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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Fluid Images – Fluid Text: Comics’ Mobility Across Time, Space and Artistic Media

Dr Tilmann Altenberg reports on the international conference hosted by the School of Modern Languages, Cardiff University on 23–24 January 2020.

In their jour­ney across time, cultural and linguistic bound­aries, and different artistic media, comics undergo multiple and often complex processes of change and transformation. The dimensions of comics’ mobility are often inter­con­nected but have mostly been explored in isolation and from the perspective of a single dis­cipline or language. A two-day international conference hosted by Cardiff University in January 2020 brought together more than twenty scholars from nine countries for a focused dia­logue on comics’ multidimen­sio­nal mobility.

The first day was dedicated to the transformations comics undergo over time. In his opening keynote ‘Reading Comics in Time’, Prof Jan Baetens (KU Leuven) considered the complex interrelationships between the cultural, medialogical and aesthetic levels of comics’ transmission through time, up to the point of consumption. The texts and topics explored in the subsequent delegate papers included Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, Ángel de la Calle’s Pinturas de guerra, Edgar Clement’s Mexican cult classic Operación Bolívar, graphic memoirs of the Nazi horrors, Spanish female cartoonists of the Transition period, and the historical validity of the comics form.

Day two of the conference accommodated papers examining comics from the angles of translation and adaptation. Prof Federico Zanettin’s (Università di Perugia) keynote focused on diachronic and intersemiotic aspects of interlingual translations, drawing on examples from widely known comics Tintin and Asterix, from the Franco-Belgian tradition. The papers presented subsequently engaged with a wide range of materials and aspects, including the rewriting chains of Aristophanic comic books for children, the many guises of Italian comics artist Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling, transmedial storyworlds engaging with 1970s Italian terrorism, the dimensions of silence in Aka B’s wordless comic Storia di una madre, transmediality in Fumettibrutti’s autobiographical engagement with transsexuality, adaptations of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and the boundaries of the comics medium in the digital sphere.

The papers and discussions demonstrated that the dimensions of comics’ fluidity – time, space and media – tend to overlap and flow into one another, confirming one of the conference’s key premises. This fluidity speaks to the lure that has emanated from the comics medium throughout its relatively short history, as manifest in the countless translations and adaptations, both from and into the comics medium.

The participants’ varied linguistic and disciplinary backgrounds entailed conversations that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries and analytical perspectives. In fact, many delegates were relative (or complete) new-comers to the area of comics studies, testing the expertise and experience gained in other fields in the exploration of fascinating materials that are too often still excluded from established core disciplines.

The relatively small scale of the conference was conducive to a friendly and constructive atmosphere that saw delegates and guests engage in often sophisticated discussions on a wide spectrum of topics arising from the presentations. In the hope to capture some of the fresh thinking that characterised the conference, the organiser is planning to publish a selection of papers as a themed issue of the peer-reviewed online journal New Readings (Cardiff University Press) in 2021.

The conference received financial support from the Institute of Modern Languages Research, the University Council of Modern Languages and the Cardiff Comics Storytelling Network.

Tilmann Altenberg is a Reader in Hispanic Studies (Cardiff University), who initiated and organised the conference. In 2011 he established the Santander Collection of Hispanic Comics and Graphic Literature as part of the Cardiff University library holdings.

Of Memory and Commemoration: an Introduction to the German Sebald Society

At the end of 2019, the German Sebald Society was founded in Allgäu, the former home of the world-famous writer W. G. Sebald. Since then, the Society has announced a literature prize endowed with EUR 10,000 and is planning a conference, due to take place in the autumn of 2020. A discussion with the first and second Chairs of the Society, Ricardo Felberbaum and Kay Wolfinger respectively, outlines the activities.

The German Sebald Society was founded last year. What are the aims of the Society?

Ricardo Felberbaum (Chair, Kempten im Allgäu): The German Sebald Society wants to enhance the awareness in Germany of W.G. Sebald and his writings as one of the most important representatives of German post-war literature.

Why was the Society founded at this time?

