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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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

Photograph Flash Fiction

Told to choose two pictures and write a short scene of fiction based on them, I came up with the following. Again, this assignment was very brief, a mere few minutes (as you can see, I didn’t get very far with the second one). The first one sparked an idea that could potentially be a short story or even a book – I didn’t realize how helpful looking at a picture could be when it comes to finding inspiration for writing. I wish I could include the photos, but sadly I do not have them.

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Picture 1: Young woman standing in front a pinball machine. [First Person]

The old arcade off Woodward Avenue used to be my favorite place to be. I’d go there every day after school, spending hours at the pinball machines and sipping soda, trying to escape. This was my place, and she ruined everything. She had no right showing up here. If she had just gone home with her boyfriend or to the mall with her other cheerleader friends like usual, none of this would have happened. She would still be alive.

It was a particularly rainy and gloomy afternoon as I was leaving school, when Evan slammed into my shoulder and made me drop my unzipped bag in a puddle. This I was used to – he always hated me for being weird and probably for being smarter than him – but it didn’t stop here. He continued on his way, stomping all over the letters that spilled out of the front compartment – the letters from my dead mother.

By the time I got to the arcade, I was a mess. I told myself if I could just beat my high score on the Star Wars pinball machine, I would feel better. But when I walked through the door, setting off the familiar greeting bell, Sarah was already there. She was at my machine.

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Picture 2: Smiling mother holding her baby. [Third Person]

The familiar sense of panic and anger settled over Bridget as she watched her mother coddle her younger brother. I’m invisible, she thought. It was whenever Anne held Tyler, becoming so absorbed by the thought of him – the miracle baby that he was – that Bridget snuck off to the attic with her notebook and crayons to create a world of illustrated mayhem.

The House On Coster Road

I had actually planned on posting this piece of flash fiction the day we did this writing exercise in class, but somehow it slipped my mind (or maybe I wasn’t confident enough). This is just a short, unedited blurb I wrote in a span of just a few minutes, trying to follow certain rules and meet particular requirements and as my professor called them out. (For example, “Now have one of your characters take something out of their pocket.”) I actually had a lot of fun writing this, so I’m not too worried if it’s not the best.

The House On Coster Road

More than half of the aged white paint was chipping away from years of wear, revealing the greyish old wood of the two-story farm home. The lawn had been left to grow on its own accord, and it reached our waists in most places, the wild grasses grabbing our legs and twisting around us. The smell of lilac invaded our noses, pleasantly but almost warningly, as if to remind us that this was bee territory.

Becca and I cautiously made our way in through the back door, ducking our heads a little at the memory of a bat flying out unexpectedly many summers ago. The inside, though even more barren and dead than the outside, had an almost magical quality. We crept up the old stairs, which creaked dangerously under our feet, to see what would have someday been our bedrooms.

“I can’t imagine living here anymore,” I said softly, looking out the window of the room facing the road, “even though I used to be able to picture it so perfectly.”

“Yeah. Did we ever end up picking our rooms?” she asked. “You probably would have gotten this one, since you get whatever you want.”

“I’m the oldest. Of course I would have gotten first pick.” I rolled my eyes.

We made our way to one of the other bedrooms, treading as lightly as possible through this barren home. I was just about to bring up how we always thought it was haunted, when a rotting floorboard gave out beneath my flip-flop, my foot and ankle sinking into the jagged wood.

“Help me!” I shrieked, trying to lift my foot out while avoiding too much pain. Becca warily hurried over, letting me grab her shoulder for balance.

“I’m calling Mom and having her pick us up,” she said and reached into her pocket for her iPhone, having had enough of the creepy place from our childhood. She hurried downstairs and outside to get better signal.

“Wait for me!” I yelled after her, bending down to tend to my scraped ankle.

“Come on then!” she called back impatiently.

I paused a moment longer, my mind flooded with past dreams of what this house could have been for us, how it could have changed our lives. Maybe if our dad had actually gotten around to fixing it up, Mom wouldn’t have divorced him.

