Normally when someone goes to read a novel, he or she tends to stay within a subject that is easily understood, whether that means reading many books from the same genre or by the same author, we, as readers, tend to stick with what is familiar to us (no pun intended). One parameter that we all usually stay within is our native language. Sure, every now and then if one is studying a foreign language, he or she may rise to the challenge of reading a full novel in another language, however when it comes to reading for pleasure, there is no one that would decide to sit down with a book in a language they had never studied. The reason for this is that we want to understand the books we are reading, so that we can learn about the characters and follow the story. Since that is why most of us read, the majority of people would be easily fed up with a book that contained language barriers that prohibited understanding. The Familiar challenges this notion that we have to understand everything that we read. Danielewski intentionally does not give the reader all of the information, just like any mystery novel, or really any fiction novel in general, in order to make the reader keep reading and continue making discoveries. However, he takes it to a new level by giving the reader information that is in a different language. This happens several times throughout the book, in the jingjing chapters everything is written in the Singlish dialect with parts in Chinese and Russian, in the Luther chapters bits and pieces are written in Spanish, and the Shnorhk chapters are also written in a dialect. Sometimes we as readers are provided with clarification from the parenthetical notes that follow (the ones that we recently found out are the narcons addressing the reader) however this is not always the case, often times the reader is left without clarification. Instead of this frustrating the reader and discouraging from reading, Danielewski uses the language barriers as a way to further the story and cause the reader to continue reading and searching for information. It is used almost like suspense. This lack of translation very interestingly engages the reader instead of shutting the reader out.
As someone who is very interested in languages, having become (basically) fluent in French and hoping to move on to Italian in the near future, I find myself frustrated and confused with the use of different languages in The Familiar. I was shocked to discover my negative reaction to his use of various languages within the lines of English; usually this is something I would enjoy seeing, something that allows me to jump outside my comfort zone and research to deepen my understanding. However, I feel quite the opposite in this situation. I become irritated and annoyed whenever I come upon foreign characters, wishing there was a translation handed to me immediately so I could understand the text at that moment. I think this is due to the nature of the book; it is a quick read, something I can knock out 200 pages of in a short amount of time, so I am not prepared to stop and put the book down to look something up. Further, this is not the only part that is confusing to me. Nearly every “chapter” contains some sort of reference or image that is unclear, so I had hoped that the language elements would be easy for me (if only they were in French instead of Chinese and Russian). There are a couple of examples of French, but nothing that makes me feel like my language skills are useful.
Confusion has been an overarching sentiment for me throughout the readings, and it has only led to frustration. I enjoy the story, mainly though only that of Xanther, Anwar and Astair, because the rest leads to confusion and disruption to my smooth reading. I am wondering if other readers believe it is necessary to stay confused throughout or if we should all be taking the time to understand every Chinese symbol, every coded message and every Russian phrase to fully “get” the story.
I am hopeful at this point that sometime in the near future the ends will be tied and the stories will intertwine, but what if the clue is within the foreign languages? I am curious about how much they contribute to the book as a whole, since they are so disruptive (at least to me) and cause so much confusion and frustration.
I’ve been intrigued by the use of language. Cantonese and Russian in jingjing’s chapters are clearly used to provide context for the characters background and the setting. What’s more interesting, though, are the seemingly arbitrary translations. In jingjing’s first chapter (pg 101-113) the translations are sparse and unclear when it is a translation or just the next thought. For example, the Cantonese/Russian/[some other language?] combination in the middle of page 105 is left without any translation; in fact, the sentence is treated as if it never changed languages at all from English (if that’s what you can call the language in this chapter). On the other hand, the Russian in jingjing’s second chapter is clearly translated (pg 274), but it is done by the text within brail (which has become more active throughout the novel and seems to be omniscient). This character’s (?) willing explanations have seemed helpful, especially with something as frustrating as trying to read something in a language you don’t understand. But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by it, like this is a part of it’s attempt to earn my trust by helping me see the book through it’s eyes (metafiction, right?) while it doesn’t have it’s own chapters and has never identified itself. On the other hand, the etymology of vocabulary (like on pg 380) is given by Anwar, a character I instinctively trust since I see how he relates to (and is loved by) his family and coworkers and who has his own chapters to give me deeper insight into his mind. Furthermore, he uses his own language with Xanther (albeit not foreign); this use of language shows a depth of relationship that none of the other characters seem to share. Their own language includes Xanther calling Anwar by his first name and him calling her “daughter” (opposed to what would usually be the other way around “dad” and “Xanther”), which reveals a bit of playful intimacy the two have, which Xanther describes as “their little code” (pg 54). So the distinction between the explanations/translations provided by Xanther and Anwar and the distant braille speaking character is a level of trust that the reader has with the character.
