A little while back, my first two books and a novel by another Permanent Press author were sold to a Russian publishing house. This was immensely gratifying all round (at least, I hope it was gratifying for the Russians, it was certainly gratifying for me), but when the books eventually came out, it transpired that they do things a little differently in Russia.
Bunny Goodjohn's Sticklebacks and Snowglobes is a subtle story of a young girl growing up and trying to make sense of the adult world, a book in which the title’s images are threaded through the story as emblems of innocence, contrariness, and the touching, prickly, obfuscations that beset childhood. So how do you say Sticklebacks and Snowglobes in Russian? VIRGINS!
My own Walk On, Bright Boy was intended as a celebration of walking and mountains and a plea for a little political maturity in a world gone mad. In Russian? MANIA! Best of all, and the only one that halfway fits the bill, is the studiously bawdy Walking The Dog which transmuted itself into the delightful title of THE BIG SEX IN SMALL CITY. I like that very much. I presume it's logical in Russian, but even mangled by an automatic translation into English, there’s something pleasingly skew-whiff about Big Sex swaggering down Main Street.
Sexual imagery is a peculiarly rewarding field for mistranslation. A few years ago, I used a software package to translate a letter into French. I was still teaching then, working at a particularly dismal job in which the headmaster had created a situation that virtually guaranteed conflict between me and my students. I was going quietly crazy at the time, but glossed my despair with humour. In the letter, I'd referred to my students as 'the little buggers'. The software took this to mean 'les petits sodomisés' which isn't the same thing at all except in the strictest etymological sense, or at least semi-strict, since it didn't suggest they were a bunch of diminutive dualists from Eastern Europe.
At the same time, I was writing a novel (never published if you've got a few quid to spare) that was primarily about clandestine migration into southern Spain, but had a subplot concerning the near impossibility of writing about sex well. To indicate how risible the ambition was, I bought a secondhand book dating from the Franco era explaining how to write love letters and a magazine of contemporary Spanish pornography, then used the same automatic translator to shift the texts into English, engineering a similar process in the story. I shall spare you the truly pornographic material, but suffice to say there was much 'throwing of milk', and it didn't have anything to do with dairy farmer protests.
Otherwise, in all apparent innocence, women in Franco's Spain were ready to elevate their love to divine status, "worthy of the gods, the sublime essence of their big one." The impact of this was such that "me heart hastily there is beaten. Poor mistreated walls of my breasts!" because the loved one "plows the foreseen man, the only one that there plows taken illusion heat to my life that up to now had lapsed cold, lonely, orphan of love." Then she would throw herself upon the man's mercy with the following declaration: "Does which happen with the flower of the sensitive when the man plays his petals? The sensitive opened their petals to the influence of sublime passion never not abandoning them."
I know the feeling, dear.
Come the salutation, the stricken damsel would more likely than not offer to "narrow you against my breasts that belongs you eternally."
Women really are the most extraordinarily generous creatures.
Time presses, though, and sometimes these epistolary lovers are compelled to apologize for a tardy response: "While it lay nested in the exiles of low outsiders, big outsiders to my heart, I have not been able to have an instant, and mainly of my breasts, to write you; and finally, in this shack, in this solitude, in this hardship, where the snow and the hail to redoubling smash against my window, you have been you my first thought. In the afternoon I get lazy in my channel . . . ."
Good God! This woman needs help, fast.
But to be honest, those lovelorn ladies of the 1950s had nothing on their contemporaries, or the blokes whom I suspect sit about penning letters from the ‘women’ who are alleged to maintain a lively correspondence with men's magazines. Yes, to hell with good taste, I'm going to treat you to a few gems from the pornography.
Once they get going, there's really no stopping these man-girls with their "brown teats and all my body intervened like an active complement" while the hard working lad is "rubbing me and take me to the deepest rings" until "the impetuosity of my race liberated a great quantity of fluids and all my cave showed an incommensurable grade of appearance and flowered in a limitless blossoming upsurge."
Yeh, I had a bad mussel once, too. It's no laughing matter.
Spanish satyrs apparently boast of their verga, which is translated as 'a thin stick', though I have seen the same word in a French text about Gnosticism elucidated, rather charmingly, as a “baguette thaumaturgique”. But sticking with the porn, just to give you an idea what we’re talking about, one of these thin sticks, "an enormous tensile of meat", proves to be "an anatomical jewel: rigid, cylindrical and with a gigantic bean in the completely naked and brilliant superior end whose dimensions is proportional to the 26 centimeters that measures the whole group."
Goodness gracious. I've never seen a thin stick like it. Imagine what happens when the proud owners of these stupendous rods get excited. Well, you don't need to imagine, I can tell you: ". . . he pushed me for the bottom, pipe rubbing against me, so that it found a shot clitoris and I suffered like kind of an epileptic attack, prey of a gigantic desire of incrusting me in him. I arrived to the one, it strained of the pleasure, desires of screaming, of telling him no longer nails me more, until he ran and I continued him for the toboggan, crying goodbye to our other lovers tossing the last powder . . . ”
It doesn't stop there, though, because if your average Spanish woman is lucky, she'll be "licked by a wise language from top to bottom: the nape, the hearings, the nipples, the back until the crack of the cheeks. What pleasure he gave me! He used the tip of the language. It continued with some sucks in the legs, in the feet. His lips provided me big chills! Oh, what more immense joy! I could never suppose that it was so wonderful the fact that I was licked with a wise language."
It all got out of hand then. "How we suckle us!” as they say in Spain. I’m going to have to censor the rest of this. "Walk, my life," I screamed, "that I no longer can more!" Talk about the flower of the sensitive playing his petals. Much more of this and we’ll be sweeping up the church porch after a wedding. Anyhow, it all ended up with the poor girl thrashing about on the bed hollering: "For, stop! I am becoming madwoman of pleasure!"
Bathos? I could do with a wash myself.
When it comes down to it, I reckon Bunny and I got off lightly. Mind you, we haven’t read the texts yet. Any bilingual Russians out there who would care to report back on our manic virgins?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace