Books in Translation: Back to School Edition
By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollett and Kate Williams
For many of us, September is the month that we associate with going back to school, college or university. Whether you dread the idea of going back to the classroom or look forward to starting fresh, this week we’ll be recommending three different translated books, looking at how the school experience varies across languages and cultures.
Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi. Translated by Richard Impola. Published in 2005 by Aspasia Books.
Seven Brothers does not exactly describe what being in school is like in Finland, but school and what it can offer are the central themes in the book. It follows seven brothers who inherit their parents’ farm. They talk about learning how to read so they can get married (which was required at the time), but they hate school and decide to run away from society into the wilderness. The story follows what they get up to for about ten years and how, in the end, they realise the best course of action is to learn to read and re-join society.
The conclusion Seven Brothers draws is that literacy and, by extension, going to school are imperative to a good life. This was true in 1870 when the book was first published and it is still true now when Finland is often described as one of the best countries to go to school in the world.
However, the book did not get a good reception upon publication because it did not describe Finland and Finns in an idealised way, which was the style at the time. Nowadays, Seven Brothers is considered one of the most important novels in Finland, partly because of its realistic portrayal of its people. Because of this and the fact that Seven Brothers was one of the first novels published in Finnish (instead of Swedish), Aleksis Kivi is the national author of Finland.
Abigail by Magda Szabo. Translated by Len Rix. Published in 2020 by Maclehose Press.
Abigail is a bildungsroman from one of Hungary’s best-known authors, Magda Szabo. Originally written in 1970, this is a story set during World War Two which portrays Gina’s (a fourteen-year-old city girl) consignment by her military father to a provincial boarding school for girls. The shocking upheaval felt by Gina from all that she has previously known is less surprising to us, looking back at events in 1943. In the rather austere learning environment Gina is exiled into, the school is a converted monastery and the uniformity imposed upon all pupils soon takes a toll on her as she struggles to make any friends and is often ill-treated by her peers.
The controlling and oppressive traits of the institution Gina finds herself supposedly sheltered in echoes of other boarding school settings, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, but as the story progresses and Gina learns from her father (a Hungarian general) about the real motive for her banishment, we start to see how the school protects Gina and others in blocking out outside events. The title of the novel refers to a statue within the school grounds that pupils call Abigail and they have attributed magical powers to it in terms of the statue’s ability to receive missives from these young girls and protect them from harm.
The outside motions of antisemitism, Nazism and anti-war resistance eventually start to seep through the well-insulated boarding school, and the strength of Szabo’s writing emerges even more as we begin to question whether or not the school is sheltering its wards or actually rendering them unable to take a stance against the actions of the adults around them. There is a deft sleight of hand by Szabo in the way she (much like Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day) has us reading two parallel yet bifurcating points of view of a situation, where one is a teenager’s angst at growing up in unfamiliar territory and the other is a father’s worrisome hopes that he’s done right by his child.
The Opoponax by Monique Wittig. Translated by Helen Weaver. Published in 1976 by Daughters, Inc.
Monique Wittig was most famous as a philosopher and materialist feminist, but she also wrote a number of avant-garde nouveau romans throughout her life. Given her political and theoretical background, it may not be a surprise that The Opoponax is an unusual novel – it forgoes the use of any gendered pronouns, instead only using ‘on’, the French equivalent to 'one.' Even the use of 'I' and 'you,' 'we' and 'them' are too intrinsically tied to gender.
The result is a novel that feels communitarian and extremely nostalgic, bringing back that feeling of being one of thirty, singing the same songs, eating the same lunch and wearing the same clothes. There are classic childhood scandals and some more serious matters, with death ever-present. Despite this, the book always maintains its innocent tone – sentences are bizarrely structured in the way an infant might speak, scenery and events are described in a very blunt and matter-of-fact way and things often fly over one’s head.
The main character, Catherine Legrand, begins to fall in love with a classmate as she grows older. The description of young love is exceptional; vivid in the way that only a child can feel. There are other books which better describe the isolation and atomisation that one can feel as a child, such as Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven, but no book better describes the sense of community that exists in early childhood, the uniformity of life.