Review: Across The Nightingale Floor

In the following, I will talk about Lian Hearn’s Across The Nightingale Floor, an Australian fantasy novel. You might wonder why Australian fantasy specifically? Why am I not saying it is a fantasy book?

There is a reason for that. In Australia, there is the Australian fantasy subgenre, which differentiates itself from the fantasy genre. The difference is not as obvious as an Australian author or the author writing their book in Australia. If this sparked your interest you want to read up on it, I suggest you check out John Ryan’s Reflections on an Australian Fantasy. Constructing the Impossible.

For this review, I will focus on Lian Hearn’s connection to Australia in this book and why it falls under the subgenre Australian fantasy. As mentioned, the story plays out in pseudo-medieval Japan. This sounds very confusing now but let me shed some light on the matter. Between Australia and Japan exists a literary tradition, which intel’s that the Japanese write about Australia and vice versa but that is not the only reason why her book falls under the subgenre of Australian fantasy. If you pay attention you can also find aspects of Australia in how Hearn describes her world. Specifically the description of nature.

Now after this short detour, let’s get into it.

Across The Nightingale Floor by Lean Hearn was first published in 2002 and is the first book of her Tales Of The Otori book series. We are introduced to a pseudo-medieval Japan called The Three Countries. Tomasu is the protagonist and belongs to a persecuted religious group called the Hidden. One day, he returns home and finds his village burning and his family killed. To escape their fate he runs away but runs into the horse of Iida Sadamu, a feared man across the three countries.

His men chase after Tomasu but luckily the mysterious Lord Otori Shigeru, who later adopts him and changes his name to Takeo saves him. On their journey, Takeo learns a lot about himself and his family. Eventually, he is sucked into a scheme with his adopted father, their clan and a secret society called the Tribe. The Tribe turns out to be a huge part of his destiny.

Check the book and the author out

Across The Nightingale Floor is full of mysteries, secrets, love, betrayal, suspense and so much more. If you are as attracted to any of this as much as I am, this is the book for you. In her own way, Hearn explores Japanese culture with this book and if you want to know more about it, you should visit her website, where she talks about the experience of writing about another culture and the difficulties that come along with it.

I honestly was not able to put the book down once I started reading. The experience was such an adventure and hence I was completely drawn into the story and the characters. I felt so many different emotions ranging from happiness, sadness to anger, and probably a lot more. A complete whirlwind.

I read the book as a part of a seminar from my university, and I was doubtful. My experience with good and enjoyable books assigned by school or university was slim. However, I will totally read them again and check out the other books of the series. I personally think that Lian Hearn’s writing has a lot to do with it. I often read books of authors, with amazing plots but the writing not doing it justice. That is not the case here at all. She has a way with words, which sucks you in completely. Sometimes I didn’t even feel like I was reading anymore but watching a movie. Sounds odd but it does happen to me sometimes with very good books. So, to wrap this up, I can only recommend this book. It was amazing.

Language and Form

by Selina Kraft, Anna Herkelmann, Laura Zimmermann and Sarah Riedel

While translating “Oil”, not only the correctness of the translation was a problem we had to face in the process. “Oil”, a poem by Fatimah Asghar, is about a teenage girl with diverse identities, among them Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern, facing an existential crisis following the events of 9/11, using oil as a metaphor to link the events with the speaker’s crisis. The poem is one of many from Asghar’s collection If They Come for Us (2018). The form of the poem is closely connected to the content, so we had to be careful to keep an eye on that while translating. This led to choices such as rearranging German sentences and leaving out obligatory punctuation. The tone of the poem was a task we had to face as well.

While reading Asghar’s poem “Oil”, we noticed the unusual form. While the text needed six pages in total, it could have been printed onto half of the pages by looking at the lines. One part of the text even is upside-down and written almost without spaces between words. In our first meeting, we as a group decided immediately that we wanted to keep the form of the poem since we thought that Asghar wrote it intentionally in that form. It could be because of the torn feelings of the speaker or because of other things; ours is just one of a million ways to interpret the form. We tried to keep the form as close to the original as possible, including learning from fellow students from our group on how to turn a text upside-down in Microsoft Word.

