Posts Tagged ‘sword-and-sorcery’

Cuentos de Averoigne: Todos los Cuentos de Averoigne de Clark Ashton Smith, traducción de Enric Navarro (Pickman’s Press 2019)

Evelyn Waugh and Clark Ashton Smith wrote some of the best English prose of the twentieth century. But could either of these writers actually be better in translation than in English? Theoretically, yes, of course they could be. Somewhere in Borges’ Library of Babel there are translations of Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall (1928) that are subtler and funnier than the original, and translations of Smith’s story “The Dark Eidolon” that are stranger and more lapidary than the original.

There are two main ways for such Babelean translations to be better than the original. It could be because they’re better as literature or because the new language is better suited than English for conveying Wauvian satire or Smithean strangeness. But that second way – a better language – is less likely in Waugh’s case, because Waugh set his work almost exclusively among speakers of contemporary English in the real world. His novella Helena (1950), set in the fourth-century Roman empire, is the big exception and also the big failure (though not in Waugh’s own eyes: he regarded it as his best book). Modern English is exactly right for Waugh’s world because Waugh’s world was the modern English-speaking world.

Clark Ashton Smith, on the other hand, set his work almost as exclusively outside the real world, in fantastic worlds of the far future and distant past where English was replaced by exotic languages speaking of exotic things. And so, as I describe in my essay “Wizard with Words”, Smith’s English had to depart from the everyday, using borrowings from Latin, Greek and French to conjure the medieval ambience of magic, mystery and supernatural intervention that is so important in fantasy. And it seems obvious that Smith’s tales of Averoigne, set in the past centuries of an invented French province, might read even better in French if the translator has sufficient literary skill.

And perhaps they do read better in French. My French isn’t good enough to tell. Nor is my Spanish when it comes to Cuentos de Averoigne, the translation under review here. But my Spanish was good enough for me to enjoy the stories thoroughly, to recognize the skill of the translator, and to wonder whether, in fact, perfectly bilingual readers would tend to find the stories better in Spanish. For one thing, Spanish has retained more of the right cultural flavour than English has. One big example: Spanish still naturally makes the distinction between the formal and intimate second persons that English once made with “you” and “thou”. And so you could say that something is gained in translation when Smith’s English is turned into Spanish. For example, this is how Moriamis the Enchantress addresses Brother Ambrose in English when she first meets him in “The Holiness of Azéderac”:

The woman stared at Ambrose, with open amazement and pity. Her brownish-yellow eyes were bright and clear as a mellowed wine.

“Poor little one,” she said. “I fear that your dreadful experiences have served to unsettle you. It was fortunate that I came along when I did, and decided to intervene. I seldom interfere with the Druids and their sacrifices; but I saw you sitting on their altar a little while agone, and was struck by your youth and comeliness.”

And this is how she addresses him at the end of the story, after they have fallen in love:

Ambrose told her of the singular mishap that had attended his journey in time.

Moriamis nodded gravely. “The green philtre was more potent than I had supposed,” she remarked. “It is fortunate, though, that the red philtre was equivalently strong, and could bring you back to me through all those added years. You will have to remain with me now, for I possessed only the two vials. I hope you are not sorry.”

Ambrose proceeded to prove, in a somewhat unmonastic manner, that her hope was fully justified.

It’s “you” all through in English. But not in Spanish. Here’s their first meeting:

La mujer contempló al clérigo sin ocultar su sorpresa y compasión. Los ojos le brillaban como un vino suave y resplandeciente.

–Pobrecito mío –dijo–. Me temo que vuestras recientes y horribles peripecias os han trastornado un poco. Por fortuna me hallaba cerca y fue acertada mi decisión de intervenir. No suelo inmiscuirme en los asuntos de los druidas y sus sacrificios; ahora bien, cuando os vi sentado sobre su altar, me sorprendieron vuestra juventud y candidez. (La Santidad de Azéderac)

Moriamis uses the formal vuestras, os, vuestra. Now here’s their re-union at the end of the story:

Ambrose le narró el singular episodio de su viaje por el tiempo.

