There’s one way around the problem of clunky translation and that’s having a world-class English language stylist do the translating for you. It doesn’t happen often, but we’re lucky it ever happens. Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is wonderful.
Kalpa Imperial was originally published in Spanish. Gorodischer is one of Argentina’s leading writers. I’d never heard of her until Le Guin began publishing this translation—I read part of it in the anthology Starlight 2 which is how I knew I wanted it and why I picked it up as soon as it came out.
It isn’t like anything else. Well, a little like Borges perhaps, but much more approachable. And it’s a little like Le Guin’s own Changing Planes, but much better. I occasionally come across something where I read a page and then immediately read it again, more slowly, or even aloud, just out of sheer pleasure at the way the words go together. (The first chapter of Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, the beginning of McKinley’s Spindle’s End…) and this book is like that all the way through. This is how it starts:
The storyteller said: Now that the good winds are blowing, now that we’re done with days of anxiety and nights of terror, now that there are no more denunciations, persecutions, secret executions and whim and madness have departed from the heart of the Empire and we and our children aren’t playthings of blind power; now that a just man sits on the Golden Throne and people look peacefully out of their doors to see if the weather’s fine and plan their vacations and kids go to school and actors put their hearts into their lines and girls fall in love and old men die in their beds and poets sing and jewelers weigh gold behind their little windows and gardeners rake the parks and young people argue and innkeepers water the wine and teachers teach what they know and we storytellers tell old stories and archivists archive and fishermen fish and all of us can decide according to our talents and lack of talents what to do with our life — now anyone can enter the emperor’s palace out of need or curiosity; anybody can visit that great house which was for so many years forbidden, prohibited, defended by armed guards, locked and as dark as the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the dynasty of the Ellydrovides.
Isn’t that lovely? If your answer to that is “No!” then don’t go any further, because what that sentence has is what the book has, in miniature.
Kalpa Imperial isn’t exactly a novel. It’s more like a collection of related short stories, or a very fanciful history book. And it isn’t exactly fantasy—there isn’t any real magic. It’s the history of an Empire that never was. A lot of time passes. Dynasties rise and fall. Even the empire falls and is reborn. We have all tech levels from nomadic hunters to planes and cars, not necessarily in a sequence you’d expect. A number of the individual stories have the story nature, but some of them are interesting in the non-fiction way. They don’t relate a history so much as a series of vignettes, so that they echo in a macro-structure way this amazing style that evokes by listing and naming.
I really enjoyed the book the first time I read it, and I really enjoyed it again now. The first time I took the whole thing entirely on a fantastical level—why shouldn’t an Argentinian write about an imaginary empire, or why should it have any significance? But this time I was wondering about that, about what it means that someone from a new country with a quite short history should write about an incredibly ancient country with a convoluted history? This wasn’t written as a fantasy novel, though it’s entirely readable as one, and I don’t have the context this book was written in. It doesn’t open any windows on Argentinian culture for me, or illuminate anything but itself. I may be—am, I’m sure—missing a lot of levels. But nevertheless, what there is to be gleaned on the surface is well worth having. It’s gorgeous, and a lot of fun, and the stories are lovely.