Tag: novel

Time, tenses, and blurb-bingo

One year ago . . .

On 27 November 2019, I received a phone call from Literature Wales telling me of my success in being awarded this:

New opportunity for 2020. One place on the Mentoring Scheme will be ring-fenced for an early career translator/writer, working on literary translation from Welsh to English OR English to Welsh.

I was so discombobulated I had to take the rest of the afternoon off work. I started a new notebook straight away. The first page reads:

New project – new notebook. Got to get stuff out of my head so I can carry on with my paid work. Disbelief – I genuinely thought it would go to a bright young thing. When can I tell Sian?

The question about when could I tell Sian Northey, ‘my’ author, turned into ‘when can I tell anyone at all?’ My award was supposed to be a secret until mid-January 2020. That was when Literature Wales was going to announce the beneficiaries of its bursaries and menteeships, all together.

I can now fully sympathise with anyone who’s been told they’re going to get an honour or an award, but can’t spill the beans. Christmas get-togethers (remember them?) last year were spent replying, ‘Oh, you know, the usual’ to enquiries about how my work was going.

What really I wanted to say –  or scream, possibly – was,  ‘Fantastically well! I’ve been recognised as an emerging literary translator, and I’m going to be mentored throughout 2020!’ Then everyone would have congratulated me and, with any luck, bought me a drink.

Time and tenses

I knew a year ago that one of the things I have trouble with in my translations is tense. Now obviously I know the difference between a straightforward past tense and present tense. I just demonstrated it right there with ‘I knew a year ago’ and ‘I know the difference’.

My problem comes in two parts. The first is that – in common with many languages – tenses in Welsh (my source language) don’t necessarily map tidily onto tenses in my target language, English. The second problem is that I’ve never been taught English grammar properly. I’m like a musician who plays by ear.

My mentor has suggested many tense changes to my translation of Yn y Tŷ Hwn. This is an example from the opening chapter; verbs are in bold.

In my first draft, I’d translated this passage:

Dynas gin oedd hi wedi bod erioed. Ond rhyw chydig fisoedd yn ôl, yng nghanol ei hantur fisol i’r archfarchnad cafodd ei denu – heb unrhyw reswm, bron – gan botel o single malt drud. Cyfiawnhaodd y penderfyniad trwy resymu y byddai‘n debygol o yfed llai o ddiod nad oedd yn arbennig o hoff ohono.

              Ond yn fuan roedd hi wedi ymserchu yn yr hylif euraidd.

as:

She’d always been a gin woman. But a few months back, in the middle of her monthly shopping expedition to the supermarket, she was drawn to – for almost no reason – a bottle of expensive single malt. She justified the decision by reasoning that she’d probably drink less of something she didn’t especially like.

              But before long she’d taken a liking to the golden liquid.

My mentor suggested this:

She’d always been a gin woman. But a few months back, in the middle of her monthly shopping expedition to the supermarket, she’d found herself – inexplicably – being drawn to a bottle of expensive single malt. She’d justified the decision by reasoning that she’d probably drink less of something she didn’t especially like.

              But before long she was growing fond of the golden liquid.

And at present it reads:

She’d always been a gin woman. But a few months back, in the middle of her monthly shopping expedition to the supermarket, she’d found herself drawn – almost inexplicably – to a bottle of expensive single malt. She’d justified the decision by reasoning that she’d probably drink less of something she didn’t particularly like.

              But before long she’d developed a taste for this golden liquid.

Is there a hack?

Well, perhaps not a hack, but at least some illumination. I turned to Editing Fiction at Sentence Level by Louise Harnby, a fellow member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

Louise is excellent on which past tenses are needed in fiction. Here’s an excerpt from her book:

When past tense flops – understanding past perfect

Less experienced writers can end up in a pickle when referencing
events that happened earlier than their novel’s now. The crucial
thing to remember is that when we set a novel in the past tense,
anything that happens in the story’s past will likely need the past
perfect, at least when the action is introduced.

• What you want the reader to experience: Now – the present
of your novel
• What tense you should write in: Simple past or past
progressive (she stood; she was standing)
• What you want the reader to experience: Something that
happened before (i.e. in the novel’s past)
• What tense you should write in: Past perfect or past perfect
progressive (she had stood; she had been standing)

So all I need to do is go through 100+ pages of my Word version of Yn y Tŷ Hwn and check whether the tense of every verb matches its time …

Maybe that is what’ll be filling the Christmas get-together voids this year.

Blurb bingo

In readiness for our December meeting, my mentor has set me the task of writing a blurb for Yn y Tŷ Hwn that isn’t just a translation of the Welsh one, and that includes a quote relevant to one of the novel’s themes. I’ve never taken much notice of blurbs, so more discovery for me here. More literary fieldwork, so to speak.

