of Beckett’s works in the near future. I have “The Trilogy” (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) listed on my TBR274, and after Waiting for Godot I expect nothing but greatness. If you’re into plays, Waiting for Godot is a must-read, and if you’re not, I suggest that you still give it a try. Don’t be frightened by the abstract. Embrace the absurdity, the feeling of not knowing everything, and just enjoy the ride. Better yet, go and watch it on stage.

5/5

Pozzo: (suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?

(Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

PAPERBACK; 309 P.
ARROW BOOKS, 2010/1960
SOURCE: PURCHASED

‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an anti-racist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those big classics of American literature that almost everyone has read. Many studied it in school but still consider it as one of their favourite books, which is no small feat. A story of race, 1930’s Great Depression, and double standards, the book explores the lives of a small town through the eyes of a young Scout. The historically pressing time reveals some ugly truths even from the nicest of people and although a lot has changed, the story still remains current. And even more current the novel is now that the sequel, Go Set a Watchman, will be published 55 years after the classic.

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird centers around the Finch family living in Maycombe, Alabama. Scout, real name Jean Louise, is a young and active girl who enjoys playing games with her older brother Jem and other boys, and presents questions about illogical adult behaviour to her father Atticus. Atticus Finch earns his living as a lawyer, and especially in questions of right and wrong, the discussions between the two often have multiple layers. Next door to the Finches lives the Radley family that intrigues the children because unlike all the others in their neighbourhood, the Radleys keep to themselves and wild rumours fly about their grown-up son Boo. Despite orders from Atticus to stop harassing the family the children go to all lengths to lure Boo Radley out of his house. In the mean time, the town is in an uproar because an African American man is charged with the rape of a white girl and Atticus is set on defending him. And in a town as small as Maycombe, the case comes to influence all areas of life.

The depth and scope of To Kill a Mockingbird truly makes it a classic. Harper Lee’s novel not only tackles the train of thoughts and the underlying racism of the Southern society, but also goes to show it from the perspective of a child trying to learn the rules of the society. The book is a coming-of-age novel in which it isn’t the narrator who grows up and looses the idealism and innocence, but her brother and how that affects the family dynamic. In fact, the innocence of the child narrator somehow manages to underline just how terrible the injustices are, but also how illogical and strange the adults can be. Aside from the Finch family, the book is filled with characters and storylines that would all require a paragraph of their own, especially the mysterious Boo Radley. This being the first time that I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was surprised by the direction that the story took despite having a hunch of the court decision. And like many before me, I too fell in love with Atticus Finch. He is a curious mix of detachment and deep-rooted morals. Through Scout’s perceptive eyes, she also reveals the follies of grown-ups with their ridiculous games and politics. Although I didn’t personally connect with Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m very intrigued to meet her as a grown-up woman in Go Set a Watchman. I can definitely see why To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic and it is definitely one of the books that I hope to re-read in a few years. So if you haven’t yet picked up this Southern classic, I cannot but highly recommend it. And if you have, maybe revisit it in preparation for GSaW?

4.5/5

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Two books on feminism: How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran & Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

Feminism, what does it mean? For most of my adult years I’ve considered myself a feminist, but I’ve never really dived deeper into the world that that one word represents. My idea of feminism has always been unclear and evolving, and it seems that instead of one set definition of feminism there are, in fact, several different perspectives. To study this ideology and its arguments, I decided to go with modern writers – in the hopes they would be more relatable – instead of jumping straight into the daunting classics, such as The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I chose two non-fiction books, How To Be a Woman and Men Explain Things To Me, which I read close to each other. In the end, I gained more insight to the current issues in feminism as well as perspective to some of the older arguments, but I’m not yet finished with my reading of the topic.

PAPERBACK; 312 P.
EBURY PRESS, 2011
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?

Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from the riot of adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother. With rapier wit, Moran slices right to the truth—whether it’s about the workplace, strip clubs, love, fat, abortion, popular entertainment, or children—to jump-start a new conversation about feminism. With humor, insight, and verve, How To Be a Woman lays bare the reasons female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself.

Caitlin Moran’s second book How To Be a Woman is a part-memoir and part-discussion on feminism. Caitlin Moran is a British columnist, music journalist and comedienne/speaker who has been writing a column for The Times since she was 18 – wow! My introduction to Caitlin Moran came when her third book, How to Build a Girl was published in 2014, but it wasn’t until I had read We Should All Be Feminists that I really started to look up articles and interviews of Moran. She is an amazingly outspoken and funny person, so it took me no time to get myself on the waiting list for the library’s copy of How To Be a Woman.

The book narrates Moran’s own experiences growing up and is presented almost like a set of chronicles from her teen years to moving to London, getting her first job, dating, marrying and having children. Alongside her memories and the funny incidents of those years she weaves in topics such as female sexuality, inequality, sexism and abortion. Moran approaches feminism through humour which is why even the worst moments have laughter-lines. In her thinking, the next wave of feminism should come through laughter and ridicule! She is unabashedly honest and almost crude about some of the topics which I think is part of her charisma that shines through also in her speaking. Having read a lot of her interviews before How To Be a Woman, the book did repeat a ton of things that I had already read. Nevertheless, I found the book to be a very enjoyable read as well as in parts educational. There were some parts with which I had a slight problem with (such as her flippant approach to the drug use in her youth) but in general I think the book might work well with women who do not already consider themselves feminists. Also recommendable to people who want to learn more about Caitlin Moran’s life.

 3/5

HARDCOVER; 144 P.
GRANTA BOOKS, 2014
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ has become a touchstone of the feminist movement, inspired the term ‘mansplaining’, and established Solnit as one of the leading feminist thinkers of our time – one who has inspired everyone from radical activists to Beyoncé Knowles. Collected here in print for the first time is the essay itself, along with the best of Solnit’s feminist writings.

From rape culture to mansplaining, from French sex scandals to marriage and the nuclear family, from Virginia Woolf to colonialism, these essays are a fierce and incisive exploration of the issues that a patriarchal culture will not necessarily acknowledge as ‘issues’ at all. With grace and energy, and in the most exquisite and inviting of prose, Rebecca Solnit proves herself a vital leading figure of the feminist movement and a radical, humane thinker.

In 2012 Rebecca Solnit published an essay titled Men Explain Things to Me and it quickly went viral. The title essay calls out the trend of men explaining things to women in a way that assumes that the listener doesn’t already know about it. The prime example in Solnit’s essay is the case where an older gentleman began talking to her about this highly acclaimed and very important book mentioned in the New York Times and continued his explanation even after he was told that the book in question was actually Solnit’s. There is much more to the essay, so if you’re interested, you can read it from Huffington Post‘s website.

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays is bound in this beautiful edition with seven essays and Ana Teresa Fernandez’s art included in between them. At the back the book is said to “hum with power and wit” and that Solnit’s essays are great “because they make you angry”. And that is true. Especially the first two to three essays present injustices that are hard to swallow, touching on topics such as mansplaining, IMF, Strauss-Kahn, equal marriages, and world bank. From the start it is clear that Solnit’s essays take a completely different approach to Moran’s funny tone. However, in her later  essays about Virginia Woolf, inspiration and art the tone is a lot more calmer, but the magic is still there. These were really the essays that got me thinking and wondering – that gave me something new to work with. Solnit beautifully ties Fernandez’s paintings into the discussion of how we interpret art and whether it is possible to “read” art in a certain way. Her style of writing is serious, but witty, and invites the reader to participate in the discussion. Because the book is tiny, I read some of the essays several times to appreciate the overall style and craft with which they were written. The anger of the beginning did put me off for a while because it was so different from Moran, but as I read on, I warmed up to Solnit. I’d highly recommend Men Explain Things To Me to both women and men, as it has the potential to open eyes and give new perspective to the society that we live in. Moreover, it is not just a book about feminism – it is a book about us and them, about injustice and acceptance.

