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Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize

30.09.10

Last night Beth Fowler was announced as the winner of Harvill Secker’s first annual Young Translators’ Prize in association with Waterstone’s. We are delighted to support this venture by publishing the winning story, below (scroll down for an interview with Beth Fowler). The focus in this first year of the prize – which is launched to celebrate one hundred years of quality international writing at Harvil Secker – is Argentina, and the chosen story was Matías Néspolo’s ‘El Hachazo’. Judges Margaret Jull Costa (translator), Nicholas Shakespeare (author) and Briony Everroad (editor) read through more than 230 entries until they decided on a winner. At last night’s event at the Free Word Centre, part of PEN’s FLOW festival, they discussed the reasons for choosing Beth’s translation – a debate which began with the title of the story itself, many versions of which were offered.

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The Axe Falls

Old Moretti has a lot of firewood still to chop, but his fingers are already stiff. Not to mention his toes. He can’t even feel them. His nose, on the other hand, burns as though it were submerged in boiling water. A long goat-hair scarf coils around his neck, a felt cloth swathes his head. On top of his improvised headgear, his wide-brimmed chambergo fits tightly.

He’s been swinging the axe for an hour now without stopping and he’s starting to tire. The years are taking their toll. The old man curses furiously at a small log that resists his efforts, until, finally, he loses patience. Moretti’s in no mood to waste time. He takes a deep breath and unleashes a tremendous blow. Spot on. Right on the grain. The air groans out of his chest in time with the strike. The log splits into three. But the axe breaks loose from his grip and buries itself blade down in the snow. Just next to his boot.

Moretti takes a few seconds to gather himself. His breath swirls in the blizzard. He bends to pick up the axe and finds that it is stuck fast. The handle is as cold as a block of ice. Which is odd, because his hands have been moving up and down it all the time he’s been working.

The old man gauges whether to leave it at that and go indoors. There’s no sense freezing just for a bit more wood. When the weather clears he’ll pick up where he left off. For the moment, he’s got enough to see him through the night. And tomorrow’s Sunday: Sergio – his son – will be coming. He’s been carving out a career in the city, with the Wool Dealers’ Syndicate, since he was a young man. By now, the old man figures, he must be general secretary. Moretti’s proud of him. In any case, he can ask him to lend a hand filling the woodshed. Then he can forget about it until the summer. Didn’t the boy say he would stay for a couple of weeks, that he had to take some time off? Two or three weeks will be more than enough, if the trees are already felled. All they’ll have to do is cut them into smaller pieces to fit into the stove.

He usually does this bit by bit, at his own pace. In his spare moments. He starts about halfway through spring and by the time of the first snows, he’s already stocked up. But this year he wasn’t able to. He put off the sheep-shearing to make quesillos for the climbers to eat and then it occurred to him to start baking bread as well to make a bit of extra cash. And that turned out to be more time-consuming than he expected. Chiefly because he had to install a larger clay oven. The one he had wasn’t big enough. And to heat the new one and keep it at the right temperature, he burned a lot of wood. So rather than restocking his woodshed, he spent the summer chopping wood to nourish the business. Before he knew it, winter was upon him. And now he was paying the price.

Still reproaching himself, Moretti stiffens as he takes hold of the axe. It must have got stuck in a root. He pulls the handle, levering it forward, and immediately realises what has happened. A sharp pain whips up his left leg. It vibrates up his spine. And the impact explodes right in the nape of his neck. It can’t be true. Suddenly he feels hot. The felt cloth sticks to his temples. He’s sweating. Can this really be happening? Son of a bitch ... A searing pain inflames his foot. He looks down and any doubts are dispelled. His boot is swimming in a pool of blood. Steaming in a stew of melted snow.

Old Moretti can’t believe it. Nothing like this has happened before with his axe. Or anything similar, for that matter. After all, he’s been chopping wood ever since he can remember. Once, one of the wires in the fence around the sheep pen snapped and the tensioner caught him in the face. Another time, he cut his hand on the shearing scissors. He was in a rush and a skittish sheep squirmed under his grip. Accidents happen. But he’s never had any mishaps with his axe. There’s just no explaining it.

As he thinks this through, the old man holds the axe in his hand, dangling it absentmindedly. He makes as if to embed it in the stump, where he usually leaves it, but stops himself. First he tries to lift his foot out of the pool of blood, but almost loses his balance. Dizziness washes over him. For that reason, he doesn’t let go, on the contrary, he grips the axe harder, for that reason, and because it occurs to him that he can use it as a crutch. He drives the handle into the snow and grasps the head firmly. His fingers are soiled with blood.

He lifts the foot and rests it on the clean snow as gently as he can. Even so, he’s seeing stars. As if he were having five teeth removed at once. Of the few he has left. And without anaesthetic too. Moretti gives vent to a litany of expletives. He takes his first step with the right foot and the pain just gets worse. It clouds his vision. He doesn’t dare put any weight on the injured foot. Or even lift it again. Better to drag it.