Did you notice those novels in the main picture at the top of this post? I read all their blurbs. This is what my highly unrepresentative sample revealed about them:

  • blurb length varied from 70 to 170 words, excluding any quotes from the text itself or author biographical details
  • blurbs are nearly always in the present tense, regardless of whether the novel is mainly written in the past tense or the present continuous
  • some blurbs have a sort of headline sentence: a micro-blurb in a nutshell so you don’t even need to read the blurb
  • many blurbs incorporate quotes from the text
  • most blurbs give a geographical location, many give a time location –  sometimes indirectly –  and often they give the story set-up.

Then I played blurb-bingo with words that cropped up repeatedly. The winning words were powerful, moving, scintillating, literary and love.

My blurb for Yn y Tŷ Hwn

Here’s a sneak peek at my homework, before my mentor gets to see it; maybe it’s too long for a blurb at 140 words plus a quote. I quite like the micro-blurb bit (in bold), but I’m not convinced about the text quote. We’ll see what the mentor makes of it in December.

A  delicate but powerful novel about how decisions taken almost by chance have unforeseen consequences

Anna has lived alone for decades. She is marooned in, and cocooned by, an isolated house called Nant yr Aur in the Welsh mountains. Her only constant friends are farmer Emyr and his wife, Dora.

The arrival of Siôn, a young man who seems strangely at home in Nant yr Aur, leads to an unpicking of Anna’s past.

               She started to write a letter in her head to Siôn.

              ‘Dear Siôn,

              I had been expecting to see you before you left the other morning. I hope you will return to Nant yr Aur, because …’

She started to chew the end of the imaginary biro before resuming in her head.

‘… because your presence in Nant yr Aur felt right.’

As Anna’s relationship with Siôn develops, her perspective on the solidity of her past shifts. Uncertainty, distortion, illusion and subtle betrayal are gradually exposed. Ultimately, a quietly devastating revelation changes the lives of both of Siôn and Anna.

Sian Northey writes with economy and precision, setting out what the life of a middle-aged woman with an emotionally complicated past feels like from the inside.

Fantasy cover design

Oh, and while we’re on fantasy cover content, the watercolour of the red cottage is my choice of a front cover picture. It’s by fabulously talented landscape painter Rob Piercy.

Imagine the quote-strapline at the top – ‘By now there were new stars in existence, and their light had yet to reach Nant yr Aur’ – then, in big letters, the title ‘This House’. At the bottom, it should say ‘Sian Northey’ (of course), followed by ‘Translated by Susan Walton’.

I live in hope.

 

Words and images ©Susan Walton 2020 except for clock photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash; Glenmorangie photo by Anubhav Arora on Unsplash; bingo photo by Tomppa Koponen from Pixabay; cover of Yn y Tŷ Hwn ©Gwasg Gomer, used with permission; Cwm Dyli Cottage ©Rob Piercy, used with permission.

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Holding a thought through a deluge of work

The illustration at the top of this post is part of a painting called Holding a Thought. It was painted by K. I remember him doing it, and the state of mind he was in when he did it. I’ve been in a similar state of mind for much of August 2020.

As I said in the last post, K had ideas coming out of his ears, but for a while there was so much going on in his earning-a-living life (and he had the pressure of being self-employed) that months were going by when there was no space or time to realise a big project he had in his head.

He painted Holding a Thought to express how this felt – he was holding this precious thing that might easily get engulfed by shades of quotidian life.

It’s been a year …

My diary for 28 August 2019 reads:

I was awake and couldn’t go back to sleep. Got up and started my application to be mentored into translating adult literary fiction. Back to bed about 7 and woke up at 10. In the meantime the fucker announces he’s going to ask the queen to prorogue parliament – timing and duration to get a no-deal Brexit through.

Both of those events seem a long time ago now. A very long time ago.

Holding a thought

I learned of my application’s success in late 2019, and in January 2020 I went off to the Norwich industry weekend. Tŷ Newydd gave me the space to more or less finish my first draft, and lockdown meant I could polish it.

I had my first ‘meeting’  with my mentor at the end of June and made good progress on further finessing the text in July.

But my a golden thought about my translation project has been almost swamped during August. K’s painting came into my head – it illustrates the feeling exactly.

Proofreading

The reason the golden thought has been so flattened is proofreading. I’m not complaining at all about having had a bonanza month. It is, after all, my living; I am self-employed too.

During August I have proofread just shy of 195,000 words in five separate jobs for four clients. Two of the clients were new, which always means more auxiliary work around the job. I think that’s the most proofreading I’ve done in one month since I started my business in 2008.