4/5

How can I tell a story we already know too well? Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her, and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted high hand in resolving her affairs in places like Cóte d’Ivoire, a name she had been given because of her export products, not her own identity.

Her name was Asia. His was Europe. His was wealth. Her name was Her, but what was hers? His name was His, and he presumed everything was his, including her, and he though he could take her without asking and without consequences.

Comics round: Kypsyyskoe (Villimpi Pohjola #3) by JP Ahonen & Vain pahaa unta by Aino&Ville Tietäväinen

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels or comics, but over the spring I’ve read two that I’d love to talk about. One of them was a lucky find from a second hand bookshop and the other a spur of the moment pick from the library. Moreover, both are Finnish which means they count towards my 15 in 2015 challenge! Unfortunately neither of them has been translated into English, but I’ve included some pictures to give you a sense of the drawing style.

Disclaimer: Neither of these books have, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.

HARDCOVER, 88 P.
ARKTINEN BANAANI, 2011
SOURCE: PURCHASED

It all began in 2003 as a series of Sunday strips depicting student life. Today the Villimpi Pohjola series is a cult phenomenon and has a steady but growing fanbase. From separate slapstick panels and single moment stills, the story has matured to contain larger story arcs. From the large cast of characters of the previous albums only the core are left and they continue to develop their identity from page to page. More than anything, the troupe of friends now faces the challenges of serious relationships, falling in love and loss. Kypsyyskoe (eng. Maturity test) presents the everyday situations from a new angle – without forgetting the omnipresent twinkle in the eye. The series is a mixture of the everyday life of a student, pop culture references, drama and parody.

I’ve been following the Villimpi Pohjola comic series for about 5 years on and off, but I became almost obsessed back in 2014 when I discovered that the artist had published entire albums. The series now has four albums that have been published (plus a compiled version of the first two) and I’ve been tracking down to collect them all. A few months ago I was hanging out in the centre with my friend – waiting to see The Theory of Everything – when we stopped by this second hand bookshop that had put books on display outside. I had heard that the third album in question, Kypsyyskoe (eng. Maturity Test), was about to sell out and had contemplated on ordering it, when I chanced to see it from the shop window. It only took me a couple minutes to fish out my money and sprint to the counter and smiling from ear to ear.

The name of the third album, Maturity Test, refers to the test that students have to take after submitting their thesis to prove that they can write properly. However, the title is also apt because instead of showing simply young students getting into all sorts of scrapes and living life to the fullest, it focuses a lot more on maturing and becoming an adult (aka. adulting). There are many different storyline that alternate, but alongside those are also the crazy, laugh-out-loud, and slapstick-y moments that really make the series what it is. It doesn’t try to take itself too seriously despite the fact that it sometimes deals with serious topics.

5/5

IMG_7760

Art ©JP Ahonen; Photo ©Dawn of books

HARDCOVER, 47 P.
WSOY, 2013
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

When a child has a nightmare, it’s the adult’s job to step up and explain that everything is okay. The nightmares of young girl Aino derive from everyday situations as well as from the collective consciousness. In her dreams, Fluffy has gone missing, giant high-heels-wearing hares chase her in the woods and daddy has transformed into a drawing of dark black lines that doesn’t even look like daddy.  Even the scariest things can be trapped on paper, and thought the dream is sometimes SO bad that you can even put it in a book, talking about it to a grown-up helps!

Vain pahaa unta (eng. Only a Bad Dream) was nominated a few years back for the esteemed Childrens’ Finlandia prize and also caused a lot of discussion about the images that children are exposed to through the media. The author duo are a father and daughter, who have together collaborated a book based on the daughter’s nightmares. Ville Tietäväinen is a well-known illustrator and a comic artist and Aino is his 7-year-old daughter. The book presents a collection of Aino’s nightmares from the ages of 4 to 6 as well as small strips presenting discussions between the father and the daughter about these nightmares and about seeing nightmares.

