Jen Calleja’s novel, The Islets, is a timely and daring exploration of xenophobia, cultural exploitation, historical suppression and amnesia, and the politics of literary translation. In this preview, ‘The Unreliable Translator’, the main character, Hester Heller, interviews a renowned translator, uncovering more about his work than she intended.
For the last few years, I’ve been working on a novel with an experimental form about the fate of a fictional archipelago called The Islets, publishing extracts from the work-in-progress here and there along the way, easing it out into the world. In the novel, Hester Heller, a polyglot student at a school for manipulation, has been sent on a mission to meet “experts” on the Isletese people by the government of The Nation, formerly the UK. The report will advise the government whether The Nation should give aid to The Islets after a series of natural and manmade catastrophes have put it in jeopardy.
My starting point for writing the novel was a depressing thought: What would happen if Malta – the island where my dad was born– was to need aid from Britain and other countries due to the climate crisis?
Since I was a child, it’s become more and more clear to me that hardly anyone in the UK knows anything about Malta, often not knowing where it is or that it even exists, and when people have heard of it, it usually comes to mind as a tourist destination. I have the clearest memory of being told off for defiantly drawing it on a wall-size map in my classroom when I was eight.
This lack of knowledge and interest in the Maltese islands is in spite of their historical ties to Britain and many European nations spanning centuries through invasion, settler colonialism and it becoming a crucial – and much-bombed – base for the Allied Forces during the war. The most shocking comment I had was from someone I had just met at a gig. He asked me ‘where I was from?’ because of how I appeared and I explained my background. His reply was: ‘Malta? Isn’t that that little island we used to own?’
The novel’s not ‘about’ Malta, or any other specific island nation, but inspired by many places that have been used and abused by other nations, to then be left weakened and discarded – even robustly mocked and vilified for asking for reparations or absolute independence. Just this past week I’ve been reading the reactions to Barbados announcing its intention to remove the Queen as its head of state. One person’s below-the-line comment was:
“Go – & be independent – & when the HURRICANE season comes – Don’t expect , – ROYAL NAVY – ships to come with supplies, restitution & INFINITE, ample of [sic] resources and restoration ! Bye bye ! & Don’t expect ELITE holidaymakers to come to an island no longer Monarch supported .!”
The attitude this comment displays is basically the crux of my novel, and one that is central to conversations being had internationally right now. It stems from the forgetting of histories, an aggressive possessiveness, a will to dominate nations, a lack of empathy. My novel comprises everyday snippets like these that can tells us so much: mock newspaper columns, poster campaigns, national survey responses, graffiti, vox pops – all the written materials, public and private, that record and write different conflicting histories.
In the below extract, Hester has gone to visit a French translator of Isletese poetry in Paris. Hester is becoming more and more conflicted by her task. From the start of her mission, she’s been in contact with people on The Islets – a professor, Alma, via his translator-daughter, Fre-Veru. They sent her a book containing the suppressed history of The Islets, and continue to send her messages about the problematic contacts she’s been assigned for her mission, written on handkerchiefs she routinely finds on her person.
Here I’m reflecting on the politics and ethics of literary translation and the publishing and marketing of foreign-language literature in English. Though the incidents and practices might seem extreme, they’re inspired by real-life occurrences I’ve read about in my research for the book and come across as a literary translator myself. It also includes reflections on different forms of literary culture, our expectations of translated literature, and how a second-gen kid may subconsciously pick up the language of a first-gen parent (I really, really recommend this related article by Kimberly Alidio).
The Unreliable Translator
Bisset-Brodeur, Victor, translator and poet
Rue de la Pompe, France, French speaker
Backstory: You are a Paris-based correspondent for the Nation news website Novelty. Due to a rising interest in Isletese culture triggered by the Isletese Situation, numerous French publishers have released statements that many works of literature in translation they have previously published have in actuality been by Isletese authors.
Objective: Familiarise yourself with the literary culture of the target nation, assess contribution to international literary culture of the target nation, establish any possible issues with literary expression of the target nation and its dissemination.
VBB: Oh, you’re here! Come through. Let me clear away these papers.
[Sighted: reading tour schedule, review clippings, contract]
HH: Thank you for having me, I won’t take too much of your time, it’s just a flying visit.
VBB: Take a seat, the one with the blue cushion!
HH: Thank you. Monsieur Bisset-Brodeur, you’ve been secretly translating Isletese poetry for the last twenty years? And you’re the only dedicated translator?