Felberbaum: Sebald’s writing was an extraordinary experience for me. Although having been mentioned to me in 2004, it was as late as 2014 that I first got to know his writings, finding Austerlitz in the translation of Andrea Bell in one of Kempten’s bookstores. His writings, topics, and his way of writing left me deeply impressed. And I could not understand how this voice, really vibrating in my soul, had been almost totally silenced not just in his native region, but also in Germany as a whole. His work was scrutinised in professional circles of German literature, but in the overall population, and even in those parts of German society that may be called educated, he is not a well-known figure. This seemed to me unbearable. Thus the idea of a literature competition arose in my mind, dedicated to the topic of ‘memory and commemoration’, inviting everybody to start a search of lost time. In fact, this idea was born in a small market place in Elizondo, a very remote place in the Basque Pyrenees. Everything started there. Obviously, it was of utmost importance to found a society dedicated to Sebald and his writing, to build up such a literature contest, and to grant a long term perspective to the contest.

Is there anything new to discover with W.G. Sebald, almost twenty years after his death?

Kay Wolfinger (Second Chair, Munich University): W.G. Sebald is an author who has been able to unite an incredible interest in literary studies for about two decades, therefore research has become almost unmanageable. But such a complex and artistically powerful œuvre as that written by W.G. Sebald is inexhaustible. Its history of motifs and its richness of themes can always be explored and interpreted anew in the context of the respective time. The projects we are planning for 2020 and for 2021, the 20th anniversary of Sebald’s death, will show how Sebald’s legacy can be carried on. The W.G. Sebald Literature Prize, which was open to the public, aroused a tremendous response. The prize jury includes Hans Jürgen Balmes (S. Fischer Verlag), Prof. Claudia Öhlschläger (Paderborn University), Prof. Jürgen Ritte (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris) and Marie Schmidt (Süddeutsche Zeitung), as well as myself. The prize will be awarded within the framework of a literary conference which will focus on Sebald and his consequences, as far as the current pandemic allows, and there will also be various activities in 2021.

On the one hand, the Sebald Society is located in the Allgäu, the region in which Sebald grew up, but on the other hand Sebald is an international author, not only because he lived and wrote most of his life outside of Germany, but also because his English-language reception made him known worldwide. How does the Sebald Society feel about this tension between regionality and internationality?

Felberbaum: Sebald is a singularly fine phenomenon in German literature. We are very well aware of this and we want to redirect this international reception of his writing into an open discussion within German society. This, at least in part, coincides with the current intentions to find – 75 years after the end of world war II – a new insight in this darkest time of German history. But obviously the scope of Sebald’s writing is much broader than to be restricted to the time of the Third Reich.

Sebald’s writing is part of world literature. Without any doubt it resembles an intellectual heritage for all countries and people. We are therefore getting in touch with Sebald societies in other countries such as Sweden but it is of utmost importance to highlight the fact that without his being born in the Allgäu and his experiences in this remote, beautiful, but also intoxicated region, Sebald would never have become the writer he was.

How can people become involved in this Society?

Felberbaum: Anyone can become a member of the German Sebald Society. The application form can be found on the homepage of the society. Everybody interested in Sebald and his writings is very welcome. It is an open society, not a closed shop and it’s a society both for professionals and for amateurs such as me.

How would Sebald himself have felt about the idea of a literary society dedicated to him?

Wolfinger: W.G. Sebald has exhibited his modesty in his shyness to even call himself a writer, but it is a modesty that is only partly to be trusted. Although he was probably convinced of the quality of his literary work, a literary society named after himself would likely have been rather unpleasant to him. But we do not make a cult out of Sebald and are especially less interested in him as a private person than as an author. W.G. Sebald, I am convinced, would have recognised the value of a literary society that would disseminate his work more widely, promote scientific research and, above all, help to make it accessible again for the coming period in its power of fascination and fruitfulness.