IMG_7774

Art ©Aino & Ville Tietäväinen; Photo ©Dawn of books

Despite the fact that it’s been a long time since I saw nightmares such as these, even the absurd fears of Aino truly spoke to me and moved me – and made me feel like they were my nightmares. The book is quite short but it is filled with details and points that make you stop and consider about the things behind these nightmares. Some of the nightmares, such as The Hotel (age 4)(pictured above), really show how something seen in the news or in a film can transform into a very frightening nightmare. After reading Only a Bad Dream I pushed it to many people and talked about it with many of my friends. I liked how the art combined the drawings of Aino with those of his father and also how the narration moved across the pages. I only wish that the book would have had a longer foreword or an afterword, because despite the strong visual effect of the book, I would have wanted to read more about the nightmares and about the exchanges between these two artists.

EDIT: A few pages of the book have been translated into English and can be found from the Books from Finland website.

4/5

kirjanvuosi15

Challenge yourself – literary summer bingo!

Books on the Nightstand - Summer Bingo Card

About six months ago one of my fellow bloggers, I cannot remember who anymore, wrote a post about literary podcasts and recommended Books on the Nightstand – a weekly podcast series where two publishing professionals talk about books and literary events. I got quickly hooked on the podcasts and have been following them for a while now. The BONTS Summer Reading Bingo is a reading challenge that they piloted last summer and due to popular demand are doing again this year. Although I know I already have a lot of catching up to do with my own reading challenges for the year, I think I also need something that’s a little out of my comfort zone. Hence I’m going to take up the challenge and see if I’ll be able to complete at least one row before the end the challenge. The challenge runs from May 25th to September 7th and you can decide yourself which rules to follow. I think I’ll go with the traditional five-in-a-row tactic although I have know idea where to start from.

If you want to participate in the challenge, you can get your own bingo card HERE. The squares will change every time you hit refresh so if the first one seems too hard for you, you can always pick another one. And if you are doing the Summer Bingo, let me know in the comments so that we can cheer for each other and offer suggestions for different squares. I know I’ll need some. (Popular science, anyone?)

Translation matters

I generally tend to focus on books and book reviews here in my blog, but as some of you might know, I am also passionate about translation. I study Translation Studies in university and also work part-time as a freelance translator. However, what I feel most passionate about within the sphere of translation is – surprise surprise – literary translation. So I thought that I’d share with you a bit about why I think translation matters and also few of the things that matter in translation.

The world of book publishing is full of actors that work behind the scenes and are rarely credited for their effort. Think about cover designers, layout designers and publicists booking events and talking about the book to various medias. In case of foreign fiction, a translator is also one of them. The style, the idiomatic expressions, and the beauty of the writing is often credited to the author, but more often than not, it is the translator who has worked hard to make that text as great in another language as it was in the original.

Translated fiction provides us worlds outside of our immediate surroundings. If books let you travel back to the past of to another country, a translation might let you to travel into the shoes of someone living in a completely different culture. Today English is often used as a lingua franca and the bestsellers and canon of English language fiction are also widely read in different countries – more often in translation than in the original language. English is one of the dominant languages in the world and consequently countries in which English is the first official language tend to export more literature than to import – the marginal 3% of translated fiction is still a reality.

