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An Exercise in Words

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When we climbed up very high, onto the rocky crevices unsullied by human traces, we barely guessed the existence of land beneath the dark canopy. We had no home, we had no names. We had only a mad awe and the quiet, the rustling quiet, torn by the wind like a rotten canvas. In the crystal clear heights I experienced a moment that defied everything I had known heretofore.

Below us was a green gorge, above us only sky. From high up we saw nests, atwitter, the nests of predators, from down below the tips of branches stretched their timid greens towards us.

I’m not vertiginous. I stepped onto the edge of the cliff.

The green rift was ondulating before my eyes.

I grabbed Joe around the waist, he hugged my shoulders. We stood thus, until everything disappeared and we were left all alone.

Between the earth and the sky.

That which held us in balance has no name. We froze in some cataleptic state. I stopped being aware of my immediate surroundings.

The universe was the image of an open gate.

Then it happened. It lasted a second, perhaps a fraction of a second, it’s not important.  I, who does  not believe in gods or demons, noted the presence of a monster. It surrounded us on all sides, it was swallowing us, we were its prey.

To defeat it is to deny its existence.

I searched for a magic incantation and strained all of my inner power. I am a titan, willing to die, but not to surrender.

My will was fighting its greatest battle.

And again there were the ticking branches, I was lying with my face in Joe’s palms and from the excited pulsing of his arteries I read how awful I looked. I lifted my head. I became aware of the green rift, the cloudless sky, and my fingers digging into Joe’s skin.

“You got dizzy, Hannie.”

Joe’s Hannie by Květa Legátová,
excerpt translated by Blue Jay & Bumblebee

* * *

The number of languages you speak is the number of times you are human.

European proverb

I’m working on a project currently that involves translating a literary text. Rewriting prose into a different language – a whole different system of thought and humour and a whole different set of words and possibilities – is an extremely interesting and an insanely responsible job. I’m not sure you can ever become aware of just how important it is unless you have a hand at it yourself. While I’ve never been keen on translations, this stint has made me appreciate all the more the work of people who’ve reimagined and reinvented literary works from Shakespeare to Harry Potter.

I’ve been aware of the delicate world of translations since childhood. I remember vividly when, after having finished Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I was presented with Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian translation of the book, which was in fact a reinterpretation of the story, setting it in a distinctly Russian environment. Nabokov replaced the name Alice with Annie, switched the jar of orange marmalade for a jar of strawberry jam, and sprinkled his text with a number of Russian language and culture specific puns that had to be diligently explained to me.

Nowadays, when I’m reading a particularly well-written or culture-specific book, I often think about how I’d translate this or that passage, pondering words and phrases. It’s become a sort of fun mental exercise, like sudoku or mahjong.

It seized me most recently when I was reading one of the most magical books I’ve ever happened upon – Jozova Hanule by Květa Legátová – in Czech. The writing style and language were so extraordinary I couldn’t fathom how they could be adequately translated, and found myself badly wanting to read the English version for comparison (and critique). Sadly, it seems to be out of print, so I had no other option but to try and have a go at it myself. While I don’t intend to translate the entire book just for fun, I decided to share my favourite excerpt here, just to give you a glimpse of the beauty and the magic of Ms. Legátova’s world.


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