Kay Wolfinger, Chair of the Sebald Society, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Remembering, Representing and Re-Imagining the Kindertransport: Issues of Genre

Stephanie Homer has recently completed her PhD study at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study (UoL). Her thesis examines how literary genres influence the representation of the Kindertransport. Her research interests include German-speaking refugees from National Socialism, the literary representation of trauma, reader empathy, and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

When we think of the Kindertransport today, the name Sir Nicholas Winton may spring to mind, or, instead, we may think about Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport statues dotted across Europe, including London’s Liverpool Street Station. We may have heard of the Kindertransport in passing, invoked in recent discussions on the Syrian refugee crisis, or we may even remember it being carelessly mentioned by Teresa May in her 2019 resignation speech. With the dwindling numbers of Kindertransportees alive today, living memory is increasingly being transformed into culturally-mediated representations; a trend noticeable in the prolific publication of Kindertransport fiction since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This change in memory invites a critical investigation into the ways we will relate to and remember the Kindertransport in a post-survivor era.

As members of what Eva Hoffman has coined the “hinge generation”, we find ourselves at a critical juncture, and it is becoming increasingly important to question the ways in which the representation of the Kindertransport in the public sphere is influenced by the literary genres that give texts shape. My doctoral research responds to pressing questions, such as: how are we remembering the Kindertransport in the public sphere? What impression of the Kindertransport is being received by the younger generation today? How does fiction written by non-Kindertransportees differ from the memoirs and autobiographical fiction written by those who were brought from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in Britain and other countries? What aspects of the Kindertransport experience are being emphasised, re-imagined, re-framed, or even pushed to the periphery in different genres?

My research investigates the strengths, capabilities, and limits of three genres: memoir, autobiographical fiction and recent fiction written by non-Kindertransportees. It demonstrates how the choice of genre influences the construction of the texts, the representation of the Kindertransport experience, and the position of the reader and, consequently, the way they are invited to consider the text. An investigation into genre has been revealing and my research shows how there are inherent tensions in each genre that influence representation. Indeed, my research supports Daniel Chandler’s assumption that he made in his Introduction to Genre Theory: “[g]enres are not simply features of texts, but are mediating frameworks”.

When exploring my chosen memoirs, it became clear how memoirists are faced with questions of how best to represent the self and how to represent traumatic experience; the often unnarratable presence of traumatic memory threatened the memoirists’ ability to emerge as agents of self representation – something Leigh Gilmore argues is the memoirist’s aim when writing. Luckily for the writer, the memoir genre is multifarious in nature and allows the inclusion of diary entries and letters, historical fact, retrospect, self reflection on the process of remembering, and imagination. My chosen memoirists draw on many of these elements which allows them to construct an account of their past and navigate traumatic episodes that evade direct, organic recall and representation. It is particularly intriguing how, despite the raw feelings of loss, grief and longing, and the trauma-like gaps in their narratives, memoirists attempt to create a sense of wholeness and completion, giving the reader the impression that they are emerging as the active agent of self representation. One memoirist, for instance, claims: “[m]y task is completed; I seem to have travelled a full circle, reopening doors I had left locked for most of my life”.

Despite this attempt to display a sense of wholeness and a confirmed sense of identity, the reader is not always able to extract a vivid, lingering understanding of the Kindertransportee’s childhood experience. Instead, the memoirs appear governed by the memoirists’ attempts to construct and shape the past, and the image of the child gets lost amongst the key memorable events at school, later achievements, and the suffering of family members in the Holocaust. Accounts are permeated by the loss of the parents and loved ones, and this collective Holocaust trauma at times overwhelms the narrating voice. Marion Charles, for instance, struggles to reflect on her own suffering due to the experiences her family members faced in concentration camps: “was für ein relativ unbeschwertes Leben ich führte, während meine Mutter, meine Freunde, meine Familie und alle Juden so viel erleiden mussten” [“what a relatively unburdened life I had led, while my mother, my friends, my family and all Jews had to suffer so much”].