Moriamis asintió gravemente.

–La poción verde era más potente de lo que había calculado –comentó–. Por fortuna, el líquido rojo tenía la misma concentración, pero a la inversa, y has podido regresar junto a mí desde esos años de más. Tu única opción es quedarte conmigo, sólo tenía esos dos frascos. Espero que no te importe.

Ambrose le demostró, de modo más bien poco monacal, que no se equivocaba.

As you can see, the formal has become the intimate. For example, the formal vuestra juventud y candidez – “your youth and comeliness” – of their first meeting is replaced by the intimate tu única opción – “thy only choice” – at the later re-union. In French, Moriamis and Ambrose take the same lexical step from formality to intimacy. And so Spanish carries the reader closer to what French-speaking Averoigne would really have been like. Or perhaps you could say that French and Spanish supply something that modern English lacks and that all speakers of modern English are deprived of.

And so Smith’s Tales of Averoigne gain something in translation when they become Contes d’Averoigne, in French, or Cuentos de Averoigne, in Spanish. But sometimes they may gain more in Spanish than in French, because Spanish has retained more of something than French: the ability to compress several ideas into a single word. These are the closing lines of “The End of the Story” in English:

Soon I shall return, to visit again the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes, and redescend into the vaults below the triangular flagstone. But, in spite of the nearness of Perigon to Faussesflammes, in spite of my esteem for the abbot, my gratitude for his hospitality and my admiration for his incomparable library, I shall not care to revisit my friend Hilaire.

English expresses the first person future with three words: “I shall return” and so on. Spanish expresses the first person future in a single word:

No tardaré en visitar de nuevo las ruinas del castillo de Faussesflammes; volveré a bajar a las criptas bajo la losa triangular. Pero, pese a la proximidad de Perigon, pese a mi estima por el abad Hilaire, mi gratitud por dejarme consultar su inigualable biblioteca, no pensaré en volver a visitarlo.

No tardaré means “I shall not delay”; volveré means “I shall turn”; no pensaré means “I shall not think”. There is no first-person pronoun, because none is needed: the first person is explicitly marked in the verb. From an English- or French-speaker’s point of view, there’s something strange about the conciseness and precision of Spanish, which better suit the strangeness of Smith’s imagination and his desire to lift us out of the everyday and transport us elsewhere – or elsewhither. And there’s a stronger strangeness in Spanish because of its many borrowings from Arabic. Spanish is a language forged on a frontier between east and west, where culture and conflict have shifted and swirled.

All these things – and more – make Spanish a good language to read Clark Ashton Smith in. But perhaps Spanish would be even better suited to Smith’s Tales of Zothique, set in the final days of Earth under a swollen and scorching sun. You understand Zothique better when you’ve experienced for yourself the heat and light of California, where Smith was born and spent the whole of his life. And California – the “hot furnace” – was founded by Spaniards. But if Spanish might be best for the Tales of Zothique, that doesn’t make it any less good for these Tales of Averoigne. I enjoyed Cuentos de Averoigne a lot, and perhaps more so because I don’t read Spanish fluently. I stumble and crawl by comparison with my reading in English.

When you have to concentrate on what you’re reading, the ideas and images bloom in your head with brighter colours and sweeter perfumes – or stronger stenches, as the case may be. You can find both perfumes and stenches in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, a wizard with words who deserves to be far better known but perhaps is too skilful and subtle a writer to become so. This book proves that his skill and subtlety can survive in translation, and also proves that translation can even overturn the central theme of one of Smith’s greatest stories, “The Last Incantation”. In that story, not set in Averoigne or Zothique, the ancient and mighty wizard Malygris discovers that he can’t re-conjure a lost love and see the world again through the eyes of youth.