The heel and side of the boot leave a furrow in the snow. A miniature stream slowly flowing with blood. It’s only twenty metres. That’s all that separates him from the house. But to Moretti it seems like five hundred. It hurts. A lot. As if the iron blade were still embedded in his foot.

When he reaches the veranda he grabs the rail tightly and steadies himself, putting all his weight on the crutch. He hops up the three stairs like a lame chicken. The axe handle sounds against the boards. Three dry blows. He pushes the door open with his shoulder and collapses into the old wicker chair. Next to the lighted stove. The wind nudges at the door, which had failed to close when he tried to slammed it shut.

Moretti is panting the way the dog does after rounding up the sheep. The creature must have smelt the blood and come trotting in from the pens. It enters the house following the trail. It approaches and licks the boot.

‘Get out of here, damn it!’ shouts Moretti. The dog moves away. But not far.

His boot is like a fountain. The blood is gushing out. A bad business, the old man tells himself, trying to stifle the waves of heat shooting up his leg. The blade must have caught an artery.

He snatches off the hat and the felt cloth. He takes a breath and unfastens his coat. Without meaning to, he’s left the axe leaning against the arm of the chair. Its head erect. Proud and blood-stained. Moretti lays it on its side with a bitter smile. Ungrateful wretch: if he’d known the dirty trick it had in store for him, he wouldn’t have sharpened the blade on the round stone early that morning, as he always does before going out to chop wood.

With the toe of his good foot, he pushes the boot down by the heel. It comes off. The pain, acute and constant, seems to abate. Now there is only a tingling sensation. He leans forward to remove it completely and feels dizzy again. He shakes his leg two or three times until the boot falls off by itself. The toe is split down the middle, the leather open as far as the top of the instep in a clean slash. He turns it over with his right foot and confirms that the sole didn’t get off lightly either. This boot is beyond repair.

All this time, the old man still hasn’t been able to bring himself to look at the wound. He seems to be deliberately putting off the inspection. And when he does, the blood and the drenched sock don’t allow him to see an awful lot. It’ll need sewing up, that’s for sure. But first of all he has to stop the bleeding. The pool on the floor is still growing, like an oil slick. It’s reached the legs of the chair now and the cast-iron feet of the stove. Moretti’s mouth is dry. He’d kill for a glass of water. But he feels too tired to go and fetch one. A drowsiness comes over him, defeating him. His eyelids weigh heavy. It wouldn’t do any harm to rest a while.

First he needs to stop the bleeding, he knows that. It’s a tricky business. If he doesn’t, he might be stuck there for good. Bled dry. Once he saw a first-aid guide explaining how to make a tourniquet. He could use his belt, but he needs a stick or something like that. The poker would do, but it’s no nearer than the water. He has to get up. And he’d rather not. Or, to tell the truth, he can’t. The old man is shattered.

Something as simple as removing his belt has become a nightmare. If only Estela were here to give him a hand ... This is the third winter without her. Moretti had got used to cooking for himself without too much trouble. But sometimes he misses her. Or – like now – needs her. There’s nothing to be done. That’s life. He would have preferred to be the first to go. He feels a bit guilty for surviving her. Estela was four years younger. But it’s best this way. If she had been left alone, she would have suffered more. That’s for sure.

Moretti tugs at his belt and frees it from the last eyelet. He passes it around his thigh, threads it through the buckle and pulls it tight. But he no longer has the strength to pull as hard as he needs to. He runs out of perforations halfway through and so ties the tourniquet with a slip knot. The dog follows his movements intently, but doesn’t approach. It has stretched out on the floor a couple of metres away.

That’s it. The old man exhales hard and leans forward. Slowly, because his head is still spinning. He stretches out his arm and the sock comes off with one tug. It’s soaked like the wick of a kerosene lamp. The wound is still bleeding, but not as much. Now he can see it better. And it’s not that bad. Later on, he’ll bandage it properly. Right now what he’s got to do is rest. It’ll need a few stitches. There’s no getting away from it. But he can’t drive like this. And who’s going to take him into town to be seen to? Assuming the truck starts, that is. Which might be a problem because the heaters are buggered and with this cold ... There’s nothing for it but to wait until tomorrow. Until Sergio arrives. Wait and rest a bit.

Moretti slumps in the chair. He leans against the headrest and closes his eyes. He falls asleep immediately. He’s exhausted. He dreams that Estela is talking to him and feeding him brews of mate while she cooks. Sitting in the wicker chair with his back to her, he can’t see her. But he feels her presence. He knows that she’s making him a lamb casserole. With lots of onion – just how he likes it. Estela is simply a hand that every now and again passes him a sweet mate from behind and a voice like honey talking to him about a thousand things at once. The old man pays no attention. He’s listening to the radio. The news. The door is open and the midday sun shines into the house.