Interestingly however, autobiographical fiction is able to fill the child-shaped void in my selected memoirs. The strength of autobiographical fiction is its ability to re-imagine the everyday thoughts, actions, and immediate responses of the child through the use of internal focalisation and the shifting  of the narrative perspective to the experiencing child, rather than the reflecting adult memoirist. My analysis of autobiographical fiction supports Hywel Dix’s assumption that autobiographical fiction – or autofiction – encourages an experimentation and exploration of self, allows the author to re-write trauma and to depict the immediate reactions of the protagonists. The autobiographical fiction I examine is limited to a specific time period of the 1930s and 1940s and this provides an in-depth representation of the refugee experience and the refugee’s feelings of alienation, inferiority, and self-deprecation. Traumatic experience is rendered visible in the way the refugees view the world around them, their relationships with others, and moments of miscommunication with other characters. With a droll, dry and ironic writing style, Lore Segal and Karen Gershon present an uncomfortable read, with references to suicide and another possible attempted suicide, and one protagonist’s sexual experimentation with her brother that is brought about by her loneliness and dislocation. Whilst this genre is capable of offering an insight into the daily, domestic, and intrinsic world of the child refugee, feelings of grief and the constant, if unspoken, knowledge of the Holocaust – two aspects that are inescapable in memoirs – are pushed to the periphery or hardly mentioned in these autobiographical fiction novels.

Recent fiction offers a diverse range of plots, characters, and national perspectives. Whilst it is easy to assume that the fiction writer, who does not have to conform to expectations of veracity, can enjoy the creative liberties afforded by the fiction genre, it appears as though these authors still have to navigate generic tensions. Authors who have written fiction on the Kindertransport from a non-experiential perspective appear to be positioned between the historical past and the reader’s present; they often write with the intention of preserving the Kindertransport as a historical event in public consciousness, whilst also hoping to engage and excite the reader and compete against other popular books hitting the shelves. My research explores Jakob Lothe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and James Phelan’s assumption that two main strengths of fiction are its “flexibility and explanatory power”.

The flexibility of fiction can be found in the range of plots and contexts in which the Kindertransport is placed. Indeed, a real strength is that several of these novels depict the post-war lives of the Kindertransportees, which is an aspect that is not represented in detail in memoirs or autobiographical fiction. Fiction can even situate the Kindertransport in the present day. In these texts, the mortality of the refugee is a pressing concern and future generations, such as the characters of the grandchildren, enter into dialogue with their grandparents about their past. In this respect, questions about how the younger generations are remembering, issues of postmemory, and the gaps that emerge between personal and institutional or public memory are emphasised. Novels that find new ways of engaging with the Kindertransport, for example by viewing it from today’s position instead of recreating a historical period, are able to make this chapter of history more concrete and meaningful to the reader.

The explanatory power of fiction, however, is considerably more difficult to assess; fiction’s explanatory power can increase the reader’s understanding, yet also raises issues of ethics. Aspects such as trauma, which may be bypassed or unnarratable in memoirs, are given physicality in fiction. Unspeakable trauma is represented, for example, as both a physical wall in Lody van de Kamp’s novel Sara, het meisje dat op transport ging, and also manifests in the tightening of the throats of three generations of the same family in Renate Ahren’s Das gerettete Kind. Whilst this may enable the reader to view the ongoing or long-term impact of upsetting experience, there is a danger that trauma becomes a literary trope. Indeed, Jake Wallis Simons’s novel, The English German Girl, is driven by the constant and dramatic return of trauma, which conflicts with the rather rounded, optimistic ending he affords his protagonist. Even more concerning is Jana Zinser’s representation, The Children’s Train. In her story of good versus evil, the author positions the Kindertransport alongside the Holocaust and the suffering of those in concentration camps is emphasised. The Kindertransportee protagonist is made into a heroic figure who joins the underground resistance, returns to Germany, and blows up a concentration camp. The other Kindertransportees in this novel remain two-dimensional; they are repeatedly described in terms of their “bravery” and “determination”, and their own suffering is ignored. Although Zinser re-imagines the fates of the parents – which is often something that memoirists struggle to represent as they often lack concrete knowledge of what happened to them – this fictional representation elicits shock and pity from the reader, rather than a critical reflection.

A key aspect of my research is the understanding of empathy. Aleida Assmann’s theory of cultural memory suggests that for an event to be made durable in cultural memory and in the public sphere, it must invite psychological identification and intellectual engagement. The three genres I explore appear to encourage different empathic reactions from the reader, which is often determined by the position of the reader and the writer to the text. By offering a connection to a recognisable, present day setting, and by raising pressing questions of remembering as well as providing an insight into the protagonist’s consciousness, fiction that is set in the present day – such as Renate Ahrens’s Das gerettete Kind and Alison Pick’s Far to Go – are capable of eliciting identification, empathy, and a critical reflection from the reader.

