Editorial: Welcome back to the latest PROTA, delayed due to an ailment that has also delayed research for other writing. But, enough about me. The latest collection by the enigmatic Thomas Phillips and a Q & A on translation with the necessary Brendan Connell feature this month. An 'Albertine's Wooers' round-up should - eventually - follow in time. (An intended Q & A with the effervescent Scott Nicolay has had to be delayed due to his own literary commitments, but I hope to follow this up in a future post). Til then...
And The Darkness Back Again by Thomas Phillips, Zagava Books
We have here – for this blog, at least - a different kind of writer; one who presents his subjects in the form of internal monologues; ruminations veering from mania-prompted obsession to remoter essay-like description. There are several 'Thomas Phillips' currently active in publishing. One first-timers might be most in danger of confusing him with is the mystery / suspense novelist of The Molech Prophecy, although that Thomas Phillips found God in 2003, including his worldview in his work from then. Despite one subtley amusing tale here bearing the title 'Christian Singles,' Zagava’s Thomas Phillips harbours more darkly astronomical concerns.
Phillips – born fifty years ago in Raleigh, NC – has an alter-ego as composer and musician, Tomas.
His biog states:
'Like most of his music, which draws on a range of electronic and modern composition genres, his fiction typically embraces a minimalist aesthetic not unlike certain contemporary French writers associated with Les Editions de Minuit.'
This is reflected in his writings emotional remoteness, prompting in the reader an almost fundamentalist sense of the uncanny. One might call him, Ligotti – with less blood. In one tale – 'First Light' – the importance of music is equal to that of the words, enabling us to catch a glimpse of his philosophy;
'....Light is consciousness requiring the dark milieu of abyssal black as juxtaposition, darkness for its own sake, given depth and pressure by the radiance of stars. Light first comes into being. The cosmic Dark Age brings light, space expansion, elements proliferating, the universe cools down until in one small quadrant it starts heating up again, forging illumined, grim ghosts, hauntings of dim minds and hearts.'
This follows a description of a jazzy CD playing as background to a Floridan family (the state in the grip of 'a lamentable inferno') congregating to prepare for dinner. Phillips had to have a second life in music, since his bias towards describing sounds is so prevalent. 'Pots clank, even the sound of words is jarring, though it’s always contained rather than a harsh meeting of metal.' (Opening line, Children of the Family). 'And it opened its mouth next to your ear...It sounded, starting low, low crackle fizz in the mouth...pitch-high noise that warbled thin wire, gravel guttural anger, and plateaued in volume as one long-drawn, cutting drone coursing into your canal...' ('Throatily').
In other tales, such as 'Everything Was Explicable,' a character experiences and ill-translates an existential crisis. In their case, a well-healed couple play out their everyday routine, until she sees the shallow futility of her part in their relationship and what – rather than merely who - her husband is. In 'Firehouse,' strongest on narrative and jeopardy, a couple find themselves, late at night, unfathomably deadlocked in their bedroom, with no clues as to who, or what, might be prowling around the rest of their apartment. This could be a metaphor for the collection, which rewards patience with unnerving residues of alienation and quiet terror.
Q & A
(Translator & Author)
Brendan Connell (born 1970) is an American author and translator. Though his work often falls into the horror and fantasy genres, it has also often been called unclassifiable and avant-garde. His style has been compared to that of J.K. Huysmans and Angela Carter. Some of his shorter fiction, such as that contained in his collection Metrophilias, has been referred to as prose poetry. His work as author is currently published by Snuggly Books, for whom he also translates both classic and obscure European Decadent texts in partnership with his wife, Anna.
How did you get into book translation?
BC: Originally, as a young man, my idea was to become a translator of Buddhist texts, so I did studies of Tibetan and some Sanskrit with that goal in mind; and my first published translations were of Chinese poetry that a Chinese friend and I did together. But, thrown off course by unexpected winds, I next found myself in Europe, on the Swiss-Italian border, where I was somewhat cut off from the former opportunities, but presented with new ones in that I was able to have access to a vast wealth of Italian literature, mostly unknown or little-known to the English-speaking world.