My first language, however, isn’t English. I grew up in Finland speaking only Finnish and most of the books I read as a child were translated from other languages – such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Harry Potter series, the Anne of Green Gables series. I read authors such as Astrid Lindgren, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and Louisa M. Alcott – all in translation. Naturally I also read Finnish books and Finnish authors, but translations were a big part of the fiction and non-fiction that I consumed in my early years. It was only later when I went to school and started learning other languages that I also began to read books in the language they were originally written. However, I never stopped reading books in translation.

helloheihallo

© LinguaLinx

When reading translated books I naturally expect the translation to be faithful to the original. It’s not that I want to read translator X’s interpretation of author Y’s book. No, I want to read author Y’s book and – perhaps not being able to read the language – trust translator X to convey the story. The question of faithfulness is not, however, simply black and white because to convey, for example, a specific style or irony, the translator might have to make some necessary changes to the text. Let’s take an example. If a character in a novel would unexpectedly say: “Good day, axe-handle!” you’d probably think that he’d either a vicious axe murderer or a carpenter who is bit OCD about his tools, right? Nevertheless, this would be an exact translation of what the character says. What you probably didn’t know is that this is a Nordic idiom (based on a Norwegian folktale) and it means that the person is either ducking a question by giving a nonsensical answer or pointing out that the two parties are talking past each other. Thus if we were to translate what the character means, the translation might be something like: “Wednesday, you say?” So you see, a faithful translation always requires more background knowledge on the culture and the customs from the reader, whereas a fluent translation allows you to read the story without previous knowledge of the culture or history of the country where the story is from. This is one of the reasons why many readers find academic translations – often representing the more exact and faithful translation strategy – much harder to read than the more popular ones. Both have their pros and cons, but having no knowledge of ancient Greek literature I’d personally go first for the popular translation of Iliad instead of the academic one.

As stated in the beginning, a fluent translation is often very much the work of the translator, not the author. And as shown in the example above, the same goes also for other areas of translation. One that I’ve come across and always find interesting and amusing are product names that change from one country to another. For example, did you know that the deodorant known as Sure in the UK is Degree in the U.S. but Rexona in the Nordic countries? Or that the dishwashing liquid Fairy is also Fairy in Finland but Yes in Sweden? Some of these are because the joke or pun in the name doesn’t work in the target language and some due to different marketing strategies. Nevertheless, aside from fiction and marketing texts, there are also texts, such as user manuals, official documents and so on, that do not require or even allow as much adaptation. These, too, might require some cultural-specific changes, but for the most part it is business as usual.

Often translators work on either literary texts that require a lot of changes and adapting or on technical texts that require larger knowledge of terminology and textual standards in specific fields. The later also often use translation tools and software and translation memories that help to keep the terminology consistent and, in the case of repetitive phrases, remember the previous translation. These tools are a great help for translators translating 100-paged documents under tight schedules, but in the case of literary translation, they are often useless. Literary translator needs to translate more than just the words – she or he needs to recreate the sense and the feeling of the original. A bad example of this was the “Amazongate” about a year ago when Amazon was selling translations of popular classics that had been translated by a machine – think Google Translate, for example – without any post-editing. Needless to say the result was horrendous, and the translations were quickly drawn back.

I will give another quick example to illustrate my point. Think of the sentence “A black cat crossed the road”. The meaning is simple enough and people usually learn to form such sentences quite early on when studying a foreign language. Translating it wouldn’t be hard task. However, the sentence doesn’t stand on its own in the text – it is part of the context, that is, the book. “A black cat crossed the road” would carry a completely different meaning in a paranormal mystery or a science-fiction novel set in space than in a novel about the suburban life in 1950s. Hence even such a simple phrase could be translated differently depending on the context. And that is a fraction of the magic of language. In a column published last year in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes translation as Word Magic. If you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend that you go and read Gopnik’s wonderful piece for it really does explain the challenges of translation even to those who are unacquainted with the field.

So what is translation for me as a translator, a student, language learner and an avid reader? Translation can be magical or it can be something completely ordinary. It can be awfully frustrating trying to come up with an colloquial expression that would carry the same meaning as the original or trying to hunt down a term that you’ve never heard before. But it can also be very rewarding as upon researching the use of an idiom you also learn something new every day (that’s right – I didn’t of the etymology of the “Good day, axe-handle” idiom before I looked it up for this post). It is understandably harder to translate the witty nonsense verses of Lewis Carroll than, say, Gillian Flynn, but both have their own challenges and require time, skills and effort from the translator. Thus it would be more than amazing if these people were to receive more credit for their hard work than they currently do. Because sometimes it takes a translation to make a decently selling book a bestseller.

