The Forgotten Words: a translated short story

This semester I took a comparative literature course that was a translation workshop. For the final project, I had to translate a certain number of pages of text from a foreign language into English. I chose a short story I came across online by French author Xuan Vincent called Les mots oubliés, or The Forgotten Words.

This was my first time ever translating formally, but I really fell in love with the process. My professor praised my work and suggested I submit it to a university blog dedicated to literature translated by students – and, of course, I wanted to post it here as well. This led to me contacting the author via email to ask her permission.

Xuan Vincent has read over my translation of her story and kindly agreed to allow me to post it. If you know French, I highly recommend you read the original as well as check out her other writings. You can find them at http://www.oniris.be/auteur/xuanvincent-706.html. Her blog is here: http://xuanadoo35.unblog.fr/.

In addition to the translation itself, I’ve written a translator’s preface that explains more about the story and the author as well about the choices I made as a translator. I hope you find yourself caught up Vincent’s story and enjoy it as much as I did. Perhaps soon I will translate more stories of hers and other French writers as well.

Here is my brief synopsis of the story (which is also the first paragraph of my preface) to give you an idea what the tale is about, and below are both the preface and translation:

Fabien Vannereau bumps into a gypsy musician from his childhood who offers the writer the strange and mystical gift of seven words. A bewildered Fabien continues with his life and forgets all about this encounter until many years later. Now struggling with his career, he is in desperate need of some source of inspiration, and the words start coming back to him and offer him just that. He ends up at a mysterious masquerade meeting in the château of a countess, where he regains hope for his writing career. But there is more to this enchanting place than he thinks. He will soon discover both the truth about the Countess and the purpose of the musician’s strange words.

Translator’s preface.
The Forgotten Words, translation by Rachel Daniels.

 

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Whitman’s “Beginning My Studies”

While reading a PDF selection titled “How to Read a Poem” for my English 340 / Studies in Poetry course, I came across something that caused me to have an epiphany of sorts.

Walt Whitman’s poem “Beginning My Studies” was one of twenty-six he wrote to introduce his major work, a single book he had been working on his whole life.

The feeling he describes in this poem, the feeling of loving the idea of just starting out so much that he does not want to move forward, is exactly how I feel when I start working on a new story. Perhaps this is why I have difficulty completing what I hope would become novels. When inspiration strikes, I absolutely love sitting down with my laptop to begin typing out a new idea. It’s moving past that beginning I have trouble with, and this must be because I “linger with pleasure over the ecstatic beginning.”

Short Story: The Haze

Writing “The Haze”

“The Haze” is one of those stories that turned out completely different than I expected or had initially planned. When I first started writing this story, I was dealing with a potential plot far too large to rein in for the acceptable length of a short story. I had plenty of ideas; I just didn’t have enough time or space to utilize them. With that in mind, I’d like to think of the final product as almost a ‘Part One’ to the story. I left the ending almost open-ended intentionally; while the story does have a conclusion that can be left as is, I could very well see myself coming back to this world and these characters to continue telling about their journey.

This story changed a lot throughout the writing and editing process. I had multiple scenes in my mind that I planned on using, but as I wrote, the story went in another direction. I even came up with a subplot involving the narrator’s father, but short stories just aren’t long enough to have that much going on. As for the scenes that only ever played out in my head and never made it to the page: when I wrote, I didn’t always know what was going to happen next in my story; I sort of just let my characters do what they wanted and behave how I thought they would. Everything ended up coming together pretty well in the end, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

It’s crazy how much of a writer’s own life unintentionally seeps into her writing. As “The Haze” developed further, I realized a lot of it was quite similar to my life, especially the familial relationships. I certainly didn’t set out to do this intentionally other than using a female college student for a narrator. I specifically gave the narrator a younger brother instead of a sister to differentiate the story from my own life a little, but still, resemblances abound.

Of course, in my actual life, there isn’t a harmful new virus running rampant. Being a huge fan of science fiction, the supernatural, the magical, the “weird,” and anything post-apocalyptic, I wanted my short story to exist in a world different from the norm. Indeed, my characters could exist in a normal world – their own world starts out just like ours before the spread of the virus – and none of them have any supernatural abilities, but my story still includes an element similar to those of the previously mentioned genres. Around the time I started “The Haze,” I had just started watching AMC’s The Walking Dead, if that provides any insight to my creative state of mind. Though I was inspired by this show and other popular stories, I didn’t want to write something completely typical of the genre.