From outside, he hears Sergio calling him. Shouting. Just like when he was little and saw a weasel or discovered that the weakest lamb of the flock hadn’t made it through the night. ‘Go and see what’s happening, love, or I’ll burn the food,’ Estela tells him. ‘He’s just playing,’ Moretti replies, to appease her. But he knows that Sergio’s too old for games now.

Estela carries on talking blithely and the news is interrupted by an official bulletin. The old man tries to follow the thread of the announcement, but can’t understand a thing. Now Sergio is chanting union slogans and Estela starts yelling hysterically. It’s making Moretti nervous. He doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Just in case, he decides to go and tell Sergio to stop his clamouring, that this isn’t a good time, but he can’t get up. He’s pinned to the chair. All of a sudden, night has fallen and the lamp hasn’t been lit. It’s cold. And now he’s the one shouting. Distress gnaws at his guts like a caged rat. He opens his eyes and day has broken again. He can’t hear a soul. Estela approaches with mate and the kettle in her hand. Her figure is silhouetted against the light radiating in through the door. She doesn’t speak, but looks at him. Eye to eye. And Moretti doesn’t like what he sees in hers. As if there were a hint of criticism or reproach. And Estela, instead of giving him a mate, pours the scalding water over his foot. His naked foot.

Moretti lets out a howl and wakes up. Disorientated. With a bitter taste in his mouth. Thirst bores into his throat. He doesn’t understand why Estela reacted that way; he hasn’t done anything, after all ... He looks for the burn and remembers the mishap with the axe. That’s why it burns so badly.

The belt is biting into his leg. He can’t bear it anymore. He pulls the end of the strap and loosens the knot. That’s better. The blood doesn’t seem to be clotting normally, though, because the wound starts bleeding profusely again. He waits until the swelling in his leg goes down, then tightens the belt once more. Not so tightly, because he doesn’t have the strength. He feels as limp as a strip of rawhide left out in the rain.

It’s getting dark. The dog is still there, lying at his feet. It seems to be asleep, but it’s keeping a reluctant eye on the old man. The fire in the stove has been gradually dying down and the blizzard sneaking round the half-open door continues to play havoc. Even so, Moretti still feels hot. The pain, which has returned with a vengeance, makes him delirious, raving. He closes his eyes and imagines that his foot is in the big oven. Swollen like a farmhouse loaf, it’s burning up. And he can’t take it out. He whimpers, curses. Shakes his head.

Soon he begins to shout wildly. He’s convinced the dog is taking bites out of his foot. Until he falls asleep. This time he doesn’t dream.

At dawn he opens his eyes. He’s shivering. Freezing. There’s no relief from the thirst. It’s torture. But he hangs on. It will be light soon. Just wait a while longer until Sergio arrives. Moretti sinks slowly into sleep. His head tilts. His limbs are slack. Now he feels no pain.

By midday, the old man’s foot is spotlessly clean. Immaculate. The dog has done a thorough job with its tongue. But Moretti is cold, still in the same position. And he’ll stay like that for three or four days until someone from the cooperative comes by for the last bales of wool of the season. Sergio hasn’t been home for almost thirty years.

Translated from ‘El Hachazo’ by Matías Néspolo. Translation © Beth Fowler 2010

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Ollie Brock caught up with Beth Fowler last night to ask her how she got into the business...

Why translation?

I studied translation as part of my language degree at Glasgow University and, while some of my classmates found it a chore, I really enjoyed it. I’ve been a keen reader since an early age and I love the way that translating allows you to get really involved in a text.

What were the challenges of this particular story?

In this story, Néspolo uses a lot of very short sentences, sometimes only one word long. I tried to retain this structure in the translation where possible, but there were places where I had to make the decision to merge two sentences together in order to make it flow better in English. I finished an initial draft of the translation fairly quickly; the time-consuming and challenging part was fine-tuning the English. I think I must have written at least ten different versions of the opening sentence, before going back to my initial translation!

Do you feel when doing this as though you’re writing a story of your own?

No – while there is a certain amount of creativity involved, I think it’s important to try to maintain the author’s style and intentions. After all, it’s the author’s story, not mine. There is something almost scientific about it though – there’s the analysis part, and then you have to make something new out of it with the words of another language. So you do put something of yourself into it – but at the end of the day it’s still someone else’s story, and you have to respect that.

Provided the translation is good, does it matter what language we read a story in? Or is there something essential about the original?

I think it’s inevitable that the text will lose something, no matter how good the translation. But what it loses in some aspects it can gain in others. Every reader will have a different reaction to a story, and that will be to some extent influenced by the language in which they read it and the culture with which they are familiar – but that’s is what makes translated fiction fascinating. A story can be opened up to people of all cultures and backgrounds, and their reactions to it are just as valid as those of native readers.

Do we see enough translated fiction?

No, I don’t think we do. And, for the work that is translated, I don’t think there is enough recognition for the translators, which is why prizes like this are invaluable.

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Matías Néspolo is one of the writers on Granta’s first-ever Best of Young Spanish-Lanuage Novelists list, which was announced today.