Sometimes this was not as easy as it seems. To keep the translation grammatically correct in German, the line breaks could not be kept word by word. This means that we weren’t always able to break the line at the same words as in the original, e.g. one of the lines breaks at the word “doctor” but due to German grammar, we were only able to break the line at the word sagt because the object could not stand before the verb.

By switching words and lines for the purpose of maintaining formal integrity, we also had to be aware that the German language needs more words to form a correct sentence than English. To keep the form, we had to rearrange the longer German sentences. While writing down the translation, we also had to be aware of the legibility. This was one of the biggest problems to tackle because the English original in some instances only needed half the words to form a proper sentence than our translation. We tried to write in a non-halting German so that the reader could read the translation in a flow, just like the original.

The last important thing while we were thinking about how to manage our translation was word choice and punctuation.

We read through “Oil” again and again, looking at our notes from the session on the poem. We asked ourselves “Who is the speaker in the poem?” The speaker, we agreed, had to be a teenage girl in Middle School or High School. This was crucial for some choices on the language of the translation. We decided to keep an informal style for the translation, appropriate for a teenager. This led to choices like translating “my people” not as “mein Volk” (which also had a slightly strange overtone for us) but as “meine Leute”.

While reading through the first draft of the translation, we noticed something the German grammar loves to bits: commas. Our translation had lots of commas that were necessary for being grammatically correct. That interrupted the reading and poetic flow we tried to keep. We were worried that the poem could be interpreted differently because the reading flow was stopped more often than in the original poem. For keeping this very flow, we decided to leave out some commas. In particular when the thinking speed of the speaker seemed to be faster in our interpretation, we left commas out so the reader can read faster and therefore can understand and feel the speaker’s stress and distress throughout the poem.

The bridge between languages is built by every translation of a text. However, not only the choice of words and the correctness of the translation are important. It is also important to look at the outside form, putting aside syntactical and grammatical correctness. Looking at a poem can have its own effects without reading it. When the work is then read, little things like commas can be changing the whole meaning and the interpretation. If a translator looks at a work to translate, these little details have to be transported from the original to the translation as well.

  • Asghar, Fatimah. If They Come For Us. One World, 2018.

Translating and Keeping the Respect

by Annalena Steffens, Renee Czyganowski, Michelle Chiru and Audrey Heimann

Translating a piece of writing from one language to another can lead to several difficulties, many of which we encountered during our project with Fatimah Asghar’s “Oil”, a poem in Asghar’s poem collection If They Come For Us (2018). “Oil” deals with a speaker with diverse affiliation, among them them Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern, who struggles with their cultural identity, both socially and politically, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and uses oil as a metaphor that brings their identity together.

As we set out to translate “Oil”  from English to German, we came across problems concerning foreign expressions, metaphors and underlying meanings.

How does one handle non-English words in a multilingual text? When looking at “Oil”, we decided to stay as close to the original as possible, and thus keep foreign words as written in the original. While translating a word such as badam, a tropical tree known as country almond, Indian almond, Malabar almond, as well as  a few other names in English and Katappenbaum in German, would make it easier for the reader, the author had an intent in intertwining languages, and thus cultures. An intent that we, as translators, decided to keep in order not to change future interaction with the poem.

However, sometimes we were forced to intervene in this relationship between the original and the reader of the translation.

One difficulty we came across was the difference in grammar between English and German, especially when the grammar includes meaning. While “no one heard” is grammatically correct in English, the German language forces you to include an object, and thus we had to deviate from the original and write down an interpretation of who or what could have been meant, instead of sticking to the openness of the original.

Mixing interpretation into translation doesn’t stop there, but continues throughout the entire process. Especially in a genre such as poetry, where literal and metaphoric meaning are woven together, one cannot bypass making interpretational decisions in the translation. Very few words have the exact same meaning in two, or more, languages. Those cases become even rarer upon trying to navigate metaphors and double-meanings and in the end the translation shows our interpretation of what we have found in the original.

Upon starting this project, we set ourselves the task to be mindful of the original, not to change words and meaning if we didn’t have to. And while we managed to do so for the most part (or at least we hope we did), there are always instances in translating where the translator has to step into the role of the interpreter as well, changing the original a little to bridge the gap between languages.

  • Asghar, Fatimah. If They Come For Us. One World, 2018.