I quickly tiptoed back downstairs, careful to avoid any floorboards that looked threatening. Becca, sure enough, was on the phone with Mom, as I waded through the sea of weeds. Normally, I would convince her that we should walk back, but my ankle had started bleeding, so I settled for getting a ride. We sat in the dirt driveway, a distance away from the bee-infested lilac bushes, and waited for our Mom’s silver Grand Prix to pull up, having had enough adventure for the day.

A Response to Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’

John Cheever’s The Swimmer was brilliant and depressing at the same time. I had a difficult time getting into the story at first, but once I realized he was swimming all the pools in the county to get home, I was quite intrigued. Then, when the weird details started popping up – such as how early it is getting dark and how rapidly the leaves seem to be changing – I was even more hooked.

Cheever’s choice to reveal the truth about Ned’s life just a half a step ahead of Ned himself finding out was a successful one. Because the story is in third person, we see all the little hints at the same time as Ned does, but we can make sense of them before he thinks it all through. This adds to the aspect of tension, prompting the readers to try to figure out all the details and to wonder, When will Ned figure out what’s going on? I guess it’s kind of in line with the idea of suspense instead of surprise. Ned doesn’t just swim through the town all happy then come home to an empty house on an Autumn night that causes him to realize his sad life story. We are told something bad has happened to him fairly early on; it’s just the particulars we still need to figure out, so we keep reading.

Though I’ve finished the story, I’m still not one hundred percent certain what happens in it. Has this really occurred in one day, with Ned simply having a skewed perception of time and not realizing the true date until the end? Or is this adventure through backyards and swimming pools something he does regularly, his growing fatigue a sign of how he’s actually aged? Cheever leaves the reader with less questions answered than not, but this works to his advantage (think of the ending of the movie Inception).

Another thing I want to note – this idea of Ned swimming home by way of the neighborhood swimming pools and calling them the Lucinda River made me think that this could be a poem rather than a short story. Doesn’t a river of swimming pools sound like something that would be touched upon in poetry? (I guess this Repurposed Art assignment has me thinking this way.) Overall, The Swimmer was quite inventive.

A Response to Harty’s ‘Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down’

Ryan Harty’s Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down is a brilliant example of successful science fiction. Harty flawlessly weaves the futuristic and imaginary idea of robot children into a world as normal as our own. The story addresses spousal conflict, parental worries, and many other themes that could be found in any genre of fiction. These issues could be interesting enough to read about on their own, but Harty’s surprising inclusion of a mechanical, robotic son really ups the ante.

Because Harty writes about his robots as if they are completely normal – they look like human children, and they are treated more or less the same as anyone – the reader really believes it and doesn’t have that little voice in the back of his head saying, But this could never really happen.

Harty uses the perfect balance of detail and mystery. The reader doesn’t know every detail about the world of the story – how common it is to have a robot child, how these robots actually work, how and why people want or need to adopt a robot child – but doesn’t need to in order to comprehend the story. The world constructed by Harty seems to be the same world we live in, but with a futuristic and scientific twist.

One of the issues at the heart of the story is the conflict between Mike, the narrator, and his wife Dana. Their disagreements, though revolving around their robotic son Cole, could happen without the sci-fi aspect of the novel; any couple could disagree over what course of action to take with their child, causing them to grow apart and contemplate leaving one another.

Another successful element of this story is the believability of the characters’ emotions. The little details about Cole when he gets upset convey his emotion really well – “a look of panic overtakes him,” “he’s trying to appear calm for my sake,” “his eyes suddenly fill with tears and he has to glance off at the picnic tables,” etc. – and as a reader, I really feel for both Cole and his father.

Since the story is told from Mike’s point of view, I take his side. I agree with him about not wanting to get Cole a new chip and almost view Dana as the bad guy (almost, because I still feel Mike’s love for and desire to get along with his wife). Would anyone exchange their human child for another if he got sick? No. So why would someone do that with a robot child? Harty makes the reader question right and wrong in a way that isn’t so black and white – clearly, we don’t have to deal with exactly the same issues that the narrator and his wife do, but their problems are very similar to ones we could encounter.

I think the biggest reason Ryan Harty’s short story is so great is that he writes about something odd in a way which makes it seem normal, connecting his story’s conflicts with real life and providing the reader with just enough detail. Additionally, using a modified line from the story as the title was an excellent choice.