I really enjoyed developing my characters, Jenessa and Isaac especially, and had fun coming up with the plot overall. Writing puts me in the same state of mind as reading a really good book does – it’s not necessarily a “high,” but when I take a break, I experience the feeling of another life lingering in my mind, a little bit like waking up from a very vivid dream. Perhaps I will write a ‘Part Two’ to “The Haze” this summer.

And here is the finished product:
THE HAZE

Repurposed Art: The Gardener and the Pianist


For my repurposed art project, I chose to translate a piece of artwork I did in high school into a piece of flash fiction. This piece, which can also be seen on my artwork page, is made entirely of white charcoal pencil on black paper. So the process of creating this was completely opposite to that of a normal charcoal; instead of shading and adding pigment, I had to work by taking away darkness. In writing this short piece of fiction, I simply used the room from my drawing as inspiration for part of the setting and let my creativity run wild. It is meant to be a portion of the room Mirabelle – and eventually Elijah – occupies.
The actual content of the drawing doesn’t so much have to do with the story I’ve come up with, but it was my source of inspiration. Also, if this is of any interest to anyone, I listened to Evanescence while I wrote (i.e. the dark melodies of the piano).
My flash fiction piece, The Gardener and the Pianist, can be viewed on my repurposed art page. I hope you enjoy it! :)

Rachel.

A Response to Byers’ ‘Shipmates Down Under’

Okay, so I’m not sure if we were supposed to respond to this short story or not, but I thought I would take a second to talk about how much I liked Michael Byers’ Shipmates Down Under. I was hooked after less than the first page – I think the characters’ odd language (“bluh,” “mumph,” etc.) was part of the intrigue.

Byers gives the reader a look into an average family’s life, but in an interesting way. Part of the tension going on definitely has to do with their daughter, Nadia, being sick, but a lot of it already exists between the narrator and his wife. At first I got a sense that Alvin liked his son, Ted, more than his daughter and kind of resented both Nadia and his wife, Harriet. This alone was enough to make me keep reading; I wanted to know more about these characters’ relationships. Toward the end, however, the narrator seemed to care about both his children – it was just Harriet causing problems.

Obviously, a lot is left open in this story. We don’t know if Alvin and Harriet work things out. We never figure out what exactly caused Nadia to get so sick. We never discover – and I was particularly interested in this – why they say those made-up words. But none of this really matters. Byers has used his story to look at certain problems families may encounter, particularly between husband and wife. His characters are certainly believable, and I, as the reader, saw Alvin’s perspective and took his side – but Byers allows the readers to do this in such a way that they don’t necessarily see Harriet as the bad guy.

The characters themselves were all very interesting and not the norm or the expected. The entire family was a bit strange, but in a good way. Byers gains reader interest not by having a spectacular, earth-shattering plot, but by creating characters the reader is interested to know more about. I would definitely read another story about Alvin, Harriet, Ted, and Nadia… or perhaps just another story by Byers in general.

Craft Essay: Greg Hrbek’s ‘Sagittarius’

Longer than most of my short story response posts, this will serve as my critical essay for the assignment. Greg Hrbek’s Sagittarius was my short story of choice. I call it a “fragmented” walkthrough because I did not cover everything I could have or would have liked to; I stuck with the points I made for the sake of brevity and keeping the essay within the confines of the assignment. In addition to posting this as text, I’m including the Word document version here: Craft Essay (since WordPress isn’t very formatting-friendly).

A Fragmented Walkthrough of Sagittarius

From just looking at the title, the reader can tell that Greg Hrbek’s short story Sagittarius is not going to be the norm. In the first moment we glance at the piece, Hrbek sets our expectations and gives us a vital piece of information. The word “Sagittarius” is automatically associated with astrology, causing the reader to think of the otherworldly, the heavenly; Hrbek provides us with an image of the mythical creature that is central to his story right away – a half-human half-horse, centaur-like being – even if we do not pick up on it at first.