But the word-magic of this translation allowed me to read Clark Ashton Smith again with the eyes of youth. When I first read “The Colossus of Ylourgne” in English back in the 1980s, I marvelled at the grandeur and grotesqueness of his imagination:

Gaspard had seen certain of the experiments and evocations of Nathaire, and was all too familiar with the appurtenances of the dark arts. Within certain limits, he was not squeamish; nor was it likely that he would have been terrified overmuch by the shadowy, uncouth shapes of demons who toiled in the pit below him side by side with the blackclad pupils of the sorcerer. But a cold horror clutched his heart when he saw the incredible, enormous thing that occupied the central floor: the colossal human skeleton a hundred feet in length, stretching for more than the extent of the old castle hall; the skeleton whose bony right foot the group of men and devils, to all appearance, were busily clothing with human flesh!

But how could I read that story for the first time again? I couldn’t. At least, I couldn’t in English. But I could in Spanish, and I could marvel again at Smith’s grandeur and grotesqueness:

Como discípulo de Nathaire, Gaspard había visto numerosos rituales y sortilegios, además de estar familiarizado con la nigromancia. Hasta cierto límite, no era escrupuloso ni se echaba a correr porque hubiese visto sombras, figuras de demonios y otras criaturas deambulando por el suelo o surcando el aire de la estancia. Pero un gélido horror le paralizó el corazón cuando reparó en aquella cosa increíble, descomunal, que ocupaba el centro de la planta: un colosal esqueleto humano de más de treinta metros cuyo tamaño superaba el de la planta del viejo vestíbulo. Y hombres y demonios, arremolinados en torno al pie derecho, ¡sin lugar a dudas, lo estaban revistiendo con carne humana!

Clark Ashton Smith is a hidden treasure, an epicure’s delight, and it’s good that Spanish-speaking epicures can now discover more of his greatness in the pages of this book. The translator Enric Navarro and the publisher Pickman’s Press are to be congratulated on this act of homage to a giant – or should that be colossus? – of fantastic literature.

Read Full Post »

The Law Of Chaos by Jeff GardinerThis is a guest-post by Zac Ziali…

The Law of Chaos: The Multiverse of Michael Moorcock, Jeff Gardiner (Visceral Visions 2014)

Wow. To be honest, I was gobsmacked when I saw that a book interrogating issues around Michael Moorcock was appearing through Visceral Visions (a proud and passionate imprint of Headpress Journal). I would never have guessed that a writer as good as Mike would appeal to anyone in the Headpress community. Plus, Moorcock fans tend to be of feral intelligence and fetid individuality – neither of which qualities have I particularly associated with Headpresseans in the past…

It just goes to show how you can misjudge folk, no? Anyhow, that radical overturning of my twisted preconceptions aside, what’s the book like, hermeneutically speaking? Mike Moorcock has (as you might expect) received a lot of attention from some p-r-e-t-t-y high-powered academic folk in recent decades (e.g. Miriam Stimbers*). Would Jeff Gardiner be able to say anything new? And (equally importantly) would he be able to say it in accessible prose? Thankfully, the answers are “Damn” and “Right”. Whether you’re a fan of pastily pathogenic Stormbringer-swinger Elric of Melniboné and other figures in the “Eternal Champion” series and/or of Moorcock’s “serious” literary fiction (Mother London, Pascaglione Turnside), this study of his work has to be classified under “Essential Reading”.

Yup, what Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy were to world literature in the nineteenth century, Michael Moorcock and Héctor Sarasuebo have been to world literature in the post-war period. Kinda like a tradition being handed on, really. But there’s more to come, mebbe. Is it too much to hope that Visceral Visions will follow this book up with summat on Sarasuebo? I passionately hope so not…

Passionately pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Beard TalesThe Devotee of Ennui by Alan Moore

#BooksThatShouldNotBe – hybrid children watch the sea…

I Am A KameraMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. by David Kerekes

*The White Stuff: Archetype, Anomie and Allegorical Albinism in the Music of Hawkwind, 1972-81, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 1996)

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

Read Full Post »