Translations

Typhus by Jean-Paul Sartre (translated by Chris Turner) & Critical Essays by Jean-Paul Sartre (translated by Chris Turner)

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May 2011, no. 331

Those wanting to understand better the radical changes in Western thought and social mores since World War II could benefit from revisiting Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). Of course, one can sympathise with Jonathan Rée in his critique of much of Sartre’s work as ‘slap-dash’, ‘long-winded’, ‘carelessly profuse’ (Times Literary Supplement, 26 November 2010). It is true that by the time Sartre became famous, much of his best writing was behind him. Nonetheless, Sartre lived and worked on what we can now identify as a temporal seismic fault-line between then and now. His voluminous and variegated work – short stories, novels, plays, essays, movie scripts, journalism, autobiography, and correspondence, as well as philosophy proper – remains a rich site for investigating the thirty or so years between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, that period when, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, ‘a screaming came across the sky’. To re-engage with Sartre is to re-enter the zone of the epicentre, where broken twists of what was once continuous tradition mingle with new developments – some of which we already know to have failed, while others have become familiar features of our present landscape.

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At the moment, there are about 5,000 world languages, and ninety per cent of these languages are spoken by about five per cent of the world’s population. A pessimistic forecast would predict that by 2,100 only 500 of these languages will still exist; an optimistic forecast might put the figure at 2,500, about the same rate as the extinction of mammals. Many of the languages under threat are spoken in countries that are close to Australia: Papua New Guinea has 850, Indonesia 670, and India 380. (Australia is listed as still having 200, but many Australian linguists would put this figure much lower.) It is a relatively easy matter to rally the troops, the money and the organisational forces to attempt to save furry mammals; it is a much more difficult matter to rally support to save languages. This book, by the eminent French linguist Claude Hagège, assesses how and why languages die, what the cost of their deaths is, and whether anything can be done to prevent their annihilation.

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Stepping Out: A novel by Catherine Ray, translated by Julie Rose

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February 2009, no. 308

Faced with the publication of her first novel, the narrator of Stepping Out has a terrifying thought. ‘I was about to be unmasked,’ she realises. ‘End of my double life. Everyone was about to dip into my world and find out what was really cooking there ... I felt like I’d placed a bomb and was waiting, under cover, for it to explode.’

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The Shorter Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus by Gaius Valerius Catullus, translated by A.D. Hope

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July–August 2007, no. 293

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.87–54 BC) may have died young, but his limited output (only 113 poems and some fragments have survived) has immortalised him as a writer of erotic and satiric verse and savage portraits of contemporaries, so frank sometimes that, until recent decades, editions of his work were customarily heavily expurgated. Innumerable poets through the ages have kept his flame burning. Ezra Pound peppers the opening cantos with references to Catullus. Ben Jonson’s famous ‘Come, my Celia’ is a version of Catullus 5.

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The world we live in provides us with a great deal of information that is not really intended to inform. We must be informed, for example, that a phone call is being recorded for training purposes. Thus language becomes an accessory to the black arts of spin, propaganda, manipulation and arse-covering. Words are twisted and violated, making it difficult to recover the meanings, the distinctions, that we need. What was clear becomes murky, while murkiness is hidden behind a veneer of false clarity. Protean language becomes complicit in the world’s nefarious purposes. 

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What’s a nice girl called Anastasia doing in the Whangpoa River? Maybe she’s the daughter of the last tsar who everyone thought was dead, or maybe it’s just a girl who looks like a Russian princess and happens to have the same name. If the proposition sounds familiar, be assured by Colin Falconer that Anastasia Romanovs were thick on the streets of Shanghai after the White Russian diaspora of 1917–18.

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The Child of an Ancient People by Anouar Benmalek (translated by Andrew Riemer)

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March 2004, no. 259

At once extravagant and tightly wrapped, this novel reinforces the view that historical fiction says as much about the present and the future as it does about the past. At the level of history proper, Anouar Benmalek’s vision unites three continents that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, are subject to the depredations of European colonialism and domestic tyranny. At the human level, his fiction is preoccupied with the bodily functions and basic needs of survival: things that never change. The broad, impersonal sweep of world history is made up of the infinitesimally small transactions of the primal scene: copulating, defecating, vomiting, bleeding, all driven by the elemental forces of fear and desire, violence and conscience.

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The British exploration of the Pacific Ocean between 1764, when Byron sailed, and 1780, when Cook’s third circumnavigation concluded, and the colonisation of New South Wales from 1788 onwards, effectively set agendas in discovery and settlement which France and Spain had to emulate if they were to continue as Britain’s imperial rivals.

Spain’s effort to match the British agenda was spectacular, but short-lived. The expedition under the command of Alejandro Malaspina that it sent to explore in the Pacific and to report on the state of the Spanish empire (1789–94) was perhaps the best equipped of all the grand eighteenth-century voyages, but its commander fell victim to political intrigue on his return; and oblivion settled over its results. (Only now are its journals, artwork and collections being fully analysed and published.)

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Without the support of a recognisably unified literary tradition, the Australian poet has had to come to terms with the diverse elements of an increasingly heterogeneous culture. Australia is, was, and ever shall be, someone else’s country, a homeland so fundamentally altered as a concept as to be no longer comfortably recognisable as ‘Home’. Paradoxically, if anything has drawn Australian poets together, it has been a strong attachment to the physical environment, the strange and often harsh beauty of an ancient land but one no longer a comfortingly European possession. As far as forms, genres, literary concepts are concerned, writers have had to draw on their own particular sense of a cultural past that has been, for the most part, European in origin. With the passing of time, a growing disharmony has arisen between the natural rhythms of the land and its hapless European inheritors. This alienation has announced itself often enough in poems of nostalgia, loss, and lovelessness.

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Anyone who has had the experience of trying to translate a poem across even a fairly low-density language barrier (say German or French into English) will have tasted the near despair of finding oneself in danger of killing that in the creature that one most wanted to save. Sometimes it feels like cutting down the tree and whittling from the wood a mere mock replica of it  – the sap goes, the leaves in all their lively beauty disappear, and at best there’s an artifact which cleverly reproduces the mere outlines of what was once brimming with life.

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