Autobiographical fiction written by Lore Segal and Karen Gershon are playful with distance and intimacy in their texts, both drawing in the reader and, at times, repulsing them and thus disrupting the reader’s psychological identification. This also encourages a critical reflection as the reader “aligns herself with the ‘intentional’ perspective of the hero and simultaneously recoils back into the totalizing outsideness of the author”, as Iyla Kliger argues.

Memoirs, as historical accounts, demand an active reader who views the lived account presented in the memoir with a sense of historical responsibility. Consequently, the reader is often placed in the position of a co-witness, as seen in Vera Gissing’s Pearls of Childhood, or prompted to actively contemplate Jewish persecution (Marion Charles), or the limits of individual and national memory (Edith Milton and Martha Blend). Whilst the memoir genre has the power to encourage this critical engagement, the reader may find it more difficult to empathise with the narrating voice, which often seems unreliable or pre-occupied with constructing an account of the past which appears whole.

Due to their differences, genres can offer varied and valuable ways of engaging with and representing the Kindertransport and its impact on the refugee. Yet, as these texts are built on generic tensions and have various capabilities and limits with regard to what they can address and represent, it is important to critically consider what genres can or cannot do. A reliance on any one genre alone can give a skewed impression. If we are to effectively remember the Kindertransport in the decades to come, it is important that we engage with a variety of genres and perspectives. By considering these three genres, for example, the reader has access to the perspective of the self-aware memoirist, the viewpoint of the child refugee, and an understanding of the Kindertransportee in their post-war years.

In this respect, this research has the potential to inform the teaching of the Kindertransport in schools and proposes that whilst fiction may be perhaps the most attractive genre to a school-aged or teenage reader, recently published novels should be taught alongside excerpts from Kindertransport memoirs and autobiographical fiction. Moreover, authors approaching the Kindertransport today should attempt to ask new questions about the Kindertransport or the refugee experience, rather than simply reconstructing a historical period and writing their narratives around set dichotomies such as love and loss, hope and despair. Crucially, in order to make the Kindertransport durable and thinkable in the cultural sphere for generations to come, current novelists should aim to engage the reader intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally.

Stephanie Homer, recent PhD student, IMLR

Memoirs: Gissing, Pearls of Childhood (1988); Martha Blend, A Child Alone (1995); Edith Milton, The Tiger in the Attic (2005); Marion Charles, Ich war ein Glückskind (2013).

Autobiographical Fiction: Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1958); Karen Gershon, The Bread of Exile (1985); Irene N. Watts’s trilogy, Escape from Berlin (2013). Fiction: Jake Wallis Simons, The English German Girl (2011); Jana Zinser, The Children’s Train (2015); Lody van de Kamp, Sara, het meisje dat op transport ging (2017); Renate Ahrens, Das gerettete Kind (2016); Alison Pick, Far to Go (2010)

Émile Zola and Matilde Serao: Two Nineteenth-Century Authors Who Still Have Lots to Say

Sophie Maddison is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her current research examines interconnectedness in the urban narratives of Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Matilde Serao (1856-1927), combining new materialist and ecocritical analysis. More broadly, she is interested in urban studies, revisionist approaches to nineteenth-century culture, the convergence of artistic form.

As a student of nineteenth-century literature, I have been struck by the ways in which recent events relate to challenges faced in the 1800s. How does an epidemic spread, and what role does human activity play in contagion? How do public health crises impact how we live, work, and shop? How do issues of class influence people’s exposure to disease? These are all twenty-first century questions, but ones that were asked over a century ago (and for newly resonant reasons) by the authors I am researching.

Matilde Serao

Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Matilde Serao (1856-1927) have a lot in common. Widely regarded as canonical figures of French and Italian literature respectively, both produced a significant amount of fiction – but they are also known for their background in journalism, as well as their high-profile engagement with social and political issues. This convergence of activities, together with the fact that their fiction offers an extensive and largely realistic portrayal of everyday life, means Zola and Serao continue to be as relevant to historians as they are appealing to literary scholars.