So – as I say – not complaining at all. Meanwhile, the Yn y Tŷ Hwn project box has hardly been opened. But I’m holding that thought.

The ‘arias’ – a step by step example

In July’s post, I mentioned my metaphor of ‘arias’ for the parts of the text that ‘carry’ the rest. I have done some work on those in August, so I thought I’d illustrate the various iterations that one of them has gone through. It’s in the first chapter.

Here’s the Welsh original:

Duw a ŵyr yn union pam y cychwynnodd hi yno’r diwrnod hwnnw. Roedd ei chyfarfod wedi’i ohirio, roedd ganddi bnawn rhydd o’i gwaith, roedd hi’n braf, roedd wedi clywed cân o’i phlentyndod ar y radio, a honno wedi mynnu aros yn ei phen trwy’r bore. Efallai mai dyna pam. Hoffai feddwl mai ffawd oedd o i gyd, cyd-ddigwyddiad wedi’i gynllunio gan rywun, gan rywbeth.

Starting points

My first attempt, done in 2012, well before I was awarded the menteeship, ran:

God knows why, exactly, she headed there on that day. Her meeting had been postponed, she had a work-free afternoon, it was a beautiful day, she’d heard a song from her childhood on the radio, which had stuck in her head all morning. So maybe that was why. She liked to think all this was fate: co-incidences arranged by someone, something.

The first draft for the present project reads:

Goodness knows exactly why she headed there on that day. Her meeting had been postponed, she had a free afternoon, the weather was fine, she’d heard a song from her childhood on the radio which had been stuck in her head all morning. Maybe that was why. She liked to think it was all fate, a coincidence engineered by someone, by something.

Following an edit on paper, I didn’t change this passage. I had marked up on paper a change from ‘the weather was fine’ to ‘the weather was gorgeous’, but had then ‘stetted’ it (the ‘stet’ mark means ‘leave unchanged’).

It still remained unchanged when I read that version of the text aloud to my critical translator friend, Gwenlli. It does the job. It’s a good, accurate translation.

Mentor input

Then I received input from both my mentor and from the officer from the Wales Literature Exchange, a partner organisation in the mentoring project. The Exchange officer first: they suggested replacing ‘engineered’ with ‘orchestrated’, which I rejected.

I rejected it because ‘engineered by someone, by something’ brings to my mind William Blake’s painting The Ancient of Days.

In my head, if you’re going to have a higher intelligence, it would have dividers, not a baton.

The only change my mentor suggested was to delete the ‘on’, to give ‘headed there that day’ rather than ‘headed there on that day.’ This I accepted.

The mentor had also attached a long comment about the importance of this passage in terms of underlining the theme of chance/accident in the novel, especially as it occurs in the first chapter. They also advised me, generally, to pour my expressive energy into tightening up the wording where the themes are uppermost in the text (which is how I developed the metaphor of ‘arias’).

Further prose tightening

Following the mentor’s advice, I had another go and came up with:

Goodness knows exactly why she headed there that day. A postponed meeting had freed her for the whole afternoon, the weather was gorgeous, a song from her childhood had been on repeat in her head all morning. Maybe that was why. She liked to think it was fate, a coincidence engineered by someone or by something.

I then decided to treat the passage like a poem. I printed this wording out on a slip of paper and carried it about in my handbag, sneaking a look at it now and again to see if I could catch it off guard. I’ve found this process to be helpful when translating poetry; it seems to work like jump leads to connect the subconscious brain to the thinking brain.

The result was one change: ‘circling’ – ‘a song from her childhood had been circling in her head.’

I think I’ve clinched it.

‘Circling’ links her interior with the exterior – she’s sitting with a  nostalgic song going round in her head, in a place where she might, by chance, see a buzzard circling on a thermal.

Images and words ©Susan Walton 2020, except for the image of Holding a Thought ©estate of K. Nathan, reproduced with the permission of A. Nathan and I. Nathan;  the Welsh text from Yn y Tŷ Hwn ©Sian Northey 2011, reproduced with the permission of Gwasg Gomer; and the image of a pound coin by Brett Jordan on unsplash.com. The image of The Ancient of Days is in the public domain.

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First meeting with my mentor

At last!

I have had my first ‘meeting’ with my mentor – by phone. Going on a 125-mile round trip in person is still a no-no under lockdown rules in Wales. We planned, and started, to meet via Zoom. But the connection decreed otherwise, so we went #oldskool.

I, for one, am quite keen on using the phone. If you spend much of your working life sitting down, looking at a screen, it makes a nice change to be able to walk about while talking. And it was the talking that was important.

