Category Archives: Books

Thanks for rough Calvino translation?

Italo Calvino entered my life in the autumn. Friends and colleagues recommended different books and passages as I was casting around for suitable texts for final year students to translate. We decided on a passage from Il barone rampante, a Bildungsroman, it is said – but that’s another story for another time.

The local public library holds a copy of Calvino’s Letters 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin. I was delighted to make this discovery and decided to read it, to find out more about the author and to add to my understanding of Italy and Italian literature in this period.

I read peacefully and happily through Calvino’s life, as reflected in his letters. His voice was pleasant and friendly, literate and considered, and came strongly from the page. Until, that is, until p466 and a letter to Bob Silvers, written on 26 July 1976.

This letter reads very poorly and does not have the same Calvino voice at all. It’s not about Calvino, of course: it’s all about the translation.

Most part of your criticisms are right and interesting; to some of your questions I could answer, to some others not. But the first problems they raise  is how so much informations could be contained in a shorter article? … Why don’t you ask, for instance, to Eric Hobsbawm a review of the 4 volumes Paolo Spriano’s Storia del Partito Comunista d’Italia?

Here we suddenly see the ‘workings’ which, unlike in maths and science, are not for show in literature. It appears to be an early translation of the letter by an Italian with uncertain English. Seeing the workings exposed in this way prompts two thoughts.

Firstly, it’s fair enough to have someone rough out the translation before it’s edited together into a coherent and smoothly-running whole. I don’t know whether the translator was thanked in the acknowledgements but I do hope so. In the groves of academe, this kind of donkey work is often carried out for professorial staff by postgraduates, and lack of acknowledgement is common.

Secondly, how on earth did this rough translation make it to publication without snagging on the net of editing by McLaughlin, proofreading by Princeton University Press (the US publisher) and proofreading by Penguin (the UK publisher)? Editing and proofreading seem to me to be increasingly hit and miss affairs (see my previous review, for example) but because this is a translation it stands out as particularly bad.

Calvino, Italo Letters 1941 − 1945. London: Penguin Classics, 2014.

Review: Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

I’m interested in the sea and maritime matters. It’s in the blood, or something. Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships is one of very few contemporary books about merchant shipping, and I’ve just read it.

It has, we can probably all agree, a great title. The language of the 1611 King James Bible still echoes in many people’s minds and the title comes from Psalms 107:23-24:

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

Clare sails as a supernumerary on two Maersk ships. The first was the Gerd Maersk, Felixstowe – Suez (where he had to disembark as only essential crew are carried in the Indian Ocean), and then Tanjung Pelepas – Los Angeles. The second vessel was the Maersk Pembroke, Antwerp – Montreal.

Using these two voyages as his framework, Clare ranges across a fair number of seafaring issues: birds, bunkering, containerisation, fire and rescue, the wages and conditions of officers and crew (particularly Filipinos), pilots, pirates, plastic, rigs, sex and violence, superstitions, wartime convoys – and more.

We read some excellent descriptions of the sea in its different colours and moods, and there are some passages from literary works (Coleridge’s The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner, and Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, for example). In a few embarrassing places Clare lets us into his imagination.

There are also some inconclusive ruminations about men and their work which appears to be one of Clare’s underlying interests. Later, we also see a female cook (‘a seafarer like any other, her demeanour says, and a good one’) working on the intensely cold and difficult job of unlashing containers on the St Lawrence Seaway:

‘Annabelle is hard at it, wrapped in a heavy-duty orange jacket and a yellow helmet. Everyone is wearing as much as possible, overalls, balaclavas, goggles, hard hats and scarves.’

We hear no more about men’s work after this.

Almost all the book was interesting, bar the embarrassing bits, so why was I left uncomfortable and slightly disappointed? Yes, the sea and maritime matters are frequently uncomfortable. No, real life doesn’t always fit together neatly. So what might explain my reaction?

My first thought was that the recipe is too obvious: take two different voyages, tick off the main issues, add a bit of description, and remember to tell the reader about some seafaring ‘characters’.

Then I began to wonder whether I simply wasn’t sure what kind of book I was reading. It’s not easy to write up your findings as a participant-observer. The structure of an academic monograph can help with this and will support the author and their voice. This, though, isn’t a monograph: it feels like a rag-bag and the author’s voice often seems unsure and lacking in confidence.

Finally, I asked myself ’Is this creative writing?’ and more understanding dawned. ‘Creative writing’ is something that’s only just crossed my field of vision and I don’t seem to like much written under its rubric. A little research indicated that Clare is, in fact, Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Liverpool.

QED, perhaps. At any rate, these reasons go some way towards explaining my discomfort and disappointment with this book. Now I’m starting to get the hang of ‘creative writing’, and I’ll probably be avoiding or reading it with caution in the future. I’ll still be reading books about the maritime world, though.

(As so often, editing could have been tighter: twice we hear, for example, that Filipino crew have a union-negotiated right to a karaoke machine, and there are also a number of omissions and typos.)

Clare, Horatio Down to the Sea in Ships. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

The reader’s trust was broken

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Orion Books, 2011.

This post is a grumble, I suppose. I started reading the book in good faith, wanting a quick and smooth read to pass a few hours on Christmas Day.

I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many other gas-lit and foggy stories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the Strand Magazine and elsewhere. I’ve also read a fair number of books for and about children in this period – the Cat Royal books set by Julia Golding in the 1790s, Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart historical thrillers and his books about the New Cut Gang, for example.

I’m used to the writing of the period, and to books set in the period. I know that Americans do occasionally turn up in these books.

All was going well as I lay reading in front of the fire. Sherlock Holmes had met a man’s wife. He said to her, ‘We will examine the safe and the study momentarily. But before we do so, Mrs Carstairs, I can tell from your accent that you are American.’ (p49)

And a big bell clanged in my head.

By ‘momentarily’ was meant ‘in a moment’. ‘Momentarily’ is not the word Sherlock Holmes would use for this, surely. Firstly, it is an American usage and secondly, comments on the Merriam-Webster website suggest it is new and stems from wrong usage.

Why did Horowitz use ‘momentarily’, when he tells us that one of the ten rules he set out for himself in writing The House of Silk was ‘use the right language’? (p403) Here are the possibilities, as I see them.

a. Sherlock Holmes used this word as he was speaking to an American and he wanted to make her feel at home. Unlikely, as Holmes is simply not that kind of person and, anyway, it is a new usage.

b. This word is a normal part of Holmes’s British English nineteenth / early twentieth century vocabulary. No, it isn’t.

c. In normal British English today, this word does actually mean ‘in a moment’. No, it doesn’t. For the majority of people, across most of the country, it means ‘for a very short period of time’, ‘for a moment’.

d. It is a signal to North American readers in the large North American book market that this book is OK and is for them. That they can relax and enjoy the story. Yes, this is what I think and what I thought, immediately I read that sentence.

The inelegant, clunky way in which the author acknowledges his large potential North American readership broke the flow of my reading. It made me notice and be niggled by all the small editing mistakes I found later in the book. It made me notice the walk-on appearance of Raymond Chandler as author on p88: ‘It was a fairly dismal place with tattered curtains, a mouldering carpet and a bed that looked more exhausted than anyone who might have attempted to sleep in it.’

It made me see the book not as a story but as a calculating money-making venture by the Conan Doyle Estate and Horowitz, a view confirmed when child abuse by men in high places was revealed as the mystery’s linking thread. It broke the trust between the book and me, the reader.