VBB: Yes. I lived there for a few years as a youngster, which is where I picked up the language. My father had a private members’ club on the Île Française until that spate of protests a few years before the Islets short-sightedly banished themselves.
HH: What were the protests about?
VBB: I don’t recall. But yes, I’ve translated over a dozen of their poets into French, though they of course weren’t labelled as Isletese after the cut off, but rather Arabic, languages of North African countries, but part of the same poetry series. Mostly, as you mentioned on the phone, Asmaa Benjelloun, who was really Doi Harbotkif all along. It was very fortunate that I put our private correspondences at the top of my country house so they were only singed in the blaze.
VBB: There was a fire at my lovely little house and my original copies of her lesser-known books went up in the fire. Not my translations though. Very lucky. There was also her brand-new manuscript, which I received at the end of last year, but, silly, clumsy, I was, pardon me, reading it in the bath one evening with a glass of wine, basking in the warmth of her inimitable genius, and dropped the lot in the suds. Luckily, I’d finished my translations that very same morning.
HH: What’s your favourite of the poems? I’d love to hear one.
VBB: Ah, marvellous. Well I haven’t got a favourite per se, but I think ‘Dog’ is fairly representative of the work as a whole. Let me find it for you. Would you care for something to drink? Did I ask you already?
VBB: And the new collection, are there poems in there that connect with those in her previous collection? From the protest period even?
WM: I can’t find it right now, it must be buried somewhere. Oh yes. In fact, the hatred and bile are far more pronounced in this new collection. She’s forthright in her nationalism, it’s quite brazen. She can be quite sassy. And can be quite petty with regards to her complaints, minor, domestic trivialities. But it will certainly be very controversial, it can’t help but be that. This is the mock up for the cover from the publisher.
[Shown: Front cover image of a woman looking down at the ground, a scarf tied around her hair and billowing out in the wind wearing a plain black dress and with bare feet in a dry landscape]
HH: Do the Isletese women wear smocks like these? And no shoes? And shawls?
VBB: It’s very evocative isn’t it. Everyone on the Islets wears a kind of covering on a structure that rests on their shoulders during the hottest days of the year, especially the workers on the land. But it does give that sense of intrigue, no? You know who doesn’t give the same sense of intrigue? Those old women you see from the North of the Nation who wear scarves around their hair to stop it blowing in the wind! Especially those transparent ones for rainy days! I do like the cover. The new collection and the bumper reissue of my translations – not to mention my new autobiography – will really help put the, how shall I put it, tempestuous Isletese on the world map again! I forgot to ask how you knew I was working on a new collection by Doi?
HH: Your publisher told me when I rang them up.
VBB: Oh. I see. I suppose the news is out in the world. Though I have a different publisher now. A bigger one. They’ve sold rights to countries all around the world. So what did you say you’re writing your article on exactly, my dear?
HH: The role of translators in the understanding of the Isletese.
VBB: Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I’m sure you need to get on with your research. Unless you’d be interested in a kind of exclusive? I could offer you one. Very happily.
HH: An exclusive on the revelation that the poets are Isletese? That won’t be necessary.
VBB: Oh no. Something much juicier than that. It’s regarding a young poet who’s keen to make it into the first Anthology of Isletese Poetry, edited and translated by yours truly. Well! it’s actually quite shocking I suppose, but then again, it’s every man, or woman! for themselves in those situations, especially when it’s their legacy that’s at stake and they’ve been small-fry as a writer where they’re from… I can see that you’re interested?
HH: It’s intriguing, I cannot deny that.
VBB: Of course it is, of course it is. I mean, I wouldn’t be asking for the world, perhaps a little cuddle?
HH; I had one more question. You said that you’ve translated over a dozen Isletese poets.
VBB: Indeed I did! Would you be able to help an old man with his tie?
HH: But it appears you’ve only translated six by my count? Though you have published a few of your own poetry collections. Would you say they were largely inspired by those other Isletese poets?
VBB: Well, I’ll be sure to let you know when the new anthology comes out with my new introduction. Maybe you could interview me after I’ve finished translating Doi’s new collection, if you’re not in such a silly mood. If you don’t mind, I have to make a few calls.
I remember seeing that raclure’s name somewhere in The Book of The Islets.
Before I find the page I read:
“In the twenties, a group of German thinkers travelled to The Islets to take part in a conference on ideas, thoughts and philosophy. Very little documentation remains from the conference though we do know that the Isletese philosopher Mig Fedwas gave a lecture on happiness. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the German party, who I will not name outright due to his massive following, gave a lecture on happiness the following year in London.
