Summer Vacation’s Here!


I am supposed to be getting ready to go on my summer vacation... three glorious days of getting up early to hurry up and do things, but without the dogs scurrying around underfoot demanding that we do things for them instead of for us. Two of the three days are a weekend, but I suppose I can't complain.

Instead of actually getting ready, though, instead I am again trying to reduce the towering pile of books and magazines stacked next to my desk, all waiting to be read and marked with various notes and PostIts explaining where I got it, and who thinks I should read it. Somewhere behind the looming pile of stuff that gets sent to me is my bookshelf, and if I squint into the distance I can make out rows of books that I want to read, turning patiently into sedimentary rock as they wait for me to get to them.

Near the top of the stack is the latest (No. 10) issue of Wormwood, issued by Mark Valentine in the UK. It is a young magazine with a nice selection of "Writings about fantasy, supernatural and decadent literature." I've picked up a handful of relatively unknown (to me, at least) and delightful books based on introductions there. Be that as it may...

What caught my eye was a quote by Philip van Doren Stern, who is pretty well-known among both lovers of weird stories and, strangely enough, of the Civil War. Author Jessica Amanda Salmonson does a good job of introducing him here.

The comment in question was

The ghost story is an exceedingly difficult and delicate form to master, requiring a distinguished style, deftness in handling atmospheric effects, a wide background in psychology and anthropology, a mature attitude towards life, and, above all, a narrative ability that few authors possess. And it is a dangerous form to tackle – an inept word of phrase, a shade of emphasis wrongly applied, or the clumsy handling of its gossamerlike structure will quickly turn a tale of terror into a gross parody that arouses only smiles of derision. To make a reader accept things which his sense of reason bids him reject is not easy; only a really skilful writer can sustain illusion and maintain the spell to the end.

This is certainly good advice for ghost stories, but it occurs to me that this is also excellent advice for just about any type of translation, or indeed for any type of literature at all, with the possible exception of the "background in psychology and anthropology." Almost all fiction – and an increasingly large number of newspaper stories – require the willing suspension of disbelief (I believe Walt Disney said that), and a single misplaced word or clumsy phrase can snap the reader right out of the story and back into the living room... which is certainly not what the author or the translator wants to happen. A story should be invasive, and drag the reader bodily into that written world, keeping him or her there until the book is closed with a sigh of satisfaction.

I have several thousand books in my room here, but offhand only a few dozen of them were so outstandingly excellent that I managed total immersion. A lot of them are in English (surprise! I've been reading English a lot longer than I've been reading Japanese...), but there are also maybe a dozen or so in Japanese. Those are the ones I'm hoping to get published some day.

I hope you all have a good summer vacation, too. Even if it is only a day or two!


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