It’s Not the Footnotes, It’s the Footnoter

While at the sea, I read a number of books. Two that made an odd pairing were Hanna Mina’s Fragments of Memory (trans. Lorne Kenny and Olive Kenny) and Jose Saramago’s Small Memories (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa).

Indeed, I seem to have had an unintended old-man-looking-back theme, as other seaside selections included Ibrahim Aslan’s حجرتين وصالة and Edwar Kharrat’s Stones of Bobello (trans. Paul Starkey).

Although I salute Saramago’s fiction—surely some of the best of our times—his Small Memories was, well, rather bitty. I assume Jull Costa did a good job capturing his overbearing-old-man, things-were-different-in-my-day voice. Both she and the Kennys had to contend with a first-person voice as well as bits of rhyming doggerel, discussions of language, clothing and food from another place and time.

Mina’s Fragments of Memory engaged me; I wanted to weep for the narrator’s impossibly difficult life; I was outraged, engaged, rapt, sympathetic. I set down Fragments reluctantly and picked up Small. When Saramago complained (with an exclamation point!) of a few cockroaches in his bedroom, and of how children these days played too many computer games and couldn’t catch a lizard with their bare hands, I wanted to roll my eyes and go back to Syria.

Because Jull Costa’s voice was clear and clean from the first, she had my complete trust as she channeled the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner. She (and/or her publisher) chose not to use footnotes. But she could have used a few discreet ones had she (and/or the publisher) so desired.

Instead, Jull Costa stayed in the deep, deep background. When she had to explain Portuguese, she used Saramago’s voice to do it. (She has him say: “The slow-motion effect, which, in the Portuguese, is ‘o efeito de retardador,’ had…”) I felt a little strange about that, but I accepted her choice.

The Kennys, on the the other hand, made frequent use of footnotes, often for no discernible reason. (One footnote, for instance, tells me that “Daluna” was “A famous Syrian song,” when the text already called it a song.) The voice in Fragments drags from the beginning, which raised made me prickly. (“It was a spacious house with a dusty courtyard into which the doors of the damp, dark rooms opened.”)

The translators rankled me with their footnote-intimacy of speaking Arabist-to-reader, and they finally lost my trust with this footnote:

4″Basus al-Ameer went out wearing a silk cloak.” It is impossible to make it rhyme in translation.

I kept reading, because the situations and characters compelled me to drive through slush and sleet, typos and odd footnotes. But that doesn’t mean I had to like it: A pox on all footnotes that push their way between  me and the writer, commenting on the writer’s work as though we were looking at a butterfly specimen pinned to a board instead of a live, beautiful creature.

For the re-translation file: بقايا صور , by Hanna Mina. When you’ve got the time, of course.

Although do note that Olive and Lorne Kenny were cited by the Translators Association of the Society of Authors  as having rendered one of the 50 great translations of the last 50 years. So my opinion may not, of course, be shared by all.


  1. Very interesting take on the two formats. Of course, Jull Costa, having translated several of Saramago’s novels, is probably very skilled at handling the master and whatever he throws at her. She’d be more familiar with his voice. Perhaps the same can’t be said about the Kennys? As much as I love Saramago, you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to read any memoir written by an old person. However good they are or insightful they’ve been in their previous works, most can’t seem to stop themselves looking at young people and their habits through very narrow and often condescending eyes. Thanks for the writeup.

    1. Obviously I should’ve known better. Even worse! I almost tried to make my poor 7-year-old catch a lizard with his bare hands. 🙂

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