What I hope to achieve from the three mentoring sessions between now and January is to:

  1. turn a good translation into excellent and subtle storytelling
  2. know how to prepare a pitch to potential publishers, and
  3. gather the intelligence to make a list of who to approach, and to approach them with (1) and (2).

Before my mentor and I spoke

A few days ahead of the first meeting, my mentor sent me back the Word document of my translation of Yn y Tŷ Hwn as it stood at the end of April. They had marked up the first third of the text with suggested alterations in Track Changes, and other observations and suggestions in Comments.

It was handy to be able to go through these ahead of the meeting. Most of the comments and suggested edits were self-evident, so we concentrated on stuff that hadn’t occurred to me before.

What we mostly talked about

The main thing the mentor highlighted – and which was new to me – was  that the language of the translation needs to be particularly carefully and finely rendered in the parts of the story that convey its themes, and for the images related to those themes. Themes they had flagged up in Yn y Tŷ Hwn include:

  • the distant influence of things, sometimes as yet unseen or unknown
  • the hidden parts of other people’s lives
  • time, idealisation and shifting perspectives
  • place or a person staying unmarked by time
  • transience and being trapped
  • age, family and repeated patterns.

And I thought it was about being in love with a house, and about profound and mental health-distorting grief!

Homework from my mentor

I now need to sit down and identify those places where the themes are on or near the surface, and polish those nuggets. The mentor also suggested that I read all of Sian’s novels and short story collections for adults. This is so I can imbibe their essence and see which themes recur throughout her work. That should keep me quiet for a while. (Note the bookmark propped up under the books in the photo: it was a freebie on joining the Society of Authors.)

Coincidentally, just after the email suggesting that I absorb The Collected Sian Northey, I saw on social media that Sian was at page proofing stage with her next short story collection, Cylchoedd. I asked to read this new work, with the offer of marking up the PDF proofs if I spotted anything (I am a professional proofreader, after all). She readily agreed, and I have. What serendipity!

What we talked a bit about

The mentor is very insistent that we concentrate on the quality of the translation, on the ‘literature’. In their view, everything else derives from that. Their priority is heavily weighted towards number 1 of my goals – of those labelled 1, 2 and 3, above. We did, however, squeeze in some discussion about potential publishers, and how to make a ‘pitch’.

As goals 2 and 3 are not being prioritised by my mentor, I shall continue my research into how to achieve them under my own steam. I’m under no illusions, though. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s going to be tougher still, post-covid. I read in Summer 2020’s edition of The Author that, ‘… more than half of independent publishers, according to a recent Bookseller survey, have warned they may not [still be in business post-covid]’.

Bonus support and an added possibility

The mentoring scheme from which I am benefitting is run by Literature Wales. There are two other partners involved, one of which is the Wales Literature Exchange. The Exchange is an agency facilitating the sale of translation rights, amongst other things. The officer from the Exchange has also read over my April version of Yn y Tŷ Hwn. They, too, commented on it and suggested tweaks to the text. Their note suggested that my translation as it stands would be good enough as a bridging translation. (A bridging translation is one done into a world language – such as English or French – and then used by other translators wishing to translate into a third language.)  I am chewing that one over. Watch this space …

 

Main photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash. Antique telephone photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash. Photo of puffins by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash. Rabbit with a cocked ear photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash. Other images and words ©Susan Walton 2020.

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At the start of 2020

I’m going to have an unusual and interesting year in 2020. I have been awarded a place on Literature Wales’ Mentoring Scheme as ‘an early career translator working on literary translation’.

In August 2019 a client’s timetable had slipped and I found I had a slack month. I used the bonus time to prepare a sample translation of Yn y Tŷ Hwn by Sian Northey and submit an application to the scheme. Then I forgot about it. When I got the call in November, my first reaction was disbelief: I genuinely thought it would go to some bright young thing with a Masters in translation studies or some such. But delight also – Yn y Tŷ Hwn is one of the best novels of the decade just gone. I want my longest-standing friend – who does not have much Welsh – to be able to enjoy it too.  It is she who will be in my mind as I translate the rest of the novel.

The book is fewer than 150 pages long, but decades of the main character’s past  are skilfully revealed through her recollection of telling incidents, and a few significant details. Older readers will recognise some of life’s patterns in the story; the younger reader may see how events and decisions in life can determine patterns for years to come. I hope I can do it justice; I hope I can produce a text as nuanced and subtle in English as the Welsh original; I hope Sian Northey will like it.

I’m the first mentoring recipient of a place reserved for a translator, and I might be the last, because the place specifically for a translator is being run as a pilot in Wales.

Photo by Thomas Owen on Unsplash; book cover courtesy of Gwasg Gomer. Words ©Susan Walton 2020.

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