Further overlaps can be found in the stylistic aspects of these authors’ fiction. Zola is among the most renowned proponents of naturalism, an offshoot of realism that applies the concept of scientific observation to the literary text. Serao’s work, too, stems from a realist tradition, bearing the influence of French naturalism as well as the southern Italian verismo of writers such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. It is important to note, however, that neither author sits comfortably within a single literary genre. Much has been written on Zola’s divergence from his own, self-assigned brand of naturalism, while both authors can be seen to apply literary devices more readily associated with gothic fiction. And in current scholarship, fresh attention is being paid to the ways in which their work extends forwards as well as backwards or sideways, blending in with later movements such as modernism and symbolism.

Émile Zola

Zola’s best-known fictional works are his breakthrough novel, Thérèse Raquin (1868), and the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart ‘history’ of a family under the Second Empire. But he is also remembered for his ardent and highly influential involvement in the Dreyfus Affair – including, of course, J’Accuse…!, the open letter written to the French President, Félix Faure, and published on the front page of L’Aurore on 13 January 1898. Serao, too, is known not only for her fictional output, but also for her work as the editor and founder of several newspapers (she was among the first women to carry out such roles in Italy), and for the non-fictional work Il ventre di Napoli. This collection of articles, the title of which echoes Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (1873), is an outspoken and politically charged response the Italian government’s call to ‘sventrare’ (disembowel) the poor quarters of Naples following an outbreak of cholera in 1884. It remains one of the most frequently cited commentaries on Neapolitan squalor in the 1800s and, moreover, is the main reason why Serao is heralded as one of the most passionate and empathetic figures to have rallied for socio-economic change in the city.

This brings me to one of the most pertinent connections between these authors, and one that is especially resonant at this moment in time. It concerns their engagement with urban regeneration in Paris and Naples which, in both cases, was greatly influenced by nineteenth-century experiences and interpretations of disease. The post-1884 regeneration of Naples, often referred to as ‘risanamento’, revolved around a central boulevard (the Rettifilo) designed to aerate the city and prevent the future spread (through miasma) of disease. The project drew inspiration from the long, broad, Parisian boulevards introduced by Baron Haussmann – and although these are often discussed in terms of political and imperial motivations, they were also connected to an ‘assainissement’ programme that stemmed from similar ideas of miasmic contagion. Such developments, which are dealt with in works by Zola and Serao, are striking for the modern-day reader – not only because we are being forced to question how our own urban infrastructure might change in the wake of a pandemic, but also because theories of miasma, for all their shortcomings, don’t seem quite so distant or irrelevant when we’re grappling with a respiratory disease spread through droplets in the air.

In my own thesis, which takes urban fiction as its main area of analysis, I focus on the cities of Paris and Naples. This decision stems from the fact that they were, respectively, the long-term homes of Zola (born in Aix-en-Provence) and Serao (born in Patras, Greece), and that they inspired the authors’ most extensive engagement with urban development. Zola’s fiction spans numerous urban locations, of which the larger examples include Rome and Marseille. But Paris is the city that receives the most sustained attention, and that clearly held a unique fascination for the author. And though Serao’s fiction presents a relatively even split between the cities of Rome and Naples, her Neapolitan texts reveal an impassioned concern for the material and social fortunes of the city – and this is not nearly as prominent in her narratives of other metropoles.

Theoretically, my research draws on the frameworks of new materialism and material ecocriticism. Part of what is often referred to as the ‘material’, ‘posthuman’, or ‘nonhuman’ turn in the humanities, these overlapping fields share a provocatively anti-anthropocentric fascination with boundless ontologies, agency, and emergent relationality. I focus, therefore, on the interconnectedness of beings and things in these authors’ work. Taking inspiration from ecocritical concepts of ‘storied matter’ and narrative interplays, I am uncovering new ways to explore the intertextuality that connects Zola and Serao to each other, and that situates them within a lively and highly porous landscape of discourses and ideas. While this approach centres my research in the context of the long nineteenth century, it also foregrounds intersections with other literary and historical moments – including our own.