Also, just a side-note with language: French has kind of shown up in two places. Firstly, how Xanther refers to Astair and Anwar collectively as Les Parents (instead of the parents or my parents). She attributes this to one of her friends, Josh (pg 182) and then it’s consistent. I’m not really sure if that has any significance at all, but I’m going to keep watching for it. Secondly (and this might be a stretch) the French use << and >> instead of quotation marks, so every time these are used in place of parenthesis, I automatically read them as if someone is speaking. It has made those side thoughts seem more significant or as if the book is speaking directly to the reader. For some reason, I can’t help but think this is attached to the braille commentary, but again, I’m not really sure if this is of any significance.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar: Volume I utilizes multiple languages other than the original English in which it is set to be published in May 2015. These languages include Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Hebrew, and Russian. While lengths can be made by others to try and translate some of the other languages, I will focus on the instances of Russian which we see in the first 400 pages of The Familiar: Volume I in this post.
Below I have reproduced the Russian excerpts of interest, the page in my version of Volume I on which they are found, and then the same excerpt in English as I have been able to translate it. Please keep in mind that I used the iPad App “BingTranslator” for this exercise, so these are of course up for debate by others. If there are readers out there who have also strove to begin translating the Russian excerpts from this volume, I welcome their additional input.
- “как будто у него не хватило бы духу” (pg. 104) – “as if he did not have the spirit”
- “зеленый” (pg. 105) – “green”
- “Не по русски” (pg. 108) – “Not in Russian”
- “Старик явно спятил, иначе бы не привел сюда этого ублюдка. Следи, чтобы они не обокрали его.” (pg. 273) – “The old man is confused, otherwise it would not have brought this here bastard. Make sure not to lose it.”
- “Он может себе позволить быть слепым.” (pg. 274) – “He can afford to be blind.”
- “Он уже давно ничево не видит.” (pg. 274) – “He has seen nothing for a while.”
- “Тихо. Не при чужих.” (pg. 274) – “Quiet. Not when there are strangers.”
- “Можно подумать, этот недоумок говорит по-русски. Он и английского-то, похоже, не знает.” (pg. 274) – “You would think that this idiot would speak Russian. And English, I bet he does not even know.”
If you are looking at the pages from which these excerpts have been pulled, you may realize that the English sentences immediately following Russian Excerpts 4 – 8 (pgs. 273 – 274) are very similar to my English translations of those excerpts. In addition, we readers may infer from the “not in english” end to the sentence in which Russian Excerpt 3 occurs that “не по русски” might have something to do with “not in Russian” (pg. 108). Furthermore, we may also deduce that from the discussion of the word “green” and the insufficiency of expressing ideas through language in the sentences surrounding Russian Excerpt 2 that “зеленый” may mean “green” or at least have something to do with that color being discussed. It seems, at least to me, that the only Russian Excerpt that has no surrounding contextual evidence from which we can infer its English meaning is Russian Excerpt 1, “как будто у него не хватило бы духу” (pg. 103).
And so, I ask you, my fellow readers of this volume: why does Danielewski choose to aid readers in understanding the latter Russian Excerpts but not the first one? Did he “not have the spirit” to add contextually to Anna Loginova’s Russian translation? Does it inform readers something about Tian Li’s character in that moment, if we assume it is from her perspective in the other instances that help us translate these languages into English?
And then, especially for readers who had no idea what these excerpts meant in English before reading this post: how does translation, or the need for translation to accompany a literary work, change the ways in which that work is read? How does knowing an (albeit perhaps rough) English translation of these excerpts change the interpretation of the action/sentences/words surrounding those excerpts? Does knowing maybe what one alternative (aka: non-English) language extrapolate our ability to infer the meanings of other unknown phrases nearby? For instance, if we know that “не по русски” is “not in Russian” and the end of that sentence is “not in english”, how confident as readers/translators/language detectives can we be that the surrounding Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese phrases also have similar readings (pg. 108)?