May Reads and June Plans

May’s gone and summer’s here – almost! May was an OK reading month with 7 books and towards the end of the month I was also able to push out some reviews of the books. I still a have small backlog of books that I want to review as well as other bookish posts, so I’ll try to work on those in the beginning of June. Aside from reviews I also posted my Spring book haul in May, so if you’re interested know about the books that I’ve lately acquired, you can go read that one. In May I also started to post my reflections as I’m reading in Goodreads, so if you’re interested in those, feel free to add me!

My summer holiday begins in June so I hope to put my free time to good use and to read and write as much as I can. I will be working, but I’ll still have more time in my hands. I’m also planning on traveling during the summer – maybe a short trip to Berlin – but it will most likely happen towards the end of the summer. Right now I’m focusing on enjoying the freedom and doing all sorts of little things.

Books I read in May:

Love, Rosie by Cecilia Ahern is a chick-lit novel about two friends who grow up together in Ireland and continue to stay in contact years and decades after life takes them to separate directions. Originally titled Where the Rainbows End (UK) or eponymously Rosie Dunne (US), the book is basically a will-they-wont-they type of romance sprinkled with small rants (á la the famous ‘Cool Girl’ rant in Gone Girl) about marriage, divorce, respect in relationship, growing up, etc. I used to read a lot more chick lit and enjoy the light and entertaining tone of the writing, but with Love, Rosie I only found myself annoyed with the all over the place structure, the epistolary form that didn’t (in my opinion) really work, and hoping already after 100 pages that the book would end quickly. I did consider DNF’ing the book, but because of my stubborn nature, I ended up powering through it anyway. Needless to say, I didn’t really find it that enjoyable and gave it only 2/5 stars.

Books on my June TBR

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (currently-reading)
  • Edith Södergran – poems and aforisms (currently-reading)(Swedish)
  • The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö
  • Mr. Darwin’s Gardner by Kristina Carlson
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My plan for June reading is a) to read all my library books before they are due back and b) read as much from my shelves as possible. As my Spring book haul revealed, I have a terrible habit of buying books and letting them sit on my shelves for months without reading. So I need to make some effort to tackle down my physical TBR during the summer. I’m currently reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I started and put down around the middle of May. I was really enjoying the narrative voice of Oscar and his family, and I can’t wait to find out what will happen next. I’m also still reading the large Edith Södergran poetry collection that I started back in March. In fact, I didn’t read a single poem in May, so I’ll really have to catch up with my reading if I want to finish it during the summer.

Next up are my two Finnish novels, The Beggar and The Hare and Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, that were left over from my May TBR. Both are rather short, so they should be quick reads. I also have Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which was won last year’s Baileys Women’s Prize. The book is a short one but I’ve heard that the writing style is quite challenging, so I’m interested to see what it’s like. After that I have two books from my latest library haul, Just Kids and Waiting for Godot. I have been literally waiting for months to read Patti Smith’s memoir and based on the first five pages, it looks very, very promising. Waiting for Godot is one of Samuel Beckett’s most read plays and since I was feeling like reading a play again, I decided to go with Beckett. Lastly I have the second book in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. The book came out already last summer, but since I read the first book in the series then, I’ve been saving the sequel for this summer. Once the weather gets a bit nicer, I’ll head to the beach with this one!

Those are the 8 books that I plan on reading during June. If I do manage to read all of them before the month is over, I might try to pick up something to suit my Reading England 2015 challenge which I’ve been neglecting. I hope you all had a lovely May and that you’re feeling excited for June!

POST-EDIT: Go Set a Watchman is published on July 14, not June 14. I guess the hype of reading TKaM got me so excited that I mistook the date to be sooner. Apologies for the confusion.