If this association is not made from the title, Hrbek flat-out gives us this knowledge in his opening section. He sets up the scene, defines the major conflict, and introduces three of his four main characters. We are given Sebastian, the baby with an upper “human half” and horse-like “hindquarters,” who has run away from a “they” whose identity we are not quite sure of yet (106). The end of the paragraph clarifies one of “them” as Sebastian’s mother, which alludes to the fact that the other is his father. The only character we do not get is his older brother, Kaden; this exclusion of him in the introduction is effective by its echo of his possible feelings of unimportance and neglect later in the story. Hrbek is already giving us insight to the relationships and lives of his characters, right from the start.

Another – perhaps more obvious – accomplishment of the first paragraph is the establishment of point of view, tense, and narrative distance. Hrbek starts in third-person past tense, but soon shifts into present tense, showing us that there was not much narrative distance in the first portion of the paragraph to begin with; this event of the baby running away has happened quite recently, and it is still taking place. We get the idea that we will be allowed to see into the minds of more than just one character by the sensory details of multiple characters: “they heard his hooves… but were too late to see him jump,” “he stands in the trees, hominid heart thundering in his chest,” and “he hears his mother call” (106). This omniscient narration is confirmed as the story continues, showing multiple characters’ thoughts.

While reading, something that quickly becomes apparent to the reader is Hrbek’s structure and organization; each section is a very long block paragraph, and the story bounces from character to character. Both of these choices add to the dramatic effect of the story’s pace. By going from the mother to the father to the son at home and back again, we get the panicky feeling these characters themselves are experiencing. We get to see the commotion from every angle. The block formatting does not allow the pauses that normally accompany paragraph breaks, quickening the pace; the characters thoughts and lines occur simultaneously with the action.

The choice not to put quotation marks around most of the dialogue and not to italicize thoughts also adds more emphasis to the thoughts of the character in that particular section. Without thoughts being in italics, we read them just as we read the normal narration; thus, we feel as if we actually enter a particular character’s mind for a moment. For example, Isabel’s thoughts trail into what seems to be the narration when Hrbek writes the following:

“No, Isabel thinks. Dawn is ten hours away. We’ll find him before then. We have to. Hardly April. The temperature still hypothermic at night. Even if he wanders for a mile, in this silence we’ll hear him. Except that his cries, until today, have been so very faint… She herself can scarcely speak” (106-107).

Everything from “No” until “faint” consists of Isabel’s thoughts, and Hrbek chooses ellipses to transition back to narration. This short section mimics first-person narrative, making the mother’s thoughts seem more authentic to the reader. The exclusion of quotation marks around dialogue occurs when the characters are alone and reflecting on a conversation, emphasizing that it is a memory occurring in one person’s head. We sometimes do see quotation marks and new paragraphs for dialogue, but only when it is actually occurring in the present, such as Martin calling out to his wife about the deer. Hrbek follows a pattern with these choices that is easy for the reader to pick up on.

Insight to a mother and father’s thoughts and actions during a situation such as this – a young child running away from home at night – is common, but Hrbek also provides us with the other son’s point of view. Because Kaden is only three years old, Hrbek’s use of the child’s thoughts is inventive and attention-grabbing. Indeed, for me, the Kaden sections were the most riveting. That he worries his parent’s anxiety is his fault, knows his brother’s escape was his doing, and is so accepting of his brother’s condition all at such a young age makes him a very dynamic character. While his parts were most interesting to me, other readers might have been more attentive to the mother or father’s sections; Hrbek creates flexibility in his story with the view of multiple characters, making Sagittarius appealing to a range of readers.

As for the supernatural or science fiction aspect of Sagittarius, Hrbek addresses this in a way that works quite well; it does not really matter if his readers cannot believe the existence of a half-human half-horse baby, because his characters themselves are finding it hard to believe. He integrates this presence of a mythical being into the science and medical world in a way that Sebastian is viewed as an anomaly. Because he lets his characters question this creature and marvel over how it could be possible, we as readers do not feel obligated to do as much questioning ourselves. To explain this further, if we started reading a story about a world with centaurs and other mythical species that viewed them as normal, we would immediately realize the author’s fictional world was different from our own. With Hrbek’s world, however, the idea of this type of baby seems plausible, because his world is so similar to ours.

Greg Hrbek followed an atypical path in writing Sagittarius, which is exactly why it is successful as a short story. His organization reflects the mood of the story overall, and his characters add different layers to the plot. Sagittarius is another example of a short story that includes a science fiction aspect in a way that is not ridiculously far-fetched or distracting. I could say a lot more about what he does well as an author, but I think I’ve covered most of the main choices I appreciated.