To call someone an Isletese writer is a strange thing. An Isletese writer was once in the running for the Nobel. Three years later, another Isletese writer was up for a major international literary prize. In the judge’s notes, which you can find in the prize’s archive, they remarked that “she hasn’t managed to give a sense of the Islets the way that her very successful Isletese colleague had. In fact, their writing couldn’t be more different”. The writer ended up not making it to the promoted shortlist from the unpublicised longlist. The “novella” (there isn’t a book form categorised as a novella in The Islets) hadn’t even been set in The Islets, only flashbacks were set there, and the authors themselves were from different islets with an age gap of forty-five years. The novella looked at the notion of time. The central character only looks skywards for the course of the book, considering cloud formations, skyscrapers, birds and bats, and remarks about the things they feel in their body, like blood flow, breathing, the hum of their nervous system. The author incidentally didn’t even know they were up for the prize as the publisher of the book in translation forgot to tell her. When they were told years later, they were mostly perturbed by being referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’. They apparently repeated the word over and over out loud.”
then I find it:
‘Victor Bisset-Brodeur has translated half a dozen Isletese poets into French with only a basic, rudimentary knowledge of the dialects of their islets. Not many Isletese poets have publicly complained because it didn’t really concern them, after all, Isletese poetry usually doesn’t bear the author’s name, poetry is written by everyone on a daily basis, from children to great-grandparents. Isletese poetry is always written in a very specific moment, with notes on room temperature, additional sounds, asides and commentary written around the poem, making it difficult to translate at all, and Bisset-Brodeur has never included such matter, making the poems incomplete. Many of the poems he had ‘translated’ were never published, and an Isletese scholar found that his own collections of poetry were plagiarised from Isletese poets. The greatest Isletese ‘success’ internationally has been his translations of the poet Doi Harbotkif under a Moroccan pseudonym.’*
* The poet died in 1994 in a house fire at the age of eighteen.
Two tied-together handkerchiefs from Professorit Alma and translated by Fre-Veru, midnight blue with sky blue embroidered lettering, tucked lightly in my left pocket, read:
~~~ Isletese poetry is supposed to be memorised, not really written. Not like the way Victor does it anyway. For a long time Isletese literature was burned after reading, so you had to remember the most important and your absolute favourites. Rooms where readings took place would become your page, the attentive audience would become your notebooks, walking notebooks that would go off to work or put their children to bed, or sweep the road! ~~~
~~~ The poem would have a set form to make them more memorable, not to just look pretty on a white page. Why don’t you try and translate this poem [right pocket]? There’s a rudimentary glossary in the back of The Book. Maybe you know more Isletese than you think. Leave your next letter in the bin in the bathroom at the Café nearest the rail station ~~~
The second handkerchief, mint green with bronze text, peeking out of my right pocket, displayed the poem.
I didn’t feel like doing translation assignments away from the Institute, but it would be something to do while riding in the back of the van later.
Later: Victor Bisset-Brodeur complained to the press about the meeting with ‘an impolite student, probably an undercover rival editor, possibly of a thieving nature’ and had my telegram number published with the article. I’m already being inundated with complaints from bridge translators around the world for upsetting him as they’re awaiting his French translation of the “hot new collection of poetry, the first published and marketed as Isletese” in order to translate it into Russian, Greek, Korean…
To calm myself, I started translating the poem using the glossary in The Book of the Islets.
It was strange, but somehow, straightaway, I knew part of it:
gi frid k’iopin – swimming bear
The made-up name my mum gave the bear that was swimming down a river in an illustration when I was a child was something similar:
About Jen Calleja
Jen Calleja is a writer, translator and musician. Her latest collection of short stories, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, is out now with Prototype, and her pamphlet essay Goblins is available to preorder on Rough Trade Books. Jen has been shortlisted for several awards, including the Booker International Prize 2019 for her translation of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann. She is working on her first novel, The Islets, plays in various punk bands as both drummer and vocalist, and is also the co-founding editor of Praspar Press, a micro publisher supporting contemporary Maltese literature in English and English translation. Forthcoming translations include Milk Teeth by Helene Bukowski (Unnamed Books), Return of the Lobster by Michelle Steinbeck (Makina Books) and The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (Scribe). Follow Jen on Twitter @niewview and on Instagram @jencalleja_
This preview was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages