I read all kinds of different books from young adult to crime, from thrillers to historical fiction and literary novels but there is one kind of book I'm not keen on – translations. War and Peace? Never read it. (Could have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge fan of the 19th century novel, of course). Love in the Time of Cholera? Nope. The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Afraid not.
More recently, there have been bestsellers like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. People raved about these books but I couldn't get past page 100. Am I a horrible xenophobe? I hope not. It's just that these books never sound quite right to me. (I do mean 'sound' – when I read I hear the words as if somebody were reading the book to me.) There are always sentences that make me frown and think 'that's not real English, not really real English'. Every time it happens, I'm pulled out of the fictional world, my connection with the author is interrupted.
There are exceptions. I made it all the way through Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (author: Peter Hoeg, translator: Felicity David). And whoever translates Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (the translator doesn't get a mention on Amazon or the Waterstone's site) is clearly a genius. Halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I had to check that I was actually reading a translation.
But generally... I think it would be fair to say I don't do translations.
I have a Croatian friend who is determined to cure what she sees as my dreadful literary parochialism and who keeps lending me books in trnslation. And, finally, she has struck gold. Or perhaps I mean I have. Last weekend she brought me Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, translated by Thomas Teal. It is, quite simply, beautiful.
The True Deceiver is almost a fable. Though it's clearly set in the twentieth century – there is a motor vehicle (just the one) and there are merchandising deals for the children's author who is one of the main protagonists – there's a timeless feel to the book. The whole book takes place during the course of one winter but there's a dreamlike quality to the passage of time and the characters almost seem to be suspended in the snowy season as events shake the snow-scene around them.
The book is full of beautiful, spare, luminous prose. Characters are strongly drawn but never charicatures. With enormous economy Tove Jansson shows us how people's inner life and outer worlds collide as conflicting needs come to the fore; the need to retain independence but to feel secure; the need to make money out of somebody whilst at the same time securing that person's financial interests. People don't talk much in this book, speaking to each other is something the characters do only in extremis – communication takes place through actions not words; and the actions speak very loudly.
Will The True Deceiver convert me to reading more books in translation? Probably not, to be honest. But I shall definitely be reading more Tove Jansson – particularly if I can get hold of translations by Thomas Teal.