What are your prime considerations when you proceed with a text?
BC: Mainly it has to be a text that interests me. Some people start on texts without reading them first, and experience them as they translate them. Most of what I translate, however, I have read years before, and it has stuck with me enough to decide to proceed. This isn’t always the case, but it usually is. A secondary, and not always necessary consideration, is if it fills a gap in what is available in English. Sometimes marketability also comes into play, but usually this is more of an afterthought than any sort of principal motivation.
Are there temptations to overly modernise a centuries-old text for a new audience and how might you avoid this?
BC: For me at least, there is not much danger of overly modernising. My approach is to, for the most part, restrict myself to the language of the time the original work was composed. Probably the only case where some modernesation is a good thing is in very old texts, such as those written pre-1700s. In such cases, however, I still would avoid modern terminology, unless for some reason it was apt. The place most to avoid modernesation, I think, is in dialogue, as nothing is more annoying than to read Aristophenes translated into chatty dialogue of the Southern United States or the great heroes of Water Margin cursing like cabbies. Undoubtedly there is a place for such experiments, but then what one is reading is not really a translation.
Are certain genres harder to translate than others? (Absurdism, for example).
BC: I am not sure that any genre of fiction is more difficult than another to translate, but generally 19th-century texts are considerably more difficult than 20th-century. Sentences tend to be much longer and oftentimes references are more difficult to clarify. Humour is, of course, harder to translate, just as it is harder to write and overreaching attempts have surely sunk more translations than they have saved. A good translation of poetry is more difficult to pull off than one of fiction.
What do you think makes a successful – as opposed to an unsuccessful – translation?
BC: It depends somewhat on the type of text. For a technical work, for example, meaning is paramount. For a work of fiction, or poetry, though meaning is of course also important, an almost equally important aspect is conveying to the reader an experience as close as possible to that of reading the material in the original language. In the past I used to think that the goal was to translate under the dictum: “How would the writer write this if they were writing in English?” And this, to a large degree, still holds true for me. But it is also true that there are all sorts of things in texts that would never be written in English, and in order to convey those sensations, one needs to be more creative. The translation sometimes needs to carry with it aspects of the original text--aspects which would never normally occur had it been written in English.
In looking at translations, and comparing them to the original, one will often see cases where the translator has dumbed the original down. In other cases, something that might or might not be an error in the original, the translator has decided to “fix”, though more often than not they are actually introducing errors into the text. At other times, difficult lines or obscure references are struck out, the translator either not understanding them themselves, or presuming that the readers would not understand them. Furthermore, there are translators who push themselves into what they are translating and, instead of delivering the style of the original author, give us their own. All of these things should be avoided. Avoiding them will go a long way to producing a good translation, while the opposite will have the opposite effect.
Who are your favourite translators – past and present – and why?
BC: There have been so many accomplished translators that to choose the best is difficult. From the Chinese, the groundbreaking work of James Legge stands out, in the past, while more recently the work of Thomas Cleary is noteworthy, especially his translation of The Flower Ornament Scripture. From Chinese and other languages into French, the Belgian priest Étienne Lamotte was a scholar of great profundity, and his translation of the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa, from the Chinese, is an amazing work.
For present day translators of fiction, I have enormous admiration for Brian Stableford, who has translated such a vast number of texts that it is quite amazing. His great command of the English language and deep scholarship make his work in the fields of Science Fiction, Symbolism, and Decadence of an importance that is inestimable.
I'd like to thank Brendan Connell for sparing his precious time.
Sundial Press have reissued the MR James-inspired Ghost Gleams -Tales of the Uncanny (1921) by WJ Wintle; Swan River Press have collected Rosa Mulholland's equally forgotten tales for Not To Be Taken At Bedtime as well as Bending To Earth: Strange Stories by Irish Women, co-edited with Maria Giakaniki; while coming soon from Valancourt will be a new translation of Felix Timmerman's Intimations Of Death (1910), described as 'psychological horror tales worthy of
Edgar Allan Poe.'