Sophie Maddison, PhD student, University of Glasgow

‘The Yocci Well’ (2020) [‘El pozo de Yocci’ (1869)] by Juana Manuela Gorriti, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles, with an introduction and annotations by Simon Deefholts (The Clapton Press)

Translator’s Notes

By Kathryn Phillips-Miles

Think of a love story, a ghost story and a gothic horror all mixed together and add in plenty of swashbuckling action, and you’ll get the picture! The Yocci Well is set in two parallel periods (principally in the north-west of Argentina) spanning twenty years, contrasting the War of Independence with the savagery of the civil wars and cross-border skirmishes that followed. 

The author, Juana Manuela Gorriti, was born in Argentina in 1814, in the province of Salta. Her father fought in the War of Independence but was forced into exile in Bolivia in 1831 under the Rosas dictatorship. Juana married an army officer who became Bolivia’s president and was later assassinated in the presidential palace. She was recognised in her time as one of Latin America’s outstanding authors.

Although it’s a relatively short novel, once the translation process was embarked upon, there were quite a few challenges to be found among the pages. The most challenging aspect had nothing to do with syntax, lexis, style or register; it was a simple question of trying to untangle the convoluted historical backdrop to the storyline. A crash course in nineteenth century Argentinian history was an essential prerequisite! For any reader who might be in an equally challenging tight spot, we have included an Introduction and a Timeline in The Yocci Well which we hope will help to put the action into context.

As for the occasionally rather opaque language and sometimes confusing syntax, the overriding aim in the translation process was clarity. Any attempt to try to render the text into nineteenth century provincial English would clearly not be appropriate, but ensuring that a flavour of that period in Argentina’s past was still retained was important. Problems with some lexical items were only to be expected, but these were solved with the usual combination of background research and wider reading.

We had been meaning to return to Argentina for some time, so armed with a first draft of The Yocci Well, we felt there was no better time and, of course, we absolutely had to go to Salta.

A view of Salta from the top of Cerro de San Bernardo

We stayed in a small house in the centre of the city, beneath the Cerro de San Bernardo and right behind the Convento de San Bernardo (built at the beginning of the seventeenth century). It was a good feeling to be able to follow in Juana Manuela Gorriti’s footsteps as we wandered around the lovely, colonial streets of Salta in search of the Yocci Well itself. It had long gone, although we did discover that a well had once been located at the top of calle España, originally called calle Yocsi.  The word yocci, yocsi or llocsi derives from the Quechua word llókhsi, meaning ‘exit.’

The last book Juana Manuela Gorriti published was La cocina ecléctica [Eclectic Cuisine] (1890), a collection of her favourite recipes.  It contains a recipe for pasties or empanadas which is still being used in Salta today!

Cold Meat Pasties (Empanada de fiambre)

These empanadas are delicious straight out of the oven and the advantage is that they can be kept for a few days.

This is how to make them.

Take however much flour is needed for the number of empanadas you are making and tip it out onto a table in a heap.  Make a well in the centre of the heap.

Dissolve some bread yeast in warm water with a little salt.  Gradually trickle the warm, salted water into the well in the heap of flour and mix it in.  Knead the dough until all everything is incorporated.  As you are kneading, add some fried bacon fat.  Knead until the dough becomes soft and elastic.  Cover with a folded cloth and leave for one hour.

Divide the dough into equal portions.  Sprinkle some flour on the tabletop and on top of each portion and roll out into thin circles of the desired size. Place on a cloth ready to be filled.

Take a very sharp knife and slice some large but very thin slices of ham.

Take two slices of ham and spread a layer of stoned black olives between the two slices.  Place this filling in the middle of the rolled out pastry circle.  Fold the pastry over the filling and crimp the edge to seal.  Place the pasties in tins and then put them into the oven.  They will cook quickly.  Remove from the oven when they are golden brown.

La cocina ecléctica Juana Manuela Gorriti

Convento de San Bernardo, Salta
House in Salta

Kathryn Phillips-Miles

The Yocci Well, published by The Clapton Press, June 2020

Work published within the framework of the “Programa Sur” Translation Support Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Culture of the Argentine Republic.