A taste for other tongues

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Translation has attracted an unusual amount of attention this autumn. A series of conferences and high-profile events have spotlit its role as cultural mediator and its practice as an art of performance and interpretatio n.

Yet there are still too few publishers willing to take risks with foreign writers. Those writing in minority languages are even more marginalised, so it is good to find the distinguished Galician Xos Lus Mndez Ferrn finally reaching English-language readers through a Welsh imprint. Them and Other Stories (Planet, #163;6.75, translated by John Rutherford and others) is a selection from his short fictions, spanning some 35 years, which create worlds where Galicia's history and its mythic Celtic past overlap and send out double echoes.

Mndez Ferrn was imprisoned several times under Franco's dictatorship, his militant Galician nationalism intolerable to a rgime threatened by a diversity of languages. Two of the stories here deal explicitly with that period and the Civil War's aftermath. Both "Them" and "Elastic Boots" have murderous outcomes that recall the vicious nature of Franco's triumph, yet in each case the horrors thwart their perpetrators; the curse provoked by the fascists' own superstition and a child's instinctive refusal to betray are shown to have deep roots in the soil of rural resistance. Mndez Ferrn uses the magical and fantastic as elements in modern narration as well as shaping full-blown epics of mythic time. "Artur's Love" is a parable linking the fates of Europe's Celtic peoples in a rewritten Arthurian Legend of longing - "until the days of joy return once more to the western lands of the world, these lands where stones and silence afflict our enslaved hearts, our enslaved hearts. " The author is a discovery doubly welcome for being so well served by his translators.

Language is a part of identity. If translation is analogous to acting or playing the violin, living in more than one language offers ample potential for variations on the self. Yann Martel was born in Spain and lives in French-speaking Canada. His novel Self (Faber #163;8. 99) is about inhabiting different languages and different genders. Words and physical bodies, concepts and new or alien sensations are explored confessionally from the inside; sometimes the materiality of language is laid out literally, with a split page displaying English beside Spanish or French beside Czech.

This inventiveness is no mere gimmick. Martel's orphaned first-person narrator is a truly tragic figure, experiencing life as both male and female, finding and losing love in different gender combinations. Martel deploys a youthful yet world-weary intelligence in questioning how bodies and cultures circumscribe the self.

By comparison with most lives, Tina Modotti's was multiple. Her apparent reinventions of self were driven by historical events and by her own political and artistic impulses. Born in Italy in 1896, at 16 she emigrated to the US with her family. After working in factories, she was "discovered" through amateur dramatics and became an actress in Hollywood silents. Her love affair with Edward Weston took her to Mexico, where she studied photography as his apprentice; later, another lover, the Communist leader, Mella, was assassinated, dying in her arms. Deported from Mexico she travelled to Berlin and then to Moscow, which became her base for anti-Nazi rescue operations throughout Europe; the Spanish Civil War saw her nursing in Madrid.

Modotti achieved posthumous fame through her photographs, whose modernist utopianism celebrated Mexico's revolution with a direct and unique aesthetic. Her beauty too was made famous by Weston's nude photographs, which gave her body the status of an icon.

This story has been told many times. Elena Poniatowska's Tinisima (Faber #163;15.99 translated by Katherine Silver) attempts to uncover the glamour and the myth in the form of a "novelised" biography. Poniatowska has drawn on Modotti's letters and other verifiable documents, as well as existing biographies. The facts are here and there is an undeniable fidelity to Tina as an all too human heroine. The genre can take more liberties than biographies, which are bound to be provisional, speculative constructions, but its subservience to a linear, pre-plotted narrative dooms it never to achieve the resonance of a fully-fledged fiction.

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